Saturday, 25 December 2021

Audiophile Psychology: Reconsidering Zelinger's "Hi-Fi Fetishism" (HFN&RR, October 1981), and Lofft's "Sense and Nonsense" (SR, October 1982). On neuroses & fantasies.

Greetings everyone. Grab yourself a nice beverage, settle into a comfy chair, let us delve a bit into audiophile psychology.

I think this is an important topic; one that is implied in many of my posts over the years (in fact, we started 2021 with some related thoughts). Some of these psychological constructs I believe explain to a degree the ceaseless arguments we often see online especially when things go off track and disagreements appear irreconcilable between different "sides", "camps", "tribes"...

I. Hardware Audiophiles and Hi-Fi Fetishism

Let's discuss some ideas by building on writings from the past. To start, here's something interesting by J. Zelinger "Hi-Fi Fetishism: a psychologist's view of the lunatic fringe" from October 1981, published in Hi-Fi News & Record Review (I noticed that the link above can be marginal and might not work, here's a PDF of the text).

First of all, I must send kudos to Mr. Zelinger for a thought-provoking piece from the early '80s. It appears that many in the audiophile hobby diverged off into the direction of pure subjectivity, areas untethered from reality testing during that decade. He touches not just on the importance of psychoacoustics (as playing its role in perceptual adjudication of course), but into the touchy subject of the personalities of certain audiophiles.

Let's dive into this without fear and talk/think about this important topic and how it relates to us as "audiophiles" in the 21st Century.

I think Zelinger is right in dissociating the dual forms of hi-fi enthusiasm: those who have "focus of attention... on the music", and those who "focus to some characteristics of an audio component". Indeed, I've suggested over the years that there are 2 main types of hobbyists under the audiophile umbrella - "music lovers" and "hardware audiophiles", each of us owning a combination of these pursuits.

While the core desire may ostensibly point to the same kind of thing in principle (ie. the enjoyment of music/sonic playback), how we satisfy each of these pursuits will differ. Furthermore, within each type, there can be extremes. The "extreme music lover" might have literal hordes of CDs or LPs that some would consider "unhealthy" with its own obsessive-compulsive psychology (or psychopathology!). What Zelinger addresses here are the "extreme hardware audiophiles" and the love of these objects of desire.

He explains that for some individuals, instead of appreciating art (music), that source of joy has been redirected to the audio system (objects) - at its core, this is the "fetish". Indeed, when we do this, we idealize, perhaps even end up worshipping such objects. Tendencies toward "magical thinking", "fantasy" and "mystifying language" can be seen in the audiophile literature over the decades in the service of describing the adoration of audio hardware; rather than the joy in experiencing the music itself. Sometimes we even joke about this when we use the phrase "audiophile porn" to describe pictures/video that cater to the visual appeal rather than the sound that we're claiming to be desiring.

Furthermore, when we idealize something, we can end up losing touch with the concept of true value. After all, what's a few thousand dollars when we can own a beautiful piece of cable that some audiophile magazine/reviewer assures us will transport listeners to a higher joyous level of spiritual auditory rapture?

Fascinating article on Commodity Fetishism, which one can see "Hi-Fi Fetishism" as a form of. Good amount of Freudian context there if you're interested. ;-)

Guys and gals, I hope nobody out there is so absorbed into the hi-fi gear to the point of ending up in debt, is forced to sell off the system, or ends up depressed as discussed in Zelinger's article. I guess I would not be surprised if this does happen at the extremes. Psychological effects are powerful. Sometimes they can be conscious; for example, an editor might be aware that publishing positive comments about a product might advance the standing of the magazine or bring in ad revenue. The more insidious effects are probably subconscious, like the need to achieve satisfaction only available through the fetishistic love-object as suggested by the author to a degree where the audiophile no longer recognizes how "abnormal" this might be. When this happens, the extreme audiophile stops being able to enjoy music (the art) altogether except perversely only through an expensive $100,000 sound system (again, the object) for example.

As Alan Parsons once observed: "Audiophiles don't use their equipment to listen to your music. Audiophiles use your music to listen to their equipment." There's irony, and also tragedy in the truth of that statement, beautifully capturing the drama within the hearts and minds of extreme hardware audiophiles.

Like most categories in life, there are always shades of grey, so while I appreciate the use of "fetishism" as a psychological model employed by Mr. Zelinger, I trust that the truly fetishistic among us are few. I've tended just to use a more generic term "neurotic" to describe some hardware audiophiles over the years as a reflection of the continuum.

A neurosis is defined as a form of behaviour or symptom resulting from some kind of "repression" through life. Not all neuroses need be seen as negative. As a young person, maybe we've witnessed mistreatment or unfairness, such that as we grow up, we unconsciously obsessively fight for justice and truth. Perhaps one had been embarrassed or failed academically as a child such that in adulthood one becomes much more detail-oriented and compensate by striving even harder than the norm for success.

The mature adult who uses "defenses" like altruism, humor, anticipation, and conscious suppression is to be cherished even if deep down neurotic tendencies are still there but managed. The trick I think is to be self-aware and not become slaves to the tendencies nor to give up reality testing altogether and risk flirting with delusions, preferring the seductive embrace of the impossible. Speaking personally, I would fully admit to my own neurotic tendencies toward this hobby over the last few years! After all, what kind of guy does all these measurements and writes all these blog posts over years if not endowed with some neurotic "love" for the hobby as well!? ;-)

Looking back, I think what has "saved" me from going down that path towards delusional audiophilia over the decades is actually finding balance through objectivism. And speaking to this last point, I would disagree with one of Mr. Zelinger's ending conclusions (emphasis mine):

"As we would expect, rational assessment can do very little against such feelings; it is a poor weapon against the mystifications of fetishistic publicity. I might add that manufacturers who allow themselves to be exalted and aggrandized by fetishists in the same manner as their products are doing themselves a disservice. For they too are indulging in a form of narcissistic gratification and are lending yet further credibility to the lunatic fringe."

Yes, I agree with the last couple of sentences. There are self-aggrandizing, non-sensical, snake-oil companies and ridiculously narcissistic individuals who put themselves out as sages.

However, in my opinion, "rational assessments" are the only things that can combat these irrational "feelings" that lead to extremes.

Sure, perhaps there are those currently suffering from an audiophile fetish that cannot be "cured", but since I believe there are few of these individuals out there, let's not give up on rationality quite yet! I believe it's important to remind hobbyists that there are always shades of grey and we do have choices to make. Just as cult members do leave churches, or substance addicts can turn their lives around, I think it's much easier to turn the "fetishistic extreme hardware audiophile" to recognize that art is art and the audio gear we buy are just objects of science and engineering with no magical properties.

In my experience, I have seen individuals change through introspection, making realistic choices and putting down limits around which he/she shall not pass - even "fetishistic" audiophiles! Furthermore, to have more rational and objective opinions out there in audiophile-land to confront fantastical ideas will combat psychologically unhealthy memes leading to extreme trajectories. If as a body of audiophiles (and this is also a plea to the mainstream audiophile press), we do not stay rational, or worse, encourage the "lunatic fringe", then IMO we have dishonoured what it means to be seekers of true high fidelity audio. 

