November 1, 2002
What I Hear
Back in the early '80s, I helped install an audio system for a friend who thanked me with a subscription to Fanfare, the bi-monthly record review. It wasnt long before I submitted a bit of writing, and so commenced my career as a music columnist. I called my column "Random Noise."
The column is now history, but its relevance isnt. You see, I played at being Robspierre, having come by my off-with-their-aristo-heads pugnacity from conversations with perhaps the worlds most opinionated sound buff, or a close runner-up. My mentor was a fan of Roy Allisons work. Roys devotees, myself among them, admired his no-nonsense speaker designs along with his tacit disdain of the notion that competently designed distortion-free electronics have their individual and readily identifiable sonic signatures, ditto cables, and so on into those big-ticket particulars that set high-end audiophiles apart from the hoi polloi.
I remind our readers that this business about sonic distinctions was a far more controversial subject than it is at present, where theyre pretty much a given. An account of one of the debates more notorious moments appears in the January 1987 issue of Stereo Review. Ian G. Masters "Do All Amplifiers Sound the Same?" details in words and charts a double-blind test in which audiophiles statistically seemed not to know whether they were listening to a high-end amp or mass-market receiver. Scorn greeted objections that the test, as fairly structured as it appears to have been, was flawed. The objectivists, so called -- proponents, most significantly, of scientifically validated proofs -- included Peter Walker, the designer of the Quad electrostat and icon in good standing in audiophilias pantheon. Mind you, this is no dead issue. Ph.Ds in physics will still assure you that heavy-duty lamp cord is entirely suitable speaker cable.
In identifying as I now do with those who believe that somethings indeed amiss with a presumably kosher procedure if it calls into question what were certain were hearing, I find myself allied with an often alarming motley. Science has its enemies, many of whom give me the creeps. If only as a personal thing, its no trivial matter to question the validity of perhaps the most objective of evaluative techniques.
And yet I do. Theres no help for it. I sit in the sweet spot, a locus with which I'm on the most intimate of terms, comparing interconnects on loan from some designer/manufacturer. And I hear differences. Ive several times mentioned in reviews disrupting the routine with a proletarian interconnect amidst the high-born wires Im evaluating in order to refresh my faith in the very nature of what Im about. It never fails. Nowhere does the weakest-link adage more aptly apply.
But anyone with the least knowledge of testing will explain that I know the identity of what Ive inserted or removed and that expectations thus intrude. Or this happens. Or that. I really dont care.
Its my system in my room, and these are my ears. Whom do I set out to please? Would I sell my $2000 speaker cables to a true believer and revert to $2 worth of lamp cord because Professor Pangloss says that the latter satisfies all parameters of human hearing? Not if I perceive the lamp cord degrading my system, and I have. Those leveling statistical results are dealing in abstractions. Theyre nowhere in my listening room, where I hear what I hear.
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