Private investigations

  • Haggling hyenas. If I worried about them, I shouldn’t review certain stuff. Recently I did. But I don’t read those forums to know whether I’ve set off the usual cackling crowds again. They’re not my concern. Curiosity and prior good experiences simply mandate occasionally walking on the wild side. It’s the only way to know. This time it really was warranted. The lurid details of it are all here. Today isn’t about them, just a takeaway. When we’re hi-fi newbs, the whole world is our oyster. There are 1001 things to sample. We must scope out all the options. More vitally we must discover what we like; and don’t. Some play a busy buy’n’sell turnover of used gear across the online classifieds. Some attend hifi shows. Others turn a big-city getaway into a self-guided seminar at key dealers. Some join a local hi-fi society to make friends with fellow enthusiasts and eventually hear their systems. The most hardcore do it all. What they do not do is mistake reviews, specs, measurements and inside photos telling them how something will sound in their own room.

    Having our pendulum swing wild is normal and necessary in the beginning. If we come from a small Spendor box as first speaker to then discover electrostats, we might do a virtual 180° and change religion. Similar flavour opposition awaits with tubes vs solid state, class A vs. D, horns vs. widebanders and all the rest. Over time and untold personal experiments, our pendulum moves less and less. We gain clarity on our perfect sound. There’s still wiggle room, still tit for tat. But the area of personal rightness has become far smaller. Eventually, it takes very little indeed to upset our ideal balance. That’s a point where interest in alternative aural aesthetics and their shining hardware examples should wane. It could even be time to call it quits on the whole hifi obsession. That’s until a house move ends up with a new room our beloved system refuses to sing in. From peacock to ugly duckling. Or perhaps we hear someone else’s system which feels so superior that the dormant bug reanimates. The hamster wheel starts again. Somewhere a shopkeeper or private seller rubs their hands in glee.

    Regardless, once systems attain what I call maturity because their owners are settled and happy, polishing up a sundry of its attributes like a motorcycle fan might buff up his chrome on a Sunday becomes ever more critical to not sacrifice anything in turn. That’s because all sonic qualities connect and intersect. Something goes up and something else comes down – or veers sideways. Pure gain with zero pain becomes the rare exception. It’s also because by now our sonic ideals are very well defined, our listening skills evolved enough to notice far smaller deviations and still find them significant.

    That’s what I faced in the wake of the above review. As a tweak—something our system will play just fine without—it proved unexpectedly potent. I’d unconditionally loved what it did for tone and textures. “Then get a room already and spare us this sermon.” Quite. Except that the fuller tone and more languorous trailing edges also softened the transients. With it mellowed my sense of snappy timing and rhythmic tension. It clearly wasn’t a something-for-nothing scenario. To get ahead, Pete stole from Paul. Pam looked on not amused. As I contemplated whether to return the review sample or buy it, I felt into my body. Which quality was more important to me? The one that improved or the one that stepped back? It’s no mental preference. It’s a physical sense of well-being; being relaxed and at ease rather than subliminally reminded that like a slightly tight shoe, something about the sound keeps rubbing. Clearly to how I’m wired and hooked into certain music types and SPL preference, time fidelity is more important than ultimate tone mass.

    What’s important to me is of course utterly immaterial to you. What is mega-material is that we identify our own sonic proclivities. Call them the basics which must be in place like a concrete foundation so we can be fully present with our tunes, not somehow twitchy and ill at ease. All else is gravy as long as it doesn’t aggravate our basics. For some those could be dynamics. Howdy horns? For others, it’s lush textures. Might Sir care for some tubes and paper membranes on AlNiCo? Some groove to resolution. Perhaps super-dense speaker cabs, hi-tech drivers and prodigious power could suit? Electrostats for transparency? High-efficiency widebanders for whisper levels? Subwoofers for space fiends? Super tweeters for aeronauts? Ultra-wide-spaced monitors for imaging freaks?

    How about far more minor adjustments? That’s often the provenance of tweaks. Perhaps resampling PCM to DSD does our trick. Perhaps it’s bypassing a preamp for a DAC-direct connection; or the inverse. It could be a USB bridge between PC and DAC; or a software player. The list is endless. None of it simply matters without a clear notion of what’s important to us. We mustn’t just hone our hardware. We must keen our listening skills to recognize what sundry stuff does in the first place. None of that is learned by reading reviews though reading can certainly give us ideas. But without active listening—paying close attention, evaluating how the results refine or subtract from our experience regardless of the opinions of others—it’s all for naught; other than stimulating the economy. That does have its place.

    In my experience with tweaks, they turn our sonic steering wheel by just a click or two. It’s usually not enough to cause any fundamental reset hence upset to our status quo. Proper isolators under subwoofers and speakers on suspended flooring reduce structural resonance and timing blur. It’s all good no bad except for potentially lighter LF weight. If so, an active sub’s gain control can compensate. Cable changes can impact tonal balance. Tone controls will too and far more predictably. That the esoteric tweak which kicked off today’s article moved my sound far more than a click or two was decidedly unexpected. But such tweaks exist, too. Without trying for ourselves, we’ll just never know.

    In the end, it’s all down to trusting our own experience. If our hearing isn’t very good and we’re too easily pleased, let’s smile all the way to the bank. Likewise, for hearing no difference with things the experts rave about. Money saved. Happy days. If our hearing develops over time to fault things we once loved, we’ve either become better listeners; or different listeners. We adjust either way. It’s no different than changing our diet as age or circumstances demand it. What is a mistake is to expect white-kilted hi-fi docs to write us a prescription whose small print reads “just swallow this”. We could of course; swallow. But would you ask a stranger what woman to marry? As I see it, the only real expertise audiophiles accumulate is 1/ getting very specific about their perfect sound, 2/ getting good at achieving it time and again in different rooms. They might even amass enough anecdotal evidence to become proficient at setting up systems and speakers according to a recipe involving measurements and ratios. That kind of thing can prove most helpful if we actually try it out to see how much of it applies to our own situation. As to whether strangers could ever know our perfect sound, I’ll say zero chance. Even if they listened next to us, they’d still respond differently.

    Really, to know ourselves is what we must face eventually so we might as well get around to it now. Should you need to know…I’ve packed up the LessLoss BlackGround to return to its maker. If I could get just its gorgeous tone not how it simultaneously softens perceived PRaT, I’d keep it. That’s the kind of easy clarity that comes from paying attention and trusting our own ears. After 20 years on this beat, I still don’t really understand why so many listeners struggle with taking complete ownership of their ears. They look elsewhere for advice when the true and only arbiters attach to their head. That’s baffling, no? Likewise for the BlackGround’s MO. It’s a mindbender. That alone simply is no good reason to disrespect or ridicule it just as there’s never a good reason to disrespect another wo/man’s taste in music, sound or really, anything. Here less loss of a bad habit won’t do. It’s got to be a total loss. For effective – if mysterious – audio tweaks, we already have LessLoss from Lithuania. And that’s it for today.

    Avatar photo

    Written by Srajan

    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 Chai the Bengal cat in a tiny village overlooking the estuary of Ireland’s Shannon river at County Clare’s border with County Kerry. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons and his contributions to Darko.Audio.

    How I got into electronic music (Part 3)