Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

If you’ve been reading my stuff for any appreciable amount of time, what follows is going to read like a bit of a greatest-hits compilation, insofar as I can claim to have had any hits. It just feels like all of it needs to be repeated, perhaps with a slightly different approach that will hopefully sink in.

As I mentioned in my review of the Marantz Model 50 integrated amplifier, I have been the source of some online criticism for positions I’ve either taken or agreed with, on both SoundStage! and my podcast with Brent Butterworth, Audio Unleashed. Mind you, I think criticism is great. I thrive on it. All I ask is to be criticized for what I actually believe and advocate, which seems to be an increasingly futile request.

At the risk of being accused of vaguebooking, let me be perfectly clear about what prompted this particular diatribe. In a recent episode of Audio Unleashed, titled “Michael Fremer Blows a Fuse,” Brent and I discussed the disturbing trend of multi-hundred-dollar audiophile fuses designed to replace the cheap fuses that come in some amps, preamps, sources, etc. Our point was that a reviewer who effusively praised these fuses without doing a blind AB test—or, in an ideal world, a blind ABX test—was opening himself up to criticism. At one point, Brent said:

People have done really well-controlled tests—blind tests, level-matched, with everything controlled, and just people walking in, not knowing what they’re hearing—and seeing if they can differentiate, reliably, to a statistically significant degree, between two things. And all of these things are documented. The testing method is documented. The results are documented. All the data is there, because it’s a scientific paper, OK? And in these papers, I don’t know of anyone being able to reliably distinguish between two normally functioning amplifiers, much less the fuse that you plug into the amplifier.

Simple statement of fact, right? That’s demonstrably true. Those tests have been done, and we know the results. After that, Brent went into his own undocumented ABX testing and revealed:

I have never passed an ABX test . . . between any amps. I’ve tried to even get, like, really different amps. I can’t pass it. It’s like . . . you can hear a difference, but you can’t reliably identify it.

Although there are things Brent and I disagree about, this is not one of them. And I relate all of this not to necessarily recap the latest goings-on in our podcast, but as a setup for the inevitable and predictable reactions from some The Absolute Sound fans.

One response in particular, from user @paulrickert1, has been living rent-free in my head ever since, because I genuinely cannot decide whether he is a warrior for his tribe, or an honest actor who’s simply unaware of his own habitus and cannot help but interpret my and Brent’s ramblings through the lens of that habitus.

If you’re not familiar with the term, Wikipedia actually gives a really coherent and useful definition of the concept right up front in its entry: “In sociology, habitus (/ˈhæbɪtəs/) is the way that people perceive and respond to the social world they inhabit, by way of their personal habits, skills, and disposition of character.” Video essayist and author Alice Capelle also expands on the idea, channeling sociologist Pierre Bourdieu when she discusses how the habitus informs our perceptions, since it’s a filter through which we view the world.

At any rate, now that we’re done with the vocabulary lesson, let’s get back to the comment at hand. It starts off innocently enough:

So you believe that any two amps with the same power ratings, distortion, impedance and whatever else you would measure to determine they are well designed sound identical? So a well-designed, low-priced chip-based class D amp will sound identical to a well-designed, expensive pure class A amp?

Fair questions all, and a nice place from which to start a conversation, despite the fact that Brent and I had already answered those questions in the course of our conversation. But to repeat: Yes, you can hear a difference. No, you can’t reliably and consistently identify which is which by ear alone.

But then, of course, it all goes to Hell in a bucket:

And if that is true, then it seems almost certain that you would have to believe that all well-designed DACs sound the same. If all of that is true, other than speakers, what is there for professional audio reviewers to do?

Hoo boy, where even to begin unpacking all of that? Firstly, nobody said anything about DACs during that episode—although, to be fair, I’m on record as saying that what differentiates them is largely their reconstruction filters, and I talked in that very episode about how you can hear the differences between said filters on the Marantz CD 50n. But that doesn’t negate the point that you cannot extrapolate testing done on the audible differences between amplifiers and apply that to any other component.

It’s really the last sentence that prompted this editorial rant, though, for reasons that I hope are clear shortly: “If all of that is true, other than speakers, what is there for professional audio reviewers to do?”

