The word conjures up Cold War spy craft, NSA files, deep cover ops and Tom Clancy novels - in short, secrets too explosive, embarrassing or obscure to entrust to civilians. Aspects of this rear their heads in audiophilia as well. It's a salient point made by Ulas in response to our previous column's question "Acquired?":


"A fine audio system is no different than any of the other finer things in life. I certainly didn't need any book learning to appreciate my first Ferrari nor did I need any mentoring to appreciate the woman I married. Everyone who has heard my audio system is very appreciative, but that doesn't mean they immediately rush out and buy an equivalent system for themselves. The lust to acquire is different from sincere appreciation. Learning and mentoring only applies to the pursuit of audiophilia. To be an audiophile, one must learn the jargon, memorize the mantras, become obsessed with imaging, soundstage and other concepts that are totally outside the realm of enjoying music or even appreciating a fine audio system."


Our insider terminology not only turns much of audio writing into de facto classified material but revolves around concepts that don't have much if anything to do with the raw and innocent enjoyment of music. Then there's our human obsession over tidiness. It invites another type of classification, epitomized by Stereophile's and The Absolute Sound's powerful systems of categorizing equipment into classes of performance. This gives us two kinds of "classifieds" and never mind the wanted/sales ads on audiogoN. At first blush, these two do not seem very interrelated at all. Alas, today's shower session -- one of my magical daily events where certain ideas arrive from seemingly nowhere -- seemed to suggest that by connecting the two, certain useful insights might arise. Classification into categories reflects the old retail mantra of "good, better, best (and don't confuse the customer by introducing any further variables outside these three easy steps)". It salutes our collective needs for organization. But what if the subjects we desire to categorize and capture are a constantly moving and evolving target? If there was such a thing as audio progress -- like truly groundbreaking inventions in circuits, parts, materials, new insights into psycho-acoustics -- doesn't it stand to reason that today's "Class A" components must eventually find themselves downgraded to "Class B" or lower when new components arrive on the scene which introduce previously unenvisioned levels of refinement or a novel lack of common distortions and shortcomings?


But now imagine the purely practical issues of constantly adjusting such a classification system. After all, it incorporates findings by different writers who do not retain growing inventories of hardware to make side-by-side comparisons of the latest contenders against yesterday's champs. Nor do they tend to visit each other to conduct A/Bs between their respective loaner inventories. What tends to happen instead is the creation of new super categories (triple A, A+); or the eventual saturation of the top tier as more and more components are included. This eventually undermines and dilutes the original goal. There's then a sense that if certain gear truly embodied the state-of-the-art, how come there's so much of it now? And if today's Class A examples are better than those of three years ago, how come they share the same designation?


Now add Ulas' contention that many of the parameters whereby audio components are adjudged their final classified ratings are secondary to musical enjoyment. He even argues that, in some cases, they are utterly unrelated or even contrarious and counterproductive. But there's more, something that two recent phone calls with two of my writers shall exemplify. Our resident professor Jules rings me up one evening. He's patently aglow in the light of insight that had hit him while auditioning top-notch Shindo and Kondo gear in an optimized retail environment. While both presentations made glorious music, the respective quality of background silence was very different. One sounded like an absence of sound, the other like a presence of silence. One seemed like a black hole or vacuum against which sounds arose that thereby lacked a certain contrast to appear as though gestating out of nothingness or limbo - music listening in outer space. The other presentation felt more natural or human in this respect - though both proved compelling in their own right, albeit with this strange -- yet once keyed in to, dead-obvious -- difference that Jules had never heard or considered before.


Then TAS meister Stephæn called the other day. He was completely stumped about understanding what he was hearing with some remarkably affordable Herbie's Labs tube dampers. They did things he'd never observed before
and put him at a loss to conceptualize their effects in ways that would allow coherent descriptions to others. "The music sounds slower - but it isn't slower, it isn't dragging, it's also not a function of appearing more relaxed. It's more as though my sense of time had slowed down to allow me to notice more in the same span of a musical bar; as though the space between two notes had expanded to now include more details. It's wonderful and very peculiar at the same time."

