Audiophile virtues

I’m as obsessed with the Quest for the Absolute Sound as anyone else on this site (well, almost anyone; that’s not an accolade I aspire to anyway). But I’m almost as often troubled by my own obsession as I am gratified by it. I’ve never been what used to be called a gadget freak; just as I use computers as tools for research and writing, not as ends in themselves, for most of my life stereo equipment has been a means to the end of listening to the music I love. But now that I can finally afford really good equipment—things I’ve lusted after since college, more than 40 years ago—I’m dismayed at the extent to which my love of music has morphed into a love of music reproduction. So this little rant is a chance to vent frustration, and to see if there are others out there who may feel the same way. The rant takes a specific form: a book review.

Robert Harley’s The Complete Guide to High-End Audio has been praised on this forum as a kind of bible for audiophiles. It’s certainly as massive a tome at the Bible. And, depending on your religious views, it is perhaps almost as full of Revealed Truth or tendentious myth (take your pick). Moreover, I’ll concede that Mr. Harley frequently reminds us, after going into great detail about some aspect of music reproduction technology, that the last thing the reader should do when listening is to focus on the details he’s just described—that we’re all in it for the music, not for the equipment. Yes, he says this frequently (he says everything frequently). And yet…

The book, in its Fourth Edition, is 529 pages long (the Table of Contents alone is 9 pages long). They’re big pages, too. Some of them—for the most part, the best of them, in my opinion—are “technical,” explaining the theory of acoustics, “Sound and Hearing,” basic facts about the physics of electricity, and so forth. Harley writes clearly, but evidently has a mind that is organized like the architecture of a Gothic cathedral, displaying the analytical excesses and mania for hierarchies of Medieval Scholasticism. Like a lawyer, Harley seems to think that every particular detail must be made explicit, even in situations where symmetry (e.g., left and right speaker terminals) make half of those specifics clear without actually specifying them. This habit gives very little credit to the reader’s intelligence and makes Harley’s prose tedious. There are chapters (each with multiple sub-headings) on Choosing a System; Preamps, Power amps and Integrated amps; Speakers; Disc Players, Transports and DACs; Music Servers; Turntables, Tonearms and Cartridges; Tuners and various kinds of internet radio; Cables and Interconnects; Home Theater; Multichannel Audio; Setup “Secrets” (in two separate chapters, one of these covering “Audiophile Accessories”—i.e., tweaks); Specifications and Measurements—and, of course, Appendices (A-C) on various topics not, presumably, already covered. Need I say that there’s also a Glossary? Harley leaves no stone unturned. And yet…

I find the book exasperating, and a manifestation of many of the problems with audiophilia in general that lead music lovers down rabbit holes of fetish. Here are a few specific problems.

Let me begin by repeating myself, thereby following Harley’s example. Everything Harley says, he says again and again, first in “introductory” chapters, then in the pages of chapters devoted to the topic at issue (where the basic points are repeated several times), then again in “Summaries” of those chapters, and then yet again in subsequent chapters where the topic that had already been discussed to death might possibly be construed as relevant. But maybe “discussed to death” is undue praise, since mere repetition of the same points is not, after all, a way of exhaustively examining any question. If ever there was a book that could more profitably be read quickly and cursorily than carefully, this is that book; it would be far more useful if it were less than half as long. And, besides the chapters on technical matters I’ve already referred to, there is really very little in it that goes much beyond common sense.

Indeed, the theoretical sophistication evident in the technical sections rarely seems to be much in evidence in the evaluations or recommendations of particular choices facing the would-be purchaser. And “purchaser” is the operative term here: again and again, I have the feeling that Harley is a shill for the audio equipment industry—not for any particular company, mind you, but of the industry as a whole, since his book rarely discourages any possible equipment purchase. This is not to say that he doesn’t tailor his advice for one sort of listener or another; you’ll find plenty to confirm your choice of vinyl over digital (or vice versa), of tubes over solid state (or vice versa), of SET amplifiers, or Class A, or Class D, or expensive cables or power cords, without reference to particular manufacturers. If you want to BUY, there will be pages in Harley’s book that will encourage you to do so.

