Something's Coming

So, what's "this thing of ours"? I'm only half-kidding. High-end audio is deadly serious for many passionate audiophiles. Some measurement types defend their turf without thought—without mercy—and often deride subjectivists, like me, who believe if you like what you hear, then that's what counts, enjoy. Objectivists say if you can't measure it, then it doesn't exist. Well, goes the retort, you don't know what to measure, your instruments aren't refined enough, and on and on.

The struggle continues to this day for some reason, and boy-howdy is it ferocious, especially regarding cables.

People, please, you want to grow our industry? This isn't productive. It drives music lovers away from a potential joy of a lifetime. Which, given the circumstances, is a crying shame, as now you can buy so much quality for so little money. Check out Herb Reichert's Gramophone Dreams column, or Steve Guttenberg's Audiophiliac YouTube channel, for reviews of affordable systems that make music the high-end way. Dealers, retailers, please realize that these people are out there and need their music, especially as we're all still suffering from the pandemic. Be imaginative and find ways to reach them in this new environment.

What drives normally sane people (loosely speaking) to such extremes of emotion? Why is it so damn personal? I made the mistake of telling one audiophile what I thought of his system, and he nearly killed me. Even his wife insulted me, saying that my system sounded too big. Never again—you learn to keep it to yourself. I've come to realize that people usually build audio systems that perfectly reflect their own tastes. It's who they are, and when you tread on their toes, they squawk. And if a reviewer dares to criticize a manufacturer's perfect baby by calling it limp as white asparagus, it's like calling their child ugly, and there's usually hell to pay. Hey, not everything's perfect, that's the point.

But, see, there's that thing again: Mark your turf, defend at all costs, us against them, never even listen to those on the other side (that's so ridiculous). Sound familiar? It would be great if objectivists would just withhold prejudgment and listen to a high-end system built with sound in mind. And vice versa. Then think about what they heard without immediate dismissal. Then maybe even talk about it. How radical!

Why does music exist after all? For pleasure. No matter your taste, there's music that's perfect for you at any particular moment, there to give you the pleasure you deserve 24/7. Speakers or headphones, LP, CD, HD streaming, whatever your pleasure, you can have it today and inexpensively to boot. Let the music engage you and take you places you've never been before.

Many audiophiles go crazy getting their systems up on their toes to achieve a certain blissful state of satori, a oneness with the music's energy so you feel it affecting you emotionally as it washes over you. You might suddenly find yourself falling into the music, experiencing it, totally involved, listening with more than your ears, letting the essential sound surround you for an almost transcendent experience. You "see" performers on an airy soundstage, and they seem almost real. That soundstage isn't attached to the speakers but surrounds them to the back, front, and sides. You'll no doubt find yourself leaning into the sound for pure pleasure. Man, you could listen to that all day, as the music provokes one emotional response after another. That's the point of it all. Audiophiles take what's there and make it better. Then they take it to heart.

Now look, let's face it, everyday life is radically changed now. We have to deal with the pandemic and the aftershocks sure to come. Visiting a dealer, even if there's one in your area, isn't going to be easy. And they could do better. I know a customer who told me, no, he wasn't going to call the grouchy dealer he'd just bought an expensive system from, because he wouldn't be able to answer his question and would just get mad because he wouldn't know the answer. I'm just shaking my head.

The shows are gone, at least for now. Some canceled with integrity by returning deposits, others doing themselves no favors by withholding those funds as next year's deposits. So, what the heck will replace audio shows? I've heard lots of ideas; the one that appeals to me most is manufacturers taking large rooms in a hotel, setting up their equipment and making sure it sounds great no matter how long it takes. Invite the press one day, and then the public, and sell some equipment—everyone's happy. Seems to me to be a natural (footnote 1).

In the meantime, angsty audiophiles must open up and share their passion. Play your kid's music and see if he has an ear for the difference. Some people hear it and bang, they want it right away. Others like it quiet; best not to force them. But, as I already mentioned, super performance is available at superlow prices these days, and I'm talking quality components.

