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No. 95 April 2012

(a few arguments for sense in the audiophile business)

In his reportage from the CES in Las Vegas Richard H. Mak wrote something that seemed absolutely understandable at first, but later threw me off my state of well-being I go into each time I listen to an interesting disc. And I listen a lot, so this state is quite natural for me… Anyway, I realized that this is something I know, which seems normal, but is the reason for alienation of the audio industry. And what makes the audiophile to be associated, in worst case scenario, with a pedophile, and in the best case with an alien… Richard H. Mak writes:
“Accompanying me to the Kondo room is a friend who is not so much an addicted audiophile as I am. You should have seen his face when he asked me to describe the Kondo sound to him. This sound is pure liquid, the music flows like water. It has no hard edges but at the same time, it is not rolled off or congested. It is smooth, it is seductive, and it is musical. “I have no clue what you are talking about”, said he.”
(Richard H. Mak, 2012 CES, Part V…, “Dagoogo”, January 2012; link HERE) Do you feel it? I am sure you dooo… Those of you who are new to being a music lover/audiophile, as well as the seasoned ones for whom swapping a capacitor in the power supply from Q Vitamin to an oil RCA is the be or not be of their system – for all of you, although for different reasons, the reaction of Mr. Mak’s friend is understandable. Why? What is it in our business that makes us look like freaks? Why is it so difficult for people to understand the rules of our branch? And finally, why is it that the truths about sound commonly accepted by us, their explorations, and the influence of different components on sound are still widely and quite unanimously questioned and often compared to voodoo?
I do not claim that I will answer all those questions clearly enough to convince everybody; I am not even saying that what I am going to say is the “holy truth”. But I will try to describe shortly who is an audiophile, what he really wants, and what tools he can use. Let this become a short introduction to an audiophile and an encouragement to look at the audio branch with the sympathy it deserves. In the end we “deal” in highest quality music…

Who is an audiophile?
The name ‘audiophile’ was created in a similar way to words like ‘bibliophile’, ‘Russophile’ and similar. It was made by combining the words audio (Latin ‘I hear’) and phílos (Greek ‘friend, friendly’). As you can see, ‘audiophile’ does not mean ‘sound lover’, as it might have seemed. The difference is clear, isn’t it? The true meaning of this word concentrates on listening, and not on sound as it is. We will return to this later.
A really nice definition of the word ‘audiophile’, a philological definition, is given in the Słownik wyrazów obcych (dictionary of foreign words) (authored by Lidia Wiśniakowska, Biblioteka Gazety Wyborczej, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2007). According to this definition it is “a person especially interested in high quality sound reproduction and collecting highest class playback equipment”.
Combining these two elements, the name and the definition of the person described by it, we get the following description of the audiophile: “this is a person loving music, taking care of each aspect of its reproduction; caring for playing it back to the fullest extent possible”.

Because it is often forgotten that music reproduced from a recording is an attempt to recreate something that happened, or could have happened, live; or an attempt to reproduce the ideas of the composer/producer/sound engineer/musician, in different combinations, also in cases when this music can only be created in a studio and live performance is not possible. And yet – and this is the core of audiophilism – music is not only the “melody”, a general idea about a given piece of music, but a kind of event, emotions, sounds in space, etc. And to properly reproduce a musical piece, we need to play it back in a maximally accurate way.
Otherwise it becomes only an ersatz, a bad copy of what this given piece is. It has nothing in common with how it was understood by the composer or musician, or with how it was heard by the recording engineer. It is worth knowing that in 99.9% cases music listened to is a kind of cheap wine like “Moc wiśni” or “Siła zbója”. A cheap wine can be nice and inspiring, but in the end it is only cheap wine – and this is what people listen to. That it kicks? That you can get drunk with it? Sure – this is how it works: you can get drunk with cheap wine, but also have a drink of good, quality wine or beer.
And in short this is audiophilism: an attempt to show the music as it really is, approach the point when we can relish it. When we hear a melody on the radio does not mean we hear music – you have to know and accept that. In that case you only hear a certain echo of true music, a bit like a Platonic reflection of reality, just to quote a Greek, while they are still on top…

