Fragile Souls

And every time, this thought hit me: It wasn't a record she was handling. It was a fragile soul inside a glass bottle.—From South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami

Back in early spring, I stupidly sprained my ankle while running (footnote 1). At 2am. The injury kept me off my feet for a few weeks, and I found myself spending time reading and actually participating in a hi-fi forum, an activity I generally try to avoid. One thread that caught my attention was on the Stereophile forum, and the subject under discussion was the Furutech DeMag device. In brief, Stephen Mejias shared his experience of a day spent at Michael Fremer's house, during which they listened to, among other things, an LP before and after it was treated with the DeMag.

The thread began innocently enough: "Last week, JA and I took a trip to Mikey Fremer's place. You might be interested to know that we played around with the Furutech DeMag. We only had time to try it with one LP, but, with that one LP, it made a big improvement."

Can you believe that these three sentences generated over 700 replies and 1000 views? They included such statements as, "Unfortunately, as far as the hi-fi hobby is concerned, the shit-throwing will never cease," and "I take the many comments supporting the above alleged experiment from people who should see the same flaws as an indictment of the teaching of Science by the American educational system." Some of the people posting weren't even American! Sacre bleu!

As I waded through this debate, it became evident that the people on the "science" side of the argument were more interested in theories of sound and perception than they were in the actual experience of listening to music on a hi-fi. I quote from a recognized authority, loudspeaker engineer Siegfried Linkwitz, in the June 2009 issue of Stereophile (Letters, p.9): "Steve Guttenberg correctly pointed to recordings as the most serious limitation in the attempt to reach audio nirvana."

If we want to understand the scientific/objectivist point of view, this simple statement by Linkwitz gets us a long way in a few words: recordings are the greatest limitation to audio nirvana. My reaction to this statement is: Huh?! I always thought recordings were the reason for home audio, not the other way around. After all, what good is the greatest nirvana-inducing hi-fi if there's no music to play on it?

If I can boil the opposite side of this argument down to a simple statement of purpose, I'd do so by borrowing from a conversation I had with Peter Qvortrup, of audio manufacturer Audio Note: "Your hi-fi is only as good as its ability to play your worst recording." This point of view is rooted in the passion for the discovery and appreciation of recorded music as it exists, the relishing of our musical heritage as an invaluable record (pun unavoidable) of our human condition, with all its frailty and less-than-ideal measured performance intact.

Getting back to my journey into the heart of hi-fi forum darkness, the Furutech DeMag debaters ultimately fell into two camps: objectivists looking for a better measurable, repeatable, and verifiable experience; and subjectivists looking for a better experience, period.

We're reminded by the objectivists that our senses deceive us and so are the root cause of bias, which makes it impossible for us to objectively evaluate hi-fi gear. Further, they remind us that we can remove this bias and focus on the sound alone by performing unsighted listening tests. We're also reminded that every other field of scientific inquiry embraces the use of blind tests, and that only audiophiles remain in the dark ages of sighted listening tests. No objectivist worth his or her salt would rely on any commingling of senses to make such important life-altering decisions as which speaker to buy or whom to marry. It's also interesting to note that another group of people who view their sensual apparatuses as invasive distractions are monks. But I digress.

My response to this objectivist position is simple: Can you demonstrate the relevance of the blind listening test as it applies to the way we experience and appreciate our hi-fis in our homes over time?

I can understand how a few dozen people locked in a room, listening to the same pieces of music over and over, while being asked to determine which presentation of unseen gear they prefer, is a scientifically rigorous test whose results are applicable to the whole of humanity. I can appreciate this in the same way I can appreciate the idea of getting marital advice from virginal men with no experience of living with a woman. What I fail to understand is how their experience is supposed to inform my experience of putting a record on my turntable, sitting in my chair, and listening to music—something I sometimes even do with my wife.

For those of us who cherish the sensual experience of listening to music on a hi-fi, and of connection with the people who made that music and all the magical human stuff it embodies and conveys, I suggest that the most effective way of ensuring an engaging musical experience over time is to rely on all of our biases all of the time. We bring bias to the listening experience in our homes and in the concert hall; why not allow it to inform our hi-fi buying?

After all, you don't have to be right to enjoy listening to music on a hi-fi. You also don't have to prove your enjoyment or take a test. If you've tried and want to buy a device that purportedly "demagnetizes" records, and you think you can better enjoy listening to your music because of it, good for you. Those who believe they need to bring science into that equation, or to the rescue, need to reevaluate their priorities. And any scientist worth his or her salt steers clear of people enjoying a hobby.

From now on, when I start to read series of posts in which people argue about hi-fi, I'll remind myself that I could be doing something actually worthwhile—like running (at a reasonable hour), or listening to music on my hi-fi. I could be reveling in experiencing, biases in full sway, drinking in and delighting in our fragile, shared, deeply personal, and powerful humanness, as embodied and evoked by music. The only way to leave our differences and distractions behind is to listen with abandon.



Footnote 1: A version of this essay originally appeared on 6moons.com.
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