Intoxication, Art, & the Audio Hobby

For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.—Friedrich Nietzsche

My knowledge of art history is limited to what I learned in high school and a few bits and pieces I've picked up since. It's not much, but it's enough for me to realize that there's an analogy, if only a rough one, to be made between art and the audio hobby.

The history of art is long and complex, but if you narrow the focus to the European tradition you can uncover a useful if oversimplified narrative. Up until the late 19th century, the artistic arrow pointed toward ever more naturalism. European artists aimed to achieve their artistic aims through the representation of people and objects in the most realistic manner possible. Then, beginning with the Impressionists, representation became very personal, colored by artists' individual natures and transient emotional states. The shifting of art's focus from the outer world to the inner psyche reached the point early in the 20th century where artists aimed to represent inner emotional states with no direct reference to the outer world. But before and since, most art has tried to combine the inner with the outer.

There is art in designing audio equipment, without question. But audio-system design is not an art in the same sense as painting or music. Hi-fi as art, I think, is best thought of as the penultimate step in a collaborative act of creation involving composers, musicians, recording engineers, architects, electrical engineers, and discriminating consumers. (The ultimate step in that collaboration is the act—I choose the word carefully—of listening.) Thinking about our audio systems in such a context—and recognizing that many of the participants in the collaboration change every time you stick in a new CD—can help us understand just how complicated putting together an audio experience—and an audio system—really is. Each stage in the collaboration is complex, with its own subjective elements, and the stages are interrelated.

In the late 19th century, artists reached a similar conclusion about the nature of art—that when it comes to things perceived (and not measured), objective reality is at worst nonexistent, and at best unapproachable. Principled artists gave up on naturalism and began to present the world to the art-viewing public in novel and deeply personal ways. Artists began to be judged not by how closely their works resembled nature, but by how much insight they were able to provide into the relationship between perception and reality—and here, I believe, is the important analogy to audio.

In work he did at Canada's National Research Council in the 1970's and 1980's, Floyd Toole may have done more than anyone else to make the design of loudspeakers reliable—and based on solid science instead of a flighty art. He uncovered strong correlations between loudspeaker measurements and the preferences of trained listeners (footnote 1). Once they've learned how to listen properly, he found, most listeners like the same things in loudspeakers. In other words, there is, in loudspeaker design, something like a common reality. Like an 18th-century painter, Toole was out to discover what is universal, or at least general. Though his principles still are disregarded by a few loudspeaker designers, Toole gave them something to work with besides their own ears. Listener preferences and objective measurements were linked, and the correlation was strong.

Jokes have circulated for decades in the hi-fi world about objectivists choosing mates and subjectivists choosing surgeons—but choosing an audio system is different from choosing a mate or a surgeon. It may be true that, as Wes Philips wrote in his review of the HeadRoom Desktop D/A headphone amplifier in the April 2006 Stereophile, "Looks don't last but cookin' do," but I think the choice of a mate should come mainly from the heart, and the choice of a surgeon mainly from the head. Choosing audio components, I've realized, must have elements of both. If you don't love your system, you won't enjoy it much. Toole gets the general right, but leaves the personal out of the equation. That was precisely his goal—but it's not the whole story.

Years ago, having finished graduate school, I decided to buy a truck. After six years of grad-school poverty, I was used to pinching pennies, and because my brother worked at Ford, I was eligible for an industry-accommodation price. So I didn't really shop; I just bought the cheapest Ford truck, a four-cylinder Ranger. The special price made it a better value, per mile, than any used vehicle I could have bought. My new truck was underpowered and felt cheap and hollow, but it was reliable and functional. It was an entirely practical choice.

Those of you who've some life experience already know how this story ended. It wasn't long before I came to hate that truck, but one of the conditions of my accommodation price was that I had to keep it for at least six months. After six months and one day, I sold it, and I didn't lose much money.

The reproduction of recorded music is unusual, if not unique, in so intimately combining elements of art and science. I'm not sure love is adequate to describe Van Gogh's vivid, agonized distortions, but for many modern artists the word well describes what, beyond—or perhaps instead of—naturalism, they add to the picture. For the uninitiated, it might seem odd to link our blatantly consumerist hobby with enduring art, but we audiophiles know better. Audio is based on solid science, but the Impressionists, Expressionists, and other modern artists were on to something that many audiophiles have long known, and that others, such as I, are in the process of learning: When it comes to all the things we care about, love and reality are hopelessly intertwined. You can't have one without the other, and wouldn't want to even if you could.

Footnote 1: Floyd E. Toole, "Loudspeaker Measurements and Their Relationship to Listener Preferences," Part 1: JAES, Vol.34 No.4, pp.227–235, April 1986; Part 2: JAES, Vol.34 No.5, pp.323–348, May 1986. Web: