In Response to Ian Masters

Mike Silverton

[December 2002.]

For a better understanding of these remarks, go to their inspiration: http://www.mastersonaudio.com/. Click on <Features & Articles> and then on the November 1, 2002 item there, “Flights of High-End Audio Fancy” by Ian G. Masters. The title pretty well indicates on which side of the audio divide Masters stands. It’s a terrain he’s occupied for a long time.

We begin by defining terms. Strict objectivists are those who believe that measurements best determine an audio component’s capabilities: speakers, electronics, whatever. Masters, as an established spokesman, disparages subjectivists, whom we may characterize to Masters’ satisfaction as technically unlettered enthusiasts who arrive at their opinions solely by listening, or worse, by attempting to satisfy their taste for certain sonic qualities, or worse still, by fantasizing those qualities via questionable or downright ridiculous embellishments.

I startle no one in suggesting that the term subjectivist is compromised by scorn. I think it may have been Harry Pearson who coined a substitute: observationalist. The observationalist evaluates what he or she hears against a deep background of unamplified live music, recordings and sound systems. Pearson holds — correctly in my view — that those recordings and sound systems are best which most closely approximate live unamplified music: in effect, just about all of classical, a lot of jazz and other, even less popular categories. (While much jazz is recorded acoustically, which is to say, without gimmickry, we almost always hear live jazz amplified by crude, jury-rigged sound-reinforcement systems. And it’s not only jazz. I remember a live performance of a vocal-instrumental piece by Steve Reich that calls for a small group of singers, each of whom stood before a microphone. Dreadful. Acoustic-amplified hybrids work better on recording.)

Where Masters and I concur: Much observationalist commentary is over the top and off the wall, and it’s a state of affairs the Internet abets. A self-appointee starts up a webzine: Hyper-Superior Audio. Doesn’t take much — a few dollars and someone who knows the cyber-ropes. Credentials matter less than the will to make one’s presence felt. If you can get niche manufacturers to send you equipment for review (most of these folks are desperate for attention), you’ve already established a reputation. In the best of all possible worlds, you’ve earned that reputation through good judgment and rock-ribbed honesty. In the world where most of us live, the picture is otherwise, by a lot or a little.

I’ve a fellow in mind who operates just such a webzine. While his understanding of electronics and physics is even skimpier than mine, his energies qualify him as an observationalist ad astra. He hears more gear in a week than I do in a year, and yet, at bottom, the issue remains one of angels and pinheads. If you doubt the existence of angels, questions regarding their size or immateriality, as in how many of them can be choreographed on a single pinhead, dissolve into silliness. If I judge as flawed my restive subject’s notions of what comprises good sound, all that follows bears the taint — to remain on our theological track — of Original Fallibility. I visited him several times over the years and, as hardware entered his premises at a rate better suited to grocery deliveries, I got to hear a number of systems. They all of them sounded to me congested and dynamically crimped. I won’t go into what I suspect are the reasons. Enough to say I question his taste. But taste? What has good judgment to do with taste? Another time for that. Too many other bones to chew.

Here’s the nubbin Masters’ mallet failed to hammer into the ground: Remaining with our subject, his published reviews read like exercises in enthusiasm. It’s been about a year since I last checked in, but I’d be willing to bet he’s written no pans. Consumer Report buys what it evaluates. If a car, toaster or nose-hair clipper has problems, they’re covered in the review. No circumlocutions. Plain talk. Even at industry-accommodation (50% below list, more or less), our subject is in no position to buy the gear he writes about. How shall I put this? Audio publications, Internet or print, find their pipelines shutting down if they go negative. A manufacturer of goods for a small, generally well-heeled market quite reasonably recoils from such a possibility. Thus a potentially unwholesome alliance between provider and reviewer.

