Listening #196

The world's a place of horrors
Because each man thinks he's right
—Loudon Wainwright III

As a teen, I loved spending time in musical-instrument shops. Now, with exceptions, the experience is reliably depressing.

Last Saturday was exemplary: I walked into my local supermarket of sound to buy a set of guitar strings, and was at once assaulted by the racket of two gunslingers trying to outshoot each other. Combatant No.1, a fiftysomething male with an elaborate dye job, had hold of a new Martin dreadnought acoustic guitar, on which he aggressively demonstrated his repertoire of Stephen Stills licks. Combatant No.2, a younger and more reserved-looking male, also armed with a new Martin, alternated between playing along with No.1 and trying to drown him out, the latter no easy task. It was impossible to tell if either player was any good, because both were wielding music not as art but as truncheon.

It occurs to me that many audio enthusiasts do the same.

Man the Lifeboats
Between 2004 and 2010, my family and I made three trips to Florida, primarily to visit Walt Disney World. During our stays there, which I enjoyed, I spent idle moments watching the anoles (footnote 1) that lived in the palmetto trees outside our lodgings.1 The adult males, typically a brighter green than the females, would challenge one another by inflating their dewlaps—pouches of strawberry-red skin that extend from their throats—and performing a stationary dance that made the animals look as if they were doing push-ups. The one with the smaller or less-red dewlap, defeated, would slink away, presumably toward permanent bachelorhood. There are worse things, I suppose.

In more recent years, I've been unable to look at male customers in music stores without imagining them as anoles with denim and hair. Sadly, a disproportionate number of male audiophiles seem destined for the same transformation—sadly because, unlike their guitar-wielding cousins, the far greater damage done by those audiophiles is to themselves. They conceive, assemble, and adjust their systems not to find the colorful truths hidden away in their records but to do battle with other men. They do this on a playing field defined by two axes:

1) My soundstage

2) My bass

The man whose soundstage is more impressive—typically defined in terms of its detail, the wholeness of the images therein, and, most of all, its depth—is the winner. Similarly, extending and enlarging one's bass range is literally indistinguishable from doing the same to one's dewlap. Redness may also play a role.

The real loser in these scenarios, daily played out in the virtual listening room of the Internet and at numberless audio shows, audio stores, and audio-society gatherings, is music itself. Otherwise, the players do little harm—again, except to themselves.

Less harmless are those audio enthusiasts who are least secure: those whose toxic rage at a world that does not accept the authority of their opinions—a world that persists in enjoying recorded music in ways of which they do not approve—accomplishes nothing other than making our hobby seem repellant. Their playing field also has two axes:

1) My dick

2) My dick

In a recent thread that showed up on my Facebook feed, I saw a number of posts from an evidently well-known audio maven who stated, without apparent irony, that it is his "duty" to educate audio enthusiasts in the foolishness of preferring LPs over CDs or music files, and to save them from spending money on expensive electronics. "Wire makes no difference," he wrote: "It's all about the speakers and the room."

The question that would enter the minds of most intelligent, well-adjusted people is: Why should he care? If, as a consumer, he's satisfied with digital sources, op-amp–based electronics, and lamp cord, then he's a wise man to avoid buying anything else. But I can't work out how consumers can or should be "saved" from buying perfectionist-quality goods that they have either auditioned at length or purchased with a home-trial policy—things that currently seem to characterize most purchases of audio gear. It's not as if these people are being asked to blindly spend a three- or four-figure sum on a bottle of wine to which a reviewer they've never seen in public has awarded a 91—something that happens every damn day.

Again: Why should anyone care? Again, the answer is: They should not.

Unless, of course, such a person is a male who believes it's flatly, unacceptably wrong to enjoy certain products, and who considers the work of every prancing, preening, purple-prose-penning audio reviewer who extols the virtues of such products to be an assault on his rightness. I mean—how dare they?

Girl Talk, or, The Chicken Curse
In the December 2018 issue of Stereophile I wrote about the evening when a review sample of a power amplifier caught fire and filled my little house with acrid smoke. It happened just as I was about to put a chicken in the oven.

Today, a Sunday in January, was the first time since then that I'd set about roasting a chicken. I put it in the oven at 4pm, then went upstairs to take a shower. While I was in the shower, the power went out. Swear to God.

