We audiophiles are a diverse and peculiar lot. So much so that some might think that self-identification is the only thing we share. If there is something distinctive about being an audiophile, what is it?
Art Dudley and Harry Pearson are notable among audio critics and reviewers in having developed and explicitly articulated relatively comprehensive audio aesthetics that framed their approach to reviewing and informed particular reviews. Of course, in many ways, their aesthetics could hardly be more different from one another. Pearson favored the big very big, nearly bombastic detailed (e.g. rumbling subway trains), layered soundstages, and high resolution (in the vein of HDTV). In contrast, Art focused primarily on musical persuasiveness, engagement, presence, and dimensionality. Their different aesthetic sensibilities led them to identify different aspects of audio playback essential to communicating what each viewed as moving and valuable in the experience.
All this has nothing to do with a fixation on the gear; nor does it have much to do with being blessed with golden ears. Rather it is about the ways in which listening to music through an audio system is capable of communicating everything from narrative content to emotional depth, to collaborative interactive playfulness among musicians, irony, joy and pain and so much more. At the heart of an audiophile is a possession of an audio aesthetic.
Rarely are the aesthetics each possesses comprehensive, fully developed, or explicitly articulated. They are works in progress. Organic, nurtured, cultivated; they can be relatively crude or refined. For some more felt and experienced than intellectualized. For some they are self-conscious and intentionally applied; for others, they are instinctive and fully integrated into one's forms of engagement with the world.
Responding To Beauty
I recall viewing Guernica with my then young teenage daughter in Madrid. We were at once awestruck and speechless. We spent nearly an hour in front of the painting and much of the remainder of the day trying to capture in words the fullness of our individual experiences. We felt the urge to explain to one another as best we could, what it was about the work that caused the responses each of us had and caught out by our limited capacities to do so.
On reflection, what struck me about our experience was not just the immediacy of its impact or its depth, but the desire each of us had to understand the impact and its source. What was it about the painting that made the responses we had so immediate, natural and, from each of our points of view, appropriate?
Buildings, legal briefs, mathematical proofs, as well as paintings, dances, plays, poems, musical compositions, and particular performances of them can all be beautiful. And beautiful in their own way, which is just to say that the beauty of each is likely grounded in different characteristics. On the other hand, the elegance of a narrative, poem, legal argument, or logical proof are sources of the beauty of each. Similarly, the rhythm of a building or dance can and often does contribute to the beauty of each.
More interestingly, perhaps, the aesthetic character of a work may contribute to its moral or political power, significance or influence; and it is a good question whether its moral or political meaning and consequence does or should figure in an appropriate assessment of its aesthetic merit or value. Certainly, Guernica's beauty heightens its political punch, and its capacity to convey its political message so convincingly is an element of its aesthetic distinction and distinctiveness.
One can, and people often do, respond in emotionally appropriate ways to works of great beauty without having first developed an aesthetic sensibility, indeed, without ever doing so. There is a difference between having appropriate emotional responses to beautiful objects and having a developed aesthetic sensibility just as there is a difference between being able to make and persuasively defend particular aesthetic judgments and having an overall aesthetic.
An aesthetic systematizes and organizes one's thinking about events, experiences, and objects with regard to their aesthetic qualities. In order to do so, an aesthetic must provide a set of concepts for organizing the experience, a language for conveying the experience, and a set of norms for assessing it. An aesthetic not only creates norms but is itself governed by norms. While making judgments on a one-off basis does not require consistency among the judgments one makes, an aesthetic requires that one's judgments be relatively consistent and collectively coherent.
These features of an aesthetic help us appreciate their value. Suppose you learn that a particular architectural firm has won a contract to develop a large urban complex (say, Hudson Yards in NYC) or an entire city (for example, Neom in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). If you know the firm and their general aesthetic, you can envision what the project will look and feel like, even how it will be experienced by those who live and work there.
