On Observation and Opinion

The audiophile enthusiasm is a very addicting one because it provides us with a conduit for our music (which we already love), and it presents that music in a particular fashion or style – the “sound” (perceivable character) of certain technologies or formats as it is identifiable from other “sounds” of other technologies or formats. In this fashion we get to play with and appreciate the different manners of presentation of the music as well as the music itself.

As an easy example one can cite the difference in sonic characteristics between an iPod playing a commercially-produced MP3 vs. a record player playing a vinyl LP. And while this particular example may be very obvious and easy to spot, there are far more nuanced and refined, miniscule-yet-critical differences to be noticed and noted. Drilling down several hundred (or more) levels, we are talking about noticing and noting apparent sonic-differences between such infinitesimally small things such as the various stylus profiles of a phonograph cartridge (and smaller!).

Edgar Villchur

Ever since the audio hobby gained mainstream popularity (probably mid-1950’s, coinciding with Edgar Villchur’s invention of the acoustic-suspension loudspeaker), there has been a desire and need for professional evaluation to help guide the consumer toward “good” products and away from “bad” products. As a consequence various critical journals have been published addressing the growing demand for this kind of evaluation. And just as the technology evolved historically, so have the approaches to evaluation evolved, engraving history as they went.

This history isn’t necessarily interesting on its own in any broad/mainstream sense, and I therefore couldn’t in good conscience recommend as page-turners books likeSound BitesorBang & Olufsento folks who are not already predisposed to the subject. However, there is an aspect about this history, heretofore unexamined (to my knowledge), that should be interesting to everyone: As the approaches to critical evaluation evolved, and as the language used to describe evaluated performance developed, the enthusiast reading the criticism increased their own awareness of various performance attributes and began to notice more and finer apparent aspects of performance than ever before.

This ability of language to interact with and effect perception has always been utterly fascinating to me, and it is why I’ve decided to write these introductory remarks before delving into the actual history I’ve chosen to discuss.

Robert Anton Wilson (RAW)

I was first alerted to this “hypnotic effect” that language has by the strangely fascinating writings of Robert Anton Wilson, who deftly delved into the very messy world that blossoms in the nexus between philosophy, science, psychology, mysticism, and politics. Among those writings that were early influences on the development of my emerging personal philosophy counted several of his books, not the least of which were “Prometheus Rising” and “Quantum Psychology,” but for those who knew-me-back-when, the roller-coaster-ride of his “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” inspired me such that I named my first company: Illuminati (a name which still rings familiar bells for a handful of oldtimers but has otherwise been lost to the relentless abrasion of time).

During that ca: 1993-era I was also engaged in some writing. My first article for Positive-Feedback (“The Journal Of The Oregon Triode Society”) was published in their Vol.4, No.2 issue and was merely a “designer’s notes” article wherein I was graciously given the space to talk about my nascent company and its single (and singular) product: the “Datastream” 75 Ohm digital cable. In the same issue I also ran a full-page advert for the company on page 1, replete with foreboding “eye-in-the-triangle” mystical symbolism (inspired by Wilson’s book-covers, of course), technical claims for the Datastream itself, and some contact information.

It was also in those hallowed pages that I became familiar with the writing of Mr. Clark Johnsen and, thanks to an introduction/prodding by editor and dear friend Dr. David Robinson, many long and really interesting telephone conversations were had with Clark. During that time I recall faxing to Clark the text of an article that I wanted to submit to the magazine, as I wanted him to evaluate it from an editor’s perspective. A subsequent telephone call from him helped me to identify what amounted to a fairly chronic problem in my writing: the word “is”

alfred-korzybski-238x300I won’t try to recall the conversation itself except to note that it was during this particular round of editorial counseling that he hipped me to the work of Alfred Korzybki as founder of General Semantics and inspiration for the invention of E-Prime by D. David Bourland. E-Prime was, at its simplest, the English language without any forms of the verb “to be” – codifying the purpose of clarifying or delineating the differences between opinion and fact with an overarching semantic “rule” of sorts.

Clark introduced me to Korzybski’s writings, and Korzybski taught me about the effect of language upon perception:

One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think,” said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies.” The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. “You see,” Korzybski remarked, “I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.”

The Map Is Not The Territory

The Menu Is Not The Meal

From these basics I began to understand a fundamental and pervasive aspect of all language, including mathematics and music:

These are invented systems of abstractions that we, as a species, use to create representative approximations of phenomena that we imperfectly encounter through sense-perceptions –

AND

– that, as a bad habit, we tend to confuse these essentially-symbolic abstractions (“useful models”) for something we dare to call “The Truth” – a quality or condition that we are otherwise unprepared and ill-equipped to approach in actuality.

More simply stated: We have no access to The Whole Truth – so we pretend that our abstractions and linguistic modeling are sufficient proxies.

Without getting too, too esoteric and airy-fairy I relate this for two reasons:

First: to confess, as it were, sombunall of the influences that have affected my thinking about my thinking (and writing)

Second: as a somewhat of a demonstration that the evolution of the evaluative philosophy and language that was developed and employed by the most influential journalists in our industry may have directly catalyzed the development of capacities in the enthusiast/reader, enabling them to listen more sensitively and deeply.