The audio writer

In my years as an audio reviewer, I’ve encountered a lot of amps that aren’t normally functioning, or that simply aren’t designed to drive every corner-case speaker ever designed. It’s my job to report that, and I take it seriously. And to be completely blunt, I’ve encountered some non-normally functioning amps I actually greatly enjoyed my time with. And it’s my job to explain why. So there’s still a lot of work to be done for the objectivist who thinks most amps don’t have a sonic fingerprint when operating within their design spec.

But just as I think this commenter may have trouble recognizing his own habitus, I know for a stone-cold fact that my own habitus influences the way I interpret what other people say. And to me, it’s nearly impossible to read that last question and interpret it as anything other than: “If you don’t accept the article of faith that Everything Affects the Sound, then you have no place in my cult, sir!”

I see this sort of thinking in all manner of domains. My father-in-law once said, out loud, with his actual mouth, that since I don’t share his specific faith, he doesn’t understand what keeps me from walking down the street, slaughtering people with a shotgun. Which, hey, if his sectarian beliefs are the only thing keeping him from doing mass murder, I want him to keep on believing what he believes.

There are also, it must be said, all manner of articles of faith one must accept in the domain of politics to be a member in good standing of one party or another or a supporter thereof. Mind you, nothing in audiophilia is as consequential as shotgun murder or geopolitics. But there are some parallels worth drawing here.

For all the talk about how Millennials and Gen Z are ruining everything with their cheap earbuds and Bluetooth speakers, there’s little discussion in our hobby about how skeptical they tend to be, not to mention the fact that they have no problem rejecting societal norms that some Gen Xers and most boomers treat as sacrosanct. They’re far less religious than generations before them. And when it comes to politics, a majority of them outright reject paradigms that older generations view as inviolable.

Party identification

One example: I’m in the U.S., where we have two political parties that have such a stranglehold on the electoral process that third-party candidates are functionally unviable. All of the political horse-race commentary in the mainstream media treats these two parties as if they actually represent the spectrum of political thought in the country. But a full 52 percent of millennials and zoomers cannot find any meaningful common ground with either of those parties.

All of which results in an inability to even speak the same language when it comes to politics. Getting back to the notion of the habitus, when many American Gen Xers and boomers hear the phrase “both sides” in a political context, their brains translate that into “Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other.” But when the average American millennial or zoomer hears “both sides,” the interpretation that filters through their habitus is, “us on one side, Democrats and Republicans on the other.”

To be clear, this rant was never intended as an editorial about politics, and I’m not here to argue who’s right when everybody’s wrong. But these shifts in perspective go beyond the typical generation gap and have huge consequences for how us old codgers communicate with younger generations about . . . anything. Everything.

Bringing it back to audio, I often hear men my age and older complain that these kids today aren’t into hi-fi because all they listen to is Taylor Swift, and nobody cares what her music actually sounds like, right?

But when I chat with the early-twentysomething young woman who works the front desk at the YMCA where I swim every day—who, by the way, couldn’t name a single Taylor Swift song when I asked her—the impression I leave with is that she’s passionate about good sound and is currently on a seemingly never-ending quest to find a pair of headphones whose sound she likes—sufficient output, good noise cancelation, good bass but not too much, nice vocal clarity, and instruments that sound right—from a company whose values she doesn’t find repugnant. But she just doesn’t know whom to trust when it comes to reviews, so she mostly relies on user ratings, which almost always lead her astray. (Geoff, if you’re reading this, I’ve turned her onto SoundStage! Solo. We’ll see what she thinks.)

At the YMCA

As best I can summarize it (and I really wish I’d recorded our last conversation so I had more quotes to pull), the problem boils down to this: y’all make mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains. In other words, we older audio journalists treat the minutia that’s important to us as if it’s more important than the qualities that actually matter to most people.

Other young people I’ve spoken with about the subject, especially teens who are into audio, find themselves drawn to and exclusively, and have a sort of “just show me the data” attitude. And you all know how much I love me some measurements, but I don’t think you really have a complete review of a product until you combine objective evaluation with informed experiential impressions—which can not only give context for the data but also help in the ongoing quest to correlate measurements with listener preference, something that SoundStage! Audiophile Podcast host Jorden Guth discussed with Anthem’s Peter Shuck a while back.

