Audiophile wisdom

August 10, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

Part of knowing our HiFi Family so well is understanding what I like to think of as Audiophile Wisdom, the collective agreement of what we believe. For example, audiophiles pretty much agree that tubes sound one way, solid-state devices quite another. Or, vinyl has its sound and digital something different.

Every interest group on Planet Earth has its share of collective wisdom. That’s certainly nothing new, but when it comes to audio I have yet to find any other passion-driven endeavor to be so rich and vocal when it comes to our beliefs.

Some might refer to the common wisdom as myths while others would consider much to be gospel. Whatever your viewpoint on the audiophile’s wisdom, it’s helpful to recognize some of the more popular tropes. Separating the things we believe from facts can be very helpful when attempting to untangle often complicated subjects.

One of the main goals of the Ask Paul video series is unraveling some of the conventional audiophile wisdom and helping people understand the origins of the stories and beliefs. Often, I have to check myself to make sure what I am saying isn’t simply a regurgitation—hard when you’ve been so immersed in the culture for such a long time.

I think it’s always helpful to share our collective wisdom with others. It’s also important to check your sources. Most audiophile wisdom is based in old history that may or may not be true anymore.

Be careful your accumulated wisdom doesn’t send you down the wrong road.

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24 comments on “Audiophile wisdom”

  1. Having read your 6 years of Paul’s Posts over the last 3 months or so (I had time on my hands due to illness, somewhat better now!) – their most useful aspect is probably the way you have opened up your thinking processes and discoveries along the way, including how this has changed your opinions on “sacred cows” – much more interesting and useful than repeating conventional wisdom 🙂

  2. IMO it’s important to have the experience where old wisdom is reversed, which is often more or less an exception, but this is the goal to search for. Tube amps, record players, digital equipment , solid state electronics, speaker concepts etc. which beat or at least reach their concurring concept in its usual strengths while preserving the own strengths.

    I always strived for this no matter of the concept I used…and it’s possible to reach, if mostly not cheap. But reversed common wisdom not rarely is the key to top performance imo. My personal way to realize this was by choosing the appropriate tube amplification, vinyl and digital sources which all reverse the common wisdom about them by keeping the strengths.

    As I said yesterday I just still have my difficulties to include Class D into that rule yet ;-), but at a certain price point this might even happen.

    1. Thank you so much Paul for your continued dedication to letting us benefit from your vast years of experience while not being “Self PS Advertising”. This is a resource that simply does not exist elsewhere! I own quite a few PS products and am looking forward to the reintroduction of the transport in the future. I keep coming back because of the “Audiophile Customer Interaction” you and PS provide. Great Job!

  3. I think there are 2 or more roads here.

    One being absorbing audiophile wisdom as a consumer then applying what you may have learned, along with your personal tastes to what you hear in order to make selections best for you and only you.

    As designers or engineers, pushing the boundaries of technology and circuit designs based on both older wisdom and forward thinking.

    Then there is the whole recording process and the medium it is mastered for. I’m very ignorant on that process and what is fully entailed there. However that is where the whole reproduction chain starts.

    So being open to new ideas, formats and novel equipment design is a good idea. In the end it’s all about what pleases any individual in the environment they listen in.

    1. The recording process is most crucial concerning capturing a maximum of details and overall sound quality. However the following mixing and mastering process – performed following the individual preferences of the sound engineer involved – requires a minimum standardization of the reproduction chain to be installed at home in order to come close to the sound quality intended by the sound engineer. It seems most illogical that a highend stereo setup at home should create a better sound quality than mixed in the studio build to specific room acoustic standards! The funny thing is that most discussions and design efforts do not focus these basic aspects.

    2. Very wise posts imo Mike and I just can recommend to get a little into the mastering quest…it’s essential. You definitely can’t trust „the mastering engineers“, but you can trust certain mastering engineers and labels. When you found out about that, you don’t have to spend a minute of your life again with bad masterings independent of musical genre and personal taste, there’s enough great quality around. The one or other thread in the forum about mastering might help.

      1. Thank you Jazznut for the kind comments and advice. I am learning (through trial and error) and getting much better at picking labels, and now I’ll pay more attention to the mastering engineer names.

