Searching for the Sound …

Picture of searching for lost itemIt’s late at night, and a drunk (on a street corner) is apparently looking for something he lost.

A passer by asks what he’s looking for, to which the drunk replies:  “my keys”.

The passer by asks where he last saw them, and the drunk points to a distant spot: “somewhere over there”.

The passer by asks:  “why are you looking over here, then?”

Wait for it …

The drunk replies … “because the light is better over here”.

How often are we looking in the wrong place for a solution?

A few days ago, I proposed a cable auditioning strategy.  I mentioned how we, as audiophiles are left with very few system tuning elements, and so, we turn to cables.

There’s a risk of taking this to an extreme – becoming serial cable swappers as we come to believe (hope) that we can “tune” away serious system flaws with an endless succession of band-aids.

I get the fact that our source of dissatisfaction may lie with a component that can be either expensive (you’ll take a huge loss by selling it), difficult to sell, or both.  Speakers are prime examples of a component that can “own” you, as you run the risk of falling victim to  Stockholm Syndrome

Of course, any component can “own” you, but speakers tend to be where most audiophiles get “stuck” due to the logistics of selling them.

So, the frustrated audiophile searches for alternative solutions:  cables, amplification, power conditioners … everything but the root cause of their problem.  He constructs complex mental models of his system – no thanks to the advice he receives from well-meaning individuals on the internet. 

When  you have a problematic component (that truly doesn’t align with your tastes and expectations), your attempts to correct it can begin to resemble Ptolemy’s model of planetary motion – a complex mathematical “proof” that the Earth is the center of the universe. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Staying with our speaker example, the solution may be a matter of matching amplification to the speaker.  This compatibility matching is true at the other end of the signal chain as well, where matching a cartridge to a tonearm, and a cartridge to your phono stage can yield results.

That annoying treble?  Is it a dome tweeter that’s crossed over too low (a very common design error)?  Find out more about the design of the offending piece if you can.  This might provide you with a clue as to whether your problem is correctable.

Maybe you’ll get lucky, and it really does require only a cable swap.

At a minimum, re-visit your assumptions from time to time.  Do your best to understand the underlying cause within the bounds of your technical understanding, and either make peace with the component or expunge it from your system. 

Having made mistakes in the past, I’m afraid the only other thing I can offer you is the sunk cost fallacy.  Don’t throw good money after bad.  I feel your pain. 

The challenge lies in recognizing when you’ve taken your experiment to its logical conclusion (see above) – when tip over the game board and start over.

Sometimes, the cost of your education includes a hefty tuition fee.  I can’t help you with that, any more than I can advise you about whether to bail out of a marriage.

Finally, be honest with yourself, and what you want out of a hi-fi system (or your marriage). 

In this 2020 COVID-19 reality, I can’t in good conscience tell you to go to concerts (if any even exist), but perhaps, now is the time to take up learning a musical instrument. 

Learning even the rudiments of music can shift your attention (to what really matters, I would contend).  You don’t have to master an instrument for it to change your perspective – a perspective that I would argue will enhance your musical enjoyment. 

How does it get any better than that?

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  • The corollary to this is that if you have already chosen excellent quality cables then the improvements of a superior component will be fully realized when swapped into the system.

  • It’s a chicken or the egg question. I’ve found it easier to identify solidly designed components that can shine through less than stellar cables, than I can identify a good cable. Of course, all components benefit from excellent cables.

    I think it was Ken Stevens (C.A.T.) who proposed a conceptual model of system distortions represented by a target (the sort with concentric rings). The model was abstract and not intended to be a measuring tool but rather a means of qualitatively representing distortions and colorations.

    So (for example) a particular distortion characteristic and amplitude might be represented as a spot that’s 3 rings from the bulls eye and in the 1 o’clock direction.

    The crafty demonstrator might (for example) select a cable to offset this distortion whose sonics would be represented by a spot 3 rings from the bulls eye but 180 degrees opposed (at 7 o’clock).

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