In many ways, the common language of art and music criticism of the day lacked the vocabulary required to characterize and appreciate early work in abstract art and free form jazz, respectively. This is why some early abstractionists and free-form jazz artists felt that the relevant communities could not understand what they were up to. These new forms of artistic expression called for a 'new language' and a different conceptual toolbox. They called for an aesthetic sensibility suitable to them.
Who Has An Aesthetic
An artist's aesthetic is a guide to the creation and a standard against which they assess their success in expressing or conveying their intentions. Often an artist absorbs their aesthetic and plays with the language and norms it provides without hitting the viewer over the head with it. Various artists, however, are more self-conscious about their aesthetic and less trusting of their audience to make of it what they will. Several film directors are especially self-conscious some to good effect, others less so. Peter Greenaway, for example, is painstakingly and painfully mannered. The brilliance of equally self-conscious movie makers like the Coen Brothers is that their movies never seem formulaic. You always know what a Coen Brothers film brings, but you don't know how it will bring it.
Customers and clients employ their aesthetics to help them make choices about the performances they want to attend and the art items they want to see and, if possible, purchase.
For the majority of people, one would hope, a cultivated aesthetic deepens aesthetic experiences and pleasures precisely because it provides a richer, more textured, nuanced appreciation and not because it contributes to tedious dinner table conversation.
An audio aesthetic provides the linguistic and conceptual framework necessary to characterize and evaluate the experience of listening to music through an audio system. This aesthetic is obviously related to, but different from, the aesthetic that would be appropriate to characterizing and evaluating experiences of listening to live music.
The heart of the difference between the two is the role the (home) audio system makes plays in the experience.
The elements of the experience of listening to music through home audio include:
1. The recording (typically, the musical 'performance' captured on some medium that allows for its playback through an audio system);
2, the audio system (the conglomerate of devices, including 'the room', that together turn the recording into sound);
3. The sound the system produces, and
4. The listener experience of that sound.
An audio aesthetic provides a framework for organizing these elements, identifying what is important about the relationships among them, a language in which to describe the sound created, and standards for assessing success or failure. At the heart of any audio aesthetic are:
1. The attribution of a point or purpose for listening to music through an audio system; and
2. Adopting a point of view from which judgments of success or failure are made, what counts as valuable in the experience, standards for assessing the aptness of various emotional responses and so on. Let's begin by discussing different 'points of view' that one might adopt.
An Audio Point Of View
Of course, this leaves open the question of what makes for an ideal observer? In either case, the moral point of view is intended to contrast with the 'personal' point of view, precisely because that is the point of view of individual interest, desire, or preference. It is unlikely that the demands of morality coincide with any particular person's preferences, let alone everyone's. After all, morality is required in part to adjudicate among conflicting desires.
There has been considerably less discussion about a so-called audio point of view. It is natural to think that the audio point of view is the listener's point of view. Some might think that the relevant point of view in audio is the perspective of particular listeners. This is a highly relativistic or subjective point of view.
Among contemporary audio reviewers Steve Guttenberg is perhaps the most prominent proponent of this point of view. And for him, in particular, the joy of the experience, the excitement it brings, the smile it brings to one's face is the ultimate measure of audio gear. Others who adopt a listener impact aesthetic are more focused on the capacity of the gear to transpose the listener to a particular place. I don't think that the place to which one is transposed must have existed. That is, it is possible for an audio system to take one to a place and time of a performance that never really happened. In such cases, the desired outcome is an illusion. And there is no denying the value of an illusion, in audio and elsewhere. It's a kind of magic trick of which one may never grow tired.
In some ways, the listener's point of view seems so obviously correct that it might come as a surprise to learn that it is not the only option. Indeed, I doubt it is even the most prevalent among audiophiles or audio critics. Most reviews I read, sometimes implicitly, but more often explicitly adopt the point of view that the success of an audio system depends on its accuracy or fidelity to either the recording or the 'event' that is presumably captured by the recording.
There are many variants of this point of view. The core idea they share is that the measure of an audio system's success or failure is not its impact on the listener but the relationship of the sound it produces to something prior to it in the audio or musical chain. They can differ from one another in at least three ways:
1. The relevant prior part of the musical or audio chain;
2. Which aspects of that event are most important to reproduce;
3. The appropriate measure or standard of a successful relationship between the sound the system produces and the relevant prior event.
