[SoundStage!]The Y-Files
Back Issue Article

October 2000

The Aural Compass

A familiar scene (if you live in the right place)

It’s Friday night. You’re living in a metropolitan area, and great restaurants are a dime a dozen. Where to eat instantly turns into an exciting and adventurous prospect. The final destination could be an impromptu response to a sudden urge or a long-suppressed hankering. Or it could be a fluke inspiration. Would monsignor care for sushi or Thai? Or would Italian, French or Moroccan be more appropriate tonight? As a New Yorker, you’d probably shake your head at such fake sophistication. But maybe you would stick up a wet finger to gauge where the culinary winds are blowing from -- better yet, you’d use your nose -- to follow your instincts and peculiar, metalized credit-card color. Taxi!

Let’s throw a monkey wrench into this unfolding joy ride before you consummate the evening in grand style and head off to wilder things. What would happen to all this gourmand excitement if I were to specify that whatever restaurant you picked tonight had to remain your only future option for the rest of your life?

Wouldn’t this bring about a sudden and most terrible seizure to your previously carefree, risk-embracing vigor of "seize the day" decisiveness? The elimination of choice adds instant gravitas to as simple a matter as what to bloody chew on. Merde! The prospect of making a mistake now weighs heavily upon what should be a nonchalant whimsy. In fact, the fundamental error of the entire sordid proposition rests squarely upon the bleak vision of perpetual sameness and concomitant boredom. Worse yet, disgust or even an allergic reaction might hide just around the bend, waiting to pounce if you picked your bistro too hastily. Homo sapiens is wired for diversity, after all. Perfect monogamy is a round peg in a square hole. The most exquisitely prepared meal in the world soon becomes vaporware if turned into a mono diet. The right choice is plainly impossible to make.

The connection

Ditto for audio.

If you begin to think about this very simple culinary matter in terms of hi-fi, something becomes revoltingly clear in a disconcerting hurry. To assemble a permanent audio system in many ways resembles a stoic commitment to a mono diet. In fact, I harbor a secret theory -- disclosed herewith in public for the very first time -- that audiophiles are so notoriously engaged in the endless upgrade rituals because they get bored with their systems sounding the same today as they did yesterday and the day before and the months before that.

This boredom is compounded one rainy afternoon. During an illicit listening session with an audio buddy, there’s the dreaded smell of burning oil to confirm a certain secret suspicion. Particular aspects of well-known albums have entirely eluded them so far. They just heard things on thin-worn recordings they never realized existed there in the first place. The system at home is obviously inferior.

Sounds familiar? This dreadful discovery soon leads to the old Audiogon routine of sell’n’buy or buy’n’sell -- whichever occurs first, but let’s hope it’s sell. Of course, the premarital bliss of the initial reckless encounter won’t survive for long. Once the engagement of the final purchase turns novelty into commonplace, the endless rat race for the perfect cheese resumes again. Sameness settles in, boredom begins to chew on our nerves. We begin once again to look for excuses to stray and indulge in momentary flings and affairs. Welcome home, audiophiles!

A wacky tool

Let’s peel this tear-inducing, money-draining onion back one layer to attempt a clearer idea of what’s going on. Begin by supposing there was such a wacky tool as an aural compass to survey the lay of Audioland. For argument’s sake, make north into neutrality while south becomes hi-fi. West is to be called musicality, while east turns into precision. These markers are arbitrary and could easily be renamed. But let’s agree also that these base characteristics do constitute some of the main sonic directions along which most systems tend to get assembled, whether by conscious design, intuition or unconscious reflex. The terms are self-explanatory except for hi-fi, by which we here mean bombastic artifice. Before we proceed to use this compass, envision yourself making an automotive journey to an undisclosed destination to drive home an important point. You and your traveling companion take turns deciding on which direction to go each and every time you get to an intersection or off-ramp. And I mean flip a coin, roll a dice or wing it without a map at literally every single stop sign, red light, T-section and fork in the road. This way of traveling would be so counter-habitual that you should really enact it fully in your mind for a moment to get a feel for the wild and wondrous possibilities it opens up.

If you proceed accordingly, it becomes clear as high-noon daylight that wherever you eventually happen to end up is entirely due to the arbitrary choices you’ve made along the way. By the same token, each time you take a turn, you eliminate two or three other ones you could have taken. It’s fair to say that your decisions, while resulting in one finite outcome, simultaneously annihilate a veritable multitude of possible other destinations and the very unique journeys leading up to them. In other words, you sacrifice the endless potentiality of choicelessness on the altar of the sharply defined results of choice. Thus is the providence of making decisions. It’s obvious but bears repeating. Going west means you’re not going north, east and south. Hence you’ll never know what it would feel like had you gone there instead. This simile holds especially true if you’re embarked on a journey that features relatively few pit stops, as in the component decisions on the way of putting together an audio system. By settling on one specific approach or direction, all others are avoided, and you don’t really know what they sound like.

