I talked on the phone last night with John Curl, one of the audio industry's top electronics designers. Among the things we talked about were two subjects that are the real bedrock of audiophilia: "What's good?" and "How can you tell?" For audiophiles like us (Actually, among friends, we usually just call ourselves "Hi-Fi Crazies"), the answers to those questions really are the keys to everything. Whether we're trying, quite literally, to recreate the sound and emotional impact of a live musical performance, or even if we're just trying to maximize our own personal listening enjoyment, those are always the issues that it ultimately comes down to.
How we seek to achieve our idea of audio heaven may be different for different people, but there are only a few basic approaches that can be taken toward that goal: One that's always been popular, especially with newcomers to our hobby, is to read about music and the equipment that reproduces it, whether as technical papers ("White Papers"), "spec" sheets", test reports ("blind", "double-blind", or "open"), or as "expert" formal reviews, in print or on the internet, of the music; the quality of the recording; or of the specific equipment offered for playing it.
Other approaches involve talking about those things in person with your friends; reading casual reviews or comments on one of the many audiophile groups on the internet; or actually going to a dealer, a show, or the home of somebody who actually owns what you're interested in and just listening.
John Curl and I both believe that, ultimately, the way to go is to use your own ears and just listen. Reading company-written spec-sheets won't really tell you about the sound of a product. Neither will test results of any kind: There've been altogether too many pieces of gear that were double blind tested or that showed ruler-flat frequency-response and minuscule percentages of measured THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) but still, despite all that, were utterly unimpressive in the sound department.
John and I both think that just about the only thing that numerical measurement or testing can really do for a potential audio buyer is to help "rule things out" and give you a clue as to what's not (or at least might not be) worth listening to on your way toward putting together a system. Measurement and testing, can't tell you what's good, but they might very well give you a clue as to what's bad (or at least not worth considering).
What about (formal) reviews, though, or comments from other audiophiles? That's "iffy", too, for at least two reasons: First, nobody (not even the conductor of the orchestra, the singers or musicians, the members of the "live" audience. if any, the engineer who recorded it, or anyone else who might have been there at the original recording session) has any idea at all of what a particular performance of a particular piece of music actually sounded like to anyone other than himself, in any seat other than his own. And because multiple microphones may have been used, at multiple locations on the stage, in the studio, or at the venue, and because no one person was actually present at all of those mic positions at the moment the recording was made, nobody knows exactly what they (the mics) "heard" or how accurately it was transduced into electrical energy to be recorded and later played back.
In short, reviewers or audiophile commentators are guessing (just as we all are) about how the music must have sounded at the original performance and are using that guess to judge how well the recording or the playback they're commenting-on or reviewing is doing in reproducing it.
It's all guesswork, and it's all highly subjective.
So, what about the idea of expertise, at least as far as "knowing" the equipment? Yes, I am (and you are, too) an absolute expert on every system I've ever heard, within the bounds of my memory. But, no, neither I, nor you, nor anyone else can claim "expert" status on hi-fi gear. The reason for that is simple: If we accept the idea that nothing can ever be perfect, every (non-perfect) element of our system – from the playback source through the speakers – must have some effect on the sound of the music that it passes or seeks to reproduce. And if every part of the system contributes to its overall sound, any change to any part of the system must have an effect on what we hear. If that's so, unless we have not only heard every piece of audio equipment or gear there is, but have heard it in combination with every other possible piece of equipment or gear, we can't truly claim to be experts on what equipment sounds like or how good it is – especially as compared with anything else.
As just one silly-simple example to illustrate this, let's suppose that there is only one source of music for our system to play; LP records. Let's suppose, also, that, in all the world, there are only 10 models of phono cartridge that can be bought to play LPs with; that there are only 10 tonearm models to mount them in; and only 10 turntables to mount the 'arms to. Let's also suppose only 10 phono cables to connect them to the preamp; only 10 possible preamps; only 10 preamp-to-amplifier cables; only 10 amplifiers; only 10 speaker cables; and only 10 models of speakers to listen on. (WAY wrong! The last time I counted, there were more than 400 brands – not just models – of speakers on the market.) Given just that number of possible components and given a total listening-time-per-combination of just 10 minutes, with zero set-up time between combinations and zero rest time between listening sessions, it would take more than 19 YEARS to listen to every possible combination. (10 cartridges x 10 arms =100; x 10 turntables =1,000; x 10 phono cables = 10,000; x 10 preamps = 100,000; x 10 preamp cables = 1,000,000; x 10 amplifiers = 10,000,000; x 10 speaker cables = 100,000,000; x 10 speakers = 1,000,000,000; x 10 minutes per listening session = 10,000,000,000 minutes; divided x 60 minutes per hour; divided by 24 hours per day; divided by 365 days per year = 19.026 years).
Obviously, there are many more than 10 (or maybe even 100) models of each of the listed products available, but even with such limited test numbers, three things are obvious:
1) Even if there were, as stated, just 10 of everything to test, no such test could ever really be conducted.
2) Even if it could be conducted, by the time it was finished, no one could remember the sound of all of the combinations they had listened to.
3) Even if it could be conducted and remembered, by the time it was finished, much or most of the tested equipment would either be obsolete or have been superseded by some newer model.
What it all comes down to is this: Whether you like it or not, you are as close to an "expert" as will ever be available to consult with in making your musical or equipment decisions. In the end, the final decision must always come down to what sounds "best", most pleasing, most "real", or (to resurrect a standard that reviewer Tom Miiller and I came up with many years ago), most "believable" to you. Take advantage of what information, tests, specs, and reviews may be available to you but, ultimately, because it is you who, more than anyone else, must be satisfied by your system, use your ears; listen carefully; and then trust your decision.
After that, it's easy: Just put on some tunes, sit back, close your eyes, and...