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Chasing the absolute sound

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Why do we do this? “Being an audiophile”, I mean.

Fine, yes, it’s weird. Weird as a three-dollar-bill. Weird as Wicca. Yeah, weird. But I get that. People are weird. I mean the enterprise. Why audiophile. And not, say, a fan club. Why is this hobby not something more along the lines of “music appreciation club” or “art critic anonymous”. Why audiophile — with all the obsessive/compulsive fetishistic baggage that the term seems to haul about with it whenever it gate-crashes a casual conversation like a bus-load of pregnant nuns brandishing Uzis. That’s the part that gets me all head-scratchy.

Part of my question is that I sometimes lose track of the point. Is there one?

Sure, it’s about enjoying music. Well, at least in part. Now that I think of it, perhaps in very small part. Taking a look at the gear I have piled up around here, and casting my mental gaze over the similar piles I’ve found in the homes of other audiophiles, it’s pretty clear that’s not all there is to it. There’s a lot more going on — other than trying out for a leading role in an episode of Hoarders, that is.

When Harry Pearson died last fall, something (else?) cracked loose and has been rattling around, distracting me on the rare occasion that I’m not running pell-mell from one fire event to another. In a very rare sense of the word, HP was a legend. Larger than life. His reputation stands like one of the Argonath, his out-flung hand stretching protectively over those wandering the landscape of the high-end in audio, sanctifying and admonishing. It’s unnerving. Comforting. Weird.

I always felt it was more than a little ironic that Robert Harley reached out, asking if I was interested in joining TAS as a staff writer, and it probably says something that it only lasted for a couple of years. It’s not that I don’t think I’m worthy (which I’m not), or that I have any particular love or hate for the magazine (which I don’t). I have nothing but respect for Harley and the team, and I enjoyed my time sheltered under that wing, and quite thoroughly, too.

Absolutism

absolutesoundIt’s the name, really. ‘The Absolute Sound’. HP called it out as “The Goal of Hi-Fi”, as an industry — that is, that the whole point of the enterprise was to reproduce “the sound of actual acoustic instruments playing in a real space.” This, he called, “The High End.”

Yeah, I’ve never found any of this particularly compelling, to be honest.

Part of it, as long-time TAS contributor Jonathan Valin adroitly points out in his eulogy for HP, may be entirely due to the fact that I missed the whole classical music thing. Whoops. I want to like classical music. I do! But I think the best I’ve ever managed is respect, not any real love. That lack makes the prospect of cheerful spelunking in HP’s view of the genre — as you’d have to do to actually write an early TAS-style review — sound somewhat bewildering. I just grew up with different sounds than Harry. Live instruments? In real space? Which part of “More Than A Feeling” and “Thriller” is “live instruments” and which part is “real spaces”?

But then there’s this other quote from HP, also from that same seminal editorial (which I can’t seem to find online), quoted by Valin. It’s a curious thing — here, HP’s talking about an expected variance in opinion in TAS:

“We will, among ourselves, disagree from time to time …. Such disagreements are likely when you consider the fact that all components are imperfect and that the real subjective choice in assembling good high-fidelity systems comes with the choice of which imperfections you can bear over the long run.”

Now, this is odd. If there’s an absolute — a definitive and unequivocal — goal, identifiable and approachable within a clearly delineated methodology, would there be a difference of opinion? Could there be one?

This line of thought, interestingly, echoes a line of questioning I’ve pursued before from John Atkinson. The point, then and here, is quite simple: why isn’t The Absolute the same for everyone? A thing either achieves it or not — and HP says “not” — so the only question is only ever “how short does it fall”, and that’s pretty much an end to any and all discussion. Isn’t it?

Personally, I’ve always taken the two stances — “there is an absolute sound and that is the only metric” and “we won’t agree on what those things are” — to stand in some kind of opposition.

Said another way, I say that if you agree with either one of the two statements, you pretty much have to reject the second. Why? Well, with any absolute metric, disagreement about what is is or how to use it should be out of bounds. It just is what it is and whatever it is that made it that way also cleared up the debate or confusion. That’s what ‘absolute’ entails. You don’t get to debate absolutes. My pet theories, experiences, or heaven forbid, my personal preferences are all utterly irrelevant. Again, ‘absolute’ only “works” if it’s immutable. “Absolute” just is. Invariate. Inviolate. It is what it is and that’s all there is. Or all that matters. Or all that matters to serious people. Insert pomp and circumstance, here.

