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The recent closing of New York City’s Lyric HiFi—for decades, one of the most esteemed high-end audio dealerships in the US—portends a dicey future for the high-end audio industry. This doesn’t surprise me, because high-end audio has changed radically in the last 30 years. As I see it, the industry, while certainly capable of producing exciting products that deliver real improvements people would be happy to pay for, focuses too much of its resources on creating products that chase fads instead of pursuing innovation. I think high-end audio writers (and podcasters and YouTube influencers) are mostly to blame.

When I started writing about audio in 1989, big newsstand magazines such as Audio and Stereo Review dominated the press. These publications weren’t perfect by any stretch, but you couldn’t deny the chops of their technical editors. When a new audio technology hit, they’d publish comprehensive explainers along with in-depth reviews that ferreted out the pros and cons. Their editors demanded proof that new technologies and radical designs delivered a clear benefit to their readers. I got to know many of these editors, and I disagreed with them often. But as my experience grew, I realized they were usually right.

202105 brent

Audio writers and editors of this sort still exist, but in high-end audio, they are rare. Now, if a new technology comes along that delivers a demonstrable benefit, high-end audio writers are likely to denounce it. But if a manufacturer introduces a new product or technology with a backstory that panders to their beliefs and biases, they’ll endorse it, even if it can’t be demoed to advantage without listeners knowing what they’re hearing and being prepped with a persuasive sales pitch.

Silly things today’s audio writers fall for

Gurus: Many audio writers abandoned their critical thinking when the legendary engineer Bob Stuart launched MQA, a compression technology created to deliver high-resolution audio in a relatively low-bandwidth data stream. The initial public demos of MQA were so fishy that I have to think these writers were won over entirely by Stuart’s reputation. The first three demos I heard simply played MQA-encoded music through a top-of-the-line Meridian audio system without comparing it to non-MQA recordings. The fact that MQA sounded good on these systems means nothing, because any decently recorded music would have sounded great on these systems. Meridian reps proved that in a demo of a similar system a few years ago, when they dazzled the audience with a recording they later told us was a 128kbps MP3.

If you really had a groundbreaking technology, wouldn’t you launch it with level-matched, public A/B demos against the technology it hoped to replace? Years later, MQA still struggles to prove its worth, especially after a recent video highly critical of the technology, but the writers who fell for MQA’s “doesn’t this sound great?” demos aren’t backing down. Wanna bet that if you play them a 128kbps MP3 and tell them it’s MQA, they’ll rave about how great it sounds and chide you for “not getting it”?

Exotic materials and components: Innumerable unusual materials have been used in an attempt to improve audio products, particularly speakers and headphones. We also see rare componentry used in other high-end audio products. Some electronics manufacturers promote their exclusive caches of “magic” transistors that are said to deliver superior performance, yet are now discontinued and unavailable to manufacturers who weren’t wise enough to stash some away.

Many audio writers lead off reviews with lengthy descriptions of exotic materials and components used in the products under test, but no serious evaluation of the manufacturers’ claims. However, they don’t need to read Voice Coil or the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society to sort out truth from hype—they just have to use logic. Think about it: for all the advanced materials now used in speakers, an MDF box with a paper-cone woofer and a fabric- or aluminum-dome tweeter can still deliver competitive sound quality, and most of today’s best audio electronics are made largely from off-the-shelf components.

Outdated technologies: It’s fashionable in high-end audio to tout the superiority of technologies that debuted even before rock ’n’ roll was invented: single-ended triode tube amplifiers with rated power output of around 10W, often paired with super-efficient speakers that employ full-range drivers with whizzer cones, or strange-looking, hand-made horn drivers. These claims of superiority are not backed by controlled listening tests, only by the emotionally appealing yet utterly ignorant claim that “simpler is better.”

If audio writers who praise these products asked mainstream speaker designers why they don’t make super-efficient speakers, they’d learn that with efficiency comes compromises—in frequency-response linearity, dispersion, distortion, and power handling. Few highly efficient speakers achieve a respectably flat frequency response and broad dispersion. And many of the primitive tube amps that are typically used to drive them have very high output impedance, which will interact with a speaker’s impedance to change the sound in ways the speaker’s designer didn’t anticipate and likely wouldn’t condone.