Be proud to be an audiophile as well as a music lover. Admit it to yourself and the world. Enjoy your music, and do it any way that pleases you.

Footnote 1: Except for the press-day suggestion, this sounds a lot like the show put on by Harrisburg, Pennsylvania–based dealer Now Listen Here in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in late September.—Editor

MatthewT's picture

Comments on this should be interesting, lets see how much same-old it generates.

Thanks again!

ScullComm's picture

Let's enjoy what we have and spread the word!

thatguy's picture

"and listen"
I would add to that "for awhile" because, at least for me, often the true sound and impact of a component or a system doesn't hit me immediately.
It is a bit like judging a person; sometimes what seems great in a small amount grates on your nerves after awhile. And sometimes something almost too subtle to notice can be endearing over time.

ScullComm's picture

Precisely, I always advise taking time to listen before judging changes.

thatguy's picture

"manufacturers taking large rooms in a hotel, setting up their equipment and making sure it sounds great no matter how long it takes. Invite the press one day, and then the public, and sell some equipment"

I like that idea. I've never made it to an audio show but always wanted to try it. I like listening to different things and am curious how so many sound but I don't like wasting a salesperson's time in a store trying everything when I really have no intention of buying. Although, when I bought my speakers I had no intention of buying and the salesman just let me keep pushing buttons until I hit on ones that, for me, were perfect.

Joe8423's picture

Certain personalities can't handle the ambiguity and the idea that there might be differences that can't be measured makes them crazy. Others are enraged by the thought that there may be factors that make no difference and can be ignored. It's important to subtly tease them until they turn red and pass out.

Herb Reichert's picture

This was a joy to read. And, of course it is exciting to see your byline in Stereophile again.

Now, we need stories from the 'ribbon chair' — I hope you are working on some.

love ya !


Lazer's picture

With anything Herb says. Thanks for such a thoughtful article.

ScullComm's picture

Herb, thanks, you're a pal. I had fun writing it and it's from the heart.

shaynet98's picture

You hit it on the head, J10! I see it every day on the various forums and FB pages. There is so much in common that we have to share...if we choose to. It is sad to hear that a customer would not want to call his dealer about the system he just purchased. That is a large part of the value we add. Finally - thanks for the footnote about our audio micro-show, Jim! We had a lot of fun sharing our passion.
Shayne Tenace
Owner - Tenacious Sound & Now Listen Here

Anton's picture

Did the audiophile ask for your opinion of his system?

It could make a difference in how your opinion was received.

I use a rule for being served wine: If I am asked about the wine I am being served in official oenophile fashion, I will answer in an oenophile way. If I am not asked in a critical manner, I will say "Thank you!" for the pour and keep the party going.

Same goes for Hi Fi. I'm not there to poop on someone's system or its sound, so if I am not asked, I focus on the positives I notice and look for agreement. If it's an audiophile buddy, then I am assuming I am familiar with his/her room/house/tastes/set up, and can answer along the lines of my recollection of previous experiences and talk about what has seemed to change compared to last time...still without pooping on his/her system.

One's "opinion" and how it was expressed can have a great impact on how the conversation proceeds. Were the audiophile and his wife too sensitive, or was the opinion in a way they may have found heavy handed and dismissive.

Hi Fi Mr. Manners needs more details.


Regarding objectivism/subjectivism: anyone who is "purely" one or the other is wrong.

I used to like asking objectivsts how they picked their gear, especially speakers. The answer used to most often be a reply lacking in irony when they said, "By listening."

Sadly, nowadays, most audiophiles on either side answer with, "I read about it and bought it 'sound unheard' from the interwebs."

So, your point about the importance of shows is spot on. I hear way too many audiophiles say, "Why would I spend money going to a show?"