Once you embark on musicality as your overriding concern, for example, you might end up with a tube-based rig like the Audio Note Zero system recently reviewed on SoundStage!. If you went east instead by opting for precision, you could find yourself facing Wilson Audio speakers and a stack of Krell electronics. These would be two diametrically opposed presentations, and chances are slim that during a normal course of events, an audiophile would explore both or gravitate from one to the other. Besides the raw sonic differences, there’s the entire "religious" aspect of specs versus emotionality and attendant engineering philosophies to whose advertising campaigns and claims one can readily fall prey to. And we’ve just used two extreme examples. Imagine how many other valid solutions we’ve overlooked.

Lady Luck for good or bad

The way things work in the real world is that we tend to purchase those components that cross our paths and twist our noodles because they’re better or different than what we’re used to. It’s really as simple as that. Whether through a dealer demo or trade show, a friend’s system or a blind date via trust into somebody’s recommendation, happenstance governs most of our choices. There simply is too much good product on the market. This short-changes the obvious need for a more serious, in-depth investigation. Good sound is relatively easy to achieve. Great sound -- well, that’s a different matter. Frankly, the over-abundance of products that can be configured in way too many variations to make complete and completely different-sounding systems means that to even scratch the tip of the iceberg is impossible. A truly educated decision like selecting a pickup truck from a short list of ten is out of the question. Truly, most of our systems are really the result of arbitrary chance encounters with aural strangers. They seduce us over a few intoxicated weeks and eventually compel us to leave our steady squeeze. While chance can be a terrifically exciting stimulus for riveting momentary indulgences -- remember Marlon Brando and Romy Scheider? -- long-term stability is better left to more careful planning. But how to go about it?

None of us -- even with the best of intentions coupled to ungodly sums of money and more free time on our hands than ought to be legal -- could ever hope to audition enough component combinations to feel certain that we really know what our perfect system should be like. Building a system means to clearly define a priori what we believe reproduced music should sound like. In other words, we pick a direction on our aural compass based on familiarity and exposure. Reality suggests that our magnetic guide can only contain directions we’re at least remotely aware of. For sure, it won’t list anything we’ve never come across before. Possibly our eventual choice ends up somewhere halfway between the cardinal arteries previously suggested. Or our tool may only feature two or three poles. Regardless, this personal definition becomes a practical means by which to arrive at our finite system that won’t offend us over time and remain an open portal through which music connects with us. However, this definition will never capture as elusive and mysterious a subject as music and must thus always be regarded as a facilitating crutch rather than the ultimate beacon of truth.

To counter the chance element in our system-building endeavor, a "scientific" attempt to map out at least the four cardinal aural directions hinted at above is advisable. To map out requires becoming intimate with, to taste and ingest and observe how our psyche responds to the various offerings. Do we suffer indigestion? Does our stomach gurgle contentedly?


This journey into the unknown will by necessity require an open mind and thirsty ear. But more so, it also begs for the help of others. This should in particular include those fellow music lovers and ‘philes whose taste in music and aural attributes diverge as radically from our own as possible. The objective here is not to judge or hope to hopelessly fall in love, but to take a walk on the wild side. We’re attempting to emulate the wisdom of a certain African tribe that segregates its adolescents into a separate, self-governed village entirely removed from adult supervision. As is the wont of youth and hormones, promiscuity runs rampant and everybody sleeps with everybody else. But the end result of such unruliness surprises the cynics and starchy-white Catholics. By practically sampling the entire available offering of possible village mates and thereby burning out instincts based on superficial attraction or novelty factors, these adolescents eventually team up in pairs whose long-time marital happiness far exceeds that of most married couples in our own society. "Taste first, commit later" is as good a recipe for audio success as it is in any other arena of life. The more bizarre and seemingly outlandish -- horn speakers perhaps -- the more comprehensive our survey will be. We’re trying to eliminate distractions based on unfamiliarity, weed out the possible mismatches and unworkable compromises, sow our wild oats to slowly but surely develop an approximate profile of what will best suit us in the long run. There really is no way of knowing how this will manifest beforehand. We can’t know what will appeal to us on a fundamental level until it stares us in the face, bites us in the ass or gently says "Hello stranger, what took you so long?"

With food, if we were to limit ourselves to a cuisine with a recognizable flavor based on certain spices -- say lemon grass and coconut milk as in Thai or garlic and parmesan as in stereotypical Italian -- we still have quite a variety of individual dishes to chose from that are variations on a major theme. In audio, the different ways to arrive at one of the cardinal aural themes or poles has to do primarily with the components that make up the amplifier/speaker interface. It is this most crucial juncture of transfer from electrical into mechanical energy where proper care can yield the highest gains and effect the most drastic changes. Thus high-efficiency speakers mated to micro-powered, single-ended tube amps could be one base recipe. Muscle amps partnered to electrostatic speakers begs to be another. A Meridian-type active speaker system with multichannel music modes flips the menu’s page. Further down note the minimonitor/subwoofer rig driven from a modest-powered but refined-sounding integrated.

