Hobgoblin

The Miracle and the Fog

Issue 1

I saw it happen. In person, with my own two eyes. In Jamaica.

Of course, a lot of people in Jamaica (and Colorado) see miracles happen, but I hadn’t smoked a thing. And I had seen it and so had the people around me.

About ten years ago, I was at a Club Med with the family. On the second to last day of our time there, we were sitting watching the kids enjoy the 25-foot-tall water slide. One after another, each sunburned youth hurtled down the steep slide, hit the water, and about a foot later, stopped cold with a huge splash.

At 5 pm, the pool was closing, time to go. The guard at the top of the tower closed the gate, and then he went last, coming down the easy way. Except…

Except when he hit the water, he didn’t stop. He skitted across the top of the water, not slowing down, making it a full fifteen feet, all the way across the pool to the other end.

This was clearly impossible. Newton was aghast. Gravity’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.

All of us (kids and parents, perhaps thirty of us, coalescing into a fascinated and determined mob) demanded he do it again.

So he did. Twice.

A miracle.

Afterward, I tracked him down and asked him to teach me how to do it. The next day was his day off, but for $20, he agreed to come early and show my kids and me the secret.

For the next hour, before we had to run to our plane home, we skitted. Each us got to ten feet. It was amazing.

And that feeling, that’s what we get from the high end when it works.

Most of us remember the first time we felt it. For me, it was the Celestion SL6 bookshelf speakers. I set them up in my little apartment in New York and was just stunned. Did they sound like the Blue Note, where I had been the week before? Of course not. Did they sound like the Bottom Line, which was literally across the street from my apartment, where I had just heard Buster Poindexter? Not even close. They didn’t even remind me either of those experiences.

What they sounded like was a miracle.

Isn’t it interesting that there are countless people who into food, trading molecular gastronomy tips and whispering about Chowhoundian restaurants? And so many of us into audio, always trading up… but very few people with the same passion about video.

Video can be measured in lumens, but more important, we can see it. Vision, our highest-resolution sense, can easily tell the difference between good and great video. It’s fog free. We know it when we see it. And generally, people agree about this picture being somehow better than that picture.

But audio, audio is a series of skittish butt slides. Audio is indistinct, foggy, hard to measure, easy to argue about.

Not only that, but we can’t possibly be done in our quest, because once we discover something really good, it fades on us. It becomes the new normal.

In calculus (damn Newton again), we don’t care so much about measuring the absolute as in measuring the delta, in measuring how much something changed. It’s those leaps that give our entire hobby its reason for being.

When we go to a jazz club, we rarely say, “wow, it sounds live in here.” No, the sound in a jazz club is invisible, it’s the standard, the one we expect. The performance might be amazing, but what we hear is what we hear. No veils, no windows, no noticing the absence of veils or windows.

With high end audio, though, we have the chance, every once in a while, thanks to technologies, to placebos and to the magic of our neurons, to witness a miracle, a tiny glimpse of magic that might not stay, but we hope it does. That miracle is not caused (ever, ever, ever) by something we can measure. It is caused by the unexpected juxtaposition of what we expect and what we get.

That means that there are two (not one) matched bookends to our craft. On one hand, we’re trying to change what we get, using the best engineering we can find. And we’re also trying to change what we expect.

Don’t take the fog away. When the fog is gone, so is our hobby.

The fog is the point.

And the occasional glimpses of light through the fog are what we’re working for.

The best way to figure out what to do next in any project is to ask, “what’s it for?” For me, high-end audio’s mission is simple: to make you feel wonder.

And once that feeling fades, to do it again.

Originally published in Copper #1.

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