Keep spreading the show word, J10! We have a lot of edumacating to do on the value of the show!

music or sound's picture

I think think there's a culture just appeasing every one or alternatively being insulting based on one's own opinion. I try to accept (sometimes difficult) that people have different taste (like with wine) but there are objective observations why a system reproduces music more correctly.
I have issues with correlating brands and price with quality and I think why J10 piece is right on

ScullComm's picture

Actually this person insisted I render an opinion right there and then. I made the mistake of telling him what I thought. In my view, as an audiophile, you pretty much know what to expect. If it's way off then it simply reflects the taste of the owner. I was a relative3ly new reviewer at the time and learned to zip it.

tonykaz's picture

Thats a rare one, isn't it? i.e. sudden enlightenment. Hmm.

Our Audio Industry is growing but not so-much here in the States where incomes have been stagnant since 1980ish.

Europe seems rather brilliant, doesn't it, mixed couples visiting Audio Shows, we don't tolerate that sort of thing here at RMAF, do we ? ( maybe Canada because they are a little different )

Japan & all of Asia seem to be Audiophile exciting in many ways. ( they even allow single women to attend their Shows )

Here in the States Retailing is getting crushed by Amazon and perhaps eBay with Factory Direct becoming an established norm.

Where will our Audiophile "Satori" come from, I could appreciate some.

Mr.Scull, do you envision something evolving over this next decade ? Do you have a vision ?

I wasn't around when you were here writing but I'm happy for you. You seem a straight shooter.

Tony in Venice

ps. I got hammered for a Speaker cable truss comment. I was ( and remain ) somewhat doubtful, but I do believe in Audiophile Fuses!

ps.2) I'm just now reading Mr.Michallef's review of the EAT Amplifier, he is reporting on a "satori" experience. His writing is outstanding, maybe the best review writing I've ever encountered. wow! He "needed a shovel to lift his jaw off the floor". This guy is a Lighthouse!

ScullComm's picture

In fact it seems audio sales are doing very well in the US, everyone's stuck at home after all. And Satori is where you find it, I don't mean to be glib, find your particular sound that pleases you and be happy.

Ortofan's picture

... the measurements used by objectivists are correct, but that certain subjective listeners find the resultant sound quality to be unappealing?

Again, let's consider David Hafler's letter regarding "accurate" versus "pleasant" sound quality.

DougM's picture

Isn't the purpose of recorded music for enjoyment? So, doesn't that mean that the setup that gives me the most enjoyment, and connects me emotionally with the music the most should be what I'm looking for, whether it's technically the most accurate or not? Unless I was there for the recording session, then I have no way of knowing what the original performance sounded like, and even if I did, if I like more bass and less treble, or vice versa, so what? This is why I like equipment that has tone controls, so I can tweak the sound to my liking, not how someone else decided it should sound for me.

thatguy's picture

well said

DougM's picture

You mention how there is a wealth of great sounding and affordable gear available, and how it's the way to convince newbies to join the realm, but Stereophile does a very poor job of that, concentrating on the stupidly stratospheric gear that makes non audiophiles think we're nuts, and that they could never afford an "audiophile" level system. RJR was the king of covering affordable gear here (at least speakers anyway), but since his passing, that has become nearly non-existant here. What you need is another like him or like Guttenberg to reach out to regular music lovers, 'cause right now, places like Crutchfield and even Best Buy are doing a much better job of that then Stereophile or TAS are. The Brit's What Hi-Fi is a prime example of how to do it right, as they cover great gear at all price points.

CG's picture

I think you're right.

We have two systems here. One is a "He-Man Rig" (look at olde Corey Greenberg reviews - not me, BTW; I was CG before he was) in the living room and the other is a simple desktop system attached to this computer. They're both really enjoyable, each in their own ways.

To your point, the desktop system is a Cobalt Dragonfly to a pair of powered loudspeakers Rob Reina reviewed back in March of 2015. Not $29, but not quite $600. The only real downside is that the desktop system is a near field set-up and is therefore usable for only person at a time. But, for a lot of people, that's also a feature since it doesn't take up much space nor does it fill the house with sound.

This is a hobby. Fun, right? We should all try to include as many as we can in the fun. Not because it's good for "the industry", but because helping others have fun is also fun.

