[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

April 2003

Hearing Between the Lines

Once there was a man named Joe Perfect. He had life all figured out.

Joe read every book and every magazine ever written on life’s choices and knew exactly what paths to follow to make his life perfect. He never made a decision unless he had researched every detail of the situation, thus preventing any unwanted surprise. Life with surprises was sure to disappoint, but a life armed with detailed information and well-thought-out plans was sure to provide a safe, predictable, perfect existence.

When Joe needed a pair of shoes, he hit the books. He checked the consumer digests, and he surfed the Internet. By the time he was done, Joe knew exactly what he needed. He knew the shoe that all of the experts told him was beyond reproach. He not only knew the style, but he knew the color that experts found most pleasing. He knew the shoelace style and how to most efficiently lace his shoe. He knew the proper products to use on his shoe to maintain it. He even knew the store with the best reputation where he could purchase the shoe. When the salesperson asked him if he wished to try it on first, he politely declined. What was the point? He had done his research.

Joe worked in a career selected for him on a high-school aptitude test. He lived in the city listed as the "most livable" city in the United States. He selected one of the most highly reviewed cars of all time, the Chrysler K-car, as his mode of transportation. The color was white, of course.

Joe continued along his life’s path in much the same way, as an informed participant. Soon he was of age where research had told him it was time to find a mate. All sources told him that 26 was the age that would most likely result in a stable life-long marriage. Not wanting to waste time with dating and fleeting emotions, he went about finding his spouse in the best way he knew. He hit the books and found a computer-dating service that specialized in arranged marriages. All he had to do was input all of his personal data and preferences and the computer printed out his perfect match. As a special option, the service even made all of the necessary wedding arrangements. So convenient was the arrangement that Joe found it unnecessary to meet his future bride before the wedding.

When Joe and his mate (he soon discovered that her name was Sally) had been married for the recommended one year without children, Joe’s research told him it would be an appropriate time to begin a family. Not wanting to take any chances, Joe decided to call on the assistance of science and a little genetic selection to make sure they ended up with the functionally balanced boy and girl, in that order.

Joe’s family was also able to benefit from Joe’s investigations. The children grew up eating the recommended foods, attending the recommended schools, and playing on all of the recommended sports teams. The family dog was even listed at the top of the American Kennel Club’s list.

When the children grew up Joe tracked all of the children’s achievement and aptitude tests and made sure the kids were enrolled in the appropriate universities. His children had learned not to inject their own opinions or ideas. They were well aware that this would only result in their father pulling out numerous reports and catalogs to prove that his decision was without flaw. Instead they attended the colleges of their "father’s" choice and selected the majors as directed.

But all was not well in Joe’s perfectly researched world.

Sally, for some mysterious reason, began to feel less than happy with her life. She found that Joe’s well-intentioned articles and reports did little to comfort her or fill her emotional void. Tired of living in a Consumer’s Reports reality show, Sally moved to Oregon and opened a half-way house for retired strippers.

Joe’s children, both apparently melancholic with their father’s selections, quit school. His daughter married a hemp farmer from Mississippi and was pregnant for eight of her first ten years of marriage. His son shaved his head and joined the Hare’ Krishna movement. He later opened a vegetarian restaurant specializing in tofu dishes Even the dog ran away and was last seen chasing a pretty little Japanese Chin on the wrong side of the tracks.

To comfort himself, Joe decided to buy that expensive sound system he had always wanted. For years all of the music in the house had come from an old Zenith tubed radio that his father had left him.

He looked to all of the latest audiophile journals to select only the top-rated components. The amplifier was easy. He selected the Omegacron 999 monoblocks with battery power supplies. The reviewer said they had iron-fisted bass control and a fine sense of dynamics. It was rated Class A by all of the magazines. For his preamp, he bought the "all-tube" Conrad Research pure triode model SS Minnow. All the writers raved at its wide soundstage and liquid midrange, and they all rated it Class A. His CD player, the Silver Bit, was legendary. And the speakers were a pair of electrostat-ribbon-planar-dynamic hybrids said to be the most accurate speaker ever produced. He shopped the price and ordered it all off of the Internet from dealers around the world. Why should he need the advice of a local dealer? He was buying only the best.

After arriving home and meticulously setting up each component and hooking it all up with the Class A-rated cables he had ordered from Hong Kong, Joe was ready to relax. He placed one of the audiophile-approved discs on the spindle of the Silver Bit’s transport and placed the puck on top. He sat back in his leather-covered ribbon chair and pressed play. He waited in anticipation for sonic treat that was sure to follow. After listening for what seemed like hours (in truth he didn’t even make it through the first track) Joe pulled the plug on the whole system. His ears were ringing, he was agitated, and he needed a drink. Joe poured himself a bourbon, turned on the old Zenith radio, and fell onto the couch. "How could this have happened?" he asked himself.

