Magico / Spectral and Just what is this soullessness stuff anyway?

[See the Magico / Spectral room review in the last post]

What does it mean when a system is said to be soulless?

We will try here to describe ‘soul’ in some way better than the ‘know it when you hear it’ kind of way.

Can we design a system so that it will likely have soul? Or do we have to rely on that ‘miracle occurs’ luck that plays so large a part in high end audio these days?

The pat answer has been that tubes have soul and transistors do not. The technical specification junkies say, in a somewhat derogatory manner, it is the 2nd-order harmonic distortion of tubes that people call ‘soul’.

Certainly dropping a tube pre or amp into a system can often add soul – and a very few components like the Joule Electra amps and Audio Aero CD players *always* add a World of soul to any system [just hooked up the Audio Aero LaSource directly to the Edge Reference solid-state amps. Very soulful and very different than the Audio Note, or even Lamm, approach to tube-powered sound]

Some small part of soulful music may indeed have something to do with 2nd-order harmonics – but I believe that there are many technical aspects of tube sound that are more Real than what solid-state can typically reproduce. It is these technical feats that should give the solid-state folks some hope that someday that can match, and even surpass, what can be done with tube-based architectures.

What do we mean when we say a system has ‘soul’?

Essentially [love that word ;-0] it means that the emotional aspect of the music is readily accessible by the listener. In practice this usually means the emotional state that the musician is trying to convey through the music .. love, angst, suspense, release, anger, passion, etc. – often combinations of these and many emotions may be found throughout more complex [emotionally] pieces of music. When you realize that the number of possible emotions is a very large [uncountable finite if we are going to be picky] number – and that we have the capacity to vicariously experience and enjoy these emotions [even the bad ones. Horror movies anyone?] you can begin to understand why people LOVE to listen to music [and read and watch movies].

Soulless music reproduction systems, like that in the Magico / Spectral room at RMAF 2010, however, have little or no emotionally accessible component.

What technical aspects of musical reproduction are required to convey emotion?

After thinking about this for a long time – it appears that much of the emotional content [as opposed to the aesthetic content, an area where tubes also best solid-state] is found in the attack and decay of each note.

Suspense, for example, is the slight delay of the note relative to the beat of the music [which solid-state can do fine] combined with the swelling of the note in a somewhat more rapid manner so that the note at maximum SPL itself appears exactly on the beat.

It is [for sake of argument] the emotional importance assigned to the note attack / decay by the listener – the parts of the note that solid-state gets completely wrong [very slight exaggeration :-)] -that tubes [can] do well, that makes tubes able to convey emotional content so much more competently than solid-state.

In Conclusion

So, yeah, seems like systems have to rely on tubes have no soul.. But there is no immediately obvious reason why SS cannot someday surpass tubes. It is quite a challenge – but maybe, if these SS guys can get it into their heads that music has soul [emotion] and audio reproduction equipment should be able convey this to the listener [and that harmonic distortion is almost completely meaningless in the context of music (as opposed to ‘sound’)] then maybe they will get to fracking work and make SS amplification a Real contender in this hobby.