I came downstairs and conferred with my wife and daughter, the latter home from college, who shared my suspicion that ours was not the only house affected. I stepped outside and found a couple of neighbors wandering the sidewalks with dazed, expectant looks on their faces. By the time I came back inside, my daughter, Julia, had used her phone to visit the local utility's website, and learned that ours was one of perhaps 20,000 households affected. There was nothing we could do.

Footnote 1: Anolis carolinensis, aka the American chameleon, which made a surprise cameo appearance in the February 2018 issue.

ok's picture

of this caliber and scope –I humbly apologize for both military terms– would have not even been conceivable before AD 2019. I resign.

Lee Clayton's picture

I haven't felt engaged with AD's writing for some time now. Politics don't help matters.

johnnythunder's picture

Art's comments and writing get under your skin because he speaks the truth. You can always tell when someone/thing hits a nerve because the truth friggin' hurts doesn't it Lee and Ok?

m-sevs's picture

Where do you get that from one hyperbolic statement that essentially says "I disagree with the premise" and another that is hardly more than a shrug and a sigh (because this isn't vox or jezebel, right)? But, since we're flexing our intuitive muscles, I gotta say: your love for Rebecca Solnit should not preclude an appreciation for Claire Lehmann.

Lee Clayton's picture

Stop projecting bro

Anton's picture

Has it already been three years since the rabbit pic column?

Man, tempus fugit!

Anyway, whose dick? It reads to me like Art thinks that both the X axis and the Y axis of the hobby are both his dick. That’s some sword fight!

I think the real issue is that men tend to like toys like these more than women do, in general. This is a hobby about sound and toys, not music.

Robin Landseadel's picture

“The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons.”
― Jean Renoir

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Toxic masculinity ...... Hegemonic masculinity (Wikipedia) :-) .........

philipjohnwright's picture

Totally agree Art. And nicely articulated, as always.

Of course not everyone will agree, but they're just a bunch of xxxxx xxxx ers :-)

If you want a breath of fresh air have a wander round the Roon Forum - singly the most civilised audio forum there is. In fact up there with the best whatever the subject.


cookiemarenco's picture

and thank you for the Roon forum tip!
Cookie Marenco
Blue Coast Music

mns3dhm's picture

Nice to hear Art's call for more civil discourse amongst audiophiles and request that women be treated with respect. Those are laudable thoughts. Here, for your consideration, are reasons why I am skeptical this is the dawn of a new age:

“Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”
― Mark Twain

Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.
― Robert Heinlein

He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot.
― Groucho Marx

ok's picture

to know that people who dream of a civilized audio world are more than ready to call their straw-opponents nothing less than idiots and dickheads.

Glotz's picture

or for you to reduce the essay to an accusatory rant... and a chance to use yet more sarcasm?

Your prejudiced contempt is obvious.

ok's picture

to all male antagonism myths – Art’s article and his apologists’ comments being primary examples thereof. On the other hand women tend to hate machines not merely for evolutionary reasons (since some like being biological) but mostly because men more often than not show an unconditional affection towards machines which should otherwise be reserved for their women and children. Anyway I do believe there’s still hope for the part concerning women for should anyone with the slightest acquaintance with female mentality consider it a parody –and Art is more than smart enough to do so– it is simply hilarious.

Glotz's picture

Perhaps it needed tempering with some 'precursor' questions that don't inspire loading responses in the most brutal fashion. I did find their answers defiantly hiliarious.

I like the unvarnished truth though, even if Art explores a few facets in this focus.

Overall I feel the entirety of this hobby (notwithstanding the press) has way too many opinionated men to make ANYONE feel welcome. Their system's aren't good enough, new enough or you love analog YOU DIRTY HIPPY, etc..

It's just more headaches from the one place were supposed to relax and share music... and I really believe if there were more women at the shows, events, this forum, we would not be as open as we once were, but we I believe we would be happier and less fractious.

ok's picture

I do believe men should always pay close heed to female opinion in order to avoid getting fooled as is usually the case in all things audio. Women tend to keep a strictly pragmatic approach towards men’s vices while their hearing (smelling also, mind you..) is way better than any male could ever hope for: that's the ultimate reason why they tactfully keep away from our self-delusional hobby. And If I ever were a woman inclined to read Art’s all-too-male comments in earnest I would definitely consider his “come on little puppy, you can do it!” condescending approach totally insulting.

mxb's picture changing the spelling of the people in the music store to an 'n', instead of an 'ssh'. (But the lizards...right...I get it now.)

michaelavorgna's picture

It took becoming a reviewer for people to refer to me as "Lasagna", something that hadn't happened since grammar school.