But this enthusiast’s all-in attitude runs into various rhetorical problems, as it must. To cite just one example: superlatives like “extraordinary,” “outstanding,” “significant,” “spectacular” are used so often, at every stage of the music reproduction process, that it becomes impossible to know what sort of weight to give them in any particular context. If power cords can create a “spectacular” improvement—but so can interconnects, and speaker cables, and power conditioners, and well-made racks—it’s hard to know how much weight to give big-ticket items like amplifiers and speakers and other basic elements of one’s system, not to mention undeniably important elements like room acoustics and proper speaker placement. According to Harley, they’re all capable of making “spectacular” or “significant” improvements to sound quality. But “spectacular” is a strong word; there aren’t many that are stronger. If an AC power cord can create such an effect, it’s hard to know what adjective to choose in order to distinguish a boom box or an MP3 on cheap ear buds from an uncompromising rig that costs tens of thousands of dollars. That might perhaps be described as a “spectacular” difference—although even here, such a superlative is in questionable taste. I know plenty of talented musicians and passionate music lovers who can enjoy even difficult to reproduce music on cheap ear buds almost as much as they would on a system most of us would call “spectacular.”

And then, despite his analytical care and thoroughness, Harley often contradicts himself, both in the specific recommendations he makes, and even in his own application of his knowledge of audio science in particular circumstances. For instance, in discussing bi-wiring, Harley offers a (possibly) plausible explanation of how and why it makes a beneficial difference—and then declares that “no one knows how or why” bi-wiring works! Here is the relevant passage: “In a bi-wired system, the power amplifier ‘sees’ a higher impedance on the tweeter cable at low frequencies and a lower impedance at high frequencies. The opposite is true in the woofer-half of the bi-wired pair. This causes the signal to be split up, with high frequencies traveling mostly in the pair driving the loudspeaker’s tweeter circuit and low frequencies conducted by the pair connected to the loudspeaker’s woofer circuit. This frequency splitting…reduces magnetic interactions in the cable, resulting in better sound. The large magnetic fields set up around the conductors by low-frequency energy can’t affect the transfer of treble energy. No one knows exactly how or why bi-wiring works [wait a minute! Didn’t he just explain “how” and “why” bi-wiring works?], but on nearly all loudspeakers with bi-wiring provisions, it makes a big improvement in the sound. Whatever your cable budget, you should bi-wire if your loudspeaker has bi-wired inputs, even if it means buying two runs of less expensive cables.”

Even on its own terms, The Complete Guide to High-End Audio is self-defeating. Most of the “audiophile values” Harley identifies and cherishes are subjective, not objective, and so not the kinds of things one can hope to demonstrate or prove. At the very outset of the book, he quotes the Hungarian-born scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (also recently mentioned by our own Mahgister); that got my attention, as I studied Polanyi’s work with one of his disciples at the University of Chicago when I was a grad student. But Harley doesn’t seem to take to heart Polanyi’s main contribution to the philosophy of science: that objective facts cannot account for what is most valuable in human culture. Rather, it is not science, but art—poetry, music, myth, religion, and other “acts of imagination”—that can provide the foundation of meaning in life. Harley’s attempt at a systematic compendium of objective facts, although it fails even to be this, more conspicuously betrays his own many pleas that the reader not heed measurements, statistics, and other facts but return to the music.

Just as Wine Spectator is wine porn, and Stereophile, The Absolute Sound, and (gasp!) Audiogon are audio porn, Harley’s book will find its enthusiasts. Harley speaks of “audiophile values,” and pays lip service to the music repeatedly, but perhaps it’s time to think in terms of “audiophile virtues” instead. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no prude, and audiophilia is a relatively victimless vice, if you can afford it and your wife can tolerate it. But the analogy is not gratuitous. Didn’t we all get “into audio” because we love music? Shouldn’t a healthy love of music recognize that, although endless purchasing and tweaking may bring slight improvements in sound quality, the false promise of that ever-elusive fantasy Object of Desire is a distraction from a reality which is, for all of us audiophiles, already far sexy enough? I can’t speak for you, obviously, but speaking for myself, it’s high time to get back to the music!

You are right Harley is a shill for the high end, just as all reviewers in the absolute sound magazine are.

Ignore them and listen to other audiophile friends systems, and them make your own choices we al have different tastes in equipment and sound quality.

Hartley,s book is very basic. He is not an EE, and it shows.

For years I tried to figure out the answer to the  apparent contradictions of  the world of Audiophiles.

Audiophiles are people who are obvious intelligent,  financially successful,  and well educated, who, when they talk about audio gear, say and apparently believe, the most  preposterous and ridiculous things you can imagine concerning stereo gear. 

The answer was right in front of me all the time.  It's not a secret, and freely admitted by all.  I just never gave it it's proper importance.  The answer to all things strange in the Audiophile world is to remember that to audiophiles this is a HOBBY!!!

Once you realize this, all is perfectly clear and understandable.

In a Hobby, you are never done!  You never want to be done.  Being done, ends the fun.

Agree with most of what you say. I bought it on some of the recommendations here and found it quite pedestrian and lacking the depth I hoped to find.