Your hi-fi sounds like crap

I ran across an editorial on Ultra High End Review called “The Sound of One Hand Clapping“. The author, Frank Berryman, argues (I think) that The Absolute Sound is the one True Reference for all audiophiles. I think. Wait, let me check. Okay, yeah, that’s what he says:

I maintain that there is but one type of audiophile: one who is interested in reproducing what, in his memory or imagination, a live event sounded like, based on his prior experiences and his expectations.

Interestingly, he actually makes the opposite point quite eloquently. He has one of the best, most consistently damning arguments as to why The Absolute Sound — that is, the “live event” — is actually impossible to achieve.

Sure, we know what a violin sounds like. Every violin has a certain intrinsic quality, but no two violins sound the same, and the same violin does not sound the same when played by two different musicians. And unless we were at the performance, we don’t know what a particular violin sounded like when played by a particular musician in a particular performance space. This scenario is further complicated by the fact that the sound of the violin will be different at different locations within the performance space. So even if we attended the live performance, we only know what the sound of the violin was, say, in the orchestra section, row M, seat 14. I must also add that our aural memory is short, and the likelihood that we will remember precisely how a particular violin sounded when played by a particular musician in a particular performance space at a particular location is, to say the least, remote.

Worse still, we really have no idea what we’re listening to — even when we are live and in person. People are terrible at this, generally speaking. I think Berryman realizes this when he says the following:

Reproducing the absolute sound is a worthy goal, one that we should diligently strive for, but we must recognize that it is unachievable.

There are good philosophical reasons for this, too, but I’m not sure an extended discussion of the philosophy of Karl Popper is warranted here.

What we’re left with is the sound of our reproduction systems. Given that the goal cannot be to recreate the live event, as this is pretty much unknowable and therefore meaningless, the goal then ought to be the satisfaction that we can achieve.

This is, of course, problematic and can lead to all manner of system-specific recommendations that aren’t generalizable. Not to mention entirely subjective.

It’s interesting that Berryman finishes here when he quotes Stereophile’s J. Gordon Holt, “Why Hi-Fi Experts Disagree“, because this isn’t where Holt ends.

Rather, this is the money quote that I prefer:

In other words, as far as the reproducing system is concerned, it is fidelity to the recording that counts, rather than fidelity to the original sound.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

What this does is establish a better, more objective bar. What we should aim for is what the mastering engineer was aiming for. What we should hear, with our fine audio systems, is what the mastering engineer would hear in his mastering studio. Right?


Wait a second. Have any of you been to a mastering studio? If so, which system should we be shooting for? The one tuned for iTunes? The one tuned for car audio? Or the one tuned for radio? Because almost none of these mastering systems are mastering for my hi-fi. I mean, sure, there are some studios out there that do that, but not many. Especially not nowadays.

Ha ha! Dude, you are so screwed! Welcome back to the real world — the world of total subjectivity!

The best that any expert can do is to lead you to components that are intrinsically excellent. You will still have to make up your own mind about such matters as cost and appearance and flexibility, and you should try out a few different loudspeakers in your home to find out which ones suit your acoustical environment and your taste in reproduced sound. The expert cannot, and will not if he has any sense, choose the components for you, because your ear is the final judge in the last analysis. If no combination of really good components sounds good to you, then you probably don’t really want high fidelity, and can forget all about the expert opinions. They don’t agree anyway.

Here’s my take on all this — get yourself the hi-fi you can afford that makes you stop fussing about the bits and bobs. You’re playing music here, right? And aren’t you supposed to be enjoying the music? It’s not supposed to be this much work, is it? In the end, your system really ought to do what you’re willing to pay for. It should sound good to you. Your system should be balanced enough that you can upgrade individual components without fubaring the balance of the entire system. If you like a particular coloration — go for it. If you need a particular bass register hit, be prepared to pay for it. If you want tone, or detail, or speed — all those things are possible.

The best thing that you can do for yourself is find someone who knows something and subscribe to their approach. If you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with their taste, over time, well — that’s fucking helpful, now isn’t it? Right on! But however you go about it, whatever your goals, remember what Gordon said: “Your ear is the final judge.”

Use the Force, Luke. Let go. Trust me.