While he wasn’t the originator of the concept, Harry Pearson was the most avid practitioner of the idea that you can tell how “good’ an audiophile is by how their system sounds. While this, at first glance, seems like a very egalitarian way to judge a system and its creator by “How Good Does It Sound?”, it is fraught with problems.
This simple idea has been expanded to the point where for many audiophiles an audio show or a visit to another audiophile’s listening room is basically a “put up or shut up” affair where each room’s contents are judged on the merits of the sound within. Some audio show reports are exclusively structured around this theme of “How did it sound?”
So, what’s wrong with this concept? After all, how a system sounds is the ultimate arbiter of its sonic quality, right?
There are some fundamental issues that this approach overlooks (or seem far less concerned with). The first one is value for money spent.
Let’s face it, for some audiophiles the amount of money lavished on a system is (for them) emblematic of how “committed” and “passionate” they are to their hobby. Yes, they have great toys. But, really, is someone with a Schitt or Project audio system any less involved in their music than someone with one with a Magico, Wilson, or YG-based system? In terms of value or pleasure for money spent, a high-value “low-cost” system is no worse than one that costs more than a middle-class home. And a good set-up using high-value components can be sonically superior to one using far more pricy parts with a bad or “home designer-friendly” set-up.
The second major issue is the concept that a manufacturer’s expertise and ability to deliver quality products can be determined by how good their gear sounds at a show.
This is a double-edged sword for many manufacturers, especially those who market large loudspeakers – there is simply no way that most large footprint loudspeakers can sound their best (or even decent sometimes) at an audio show hotel room. Even some dealer showrooms are inadequate to house mega-speakers – so your average audiophile will probably never hear them at their best. This makes for the “sour grapes” phenomenon, where “Yeah, I heard them, and they were only OK”, which could be true unless someone has a room built specifically to house their super-speakers.
Some manufacturers are especially adept when it comes to setting up their systems in hotel rooms, so for them audio shows are all excellent sales venues. Some cable/accessory manufacturers even do A/Bs that seem to show that their particular products are effective at making sonic improvements.
AudioQuest used to do a “boombox” demo where they swapped out the speaker wires to a boom box – and I, along with many other listeners, heard a difference.
Of course, some audiophiles claimed that the test was rigged in some way. I did not see any obvious way that if could have been done, but the fact that some folks would assume that it HAD to be rigged is an example of how difficult it is to do a completely convincing A/B at a show where the methodology is completely transparent without any chance of manipulation.
The ultimate put-down for any audiophile is the simple declaration that their system sounded bad. Since the system is, for many audiophiles the ultimate “proof of the pudding” of their audio expertise, this means they are, in the eyes of the person making the statement, incompetent. Every pro reviewer has, at some time, been informed by a manufacturer that their system sounded “great.”
And occasionally, that same person will inform everyone within earshot that the system sucked…depending, of course on how favorably said reviewer judged their gear.
My pro tip of the day is always take into consideration the bias and tastes of someone weighing in on someone else’s system…they could be spot on, or they could be blowing smoke…see my article on Truthiness…
So, what’s the takeaway from all this? Audio systems are a lot like people in that they have good days and bad days and work better in some environments than in others. Judging a system or a particular component in a system from one occasion can lead to erroneous conclusions about a sound system and its creators.
As an example, let’ say you like to listen at 100 dB peaks while the system you are listening to was designed and assembled by someone who listens at 90 dB peaks. At 90 dB levels it could sound really good, but by 100 dB it could turn into something far less euphonic as the room joins in…so for you the system would be bad, but for its creator it might be perfect…so an individual’s biases and tastes often determine whether a system sounds “good” or “bad.”
So, the next time someone says to you, “Yes, but the system sounded bad!” don’t take their word as gospel truth, no matter who they are, or what toys they own, before you have had an opportunity to judge for yourself…because maybe, just maybe, they have different tastes, biases, and sonic needs than you do…