By prioritizing agreement, and noting that it’s tendentious, is staking out a different approach entirely. For one thing, you’re saying that there’s a relative scale, not an absolute one. A scale that’s amenable to preference and pragmatics. And that’s not compatible with absolutism. Hmm.

HP was many things, but “an idiot” wasn’t one. He knew damn well that there would be disagreement. Arguments, even. Preferences had to creep in. They had to, because everything was far from perfect. As HP explicitly stated, there’s no such thing as a perfect component; remember, everything falls short.

Two statements, opposing claims? Food fight!

I want to say that reconciliation is kind of like verisimilitude, but this is getting a little theoretical. The idea, in short, is that “absolute truth” isn’t knowable (for many very deep and serious reasons), but occasionally we get a peek (a breakthrough) that shows us that we still have a way still to go. Truth accordingly, is a goal and not a destination. Translated for the audio domain: since the ultimate goal (the absolute sound) is, in practice, impossible since all gear is flawed, we have as our guide the hope of closing in on The Truth The Absolute Sound by degree. And the closer we get, the better.

Like the best goals, The Goal is a legend. A myth. A target. … A problem. Yes, a problem. Several, actually. But the first and most obvious: how do we define one thing as “Closer to Absolute” than another?

In the abstract — and this is all very abstract — we can say that one thing is better than another when it does more that is correct. System/Component A would be better (in this sense) than System/Component B because A gets “more things right”.

Here’s my (other) problem. Everything comes down to the question of interpretation. What does “right” mean? It doesn’t mean perfect or Absolute — that’s off the table. So … what? Me, I tend to be more than a little negative about this. That is, I say it this way: System/Component A would be better than System/Component B because A gets “less wrong”. Why? It postpones a thorny problem — and all I need to do is wave at the cloud-shrouded mountaintop of perfection and truth.

But however you slice that onion, what you end up with is a checklist. Total the scores, et voila, the winner is revealed.

This is a temporary victory, however, and we seem to be just shuffling shells around the table. For example, what if System/Component A is better at detail retrieval and System/Component B is better at transient attack reproduction? Assuming all else is equal, how do we score them then?

That is, what to value? How to value it? Among all of the potential areas for improvement, what takes what priority and why? And who decides?

Relativism

relativismI suppose there are a couple of ways to go about solving these epistemic- (where epistemology = “how can we know”, “what counts as evidence”, &c) type problems. Like what’s closer or not closer to “real”: a flatter curve, measured at 1watt/meter or more hairs rising off the back of HP’s arm? I suppose there could be any number of Turing Tests a system would need to hurdle to be considered fully sentient sonically accomplished.

Obviously, HP managed to convince an entire industry that he was the Turing Test in question. Putting aside the question of the Arbiter for a moment, you also have to wonder — which HP should we really have been listening to? The one with 35-year-old ears, or the one with 65-year-old ears? The jaded one with the hundred metric tons of experience, or the one still filled with fire in his belly and wordy analogies dripping from his pen?

More generally, what is really meant by “real space”? This hall here, that one there, or no hall at all — something purely anechoic? Picking any one of those, do we mean, on a warm day? Or cold? With others in the room, or only when empty? And what of the reviewer? Should we trust him when he’s got delicious food in his belly, or only when he’s running on empty? Early in the day, when the reviewer was groggy, or later, when he’s tired? The day he gets good news, or bad, or is bored, or is elated? After hearing something else and primed or following some other, unrelated activity? What about the program material? Should we assume that excellence with un-amplified acoustical music will translate into mastery with amplified music? If a system does small-arrangement jazz to a fare-the-well, will it handle large-scale orchestra to the same degree? How about classic rock? A capella? Opera? Electronic dance music? And what if (horror of horror), we don’t actually ever listen to acoustic, un-amplified music?

Taken all of this as a whole, solving for value leads directly to aesthetic relativism (a phrase that seems more than a little redundant, if you ask me). There are good-better-best judgments to be made, most definitely — however they’re made — but what doesn’t follow from that is that any particular progression that will be guaranteed to hold true for all aesthetes. This isn’t all that odd, if you think about it (even putting aside the list of variables we just outlined) — and it’s actually pretty common in high-end audio.

