Six secrets to the perfect hifi?

10 secrets to the best sex ever. 5 secrets to a toned body in just 30 days. 3 secrets to the perfect omelet. If there's a subject, there's a self-help book or weekend workshop. So here are my little secrets about how to assemble a personally fulfilling hifi system.

"I believe that the first and last thing we must have, know and recognize when achieved is a clearly defined goal. We must intimately know the sound we're after and how we wish to transcribe the music. For that we return to the beginning. We must listen to opera, a capella song, live music without PA, kids singing on a beach. We must leave the noise pollution of the cities and rediscover the natural dynamics of a blackbird crying, observe the sounds of nature. I'm not kidding. That is essential. I observe and try to understand the composition of natural sounds. When I bicycle, I listen to the air rush over my body. It's all information. Then I apply that information to attempt to reproduce the natural sound. Again, I have a very precise sound inside of me. I know what I'm looking for. To me sound is like modeling clay. I can sculpt it so am never offended when someone doesn't like my job. I made the sound I hear. It might not be the sound you hear." That was Alain Pratali of Aurai Audio.

That was it. The end.

Ah. But how to get there? Alain has done his thing for more than 30 years already…

Are we just admiring the door's architectural details or actually looking for the key to open it?

Let's rewind. Each audiophile—that's someone who isn't just into music but into the sonic qualities of playback—had a trigger which started their interest. It's important to acknowledge that in most cases, this 'aha' was entirely accidental. Once upon a time, we heard a system which injected the hifi virus we still carry today. Whatever it was, it wasn't planned. It just blew us away to create an imprint. The question which nobody at the time asks is, did this imprint match our own ideal, our native sound? If you agree that chances are slim to none, there's a serious problem. We've been given an answer well before we ever got around to discovering our very own question. That's conditioning, pure and simple. Brainwashing. If we mean to learn what our own sound is, we must, sooner than later, question our various imprints. That includes authorities like books, reviewers and peers.

Sonic flavors for playback are many. The only way to discover what we respond to the most is exposure. The possibly best way for massive exposure is to rent a dealer showroom for a day or two. Now it's just us and the proprietor. With some helpful guidance and additional muscle, we work our way systematically through all conceivable combinations to chase the broadest range of flavors. It doesn't matter what the hardware is. What matters is proper divergence chased by intense highly attentive experimentation. From that we should end up with at least an approximate idea about what sound speaks our language and what most assuredly does not.

The next challenge is how to transfer that from wherever we heard it to our own listening room. Hello brand-new learning curve. Here hands-on advice of experts—anyone more experienced than us at this point—can save us a lot of time.

Once we've learnt how to best play (to) our room and personal taste, it's time to recognize the sound we've created so we can articulate it. We needn't resort to reviewer-approved lingo. We can think of it in terms of sweet, sour, salty and bitter; or any other concept that defines a particular balance of attributes. We'll invariably discover a kind of priority sequence wherein some aspects to us are more important than others. Here it's imperative to not only trust our own ears. It's imperative to cultivate our listening experience, to refine and advance it. That too informs us. Do we groove most deeply to soundstaging or dynamics, to tone density, colors or an emotional dislocation? If the latter, what triggers the desired reaction most often, what handicaps it?

What if there was no door to begin with?

As we begin to refine our own acoustic psych profile, we become more sensitive to just how narrow our personal window of 'right' could be. As we pursue incremental gains from new hardware, we notice how beefing up one particular quality influences others quite possibly to their detriment. If we evolve this far, we should be free of the clutches of the audiophile police. That's anyone else's idea of what the perfect/absolute sound is. We're free to entertain polygamy as the simultaneous enjoyment of multiple systems with indeed very different personalities. We're free to change our taste and mind. We're no longer tweaked when others find our systems wanting, even criticize them in public. Now we only please our self beyond any concerns over right or wrong. Now we're just as happy to let others do the same even if their ideal sound works out to be 180° out of phase with ours.

So… which out of those 'secrets' came out on top for you?

That one is the top secret.

Of course with all of it plain common sense, the entire 'secret' angle was a classic misdirect. Sorry.