[SoundStage!]The Y-Files
Back Issue Article
July 1999

Beginnings

by Srajan Ebaen

"Why is the grass green and the sky blue?"

This, and others like it, are questions kids love to test our patience with. Every answer we valiantly supply gets inevitably turned into another question.

"What is chlorophyll? What’s an ionic layer?"

Pretty soon this game reaches subatomic, philosophical and existential levels: "What’s a quark? What’s on the other side of a black hole? Who made all of it?"

It’s like peeling an onion layer by layer. When the onion’s last layer is removed, you arrive at nothing, nada, niente, nichts, nirvana. That’s precisely why this example enjoys popularity with the Zen crowd. In the cyclical question-and-answer game, one arrives, many tears later, at the equivalent no-mind state of the perfectly peeled onion with the admission of "I don’t know." Those hip to a child’s superior tenacity often volunteer this confession early on in the game so as to bail out. Not to mistake such exit strategy for true humility! It’s merely pragmatic. However, in the case of a new monthly column, it seems more pragmatic to again pretend knowledge rather than fake humility and let you, the reader, be wise enough to understand that one man’s opinion is another man’s opium -- or some such drivel. In the grand scheme of things, all audio musings amount to very little indeed. Like soap bubbles, even a minor prick of reality such as relationships, economics or war will, thankfully, pierce them in a heartbeat.

This particular bubble, The Y-Files, to regularly rise from my private soap box will attempt to shed some light on the inner workings of the audio industry and the symbiotic relationships between manufacturers, reps, retailers, press, shows and consumers. It goes without saying that any "answer" can immediately be converted into a new "question". That’s child’s play -- fun, flexible and at times, hopefully, flabbergasting. As with our illustrious predecessor The X Files, we should come across the occasional conspiracy theory, adding that requisite measure of consternation: Why do certain brands get all the good reviews? Why do retailers at large seem hell-bent on selling the same old stuff year in, year out? Why doesn’t anyone import any of the truly cool kits from Europe? Why are things so bloody expensive? Why, why, why?

To open this first installment [drum roll, please] I thought it fitting to begin squarely on the common ground upon which the various participants of our industry take their joint stand. That’s of course the recreation of a musical event in the home. Artists create the event, recording engineers capture it, manufacturers design equipment to decode it, reps open retail accounts for distribution of said gear, retailers sell it to the consumer and the press talks about all of this, endlessly. While some of these parties, as we shall suspect in future installments, are or seem to be at cross-purposes, they all agree upon this basic mission.

To re-create is essentially synonymous with to duplicate, to clone, to copy. It’s often been posited that the one and only true yardstick for such an enterprise is acoustic live music -- the absolute sound.

But wait! As soon as we call it "sound," we have already extricated one, the aural, component from the entirety of sensory elements that make up the event that stimulates all our five senses simultaneously. Before the performers even take to the stage, our eyes have already scanned the hall and approximated our relative position to the podium. We absorb a tangible excitement through the very pores of our skin, and even the tactile contact of our backs against the seating is an integral part of our being there. Once the music commences, our eyes can freely follow a bass player’s rapid fingering across his fret board. Our brain automatically adds these visual clues to the aural cues. Following the bass line below the contributions of the other performers is now much easier and more natural than having to rely on the acoustic data exclusively as happens during playback at home. The whole subject is rather more complex, but this example should suffice to suggest that in comparison, what’s captured on a CD is to a concert like a wrung-out towel with a bit of stale, lukewarm moisture remaining is to a piping hot Jacuzzi under the open stars.

But we’re still under the assumption that there even is such a thing as a live event. Consider this. For most of us mere mortals, a live concert is one of the rarer pleasures in life, accompanied by prior arrangements and associated expense. As a result, our senses tend to go into overdrive and operate at a higher-than-usual pitch, much like during a first date or the reunion with a lover returning after a long absence. This immediately suggests the subjective nature of personal experience, forcing us to distinguish between an objective actual event and our experience thereof. The first one doesn’t really exist, does it? Outside of our own experience, does the concert take place for anybody else in that uniquely personal and peculiar fashion that is our very own? Obviously not, which is why there are as many experiences of the event as there are attendees and performers -- and pieces of audio equipment.

This leaves us with no original event to copy and reproduce. How about copying an experience instead? Can you, at will and under the best possible circumstances, duplicate or re-create an experience exactly the way it was before, with every single ingredient of setting, mood and perception identical? Not to worry -- nobody can. It’s why the old proverb calls experiences fleeting, and Heraclitus talked about being unable to step into the same river twice.

