IF the criteria for being an audiophile are the relentless pursuit of “natural” sound, a consistent diet of classical music and “female vocals”, and holding absolutely neutrality above musicality, then I don’t pass the test. I suspect a good number of those with a system of separate components will keep me company, too.
When I procured my first hi-fi system a quarter of a century ago, I was merely an ardent music fan seeking to “listen” to the music I loved in a manner that I imagined would better convey to me what the artiste wanted to express.
Even in those early days, I seldom allowed myself to get bogged down by technicalities like measurements. Sure, I knew what they meant, but I was more interested in how things sounded coming out of the speakers. One read the specifications as a guideline to matching components and making sure your speakers didn’t suck the life out of your amp … but the numbers and bits usually took a back seat to the results.
Maybe I gravitated to this because, apart from having a growing collection of LPs and CDs of the music I loved (it helped that I was also reviewing new albums at the time), I did the odd live gig, first as a soloist, then for many years as a bassist in rock and blues bands. Even today, I play acoustic guitar and sing with my own semi-acoustic project.
Sure, I paid a keen ear to timbre, texture and detail – those finer and subtler nuances that made me better appreciate the artiste’s talent and the sound engineer’s dexterity. However, what didn’t make musical sense to me – like how the system reproduced the decay of a struck bell or how accurate the sound of a bird crapping on car’s tin roof sounded – I avoided.
Music was the reason I got into hi-fi, and music that I liked. Despite trying time and again, I have yet to buy into the classical music and opera thing. Dismiss me as a Philistine if you will, but while I enjoy the occasional inspired performance by a violinist or pianist attempting to break speed records, and the vocal acrobatics of an opera singer, I cannot sit in my system’s sweet spot and listen to any one classical piece in its whole length and in rapt attention.
My thing? Rock, folk, jazz, some pop and fusion … in fact, I enjoy most types of music outside purely classical spheres. The closest to classical artistes I listen to regularly on CD are the Jacques Loussier Trio and Jean-Pierre Ramphal, and that’s because of their jazz fusion approach.
Of course, this also means my references when reviewing any piece of hi-fi equipment may be unconventional – yes, many of my so-called “reference” playback material on CD have acoustic instruments and female vocals (numerous “test” CDs I’ve procured over the years have helped), but I always round up the sessions with two or three of my favourite rock albums.
If you’ve been trapped in purist mode, try this on your hi-fi system – Dire Straits’ eponymous debut album from 1978. Yes, the one with Sultans of Swing on it.
Mention Dire Straits and most of my younger friends go, “Brothers In Arms!” … sorry, while that piece of work may have been Dire Straits’ biggest commercial success, it is simply too slick and polished, and steeped too deeply in the digital era, to do much for me. I hate its overall sonic values.
That first album has always been my favourite – and while Sultans of Swing may have first pointed me to it, the tracks that bear repeated playback on a hi-fi system come in the first half (or Side A of the LP) – I would pick Down To The Waterline, Water Of Love, Setting Me Up, and especially Six-Blade Knife to test the mettle of any hi-fi system. And it is the last-named track that I wrap up my sessions with invariably.
It is a simple enough recording, but often, what seems uncomplicated could prove a minefield for a hi-fi system. Check out how organically the electric bass and kick drum (John Illsley and Pick Withers, respectively) meld and hit the floor on this mid-tempo piece, and listen carefully to Mark Knopfler’s guitar work, subtly expressive and bitingly incisive at different times.
You can also pick out his brother David’s rhythm guitar clearly enough in the mix, on one channel, the cymbals on the others – if anything, it is Knopfler’s occasional mumbling of the lyrics that have you straining to decipher the words, although it does add character to the song.
What is significant about the album on the whole is the band’s recording dynamic – the album is guitar driven and all the rhythm section does is lock solidly with the groove. Crucially, it is that very quality that lets the more successful Knopfler weave his guitar magic throughout the album. And while the vocals are nothing extraordinary, Knopfler conveys his emotions succinctly enough to make an impact.
Now, if you’re an audiophile who’s limited to a handful of CDs of sound effects, mournful female vocals and meandering classical movements, I suggest you procure a good pressing of Dire Straits – Dire Straits and listen to it good. It is a recording no audiophile system should be without … and if you like what you hear, just wait till you get your hands on the LP!
This is one album I enjoyed when I first heard it on my combo system – playing it on my hi-fi now only reminds me that great music needs little help to get one’s attention. And when it is recorded this way, it is something no audiophile should ignore … even if Mr Dire Straits himself doesn’t look back too kindly on this bit of work!