Sound Of/Or Music…

You don’t always get what you want!

By Roy Gregory

For many years now, audiophiles have existed in a state of denial, fully signed up to the dogma that “it’s only the music that matters.” Who are we trying to kid? Just try that proposition on the wife, girlfriend or significant other and it will be met with a response that sits somewhere between the hysterically bemused and the downright cynical. You see – they know. In truth, they always have done. Because, in fact, these days we’re not even kidding each other…

For all the protestations that it really is only about the music, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this isn’t – and never was – the case. You only have to scrape the surface of the many audio forums that litter the internet to see the extent to which equipment characteristics, virtues and choices dominate the discussions, with almost tribal adherents raising the stakes with every post. It may not have been about the bike, but in the audio world it is very definitely about the gear.

In one sense, hi-fi aficionados have always been divided into those who listen to music and those who listen to sound. The utopian ideal suggests that those bent on sonic analysis are labouring in pursuit of the greater good – sacrificing themselves for those who truly appreciate and enjoy the music. In turn that suggests that it’s manufacturers and reviewers in the main, that labour in the artistic and emotional gloom that envelops the sonic coalface, so that their efforts might illuminate and further the pleasure to be had from musical reproduction, creating better equipment, identifying the best pieces and the best systems. However, in reality, that dichotomy has always been false, that dividing line has always been a sliding measure. Even those most committed to the musical goal still pursue it through the sonic assessment and comparison of competing equipment. No matter how much one pursues the musical ideal, you still pay lip service to sonic distinctions.

More importantly, the value judgements that go with that dichotomy are equally false. There has always existed an assumed virtue in, an almost moral superiority to the pursuit of musical performance as opposed to the ‘mucky’ pursuit of sonic performance per se. But that makes no sense. The fact that audio equipment exists to reproduce music in no way undermines an interest in the equipment itself. In this regard, hi-fi is no different to anything else that we surround ourselves with. My bicycles are equipped on a level with those ridden by pro riders. It doesn’t make me ride like a pro. In truth, the bikes I ride are far better than I need – but then need ain’t the governing factor.

Why buy a Porsche when a Toyota Prius is actually a more versatile and efficient mode of transport?

Why own a Rolex when a Swatch is a more accurate timepiece?

Buying a Leica won’t make one whit of difference to you photographic talents?

The point here is that the appreciation of the ‘thing’ – what it is, what it does and the way that it does it, is a pleasure and an end in itself. So let’s be clear – whether you are in audio for the music or the gear (or much more likely, some combination of the two) really makes no difference. Each is an equally valid reason to invest – time and attention, effort and money. What does make a difference is fessing up to the real focus of your interest: Firstly because it will strip away a whole forest of audio fig leaves and clichés: Secondly because it will clarify what you want, why you want it and more importantly, where you will (or more importantly, won’t) find it. Both stand to save you a deal of frustration, whichever side of the divide you stand, both interpersonally and especially when it comes to reviews, reviewers and the various approaches adopted by different publications. To some extent, the distinctions between the musical and the sonic are mirrored by the dichotomy between measured and observational reviewing – the empiricists and the subjectivists.

Hitting the big time…

So, let’s start by getting out the metaphorical pruning shears. Let’s look at just some of the ways in which the need to establish ones ‘musical’ or ‘scientific’ credentials creates unnecessary noise and wastes space and effort.