I’m often asked about my opinions on contentious issues such as cables, dealers, digital, measuring HiFi and ears. I thought I would aggregate the lot into this feature. Hope it helps
This is the first official feature under a new heading: HiFi Ramblings. You may have seen my semi-regular Musical Ramblings posts? Well, this is the HiFi equivalent. Hope you like this new series. And yes, prepare for severe, possibly even incoherent, rambling.
A good few years back, I decided to enter the grizzly world of the Internet. I started this website, later my own YouTube channel and my own Group on Facebook. I set up pages on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest. Even LinkedIn. They all still exist and are thriving nicely, thank you. I’ve done my best to converse with the World Wide Wibble.
But it’s an odd place, I have to say. Especially when I moved here from the world of print media. Print media tends to be rather cosseted. A lot of the concepts and the beliefs that HiFi magazine staff and communities take for granted are not only foreign to most users who frequent Facebook, YouTube and the like, they are violently challenged and no amount of (what I would like to terms as) reasoned argument will shift them from their entrenched view.
GETTING ALL EMOTIONAL
This is because the vast majority of social media interactions are largely (and of course, there are many exceptions) based upon an emotional drive and emotional response.
On social media, I converse and debate but I tend to pick my moments or respond to a specific plea for help before I open my big mouth.
Even so, I can’t help but cringe at the urban myths that floated and still roam the Internet highways to this day. Doomed to be brought up, again and again, by those who seem happier to trot out old conspiracies and folk tales than to undertake any form of independent research of their own. Here’s just a few of the old stagers.
1: DEALERS ARE RIP-OFF MERCHANTS WHO WILL FLEECE YOU OF YOUR MONEY IN EXCHANGE FOR ANY OLD TAT THAT THEY CAN GET THEIR HANDS ON
And sure, of course they do. They’re actually controlled by the Illuminati, they deposit their ill gotten gains in a huge vault that was scooped out of the base of The Rockies and they all take orders direct from Rupert Murdoch.
But what about the many happy HiFi users out there who appear to be satisfied with their purchases from these dens of iniquity? Easy. That coffee they give you when you demo your HiFi kit while sitting on their sofa? Drugged. The dealers hypnotise you into believing you’re having a great time.
2: CABLES (AND FUSES AND POWER BLOCKS AND…) ARE A RIP OFF
I can see where this one comes from but it’s also often linked to No.1, above.
Cables, for example, are bits of wire aren’t they? I freely admit that I had my own doubts about the performance of cables (and power blocks and fuses, et al) back then, in the early days. But I actually took the trouble to demo and test the things to make my mind up. I heard (and still hear) sonic differences. I think half the problem is that cables, as one example, don’t have an on/off switch, lights or VU meters. If they don’t have those, they can’t be doing anything worthwhile, can they? As for power blocks? Well they’re boxes full of empty air aren’t they? And so on.
More confusing to me is the emotion tied to these subjects. The anger, the expletives, the wrath and the sheer energy expended. Why anyone would use excess energy and dangerously raise their blood pressure over a bit of wire or a fuse is quite beyond me. I still become perplexed when I see the uproar on social media.
If you don’t like it, why not keep your mouth shut, keep your money in your pocket, ignore and walk away and find something more productive to do instead? Why waste time arguing the toss? Why even waste an opinion? I don’t like Leek & Potato Soup. The samples I’ve tried are bland, need salt and lack any sort of depth in taste terms yet I don’t write screaming emails to Sainsbury’s telling them the same. I just don’t buy Leek & Potato Soup from Sainsbury’s. I buy something else instead. I vote with my wallet.
I worry about the basic personalities of some of these individuals who seem to lose their inner control when discussing the subject(s). What sort of friends or family members are these people, if a mere cable triggers such bluster?
Do they act like this if they find they’ve run out of cereal in the morning? If they are given the wrong change in a shop? If they don’t tie their shoe laces properly at the first try? Are these the people who experience severe road rage?
Should these people actually be employed by the Swedish Army as neo-Berserker Vikings? Ideal cannon fodder in a death or glory charge at the front lines?
Officer: “OK Seargant-Major, point the Berserker Platoon at the enemy and when I give the order, offer the trigger command.
Officer: “Trigger word. Commence!”
“Sergeant Major: Sah! Right, easy now lads. At the command. Wait for it, Smith, wait for it! Platoon? Cables!!!”
Beserker Platoon, “Arrrgghhhhhhhh!!!!” <the Berserker Platoon disappears towards the enemy in a hail of bullets, for the glory of Gothenburg…or possibly Malmo>
3: ONES AND ZEROS
Streaming and digital sound are perfect, they say. Because they’re digital. Because they’re based on ones and zeros and because that state can’t be changed. I hear this trope all of the time.
Sure, digital is useful. I use digital. But it ain’t perfect in sound terms and that’s the rub. It’s…fine. It will get better. It will become wonderful. But it’s got a way to go.
