On Being Gizmodoed, Boing Boinged and Hydrogenated

This is Michael's response to our post Gizmodo mounted on maple blocks, sounds great, in which audiophile gear is made fun of. (See John Mahoney's original item at Gizmodo, Why We Need Audiophiles.) We thought Michael's post would languish at the bottom of a month-old post's comment thread, so he spruced it up as a guest feature, and here it is! — Rob

 

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My wife handles our Cardigan Welsh Corgi in the show ring. I love the dog and though I'm not much into the "dog world," occasionally I go to a show to watch. The judge has to check each dog's confirmation to see how close it comes to the breed standard. If it's a male dog he's got to feel the dog's balls to be sure both have descended. That's part of his job.

Do I think this guy's a pervert who stops people in the street walking their dogs so he can feel their dog's balls? Of course not, but judging by some of the hysterical reactions to Rob Beschizza's post "Gizmodo mounted on maple blocks, sounds great," I guess some of you would see the ball-handler doing his job and think feeling dog's balls is all that guy did.

Such were the ridiculous, frequently irrational caricatures posted of audiophiles in general and me in particular, under Beschizza's post. Beschizza deserves part of the blame, tossing you red meat instead of truth by suggesting that writer John Mahoney's Giz piece hypothesized "...that even if normal people can't appreciate what makes ultra-expensive gear special, audiophiles can. This is a myth, and to honor it like this is to sell it."
 
Mahoney's piece hypothesized no such thing. In fact his piece concluded that anyone can hear how great an expensive high performance audio system can sound. Mahoney had visited so he could write, from first hand knowledge, the usual anti-audiophile tripe about clueless obsessives with expensive gear in bad rooms who repeatedly play the same five records or CDs. He was expecting to hear some loud, offensive assemblage of stupidly expensive, grotesque sounding "show off" gear--like the typical custom car stereo.

I knew the agenda but I also knew what Mahoney would hear because literally hundreds of non-audiophiles--neighbors and many in the dog world who come to visit my wife--have sat in my listening chair and heard what anyone can hear: that a high performance rig can produce astonishing-sounding music , with the speakers literally disappearing, leaving a wall-to-wall, three-dimensional, physical presence.

Listening to a very familiar tune of their choice, these non-audiophiles invariably react by saying things like "It's as if I've never heard the song before." "I heard instruments I never knew were there." "I can 'see' each instrument in space and follow the notes each musician plays." And, because the imaging is so palpable and precise, many invariably point to the amplifiers in the middle and say "Are those speakers too?"

Or "I had no idea this was even possible! How come I didn't know about this!" Or they describe how listening made them feel--how listening to recorded music had never before elicited such strongly felt emotions. Everyone walks away in a pleasant daze--the way you do exiting a live concert. I still do, even though this is my job and I experience it daily.

And that's what Mahoney immediately heard on the first tune, a song from the French synth duo Air. I didn't play "audiophile" crap, I played him regular music--which is what I listen to. After that first cut he said something like "I've never heard anything like that!" And "That was not what I was expecting." He got it. Anyone hearing such a system would "get it." One need not be an "audiophile" to get it.

Mahoney had more trouble hearing differences when I swapped out some expensive speaker cables for some moderately priced Monster Cables, but that was to be expected.

I once spent a few days driving an Aston-Martin around Scotland for a review of the car's sound system. It was an overwhelmingly pleasurable experience too and a much better one than driving my car and had the tires been switched I doubt I would have noticed much of a difference but I'm sure an automobile pro would be able to describe the handling changes in great detail.

Contrary to Rob Beschizza's charge, Mahoney's hypothesis was not "...that even if normal people can't appreciate what makes ultra-expensive gear special, audiophiles can." As I demonstrated to Mahoney and could to Beschizza as well, anyone can hear and appreciate it.

Mahoney's hypothesis was that even if inexperienced people can't hear some of the nuances that cables (and some other tweaks derided by doubters) can make in an audio system, they probably are audible to some. Audiophiles paying such close attention to the small details is a good thing--which happens to be a truism in any endeavor.

Now, I didn't ask him, but I suspect Mahoney's generosity in believing that nuanced differences he couldn't distinguish probably were audible to me, grew out of listening to a high performance audio system that he'd been pre-conditioned to believe was bullshit and nothing more than (in Beschizza's own words) "...the telltale hiss of dead technology" (never mind that vinyl is the only physical format that's growing in sales and popularity, particularly among kids).