As I have said in the past, audiophilia is but a small hobby and maybe some would consider mystical thinking among the few to be "harmless". Even if we discount the disservice this could play if such irrational thoughts were to spread into other parts of life, should we be proud of our kids growing up to be snake-oil salesmen (like the guy discussed here, or the purveyor of this stuff, or this sophomoric very expensive computer sales job)? Is it okay to put money into questionable companies instead of those that actually do good R&D? Have we not had enough of mindless praise for "technologies" like MQA with basically no value over the last few years, and the mainstream audiophile press unable to sort facts from phantasies?

Is a decline in "high end" audio not to a large extent because of a recognition by the rational that there is little value in numerous high-priced items marketed on shaky premises, typically absent of actual elevated performance? Is this then not to some extent completely anticipated, and lamentations that "the audiophile hobby is dying" actually self-inflicted grief because of delusive magazines, companies and products marketed to the few hobbyists living at the fringe?

Instead of bemoaning the loss of interest by the younger generations for "high end" products, perhaps it's cause for celebration as a sign that younger folks might be better educated, have critical thinking abilities and are simply less gullible. Or at least at some level, most people know intuitively that much of the "high end" is simply bogus, having little to do with actual sound quality that will improve their lives.

II. Psychological Sense and Nonsense

Just as Zelinger's article is interesting from a UK author, another glimpse into the hi-fi psychology in the early '80s came a year later from an American publication. Check out this October 1982 Stereo Review issue, and the article "Sense and Nonsense in High-End Hi-Fi" (p. 62-69) by Alan Lofft.

Well said Dr. Jung. So it is in audiophilia, there are many things that are not "right or wrong"; we accept that many opinions are subjective and artistic appreciation is likewise non-binary. But let's make sure we talk sense rather than nonsense. Imaginary subjective fantasies of what is "heard" can be very much nonsense. Likewise, an excessive objective focus like "this -100dB THD+N DAC is much better sounding than that -90dB THD+N DAC" is just as nonsensical!

I have not heard of some of the brands/products mentioned as "legendary" in the article; I guess I'm not steeped enough in analogue gear. What's a Clément-Schlumberger? Win Labs? Bedini (is this the same company making the bizarre "Clarifier" for CDs)? Oracle audio? Coloney? Dennessen? No idea about JBL Paragon horn speakers. Other brands in the article continue to be on the tongues and minds of audiophiles these days like the Koetsu cartridge, Mark Levinson gear, Wilson Audio (interesting history described in the article), Naim, and Accuphase.

Clearly in that article in the early '80s, we already see the manifestations of an audiophile social hierarchy based on what one owns, how esoteric a design, or how unique. Price and rarity, in other words inaccessibility feature prominently in the psychology. As Lofft puts it plainly:

"In the fantasies of a high-end enthusiast, a rare speaker can assume a level of accuracy and clarity that is beyond the capacity of any current speaker technology to achieve in reality."

The same psychology these days is at play when we see questionable reviews. Is that not the mystique of the audiophile report on some US$750,000 Magico? Or when we're confronted with a write-up of US$329,000 Wilson Audio speakers by a reviewer in a cramped room? How about CH Precision's CD/SACD + DAC + power supply for about US$100,000? Are we surprised, and should we accept the claims of remarkable performance literally? The likelihood is that such reviews will always praise these "inaccessible to mere mortals" devices as the greatest since the last greatest item, projecting the performance fantasies forward. As humans with egos and competitive spirits, it's not hard to sell products on the basis of inaccessibility - a material elitism. No doubt, in some circles, $100,000 speakers are status symbols.

(As an aside, honestly, who actually thinks a standard CD will sound all that different using that CH Precision stack?! Fuggetabouit. By now, I think most of us know the limits of good ol' CD reproduction and there's no further mystical "veil" to be lifted.)

By extension, this is also the reason why less expensive gear or easily purchased products are devalued by the extreme hardware audiophile as "cheap" or "mass market". At best, maybe they'll use "mid-fi" to describe what are often very competent devices! Many such products would easily beat out esoteric, "high end" stuff with superior fidelity if truly "sound quality" is what the hobbyist cares about.

There's also the amusing anecdote in this article of the at-that-time new practice of:

"placing of special insulating mats or feet beneath amplifiers or preamps and of heavy weights on top of them to dampen vibration of the internal circuit components"

There were things like the VPI Magic Brick in the early '80s. And the tweak survives to this day with the recommendation of door stops on top of DACs as a recent example. In a similar way, other ideas and tweaks from the days of analogue have made their way into modern digital audio: wow & flutter converted to jitter worries, LPs never sound the same and apparently neither are "Bits Are Bits", vibration isolation helps DACs and computer streamers just like they did with turntables, analogue cables are susceptible to noise so we should be just as concerned with digital cables, ethernet switches need to be audiophile grade, so too computer motherboards, or even SSD drives... Folks, let's be smart about it. Not everything matters to the degree that some would want us to believe.

The one big difference between the early '80s and today is that what were described as "underground magazines" - Stereophile, The Absolute Sound for example - have become the main ones we see on magazine shelves and as online journals today. While philosophies at magazines might have evolve to some extent, issues like psychological biases are still not taken seriously, distrust of technical measurements remain, and the importance of blinded listening tests rarely, if ever, are even mentioned (if not devalued or even banned). By not considering these important points, this is obviously how subjective reviews act as a conduit for advertising. Companies don't have to run ads that violate "truth in advertising" policies if a subjective reviewer claims something about the product without evidence. Some companies then take the subjective comments as endorsement of a product's abilities even if the subjective claim is fantastical - how dare anyone challenge the reviewer's subjective "truth"? (I dare. ;-)

Lofft ends his article beautifully:

"Without this element of practicality or common sense, for most of us the World of the High End will continue to be Tweaksville, a sort of Lotus Land populated by a dreamy lunatic fringe out of touch with reality. And anyone who attempts to chart that world will find that its principal geographic features are the impenetrable Mountains of Metaphor, the treacherous Floating Islands of Fantasy, and the bottomless Sea of Subjectivity."

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Those words were published almost exactly 39 years ago, and Zelinger's "Hi-Fi Fetishism" article came out 40 years ago.

These articles came out at a time before the availability of CD audio even! How much more do we know these days, can test for, can even correlate with our own listening? The article also discusses research (including those by Dr. Floyd Toole at Canada's National Research Council) with the claim that:

"If two amplifiers measure virtually the same in terms of flat frequency response and low distortion, they should sound the same. If they sound different, then the measurement techniques are ignoring some important parameters of amplifier performance. Fortunately (for measurement techniques), there is a growing body of evidence to support the thesis that when scientific experimental controls are brought to bear on listening tests, amplifiers that yield similar measurements do indeed sound identical."

Now that we're about 40 years down the road, I'd say this statement appears just as true (remember that the load has a significant impact of course). Imagine just how much progress we have made over decades with even more accurate audio reproduction technologies, improvements in measurement gear, expansion of useful test signals and techniques, and the orders of magnitude increase in computer processing power we can bring to the analyses!

