God is in the Nuances Page 2

In the course of my convoluted thinking, I have begun to question, among other things, the current state of the art of hi-fi design and hi-fi journalism, and their impacts on the public's approach to component selection. I don't seem to be alone in this. I have found that there has been, in recent years, an undercurrent going in much the same direction of general unease with the state of the high-fidelity art. I have read many articles and think pieces, and heard many offhand comments, all of which indicate that others are searching just as hesitantly and erratically as I am.

There has also been an observation that kept bothering me. In the great objective vs subjective debate, Stereophile has done as much as any magazine to show that the objectivists' position is really untenable. That position can be summed up as follows: All important differences between hi-fi components can be measured; most differences that can be measured don't actually matter because they are below the limit of audibility, as proven by double-blind listening tests; thus, at least for amplifiers, all competently designed amps sound the same. This position---which seems to be a specialty of the American audio engineering establishment, at least---seems quickly on its way to extinction because it runs counter to the direct experience of anyone who takes the trouble to go into a dealer's for a demonstration.

Yet there are millions of people out there who buy what, in our enlightened eyes, passes as junk, as lo-fi or no-fi: rack systems, boomboxes, cynical mid-market efforts with a maximum of bells and whistles, and so on. If you demonstrate a high-end system to these people, sure, they'll hear the difference. But to the eternal dismay of high-end dealers and manufacturers alike, these people will not then go out and buy a decent system. They return to their modest home systems and are quite content with them, even though their ears have been opened and they now know that there are much better systems out there to be had.

In many cases this may be because these people's interest in music is not high enough to justify an expensive system. Yet we all know there are a lot of people out there who love music, have decent record or CD collections, make enough money, and still can't be bothered about the High End. The usual lament is that they have either been corrupted by the mainstream press or that they have cloth ears.

I'm not so sure about that. Because the reverse is also true: people with excellent home systems can listen to something as humble as a car stereo (a topic that has often popped up in Stereophile) and still have a profound musical experience. This, to me, indicates that even for those of us who do have considerable experience of really well-reproduced music, enjoyment is not necessarily linked to high-end sound. It seems that much of the high-end sound experience is just that: an experience of sound, not of music-generated emotion, and that many expensive high-end systems are not one iota better at generating a musical experience than all those down-market systems.

This heretical thought points the way to another question. We, the High End, typically tell the objectivists that if their measurements don't show a correlation between specs and sound, they must be measuring the wrong thing. Well then, if there is not much correlation between how a system sounds and the musical pleasure to be had from it, does it not follow that we are listening for the wrong things?

This is not intended to be an indiscriminate slashing of all things high-end---far from it. There are many components out there that satisfy musically. What I'm railing against is the fact that it's very, very hard to find out which these are from reading magazine reviews. Typically, the review runs through a list of sonic attributes, judges this or that aspect to be good, outstanding, or substandard, and then leaves the reader with the recommendation to go listen for himself. When you consider that many dealers don't seem to have a clue either, that's not really very useful.

The time has come to go back to first principles and put to the test the underlying assumptions that are taken as given in reviewing audio components.

Why do we listen to music?
Let's start with the basics. Why do people listen to music? There has been considerable musicological research into this subject, and the findings are clear.

Very few people listen to music to have their rational faculties appealed to. Bach's music may have been described as pure mathematics, but practically nobody would want to mathematically analyze the different tone pitches, tone intervals and harmonies, and so on. I mean, how many people do you know who, when they want to enjoy some music, will hook up their system to an oscilloscope instead of to loudspeakers or headphones?

The overwhelming majority listen to music for an emotional experience. You can use music to enhance moods or to counteract them. You can use music to provide a frame of reference and to literally set the mood during mass experiences; go to any concert, rock or classical, and your feelings will be deepened by the fact that many people around you are on the same emotional cycle (not for nothing is music used, in practically all cultures, in group bonding experiences, be they Sufi dervish ceremonies or football games). When you're blue, playing a blues album and sharing your loneliness and sorrow with the performer will comfort you. Dance music will project its infectious energy into you. Mahler will put you through the emotional wringer---first by being sad and grating, then by gently lifting you up to give you a token of hope. Mozart will entertain you with his lighthearted tunes. Supermarkets and fast-food restaurants play music for bringing you to a well-defined speed in your actions, be they eating (footnote 1) or wandering through aisles (footnote 2). And we all know that soft music can be an important part of setting the mood for gentle seduction.

Footnote 1: The presence of music can make as much as a 30% difference in a store's turnover.

Footnote 2: The restaurant doesn't want you to linger too long, when it could use your table to serve other customers. In the US, where the use of Muzak is much more prevalent than in Europe, patrons, when not pressed by time constraints, stay only about 60% as long in a restaurant as they do in Europe.

dcrowe's picture

Markus Saur's article lists several effects that I have noticed myself.

1. Increased accuracy, lower distortion, and increased speed do not assure increased enjoyment of music for many listeners. Hearing things never heard before in the music is considered a sign of superior audio equipment performance [I agree with that myself], but the new things may be distractions to some listeners. My teenage son, who is a musician as well as a brilliant computer and science student, prefers the sound of his game grade headphones to my high end audiophile headphones. It is the sound he expects and it masks the limitations of the rest of the sound system he is using. I am reminded of people who prefer McDonald's to gourmet food. [my son is not one of those, he is a gourmet cook himself].
2. The sound of one Watt class triode amplifiers is preferred by some. I wonder if the electron cloud saturation of these amplifiers compresses the dynamic range so that quiet components in the music are more prominent without turning the peak sound level up to the threshold of pain.
3. I happen to prefer highly accurate playback. It enhances my enjoyment. For example, the distortions caused by wear and mis-tracking on vinyl discs irritates me. I prefer high quality digital sources. I also prefer amplifiers that have power in reserve. So I may be in a minority camp, but in that camp accuracy is in, distortion and compression are out. I can hear the forest AND the trees simultaneously, and am displeased with equipment that falls short of giving me both.