Outward appearances

April 3, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Like it or not we place a lot of importance on outward appearances. Take rats for example. Most of us are repelled by the sight of these rodents, but dress them up with a bundle of soft fur and a bushy tail and now they’re adorable enough to name them differently. A squirrel.

My first circuit was a phono stage that I placed in a Roi Tan cigar box and powered it with a couple of 9v batteries. Ugly and crude do not adequately describe its appearance and most of my audiophile friends wouldn’t let it near their system. Take that same circuit and battery pack, put it into a nice metal box and suddenly it’s a welcome guest.

We are very comfortable with the idea that a component’s outward appearance speaks to what’s on the inside. D’Agastino’s beautifully crafted outer chassis reminds us of a Swiss watch. It wouldn’t be wrong to imagine that same level of care went into its inner workings.

While the old chestnuts reminding us not to judge books by their covers or beauty by the depth of skin, I think it’s good to remind ourselves we’re forever tied to equate inner workings with outer appearances.

It’s not a bad thing to love the way your HiFi kit looks.

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27 comments on “Outward appearances”

  1. The old form and function thing, which is as old as civilisation itself, which I’ve given more thought recently given I have a son who is a product designer. Form is essential even for the most basic products. The genius is being able to make form functional, otherwise it just becomes bling.

    I find most audio equipment irredeemably ugly, including PS Audio, but then I’m not an engineer who can get excited by a rectangular box because of what it might contain. So I hide it all away in a bespoke solid cabinet. So to me the looks are irrelevant, none of my components match, I’m much more concerned about space efficiency and small components. The whole thing boils down to branding and how much a manufacturer thinks their customers will pay for non-functional design. On the other hand, you can’t hide speakers and they have to look good.

    1. Steven,
      Why are ‘bespoke solid cabinets’ so damn ugly?
      The whole thing boils down to how great it sounds; after all, that is it’s primary function.

      Are all the windows in & home life back to normal yet?

      1. Hi FR, nice of you to ask. The bespoke cabinet is about to become a full-time, as opposed to a part-time, drinks cabinet and storage for magazines etc. I’d rather sell it. My builders are late as they’ve been doing a house round the corner and the work has extended 3 months. There is a bit of a labour shortage and even materials are sometimes hard to come by. It’s a Covid and Brexit double whammy, lots of people report the same with audio manufacturers having difficulty with getting parts.
        I live in a suburban street and am pleased with the -40dB glass we put in in February. It’s damned heavy. You can get -60dB, but it’s speciality stuff and costs 3 times as much, not least because you need very strong steel or solid hardwood frames because of the weight. You can faintly hear the odd car rumble past, but with double layer blinds of curtains, plus late night listening. If you need -60dB glass, you will probably be equally disturbed by the shaking as the lorries rumble past.
        Good SA v Pak game yesterday, as Rameez said on the commentary, everyone likes Pakistan as when they have the game won they find a way to try and lose it. A last ball thriller. I hope Imran and Sachin are OK.

        1. Steven,
          I’m hoping that the snow is more or less over for you now & that it is warming up (English warming up) for the duration.
          My desire to play Rock ‘n Roll at around 100dB negates the need for me to install -40dB glass; although, if enough of my neighbours band together & chip-in…
          Hopefully India & Pakistan will eventually have their very own ‘Ashes’ series.
          The prize; a tiny little urn filled with yellowcake powder.

        2. When we moved into our current house it had double glazed windows. Soon afterwards we discovered a serious structural fault and English Heritage, as it was then called, had to be called in to approve the work. They refused to give permission for anything until we had changed all the windows for single glazed ones. Double glazing is not allowed in old houses, and a previous owner must have been a very naughty person. To our surprise the new windows, despite the thinner glass, let in far less street noise. One of our sons, an automotive engineer for Ford, explained it. Apparently even the tiniest gap or crack in a structure lets through a surprising amount of noise and our villainously expensive bespoke window frames were a better fit than the old ones. This effect far outweighed the change to single glazing.

    2. You got it backwards. Since in audio geometry is always an issue (even in amplifier circuits), optimizing the function should produce an aesthetic form. Nature’s works are both more functional and more beautiful than man’s, because true following of function appeals to both our innate aesthetics and sophisticated knowledge of function.

      Where this breaks down is our innate cognitive bias towards simplification and compartmentalization. Simplified structures, i.e. rectangular, flat, bare walls, are really ugly and bad for acoustics – but they have become a cultural ideal. Nature works on un-imaginable complexity, but hides it by making it microscopic and/or macroscopic, and wrapping it in outer barriers of skin, fur, feathers, bark, etc.

