Chasing Rainbows

There was a time, very recently in terms of human history, when high fidelity promised to free the music lover from the constraints of the concert hall and the local repertoire, allowing him to choose at his whim any orchestra in the world playing any work he desired under the baton of any conductor he preferred. "All the pleasure of concert-hall listening, in the comfort of your home," was the way one display advertisement painted this musical utopia which, only 20 years ago, seemed right around the corner.

Three years previously, the stereo LP disc had broken through what appeared to be the last barrier between the home listener and the concert hall, by allowing the reproduction of spatial and directional information. Instead of listening to Symphony Hall, Boston through a hole in the wall, stereo removed the wall, transforming the space between the loudspeakers into the front of the concert hall. Now, we were, assured, all we had to do was sit back, relax, and enjoy the music. But somehow it neve came to pass.

Ask yourself: When was the last time you sat down to listen to a recording for the sheer enjoyment of the music? Not as a pleasant background for reading, or as atmosphere to facilitate a seduction, or as a test of the imaging or trackability or detail of your latest combination of components, but simply for the kind of enjoyment you experience routinely at a live concert. If you have done this within the past 30 days, or can honestly say you have done it four times within the past year, you are an unusual audiophile indeed! On the other hand, you may he a member of that other group that subscribes to Stereophile: the music listeners.

The typical music listener owns a very good stereo system, but he will be the first to tell you that it is by no means state-of-the-art. He will also be the first to admit that the reason he hasn't bought a Berning TF-l0 preamplifier is because he buys records instead, and thus never accumulates the necessary $1300 for a SOTA preamp or cartridge or power amplifier or what have you. And interestingly, he does listen to his system quite often for musical enjoyment.

It would seem that high fidelity brings listening pleasure only to those whose dedication to perfection is, let us say, alloyed. There are exceptions to this of course; but in general, the more critical of reproduced sound one becomes, the less one is capable of enjoying reproduced music.

To the person whose concern for fidelity borders on the obsessive, the fact that the playback system is not perfect, and that the imperfections are audible, dilutes the pleasure he derives from listening to music through it. But the distress of the audiophile who can hear imperfections is as nothing when compared with the anguish suffered by the compulsive perfectionist who knows that his system has certain shortcomings but is unable to hear them (footnote 1).

Another reason for the perfectionist's unhappiness is often the growing realization that, as of April 1982, perfection is not really possible. Of course, we all mouth that platitude from time to time, but it is difficult to accept the wisdom of it on an emotional level while we dump ever-escalating globs of money into one state-of-the-art component after another. The dismay is heightened, in the more-introspective, by the recollection of those halcyon days of ignorant bliss when, unaware of the mediocrity of our system, we were still able to listen to records for enjoyment.

Those days, like the naiveté of youth, are gone forever, and the hard fact of the matter is that perfection, like the end of the rainbow where the pot of gold is stashed, is always just a hilltop away. As you advance, it recedes, because every subtle improvement in the fidelity of sound is reciprocated by am enhancement of the perfectionist's ability to hear ever-more—subtle imperfections. The whole high-fidelity game takes on the appearance of a rather nasty sort of marathon race where the finish line advances as the runner advances, to keep his goal forever beyond his grasp. Small wonder that many audiophiles have wearied of the chase and turned to the more-achievable attractions of video or home computing.

But pride being such a potent force, few continuing audiophiles who have dumped $10,000 into a state-of-the-art system which still fails to satisfy, will admit their disappointment, even to themselves. "My system sounds better than it ever has," he will tell you with apparent enthusiasm. Which of course is true. What is also true is that he finds it no more enjoyable to listen to than was his system of 10 years ago.

Yet we look at the music listener with his 2000 records and his gnrr-lined Grommes amplifier and Stephens TruSonic speakers, we shudder with disbelief that anyone could listen to so primitive a system, and we wonder how he is able to enjoy his records so much that he'd rather listen to high fidelity than read about it. The answer is: Expectation.

It isn't that your music-listener is oblivious to his system's shortcomings. It's just that he has accepted the fact that perfection is unattainab1e, he opted for a lesser degree of it than you did, and he doesn't expect it from his system. Thus, he can ignore its flaws and listen through them to the music. Perfectionists could learn a few things from him.

All of us like to think that we pursue high fidelity as a hobby for the enjoyment of it. When it starts to become a driving force in our life, reaping one frustration after another, it is time to think seriously of switching to another avocation. If you haven't yet reached that point and don't care to, a few bouts of creative introspection may be worth the time and effort. Consider at length: If your system isn't perfect, who cares? Okay, so you do. Why? What hideous misfortune will befall you, your family or your friends if it isn't? The human condition—the whole world, for that matter—is imperfect. Oo you lie awake at night suffering about it? Do what you can to improve matters and accept what you can't do. Try to dwell more on what your system does superbly than on what it does less well.

You might even buy one of those little wooden plaques they sell in artsy-craftsy shops, and use transfer type (from an art supply dealer) to make a sign reading "I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent" (footnote 2). Place it in a prominent spot between your speakers, read it often while listening to your TIM, transient smear and vague imaging, and remind yourself that it is an apt description of even the best stereo system. Intellectually, it's cute. When it penetrates your mind to the emotional level, you may find you're starting to enjoy reproduced music again.

It's worth a try.

Footnote 1: A subscriber who is also a psychologist has named the resulting anxiety state "the Lumley syndrome," after a young lady named Enid Lumley who writes for The Absolute Sound. Ms. Lumley seems able to hear, with remarkable clarity, subtleties which few other audiophiles can perceive. The Lumley syndrome is described as an anxiety/depression induced by the conviction that there are others out there in audioiand who are endowed with finer, more-sensitive auditory perceptions.

Footnote 2: This is the full title of a book that we highly recommend to all members of the human race. The author's name, believe it or not, is Ashley Brilliant.

Redinky's picture

The quality of ones audio equipment is subjective. I'm sure my little $3000.00 investment would be be sneered at by some readers of Stereophile but it's a system I have cobbled together over the years by saving my hard earned dollars and only buying something I really wanted and could justify to myself it was worth it. It sounds great to my ears and that's really all that matters. The pursuit of perfection is an exercise in futility no matter what the pursuit is of.

Lonnie's picture

We can point to escalating equipment cost as a reason for the decline of High End Audio. But, the young father who would love to dabble in his desire for better sound than his current boom box allows may have a choice to make. He can buy "affordable health care", purchase food at prices going through the roof or purchase a preamp and amp. That's a no brainer. Discretionary income is being drained from our pockets on multiple fronts. This is not intended to be a political statement but where the shoe fits we'd better recognize it and correct this train wreck (wear it).
Older folks who have saved for many years are indeed better able to enjoy our hobby. An ever tightening economy is not an environment for Audio to flourish.