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What are we hearing?

Here’s the scenario:  you and your audio buddy are at an audio show or a hi-fi shop (the latter growing increasingly rare).

Both of you are musicians and respect each other’s “listening skills” and both of you have radically different tastes in playback equipment.  The first system you listen to (low power triode amplifiers and horns) inspires you while leaving your buddy thoroughly nonplussed.  Another system (let’s say, solid state amplification and box speakers) has the opposite effect on the two of you.

What are we to think of either system?

Are they both flawed?  Is the only “right” system the one which both of you agree on, or is this just another case of chalking it up to taste?  The answer is yes, no, and yes.  Of course both systems are flawed, but there is no “right” system and your buddy’s taste should have only a minor influence (if that) on your decisions.

Lynn Olson explored what we’re hearing and responding to in his classic essay “Illusion Engines”.  He writes:

a hi-fi system is really an Illusion Engine, a type of mechanical contrivance that hypnotizes the audience into thinking musicians are somehow present (or at least nearby). If the contrivance fails in this, it fails utterly, just as a magic trick entertains or it doesn’t.

Of course, this  goes much deeper than can be explored in a single think piece.  At the root of this is our perceptual framework and how we process physical input.  The composer can look at a musical score and “hear” the piece in his head.  Others cannot appreciate any musical reproduction unless it’s through an expensive system – car radios and MP3 need not apply.

Of course, there are physical components to the listening experience (your hearing, neural health, etc.), as well as experiential/learning factors (the composer’s musical training).  It’s a complex web.

One reason I believe that many musicians don’t invest much time, energy or money in their hi-fi systems (apart from poverty, of course) is that they consider hi-fi reproduction to be an utterly futile attempt at re-creating reality.  Of course, they’re correct in that until we develop technology equivalent to Star Trek’s “holodeck”, all attempts at reproduction will fall short.

These individuals are trained in the sound of live music, and when they experience a hi-fi system it is in a literal (as opposed to metaphorical) manner.  They’re hearing the system as it is, as opposed to how it might (or might not) trigger a musical response – is it an effective “Illusion Engine”?

From the designer’s perspective, this is where the perceptual framework model (and Lynn’s essay) comes into play.  What tricks can we as designers pull off in order to approximate the “you are there” (or “they are here”) listening experience, while still being faithful to the original recording (grounding our efforts in sound engineering principles)?

A designer has to accept the fact that errors will creep into any design, as well as realize that in attempting to correct some of them, that the “cure” may be worse than the disease (constant current sources, negative feedback, etc.).  A delicate balance must be maintained, because distortions stack up – much in the way that a chef might make on-the-fly corrections to the sauce he’s preparing, only to realize that he should have wiped the slate clean and started over.  The correction to the correction to the correction can throw the entire meal off.

What’s a person to do?  How do you “know” whether a piece of hi-fi gear is right for you?  Can you trust your friend, or a reviewer for that matter?  Can you trust yourself?

This is first in a series where I hope to gain some insight to unravel this perceptual puzzle …