      It sounds like you are not enamored of basic rectangular shapes. Rectangles are good for making stackable items, but AFAIK there are no rectangular life forms for a variety of functional reasons. Perhaps we need more organic forms, certainly more organic shaped speakers work better than rectangular boxes.

  2. “those rodents”…indeed sir!
    Domestic rats are cute & lovely; clean & fluffy & pretty much behave themselves
    far better than a lot of teenage humans.
    There is no need to ‘squirrelize’ them (apologies to ‘paulsquirrel’)

    I’ve never cared about looks in Hi-Fi…I mean it’s usually just a series of black,
    white, silver (champagne gold) or woodgrain boxes.
    If there is enough synergy within the audio system to please the equipment
    owner’s tympanic membranes then who gives a rat’s arse what it looks like?
    I have 4 black boxes in front of me, they neither look good nor bad…they just ‘are’.
    If you want something sexy to look at go buy yourself a big-ass 100” UHD 8K CTV
    & drool over that…or a Picasso 😉

    1. Yes, they just ‘are’. I think we just get used to things being there (at least most men seem to – our best ‘others’ less so with hi fi). It’s always personal taste. e.g. I myself have no time for TVs, big ass or small ass. I think they’re all useless and butt-ugly things blackening up all lounge rooms and many bedrooms – I call them ‘the-sucking-black-holes-of-death’, but that’s just me, not a video/TV kinda guy.
      Dan’s monos certainly are a marvel of crafted/wonder design and construction and I do appreciate that perspective but even if I had the $$ I wouldn’t want a pair in any size listening space because they’re just over the top to me.
      And to end, Paul’s statement of us being, “forever tied to equate inner workings with outer appearances”, is something I’m always reminding nearest and dearest as bits of me fall off. My inners are gold baby.

      1. “I may be vile & pernicious but you can’t look away.
        I make you think I’m delicious with the stuff that I say.
        I’m the best you can get,
        Have you guessed me yet?
        I’m the slime oozin’ out of your TV set.” – F. Zappa.

        I agree with you about Dan’s monos; I’m listening, not looking…
        but they are beautiful to look at…& I’m still listening 😉

        Most humans start off unattractive on the inside whilst outwardly attractive…
        usually this is reversed after 60 years or so.

  3. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a piece of gear to look good, sleek, and sexy. It seems “audiophiles” I’ve known or articles I have read say looks don’t matter just to show how much of a “true” audiophile they are just for the sound. If I pay a large amount of money for a piece of gear, you better believe I want it to look good and sound good. Nothing against PS Audio, but you could take some pointers from D’Agastino and others on presentation. Bring back VU meters!

  4. With all these rats and squirrels today we have a veritable menagerie, much like audiophiles and their systems.
    Yesterday, as part of ‘Rituals’ we had ‘scratch arse’. Today we have the Spanish version, Picasso.

    Moving off topic for me yesterday was ‘Yes’ day. I listened to all four tracks of ‘Tales’ a good 80 minutes worth, followed later in the day by whole of the Rhino remastered and expanded edition of ‘Close to the Edge’. It was the first time I’d heard these on my current system and I heard things I’d not heard before and also heard it ‘differently’. Altogether a surprisingly enjoyable session which I will have to repeat soon. This led me to do a bit of internet research into which were considered to be the best version of these recordings but, as is so often the case with audio related matters, there was no consensus.

  5. Stating the obvious…most important “part” of an audio device is the soundquality.
    I think we can all agree on that.
    Having said that, looks are not totally unimportant to me.
    There are so many audio manufacturers making excellent products, so why not pick devices of one of those brands that ALSO look good.
    For me a lot of brands are visually attractive. In this regard SntbcwS and I couldn’t be further apart.
    I like the outer appearance of PS Audio devices. Only…please stop with those big screens.
    A small screen to show the volume (as you did with the pre amp and discontinued DSJ) is much better (I think…). ONE of the reasons I sold my PWD and bought the DSJ.
    I don’t like “Dan”. Waaaaaay to much bling…that copper… butt ugly.
    And then those meters on McIntosh. Again, butt ugly AND, more important, completely useless.
    But having said that….not liking the exterior wouldn’t keep me from buying a “Dan” or “Mac” if I would try (before buy) one of these amps at home and it turned out they sound excellent in my setup.
    To wrap it up : soundquality 95%, exterior 5%.

