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A Reference System as a Source of Heartache or Joy

01-01-2022 | By Wojciech Pacuła | Issue 119

A reference system is a fundament of audio reviewer's work. It is his working tool. It turns out, however, that although we all want the same thing, and we want to capture the nature of the tested product or the reviewed album as best as possible, the way to achieve it can very significantly.

It so happened, coincidentally, but it still did—that within a short period of time I had an opportunity to talk to people whose opinions I care about, about the so-called "reference system" of the audio reviewer. In the course of these conversations, from the sent e-mails, an issue emerged, which requires, if not solving, then at least describing and, if possible, clarifying.

High Fidelity's reference system A.D. 2021

First, let's say what a reference system is. In short, it can be said that it is an audio system being the reference for the tested product. It would be a 'reference' in the sense of components used to compere tested to. It must be a system well-known to a reviewer, both in its entirety and as its individual components. Ideally, if it is a reference on a local scale, it is such for a given journalist (producer, distributor, etc.), but also on an absolute scale. In a word—it's best if it is a top system. Then its 'referentiality' will be universal, not contextual.

To sum up: an audio system can be a reference no matter how much it costs. It is simply a system to which other audio devices are compared. However, the better/higher quality it is, the better "tool" it makes, and the better the results we can achieve with it. The point is that the less errors it introduces into the signal, the better it works as a "mirror" in which other devices and audio products are reflected/viewed.

In an ideal world, the top reference system should be absolutely neutral, that is, it should add absolutely nothing from itself. By comparing the device under review—let me return to a journalist's work—to such a neutral point of reference, we would have absolute clarity regarding what it really is, and not how it behaves in one context or another. The problem is that there are no such systems and devices. Even at the absolute top, audio devices modify the sound, but they are less invasive than cheaper products.

It just so happens that I had to think about it several times in the last month. The question about my reference system, that is the High Fidelity's reference system, was asked more strongly than usual. The first to ask was Edwin Van Der Kley, head of the Siltech company, a man of extraordinary theoretical and practical knowledge. They came to Krakow together with Gabi Van Der Kley-Rijnveld, his spouse, but also business manager of the CrystalConnect (Crystal Cable) brand. And they came to present to the Krakow Sonic Society the Classic Legend Siltech series (you'll find the report from the 132nd KTS meeting HERE).

Gabi Van Der Kley-Rijnveld and Edwin Van Der Kley, Siltech's head at High Fidelity

Before we went to see Tomek, the host, Gabi and Edwin came to my place to listen to some music and see how the Triple Crown cables, which I have been using for several years, perform. The hour flew by and you could see that they were both listening with interest and growing commitment. When we got together, Edwin said two things: he asked me how I did it that the system sounded like that and added immediately, "I don't see anything that could be improved here, it's perfect."

Both he and Gabi emphasized the extraordinary musicality of this system, i.e. the ability to extract music from any CD and SACD disc, no matter how it was recorded and released. They added that it is so resolving that each, even the smallest change in the signal is shown by it in a clear and unambiguous way. And so, at the end, we get the best of any recording, as if the HF reference system was looking for it as well as—this is my supplement—in the tested products. It looks, in a word, for positives and, to a lesser extent, negatives.

Exactly a month later, on the same couch, in front of the same system sat Bright Hammer-Sommer and Dirk Sommer, jointly running the Sommelier du Son record label, and Dirk himself also the HIFIStatement.net magazine. We've known each other with Birgit and Dirk for many, many years, and we've all known Gabi and Edwin. Nevertheless, both the former and the latter were with me in my room for the first time.

Presentation of the Statement in High Fidelity 2021 German Edition awards—Bright Hammer-Sommer and Dirk Sommer

During the one-hour listening session, Dirk was more quiet than usual and listened carefully. When we finished, he reluctantly said: "You know Wojtek, this is not a system for me. Every time you played a song, I wanted to listen to the whole album—it sounded so incredibly pleasant, so dense that I didn't want to analyze the sound." He repeated it the same evening at the KTS No. 133 meeting, where Marcin Oles told us about the secrets of recording a double bass and played a short recital.

At the same time, however, he stated that his reference system must sound completely differently and he expects something different from him. It should be painfully transparent and painfully selective. He wants, as he said, to hear more, especially when it comes to the soundstage, which is more important to him than tonality. I have been to Dirk's place many times and I can confirm—whether he played music from a turntable or from one of the several tape recorders he uses, the sound was precise, clear and open. It was a top quality sound, but different from mine. "With a system like yours—he said—I wouldn't listen to the tested devices, but to the music instead."

What should the reference system be like? Should it show the best or the worst in the tested devices? Is it supposed to encourage listening to the music or to to the sound? Dirk talked about it as if it was nothing more but a 'tool.' something that is supposed to throw us off balance, while Edwin talked about it as 'an extension of a reviewer,' as something that supports him. Dirk was engaged by my system and dissuaded from work, and I would be tired of his—in the long run. Who's right?

If I say that nobody and everyone at the same time, will I be committing a major abuse? I hope not, because that's what it is. Even the most expensive devices, loudspeakers, cables, etc. have "their own sound." It can be corrected or minimized. At the same time, however, what is most important in music is lost, some kind of "adhesive," thanks to which it is a spectacle, not just a recreation. It is up to a reviewer to choose which path he/she follows and which model will he/she adopt as his/her own. Dirk chose the path of reason, and I look at how much you have to "pay" for a given change in sound in the currency of emotions.

Jim Austin, Stereophile's chief editor

This problem is well summarized in an excerpt from an interview I prepared with Jim Austin, editor-in-chief of the Stereophile, which will be published as part of "The Editors" series:

My reference system keeps changing. But at the same time, it is built in such a way that all the components must be a part of it long enough for me to be familiar with their sound.

Some manufacturer once told me that he thinks reference components are not a good idea for reviewers because we are getting emotionally attached to them, which is unfair to the components we test. And he was right. If you ever have to defend what you use, especially against highly defensive manufacturers, you may find that you are too attached to your reference system. For the critic, the reference system is a tool, not something to love.

On the other hand, at least 50% of that is nonsense, because a huge part of audio is the pleasure we get from listening to music using components we love. A critic separated from this experience distances himself from the audience and readers. I think my answer is a kind of emotional compromise: I like the components of my system, but the relationship is quite casual. I have no plans for a marriage.

Jim took a different approach. While all the products in Dirk's and mine's systems belong to us and were bought by us, he uses mostly products that he tests. His aim seems to be able to maintain a balance between what is constant and what is variable. He does not say anything about the type of sound he prefers or looks for in the sound of a reference system. Perhaps, therefore, it changes over time and it is not something important for him.

So what is the most important element in a reference system? As it turns out, not a sound as such, but RESOLUTION and the DIFFERENTIATION related to it. Without it, the audio system is not a tool. The tool, as I see it, can have different colors, and each of them will have the same weight. And colors are selected individually to match our preferences and requirements. Ultimately, the most important element of the reference system is us—the LISTENERS.

Text: Wojciech Pacuła

Translation: Marek Dyba

Images: Wojciech Pacuła (1-3) | Jim Austin (4)

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