All of these approaches view an audio system as an artifact designed and put together to 'reproduce' something. It should be approached from the point of view of how good it is at reproduction. Differences among variants arise because the concept of 'reproduction' leaves open what is reproduced recording or event; which aspects of it should or must be reproduced every available detail or only musically significant ones; what the measure of successful reproduction is accuracy, fidelity, honesty or something else altogether.
One obvious problem with the idea that an audio system should recreate or reproduce the 'original' event is that often there is no such event. Most recordings are made in studios and not at music venues. Even when there is an original live event that occurs in a music venue or concert hall, the only record we have of it is a recording. At best, a recording can capture the essence of the performance, but determining the essence of a live performance invariably presupposes an aesthetic sensibility. The recording engineer at a live performance must already possess something like an audio aesthetic in order to capture a live event; and that aesthetic cannot possibly be any of the reproduction variety since in capturing the event the recording engineer at a live event is determining what it is that the audio system is somehow supposed to reproduce!
Moving on from live concerts to studio recordings, it is well known that with rare exceptions, recordings are the outcome of many studio sessions, sometimes at different locations and occasionally over lengthy periods of time. Moreover, the end product of those sessions is as much the work of recording engineers and post-production mixing as it is musicians.
Even if we could make sense of the idea of an original event or a 'pure recording' what aspects of it would we feel should or must be produced? Everything that could be heard on the recording or at the event should be heard and heard absolutely accurately? That would make an audio system more like a Xerox copier than anything else. Only the musically significant details or elements of the recording? But how do we distinguish genuine musically significant information from noise? Don't we already need to have something like a working audio aesthetic to do that?
I would think so, and in that case, we would be back in the position of needed something like an audio aesthetic or sensibility in order to understand how this particular aesthetic is supposed to work. And the aesthetic we would need cannot possibly be the one we are trying to characterize. The aesthetic we need is the one that tells us what should be reproduced; it cannot be the aesthetic that tells us that audio systems should aim to reproduce something!
And even if we could establish what should be reproduced and which aspects of it should be what exactly is the standard of successful reproduction? Accuracy? Fidelity? Honesty? These may sound like the same standard, but they are not. Fidelity is a kind of loyalty; and loyalty sometimes calls for less than full accuracy or honesty. A reproduction can be faithful to the composer's or the musician's intention and to do so may be more charitable than ruthlessly revealing. Ruthlessly revealing playback can be more distracting than revealing or informative. No reason to think that accuracy or fidelity calls for unfiltered honesty.
The 'reproduction' audio aesthetic is even less attractive than I have made it seem to this point. You might think that the listener plays no role at all in this kind of aesthetic, and surely that would be a problem, especially because it is the listener at the end of the day who is being asked to fork over the money that keeps the industry alive. The fact is that the listener does play a role in this aesthetic. The role they play does little to thank them for spending the big bucks the typical high-end audio system costs. Worse, the role is a task, and the task is impossible for them to perform.
The only evidence of whether an audio system meets the appropriate or favored reproduction test is what the system sounds like. The only witness to the sound the system produces is the listener. The listener's role is thus a task. That task is to determine whether the sound is an accurate, faithful or honest reproduction of the relevant recording or event. The listener's role is both witness and juror.
I don't know about you, but I have looked for ways to avoid jury duty whenever I have been called upon to serve that particular civic duty. In fact, I would be willing to pony up some cash to avoid doing so if I had to. I'll be damned if I am going to shell out hard-earned cash to turn my home music listening sessions into never-ending jury duty.
It's bad enough, one might argue, that the listener's enjoyment is of no consequence to the value of an audio system on this account. What's worse is that the listener isn't even being equipped with the information she needs to do the job that she is being asked to perform. The listener typically does not have independent access to either the recording or the original event and so can hardly judge the system's ability faithfully or accurately to reproduce it. Indeed, for most of us, most of the time, the only access we have to either is provided by the sound our system produces. Reduced to playing a merely epistemic role, we are left bereft of the tools necessary to do so. Sounds like a classic 'lose/lose' situation to me! And costly too.
