Open Mike: Sit and Listen (OT)


This post is by Michael Johnston from The Online Photographer


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["Open Mike" is the anything-goes, often off-topic Editorial page of TOP, when Yr. Hmbl. Ed. goeth a-rambling. When the moon's in phase and the stars aligned, it appears on Wednesdays.]

Permit me, if you will, to backpedal, and apologize for that untoward "shut up" in the second footnote of the "Music at a Higher Level" post, which offended one reader. I don't usually depart from decorum even by that much. —Although I do wonder how I got to be a poster child for polite behavior; that wasn't my nature when I was young and drinking, or when

first got on Internet forums in '91. I used to be, shall we say, argumentative. But never mind that.

Anyway, just a little story about magical thinking versus science. This is actually a rant, if I'm honest, and it requires a Bloviation Alert. So I'll tuck it behind a page break.

During my brief six-month spell as an audio salesman, moonlighting from my professional photography business to occupy un-billed hours, there once appeared in our store a customer. He was a neatly dressed, soft spoken, late-middle-aged man with a friendly demeanor, and he arrived carrying a coil of lamp cord. You know, the 18-gauge stranded wire that is nearly universally used to connect lamps to outlets. He said he owned Vandersteen 2C speakers and wanted to audition a pair of Vandersteen Model 3's, a larger speaker that had just been introduced. But, he said with a smile, I would not have to do any talking, and in fact, he didn't want me to talk—he was going to buy the speakers; he had already made up his mind; it was a done deal. He just wanted to audition them and enjoy them a little first, if that was all right. Of course it was. And he had a special request—he wanted me to hook up the speakers with the lamp cord.

No problem. I did that. We were sitting in the sound room listening—me not talking—when the boss walked through. And his eyebrows went up. A moment later, there he was at the door, saying, "Mike?—Excuse me, sir, for interrupting—Mike? Could I please have a word with you in my office for a moment?"

The boss not infrequently wanted a word with me in his office. Previously, it had always been to yell at me. But not "yell," literally, because the office walls were thin and it was situated in the middle of the store, so he couldn't actually yell when there were customers around, because they would overhear. This was entertaining to me, because it was interesting to see him "yell" at low volumes. He was very good at this…inventive, I'd say. I used to joke with my co-workers that unless he got himself a soundproofed office someday he was going to burst a vessel and die of the apoplexy on the spot, right there next to his messy desk. He was the only person I ever knew whose face could get purple while whispering.

Once the office door was closed he wheeled on me and hissed, "Please tell me you are not demo'ing the new $3,000 Vandersteens with lamp cord!"

I shrugged. "Customer insisted," I said, serenely. This was armor. Customer is always right, right?

More quiet yelling. The upshot was that he wanted me to sit down with the customer and have a heart-to-heart with him, the aim of which was going to be to demo the speakers with halfway decent expletive expletive expletive wire. I was supposed to use very expensive speaker cables first, to clearly establish the sonic advantage, then guide the guy to a pair of speaker wires in the $200–$300 range, which the boss judged would appear reasonable—proportional, maybe, is the word—to a guy who was able to plunk down three grand on speakers. If this did not happen, then I could kiss my job goodbye.

"Well, okay, but the customer has already bought the speakers."

"Has he paid for them?"

"No, but he came in already sold on them, and he told me he was taking them home today."

"Really? Well then." (Wheels turning furiously—if it had been a few years later there would have been a little robot voice saying, "recalculating.") "All right. Take his money now and let him go. But ask him to come back in a few days and then I want you to sell him some decent wire. "

Sit and listen
This came to pass. The gentleman took delivery of the speakers, and dutifully returned to the store the next weekend. I sat him down outside, it being a nice balmy Spring day, and, as directed, made my pitch, ending it with an offer to demo the same speakers he had just bought using some different wire.

"No," the nice man answered.

No?

Now it was my turn to sit and listen. The man was retired, but had been an EE—an electronics engineer. He explained that signal is signal, and wire is wire, and that, as he put it, "electrically, it cannot make a difference." He kept repeating those words, in a way that, for him, or so I gathered, was emphatic. He really was a very soft-spoken, courteous fellow. Even courtly, one might say. Decorous.

