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Nobody could predict that Michael Lavorgna's Fragile Souls would kick off a thread on Stereophile's General Rants 'n' Raves forum under the suitably racy opener The greatest debate since the Cartesian mind-body split - I expect Molotov cocktails. Soon devolving into exactly what Michael's piece criticized among others -- uncivilized argumentation for the sake of argumentation -- I joked with him that perhaps said thread should be appended to Souls as Exhibit B. It'd underscore a few of his points as living proof.

Of course proof is irrelevant for meaningful emotional listening encounters. You either have them or not. If you do, you might like to share them. When others don't respond, no proof of the technical sort audio reviews concern themselves with can fix it. Those left cold by your system will question your tastes and triggers. Their different reactions can't begin to invalidate yours. Civilized people recognize the inherent setup. They don't fault its lost-in-translation potential where fellow hobbyists are concerned. It's a live-and-let-live chorus of questions and answers. (This particular think piece lives mostly on questions. The answers are still too elusive.)

If the hifi hobby really is about creating repeatable, emotionally compelling experiences, the only valid upshot of all the talking, reading, trying, buying and selling is to end up with "I luv it". As with other human endeavors involving love, humans hope for how-to instructions. Even though it's really the ultimate compliment and raison d'être of a device under test, a review concluding with "I love it" -- or which restricts itself exclusively to those three words like "two thumbs up, way up" -- is meaningless. If audio reviewers mean to assist others in assembling systems that engender the ultimate response, what type of information must they include? Off-axis response charts? Anechoic measurements? A list of personal biases to help explain what triggers the writer into enjoying a component and its impact on his system?

If the latter, is the writer's response repeatable and thus, reliable? Are the conditions which help create it stable, predictable and known? Are those conditions which interfere known? Are suitable counter measures available? Why does a system make the magic in one session but not the next? How much does the listener vacillate? How much are other factors responsible for such stimulation fluctuations?

Without answers to these questions, how useful can an audio review be which hopes to educate in this particular manner? Those readers who are after audio bliss or rapture, involvement, joy, fun or any other flavor of personal satisfaction - what can they hope to glean from reviews to get them closer? If a young man can't prove to his disapproving parents why they should give consent to marry a particular girl (if it's his second marriage, he already knows that he can't even prove it to himself), what can reviewers hope to accomplish?

One Great Divide is between sound and music, words and story. Audio discourse focuses on sounds. It's sounds that get weighed and measured, described and compared. One of those big philosophical questions asks whether if there's nobody listening, is there any music or just noise? If noise (sounds) become music only in the act of participatory recognition -- let's not get sidetracked and wonder if such recognition can be performed by animals and plants and if so, to what extent -- one should wonder whether this recognition must first be learned. Or is it biological fait accompli? If the latter, can study, exposure and effort hone and refine it? Are we born with musical instincts 'as is'?

Such and related questions should be answered. Reviewers should be answerable to them. How else can we take away practical information on how to improve our listening experiences for deeper satisfaction, both from better hardware and better listening skills? Do you think formalized reviews as they presently exist in audio publications around the globe account for these questions in meaningful ways? If not, what would make them more meaningful?

I don't have answers. I do have a few observations which aren't mine alone.

1. Bliss-in-ignorance sessions in the early days of audiophile innocence could rapturously enjoy a crappy car radio.

  • Did becoming an audiophile (critical listener) make us unlearn that earlier spontaneous skill?

2. Many musicians have quite ordinary, far from evolved hifi systems.

  • Are their listening skills not reliant on the same level of fidelity and details to make listening to 'inferior' systems enjoyable regardless (or more so than audiophiles enjoy their über systems)? If so, might it be more advantageous to learn to listen like musicians? Could it save us a lot of money and obsessive head aches?

3. Critical listening is an acquired skill. It creates a new focus and perspective which can override/supercede the earlier spontaneous skill to relate to the story (music) rather than the words (sounds).

  • If so, is critical listening innately at odds with a holistic appreciation of music? Must it be unlearned again? Can 'rapturous' listening be rekindled at the same time? Can both approaches educate and enrich each other?

4. Many music lovers learn/teach themselves critical listening skills based on assumptions generated by reading audio reviews.

  • If so, are the 'teachers' qualified in the sense that they practice rapturous listening on a routine basis as something one would want to learn and emulate? Or are the teachers somehow committed to a wrong way that equally leads their followers down a wrong path?

5. Audiophile evolution often entails greater complexity. From simple affordable systems, one evolves to expensive complex systems with digital separates, outboard power supplies, multi-amp scenarios etc.

  • Is something inherent in that trend to greater hardware complexity at odds with rapturous listening? Or is it merely the dominance of the critical listening habit over time that leads many audiophiles to frustration?

6. During the early ignorance-is-bliss days, our bad systems provided sonic sketches whereas the ultra-resolved systems we build later in our audiophile careers tend to create hyper-realistic renderings.

  • Do less detailed 'inferior' systems enforce more listener participation by engaging more imagination to 'fill in the cracks and paint out the blank spots'? Do ultra-resolution system teach more and more reliance on the hardware as the (inanimate) party responsible for creating the hoped-for rapturous experience? What happens to active listener participation and imagination when the system does it all down to the chair creak in the third row of violins? Is the reason musicians can enjoy inferior systems because they involve their imagination more?

We've got only six moons so I'll restrict myself to these six ponderables. Consider them counterpoint to some of the stuff that Michael's Fragile Souls piece dredged up on the Stereophile thread. Perhaps we'll see another luv fest?