The situation calls to mind the familiar Borscht Belt lament in which one guest having breakfast at a typical Catskill's hotel in the 1950s is heard complaining to another guest at the same table: "Oy, the food here is terrible, and the portions are so small."
The listener's point of view is based on a causal connection between the sound the system produces and its impact on the listener. The standard of success is something valuable or meaningful to the listener, whether transposition to a fantastical event, joy, relief, a state of peace with the world or something equally desirable. The fidelity or accuracy point of view is based on the idea that an audio system reproduces or recreates something. In a sense it is based on a relationship between two elements of the audio chain: crudely, what goes in and what comes out.
Very roughly, the reproduction point of view ignores the impact the audio system has on the experience or life of the listener, whereas the listener point of view basically says to hell with fidelity to the source, to recording, to performance. At least the listener's point of view has the virtue of trying to explain to an audio shopper why he or she might want to spend their hard-earned cash on an audio system. After all, our everyday lives are too often unfulfilling and each of us has experienced the pain that inevitably comes in both small and large doses. Why not have a music system that can lift your spirits and take you to a better place at least for a couple of hours.
What Do We Want An Audio System To Do?
On such views the point of putting together an audio system is to carry on an investigation into the recording or the event captured by it. Detail is information, and the greater the access to detail, for reasons that are not always relevant to the musical significance of an event, the better. The more we hear, presumably the further into the recording we can get. I am no fan of detail for its own sake. I find playback that draws my attention to details as discrete objects in space unconnected to a musically discernible purpose or intention entirely distracting.
I am especially puzzled by reviews that distinguish between components that are suitable for listening to music and others that are suitable tools for reviewing. Almost without exception, the components that fall into the latter category are said to be 'ruthlessly revealing," as if that were a distinctive virtue that reference systems should aspire to.
We don't listen to audio in our homes as laboratory scientists, private eyes, or investigative journalists. Indications to the contrary, we are ill-prepared to masquerade as scientists, private eyes, or investigative journalists.
I don't care how revealing a component is. If it can't make music it's as inappropriate for reviewing as it is for listening, and for an obvious reason. The point of reviewing is not to make scientific or quasi-scientific discoveries. It is to figure out whether a component sounds good, to give readers a sense of the circumstances in which it will shine or perform at its best, and to explain how and why we, as reviewers, have reached the judgments we have. This task requires developing and adhering to protocols, but it does not call for lab coats.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for the view even if we don't want to gather maximum detail, we don't want an audio system that operates primarily as an editor or a censor. We don't want our equipment to decide for us what we should hear.
Maybe not, but there was much to be said in favor of those CD players in the early days of the silver disc that rendered the entire experience listenable. I remember being among the first to buy an Audio Note CD player and almost entirely because it made listening to CDs tolerable. Nevertheless, editing is risky. Tis better on balance to follow Joe Friday's prescription: "Just the facts, ma'am." But there is much on a disc or a record that is musically unimportant and often distracting. No one would deny the value of eliminating surface noise on records or the sonic consequences of timing errors on digital recordings.
The view that we want to hear the details so that our view into the recording is incisive requires first that we be capable of distinguishing the noise from the information. We need to be able to filter out the former to capture the latter. And the view that we don't want our information edited is really the view that we need to be able to access the most musically significant aspects of performance and have them brought to center stage. But that requires that we have a way of distinguishing the musically significant from the insignificant aspects of a performance. And the tool we have for doing that is our audio aesthetic.
First Thoughts On An Alternative Audio Aesthetic
As I noted above, there are four elements in the audio chain: the recording, the audio system, the sound the audio system produces, and the listener experience of it. The centerpiece of my aesthetic is the view of audio components as 'performers' and the sound that they produce as their performance. The listener is the judge, not of the faithfulness of a recording, but of the quality of the performance. The recording is causally connected to the performance, and while there may be other significant ways in which the recording and the performance are connected it is no part of my view that the measure of the performance is connected to its faithful or accurate reproduction of the recording. Similarly, while the listener experience is central to my audio aesthetic, the measure of the system is not determined directly by how the listener responds to what they hear.