To take two rather egregiously separated “camps” as an example; consider the fans of 300b vacuum-tube based systems on the one hand, and on the other, fans of Hypex Ncore Class-D amplifier-based systems. Exploiting some liberties with hyperbole, I imagine that you could take an archetype from one camp and drop him into a system built by an archetype of the other and happily witness all manner of pure, skin-crawling horror fly across the face of the first. In fact, it’s actually rare to find a single audiophile happily and cheerfully willing to spend time with two such systems, each built along only one of those trajectories. It’s pretty much either/or. And that’s just one example, among many (many) more.

So, why is that? And how can we say that one camp actually wrong? Take the recent example: I like “attack” and you like “detail”. You’re wrong because — [insert eloquence]! And since I’m the writer — nyah nyah! I choose! Ha HA! So, this component choice is better over that one because this one has better tone and I say so which means you’re wrong! Why? Because! QED.

This is hardly a fair argument, both in abstract caricature and in the much-watered-down versions we see in reality. Sure, there’s a legitimate point to be made in the qui custodiet ipsos custodes question — that is, who gets held up as the worthy we all look up to — but I’ve asked and answered this at some length last year (See Part 1, Part 2.1, Part 2.2, Part 3 and Part 4 — or not), so I’m not going to rehash the “value of the expert” here.

The point I’d like to make is that, even when we have a valid and worthy expert to guide us along the path of the Right and Good when it comes to our pursuit of The Absolute Sound, none of that (either in argument, or in practical recommendation falling out of the properly-functioning machinery appertaining thereto) actually entails:

  1. That you will find judgment meaningful (I can’t hear it, or I have zero idea WTF they’re talking about).
  2. That you will agree with that final verdict (I understand, but disagree).
  3. That you will actually prefer the resulting experience (I agree, but I like it anyway/it does other better that I care more about).

Again, I explore the living tar out of this with the whole Experts series, so I won’t do more than wave vaguely “over there”. The point? Well, there’s a better way.

Pragmatism

Look, I don’t mind it when folks wax poetic about HP or his quest. It’s clear and obvious that the man had a tremendous impact on the industry and I know that it was giants like J Gordon Holt and HP that made what I do possible. I truly get that. I also understand the there’s a gravitational pull toward HP’s Great Project to capture and reproduce The Absolute Sound. I can even appreciate that, too.

It’s just that I find the project flawed. And from a consumer’s perspective, it’s distractingly irrelevant.

Whatever the goal, the name of this game is supposed to be “fun”. I don’t think that’s even arguable. Any hobby that’s not fun is more than a little worrisome. My worry? That obsessing over the unachievable and/or meaningless is a great way to suck the fun right out of any hobby. Just guessing, but this “fine line” seems to be one that a great many audiophiles are teetering over.

I keep coming back to wine, and it’s not just because I’m a drunk or a student of Bacchus or something. There are clear cases where some wines are quite good, and some are quite bad, but when you get more granular than that, it always comes down to a which set of characteristics you, the drinker (or to tie in the earlier point, the aesthete), respond most to. You may love one that I may find “meh”, and that’s perfectly normal. When it comes down to it, we’re all creatures of our biology and our history — we are, in a very real and relevant way, unique. The fact that we ever agree, on anything, is pretty miraculous — but that does not require a world of Platonic Idealism (or one True Absolute Sound) to explain.

We, as organisms, joint up our world in pretty regular ways. There are these basic things — like being able to hear within the 20Hz-20kHz band, for example — that most of us share. We’ll fall from there along lines laid out less by biology and more by society (tribes, family, individual) and experience. But, at root, we’re all meat.

What this means is that it’s quite likely that someone else has walked the road in front of us. Again, I’ve talked about this before, this heuristic we have readily and naturally available — we can usually find a reviewer we tend to line up with, and use their shared experiences as a springboard to our personal exploration. We don’t have to invent the wheel each time we want to try something new.

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Ooh, look! A snowflake.

But there’s a corollary to this, which tends to get lost — as HP said, we will disagree. Value judgement are like that. Yes, there will be a great many things that we have in common, but when it comes down to it, you’re not going to be eating the steak I’m describing to you. You’re going to be making (or having someone else make) your own. So, if you like a bit more salt than I do, it’s on you to make sure it goes on there. Nothing wrong with a little salt. Or pepper. Or if you prefer to have your food arranged just-so, or on different plates, or what-have-you. That’s on you. It’s your meal. The point? The audiophile point that’s worth taking away from the Pragmatic Approach? That you enjoy your meal, your glass of wine, your sonic feast.

