One of the things that I remember being told by some wise audiophile pal many years ago is that Hi-Fi Crazies are seldom just that one thing, but almost always have some other avocation as well: Usually, he said, either photography or some kind of motorsport. For me and most of the people I've tended to hang-out with, photography hasn't really been a major interest, but he's been right about the other thing, and we've almost all been anything from actively interested in, to obsessive-compulsive about motor vehicles. In my case, it's been Italian performance cars (Siata and Maserati), the classics (Everything from DeDion-Voisin, to Rolls-Royce, to Delahaye, which I've loved and lusted after, but never actually owned) and English and Japanese road-going motorcycles (of which I still own one Norton and one Honda Aspencade).
What's interesting to me about the three particular hobbies I just mentioned – High-End audio, photography, and motor vehicles – is that, while one person may embrace and enjoy two – or even all three of them, the way people look at the products (the hi-fi gear, the cameras, and the cars and bikes) involved in participating in them seems to be entirely different. In photography, for example, the same kind of quiet warfare really is possible between fans of film and digital as has been going on for the last half century (yes, it really is that long) between fans of tubes and solid state audio. The difference, though, seems to be that in Hi-Fi the conflict tends to be subjective – even to the point of "moral", with each side seeming to hold the other in mild but very real contempt, tinged with pity (that they can't hear and recognize the obvious), and, for Camera Bugs, the argument seems to be more reasoned, with the proponents of each medium putting forth its technical and user advantages and its possible aesthetic effects, but never, ever challenging the reality of the other's position and certainly never declaring it to be "snake oil" or "voodoo".
It's the same with cars and bikes, although, because the subject matter is much more diverse, so are the criteria for judgment: With classic cars, for example, absolute -- or even any – performance may simply not matter: A good example of this is a 1957 Freestone & Webb–bodied Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith Saloon that I once considered buying. It was HUGE and weighed more than 6000 lbs., but was rated at only 120 horsepower and transferred that to the road S L O W L Y through a General Motors two-speed automatic transmission. During my test drive, I found that the correct procedure at traffic signals, was, when the light turned green, to stomp full down on the accelerator and then sit back and read magazines and watch all the little old ladies in electric wheelchairs whiz past you as you waited for the car to start to move. Needless to say, I didn't buy it, but someone did, because with a magnificent old beast like that, it’s the looks and the luxury and the name and the "feel" of it that matters, and to the people who love it, its actual performance is of no consequence at all.
With other kinds of cars, though – with dragsters or Indy or F1 racers, for example – performance may be everything, and time-through-the-lights or around the track may be the only consideration. Cars of other styles, too, and for other purposes, also have their own admirers and their own standards for judgment.
So do motorcycles; from a vintage Brough Superior that will fetch as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction just because of its "classic" value; through dirt bikes for off-road use; to touring bikes suitable for comfortably carrying a rider and his passenger hundreds of miles at a single clip; to modern superbikes offering buyers incredible acceleration, top speeds in excess of 180 miles per hour (288kph) and even the ability to legally and practically drive them on the street; to all-out factory team racing machines that may cost millions to build and keep running.
All of those different things are built for and judged by different standards. Even so, and even though I've heard, and even participated in discussions of the merits of carburetors versus fuel injection; of which is prettier, a Delage, a Hispano-Suiza, or a Packard of the same era, and have argued the handling merits of Norton versus Ducati versus MV Agusta motorcycles, I've never heard of anyone denying that those things matter or decrying those who disagree with them as fools or charlatans.
That's what happens in High-End audio all the time, though. Camera crazies may argue about which lens is better, but they never – as we constantly hear from a certain kind of Hi-Fi Crazies – describe claimed differences as "placebo effect" or "marketing hype" or, perhaps worse yet, declare that no difference that can't be "blind" tested is a "real" difference at all.
Where it's possible, testing – of any thing or any product at all, in any field at all – is just fine, and may even be helpful or of value, but that's not automatically and always the case: Just, for example, one can certainly measure the "grain" or, if it's digital, the pixel count of a photograph, but what does that have to do (except possibly in a negative way, if the quality is too poor) with either the picture's subject matter, the information it communicates, or its aesthetics? Does weighing a Pierce-Arrow or Duesenberg automobile tell anything at all about its longevity? In Hi-Fi, do the manufacture's "specs" tell you anything, in any other than the very most general way about how a product will sound? And does "blind" or even "double-blind" testing of those same Pierce-Arrow and Duesenberg cars tell you which one has the more beautiful lines? In certain things, a subjective response is, regardless of anything else one might say or do, all that can ever really matter.
Just as cameras and cars and bikes are all built to do certain specific things, so our High-End audio gear is built to play music, and to do so in such a manner as to sound like "the real thing" (whatever that may be) and to give us the maximum possible enjoyment – always a subjective thing -- in the process. You wouldn't weigh and measure, or even bring in a panel of "expert" reviewers to decide which of two race cars was actually faster. That might give you some clues that might or might not be helpful in making a guess, but to really find out for sure which would win a race between them, you'd really have to have a race.
It's the same thing with Hi-Fi: Tests and measurements can certainly be done; experts can certainly be consulted; calculations can certainly be made as to which component or system or system/room combination ought to sound the very best and give the very most enjoyment, but to really find out for sure which will be best for you, you really have to "have a race" to experience the outcome. Testing, theory, expert input, and inspired diddling, are all fun, and for some people – the engineering geeks, the literature collectors, and the review junkies – may be all that's necessary, but for everyone else, the very best way to test your system or a new component that you've brought home to try out or even that you're auditioning in a dealer's showroom, is just to pick a source, select an album, turn on the system, sit back, close your eyes, and...
Enjoy the music.