Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities, the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck. --Thomas JeffersonI ran into this article on Inner Fidelity: "Measuring emotional connections to music" penned by Rafe Arnott & Vinnie Rossi the other week that got me thinking about the hobby and the different "sensibilities" of those who partake and who write.
As you know, recently, I measured and discussed the sound of the Oppo UDP-205 player/DAC. I said that the device is "transparent". I believe that this is an important aspect to focus on because it touches right at the heart of the ideas and philosophies expressed in the article. Today, let's explore the themes brought out in that article a bit. As you can imagine, I come at audio from another perspective compared to Mr. Arnott and Rossi.
As a start, for those who have not seen it, you might be interested in a previous article on my perspective of aiming to be a "rational audiophile". Having that background could help with the discussions in this article. My intent in this article is not to limit the thought process for audiophiles. Rather, over the years, the hope is to expand how we can think about the aims of the audiophile hobby. Is there a way to rationally express a philosophy that encompasses the complexity of music and the music-reproduction hardware that underlies the passion of the audiophile hobbyist?
I. On the subjective "connection" response curve...
The article asks many questions. Within 3 sentences in, it poses this:
Is there a response curve to show how one connects to a piece of music?My assumption is that they're asking a rhetorical question. But is this even a contextually fair question?
As I had expressed in the "rational audiophile" article, I believe audiophilia consists of a number of different pursuits. On the one hand, there is enjoyment of music (the music lover hobby) which is where the question above as to "how one connects to a piece of music" may hold some value. Some of us like rock, others classical, others jazz, and yet others heavy metal. Music is art and art engages the emotions in subjective and idiosyncratic ways. When an artist connects to us whether through the music, lyrics, or serendipitously at a special time in our lives, we build that emotional bond that can last a lifetime.
Sure, while we can certainly ask the question "Why does Johnny connect so deeply to heavy metal!?" I suspect it's clear to everyone that this question does not have a hope of being understood or answered within the pages of an audiophile magazine (catered to "high end" hardware) or at an audio hardware show! Instead this is a question that probably can be posed and answered to some degree in the halls of academic neuroscience, not hardware engineering as the appropriate discipline. Perhaps we can scientifically measure a "response curve" in the form of neuronal activation of the brain with fMRI, PET, low-resolution SPECT tracer uptake, maybe electromagnetic activity on EEG or MEG when a person is in the presence of his/her favourite music (those familiar with neuroimaging technologies particularly will appreciate how difficult it would be to run such studies!). I'm not sure what makes the authors think that audio hardware itself has a strong relevance to this "connection" to music which is idiosyncratic to each human being and the neural networks in our brains that encode this predisposition. Do hardware devices have any special powers to connect us to specific artists or genres? Do fans actually need audiophile speakers, silver cables with ideal dielectrics, and kilobuck CD players to form or maintain their connection with the music they love? Does one fall in love more with music because one had heard it through a hi-fi system as opposed to just the local radio channel when growing up through their "lo-fi" box? I trust that most folks would consider these questions rhetorical as well... You could easily give someone a pen and piece of paper and ask them to grade music from one to 10 and subjectively measure emotional valence, but unless you're running a marketing survey, who cares how any music lover connects to his/her favourite artist - that's between them and their albums!
On the other hand, I believe that the hardware audiophile pursuit is actually a different beast when we try to understand the motivations for why some of us engage in this hobby. Remember, historically, the audiophile was one who pursued "high fidelity". While the term "audiophile" can mean different things to different people, "high fidelity" is a much more coherent term. "Fidelity" and "accuracy" of audio reproduction have meanings in engineering hence the importance of measurements to make sure that the music reproduction chain acts as a faithful conduit of the recorded information - nothing more, nothing less. For some, it's not as much about fidelity as striving for euphonic reproduction (I've previously called these people euphonophiles, this is not meant to be pejorative!). For some, "so long as it sounds good to me", then that's the goal. While the pursuit of "high fidelity" is an idealistic one where a "gold standard" can be expressed with objective parameters (eg. zero distortion, a target frequency response, noise below any hope of auditory perception, ideal timing characteristics, calibrated room interactions...), those who seek euphonic reproduction can be seen as more pragmatic in some ways yet deviating from seeking to achieve high fidelity.