Everything sounds the same if you're not listening.


Michael (Lasagna) Lavorgna
Twittering Machines

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Listen to the Music" .......... The Doobie Brothers :-) .........

Glotz's picture

need to shut the * up.

RH's picture

I truly love reading your writing in most cases.


This piece seems, unfortunately, in the vein of "audiophiles picking on other audiophiles for not being the right type of audiophile."

We get that you aren't a big "imaging/soundstaging" guy, and of course you ought to enjoy what you enjoy. But audiophiledom isn't some purity test and people can enjoy whatever they enjoy. I don't understand the need to denigrate soundstaging (depth or otherwise) or "bass." We all care about sound and audio gear around here and it's a glass house we live in when we want to cast stones at the aspect some other audiophile likes about sound or equipment.

I think the same goes for casting the desire some have for maximizing soundstaging or bass with "penis size." That is frankly lazy pop psychology. It's what many people resort to to when they just don't really want to spend the time trying to understand another viewpoint, and imagine instead cartoon characterizations.

In my experience (55, life long audiophile) I've found audiophiles to generally be driven by real passion and enthusiasm, vs some superficial "dick measuring" or "just out to impress others" motivation. Sure, some can be very enthusiastic about showing off their system, but usually this is an expression of their fundamental enthusiasm for the hobby. There's a reason they got in to high end audio in the first place.

I've seen the charges of "dick measuring"thrown around, but I've never actually met anyone that truly fits that caricature, whose purchases weren't based on their actual enthusiasm for their hobby.

Sorry if I'm being a bit gruff, but in a world that seems to be growing ever more divisive, audiophiles finding reasons to diss other audiophiles - because one audiophile may not be sharing the same criteria as another - is something I"m tired of seeing in the community.

Then there is the second subject in your piece. You mention a person who sees his "duty" to educate audio enthusiasts in the foolishness of preferring LPs over CDs or music files, and to save them from spending money on expensive electronics."

As we don't have access to this fellow for his side of the story, it seems at least some skepticism may be in order as to whether that was an accurate characterization or what he may have actually said.
It does seem to be something of a caricature.

But either way, that character seems a stand-in for the general phenomenon of "objectivist" types who bemoan nonsense in high end audio and who wish to knock down what they see as b.s. in the high end. So this would often entail taking on the claims about high end cables etc.

If you really mean to speak not only of that individual, but generally ask "why would anyone care?" it just seems a failure to put on the shoes of the "other side" and think their position through, because the answer seems rather obvious.

The only way you can understand the motivations of such people is to understand their assumptions or position: e.g. that for instance "expensive AC cables" or whatever are snake oil. Many "out to save others from buying" such snake oil believe they have good technical reasons on their side for their conclusion, and often good methodological reasons (e.g. the problems of sighted bias used to determine that AC cables make a sonic difference).

So now, understanding that assumption, you may as well be asking "Why would any reasonable adult care about the truth?"

And...that's a weird question, isn't it?

Say you were about to buy what you thought to be a diamond ring for your fiance at a jeweler. Unbeknownts to you, the jeweler takes advantage of your lack of knowledge about gems and sells you a fake diamond instead. You paid $8,000 for a diamond when what you actually got could have been had for 40 bucks. Now, are you going to actually say "Well, as long as I'm in the dark about the scam, I think I bought a real diamond and my wife is made happy thinking she has a real diamond ring...that's all that matters!"

Nobody really would accept that, and a jeweler who tried to use that excuse for scamming you if you find out - "hey, YOU thought it was real and were happy, what's the problem?" - would likely find a fist in his face.

People do care about the truth. We don't really want to be deceived.

If someone knowledgeable about diamonds had been there seeing the jeweler taking advantage of you, and they pointed out that you were about to buy a fake stone, and explained to you how you can know the fake from the real one, would the rational response be "mind your own business, I'm buying a diamond here!"


