Bully for You

"You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve?"—Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not, 1944

Yesterday, I played a minor role in a dustup on Facebook. It began when a fellow journalist posted a controversial quote from a veteran manufacturer known for generating same. The bait proved irresistible, and a long line of audio mavens, myself included, swam around the hook for an hour or so. The manufacturer himself also waded in, and before the fight was over, he'd made a show of demanding the home address of one of his antagonists, thus raising the manly specter of bodily harm. If there were any women in the audience, I'm sure they were impressed.

Perhaps because the manufacturer in question is a retiree of considerably less-than-Hemsworthian stature, the Homeland Security advisory level did not rise above Guarded. But something else emerged, larva-like, from the thread. In one of his salvos, the manufacturer at the center of the dispute made the following observation:

"Anyone who cannot hear [the effect of one of one of his long-ballyhooed tweaks] does not know how to listen. I know I can upset unthinking victims of Crowd Behavior by pointing this out."

This is not the first person who has attempted to fortify his public statements with the suggestion that everyone who disagrees with him is a sheep, a dullard, a victim of "crowd behavior." Fortunes have been made and lost by countless politicians, publicists, and—most of all—salesmen who have used the same tactic. It's simply that history prefers, after a certain amount of time and money have been squandered, to forget the names of people who travel that not-terribly-high road.

But something even more troubling is going on here, and it's called bullying. "If you don't agree with my claims, you don't know how to listen." That's the worst kind of bullshit there is.

We hear it again and again. And because audiophiles tend to be rather sensitive people—as I pointed out long ago in Listener magazine, anyone who is open to the idea of listening for subtle differences among wires, equipment racks, and turntable power supplies can be assumed to have a skin only slightly thicker than that of the average burn victim—a lot of us fall for it. We get more than our share of screwings, psychologically and monetarily. And, sadly, there are always a few toadies among our number who happily suck up to the nastiest bullies, out of a psychological need whose obscuring rock I do not care to lift. Happily, those freaks seldom venture far from the tiny fringe websites that offer little more than insults, condescension, and undiluted sciolism.

So let's get it straight once and for all.

Whether or not you believe that three-dimensional soundstaging is the No.1 goal of a high-end audio system, you already know how to listen.

Whether or not you believe that a combination of low-powered amplification and ultra-high-efficiency loudspeakers is necessary to re-create the impact of recorded music, you already know how to listen,

Whether you prefer digital to analog, analog to digital, or don't give a tin tit one way or the other, you already know how to listen.

Whether you put your equipment on a light, rigid table, a massive, lossy table, or something that looks like your mother's chrome-and-glass knickknack shelf, you already know how to listen.

Whether the dealer you most trust has in his listening room two or twenty loudspeakers at a time, you already know how to listen.

Whether you lean toward cheap or expensive gear, old or new gear, cutting-edge or vintage gear, you already know how to listen.

Whether your record collection is mostly classical, mostly rock, mostly jazz, mostly acoustic folk, or mostly sub-Saharan yodeling, you already know how to listen.

In that litany you'll find some things with which I agree, and some others with which I most vehemently disagree. It doesn't matter. I and my most respected colleagues all have strong points of view: That's what the best audio journalism is all about. The thing is, we don't use our strong points of view as weapons. Or as sales tools.

Tellingly, the manufacturer in the Facebook dustup is a staunch critic of audio reviews—excepting, of course, the small corner of the press, now all but defunct, that once praised his company's products without exception, and presented them as utterly lacking in competition. His beef? He complains that, by distracting consumers with all of our blather, reviewers serve only to make music lovers feel insecure about their ability to listen to, understand, and enjoy music.

Apart from pointing out that opinion's suitability for the file folder labeled "FUNNY: UNINTENTIONAL," I can say only that, yes, there have been, and there remain, people in the press who obfuscate, rather than clarify, in their efforts at self-puffery and self-promotion. They are outnumbered, by a ratio of something like 7 billion to one, by those people in the industry who do the same thing for financial profit.

Learning how to listen to music—how to identify and understand various elements of composition, how to distinguish good playing technique from bad, and so forth—is a lifelong journey of considerable value. Beyond that, I believe your needs as an audiophile are better served by trusting your own senses, and by tempering your open mind and your sense of ingenuous wonder with just enough skepticism that you'll know a humbug when you hear one. And the next time someone tells you that you need to learn how to listen, consider that any product whose sales require condescension or belittlement can't be worth the money.—Art Dudley

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

as it can be.  Maybe that's why you write for Stereophile.  It does beg the question, though, why not listen more and Facebook less.

