By Richard Seah

A RICH AUDIOPHILE once invited a musician - a Chinese orchestra conductor - to visit his home and listen to his hifi system. This was quite many years ago, when the audiophile's $60,000+ set-up was one of the most costly in all of Singapore.

When he entered the house, the musician was visibly impressed with the audiophile's collection of paintings, calligraphy, ceramics and other works of art. This was indeed a man of fine taste.

But when the music came on, the musician was not impressed at all. He frowned. He shook his head.

Now the audiophile, although very rich, is also very humble. He sincerely asked the musician, "What's wrong? If you have any suggestion on how I can improve the sound of my hifi, I will surely implement it."

"I don't know " the musician replied. "I have played this same music in my home many times and I am very moved whenever I listen to it. But here, I don't feel anything."

"What hifi equipment do you use at home?" the audiophile asked.

The musician was embarrassed to say. But when pressed, he finally revealed: "A Philips mini-compo."

The above story was told to me by DIVA designer T S Lim, who often uses it to illustrate what is meant by "musicality". It is a term that is, ironically, seldom understood by audiophiles who spend a great deal of time supposedly listening to music.

Audiophiles usually talk about bass, midrange and highs, about soundstage and imaging, about resolution and detail, about dynamics, including macro dynamics and micro dynamics. They talk about sound, not about music.

Yes, sometimes they talk about "musicality" too. They would make a statement like "this amplifier is very musical". But the term is often used very loosely and generally. What, exactly, does it mean?

It took me a long time to find out. It took me a long time to understand why Lim, when he listens to hifi, would make comments about the singer's vocal techniques, or about the conductor's reading of a score, rather than about the highs and lows that "normal" audiophiles talk about.

After a while, I begin to get the idea. A few times, while listening to "unmusical" hifi systems, I ever got the feeling that the performance was somewhat mechanical, as if it was a machine rather than a human playing the instrument.

I had this feeling once during the harmonica solo on Holly Cole's Tennesse Waltz (Don't Smoke in Bed album.) This was in a customers' house. I suggested switching his preamplifier, and the feeling changed.

I think it is easier to detect this feeling on musical instruments because the human voice will somehow sound "human" even in "unmusical" hifi systems.

Bach's music, especially his solo violin and solo piano pieces, are a good test. The nature of the music is itself somewhat mechanical. So when it is "unmusical" it will sound terribly mechanical and downright boring. But when it is musical, the same music can be a joy to listen to.

What makes music musical?

First and most of all, it is the performer. If the performer has little musicality to begin with, even the best hifi system will not help. In fact, hifi equipment can never help improve any music. The best they can do is minimise the extent of damage to the music.

After the performer comes the recording - the recording equipment, the process, the pressing, and so on. If you have a chance to compare different versions of the same recording, you will have a good idea. For example, in the Japanese pressing of Faye Wong's Tian Kong album, Faye's voice actually sound a lot sexier!

The way your hifi is set up will also have an effect. This happens all the time in my shop. In the process of swapping equipment and cables for demo, the isolation cones get shifted. (I use mostly DH Ceramic Cones, plus now a new brand, "Qi Cones".)

When the cones get shifted, the singer's expression changes! And it is frustrating for me not to be able to it get back right. I do not yet have enough set up skills.

Of course, the actual equipment plays a big part. Almost everyone who auditions the DIVA amplifiers remarks that they are "very musical". Because DIVA designer T S Lim is more concerned about making his amplifiers sound musical than anything else.

One recent DIVA customer, Lee Fatt, puts it well when he wrote: "It's never before since the last 8 years that I have enjoyed music more - sounds so musical, the voices so emotional, so involving. I can even enjoy songs from badly recorded CDs because of the amp's musicality and emotional involvement, yet forget the rest of the audio quality."

Musicality need not come with a heavy price tag, as the above example of the Philips mini-compo shows.

