Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is the BBC Sound the British Sound?

Praised by audiophiles and hi-fi enthusiasts around the world for it’s “upbeat” – i.e. pace, rhythm and timing oriented - sound, is the British Sound ultimately defined by the “dead” BBC sound?

By: Vanessa Uy

Maybe it’s because the UK has been making and marketing hi-fi kit for a longer period of time and in greater variety when compared to other nations. Or is it more likely that the UK had a “certain size and construction of there average living rooms” – i.e. medium-sized in global terms, wooden floored with a plaster on brick wall construction. Either way is the concept of the “British Sound” – which is characterized by an emphasis on pace, rhythm and timing – in other words a more upbeat sound in comparison to nations outside Europe, ultimately defined in the end by the “tonally dead” BBC Sound? Given that the concept of the British Sound can be defined by a single sentence containing the words: pace, rhythm, and timing while the concept behind the “Dead BBC Sound” has a somewhat “epic history”, the discussion on what is the BBC Sound warrants further discussion.

Even though the BBC – or the Beeb as it is affectionately called - was recently embroiled in a controversy when it’s principle of “journalistic neutrality” was challenged by its decision in refusing to air that politically charged Gaza Aid advert. The concept of tonal neutrality behind their famed BBC Sound is world renown by audiophiles and hi-fi enthusiasts. Sometimes commonly referred to as the “Tonally Dead BBC Sound” - which is meant as a term of endearment of course – can trace it’s origins in post-World War II Britain.

Beginning in the late 1940’s, the BBC’s Loudspeaker Research Department conducted serious studies of what was wrong with most commercially available speakers at that time. As it turned out, there was plenty. The concept of high-fidelity or hi-fi was nonexistent. Off-the-shelf commercially available speakers were not high-fidelity because an overwhelming majority of people played records through their radios. The luck few that had more serious sound systems typically made their own, good sound – back in the “good-old-days” - was rather a do-it-yourself affair. Open-baffle loudspeakers – those with drivers that were drilled into a plank of wood larger than the drive-units themselves - reigned supreme.

High-fidelity as a marketing concept – rather than the genuine article – came along at about the same time when Rock & Roll was born. Or when Elvis became a worldwide phenomenon as remembered by most people back then during the early to mid-1950’s, spurred in part by the introduction and latter popularity of the long-playing record after it was introduced in 1948. So did the practice of putting speaker drivers in closed cabinets.

The BBC started to gain interest in sound quality when the need arises to monitor the sound quality of their broadcast – especially their live concert broadcasts – using high-fidelity equipment that’s portable, thus making the BBC famous for their in-house designed minimonitors like the LS3/5A minimonitor and its licensed commercially manufactured variants. Even though it was the Quad ESL electrostatic loudspeakers and its related variants that was became “inexplicably” linked to the current definition of the BBC Sound. And the rest of the BBC Sound saga – as the saying goes – became a major part of the hi-fi history.

So what is the “Tonally Dead BBC Sound” and why do an overwhelmingly large number of audiophiles and hi-fi enthusiasts the world over liked it? Well, the BBC Sound is characterized by a sound quality that is accurate, pure, clear, and free of overt tonal coloration. Chances are that if you happen to be a professional musician who more-or-less uses a world-class recording studio as his or her 9 to 5 “office”, the audio equipment that is used so that you can hear yourself sing probably has this sound quality. Or just listen to the drums on Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast Album” – assuming of course you have a “sufficiently neutral” domestic audio system.

What I like about commercially sold audio equipment designed around the British Sound / BBC Sound is that they have a very good price-performance ratio – i.e. very good bang for the buck, which is a very good example of that good old British sense of post-World War II frugality in practice, which is not bad by the way. My only reservations is that if you are lucky enough to own very-expensive – and very likely esoteric – audio equipment that can realistically play a very hardly struck ride cymbal. Then you might find those kinds of entry-level audio equipment – especially solid-state / transistorized ones - designed around the concept of the British / BBC Sound a bit dull and neutered.

A case in point is my own magical experience of listening to Veruca Salt’s “Loneliness is Worse” using a preamp whose brand-name starts with “Michell” – prized for displaying a “sense of the artist’s urgency” when playing tracks like these. You’ll probably start to notice in your side-by-side comparison that there’s this “lack of urgency” characteristic in entry-level solid-state equipment designed with the British Sound / BBC Sound in mind. But as it is of all things as it is in hi-fi, you can always get something better by spending a little bit more. Given that the BBC never fails to apologize to their worldwide audiences whenever their broadcasts are technically plagued – temporarily at least - by poor sound quality, then the BBC Sound is for all intents and purposes is the “literal” definition of the British Sound.