Written by 6:00 am Audiophile, Audiophile News

Why Audiophilia Is A Collection of Unknowns

Paul Wilson considers some of the things in the audiophile hobby that are unknown.

Face it, ours is a highly technical, science driven hobby. We have brilliant designers employing advanced engineering and scientific methodologies in order to achieve meaningful advancements. For the average audiophile, some, perhaps even most of this science might be daunting. For many of us, what results is a walk through uncharted territory. A journey through the unknown. Let’s look at a few. 

One unknown is the authenticity of remastered music. These days, high definition (HD) downloads are wildly popular. Several of the more prominent streaming services offer them. There are even companies who specialize in standard CD and HD downloads as their primary business model. 

Have you ever had an HD download or streamed song only sound average and not really noticeably better than a CD quality version? I certainly have. One thing I like to do when I play around with streaming is try and discern differences between an HD track and a standard CD track. I cannot count the number of times I felt like there was no difference at all. I’ve even had times when I thought the CD level actually sounded better. And of course, I have had times when the HD version was noticeably and unquestionably superior. 

On those occasions when CD quality was on par with HD, I have always wondered why. I cannot know how these downloaded or streamed tracks were created. Were the original analog masters (depending on the age of the track) used or some other version? Should such a situation be considered an unknown? I would say yes. Is it also possible my discernments regarding sonic comparisons are skewed? Maybe I was prejudiced against one particular version? Maybe I made a mistake? Yeah, that’s possible. And more unknowns to consider. 

Ours is a hobby seeking an equivalency to how the music sounded when recorded in the studio. Most of us understand we cannot equal live music no matter how hard we try or how much we spend. Approximating the studio recording is an acceptable fallback, and one some systems can come amazingly close to accomplishing. But unless we were actually in the studio when the recording was created, how are we to ever know if what our system reproduces is in any way representative of the studio recording? Sadly, we cannot. We rely on the quality of our system and the indefatigable hope we are coming close. 

Thought about equipment break in lately? That seems to qualify as an unknown on several fronts. First, does component break in even occur? Obviously, this is an individually based belief structure. Assuming the user has an affirmative outlook on the question of break in, questions like how long and to what degree come to mind. 

How long will it take for my new whatever to break in? And if I am not so excited by how it sounds now, or if I’m not hearing the sonic improvements the seller promised, will that change when break in is complete? When I installed my first Nordost Odin power cord I was dismayed for about a week. I didn’t hear any measurable difference. Then one day, I was shocked by the remarkable improvement. I simply had to wait for the cord to break in. 

What about changing technologies? Doing so presents an unknown for certain. I have always been more allied to solid state gear than tubed gear. Of course, that is manifestly a personal preference. Anyone who feel tubes are a superior technology are just as correct in their belief as I am in mine. It’s what’s right for each of us that matters. 

However, I must believe if I were going to change all of my solid state gear to a tubed version I would be filled with trepidation and uncertainty. Considering the number of solid state components in my system, and their cost, making such a wholesale switch would be terrifying – not to mention costly. Worse yet, how difficult would it be to affirm my decision was correct prior to making the switch?

Because ours is a technically advanced endeavor, is not the science behind why and how our systems work to a certain extent an unknown? Anyone who is a physicist may well understand electronic circuitry and how sound behaves in an enclosed space. What of the common, everyday audiophile who just wants to listen to a song and be impressed by what they hear? 

Obviously, there are wildly different levels of technical understanding amongst the width and breath of all audio devotees. Those at the upper end of understanding see things much differently than those at the less knowledgeable end. They are also better equipped to put their knowledge to good use. Understanding the physics and science behind how our equipment works is something nearly all audiophiles could improve. Minimizing this particular unknown is a clear path towards better audio enlightenment. 

Audio, just like the world around each of us is filled with unknowns. Most of us go through our day will little regard or concern for the things we do not know or understand. Perhaps audio systems fall into this category. 

At the end of a trying day, or even workweek, when we settle into the listening chair and play our favorite music, all seems right in the world. Most of us in this frame of mind are hardly concerned about the physics of how our systems operate. We really don’t care if the acoustical panels on the wall are abiding by the laws of conservation of energy. We are not really worried whether or not a different technology would be more sonically pleasing. No, in this frame of mind those things don’t matter at all. 

What does matter is that we can become captivated by the music. We can be transported to a different place and time. All that other minutia can be addressed tomorrow. Or the next day. Or sometime soon. 

Right now, we just want to sit and listen. And the only unknown that matters is how enamored will we become in the process. 

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