III. A "Centrist" Approach to Audiophilia?

Humans are highly creative and imaginative creatures. The imagination has no laws nor limits - but this is not how the real world operates. When a product is advertised, it is the job of the advertiser to capture the consumer's imagination. Often this means biasing the message to at least suggest a new product is "better" or perhaps to the extreme even "best". But what happens if some companies take it too far and become "loose" with the facts? What happens also when we've reached beyond the point of "good enough" sound quality or even beyond the threshold of audibility (like with hi-res DACs)? At some point, untethered imagination takes takes over, and takes flight.

Whenever human psychology embraces fantasy as its primary mechanism of wish-fulfillment instead of more mature means of seeking truth with logical principles, real-world problem solving, and empirical testing, the result is of course the Sea of (Factitious) Subjectivity. Needless to say, separating fact from fiction is highly relevant these days as we look around at claims made in "fake news" and the endless supply of conspiracy theories. Sadly, some will prefer to remain within a fantasy world rather than seek real answers.

Within the audiophile hobby, we cannot sidestep an understanding of technical complexities including the underlying science and engineering principles which created these products. I know that for many audiophiles, this means doing a little bit of studying and familiarization with technical terminology and consideration of what some graphs, charts, and measurements mean. I know this could detract from "just listening", "buy and try", or "just have fun" that some pure subjectivists advocate. I hope doing some homework, gaining knowledge, and improving self-awareness can also be a kind of fun that is simply part of the audiophile hobby and elevates those who partake in this pursuit above the average audio consumer.

Before I end, I want to be clear that the intent of this post is not just to produce a litany of criticisms. Rather, I think in life it's important to face truths plainly. If the discussion items above resonate with how you have felt, or if you might feel trapped in a certain mode of audiophilia that appears to be nothing more than serial hedonic adaptation to the next greatest thing, I invite you to take a step back and ask yourself if there's a better way to think and feel. I believe that "more-subjective" audiophiles for years have been under the influence of a type of messaging that leans toward selling fantasies, and rarely leads to enduring satisfaction. If you have not done so already, I believe it's essential when assessing gear, or judging the value of a product to make sure to understand and balance subjective opinions with objective performance as well.

I remain hopeful that cycles in history come and go. I suspect we are in the midst of a shift to a more mature, balanced, "neo-objectivism" (only in as much as needed to counteract the current mainstream subjective biases) as audiophiles who embrace rationality, appreciate that subjective preferences are important but idiosyncratic, and only a part of the story. Perhaps most importantly, audiophiles might realize that much of the precepts and beliefs of the esoteric "high end" are still "lunatic fringe" ideas in the eyes of reasonable people.

Fighting the "neurotic fire" can be done with cool, clear, methodical, metaphorical "water". I don't think there's a need to get angry or have a "fight fire with fire" attitude. Expressing calm disagreement or even just showing apathy to nonsensical ideas, not necessarily the person himself (ie. no need to get into ad hominem attacks), in my experience is powerful enough to create reasonable doubt in the mind of the neurotic. This is even more powerful when there are significant numbers of audiophiles who also show doubt and express them calmly. I think this is why many subjective-only websites/video channels have shut down or tightly moderated comments over the last few years. Not necessarily because there's a loss of civility (even if they use that excuse), but that there appears to be more doubt than confidence in the subjective reviewer who desires that the readership/viewership maintain faith in his/her opinions. This is especially painful for intolerant narcissistic reviewers when their beliefs are questioned. [These ideas also relate to the "confidence game" being played at times.]

When there's enough doubt expressed, the power of advertising dollars in support of questionable products diminish, and so too the influence of reviewers who bathe in that "Sea of Subjectivity". This is simply a normal consumer feedback mechanism, just like voting with our wallets.

I suspect over time, with reasonable doubt and repeated requests for evidence by many audiophiles, fringe beliefs can actually be "ring-fenced" into smaller and smaller pockets. In doing so, magazines, writers, reviewers, and companies that tout these fantasies will retreat back to the "underground" rather than be seen as representatives of the greater audiophile hobby.

Let's be clear, as much as I appreciate objectivism, I'm not averse to subjective preferences. Unless something is just plain wrong, I'm comfortable being a "centrist" (even an "extreme centrist" as some might emphasize) - which I think is a good place to be whenever we see tendencies toward hyperpolarization in all aspects of life. It would be nice to just seek respectable pragmatism for high-fidelity audio reproduction in whatever direction technological advancements take us.

While this post and articles concern mostly with the psychology of audiophiles, make sure to also check out the Perlman article Golden Ears and Meter Readers - The Contest for Epistemic Authority in Audiophilia from 2004 in Social Studies of Science. Nice write-up and description of the objective-subjective debate from the sociological perspective.

As always, I hope you're enjoying the music. Stay rational, be honorable, dear audiophiles.

Merry Christmas. Also wishing you and yours a truly joyous New Year ahead. Chat in 2022.

====================

Some audio-related gear supposedly retrieved from an actual hoard. Remarkable case in the tabloids.

As an addendum which I think fits with the discussions above, I want to quickly address the topic of people who just collect audio gear for their own sake and not for listening to music/audio. Recently, Steve Guttenberg had this topic in a video. "What is wrong with that?" Guttenberg asks, "Nothing, right?". I agree, there's nothing "wrong" with that. However, as it has been written (and I paraphrase) "All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial", applies to the various forms of neurotic preoccupations - so long as we're not talking about something illegal of course.

If a person just buys audio hardware like amps and speakers, never listens to music, then this by definition isn't really a fetish anymore since the "joy of music" is not what is being satisfied through the objects. It's basically a type of "hoarding" of material possessions. The phenomenology will be different - there might be no need to ever hook the gear up, you'll find gear in rooms and closets stacked up and untouched, such a person probably will quote others as claiming the product has sonic qualities they themselves have not heard in the first person. They might even explain the purchase as something to do with being useful "someday" in the future.

Here's a question that I think is worth asking though... If a person collects audio hardware (or even tons of albums) as their hobby, most of it never listened to, then is this person still a "hardware audiophile" hobbyist or is this more appropriately labelled something else like "audio hardware collector"? Can we be an audiophile without engaging in audio/music playback, no actual subjective experience of sound - much less appreciating the artistry in music, or even a goal of high quality reproduction?

My suspicion is actually, "No", the word "audiophile" is not an appropriate label for such a pursuit, and "collector" is more accurate. [Nothing holding us back from being both an audiophile + collector of course.]

A person who passionately collects audio-related hardware without enjoying music is presumably doing it for some kind of psychological security, perhaps characterological identification with the beloved objects. This goes back to hoarders and the need to hold on to something for potential future use which almost certainly will never arrive. Perhaps it's extreme nostalgia for something lost but never forgotten from the past. Basically, a type of obsessive-compulsive ideation and behaviour. I'll leave it to the psych academicians to contemplate whether hoarding is more or less pathological than "hi-fi fetishism". :-)

32 comments:

  1. As a young person, I was enamored with the sound of a high-end systems at the local hifi shop. Listening to music on these systems was a gateway to experience diverse music content I wouldn't have consumed otherwise. The equipment and the music kinda went together. Good quality gear would influence the listening experience and so I would look to improve gear quality over time as means allowed.

