Listening #151 page 2

The sonic consequences appeared to be a surprising if subtle increase in musical drive—surprising because the 997 reissue was already so good in that respect. Yet when I used the newest sample of the EMT arm to play some of my favorite records by Dexter Gordon, David Grisman, and Bill Monroe—or some beloved 78s by Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, and Red Allen (footnote 3)—it was easier than ever to interpret what I was hearing not as mere sound but as music, being made on the spot by people who leaned in to every note. It also seemed that the improvement in the 997's bearing housing resulted in a slight increase in the sense of scale; listening to the 1962 recording by Hans Knappertsbusch and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus of Wagner's Parsifal (Philips PHS 5-950, footnote 4), the space in which the Prelude to Act I unfolded seemed more expansive, adding to the feelings of serenity and consecration that attend that music under the best of conditions.

Note that those observations are based on a sample of the EMT that has been painstakingly set up and adjusted. In a nutshell, and setting aside such considerations as sensible design and high-quality construction, there are two primary reasons for having a transcription-length tonearm such as the 997: Its higher-than-usual mass is more attuned to the low-compliance pickups favored by some hobbyists, myself included, and its greater-than-average length serves to minimize the effect on lateral tracking performance of the curve of the arc through which any pivoted arm must pass. But the latter comes with a caveat: Because a longer arm creates a straighter arc, it requires considerably smaller amounts of overhang and offset angle—the two elements introduced to the geometry of pickup arms in order to make their behavior more ideal. Yet as overhang and offset are reduced, errors made in achieving them become far more critical—and so, in a real sense, while the extra-long arm has the potential for less lateral-tracking-error distortion, it also carries the potential for greater distortion if not installed and adjusted correctly. (There are parallels in other areas of phonography, not least being the design and manufacture of turntable bearings: The larger the bearing, the easier it is to keep runout error to a minimum, relative to the bearing's diameter. Those who are impressed with claims that bigger is better may benefit from an added measure of cynicism.)

Now as always, tonearm shoppers are encouraged to read and commit to memory "Arc Angles," Keith Howard's landmark article on tonearm geometry. My own EMT 997 installation is based on Howard's observations, and I'll add to the online version of this column the precise spindle-to-pivot distance and other parameters I've arrived at and put into use.

In the months after I received my first EMT 997 reissue, its superiority to every other tonearm I'd used became obvious. That impression hasn't lost a bit of its strength—even in the face of a growing number of new and often excellent-quality transcription-length arms—and the arrival of an even better-sounding 997 leaves me no choice but to reconsider its listing among Stereophile's "Recommended Components," and to suggest the seldom-used Class A+: The EMT remains the best-sounding tonearm I have used on my vintage Garrard 301 and Thorens TD 124 turntables, and the best-built arm I have owned.

Dunning-Kruger Model One
It happened again: I got myself into another dustup on the Internet—not an audio website or a news website or a political-commentary website, but a place dedicated to discussing music, which is generally regarded as a commodity that makes people happy.

The scene of this epic beating was an area dedicated to a single band, although the conversation therein often extends its hand of friendship to the music of similar artists. Like Dr. Ruth Westheimer, this band's following is small and elderly; at 60, I seem to be slightly on the young side of its members' median age. I think it's also safe to say that this band's following is generally well educated, at least as compared with something like the followings of Mîtley Crüe or Ted Nugent, though perhaps not so well educated as the audiences that flock to hear Meredith Monk or Robert Wyatt. (I love Robert Wyatt.)

It wasn't an audio website, but it was an audio discussion: The topic of Neil Young's PonoPlayer had just been trotted out, just as it was surely trotted out on music websites devoted to everyone from the Beatles to Tonto's Expanding Headband. And two of the most frequent contributors to the ongoing discussion—at least one of whom has, on previous occasions, distinguished himself with his considerable expertise on matters of music—endorsed the prevailing blogosphere opinion, enunciated by former New York Times contributor Dave Pogue, that the PonoPlayer in particular, high-resolution digital in general, and perfectionist audio in an even more general sense, are all nothing more than snake oil, suitable for consumption only by delusional dumbasses. Which would be you and me.

