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Live vs. Stereos

Live music is something of a rarity nowadays and every opportunity I have to sample something without amplification is an opportunity to connect with the real original sound. This year one of those concerts was a riveting organ performance in Toronto's grand St. James Anglican Church at King and Church.

I grew up with organ music. My father, who rose at 6am, preferred organ music to alarm clocks. Naturally, I hated it at the time but booming organ while half asleep has a way of leaving a lasting impression.

He believed that the organ was the king of the instruments, and while not religious, he clearly appreciated the emotion and spirit in could convey. The tone, multiplicity of sounds and variety of textures and dynamics perhaps exceeds even that of the symphony orchestra. The organ and my early experience of it was one of the instrumental factors that helped put me on the path towards being a stereo store owner and certainly a life-long music lover.

Sitting at St. James was not only a welcome trip down memory lane, but also a great exercise in squaring those childhood memories with the real instrument, and finally my experience in modern audio reproduction. I've naturally played organ on a huge variety of stereos so it's a curious comparison of that body of experience with the real thing. 

The organ in St. James is not only large but the organist chose some pieces in which he clearly relished unleashing the full range and texture of the instrument. It struck me at times that despite the extremely loud volume, I never found it harsh or fatiguing. It was powerful in a way that a wave washes over you. Compare this to most stereos and at the same volume the amount of distortion and outright brightness will literally give you hearing damage. There is so much gratuitous upper treble in most speakers that it has no correlation to the real thing at all. 

Also, when people talk about a stereo recreating the "dynamics" of a real band or an instrument as large as an organ, they almost always point out how the sound should "hit you in the chest". Despite being extremely loud and powerful, the organ never hits you in the chest (most live instruments are the same unless you're 2 feet away). This is an aggravated error in stereos in order to compensate for a more basic lack in range and tonal accuracy to make you think something exciting is happening. When you get the tonality right, even if it's just through the critical mid-range, there is a life and excitement to the music that draws you in way more than gratuitous and overt "dynamics". I am always extremely cautious of any speakers or equipment that you can feel in your chest. Even a small speaker can accurately capture the essence of an organ if it has a beautiful and accurate tonality.

Another thing you notice right away is that there is no "soundstage" or "imaging" in a church. You can tell some of the upper registers being on the left and some on the right, but on any sustained note, the sound reverberates and causes overtones that can last for seconds. You have no idea where most of the sound originates. When it comes to the bass, it is completely unlocalized. This has a very pleasant shimmering effect. Again, the sound washes over you. When discussing a good stereo, words like "liquid" are attempts to characterize both the effect and the feeling it gives.

It's ironic that stereo people try to impose laser-like imaging and soundstage on instruments like the organ. It simply doesn't exist. Also, the propensity of recording engineers to hyper-separate tones or instruments using multiple microphones so you can clearly hear every single one becomes a scientific process, not a musical one. It results in a dissection of the music, which may create something exciting or distracting, but it's a figment created apart from the reality of the music. 

The analysis process of this kind of recording and in voicing stereos to be crisp and clean above all else tends to rob the spirit of the performance because it forces you to focus on all the parts separately. The brain is constantly distracted by this "ding" there or that "snare" there and at the end you're listening to the stereo not the music. Even the tonality of things suffers as all the wonderful and infinite interplay between instruments and original studio environment are shaved away in sharp edges around each sound. As a result, the realism and much of the emotion of the performance is lost. People are frequently brought to tears in an organ recital. How often does that happen with a stereo?

The point of hi-fi is "high fidelity". First and foremost it should be presenting you with as close to the sound and experience of the real thing. That's why when stereo was invented, people thought there were ghosts in their room. They saw that it was possible to bring a near perfect recreation of a dead event back to life, in your living room. These were narrow range recordings, on narrow range speakers, but they had a faithfulness in tonality within their range and in the recording technique that could fool you. That basic idea is largely lost today when manufacturers concentrate on the extremes of the frequency spectrum and of their "interpretation" of the sound.

Sadly, few components are designed with the original performance in mind. Asking for a sound like "magic" would cause the directors of most major hi-fi companies to look at you like you were an idiot.

We strongly disagree. When you hear an organ, or Johnny Cash or John Coltrane on a correct stereo, your brain shuts off for a minute and says "shit that might be real"! It can be something as simple as the announcer coughing on CBC from the other room and for a split second you think "is there someone here?". Even if you don't go to live concerts, your brain has millions of years of evolution to know what real sound is like. You just have to relax and really let go and trust it. When you get used to a stereo that can do this, it is impossible to listen to anything else.

Naturally, after the concert at St. James, the playlist for many days was centred on organ music. Different recordings on different systems. Comparing and tweaking. Trying to find the golden combination of magic that matches the real thing. 

Was I pleasantly surprised? Well, let's just say that I'm happy to come to work...

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