So what does an audiophile want, what is he trying to achieve? He wants music at his home, in his ‘system’ (important word) to sound as close as possible to what happened during a concert (if this is a live recording) or in the recording studio (if it is a studio recording) or in his imagination (if this is an electronic music recording, meaning that there is no real life equivalent of it).
This ‘system’ is a ‘stereo’. Audio gear. It is composed of basic components, such as the sound source, meaning a Compact Disc player, turntable, tuner or another source (now also a PC computer), amplifier and loudspeakers. A second group of components being part of the system are the connecting cables, racks on which the gear is placed, anti-vibration elements, etc. And of course the listening room – least appreciated, while the most frequent source of problems.
An audiophile, in contrast to the suggestion made by the definition from the dictionary of foreign words does not collect audio gear. Collecting means owning many different units, variations, series of a given product. An audiophile usually has one amplifier, one pair of loudspeakers, etc. Even if he sometimes has more of them, this is still not to have a collection, but to exchange them in his system from time to time. So an audiophile does not collect audio gear, but exchanges it improving his system.

Why an audiophile is not very reliable and what arises from that
An audiophile is most often regarded as not a trustworthy individual. Bartek Chaciński, in his definition of an audiophile from the dictionary Wyż nisz (Wyż nisz. Od alterglobalistów do zośkarzy. 55 małych kultur, Kraków 2010) says that: : “Those audiophiles are not bad people, really. But – as usual for a niche – they are very committed to their cause”. It seems that he knows what this is all about, but consciously or not, he repeats the stereotypes, and looks at the whole branch from the outside. It is clear that he never experienced what everybody dealing with audio sometimes does – a new “quality”. But I will repeat this, audiophiles are not treated seriously in professional circles, I mean people dealing with stage sound, recording studios and academic environments. Why? Because they talk about things that are hard to measure, or cannot be measured at all. How is this possible? Everything can be measured, right?
Well – no. When somebody touched technical science just a tad more than at school, he knows that a lot of science was created, and still is, based on experiments. And only based on those experiments a theory is created, which could explain the results. We deal with something like this in audio – examination of audio equipment is based on listening to music and noticing if a given component changes sound. Because it is known that everything changes the sound. I mean this is known to everybody who devoted some time to ‘listening sessions’ („First of all a true audiophile does not just listen. He makes listening sessions” – look above). ‘Listening sessions’ are the time devoted to examine the influence of the gear on the sound.

The collision between the approach of the so called “objectivists”, meaning the “pro” people and academics, and “subjectivists”, meaning the audiophiles, is based on the basic divergence: the first group believes that everything can be measured and explained and predicted based on those measurements, while the other claims that the measurement techniques are not on par with what can be noticed while “examinations by inspection” are carried out, meaning using the oldest examination technique.
The descriptions ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ are used absolutely arbitrary, and were assigned by people from the first group who cannot believe that there is something that is not sensibly explained using known tools and knowledge. It does not matter that this can be heard – if it cannot be measured, it does not exist.
I would rather say that the whole science is subjective from the beginning, and that it is changing and evolving along with gathering data and comprehending it. Even measurements are subjective, because somebody needs to interpret them – and each interference of the human factor, adhering to the language used by the first group, “pollutes” the result with subjectivism. A big problem is also the research methods acceptable by both groups, even in those ‘listening sessions’. The pro world also knows that kind of method. Those are called comparisons. Usually of the AB type, with known elements A and B, but also in the double blind test ABX, where we know A and B, and we do not know the X. This is how the members of AES (Audio Engineering Society) make their research, an organization encompassing academic professors, lecturers, sound engineers, producers, etc. The problem is that in this research the sound of a CD is identical with mp3. Please make such comparison during a normal listening session, or just listening to longer pieces of music, and you will see that this method is not working in case of music – because it requires very short musical samples. And music is an event happening in time. Anyway, there are more such embarrassing mistakes within AES. Also engineers and musicians speak about the flaws of the ABX testing, just to mention John Atkinson, the chief editor of the “Stereophile” magazine. It is worth reading his basic test on this topic The Blind, the Double Blind, and the Not-So Blind (“Stereophile”, August 1994), available HERE. And this is a person making measurements for this magazine, and knowing them very well. (I encourage the more interested readers to read also the article The Highs & Lows of Double-Blind Testing HERE.)