        It’s almost like being being back in school, but a lot more fun…. 🙂

  4. Hello Squirrel,

    I tend to agree with your thoughts above. In the little time I have had to think about it, I have no idea how or if those issues can be solved. I really don’t want to have to design a special room based on a studio’s recommended (or worse yet) dictated room. Nor have to use exactly what equipment and monitors they used to get the exact sound they heard.

    So I guess I just to have faith in the mastering engineers and then find recordings, equipment and a room pleasing to me.

    Old Wisdom?

  5. What I find more troubling is do we need another Beatles “remaster” for the 50th Anniversary? Talk about opinions and what makes one recording better than any other. This borders on insane to me. To me this is more about engineers making a buck than the music really matters and this new version tops all others. Maybe, and maybe not.

    To me I would be saving my money and buy better speakers and hear all of the music you own in a better, more revealing way. A new amp may make all of the music you own sound even better as well. Power conditioning may even be the next big thing you need to do.

    There just never seems to be an end to this reissue game and I will not be trapped in it.

    1. I also doubt that there is a need for a remaster of the mono tracks always favored by the Fab Four (it would be interesting to get to known which studio monitor was used). However the stereo mixes certainly need a remastering due to the poorer knowledge about stereo specific aspects and less sophisticated mixing tools in the early days of stereo.

  6. I am a pragmatic person, or at least try to be, not the least in audio matters.
    We may or may not like the individual preferences of the sound engineer, but we have no influence over it.
    In a perfect world all sound engineers use the same recording and mastering equipment and have exactly the same taste/preferences.
    But that’s Utopia.
    So enjoy the “sound” of the cd/lp (and of course the music…). Don’t worry about things you cannot change.
    Hey, discovery of the day for me: we have more time to edit our text. Good news for someone like me who has never learned to type.

  7. Careful for common wisdom. It’s usually wrong. It also doesn’t like being challenged. Its enemy is knowledge born out of discovery. You can be punished badly for disagreeing with it. At one time it was common wisdom that the sun, stars, and planets all revolved around the earth. If you had no way to find out otherwise it certainly would appear that way although had the ancients watched the stars carefully they’d have seen they traced arcs with polaris the pole star at its center. Those who disagreed and were close to the center of power like Galileo were shown the instruments of torture by the Catholic Church. Today that’s not only absurd but the insignificance of the earth in the overall scheme of things is less important than a single grain of sand compared to all of the sand on all of the beaches and deserts in the world. It was once common wisdom that tomatoes were poisonous to humans. I imagine the first guy who dared to try it anyway and didn’t get sick or die. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have pizza except on the west coast where almost anything on a crusted bread is referred to as pizza.

    Where does common wisdom come from? It comes from the experience and conclusion of others who came before and right or wrong it becomes embedded in our culture as an unshakable truth. Audiophiles get it from magazines, advertising literature, sales reps, and now on line at places like this one. I’ve pointed out many aspects of common wisdom about sound, hearing recordings, audio playback equipment that were wrong I won’t repeat here. Challenging errors in this area is for me like squirrel hunting. Challenging physicists in their strongest field of knowledge is elephant hunting. And it takes a mental elephant gun to do it. I’ve had much more satisfaction hunting elephants than squirrels. But now I can sit back and watch them do it to each other. The more they learn, the less they know. Everything they thought they knew is turning out to be wrong. By their own logic not only are there obvious inconsistencies and self contradictions but the more they learn, the more they admit to each other they don’t understand what they see. They can’t account for 95% of all of the mass in the universe. They’ve hypothesized dark matter, dark energy. They see objects at extreme distances that by their method of measurement is moving away from us faster than the speed of light, something thought impossible not so long ago. How do they explain it? Their best explanation is that dark energy is causing space itself to expand. What does that mean? And locally it is expanding faster than it is at great distances. BTW, putting a name on something you don’t understand doesn’t explain it. Physicists do that a lot and are often very glib about it. Lately I’ve been having fun with analyzing the FIU bridge collapse that happened in March 2018. The structural engineer whose site I engage with has come up with an entirely new theory that is as plausible as the one that evolved that became common wisdom on that site which I participated in developing and subscribed to. Which is right? both can’t be. There may be no way to find out since the evidence at the scene of the crime was destroyed before it could be forensically analyzed by scientists. Maybe that was deliberate. It killed 6 people and badly injured 20 more. Someone really screwed up. It appears to be negligent homicide but by whom? IMO everyone involved. The operative phrase in the law is knew or should have known.

