October 2007

Uptown Conversation: Talking Speakers with the Legendary Ron Carter

Last year, bass legend Ron Carter admitted in this column to having become a new convert to audiophilia. He had just purchased a new pair of speakers that allowed him to hear his own playing as never before. Recently, the night after celebrating his 70th birthday in a gala concert at Carnegie Hall, Carter invited me over to his NYC apartment to hear his newly updated system, including an entirely new pair of speakers, the Tetra 606s ($33,333; tetraspeakers.com). I thought it would make a great opportunity to hear how a musician, respected as much for his hearing as for his playing, might listen to his own work via a new tool such as these Tetras. His remarks were telling.

The system was set up in his bright, spacious living room punctuated by tasteful artwork. Carter positioned me in the “sweet spot,” front and center, in a comfortable chair, sat himself on a nearby sofa, and began to play disc after disc, about half of which featured himself on bass. The sound, needless to say, was spectacular. “This will be my last upgrade I hope. It’s measurably better than the last one,” said Carter. He pushed the play button and we listened to Stanley Turrentine’s “Let it Go” featuring Carter on bass and Shirley Scott on organ. “It’s a totally natural balance,” Carter pointed out. “Her organ is there, more present than on other stereos. It’s not louder; there’s just more of it. And listen to that hi-hat—it’s more crisp. Sometimes on other systems, it just isn’t there at all.”

We switched gears at that point to pianist Glenn Gould playing Bach. “These speakers show how uneven his touch was … he sort of misses some notes,” Carter attested. “Without these speakers, you couldn’t hear that. These are so articulate, they let so much more music through. For example, for me, his right hand is too loud, but that’s my musical taste. … I don’t think most speakers would reveal that.”

Carter then went on to comment on recording techniques in general: “The problem with recording is there are so many processes between the player and the listener. You’re not always hearing the music in your home the way I played it in the studio. The engineers tend to pay more attention to the dials than to the music.” He then confessed that, with good equipment, the music might finally come through. “I tend to listen more with these better speakers,” he said. “Other systems didn’t usually represent what I was playing in the studio, but these come closest to revealing what I was actually doing.”

Then it was time for the classic Kind of Blue by his old friend Miles Davis. As the music played, pipe smoke circled his head and Carter’s long fingers plucked imaginary strings somewhere in front of the sofa. “I can hear Bill Evans’ accompaniment behind Miles perfectly,” Carter proclaimed. “And the bass sounds darker, more real. Plus, I can hear the room they recorded in. I spent a lot of time in there and know what it sounds like.”

From there we went to Carter’s recording of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.” A low C-note caught his attention. “I can hear that note properly now; I couldn’t before. You can hear the whole length of the note. Other speakers cut it off about three-quarters of the way through its length. And my bass sounds darker, closer to what it actually sounds like to me,” he surmised.

Carter seemed genuinely pleased with his selection of the Tetras, the same speakers owned by his former-collaborator Herbie Hancock. Though he may not be a full-fledged audiophile at this point, Carter is the musician’s musician and has the ability to hear music with an acuity most of us can only dream about. If better speakers improve this icon’s ability to hear himself and others, to enhance his enjoyment of even his own recordings, then there is likely a benefit for all of us in upgrading our audio gear. Said Carter at the end of the session: “I’d have been famous a lot sooner if everyone had speakers like this.”

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