Listening #207

The stars are matter. We are matter. But it doesn't matter.Don Van Vliet

Only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.T.S. Eliot (writing about Djuna Barnes's Nightwood)

In the 17th century, steam engines began appearing throughout Europe and Asia, ushered into existence by any number of different inventors. More recently, multiple inventors conceived and cooked up the atomic bomb, the jet engine, and the solid-body electric guitar. Virtually every race of Homo sapiens has invented the bow and arrow, and people on at least three different continents invented the crossbow, all by themselves. Every culture with dairy resources has come up with cheese of some sort; every culture with a written language has created things that anyone could identify as books; and almost every culture has created potable alcohol. (The most sophisticated of these have also created drinking games.)

And here's my favorite: Every culture that has created wheeled or water-going vehicles has come up with something very like a tiller, for use in steering them. And as those inventors became more mechanically sophisticated, and as they saw the need to alter the steering control's range of motion and mechanism's ratio between input and output forces, they added intermediate gears or pulleys—which likely influenced those inventors to use wheels rather than levers as steering controls: first as ship's wheels, then as steering wheels for automobiles. Literally all automobiles.

Good ways of doing things—one could go as far as to say the right ways of doing things —are irrepressible: They make themselves known (footnote 1) and they endure. This is true in the vast majority of human endeavors.

But it isn't true in the world of hi-fi, which by comparison looks like a weed-choked lawn full of old toilets and abandoned washing machines. From its acoustical beginnings, when two incompatible forms of physical media —Edison's cylinders and Berliner's flat discs —slugged it out for primacy, domestic audio has attracted an almost incalculable number of iconoclasts, heretics, mavericks, nonconformists, lone wolves, enfants terrible, and hidebound kooks.

Because the above are among my favorite people, I don't have much of a problem with that state of affairs. (The only heresy I can't tolerate is that which fails to recognize the superiority of the volume-control knob —an apparatus so natural that even youngsters who have never seen or used one persist in saying "Turn it up" or "Turn it down" —over such clumsy, counterintuitive junk as pushbuttons and bars.) Indeed, that the reproduction of music should attract such disparate types is not just forgivable: It is inevitable. Just as no single type of music satisfies everyone, no single means of reproducing it —no single prioritization of the many facets of musical sound —could ever rule the roost. Period. End of discussion.

And when it comes to criticism, no single voice could address the hobby's desire for insight or guidance or the simple pleasures of a good read on a well-loved topic.

One less egg to fry
These thoughts came to the fore during a pleasantly long conversation with Editor Jim Austin. One of us —I forget who —asked the other: Are we failing our readers if we publish a measurement that doesn't matter to them? The example in play was that of the single-ended triode enthusiast to whom power-output numbers have no particular relevance, but one could substitute any number of other points of contention.

Consider: Manufacturers and journalists have long been compelled to measure the performance of domestic audio gear, albeit for different reasons, and that's a fine and fair and potentially insightful thing to do. Is it regrettable that some of the tests that endure today favor one or another particular technology over others? Not necessarily —although when any such set of tests becomes the law of the land, it's easy to see how proponents of competing technologies could feel put out.

But even that's a bit silly—like bemoaning the fact that Mississippi's public school teachers, who earn an average of $43,107 per year, aren't fluent in at least three languages, or that the Gap doesn't stock jeans in everyone's size. There's just so much one can do.

So here we are: Stereophile is both the largest circulation domestic-audio magazine in any language and the one that devotes the most ink per issue to audio-equipment measurements. Yet from time to time, we suffer one of two interrelated shortcomings: We fail to publish measurements that fully predict the audible performance of the product at hand, or we publish measurements that, to a portion of our readership, don't appear to matter at all. Are such failures inevitable? In a world where there remains little agreement as to what technical characteristics must go into, say, a good-sounding amplifier, then Yes: It's impossible for any suite of bench tests to retrieve all that we need to know. That's not to say we mustn't keep trying—and indeed, as you'll note from his comments on digital-audio sources in particular, Technical Editor John Atkinson has from time to time added to his test regimen.

And as I've noted before in this space, that regimen's greatest strength is its consistency: Readers can, directly and usefully, compare today's Stereophile reviews with those published 30-plus years ago. Thanks to John's efforts, we have a reliable database of technical measurements.

