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Positive Feedback ISSUE 15
september/october 2004


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Auroville 31 - Perfection can be that wily shrew even Richard Burton couldn't tame.
by Srajan Ebaen

Our suggestive header requires an immediate explanation before our cherished female readership assumes the wrong macho-headed thing. What I mean to say in my usual colorful, slightly overblown and roundabout way is simply something that's not often enough talked about in HighEnd circles: That as resolution and thus the perceived quality of our systems increase, so do the challenges of actually enjoying said quality on a permanent basis - if at all.

Being at the helm of 6moons and its growing stable of talented writers makes for many an interesting exchange on our internal group e-mail. Many of us moonies have of late been talking about "the luv" and "charisma" and various other terms intended to describe that tacit sensation of "right-on-ness" which we're all after. It tends to become more and more elusive as the thumbscrews of higher and higher rez are painfully squeezed onto our treasured rigs

Simply put, the more resolving your system becomes, the easier it is to hear where and when it screws up. That could be a drifting tube, an improperly set bias, insufficient warm-up, a tube damper that would sound better in absentia, a power cord routed improperly, an unusual amount of garbage traveling on the AC, too much damping, a sagging visco-elastic damper beyond its prime, an unfriendly interconnect, an unhappy component interface or a whole slew of other items.

As strange as it would seem, the more resolving your system becomes, the more it will telegraph what otherwise would be minor or inaudible fluctuations of various electromagnetic, mechanical or other environmental influences. Just like the faint childhood memory of being always happy and always waking up in a good mood ready to seize the day, so we aging audiophiles might now hunger after the days when our entry-level systems sounded good whenever we turned 'em on.

Many years or even decades later—with our senses presumably sharpened, our tastes evolved and honed into a more sophisticated uptown likeness of our former dorm visage; with our financial investment in audio hardware exploded in often surrealistic ways—we now suffer the vagaries of instability. Our darn rig sounded mondo supremo just last night. This morning it plainly sucks. Oy veh. What the heck happened—again?

It somehow seems that we don't remember this rollercoaster behavior about our audio rigs at all from those golden but bygone days. It's convenient to blame our audiophile neurosis for this latter-day acquisition of insecurity and displeasure. However, it's at least as likely that part or all of the blame has to be pinned on our bloody super-resolution gear.

What? Am I lunatic enough to suggest that you'd have been better off to never abscond with that "mid-level" stuff in the first place? Am I proposing you should never have graded up that slippery slope of Mount No-Compromise? Kinda. Sorta.

You see, by definition, more resolution equals greater magnifying power to well beyond what, lets' be honest about that, is realistic or even achievable in any live venue. If we were mature enough to accord the live and playback experiences each their own and thus separate realities—as opposed to assuming that the multi-sensory concert hall experience could be perfectly duplicated in a far smaller acoustic for-your-ears-only—then we'd need not unnecessarily belabor those differences. Rather, we could take each reality on its own term and maximize it to our pleasure with our favored venue and seats in the former and specific audiophile qualities in the latter.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with heightened audiophile resolution. After all, it merely makes up for what clearly is a mind fuck of significant proportions. We attempt to overcome the lack of visual, tactile and odiferous stimuli, which we automatically add to the audible portion of the live experience but which we castrate and neuter down to a mono-sensorial cripple that's supposed to be the juicy likeness of the original 5-sensory onslaught. That's like bottling the ocean for Chrissakes.

This impossibility explains why we overcompensate with our equipment. However, chances that über-resolution will turn—er, screwy while that thumbscrew pressure increases and something else crumbles are incredibly high. Hell, never mind that suddenly acute and extreme responsiveness to tiny fluctuations in air pressure, temperature and the sort of before-mentioned factors that our systems now flaunt like clotted veins and liver spots. All of this is still assuming that our music-lovin' soul even has a state of grace left to return to once we figure out why things sounded so crappy the morning after.

