The agony of the audiophile

will o the wisp colour

[Josef Lebovic Gallery]

An article  highlights why it’s a bad idea to become obsessed with a hobby based on wills-o’-the-wisp. On the surface, the mishaps that befall the author cost him a great deal of anxiety and a few thousand dollars – obscured by the fact that he “takes advantage” of the situation and ‘upgrades’ his wrecked cartridge – but the biggest mistake that audiophiles make is to fall down the rabbit hole that is ‘high end’ audio in the first place. Maybe we’ve all been there: worrying that our cartridge isn’t set up properly, prompting us to carry 70lbs of hardware out to the car and drive for five hours to have a specialist lay their healing hands on it. I might have found myself somewhere on that crazy continuum at one time. Not any more.

‘High end’ audio is a particularly unhealthy obsession, I think. From my perspective, the whole thing is like the emperor’s new clothes. I don’t think of it as a cynical con; rather that the putative experts, manufacturers and customers are all prey to the same confusion, superstition, and self-defeating psychology.

I think that listening to equipment (as in ‘listening tests’), rather than listening to music, changes our perception of it: it is necessary to ‘let go’ of the equipment in order to enjoy the music. The placebo effect, both positive and negative, means that there is no consistent audible effect perceived when consciously chopping and changing audio components. Thus an audiophile whose philosophy is based entirely on his golden ears has no anchoring point, and must float forever in audiophile space. He will drift helplessly towards every passing audiophile fad, hearing “night and day” differences when, in fact, no measurable or audible change has occurred. This is how we arrive at the 70lb turntable and the £10,000 piece of wire lifted off the floor with ceramic pots that cost more than my entire system. We are talking real money.

In all other respects these audiophiles are probably sensible, grounded, intelligent individuals who would not normally fall for what passes as slick advertising or the verbiage of wannabe ‘high end’ ‘designers’. They would not normally splash multiple thousands of pounds on something made, effectively, in a garage by a hobbyist. But they do it with audio. The image of people sacrificing their real lives – houses, cars, holidays, retirement – on electronic wills-o’-the-wisp is a source of fascination to me.

Handmade electronics

Seen on a forum elsewhere: someone promoting a new ‘DAC’ based on multiple, now-obsolete, consumer-grade integrated circuits cobbled together in series and parallel (I think) using a large circuit board that strongly resembles the sort of thing I used to make in the 1980s. Double-sided rather than using power planes, you can see the multiple power and ground busses running around the board as relatively puny tracks. To any experienced printed circuit board designer, its appearance is literally offensive, presumably designed using a computer but looking as though created with self-adhesive tape and transfers. Integrated circuits in sockets, which is what people do when they’re not quite sure if they might need to replace blown-up chips or are worried about their soldering skills, resulting in multiple cheap contacts in the signal path which is kind of ridiculous when the purchasers are then going to be using multi-thousand dollar ‘audiophile interconnects’.

You may think I am being very unkind, but get this: the manufacturer wants in excess of £50,000 for it!

I always find it interesting when the producers of these devices provide close-up photographs of their efforts. This again takes me back to my teenage years, where I used to be very proud of my own early electronic assemblies and would photograph them in great detail. It means that sceptical people like me can pore over the photos thinking “Oh yes, I used those terminal blocks in that burglar alarm I once made because they were so cheap” and “Look how he has spliced two wires together and covered it with heatshrink sleeving. And what is that extra wire for?” It also brings back memories of the times when, in my ignorance, I ran into trouble with this kind of construction and would probe around with ground wires attempting to reduce hum loops or noise caused by cross-contamination between the digital and analogue sections. Occasionally I found a connection that would reduce the noise a bit. When this happened I would solder the wire in place!

The asking price is, according to contributors to the forum, justified because not many of this particular product will be made. This is one of my pet hates: assuming that because something is “handmade” it must therefore be better than something churned out by the thousands. I am not even sure it is true for things like furniture or musical instruments, but it is most assuredly untrue for electronics where instead of “hand made” we should be thinking “prototype” or “cobbled together”. On whether the electronic design itself is sound… I couldn’t possibly comment. All I know is that my teenage ‘wannabe’ designs were pretty atrocious and they looked remarkably similar to these photographs. It is very easy to knock something together that ‘works’, but how immune is it to radio frequency interference? Would electrostatic discharge (ESD) damage it, or make it go haywire? Does it produce an almighty ‘thump’ when powering on or a horrible squeal when powering down?  What happens if one of the flimsy wires breaks off? What if there’s a mains ‘brown-out’ – will it blow up the speakers?

And that price. It looks kind of typical in the context of certain audio forums, but just consider what it means. If I were considering having an extension built onto my house, it would probably be of that order of cost. It would involve professional architects, planners, builders. Lots of equipment would be needed, and a lot of materials. And a heck of a lot of labour. Or, I could splurge the cash on some cruddy circuit boards of sub-hobby level quality. Please tell me that no one would ever dream of doing that.

The Ultimate Audio System: designed by listening test

Suppose we created a black box into which we could put any form of audio processing and amplification, and fed its output into an array of loudspeakers. Audiophiles could register their preferences for the sound and, based on these preferences, the contents of the box would be modified. The idea would be that, eventually, we would home in on the most desirable audio reproduction system possible because it would be based purely on blind listening tests. As we know, blind listening tests are the gold standard when determining audio quality.

What would this give us?

I suggest that what we would get would be a box that transformed all music fed into it into Dave Brubeck’s Take Five.

It would take an awfully long time. Starting from random contents in the black box, the output would initially be white noise, or silence, perhaps. Listener feedback would be ‘statistically insignificant’. At some point, however, the random noise might begin to resemble a snatch of jazz rhythm which most middle-aged male listeners would latch onto, giving positive feedback. The highest common factor of audiophile listening is, obviously, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, so from the initial ‘seed’, this piece would eventually crystallise out of the randomness.

[see the comments for a detailed explanation of what this means!]

Is ‘Digital Room Correction’ ruining live music?

I went to a gig recently, at a smallish dedicated music venue that has live performances most nights. They take the acoustics seriously there, with special tiles on the walls around the stage, and a very fancy computerised mixing desk feeding the house ‘PA’. When I was there, three bands were relying on the PA system and the man at the mixing desk to give them acceptable sound.

What I heard, and felt, was most peculiar. There was definitely bass, sufficiently loud to shake the walls, but it had no ‘body’ – there seemed to be a gap between the deep bass and a thin, harsh upper mid range and treble. The overall volume wasn’t all that high, but I found my ears ringing between songs. When the vocalist spoke into the mic, you could tell that her voice was undergoing some sort of heavy-handed processing that wasn’t a musical effect.

Was this a case of DRC rearing its ugly head? Almost certainly this venue will have employed consultants to measure the evil resonances that everyone worries about these days, and to ‘optimise’ the acoustics: I would expect the fancy mixing desk to incorporate a ‘house EQ’ through which everything is fed. There was never a hint of acoustic feedback through the mics, so I also expect the system to be using some sort of feedback cancellation system.

If so, I think the result is a failure, giving a thin, sterile experience – the exact opposite of what you might expect if you make the effort to go and see a live band. This venue is a repeat offender in this regard, but I did see one band there a few months ago (the excellent Wolf People) who brought their own wall of amps and speakers, and the result was a much ‘fatter’ sound, and far preferable in my opinion. I worry that the pseudo-science of ‘Digital Room Correction’ is being used unquestioningly, just as it is by some audiophiles who obtain a misleadingly-flat frequency response based on a misunderstanding of what they are measuring, and assume that it must be optimal.