  8. It is common wisdom that music still exists. However, I say Don McLean was right when he talked about the day the music died. I may be in a small minority but I’m not alone.
    This is where the notion of the four elements of music came from being melody, harmony, tonality, and rhythm. Aaron Copland who IMO was America’s greatest composer of music said it. This was the problem I had with someone who taught about music at a college. There is a piece that was written by a man named John Cage who managed to write something (or nothing depending on how you look at it) that managed to clearly evade all four of them completely. It’s common wisdom among so called experts that 4′-33″ which is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence is music. Musicians are paid union wages to “perform it.” It’s the easiest money they could possibly make. Of course you don’t need expensive audio equipment to not hear it. In fact you don’t need any equipment at all. But do you really need expensive equipment to listen to what today passes for music? Aren’t MP3 players and ear buds sufficient for it? If not, then why not?

    1. “But do you really need expensive equipment to listen to what today passes for music? Aren’t MP3 players and ear buds sufficient for it? If not, then why not?”

      I couldn’t disagree more. You are assuming that because you find such music to be of very poor artistic value, that is a fact.
      I, like you I think, have been trained in Melody, Harmony, Counterpoint, and Rhythm, and I find all of those in new and fascinating combinations in modern music.
      There is of course much of what I call “nursery rhyme” music, and many do not move any further than childhood nursery rhymes, and then adult nursery rhymes such as can be heard often in the “charts” etc.
      I am sure there were many many “nursery rhyme” pieces of music over the last x thousand years too, but they haven’t been remembered for the most part, as it shall be in the future for much of the musical output available today.
      Nevertheless there are many pieces of modern music (that you seem to be claiming is basically not worthy of serious attention) that will be remembered in the future also, being added to the “classics” of yesteryear.

      I could have just said “don’t be a musical snob”, but I felt you deserved a rather better explanation 🙂

      As for the that silent piece – brilliant piece of marketing, still gets talked about, and maybe then leads folks to listen to some of his other pieces. It certainly poses that old question “what is art (and what isn’t)” in an interesting way 🙂

      I wouldn’t buy a recording of it though 😉

  9. The only caution about “conventional wisdom” I have discovered in audio comes from the realization that just because a group of people shares a belief, it doesn’t make that belief accurate. Tribalism within the Audio Forum world is as evident as tribal rivalry in Humankind.

    I caution accepting generalizations, which pass as Wisdom.

    My empirical tools for Audio remain my ears, not my eyes. Reading 100 posts saying one thing means nothing if I cannot confirm the observation on my system with my ears.

    Had I wanted a continuing dialog of nonsense, I would have forgone Audiophilia and debated the Flat Earth folks.

  10. Far more interesting are people who show that what we (the collective societal “we”) believe in or consider of value is completely worthless. We just went to see an exhibition of the American photographer Cindy Sherman; now there’s someone who knows how to make a point.

  11. How very true. Excellent advice. Nothing like opinion based on personal experience not one but repetitive to the point where one makes a final decision one way or the other and stays with it comfortably till such time that something comes along to change things. This way one stays with one’s preference and still has an open mind. For example I began with tubes for some years. Switched to solid state exclusively having fallen for the vanishing distortion therefore better sound salesmanship but always looking for something that was missing and than listened to a tubed system and realized what I was missing and went back to tubes for good. I must point out that I spent almost equal time with both,tubes and solid state + digital, before settling for tubes. I respond to your posts often and everything I say is based on personal experience even when I first hear about something from someone else. I have to experience it myself. Your obedient pupil it seems. Regards.

  12. Paul. I have learned through the years that many times conventional wisdom is not wise but just conventional. Keep on challenging the status quo!!!. I often wonder what is the equivelant of barbers providing bloddletting services in todays society. I think 20 to 30 years from now we will find that many of the drugs we are consuming are not all that helpful, and are probably more harmful than realized. Some interesting reads on how wrong conventional wisdom has been in the past are, “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World” and “The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis”.

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