    What was missing for me was an understanding of audible transparency, good enough, and of what mattered. I looked to the enthusiasts magazines to help navigate. I figured that the writers had much more experience listening to gear from a wide variety of manufacturers than I ever would. They could help me divine real differences from fashion. If they said something sounded night and day different then it must, right?

    Definitely a mismatch of expectations. It doesn't seem to me that the enthusiast magazines spend much time genuinely educating. There's the article here and there that seems that way but really isn't.

    With the capabilities of modern DACs and amplifiers it should be rather straight forward to assemble a front-end system that is audibly transparent to almost any rational speaker system. Wouldn't it be good if reviewers put gear into that context? I'm thinking about your review of the Drop THX 789 headphone amp where you summed up the measurements and your experience as, "Yeah. Don't waste time. Get a good hi-fi amp like this, then take your time to find good headphones, and make sure to enjoy the music along the way." That was definitively refreshing.

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    1. Thanks for the note Doug,
      I think you've touched on a very important expectation which has unfortunately become less and less of the reality with audiophile magazines these days. Back in the day if we go through the back issues, there used to be a time when there were more general discussions and education about the technology, general tips about finding good gear, comparisons with multiple devices and even with measurements to compare. These articles would even be lead articles highlighted on the front page instead of just glossy images of yet another very expensive speaker or amplifier (or *gasp* cables?).

      I don't know what happened to those types of articles or why it has just become all consumerism, all the time. Sigh...

      Thankfully we do have the internet where much more experienced amateurs, professionals, reasonable hobbyists can still congregate and share ;-).

      Delete
  2. Hi Arch,

    Yourself, Amir at ASR, Jon Siau at Benchmark Media & Mark Waldrep (to name but a few) are leading the fight against the silliness that has become "hi end audio". So many thanks for that.

    I was a long time subscriber to what was once called "Computer Audiophile" where I learnt a lot through the many conflicting points of view and what were once healthy arguments. I have seen your posts there. Unfortunately the discussions got overheated and the founder, Chris Connaker, made the fatal mistake of isolating the objective (rational) postings to a single thread and virtually expelled those that were disparaging of the subjective point of view. It's shame because what was once a great site has become a mouth piece for irrational theories.

    Anyway many thanks for sharing your philosophy on hifi together with your many reviews. FWIW after much research my "optimum value" system is a Tidal account streamed to a Chromecast audio ($100 now) > Topping or SMSL DAC (US$300) > Adam TV7 ($500) for desktop .... alternatively for the living room replace the Adams with a hypex amp (US$700) > 2 x SVS SB 2000 subs ($1000) > Revel speakers ($1200).


    i.e. you can have an excellent "hi-fi" desk top system < 1K and a full blown system for < $3k

    My next step is to make use of DSP, which is where I believe the real value lies.

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    1. Hi Ajax,
      Yeah, a shame about CA/AS with the change a few years back. While I have been critical of some of the articles on the site like this:
      http://archimago.blogspot.com/2019/02/musings-computer-audio-mythos-comment.html

      And I remain critical with some of my posts there even, I've met Chris and I respect that as a private site, he's free to make whatever changes he feels is necessary. No secret that monetization of the website/forum is a business and we're all free to make whatever business decisions we feel are necessary.

      I agree with your sentiment and list of prices. No need to spend ridiculous $$$ if we are just interested in great sound quality that IMO will surpass much of the 5-figure stuff.

      This idea of sound quality at reasonable prices might "scare" some businesses in the "high-end". And ultimately that's also likely the "tension" which is not just between Industry and Consumers, but maybe even between "High-End" and "reasonable good value Audio" companies.

      Given a choice, I'm of course rooting for the Consumer first. Then good value audio companies!

      Delete
  3. I remember those times, Lofft article, now this is becoming worst, people are paying $8k for a pair of speaker cables.
    thanks for the article and helping with the neurosis

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    1. Hi diluce,
      Great that folks like yourself remember those times and can reflect on how things have changed over the years. I guess "hi-end" cables were already a "thing" back in the early '80s but certainly not to the extent of today with the countless companies.

      At some point, maybe there'll be a cleaning out of the companies and less emphasis on the silly stuff.

      Delete
  4. "rational and objective opinions" That's a contradiction in terms.

    An opinion is a statement describing a personal belief or thought that cannot be tested and is unsupported by proof. To quote my go to expression "Opinions are like buttholes. Everybody has one."
    Scientific theory begins with a hypothesis, a prediction based on some empirical observation or evidence. It must be testable. If the tests succeeds, you have the proof you need... I'm just yanking your chain here.

    I wish you and your family a very happy and most of all healthy 2022

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    1. Fair point Freddy!

      I guess I should have worded it as something like "opinions supported by objective facts" or something like that.

      And likewise a happy and healthy 2022 to you Freddy!

      Delete
  5. Very good article and I agree with the sentiment. I especially think people are so worried about noise from PC's to the DAC. It is all the urban legends out there that audiophiles believe, it is hard to get them to see anything else. I mean an Audiophile motherboard which is a previous generation and cost double what the next Gen MB cost? Crazy...

    botrytis

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    1. Hey there botrytis,
      Happy New Year!

      Yeah, I don't know about why this persistent fear of noise around computers and DACs. It's not like we're in year Y2K, overclocking CPUs running a handful of case fans ;-). Noise - both acoustic and electrical - sucked back in those days...

      One human generation and numerous computer generations ago.

      Delete
  6. As always, Archimago, a beautifully argued and written essay. But, of course, I have some disagreements with the views expressed.

    A recurring idea here and in the general discussion of how the pursuit of perfectionist audio "went wrong" is that the major magazines were/are in large part responsible. The idea is advanced that Stereophile and The Absolute Sound are part of a malignant cycle of unrealistic expectations and the exploitation of unstable psychological types. These folks often maintain that things were different at the beginning, that, in those halcyon times, the publications and their writers were interested only in what was best for the little guy. In the case of the magazine I've written for now for 27 years, the reviewing staff has actually been remarkably consistent, with the majority of the equipment reviewers dating back to the era when Harry Pearson was very much in charge. We haven't changed radically, in terms of the way we think about audio gear and the way we write about it. With the restructuring of TAS more than two decades ago, some fondly regarded aspects of the publication, undeniably, were lost or faded—the digest size, the dominance of one plus-size editorial personality, a less obvious advertising presence—but the essence of the magazine has remained. Admittedly, I'm not the most unbiased observer, but I feel TAS is as readable, entertaining, and informative as ever.

    We should remember that Stereophile and TAS, a decade later, happened because they were desperately needed. Gordon and Harry gave voice to what was obvious to so many hobbyists at the time, that the subjective experience was of enormous importance, and that developing a descriptive language to serve as a lingua franca was key to progress. And so much progress has been made. Yes, the best-of-the-best often comes at some pretty astronomical prices, but the entry level and mid-priced gear sounds so much better than the equivalent products of 40 years ago. It's telling that you cite articles from the early 80s—it serves as a reminder that the idea of High End audio as a playground for "rich idiots" has always been there. We heard it said when a WATT/Entec system was a smidge under $7000 and we hear it now when the corresponding Wilson loudspeaker runs about $38K.