Hmm, interesting; here was another guy yelling at me softly! Anyway he warmed to this subject with such affection that I realized it had been his motive in bringing his lampcord to the store in the first place.

There is an old debate in hi-fi known as "objectivist vs. subjectivist." The first believes in measurements and claims science is on their side, the second believes in experience and believes their ears to be the better guide. The latter say the former are missing the forest for the trees, the former say the latter are being duped by psychological tricks such as suggestibility and by perceptual anomalies. According to the Vandersteen man, I was a subjectivist, I believed in magic, I was swayed by fantasies and fairy tales, numbers don't lie, truth lies in measurements, facts are facts, etc.

I didn't think that was fair. I'm not hostile to measurements. What I was—am—is an empiricist, someone who believes that the most trustable source of knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses. I don't know if I knew that name for it then, but I was still myself at that time, and looked at the world the way I look at it. (Nickname of the State of Missouri: "the Show-Me State." Always liked that.)

At the end of all this, I had confessed to him that I was going to get fired if I couldn't at least get him to audition some good speaker cables, so he agreed, albeit reluctantly, to take a loaner pair home and do his auditioning there, on his own new speakers.

And off he went.

Supernatural speaker wires
A week or so later, there he was again—but, to my and my wallet's consternation, now he had the big Vandersteen boxes in his vehicle again.

He was returning them.

What? But why?

Well, they just weren't that much better than the 2C's he already had.

Really? Had he used the speaker cables I sent him home with?

No.

No again! What? Why not?

He smiled genially. "The question is, why should I listen to your wires? I already know what they would sound like. The sound would be exactly the same."

"But you had the cables right there," I protested, "why not just hook them up? It only takes a minute or two. Weren't you the least bit curious?" I had already done the same demo myself, after hours, because, actually, I was curious. The result to my ears at least was that the big new Vandersteens had plainly sounded better with solid-core, properly shielded cables of larger-gauge, higher-quality copper.

"No. Because…."

All right, all right. Because electrically, it cannot make a difference.

Yup.

Okay, so here's the point. If you believe "science" shows that all amplifiers sound the same, wires and power cords are snake oil and magic elixir (many are, God knows), and that you can't hear a difference between MP3's and Redbook CD quality encoding (many people can't), that's perfectly fine with me. Maybe you're right, and you can't. But why does that give you a right to tell me what I should do? The way I logic it out is that if the end point is me listening to records, then it doesn't matter if I'm being tricked by my senses—isn't the whole enterprise of recorded music a pony trick and an illusion in the first place?

The only reason I had any problem at all with that nice EE fellow at all back in '93 was that a plump 7% commission that was already nestled all comfy in my bank account had to be painfully extracted out of it again. And boy, was I sorry to see it go. (Although it did re-establish the salesman's dictum that there is no such thing as an easy sale.) But he can do what he wants. If he wants to hook up his speakers with rusty barbed wire, and it makes him happy, it's his system, his music, his home, his ears, his money, his business. All the same to me. How could it not be?

It's not magic. It's preference.

Really fancy home audio cables and interconnects really are magic, though. They have the supernatural power of being able to reach into perfectly sensible, well-educated men's wallets and extract large wads of cash. People all over the world struggle to generate profit by hook and by crook, and it's not easy. You try to extract more than sixty large from a guy in exchange for a few hundred bucks' worth of ingredients and leave him happy afterwards. That's magic all right. Most such larceny would lead to a close encounter with law enforcement and charges filed. So don't scoff.  🙂

Magical thinking
But in my opinion, the soft-spoken Vandersteen man was the one who was indulging in magical thinking. Just because you can measure something does not mean there is nothing else going on. He had made his mind up a priori and wasn't willing to make the least effort to put his belief to the test. That's not scientific as I understand it.

