Audio is full of strange contradictions. Depending on your particular focus, you might get so wrapped up in one spot that the bigger picture clouds up on you. Your vision could shrink down to make you live in a de facto cell. For starters, just consider three fundamentally different approaches to speaker cabinet design. First, there's the concrete crowd. Their stated goal is to eliminate the cabinet from the audible equation. Rendering it as inert as possible, they demand to isolate the sound you hear to just the driver/s. Pure signal, no box coloration. For their enclosures, they dream up composite laminates of superior hardness and density. Speaker weight ratings and material stiffness equate to ultimate quality in that school. Its arguments sound pretty compelling. Who wants box distortion? Yuck.

Then there's the thin-wall people. Cocaine chic. They construct resonets rather than concrete cabinets. Their enclosures are meant to resonate like musical instruments. If a guitar sounded any good hewn from solid marble, why does nobody play such a wicked instrument? That's their question. They view a loudspeaker as a musical instrument. You will humor them by agreeing that a ported speaker seems very much like a guitar. There's trapped air escaping through vents or F-holes. There's a driving force (string or transducer) that creates a resonance fixed by the container (instrument body or loudspeaker cabinet). If our speaker played back just one guitar, you might see the benefits of a freely vibrating speaker cabinet. Asked to reproduce five different guitars simultaneously while sorting out their respective sonic signatures... now the compelling argument in favor of a lively speaker cabinet seems to go down the drain. Then you recover. Whatever a lively cabinet contributes to the electrical signal is a fixed quantity. It'll be attributed evenly to everything just as no matter what tone a guitarist plucks from his instrument, its resonant modes don't change. Those are fixed by wood thickness, size and volume. As you follow this argument to its elusive conclusion, you'll be switching sides more often than a double agent or serial traitor.

How about the SOBs - the seminally open-baffled specialists? They do away with conventional speaker cabinets altogether. They mean to eliminate box talk completely. They mean to have their driver/s only see the air pressure of the room rather than the one developed inside a restraining jacket called a box. If you consider that pushing the air trapped inside a 7-liter monitor with a 7-inch diameter semi-rigid surface called a diaphragm encounters far higher air compression than doing the same in a big room, you'd assume that one approach should be distinctly preferable. But which? From watching massive semi trucks on skinny wheels, you can appreciate just how resistant air gets when compressed. Do you want more or less air pressure acting on the backside of a loudspeaker driver?

Now consider your typical high-excursion subwoofer. It's pumping away to the cheers of the boom truck crowd. To play loud -- especially low bass -- means moving lots of air. Common sense says that no visible driver motion equates to no sound. Something about pistonic motion and displacement. How come then that direct-radiating stiff-suspension woofers like Eminence units won't visibly move while playing very loud, all without the impedance transforming action of horns? How do such drivers couple to the air more efficiently to transfer more energy for less motion?

As you apply common sense to any number of established HiFi truisms, your confusions are bound to mount and multiply. It recalls that famous Stereophile cover. If one of these amps is right, the other must be wrong. Next, consider a statement by a serious engineering-driven electronics designer. His self-professed mission is to design for the lowest distortion. He has proper engineering credentials and was engaged in formal research to chase down distortion mechanisms in circuits. Yet he goes on to say that listening is the most important part of his design process. Either he's saying that human hearing is far more accurate than his test bench; or he's saying that what he knows to measure (or how he interprets those measurements) is entirely insufficient to eliminate audible distortion. Recall that he isn't talking about pleasant sound. He's talking about minimal distortion. He employs human hearing to track down distortion that's not otherwise measurable.

Then there's Vladimir Lamm who claims to be designing amplifiers without the benefit or need of any listening. His process is a function of tweaking a circuit to elicit a specific measured distortion behavior which he equates with perfect sound. There's the phase-and-time coherence school of speaker design. There's the counter brigade which claims that time-domain behavior in loudspeakers isn't audible. There's people claiming treble extension to 100kHz is required to eliminate audible phase shift in the upper highs. There's the vintage crowd who listens to single-driver speakers which are down 3dB at 15kHz if that.

Only thick cables can conduct sufficient current. Meanwhile Crystal Cable goes from success to success with ultra-skinny conductors. Damping factors in excess of 1000 are mandatory for woofer control while the gross subtraction from that value via the connecting cables isn't mentioned. Certain speciality transducers with high impedances and ultra-light cones with very powerful magnets meanwhile thrive on very low damping factors. They need to see high output impedances from amplifiers to not overdamp and prematurely attenuate their limited bass reach. What, exactly, is the ideal impedance ratio between amps and speakers?

That's just the beginning. Anyone who's been at this for a while can add to the contradicting mess in the church of audiophilia. Bring together a speaker, amp, cable and room tuning manufacturer to jointly exhibit at CES. While they're setting up to get their system to sing, the speaker guy will only hear what his speakers are doing. The amp guy only hears his amp. The cable guy is swapping cords, dressing wires and swearing at the high-mass connectors the amp guy put on his monoblocks. It's like a concert musician who follows a symphony he's played from the aisles for a change. He'll hear his part differently than anyone else in the audience. He knows the score from just one vantage point and that fixates his experience of the whole symphony.

And so it goes. For any stance or position one might take up in this hobby -- on what is relevant for achieving good sound -- there's an immediate counter position. Sprung turntable suspension versus none. Direct drive vs. belt drive vs. idler wheel. 9-inch arms vs. 12-inch arms. Upsampling, zero sampling. Coupling or decoupling. High mass, low mass. Active preamps, passive preamps. Speakers are the most important. The source is most important. Equipment breaks in. The listener gets used to things.

It's like quicksand. Anyone trying to build a house of beliefs in audio either needs to give up or exclude the larger world from his view to avoid conflict. You might think that being technically more proficient would be a huge boon. But then you'd be like the EE whose training tells him that power cords couldn't possibly make a difference if designed properly. You'd know that a circuit whose parts spec the same will perform and measure identical to one with different parts of the same values. Yet your ears will tell you that parts substitutions can be blatantly audible. Or perhaps, your prior notions will clog up your ears and you'll hear what you expect to hear - nothing.

If you're an anechoic chamber guy, you'll discount certain speakers without trial because their performance doesn't conform to your mind set. If you're a distortion hound, most tube amps will seem broken. If you're a tweak, all you see are cones and wooden platforms and hard and soft interfaces and cable lifters and miracle sprays and photon bombs. If you're a trophy hunter, affordable audio is automatically disqualified.

It's an unending meeting of opposites. Because they don't cancel out in the middle, they continue to feed the self-perpetuating fascination and contradiction whereby audio holds those of us infected by the virus spellbound. As soon as we have arrived at a bit of apparent knowledge, along comes a working solution that defies our most dearly held beliefs. If listening could categorically render one amp right and one wrong, the story would end. Unfortunately, there's a lot of right amps which go about their rightness in apparently wrong ways. Then add that what's right to one listener is wrong to the next. Take the same amp into a different system context and the deck reshuffles again. Never mind that the lack of a universal impedance standard and connection system means that all audio systems, by definition, suffer from unpredictable impedance mismatches. Now enter the room. The power delivery. The temperature and air pressure.

Welcome to the party. It's a confusing crowd in attendance but happy occasion for all who make it so. Drink up. Cheers!