It's not sounds we want but emotional conviction and involvement after all. As resolution sharpens beyond what's natural, something else tends to give. It recedes into the background to make room for all those previously obscured details. We're talking about an act of balance. Each "give" mandates an equivalent "take" while the stakes to lose this balance increase. As you scale Mount No-Compromise while struggling for minute advances, there's less and less room for error. The path becomes more and more narrow; the averages of a misstep are getting worse and worse for the intrepid traveler. It's far easier now to notice what's missing or off than what's there and on.

Yeah, it's true that a perfectly honed and dialed system can be extremely powerful and magnetic, hallucinogenic even. But it's equally true that to get—and stay—in that place of perfection requires enormous skill, patience and an ongoing willingness to sweat the most minute and apparently silly of issues. It's not as simple as wearing a pair of cool high-contrast Ray Bans.

Do you really want to stoop that low? Do you really mean to go all out and over the edge, having to worry about tiny but endless nitpicks which upset your equilibrium? While this imagery seems very heroic and can-do, the reality of coming home after a long day's work only to find that instead of listening, you feel coerced to mess with your system once again is anything but.

For average consumption and non-neurotic enjoyment, one should not pursue maximum resolution. That only raises the microscopic enlargement power of one's system to a level that simply becomes far too demanding to uphold. Many are the men who secretly belabor the partnership with what turned out to become a trophy wife but also high-maintenance babe rather than real-life partner. Why risk the same by turning your system into a high-maintenance rig?

And before you even have to worry about the maintaining bit, you gotta worry about getting such a system to a state of grace that's truly in perfect balance—between details and wholeness, analytic veracity and emotional conviction, warmth and transparency. That's a whole nudder ball o' wax. It's far easier to build a system that's emotionally pleasing while preventing it from ever becoming the famous last word in show-every-wart broadcasting. What good is a system that renders only 10 out of 200 recordings listenable? That may be high fidelity to the recording but it sure as hell ain't high fidelity to your sanity.

True, such a system might make an excellent and dorky reviewer's tool. It's perfect for magnifying the smallest of differences that would otherwise remain vague or inaudible. It gives us reviewer types something to write about. But is that you—an audio writer hack? Or are you a music lover? Do you listen to music for enjoyment or to recreate what you assume transpires in the reviewer's chair, taking notes and listening to the same few recordings over and over?

It's the rather unfortunate byproduct of reading reviews that we're being programmed to want to enter the world of analysis rather than synthesis. After all, that's the only thing reviews talk about. In an effort to keep up with the Joneses we assume the audio reviewers to be, we increase the resolving power of our systems and feel vindicated when we hear differences where before we heard none.

How much of that is truly in the service of wholesome enjoyment? How much is merely short-lived fascination with a novelty factor that quickly turns stale?

That's why this little rant opened with the wily shrew. If you want to get bitten, nagged and scratched, enter the ring and pay a very high price for the privilege of being maimed and humiliated. I'd say you're better off saving your heroism for the real world while playing on what only in reviewer's and Recommended Components lingo is a lesser level. In the end, the so-called higher level has you worry more than enjoy, tweak more than you relax and dick around more than you listen to music, from the beginning of one CD to the very end. What's so damn high about that level?

If that sounds like a reasonable question, turn to reviews for their entertainment value only. Have fun and don't take ‘em serious. Consider them nothing more than adult comic strips—which, in the final synthesis, is all they are. You don't take Cat Woman serious nor does she cost you any serious money or aggravation. Don't buy into the silly resolution chase. Optimize what you already have to give you the most innocent of pleasures. Those simple pleasures are measured by how much you listen to music; by how much you look forward to the next listening session; by how long you can bask in the afterglow of that experience. If none of these factors seem to currently carry much weight, you're already too deep into high-rez land. You need to hang an immediate illegal U-turn and get back on safe land and away from detail for detail's sake. Think music, not audio. Good luck. And I don't mean this sarcastically at all. Here's to your aural health. Cheers. 

Visit Srajan at his site

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