Can we say the same of our listening comments? No —and nor should we: If our writers aren't free to use all of the art at their disposal to describe what it's like to experience music through this or that device, then we've lost the race before we've even left the gate.

During our conversation, Jim and I characterized the reviewing approaches of everyone who contributes equipment reports to these pages: myself, Jim, John Atkinson, Michael Fremer, Herb Reichert, Jason Victor Serinus, Ken Micallef, Kal Rubinson, Larry Greenhill, Jon Iverson, Sasha Matson, Tom Norton, Bob Deutsch, and Brian Damkroger (footnote 2). We looked, lovingly and unflinchingly, at each one's strengths and shortcomings, the latter as they might be perceived by readers who don't share that individual's point of view.

And that's the key right there: Most of our writers have one.

As Anton Chekov has said, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass"—and 14 different writers will come up with 14 different ways of doing just that. So there remains the inevitable inconvenience of trying to square, say, a Herb Reichert review published in 2020 with a Tom Norton review of an ostensibly similar product, published in 1990. Note that Jim Austin and I invest considerable effort in working with our writers to ensure that, disparate styles notwithstanding, their reviews communicate something of worth to our readers.

Footnote 1: I'm reminded of this delightful quote from Robert Fripp: "Music so wishes to be heard that it sometimes calls on unlikely characters to give it voice."

Footnote 2: I know what you're thinking: If only Stereophile could find a few more middle-aged white men.


Bogolu Haranath's picture

As a matter of fact, what matters is, sound matters :-) .......

Gregam's picture

Thanks for an interesting (and refreshingly well-written!) article. On the subject of measurements and how or if they correlate to sound, I remember a comment by a friend -- no longer with us, alas -- who was adamant that what we hear *must* be measurable: "if it sounds good and measures well, it's good, if it sounds good and measures bad, you're measuring the wrong things" Regards

Kal Rubinson's picture

Daniel R. von Recklinghausen said that. MIT grad who, among other things, worked at HH Scott and KLH.

Jack L's picture

.....performance of the product at hand, or we publish measurements that, to a portion of our readership, don't appear to matter at all. Are such failures inevitable?" quoted Art Dudley.

Indeed, today's technology still fails to correlative objective measurement with human subjective perception of music. In other words,
we measure the wrong thing due to our very limited knowledge in human
aural perception,

So when I said repeatedly a tube amp measured 5% THD sounds much better than a transistor amp measured 0.0001% THD, please don't take me as insane. My ears beat the measurement.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be you could try listening to the Quad Artera Solus (reviewed by Stereophile), with CDs no less :-) ........

Jack L's picture


First off, I don't rely on whoever critics' recommendation. My ears do the judgement as my own ears listen to the music.

Secondly, QUAD or PASS etc are built with bipolar junction devices with kinked/kneed transfer property which is non-linear for music signal transfer. Critical ears, like yours truly's, do hear the sonic difference between sold state devices used in Quad, etc & tubes which is superior.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... circuits using bipolar junction devices, do you then only listen to recordings made 60+ years ago before studios began using equipment containing bipolar junction devices?

Jack L's picture


Nada. Though vinyl is my love, I also play CD, DVD-audio, DVD & Blu-ray audio/video discs & YouTube streaming to update my enjoyment in the latest classical musical performances. Like it or not, vinyl beats the digital media in term of OPENness, engagement & being-there.

Home audio is an attempt to bring live performances back home since day one. Analogue music media with tube playback electronics get the job done closest possible as of todate.

Yes, from my 1,000+ vinyl collection (95% classical), I found older the
LP labels, better is the sound: OPENness, & being-there. The only reasoning is these recordings were made before the era of solid state devices.

I got over 30 LPs of various labels with digital mastering in 80s.
None of them impresses me enough in term of OPENness & engagement vs
the conventional analogue mastering.

Please don't argue with me until you have experienced vinyl as much as I have done so far.

Jack L

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Ortofan never listens to vinyl ....... Just kidding Ortofan :-) ........

Ortofan's picture

... sense of "OPENness & engagement & being-there" you hear is not simply an artifact of the higher levels of distortion (and noise) inherent in the analog disc storage medium, as well as that from tube-type electronics?

