[SoundStage!]The Y-Files
Back Issue Article

March 2001

Audiophilism: Why Some of it Smacks of Religion

From bikes…

I used to be into motorcycles, heavily. Started with a Yamaha 650 Twin. That grew small quickly and morphed into a manly V4 Honda Magna. When I couldn’t afford a go-faster pin-striping job, I upgraded to an in-line four Kawasaki Eliminator 1000 instead. It handled poorly but boy did it lay down the rubber and take off from an intersection at warp speed. When I realized that going this fast was dangerous, I changed colors and went retro -- to a transverse V-Twin in the form of an old Moto Guzzi El Dorado civilian police model. What style, what panache. But a move away from the parts and tweak whiz who specialized in this foreign brand meant ordering new replacement parts from Italia at premium lira instead. I was heartbroken, but reality bit harder. I bit back and sold. Plunked down for a horizontally opposed twin of Teutonic reliability, a BMW Paris-Dakar Enduro, my favorite bike of the bunch. I rode it in the deep of winter; ice particles in my beard and also the smell of smoking chimneys. The darn thing always started. Handled fabulously. Was supremely comfortable and looked, well, different. That part suited me too. I even routinely hitched a massage table across my back and did outcalls in the hills of Bel Air and Beverly Hills. Why the police never stopped me I still can’t figure.

But I did know even then that Sunday bike rallies were potentially lethal. Pack instinct goes amok. Testosterone-poisoned macho guys outdo each other in stupidity to show off open-road wheelies, right-sided takeovers and gnarly lane splitting at top speed. So I usually escaped this madness for the milder climes of private and more languorous detours with a buddy or two. But I always attended the main group’s hamburger-joint pit stop that had everyone park his or her rides in parallel along the curb. This was get-down time. You swapped war stories real or imagined, looked cool in your shades and leathers, and honestly admired each other’s machines to check out custom paint jobs, add-on chrome, performance mods and rare imports. In short, you were amongst your own kind and celebrated fraternity.

Why go biker on you, and into detail on the various engine layouts I worked through? Simply because all those differences -- from cruiser to dirt to sport to chopper, from Twin to Triumph Triple to in-line six with reverse, from full dresser to nekkid engine-as-stressed-member -- never intruded. The sense of camaraderie, fun and male bonding always and completely pervaded these meets. It proved blind, period, to the myriad opportunities that audiophiles would use at the drop of a hat to disagree, critique, foam at the mouth and split up into cliques over. Fun. Passion. Contagion. These are the keys to the kingdom. Bikers have them. Ditto for oenophiles. Have you ever gotten attacked for favoring Pinot Noir over Cabernet or Merlot?

…to audio

But in Audioland, Caramba, there are more fiefdoms than stars in the heavens. Tubes break down into single-ended, push-pull, OTL and feedback or not. Then further into triodes, tetrodes, pentodes and lemonodes. It doesn’t stop there. Now you’ve got 300Bs, 2A3s, EL34, KT88. Solid state goes class A, class A/B, switch mode or without class. Speakers. Don’t even get me started. There are network types from first order through infinite and slippery slope, from silly parallel to serious series. There are sealed and stuffed boxes, vented or farting designs and transmission lines. There are soft and hard-dome tweeters, watch we’re under construction. One-ways, two-ways, more-ways and freeways. Dynamics, planars, electrostatics, and horns. How about genuine novelties such as the Gallo or Linaeum tweeter, the German Physik bending-wave driver, the MBL Radialstrahler? Flat panels? Space-age materials, compound curves, constrained-layer damping, lead sheathing. To spike or to float. To fill with sand, lead or cat litter. Cables? Yikes. Stranded, twisted, helixed, solid core, air core. Ribbon, hollow oval, braided or knotted. Copper, silver, aluminum, gold, bronze, uranium. From zero to multi-crystal in 5.6 seconds. Break-in. Breakdown. Break-up. Double blind listening, as if simply blind wasn’t good enough. Measurements versus audibility. Heck, was that the alarm clock or am I still half asleep?

Alas, for all this wonderful variety, drop-in on any chat group string or perfunctorily cruise through those certain letters to Stereophile. You’ll bear witness to the outright enmity, ruffled feathers and heated disagreements that segregate our community into splinter groups of not-so-free radicals.

Why are we such knuckleheads?

Allow me a minor detour in search of a reasonable answer.

Wholly knuckleheads

In the name of religion, more people continue to get iced than for any other reasons except the hard-wired expiration date of old age. If you take out certain extremists -- pun intended -- the founders of most religions incarnated in their very being a vast tolerance towards all kinds of expressions of religiosity. After all, the word’s origin, re-ligio, simply means to re-connect.

If you have discovered a way to reconnect with God or Spirit or Life or Existence, and this tacit cognition of Oneness has become your most profound personal treasure, why would you shoot me to death if my personal fusion with the Great Unknowable happened through a different door? Your cognition of Oneness would instantly recognize that I am no different from you. Killing me would literally kill a part of your own self. That’s the meaning of compassion -- to feel as another does.

The mechanism

The crux about religion is belief. A Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tzu, Moses or Muhammad cannot prove his connection to the Divine. And usually, however his breakthrough to the other side occurred is the only way he knows how to teach others. Since there are as many roads to Oneness as there are individuals -- existence doesn’t copy even a single snowflake -- there’s built-in disagreement over what to do. Followers without a clear understanding of the big picture cling blindly to their leaders, and usually quite in the absence of any real taste of freedom of their own. From "love thy neighbor" to "death to all heathens" becomes an oil-slick progression. Few so engaged and enraged ponder its incongruency but go to battle with profound self-righteousness.