I did not consult my wife prior to posting my own opinion on the matter. Had I done so, she would have reminded me that I generally do no better tilting at windbags than I did in the schoolyard fights of my childhood—and I should just keep my unsolicited, unremunerated opinions to myself. Fat chance of that happening—but I was respectful, polite, and economical:

"[Dave Pogue's] anti-audiophile bias was apparent from the first line. The only way to judge Pono or any other audio product is to listen to it the way you normally enjoy music: at leisure, in comfort, and with abundant time to come to an informed decision. A/B testing is anathema to the enjoyment of music, and will tell you nothing. If you try Pono and you don't hear a difference, or if you hear a difference that you consider of little or no significance, then, by all means, keep your money tight in your hand."

Within minutes, I felt as though I'd loosed a snake into the garden: Anger of a sort I'd never before seen on the site was heaped on my head, the first example being:

"If your idea is that tests are irrelevant and that [high-resolution audio] just IS superior, no matter you have no way to prove it (and many ways to disprove it), doesn't that sound like 'there is only one God and it's the one I worship'?"

Holy shit, where did that come from? I offered the only sensible reply:

"What I'm saying is: If I hear a difference, and if I can afford the product that I prefer, I will buy it because it's right for me. Anyone else is free to buy or decline to buy whatever they wish. Your 'one true God' example would only apply if I stated that I'm correct and anyone who disagrees is deaf; I neither said, nor do I believe, any such thing."

I admit that I was not prepared for the pitchfork-and-torch soirée I was about to encounter:

"Have you done a blind test when you could actually prove you hear the difference? Or you just think you will? And calling Pogue biased . . . well, he's one of the most illustrious tech journalists out there!"

I replied:

"With respect, the quality of 'illustriousness' does not confer immunity from criticism. If blind testing suits you, then I think that's fine—no condescension intended. It works for you. It does not work for me."

But then I was made to understand that it is simply unacceptable for me to decide what does and does not work for me:

"You seem to be saying the only test for you is leisurely listening and deciding which is better. . . . [OK], but if that's a valid 'test' then its results should be repeatable, at a minimum for a single listener. You ought to be able to identify the better source at a better than random guess rate. If not, then I think the subject is gleefully engaged in self-deception."

Again, I expressed the only reasonable rejoinder:

"You are free to consider my approach to be self-deception, although I respectfully suggest that it is not. If someone requires repeatable or, shall we say, mathematically demonstrable proof, I do not condescend to that point of view: It's fine for them. But I am satisfied with the 'evidence' of cumulative experience, or cumulative empiricism."

What followed was a loop. And although my honorable opponents in this debate would no doubt shudder at the simile, it was like being stuck in a modulated-and-locked runout groove, à la Sgt. Pepper's, where the only things one could hear were a constant repetition of me saying "I don't require A/B testing to know what I like" and my opponents saying "That's not acceptable!" Shouting it, actually.

In his excellent "As We See It" in Stereophile's May 2015 issue, John Atkinson expressed a number of possible reasons why mainstream-media reviews of the PonoPlayer have been negative, and why the same outlets, which are almost uniformly hostile to audiophilia, don't even blink at hyper-expensive wristwatches, automobiles, homes, and the like. JA's observations are, to a one, convincing—but what can explain the anger? What can explain the outrage of those who condemn the ways in which others enjoy themselves, and who feel compelled to wrap their disapproval in the flag of science? Is it misplaced puritanism? Tribalism? The not-invented-here syndrome? Jealousy that a major artist with social-issue cred has aligned himself with audiophiles instead of with skeptics? My guesses are: "a little," "a lot," "almost certainly," and "feck, yeah."

At the end of his editorial, John Atkinson singled out "writers who just don't know enough to know how little they know about audio." Among psychologists, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (first described at Cornell University, a mere two hours from my doorstep), which is best summed up by the inimitable John Cleese: "If you are absolutely no good at something at all, then you lack exactly the skills you require to know that you are absolutely no good at it." Cleese breaks it down into even simpler terms: "You see, if you're very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you're very, very stupid?"

