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Positive Feedback ISSUE 8
august/september 2003


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From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: The Numbers Game
by Clark Johnsen

In a way really it was a blessing that early digital sound sucked. Without that impetus the enormous progress in audio during the past two decades might never have happened—or would have occurred more slowly. For out of that bleak, despairing era of expansionist digital hegemony, when any mitigation of its frozen-in-amber numerics seemed an impossibility, several realizations emerged that might otherwise have eluded us: The fine art of playback; the resurrected glory of the LP; the fallibility of audio "professionals" and academics; and our own susceptibility to delivered opinion.

The phrase "Perfect Sound Forever", granted, was a brainchild of cunning marketers, but it was also espoused by the vast majority of Audio Engineering Society (AES) members, by all mass-market manufacturers and by the ever-compliant newsstand press. Us fortunate consumers, if one would but believe, had been given a music delivery system far superior to LP, indestructible and with myriad convenience features as well. Not only that, but CDs sounded just like master tapes!

Our gratitude should be limitless, so we were told.

Nevertheless, depression set in throughout "the high end" shortly after CD's debut. For added insult, we who protested were generally relegated to the status of Luddite. [Disclaimer: In 1983 I led a "Boston D Party" where some eighty braves tossed CDs into Boston harbor.] Then when the tube renaissance came along a few years later, "Neanderthal" was added to the list of descriptors. Hired guns always must marginalize and demonize their opposition, but in this case the smear campaign was conducted by a horde of true believers in the sonic wonders of digital audio.

To deny digital was akin to heresy. Sternly we were lectured on its theoretical advantages from pulpits at MIT, the AES and everywhere. No academic disagreed, because no academic wants to appear heretical. Heresy, after all, is not published by the major houses, nor by any university press. Since staff can not advance or even survive without being published, few ever dare heresy.

Moreover, academics and career professionals alike instinctively scorn whatever the academy does not sanction. Regrettably they are usually mistaken. One need only name Koch, Pasteur and Semmelweis, all called crackpots during their lifetimes but later seen as geniuses. More recently, had you mentioned "continental drift" to any geologist a mere forty-five years ago, you'd have been laughed at out loud—even though several continents on the globe appeared to have an almost jigsaw-puzzle-perfect fit.

Truly no one's mind is harder to change, than he who has taught in error.

Handmaiden to the academy is the press, who labor under similar constraints of "political correctness", a catchall term but serviceable. One need only scan their printed pronunciamentos to discern what excites their masters. In every sphere our journalists' attention has been diverted from reporting the facts, towards reshaping public opinion. Today we have reporters on a mission, a mission (as some 85% of Columbia School of Journalism students thoughtfully agreed in a survey) to change the world. That is, to realign the readership to their own way of thinking. And most readers (and TV news viewers) fall for it, never having been taught how to detect the insidious devices of propaganda. No wonder digital won so easily.

"How could I have known? Peter Jennings never told me!"

So there we were, stranded in 1984 with Big Brother Nyquist sampling our strength away, our ragtag resistance crew led by Harry Pearson. (J. Gordon Holt at Stereophile, as I once unkindly wrote, seemed to be bending over forwards to accept CD.) Eventually our side regained, not the mainland, but a Taiwan island as it were of business independence, where even now we are being shelled by a larger enemy with immense forces arrayed. Who is this, and how may he be defeated?

To answer the second question first, victory shall be attained by steadfastly refusing to accept the opinions of alleged experts, instead adhering to what we hear. We, the vigilant listeners, are the real connoisseurs of sound, the true adepts of music reproduction. We are they who first declared the edginess and unreality of CDs, who then examined the situation with skeptical ears and improvised cures. With few "pros" on our side (Ed Meitner one notable exception), by spending time rather than just money we attained a level of sonic distinction still not available even by hooking up the latest gear, whether from Panasonic or dCS. And in so doing, we unearthed a new field of audio endeavor which I hereby dub, Diagnostic Listening.

Diagnostic Listening

Audio comprises three distinct pursuits, each equally valid and each equally fraught with peril, to wit: An enhancement of the home musical experience; a fascinating hands-on hobby (beats stamp collecting, I always say); and finally, a voyage of discovery through an uncharted realm.

Regarding the first, music—naturally, of course; but the music may become an excuse to avoid learning about sound. "I spend my spare time listening to music, not fiddling around with wires," Dan d'Agostino of Krell huffily averred back in 1988. That response, from one such as himself, constitutes a veritable dereliction of duty. However, as I have often (albeit ironically) said, music is a damn distraction from audio.

Many too have what they may call a hobby, but are instead ensnared by a jones for new equipment. And the more buzz about it, the better—whether brand name, circuit topology or price. Especially prone to this behavior is the genus audio reviewer, canny junkies who have found how to maintain a constant injection of new product into their veins. And manufacturers gladly support that habit: Any item may be kept for up to a year, then returned, but meanwhile a good review has been written and the dependent reviewer confidently expects the Mark II version to arrive on his doorstep soon.

No money transacted, not one red cent of payola. I love this town!

But try to inform your readers that a new $3000 Audio Research preamp sounds rather poor until it's hooked up with a $500 ESP power cord, and then it sounds great—well, like teaching a pig to dance, you just get dirty and it annoys the pig. (That's a sad but true story from the former Fi, whose editors took flak from readers for allowing pinch hitters to be added to the roster.) So you don't see much of that sort of thing any more. Most audio reviewers, and thus most purchasers, focus on the Ding an sich, the black box that comes packed inside the light brown box delivered by the dark brown van. Just hook it up with the wires provided and man, you're in virtual hog heaven!

