The Absolute Bose: a silly non-political essay (or two)

Consider the following statements about stereo systems:

  1. A good stereo system should reproduce the recorded material as faithfully as possible.
  2. A good stereo system should make beautiful music.

If you don’t see a difference between the two, you’ll find this “essay” completely meaningless. And if you’re in Camp Two, you’re a target reader for The Absolute Bose, my sort-of mocking name for one of the two stereo magazines I currently read. (I’ve read/subscribed to many over the years; unfortunately, falling subscriber counts and consolidation have reduced the “mainstream” choices to one magazine, and I finally gave up on Sound & Fury–not the real name–after a change in editor and the strange decision that audio gear shouldn’t be measured but video gear should left me feeling like it was a waste of time.)

I use the name The Absolute Bose advisedly, as it’s becoming increasingly clear that (most, not quite all, of) the writers regard “musicality” as preferable to accuracy. Some of them are blunt: at least one reviewer has flat-out stated that an amplification system needs to have a certain amount of “second harmonic”–leaving out that nasty word “distortion”–to make pretty music. But there are lots of other indications–a belief that tube equipment is always better than solid-state, a belief that vinyl is *inherently* superior to digital (even when the LP was actually cut from digital sources, with the digital version being readily available, the LP is “more musical”), etc., etc.

The abbreviation ED springs to mind, but not the problem many older men have. No, this is euphonic distortion: changes in the original signal that make the music prettier. If anybody tells you that a recording or speakers or digital source is bad because real music doesn’t have “edges”…well, that’s ED. Real music does have edges at times. {When I put my very good hearing aids in in the morning, I’m reminded that the world is a noisy place, and some of the noise is, well, scratchy and unpleasant.]

I find TAB amusing in some ways. The mag has two demigods, call them Roha and Jova, who both have superhuman hearing and discriminatory capabilities, and apparently limitless funds. The mag seems to pay by the word, and Jova’s reviews (pretty much always raves, as are almost all reviews on TAB) use two-thirds of a page for an exhausting, er, -ive list of his many reference components, even those having no relevance to the review–apparently it’s important to be reminded that Jova is the King of Component Excess. On the other hand, Roha is known to smite those who belittle TAB’s infinite wisdom with hard-hitting editorials. And multipage feature reviews, with lots of pretty pictures, that feel a bit like audioporn sometimes.

TAB doesn’t do measurements.

TAB uses lots of descriptive language, with lots of terms that mean whatever the writers want them to mean. Most TAB writers appear to have perfect hearing and uncanny abilities to describe what most folks might think of as trivial or nonexistent differences as major, breathtaking, whatever. I believe most of the men (all men?) are middle-aged or older, but apparently none of them have the usual hearing losses the rest of us tend to.

About hearing: I do not doubt that the reviewers, including Roha and Jova, hear what they claim to hear. I don’t doubt that because, after all, hearing is not what comes into one’s ears: It’s what the brain makes of them, including all the non-auditory factors that affect any brain activities. I think it it possible, even likely, that some of the distinctions that these writers so clearly hear may not actually exist as measurable differences in sound waves, but after all, TAB doesn’t do measurements.

Do I find it a bit odd that Roha editorializes that the tiny (if existent) “improvements” bought about at huge expense in refining a system are actually more significant because they get you that teeny bit closer to The Absolute Bose? Sure, but that’s me. Am I envious? Not really. We’re not poor–but our sound systems suit our needs just fine. (My personal “system” cost about $400 total; our weekend system is still three-digits, but higher. I used to have a four-digit system, five digits including source material, when I was spending a lot more time listening to music. I find that I can’t really write or read while actually listening to music, and that I’m not much for background music, so…)

I could cancel my subscription to TAB, but it has its uses as an example of, well, whatever (and the multiyear subscription was so cheap–after all, it’s the advertisers who are really paying the bills–that it’s pointless). I could wonder about priorities involved in seven-digit systems that probably “need” six-digit upgrades/refinements each year, and wonder how much these superpurists spend on recordings or live music, but it’s their money (and I assume they give to good causes, or at least can hope

I realized what I actually felt about TAB and its writers, maybe as I’m going through their annual buyer’s guide and reading about how much five-digit audio cables and four-digit replacement power cords (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!) will improve your six-digit or seven-digit sound system:

Sadness or pity. That’s what I feel. Sadness that people who apparently have the time to pay that much attention to music appear to focus most of their resources and attention on tweaking their sound systems, not enjoying a world of music on what might be only 99.9%-outstanding gear.

[That’s part one. Part 2, if there is one, will quantify just how much this all can cost.]

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