God is in the Nuances Page 5

Some of you will have noticed that there was one long-term test subject: the student who accompanied the participants during their time in the listening room. The poor girl had to listen to the above-mentioned pieces 159 times! At the end of the experiment, she asked Ackermann what the systems were. She said she couldn't stand the sound of one of the systems anymore, feeling physically attacked by its sound. By now, it won't surprise you that the system in question turned out to be the CD/solid-state one.

Let's put audiophilia on the couch!
If we accept that much of modern technology has been developing in the wrong direction, that there are many, many systems out there that may offer beautiful sound but that don't stand a chance of providing real emotional pleasure, the obvious question is Why? Why has something which, on the face of it, runs counter to the needs of the buying public, been so successful? I can't really believe the reason is mass delusion. I also can't see a great conspiracy between manufacturers, dealers, and magazines. ("Let's spend the next 30 years convincing the public to buy gear that will leave them emotionally unsatisfied. We may not sell as much as we could sell, but heck, what a power trip!") There must be a deeper reason.

I don't know what that reason is, but I'd like to present two ideas---one proffered by Jürgen Ackermann, one from my own experience---that might help shed some light on the mystery.

As I said, Ackermann is a psychologist practicing as a psychotherapist in Frankfurt. His approach is one of developmental psychology. One of his research models is constructed like this: When a child is born, it is living in symbiosis with its mother. When the umbilical cord is cut, the child is cut off from its life-support system and urgently needs to establish a new one, not knowing that there are social-security systems that will provide it with the basic necessities of life. The child experiences fear, the fear of dying. It will try to form an emotional bond with its parents, which is called love.

Many modern parents find it difficult to come to terms with the newborn. Emotionality is not something God-given, but must be learned. The child senses this reluctance; when it doesn't succeed with its love strategy, it must find a new one. The usual pattern is that the child will pay a price for food, shelter, and love. It behaves well, it's the joy of the parents, it will do as well as possible at school. At the same time, the child will have to find a new psychological pattern with its parents. Often it will idolize its parents, especially the mother. She's the best, the most beautiful, the most loving. This constitutes a new symbiotic relationship between child and mother. They live with each other but alongside each other, without really interacting in a way that might endanger their fragile balance.

The child will relate to other parts of its world in the same way, because this is the way that has been found workable. As a grown-up, such a person will also have an idealized view of, among other things, technology. He or she will not trust their feelings in judging a hi-fi component, but will rely on measurements or other objectifiable criteria. Thus, a new component is desirable because it represents an ideal: the best there is, the best in a certain respect, the best product in its price range (footnote 4) When the revered hi-fi system turns out to be emotionally unsatisfying, there are basically three ways to cope with it.

One of these patterns is a form of denial. One couple of Ackermann's acquaintance used to be very interested in music and hi-fi. When CD was introduced, they bought a good CD player and a substantial number of CDs. Gradually, they stopped listening to music in their home. When asked why, they said that they just didn't find the time anymore. Yet their concert-going had increased. Ackermann's interpretation is that they stopped listening to music at home not because they cared less for music, but because reproduced music in its new CD-derived form did not fulfill their subconscious emotional expectations. Consciously, however, this couple was adamant that music reproduction was better than ever in their home.

The second pattern of coping with an unsatisfying system is rationalization. Some people have been conditioned by dealers and magazines to believe that sound quality is what distinguishes a good component from a bad one: The way out of unsatisfying listening must be found in a better system. The longing for happiness, for emotional fulfillment, is projected onto the next loudspeaker, the next amplifier, the next step up on the eternal ladder---audiophile nirvana, in the oft-used phrase. As Gerry Rafferty sung in "Baker Street": "Just one more year and then I'll be happy."

Of course, it never works. Possessing, or even listening to, an inanimate object will never truly satisfy an emotional thirst. This might explain why so many people want---nay, need to sell some part of their system as soon as some review says that there exists a better piece of gear. The component itself has not changed, but the idealized perception of the component has been shattered.

The third mechanism is to drop out. We've all heard someone say that, to him or her, all hi-fi gear sounds the same. What the person may mean (but not say, because one doesn't generally talk about one's feelings, TV talk shows notwithstanding) is that all hi-fi gear sounds equally emotionally unsatisfying. There's nothing that really excites this person in any of the gear he or she has heard so far.

Ackermann's conclusion from his research has been that the general thrust of the hi-fi industry may be at odds with the emotional needs of the buying public. He has given talks to dealers in Germany explaining his concepts, working with them on how to gain a better understanding of the "hidden agenda" a customer may carry with him when he enters a hi-fi emporium. His feedback is generally positive, so far, but he thinks that the best use of his research could be made by manufacturers, who might profit considerably from building components that better serve their clients' needs.

Another mechanism might be at work here: Modern life is depleted of direct experience. There are no more adventures to be lived (Mt. Everest is getting so crowded that there are literal traffic jams on the route to the top of the world). Kids growing up in cities have no way to develop abilities like tree climbing, which were once considered natural. In German schools, doctors have found that many kids can't walk backwards anymore, because they haven't had enough experience of their bodies relating to their environments. In adult life, it is very rare that we actually do something. Normally, we push a button and a machine does it for us. (Hands up, all of those with power windows in their cars.)

Footnote 4: This explains why so many people are not just after a "good"-sounding rig. Good is not good enough; it must be the best at the best price.

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.