I'm sharing these reviewer experiences to suggest something important: What we listen for, what we're capable of recognizing and processing, what eventually creates our map and context in which we work, evaluate and judge - this is by no means a stationary target either. Neither can you retroactively apply these filled-in areas (at the time, you didn't recognize any remaining blank areas) to previously reviewed components that have long since been returned to their makers. Nor can you be certain -- now that your system has been configured to account for these new qualities you weren't sensitive to before -- how this already-evaluated gear would react. You penned reviews that were complete and honest at the time and put 'em out there. Except now you'd like to recall them and work them over to reflect your latest insights.


The spiritual realizer giant Da Free John has, many times over since his original emergence, changed the titular names whereby his devotees relate to him. This renaming is solely in the service of reflecting stations along his inner evolutionary journey that have a direct bearing on his psycho-physical manifestations at the time and how he needs to be approached to honor the deepening states of the final stages of his unique process. Even his books -- especially the autobiographical ones -- are being continuously rewritten and amended to reflect the "dissolution of the remaining window" through which he experiences reality. Put back into the world, absolutes become relatives, finalities conditionally affected temporalities whenever we raise our vantage point or broaden the scope of our investigations.


Nobody would suggest that it's appropriate or useful for a reviewer to change his name on an ongoing basis to reflect perceptional progress and deepening sensitivities. However, what does seem appropriate is discourse about this ongoing process. At times, it may seem relevant to introduce new terminology whereby to describe phenomena that aren't properly captured by the usual frequency-domain/timbre/soundstaging vocabulary. The inherent danger is that audio writing may then assume an even deeper air of classified esoteric specialization. If ordinary listeners have a hard enough time to wrap their minds around Mosfet mist and degrees of texture, how about continuousness? However, not being able to relate doesn't automatically make the fella writing full of it or committed to prophetic self-aggrandizement. If he's sincere and really working his craft, you should expect certain novel discoveries along the way. Those will require a re-thinking, a conceptual re-organizing to continually account for the expanding picture frame that's supposed to contain the All & Everything as we encounter it in our small world called audio.


Bigfoto.com: American Eskimos

While Ulas was perfectly correct to point at the secret language of audiophilia as a selection process that welcomes some while turning away others, it's also true that specialization of any craft -- be it science, medicine, sports, music -- always entails a specialized language through which insiders share subtle data that may be relevant only to them and nobody else. How many words for snow do the Innuit use - sixteen? They aren't trying to be difficult or obscure. It's simply a sign of sensitivity that someone living in the Arctic circle can readily distinguish between untold variations of snow as they occur in his daily environment. Why should it be different for audiophiles who enjoy the noticing of sound-related phenomena? Why should it be different for reviewers who suffer from the urge to share their discoveries?


The flip-side, naturally, is that specialization of any kind often loses sight of the big picture. You get too close to the thing. Your context of what's truly important begins to warp. Fly shits turn into mountains, your friends tell you to get a life. Getting back to our opening stance about two kinds of classifications, it seems that, as so often, the truth simultaneously wears two faces. While I can appreciate the building-block practicality of grouping components into performance classes to create a tiered overview map of what's available, I can also appreciate that the real process is far less structured or systematic than that. While I fully agree that much of the audiophile focus on certain qualities is in fact detrimental to the enjoyment of music, I also believe that, amongst people who enjoy listening for these qualities, honest dialogue about advances, insights and concomitant shifts of perspective is desirable and enlightening.


The resultant jargon needn't be experienced as wanna-be philosophical or exclusionary. It can instead be appreciated as honest attempts to put into language experiences that are difficult to talk about. After all, in the realm of meditation and states of consciousness, whole elaborate and sophisticated cultures have arisen to use myth, story, parable and esoteric jargon to talk about matters beyond the mind. Different forms of Samadhi, Satori and Nirvana are in fact highly specific and scientific descriptors despite the ignorance that surrounds them in common usage with people who have never meditated a minute in their lives.


Perhaps what's needed in audio is a new or supplemental vocabulary and focus that deals with phenomena and qualities which are closer and more vital for actual listening enjoyment than the commonly quantified and measurable bass/midrange/ treble qualities? Art Dudley's team at Listener Magazine was engaged in something like that - ditto for Jean Hiraga and many of the contributors to the Japanese underground magazine Audio Amigo. Perhaps it's time for a vocal American underground movement to steer this ship into new waters?