Somewhat OT: Near field listening also benefits from careful setup and attention to details. That doesn't mean expensive accessories - just getting it right.

ChrisS's picture



DougM's picture

Less than 15 "budget" components in two years, and many of them over $1000, hardly budget to my way of thinking. It's gonna take a lot to convince normal music lovers to spend that on a whole system, let alone one component. And the newest "entry level" article is from 2014, because that column ceased to exist when Stephen left to work for Audioquest. 30% of full time workers in the US earn less than $30k a year. Jeez!

ChrisS's picture


Stereophile has been teaching us how to "fish".

ScullComm's picture

Nope, not the case, see comments below to pertinent links, not involved with how Stereophile is put together, suggest you apply your comments to them.

dc_bruce's picture

For those of us of a certain age (ahem!), we grew up with a hobby characterized by equipment that often had atrocious measurements. (I'm talking about the 1960s.). The result often was sound that was distinctly "colored," like a little kid who likes ketchup on everything, not just "fries and burgers." So began the drive in the 1970s towards ever lower distortion measurements (if less is good, then even more less is better, right?). Problem was, not only did we hit the point of diminishing returns, but we hit the point of negative returns. Equipment sounded worse. A great snipe hunt ensured to find and measure, the elusive culprit (remember TIM -- "transient intermodulation distortion"?). Shortly thereafter, digital sound hit our ears; but "perfect sound forever" was far from perfect-sounding even though, by traditional measurements applied to analog equipment, it excelled. Again, a search for the elusive and measurable culprit was launched -- "jitter" being the first suspect that was arrested.
I think both of these phenomena combined to cast "objective" measurements into disreputes as reliable indicators of perceived sound quality. Moreover, there has arisen a generation of reviewers who have been at it for decades and whose experience and -- yes -- discipline provides a level of discernment previously unavailable.

I think today, most electronics passes the measurement test easily -- so that makes the "subjective" part of the review more important. Because it certainly is my experience that it definitely does not sound alike, although the differences are subtle and -- to some -- not all that important.

I think the really important question now, is what are the prospective buyer's expectations. A lot of people just aren't interested in certain audiophile virtues, like soundstage depth or precise imaging. They may be more interested in ultimate loudness capability or bass power (not necessary extension to 20 Hz).

So, I would suggest that anyone trying to "sell" specialist audio (please abolish HP's snobby "high end" adjective) begin by asking their putative customer what they want and then listening carefully to the answers. If the answer is "I don't know," then arrange a brief demonstration of systems (not at nosebleed prices) that reflect different prioritizations of one characteristic over another and then ask the questions. Eg. a pair of small, precise standmount speakers driven by an amplifier of precise but modest power and then a pair of large but not so perfect floorstanders that generate realistic loudness and bass power, driven by less than perfect but more powerful amplifiers.

Listening is about more than listening to the system play a recording, it's also about listening to the person you're trying to engage in the hobby.

David Harper's picture

perhaps we might replace "high end" with the more accurate "overpriced end" ?

ScullComm's picture

Well written post! I'm back for now as an occasional contributor but still in the "Specialist Audio" (I like that) PR and marketing game. Yes, listeners' tastes and interests vary widely but in my view opening our door wider is one key to wider acceptance. Share, interest others, turntables are showing up in ads every day, so what if they're not attached to anything! It's a good thing. "Snipe hunt"... pretty good! (-"

djcxxx's picture

Satisfaction with one’s equipment choices along with greater attention to the music, rather than the gear, is enhanced by avoiding audio salons, shows, and magazines.

Poor Audiophile's picture

but why are you here if you avoid magazines?

ScullComm's picture

Everyone's got an opinion, you are of course welcome to yours, but one wonders, why bother posting such negativity. That's what we're talking about here, doing it your way, making yourself happy. If this is what floats your boat, enjoy.

djcxxx's picture

For the witty commentary, naturally.

jamesgarvin's picture

Are we talking about growing the hobby, or keeping people in the hobby? These are two different things. Death will ultimately win the battle for the latter, though we can certainly help the process along. A high birth rate provides hope for the former.