The crux about audio is, for one, its subjectivity. It’s beyond proof, just like enlightenment. It becomes belief. Still, there are yet more similarities with religion, which compound mere belief to furnace the quibbling dissent and war mongering on the other end.

Consider this. If only first-order loudspeaker designs were the right and proper loudspeakers, all loudspeakers, by virtue of survival of the fittest, would follow that route. Despite the very convincing arguments their proponents will articulate on its behalf, that’s plainly not the case. Rather, they’re quite the minority. The larger group of second-order guys has equally convincing arguments to make their own case. In fact, so does pretty much everyone else who, to desperately differentiate himself from me-too clones, must come up with a spin and mystique to tell a unique story and grab your attention and sympathy, and lastly your wallet.

How many loudspeaker manufacturers are out there? Too many. How to successfully merchandise yet another brand?

The implementation

You need a shtick. A hundred times faster than any other speaker in existence will do. Or anything else for that matter if it’s novel, unique, outrageous and more beaucoup fantastique.

Let’s say you’re shopping. You’re not an engineer yourself. How do you know whose story to believe? You’re bound to use your head, so you pick the argument that most appeals to you. This appeal, like a magnet, requires the proper counter charge in you that’s a function of education, life experience and common sense. If the actual product performance beyond the original argument delivers for you, the deal gets inked. Most likely, your prior agreement with that particular design philosophy has already influenced your hearing. Never mind. You now own this speaker. If anyone asks you why, you’ll espouse, from what you just learned, the reasons for its superiority.

But did you really learn the right reasons? How can you be so sure? And did you not truly borrow these reasons rather than learn them from the ground up? In short, isn’t a little knowledge a dangerous thing?

You see, this is where things get religious once again. It’s again all about belief, and more or less blindly if I may say so. Even the engineers themselves can’t agree on the right way. So many products based on widely opposing beliefs perform to equally high standards that attract large numbers of buyers and glowing industry reviews. How do you reconcile this mind-boggling variety of obviously "working" theories into one single and unequivocal "right"?

Cerebral dry cleaning

In order for belief to work and resist being traded for another belief, indoctrination is essential. Deep indoctrination or brainwashing is better yet. Say you’re part of a power supply religion. You have an entire line of electronics that offers upgrade paths based on more and more beefy, robust and optimized power supplies. How do you convert folks to your religion? Simple, you demonstrate. You go from wall wart to discrete power supply. From there to dual mono. From there to separate boxes. From there to separate boxes with separate outboard supplies. And each time you climb up another step on your personal Jacob’s ladder, things get better. Your charges hear it. Voilą, that proves the point now, doesn’t it? Power supplies make all the difference! If you’re the only proponent of that religion, you’ve got customers for life. Where else can they go? If they have subscribed to your demonstration and signed it with their lifeblood in hard cash, you own them now.

Unless, of course, some satanic agent from another religion manages to foil your destiny and comes up with a more impressive demo or rhetoric. To minimize these chances, manufacturers routinely hold teaching seminars for their key retailers within their factories. They’re designed to deeply familiarize the salesmen with the company philosophy and what goes into their products. Seeing that these are isolated demonstrations that don’t compile shootouts against competitors -- unless such comparisons, of course, are pre-rigged from the start -- the attendees will walk away truly convinced. In their heart of hearts and innermost cochlea, they believe they’ve seen the light. A follow-up manufacturer’s seminar at such a dealer, with core personnel from the factory waving hands and explaining beforehand what you will hear, only serves to deepen the conditioning, extend it to actual customers and seal it with the authority of being the experts.

Say you bought into class-A inefficiency with its massive heatsinks and giant casings, macho weight and impressive specs. Nothing else now looks appealing. In fact, you’ll defend claims to the contrary with the fervor and fanatism of a good believer. Roast the switching-mode crowd! Iron-maiden the Pentodists!

Headless chickens

Our industry is hopelessly oversaturated with products that, behind all the masquerading and posing, are more similar than not in performance. But the cock with the most outrageous plumage and loudest craw wins all the hens. Can you appreciate the manufacturers’ dilemma? They must step on the stinking dung heap at the nick of dawn and wake us from our tossing dreams with the most melodious but also loudest cickerikee we’ve ever heard. Glossy ads. Powerful slogans. Unobtainium ingredients. Proprietary circuits. Confounding graphs. Wacky claims. Illustrious price tags. Glowing reviews.

It’s quite a charade, isn’t it? You can tell I’m having fun, but truly, the subject is anything but. Make no mistake, it ought to be. Just as true religion is universal in nature and individual in expression, our common love of music should unite us and we should experience delight and curiosity about our different approaches. "Celebrate unity in diversity" is a good bumper sticker after all. So it’s not a bad thing that audiophilism smacks of religion per se. It’s just a matter of whether you pick a specific religion and get all defensive over it, or whether you stick with the aroma of religiosity that unites all religions under one umbrella.

Get your head back

Next time you rally to the defense of your own personal audiophile convictions -- whatever they may be -- ask yourself whether you truly know what you’re talking about. Then, if you do, ascertain whether it really matters. In the end, being right isn’t important. Having fun is! Amen.

...Srajan Ebaen


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