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KIH #86 – “What’s BEST?”

  • The good hifi communist. I’d just dispatched KIH #85. I joked with the Dark One that I might run out of steam before hitting #100. Everyone loves a round fat number. Then inspiration hit. “If you’ll allow me to suggest a topic? The idea of ‘best’ as an objective ideal rather than something that holds plenty of subjective reality; people’s obsession in cutting straight to it (bypassing the learning journey) and (maybe) the headlines that feed it (of which I am occasionally guilty)?”

    “Seed received. Waiting for rain. If it sprouts, I’ll live to tell the tale.”

    Today’s the day. First off, manufacturers love best. It explains the popularity of 5-star ratings, 100-point systems. It plays to people’s inherent laziness to do their own due diligence; their aversion to risk aka buyer’s remorse; their deep insecurity in their own decision-making abilities which desires official approval to stand tall and be counted. Hence certain review magazines – and not just audio – play to this psychology.

    Next comes the destination-not-journey mentality. That’s like a young man drilling to sexual climax in a few seconds. To continue the human race, his result-oriented drive hardwires genetically. From there it invades particularly the male psyche. It’s also culturally entrenched. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Not knowing isn’t tolerated. This result-fixated indoctrination begins early. Posh parents worry about which kindergarten to sign up their toddlers, all with an eye toward their eventual academic route.

    Result-based thinking also gets mixed up with fear of failure. It’s as though making mistakes wasn’t the chief mechanism by which we all learn. It’s cool to learn from other’s mistakes, even recommended. But it’s definitely uncool to make our own. Naturally, parents don’t wish us harm. It’s human nature to want to shield kids from more painful lessons involving physical accidents. Embedded into this protective urge are simply behavioural seeds which we carry into our adult lives: fear of failure; fear of making mistakes; fear of not knowing.

    Know what you want! Plan ahead! Don’t waste your time! Get it done already! Finish what you started! Does any of it ring familiar? But…

    …how can you know what you want if you haven’t first sampled the lot?

    …how can you plan ahead when you don’t see all the options?

    …why be in a rush as though trying things on for size then discarding them as ill-fitting was a waste of time?

    …what’s getting it done mean other than that a new project will kick-off to restart the same must-achieve-and quickly-so hamster wheel?

    …what’s reasonable about finishing a build when you just learned that you poured foundation concrete over a discarded toxic waste dump? The only reasonable action is to stop and cut your losses. Shit happens.

    But there’s more. Any ‘best’ suggests permanent arrival which means, job done, mission accomplished. There’s no farther to go. If you’re tired of going, of having your life in flux and motion aka change, opting out could really be what you want. Perhaps retirement is the answer. Suicide definitely would do it. So ‘best’ represents stasis. There’s no more development. All progress and change have stopped. Some call that death. Many are happy with virtual death.

    Also wrapped up in ‘best’ is the notion of being right. And who wants to be wrong? If you do your best or get the best—grade, recommendation, product—you’ve done right. Meanwhile, the other chap got something you consider far from best. By implication, that makes you and your decision right, him and his wrong. It makes you smart, him less so. There’s another win for best.

    A bit more digging gets us at experts. After all, who decides what’s best? If we’re concerned about what’s best for us, we decide. If we don’t trust our abilities to decide that, we want a higher authority. In the ultimate sense, that’s our individual notion of God. In the morass of consumerism meanwhile, who made the gods of hifi? Some audiophile mafia? What credentials do they have to tell me what’s best for me when they don’t even know me?

    Notice how bizarrely that question could seem selfish and egoic. It conflicts with the demand to honor one’s elders because they know more than we do. Perhaps they really do. Perhaps they don’t. Certainly, not many people are raised to think that being an egotist or being called one is peachy. Now being healthily self-determinant and confident gets confused with ‘bad’ selfishness. Deciding what’s right for us without the blessing of a higher authority seems strangely flawed. What a software bug in our psyche.

    Now we add that as more and more people witness our decisions, all this compounds. Hello social media, compulsive over-sharing and confusing friending with true friends. The more people watch us do anything across social media, the more personal insecurities of failure, being wrong and making the wrong decision come to the fore. Might we say that the modern trend of living out our lives against the canvas of a constant global audience fosters this ‘best’ complex and all that goes with it? I think I just did.

    Knowing what’s good for us must acknowledge that we change. What’s best for us today may no longer be true tomorrow. If we don’t accept that constant flux and cling to yesterday’s best in all its forms—where we live, who we live with, what we do for a living, what we eat, the list goes on—we actively resist our own change. That also means that we resist our own growth, even stunt it deliberately. Why would we want to do that? Because we’ve bought into this fear-based psychology; and the illusion that ‘best’ is a fixed and ultimate quality rather than a purely subjective and conditional one guaranteed to change over time.

    Transcending such thinking recalls the old maxim: “All you gotta lose is your chains”. Perhaps we ought to get on with that one link at a time? On second thought, not. We’ll be called bloody Marxists or worse, communists in training. Definitely not cool. Being a capitalist collecting all manner of ‘best’ is the modern way. “Sign here. Invoice to follow.”

    The end.

    PS: Did you read the fine print? The form you just signed is from a website called evil.corp. That’s ‘live’ spelled backwards. I wonder what the invoice will ask for.

    PPS: Hadn’t John wanted headlines to exemplify the ‘best’ misery? How about we turn those into Ask Dr. Ruth queries?

    “What’s the best preamp?” This question is so non-specific that the one asking hasn’t awoken from stupor yet. He’s still deep in dreamland.

    “What’s the best preamp I can buy?” Hello. Some lucidity just penetrated the dream. It’s become personal. It’s a tiny step but progress is progress.

    “What’s the best preamp I can buy for €3’785?” Hello, condition. The questioner, though still groggy with sleep, has awoken. He’s appended one more qualifier to the query to narrow it down just a tad more.

    The next question lists every single component our fellow owns, including each dot of felt he’s glued to the walls, the size of his room and a drawing of his furnishing. “What preamp for €3’785 or less would match best with what I have?” How the hell would anyone know? We don’t know half his stuff nor what the room does to it nor what kind of sound he fancies nor how loud he listens to what kind of music. But, we are getting ever more specific. That’s good.

    The next question is the first truly intelligent one. Again it lists all the hardware but then adds a list of things our audiophile loves about his system, then a list of things he’d like to improve. What’s more, he pinpoints which component he thinks of upgrading and even identifies two options he’s already tried but rejected for reasons spelled out. Now our questioner is driving with a full tank. He’s bound to get where he wants to go.

    The morale of our PPS is crystal. Ask generic questions and get generic answers. That’s all you deserve. Ask super-specific questions and get the very specific potentially very useful answers you’re looking for. It’s no rocket science. It simply undermines the belief in a universal best and breaks it down into very practical chunks as they apply to us today in our present condition. That’s it. That’s how we become good hifi communists who’ve broken their belief-in-best chains. Tomorrow is a new day. Next year is even more unpredictable. Today’s ‘best for us’ could have quite changed by then.

    If we’ve grown up to smell the roses, that’s simply how that cookie crumbles.

    If we’re still in diapers, I doubt there’ll be any smell of roses.

    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.

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