Audiophiles who remain isolated in their solitary chair in their solitary room. Audiophiles who love music, but can't be bothered to go to concerts and actually interact with other music lovers. Audiophiles who can't be bothered to actually mingle with the peasants and shop for music at brick and mortar music stores, and instead get their exercise walking to the mailbox to pick up their physical music, having ordered music from their solitary computer (why talk about music with uneducated record store clerks) or, in what is surely a move towards complete inactivity, sitting in their comfy chair, alone, while music streams from the heavens to the home audio system.

Manufacturers who can't be bothered (or creative enough) to market entry level high end audio to actual music lovers (which I'll define as people who would listen to music on a transistor radio if necessary to enjoy music) who hang out where people actually enjoy music as a communal. experience. Ask for a raise of hands of people in a record store spending nice chunks of change on vinyl who have heard of Pro-ject, Rega, or Music Hall. That, my friends, is called marketing. Or, more appropriately, a lack thereof.

Magazines whose marketing departments have completely ignored those record stores popping up like dandelions in virtually every major metropolitan district (well, except for perhaps NYC which have priced out all but the very wealthy). I receive Goldmine magazine. They talk about sound. Musicians talk about sound. The value of better sounding recordings. I missed the audio ads. I can't find audio magazine advertisements. Hell, if they ain't spending twenty large on a turntable, what good are they anyway?

Yea, must be those damn objectivists.

ScullComm's picture

I urge you to be more positive but to each his own.

jamesgarvin's picture

I've been in this hobby for more than thirty years. In that time I've seen a significant number of dealers close up shop for lack of business. I've seen multiple print magazines close up shop for lack of subscribers. I've seen print magazines still in business experience significantly lower circulations. And I see segments of the industry complain about those facts, yet not doing anything substantive to improve the situation.

If my kid brings home a D on a report card, I don't stay "positive" and tell him that at least it was not an F. Likewise, unless I'm misreading the point of your piece, which seems to be that the decline in warm bodies in this hobby is because objectivists ruin the fun for all, I think it fair to point out what I think are the real reasons for the decline in the hobby. Perhaps one of the problems is that too many in specialist audio try to stay "positive" rather than confront reality, which should lead them to actually do something about it.

I'm unclear how fun hating objectivists turn away younger music consumers who don't even know there is a specialist audio industry. Who's fault is that? Would that situation be classified as an Act of God?

This reminds me of the great scene in My Cousin Vinny in which Mona Lisa tells Vinny what he is doing wrong in the courtroom, and Vinny asks Mona Lisa whether she can say something positive instead of being so negative, at which point in response she tells Vinny what a great job he doing, and how he had the Judge wrapped around his finger. So, I guess I would respond in my best Mona Lisa Vito voice by saying how the great the specialist audio industry is doing to reach out to younger consumers by meeting them on their turf, and how many younger consumers are sitting at home as we speak surrounded by specialist audio gear, enjoying the communal experience of music. with their friends, pouring over the latest edition of Stereophile and TAS, as the circulation of those two magazines keeps spiraling upward, helping to support the ever increasing number of dealers who can't keep product in stock, for manufacturers who can't build the stuff fast enough.

ScullComm's picture

James, you have, in fact, completely misread the point I'm afraid. I don't know how that happened. I urged both camps to stop flailing their arms and get together to listen to their systems together then talk about what they heard. As I see it everyone's audio system is a pure reflection of their tastes and dreams as it were, and should be respected on that basis alone. The incident I refer to happened when I first began reviewing so long ago and was never repeated as I learned quickly to keep my own council. As for keeping an open mind, no argument, I encourage the stereotypical (not sorry) audiophile to share with friends and family, to socialize and not be That Lonely Guy. The pleasure music holds for us is a gift, I want people to enjoy it. To that end recently I was on the phone with a Dell tech, he reads, The Audiophiliac, and we were kicking around headphones while we waiting for my stupid system to respond. I blame no one but (all) ourselves and the passage of time, things have changed, we must change the hobby and the industry to adapt. So other than that misperception I find myself in agreement with most of what you've said. Good DAY to you sir! (-"

thyname's picture

.... People, please, you want to grow our industry? This isn't productive.