What's "sad," to use another of Beschizza's bizarre choice of words, is that a skeptic who came to launch yet another anti-audiophile attack was in turn attacked by a fellow journalist for emerging "a believer," because he heard with his own ears just how spectacular, enriching and enjoyable a great high performance audio system can be.

I didn't "hard sell" Mahoney. I just sat him down and played music for him. Whatever he wished to hear. That I "hard sold" him is insulting to me and to Mahoney. He wasn't conned, but judging by some of the ridiculous, actually hateful comments (change "audiophile" to the "N-word" and they read like posts on a skinhead site) left in the wake of Beschizza's piece, plenty of you have been conned. You're the suckers, not me, not Mahoney and certainly not high performance audio enthusiasts.

There have been so many ridiculous comments left here, I don't know where to start but I guess I might as well: first of all, the guy who wrote about 'audiophiles' not understanding music and seeking to understand by throwing money out on expensive gear is about the most pathetic of the lot.

One of the most dedicated audiophiles I know is legendary record producer Rick Rubin. Not a "music lover?" I could rattle off dozens of famous names I know personally in the music business and in the business of making music, to prove the utter stupidity of the "non music lover" charge, but then I'd be accused of "name dropping." So go to my music review website Music Angle and then accuse me of not being a music lover.

The second stupidest comment was the one from the engineer speaking (out of his butt) on behalf of all recording engineers claiming that audiophiles are to engineers what astrologers are to astrophysicists.

Really? Obviously, that poster doesn't know just how many engineers are audiophiles. Why don't you make that stupid argument to Roy Halee? He engineered all of Simon and Garfunkel's albums and albums by The Byrds, Bob Dylan and on and on. He's among the most dedicated audiophiles I know and he prefers listening to "dead technology"--he's a vinyl fanatic as are many, many other guys who know the master tapes (and master files) they've produced and think the vinyl, whatever the flaws, sound more like the tape than does the CD.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that every engineer agrees. I can name dozens who prefer digital. What I'm saying is that in the real world, these differences of opinion are respected. In the cartoon world here, there's only one correct opinion and the other side is turned into a caricature.

I love the "logic" of the guy who wrote about the electricity traveling through the grid all the way to someone's home and then ridiculed the idea that the last 3 feet of expensive AC cable could make a sonic difference. Well then, please, if you have a water filter on your faucet to remove heavy metals and other pollutants from your drinking water, remove it because it's idiotic to think the water could move from the reservoir to the treatment facility, through all the old pipes through the water main, into your home and that last little filter could do anything. AC cables do make an audible difference. There's a very well respected jazz recording engineer I know who brought AC cables to a session at the old Sony studios. The in-house engineers laughed at him until he did a demonstration for them....then they got it and stopped laughing. I know, they were "conned."

As is usually the case, knowledge and experience are inversely proportional to glibness. The glibber the post here, the more ignorance is behind it.

So many of the supposedly "logical, science grounded" posters here begin their hate-rants by making a series of outrageous, assumptions about me and about "audiophiles" and what they do or do not know or understand, and then after their hate-rants they end with something like "pathetic," or "sad," or whatever. They are the pathetic and sad ones, building and destroying straw men of their own creation, which is a cheap debating tactic closely related to masturbation.

For some reason audio, not video, not automobiles, not wine, not clothing, not any other subject, seems to attract a gaggle of self-loathing supposed "enthusiasts" who make it their business to tear down quality and reduce it to the lowest common denominator by saying that none of these performance differences matter...that everything pretty much sounds the same. I don't get it.

Getting back to "feeling balls." I've been doing my job for more than 20 years. Over time my system has gotten better and better and I've had more money to invest in what both pays the bills and gives me great pleasure. My readers expect me to have such a system, just as it's expected of Beschizza's readers that he shit all over people who appreciate good sound and mock their passion.

As I said to Mahoney, when my system consisted of a pair of Spica TC-50 speakers ($550), a Hafler DH-200 amp and DH101 preamp (kits costing a few hundred bucks each) and a used Thorens TD-125 with a Luster GST-1 arm...total system cost of around $1500 (in 1981 dollars) I enjoyed listening to music as much then as I do today on a very expensive system. But did it sound as good? Of course not. Not even close. Were I to lose all my gear in a Bernie Madoff minute, I'd assemble a modestly priced system and continue listening with an equal amount of enjoyment because music got me into audio, not vice-versa.

Writing about audio is my job. I try to review inexpensive gear as well, but of course in the effort to turn me into a cartoon, that's not mentioned here.