    I do feel that you need to acknowledge more than you did that, while free-spending fetishists manifest one form of psychopathology seen in the audiophile pursuit, there's another small but loud group—one that really didn't exist in large numbers 40 nears ago for obvious reasons—that should be identified. These are, of course, the mean-spirited, doctrinaire bullies that are happy to assault their fellow hobbyists but get particular joy from attacking members of the industry and, especially, the press. These self-aggrandizing loudmouths rarely possess engineering chops or any familiarity with the history of High End audio, and their musical tastes and knowledge can be laughably unsophisticated. But the proliferation of online blogs and forums provides the opportunity for them to lob two-line zingers at familiar targets. They view this as clever, heroic, and taking down an undeserved authority a peg or two. Do you really wonder why TAS no longer hosts comments to reviews posted online? You can't possibly believe that any of the last 200 comments made by "Keen Observer" on Audiophile Style has added anything to the public audio discourse. He'd never write a Letter to the Editor—negative, but substantive, comments are often published in TAS and Stereophile—or speak the way he writes in a face-to-face social situation. It's uncivil (to use a term that always gets offenders riled up) and the behavior it takes to get booted from an online forum is depressingly extreme.

    Best for the coming year, Archi.

    Andy Quint

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    1. Hello Andy,
      Much appreciate the thoughtful response and discussion points raised.

      Over the years, I have certainly enjoyed many articles by various writers in both TAS and Stereophile. So it's important that I make sure not to paint every article and every writer with the same brush and devalue the work over the decades that some have produced.

      Reading the Lofft and Zelinger articles about 40 years later, I think one cannot help but to appreciate that there is a "culture clash" of sorts that they identified. While not completely black or white, there was a point of divergence to some extent.

      I certainly don't think that things back in the (halcyon) days were good. Definitely sound quality has improved thanks to technological progress and am for one very glad to not be living at a time when vinyl records and turntables were the only source of music which would have been the era of these writers!

      While I think the use of subjective language by Pearson and Holt did significantly improve the entertainment value of some reviews and allowed reviewers to share music suggestions, here's a serious question...

      Did the "High End" "playground for rich idiots" actually create any new technology that we can point to as seriously advancing sound quality, if we take a bird's eye view?

      You listed the Wilson WATT for example. Has this design significantly affected speaker sound quality on the whole or is it only revered by a few in the audiophile world? I would argue that true sound quality advancements don't come from the "High End" but rather larger consumer-oriented companies that put R&D dollars into circuitry and designs...

      Digital Audio, CD - thanks to Philips and Sony. Including interfaces like S/PDIF.
      Hi-Res audio - thanks to Sony's SACD, and the DVD consortium.
      Multichannel - thanks to Dolby, DTS, HDMI these days. Mainstream AV receivers from Denon, Onkyo, Pioneer, Yamaha, etc...
      Computer audio - thanks to the high-tech industry, USB interface, Internet, Slim Devices/Logitech Squeezebox for opening up network playback, Raspberry Pi-like SoCs, Linux open source foundation...

      If the "High End" industry did not exist, would we actually not still have significant improvements in sound quality? All of which I would argue would be a result of broad objective improvements in measurable qualities of the equipment.

      Arguably, I think the "High End" has muddied the waters and added unnecessary fear and doubt:

      - Do we really need all those digital filters? Is NOS really an improvement?

      - Is jitter really the boogeyman so many audiophiles fret about?

      - Are bits not bits?

      - When we can't measure noise (like through a USB DAC from a computer) down to better than say -110dB, then why do we need very expensive devices? Or that expensive motherboard as referred to in the comment above?

      There are other examples I can list but this is a reasonable start I think. And this is without even bringing up egregious examples of questionable "Hi End" inventions (ahem... em... que...eh...) or the whole cottage industry of cables/tweaks (including some of the most ridiculous like Synergistic Research).

      I don't know how this will resolve but I have some hopes that we can retain the useful parts of subjective writing while getting better at reality testing.

      I agree with you that we do not need mean-spirited, bullying, dictatorial insults and assault. I can say a thing or two as well about the "overly objective" side of this hobby. Even if I understand that some comments might be borne out of frustration.

      We need balance which is why I am thankful for this dialogue despite our differing viewpoints. Thanks for this opportunity to discuss, Andy.

      Best to you and yours in 2022.

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  7. Good points, every one. I am basically a hopeful kind of person and what I'm hoping for before I pack it in is a true blending of objective and subjective approaches to the consideration of an object before us—the "object" being musical sound. Advancing this discussion will require both a musical sensibility and engineering chops, as well as the capacity to communicate. You're one of a few with all three skills which is why I'll always be interested in what you have to say.

    It's true that breakthrough discoveries—I will studiously avoid the term "paradigm shift!"—haven't typically come from companies catering to audiophiles. But these manufacturers can elevate the use of a technology to a degree that matters when it comes to revealing musical meaning. Excellent concrete examples are the BBC's loudspeaker designs, such as the classic LS3/5A. The Beeb actually built very few of these speakers themselves, immediately licensing the designs to others, including several manufacturers I'd call "High End" such as Rogers, Spendor, and Harbeth. The execution of the same specifications by those companies, and several others less familiar to hobbyists, sound different from one another, and continue to evolve. I've just finished living with a new version of the LS5/9 from Rogers which, as you likely know, has returned to building their top speakers in the UK after a couple of decades in China. Even if the advance in sound quality is "just" 20%, that improvement may be worth a far greater increase in cash outlay to some people. People we call audiophiles.

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    1. Sounds good Andy,
      Would certainly be good to see more blend of the objective and subjective in the pages of TAS. Definitely be careful with that "paradigm shift" idea ;-). I must disagree though that the "object" is not "musical sound" - by definition what is "musical" must be subjectively defined by a subjective being. But accuracy (to the source) of signal/sound reproduction can be objectively defined.

      Yes, good point about the potential for audiophile companies to "perfect" technologies even if unable to invent them. I certainly see the audiophile music labels and mastering companies like MFSL or Audio Fidelity as examples that have improved the sound quality.

      Yeah, and so too the evolution of the BBC studio monitors over the decades which is a good thing. Again, I think so long as companies don't end up making claims or describing speculations that deviate from what can be empirically verified, then we're in good shape. And in line with that idea, if reviewers also do the same and correct such speculations, that would be one of the most important roles a "journalist" is able to play for the sake of the audiophile community.

      I certainly don't mind if a product has "20%" (or even "5%") better sound costing more and even if the cost of these diminishing returns escalate quite significantly. What I'm more concerned about are the times when the improvement is 0% yet speculations and myths are perpetuated (eg. IMO error-free digital cables)... Or even worse, negative effect to fidelity sold to the audiophile as the Emperor's New Clothes.

      Take care and all the best.

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  8. Archimago,

    Here's my problem with the Objective/Subjective divide in the way it tends to manifest in the audiophile world.

    What I enjoy about the more subjective-focused crowd is that they at least try to describe the extensive ways in which one component, e.g. speaker, can affect the sound of different recordings. We make an intersubjective attempt to say "it sounds like THIS..." and the best versions of a subjective review give a sort of sense of having heard the component with a pair of "virtual ears" if the descriptive language is good enough (and accurate enough). A speaker may be a collection of some colorations, but WHAT DOES THIS SOUND LIKE when vocal tracks are played, orchestra, rock? etc.