  6. Personally, when it comes to the visual appearance of most audio equipment, just keep it clean, simple, have quality workmanship, and honest materials. I don’t need a gold plated billet machined faceplate with an LED light show.

    What causes me the most confusion regarding audio equipment aesthetics, is many audiophiles that expound their preference for simple clean boxes for their electronics seem to own bling encrusted turntables.

    Perhaps the turntable has become the male audiophiles only avenue to flash his colorful plumage;-)

  7. Well In my case.,65 years ago it was amateur radio… no pun. I just love those pretty boxes with all the knobs and meters. And. is anything prettier than a glowing vacuum tube? Just like the days before TV when our dramas came over the evening radio in the dark with more glowing tubes. The Stereo is in the living room for all to enjoy.

  8. It was interesting to think about why I perceive design differently when seeing a single component vs. a stack of gear of the same design.

    Not only PSA design for me looses charm and gets boring or looking cheap when seen in a multi component setup of the same design, even more sophisticated design more or less does so.

    I came to the conclusion that for me not more than two components of the same design still look good and interesting. More of the same must be of a rather individual, less plain design to still attract in larger batches of components.

    Just an observation of my own perception. I finally like to have as little as possible components visible. Then many designs look good, also in a combination of various brands.

  9. For me the “ritual” with playing vinyl (which for me is partly enjoyed but less “ritual” and more necessary evil and reduced to a minimum), is, just like when making a good espresso with a manual machine, connected with being able to enjoy the associated sound quality.

  10. Given that many of the squirrel populations in the US, particularly in towns and cities are derived from introduced animals and are very destructive to fruit and nut trees, power lines, bird feeders and more—I prefer the local name, Tree Rat, to describe them. Some peoples music is another persons noise.

  11. A squirrel bit the tip of my thumb off when I was 6 years old. I have no love for squirrels. I care even less for obnoxiously styled audio gear. With rare exceptions, components are built to a price. I’ld rather pay for the insides than the exterior. I don’t mind having components visible on shelving and easily accessible. Audio cabinetry tends to be too low and too ugly to bother with. Speakers are a different story.

  12. Krell, Infinity, D’Agastino designs have a defined some can say a timeless look with power LEDs, VU meters, rubber bands within front grills, and now new tie downs over PC boards. If these new tie downs hold PC better in place and remove stress from holes for mounting posts is interesting. Also., the use of copper or venturi tubes when the heat engineer decides he / she can diverge from using standard heat sinks. Yes, I myself do like the VU meters on Class’e amps and other amps. I somehow think they are more of a benefit to tell the user something. Just maybe enough functionality on the audio item versus moving all controls to remotes. I myself would also like a small PS Audio regenerator for preamps, CD/SACDs, etc., low power consumers. And maybe plus AMP stellar/BHK designs from PS Audio that would offer external meters.

  13. All this talk about looks / aesthetics. Yet a few days or so ago most everyone was talking about sitting in the dark and listening. My mono blocks sit behind the speakers which easily hide them. The DAC’s screen is always off except for short access times. The 42in screen I use for a monitor on the computer is always off. Only the glow of an iPad. The point being in a darkened room looks aren’t as important. I do appreciate the glow of the preamp tubes when it’s in the system, I like the looks of VU meters and the like. But don’t pick gear based on looks.

  14. I’ll confess, that when it came to buying a cartridge for my Transcriptor Hydraulic Reference / SME3009S2i, appearance was everything, absolutely no way I was going to bung a shapeless block on the end of the arm. Only one cartridge had the style I needed and today it sports an Ortofon 2M Black.
    I now have a similar problem with my new Michell Gyrodec, again bought partly for its looks, I’m sure you can imagine the visual joy, having them both rotating side by side :).

    I used the Alphason HRS100mcs arm off my old Sonata, again partly because of its appearance, a straight arm just does not look right on the Gyro with all its curves. The arm only ever saw about 200 hours use, because the Sonata’s internal PS went to Valhalla, ‘pun intended’, a few months after Alphason folded and nobody wanted to get a hernia repairing it for me. The AT-OC7 cartridge fitted also only had the same hours, and it looks as if it was designed for the Alphason arm.

    Too my dismay, the Gyrodec so fitted cannot compete with my modified Transcriptor. I can only assume the cartridge suspension has hardened in storage, since the Gyro and the Alphason should sound marvellous. Now I have to decide which MC to replace it with to find the missing performance. I confess I am leaning toward an AT-OC9 with the black/gold finish, again, mostly because, well, I enjoy looking at my system as much as I do using it :).

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