Philosophical Notes: Secrets You Need To Be An Audiophile, p. 2
As noted in Part 1 of this series, these articles aren’t meant to convey things that are intentionally kept secret. But audio has a rich intellectual history, which is not easily conveyed, and therefore is rarely summarized in a systematic form. This can seem off-putting, so we aim to rectify that (accidentally unwelcoming) circumstance in this series.
Before we get into more practical things (sorry, but this is a preamble that is fundamental), there are some items you need to understand about being an audiophile that, when not understood, have proven to be tripping points for many on the journey. One of these preamble items is that audio is a culture. Audiophiles, in fact, are joining a very specific culture. You don’t have to join this culture, just like you don’t have to be an audiophile.
Cultures are often hard to define and are not spelled out. Since the culture defines the center of any practice, having it spelled out is helpful for those deciding whether to adopt or learn the culture. And, without this clarity, when your assumptions about the culture don’t align with the actual culture, it is confusing or troubling or dispiriting. We’re trying to avoid that. The point here is more to set you up, as you go on the audio journey, to ask “is this thing that seems weird possibly part of the culture that requires understanding before it can help?”
By culture we mean a set of ideas and practices that form, or are in the process of forming, a coherent way of looking at a subject. We will spend much of our time in this series spelling out what the specific audiophile culture is. And we will spend some time looking at where the culture is developing and what developmental questions are most significant. We have already covered one such specific: the audio culture values artistic intent and its instantiation in the sound of the live performance. That constitutes the “truth” we aim for, though thinking of it that way has its limitations as we will explore.
An important point for today’s topic, the one that causes so much tripping up, is that it is much easier to say that a culture is good or admirable than it is to say that a culture is true. To give an example that makes this fairly obvious, we might say that French or Italian or Japanese culture is admirable or interesting, but it would sound distinctly odd to say that French culture is false. Or that Brazilian culture is true. Now, since cultures tend to be collections of values and practices, it might be possible to come up with values and practices and ideas that are not true, but it is often hard to say that the whole culture is false. Culture just really doesn’t operate on the true/false dimension as well as, say, mathematical conjectures. Or proposed models in physics. Culture is a way to get at the truth. Culture is also something that is valued by its practitioners for its own attributes — the joy of being immersed in the culture and its aspects — not just for goal achievement.
We mention this because modern culture, in the thrall of what can be called scientism, could be said to have an excessive emphasis on truth as the measure of everything. Not that truth is bad in domains where it is the issue. But truth isn’t the issue all the time. Again, is a poem true? Is Shakespeare true? Is a 1950 Chateau La Fleur Pomerol true? Is the Mahler 5th Symphony true? You get the point, I hope, that if we focus resolutely on truth we can miss other dimensions of life.
To expand on the importance of this distinction, we could assert that the modern fascination with the truth is, at times, driven by an interest in resolving questions as a way of returning ourselves to a quiescent state. By contrast, we are working to articulate a culture that opens up and explores question after question as an active practice.
Cultures are trying to create coherent ways of being that are appealing and effective. In our case, we could say that the audiophile world is trying to create a culture that is a particular, distinctive part of a good life. That might sound over-reaching or it might sound naive, but part of the audiophile culture asks adherents to check cynicism at the door. And, in the extreme, if a culture defines itself as trying for the obverse, it is at least odd and probably repugnant (“We aim to build a culture that supports bad lives” sounds off-putting to us). We aim here for something that can be a life-long practice.
The specific cultural element that helps bring this a bit more down to earth is that we are working on the project of human perception. We, as audiophiles, are making the assertion that art, specifically the musical arts, provide a rich focus for humans. And to take advantage of that richness, we must develop our perceptual capabilities. And, in the experience of many, this is something you can’t really get too good at.
Also, by articulating that we are aiming for audiophile culture to aim at some form perceptual skill development, and thus artistic appreciation and its implications, we can contrast it with a culture that aims purely at delivering purchasing information. One could, of course, simply dip into the audio world to find out what speakers to buy, and this is fine. It simply isn’t, by itself, what one does when doing audio and being an audiophile. We hope to do a good job in developing The Absolute Sound so that it works for focused equipment buyers and for audiophiles.
Along these latter lines it is important to add that the audiophile culture that I speak about in this series, and which The Absolute Sound network is aimed toward, is not the culture of audio measurement. This distinction has been the source of much confusion over the years, and I probably won’t resolve that confusion here. But I should at least try to help. As early as Issue 4, in 1974, founder Harry Pearson said “According to the myth lovingly entertained by some of our commercial brethren, The Absolute Sound does not believe in measurements. That of course, is most singular High Nonsense.”
What Harry was pointing out is that of course there are measurements and of course they can be valuable. They are specifically valuable to equipment designers who spend years and decades mastering the perceptual system that is based on audio theory and measurement. This is a fine, lifelong project for audiophiles to pursue, except. The exception is that many/most audiophiles aren’t going to develop the technical background (very specific math and engineering mainly) nor the extensive experimental experience to organize the theory into fully systematic knowledge. We all try to some degree, but there are other ways that are more accessible to and effective for everyone.
The attraction of measurements to audio consumers, in our experience, is that they can provide the common material which which to weave the confidence that your audio system is excellent/better. Nothing wrong with that, until and if it becomes the end of the journey. Until and if the measurements become a cudgel with which to practice tribalism. Then, we think, you’re focused in a lesser direction and missing out on the good stuff, the art.
So, The Absolute Sound, and the audiophile culture we wish to advance, are aimed at developing human perception to the fullest. With measurements and analytical listening and study of acoustical theory and learning from test experiments all in supporting perceptual roles.
In our case, we have been developing this particular audiophile culture over the last 50 years. We think it is the audiophile culture, properly understood, and we will refer to it that way, not out of hubris but for the sake of simplicity. We want to continue to develop and define the aims we strive for, and how the audiophile practice can be carried out, and what questions are unresolved (at least for us).
We just wanted to be clear from the start that we are trying to define and explain a special culture, not just a technology, although audio technology is a wonderful and necessary part of the culture.
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