(Paradoxically, in headphones, the latest fad is inefficient headphones, such as the HiFiMan Susvaras, but there may be some merit to this idea, and even the Susvaras need only a few watts of power.)

Useful things today’s audio writers reject

Room correction: I suspect every SoundStage! writer would concur with the idea that well-designed room-correction systems can yield the biggest improvements of any upgrade you can make to your system. Scientific studies have confirmed that these systems’ ability to analyze your room’s acoustics automatically and optimize the sound of your system to suit can produce significant advances in sound quality. You’re unlikely to find such studies supporting the benefits of any particular amp, preamp, or DAC design, much less accessories such as power conditioners and cables.

Yet most high-end audio publications review room-correction technologies about as often as they review Kiss albums. That’s probably because the clear benefit of systems such as Anthem Room Correction, Dirac Live, and Trinnov belies the “simpler is better” narrative. As a result, only a few brands of stereo components (notably Anthem, Arcam, and NAD) offer room correction.

Subwoofers: Getting good stereo imaging demands that you place your speakers in a triangle, with each speaker equidistant from your listening chair. But this isn’t the optimum position for the smoothest bass response, because room acoustics affect bass frequencies very differently than they affect midrange and treble. To get the best sound, you need speakers positioned to produce the optimum stereo imaging in the midrange and treble, and a separate bass speaker—a subwoofer—positioned for the smoothest bass response.

But again, this violates the “simpler is better” maxim, so few high-end audio publications take subwoofers seriously—and thus we rarely see subwoofer outputs incorporated into high-end audio gear (with Classé, Parasound, and the manufacturers mentioned previously being notable exceptions). High-end audio writers may protest this statement, claiming it’s too difficult to get a seamless blend between a subwoofer and stereo speakers, but home-theater enthusiasts routinely accomplish this task without much fuss (and room-correction systems do it automatically).

Science: Browse the Audio Engineering Society E-Library, and you’ll find audio research papers dating back almost 70 years. Some of this scientific research has been truly groundbreaking—for example, research into listener preferences has dramatically improved the quality of speakers since the early 1990s, and it’s starting to do the same for headphones. The blind listening tests on which these papers are typically based tell us much about what makes great speakers or headphones—and also about what changes in an audio system listeners can and cannot hear.

Yet many of today’s audio writers still reject this science, and some clearly have never bothered to read it. Their self-serving, totally unsupported narrative insists that only in casual listening tests, in which the listener always knows what products and technologies they’re hearing, can the true character of an audio component be divined. Unfortunately, this “method” often results in rave reviews of components (such as speakers with full-range drivers and tube amps with high output impedance) that exhibit huge, unnatural colorations that measurements and/or blind listening tests easily reveal.

I could go on—SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider and I both thought of many more examples when we first discussed this column—but I think I’ve made my point. I don’t see much future for a high-end audio industry in which the aesthetic standards are set by audio writers who rave about things that deliver no benefit or make the sound worse, and who ignore technologies that deliver an obvious, demonstrable benefit that anyone can appreciate.

Books

If high-end audio is going to survive, we need a new class of audio writers who, instead of lazily gathering haphazard knowledge of their field by reading technically lightweight, factually dubious opinion pieces in consumer audio publications, are willing to take on the challenging but rewarding task of learning how these products really work. We need writers who’ve maybe dug into such authoritative books as Vance Dickason’s Loudspeaker Design Cookbook, Floyd Toole’s Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms, Ken Pohlmann’s Principles of Digital Audio, and Bob Cordell’s Designing Audio Power Amplifiers.

In short, we need writers who have the knowledge to identify and promote products and technologies than can deliver a real benefit to their readers, instead of raving about stuff that does little or nothing to improve the listening experience.

