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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
april/may 2003


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Auroville 12
by Srajan Ebaen

In a recent column, a reviewer colleague concludes a technical expose on speaker rear-wave damping inside their cabinets with "I'm not a believer in the "trust your ears" platitudeears are too easily tricked. I am much more satisfied with the "trust your ears" philosophy if the field has been stripped of posers and tricksters that confuse and seduce. If your field is narrowed down to technically competent products, then "trust your ears" works for me."

From where I'm sitting, this argument is not only fatally flawed but actually points at two fundamental misconceptions many audiophiles are wrestling with. The first is obvious—listeners don't trust their ears. Now it seems reviewers don't either but first require mental convincing from products conforming to their personal notions of competent engineering.

Am I missing something or did this reviewer just disqualify himself? After all, if hearing acuity is the reviewer's primary tool of the trade and he doesn't trust his, what, pray tell, does he use to come to his final conclusions? Product propaganda?

While you may disagree with some of their choices committed for posterity, recording engineers trust their ears implicitly. Listening for a living is what they do every day. Suggesting to them that their hearing could be psychologically fooled into perceiving something as good when it really wasn't would, for such a challenger, likely result in a well-placed kick in the derriere.

One could argue that daily comparisons of masters to live microphone feeds would make any regular audiophile equally secure about his or her own hearing facilities. But experience alone doesn't seem to do the trick. How many audiophiles do you know who don't trust their ears even though they've been around the block repeatedly?

Isn't the reliance on reviews by so-called experts, the soliciting of on-line feedback and recommendations clear indication that many experienced music lovers don't believe in their own ears? Why should that be so? I can recall more than one demo in which a suggestive presenter shaped the parameters such that anyone admitting to not hearing the difference in his A/B was set up to feel like a fool. "What, you didn't hear that? Are you deaf? Here, let me do it againsorry folks, this will just take a second."

So what if we didn't hear it? Perhaps the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes and we're the perceptive exception of the crowd too insecure to trust their own hearing? Perhaps the emperor was dressed? Good for him—his sycophants paid the bill. All it means for us is that we can spare ourselves the expense of a new wardrobe everyone else seems hell-bent on needing. In either case, what's so scary about trusting our ears? What's so difficult about admitting that perhaps other people hear better? If we wear contacts or magnets, we've already made practical peace with suffering lesser vision or weaker wrists. Do we visit a psychologist to rebuild our failing self image over having limp wrists and blurred vision at close range? Surely not.

Why should it be so different with audio? When you test-drive a car, do you trust your ability to judge its merit as it relates to your intended usage? Sure you do. You may do some research into reliability and service issues that wouldn't be obvious during the test drive, but outside of that?

When, from the flickering gauntlet at Circuit City, you pick out the TV that looks best to you, are you sweating bullets whether you made the right choice, whether your eyes were tricked into seeing something that wasn't there? Even if the contrast and color values were off the charts as they usually are on the sales floor—if you like that, why should you give it a second thought?

Note that I said "like". That's the crux of the matter. Somehow audiophiles have been taught that it's not their likes or dislikes that matter but that there exists an objective standard of right and wrong. What other hobby imposes such highbrow standards? Is there a right and wrong way to enjoy a motorcycle? Some bikers race, some cruise, but as long as they're having fun, who gives a shit about measuring up? It's a hobby after all, not a profession.

Sadly, audiophiles have been misled to believe that it's about measuring up to the absolute sound—which, by virtue of being absolute, of course remains perennially elusive as any other absolute in this world of relativity. They've been misled to believe that it's a profession in which you do things either the right way or the wrong—and we all know what happens if you perform your job the wrong way; you get sacked.

Are you perchance worried about getting sacked as a professional audiophile? Why? Were you getting paid that well? At all?

Could such a ridiculous standard of right and wrong be imposed upon music? Imagine being told that classical Western music from the mid-1800s was the right and proper kind of music, and Country-Western and HipHop were wrong (yeah, the sales charts really prove that point, don't they?) Would you buy into that? Not for a second. Music lovers who don't trust their own taste in music don't exist, period. You like what you like and that's that. I doubt you spend much time questioning your preferences. They are what they are. You simply indulge them as time and funds allow.

Now why would you buy into any of this audiophile wrong and right wing nonsense? It's really no different than being browbeaten by a vegetarian or fruitarian. You go on eating meat and drinking sodas regardless. Do you for once mistrust your preferences even though, perhaps, you could quietly admit that their arguments about global sustainability and personal health might have merit? You'll continue as carnivore and enjoy a juicy steak until something changes. What's wrong with that?

The other fallacy our writer above commits is letting his hearing be influenced by engineering choices. Besides suggesting a less than open mind for contrary solutions, it's merely another flavor of this right-versus-wrong mindset that pervades audio. Capturing a speaker's rear wave is certainly important to prevent delayed signal echoes. But you can also over-dampen a speaker to deliver sounds like dry farts. It's all relative. What's dry to me might just be perfect for you.

The way I see it, audio is a hobby, not a gulag sentence. You're into it for the enjoyment. And enjoyment requires no conformity to rules, no fears about doing it wrong. The sheer level of pleasure you derive is validation enough. In fact, it's the only validation.

So let me ask you this. Why wouldn't you trust your own internal pleasure meter?

It's because you've been told that it's more serious than that. You've been told about faraway lands you've never visited that leave you the poorer for it. Buy into that and off you go onto the endless Quixotic journey that only benefits the magazines and manufacturers. Stepping out of that hamster mill couldn't be easier:

Remember it's supposed to be fun. Then trust your own judgment whether it's fun or not. That's it. That's all of it. For today. Until I change my mind and ask you to conform to my ludicrous ideas of what music reproduction should sound like—properly done.

Visit Srajan at his site