What turntable, tonearm and cartridge are you using?

Ortofan's picture

... "kinked/kneed transfer property" of bipolar junction devices?
Please include an explanation of transistor biasing and operating point.

Ortofan's picture

... a tube amp with a measured 5% THD sounds much "better" than a transistor amp with a measured 0.0001% THD, do you mean "better" as in more accurate or "better" as in more pleasant?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Artera Solus' fast filter may provide sufficient harmonic distortion for tube lovers ........ See Fig.4 in measurements :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If you prefer even more harmonic distortion, get the Metronome DAC's, slow and super-slow roll-off filters ......... See, Fig.8 and Fig.9 in measurements :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If you want something less expensive than the Metronome DAC, but want similar amount of harmonic distortion, consider the iFi Audio Pro iDSD ....... See, Fig.7 in measurements :-) .........

Jack L's picture

...... as in more accurate or "better" as in more pleasant?" quoted Ortofan.

First off, we have to agree home audio is an attempt to bring live performance back home.

So I find tube amps bring me back the live performance closer than any sold state amps I have tried. More OPEN & engaging like being there in concert. So tube amps are therefore more "ACCURATE" in reproducing the live performance back home.

Anythings else, e.g. extended high low frequency range, etc etc are personal. Not the top priority.

Still remember when Sony & Philips started marketing their jointly newly invented Red Book CD in 1982 claiming CD was "Perfect Sound for Ever" !!!??? You still believe it today ????

Listening, but not specification alone, is believing.

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... which solid-state and tube amps have you tried?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Doen't matter ....... Jack L's ears can tell the difference even with his eyes closed and even with blind tests ....... Jack L's ears always love tubes and analog playback gear :-) ........

b1gh1g's picture

No,we don't all have to agree with Jack L.'s law. The percentage of live concert recordings (classical, rock, jazz, etc.) to music created in the studio (and more and more the home studio) is minimal. I'm hoping to hear what the band and engineers created over time in a room full of microphones.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'We prefer truth, over facts' :-) ......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

.... and, yes .... we can handle the truth :-) ........

Turnerman1103's picture

Great read Mr. Dudley . Thank you
I really enjoyed the videos you posted from your home and listening room . Are there plans for anymore ? Hope so.

ken mac's picture

Google "Art Dudley Jazz Vinyl Audiophile" next week for a video series with Art.

Turnerman1103's picture

Thanks - will do !

Anton's picture


What is mind?

No matter.

What is matter?

Never mind.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Cliff Vandercave: Do you know what we do up here?
Fred Flintstone: No. Me and the guys have always wondered.
Cliff Vandercave: Fred, we interface, conceptualize, tenderize and prioritize.
Fred Flintstone: So, when do we eat? :-) ........

Ortofan's picture

... he would have been aware of Phil Wood grease and tried it long ago.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

AD has been using PAM spray and/or WD-40 spray :-) .......

dc_bruce's picture

take what you do seriously. Not being at all sarcastic in saying so; other efforts one can find around the web -- including some long-standing names -- cry out, at the very least, for an editor, filled as they are with irrelevant sludge.
It seems to me that there are two purposes of criticism -- any kind, literary, film, music, audio equipment. The first is to define some sort of standard: what is "good" and what is "not good." Not everything is good; nor is everything "not good." The critic's job is to make the distinction.
The second -- some would say lesser --critic's function is advisory: should the reader spend her money on this movie, book, recording, piece of electronic equipment? Or would her money be better spent on something else? The critic draws on his greater (than the reader's) range of experience with the object of the review to make an evaluation that is worth the time to reading.
Of course, all of these judgments are subjective, so it would be unreasonable to expect them to be uniform. Regular readers of a reviewer's work, whether it be of film, music or sound reproduction equipment, eventually learn that reviewer's "taste," the sum of all of his priorities and preferences. Then the reader can determine whether his own tastes align with the reviewer's. The purpose of that is NOT to establish a screen for rejecting certain reviewers' work but simply to understand more fully the reviewer's work.