Smiles, pleasure, peace on the one hand, pain, self-doubt, anger, and the intensity of emotions of all sort matter; but they matter because the presentation, the performance of the audio system, causes those experiences. They are apt if they are appropriate responses to the performance. All sorts of audio systems can reveal detail or be pleasant enough, relaxing, or satisfying. Few indeed are capable of performances that are moving, transformative, immediate, compelling, or even musically persuasive. We all have experience with audio components that are incredible to listen to in virtually every respect other than the fact that for all their virtues, they never sound like music.
There are obvious and important ways in which an audio system as a group of performers differs from the usual band or orchestra. An audio system is made of metal, not of flesh and bones. That is not the interesting difference, however. After all, we can form a band of computers with AI capacities. Instead of a five-piece band, we could have a five-computer combo: each computer could be given the task of playing one instrument in, say, a jazz combo. We might even be able to program the computers to interact with one another in the sense of being responsive at any time to the direction one or another of the machines decides to go. We can evaluate such a band in much the same way that we would evaluate the Band of Gypsies. Someday, we may even grow to prefer the sound computer bands produce to the sound that flesh and blood musicians do.
The difference between metal and flesh may create its own problems, but they are not the ones that interest me here. The more interesting difference between an audio system as a band of performers and a flesh and blood band of performers is that we cannot isolate the performance of the different audio components or judge their contribution to the sound in the same way as we can identify and follow the contributions of different band members to particular performances. The obvious reason is that in any audio system all the components play all the parts (more or less).
From my point of view the fact that in an audio system, all the components play all the parts has the advantage of drawing our attention to what strikes me as an inconvenient but obvious fact. It doesn't matter what your audio aesthetic is, the fact is that the sound you hear from a system is always the sound of the system taken as a whole. And when I say the sound of the system is taken as a whole, I literally mean that it is dependent on the interactions among all the relevant components. Ironically, in that way, the components of an audio system are very much like the players in a band or orchestra.
They can feed off one another favorably because they complement one another and bring the best out in one another. Sadly, they may undermine one another. We recognize this fact all the time in the most obvious of circumstances. Low-powered tube amps are unlikely to bring the best out in five-way speakers with complex crossovers. These are components that simply do not play well together.
One tries to put an audio system together in much the same way that people try to put bands together.
There is an obvious difficulty, however, that most of us as audio critics too often elide. Certainly, I am guilty of having done so, and no doubt will do so again. If I am putting together a group of players in a band, I am hoping that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. On the other hand, it is not impossible for me to get a pretty good sense of what each player can do on their own. I can audition each bass player or drummer separately as well as in concert with others. There is simply no way that I can get a sense of how a particular preamp or amp or interconnect sounds apart from how it performs in a system. The difficulty of audio reviewing in many ways comes down to the difficulty of isolating the contribution of the component under review to the system into which the reviewer puts it.
Isolating the character of a particular component is always a problem, but the magnitude of the problem can vary and there are steps one can take to mitigate it. It's been my experience that Magnepan speakers have an outsized impact on the overall sound of systems they are a part of. Given an amp suitable in power and current, a system with Magnepans will sound more like other Magnepan based systems than it will sound like any other system. By the way, there is a whole lot to like about any Magnepan system and so that makes it a lot easier to put together a good-sounding Magnepan speaker. The Magnepan sound tends to dominate in a system.
And there are other components that seem to work well with an extraordinarily broad array of other components. In my experience, for example, Rega Planar 3 turntables play exceedingly nicely with all manner of equipment. They may limit the ceiling you can strive for in a system, but they can set a pretty high floor without limiting the character of the performance you can extract from systems in which they provide the source.
Some components exert a dominant force and others are good to go with just about anything. The way in which most components perform, however, really does depend not insubstantially on what you surround them with. And the sound you hear from them is the sound of the system you place them in. Our job is to try to isolate their contribution, if we can. Modesty about our ability to do so should temper both our instincts for criticism and unseemly hyperbolic praise.
