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KIH #84 – Building bridges, not walls

  • Contains no SLS/SLES, PEGS, parabens or petrochemicals. Save for the last, most of us not skincare practitioners probably haven’t a clue. But it’s what it says on a bog-standard Empire Australia bottle of aromatic body wash in our bathroom. It also claims to contain essential oils of bergamot, mandarin and lavender. That all reads swell but shows so far at the end of the ingredient list that one wonders just how much of it is really in there. 0.01%? Never mind. By proudly listing what it hasn’t got, we rightly know that stuff to be bad. Otherwise, why lead with it? Surely nobody in their right mind would; and these folks must know the difference. Mustn’t they?

    Audiophiles do the same. No NFB. NOS. PEQ. No filters beyond 1st-order. No signal path capacitors. By implication, all that’s bad. Discerning shoppers don’t want it. Half the time, they simply don’t know what it means. SLS. SLES. PEGS. NFB. How many bother to read up?

    Once we get an explanation, however cursory, watch what happens, automatically. Even though we still haven’t a real clue—just a bergamot-type dose perhaps– ‘negative feedback’ has become a mental thing with a clear ‘bad’ connotation. It’s negative, not positive. If we read another explanation, the thing suddenly carries an ‘excellent for lower distortion’ claim. Since nobody wants distortion, now it’s suddenly a good thing. Innit? Explanations in black ‘n’ white can be misleading. Reality includes many shades of grey.

    But we mustn’t stop at proper tech terms. Fuzzier ones like ‘transparency’ will do. If you have sufficient reading comprehension to read this, you know what the word transparency means. You see right through it. Check. But what if I asked you to vividly recall a hifi experience of transparency, then describe it to me? You can’t. Nobody can. Whatever experience we had, while we had it there was nobody present to label or process it. There was just the fullness of experiencing. All the labelling and processing happened after. It’s when the novel, unusual, exciting or otherwise non- common experience is over that our mind intercedes to analyse, comprehend and compartmentalize it. We put the pin through the butterfly’s heart then mount it. Henceforth we can invoke ‘transparency’ whenever something looks like that dead butterfly. We no longer need the experience to go with it. In fact, as long as the idea of transparency is present, we can’t have the full experience.

    It’s either experience or mentalizing. The two don’t meet.

    As in other attempts to communicate, reviews use words to share experiences. Now consider the inherent trouble. If the purpose of a hifi is to trigger subjectively pleasing experiences—I think few would disagree– the only truly appropriate thing to say about a working-as-it-should hifi is that I got lost in the music and the hardware disappeared. It’s also the most trite and meaningless thing one could possibly say. Yet in the final analysis, it’s the only one that reflects a hifi’s or particular component’s success at doing the job it was designed to do. It says that I took the train and it got me to where I wanted to go.

    More technically inclined readers and manufacturers prefer reviews that use crisp technical terms, perhaps even measurements. It all conveys a sense of the objective, repeatable thus provable. It’s when we try to extrapolate how that relates to the experiences we might (or not) have with the piece under review that concise, dry, clear and unambiguous language does little. “The Asbestos amp had perfectly linear response, no discernable phase shift or coloration, just a small tendency to compress in the lower treble.” How does this relate to experience?

    Yet when the flowery subjective reviewer said that he drowned in the music and forgot to take notes, did that create any guarantee or at least likelihood that it would do the same for us? Don’t people get off on different things?

    I personally find those sonic descriptions most useful which make me feel something by way of relatable imagery. I understand instinctively that this feeling is an echo of what the reviewer felt when he listened. It’s why tie-ins with climates, seasons, food, cultures, car types all work. They suggest things readers are familiar with so become bricks to build bridges not walls with. You can walk across them not get blocked in. It’s why tie-ins with specific wines, cigars and such don’t work as well. Unless one is a highly experienced expert, one lacks exposure to relate. Hello, ghetto wall. Meanwhile, if a component made sound like the perfumed redolence of gardenias next to a lazy summer river… if the reviewer paints that picture like a movie still I can walk into and own, then it’s made that key connection. Riding that, now tech lingo perhaps even measurements can add a concise mental concept to go with the feeling recognition. In the end, we can probably agree that feeding our right and left brain is more satisfying and complete.

    Just so, if the primary feeling connection wasn’t made, what real purpose does a review serve when the whole purpose of the thing being reviewed is to trigger feelings? If you agree with that, perhaps you’ll also agree that ideally, we need a bit of purple prose and tech talk all mixed up into a smooth cocktail. Contains no SLS/SLES, PEGS, parabens or petrochemicals alone just won’t do.

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.

    Letters to the editor – Week #13, 2021

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