Without a compass of sorts directing the hobbyist at idealized performance goals, the "euphonophile" audiophile might serially try out a number of speakers, digital players, amps, etc... in the hopes that he/she will eventually find the "just right" combination of components that satisfies his/her auditory palate. That's fine. We must understand though that by not using objective ideals to adjudicate fidelity, psychological factors will play a large part in the process. This is not to say that a "more objective" high-fi enthusiast is not affected by psychology as well (we are all humans!). But because psychological factors play such a big role without objective testing, discipline and insight are important such that one "guards against absurdities" that can result, as so well articulated by Thomas Jefferson. When the human perceptual and cognitive system like auditory/echoic memory is as brief as <5 seconds, one has to be cautious about the accuracy of recalling how something actually "sounds" hours, days, weeks or even months later. Without grounding in objective knowledge, one often ends up seriously considering highly speculative ideas (like claims of certain cable manufacturers) or the testimony of those with no other evidence to support claims (like the hype of Pono with the ridiculousness of Neil Young's claims, or MQA and its magazine-writer cheerleaders). While some can claim that this is all about "fun", I personally would find speculative meanderings wasteful and corrupt especially when being wooed with expensive "snake oil" products as discussed before.
As brought out in the Arnott/Rossi article, I can appreciate Bruce Lee's admonishment to his student to "Don't think, feeeeel" in certain areas of life. But isn't that a little silly when dealing with electronics equipment? Remember, we're talking about audio gear here designed by engineering folks based on generations of accumulated knowledge of physics, refined by objective measurements and controlled listening tests (like the testing done by reputable speaker manufacturers, Canada's NRC in the anechoic rooms years back, or Sony/Philips' tests of digital audio before the CD was introduced). Should audiophiles not at least at some level try to understand, know, and be mindful of the thoughts that have resulted in the decades of work put into creating all these modern devices producing the illusion of "the sound of music as heard in a concert hall" (as per Harry Pearson) or "being present at the original studio performance" (as per MQA) to use two examples subjective audiophiles and magazine writers would recognize? Is it even wise to drag up some vague New Age philosophy with supposedly "deep" metaphysical claims here from Bruce Lee of all people applied to audio?!
[As an aside, in today's political and social climates, are we on balance in need of more emotion or thought in this world? May I humbly suggest that wisdom is when there is synergy with both present... And not always in equal measure.]
II. On the importance of nothingness and fidelity...
Unlike wines, or cars, or houses where often more is better - more aroma, more luxury/power/speed, more space - the aim of audio equipment when it comes to its basic function of achieving "high fidelity" is to preserve what is on the recording, nothing more. We intuitively know this because even for those of a purely subjectivist mindset, there is the idea that "the best cable is no cable". Shorter cables are better than longer ones (to reduce signal loss and picking up noise). "Shortest signal paths" are said to sound better than longer ones. MQA even puts it as the "sound of the studio"; that is, the "sound" of the intervening equipment after the studio and before one's ears should not color the intended production. When we aim for a high fidelity system, all we're asking for is a device that can reproduce just the frequencies present on the album, at the right time, with the right dynamics to satisfy the intent of the artist as laid down in the recordings. As for the listener, the ideal gear would have technical "transparency"; free of audible frequency coloration, distortion, added noise, or timing anomalies (eg. jitter, wow & flutter, phase distortions...).