Joe sold the entire system the next day on a used-audio website. He was left with zilch. His entire life had turned into nothing but ideas for an entire catalog of country-and-western songs. His choices had all been so meticulously investigated. Every decision was well supported. How could this have happened? Yet his life was a mess. He vowed to read everything he could on the subject.

Before I begin pointing any fingers, I have to confess that I, too, have a little Joe Perfect in me. I read every review that I can get my hands on. I peruse the recommended-equipment lists of all audio publications, both e-based and print. I can probably tell you, without looking, if a certain component is on someone’s list.

I don’t consider this type of behavior to be derelict or irresponsible. I think this is all part of being involved in a hobby that is part personal entertainment and part obsession. Don’t scoff at me when I say obsession. You know as well as I do that if someone discovered that the signal direction arrows of one of your interconnects were pointed the wrong way, you couldn’t make it through the night without getting up to change it. All those poor electrons trying to push against those copper crystals running the wrong way. HOW COULD YOU?! Audio is part obsession, and staying well read is all part of it.

Let me repeat. Staying well read is all part of it.

All too often I meet audiophiles that go no further. They subscribe to all the magazines, they read all of the websites, they develop all of their opinions. They do this before they even step foot into an audio dealer’s showroom. These people should not be called audiophiles at all. Audiosheep perhaps, but not audiophiles. Did they forget that listening is a large part of this hobby?

Again, reading and researching is a valuable part of this hobby. It is not an end in itself. I consider research to be part of the brainstorming process when looking to make a purchase. During this process the number of choices may seem overwhelming. Reading what different reviewers say about products may help you to narrow the field of what you would like to audition. But let’s explore the word "may" at little further.

Most audio reviewers spend considerable hours and do their level best to give you an honest take on what they hear. Many have experience with a vast array of components. Some of these reviewers are quite good at putting their findings on paper so the average audiophile has some understanding of what the reviewer heard. Assuming that all of this is true, and also assuming that the reviewer is honest and not trying to please the advertisers, the process is still flawed.

Reviewers do not own every piece of audio gear that has ever been built. Even a reviewer with a large budget, or with access to several different components of one kind, is limited. Many audiophiles seem to forget that system synergy is one of, and perhaps the most important ingredient in making a system sound right. I cannot emphasize this enough and will someday dedicate an entire column to the concept. I remember going to an audiophile’s house to have a listen to his first high-end rig. He had put about $50k into his system and had used the Class A-rated component approach. I will say that every component in his system was first-rate. There are amazing sound systems out there in which any one of his components would sound incredible. What I heard was dry, lifeless, and just plain irritating. The bass was non-existent, the soundstage shallow, the imaging imprecise. He could have saved a lot of money and put together a well-balanced system for $5k that sounded much better. This is not an isolated case. You must make sure that components work together well, and the only way to do that is auditioning them yourself.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the process is personal taste. The Mercedes S500 and the BMW 750iL are both at the top of their class when it comes to automobiles, yet you will find both of them listed as the best luxury sedan by different members of the automotive press. Human bias will play a part whether you are reviewing a fine wine, a golf club, or a loudspeaker. I have many audiophile friends, many whom are professional reviewers, with ears I trust and tastes that are similar. We don’t always agree on what sounds good. So how do you expect to always be in agreement with someone whose tastes and biases are totally unfamiliar to you?

I suggest an experiment. Find a dealer that carries at least three speakers that are very highly rated in a publication you read. Listen to them all. Take your time. Try different amps, but please don’t drive your dealer crazy. He does have a business to run. I will be shocked it there is not at least one that makes you scratch your head and wonder how it ever ended up with such a review.

Don’t get me wrong. I think reviews can be quite valuable. The best thing you can do is get to know your reviewers. Read the reviewers. Pay attention to the equipment they are using for their reviews, as well as the music. Listen to some of their specific comments and then go listen to the component for yourself. You will develop an understanding of their personal tastes and soon will reading with a whole new perception of what they are saying. I know when a certain very popular reviewer and columnist says that the top end of a speaker was "very revealing" that I would consider it bright and most likely irritating. I know the reviewer’s tastes.

So read all you want. Check out those recommendations. Just remember the most important tools for finding the best sound are located on the left and right side of your head. And they often work best with your eyes closed.

...Bill Brooks


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