Is digital seen as perfect because it has a computer association? You know, robots and all that? Tomorrow’s World? Pocket Calculators?
Well computers are not perfect and computers are full to the brim with ones and zeros. If you pick up a computer, you have to be careful how you hold it in case you spill ones and zeros on your desk and you have to mop them up with a cloth later on. There’s more ones and zeros in a PC than William Shatner has completed drop kicks in Star Trek.
I used to be a computer journalist. I edited a UK, national PC magazine for five years. Saw everything the tech industry had to throw at me. Every day back then I used to roll up my sleeves to fix a problem with so-called perfect digital tech. I became a Windows expert, a software engineer and hardware analyser. What I really wanted was a hammer.
Not a lot has changed I have to add. Digital is not perfect.
More than that, how something actually works has nothing to do with its associated sound quality. You can measure mechanics and the efficiency of the same but sound quality is a wholly different beast.
THE DELIVERY SYSTEM
Part of the issue isn’t so much the format (although that does matter) but the delivery system. Take a vinyl disc: a music container of a fixed, very high resolution. You play it on my own high-end turntable and that disc will sound sublime. Play it on a crappy Crosley and it will sound pathetic. The disc hasn’t changed. The high-resolution signal hasn’t changed. The delivery system has, though.
But we’re not talking analogue are we? We’re talking digital! Well, there’s no difference in the digital domain. If so, why does a basic CD sound better in a decent CD player than high-resolution network play via Qobuz on a decent streamer? Why does a CD rip played from a USB stick sound better than an apt-X HD stream from Bluetooth?
You may disagree but I have heard those differences only yesterday when I was reviewing an all-in-one from Audiolab (review too follow soon on this website).
If digital was perfect, then all of these delivery systems would (should) sound the same. They do not.
But that argument doesn’t seem to matter to many Internet users because, you know, ones and zeros. Perfect, aren’t they?
Now many people use measuring equipment in magazines as part of the review process. As you know, that’s not my style here. Why? Because I’ve worked under every type of measurement regime out there and have experienced flaws and bias (a word we’ll address again in a moment) with all of them.
So what’s the scoop? Why don’t I dig the dirt? I’ll tell you why. I won’t go into detail because I still have to work with many industry fans of measuring systems. You walk into your office on Friday, slag off all of your colleagues, and see what sort of job you have by Monday morning. So no, don’t even ask.
But that’s me. I have no problem if you love the concept of HiFi measurements. I have no issues if you have found HiFi measurements useful when making purchases. I know that many swear by the measuring of HiFi products and that’s fine. Really, it’s fine. If you get something from that process, then great. We all need filters we trust. Measuring just isn’t for me.
WRITTEN REVIEWS & MORE
Even so, let’s not forget about the written review shall we and the experience brought to the party by the reviewer using their experience, their knowledge and their listening skills.
And here’s something that’s never talked about because too many people out there, just love to slag off HiFi reviewers on social media. People I hold in great respect.
It helps to have a basic talent in your chosen field sure but if you practice at anything, over months and years of work and dedication, you become pretty good at it.
Listening to HiFi is no different. Some people might be very surprised to read this. It’s true. Most people enjoy their music but they don’t listen critically. Most music fan’s ears are lead by the artist along a sound-based narrative. As it should be.
A good HiFi reviewer divorces himself from that and follows his own proven template. When I listen for pleasure, I switch off my HiFi ears. Firstly, because it ruins a good album. Secondly because it’s very tiring to do that for any length of time. Whenever I finish sound testing a piece of HiFi, I’m well and truly (mentally) knackered. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Sitting there. Listening to music? Life of Riley, surely? But yep. After a while, your brain freezes or numbs or both. You can only concentrate for so long.
And back to the plot, don’t forget dealer advice for the same reasons. Sure, they want to sell you a box or two but they too hold valuable knowledge. Also, don’t forget reports from other users who might be able to provide insight on Internet forums. More than any of this – what about your ears?
“Your ears have nothing to do with what you ‘hear’. What you experience is called expectation bias.”
That was part of an actual reply I had from a viewer, on my YouTube channel recently, in the Comments. Basically, he was saying that everything I had heard was a lie. I needed to be told what to hear by a machine. Because machines offer the only truth.
That sort of view makes me despair. More than that, it’s actually scary.
I believe ‘ears’ are the finest measuring devices for sound there is. Why? Because they’re attached to your head. Your head. And when buying HiFi, you are the most important variable in that proposed purchase. Not a third-party machine designed in Germany and made in a factory in China.
And the above quote mentioned “bias”. Of course I have bias. More of us need to recognise and embrace that word.
Music is an emotive subject. Its art. All art lives on emotion and bias. That’s how it prospers. That’s the point. HiFi is not the point. It’s only the processor of that music. Of that art. Of that bias.
Ultimately, no engineer can or will tell me what I can and cannot enjoy. The very idea smacks of a Big Brother society and a lack of freedom.
Right I’m off to check my messages on the Internet. Where’s my tin hat?