You Heard What?!?!?!

It seemed a bit like the game of Telephone: Someone at the head of a long line of people whispers a sentence or two into the ear of the next in line, who in turn passes it along. By the time the last person in line repeats aloud what they think they've heard, the message is often barely recognizable to the first person.

In this case, however, the 30 audiophiles trying to figure out what they'd just heard were seated in four three-person rows, the overflow scattered about the space. The location was a major high-end emporium that sells many products that have deservedly graced the covers of Stereophile. The occasion was a two-hour audiophile-society demonstration, ostensibly of a new speaker that has garnered copious praise in another fine magazine that deals in absolutes. Names are withheld, not only to protect the innocent (which I believe everyone involved was), but because I hesitate to publish definitive comments about a host of unknowns.

Note the use of the word ostensibly, the phrase host of unknowns. Less than two weeks before the demo, the store manager had informed the group that he had also arranged to have on hand a representative of the maker of the highly touted monoblocks enlisted for the demo, who would answer any questions.

That was only the first surprise. The proprietors, we discovered, had decided that the amplifier rep would do more than just stand by. He would, in fact, run the demo, hand out literature, and, until asked to cease and desist, play tracks from his own special demo burns rather than from the CDs a number of those present had toted along.

The source was a just-released, four-piece CD player–DAC from a major manufacturer, and which the store owner hoped was sufficiently broken in. Given that said player had arrived only the day before, no one had a handle on its sonic signature. Nor did any of the listeners know how to allow for the fact that, in order to accommodate a large number of people at one time, the demo had been unexpectedly moved from the store's well-tuned reference room to the far end of a long lobby whose rear and side walls were made of highly reflective, totally exposed glass.

Not long into the demo, the speaker designer, with admirable selflessness, briefly discussed his design. Although his babies were not intended to transmit the ultimate in low bass, he promised that they would deliver unparalleled clarity and truth, revealing details and nuances often overlooked by clumsier designs. Asked what sources and amplification he had used to tune his speakers, the designer replied that they had not been tuned. Rather, they had yielded optimally flat measurements, which he believed promised an ultra-revealing speaker that, save for the colorations of the other components in the chain, would accurately transmit the sounds of recordings.

The generous folks in charge had prepared for a gala occasion, complete with many hundreds of dollars' worth of food and drink, plus gifts of the amp rep's demo discs. What they had not taken into account was the fact that no one in attendance had any way of figuring out how that poor little ultra-expensive speaker—the impetus for the demo in the first place—actually sounded. Is it any wonder that people began to drift away and chat after a few selections, eventually creating such a din that they had to be shunted into other rooms so that the diehard listeners who stuck with the increasingly isolated rep could actually hear their CDs?

Besides the obvious lessons in how not to run a demonstration—lessons that in my experience are frequently ignored by large numbers of high-end retailers and reps who, rather than take responsibility for multiple miscalculations and setup abominations, tend to whine that members of audiophile societies buy only via Audiogon—the evening raised numerous questions about how people listen and what they listen for.

How, for example, does one make sense of the following maze of contradictory reports about the sound of the speaker in question?

"Everything was clinical sounding, crystalline and clear, but it wasn't beautiful or soulful. There was a lack of organic, natural passion."

"The speakers have really nice soundstaging and good imaging. It was very musical and enjoyable."

"I was looking for something natural, and I kept hearing metallic sounds. I couldn't tell what some of the instruments were. There was an electronic rather than a musical quality to the sound."

"We were listening to Shirley Horn's voice and the bass instruments in Miles Davis' ensemble. The sound was beautiful. There was transparency, the big soundstage, the proper placement of instruments."

"My reference female vocal CD sounded flat and lean. If you were looking for harmonic richness and transient attack without smear, it was not there."

"I thought tonality, overall, was excellent."

"I've listened to that soprano on well over 35 systems, and her voice never exhibited such a bloated, waah coloration. The cymbals on the orchestral cut sounded like broken glass. There was no warmth, and nothing cohered. I heard a jumble of sounds rather than music."

Several lovers of rock'n'roll thought their brief listen to a favorite Neil Young track transmitted the "live energy" of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert. These listeners included the store manager, who remarked that when he was standing halfway down the +75'-long lobby with a beer in his hand, he was surprised to discover that he had never heard a system so accurately reproduce the sound of a rock concert.

This range of contradictory reactions from audiophiles presumably well versed in critical listening underscores the challenges confronting equipment reviewers. As much as we may think we have a handle on how something sounds, people's reference points, hearing differences, and mental filters seem more than capable of making a silk purse from any sow's ear. All of which suggests that, in addition to controlling variables by adding to a reference system whose sound we know backward and forward only one new component—the component under review—humility is in order before we voice observations and make critical pronouncements. In a world in which one person's Carnegie Hall is another's Madison Square Garden, how can you be sure which way is up?