Objectivity and the Abstract Truth

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio,
Loudspeaker cables,
Digital cables
Objectivity and the Abstract Truth

Every hobby, by its very nature, runs the constant risk of losing contact with its own foundational intent or purpose. The closeness of specialization can, over time, turn into an abstraction where the tether to that hobby’s original essence is broken. Before the “phile” (lover) realizes it, the abstraction has become the essential. What’s true and valuable has shifted.

Microsoft has an interesting TV ad campaign currently airing that features the American hip hop artist/poet Common. The message of this marketing effort, broadly pointing towards the future of artificial intelligence, is interesting less for the ideas being promoted, and more (in my opinion) for what these ideas and attitudes reflect. The ad includes the suggestion that “It’s not about what technology can do, it’s about what you can do with it,” and ends with the connected, hanging question “What will you do with it?” I find these basic observations and questions regarding the essence of technology and our comportment towards our world fascinating, particularly because they are presented on behalf of one of the largest and most influential corporations in a pop-culture format through a pop-culture artist. I view this not as a Microsoft invention, but as an indicator of a cultural/generational shift in societies’ basic technological stance—a shift that is leaving many parts of the specialty-audio industry and hobby behind. Bear with me, as getting to the bottom of this shift and its implications for us audio types is going to require a brief diversion….

So, you’re holding a tennis racquet (work with me on this for just two paragraphs, I promise), and out of the nearby woods emerges a Tarzan-type figure. Looks like he’s been raised by wolves, but it turns out he speaks English (must have been English-speaking wolves). He points at the tennis racquet in your hand and asks, “What’s that?” Now, it’s a seemingly simple question, but you’ve surmised he probably isn’t familiar with the game of tennis, or why would he have asked the question in the first place. So, the answer “It’s a tennis racquet” probably isn’t, on its own, going to get it done. You could write down on a piece of paper its elemental composition, weight, dimensions, color, tensile strength, etc., etc. In other words, you could say “It’s a tennis racquet,” followed by its complete description as a physical object. Would that be a sufficient answer? Ask your objective-lovin’ self what the look in Tarzan’s eyes would be if you fully described the racquet’s thingness for him. You know the look, and it’s called empty. I’m guessing you won’t take this approach to effectively answer Tarzan’s question.

Instead, what you’ll instinctually do (if you’re not actually on a tennis court) is to take out your phone and show Tarzan a video of a game of tennis. You’ll know that Tarzan’s simple question relates to the essence of the tennis racquet (or any tennis racquet), and that this essence is inextricably bound to the game for which it is intended. In simpler terms, it’s most a tennis racquet when it’s being used to play a game of tennis. Only this is a satisfactory description of what it is. Not its name. Not its specifications. Not whether you like the racquet in your hand or not, or how you “feel” about it in comparison to other racquets and opinions. And we intuitively know this from an early age because it’s a truth very close to us—it’s obvious. What is obvious, however, is frequently forgotten.

Back to audio now (“Thank God” you say). Our equivalence to the game of tennis is listening to music in the home. That’s the central glue, essence, and truth of our hobby. It’s this activity that hobbyists attempt to more deeply understand so they can make the experience “better.” So they can build and fix things that serve the activity. So they can share and communicate with other hobbyists passionate about listening to music in their homes. All the equipment, the sounds they make, and the many offered opinions and pieces of advice would be thrown out of any contextual orbit without a reference back to the essence of listening to music in the home. Lost in space. Boy, can we get lost.

I worked for 17 years in a very “high-end” audio store where shelves and audio racks were filled with all the fancy gear you read about. I came from a background as a fanatical hobbyist who read every magazine (including the foreign language ones just to see the pictures), built my own giant ribbon hybrid loudspeakers, and explored all the acoustic textbooks I could. And so, it took me some extra time, working with hundreds of pieces of equipment, thousands of setups, and thousands of customers, to recognize and confirm what should be a basic fact: that no piece of equipment makes any sound on its own. That it needs a context of other equipment and a listener or listeners of unique backgrounds in order for it to “be” anything. That it could be wonderful or awful depending on the context. When a client would point and ask me what a certain amplifier sounded like, I’d respond: “It doesn’t sound like anything, yet.” I wanted them (especially the hard-core hobbyists) to get out of the mode of thinking about a “sound” from an “object,” or about the equipment’s technical specifications, and instead gravitate towards experiencing things in use. You know, actually playing tennis with the racquet instead of standing on the sidelines discussing the difference between gut and synthetic strings ad nauseum. Listening to music through a system and responding as a full-fledged intellectual, emotional, and sensing human being instead of performing the mental gymnastics necessary for considering the sonic difference between MDF and aluminum speaker cabinets.

There is a time for specialization. There is a time for a purely objective approach where the “thing” or piece of equipment is temporarily pulled out of the full context for specific examination (in design, setup, or repair, for instance). I use analytic tools like Feickert’s wonderful Adjust+ software for precise cartridge azimuth alignment, and I frequently use a calibrated mic and measurement software for loudspeaker setups and confirmation of certain sonic observations like a speaker’s in-room low-frequency extension. In retail, I used single-blind, level-matched tests where possible to help make performance evaluations of new products. I’ve obsessed as deeply into audio’s “angels on the head of pin” discussions as anyone reading this article. It’s all part of the hobby, and it can all be a hell of a lot of fun. But it’s an abstracted, sideline fun that runs the danger of becoming a surrogate truth.

The scientific method is a purposeful and sometimes necessary disentanglement of equipment and sounds from listening’s full context. But at the end of the day, a double-blind test or full set of measurements reveals a lesser form of the truth, not a greater one. The truth or essence of the equipment we listen to is not contained in them or in the capabilities they have or in the opinions we hold. Like it or not, the full truth is that we’re entangled in complex and wonderful ways with our world. With the game of tennis. With listening to music in our homes.

The most recent generations have been bombarded with instant, seemingly limitless information. They have inherited from previous generations a promise of progress and answers in the march of technology. What I see instead is that they have found little contained within this promise. They recognize that technology stands for nothing in particular. They recognize that the tennis racquet isn’t what it is without the game of tennis. As I wrote in my editorial “Head, Heart and Hands” in the July/August, 2017 issue, I believe that people still listen to vinyl “because they use the technologies that engage them. Because they like to think and feel and sense their world. Because these are people actively involved in a life worth living.” There has been a shift away from the truth of things and capabilities towards a truth found in a way of living and being.

The audio industry and hobby lags behind this generational shift. It still presents the gear and their capabilities as the desired essence. It still promises that the answer is in the technology and its resultant performance. This approach has appealed to every generation since the hobby’s inception, but it is now missing the mark. It’s lost in its own abstracted space.

I believe in a better future for the audio hobby because I believe in the shift back towards our “obvious” entanglement with our world. I believe that this sets us on a truer and increasingly more necessary course. The question about our hobby for the coming generations of audiophiles is “What will you do with it?”