Cirque pour les Oreilles
Have you ever seen the Cirque du Soleil? Whether you see it live or in one of its many televised performances, it's a wonder and a glory... and an incredible feat of work.
Trained circus performers — already athletes of the highest skill and at the peak of physical fitness — work for months with coaches, choreographers, musicians, and costume and scenic designers to produce a show that's truly remarkable; in many ways, genuinely awesome; and always entertaining.
Very much the same can be said about your own home high fidelity music system. It, too, like the great performances of Cirque du Soleil, is — whether a composite of the artisanal products of many brilliant and dedicated specialty manufacturers, or part of the ubiquitous outlet of just a single one of the great "mid-fi" firms — the result of years of skill and training by many people and the beneficiary of a growth of skill and knowledge, perhaps a century or even more in the making.
The difference, of course – or at least one major one – is that, whereas Cirque du Soleil plays to two of your senses and has three dimensions, a broad stage, bright colors, and a staff of literally hundreds of performers, musicians, and support people to work with in entertaining you, your music system has a much harder job: It must tell you its story or create its fantasy adventure and capture your attention, stimulate your interest, involve you emotionally, and create its excitement with only your two ears, two speakers, and some electronic equipment to do the job.
That it can do so is fully as amazing as it is true, and it's for that reason that I so often find myself wondering about one segment of our audiophile and music-lover community — the "measurement set" of technological doubters.
You've undoubtedly run into them; the people who apparently don't care what a thing sounds like, but demand that it produce measurements as its credentials before they will allow themselves to like it (or even admit to its legitimacy). Unlike the rest of us, they apparently have no faith in the evidence of their ears and, despite what they may hear (if they like it, or even if they hear a perceptible but not measurable difference, they simply declare it to be "placebo effect"), they judge what they hear by what they read from a testing device, and seem to believe only what can be stated numerically.
Where's their sense of enjoyment? And where's their concern, not just for the validity of what they hear, but for the validity of the measurements? The fact is that, as is well-known and amply documented, the normal human ear, with a resolving power of at least 1 to 10 BILLION (the ability to differentiate sounds of across a broad range of frequencies and at least a full 100dB in level — typically from 30dB as the threshold of perception, to 130 dB, the threshold of pain, 10 billion times louder) far exceeds the single-scale resolving power of any test device, electronic or otherwise, of any kind ever made.
Any number of audio products (notably specialty cables, cable lifters, "stick-on" acoustic treatments, "quantum" devices, etc.), even though those who buy them insist they hear clearly audible differences, are dismissed by these "believe only the numbers" people as "snake oil" or "voodoo", just because conventional testing shows little or no difference with them in place. Yet, who's to say that the testers are even testing the right thing?
In cables, for example (my own special field of expertise; first XLO, and now RSX), conventional engineering holds that the only factors functionally differentiating the cheapest hardware store "lamp cord" from the best and most expensive (not necessarily the same thing) offerings from specialty companies devoted only to producing the finest-sounding cables they can, are resistance (R), capacitance (C), inductance (L), and sometimes, characteristic impedance (Z0 ), even though the latter only applies for either frequencies far beyond the audio range (normally described as 20Hz to 20kHz) and to cable lengths far in excess of any ever likely to be found in any home system.
The fact of it is that even the slightest research will disclose other significant factors, like what insulating materials (dielectrics) are used in the cables' construction, how the conductors are arranged relative to each other, and the relationship of the (current-controlled) electromagnetic field surrounding each signal-carrying conductor with the (voltage-controlled) electrostatic field surrounding its insulation.
All of these factors make a difference, and yet, if they're not recognized, how are they ever to be tested, and if they're not tested, how can they ever be dismissed as making no difference?
In the final analysis, though, testing is for the manufacturers, not the listeners. Just as all of the coaches, directors, designers, and myriad backstage people and the hundreds or thousands of rehearsal hours and just plain skill-building that go into a Cirque du Soleil performance are not its purpose, but only a part of its genesis, so, also, is the technology that goes into the creation of each element of a home music system not its purpose, but only a part of making it ready. The real purpose of the Cirque du Soleil ("Circus of the Sun") or of a home music system is the enjoyment of its audience, whether "in the flesh" for the one, or at home in an easy chair for the other.
Even the sound of the finest home audio system ever built is an illusion — a Cirque pour les Oreilles (a "circus for the ears"), NOT a real performance. To seek to regard it otherwise or to lose yourself in the technology that makes it possible will always be a mistake... and potentially the loss of what might be among life's greatest pleasures.
Far better to just put on a disc, sit back, close your eyes, and...