    But a problem is that the purely subjective approach tends to of course have a fair amount of b.s. and delusion riding along, and much of the musings about "why a component sounds as it does" tends to be fairly ignorant, uneducated hunches and musings. After all, the purely subjective approach tends to be associated most with someone who isn't very technically oriented to begin with.

    The other extreme is to talk mostly of measurements. Now the measurements are only useful insofar as they have at some point been correlated to their audible (or not!) consequences in the sound. So it's not like caring about measurements means you don't care about the sound. HOWEVER, it's been my experience that the more measurement/technically oriented an audiophile crowd is, the less they seem interested in sonic DESCRIPTION of sound. They care about the subjective results of course...but don't seem to care much about DISCUSSING things subjectively - "how it sounds." The reasons range, I believe, from the fact some may simply be so experienced in having learned how the measurements correlate to sonic consequences, that they themselves just don't feel they need the language. That individual can just look at measurements and it tells them what they want to know. (Most people can't do that!). But there is also, it seems, a general disdain, an almost allergy, to indulging in too much sonic description, because then they feel they are dipping in to the dreaded "subjectivist/Golden Ears" style of discourse that so many disdain as the imaginative poetry of uneducated hacks.

    So I go to the more objective oriented audiophiles to learn more about the technical side (I'm still a slow learner), and to experience less woo-woo snake oil b.s. But I soon feel things are just arid in terms of discussing what I care about - discussing and exchanging notes on how things actually SOUND.

    I've been led to wonderful speaker purchases when I've noticed a reviewer who seems to be caring about what I care about in a sound system, and I have found in their descriptions just the type of characteristics I am looking for in a speaker. And I find some simply nailed just what I heard and enjoyed once I heard the speaker myself. (Similarly, I've owned or heard speakers first, then found some subjective reviewers nailed the description of the essential characteristics beautifully).

    I know there is no way I would have gotten the same details, that same important information from some of the more measurement-oriented sites, who would have just dismissed the same products likely on some colorations in the measurements, or just not cared about identifying the aspects I would actually appreciate about the product.

    So I have to flit back and forth between the two worlds it seems - the subjective world of reviewing in which audiophiles attempt more detailed sonic descriptions, and the objective world in which more reliable information is to be had.

    I suppose the closest "best of both worlds" I've seen is Stereophile, where you get the subjective review along with the measurements. It doesn't satisfy a scientific level of rigor of course, but at least both are available in the same magazine.

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    1. Thanks Vaal,
      Great discussion and a lot of truth spoken there.

      I agree, as much as I appreciate the objective measurements, particularly for transducers like speakers and headphones, we all have preferences where objective measurements might not capture idiosyncrasies that sound "good". Absolutely nothing wrong with using those adjectives to try to capture the sound quality and comparisons relative to other products can be beneficial for others. As usual, the caveat being that the listener/reviewer/Golden Ear be skilled, able to remain as unbiased as possible (acknowledge potential biases like ad dollars? buddies with manufacturer?), and I think important to understand the technical side to know when opinions stray from the realm of possibility based on scientific facts (especially when companies make questionable claims)! Alas, I don't think most subjective-only reviewers can truly stay unbiased.

      Over the years, I have encouraged hobbyists to try their hand at measurements as well. Certainly by doing this, I've learned not just about the gear, but also about myself and the limits of my own listening. IMO, it is the cross-correlation between human limits and objective results that makes the data meaningful.

      Certain types of devices like DACs IMO have reached a level of "accuracy" that for reputable devices, performance has gone beyond my hearing abilities (and I bet this also applies to the silver-haired Golden Ears even if they deny it).

      Yeah, I think Stereophile has achieved a balance of subjective/objective. Although I think the tests chosen can be improved or made more transparent. For example, start using more log scale for frequency graphs, and let us look at the amount of 60Hz hum from amps and DACs.

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  9. Archimago,

    Well, I just purchased a new mini-PC with a Ryzen 9 4800H processor, 16 GB RAM and a 512 GB SSD. I have Win 11 on it and did notice that Win 11 recognized my TEAC UD-501 DAC (just like linux does). No drivers needed. I have JRiver 28 on it also. So far, that little PC is pretty amazing for the price.

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    1. Nice Unknown,
      I think the Ryzen 4800H is a Ryzen 7, right?

      Certainly IMO more than powerful enough for audio! Yup, since Windows 10 Creators Edition (2017), they've incorporated USB Audio Class 2 drivers natively so no need for custom audio drivers.

      Hope you're liking Win 11. I still only have 1 of my PCs on Windows 11. Works fine, can't say there's any "must have" new feature, so I've ignored updates until I see something really meaningful for me...

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    2. It is a Ryzen 9 - 8 core - 16 thread with built in graphics. ALso, I was 1 number off - 4900H.

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    3. Excellent... There ya go. Power-efficient Ryzen 9 with TDP around 50W. Fantastic how much speed we can get these days with low power!

      Delete
  10. I promise not to monopolize your space for visitors but there's one more point that I've found to be central to the subjective/objective discussion that your last comment brings up.

    Audiophiles who tilt towards the objective / measurement end of the spectrum very often have a blissfully naïve view of how the musical merits of a performance or recording are judged. They assume that it's completely subjective and that music criticism, unlike audio reviewing, is entirely a matter of opinion. And that if you like a given composer, performer, or recording, that judgment is unassailable because such assessments are totally subjective.

    For years before I started reviewing equipment, I wrote about music (mostly classical) for TAS and elsewhere, including a 19-year stint at Fanfare, where my specialty was Wagner opera. I've had over a thousand record reviews published and I still contribute three or four album reviews to every issue of The Absolute Sound. In terms of rating recordings, it doesn't have much to do with "goosebumps," how playback affects my mood, or whether I'm tapping my toe in time with the music. It mostly involves some very objective metrics—parameters like tempo, intonation, technique, and how well the performers observe the directions on the written page. (I own hundreds of scores, as do many classical music critics I know.) I also manage to attend a lot of performances—orchestral, chamber, piano, choral, opera—and feel I can give an objective assessment of how accurately a recording delivers the essence of a given instrument, a specific singer's voice, or a venue I've been to.

    So that's what I mean by the "musical sound" as the "object" of attention for critical listeners. Measurements are one way to assess that object; additionally, what makes a reviewer's opinion useful is how well they process data utilizing the "measuring device" that is their musical training, their own history as a performer, and their cumulative experience as a listener.

    The audiophile pursuit, in my opinion, is about the point of intersection between technology and art. There are objectifiable and subjective components of both musical performance and its reproduction—something that both "extreme objective" and "extreme subjective" audiophiles would do well to acknowledge up front, as you do. Understanding the positive and negative attributes of both audio equipment and performances demands that we involve both heart and head.

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    1. Hi Andy,
      Thanks for the clarification on the subjective & objective of music reviewing. Great to have this discussion with you.

      Music reviewing targets a much different set of values/ideals than hardware reviewing, I think. An educated music reviewer aims to describe "what is there" in the recording. I'm sure not just the highly disciplined, more objective characteristics like "tempo, intonation, technique and how well the performers observe directions on the written page" you listed, but also more subjective elements like how it makes a listener feel, why a certain performance stands out from others, perhaps why a new artist or new album is worthy of praise for creativity.