Anyway, measurements do not reveal even a part of the complex phenomenon of music. Audiophilism often helped in its better understanding; let me just remind the casus of “jitter”, digital distortion which was noted in the audio branch for a long time, and which was not considered important by any producers, people related to theory and engineering. This may be why the first commercial jitter meter was made by an audio journalist, now the chief editor of the magazine “Hi-F News & Record Review”, Paul Miller. Currently jitter measurements are done as a basic set in every sensible laboratory. But it was first “heard” and only then “understood”. There are more cases like that.

They are even associated with the mocked problem of cable connections (power cables are a part of that): “Which does not disallow the protagonists of expensive cables to prove their rights based on their own impressions.” Although for years it was not understood, how it is possible that they influence the sound, the first steps on the road to theoretical understanding of this problem have been made – please have a look at the materials presented by the company VerexAQ, leading a big research project together with the company Nordost: Knowledge Alliance Briefing. This is only the first sign, but it shows that there is more to it than just nonsense talks of silly audiophiles…

Here we have to discern two kinds of people negating the sense of audiofilism – in case of one group, the accusations come from the lack of knowledge. And this is normal, when we do not know something, do not understand something, it is hard for us to assume that there is more to it than meets the eye. This is a safe group of people, because it is potentially open for a change in seeing things. The second group are the ignorant. This is a dangerous group, because on the one hand they do not know what they talk about, on the other hand they presume that they do not want to learn. “To ignore” is described in the following way: “purposely and consciously not accept things, neglect, disregard” (dictionary of foreign words). There is no common platform for discussion with ignorant people, and audiophiles deal most often with those – they know upfront what they will say. The only hope is in lack of knowledge, because this gives hope for learning. And listening sessions are usually a hopeless fight with the ignorant.

Audiophiles have their magazines
Well – magazines. Like each branch, also audio and audiophiles have their newspapers. These are almost exclusively monthly issued magazines. The oldest one, and still active, is the mentioned “Hi-Fi News & Record Review”, appearing since June 1956. Equally important are the American magazines “Stereophile” present since October 1962 and “The Absolute Sound” issued from 1973. In Japan the most important magazine is the “Stereo Sound”, which had its 45th anniversary last year. The history of those magazines is a good reflection on the change in perception of audio in the core of the branch. To understand the revolution of “subjectivists” better I recommend reading the splendid book Sound Bites. 50 years of Hi-Fi News by Ken Kessler and Steve Harris (London 2005).
Initially audio was understood as a combination of practical and theoretical knowledge, that is it was equally important what was “known” in a given area, as well as what was heard. Things changed at the end of the 60-ties. Paul Messenger, the chief editor of the “HIFICRITIC” magazine talks about those times:
“This period was a genuine watershed. Prior to the mid-1970s, Britain’s hi-fi establishment was in denial at the very idea that turntables or amplifiers could have any serious influence on system sound quality. Measurements had proved it, and only loudspeakers were believed to make a significant difference.
It was a viewpoint that the new companies – and journalists like yours truly – completely rejected. Indeed, the alternative view, put forward most vigorously by Linn and Naim, was that the source component was the most important, followed by the amplification, and that the speaker fundamentally did as it was told. Backed up by impressive demonstrations, it was a persuasive perspective, and the rest, as they say, is history. British hi-fi had re-invented itself.”
(see the interview with Martin Colloms in this issue of “High Fidelity”).
The thing is that together with the invasion of Japanese audio companies the approach of audio journalists changed – for a long time the magazine “Hi-F News & Record Review” tested the devices by publishing their construction and measurements. There was not even a word about their sound. They assumed that when something cannot be measured, or if two devices have similar measurements, they have to sound identical. Time showed that this was the wrong approach, which almost led to the death of the audiophile world. And almost allowed for triumph of badly sounding but brilliantly measured products. Let this be a warning to all who think that when they do not understand something, this does not exist. Or that this is magic. But well – magic is a science we do not understand yet…