The irony is that Mr. Arnott understands this. Awhile back in his show report on a LampizatOr DAC in 2017, he said this:
"This room had outstanding timbre, and tone, and deep, organic bass lines, and midrange that didn’t suffer an iota from the air, and extension the top end displayed. “Addictive Musicality” is what I scrawled in my RMAF brochure book next to the room name. Sound-staging actively changed from recording to recording (as it should be because sound stage is derived from the recording, not the equipment), which to me is always a hallmark of a truly transparent, and properly-engineered set-up."So... Are we then on the same page? If "truly transparent" is viewed as the outcome of what we're all after, then what is the point of ruminating on the "response curve" of how one "connects to a piece of music" when discussing audio hardware? If the hardware is good enough to be transparent, then isn't the emotional reaction to the music the psychological outcome that the listener has with the music (recording) itself, just like the psychological construct of "soundstage"? Exactly what kind of "emotional connection" does Mr. Rossi think hardware is capable of imparting between the listener and his/her favourite album, genre, or artist if not simply to "get out of the way"?
The core purpose of the hardware high-fidelity / audiophile hobby is not about the "feeeeeeling" - the music is up to you to choose, and feelings are up to you to experience, not the equipment to give. It is about understanding that the best sounding components in a music system are the ones we hear the least from. The best does not call attention to itself, it's about less, not more. The best sound rooms are comfortably quiet and free of noisy distractions. The best speakers are the ones with least coloration from the box. The best CD/DVD/Blu-Ray players and digital servers are the ones that offer silence (no motor noise, fan noise, electromagnetic interference). The best DACs produce an analogue signal that looks like an ideal reproduction of that digital data - nothing more...
I have nothing against desiring for more of certain qualities - more luxurious speakers, more impressive cables, more metal, more weight, more silver, more gold, more money spent. I desire some of those things as well at times. But the more we ask for, outside of the goal of seeking actual improvements in sound quality (ie. transparency), is to reach into the endless non-utilitarian benefits and luxuries as I had expressed before.
III. Transparency - on the logical outcome and this "boring hobby"...
Finally, I think it's important to consider what Mr. Rossi said near the end of the Inner Fidelity article.
If we all agreed that the best measuring products were the best sounding ones, we would essentially all own the same thing and it would quickly become a boring hobby. Designers deaf in both ears could still produce excellent measuring products, as there would be no need for them to listen to their designs.
Imagine attending an audio show where all of the listening rooms were DSP room corrected, contained the same type of speaker topology, the same type of electronics, etc. For many it is frustrating enough passing by rooms playing the same overused demo tracks.While I would not recommend designers be deaf, I can also think of audibility claims made by musicians who likely have significant hearing loss and know of audiophiles who almost certainly have significant age-related loss of acuity yet fervently make all kinds of claims. I have yet to hear a device that measures remarkably well using modern testing yet sounds poor. Over the years, I have challenged people who make the claims that excellent measuring products can still sound poor and nobody (neither audiophile nor product manufacturer) has ever given me the name of a component that this applies to in order to verify this claim. As far as I'm concerned, this belief belongs to the category of "urban legend".
[I see the claim of "good measurements but bad sound" was yet again trotted out recently - "Remember those Japanese receivers with 0.00000001% THD that burned the hair off your ears?" No I don't, maybe because I was too young to remember the 70's. Care to identify specific products rather than gross generalizations, Mr. Reichert?]
Is that a sign of a "boring hobby" if at the end of the day it's simply about achieving transparency and seeking that ideal? I dunno... Maybe for some that's a problem. I can imagine that admission of this from a product manufacturer would make it hard to come up with "even better sounding" generations of products.
As I noted above regarding "emotional connection", music lovers should not be bored because joy comes from the music itself. In fact, a clear definition of "high fidelity" as "transparency" should be great news because it means they don't have to worry about upgrading hardware; once technology is good enough to achieve transparency at a reasonable price, there's nothing else to desire.
