Pondering automotive fidelityFinding the answer at a music festival

Driving a car is wildly abstract, analogue process. As much as we enjoy it, there’s so much going on that the individual sensations served up can be hard to pin down. To feel them individually, sometimes you have to leave the blacktop and use another vehicle. For example, the tiller of a boat offers steering feel in its purest, most undiluted form, while pedalling a bike up a hill puts you in no doubt whatsoever as to the effort that your engine puts in. If you want to feel chassis flex, you can get a sense of what your car’s body goes through by riding the waves in an inflatable kayak.
But what about the complete package? What about a metaphor for the whole shooting match, how a car feels overall, and whether it’s “right” or not? After all, this is the judgement made by car reviewers every day. ‘Experts’ are forever putting cars through their paces, evaluating them against some mythical perfect datum point. The “optimum” car, which, of course, doesn’t really exist.
I put it to you that, in order to understand how any car correlates against theoretical perfection, you gotta go to a music festival.

I’m an occasional reader of hi-fi magazines. Being somewhat less fiscally flexible than I’d like to be, I read from the perspective of enthusiast rather than buyer. The outstanding clarity of a pair of £140,000 Wilson Benesch loudspeakers is, really, as irrelevant to my real-world life as the throttle response of a Ferrari 488, but I still like to read about both.
As I wallow in the glossy excess, I’m forever judging my own sound system against those components evaluated in the magazine. There are certain areas in which I know that my own loudspeakers (aging Mission 774s) are very strong considering their ‘nothing special’ price tag when new, namely midrange clarity, imaging and bass extension. I’m acutely aware of a few shortfalls, though. In a very few cases, their relatively lightweight construction can be harshly exposed by certain passages of music, if they happen to hit the cabinet’s resonant frequency. This phenomenon can make for an unpleasant boominess which, though, slight, makes for a fatiguing listen. Fortunately, the issue seems to only crop up with a few tracks, and is easily endured because the system sounds so damn good otherwise.
It’s galling, though, to know that your hi-fi isn’t as good as it could be and, when a doubt sets in, you’ll look for reassurance wherever you can find it. Not long ago, after laying a new wooden floor in our living room, I spun Breathe by Icelandic band Leaves, and was struck by a catastrophic lack of bass that had me worried that something was irredeemably wrong with either the amplifier, the speakers or the positioning thereof. Fortunately, the next disc in the tray was Digging a tunnel by Sir Was, and a river of deep, succulent bass came flowing towards my listening chair. Production, it seems, is everything. Garbage in, garbage out – if it’s not on the disc, it won’t come through the speakers. A beautifully performed, mixed and produced album will sound fantastic through a transparent hi-fi system, even one with a few personality flaws. But exactly what does that album represent?
I visited the Beautiful Days music festival recently and, while some of the artists playing were new to me, many were more familiar. Dreadzone, Shed 7, Suzanne Vega, Feeder and a great many more are bands with a presence in my CD collection, and which frequently play in my mind’s built-in music system as  background accompaniment to my train of thought. Hear a tune enough times and you know what note comes next and can spot a missed beat, a wrong chord or a change in tempo from the version you’re familiar with. It happened several times during the festival, where the lead singer might hesitate on a lyric, the drummer might pause for breath or the bassist might stumble on a song that doesn’t usually feature on the set list. This makes for an entirely different experience to that presented on an intricately recorded, studio-perfect CD.

That’s the beauty of live music. It’s a living, breathing, organic thing that’s rarely exactly the same from one day to the next. What’s more, even if a band is unimaginably tight, how it sounds to the audience is defined by the PA system and how the mixing desk is set up. At Beautiful Days, there were a few instances where the vocals were overtrodden by the lead guitar and the drums were at risk of being lost under the bass. Yet the song was still one I knew and loved, and I still enjoyed every minute spent hearing it. Even though it sounded nothing like the CD when played through my domestic hi-fi system, and that – in turn – falls short of the perfection that hi-fi reviewers allude to.
Perfection, by definition, can’t really exist, or at least we’ve never found it, so why bother worrying? Is it really important that a hi-fi can reproduce what’s on a CD with absolute faithfulness, if that recording doesn’t actually bear any resemblance to how the band sounds in real life? I mean, there are “live” non-studio recordings made at concerts, but who’s to say that even the best hi-fi can accurately portray how it felt to be there with the band playing in front of you?
A Ferrari 488, in track-optimised Corsa mode, with sticky tyres on an immaculate surface is pretty close to the embodiment of motoring perfection in the eyes of “The Experts” and not all of those are in love with how the thing steers. Take such a finely honed machine out of its comfort zone, replace the mirror-smooth track with a potholed highway and introduce a bit of stop-start traffic, and that feeling of perfection never seemed so distant. Like a spot-on hi-fi playing a sub-par CD, you’ll wonder why you bothered.
I’m ready to accept the fact that hi-fi perfection is not only virtually impossible, but also irrelevant, and the same is true of cars. This is great news, and suits my policy of near-zero financial outlay, but I have no doubt that my next stereo or automotive purchase will bring me a touch more bass agility or a bit more steering feel. Improvement, or perceived change, is, after all, what drives us to upgrade our cars. Some of us will never settle, and will plough on through a never ending series of makes and models of car, source, speaker or amp, in search of that something. Others will find even the most incremental of improvements enough to spend ages ‘rediscovering’ old CDs or driving favourite roads, revelling in the ‘improvements’ felt.
Whatever our circumstances, the best we can do is learn to take whatever car we’ve got, to whichever road is handy, and enjoy it. Like visiting a music festival, it’s the live, real experience, and it’s never quite the same twice.
(Images Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2018)

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3 responses to “Pondering automotive fidelityFinding the answer at a music festival”

  1. tonyola Avatar

    I always disliked concerts where the musicians go into strict jukebox mode and play their songs “just like the record”. I quickly get bored with that – I want to see them stretch out and take risks.
    As for home listening in my fixed-income retirement years, I’ve learned to rely on my huge collection of digital music stored on my Dell desktop (with 4 full and updated backups so I’ll never lose a song) connected via USB to a pair of Audioengine A2+ computer speakers (amazing sound for the size and $250 price – I highly recommend them) or headphones. I also listen to some streaming audio. I’m pretty well satisfied with the setup. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b98ab478a68f893529f25d4f1e8c879db29d7f46dd07d77e3738e4ad1d4a9223.jpg

  2. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Immediacy, and the authenticity of experience. Perfection is boring, while the striving for improvement (as you note) is riveting. But too much imperfection is just a mess. I worry when I read car reviews, and motoring has distilled to managing the nav system and syncing the stereo Bluetooth.

  3. Fred Avatar

    With all the noise in a car, I’ve never seen much of reason to invest a lot of money into a car stereo. Especially now that my source is my phone that’s streaming via bluetooth Spotify and mp3s. At home is different, it’s quiet and have decent (but aging) equipment and some very nice headphones that I can enjoy music in comfort.

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