September 1, 2003
The Universal Aesthetics of ProAc
It seems lately that whenever the topic of speakers comes up in conversation, I am told that everyone has their own preferences. People like what they like, it is said, and you cant convince them otherwise. "Chacun à son goût," "Vive la liberté!" and all that.
Evidently, this view is what a certain high school math teacher of mine would have described as "motherhood," and you cant disagree with motherhood. To suggest that people do not have individual preferences is both impolitic and patently untrue. As a result, when I hear this opinion, I generally nod sagely in agreement and take a long pull on the nearest available alcoholic beverage. Secretly, however, I must confess that I find this point of view a little unsettling, and even irritating.
Its unsettling because, if true, then no one speaker is objectively better than another, except perhaps in the sense that a greater number of people may happen to prefer it. Its irritating because it suggests that anyone who opines that such and such a speaker is actually better than another -- such as I and my fellow wags have been known to do -- is engaging in a delusion of grandeur. I will certainly admit to an occasional detour from the path of humility; and some of my readers have shown an alarming enthusiasm for pointing this out. Nevertheless, the irritation persists.
Is there an absolute sound? An entire magazine of the same name has been founded on the notion that the sound heard by witnesses to the original performance is an absolute reference against which what comes out of your stereo should be compared. My view on that is that to a large extent both the recording process and the reproduction process (i.e., your stereo) involve acts of artistic interpretation. As a result, one might as well claim the existence of an absolute omelet, or an absolute poem. What we are really left with are aesthetics.
Interestingly, aesthetics are neither as relative nor as individual as most of us imagine. Take attractive women, for example. A number of widely publicized studies have demonstrated that, given a panel of photographs of the female face, there is actually very little statistical disagreement among subjects as to which one is the most attractive. Further, the degree of attractiveness of each face can be correlated with measurable attributes: the degree of symmetry; the shape and spacing of the features; the length and width of the face; the texture and uniformity of the skin; and so on. Weve all experienced the universality of this effect. Just watch the heads turn as an attractive woman walks through a crowded room.
Obviously, this is only a modern, and rather prurient, example. Similar headway toward an understanding of universal aesthetic principles has been sought since ancient times in architecture, in the study of classical musical theory, and even in food and wine, so why not sound? I think there probably is a universal aesthetic at work, and if there is, the manufacturer who nails it may profit. It is my suspicion that some designers have been quietly taking this tack for years.
Take ProAc, for example. This is a remarkable company driven by a remarkable designer, Stuart Tyler. Hes been selling rectangular boxes with simple crossovers and high-quality drivers since 1973. The upper end of the ProAc line consists of flagship products with flagship prices that compete with the worlds best. More to the point, however, is the lower end of his line-up. At affordable price points, these units certainly cannot compete with the flagships. They have less frequency extension, less inner detail and realism, and are not free from colorations -- nor, in my humble opinion, can any modestly priced speaker be. But they still tend to sound remarkably pleasing. That is, their sonic signature appears to have been artistically designed to sound attractive.
Detractors will say that such an approach violates what they see as the fundamental principle of neutrality to the source. They would rather hear a version that is true to the source (whatever that means) over one which is aesthetically pleasing, even if they dont enjoy the experience as much. Personally, I think Tyler is on the right track. Accept that a speaker is a form of artistic expression and strive to create great beauty, even if your price point doesnt permit great accuracy. Otherwise, whats the point? Feel free to disagree, of course -- after all, to each his own.
Ultra Audio is part of the SoundStage! Network.