The enthusiast's audio webzine

The Quest for Reality: Is it live, or…

Most audiophiles seek to replicate the sound of live performances in their listening rooms. Having noted that, it’s worth pondering whether replication really is achievable, and under what circumstances. When it comes to acoustic music—classical, jazz, folk and so on—it seems fair to say that realistic reproduction of the live concert is a goal. In my view, however, even the best methods of reproduction that we have today still fall short of this goal—and by some distance.

I’ve been fortunate to live, for the past 30 years or so, in cities with thriving classical and/or jazz and/or popular music scenes (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, London). At the same time, I’ve been fortunate to have had access to some really wonderful audio gear,

As good as some of this gear has been, and as wonderful as much of it has been to listen to, I am stopped in my tracks time and time again by how much better “the real thing” sounds. A case in point: last year I attended a Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The venue is not one of the most acoustically perfect spots in which to hear classical music, yet the quality of the sound, and the ease with which I was able to pick out out individual instruments in the soundstage, astonished me. To put it differently, I was impressed not just by the scale of the performance (large orchestral performances are nearly impossible to artificially replicate) but by the delicacy of the instrumentation and the ability to identify discrete instruments in the mix.

Smaller acoustic groups, however, are a different story; here the differences between live and reproduced are smaller. This is nothing new:  in the sixties, Acoustic Research was fooling people with their live vs. recorded demonstrations. The smaller the scale of the performance, all other things being equal, the closer to the “real thing” we get.

If we turn to rock ‘n roll, however, we are faced with an entirely different kettle of fish. With amplified studio performances, the recorded sound is quite often better (far better) than live performances. I’ve been to rock concerts where the sound was appalling (memorable Jethro Tull and REM concerts come to mind), but even the concerts I’ve attended where the sound was quite good (Paul Simon, the Doobie Brothers) pale in comparison to a fine studio recording reproduced on a top-rate audio system. Credit (or blame) multi-tracking, direct feeds of electronic instruments into the console and other electronic “tricks”, the mastering, the pressing etc. but the allure of attending a live rock concert has more to do with the energy and the experience of being there than the quality of the sound.

Expectations, however, play a role. Upon reflection, I don’t usually expect a recording to sound the same as a concert, thus a really good recording will surprise and delight me. Early on in my audiophile voyage I recall being floored by how good a late-’70s MFSL LP could sound on my system. More recently, I’ve been spoiled by a raft of reissues of classic jazz, rock and classical albums in CD, SACD and vinyl format.

So next time you are listening to music, whether in your listening room or at a concert, give a thought to what you are listening to, how you are listening to it, and what you are seeking to extract from the performance. This will add a dimension to the experience, and may just make you consider a bit more deeply how multifaceted this hobby of ours really is.

Image credit

The image shown on the cover page of this issue is a portion of the image of an engraving of ancient musicians, obtained from the Wikimedia Commons.

Musicians assurbanipal from WIkimedia Commons

Readers' comments

    Maestro- I agree with what you’ve written verbatum. You sound like a man after my own heart, in fact. However, I think the pursuit of realistic performances in one’s room is worthwhile and achievable. Well, to a point. Certainly, I don’t get the full scale of an orchestra, but I can ascertain the acoustics of the venue, the curvature of an orchestra, its sections and even individual players, and appreciate some dynamic life. If it’s well recorded live jazz, I am in attendance. This is dependent upon a recording’s producer and recording engineer- that’s needs to be said- and requires judiscious use of the volume control, up or down depending, but can be very satisfying. Good enough that it confirms my expenditure and long hours placing my speakers in room. So, I wish to encourage music lovers to get the synergy together, to include the room, and enjoy what I do. Thank you.

    • Thanks Jim, and I’m happy that you enjoyed the piece. I fully agree that seeking to get as close as possible to the “real” is a worthwhile quest…indeed, it’s what connects many of us to this hobby/career of ours.


    Great article.

    I completely agree. I listen to a wide range of music and some of it works as emulation for the real performance and much of it does not.

    Some of the best is Jazz, groups of 3 or 4, well recorded. That’s very close.

    Most recording of live performances are pretty poor.

    Pink Floyd is unbelievable… 🙂

    Symphonic is pretty bad. Too much to record.

    It varies, and you’re right!

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