T S Lim has told me for many years that the inexpensive Marantz CD63 is a "very musical sounding CD player". He says it is more musical than even many of the ultra-expensive CD players or CD Transport / DAC systems, including those costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Really? I was never really convinced until early this year at CES 2000 in Las Vegas. Lim and I had taken part in THE SHOW (which is held in conjunction with CES) to exhibit his DIVA amplifiers. We shared a room with ReTHM horn speakers and DH Ceramic Cones.

We paid considerable money to take part in THE SHOW and we had to compete for visitor attention with several hundred other exhibitors, including some of the world's "best" hifi brands. We had to get the best possible sound - the best possible music - from our set-up.

So Allen Chang of DH Cones offered to bring along a Sony SACD player, the latest new technology CD player which many audiophiles and audio reviewers have been raving about.

Lim's reaction was "But is it musical?"

He felt it would be wise to bring along his (modified) Marantz CD63 just to be safe.

When we compared the two CD players, the three of us (Lim, ReTHM designer Jacob George and myself, Allen was not present) very easily decided which was more musical: the Marantz wons hands down!

On the Marantz, the music simply sounded more "correct". It sounded more like music. I don't know how else to describe it. But the difference was so great that, in less than a minute, we unplugged the SACD. We did not even think about resolution, detail, soundstaging, etc etc. All that was irrelavent.

On to a more recent hifi show, AV Fest 2000 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 4 to 6 August 2000.

At a seminar during AV Fest, Lim was scheduled to give a talk on "The Art of High Fidelity", to be followed by a talk by Jacob George. Since Lim's DIVA and Jacob's ReTHM were exhibiting together, they decided to present their talks jointly, with a live demonstration.

Scheduled just before them was Kondo San, famed designer of the world's most expensive - and some say, "the world's best" - tube amplifiers: the Ongaku (S$100,000+) and Gaku On (S$300,000+). Kondo San's topic was similar: "What is Good Sound?"

Lim, Jacob and I discussed the issues over several nights: What is High Fidelity? What is Good Sound?

High Fidelity means "highly faithful". It means reproducing sound that is as close as possible to the real thing. Among other things, it means accurate sound reproduction, with the lowest possible distortion.

But is this also "Good Sound?"

It is easy enough to agree that lower distortion is not always better sound. Many cheap brands of mass market amplifiers have extremely low distortion - in the region of 0.00... % Yet they don't sound good at all compared with some high quality tube amps with distortion figures of 2% or 3%.

Can highly distorted music sound good?

Take, for example, the ablum of old Chinese songs, recorded by Lee Hsiang Lan during the 1930s. The music is highly distorted, sounds very far from real, live music. Yet Hong Kong audiophile magazines say the music will "transport you to audio heaven". It stirs the emotion, it moves the spirit.

"That is good sound," Lim declares.

Jacob and I disagree. We argue that while it may be good music, good performance, it is still "bad sound".

Distortion reminds me of modern paintings such as those by Piccasso: one eye here, another eye there, nose and mouth totally out of place, totally out of proportion, totally distorted. Yet they are considered "good art". Why?

"Because it captures the soul!" Lim explains. "Not everyone has Piccasso's ability to paint a distorted picture and still capture the soul."

Yah! Agree!

By the same token, not everyone can snap a photograph - which gives an accurate picture - and capture the soul either.

We spent many hours talking about such things. In the end, the conclusion I draw is that, yes, "High Fidelity" means "highly faithful to the real thing, the real music." But there are two levels of reality - the physical reality and the reality of the soul.

Physical reality is about sound vibrations - how close does the music from your hifi approach real, live music. Reality of the soul is about the emotional content - to what extent does your hifi convey the emotion of a musical performance?

This second reality can be called "musicality".

It reminds me of yet another story which I once read in a US hifi magazine.

A hifi dealer wanted to impress his customers, so he played a solo piano recording through his hifi. Midway through, he faded out the music and his wife took over, playing the piano "live" in the next room.

The audience could not tell the difference. They were impressed.

Except for one. He told her hifi dealer: "Congratulations! You've just succeeded in making a world famous pianist performing on a Steinway sound like your wife playing on an upright piano!"