A system setup to bring home the experience of live music
“OMG, who says a great high end system can’t replicate the live concert experience?” asked a good friend who happens to edit a highly respected webzine on high end audio. I had just spent 6 hours dialing in his reference system and adding in an important missing element. “Technically, it’s like standing at the microphone tree listening to the exact perspective the luckiest person on the planet might hear, but who am I to argue?” The point is, what we were hearing was shockingly good, incredibly vivid, a 3D sonic picture of a real event with dimension, air, scale. Closest thing to live, minus the smell of burning hemp, whatever causes your shoes to stick to the pavement and uncomfortable stadium seating.
Here we are in an historic summer, the anniversary of The Summer of Love and the music industry has come full circle. In the early days of rock and pop, groups toured around the world if they were that big, across the country if they were slightly less so and from town to town if they weren’t that “so”. They toured to get their music in front of their fans, they toured to establish cred, they toured because it was what real musicians did and they loved playing their songs in front of real adoring crowds.
Fast forward to this year and, largely as the result of the death of a legitimate music industry that actually paid musicians for creating and recording great songs, great artists are back touring again. Fans win, musicians sort of win once they buy back into working live in front of crowds and once again concert venues all over the world are ringing to the live sounds of classic acts, many of whom we haven’t had access to for a couple decades. But what happens when you get home?
Mostly, it’s a pale impression of the liveness you just experienced at the concert. So, you turn it up hoping to capture some of the energy, except that most of the time it just gets louder and worse. So why was my friend Jeff sucking oxygen as he listened, just trying to take in the hyper realistic enormity of it all and yet, most of us wind up hearing thin, thrashy, sound that pretty much just gets more annoying the louder we turn it up?
Because most systems aren’t conceived of and executed to try to pull off the real deal. And I hate to say it because some of them are the nicest people, but this goes trebly so for audiophiles. Set-up is critical, learn how to do it and you will wind up with sound that is hundreds of times better sounding than the same system in the same room not truly dialed-in. Great gear that can really pull off the truly transparent thing—versus sweetly romantic, dynamically limited polite-sounding gear that sounds pretty on certain types of music but can’t replicate the scale and vastness of live music, nor transform into richly intimate venues at the tap of a play button. Using awful sounding, compressed-sounding music streamers guarantees you won’t be able to get there—people keep telling me I just haven’t heard a good one yet, with which I agree. I hope there is one, I just have yet to experience it. Get greedy people, ask for it, hell, demand it ALL.
And the one missing ingredient missing from almost all systems is lack of true low bass at a level associated with the real thing. I’m talking about the stuff you feel when you stand up for the encore. Liberty DeVito’s kick drum concussing your sternum, (or Ginger Baker’s a couple years ago when Cream toured, or…fill in your favorite great rock drummer). Great live sound compresses the air in your lungs, even at the much more modest levels we hear at a modern show. It vibrates through the aluminum and plastic stadium seats. These aural cues are the stuff you feel, the stuff that has you talking (way too loud) in the parking lot, or the car ride after.
So what was missing from my friend’s seriously holy-crap-how-much-did-this-system-cost expensive (we’re talking about more than a Porsche GT-3 and, no, you don’t have to spend this much to get the experience—the speakers were $20,000 a pair that in the context of this system were a bargain)? In this particular instance, a stereo pair of REL 212SE’s provided all the deep bass and air compression any sane person could have handled. Huge, concussive deep bass wavefronts rolled effortlessly from these relatively modest cabinets. Percussive when called upon, delicately conveying the vastness of Wembley Stadium when asked. Hey, with cabinets standing at around 32” tall given the insanely large, heavy and expensive amps used in the system, these were pretty sane on the “are-you-crazy?” scale. And at $8,000/pair an outright bargain since, in his words, they provided a “roughly 500 times the original” improvement at less than 10% his existing system’s cost.
Naturally, everything is a matter of scale, for someone living in a relatively modest 2 BR/1BA home this would be an obsessive extravagance. A reasonably balanced $2,000-5,000 pair of main speakers and a pair of REL T/9i might get that system close enough to get a big chunk of the action at a fraction of the price. The point is simply that the missing link, the connection to the addictive liveness we all seek is perfectly blended, fast, pistonic deep bass. Go out, hear it live, then come home and hear it–feel it– live all over again at home.