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Positive Feedback ISSUE 1
june/july 2002


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by Srajan Ebaen

No ledge to stand on

"What you don’t know won’t hurt you."

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

"A wise man knows how little he knows."

"And Abraham knew Jezebel and sired many generations."

These quotes and sayings have more to do with audio than you may suspect. For starters, the word "know"—in the Old Testament—is code for carnal knowledge. It properly suggests that to truly know a person or a thing, one has to be most intimate with it. Once you are intimate with your subject—a person, an art form, or a profession—you are bound to make a startling discovery, namely how much more always remains to be known. How precious little grasp you have over what seems possible. How the totality of this potential will perennially elude you, simply by definition. After all, how can the part ever comprehend the whole? How can the objective observer understand what’s apparently outside of him, eternally separated?

Eventually you begin to suspect that what you know, limited as it may be, could well be contaminated. Knowledge creates assumptions, which in turn grow into cancerous beliefs. Those lead to consequences in attitude and action that can lack true responsiveness or responsibility to the moment, to this occasion. When this engrained mechanism becomes unbearable in its predictability, we might be tempted to dump all our so-called knowledge. We might long to return to what Zen calls Beginner’s Mind: a perceptional space unfettered by clutter, empty but open, humble yet curious, careful yet daring.

To demonstrate the effects of limited audio knowledge, let’s rattle off some common truisms.

Silver is bright.

So are metal dome tweeters.

Class A circuits are superior to all others.

Horn loudspeakers suffer cupped-hands colorations.

Spades are superior to bananas because of larger contact area.

Phase and time coherence in loudspeakers is a nice concept but inaudible in practice.

Tube amps always introduce euphonic distortion.

Bearing-based isolators don’t belong under speakers.

You get the drift? Our assumptions, whether based on isolated experience or hearsay, deeply condition our thinking and actions. Power cords make no difference. Power cords make all the difference. It doesn’t matter what beliefs we subscribe to—no sooner does an observation of authentic but momentary observation turn into a generalized truth, to be applied to all future moments, it is degraded into a fallacy, a prison that confines us to ever-shrinking spaces behind ever-more-ominous bars.

That’s because decisions and actions based on hard and fast rules tend to reinforce each other, by design and quite automatically. We avoid what could threaten the house of cards that is our conclusions. We revisit ad infinitum what upholds them, and each confirmation adds glue to how much we know. Our padded cell conducts less and less fresh air.

A publisher I once wrote for wouldn’t even try bearing-based isolators underneath loudspeakers. He could plainly see how absurd the whole notion was. Loudspeaker drivers move back and forth to create sound. To allow the speaker itself to move in relation to the floor obviously interfered with that process. It couldn’t and wouldn’t work. I had tried it, and knew how well it could work, even though I hadn’t the foggiest idea why. Still, he wouldn’t even experiment. His so-called knowledge prevented him.

For all his self-congratulatory smarts, he really boxed himself into a corner. An old German proverb quips that what the farmer don’t know he won’t eat—don’t try to feed sushi to a meat’n’potatoes guy.

More important than how much you know is: Would you rather live in a well-decorated but solitary prison with a shingle that reads "A deep knower of things" but you’re fed a monotonous staple diet, or would you dig a messier but revolving-door pad whose address is on Ignoramus Lane, and has all sorts of wild and wondrous characters visiting you, unannounced, who hand out exotic and confusing gifts? Audio is a very subjective art. It is filled with pitfalls that can cause even learned engineers (who, in all fairness, know a lot more about their subject matter than we ever will) to stumble. A manufacturer friend recently confided his shock at discovering how tweeter-mounting plates affected performance based on material. Metal sounded better than plastic, and thick inert metal better than thin, all using otherwise identical transducers. Tweeter motion, even at maximum SPLs, is minuscule. How could it possibly flex the plate it was mounted to? Does it matter?

If all you’re concerned with is demonstrably better performance, do you have to understand why? My friend couldn’t explain it. Nothing in his solid science background pointed at a clear cause. Still, his ears knew. He trusted them, and now has a better product for his customers. In Sufism, a colorful character named Mulla Nasruddin is often used to illustrate certain core points of the teachings. One day Mulla, crossing a river bridge, observes the sacred zikr ritual performed by a Dervish down below on an island. Mulla is enraged. This fool had gotten the holy ritual all screwed up. He hustles down to shore, jumps into a boat, paddles vigorously to the beach and reprimands the ecstatically whirling fakir, who thanks him profusely for setting him on the straight and narrow. Pleased with himself, the Mulla paddles back to shore, only to hear shouting a few moments later. Turning around to divine the source, he observes a flustered Dervish running atop the waves in great haste and yelling, "But Mulla, you forgot to show me how to breathe properly."

If breathing is as natural as sleeping—despite the popular self-help books to the contrary—then approaching the world with an open mind and a child’s curiosity should be equally so. But our breathing does become more labored as we grow older, and our innate innocence that is more interested in tasting than cataloging experience calcifies as well.

Integrated amplifiers are inferior to separates.

Only thick cables carry enough current to produce good bass.

Ribbons are unreliable and beamy.

Electrostats are transparent but not very dynamic.

Loudspeakers are the most important component.

The source is the most important.

The room is.

No, the listener’s mind space. 

Power line conditioners curtail dynamics.

Supertweeters are ridiculous, human hearing ends at 20kHz.

Power supplies are the most important amplifier part—how heavy is yours?

To achieve realistic dynamics, you need at least 200wpc.

We’re all guilty of this. It’s human nature. But can you admit, if even only quietly and for one brief moment, how much juicier it would be if we managed to stretch ourselves beyond these boundaries and invited, nay pursued experiences contrary to our expectations, embarked on a collision course with our so-called knowledge? Who knows what we’d discover? In fact, would there be an end to discovery? It seems that what keeps us young at heart—quite possibly younger in body, and definitely in spirit—is an embrace of life’s uncertainty, of not knowing, of questioning our prior conclusions.

In audio, this could translate into experimenting with those subjects we’ve inadvertently or deliberately written off. Of course, it would necessitate renouncing our expertness and accepting a new identity. Of not being sure. Of vacillating. Of going from one extreme to the next, micro-power tubes today, massive solid state tomorrow, who the hell knows what after? There’s no need to buy any of this stuff, figuratively or literally. Audiophiles live in even the remotest of outposts, and most, if not all, love nothing better than to show off their system. Couldn’t this be great fun, a merry quest not to identify "the best," but instead a quixotic adventure to sample the most? We might encounter the occasional mind-blowing impossibility: a single-driver speaker sounding inexplicably full range. A transistor amp more liquid than tubes. Horns without colorations. A puny, inexpensive system that alters our blood chemistry for repeatable ecstasy.

Truly, age isn’t a function of the number on your driver’s license. It’s a function of spiritual well being. You could be thirty, with such narrow horizons that talking to you feels like conversing with an ancient mummy. You could be wrinkled and shrunk, and laugh at the world that skydivers are good until the last drop, with a parachute that works like a mind—only when open. If you sympathize with this notion and know someone like that, an elder with the enthusiasm, passion, and crackling fire of a child, think about how this could translate into approaching music and audio.

Listening to Rap for a change? Elevating your cables off the synthetic carpet to see whether you can hear a difference? Watering your grounding rod with a covert outdoor leak? The discovery is the journey, not getting there. Proper Aurovilleans are really auro villains, constantly raping sacred cows, blaspheming their own notions, and remembering thrice daily that this madness is supposed to be toupee-lifting fun, not hair-counting torture.

Cheers. Now where’s the mirror?

Visit Srajan Ebaen at his site