In short, as much as I think measurements are an irreplaceable aspect of audio journalism done right, I have a problem with what I refer to as “data dogmatism,” given that the language of science, in my opinion, is uncertainty, and too many of the people claiming to be doing science in the realm of audio don’t doubt their conclusions one bit.

Universalism for hi-fi

Which is why I’m advocating for something resembling Unitarian Universalism in the domain of audio. UU, if you’re not familiar, is a church dedicated to “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” with spirituality drawn “from scripture and science, nature and philosophy, personal experience and ancient tradition.”

If you’re more of a pure objectivist, you may be wondering why the need for the froufrou touchy-feely stuff. For me, it comes down to the fact that, at its heart, our hobby is a pursuit of better audio reproduction because we want our music to sound its absolute best. And listening to music is, in my experience, one of the most meditative, transcendent experiences a human can have.

The spirituality I’m talking about here is the spirituality of my hero, Carl Sagan, who said, “When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

I’m also reminded of something said by the leader of my own spiritual tradition, the 14th Dalai Lama, who opined: “If science proved some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”

I kinda feel that way about volume controls, to be honest. It’s my personal belief that volume controls have more impact on the performance of a sound system than does the topology of the amplifier or the manufacturer of the chip at the heart of a digital-to-analog converter. But if blind listening tests demonstrated that to be untrue, I would have to let go of that belief and examine why I held it to begin with.

Bringing this all back home, @paulrickert1 wrapped up his castigation of Brent’s and my discussion by saying, “I would think it must be very odd for you to work in an industry where you think almost none of the product offerings matter and can’t hear any acoustic difference between them.”

Again, neither of us said anything of the sort. But for the sake of argument, let’s say we had expressed something similar. The reason I work as an audio journalist is because I’m passionate about audio reproduction. I legitimately think high-fidelity audio is a quality-of-life thing. I think sitting and listening to music—even alone, but ideally next to a friend or loved one—is “the cure for what ails ya, as long as what ails ya ain’t tryin’ to kill ya,” as my granddaddy always used to say. I believe with all my brain that, as we’ve migrated away from hi-fi rigs being a standard element of nearly every living room, we’ve lost something every bit as meaningful as was lost when weekly Sunday dinners with at least three generations of extended family became the exception rather than the rule.

Burger hierarchy of needs

So why do I do this, despite the fact that my views are considered heretical? Because for me, hi-fi isn’t really a luxury; it’s a borderline necessity. At any rate, I think I’d put it a lot closer to the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than would a lot of audio journalists I know. And yet, audiophilia is not in any sense an identitarian thing for me, any more than is enjoying good food and good ale and good companionship.

But let me be abundantly clear about one other thing I know will be misinterpreted by a lot of people. I’m not calling for some weak-sauce, centrist ideological compromise between the objectivist and subjectivist camps. I don’t believe that the truth always lies somewhere in between any two positions. I am, unapologetically, on the side of objectivity.

But as the aforementioned exchange with a listener illustrates, the two camps can’t even have a meaningful dialog about our beliefs because tribalism has divided us to the point where we can’t understand one another, and I just want to be able to talk to “the other side” without being misunderstood at every turn.

So what I’m advocating here is a recognition that those of us acting in good faith are all chasing the same pursuit. We all want to enjoy our music with all of its detail and dynamics intact, with sufficient clarity, minimal noise, and no egregious distortion. Yes, I’m still going to publicly and vociferously drop the hammer on bad-faith actors and demagogues in our hobby, because I think they do harm to the future viability of high-fidelity audio.

After all, I really don’t think it’s possible to reach the next generation of listeners without fully embracing the findings of science, because—as I’ve said—they are skeptical in a way my generation and those before me cannot as a whole comprehend. On the other hand, I don’t think we can lose sight of the fact that sitting down in front of a properly dialed-in system and enjoying a favorite album can feel like a sort of magic that has nothing to do with Ohm’s Law or reconstruction filters or RIAA EQ curves. And to be clear, the vast majority of objectivists I know feel exactly the same way, despite accusations to the contrary from the vibes-and-superpowers crowd. But I think we could all do a better job of articulating it from time to time.

. . . Dennis Burger