While it’s easy to stretch such a list to ludicrous lengths, a bit of common sense can pare it down to remain eminently practical. Everyone’s journey is unique. Getting too specific defeats the purpose and pre-limits the scope of investigation. But hopefully there are enough hints here to suggest where your own limitations of exposure to different solutions may lie, so you can broaden your horizon before you decide on what’s best for you.

Equanimity, or why Buddha was right to walk in the middle

There’s yet another aspect to all this that can once again be traced back to food or, for some added spiciness, physical love. The myths of Don Juan and Casanova epitomize the insight that making love multiple times a day every single day of the year would be terribly trite and boring if confined to a single partner. However, those of us who profess to listen to our systems in "serious mode" on a daily basis are in a way claiming to be aural Casanovas. As if they were somehow endowed with both a supernatural disposition and, quite unlike the questionable role model, utter immunity from boredom, these professional audio jocks can "do it" twice a day throughout the seasons without blinking an eye. Therein lies the rub, though. If your eye don’t twitch and water, you haven’t felt nuttin’ yet.

I find it thoroughly disingenuous to expect that without a serious discipline of internal intention and preparedness, one could ever hope to repeatedly enjoy truly deep emotional musical playback encounters on a day-to-day basis. We don’t attend live concerts every day, do we? Who could, for example, stand the ridiculous operatic exaggerations on such a rigorous schedule? Have you ever tried to sit through an entire Ring cycle? However, when such extravagance is imbibed only once in a blue moon, it turns into a grand spectacle that’s made memorable via the sharp relief from the norm.

Like many modern conveniences that come with their own hidden liabilities, a stereo system enables us to an overly frequent and thus somewhat unhealthy and excessive consumption of music. Just turn a knob and it’s there whenever you want it. This predominantly casual context turns the elusive magic of emotional connectedness into a commonplace sneeze rather than an orgasmic event. One might go as far as saying that listening to music without intent and preparedness is akin to sonic pollution. It dulls the senses and renders us desensitized to the deeper layers of music over time. In many ways this is no different than taking drugs. The unadmitted aim is to induce a kind of mindless but disassociated state or stupor to momentarily distract us from physical reality and ourselves. This might sound like harsh judgment, but music as background filler is just another kind of sensory busy-ness that occupies a very minor portion of our attention and lowers our standards. It’s like nibbling on snacks when you’re hungry. It’s not really satisfying and does spoil the major meal you should have waited for instead.

Contrast the mediocrity of casual background music with the intense, physical love communion where obvious factors such as physical fitness, energy levels, emotional availability and other psycho-physical aspects come into play. All these influences mandate a sensitivity to appropriate setting and timing. It’s not an everyday occurrence, unless you’re specifically trained in Taoist or Tantric methods and can regulate these factors at will.

Listening to our audio rigs with hopes of getting magically transported away also requires that certain internal elements line up propitiously. It’s not something that is liable to happen on a daily basis, especially not in a casual context. In fact, indulgence of anything dulls our senses and slowly undermines the pleasure we’re after. It’s akin to raising our tolerance level or pleasure threshold. It takes more and more intense stimuli before we feel anything. Ditto for indulging in listening to music when we’re not in the right mood. If we were just as deliberate about our listening sessions as we were chasing desire with gusto during our heavily romantic, early-courtship dates. Remember those rose-petal-filled bubble baths, hot-oil massages, moonlit outdoor Jacuzzis, and bare-ass-nekkid sand-dune embarrassments? If you approach audio from such a perspective -- a personal routine of preparedness, the meditative aspect of the event -- the boredom factor and associated insecurities around our audio system can be easily ameliorated.

The skinny

To close the circle with our beginning food parallel and wrap up today’s sermon: Doesn’t eating out lose its special allure if it occurs too often? Each time I’m on the road for an extended business trip and forced to eat out thrice daily, I long to come home and have a simple home-cooked meal. However, eating out once or twice a week during extended home stays retains the feeling of specialness that turns "doing dinner" into a minor event to look forward to. While this type of "healthy frequency" will vary from person to person, it’s reasonable to assume that a schedule per se does exist for each and everyone. This remains true also for listening to music -- at least if you want to enjoy it for all its worth.

For long-term aural satisfaction, I suggest mapping out the sonic territory according to some type of compass first and to subsequently sample divergent and drastically opposed aural viewpoints before you commit to a long-term solution. Then, once settled down, avoid the inherent trap of "otherness." It’s intrinsic to any choices we make, simply by virtue of the juxtaposition that occurs with everything we didn’t choose, can’t intimately know, and hence could grow curious about just for the sake of change and difference. Finally, attune the listening frequency to your system with your aural biorhythm’s peak-performance times. Do something different with your life when the internal sonic pulse is barely perceptible and your aural hunger is not even an appetite but just a habitual reflex for some sonic context.

How’s that for a doctoral thesis on musical health?

...Srajan Ebaen


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