And thats pretty much it.

Last corollary, and I’ll give up and move on: who cares what DeepThought42 on ThisIsTheBestAudioForum-Dot-Com says about his gear or yours — is he eating your steak for you? No. And eww. And no.

When you find something that works for you, you have to remember that it’s okay to be okay with your preferences. You have permission. Live free or die! Be free, like Coyote. Whatever — you are unique, remember.

Just like everyone else.

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About Scot Hull (979 Articles)

Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

9 Comments on Chasing the absolute sound

  1. Gabriel Bisson // May 28, 2015 at 12:26 PM //

    I usually have trouble not to fall asleep while reading this kind of consensual stuff: “everybody’s right, there’s no truth, etc.”.

    Generally speaking I understand your point. Perfection can’t be achieved therefore everyone can have his own opinion about what is closer to perfection. And this is where subjectivity enters the room. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. If someone says that a speaker have blown his mind, I know what that means. The problem arise when we start to believe that truth no longer exist in audio. An audio signal is a pretty simple thing: a two dimensional variation of voltage over time. Speakers have dispersion patterns, and they usually come in pairs (hard to replicate a symphony with only two “sound holes”), so they can be a little more complicated, but a perfect replica of an incoming signal can be achieved and measured quite easily these days with electronics. The corollary is: you can be wrong. A 2% distortion tube amp is not higher fidelity than a 0.01% solid-state. The same can be said about vinyl vs digital, etc. There’s a reference in audio: how are we faithful to the recording? That’s an objective characterization of a system performance. Truth exists… That doesn’t mean you can’t prefer something else.

    You keep coming back to wine. Maybe that’s the problem. The two things are actually very different (please tell me the name of the first “wine engineer” that comes to your mind…).

    The idea of reproducing “the sound of actual acoustic instruments playing in a real space” may be flawed for many reasons (you pointed the main one: recordings themselves are rarely up to the task), but that doesn’t eliminate a more “modest” absolute goal in audio: to reproduce exactly what’s on the recording.

    As HP said: “we will disagree”. That doesn’t mean everybody’s right.

    • Scot Hull // May 28, 2015 at 4:22 PM //

      Robert Mondavi? That was just “first”, but the list of “wine engineers” (aka, vintners) is really, really long. WAAAAY longer than “audio engineers”, to be sure. But I digress ….

      My main issue with the “differing opinions” though, isn’t so much that we won’t agree about any single parameter. We might not, but that’d be kind of weird. Taking one random example: in a given room, a speaker can either hit 20Hz or it cannot. We can measure. It’s not up for debate. Similarly, we can also measure that same speaker in that same room and look at the consistency across some frequency spectrum, say, “mid-bass”, and see whether or not it does a fair to middling job. Again, not a debate.

      The problem is that most speakers — or systems, components, whatever, but speakers are just the most obvious — don’t just fall short in one parameter. I mean, if they did, that’d be flipping spectacular. But there are many, many parameters by which we judge sound. The problem is when we have more than one shortcoming. It almost doesn’t matter which they are, all we need is “more than one”. When compared to another loudspeaker, also with “more than one” shortcoming, we are fine and dandy and can compare the speakers willy nilly.

      It’s when the “more than one” shortcomings are different that the wheels come off the bus. All of them. All at once. How can we ever say any speaker is better or worse, then, without some wild appeal to subjectivity and all the arbitrariness that such an appeal entails?

      Which is why and when “the wine analogy” comes in. My set of “rightness criteria” depends entirely on my taste, which may or may not be informed by experience. The point — I (and you, or anyone) ought to find a vintner engineer who’s take aligns most agreeably and just be happy, and The Absolute Sound be damned.

      • Gabriel Bisson // May 29, 2015 at 12:39 PM //

        Let’s just be clear about what we’re talking about. For example, some people don’t care about the spatial information of a musical presentation and others find it is its most important parameter. The relative importance of each aspect is probably different for each one of us. That’s nature. But when someone comes up with an extremely euphonic amplifier, powered by uranium, and begin to say that it’s more three-dimensional than anything else, I have a problem. Tube amps have more “presence”, analog is less “grainy”, etc. The relativist environment in which these assertion are made possible have failed to discern neutrality and to appreciate it, meanwhile eccentric audiophiles refuse to recognize that they are processing their music, but would never touch an equalizer with a stick… Audio magazines are full of this relativist stuff: I like it better, therefore it’s better. Better than reality is also lower fidelity, but you need an objective reference to accept this idea…
        I believe we do not need more subjectivity in audio.