When we talk about recreating the original event, we’re clearly barking up the wrong tree in pursuit of a myth. Even if video cameras were involved to capture the visual elements of a live performance, the olfactory and tactile components still elude us. Just to realistically re-create the audio and video elements during playback would require full motion, totally immersive, holographic 3-D virtual reality -- something for which our technology isn’t quite ready yet. By restricting playback to merely the audio content of the live event, we have automatically made impossible the true recreation of said event and thereby violated what many consider to be the audiophile religion’s core credo.

Have you ever wondered why listening to music in the home works better with eyes closed? I’ve read many a preposterously psychoanalytical treatment on this matter when it seems that the main reason stares us right and quite literally in the eye: our ears tell us that there are musicians in the living room while our eyes plainly remind us that we’re alone. Is that schizophrenic or what? As audiophiles, we feel compelled to pursue the creation of a perfect illusion. This simply works better when we eliminate mutually conflicting data and close our eyes. For the same reason, large speakers no matter how well-endowed in the imaging department, always end up occupying the same physical space as some of the performers in the soundstage. This immediately alerts our entire biomechanism about the impossibility of two objects assuming the same space at the same time. Never mind that we know all along the speakers to be the acoustic origins of the music -- after all, we spent countless weeks deciding which ones to buy, and many subsequent hours positioning them just so.

The primary reason why audiophiles place such value on soundstaging, density and specificity of images and other minutiae is simply that the visual elements of the original performance have been subtracted in playback, and all these characteristics (as is evident already in their terminology) emulate adding them back. That’s not so dissimilar from taking perfectly organic wheat, stripping it of its nutrient-rich germ only to resell the isolated wheat germ for an outrageous premium through specialty health-food stores! In order to see a diva intoning a smoldering solo number right there between your speakers, a sharply etched image outline helps; never mind that live music neither has nor needs pinpoint imaging. Rather, things blend in real life which, to re-create at home, would require humongous listening rooms to allow for adequate far-field positions and concomitant amplifier power to overcome the drop in acoustic output that comes from increased distances and cubic volumes. If you wish to experience audio playback with a visual element, blending is the last thing on your list; hence there’s no need to upgrade your digs to palatial expanses. Aren’t you glad?

Let’s face it, unlike cats and dogs whose primary senses are smell and sound, humans are predominantly visual animals, with hearing coming in a distant second. Stripping the live event of its visual subtext renders the re-created illusion very different; thus both should be accepted and enjoyed on their own merits.

Musicians do this very well. They not only cope but also thoroughly enjoy supposedly mediocre systems simply because they don’t expect or intend playback to be the same as, or similar to, live music. Audiophiles on the other hand begin by creating an impossible task, a heroic journey (you could also call it a disease) and then forever after look for a cure to fix the imaginary problem. That’s like embarking on a train that will never arrive. The only ones that benefit from such an arrangement are the procurers of food and drink on this train, preventing the passengers from jumping off due to boredom or exhaustion.

Have you ever, for even just a moment, believed that a television sports broadcast of a football game remotely resembled the live stadium event? I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, you probably have no problem admitting that nine out of ten times, the "artificial" experience is much preferable with its close-tracking, multiple-angle zoom cameras constantly focused on the ball, slow-motion replay of goals and in-depth commentary on player history and intricate tactical maneuvers.

By the same token, the audio experience at home can be preferable to the one in the club, the stadium or the concert hall. I for one have no problem saying so. Why should you? Having said that, it naturally follows that we then might as well customize this personal experience to derive the utmost enjoyment from it. Whosoever is wont to call such an endeavor artificial, be proud to reply, "Well yes, indeed, and it’s my very own creation and I much relish in it. Thank you kindly for worrying about me!"

In the coming months, we will take a look behind the scenes of our industry to hopefully increase your understanding of how it works and how you, the consumer, affect it and can make a purposeful difference if you so choose. We will meet some of the people who manufacture, import, distribute and sell, and we will inquire into the nature of symbiosis and how to avoid its pitfalls and enjoy its benefits.

For today, let me leave you with this final thought: an audio system is a very personal expression of its primary user’s bias and preferences. The more defined your requirements are, the less likely you will become sidetracked by hearing a familiar CD played back over a friend’s system and freaking out because things seem to sound better rather than just different. The train I was talking about earlier has led many a music lover astray from his original quest for pure enjoyment. Many I know who have jumped the train weary and exhausted, tens of thousands of dollars lighter and their original love of music nearly extinguished by frustration. Because this whole enterprise is so personal, you get to write your own rules, pursue your own agenda and make no apologies to anyone. Just don’t buy into the myth of the absolute sound. Music is much more than sound, and what you hear at home, it is a very different experience from live music. Remember that different isn’t better or worse, just different. If you stop comparing and just accept things for what they are, you can save yourself money, frustration, resentments and maybe even a perfectly good relationship and enjoy the shit out of listening to music within your own four walls.

Cheers to that!

...Srajan Ebaen
srajan@soundstage.com

 

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