The scenario where knowledgeable people want to promote what they know about audio gear, and educate people about audio myths and why you might not be getting what you think you are getting for your money, is perfectly understandable and, frankly, I welcome it.
More knowledge is always better; informed choices are always better than ill-informed choices. Some people are trying to arm us with information that will help us know when we are being taken advantage of by neato-sounding technical stories, which may take advantage of many consumers lack of understanding.

And part of this "education" will also have to do with pointing out the liabilities in how most of us evaluate gear - purely subjective, no controls for bias, which allows practically anything anyone can claim to be "validated" by some portion of audiophiles. So the whole "if someone takes home X component and finds they like it, why would anyone have anything to say about that?" line of reasoning just fails to address this problem. If you use a method prone to error, then you can just as easily end up via that method believing you are buying "that fake diamond" as you would under some form of sales pressure. There are various ways you can be deceived in to not actually getting what you thought you paid for (e.g. some objective change to the signal in your sound system).

So an"objectivist" may say: "Look, I know you believe you took home that beautiful looking AC cable and were convinced it made such a sonic difference it was worth the $5,000 to you....but unfortunately, given the dubious nature of the technical claims made for the product and how robust sighted bias can's pretty likely you could have got the same actual performance from a vastly cheaper AC cable."

This is a reasonable, skeptical statement. It's not a personal attack as many audiophiles seem to take it. Being informed about the controversial nature of a high end product and about the problems of sighted bias is a form of potentially useful information.

This doesn't of course entail that we all have to turn out product buying in to some science experiment. That's just impractical for most of us. We can go about using as much subjectivism as we like (and I often do). But personally I like to do so in something of an informed manner, having some understanding when I'm wading in to possibly spending money on something that may not actually change anything audible in the signal of my system. And I truly appreciate the efforts many people who have sought to "educate" us audiophiles about the controversial claims within high end audio. I know I have saved some good money in some cases by either being persuaded by "save your money" arguments or even via my own blind testing of some products. So...if you ask me, I say: more power to those White Knights :)

If, btw, you end up reading these comments and I have misunderstood your point, I would be happy to have my errors corrected.

Cheers (from a true fan of your writing!)

Glotz's picture

'White Knights' have shown us how the audiophile industry has wronged us.. And not in the last 50 years... the last 5 years would be valid examples.

There aren't any.

In my experience and using your example, there is NO AC cable sold by audiophile manufacturers that would be bested in any way, shape or form by a stock, off-the-shelf cable or one packaged so often with consumer electronics.

The reviews over the years prove their superiority and build quality, while the "White Knights" have been proven time and time again to have NOT done their homework, as well as ignoring the solid science that these audio manufacturers have demonstrated. Rarely, if EVER, have they educated any one of us open-minded and open-eared audiophiles.

WE are the ones that test, listen and re-evaluate using scientific method EVERY DAY. Not them.

PS- Audio analogies with other sciences or arts never equate soundly. A diamond is not a complex system like stereo, nor even an AC cable with its various components.

ok's picture

..who actually cares? Any statement is either true or false or seemingly unprovable. Twisting the debate into some “ulterior motive” witch hunting is merely a form of ad hominem attack instead of a straight yes/no/I don't know:
“George is banging your wife”
“You are only jealous of me and my happiness!”
“Maybe I am – so why don’t you go out and check for yourself?”

Nice comment anyway.

windansea's picture

Glad I'm not the only one who enjoys Art's writings yet rejects his straw man attacks. We know the placebo effect is real and massive, and so a little bit of blind testing and skepticism is warranted in listening for differences in audio equipment.
Where Art's snobbery really irked me was once when he pissed on Mercury Living Presence recordings. (See Listening #155: "By contrast, about a third of all my RCA Living Stereo discs and all but two of my Mercury Living Presence records are outa here.") But maybe he's just trolling now and then?

C_Hoefer's picture

Art is my favourite writer at Stereophile, but this column made me uneasy and dissatisfied, and you’ve put your finger on the reasons why.

That said, the White Knights can often have a dark side to their behaviours, I have seen this in AV forums at times. Art’s caricature was based on lots of real online personalities.