      As for hardware reviews, to me, great "high fidelity" gear is about getting out of the way from the art. Apart from how a device looks and what features it might have, "sound quality" is best when there's actually little to say! The best complement I can make is when the hardware played as loud as I needed it to and allowed me to hear what's on the album without distortion.

      I think this might also be why many objective folks don't describe the sound too much. For example, if a DAC measures flat, adds indiscernible noise, is distortion free, is temporally accurate, what more is there to say? To use too many adjectives to describe what's heard would simply be superfluous.

      This is why when I include a "Subjective" section to my reviews, unless there's "coloration of the sound" by the device that needed to be discussed, I take it as simply an opportunity to introduce to readers some albums I've enjoyed!

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  11. Arch wrote:

    -- "As for hardware reviews, to me, great "high fidelity" gear is about getting out of the way from the art."...
    ...."I think this might also be why many objective folks don't describe the sound too much." --

    Yes I've observed the same thing. For those focused strictly on "accuracy" to the extent they feel they have achieved it by removing additional sonic characteristics of the system...what's left to describe about the sound of the system itself?

    This speaks to a distinction between people who are approaching their system
    as a means to most accurately reproduce whatever signal is encoded on the source...and those who approach their system seeking "sound that pleases me" and/or "sound that I find more natural and realistic."

    To the accuracy-above-all seeker, once they've achieved their goal, they can just play music and "whatever it sounds like is what it sounds like...I'm hearing the track AS IT IS and that's what I want." No need to describe the sound of the system.

    Whereas the sounds-good-to-me or "seeking more realism" audiophile may listen to a system and still think "but could this sound MORE pleasing, MORE realistic in any way?"

    Which keeps their ears tuned to the sound of a system with that criteria in mind.

    Generally speaking, as someone who fits more in to the "pleasing to me/wanting slightly more natural/realistic sound to my ears" I still value accuracy and low distortion to quite a degree. This is because I value the tonal, timbrel nuances of voices and instruments, the the less homogenizing distortion, the more those nuances will tend to come through. Similarly, I get a kick out of the differing character and quality of recordings themselves, and lowering distortion in a system will aid towards that goal too.

    So it's not necessarily about totally kicking the goal of accuracy and low distortion to the curb.

    However, as I've mentioned before, it just seems to be a fact that, through all the compromises of recording, mixing, and the limitations of even excellent stereo systems, no system I've heard truly approaches being able to reproduce the amount of variety and nuance in real life instruments and voices. They all sound homogenized to one degree or another, electronic.
    Even on a very accurate system, once I've heard drum cymbals, sax, trumpets etc I pretty much know how those are going to sound on that system from then on. There are no more surprises - it's still colored in respect to "real life sounds."

    Therefore, I'm fine with introducing a little bit of flavoring, whether it's in the speaker, or via a tube amp or whatever. Since I'm going to perceive the sound as homogenized to a degree anyway, I may as well pick the flavor of homogenizing that appeals to me, or makes things sound a bit more "natural" or "real" to my own ears.

    Whether the balance is a good one will be a personal choice, but I believe I've found a pretty good balance between adding a slight bit of flavor, while still having a largely accurate system wherein minute nuances are heard, and it still sounds highly transparent to the source, where the nuances of recordings are readily appreciated.
















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    1. As usual Vaal, nice comment.

      You've raised another important point which I've touched on over the years. The "goal" of audiophilia can be different. The "hard-core" objectivists aiming for "pure" accuracy as you say can just go for a completely neutral, uncolored, pristine fidelity reproduction experience and I think has every right to let that be and basically say "I've achieved perfectionist fidelity, I'm done!". No need to use fancy words to describe the music playback unless the person actually likes writing and sharing the subjective experience of how the music sounds to them of course! I suspect engineering types are generally not as artistic and writing might not be their forte. ;-)

      Then there is the "euphonophile" route where the hobbyist accepts that he/she can do better by allowing the equipment to add frequency nuances, or even make the sound "fuller" (examples would be tube amps, vinyl playback) such as increasing harmonic amount which of course comes out as higher harmonic distortion in measurements.

      I think we can all decide where along the spectrum we want to sit. Personally, I also like being in the middle of the continuum although more on the "high fidelity" side. While I prefer my equipment to be objectively accurate, I often will introduce my own EQ changes to the "room curve" when performing DSP for example based on subjective taste.

      Again, I think the trick is to make sure we can express an understanding of what's going on technically and not succumb to voodoo. And as part of that, mindful to not expound unusual beliefs like that a $2000 6' power cable plugged into one's DAC made some kind of "significant" difference!

      As for reproducing "real life" instruments and vocals, yeah, I just don't think commercial recordings do that, nor do they aim to do that! For many genres (pop, rock, electronic), we cannot expect the studio production to sound "real" because of compression which is part of the expectation from consumers as well for that loud, "crunchy" sound which can help in cars and on subways to drown out the ambient noise. For classical we generally have better, higher dynamic content which can certainly come close to sounding "real". Then there are the limits of microphone capturing and 2-channel systems trying to reproduce a live soundfield, or headphone playback without customized HRT for our ears.

      Still much that can be done to improve "realism". I just don't think much of that has to do with tweaks, accessories, or even tradition 2-channel reproduction technology that the cottage audiophile industry can do much about I'm afraid.

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  12. ---"As for reproducing "real life" instruments and vocals, yeah, I just don't think commercial recordings do that, nor do they aim to do that!"

    Yes but I'd say that, still, some systems will generally be able to make instruments sound "more real" and vocals "more human sounding" almost across the board, vs other systems. E.g. if you have a system that has a significant lack of energy between 100 - 300Hz, voices will tend to sound thinner and more artificial, through a wide variety of tracks. Fix that, and vocals will sound generally more natural (so even a pop vocal that has some artifice added or microphone coloration will STILL sound somewhat more towards natural, than if you further rob it of the vocal richness frequencies).

    Similarly, a modest dip in the sibilance range, while perhaps being a slight detriment to the most naturally recorded vocals, can nonetheless strike a listener as ameliorating the general tendency of exaggerated sibilance in recordings, making for a "more natural" presentation across many genres.

    And given we are not doing scientific blinded "live vs reproduced" studies in this regard, the cues that convince one person the sound is "more natural" will likely be a subjective call.

    I only have to convince myself, based on my own memory of real sounds and the characteristics I've cued in on, that something sounds more natural, in order to get this benefit.

    I'm not looking for in fact pure realism, but at least for some situations, something like the approach of watching a movie - "believability." Since a movie is never going to actually mimic real life - it's two dimensional, and lacks all sorts of aspects of realism - you have to approach it with a certain suspension of disbelief, and then movies (those that seek some naturalism), seek to give aspects that "help you believe" what is going on, much of which has to do with cues from real life "Would a doctor REALLY say that to the patient? Does that really LOOK like the inside of a hospital?" - script, acting, set design, cinematography etc.

    When movies mimic certain aspects of real life, it can help us in the dance, sink in to the illusion.

