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October 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Lighten-Up! It's Okay For An Illusion To Be Only An Illusion.
Roger Skoff offers some thoughts about hi-fi, audio testing, and the musical experience.

Article By Roger Skoff

 

  "Last night was wonderful good fun! After dinner, I had George and the boys get together in the Great Hall and play that thing again that he had written for me last July, when we had that party out on the boat. It was good to hear it again, and even though the wife and I missed the breeze off the Thames, not having the crowds on the shore waving hats and hankies and yelling their fool heads off made it a lot easier for us to just sit back and enjoy the music."

If I were King George I, of England, I might very well have said something like that about a repeat performance of The Water Music that my court musician, George Frederic Handel, had written for me, and that I and my wife, Sophia, had first heard while traveling down the Thames on the royal barge on July 17, 1717. I'm not him, of course, but I did hear a performance of that very same music in my own home last night and – talk about realism -- there was no breeze off the Thames for me, either!

 

 

Actually, there were also no musicians, and no Great Hall, although I must say that, with the system that I have (using, of course, all XLO cables that I designed), there was the distinct illusion of real musicians playing real instruments and, although my listening room bears – except possibly in its number of walls – no resemblance at all to the Great Hall of George I, there was also the illusion of a performance space far grander than my own.

Now that's the cue for legions of Trolls and "Objectivists" to leap out from wherever they keep themselves, to shriek that "There are no musicians! There are no instruments"! There is only your own listening room and your own system! There is no great Hall, and no anything else; it’s all an illusion!

And, of course, if they do that, they will be absolutely right! It is all an illusion. So is a movie: There really aren't real people in that scene you're watching – only images on a screen. Not only that, but the people you think you're watching aren't really the people they're claiming to be, and the story – whatever it may be (as long as it's not a "documentary") isn't real, either: It's all a carefully created work of fiction, designed to catch and hold your attention for the time that it's playing – an illusion!

 

So What?
When you are paying for something, isn't getting what you want to buy at a price that you're willing to pay all you really care about? I most certainly (if I could afford it and were willing to spend the money) could rent an appropriate hall (If the British government would allow it, that might even be George I's Great Hall) for a performance of The Water Music. And, although Handel and his band are long gone, I could certainly still hire (although he's now 91 years old) Sir Neville Marriner and the current version of the orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to play it for me. And I'm sure I would get a major life experience as a result.  But why on earth would I do that? If I just want, as I did last night, to hear the same conductor and the same (at least in name) group play the same music by the same composer, why would I spend the tens (or maybe even hundreds) of thousands of dollars for a live performance when I can buy a recording of it for less than $14, play it on my home system, and be able to hear it again and again, as often as I want?

Oh, I know that what I hear won't be "real", but, once again, so what? If I can close my eyes and have my system and a great recording give me a believable illusion of actually being there and listening "in person" to a great orchestra playing a great piece of music in a great venue, isn't that sufficient? And isn't it a helluva lot cheaper (and more convenient and more repeatable) than hiring that hall and all of those people and flying all of that distance just to be able to experience another illusion: that I'm listening to Handel and his orchestra playing it live for King George? Especially when I can do that same exact thing at home? Wasn't Sandy Hawkins absolutely correct when he posted to one of the Facebook audiophile groups (Audiophiles on a Budget, August 31, 2015) that "It's kind of a matter of degree. The purpose of a hi-fi is to delude you into thinking you are listening to people playing music."?

 

 

In the end, all of it is an illusion. Even music, itself, is an illusion; whether live or recorded, and regardless or circumstances, company or surroundings, all music, itself, really is is a series of rapidly changing differences in the pressure of the air on my eardrums, and the fact that I hear it as music has not to do so much with the pressure changes I'm experiencing, but with human psychoacoustics and my acculturation. (If you doubt this, notice some time how your pets respond to the music you play. Certainly the air pressure differences on their ears are the same as on yours. Why don't they respond to them in the same way you do?)

In the end, this whole issue of illusion seems to be what the apparently never-ending war between the "objectivists" and the "believers" is all about: The believers will accept what they hear as sufficient, and will happily accept whatever illusion they can believe and that will make them feel good or contribute to their enjoyment, while the objectivists, on the other hand, demand some reason beyond the evidence of their own ears before they will believe what they hear.

 

 

That's it. And that's why, when I come across groups of so-called "objectivists" or "rationalists" – you know, those people who accuse people like me of being believers in "voodoo" or "snake oil" – I always wonder why they are in this hobby at all: If they don't believe their ears, why do they listen? And, if all equipment with the same specifications sounds essentially alike, as was written recently by the Senior Writer for one audio publication about its readers… Note To Editor: Mark Henninger in Audiophiles On A Budget Facebook group in August of 2015 wrote "Yesterday I heard the usual collection of incredible claims at a high-end audio show. One vendor did not understand why I did not wish to include its cables in my show coverage. I noted that most of my audience on AVS Forum is not receptive to that sort of thinking. He asked, in what way? I responded that they are the sort of people who believe that solid state amplifiers operating within spec sound virtually indistinguishable. He rolled his eyes, and said "oh I understand" and was done talking to me." Why do they talk about equipment at all? Why not just buy whatever will give them the spec's and features they want at the lowest possible price? And, if double-blind testing proves that all (Check those that apply: __ speakers __ cables __ electronics__ everything) sound exactly the same and that all apparent differences are illusions, why isn't one kind of illusion just as good as another as long as both are equally convincing?

Maybe it's time for the rationalists to lighten up and, instead of testing their systems, actually start listening to them. How else can they ever hope to...

 

Enjoy the music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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