I spoke, the other day, with my pal. Stephen Black, the internationally renowned, award-winning Canadian Geneticist, Music Lover, and Hi-Fi Crazy, about a subject that I and my friends seem to find ourselves talking about more and more often, these days: There seems to be a new attitude about Hi-Fi developing on the internet and in the social media, and it's like nothing we've ever seen before.
John Curl, another friend, and one of our industry's absolutely top electronics designers, describes it as a sort of comfortable negativism toward anything not strictly orthodox. You know, like the skepticism (or outright rejection as "snake oil" or voodoo) that so many people have about cables or other accessories, "mods", or "tweaks" that may easily be heard by those willing to listen, but are never easily measured, and sometimes never measurable at all.
Actually, there seems to be a spectrum of this kind of thought going on, with, on the one hand (the John Curl side) people who accept good as good only as long as it's conventional, and never otherwise without rigorous measurement to prove it and, on the other hand, the people who, according to Stephen Black, seem to be simply rejecting the idea of "good" entirely, and taking a sort of reverse pride in embracing old or budget gear as sufficient and anything newer or more expensive as, at best, unnecessary.
The people John Curl comments-on tend not to believe their ears, and to deny anything that can't be proven by measurement and rigorous testing as "placebo effect", some sort of self-hypnosis, or simple hallucination. Stephen's people do recognize that people hear audible differences between products or record;/playback systems, but say they simply don't care.
So how can that be?
Years ago Julian Hirsch of Hirsch-Houck labs, who over the course of more than four decades tested and reviewed an estimated 4000 audio products for various audio publications, reported on some 2400 for Stereo Review.
The Audiophile Voice's editorial about Julian Hirsch never commented in his reports on what any of them sounded like. Similarly, High Fidelity magazine in the entire course of its run from April 1951 until its closing in July of 1989, has a circulation to some 327,000 presumed Hi-Fi buffs, is reputed never – not even once in any of its issues – to have used the word "sound".
With Julian Hirsch, not reporting on the sound may have been understandable: Hirsch-Houck Laboratories seems mostly to have been (or at least to have done the bulk of its testing) in Hirsch's home basement. Pictures show this to be a haphazard jumble of "stuff" thrown together, with speakers, test gear, and everything else placed wherever there was room for it, instead of in any (except perhaps to the eyes of Julian Hirsch) perceivable order, and with no apparent concern for room acoustics whatsoever. Under such conditions, and considering that Julian Hirsch was over 60 years old for more than the last two decades of his career (men over 60 typically lose much of their ability to hear high frequencies) it's likely that, even if his listening room were perfect and his system were set-up perfectly within it, he still wouldn't have been able to hear it in all its glory. (Just as a side note, Hirsch did recommend that, in buying a system, we allocate 15% of our budget for high quality cables. Hmmmm. Could it be that cables do "sound", and that even he could hear it?)
Whether Julian Hirsch's hearing was the reason why he just measured things and commented on – if anything at all -- their looks and durability, there's no way of knowing. What we do know, though, is that – as all of us who have spent hours and hours over days and days, "dialing-in" our listening room and moving our speakers one-at-time, a-quarter-inch-at-a-time to get them to image properly will happily testify – with his basement "lab" not having received any such tender attention, it's likely that things heard in that room:
1) Never sounded very good, and
2) Never – except in the grossest and most obvious way – sounded very different
I suspect there were other determining factors, too: If I don't expect things to sound different, I won't listen for differences. If I don't expect differences, I may not set things up to help me find them. And, if, because of that, they can't be heard, I've completed the cycle and my disbelief in differences has both reduced my ability to hear them and proven to me that they don't exist. And around and around again.
The things I just mentioned aren't the only factors that can contribute to the idea that there's not much difference to be had between systems and components: Modern recording practice for "pop" or "rock" (and anything other than Classical music that's likely to be played on the radio) is to compress the sound so much that there's hardly any dynamic range left at all, and the whole song plays at a relatively constant volume, all the way through. There's even as term for it – the "Decibel" or "Loudness" Wars". There are any number of reasons why record producers do this, some just because it's what they think their audience wants to hear, and others because it helps radio stations (or at least so they believe) to extend their "coverage area" and be available to more listeners. If they can do that, they can, with a bigger audience, charge their advertisers more per commercial "spot".
Another thing may simply be the music, itself: "Death Metal" and other kinds of "Heavy Metal" or similar music seems to go well with head-crushing volume, little dynamic range, and (what audiophiles seem to find) raucous, cacophonic, and frankly awful sound. When distortion is a purposeful part of the music, how can you tell when the music is distorted?
Now add something else: Stephen says it sounds to him as if a new kind of anti-snobbery is developing among the people he sees on the social media: Instead of bragging about their golden ears and exquisite equipment, these people (or at least a significant number of them) are starting to brag about how they can get "just as good sound" from used or cheap or mid-fi gear as others claim from their fancier or pricier equipment. If you're into hot rods or motorcycles (as so many Hi-Fi fans seem to be) you've probably heard of "Rat" 'rods or bikes. These can be either actual "junkers" or genuinely ferocious high-performance machines disguised to look like junkers in order to sucker some poor helpless Cobra or Lamborghini into a drag race that it's doomed to lose. Either way, their owners are proud of them and at least claim that they wouldn't have anything else. Can it be that something like that is happening in Hi-Fi?
Beats me; but it also excites me: Every new kind of Hi-Fi Crazy is another addition to our hobby, whether to encourage further development of the state of the art, or, because of a limited budget or a preference for old stuff – or simply the desire to score points with the boys on negative snob-appeal – to drive up the price of used gear so that, when I go to sell mine, it will be worth more, I welcome each and every one of them with open arms.
The kind of controversy we see on the Internet, with active debate – sometimes even to the point of name-calling and "un-friending" – tells me that these are people who love our hobby and are, in whatever way and for whatever reason, committed to it. It also tells me that our hobby is far more vital than some might say and that – especially now that we have "personal" listening as another point of introduction for new people – it's not about to go away at any time soon.
Good for all of us! It doesn't really matter what kind of gear we prefer, or in what price range, or which side we are on in any debate, we can all...
Enjoy the music!