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.


Gibson said...

Just like the American hi-fi / high-end audio magazine Stereophile, it seems like politics and hi-fi will always be inexplicably linked. Maybe the first-hand experience of the abduction of BBC's Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston is the proverbial final straw on their decision not to air "politically-charged" Gaza Aid adverts.
The "Dead BBC Sound" - to me - is just a single aspect of what we hi-fi enthusiasts had come to know as the British Sound. The British Sound could range from QUAD II amps coupled to Quad ESL-63 electrostatic speakers or those Air Partner Tone Scout horn loudspeakers partnered with home-grown low-powered British triode amps. Or an all NAIM kit (even a Gibson Les Paul and Marshall Amplifier combo could qualify.). But in the end, the British Sound comes down to PRAT - i.e. pace, rhythm, and timing.
You must be pertaining to the Michell Argo pre-amp which has an uncanny ability to emote "recorded" female vocals. I even had come to conclude whether Nina Gordon and Louise Post of Veruca Salt is the raison d' etre of Michell Argo pre-amps.

Sherry Rashad said...

Yes, Stereophile, that American hi-fi magazine that has been mixing high-end audio with politics since that Pres. Clinton and Monica Lewinski debacle of 1998. With regards to the Beeb / BBC not airing Gaza relief adverts due to their overly-political nature, I think the BBC has been "burned" by that Alan Johnston abduction incident. Whether its just another politically motivated tit-for-tat is another matter entirely.
I've grown up the late 1990's version of what passes as the "British Sound" - i.e. those hi-fi kit that deliver pace, rhythm, and timing like there's no tomorrow.
P.S. I too agree that the Michell Argo HR preamp was made for the voices for Nina Gordon and Louise Post of Veruca Salt. Albeit, to me, the Michell does favor Nina Gordon in the long run.

Sherry Rashad said...

PPS: check out my hi-fi blog at

Hirum said...

From a Post-Modern point of view, the BBC and its policies are man-made - i.e. ipso facto can never be truly neutral - even though the hi-fi concept which the BBC bequeathed to the world has become the "Gold Standard" when it comes to acoustic neutrality.
Speaking of the "British Sound" in my point of view, it is the domain of the Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall Amplifier with the tungsten fillaments of the EL34 tubes singing their heats out.
On politics in hi fi, the Beijing Government party functionaries had been laughing at the "Enlightened West" for some years now because we had been playing our Free Tibet / Jetsun Milarepa Foundation benefit concert CDs and DVDs on Peoples Republic of China-made universal CD / DVD players. Laughing out loud - really.

Yvette said...

Veruca Salt + Michell Argo HR Preamp = pornography for the ears.

Danica said...

BBC World News - at least the last time I saw this morning - prefers to use the term "unbiased" rather than "neutral" when it comes to the presentation of news events. By nature, journalist are by nature reluctant to editorialized their news topics - unless of course you are Jon Stewart.
I think the BBC Sound / British sound is the most cost-effective way to sell Hi-Fi.

Kent said...

BBC World News are recently using the word unbiased - instead of neutral - when describing the way they present their news stories. Although it is hard to be unbiased and neutral when it comes to journalism these days. From BBC's decision not to air the Gaza Aid advert to their "adventurous" coverage of the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Basing on your familiarity with Iron Maiden, I do agree that this very British of all Heavy Metal bands did benefit BBC's exploration into realistic sound reproduction which led to the cost-effective (good sound will never be cheap in my humble opinion) world of domestic hi-fi.
In spite of the hi-fi industry's staunch support of corporate social responsibility - the High End speaker manufacturer Wilson and the more than decent wage they provide to their workers is a case in point. Hi-fi it seems will always be forever political because of us - the customers love of good music. Because I've been recently guilty of playing my recently purchased Free Tibet Concert DVD on my Chinese-made universal CD / DVD player thru a Chinese made Cayin 300B-based tube amp. And oftentimes the works of Tibet House supporter Phillip Glass.

Timur said...

You guys could win as the most cognitive dissonant political views by playing Free Tibet Concert CDs on your Chinese-made Shanling CD player thru a Guangdon Province-manufactured Cayin 300B amplifier. Or is the various works of Tibet House supporter Philip Glass' minimalism more of your liking? Or since Patti Smith recently joined the Tibet House movement, she can now play her brand of punk rock thru a People's Republic of China-manufactured High-End gear.
As a concept, the BBC sound can indeed be made available for 500 dollars or so as an entry-level hi-fi setup.

Diogenes said...

Speaking of "Western" musicians who are sympathetic to the Free Tibet movement, check out Mickey Hart (of the Grateful Dead) collaboration with the Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir. I think this Tibetan Buddhist music will sound really nice - in a cogintively dissonant way - on Chinese made CD and DVD players. Stereophile reviewers should use Free Tibet Concert CDs and DVDs when reviewing Shanling CD players and Cayin Amplifiers.

May Anne said...

Speaking of the Michell Argo Preamp, it does favor female vocals. Especially Nina Gordon and Louise Post of Veruca Salt.
I think what we currently know as the "commercialized" version of the BBC Sound is the solid-state version of the Quad II amp and Quad ESL-63 electrostatic speakers.

Hirum said...

Have you heard of this Green Dam Youth Escort a "proprietary" Internet censorship software being made mandatory by the Beijing Communist Party functionaries to all Internet-connected computers in the People's Republic of China? I just hope that they won't install a similar system on PRC-made DVD / CD universal players which have gained a foothold on the hi-fi market during the past few years. Imagine your newly bought Made in China DVD / CD player that won't play Free Tibet concert DVDs or Philip Glass' annual Tibet House concert extravaganzas. Maybe the BBC's Click should do an extensive coverage on the "Orwellian" nature of the Green Dam Youth Escort censorship software.