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Sound Quality Ratings

Rock 'n Soul Alley's CD database includes sound quality ratings for each CD in my collection. The FAQ and Details pages provide relevant information about these ratings in the database context. This piece offers more explanation of where my ratings come from. To do this, I describe the aspects of sound quality I care most about, my experience as a music listener, and my listening equipment, which are the three things I'd most want to know about you if we were comparing ratings with each other. Another piece, Listener's Checklist, puts these personal factors into a broader picture of influences on sound quality ratings.

What grabs my attention as a listener

Before describing my personal hot spots, let me cover the universals. It's true for everyone that distortions added to sound are more serious errors than what may be lacking. For example, high and low frequencies may be missing from the sound of a car radio or a pair of small speakers, but we can still enjoy the music as long as what we hear sounds natural. In addition, everyone is put off when the overall sound of music is noticeably dull, muddy, flat, splattered, or otherwise difficult to listen to. These cases aside...

Three classes of musical information matter to most critical listeners: (a) accuracy and balance of frequencies from low (bass) to high (treble) sounds; (b) resolution of detail, which is related both to bandwidth (what compressed files are lacking) and precise timing (the absence of "jitter"); and (c) spatial information, which also contributes to a sense of realism.

On the frequencies front, I'm especially attuned to the timbre (tonality) of singers' voices, and I like to hear the bass and bass drum sounds on recordings. So when signal processing is done to "brighten" the sound, I'm likely to be put off by it. If vocals sound unnaturally harsh or bright to me, I don't care about whatever other benefits might be achieved by that adjustment. In audiospeak that means my highest priority in judging sound quality is an "accurate midrange," with "overall tonal balance" a second high priority.

On the resolution front, I love to hear sharp transients (the crack of a snare drum, the attack of a horn) and the subtler tones of instruments (including human voices). I want to hear not only the bass notes but also the sound of the bass being struck. When digital files are compressed, or when recordings are mastered to sound as loud as possible, these are among the sounds that are lost.

On the spatial front, I thrive on rhythmic feel and drive—a tight, solid, punchy sound—which depends on the sound's spatial coherence. Its opposite is the empty, hollow sound from bad stereo mixes or phase distortion. Well-produced stereo (from Gamble & Huff, for example) definitely has this solid feel, but many rock and soul recordings from the 1960s sound much better in mono than in their stereo mixes for this reason. (Some samples in the Timeline illustrate differences between mono and stereo versions, but the samples don't compare poorly remastered versions with better ones.)

So I give highest sound quality ratings to recordings with natural-sounding tonality, high resolution, and good spatial coherence. In my experience, the main sources of low sound quality are recordings that (a) were recorded under compromising conditions; (b) use copies rather than original master tapes for reissues; (c) reflect commercial rather than musical judgments in signal processing of master tapes or in remastering (the main culprit recently is the "loudness wars"); or (d) are compressed too much into low-resolution formats that suck the musicality out of the sound.

Experience in music listening

I grew up singing, listening to live and recorded music, and playing piano "by ear." I fell in love with doo-wop when I was 12 and faithfully mimicked all the cool bass parts. In college I sang bass in a performing a cappella triple quartet that featured close harmony jazz arrangements. I also wrote a bunch of pop/rock songs and fronted a couple of "garage" rock bands on lead vocal and rhythm guitar.

After college my musical focus shifted to attending occasional live performances but mainly listening to albums on my home stereo and making up cassette mixtapes. I kept upgrading my tape recorder to get better results. I discovered that different versions of the same recordings varied in sound quality, and so began to listen comparatively, seeking out the best versions of my favorite songs for my mixtapes.

In 1980 I auditioned home stereo equipment for the first time and learned more about how to focus on distinct elements of sound. I continued to improve as a comparative listener and leaned heavily on that skill during my stint as a music critic (1986-1992), which focused on CD reissues of original analog recordings.

Listening equipment

My main audio rack serves as the music source not only for my critical listening but also for a larger space including the family TV area and adjacent cooking/eating areas. Components are Meridian 501 pre-amp/ control unit and Meridian 508 CD player (new in 1993; I bought them "pre-owned" in 2006), Denon DP-30L record player with Grace F-9 cartridge (1980), Nakamichi CR-7A cassette recorder (1986), Philips CDR880 compact disc recorder (1998), Bryston 3B ST amplifier (1999), and Vandersteen 2ci loudspeakers (1980) and 2Wq subwoofer (2005). When sound would disturb others I use Sennheiser HD 600 headphones (1998).

I include the components' ages to make a point. I highly value good sound, and am ecstatic when I upgrade a component and everything I own suddenly sounds better. But I can't afford to chase audiophile dreams, nor are they essential to my enjoyment of music.

I use a MacBook with iTunes, Toast, and Peak Pro 6 software to listen to or work with music in my office. Almost all my digital music files are in Apple Lossless format. I use Sennheiser PX-100 headphones, for convenience, for routine music listening or editing; I use the HD 600s when listening critically. I use Sennheiser PXC-300 (noise-canceling) headphones to listen to my iPod when away from home. I often hook up the iPod to the main living room system with analog connections. I also listen to CDs on a Tivoli Audio Model CD player through the Tivoli Audio Model One (mono) radio in my bedroom. I love the unique, wonderfully musical sound of this modest Tivoli Audio setup.