The Sound of the Human Heart

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.—William Bruce Cameron, Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking (1963)

I hear not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings.—Walt Whitman, "That Music Always Round Me," from Leaves of Grass

These two statements, to me, express the core perspective shared by Stereophile's contributors. When I encountered both of them within a span of 30 days, they spoke so strongly that I felt impelled to hook up the biggest, baddest loudspeakers I could find and broadcast them to the world, without distortion. Failing in that quest, and having not yet attained the status of the Edward R. Murrows and Walter Cronkites of eras past, I share them here.

The quote from Cameron, a professor of sociology and author of multiple books, is part of a longer statement: "It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Cameron's assertion applies equally to audio measurements. A decade ago, when I interviewed Luke Manley and his wife, Bea Lam, of VTL Amplifiers for my first feature story to appear in this magazine, they explained how they had confirmed for themselves that measurements can address only so much.

[Luke says,] "Sometimes we've developed a design that would measure fantastic, with wide bandwidth and incredible linearity. Bea would listen to it and say, 'Yes, everything is there. It's got the top, it's got the bottom, and it measures perfectly. But boy, is it boring to listen to.' Then we go back to the drawing board many times."

"Boring refers to the color and timbre of the music," Bea explains. "A good piano has a lot of overtones. It's the overtones that make up the sound, rather than the single frequency of a given note. Other instruments are similar. What we're looking for, besides the dynamics and power of the full orchestra, is the ability to correctly convey the sound of instruments. Whether it's a single violin or piano, our equipment absolutely has to get it right. If you're designing reference products and you can't get the color, you cannot capture the essence of the music."

Two years later, circuit designer John Curl, whose Vendetta phono preamplifier and circuit designs for Mark Levinson and Parasound have made him a legend among audiophiles, described virtually the same situation to me. Soon after beginning his odyssey into audio-circuit design, Curl learned the difference between a superior design that tested well on paper, and components that reproduced recordings as their engineers wished them to be heard. On discovering that every resistor, capacitor, and so on sounds different, he concluded that the sonic synergy of component parts—something that can't be determined by measurements alone—was as central as design excellence to a truthful reproduction of a recording of a musical performance.

Which is not to say that measurements are of secondary importance. On the contrary, Stereophile recognizes their centrality by including editor-in-chief John Atkinson's labor-intensive measurements of almost every component reviewed in the magazine. When JA finds a discrepancy between a measurement and what the reviewer has heard, he attempts to explain the divergence. When he can't, he sometimes calls for a second reviewer's opinion. These actions are based on something he has said many times: "Measurements do not lie, but neither do they tell the whole truth."

It is that whole truth that Walt Whitman addresses. The second half of his short poem about the celestial chorus that he has come to hear reads:

I hear not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings,
I listen to the different voices winding in and out, striving, contending with fiery vehemence to excel each other in emotion;
I do not think the performers know themselves—but now I think I begin to know them.

Stereophile's writers recognize that musical performances are, like the eyes, the windows of the soul. Every soul has its voice, and great artists perfect the means to share their inner truth through music. The voices of some great artists are so individual, so deeply personal, that we can know what beats in their hearts by the sounds they make. It is this soul connection that addresses the deepest mysteries of life and death that I long to experience when I listen to great music, expertly recorded, through the sound systems I encounter along the path.

The depth of spiritual connection between souls that an audio component can deliver is, I believe, how most of us at Stereophile determine the worth of the equipment we review. Adding up the wholesale cost of a component's individual parts, including custom casework, and multiplying that by four or five can reveal one sort of value. But ultimate value can be determined only by the beating of the human heart. Every time I read a review that includes careful descriptions of how the music a component produces makes the listener feel, I feel I have found my way home.—Jason Victor Serinus

Luke Zitterkopf's picture

JV has captured in this article what product designers wrestle with. Products should convey the meaning of the music. There is no acoustic or electrical measurement for this factor. And usually a product has it in spades or not much at all. No half ways on this capability. It could be described as you know it when you hear it. Great writing JV.

dalethorn's picture

Umm, the brain working together with the heart - neither neglected, neither dominating the other - that is music to my ears, and a formula for success everywhere.

Allen Fant's picture

Nice writing- JVS

I tend to agree w/ William Bruce Cameron.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

A. Hourst's picture

Another fact of sociology is that people can be deluded and perceptions are volatile. One would expect a technology based medium like audio not to rely almost uniquely on those subjective grounds, but we are bound to read text after text of those celebrations of individual truths and ritual remainders that music is the most important thing in life. “What matter most is the listener experience”… Well, what matter most in a good printed image is the subjective result, but we don’t see printer makers declare such baloney as “measurements don’t tell the whole story”. But in audio, we have the epicurean deviation easy. We talk about the feeling that a capacitor gives us, the emotion we have in front of a tube-horn system, and most of all, the impenetrable essence of listening to music. That pseudo-philosophy has taken the ground that technical matter should have, and we have to read things about “deep mysteries of life and death” almost on a daily basis in publications about audio gear. This text by Mr Serenius is only a short, textbook “condensé”. Somewhere along the way, audiophile writers have started to think that 5 cents spiritualism is cool, and that rather that babbling the technical terms of audio, speaking about the emotion would win them an “artist pedigree”, but it’s not. They are painting kittens on a tea cup.
“ultimate value can be determined only by the beating of the human heart.”
I can say that about my dishwasher. Or read that in a cheap movie review. That’s a boring triviality.

I believe there is some place for the enthusiasm of the soul in a good product review. Why is it usually so poor in audio publications? Probably because there is too much.

dalethorn's picture

It's interesting, isn't it, that we can see a 2-dimensional picture and know all of it, but have different perceptions about it based on our experiences and biases. But hi-fi music isn't just 3-dimensional, it's 4-dimensional due to time. That takes it far beyond the realm of 2-dimensional information, and so the different perceptions people have are vastly more complex.

A. Hourst's picture

A loudspeaker is hard to define by measurements only because of its dispersion pattern and room interaction, but amplifiers, like most electronics, are pretty much two-dimensional (voltage vs time). That’s even simpler than a printer, which is basically 3-dimensional (two in space and one in color). What you measure is what you get.

dalethorn's picture

Maybe it wasn't clear, but the room, in a snapshot, is 3-dimensional, and the fact that music plays in essentially an infinite number of time slices makes the event 4-dimensional at *minimum*. There may be even more dimensions involved, I don't know, but the reproduced sound in a room (for better or worse) isn't a one-to-one transform of the electrons in the wire.

ChrisS's picture those audio publications that you don't like, A. Hourst.

JR_Audio's picture

Hi Jason
Very well written and described the heart and soul of the music.
When making music, the better I have an "connection" to my inner heart and soul, the more "real" is what is coming out of me. With bypassing my brain and bypassing my training lessons, I "just" have to think about the next tone / note, and trust that everything is "right" what comes out of me and don't try to "control" for "perfect" interpretation, just trust that my heart and my soul do know the "truth" that counts and let it got. These are then heart filling moments for me and for the listeners.
The same / similar when choosing parts, designing equipment, etc. What components do bypass best my thinking, my analytical hearing, and do leave aside my head and do transport the music with the least distraction, with the least resistance direct into my heart and my soul, that I do forget that I am listing to music and basically let the feeling flow into me the same way, as the feeling has flown out of the musician when performing.
Looking forward seeing you at CES.