  2. If I understand it correctly, the standard audiophile methodology is to try, try and try again. It is your mission to listen to as many different types of source, amplifier and speaker as possible in order to find your perfect system – your “preference”. There’s also a small chance that you might hit upon the perfect “absolute” combination that no one has stumbled upon before, combining a mono cartridge, a 1970s solid state amp used as a phono pre-amp, some cables made of carbon fibre and some of silver, 300B valve power amplifier, Pioneer thingummy ultra-cheap speakers with Tannoy whatchamacallits as sub-woofers. Somewhere out there is a system whose individual components’ “detail retrieval” and “attack reproduction” all synergise to give us perfect sound and a holographic stereo soundstage. “I don’t know how it works, it just does!”

    I propose a different strategy.

    Instead of randomly casting around trying out technologies that proudly boast of their inaccuracy and quirkiness – but they’re so musical! – the audiophile should persevere with the technologies that are designed solely to be accurate. And then the audiophile’s mission becomes one of finding out and correcting what is wrong with the system that *should* sound good, but apparently doesn’t. The answer may be that the speakers are wrong for the room, and that different speakers or different EQ settings would correct the imbalance. There is also the possibility that the audiophile needs to re-educate his ears after years of listening to inaccurate systems. What is not going to work in the long term, is fitting an effects box (e.g. a valve amplifier) or a placebo box, and going “Wow! I know what my preference is now!”.

    Maybe it doesn’t sound like as much “fun” but at least it stands a chance of working, and it will be a lot cheaper!

  3. BradleyP // May 13, 2015 at 10:26 PM //

    A stereo can only take one as close to the absolute sound as the recording and mastering engineer allow. Reproducing the sound of live acoustical music is the goal of only some engineers with some live acoustical music. The best you and I can do is replicate what the mastering engineer signed off on, which sometimes is darn good and darn close to the ideal. In this respect, I’d say that Neil Young is on a more realistic quest than Harry Pearson was. Considering the ubiquity of B&W 801s in mastering studios, the purchase of a pair of those is probably the best first step in achieving this fuzzy goal.

    Personally, I think the “absolute sound” theme is mostly nostalgia in a respectable, beautifully produced magazine. They’re kinda stuck with it but seem to pay little attention to it anyway these days. Nevertheless, I’m glad I’m a subscriber.

  4. Ed Houck // May 13, 2015 at 4:15 PM //

    “…free, like Coyote.” Was that a quote from “Hank the Cowdog”? Love it!

  5. Very well said. I agree that the pursuit of some “absolute sound” kinda misses the point, particularly given the musical tastes of most audiophiles. I want a system that’s fun to listen to and gives me plenty of “holy shite that sounded great” moments. I just don’t care about how accurately a component adheres to some imaginary idea

  6. This article reminds me a bit of studying the Grand Inquisitor excerpt from the Brothers Karamzov in my honors philosophy class at Mizzou.
    I could hear much better then but had no clue how to listen.

    Part of the difficulty is the very nature of acoustics. The speed of sound changes with temperature, altitude even humidty has a role. Much bigger is the contribution of the room you listen in. Then personal taste probably swamps all of the above.

    I always liked Neil Young a lot, one of my closest friends hates his voice, my wife only wants to listen to Joni Mitchelle these days, I am not very fond of cheese or cream suaces etc.

    I do think reviewers should have a standard listening room, where the reviewers listening rooms all have the same dimensions, furniture etc. They are then required to listen in this calibrated reviewer listening room for writing the review.
    If we wanted to we could build such a room our self, same dimensions, furniture etc.
    This would help normalize and present a uniformity that would start to identify each reviewers listening transfer function and we could then make more informed buying decisions.

  7. I couldn´t agree more.I’ts my money and i,for one, always listen with my one ears so why bother
    howe it sounds to someone else?One just has to grow a pair slightly bigger than the average hipster
    and just enjoy!
    Be Well
    Lasse K

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