Pasta al denture versus The Soggy Bottom Boyz. Do you think such a tug-o-war match would have a clearly delineated center line? The reason I ask is simple. If there's no center line, how to declare a winner? This innocuous question hides the nearly magical or maniacal mechanism whereby HiEnd audio perpetuates itself. The center line would be neutrality - no discernable sonic signature, period. If neutrality was a completely unambiguous and instantly verifiable value or constant and indeed the Wholly Krell/Holy Grail of this enterprise, the game would be over. Anyone would know without a doubt which product conformed and which didn't. Of course, matching pasta against mysogenated
hillbilly singers is a recipe for disaster to begin with. So is setting objective measurements against subjective emotional response.

A speaker builder sends his newest model to ten of his most loyal dealers. "Luv it - best speaker you've ever made" gushes one. "Won't ever be able to sell it, just doesn't cut the mustard" blasts the next. "It's slightly bright. Could you change the tweeter?" wonders the next. "It's slightly dark, could you do something about that bass alignment"? is what the next one insists on. Even if we levelled the playing field and had each dealer congregate in the same room using the same electronics at the same time of day and while in each other's presence, we still wouldn't eliminate this spread of opinion. Would we recognize neutrality if it tapped us on the shoulder or bit us in the arse? If we could, would we like it? Or are we really after something else on third thought?

Seeing that everything seems to have a sound of its own -- from capacitors to coils and resistors, from transformers, cables, footers, chassis materials and circuit layouts to material thickness, core treatments, damping, geometries and sundry decisions designers have to make all the time -- it seems impossible by definition that an arbitrary hodgepodge or scientific combination of parts and components (each endowed with its own sonic signature) could be assembled such as to completely and radically cancel each other out.

It's this very impossibility -- both of perceptional knowing and lack of truly invisible hardware -- that creates the open-ended question that is HiEnd audio. It's this impossibility that sets us on our heroic or cursed, noble or dumb quest for salvation, satisfaction and the inbuilt desire for proof that we're indeed getting closer and closer.

Reviewers face this dilemma every day. We invent or imagine some notion of neutrality against which we dub a component bright or dark, slow or fast, precise or vague, compelling or boring. But ask any writer about this mystical median of neutrality and he or she will have to admit that it's a fictitious construct, a working device like an actor's accent that will give meaning and context to a performance but is fake to begin with. Take the notion of the absolute sound as referenced by life performances of unamplified music. It's an unrealistic ideal for many reasons, not the least of which is the relativity of this absolute sound based on listener seat; the differences in size and reverb qualities of the original and playback venues; and the fact that the music most people listen to is an artificial studio creation with multi-tracked sound booth elements overlaid and recombined. This blows to smithereens any hope of any original performance to begin with.

To be scientific or objective, performance reviews require an unalterable yardstick and unwavering context to ensure repeatability and verification. That's where measurements come in. They create the illusion of scientific rigor in audio reviewing. Needless to say, the fact that subjective observations often bear little semblance to those measurements isn't lost on readers. Still, it's what sets certain publications apart as being more serious than others. Now add the idea of emotional response which audio equipment is supposed to trigger in the listener. If that's what it's about, measurements become meaningless. If that's what it's about, Ruben's love letter could turn into Romero's hate mail in an instant. No matter how you crumble this cookie, you have to admit that HiEnd audio is a unique combination of unattainable ideals mixed with measurement-driven disciplines wrapped around blatant subjectivity and thus, leaves an unusually large space for bullshit, propaganda, mysticism and endless disagreements.

With this open-ended e.g. unclosable nature of our pursuit come endless fascination and ultimately unsatisfactory solutions. Like the famous rainbow, we're chasing something that's elusive. If we could solve the problem once and for all, it would immediately lose all its allure. It's like an ailment that creates an identity and sympathy with others. Fix the ailment and you're back to being a nobody with nothing to complain about. From that perspective, audiophilia is a disease that keeps us busy and has us belong to a club whereby we can enjoy a certain fellowship of shared misery and imaginary cures. Once in a blue moon, certain people do get mysteriously cured. Then they disappear from the map altogether to become non entities They've hit neutral and dissolved into true bliss where only the music matters and sound as a concern or fascination has evaporated.

Of course that kind of disappearance is truly bad for business. Mass hysteria might break out. No more funding for competing cures if one cure turned out to actually -- and globally -- work. Hence there are plenty of mechanisms that prevent people from jumping ship while claiming to have the solution that would facilitate exactly that - getting off the hamster mill. Alas, it's that very hamster mill which keeps churning out products at a faster rate than any one magazine regardless of staff could ever hope to cover. It's what keeps us in the press busy and in business. It even keeps a lot of businesses in business though chances of actually making it in HiEnd audio seem to die on the vine at an alarming rate. But that doesn't prevent people from joining the industry during these latter days of the phenomenon. It doesn't prevent people from believing that if you build it, customers will come. It doesn't make people apply common business sense to comprehensively evaluate the competition before deciding that they truly have something unique and in demand to add to the picture from which to make a fair livelihood.

The deeper you delve into this puzzling picture, the more fascinating it becomes. Each time you roll out the proof sheet of reasons why not to get into it, folks will admit that your reasons are all very reasonable and sane and rooted in evidence and experience only to turn around and do it anyway with the very next breath. What is it about music-reproducing hardware that exerts such a powerful pull on would-be makers and consumers alike? Something about it is clearly irrational. Just like art, it appeals to creative people. Just like art, it appeals to people with often poor or completely absentee business skills. Just like art, pricing can become completely arbitrary, ownership a matter of snob appeal and elitism. Just like art, discourse about the whole matter can become seemingly esoteric and vexingly philosophical. Just like art, those who make it and those who consume it are driven by unreasonable passion.

At the end of the day, that's the real glue that keeps this whole building erect if perhaps shaking. Passion. Saludos then to all the visible and invisible elements, companies, people and products that make up this building of ours. I wouldn't live anywhere else despite the very real seismic activities which are occurring all around it. If you're reading this, you must be in agreement or at least wonder about these issues. What the heck does that say about us? Are we nuts or what? Welcome to the party. I rest my case. Have some lemming pasta merengue. Charge it to the moons...