Keeping it personal

March 14, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

Emotions, as well as passions, run deep in high-end audio and that’s one of the reasons I am personally invested in it.

In our discussions on preferences for the various camps of reproduction—like vinyl vs. digital—emotions sometimes run as deep as political differences between Democrats and Republicans. I’ve seen near fist fights erupt at audio shows.

When both our emotions and pocketbooks are heavily invested it’s pretty natural to want to defend our decisions.

What’s perhaps good to remember is not our differences but our sameness. Just like our political divides, I believe we are all after the same things. We just differ in our opinions on how to get there.

I don’t always agree with those calling for the discussions to get less heated—not if the lowering of temperature means a lessening of passion. It’s passion that I love and want to continue.

What would happen if we kept in mind what we have in common? That we share a mutual goal of quality reproduction of music.

Would it be possible to remain as passionate about our differences without thinking less of those that disagree?

We are all interested in the same things.

I hope we never agree on how best to get there.

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19 comments on “Keeping it personal”

  1. I also agree that emotional argumenting can be fun, interesting and helpful and shouldn’t generally be avoided.

    I think we all know that there are individuals one would never get into a displeasing argumentation with, even when having very different opinions, while with others it quickly get’s displeasing or hitting an end point.


    My guess is, that as long as discussion and argumentation is on an equal level of opinions, explanations and preferences, everything works fine. As soon as one (or both) picks out single aspects to conclude a general “objective” superiority or correctness of one agains the other topic of discussion (while none of them can in fact stress that claim due to their individual weaknesses), discussions get difficult for both parties.

    Just simple rules of communication. Insisting to be right did never help a discussion, but strong individual opinions make the discussion interesting imo as long as they don’t get into that direction.

  2. I’ve just spent 10 days in country where everyone believes in the same religion, virtually everybody is happy with their lot, they all love their country, each other, their monarchy and government and they optimise happiness over wealth. They strictly limit the number of foreigners and you cannot get a visa to enter without a prearranged local guide and pre-paid accommodation. It is almost impossible to disagree with anyone about anything and it was absolutely wonderful. It’s a lot more fun than wanting more all the time.

    1. The trick with uniformity is that it’s wonderful… if the enforced uniformity is something you agree with. The type of environment you describe can be found on most college campuses today, as long as you are a progressive. If you’re a conservative, not so much.

      I suspect there are any number of things I would disagree with in the country you visited, likely because an emphasis on “happiness” is too often accompanied by confiscatory levels of taxation.

      What if “happiness” to you is keeping more of the money you earn? Suddenly YOUR “happiness” is discounted.

      1. It depends if you can only view the world in monetary terms, the accumulation thereof and the endless desire for more.
        One of the tenets of the religion (Buddhism) is to be happy with what one has. The Constitution defines the objective to maximise GNH (Gross National Happiness) over economic measures (such as GDP). It works brilliantly and is about as far away from what I assume a US college campus is like as is humanly possible. For what it’s worth, the maximum tax rate is 25%, most people pay no direct tax.

        I tend to see high end audio as just a reflection of capitalism often without any benefit. I read an excellent article about how apple maximise expenditure, here:
        It could just as well be about high end audio.

  3. Why would you want people to agree on how to get there, Paul? What if everyone agreed some old Sony cd player was the best sounding CD player? How would you sell your $6000 20lb CD players?

    With no true standard for how to achieve the [perfect lifelike musical sound reproduction] you say we are all in search of, I say, be a part of the solution and quit perpetuating the problem. There is no doubt analog sourced recordings sound more lifelike and musical than a digitally sourced recording. I say pursue why this is happening. I’m not the only person saying this. You constantly talk about it but it’s easy to see you would rather keep us all in the dark. Then we buy out of pure curiosity and you make money.

    A digital recording format and playback standard that guarantees the fidelity of an analog recording would help the entire music industry.

  4. I am too old to care about it all. But perhaps Paul should be aware of TAS Editor-in-chief Robert Hartley’s editorial in their April 2019 issue entitled ‘The Macro and the Micro’ which puts forward his personal observation that MICRO like ‘the finest low-level of timbre, tone color, dynamic shadings, and spatial cues.’, which I think vinyl arguably is better at, in giving a better illusion of the real thing than the MACRO like ‘That must play really loud.’ or ‘I bet you can blast out your neighbors.’ which Paul considers CD is best at with its wider dynamic range. However, I think it all depends on how good the audiophile’s hearing ability is in order to discern the subtle differences to end up in preferring which systems.