I correspond with a decent young man who writes about high-end audio gear for an Internet magazine. Observationally, need I add. His mission as he sees it is to promote the hobby by supporting its providers. Even if a piece is disappointing, he strives to find something good to say about it: Somewhere there’s an audiophile who will enjoy its merits, such as they are. Presumably nothing’s so overpriced, shabbily made, unreliable, or just plain goofy that it cannot find its audience. I told him that his first responsibility is to that audience. He understands my position but I doubt that he agrees with it. As I say, a fine young fellow. His motives reside beyond reproach. Skewed, but beyond reproach.

I seem to be giving Masters a leg up. I’m not. It’s more a question of taking care, of maintaining a healthy skepticism, of listening before leaping, of, perhaps most important, understanding that (present company excepted by reason of modesty) some very good journalist-reviewers ride the observationalist hobbyhorse. I’ve been listening to recorded music for better than 50 years, just under 40 of those on what we used to call hi-fi. My interest in good sound intensified around 15 years ago, when I began looking into those aspects of playback most objectivists find questionable if not misguided and perhaps even nuts.

The essentials: a Mark Levinson No.390 CD player upgraded from a No.39; Mark Levinson No.33H mono amplifiers; Wilson Audio WATT / Puppy Six speakers. The controversial (in Masters’ terms): Nordost Valhalla balanced interconnects and speaker cables; Silent Running Audio acoustic isolation platforms under the electronic components, with the exception of a Harmonix Reimyo ALS-777 line conditioner; Acoustic Zen Gargantua power cords, and finally, a pair of dedicated 20-amp outlets for the 33H’s. It’s a CD-only system. The 390’s good analog volume control makes it unnecessary for me to run a preamp. Less circuitry, fewer connectors. The well-furnished front parlor of an 1842 house in lovely Midcoast Maine serves as the best listening room I’ve ever had.

The cables and power cords are on long-term loan. (Give me credit for honesty.) All else, purchased, the amps in barter for my editing services when Madrigal Audio Labssponsored La Folia. I mention the chronology merely to indicate a world-weary resistance to auditory hallucination. It takes a lot to impress me, and I’m impressed all to hell by what I hear coming out of my system when the recording’s good. I include before-and-after comparisons in my comments on audio gear. No review is complete without them, but as a music lover, I listen to recordings holistically. The software speaks through the sum of the system’s parts. I know from dogs’ years of sweet-spot inaction that what I’m hearing would not sound quite the same were I to remove, for example, the line conditioner or replace the cables with others.

I just know, and that’s good enough for me. But good enough for you? Not if you understand that you’re on your own. My rôle is to suggest as forthrightly as I can. Our strict objectivist doesn’t suggest, he states his findings, and that, as far as it goes, is a good thing. It’s important to know that some tubed gear produces unusually high distortion figures or that a component’s function / selection abilities don’t work as they should or present a hazard. We need more of this, particularly now that, thanks to dat ol’ debbil Internet, amateur observationalist commentary is in the ascendancy.

Masters scores some interesting points. It’s good to be challenged. Clears the air. If only he’d kept a lid on his disdain. And how predictably he proceeds! In quoting audio gurus and a psychologist, he reverts to a shopworn device: trotting out the authorities. It’s like a trial in which the lawyer selects for testimony those experts who are most likely to bolster his case. An even less compelling gambit is suggesting that audiophiles and music lovers are like Kipling’s unmet twain. Sure, many high-end audiophiles are gear-besotted geeks for whom a recording is the fuel that makes the engine run, and many more are music lovers. Masters calls us fetishists. Well, there are fetishists and then there are fetishists. How do my interests compare with the rumor — a hypothetical, mind! — that most gynecologists are crotch fetishists?

Fetishists. Lunatic fringe. Esoteric. Evangelical fervor. Believer. Fuzzy argot. Mystique. Fantastic beliefs. High-end boilerplate. That’s a whole lot of invective for a one-and-a-half-page screed. As I have written enthusiastically about several of the genera Masters, et al., castigate, I guess I should feel a little like Marley’s ghost, hauling chains of sham and shame. And all because I have the confidence of my convictions in familiar surroundings that, for example, these Valhalla cables elevate the mix to a higher level of excellence. Yes, they’re crazy-expensive. Be nice if Nordost sold them for a buck seventy-five per meter, with a mail-in rebate. Be even nicer if I could jump over my house. It is what it is, and then there’s the music and my aching joints.