As for passionate hardware audiophiles, I don't think there's a need to be bored either because aren't we all supposed to be music lovers first of all? Also, nothing is stopping us from exploring, experiencing, and finding ways to improve/upgrade speakers/headphones (none of which are ideal), optimize our rooms, consider new features, maybe even play with DSP to achieve the sound we want (whether it be technically accurate or not). DIYers will always have fun tweaking circuits, perhaps finding new designs or resurrecting old techniques. Manufacturers can still use newer technologies to achieve performance closer to that transparent ideal at less cost, improve the user experience, add new features, finding genuine niches to make a profit, and competing with others in the marketplace to be the best. Maybe some companies are lazy and don't want to be bothered with innovating and competing - too bad if that applies to some out there. Of course, I believe that there are a number of manufacturers in the "high end" space making worthless "snake oil" products and have no business existing.
But excitement in new tech and products needs not be constant over time nor universal across all product classes. The human ear/brain is limited in perception and I believe these limits have already been reached for high quality DACs at good prices. Digital accuracy when it comes to transports, streamers, and servers will not yield any further improvements regardless of what some believe when they tweak firmwares, OS'es, or spend ridiculous amounts on computing hardware (A €6900 LampizatOr SuperKomputer? LOL. No thanks!). I believe other than new features and ease of use to reach a larger audience, computer audio has matured; especially for 2-channel stereo. One cannot expect huge sound quality improvements no matter the expense once you reach a very affordable level these days.
Not to just pick on digital, I likewise believe there is a reasonable end point to vinyl playback. The problem with the LP is that it is an inherently limited system which never can achieve the fidelity of today's digital devices (great for its time and obviously engineering has improved the system over the decades). Unlike digital, there is no "ideal" or "exact" with vinyl, reel-to-reel or cassette because each copy will be different, each playback will detrimentally affect the next time it's played even if miniscule, and age will affect material things (everything from loss of physical shape like warping of LPs to magnetic instability on tape). Furthermore, these analogue formats will never rival digital for temporal accuracy. While some might obsessively seek to extract the very last drop of sound quality from analogue media and have fun doing it, ultimately the technical limits are insurmountable... (For the "record", I still accumulate LPs as a collector of memorabilia, not because I think they sound great necessarily.)
IV. To Close...
Feel or Think? Subjective or Objective? Euphonophilia or Pursuit of High Fidelity? Coloration or Transparency? One or the other? May I suggest both?
Like I said at the start, the intent here is to present some ideas for consideration in a way that I hope makes sense. We each choose for ourselves where we stand. Like all philosophies, some will sound more rational, others may require a stretch or perhaps a greater leap of faith. I like to both feel and think. When it comes to hardware, I believe I have shown over the years that objective analysis is more reliable and the pursuit of high fidelity points me to a vision of what "good sound" is about, with the utilitarian goal of ultimately achieving transparency in the consumer audio playback system.
I want to point readers also to what Dr. Mark Waldrep wrote recently about "Fidelity vs. Sound". Another perspective on what I've described as the pursuit of high fidelity vs. euphonic sound.
As suggested by the title of this article, while I may be "more objective" as a hardware audiophile, I also do not shy away from referencing something spiritual in the pursuit of music. Feelings and rational thought must coexist. Have fun in the hobby but never "surrender reason", otherwise the mind ends up "wrecked" as Thomas Jefferson warns us. In our relationship to the music, there should be passion, possibly even feelings of ecstasy or a glimpse of something transcendent that the art and artist is able to convey beyond this "mortal coil". Yet as hardware audiophiles we must contend with the fact that whatever we might emotionally and spiritually perceive in the music, the gear we use is very much connected to the material world and the technologies of today which in many cases have already achieved sonic transparency. To straddle these domains of existence and hold on to core truths without straying into imprudence or even worse, madness and becoming the play-thing of frivolous consumerism, IMO is the heart of achieving wisdom as an audiophile (and I believe so too in general life).
No matter your philosophical leanings, ultimately, I do hope that it leads you down a path of joy in experiencing all that the musician has created for the listener as processed and modified through studio magic and high fidelity reproduction technology.
It's summer. Time for some fun in the sun.
As always, feed the inner music lover and enjoy the music (with transparent hardware of course). :-)