An audiophile – on the junction of science and art
Audio magazines present tests and descriptions of audio gear, interviews, novelties, reportages from shows and meetings. Those magazines use language which which “is similar to the one used in the world of noble liquors. Refined, complicated and metaphoric.” The problem is that this is a hermetic language which has to be learned to be understood, to know what the writer meant. Many people from the outside mention this as an accusation. They forget however that each branch has its own language, a certain local dialect, which is not understandable by people from the outside. And audio is not an exception here. A lot of descriptions were borrowed from the language of art, describing paintings, music and sculptures. So it is anchored in the language system, in the cultural space.
Because it is not possible to write about sound not using metaphors, comparisons, not “painting” a certain world in front of the reader. This is a bit like poetry which tries to speak the unspoken. The language used in the audio magazines, and thus in the whole dispute related to audio, reproduces the complicated nature of the sound – if this was simple, then – I assure you – the language would be much simpler.
And you cannot escape from that. To dig into the tests you have to read a lot before that, even not understanding the texts fully, or understanding only every second word. Together with practice, self made listening sessions, visiting audio shows, audio system presentations organized quite often in recent times, we will acquire enough descriptions to be able to understand most of them and to create our own. This is how it works – in audio, and in every kind of art or even science.

Because audiophilism is located on the junction between science and art. Audio is about refined tools made to reproduce music. And this always means the combination of craftsmanship and something else, something extra. This may be why this domain is so hard to falsify, to verify. It requires experience and listening, listening and experience. It requires experiencing live music again and again, comparing it later to the one reproduced in our systems. It requires learning all the time – I cannot imagine an audiophile who would not read audio press, from a few countries, who would not experiment with his audio system. Because this is what this all is about – being an audiophile means an ongoing experiment, a never ending one.
And that costs a lot.

An expensive hobby
„In reaching the perfect sound there is no upper limit – we can combine a system for hundreds thousands of zlotys, but when somebody decided to spend more and asked for a system on special order, for sure he would find somebody to make this for more money, using space technology instead of the usual one” – this is again Bartek Chaciński, but now talking about something he does not understand.
Audio products of the highest class are usually simple constructions, but are handmade on demand. This is why they are so expensive. They are the accumulation of many years of experience – that is why they cost so much. In order to make them, old, and very old components are often used, which are very expensive. Or new ones, very traditional in their design, but very expensive to manufacture, because usually made in short series and from expensive raw materials. And such products are one-of-a-kind – please look at the system made by the Krakow company Ancient Audio for John Tu, the owner of Kingston Technology HERE.
It is true however that price of audio gear can shock the newbies. Even more so, as the brand names mentioned in this context do not mean anything to those people. Why? I am not the first one who does not understand this kind of astonishment. According to Ken Kessler, the journalist of “Hi-Fi News & Record Review” (the interview with Ken will appear in HF shortly) “we look at the world from the perspective of audiophilism and this is the reason that we know those names with the same amount of understanding as suitcase fetishists talking about Swaine Adeney Brigg or Tusting. What? You did not hear those names before? Well, this is because you are not suitcase fetishists. […] According to every marketing wizard in a suit from Corneliani and shoes from Berluti, this is just a case of perception. […] And why nobody is concerned about tests of very expensive cars, which will never be in reach for most of the readers? Because the readers want to know about them. And most of all because they aspire to them”. Amen. (Quote from Ken Kessler’s column Off The Leash!, „Hi-Fi News & Record Review”, February 2012, Vol. 57, No.02, p. 138.)

Wojciech Pacuła
A magician, crook, devil incarnate, audiophile

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