How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 18: Describing Music

I’ve always found it interesting how every review of audio equipment has to have the obligatory section where the reviewer mentions two or three recordings they listened to on the device (or with the cables, power transformer, or magic beans), and describes it in a way that could be cut and pasted from one review to the next. These descriptions tell the reader absolutely nothing about the equipment being tested.

Here’s on example. The “trustworthy” What Hi-Fi? has a review of the new Cambridge Audio CXA80 amplifier. Nothing against this product in particular; I have some Cambridge Audio equipment, and it’s always been excellent: well made, little exaggeration about any magical properties it imparts to the music, and it’s quite reliable. But here’s how its playback is described:

The biggest difference, however, is sound. What astounds us with the CXA80 is just how detailed and tangible it makes music sound. Play The Shadows’ FBI, and Hank Marvin’s pristine, twanging guitar playing comes through all golden, rounded and rich.

Each strum is satisfyingly solid, and packed with weight. The sound is so clean, so clear. It’s impressively precise, and the CXA80 makes every note sound well defined.

You get a proper sense that these are real, three-dimensional instruments being played. Drums are hit with the kind of impact where you can feel the tautness of the skin, while crashing cymbals reverberate long after they’ve been hit.

You can feel the pluck of strings, and the low basslines rumble on with layers and layers of texture and depth.

Now, from the rest of the article, it seems like the “biggest difference” is between this amplifier and the Arcam A19, a device at a similar price point. Here, you get the feeling that “these are real, three-dimensional instruments being played,” unlike other amplifiers, where they sound like synthesizers. And you can even hear the “tautness of the skin” of drums. What exactly does that sound like?

And it continues:

It’s not just the detail; it’s also the new found muscle and power that drives the sound of the CXA80. Compared with the CXA60, the bigger sibling is, well, bigger. In every way. The scale is large and grand, with songs given ample space to place each element in the mix.

That’s why you’ll find instruments and voices achieving the kind of solidity that you only get in high-end hi-fi separates.

So the smaller model doesn’t have “songs [that are] given ample space to place each element in the mix?” It must sound like crap, then.

Yet all is not rosy with this amplifier.

But with all that power comes a cost. For even as the CXA80 impresses us, that added muscle gets ponderous and weighs down the rhythm and dynamics. It doesn’t sound as agile as its rivals and, dynamically, it feels restricted too.

And, there seems to be a problem:

Those shortcomings are most clearly heard on folk-indie band Of Monsters and Men’s Yellow Light. Both singers have a similar tone through the CXA80, whereas the difference between the male and female vocals is obvious through the more expressive A19.

So with this amplifier, you can’t tell if a voice is male or female… That would be a big problem if you’re listening to opera. And, earlier in the review, it was stated that “the CXA80 makes every note sound well defined.” Apparently not.

The emphasis on the end of syllables — the drawing out of certain words — is subtly conveyed through the A19. The CXA80, on the other hand, doesn’t make too much of that distinctive Icelandic lilt.

Nor does it have the nimble-footed rhythm to express the sprightly, poppy nature of the song. Those bells have depth and sound like solid objects being struck, but that twinkling edge that gives the folksy tune its sweetness is damped down by the amp’s extra muscle.

I could go on. Pretty much every review has this same sort of audio-babble describing music playback. It reads like it’s just filler so the journalist can meet his word count.