Deeper Meanings Letters part 2

Perception & polarization
Editor: Two comments on Robert Harley's "As We See It" essay on value judgments in equipment reviewing:

First, underlying the quality issue, I see a polarization of belief between people who instead put their faith in any method (or ideology) as a potential guarantor of certainty or truth. This polarization ultimately derives from divergent premises about the relationship between observation/experience and "reality." Traditional methods of science are grounded in a mechanistic world-view, one premise of which is a clear conceptual distinction between an "objective" reality and (intrinsically subjective) acts of observation. From a holistic point of view, conversely, perception is an active process through which our experience of reality is constructed.

Second, when Robert Harley turned to the subject of a common area of understanding, I was disappointed that he did not address the methods of inference used by listeners to draw conclusions about the sources of differences they experience. One link between the two divergent paradigms, I would think, are the basic processes of discriminating similarities and differences, generating and testing hypotheses, and so forth: All perception and cognition depend upon an interplay of induction and deduction, whatever different criteria people may use to drive the processes.

Finally, thanks for reminding me how germane Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is to these issues.—David Greene, Palo Alto, CA

The Robert Harley Report?
Editor: Stereophile, if recent history is a true indication, might be renamed The Robert Harley Report; such is his newly acquired dominance. Mr. Harley is brilliant though deadly serious—the antithesis of Sam Tellig and even Dick Olsher, who seem to put their audiophile preoccupation into some rational perspective. It is as though, with each utterance, Mr. Harley is analyzing the Shroud of Turin.

His epistle in defense of subjective audio review, "Deeper Meanings," is deeply felt and articulate, yet ultimately too narrowly focused. He need not compose an aesthetic bill of rights—anyone can harbor a strong opinion. No license is necessary to become a "golden ear." Certainly no impassioned sermon is necessary; yet in light of the scorn subjectivists endure at the hands of the enemy, Harley feels a need to respond. But why preach to the already converted? Objectivists don't even bother with Stereophile. This all resembles a Baptist sermon; Amen, Brother Harley!

Harley is appalled at the infamous Stereo Review blind test wherein a cheap Japanese receiver was viewed as being broadly comparable to several "superior" products. Yet Stereophile doesn't routinely review this inexpensive class of component (except for tuners) in large measure because it objectively rejects them out of hand. How can they sound competitive with such cheap parts and poor power supplies? (A cursory reading of the IAR Hotline evaluation of the Denon (ugh!) 1025 receiver might be in order.)

Harley implicitly impugns the sound of Oriental receivers without having reviewed them. Would he reject the qualities of a cheap British integrated, unheard? I doubt it. The Pioneer as a Levinson is lunacy; however, the Anarchist's comment on the Naim as a Krell clone is perspicacious—By George, I think I've got it: "The rave of same falls mainly on the Naim." This is all too reminiscent of that infamous reviewer who wrote a lousy review of a Eugene Ormandy concert (Ormandy was the "mid-fi" of conductors among the cognoscenti) without bothering to stay and hear it. Our reviewer commented on the performance of a selection which had been deleted from the concert!

A problem of no mean proportion emerges with respect to the high-end journals. While there is internal consistency within each publication, a meaningful conclusion on product choice is impossible unless one accepts a single publication as revealed truth. This postulate, I submit, most honest subjectivists would now eschew. In such a quasi-religious struggle, the equipment and music itself become buried by ego. The review becomes not the means but the end in itself. Yes, the medium becomes the message.

Let us look at preamps, for example. The following have all received the proverbial rave, at least somewhere in subjective circles: CAT, CJ PV8 & PV9, Audio Research SP11 & SP14, Melos 222B, Classé DR5, Electrocompaniet EC1, Adcom GFP-565 & 555, Forté 2, PS Audio 4.6, B&K Sonata 101, any Naim, Music Reference RM5II, Audible Illusions 2D, Superphon Revelation, Klyne SK-5A, Krell KSP7B, Aragon 24K, Meitner PA6i, The Mod Squad Duet, Quicksilver, Threshold FET 10, etc.

We've come to a dilemma where the collective high-end subjective wisdom states, in effect (ironically, just as does Julian Hirsch): "Of all the preamps we've auditioned, this is one of them." Often the reviewer notes that the product is as good as anything at or near its price. "The quality of parts...belies its price," "...comes very close to the best available." Nice phrases like these lose substance upon frequent usage.

For the customer, the alleged beneficiary of the process, this becomes a nightmare. For every decent retailer has one or more of the highly touted products. After reading, studying, memorizing, and yes, even communing with the review litany, one is left no better off than a neophyte wandering aimlessly. The chances are high that your trusty dealer will sell you a preamp that at least one "guru" has experienced as a high-end epiphany. If you have only experienced the wisdom of just a few reviewers, you'll really believe that the Holy Grail is at hand.

What really matters is not whether subjective review is valid, but rather which journal or which reviewer is most blessed with the "gift." We merely pit one champion against another. I urge trial by fire or, better yet, dueling monoblocks (with Tice) to find our Lancelot. I currently believe it's Dick Olsher, though he too is beginning to Hirschize—he adores most everything recently.

For those facing burnout, there's something pristine and eloquent in the English mysticism espoused by Tiefenbrun and Vereker. You climb to their mountain retreat to learn that, "After all, it's quite simple, son. Mine is the BEST, just listen. OM..."

Regrettably, I don't believe that Mr. Harley could truly understand any of this. He's too concerned with gremlins in the powerline and other issues of zen.—Stephen Schlesinger, Seaford, NY

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