  5. From today’s post:

    “When both our emotions and pocketbooks are heavily invested it’s pretty natural to want to defend our decisions.”

    What is indicated here is an X-ray of the high-end audio industry. It is an imperative for many manufacturers to sell the idea that the more expensive a sound system is, the closer it is to the “real thing” this assertion is not new, since it has been the basis for that industry has achieved economic success that has surpassed technological achievements in the right direction.

    It would be commendable ethical integrity, that the big industry, advocated the concept that achieving the reproduction of a live event not amplified in the home, is a complete utopia, and not basing its propaganda on subliminal and other messages, that yes it is possible to achieve in the home, the real event.

    The more lustful the systems they sell, the greater the insistence that the potential customer can have in their home live reproduction, as long as they buy their products.

    Very few manufacturers of ultra expensive equipment are aware of the limitations of the medium, and rather what they suggest is that what they are selling is an illusion, in such a way that the customer is aware that he will have to spend huge sums of money to own at home, that illusion.

    Unfortunately this is a minority, because most offer something that the present technology is not possible to offer.

    It imposes a more widespread ethical conduct among manufacturers and dealers of sound systems of prices that go as far as obscenity, by which they warn the customer that what they are buying, is only an extremely expensive illusion, and nothing more.

  6. Call me Mr. Spock. My interest in life is to discover how the universe works and how to manipulate things to get them to do what I want them to and not do things I don’t want them to. The pursuit of knowledge is as close as I can get to a passion. Being judgmental about it is not rational. “IS means IS.” It is neither good nor bad. If you don’t like the universe’s rules, find another universe you like better.

    Focusing on ideas, discovering their possibilities, their limitations leaves room for debate, but not for a fight, not for emotion. How does sound work? How do acoustics work? How does hearing work? How can I understand it? What can I do to make sound produced one way at one place appear to be the same producing it another way in another place? Being dishonest with yourself serves no useful purpose. If you think you’ve achieved it, why are you still trying? If that isn’t your goal, what is? Do you even have a goal.

    Why is the effort worth it? For me it’s because when some music rises to a fine art I enjoy it. I like the sound. I don’t get emotionally worked up over it though. It’s not going to persuade me to believe in god or go off to war to get myself killed. I enjoy some of it, a lot of it bores, me, and most of it I try to avoid I dislike it so much. It appears many if not all sentient beings can enjoy some music.

    These elephants have good taste. Beethoven is my favorite composer too.

    Some people will go to the ends of the earth to draw an audience. I’ll bet if he played what most of you guys listen to they’d smash his piano. Everyone’s a critic.

  7. “I don’t always agree with those calling for the discussions to get less heated—not if the lowering of temperature means a lessening of passion. It’s passion that I love and want to continue.“

    Thank you Paul for the point of view. Over the years I learned that it is better to shut up, don’t argue, let people be happy…

    but you don’t learn anything new without conflict

    You don’t enrich and/or change your point of view if you only talk with people who think exactly the same way and stop arguing at the first glance of difference.

    The problem is that us, humans, as a race, we are not logical, we are mainly emotional. Therefore, in most of arguments we are expressing choices already made, not trying to learn something new…

    So? We should keep arguing in order to know other points of views and keep with a personal growth?

    Or since most of arguments are biased by our emotional nature, should we stop arguing all together? I don’t think so, but experience has taught me that that leads to a simpler life…

  8. Remembering our sameness and common achievable goals for “music reproduction” is good, Paul. However, at the end of the listening event, the illusion and it’s memorable enjoyment was just that…an illusion!

    It all is very personal and for me, extremely interesting and educational -hearing- the diverse ideas and highways that others follow to achieve their audio goals. No matter If you’ve invested $1K, $5K or $50K+, we all share passion for “our illusion” and our understanding of what Real Live music is! I first heard and understood that reproduced illusion back in 76′. I’ve somewhat achieved it in many forms since, but feel my iteration today has finally arrived!

  9. “Emotions, as well as passions, run deep in high-end audio and that’s one of the reasons I am personally invested in it.”

    I fully respect Paul’s opinion, but I couldn’t disagree more. It is good that people are passionate about their work or personal interests, but passion is a heightened emotional state, the opposite of which may be indifference. High end audio may be excused by passion or emotion as it could easily be argued as having no rationality other than to part people from their money (=capitalism). I would limit passion to the choice between a silver or black case, and I am indifferent on that as well.
    My other engagement is with Harbeth and Alan Shaw. He never expresses any emotion or passion about audio, but arguably makes the most accurate and value for money speakers on the planet.
    When it comes to mixing passion and emotion with a consumer decision, that should be limited to going clothes shopping with the wife, which I studiously avoid.