One can take steps to mitigate the problem and in doing so take steps to isolate the contribution that a particular component makes to a system. Roughly, I can think of three approaches, one of which I have not been able to execute successfully and two of which I have found some success with. First, you can place the component into as many different system combinations as possible and see what changes and what doesn't. For this approach to produce meaningful judgments, one would need to have a lot of equipment, even more time and patience, and a lifetime of experience.
I know reviewers who are able to try components under review in several different settings, but to be honest, from a scientific or social scientific point of view, the total number of combinations even in these cases falls far short of what would be required by good experiment protocols. I lack the patience, equipment, and interest in seeing this approach through to a successful conclusion. Life is too short and even though I am a graduate of Rockefeller University, I remain among the minority that are not and are unlikely to become, professional scientists.
I doubt I have the skills to run controlled experiments according to the protocols necessary for the results to be meaningful. I am not sure I can always tell the difference between 'different' and 'better/worse', have no confidence that I can repeat the results I reach consistently, and have no interest in pretending otherwise.
Another alternative is to build a system around electronics with a single voicing, then agree to review only components at the front or back end of the audio chain. If you review components at the back end of the chain, then everything from the source to the speaker cables remains the same. If you play the same source materials, arguably the differences you hear are attributable to the speaker you are reviewing. In contrast, if you change sources, and listen to the same recordings, arguably the differences you hear are most likely attributable to the difference in the source's contribution.
I employed something like this approach for much of the reviewing I have done especially when my reference system consisted entirely of Shindo Labs equipment and complementary interconnects and cables. I knew my system's characteristic voice. If I had put another preamp into an otherwise well-defined sonic landscape, I would be doing it no justice at all. I am sure, the system would sound different, but so what. Would I have been giving the review preamp its best opportunity to shine? Not really. Fairness required limiting my reviewing to turntables, CD players, and speakers that could be effectively driven by an eight Watts single-ended amplifier. Many more speakers claim to be drivable by eight watts than actually can be especially in a large listening room. I didn't review that many components as a result, but I felt adequately confident that I could meaningfully capture the character of the components I did.
The third approach is the one I am currently employing. Most designers and manufacturers display their wares at shows and they look to find complementary partners with everything from sources to speakers to interconnects and cables. Whenever I agree to review a component, I have a conversation with the designer or manufacturer in which I ask them to identify the equipment with which their component works the way they want it to. Once they provide me with a list of components with which they are comfortable and in some cases, components with which they believe their products shine I ask them for help in sourcing those components as loaners for the review. Sometimes, I am familiar with those components; sometimes not. When everything is hooked up, I dial in the sound as best I can, make adjustments as necessary, and spend more than a month familiarizing myself with the sonic attributes of the system taken as a whole. I then do my best to isolate the contribution of the component under review.
I continue to be most confident of my characterizations of sources and speakers, least confident of my assessment of cables and interconnects. Everything else falls somewhere in between. I try to resist both negativity and hyperbole, not always successfully. I don't know what would make one a truly expert audio reviewer. I certainly am not, and do not claim otherwise. I am simply trying to understand audio, what is special about it, and the role it plays in our lives.
I know I am under a special burden to develop and articulate as many aspects of my audio aesthetic as I can, especially insofar as the approach I have taken to reviewing is not simply unconventional; it is, in a sense anarchy. I just thought you should know that, know why I have adopted such an approach, know that I am aware of the burdens the approach I have taken imposes on me. Most importantly, you should know that I'm trying to figure out what is required to be an honorable and reliable reviewer and a self-aware audiophile.
If you do something that is meaningful to you for a long enough time, it seems inevitable to be consumed by the legitimacy of the methodology you apply. I started my audio reviewing career with the usual questions about methodology, e.g. how do you review. Now the most pressing question is why do you do it the way you do? The only question I don't feel uncertain about answering is, Why do it at all? The answer to that one is easy for me. It's fascinating.