One's bullshit detector should raise its volume directly proportional to the cost of the tweak, gear, treatment, new technology being promoted.  Speaker placement, green marker on the edge of CD's and DIY cable risers are harmless fun to experiment with.  But for us 99.9%, when stickers, cream, wooden blocks, brass bells, cables, quantum whatevers cost hundreds or thousands, it's time to check if you've paid off your mortgage and have enough set aside for your kids' college or your retirement.  

And, oh yeah, how about spending some of that cash supporting artists in live performance?  

Al from Hudson Avenue's picture

Yeah, it took me an embarassing amount of time to learn to trust my judgment.  And my conclusion is that most of the stuff that Stereophile praises is wrong.  When I think of all the things that Stereophile talked me into buying, that were totally unexceptional or occasionally really lousy....

Yes, I hear cables.  Yes, I hear capacitors.  Yes, I hear the silly sycophantic equipment reviews in Stereophile, which I have read since JGH was recommending Bose 901s and Crown DC-300s.

dalethorn's picture

Gordon recommended the 901?

John Atkinson's picture

dalethorn wrote:
Gordon recommended the 901?

Gordon's review was published in November 1971 and can be found at www.stereophile.com/standloudspeakers/425/index.html. (Ignore the date at the top of the page - our CMS has problems with dates from Biblical times :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

Thanks - I read the original when it arrived in the mail, where Gordon would usually say at that time of year "Merry Christmas and happy New Year (just don't ask which year)" - noting a very irregular publishing cycle.

Anyway, the only recommendation I read is for "hi-fi buffs" and so on playing rock music, since he noted that audiophiles with good concert recordings would not appreciate the veiling due to smearing and other effects. There were other serious criticisms in the article, such as using extreme equalization with the tiny drivers to boost the bass and treble, which greatly increased distortion with the 901.

All in all, he commended the big soundstage, but most of the review pointed out the negatives which disqualified the 901 from use by serious listeners who expect the best detail from their recordings.

deckeda's picture

One of earliest, fondest memories in his hobby of music reproduction is of browsing LPs at Peaches Records and Tapes on West Florissant Avenue as a pre-teen and thereafter in Dellwood, MO. Those from the north St. Louis area back then know there was also a Pacific Stereo on that street. And I think also a CMC Stereo Center nearby, but of course they were the eternal pond scum compared to PS ... shoutout to my former bosses who toiled at CMC and had to shut 'er down!)

Peaches, behind the counter, had a nicer Dual of some kind, a Marantz 1030 (or similar) feeding a huge Phase Linear (maybe the 400, maybe not) ... and 4? 6? 8? 901s hung from up above around the former grocery store.

And yes it was an all-encompasing sound, easily appropriate to "the venue" and yes it blew away any subsequant record store stereo I've ever heard since.

That doesn't mean I would have paid to put a pair in my home, so yeah I get your point, too.

Glotz's picture

Strangely, you conclude Stereophile was wrong after you trusted yourself... 

Pfft... you still don't trust your ears.  

I'm sure Stereophile twisted your arm really hard before you bought their recommendations... 

and nothing's changed in the last 50 years to convince you that these guys have intelligent opinions.. after all they're all lying to you, right? 

I doubt you trust anything.  You're still playing games with yourself.  

John Marks's picture

Probably from hanging out with Bogart and trying to keep up with him in the drinking and the smoking.


deckeda's picture

That Internet search brings up all sorts of uh, wackiness.

I look at the image and see basic seductiveness, eroticism. As ... intended.

dalethorn's picture

If all that Stereophile did was entertain, that wouldn't make it bad. But it does more than that. It contains at least some genuine information, counter-arguments to balance possible misinformation, and just as important, the musings of dedicated audiophiles. That last item helps give us perspective.

Bill Leebens's picture

...and as always, upon reading the comments to date, some cause me to wonder:

Didya READ the piece first?

Al from Hudson: if you're so fed up with Stereophile, why are you here?

Seems like a reasonable question to me.

And JM: if one is at a low angle and looks UP at the photographer, the sclera better show beneath the iris--or there are a lot bigger probs than Sanpaku!


John Marks's picture

But I am sure that she would have been even more fetching as a Vegan.