Over the past 20 years or so, we've gone from 480i 4:3 crappy video to 16x9 1080p high definition. Were I to sit anyone reading this down in front of a good home theater projection system with a properly calibrated projector and 100" screen and were we to watch "Spiderman" or whatever movie you liked, and you walked away wowed and wrote about it, would another writer claim you were "conned" into seeing something that didn't exist? Of course not! I mean, how stupid would that be? Does that mean you couldn't enjoy the movie on an iPod? No. But you wouldn't claim the differences between an iPod and a 100" screen were delusional or that only a "snob" would want to watch on the big screen.

In audio, we've gone backwards from real hi-fi to most people listening on crappy computer speakers to MP3s. That's progress? That's idiocy. You bet Mahoney heard how crappy his Bowie MP3s sounded compared to the "dead technology" of my original vinyl pressings I've been playing for 25 years. Friends bring their kids down and I let them hear how they've been cheated out of a worthwhile listening experience by MP3s--I don't care what the bit rate. They all get it and instantly. No wonder kids are buying turntables. They're rebelling. They always do when they realize they've been had.

As for double blind challenges, let me give you my experience there. In the early nineties I challenged an audio writer who claimed that all amplifiers that measure the same sound the same to set up a double blind test that I would take. I guaranteed him that I'd be able to hear differences among the amplifiers. So he organized a double blind test at an AES convention (Audio Engineering Society) in Los Angeles.

I took the test, along with dozens of others attending, many of them recording engineers. When the results were announced, the organizers said that I'd gotten 5 of 5 identifications correct. My editor at Stereophile, John Atkinson, got 4 of 5 correct. But the overall result was statistically insignificant. Most test takers could not distinguish among the amplifiers. Guess what? I was declared a "lucky coin" and my result was "thrown out!"

Take the test and pass and they find a way to discredit you. When I relate this story on "objectivist" websites the response is always "Not enough samples!" Well, I didn't design the test, I just took it. I jumped through their hoop and I guaranty you had I been 0 for 5 it would have been deemed a very well designed test.

Now, what amazed me about the result was that one of the amps was a vacuum tube amp that sounded way different from the others yet most test takers couldn't hear what was obvious to me. Why? Not because they're not good listeners. They couldn't hear it because they were inexperienced listeners, at least in terms of discerning differences among products. I don't do my testing "blind" but I understand the pitfalls of working that way, just as I know that railroad tracks really don't come to a point on the horizon. I work around that too. Don't you?

As far as blind cable testing goes, please read this piece at the WSJ.

I no longer have anything to "prove" to the skeptics. When I take and pass their "tests," they move the goalposts anyway.

So, to all the snarky posters here, excuse me and other audiophiles for trying to popularize listening to music on a good (not necessarily expensive) audio system. If you enjoy listening to MP3s on computer speakers (and by "listening" I mean paying full attention to the music and not having it in the background while you do other stuff), well knock yourself out, but please stop accusing music lovers who want something better of being "snobs." The effete, look-down- their-nose, know-it-all posts that dominate here, written by people who clearly know very little, define "snob."

If you're wondering about the "hydrogenated" reference in the title, there's a website called hydrogenaudio.com that picked up the Gizmodo story and began attacking me and audiophiles well before boing boing. These supposedly dispassionate rationalists couldn't complete a sentence without hurling personal attacks and when I joined the discussion they behaved as if I was an alien ant invading their colony. It was entertaining.

Speaking of which, if you want to see a dweeby "audiophile' in action, go here.

Michael Fremer is a senior contributing editor at Stereophile, editor of Music Angle, and the producer of "21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-up DVD" and "It's a Vinyl World, After All."

THE FINAL WORD BECAUSE IT'S OUR BLOG AND EVERYTHING

Thank you, Mr. Fremer! And there was me thinking you guys sit there listening to the THX surround sound noise over and over again.

Most high-end gear is audibly better than even decent equipment, and Fremer is right to point out that mainstream skepticism encourages listeners to be cynical about it. Moreover, it doesn't take an audiophile to prefer a good platter over joint-stereo 128kbps MP3 files and badly-mastered CDs. We skeptics also sometimes confuse those areas where extreme quality can make a difference (amps and long cable runs, for example), with those areas that are pure snake oil. (Such as little maple blocks placed strategically around the listening room.)

My "attack" on John's piece was really about the lack of rigor involved in tests of specific gear, like AC cables, which I do think are snake oil. They're either (a) doing nothing worthwhile or (b) doing nothing that couldn't be accomplished with much cheaper stuff. Take the water filtration example Michael poses: as filthy as tap water can be, will a $4,000 filter clean it better than a $3,000 one?

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