Doctor Fine's picture

Art is apparently a male who flatly believes it is wrong for YOU to enjoy great soundstaging and good bass as according to Art these qualities are of no importance (huh?---how WEIRD) to our hobby.
Art's systems have NEVER had great soundstaging OR good bass.
And he is PROUD of that fact.
I even suspect Art doesn't KNOW how to get great soundstaging OR great clean bass. These qualities aren't even ON his list of things to DO.
And Art LIKES to parade his virtue as a "known" "character" who has the inside track on our hobby because of his "virtue signalling" and ability to assault those that won't bow to him.
Art LIKES to divide the world into those that worship his narrative---and those cretins that haven't yet recognized his moral superiority...
I'm a little sick of his posturing.
I GET that Art knows a lot about obscure pieces of kit.
And for that I am grateful and have USED his knowledge to improve my systems.
His insights into LOMC transformers have been a revalation to me personally.
And I love his passion for long since obsolete pieces of kit that we all owe a debt of gratitude to.
I was even slightly amused at his reconditioned Quad fetish and love of early Altec drivers. And let's not forget the idler wheel Thorens rebuilds...
But I keep feeling "slimed" by his posturing of moral superiority.
I don't WANT to be sold a phony narrative about the superiority of all things ART and the inferiority of all things well engineered...
Good grief, Art is just a HiFi equipment reviewer.
Not some sort of wizard of Oz.
Perhaps Art really WANTS to be the Wizard.
Oh my.
I sense smoke and mirrors.

Ortofan's picture

... reconditioned QUAD fetishist and lover of early Altec drivers and is now a Devore devotee.

Likewise, the rebuilt idler wheel Thorens has been supplanted by a "pure" - as in no intermediate belt - idler drive Garrard.

Furthermore, his insights into LOMC transformers have been relegated to quaint trivia since he was convinced by Peter Ledermann, while visiting SoundSmith, that all MC cartridges are inferior to the MI type. Of course, that revelation will not be shared until a review sample of the Hyperion MK II winds its way upstate and the SPU collection has been unloaded on Audiogon.

Until then, just enjoy such tales as those of hand-hewn tonearm boards crafted from driftwood scavenged while canoeing on the Hudson for what they are - light entertainment - and try not to look behind the curtain.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

(The) Art of listening, keeps evolving :-) ..........

Doctor Fine's picture

You still hanging around these parts, I see.
Yes I agree to finding Art "light entertainment" and his prose amusing on occasion.
I just got fed up with Art's desire to DIVIDE our little band of hobbyists into those that like him, treasure details over the big picture.
Art loves the "old ways" as if they are signs of a superior intellect.
I know all about them having started with my first systems back when stereo radio meant ONE FM radio playing the left channel next to ANOTHER AM radio playing the right channel.
I personally use the old ways as a guide on how far we have come.
Then I find something newer and perhaps (occasionally) better and use it to build a total system that has strong bass and a great soundstage.
I believe in "having it ALL."
That includes all the "life" the old ways had in them.
AND adding modern better built longer lasting designs.
AND having it sound "just like a real band in your room."
Art can suck it if he doesn't like my approach.
Let him stick to his precious approach to our hobby.
Sometimes he finds real gems.
But once in a while I have had it up to here with his "precious" side trips and his condescension.
We're all here to learn how to have more fun AND make our playback a thing of joy.
Not play power trip games...

JennMartin's picture

Well said. Concerning guitars, I suspect that you, like I, frequent establishments where your scenario doesn't play out too often. Out here, for me, it's Sevie Coyle's Mighty Fine Guitars, Schoenberg's, etc.

Best wishes to you (miss you in Fretboard Journal!)

Doctor Fine's picture

Ready for a funny "guitar store" story?
I went to investigate a hole in the wall store that looked like **** from the outside but had a couple million bucks worth of collector guitars INSIDE.
It was Boston, Cambridge Mass, Porter Square, maybe 30 years ago.
Name of the place "the Music Emporium."
Told the nerdy "clerk" behind the counter I wanted to see and play a "Schoenberg Martin" as they were handmade and rare.
"I'm Schoenberg," said the clerk.
"We've sold FIVE of them but only have one left and it's in for a fret job so you can't touch it."
I told the clerk I KNEW he sold Schoenberg.
He was also "Guild, Gibson, Seagull, Dobro" and a half dozen other famous makes.
"NO," said the clerk.
My wife laughed and said to ignore her idiot husband.
Turns out of course that Eric was co-owner of the store.
He was just hanging out.
What a nice guy!
Never DID get a Schoenberg Martin in my hands.
I bought a Seagull and became a dealer for them though.