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Emotion & Music

I admit it. It takes me a long time and lots of repetition to get it, especially when no one else has previously spelled it out in clear, concise terms. But time and repetition alone isn't enough. I need motivation too. There's one thing that really helps to motivate my learning. I hate wasting money. I hate blowing it on things that don't live up to the all the dish. So, how can we speed the learning curve and reduce the waste? We've got to pay attention.

Let's face it, you can really waste some major bucks on audio. For example, a pair of speakers can cost more than a car. Whoa! What? Wait a minute. Cars have many more parts, more electronics, computer controls, literally tons of materials, are more complicated and take a huge assembly line and teams of people to produce. Speakers haven't anywhere near the cost in materials, labor or complexity. What gives?

Well, after designing and building my own speakers, I know first hand that the cost can be much greater than expected. Parts add up quickly. Hand assembly is time consuming. Hand finishing is very time consuming. . . Whoa! Stop! Wait a minute. Those high-end name brands are not exactly hand made, one by one, or finished without any assembly line mechanization. Is it economy of scale? Cars are built by the tens of thousands. Building only a few hundred or a couple thousand speakers can't compare in the scale department.

Whoa! Wait a minute. $20k, $40k, $80k, that's a lotta scratch. For that kind of money, I'd expect speakers to be handmade, one by one, on a small scale. I'd also expect them to be astonishingly great—not good, not very good, not even excellent—great and nothing but great.

But wait a minute. Any audiophile can tell you, high-end speakers under $20k are just warming up. You gotta spend as much as a house, not a car, if you want great. And speaking of warming up, I haven't even mentioned the mega-figures that could be spent on transports, vinyl gear, amplification, preamps, cables and various other tweaky thingies.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait a minute, I've auditioned dozens of speakers, studied the designs and read the reviews of many dozens more. I may be slow, and it takes a lot of repetition, but after all the repeated listening, comparing and learning, I can tell you without reservation, if we're talking home audio, that high-end stuff ain't cuttin' it. Nope, no way, not at any price.

Let's get real. $10k may not be pocket change, but it's all that's needed to get outstanding sound. Yes, outstanding. And that's not just for a pair of speakers, that's for the entire audio system. You can get excellent for about $5k, and bangin' good in the neighborhood of $3k or so. Still not pocket change, but it's not stupid money.

I get a chuckle out of reading commercial loudspeaker websites. Most of them start out telling us how good their speakers look. Ooo-aah. Then they talk about the finish. Ooo-la-la. Finally they get to a florid description of how great they sound. Ooo b-b-b-baby. But after many hundreds of words they never get past the most shallow trivia. I may be a slow, but I'm not stupid. I can see from the pictures how "good" they look and how well they're finished. And I can tell from the agonizingly over the top description of the sound that the only thing they're trying to pitch at me is some sort of silly sophomoric schoolboy attempt at selling me on what they want me to believe about the twisted way they think good speakers are supposed to sound—gaspas if I've never heard real, live, acoustic instruments before. I know how acoustic instruments sound and chances are you do too. That's all you need to know to recognize good sound. I want these companies to tell me something that matters. Tell me how the sound they claim to achieve is achieved. One site goes on and on trying to convince us that their overpriced carpet crushers are a good value. The company gushes about "value" on page after page relentlessly smacking us with their opaque opinion of what value is. ("It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.") And all this blather works. Well. . , not on everyone. Not if you are paying attention.

WARNING : Continued reading may bust some bubbles.

Here are two GIAGANTUAN bubbles that need busting.

  • High-end equals high fidelity—or the more it costs the better it sounds.
  • Trust only your ears—or measurements tell us nothing.

All of audio's convenient fictions can be traced back to one of these two deceptions. They persist no matter how many times it's been conclusively proven to the contrary. They are perpetuated by commercial concerns who profit from ignorance and consumers who are not paying attention.

These fictions and the interminable controversies that surround them are simpleminded opinions masquerading as fact. You know the old saying, "Opinions are like assholes—everybody's got one." To get to the facts, we can't rely on opinion. Look, listen, read, but beware. It can be difficult to sort through all the noise. It's too easy to fall for logic-traps, arguments from a single viewpoint or oversimplification. The evidence is out there for open minds and diligent seekers who examine the whole picture from every angle.

Part of the problem lies in the nature of sound and hearing. Sound is ephemeral. You can't point to it. You can't freeze it in time like a photograph. You can't slo-mo it or hold it in your hand. It slips by us like air and passes through solid objects like x-rays. When we talk about it, we usually hijack words used for visual and tactile description. Who's to say what you hear or don't hear? How do you guide someone to tune into what you are hearing? How do you get someone to focus their attention on a specific quality? You hear it, but they aren't picking up on it. Because hearing is so subjective, many people believe one's own perception is the only thing that counts. Well, our perception may be our only direct window on reality, but unfortunately, our perception is also easily fooled by an assortment of tricks and normal human foibles. Illusions, hallucinations, fatigue, and suggestion are a few examples of how our senses fool or fail us. We can get around these foibles by double checking our senses with tools that provide an objective handle on reality. Scientific instruments, meters, gauges, and analysis equipment bolster our unreliable senses by measuring phenomena with accuracy and precision. Nobody questions the reliability of scientific instruments in medicine, or physics, or chemistry. So why audio?

The controversies continue because most people don't do sufficient fact checking, nor enough comparative listening. Consequently, many erroneous ideas remain in endless circulation. Without a direct A-B comparison, how do you know? Without measurements to back up what you believe you hear, how do you know? Fact check, listen, double check, listen, triple check, listen. . . And while we're on the subject of facts, everybody may be entitled to their own opinion, but nobody is entitled to their own facts. Facts don't change, they remain the same for everyone, everywhere. Be on guard for the mixing of facts with opinion, or worse, partial facts. Incomplete information will grossly mislead to false conclusions.

The controversies continue because part of paying attention is asking questions—specific, clearly focussed questions, one subject at a time, step by step in a systematic sequence. What is my goal? How is this goal reached? Does X help to reach it? How much closer? Is it audible? Is it worth it? Next goal. . .

And most of all, the controversies continue because of the inappropriate mixing of musical expression with audio physics. Once audio is clearly separated from music, it is easy to distinguish the facts (audio) from the opinions (music), the quantifiable (audio) from the qualifiable (music), the objective (audio) from the subjective (music), the measurable (audio) from the meaningful (music).

If you are still reading, I warned you. If this hasn't upset some of your ideas and/or made you angry, you may have missed something. Either way, now you have a few clues about why high-end audio is so full of hucksters and confusion. There's a high probability that high-end products are purposely designed not to be high fidelity, and consequently, not highly satisfying. This explains why you may find yourself willingly reaching into your wallet again and again to "upgrade," "improve," or "tweak" in a never ending, self defeating, negative feedback loop, or just giving up to settle for inferior sound. If you can manage to stay out of the loop, avoid the marketing noise and keep your emotions in the music, not the audio, you will be able to put together a fine system at a not too crazy cost. Then with all that "high-end" money you didn't waste, you can afford to get more music. Hope this helps shorten the learning curve for you. I had to learn the slow, hard way.

More on Emotion and Music

***** Music and the Brain Webcasts *****

***** Music and the Brain Podcasts *****

And a good link to some basic Audio Facts.

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