The only exception to the rule of no messing around, concerns loudspeaker placement, which all agree must be taken as a genuine experimental variable.

Thirdly we have these tormented souls who spend their evenings minutely adjusting cables, vertical tracking angles, mains voltage, head height... It is tempting to think that they too miss the boat, but that would be unwise; those who obsess over details can be valuable to any field, precisely because of their extreme self-denial of (in this case) immediate musical gratification. In fact I argue that such individuals comprise audio's vanguard, and alone truly experience the joy of discovery.

Their only problem lies in getting their results reported.

Which brings us to a fourth, heretofore unindicated audio category: Those bent on pursuing the rigor-mortis-laden (but academy-approved) double-blind-test (DBT) regimen. "Where's your proof?" they all demand. "We can't be bothered to listen to your ideas until you can demonstrate them on a scientific basis." In response, has anyone ever proved that DBTs can actually resolve the differences discerned by expert listeners? Further, do experimenters employ, or even know how to identify, such listeners? Until the day when DBTs' efficacy in this regard has been shown, the man-years consumed—and the largely null results obtained thus far—must be adjudged a total waste of time. The question also naturally arises whether these people ever enjoy good sound.

A New Analytic Regime

The discipline of Diagnostic Listening transcends self-absorbed enjoyment of recorded music; simplistic evaluation of new gear; neurotic devotion to detail; and the imposition of unproven "science". Rather, Diagnostic Listening admits that future development in audio resides both in the grand overview and in the details, with music as our research partner. Missing until now has been a systematic approach, which I further dub the New Analytic Regime.

Diagnostic Listening moreover must become not an individual effort, but a team one, in a game however with no competition and no scorekeeper. The ultimate goal is True Knowledge and the ball is always in play. The only rules state that immediate goalposts be reasonably set and that this day's game is over only after exhaustive effort, and only then may we drink and be merry and (as Steve Rochlin says) enjoy the music.

It can unfold this way because audio, at least perfectionist audio, as distinguished from consumer audio, is wide open territory—in a real sense the last frontier of basic science—and because no one knows how far it can go. We are nowhere close yet to realistic reproduction. Therein lies the intellectual thrill, especially after most of the "pros" and the mainstream press proclaimed the sound already perfect back in 1983.

Nor, it must be added, did they stop there, or then. Time out now, to recall certain embarrassments.

I've been happy to see that the high-enders' influence in audio has begun to wane… From a historical standpoint, high-enders will probably be remembered as throwbacks to the earliest years of high fidelity… As the nature of high fidelity changed, the raison d'etre of audio elitism became increasingly untenable. [Here we have a full professor speaking, in 1998.] The force that changed high fidelity was technology… With today's technology, even low-cost equipment can provide extremely accurate music reproduction. The so-called purists still embrace vinyl records and vacuum tubes, but their condemnations of the newest technology [read, digital] merely reveals their prejudices, and verifies that they are more interested in preserving their elitism than musical fidelity… Their prejudices are false… Today's technologies far surpass the old… History will show that the real impact of digital audio is not merely its high performance, but [get this] the democratization of recorded music… That is anathema to the purists… Elitism is dead. From now on, it's audio of the people, by the people, for the people.

Well! Thus spoke Professor Ken Pohlman, University of Miami, in Stereo Review, June 1998, beating the drum for digital from his throne on high and belittling any who might demur, while his climactic peroration ("for the people") reduces to a simple paean to convenience and low price. In another column he issued this cynical qualifier: "Let's agree to slap people who make inane comments about its sound quality." So much for the people.

A story of my own: Some thirty-five years ago Tony Lauck was teaching me the hi-fi knowledge he had acquired at Philips Exeter alongside, among others, Peter Moncrieff. We would hook up the latest electronics or loudspeakers and let ourselves get swept away by a new Mahler symphony recording or a live Boston Symphony broadcast. But afterwards, bucking our audiophiliac tendency towards self-congratulation, Tony would always utter the words that have since become my reality-check: "But remember, Clark, it still always sounds like shit."

Back in those days, however, we were largely unacquainted with the notion that one could improve sound with simple home remedies, i.e. "tweaking" (or better, fine tuning). To the emergence of that phenomenon, scarcely twenty years ago, and to the subsequent wave of audio enthusiasts, do we owe our current celebration of sound and the shattering of that clay idol, Perfect Sound Forever. One can only hope too for the complete defeat of the obtuse meter-reader mentality, which (typically) points to the low peak distortion figure on CD and says Aha!—never minding the much higher distortion from "bit strangulation" at low levels. This mentality also not uncommonly asserts that all like-measuring equipment must sound alike.

As well say that all women who measure the same, are alike.

But the enemy with the most immense forces arrayed has always been, and now his name may be spoken, Reductionism. We shall treat this menace later, in an essay to be based on Rene Guenon's 1945 epic, The Reign of Quantity (and Signs of the Times), Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge, and the great Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Just to give a hint, however: Reductionism is a philosophy which holds that everything that can be known, pretty much already is, and can best be described numerically. This hyper-analytic obsession with measurement sprang from seventeenth-century Rationalism, the doctrine that reason alone is the sole source of knowledge and stands independent from experience. Who dares disagree? Who dares?

When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in confederacy against him.

Jonathan Swift