Wednesday, 10 February 2016

MUSINGS: On High Fidelity & Audiophilia Hysterica (Herb Reichert, February 2016)

noun: hysteria; plural noun: hysterias
exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, especially among a group of people.

"the mass hysteria that characterizes the week before Christmas"

synonyms:frenzy, feverishness, hysterics, fit of madness, derangement, mania, delirium;

"his fictional account of an alien invasion caused not-so-fictional hysteria among the radio audience"
So I was making my rounds on the websites the other day and noticed that some comments I made on AudioStream months ago got quoted in this article by Herb Reichert. I admit I find it mind-boggling how what I think are rather obvious and factual comments about audio technology can be considered so controversial or unacceptable to some people.

As an audiophile I want to be able to reproduce as best I can (ie. with highest fidelity) what's on that CD / digital file / LP / DVD / SACD / Blu-Ray / etc... As previously expressed, I hope the music I buy is in the form of a proper mastering which captured the details available in the magnetic "master tape" or digital "studio master". In this installment, let us consider a few of the comments made by Mr. Reichert and mull over the viewpoints expressed.

First, a question for Mr. Reichert. Is it wrong to suggest that the primary goal for audiophiles (if we define audiophiles as "audio hardware enthusiasts" - those who would read a magazine like Stereophile) is to achieve some form of "high fidelity" in audio playback? To find gear that is capable of expressing every nuance in the music I purchase. I am not after what I "imagine came out of some headphones or studio monitors" or "want to hear what some stoned, sleep-deprived recording, mixing, and/or mastering engineer heard"; all I have is what's on the disk / file. All I want for excellent sound quality is equipment capable of rendering what's on that music carrier whether physical or virtual in a faithful fashion. The equipment is just a foundation for music delivery. The equipment needs not editorialize or color the presentation. "Good" or "bad" sound is not something the equipment is capable of adjudicating, these are subjective qualities derived in the mind of the listener. My main concern is whether the machine reproduces the electrical signal and timing as expected based on technical standards. To me the goal is not to squeeze out some kind of "live sound" (as per Harry Pearson's idea of "absolute sound") out of recordings. Rather it is to do the best it can - some CDs / albums will sound "live" and realistic, others will sound poor due to suboptimal production value or exposed by limitations of the medium. An audiophile who accepts the goal of high fidelity will also have to accept that this will make some recordings sound poorer because every blemish will be made obvious.

Secondly, what is so controversial about the idea that we can try to objectively verify that the sonic output from our source / preamp / amp / speakers / headphones is accurate and that what comes out of the audio chain as a whole is likewise of high fidelity based on the concept above? We can verify using measurements, and because nothing is perfect, we can do our best using EQ or digital room correction techniques to get it as close as possible. In this way, I believe the hobbyist is not only a passive recipient of commercial products, but should be empowered to customize his/her own listening experience.

[Let us ignore for a moment the irony that Stereophile and AudioStream have been impressed by Master Quality Authenticated. Conceptually, is this not the same idea of maintaining objective consistency from the original source recording in the studio or similarly "authenticated" by the artist?!]

I accept that some people prefer a more subjective notion of sound quality not based on technical accuracy, but rather "euphonic sound" and this makes them happy. Some might still call this "high-end" or "an audiophile system" but I feel this kind of sound would not be achieving "high fidelity". I believe vinyl playback and NOS DACs are examples of this where higher fidelity technologies are readily available. Again, that's not to say one should not use these technologies (I still enjoy my LP's), just that they are not capable of the most accurate rendition of the source recording.

I don't know about Plato or Duchamp, or how the understanding of "humanist cosmologies" (care to define what this is?) plays into all this, but what about just accepting that audio equipment is engineered, based on human understanding of the sciences and mathematics, Mr. Reichert, whether you appreciate it or not? I don't see why reading about an objective viewpoint should create such an emotional response: "Nothing makes me madder." I strongly suggest you look around the world at the true injustices out there where that kind of indignation might actually be used for good.

Look. I understand the desire for a powerful, emotional, and transcendent subjective experience. And I appreciate the idea of achieving this with the least amount of effort (as per ML: "My idea of hi-fi is to make the possibility of losing oneself in the music happen as often as I choose with the least amount of brain processing as possible."). Okay... So you want to really enjoy music conveniently? If this is the expressed goal, then I start wondering, what makes you feel that audio hardware should be the focus of the quest? Surely, one could "lose oneself" in the right mood, wearing reasonable ear buds, with a vintage Walkman playing the right music! I certainly had plenty of those experiences in my teens using supremely inferior playback hardware and old cassette tapes. Does sound quality really need to be part of this equation once we hit a reasonable level? If so, what kind of sound quality is reasonable? Is neutrality valued or are we okay with or even seeking out something tonally colored? Are we then also OK with a certain level of distortion? And how do fancy cables and the various tweaks play into all this - why are they even worth looking into? Surely, a subjective reviewer could write: "I love these speakers because their beautiful curves remind me of a beautiful woman, they complement my room, the fantastic Ferrari Red glossy finish complements my car, and the sound is boomy but I just lose myself in the music since I'm all about da bass!" Is this not just as valid and meaningful as any other subjective review when the goals are so vague? Should audiophiles just accept this kind of "anything goes" ability to "lose oneself" or should there still be some kind of mutually agreed upon (more objective) standard?

