I started to write this piece only to be interrupted by my alter ego, which then turned into trying to convince me that I need to reevaluate my goals as an audiophile.
Me: Live music should not be the standard by which audiophiles judge their playback systems.
Skeptic: With the title Lost in Translation, I thought you were going to talk about the hilarious situations Bill Murray got himself into in a foreign culture. Isn't he funny?
Me: Sorry, no such luck.
Skeptic: It seems pretty obvious that you're not trying to make friends with this little piece.
Me: True, but what follows is the result of much contemplation about what I believe audiophiles should be searching for. It's not really anything new, perhaps just a matter of perspective. What finally sparked me to put finger to keyboard was the recent article by Jules Coleman on his thoughts at HE 2005.
Skeptic: Okay. Action. Hit me with it. You're going to make some big profound point, aren't you?
Me: Yes, I suppose I am. I think it is important to keep in mind that audio reproduction is a representation of a musical expression. It is not the expression itself. It is, in fact, a translation.
Skeptic: What exactly does that mean?
Me: It means that because the listeners were not present at the creation of the original musical event, they are relying on the entire playback chain to help convey the meaning and emotion of the original. The recording and playback equipment are translators of one language (vibrating strings, vocal cords etc.) to another (vibrating cones, panels etc.).
Skeptic: Okay, that seems pretty obvious. What's so significant about that?
Me: Well, if we keep this view in mind, it will give us a new perspective on what we're all striving for in this hobby. First, I think it's important to look at what a translation is. Have you ever read The Task of the Translator by Walter Benjamin?
Skeptic: No, I don't get the chance to read much, you know, with all of that multi-thousand dollar cable swapping that I do.
Me: Well, it's not light reading. You're not likely to keep it next to the toilet. He does, however, make some interesting points. For one, he says that it's important to note that translations are created for those who do not understand the original. In audio terms, it means that recorded music is made for those who couldn't witness the original musical event. He goes on to say that translations are not the originals but that the two are held together by the meaning inherent in the original.
Skeptic: Got it. So the music that comes out of my stereo rig isn't really music.
Me: That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that the music coming out of your speakers is not really the musicians playing in your room.
Skeptic: I could have told you that.
Me: Stick with me here. Hopefully, the music coming out of those speakers is presented in a way that makes you understand and emotionally connect with what the original musicians intended. Benjamin says that the translator's role is to find the appropriate diction in the language he is translating into, which produces in that language the meaning of the original. Once again, in audio terms, it means that the role of the audio equipment designer or audio gear in general is to convey in the language of vibrating cones, domes etc. the emotional content which was part of the original musical event. This is the fundamental difference between translation and original. The original is not directed at language.
Skeptic: Right, so I just need to make sure that my stereo sounds like the real thing.
Me: Haven't you been listening? If you weren't at the recording session or the performance, how do you know what it's supposed to sound like? First of all, your aural memory of what an instrument sounds like (itself a translation) could be completely different from the actual instrument.
Skeptic: But it's easy for me to evaluate components. When component A sounds more like a violin than component B, component A is obviously better.
Me: Having an instrument sound exactly as you think it should doesn't mean the emotion of the music gets through to you. If you've ever read an instruction manual that's obviously been translated word for word from Japanese to English, you know that it's almost impossible to comprehend. That method of comparison is easy and it's a trap that many fall into.
Skeptic: So if live music isn't the standard to which I should hold my system, then how am I supposed to evaluate components?
Me: Your goal should be to find the translator that speaks your language. Finding the system that unravels all of the complexities of the translation into something with which you connect should be every audiophile's goal. Finding the right translator is a subjective practice that involves time and self discovery, not right and wrong. For some it takes many years to understand what sonic traits will contribute to their own personal understanding of the music. Others -- most women for example -- are able to emotionally connect with music with what most men would call a bad translator. To them, it's hard to understand why anyone would need a better translation because they already understand it.
Skeptic: Man, you hippies are so touchy-feely. Shouldn't you be weaving some hemp right now?
Me: Audiophiles are swapping equipment all of the time. Unfortunately, they seek the answers to the easy questions. Does this sound like a trumpet? Check! Can I localize the first chair clarinet? Check! Can I hear the pages turning? Check! They should be evaluating systems based on how that system makes them feel. Do you have trouble sitting still when that jazz song really gets cooking? Do you want to get up and dance? Do you try to sing along? Do you lean forward in anticipation of the soloist you know is about to start?
Skeptic: If sounding like live music isn't important, why aren't we all emotionally connected to our clock radios?
Me: I never said sounding like live music wasn't important. It just shouldn't be the goal. In many cases, getting that trumpet to sound like a trumpet or the sonic image of the singer in front of you will get you closer to that connection.
Skeptic: Oh, I get it. You're one of those audiophiles who doesn't like live music. You hide in your listening room where it's nice and comfortable.
Me: Not at all! I adore live music. We all know that emotional connection I've been talking about is much easier to achieve with live music. If you understand the original, why would you need the translation? The point here is that we shouldn't be holding reproduced music hostage with the idea that it will become live. The two can never be the same. That is the essence of a translation.
Skeptic: But if I wasn't there to witness the original event, then how will I know what the emotional connection is?
Me: There's no right and wrong connection. It's a highly personal thing that each individual defines for themselves. It's the reason you may hate country music but someone else loves it. It's also the reason so many different manufacturers exist in this hobby, with completely different translations of the same music. If it was simply a matter of component A sounding more live than component B, we'd all be listening to the same system.
Skeptic: My head hurts. All of this translation stuff is too complex.
Me: It's not really that complex. In fact, I believe that many audiophiles are already striving for these same things. I've read about audiophiles with $100,000+ systems who dismantled them and reassembled a system for a fraction of the cost only to declare it far superior. This is because they have found those sonic attributes that speak their language. Because of their exposure to so many different components, they are better equipped to select the system that reaches their goals.
Skeptic: Your way just sounds like too much work. I'm going back to my old method. At least I could tell which component was better.
Me: You're hopeless. I'm giving up.