Nope, that's not what these "objectivists" types, the #measurementmorons want. Quite the opposite .... they want to kill & bury the industry. These types are not audiophiles. They despise the audiophiles. And more often than not, couldn't care less about music, and audio.

Timbo in Oz's picture

This is RUBBISH, I am an 'objectivist' of a quiet kind, who believes in measuring my system's response in the lounge-room and my study, at my listening seat. And using Eq to get the system pretty flat from at least 150Hz on down.

DSP EQ? when I can afford it.

I do not want to end this hobby.

I was a paid musician from the age of 9 to 17. ? High-Church Anglican cathedral chorister. I still sing for the pleasure but am not paid.

We attend live acoustic classical concerts regularly and listen to / perform acoustic church music at least once a week.

I use Allison unequal loading distances from the bass arrays in my systems, and in the systems of clients, back when I did that as a business.

Do you do anything at all like that?

All this is because I really do love music, with an emphasis on simply recorded acoustic classical music. I prefer historically informed performance on the instruments the composers wrote for.

Having been born in 1950 I have about 30% R&R, Jazz and pop.

I continue to be amused by the unnecessary spendi-ness of this hobby, and the increasingly unreal quality of pop recordings.

I disagree about valve amplifiers. Well designed or rebuilt examples with soft-recovery SS diodes and bypassed high value filter caps, can have huge joule PSUs. Audible as tight SLAM in the bass and 3-6db clean headroom.

You do need sufficient NFB. If you get rid of all the HIGH-GAIN small-signal valves, you can have just sufficinet NFB to get low-enough output impedance.

VERY high NFB - is what SS amps really need.

In SS amps I prefer those with a high level of class-A - in dbw terms. And as little NFB as possible.

I own such a rethought STAX DA80 pure-A power amp. Two completely rethought LEAK stereo 20s, and a bunch of high power SS AB amps just for the subs.

Tim Bailey
Tim Bailey

ScullComm's picture

Balderdash! I urge you to be more positive and share what you enjoy without trashing others.

adrianwu's picture

To suggest that an amplifier that excels in Peter Walker's "straight wire with gain" test or David Hafler's Straight Wire Differential Test is "perfect" or even just better, is like saying someone who found no issue during an annual health check is in perfect health. There is no test in medicine that can guarantee someone is in perfect health, and there is no measurement in audio that can guarantee "perfect sound". What makes a piece of audio equipment sound good is probably as complex as what can go wrong in a human body. However, this does not make measurements irrelevant. If I see a hump in a frequency response plot, it is sure to affect the tonal balance. There are many measurements that can tell us what's wrong with a piece of equipment. But measurements can't tell us what is good sound.

ScullComm's picture

Hear hear... as it were.

Kal Rubinson's picture

However, this does not make measurements irrelevant. If I see a hump in a frequency response plot, it is sure to affect the tonal balance. There are many measurements that can tell us what's wrong with a piece of equipment. But measurements can't tell us what is good sound.

Yes but, as you point out, measurements can tell us what will sound bad or poorly.

lepp0012's picture

All I have to say is, I hope this is the first of many new J10 contributions to Stereophile!

I miss reviews from the ribbon chair!

ScullComm's picture

Thanks, I still love specialist audio, that's what I'm going to call it from here on, and the rampant pleasures it delivers on demand. We're spoiled, but let's enjoy it! BTW, we rebuilt the Ribbon Chair and had it covered in the same fabric. (-"

robertbadcock's picture

I kept looking for the 'original article published in ....' on the side.

Very well to read you again; and please, because you; and the whole 'phile mag is so perfect with it - the complete absence of grammatical errors; ... English departments would do well to use y'all as a master class.


ScullComm's picture

Thank you Robert, I enjoyed writing it and it does look the business.