In my opinion, an audiophile who ascribes to pure subjectivism wanders the wilderness of sound quality without a compass. Sure, like the lost hiker grossly basing his sense of direction on the rising and setting sun, a subjective reviewer probably can detect modest sonic anomalies. But fine details will likely be missed and minute distortions could potentially be misinterpreted as beneficial. Typically, purely subjective reviewers do not account for limitations of the hearing mechanism and their cognitive abilities / biases, they confound the effect of the artistry of music from the hardware which at best can translate what is already laid down, and potentially forget about all the other non-utilitarian functions a stereo system provides; lumping these impressions together and declaring a certain level of sonic quality as if offering something authoritative. Of course, nobody wants to admit that perhaps they were seduced mainly by a pretty fascia or impressive price tag. My feeling is that subjective evaluation is probably fine with certain equipment (eg. reputable brands are usually built to high standards and the subjective reviewer can provide some general "look and feel" comments), but the result often becomes laughable and ridiculous with fringe products and those of questionable value.

[A good contemporary example of this is all the recent stir caused by the fraudulent video promoting expensive AudioQuest HDMI cables and ensuing discussions. The fact that for years subjective reviewers raved about all kinds of digital cables is proof of the limitations of this kind of testimonial reviewing versus actual sonic benefit. Remember the results of cable tests done over the years here.]

Finally, to close off, there is this little gem from Mr. Reichert:

"My sensitive, self-centered mind translates the words into a smug objectivist audioperson gazing down at me and smirking as he says, "I am an enlightened man, in control of my emotions, who specializes in science and reason, and you, my weak-minded inferior, are just a silly girl!" (I knew I should have hid my stickers and tiara!)"

What's with the projection and sexist histrionics, dude? Surely as a mature adult, one should be able to discuss philosophical differences and articulate the debate with reasonable emotional control. Anyhow, I wish you luck and wisdom - hopefully having successfully found a life partner without obvious and severe psychological issues since you like to bring that kind of thing up.

But seriously, drop the hysterics.


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    1. MQA arrived at Audiostream on February, 10

      Archimago, great work!!!!!

    2. Yes. It would appear so :-).

      Let's see what the write-up looks like...

  2. Always interesting to hear Ethan Winer talking about acoustics on Scott Wilkinson's Home Theater Geeks podcast.

    He was talking about his main subject, room acoustics, when some snake oil stuff slided into conversation. Good to hear tech people state clearly that glorified power cords can change the perceived sound.... not by any effect induced by the cable itself, but by the short human audio memory and the few inches change of physical listening position of the listener once the power cord was installed.

    Just in case you want to watch the show:

    Audiophoolery by Ethan Winer:

    1. Yes, Ethan Winer is great. Btw, he has a very nice living room home theatre:

      Everybody interested in accurate and neutral sound reproduction should read his book "The Audio Expert". :)

      @Archimago: Great work!

    2. I just had a look at the living room video. I agree with one of the comments - that's a lot of room treatment which drives up cost of the set-up significantly!

      Even though the gear isn't very expensive, the money is put into very sensible use. Although my wife doesn't complain about what I do with the "man cave", I suspect she would say something if I had all those panels mounted overhead :-).

    3. True. That is why I will first get room treatment and afterwards a wife! xD

    4. Nice Balduin! Sounds like a plan :-)

      Acceptance and love are essential bedfellows.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys.

    Ethan Winer also has a video from back in 2009 about Audio Myths based on an AES workshop, I remember watching that years ago and was influential on my perspective:

  4. I've had "powerful, emotional, and transcendent subjective experiences" listening to music on a beat-up old walkman (I hope some people still remember cassettes). But that I guess that wouldn't count, since 'subjectivism' is really about showing off how much money you can spend.

    At the end of the day, the job of magazines like Stereophile is to move product.

    1. Yup Charles. Gotta pay the bills!

      On the one hand I can appreciate that... The question is of course how to straddle the goals of achieving fairness and balance. How to be able to remain independent of the financial incentives. Of course it's possible that this may not be possible.