I think we've found the problem.

Footnote 3: The jazz Red Allen, not the bluegrass Red Allen (whom I also like).

Footnote 4: Recently made available as a Speakers Corner reissue that I have yet to hear.


HammerSandwich's picture

Sorry to say, Art, but I believe it came from you.

In your first Pono post, you wrote, "The only way to judge Pono or any other audio product is to listen to it the way you normally enjoy music: at leisure, in comfort, and with abundant time to come to an informed decision. A/B testing is anathema to the enjoyment of music, and will tell you nothing." You really don't see that readers might take that as an absolutist stance? And, while you follow this with a judge-for-yourself comment, that concerns the personal-value equation, not the how-to-listen aspect.

Regardless, I believe a lot of the anger arises in response to the rise in vocal science deniers. There's no shortage of antis (insert your choice of evolution, AGW, vaccination, etc.), and the dialogue between them & their pro counterparts is often more ad hominem than substantive.

John Atkinson's picture
HammerSandwich wrote:
I believe a lot of the anger arises in response to the rise in vocal science deniers.

Possibly so. Nevertheless, the blind tests promoted by the believers in science are nothing more than junk science—poorly designed, poorly implemented, and poorly performed, the results of which mean nothing.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

Actually I've found that the most and worst personal attacks are made against skeptics of the corporate machine. "Conspiracy Theorist" is a very common attack that carries absolutely no information, yet the True Believers in Science are quick to use it to bash any disbelievers. Injecting animal and insect DNA into one's body may seem to be always good science to you, yet there is ample room for skepticism. Believing that what you cannot measure cannot be heard is equally common, and yet it violates the logic of absence of evidence etc.

Venere 2's picture

"Injecting animal and insect DNA into one's body may seem to be always good science to you, yet there is ample room for skepticism."

I have no idea what you're going on about Dale. But, when Jeff Goldblum injected that insect DNA into himself in 1985, he made a pretty good man-fly! Stop being so skeptical.

dalethorn's picture

"I have no idea what ....." -- well, then that's the time to start thinking and NOT press that 'Post' button.

Venere 2's picture

LOOK who's talking!

Glass houses Dale, glass houses.

jhanken's picture

I had a similar experience not long ago. I was on a forum thread dedicated to a particular well-known amplifier, I somewhat naively voiced my opinion that i was disappointed by the sound quality as compared to my existing amplifier. I unwittingly launched a 10 page flame war about A/B testing, and how if I didn't employ such and such tools for measurement I was being disingenuous, and that I couldn't possibly have identified the maligned amp in a blind test if it was functioning properly. My thought was, "what possible genuine interest could you people have in this forum if you believe all amps sound the same?" I guess some people just like to fight.

Mikeymort's picture

I'm your age Art, and I became aware in my 20's that what I desired in an audio system was the ability to listen to a system for hours on end without listening fatigue. A/B comparisons are helpful, but not as important as living with a piece of equipment for a few days (or weeks). This is especially true with speakers. I initially went "all in" when compact discs were introduced, but soon realized that after a disc or two, I wanted to quit listening and rest my ears. As digital playback has improved, so has the amount of time I spend listening to it.'s picture

And, as I have posted and/or responded MANY times in audio forums over the years, "how do you measure musical enjoyment?"

That question is never answered by any member of the Flat Earth Society or the Subcommittee For Double Blind Testing.

Venere 2's picture

Come on Art! Who were the two dudes that stalked you at SSI 7-8 years ago? Which company? I have looked over your reviews from the period 7-8 years ago, and there are very few possibilities.

You can't tell that story without spilling the beans :-)

Art Dudley's picture

Hi Venere 2: Being skittish about skirmishes (and lawsuits), I can't name the stalkers—but I assure you there are hints in one of my Listening columns from 2009. (I swear, this is not a an attempt to stimulate back-issue sales.) BTW, within the past couple of weeks an industry friend called me and said, "It was [name] and [name], wasn't it!" Yup: He had gotten it right. In any event, thanks for reading my column.