Monday, May 13, 2013

What is an Audiophile?

I like the Wikipedia definition, also found elsewhere, an audiophile is someone who is enthusiastic about sound reproduction.

A friend of mine, George, objected to this.  "That's a definition not written by audiophiles...what do they know?"  He had been trying to make the point that by not bringing a set of personal CD's to a friends house recently for an audiophile listening session, I showed that I was not an audiophile, or not like an audiophile, for certainly any true audiophile would have done so.  This was really a rhetorical argument which was part of another argument criticizing a mutual friend Roger for the way he hosted a previous listening session at Roger's house, starting with ten of Roger's own favorite recordings, rather than jumping into to trying other people's favorite recordings first.  George complained bitterly about having to listen to the whole tracks also.*  The next day George strong statements that of course I--Audio Investigator--am an audiophile, and it would have been ridiculous to say otherwise.

(*Actually, the very first track was interrupted to reverse polarity, at George's request, and likewise many other of the first ten tracks were played in both polarities, with as many as three partial track plays, with George asking many questions to all of us about the perceived differences.  So it was ridiculous that George was complaining...he directed the entire listening session nearly from the start, albeit playing Roger's recordings at first.  But George's urge to control is rarely satisfied. I ignore his demons when I can and love him anyway for his energy and charm.  BTW, he also well knows but usually ignores that I do not believe absolute polarity even makes an audible difference in most playback, let alone being a peculiarly important factor worth endless replays to get right, as it seems to him.  Nor do I believe that most quality players differ in their polarity (no CD players that I have tested differ, including a few specific models he still believes different), that most but not all recordings are wrong, etc., and his whole conspiracy theory about polarity obfuscation.  I've written my specific evidence and arguments before, and will get to that corpus soon when discussing George's most recent negative finding double blind test results submitted in 2012.  As a quick overview, I made some double blind tests for him, and a program designed to create more such tests at will, in 2010.  It took him until 2012 to submit his choices in a same/different test made to his specifications with music tracks he specified.  A significant relation between his choices and the actual polarities was not found.  He did get a slight majority of choices correct, but that would have statistically useful meaning only in a large number of similar tests.  It's also in direct contradiction to his questions, before submitting results, about what I would think if he got all answers correct.  George not only claims to know polarity with his own system and chosen recordings, he can hear it outside a building before entering, on a strange system with strange music.  He is questioning renowned makers of CD players, and recording engineers, about errors he hears with no other knowledge.  The prior from his standpoint should be near certain correctness, making every error count against.  So I think the results should be a big setback for perfect polarity punditry, not an incremental advance.  Admittedly, it doesn't do much for us critics, like me, who had the prior of 'he doesn't hear polarity consistently enough to be useful'.  Of course, George is free to try again with same or corrected paradigm. And I will keep this blog updated with results.  I will have to review old emails for the actual numbers on his official polarity test submitted in 2012.  BTW, I think George may be sometimes be hearing issues in system asymmetry, polarity may cause other effects in highly asymmetric systems.  But he has made certain errors, I am sure, in system reports, for example his saying the Oppo CDP-95 is out-of-polarity with classic CD players like the Sony CDP-507.  I have measured both, easily, as having the same polarity.  He fails to recognize those errors, and only quits arguing for time.  I have tried to argue with him many times that unless he is absolutely sure about his criticism of major players and recordings, he should say nothing.  Best not bear false witness.  He insists he is absolutely sure, despite my disagreements, he finds fault with my test signals, or my use of oscilloscope, and renders that his Cricket polarity tester agrees with him in these cases, though he concedes it is not perfect (I thought I once explained exactly why the Cricket makes the errors that it does).  I pity those equipment producers, recording engineers, and reviewers, who are subjected to this polarity folly.  But it is hardly the worst in the world, and one can hardly expect all audiophiles not to be cranks--in fact, if ever there were a world of cranks, it would be audiophiles..  George is just the clown who does it more perfectly than anyone else, shamelessly, and he claims to do both, but with all the science, there seems (to outsiders but extended family members like me) no time not for advancing the science, so business, apparently, comes first, enjoyment only shared with work.  A recipe for dullness.  Brilliance in defending his ideas, dullness in remembering your response to his repeated question, or from withdrawing from your unease.)

After all, George's argument continued, how can you properly judge an audio system without playing CD's you are familiar with, he continued in an argument that lasted for quite a while.  I conceded that using personal CD's for comparison might be a good idea for doing comparisons, but there is no rule that audiophiles even need do such comparisons at all.  They might simply use equipment deemed by themselves or others to be sufficiently good for enthusiasm, and then enjoy how well such systems reproduce music.  Further, even if audiophiles do comparisons, there is no requirement that they always do so with personal reference recordings.  Audiophiles can and do in many cases make comparisons to the absolute sound, to how similar any given reproduction compares with live music they have heard at some time, or the sounds of particular instruments, etc., and not necessarily limited to the relative qualities of a particular recording.  Or they can simply react as pure subjectivity, how the reproduction made them feel, with no assertion regarding it's accuracy or general tendency to do so.

I like the Wikipedia definition because it gets right to the point and doesn't take sides.

Many audiophiles are constantly taking sides, and the world of audio is full of different schools of thought.  In my opinion most of this is pure waste, the result of endless commercialism among other things, and especially the commercialism regarding tweaks (cables, for example) that rarely make an audible difference IMO.  So each tweak maker, or critic of such tweaks, invents a new school of audio thought to explain and justify their ways, since they may relate in contradictory ways to commonly accepted audio engineering principles.  BTW, one of the best studies on the audibility of absolute polarity published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society by renowned engineers concluded that absolute polarity is not generally audible on loudspeakers with complex music, even though it can easily be discerned with certain test signals on headphones.

And it was ironic that George was making this argument at all, given the long history we've had of related arguments.  Way back long ago, maybe 30 years or so,  George made an argument that recording engineers who have pre-knowledge of what a recorded event sounded like at the time have no special knowledge beyond those of a discerning listenter, like himself, in judging a playback system.    After all, George argued, it was not the satisfaction of the recording engineer which was desired, but his  own, from the playback using his own system.  Therefore, only he, George, could be the judge, and he would be the judge using his favorite recordings.

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