This latter part has the potential to be important to the reader who wasn’t previously aware of the history, or aware of the writings of those scribes who founded those critical tangents (and who are probably the reason that you might use words like “warm” or “liquid” or “stringent” or “steely” when describing the sound of an audio component).

filigree-banner

DRILLING DOWN

The nature of our enthusiasm for things-audio seems to subdivide psychologically and philosophically into approaches that reviewers – and also, hobbyists – adopt when approaching the task of rendering an opinion about some audio “thing” they might be evaluating. As major philosophical emphases I believe these three are abundantly evident:

OBJECTIVISM

SUBJECTIVISM

HEDONISM

ISM-VENN-DIAGRAM

So : Venn Diagram, above. You can see the major emphases in the major sets, the intersection of areas, and that little portion in the middle where I suspect that most of us actually move around. One day or hour or moment you might be strictly in the middle, other days/hours/moments you might be leaning more toward an emphasis.

Examining each of these philosophies, at least as I tend to think of them :

Input:Output:Reference-Signal

Input:Output:Reference-Signal

OBJECTIVISM:

The 20th Century: No philosophical obsession seems more entrenched as a matter fundamental to its emblematic compulsive-intellectualism (and its Cartesian anxiety) as Objectivism. Though popularized as a political and moral philosophy by Ayn Rand, it remains ostensibly a byproduct of a mechanistic-materialism that arose as a result of the methods that had been developed, evolved, and adapted out of (mostly) dispassionate 17th Century “scientific” inquiry and discipline. At its core, it demands that humans can only interact with portions of “Objective Reality” through imperfect sense-perceptions, and that knowledge about Objective Reality can only be arrived at, piecemeal, through a system of inquiry that is based upon empirical data gathering, methodical testing, and inductive logic.

Namely: Scientific Method

Among the most extreme adherents of Audio Objectivism you might find the particular philosophy emerge: If it can’t be measured, it can’t be heard.

Superbly reasonable, really – especially when dealing with feats of engineering such as amplifiers, loudspeakers, and (good Lord!) cables. After all, these things are designed and built with certain rules in mind and do behave predictably according to those rules. The most extreme adherents dogmatically insist as an article of faith (irony!), that if two devices of the same sort measure identically … they will perform identically. And because “The Rules” are known, and because the designers and engineers subject their devices to “The Rules,” there must be very little purpose spending one’s money on the more expensive of two similar options if they measure identically.

This stems from a notion pregnant within this philosophy that audio equipment of all sorts are intended to fulfill a strict purpose: to preserve, as faithfully as possible, the signal traveling from one end of the chain to the other. And because the signal is defined by and limited to the framework set forth by The Rules, measurement according to The Rules and its approved metrics are all that would be needed to determine the “fidelity” of the device under test. Very tidy little system there.

julian_hirsch

Julian Hirsch

These were very compelling arguments to make, especially in the 1950’s when there was much more of a general interest and hopefulness about Science-as-Savior, creating an interesting opportunity for Julian Hirsch (together with Gladden Houck) to establish a new journalistic model: laboratory testing as the arbiter of quality. They founded the Audio League, a partnership which later morphed into the now-legendary Hirsch-Houck Laboratories, out of which reviews were generated for some of the magazines of the time. Julian gained particular notoriety for his work at Stereo Review, and his philosophy and methods gradually infused somewhat of an industry-wide morality that was, perhaps, most baldly-stated by High Fidelity’s Michael Riggs when, fatwa-like, he declared:

… laboratory testing (properly done) can tell us pretty much everything we need to know about the performance of a typical piece of electronics…We know what the important characteristics are, how to measure them, and how to interpret the results.

Rebelliously – if someone were to insist that there exist perceptible differences in sonic performance between components that measured the same – this would not be casually dismissed as a modest error. It would likely have been considered an outrage, an insult against the Crown, and deserving of a heretic’s fate.

One heretic in particular decided to flee the compound and establish a magazine for himself, based upon a principle alien to the high-priests bearing witness to the Objectivist Canon:

JGH

J. Gordon Holt

SUBJECTIVISM:

That rebel was J. Gordon Holt and his magazine was named Stereophile.

No discussion about the Subjectivist school in the audio industry can be launched without paying homage to Gordon, who in 1962 established Stereophile after parting ways with Objectivist (and advert-driven) High-Fidelity Magazine.

