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Philosophical Notes: Secrets You Need To Know To Be An Audiophile, p. 1

Philosophical Notes: Secrets You Need To Know To Be An Audiophile, p. 1

Many people we know, and our staff especially, would love to welcome more people into the realm of the audiophile. We think our “sport” is a great way to focus on music, learn new things, meet great people and stretch your mind.

We also, like the philosopher Agnes Callard, think aspirations are a wonderful thing. Callard defines aspirations (I’m paraphrasing here) as the process we follow to gain new values. The distinction she makes is that aspirations are different from goals in that goal-seeking is the process of obtaining things we already value. Of course, the two work together nicely, but one of her points is that distinguishing aspirations from goals allows you to think consciously about aspects of your life that might be enhanced by expanding your values. If you don’t value the precision athleticism of ballet, then you don’t get to enjoy ballet (as much). If you don’t value the slowing down of the mind that accompanies the Japanese tea ceremony, then you don’t accept invitations to Japanese tea ceremonies and you don’t learn to value those things that the fuss is about.

There are lots of values. We can’t acquire them all, so we have to choose. And this is a particularly difficult problem because when we don’t value things, we don’t know if we would benefit from valuing them.

I think it is quite a bit less difficult to pursue the value system that is audiophilia, than it is, say, to pursue the value system of being an astronaut. With audiophilia, you are bound to have the experience of music and enjoying music, so you have some basis for thinking you might enjoy a value system that involves more closely experiencing the musician’s intent. In contrast, maybe flying in a jet is something like being an astronaut, but it seems hard to know. And I intuit that being an astronaut involves a lot more than being a passenger in a 737.

In any event, part of the purpose of The Absolute Sound is to aid music lovers on the journey of aspiring to be audiophiles.

To make the journey, you can just wade in and try stuff and intuitively build an audiophile value system. That is a good move, but many of us find it to be incomplete. Audiophilia has a short but rich history, and many people before you have discovered things that make the journey smoother. We plan to bring you a variety of our writings, and new thoughts as well, to explain what some of us have discovered as we walk this path. These aren’t intended to be secrets, but in reading reviews it can seem like they are.

The first “secret” I think is worth understanding can be explained with a bit of history.

The Absolute Sound was founded by Harry Pearson (HP) in 1973. HP studied psychology at Duke University and from that work he developed a philosophy about audio listening and reviewing that was a game-changer. Harry’s idea was that the human perceptive apparatus could be trained to objectively observe the distinctive performance characteristics of audio gear. Not only could it do this; it was also very good “test equipment” for that job. This is a point of contention among audiophiles, but there has been quite a bit of research showing how capable the sensory-brain system of humans is and how it often out-performs electronic instrumentation. I might suggest that the recent struggles with AI duplicating human general intelligence provide some indication of how much horsepower humans bring to the perceptual table.

But, I stress, the point here really isn’t that the ear/brain is better or worse or — most likely — simply different than signal analysis equipment. The key point is that the ear/brain works pretty well and it is what you have to perceive the results that audio gear produces, so it is worth thinking about how to use it.

Given the notion of allowing all audiophiles to judge the results of possible audio systems, we immediately run into a problem. What HP asserted is that we need a standard for using one’s hearing to judge good, mediocre, and bad. This is because, without such a standard, we are left in the realm of relativism and subjectivity. He further asserted that a subjective approach would often lead us astray and make our pursuit of audiophilia longer and more frustrating. It also would make our journey more lonely because, without standards, discussion with our fellow audiophiles of what is happening is more or less impossible.

The standard HP proposed, and then built The Absolute Sound magazine on, is the sound of live acoustic music played in a real space. That sound, he argued, is the reference to which reviewers should compare the sound of audio equipment when describing and judging its performance. We do not, first, focus on whether we like the sound, but on whether it sounds like the real thing. And if we don’t like something, we ask ourselves whether there is a deviation from accurate reproduction that is the source of our dislike. That is, we learn what works.

HP called that reference “the absolute sound.” Naturally, he chose it as the title for the magazine (it was 1973) as well. We distinguish between “the absolute sound”, which is the sound of live music in a real space, and “The Absolute Sound” which is a media network covering audio and music with the aim of helping listeners get closer to the absolute sound. So, of course, these two things are inextricably related.

HP’s philosophy proved essential to the development of high-performance audio. Without a common goal that was understood and shared by much of the audiophile consumer base, the audio world would likely have pursued many competing goals, and consumers would likely have been confused about what the game was. We would have had an industry in which companies made products they thought “sounded good,” but in which they (and consumers) lacked a clear path toward making them sound better. Because without a standard, it is hard to know the difference between good and better. It is much easier to detect inaccuracies when matching the sound of live music, and to work to eliminate them. And, certainly in the 1970s, the differences between live and reproduced sound were profound. Which is to say there was a long way to go and much development possible.

An implication of this reference standard philosophy is that all audiophiles would benefit from attending concerts and paying attention to what they hear. HP particularly recommended acoustic music (chamber, symphonic, opera, singer songwriters in small venues, folk music) because it is somewhat easier to know what a violin sounds like than what a violin played through and equalizer and an amp and various speakers sounds like. But really the point is to attend live concerts and develop a feel for what is happening. I also recommend having some acoustic instruments (perhaps piano and guitar, but the whole band/orchestra panoply is suitable) in your house. Even if your musicianship is very limited, playing with them will tell you a remarkable amount about how instruments sound.

Oh, but most of all, have fun! There is no grading on this journey.

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