An all-too-brief week's vacation to a Finnish lakeside summer residence an hour's car ride removed from Savonlinna would -- quite unexpectedly -- provide me with a perfect opportunity. Namely, to reflect on live vs. reproduced sound. As it turned out, Ivette and I had arrived smack in the midst of the world-famous annual Savonlinna Opera Festival. Tickets were naturally sold out a half year in advance. But -- or so theory had it -- that wasn't anything a bit of Teutonic charm and a sign "cheap tickets (wanted)" couldn't remedy. Mozart's Magic Flute or Bizet's Carmen? That was the question, never mind morose old Hamlet. We frivolously decided on Carmen. There'd been far too much Mozart going on in Vienna, our stop-over airport, compliments of the 250th anniversary celebrations. Our Finnish host opted out -- he'd seen Carmen five times already in years past -- but his wife graciously decided to accompany us. Good thing too or we'd never gotten a ride from our remote summer hideout.

Standing on the far side of the bridge that connects the 1475 castle of Olofsborg to terra firma, we banked on opera goers needing to turn three rare tickets into cash. As our fortunes would have it, a small business delegation with premium seats in the balcony was one couple shy. Those folks hadn't shown up in Finland despite an all-expenses-paid invite. So Ivette and I scored their two seats next to each other. Our lady host meanwhile acquired a seat center ground floor from a different party hawking two extra tickets. Excited, we entered the leasurely throng of Nordic kulturniks and sashayed into this monster of a setting for a night of fiery Andalucian opera. "O Toreador!"

For our audiophile purposes, here's the pertinent conclusion (and yes, the music performance was awesome, the set designs, customes and choreography less so). In an auditorium large enough to hold about 2000 listeners, with a shallow pit holding an orchestra of about 50 and a stage with -- during climactic sets with two choruses plus soloists -- close to another 100 musicians, average SPLs in our seats hovered around the low 80s. For the majority of the audience sitting farther removed, that meant even lower levels. I don't know what folks are smoking - those who claim 2000wpc head room requirements to do acoustic live music justice. Actually, I do know. They're deaf from too many rock concerts. I can categorically state that the average audiophile sitting 8 - 15 feet from his or her speakers at home will play back Carmen far louder than we heard it from our seats live. There goes the first myth. Tarred and feathered down the draw bridge.

Bass is the second myth. What sodding bass? 40Hz was about the limit of what I heard. Room lock? Sock your gut? Fuggeddaboudid. Not even close. There was no such thing in this particular operatic setting. Soundstaging? What bloody soundstaging? The orchestra was in a pit and the balcony in Savonlinna in the corner, not center. Image specificity? Not at those distances. In fact, when the soloists wandered across the stage to the far side from us, their output dropped noticeably. While turned away from our seats during emotive scenes, their enunciation suffered as well. Detail? At those distances, you're in the ambient field where direct sounds are mixed with reflections. Forget about razors-sharp Class D detail that renders close and far objects equally crisp. Not in real life!

Don't get me wrong. This was a spectacular experience. There's no way any home audio setup could ever replicate its scale and grandeur. Purely from an audio perspective though -- minus the mindblowing castle, the audience, the visuals, the psychic interactions between audience and performers -- the playback experience at home should be rather superior. It really has to be. It's gotta make up for all the sensory eliminations and scale reductions. Make no mistake, though - the kind of loudness, bass, soundstaging effects and sheer focus that are possible in a well-dialed audiophile rig go far beyond what most of us will ever hear live. That does not mean that recorded playback is better. It's simply different. That's partially also because microphone positions during recording sessions end up presenting an idealized mix that you never encounter live.

Moral of this short story? If you take unamplified live music as your reference -- and if you don't happen to first know which the perfect seat really is and second, manage to actually sit in it -- the so-called absolute sound is far less absolute than certain pundits claim. Second, most of us play large-scale acoustic music far louder than is realistic. The sheer venue sizes required to house large orchestras with their sizeable audience caverns (really necessary to subsidize the orchestras' existence) simply don't lend themselves to coliseum SPLs. Third, playback -- always assuming we're dealing with a mature and expertly set-up system -- is often clearly superior to the audible portion of the live experience. Since we can never replicate the entire live experience but only its acoustic constituents, it's only natural that we should feel compelled to render them in somewhat hyper-realistic fashion to make up for those elements that remain well beyond our reach. Audio then isn't better than live. But it certainly isn't inferior neither. It's different to begin with. And -- let's fess up and call an f-hole an f-hole -- it's often preferable for reasons of convenience, access and superior sonics. Cheap opera tickets, anyone? I got 'em right here, 365 days of the year. As do you if you're reading this. That's what makes owning a good hifi a smart and essential choice - for the 360 days of the year when we can't make it to the opera...