Everywhere You Look, Pitfalls

Everywhere You Look, Pitfalls
Mike Silverton
February 2000

“My friend asks, Why do dark-sounding units have dark cases and bright, metallic-sounding units silver chassis? The dark thing, the solid-state thing, the “real” real thing, it’s simply not credible.”

I begin with a disclosure I’ve mentioned elsewhere in The Stereo Times. Madrigal Audio Labs sponsors my music review, LaFolia.com. Here’s the thing: a Madrigal executive whose opinions I respect wrote me about a negative review of Madrigal’s Proceed HPA 2, which appeared in an audiophile publication of considerable reputation.

Harry Pearson came up with the term observationalist as a substitute for subjectivist, the latter having earned a questionable reputation. A useful word, observationalist, implying as it does that the reviewer comes to his subject with a properly large background in listening, if not necessarily in electrical engineering and the like. Historically, we have come to suspect the views of strict objectivists who believe that measurements tell the whole story. Two pieces of similarly dedicated gear which measure the same will sound the same, particularly under test conditions in which the listener does not know which he’s auditioning. It would not surprise me if some youngster reading these remarks is wondering what I’m carrying on about. He or she has probably never heard of Julian Hirsch nor seen a copy of Peter Aczel’s The Audio Critic.

Many audiophiles, perhaps most, reject strict objectivism, and so do I. Fine, but has anyone noticed a curiously similar constancy among observationalists? About as often as strict objectivists used to deny sonic distinctions (loudspeakers excepted), observationalists persist in hearing them. I do remember seeing a refreshing exception in Stereophile to the effect that good digital gear more and more achieves sonically similar heights. Don’t remember who said it. Might well have cost him his job.

Let me condense a few bits from my Madrigal friend’s e-mails:

Anyone can write a subjectivist review. It’s the editor’s responsibility to make sure that what the reviewer says is at least plausible. The guy who panned the Proceed piece says that if it’s the real thing one compares it with, the HPA 2 is nowhere near accurate. What kind of scale is applied in arriving at this assessment?

My friend goes on: What a shame that lay people cannot get to the heart of these observations. It takes about 20 years of exposure to develop the filters to interpret this garbage. It’s sad that writers without real qualifications can use any combination of crap in order to make pronouncements that have nothing to do with reality.

This last complaint is for me the most revealing, since it connects to something I’ve known for years. My friend asks, Why do dark-sounding units have dark cases and bright, metallic-sounding units silver chassis? The dark thing, the solid-state thing, the “real” real thing, it’s simply not credible. And so predictable.

Two points here. My friend’s complaint about predictability calls to mind that sad sack of audiophile clichés into which the observationalist too often reaches for inspiration. We tend to model the vocabulary of our perceptions on that of colleagues, no few of whom are, in my opinion, inept or worse. Point two: this business about dark box, dark sound, etc. An experiment some years back had the testers painting identical loudspeakers different colors. Subjects reported the speakers sounding dark, bright, and so on, depending on the enclosure’s color.

We must not take ourselves too seriously.

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