    That's how I approach the illusion from my sound system. If I'm playing a small jazz piece and I compare, say, the drums to the real thing, it doesn't have a hope in hell. But if I note that the reproduced drums have certain *aspects* that I notice in the sounds of real drums, a certain rightness of timbre, that papery "snap" I'm so familiar with on a snare drum etc, THEN I find I not only enjoy the sensuousness of the sound in of itself, but it lets me in to the vibe better of the illusion I'm hearing in to the recording to someone playing drums.

    Also, playing with coloration isn't constrained to the voodoo tweaks. As my room is very flexible with acoustics, I play with adding and subtracting the level of room reflection in the upper frequencies (curtains, diffusion, etc). If I significantly reduce room reflections for an orchestral piece, I get a very vivid sense of ONLY the acoustic in the recording. If I introduce lots of room reflections, it sounds more "live" but also like the orchestra has been "brought in to my small room." But if I get the balance just right, the upper frequencies "open up" without overwhelming the acoustic caught in the recording, so it sounds like the "air" in my room has merged, making it seem less like peering at a recording between speakers, but hearing right past the speakers IN to the original acoustic. The effect can be amazingly more "real" sounding.

    It doesn't seem to be just my impression either, as the most regular comment I get from guests is along the lines "Wow, it sounds so real, like I'm in the studio hearing the instruments played right in front of me!"

    (I also find even electronic music enhanced via attention to these details).

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    1. Yup, definitely Vaal,
      Don't disagree with the changing things like room acoustics at all! Definitely that's real and measurable. No voodoo whatsoever in that of course. ;-)

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  13. On the subject of unrecognized company names; Oracle Audio is a Canadian turntable maker that seems to still exist, see https://www.oracle-audio.com/ They were definitely much-talked-up back in the day; I remember that their turntables were at one point made of clear acrylic and very beautiful. Never listened to one though.

    To this day I have an Oracle-branded carbon-fiber record-cleaning brush, at least 25 years old, still works great.

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    1. Thanks Tim,
      Glad to check out the website and have a look at all the gear they have on offer!

      Delete
  14. I came to appreciate Alan Lofft when i had a subscription to Sound & Vision in the late 80's/early 90's. Their annual equipment issue was a gem and his comments were gold - he pointed out that measurements under xx.xx% were inaudible. It made me realize that purchasing more expensive components would not necessarily lead to better sound. The same point was made earlier by the much maligned (by audiophiles) Julian Hirsch who pointed out that equipment with same specs operated within their parameters would be indistinguishable. After a brief flirtation with audio porn (Stereophile) i subscribed to The Audio Critic, where reviews were more substantial and common sense was on disply. I still drool over expensive gear, particularly vintage stuff, but manage to restrain myself - a 'look but don't buy' philosophy lol

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    1. Thanks for the note gnickers,
      Yeah, you've highlighted important points about the utility of measurements and inaudibility that I hope should be obvious not just to readers here but that needs to be widely acknowledged by audiophiles at large.

      There are key elements to the general thesis.

      1. Human ears/minds have limits. If one thinks one has "Golden Ears", take a deep breath and look at oneself in the mirror and repeat after me - "I am merely human". Limits have been empirically tested and observed over decades (like the realistic limit of 20kHz upper frequency response).

      2. That in practice, analogue audio is not "infinite" resolution. In fact, the resolution of mechanical analogue gear cannot actually compete with modern digital for highest fidelity recording and playback. (For some reason, I run into more rabid analogue guys who seem to think they have special Golden Ears.)

      3. Once we can acknowledge these limits, we can also naturally correlate them to objective measurements.

      4. Modern measurement devices (even modest ADCs) can capture/measure the performance of even high-resolution devices beyond what is needed for human hearing.

      5. Never get too excited over objective results if it's already above human hearing ability! Other than basic "bragging rights", you'll get bored with those numbers pretty soon!

      6. Know the difference between subjective preferences and objective accuracy/fidelity. Confounding the two and speaking without clarity leads to all kinds of needless arguments. It's generally not worth time or mental effort arguing with individuals who cannot tell the difference.

      7. Once we've understood ourselves and the adequateness of the gear we have, make sure to just enjoy the music. Ultimately, for the "music lover", this is the destination for all the searching and explorations.

      The rest are mere technicalities and details. ;-)

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  15. The most practical objective of a playback system should be to present as close to reference grade a listening experience as can be accomplished for the money.

    Such a reference will allow the listener to get a clear picture of the width, depth, tonality and quality of each different recording.
    And once you achieve competent reference grade playback you should be able to judge all other systems versus your own and clearly identify wheat from chaff.

    A reference system need not be expensive, but it must present a clear, wide soundstage with proper clearly articulated positioning of the instruments and singers.
    Timbre should be presented as to allow easy discernment of what instrument is playing and what its natural tonality is were you to hear it play next to you.
    Frequency response should be competent enough to articulate from the lowest bass instrument to the highest pitched sounds the human ear can hear.
    A lot of this is due to proper setup and speaker position and of course, the room acoustics and how you deal with them.

    The industry accomplished all these things quite well as far back as the 1960s.
    Mass production made it possible by 1970 to assemble the nessary quality at quite a cheap cost.

    I remember (being in the industry myself back then) conversations at the manufacturing level about how the Japanese had cheapened the cost down to razor thin margins.
    We were drowning in a sea of inexpensive pretty decent gear flooding our market and choking off the profit margins.

    And THEN.
    The industry had to find some other means to extract higher profit margins!
    So they invented a different approach to system building.

    Instead of building reference systems it was determined to be more profitable for manufacturers to concentrate on spending vast sums solving tiny problems that in many cases offered little or no improvement in the construction of a reference.
    Perhaps you could make more money "solving the enormous problem" of Telstar satellite EMI interference by applying diamond dust coating of your speaker wires that have been zapped with a uranium charge and then heated in a volcano.

    Yeah, said the manufacturers.
    We could charge OODLES for THAT!

    I personally have avoided the "high end" approach as I find it laughable.
    The differences in quality I seek are typically due to better drawn circuit design.
    Better quality interior componentry.
    Quieter, more robust power supplies.
    You know---stuff that actually DOES something.
    And it doesn't always come cheap.
    But neither does it always cost an arm and a leg to get "good enough" to be effective as a reference.

    I can't blame the public for searching out tiny tweaks the High End offers.
    And overpaying for gear whose virtues may not even become apparent without a specially constructed room design.
    Some of the largest Wilsons for example---are so big you really don't get what you pay for unless you can place them in a palatial setting.

    A lot of the high end is marketing and overkill and not even particularly useful.
    But heck---once in a great while something actually useful comes of it.
    But the wasted dollars is offensive to my old school viewpoint.

    I just want to buy stuff that WORKS PROPERLY.
    And then set it all up as a synergistic set that performs properly.

    End of rant.

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    1. Well said Doc,
      Thanks for the words of wisdom from a guy who's "been there" in the Industry.

      Good to get "back to basics" in a way where we can again know the difference between what matter and what doesn't. Maybe one of these days, the Industry will look again at what the remaining audiophile hobbyists want beyond the luxury items and silly Voodoo tweaks. What the "mission/vision/values" are that the hobby is about.

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