Mr. Atkinson does great effort to comment on the meaning of the measurements he makes and to attempt to correlate them with the report from the reviewer's ear. Despite this, it seems like we have a long way to go in making the correlation and those of us who recall the "super-low distortion" of the late 1970s know that, at least in that case, there can be too much of a "good thing." Or that the techniques required to produce super-low distortion result in other effects, not measured, that are aurally objectionable. Remember "transient intermodulation distortion"? At the very least measurements have some value in keeping everyone honest and in avoiding the temporary seduction of a sound that, initially is pleasing, or, at least "arresting." Like a child who wants ketchup on everything "because it makes it taste better." A lot of us who have spent decades buying and selling audio gear for our own use have, at some point, been seduced -- or arrested-- by "ketchup." One of two things seems to befall the audiophile who becomes seduced by "ketchup." The first development is that, eventually, to this audiophile, everything sounds like "ketchup" and he grows tired of that. I've been there. The second, alternative, development is that the audiophile's musical tastes either were or become limited to that species of music that sounds good with "ketchup," rejecting those genres or forms that don't conform. Real ketchup tastes ok with beef but not with fish or poultry. So, chances are the fish eater is. not going to be a fan of ketchup. In the interest of not offending any reader who has chosen to spend a few minutes on this piece, I have deliberately avoided identifying what I would consider audio "ketchup." But I think readers with any imagination would be capable of filing in those blanks.

With that, it's now time for dinner. Bon apetit!

Glotz's picture

I align with your observations about a critic's role and their respective 'taste'.

Mikk's picture

Stereophile is not your bitch.

Best line I’ve read in a long time, and cracked me up much more than I could possibly have anticipated.

Hopefully it won’t be long before T-shirts are available with the same comment.

In all seriousness, we’ll done to everyone at Stereophile- I depend on your reviews AND measurements for knowledge, entertainment, and purchasing guidance.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

One of the commenters on the S&V website said it all ....... He said 'Stereophile rules the hi-end audio world' :-) .......

JoethePop's picture

I rarely comment on reviews and columns in your magazine. I read what (and who) I feel is most likely to provide me with useful information, and feel no need to read the other reviews or authors simply so I can comment and "educate" those I may disagree with. I leave you as an editor to , as you say, decide what is and isn't bullshit. But when you make a statement like "In education, most practitioners are interested only in encouraging their charges to express their innermost feelings in as self-centered a fashion as possible—that and "leading them to learning" or some such dewy-eyed nonsense. Actual teaching, as a skill, is all but extinct.", then I feel inclined to call out bullshit. That is a very insulting and definitive statement that comes across as nothing more than a bitter old man telling all us uniformed how much better things were back in the day. I am not a teacher, but I know quite a few, and as a whole they are nothing like what you have described. They are some of the most dedicated and caring people I know, and take great pride in what they do given the constraints placed upon them. Are there some (maybe even a fair percentage) that are reflective of your statement? Sure. But what profession doesn't have their fair share of less than stellar contributors. Okay, old man rant done.

tonykaz's picture

I lived in England in the early 1980s where I discovered the Audio Mentoring of John Atkinson. I felt then that he was an important ( even critical ) contributor to making sense of all things relating to this wonderful audio hobby & experience. I ended up Gray Market Importing HFNRR to the USA and selling subscriptions ( thru the early 1980s ) . HFNRR was the best Audio Literature of it's day thanks to JA ( my opinion ) despite the entertaining writing of HP ( whose Magazine I also sold at my Retail Store Esoteric Audio )

Since 2011, I've felt that JA has quietly inspired and attracted a wide range of talented persons ( like Tyll, whom I still miss ).

Now, Stereophile begins a new Era of Mentoring with JA2, the content reads fresh & exuberent. The writers seem enegerized to push the Bar ever higher. Mr.Dudley is right, Stereophile is cutting it's own groove, god bless em!!!

Tony on Super Tuesday

rockdc's picture

Phil Wood grease has been my go to for a long time; in my previous career as a pro bike mechanic, for all my fishing reels, and for my Lenco PTP turntable bearing.....(stock, no thank you Jeremy / Buddha Bearing...)

shawnwes's picture

Quote: Footnote 2: I know what you're thinking: If only Stereophile could find a few more middle-aged white men.