  10. If we can’t agree how to get there then there is a little value from a heated-emotional discussion. An alcoholic must first agree that they have a problem before a resolution path can be established. Unfortunately, the world is facing huge environmental issues because it is too easy to appeal to emotion rather than reasoning. People in flood zones will rebuild because of emotion rather than reasoning. Various studies have concluded that 90% of decisions are based upon emotions rather than reasoning. When we are based in emotions rather than having an open-mind…change is not possible.

    In the audio world, I have evolved from using both a solid-state preamp/amplifier to tube preamp/amplifier combination. My change was generated because it took me a while to understand what requirements were most important to my decision-making and not let emotions rule my decisions. As well, the audio manufacturers influenced my audio decision-making based upon technological improvements.

    In short most humans are more dependent upon emotions rather than reasoning.. Thus, the fascination of emotional-based arguments vs problem-solving will continue to plague our decision-making.

    1. “If we can’t agree how to get there then there is a little value from a heated-emotional discussion.”

      A heated discussion is either a sign that people have something they believe and care about it, or that one or both parties’ heat is personality driven, i.e., not healthy. What’s the point of a heated discussion if we agree. Most discussions about audio, however, seem not worth the heat, just incisive thought – and some feeling. Many differences are a matter of individual preferences, maybe even individual abilities, not really conceptual in the immediate sense.

  11. “When both our emotions and pocketbooks are heavily invested it’s pretty natural to want to defend our decisions.”

    For me, it became simple. I took the pocketbook out of the equation. When I started “Affordable Audiophile” our sole mission was building stereo systems which would rival the sound quality of an expensive collection, at reasonable prices. The Audio industry has begun to realize that the majority of music is not listened to on top-of-the-line gear–in fact, the vast majority is heard through earbuds from a hand-held device. So Home stereo needed to recognize this and Bluetooth became the nexus. Huge Estate houses have given way to modest floor-plans of Urban living, so floor-standing behemoth speakers gave way to ELAC-like high-quality Bookshelf speakers, and Headphones have exploded. People used to earbud quality, find that listening at home with good headphones, and a dedicated headphone amplifier both satisfies their need for quality and keep the neighbors at bay.

    Yes, the passion is still there, at a reasonable cost. Where automobile prices continue to soar, the cost of quality Musical reproduction continues to become more reasonable. There is no need for fisticuffs when a double headphone jack will allow both warring parties to enjoy some Music.

  12. What this industry and its market lacks in scientific knowledge it more than makes up for in irrational passion. It’s a good thing people can duke it out with words and not in direct confrontation. In this corner we have the champion of electrostats, Killer Voltage whose reticent fighting style relies on the precision of his blows to his opponent’s vital spots packing a punch of 80,000 deadly volts. And in this corner we have the champion of the horns, Blaring Benny who may not have the same precision but when he hits, he packs an enormous wallop. Some say he killed a man with just one blow of over 150 db, the limit of our measuring equipment. And may the better fighter win. This will be a titanic battle for the millennium folks. It should be a thrill a minute. Don’t take your eyes off the fight for one second. The prize is a contract to supply equipment to an anonymous billionaire, one of the few people in the world who can afford either of them.

  13. Fifty years from now….

    There will be a documentary made. One of reenactment battles.

    The blue uniforms will be analog. The gray will be digital.

    But, this time, the war never ended.

  14. When asked what political party I belong to, I tell people I am a registered Anarchist. If someone I meet passionately takes a position on any topic, and I will take with equal passion the opposite point of view. This behavior extends to all debates on all ranges of topics from the electoral college system to digital versus analog audio recordings.

    I love to learn new things on all ranges of life experiences. Taking an opposing position facilitates dissemination of knowledge. Additionally I am willing to change my beliefs and opinions when presented with well supported information. I feel sad for individuals who only feel comfortable in environments that reinforce their existing beliefs. No one who watches their news on only NPR or Fox can comprehend the state of our society.

    The key to having any passionate debate is the understanding that life long friends can still have widely opposite points of view on a wide range of topics.

    Finally, the best people to engage in passionate dialogue with are those that fully understand that their expression of opinions should only enhance and never detract from the sharing of a good meal.

    1. > When asked what political party I belong to, I tell people I am a registered Anarchist.

      I need to borrow that one! I don’t (and can’t) identify with the “two majors” at this point in my life.

