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And The Music Goes ‘Round and ‘Round…

Roger Skoff writes about different perceptions and curious realities

For as long as I can remember, two things have been going on: On the one hand, manufacturers have been announcing thrilling breakthroughs, far advanced over anything that has gone before, and on the other, people have been decrying the demise of “the good old days” and declaring that the lost (or quickly disappearing) “classics” set a standard that nothing modern could ever hope to approach.

AR-round2.jpgWell, which is it? Is the new stuff really a genuine step forward? Or does the old stuff still reign supreme? Or is it a little of both?

In our own hobby, incidents of this kind of thinking are almost too numerous to list: The CD brought “Perfect Sound Forever” and forever eliminated the vinyl LP record, but now CDs are going away and being replaced by computer downloads and…the LP record.  This, of course, is happening after tubes were forever replaced by transistors, which were replaced by MOSFETS, which were replaced, in the minds of many audiophiles, by tubes. And horn speakers were replaced, as knowledge grew and amplifiers grew more powerful, by bass-reflex enclosures, which were replaced by acoustic suspension enclosures, which were replaced by panels, which were replaced by any number of other things, including both horns and the ultimate anti-enclosure, the open baffle.

After years of thought and ongoing discussion with other long-time Hi-Fi Crazies, l’ve finally decided that the split is not just between the lovers of the new (or the people who advertise to them) and the classicists, but really between factions (or even sub-factions and sub-sub-factions) of people who simply hear or perceive – or think they hear or perceive — things differently.

AR-round1.jpgI remember talking, years ago (but not so long ago that CDs had not yet been invented or that stereo was not yet ubiquitous – even for playing music on a car radio)  with a fellow audiophile who insisted that 78s sounded better AND PRESENTED SPATIAL INFORMATION BETTER than any modern recording medium.   Had he been talking about 78 rpm stereo analog, I might very well have given what he said serious consideration (With an   analog process – vinyl or even master tape – faster speed makes for better and more extended high frequency response), but he wasn’t talking about any kind of exotic modern 78s, but just the ordinary brittle records produced before the advent of the LP, and THEY WERE ALL MONO!

So what was it? Was he a strange visitor from another world, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men? Was he really hearing things that none of the rest of us can? Was he simply nuts? Or did he not really hear what he claimed to hear at all, but was simply playing some kind of a contrarian mind-game?

A famous lady reviewer for the absolute sound used to live just a mile or two from me (and even played an important, although entirely unknown to her, part in getting me to start XLO). We were introduced by another friend in the industry and, when she came to my house for the first time to hear my system,   she brought with her a supply of her own LPs to listen to. In not just my opinion, but also that of the friend who had introduced her, the stuff she brought was AWFUL — not just what we would consider unsuitable as “show-off” or test material, but actively unlistenable! Even so, she insisted that those particular recordings, despite all their flaws, contained all the musical, sonic, and spatial information she needed to fully evaluate any system.

AR-round4.jpgAgain, was she hearing things not possible for us mere mortals? Was she out of her mind? Or was she just playing some kind of weird joke or running some con?

Frankly, I don’t know, but I do know that the whole issue of “What’s good?” or, more importantly, “What’s better?” or even “What’s real” can be crucial to our hobby – and certainly to our buying habits — and that it might explain, if it could ever really be resolved, why it is that we seem never to really make any unchallengeable progress in the equipment we buy, but just keep re-cycling a new old “best ever” over and over again. And it might even – wonder of wonders – give us a clue as to how it can be possible for vast numbers of us to hear important differences – good enough to pay for – in cables, electronics, and “tweaks”, while others remain adamant in their belief that we are simply imagining things or are the gullible victims of advertising “hype”, mass hypnosis, or the “placebo effect”.

Another hobby that a great many audiophiles seem to enjoy is photography. Still another is “motor vehicles”, whether cars or motorcycles, and both of those hobbies are different from audio not only in the more obvious ways but also in one crucial factor: Although Camera Crazies no doubt disagree on which of a particular something (film or digital, for example, or Nikon or Leica) is better, or Car- or Motorcycle- Crazies may disagree on a favorite marque, or brand of tire, or a favorite aspect of their sport (touring, racing, trials, etc.) or argue about whether carburetion or fuel injection is better, NONE of them EVER go to war over whether the differences they’re fighting about actually exist. And they’d probably laugh themselves silly if anyone were to suggest that double-blind testing were necessary to prove it.

Maybe they really DO see or hear or perceive things differently than we do. Or maybe we just have different things to hear or perceive. Which do YOU think it is?

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