What is the sound of one hand clapping?


Whenever we listen to any recorded sound, whether it's played-back on an iPod and earbuds, a car radio, a home- or actual movie theater sound system, or even the best and most sophisticated High End stereo setup ― there's almost always something that we can notice and like or dislike about what we hear. Sometimes it's the music, itself; the way it was recorded; the quality of the recording; or even the choices that were made by the artists producers, and engineers in bringing it to market. Sometimes it's the playback system, itself, or even the space that it's played in. There's always some thing or combination of things responsible for whatever it is about what we hear that turns us on or off, but it's not always easy to know who or what to praise or blame.

In the first part of this article I brought up the issue of a hypothetical designer asking me to listen to and comment on a hypothetical new product that he had developed. I'd be happy to do it, I said, (We ALL love to play Reviewer!) but I'd probably have a real problem trying to figure out what it actually sounded like so that my comments could have some validity. The difficulty, I said, is that no source, or amplifier, or cable, or any other component can ever be listened to all by itself, but must always be auditioned as part of a complete System, playing - whether through speakers of headphones -- in some sort of an acoustical environment. It's like the famous Zen koan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping? Certainly each hand plays a vital part in producing the sound, but how can you tell which does what?

I addressed the problem of suitable program material last time, so now let's assume that we have all of that ready and are simply going to listen to the designer's "thing" and make wise and insightful comments on it. Where do we start?

The first thing is not to listen to the new thing at all, but, using all of our selected recordings, to thoroughly learn or remind ourselves of what the system that we will use as our reference sounds like before we make any changes.  Only after we've done that should we substitute our new thing for the System's old one, and listen to all of those same recording again, as many times as is necessary.

What we will be listening for will be the changes in the sound of the system with the new thing added, and, to keep things as "pure" as possible, we must never, ever, change more than one thing at a time.

Now, just to make things interesting, let's suppose that, when you make the substitution, there IS a difference and it's clear and obvious. What does that tell you? Maybe a lot, maybe nothing at all, and maybe something that's the exact opposite of the truth!

To cite an example that I wrote of once before, let's suppose that your reference System consists of just five elements (sources, cables, electronics, speakers; whatever they might be): Instead of identifying them, let's just call them "A", "B", "C", "D", and "E". Let's say, also, that "A" is absolutely neutral (has no "sonic signature" of its own at all), "B" is excruciatingly bright, "C" is neutral; "D" is chocolaty-dark; and "E" is, once again, dead neutral. If the brightness of "B" is exactly offset by the darkness of "D", it may very well seem that the System is completely neutral, and that if we substitute one of our components with some neutral-sounding other component, there should be no change at all, but is that true?  


If we substitute a neutral-sounding "A" for the "A" already there, there will be no change, but if the component we substitute is "B" (very "bright") and we put something neutral in its place, there will be nothing to offset the coloration of "D", and the System will, all of a sudden, sound very "dark".  If we didn't know better, it would be easy to say "Hmmm, dark!, hmmm, chocolaty", and conclude that the secret ingredient in the new component that we had substituted-in was old Hershey bar parts. The same thing would happen if we had, instead, substituted something neutral-sounding for the dark-sounding "D", except that the System would suddenly sound "bright" and we would get a different wrong impression of our, actually neutral-sounding new "thing".


Keeping with just the three qualities "bright", "neutral", and "dark", if we substitute similar-sounding components, whatever they may be, we may hear no change, and may mistakenly assume that the new component is "neutral" ("Dark"-for-"Dark" can make for no change, and be taken for "neutral). And if we substitute-in a different or opposite-sounding component, what we hear may be anything from the truth (a bright-sounding component substituted for a neutral one will sound bright), to an illusion (a neutral-sounding component substituted for a dark one can sound bright), to an outright lie (a dark-sounding component substituted for a bright-sounding one can sound neutral). All-in-all, it makes it at least very difficult to tell what any one component actually sounds like.

So what can we do?

If the goal really is to write a review or to give somebody a valid commentary on what his product sounds like, about the only possibility is to listen to it not only with a broad variety of program material, but on several different Systems, in several different listening environments.  Eventually, just the sheer volume of exposure will give us a pretty good idea of what that one component does to what it's used with, and that will tell us what we need to know about its actual sound.

But if you're not actually or playing-at-being a reviewer, why bother?  If you're only listening in your own home, on your own System, for your own pleasure or potential purchase, why not just listen to learn if you like it (whatever "it" may be), can live with it, and want to own it?

After all, do you really care what one hand clapping sounds like?



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