Which we listen to how? (The music, not my joints.) Back in the 80’s, before Stereo Review folded, Masters authored a piece entitled “Do All Amplifiers Sound the Same?” based on David L. Clark’s statistical findings. As best I can determine, test conditions were fair. I could probably toss a little gremlin dust in that assumption but am willing to concede for argument’s sake that all went as well as could be expected. We are to extract from the statistical fog that a mass-market receiver was sonically indistinguishable from several high-end amps, including a Mark Levinson predecessor to my 33H’s.

I’m sorry, that won’t do. Because I say so. Because I know. If you show up at my door with a truckload of whatever and an ABX comparator, I won’t let you in. I reject out of hand an afternoon of obfuscation that proves I’ve been imagining the virtues of my system’s parts. My involvement in high-end audio is an exercise in satisfaction. Egocentric and narcissistic, probably. Delusional, probably not. Sticks and stones….

Postscript

I sent the above to Jim Saxon, a friend and fellow audiophile who lives and operates a high-end audio business in Costa Rica. His response adds flesh. I comment in a few places in italics within brackets.

Excellent lead-in, but I’d like to see a bit more argument in support of the observationalist position. You are, after all, speaking for a host of eager readers. As a champion of the cause, you’d be right to exclaim, bollocks to flash comparisons. Who can say what subtle stresses can affect a blind test? Meanwhile, a sighted test brings bias, certainly, but can’t an adult control his prejudices to an extent? [As a good and fair feature, the Stereo Review blind listening test permitted the testees as much time as they wanted. Jim’s characterization of that event as "flash comparisons" doesn’t quite work, though I’m as dubious as he of the results.]

Here’s an example: a tube amp owner was convinced by a group of friends to install a Klone amp (name changed to keep things calm) in his system for a friendly group comparison. A member of the group, a transistor amp dealer, said he was surprised by how good the tube amp sounded vs. the solid-state amp. Maybe he’s biased because he doesn’t sell Klone products? Okay, maybe so, but he was listening with an open ear-mind-heart and that’s the way it went for him. Meanwhile, the tube amp owner told me privately he was impressed with how precise the Klone sounded vs. his beloved Ark (another pseudonym). The test opened his mind to the possibility that solid-state provides a better approximation of the way he hears live music. Possibly, he added, he may have been prejudiced toward tube amplification because the purist press was always so quick to exhort the virtues of tubes. Brainwashing works in many ways.

Furthermore, as HP has pointed out repeatedly, long-term testing is the only way to get to know a component, a combination, a system. I once owned a couple of c-j Premier 250 tube amplifiers that were sickeningly unreliable. A friend suggested that his Adcom amp sounded very similar and why not sell the conrad-johnson, buy the Adcom and recoup some dollars. I auditioned the Adcom in my system and was impressed that it played music through my loudspeakers almost as well as the c-j. Made the switch and was happy for a while.

However, with the passage of time, the Adcom “sound” wore me down. Eventually, I came to detest the airlessness, homogenization of harmonic detail and lack of dynamic contrast. I began to avoid turning the system on! Maybe I was imagining things, but when one does not want to listen to music, it’s time to get rid of the offending component, imagination or no. In my case, I went a step further and got out of hi-fi altogether. So much for short-term listening tests. [I understand "short term" to mean other than Harry Pearson’s recommendation that, for evaluating purposes, one needs to spend a long time with the component under consideration, as in, for the consumer, setting up a daybed in a dealer’s listening room. My feelings regarding my system’s qualities have survived HP’s requirement. Unreliable impressions evaporate. True impressions don’t. I’ll see you at the barricades.]