Art, I love your writing and even more so enjoy your video reviews because it ads a second dimension of humanity to them.

That said Stereophile had a wonderful little treasure in Jana Dagdagan who's videography is second to none in the audio review business. She shouldn't have been let go. Not only was she really good at what she does but she added a much needed dollop of sweetness to the Stereophile roster. Unless it was her choice to move on it was a capital D Dumbass move IMO.

tonykaz's picture

Jana is creating that beautiful Darko Content, she remains part of Steve G's World and speaks nice about her time working with JA1.

Jana is a high def Video person, not a Print or english word person. Jana is all about lenses, 2K, 4K , editing, work travel and behind the scenes.

We are probably seeing Jana but not realizing.

Tony in California

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Old aged white men are running for Presidency ....... If AD runs for President, he would be the youngest white man running for President :-) ........

Ortofan's picture

... must necessarily be inferior to a "well-designed amplifier made from discrete parts?"
Isn't the Sutherland PhD phono preamp a battery-powered IC design?

Perhaps AD should read the following about (op-amp) ICs:

CG's picture

Couple things...

First, I think that Art's comments about original Garrard bearings probably still stand. How many bearings have had the TLC applied to them over the years that Art's sample has? Some, but probably not all of them. Think of all the rough looking and running Ferraris out there in the world. Not everybody is wired to obsess over taking care of things. Certainly, you can find all sorts of comments plastered across the interweb thingy about wear and tear appearing on more recently produced bearings from nominally swell turntable manufacturers.

Second, this all asks the question: Despite the overall ickiness of a grease shoot-out, how does the Buddha Bearing sound with Phil Woods grease? Perhaps grease is the word...

Somewhat OT - My wife is a recently retired school teacher. She agrees with Art's comment on educators. Here I thought that she was the only radical teaching curmudgeon out there. Wrong again... (Side note to the side note - Her belief is that classroom teachers are encouraged, incentivized, instructed, whatever to be this way by administrators. In turn, these administrators are encouraged, etc to give this direction by school boards, who are driven to this by parents and tax payers. After a while, nobody in this chain knows any better.)

markbrauer's picture

I have been using Phil grease for over 40 years and, while I have no measurements to back up my opinion, I am certainly probably almost absolutely sure it contains no snake oil.

invaderzim's picture

Music is made with passion and it should be recreated with passion. Sometimes passion can blur with insanity. So I say once again, be crazy, be happy, enjoy the recreation of the music and all that it involves.

mns3dhm's picture

Will you find Art Dudley using two thirds of his monthly column to basically yell at his audience (again) and then the last third to review a tube of grease, so thanks for that!

Ortofan's picture

... seem as though he has become less urbane since becoming an urbanite?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

He became 'arcane' :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

All that noise, pollution and traffic in any city could make anybody 'insane' :-) ........

MT_Guy723's picture

As I sit here trying to type this out with tears running down my face from the series of BIG laughs your column produced, I am reminded of reviews by yourself and John Atkinson primarily that helped me immensely in putting together my system but more so in finding rare gems for my music collection. Your descriptions of test material and what you were listening for and what you heard taught me some very valuable lessons that I have put to very good use. Much of your test material also resides in my music library. My income has only allowed me to acquire components from the Budget list, but they have served me well over all the years I subscribed off and on to Stereophile starting back in the 1970s.

Comments like "we're not going to tell you that putting a photograph of Pope Francis in your freezer will make your hi-fi sound better" made me think of all the times I had to defend spending what I had on a better music system and and endless supply of vinyl and Cd material being shipped to my residence. Cables are the ones to take the biggest digs from a disbelieving public. All your humorous comments in this column reminded me of all those folks preferring to wallow in their ignorance instead of trying a few things... and being musically happier - as I did. I distinctly remember the day that my upgrade, larger gauge speaker cables finished breaking in and I could detect IMAGING being produced by my speakers. If I had had dentures, my teeth would have fallen on the floor.

My thanks to both you and Mr. Atkinson for your care in constructing your opinions and the guidance provided by your reviews. Also thanks for writing this particular column that let me know that you guys weather a lot more of the crap I get from loving high end gear than I do... and meet it with the requisite level of sarcasm that stupid criticism deserves.