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Wishful thinking is endemic to the hi-fi show experience

  • Wishful thinking. For audiophiles, it starts at home: “There is nothing wrong with the sound of my room”. Never mind that no room is perfect and all untreated rooms have reverberation issues above 100 – 200Hz (the Schrรถder Frequency) and bass modes below it. Many acoustically treated rooms, including my own, still have problems that need addressing.

    Alternatively, we might wish that our “$100 DAC sounds just as good as any $10,000 DAC”. Never mind that a half-decent side-by-side comparison would send this idea into orbit. If we can avoid comparative demos, our wishful thinking remains intact.

    The driving force behind our wishful thinking is as human as it is understandable: a desire to maintain internal peace with something we cannot change. We might wish to treat our listening room but another household member swiftly vetoes the idea due to the visual intrusion. We might wish to buy a more costly DAC but our bank balance says ‘not this year (or next)’.

    Nowhere is wishful thinking more plainly on display in the audiophile world than at a hi-fi show.

    It starts with the PR materials declaring the Big Show asย “a celebration of all types of music”. Never mind that 99.99999% of the 100 million songs sitting on most popular music streaming services never get a look in — the show exhibitor collective consistently leans on an exceedingly narrow range of songs to show off their wares. So narrow that one could spice up a Big Show weekend with the audiophile music equivalent of Bullshit Bingo. Download a ready-to-print .pdf here. The Darko.Bingo scorecard features a mere 25 songs but I reckon you’d get close to crossing ’em all off during the Big Show’s three (or four) day run.

    It’s not just the hi-fi harrumphers who have show exhibitors by the short and curlies when it comes to music choices but the attendees engaging in wishful thinking. Their thought process goes something like this: “A hi-fi show is a great place to audition gear”. It’s easy to see how we got here: the slow demise of hi-fi retailers on the high street has led many audiophiles to see a hotel room containing a hi-fi system as a direct substitute for a dealer showroom containing a hi-fi system. With their sales sheets on the line, exhibitors are all too happy to play along.

    Never mind that a hi-fi show’s hotel room listening space is typically smaller than a high street dealer’s. Never mind that a show cannot (by design) accommodate private auditions where a single attendee gets his pick of the playlist. Never mind that the hotel room will feature far fewer acoustic treatments than a dealer’s (if any at all). To their credit, show exhibitors work tirelessly throughout the weekend – and sometimes through the night – to obtain a good (if not great) sound.

    The upshot is that 90% of what we hear at a hi-fi show demo is the sound of the loudspeakers mixing with the room to create an audio soup. Please, Sir, can I have some more? Just like at home, we hear more room than speaker. However, we are more familiar with the sound of our home room than some random hotel room on the other side of the country (or continent). How can we separate the sound of an unfamiliar hotel room from the sound of an unfamiliar set of speakers? I know I can’t. But it goes further. We might like what we hear from a given exhibit but we have to ask ourselves: how close is the hotel room in size and acoustic make-up to our room at home?

    One reviewer colleague told me some years ago that he knew well enough how each component in any given hi-fi system should sound – including the room – thus allowing him to mentally isolate each component’s contribution to the system’s overall performance. I called bullshit at the time and I’ll call bullshit now. My own experience tells me without equivocation that this kind of mental gymnastics isn’t possible.

    This brings us to perhaps the ugliest manifestation of wishful thinking at a hi-fi show. Dude sits down at a demo. Two minutes pass. Dude says (for everyone to hear), “Great sounding phono stage!”. Never mind that the system playing music is a static system whose components are fixed for the weekend. Without the compare and contrast of an A/B demo, how can Dude know?

    A more benign form of this type of wishful thinking shows up again in post-show commentary e.g. “I heard that DAC at the Big Show and it sounded awesome”. My response is always the same: if the DAC wasn’t swapped out for another model during your 10-minute drive-by, how could you possibly know? Exhibitors remain aware that in-room chatter and corridor noise make it difficult to fully demonstrate the differences between, say, two amplifiers or a pair of network streamers.

    We might wish a hi-fi show to be a place to audition audio gear but the reality says otherwise; there are too many hurdles to jump. And no amount of high-street hi-fi store closures will change that. If hi-fi show exhibitors want to approximate the dealer demo experience, they should do more live side-by-side comparisons. And they need to let more attendees have their say with different music choices which, given the number of attendees in a room at any given time, is easier said than done. We might wish to think of a hi-fi show as a celebration of “all types of music” but it’ll take a dramatic shift in exhibitor and attendee tolerance of different types of music – reggae, techno, metal – to make that a reality.

    Hi-fi shows are great for meeting like-minded people. They put an abundance of (sometimes exotic) gear in one place for us to see and (in some cases) touch. They also present rare opportunities to talk with the smart people designing the products we love. That said, we should be more honest with ourselves about the limitations of a hi-fi show’s listening spaces, especially to attendees whose music tastes don’t adhere to the straight and exceedingly narrow. We need to turn down the volume on wishful thinking.

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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