      > No one who watches their news on only NPR or Fox can comprehend the state of our society.

      Precisely! Same with the followers of Washington Post, CNN, etc. Quite frankly, I prefer reading US news from non-US sources—they usually report the news without the political posturing and editorializing (masquerading as reporting or “fact checking”) that native news sources offer us. And I truly feel sorry for anyone who takes anything they see on social media (especially Twitter and fb) seriously. I feel it’s the sole reason our political situation has degraded to what it is today. People are too lazy to research candidates; they only follow the latest hashtags.

      > Additionally I am willing to change my beliefs and opinions when presented with well supported information.

      I felt that way about the whole cannabis issue. I still can’t say I’m 100% for recreational just yet (our legal system still has not adapted to enforcing its use, to maintain the safety of citizens), but I’m not against it. I watched my mother suffer from cancer three times within five years. If an edible or something else would have eased her suffering, I’m betting even she would have looked into using it. Not only that, Native Americans have used it here for centuries for healing. And for the recreational nay-sayers, I will say that in my many visits to Colorado in recent years, this was not a state of stoned red-eyed zombies stumbling in and out doorways.

      > Finally, the best people to engage in passionate dialogue with are those that fully understand that their expression of opinions should only enhance and never detract from the sharing of a good meal.

      I found that was only true after the divorce… ;o)

  15. I have great passion for music, and for the equipment that gets me closer to that music.
    To me going to concerts, shows, or when I was younger clubs that featured local bands is about the total experience. I don’t like crowds, but always felt comfortable at Dead shows. The last time the Dead played Alpine Valley, I think the count was 38,000 people. While the concert itself was the reason to be there, the community in the parking lot was always fun. One year the summer tour started in Minneapolis, just one show, then the caravan headed to Alpine. Dylan did a show on Saturday, followed by the Dead on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I may be off a day, it was a long time ago. Basically a week with like-minded people. On Sunday we were back to Alpine to see Jimmy Buffett. I remember the show being good, but the “Parrot Heads”, unlike Deadheads who are still Deadheads wherever, or whatever we were doing, were plastic people, wearing a costume that went back in the closet after the show. If I hadn’t just spent a week with like-minded people, I may not have found the Parrot Heads so plastic. I have to believe that down in Florida there are full time Parrot Heads, but not in Wisconsin.
    A live show whoever I saw was about the whole experience. When I turned 18, in Wisconsin the legal drinking age was 18. There was a small place called the “Cleff Club”, that had a house band that played Country Western music. In the early ’80s we had the “Starship”, a full time punk club, both local and touring bands. The Electric Ballroom became the Palms and brought in acts like “Joan Jett”, the “Psychedelic Furs”, and the “Plasmatics”. I saw the “Plasmatics” three times. The Palms where Wendy was arrested and beat up by the cops, Madison, and Chicago. Possibly the only band I ever went for the stage show. The point is that live music is one experience, and listening to recordings, even of live shows is a different experience. I think the closest you can get to a live show is a concert video, where you are seeing the band playing. The video distracts from the audio. Depending on the band, while different, the sound can be better. I saw Jeff Beck not long after buying the Blu-ray of his Ronnie Scott show. I prefer the sound of the video, whoever was running the soundboard, it was too loud for the venue. It didn’t help that instead of Joss Stone and Imogen Heep, he had the vocalist from Wet Willie who mentioned to pack in every cliche of a rock vocalist. The foot up on the monitor, and the constant roaming around the stage.
    We have discussed it now many times, a recording is not going to sound the same as a live performance. The closest you get is a recording like Neil Young “Live at Massey Hall 1971” . One person, singing and playing one instrument.
    I accept that it is two different experiences. One I have some control over, at home I can choose components that give me a sound that I enjoy.
    I see little benefit in debating any of the audiophile preferences. Now explaining to a newcomer the known differences can be helpful to them. Sharing knowledge that many of us learned from close to 50 years of experience. And that experience was driven by a passion for music. Seeking a way to get closer to that recording, a desire to hear everything that is on that piece of media. I appreciate both vinyl and digital. I play more digital because I like to program an afternoon of music. But I find anytime I put a single record on, I end up playing more, as there is still something special about vinyl. I will never buy a tube power amp, even if I become a millionaire, but at the same time, I very much doubt I will ever buy a preamp that doesn’t use tubes. I don’t have a need to debate those choices, my system was chosen to please me, and your system to please you. Please use what makes you happy, I doubt I will be visiting anytime soon.

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