In audio, everything's a filter. You can "tune" a tube amp by tube-rolling—using different kinds of tubes in the various positions. You can tune a system with wire choice, too—they're just different filters. All you're really doing with a stereo system is taking current from the wall and shaping it for the voice coils in a speaker. The belief that "all amplifiers sound the same" is just stupid to me, possibly only because I've actually listened to many different actual amplifiers driving many different actual speakers. How could anybody rationally believe that you could take two different products with different circuit topologies, different parts, different mechanical design, different materials, different levels of construction quality, different engineering goals and different designers in charge, and have them come out sounding exactly the same, just because a handful of measurements are the same? You couldn't do such a thing if you tried. It's like those people who think that just because we measure food energy in calories, "a calorie is a calorie." (There's that it cannot make a difference again.) To which I say, fine, you eat 1,800 calories a day in the form of a heap of white sugar and a scoop of lard, and I'll eat the exact same amount of calories in the form of broccoli, potatoes, beans, salad, and oatmeal, and we'll see who's doing better a year later. It can make a slight difference, you know.

But hey, it measures the same!

"A calorie is a calorie" does annoy me, I'll admit. It's got to be among the dumbest statements ever uttered. It's so obviously wrong that I can't believe anyone with a lick of sense would ever say it. The fact is, the formidable apparatus of human science cannot come close to comprehensively describing what is in a head of broccoli, what lifeforms are in our microbiome and what they do there, and how the two interact. Our simple little measurements of this, that and the other thing are pitiful, childlike, and inadequate to describe whatever might be going on. It's on the level of the student's first attempt in the famous parable of the sunfish*.

But perhaps subjectivists like me annoy objectivists in much the same way.

But Mr. Vandersteen-man was just expressing his belief system, in my view. His "science says" dogma and his "cannot make a difference" mantra was as much a true-believer mindset as any subjectivist's magic dust or harebrained marketing doublespeak.

Where the current meets the coil
As for me, when it comes to audio, I don't actually care about accurate reproduction and good measurements. I mean I don't care about those things for their own sake. What I like is enjoyable sound. To me that's the value system. It's just been my experience and my observation over many years that accurate products that are well engineered and that measure well have a better chance of being the more enjoyable ones, that's all. That's the reason I care.

If others don't see it that way, fine by me. Their sound system, their music, their home, their ears, their money…their business. Not mine.

Mike

*The Parable of the Sunfish can be found near the beginning of Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading:

No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:

A post-graduate student equipped with honors and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: "That's only a sunfish."

Agassiz: "I know that. Write a description of it."

After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.

The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.

Original contents copyright 2020 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.

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Featured Comments from:

Stephen S: "I used to get a lot of different rental cars for work, and I always enjoyed listening to Sirius/XM satellite radio in them. It sounded perfectly good to me. Then, I bought a new car, which came with a really high-end audio system, and a free trial of Sirius/XM. I hated it. It sounded terrible! I was perplexed at first. After some research I found the answer: the satellite signal is mono at no more than 64 KB/s. The low quality sound system in a cheap rental car wasn't good enough to reveal the flaws in the signal that a really good sound system made all too glaringly obvious!"

Mike replies: Yes, that's an issue. I read about one guy who bragged that his audiophilia had "changed his musical tastes," which he explained as follows: his stereo had improved to the level that he found that he could really only abide the sound quality of small groups and single musicians recorded "live in the studio," so to speak—the problem being that he didn't prefer that kind of music. So rather than just go back to a mid-fi system that would acceptably reproduce the music he liked, he "trained himself" to like jazz and folk recorded acoustically, the music that sounded best on his system. This was a change he was proud of, however, so who's to argue?

Another guy I encountered (a salesman at an audio boutique in Chicagoland in the 2000s) had determined that the only sound sources he could abide on his very high-end stereo were pre-recorded classical reel-to-reel (R2R) tapes. He reported that "that's all I'll listen to now." His problem was that there was a limited amount of music available that way, and collecting it was expensive. But he had acquired something like 300 tapes and he greatly enjoyed the hunt, so there's that.

One dilemma: he had acquired a few Beatles R2R titles that were sealed from new. He didn't want to open them because opening them would diminish their value. But of course without opening them, he couldn't listen to them. Ah, first-world problems. Reminds me of the Leica collector who, when purchasing a still-wrapped, unopened rare Leica for an exorbitant price, demanded that the package be X-rayed to assure him that there was actually a Leica inside it.

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