Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 7: May 2006


You Just Can’t Comprehend

It would be as tiresome to note every outrageous opinion or price point in Stereophile as it would be to note every outrageous comment by John Dvorak or carp over every evangelical universalism from those given to evangelism. Life is too short.

Still, once in a while the urge can’t be suppressed. An op-ed by Jason Victor Serinus in the March 2006 Stereophile, “The mystery of music,” falls into that category. Technically, it’s about the debate between objectivists and subjectivists among audiophiles—specifically, whether reviewers in high-end audio magazines really hear the differences they claim to hear. As expected in such commentaries, Serinus paints those on “the other side” in absolute terms—“assertions that aftermarket power cables can’t possibly make a difference or that amplifiers all sound alike.” I’ve seen very few assertions that “all amplifiers sound alike” (an absurd statement, given how massively and possibly euphonically some tube amplifiers distort sound) although there are certainly people who think the whole cable mystique is overrated.

But Serinus has the answer. It’s not that the differences aren’t real. It can’t possibly be that reviewers want to hear differences, and so hear them. Nope. Here’s the answer, stated as a question: “Is it possible that those who claim that some of us cannot possibly hear what we are hearing themselves lack the facility to comprehend what we’re hearing in the first place?”

As stated, that’s doubtless true for some doubters in some situations. Some people either don’t hear the difference between a boombox and a well-configured stereo system or, more likely, don’t care about the difference. If you love the sound of your iPod and have never tried a better pair of earbuds or headphones than the underperforming ones Apple supplies, you may fall into one of these categories. So too if you can’t hear the difference between 128K MP3 and CD sound (or losslessly-compressed sound, or even 320K MP3) on a range of music played over decent equipment. (“Decent equipment” certainly includes some iPod models using better headphones or feeding decent stereo systems.) There’s nothing wrong with that. If you enjoy the music, don’t find that you tire rapidly of the underperforming sound, and don’t care about the subtleties of the sound, who’s hurt?

But Serinus goes further: He suggests these people “can’t remember sounds” and quotes Virgil Thomson asserting that music is “comprehensible only to persons who can remember sounds.” Thomson comes off as quite the snob in that statement, seeming to suggest that those who “comprehend” music are a small secret society, “completely impenetrable by outsiders.” Serinus? He goes on to say, “For some people, music registers only as rhythm and/or sensation.” He puts down those who prefer home theatre to arias and suggests that anyone who “prefers hip-hop to Handel” most surely wouldn’t appreciate high-quality equipment, tossing in a touch of snobbery here as well. (A message for Serinus on another sneering comparison: Although I’m not one of them, there are people with exquisite taste who legitimately prefer Snapple to champagne, if only because they’re alcohol-intolerant or recovering alcoholics.)

I can remember sounds and music only too well. I haven’t heard Billy Joel’s The Stranger in at least 20 years, since we moved from LPs to CDs—but I can hear the whistling-and-piano instrumental that opens and closes the LP as clearly as if it was playing now. (I can also, in some cases, reorchestrate a piece in my mind. I’d probably never be a composer, but I might have been an arranger in some other lifetime and with more musical talent.) I can hear differences between some components and others, sometimes easily, sometimes with more effort. Admittedly, my hearing isn’t great at high frequencies, but my discrimination’s reasonably good. If money, space and time were no object, I’d probably have a moderately expensive sound system—chosen by audition and measurement.

I have no doubt that some cables make some difference in some situations. I have no doubt that there are real differences legitimately audible to some listeners that can’t be measured using current measuring techniques. I also have no doubt whatsoever that some of the huge, unmistakable, you’d-have-to-be-deaf-not-to-hear them differences touted in some of the high-end magazines exist only in the minds of the reviewers: They’re there because the manufacturer’s a good friend, the equipment is particularly shiny, or…

I find Serinus’ essay offensive and specious. It precludes arguments over whether differences are truly audible or are there because people want them to be there: “You just don’t comprehend music or sound properly.” That’s different from the golden-ear argument: Some people naturally hear differences others don’t, you can train yourself to hear smaller differences—and only the “golden-eared” few will appreciate the best equipment. That argument is still subject to verification through some form of blind testing. But many reviewers deny that blind testing can have any role in audiophilia, using known and real problems with double-blind real-time testing as a basis to condemn any effort to reduce pure subjectivity.

“You just don’t understand” is a good way to cut off debate of any sort. In the debates Serinus is dealing with, it’s almost certainly spurious: The audiophiles who question certain differences are unlikely to be people who can’t remember music or sound. But hey, if dismissing whole classes of people works, why not dismiss subcategories? These people don’t hear well enough, they’re not musical enough.

I believe people should do and believe whatever makes them happy, as long as it doesn’t injure other people, use an unseemly amount of natural resources or contribute to pollution and global warming, or otherwise damage others and the planet. I find it sad (if only too natural) that people achieve happiness by sneering at others; thus, this essay.

On the other hand…

It may be useful to contrast Serinus’ dismissive op-ed with “Truth vs. beauty: A tale of two transports,” pages 57-60 in the same Stereophile. Here, Laurence A. Borden discusses two moderately high-end CD transports (players, if you prefer), a CEC TL1-x and a modified Sony CDP X707ES. He’s used the CEC for years as his reference transport—and found the Sony “starkly different” in its sonic presentation:

The belt-driven CEC’s strength is a lush midrange associated with somewhat diminished frequency extremes. Despite these errors of omission, it is a very seductive presentation. In contrast, the Sony has more treble and bass energy, places more emphasis on the transient attack of notes, and gives the impression of the music being more brightly illuminated.

If you think that’s florid writing, you haven’t read high-end stereo magazines: This is actually pretty precise by audio-magazine standards and states differences that I suspect trained listeners using really good equipment and recordings would probably hear.

The discussion’s fascinating, if sometimes a little odd. Borden recognizes that some audiophiles primarily seek accuracy of reproduction, while others “apparently have little interest in these aspects and instead seek nothing more—or less—than a romantic and pleasant sound.” In other words, some want accurate reproducers, true to what’s in the recording, while others want their equipment to make pretty music. The more Borden listened, the more he concluded that the CEC “seems more about beauty, the modified Sony more about truth.”

Borden believes all playback systems are ultimately flawed; that’s not an unreasonable assertion. Given that, it’s not unreasonable to prefer one kind of flaw to another. (The “tube vs. transistor” arguments regarding amplifiers tend to be beauty-vs.-truth as well, except that tube lovers don’t like to put it that way. Borden notes that solid-state amplifiers may not be so much flawed themselves as a little too ruthless in uncovering flaws elsewhere in a stereo system.)

Borden isn’t coming down on one side or the other. “It is important to keep in mind that no one way is correct in the absolute sense, and we should all respect others’ opinions and approaches.”

If you care about these things and don’t regularly read Stereophile, I recommend Borden’s essay. The final sentence is interesting, given that Borden clearly liked the CEC transport a lot (or would not have been using it as a reference): “By the way, I prefer the modified Sony.”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 7, Whole Issue 77, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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