Gordon’s approach was a major departure from the lab-centric OCD-world that he left behind: he tested and judged audio components based upon the way that they sounded in his audio system and listening environment. At the time this was probably seen as quite radical, and Gordon used his own bully-pulpit to demonstrate an important point about emphasis: Although measurements with machines could be used to demonstrate how something behaved according to the accepted engineering principles of the time, review-emphasis more properly belonged upon the listening experience itself, because that is what the vast majority of consumers do. He shifted focus from the soullessness of the mechanistic priority (“to preserve, as faithfully as possible, the signal”) to the humanistic priority: to communicate, as convincingly as possible, the illusion of live sound. Not one to be airy-fairy, though, Gordon also embraced ABX (double-blind) testing as a means of also testing the human being … a practice looked upon with baleful eyes and no shortage of deep skepticism

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His writing was concise, marrying his technical experience with his finely-honed listening skills. As his style evolved, so did the lexicon of words that he used to describe what it was he heard. He later penned The Audio Glossary for Stereophile to clarify his usage of language in the context of his evaluations. To call J. Gordon Holt “The Father of High End Audio” bears witness, correctly in my opinion, that his radical shift in emphasis from prioritizing measured performance to prioritizing apparent performance was the major legitimizing force that helped little-known companies later become the doyens of the industry and emblems of the new Faith. So great was Stereophile’s influence and so compelling was Gordon’s style and vision that a legendary, rival magazine was inspired and launched.

tas_vol1_iss1

The Abso!ute Sound

As with Gordon, no examination of the subjectivist school of audio reviewing could possibly be complete without mention of Harry Pearson Jr. and the magazine that he had first published in 1973: The Abso!ute Sound (“TAS”). If J. Gordon Holt was a Martin Luther to Julian Hirsch’s Pope Leo X, then – as a matter of contextual comparison – Harry Pearson Jr. was a Carl Jung (or, perhaps, an Aleister Crowley).

Harry was a wordsmith who was very careful about his craft, and as a result his reviews could often flow almost poetically without a wasted word to be found. However, it isn’t necessarily for his manicured prose that he is best known, but rather for his credo and guiding philosophy: That the sole purpose of an audio system in the home is to faithfully recreate the illusion of live, unamplified acoustic instruments playing in a real acoustic space – a Musical Event. A shift in emphasis – slight, but critical – had occurred at Harry’s Sea Cliff, NY listening-laboratory, but you could be forgiven if you missed it:

Harry’s evaluations were very serious, methodical examinations of MUSIC, as projected via the sound of those objects collectively-termed “audio system” – and this emphasis, or focus-shift on music and “musicality” distinguished Harry from his subjectivist-peers who seemed to regard music as sound and, thereby, for the purposes of reviewing, interchangeable with sounds of all kinds (trains, planes, automobiles, ad nauseam). Harry’s focus on “musicality” sought the artistry, communication, and meaning emanating from the music perhaps more than it sought the individual sonic elements that assembled the sonic-gestalt.

Whereas Gordon seemed the clinician after a fashion, totemizing a laundry list of sonic performance attributes with nary a mention of the particular music he used to make his evaluations, Harry adopted a different tone and manner: making the music central to the evaluation from a connoisseur’s perspective was key to parsing the nuances of performance. The reviewer’s dispassionate distance from the subject would no longer be tolerated, and the subject wasn’t audio gear per se, it was music – and music was art. Audio gear was in service to the art. Who but a practiced lover of art could truly appreciate and evaluate the sound of a stereo?

THE NEW STANDARD

The performance of an audio system had to be compared to the sound of live, un-amplified music in a real performance space, and its emotional effect of the music on the listener also became an important element of the overall evaluation. Between Gordon and Harry, Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound, a phalanx against the Empire of Objectivists was formed, and the case was successfully made for evaluating components from the POV of the listener. The Stereophile/TAS standard, in its various iterations, seems to have stood as the dominant arbiter for more than four decades.

HEDONISM:

To state it plainly as regards our enthusiasm for audio and music, the Hedonist simply demands that – regardless of the objectively acquired measurements, and despite the opinions of professional reviewers as to how well a piece of gear contributes to illusion of “live music in a real space” – if the listener isn’t enjoying the experience, what’s the point?

And while this may seem suspiciously facile to some, there seems an almost impenetrable grace to its selfishness. Audio is considered a luxury with an aesthetic task to perform, and it will rank in importance or desirability according to the pleasure it evokes. Given the vast numbers of musicians plying their craft in the studio with virtual-instruments/synthesizers/computers (and, therefore, decidedly not “acoustic” in any way), the argument favoring the primacy of individual pleasure over any kind of broadly-applied standard can easily find sympathy, and indeed has found a few cautious champions in reviewing circles: the more recent writings from TAS’ Executive Editor Jonathan Valin seem to be an effort to legitimize the hedonic-aesthetic principle as one of several ways to approach judgement and opinion for audio gear. The Hedonic-Aesthetic Principle is the New Heresy, and the Subjectivists are now the ones that cast the shadows of old dominions.

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Chris Sommovigo loves music, enjoys audio, designs cables, seeks Truth. Since the mid 1980’s he has been on both sides of the microphone, all sides of the industry, prefers tubes and vinyl, appreciates and respects solid state and digital, and will make great efforts to be present for a wonderful meal.

Aside from this present foray into editorial life, Chris remains a small-scale manufacturer, importer, and specialized retailer and has recently started taking guitar lessons again after a 32-year hiatus.

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