Listening for dustbin lids

It was about ten years ago that I contracted a terminal case of hifi
mania, and since then I have listened to a lot of kit. When listening
critically, I am consciously judging the worth of the system. Coming to a
speedy conclusion about how good I think the system is has become easier
with practise. Wine experts develop their taste and smell senses to
recognise and characterise flavours. Astronomers learn to distinguish
detail and patterns in images that the layman probably just wouldn't
realise are there. The point being that you get better at using your
senses if you practise, and using your ears to listen to hifi is no
exception.  Now, after hearing many systems, you naturally are able to
tell a system that you consider to be decent a lot quicker and more
reliably than you could when you first started out. But what are you
listening for? What are the areas of performance that you deem important?
Are there any easily recognisable traits that can give you a quick hint as
to whether the system will be ultimately rewarding, or more importantly
are there any tell-tale signs that all is not well and that this system is
not likely to do the trick with more extended listening. Well it is this
last question which I would like to address, and offer my own empirical
rule of thumb. 

I am a drummer. Not earth shatteringly gifted but I enjoy it all the same,
and as is often the case when you play an instrument, I pay a lot of
attention to that particular instrument when listening to music. I also
think I know pretty well what drums and cymbals sound like in `real life'
ie, up-close, un-amplified. Now because of this I very quickly noticed
something when I started listening to hifi ten years ago. In systems that
after prolonged listening I had concluded were `good', cymbals sounded
like cymbals. Distorted cymbals perhaps, but definitely cymbals. But with
many systems that ultimately failed to get my seal of approval, I noticed
that the cymbals did not sound `right'. They just didn't sound as much
like a real cymbal. Wrong, is perhaps the word I'm looking for. Now you
may say "so what? He's just saying instruments sound more real on better
systems".  But I think there's more to it than that. The things I want a
hifi to do is show me the subtleties of the musicians playing. The detail
of pitch, timing and dynamics. I don't just want to hear when a string is
plucked, I want to hear how it decays, how the musicians damps the string,
the subtle timbre changes as the note disappears into the noise floor.
With these elements done well, the emotion and understanding of the piece
is clearly apparent. And it seems to me, after hearing a fair few systems
and judging them in these terms, that systems that make cymbals sound
wrong end up independently getting my rubber stamp on them saying `crap'.
Conversely, systems that really do the trick when reproducing recorded
music seem to be able to do a damned good impression of a cymbal. As I
said above, it may be a distorted `hifi' cymbal, but it still sounds like
a cymbal. 

Now I reckon cymbals must be a tough test for a hifi. The noise they make
is very broadband in nature, with a huge amount of information needing to
be relayed reliably so our ears and brain can say something useful about a
particular cymbal. Remember, no two cymbals sound the same. A hifi may not
do a perfect job - if you've ever had the pleasure of crashing a pair of
big orchestral cymbals together, you'll realise that your hifi sure as
hell doesn't reproduce that faithfully - but it does well enough to still
sound reasonable. However, with such a difficult job to do, if something
is wrong somewhere it sticks out a mile, and so this can give a quick rule
of thumb indication as to whether the hifi is doing its job properly. That
said, what does a cymbal really sound like? The archetypal
splash-and-stop? No chance pal. Much nastier than that. There is a range
of cymbals made by Paiste that shows this very well. They are very popular
with rock drummers, especially those of a `heavy' persuasion. You may have
seen them in videos or concerts, they look like they been panel beaten
with a round-head hammer and are very shiny to boot. Take one of the big
ride cymbals and start thwacking it, and you don't get the Dire
Straits-like `ping' of the classic ride, but you get this barrage of
overtones that build up to a deafening level and sound dreadful. The best
way to imagine it is persistently walloping a metal dustbin lid (or should
I say garbage can).  It's only when the rest of the band is really
rocking, and the cymbals have mics on them etc, that the nastiness is
largely over shadowed, leaving the transient `ping' cutting through the
mix - and sounding wonderful. Now on a good hifi, if you listen for it,
the dustbin lid effect is apparent. And I can assure that this is correct,
and exactly what you want. On hi-hat too, there isn't just an anaemic
tap-tap, you should be able to hear the subtleties and overtones (the
dustbin lid sound again) that tell you something about what size and
weight the hi-hats are, and where on its surface it's being played etc. In
so many modern pop recordings, drum machines are used where the goal seems
to be to get the hi-hat sounding not like a hi-hat, but the `ppsss' of an
aerosol. Even with real hi-hats, savage EQing is sometimes employed to
attempt to make this aerosol sound. Yuk. 

This rule of thumb is not supposed to persuade you to avoid, or buy a
piece of hifi on its cymbal-reproducing strength alone, but next time you
hear something new, just for fun try considering whether you think the
cymbals sound like cymbals, with their natural dustbin lid appeal. If not,
I urge you to tread carefully, as all may not be well. As a last point to
consider (and this is really nailing my colours to the mast) I have never,
and I mean NEVER, heard a CD player play a cymbal that sounds anywhere
near as cymbal-like as a good vinyl system. The complex and subtle
information that tells me all about the cymbal just doesn't appear to be
there. The same can be said about the decay of a drum. On vinyl, I can
hear the thing going into the noise floor, and all the way down it's
telling me about the size, construction, tensioning, tone, damping etc. On
CD, the drum decays a bit, then stops sounding like a drum. The
information becomes `wrong'. Now, perhaps it's the same for all
instruments, but cymbals and drums seem the most obvious, at least to me,
and the dustbin lid test on cymbals in my experience has never yet been
fooled. So see what you think. Does your system sound like a dustbin lid? 

Neil McBride (
Unit for Space Sciences
University of Kent
CT2 7NR, UK.