. . . Brent Butterworth
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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Stuart · 1 months ago
    You’re complaining about other writers and publications, and your magazine has an ad for “Da Vinci” interconnect cables. I clicked on the link, and the aforementioned cables start at $23,900. Will you next be writing about your magazine’s promotion of this type of deceptive, unethical snake oil?
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Doug Schneider · 1 months ago
      As founder for the SoundStage! Network, it's probably most applicable if I reply, though Brent can throw his comments in too if he feels the need to. 

      Companies are free to sell and advertise whatever products they want. This, however, doesn't affect editorial content. You imply one leads to the other. But why? In fact, if you look at the nature of Brent's editorials, you'd think this would put some manufacturers would be put off and not advertise certain things here -- but they do. I hope that sheds some light.

      Thanks,
      Doug Schneider
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Stuart · 1 months ago
        Brent’s article was fine. What was disappointing is that this was my introduction to SoundStage!Solo, and whereas my first thought was, “Great! Here’s a publication with honest, straight talk,” I was quickly disabused of that notion upon seeing the magazine’s advertisements. Is it fair to conflate editorial and advertising, you ask? I would say yes, because in proffering the former you imply the magazine is worthy of my trust as your reader but then subject me to unethical advertisers. It is worse actually in a way because by establishing yourself as serious and trustworthy to your readers you imply by inclusion that these advertisers are trustworthy — and we both know this is not so. I am left to think that this must be the sad state of things, and the only way to get out a modicum of truth is to sleep with the devil you despise. For my part, I will not be returning, since I would no more trust your publication to speak truth to me than I would trust Caligula to guard the innocence of Vestal Virgins.
        • This commment is unpublished.
          Brent Butterworth · 1 months ago
          I've worked in this business since 1989, for a wide variety of publications, some ad-supported, some supported through affiliate links, some subscription-driven. Every one of them was criticized for conflicts of interest; sometimes I thought those criticisms had merit, sometimes not. But I have not seen a publication with an advertising-driven model that would have been able to survive by accepting advertising only from the products I'd personally endorse -- and it's important to note that what I would endorse has evolved quite a bit over the years. The SoundStage Network's writers hold a variety of perspectives on audio, and we disagree on many topics. I also disagree with the design philosophies of some advertisers. I'm thankful that Doug and Jeff allow me to express my opinions freely, and that our advertisers haven't jumped ship even when what I say doesn't square with their positions. I always hate to disappoint a reader, but you're the first to raise this criticism of SoundStage Solo, and no experienced editor would alter their policies to please one reader. I hope you can find a website you like better.
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    Snap McIan · 2 months ago
    MP3 did a good job of allowing the public to download music from an early internet that could not realistically provide bandwidth for CD quality downloads. The issue was it was ‘sold’ to the public as being ‘CD Quality’ We all know and can look back on this lie. 

    MQA does a good job of providing CD and Hi Res quality again like MP3’s at a lower bandwidth for download/streaming. The issue again is the dubious information that is delivered with it. 

    My degree is in marketing and both the above statements fit with my belief that the marketing departments of companies will often be given too much freedom.

    Another note. I see a divide in the industry between those who value ‘sound’ and those who value ‘measurements’. Both are important and I am waiting for both camps to stop arguing with each other so we can move forward together (we need both!), Yes a tube amp can sound lovely and to say a person is wrong for enjoying it is wrong. Once we can accept that imperfect humans enjoy less than perfect measurements the industry can move towards designing better gear with the knowledge of what measurements matter. I agree there are you tubers etc purporting to be experts as they buy good measurement equipment but really do not know how to read the data, or for certain they are not open enough to learn why a less than perfect measurements might be an advantage.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 2 months ago
      Great post, thanks! I completely agree. I think many, perhaps most, people in the measurement community would, too. At measurement seminars, there's often discussion of "What does this measurement mean to the listener?" I still remember a slide that Jonathan Novick (who has worked for AP, Avermetrics and other measurement companies) used in an AES presentation that had in big, bold letters "Both are needed!", referring to measurements and subjective listening impressions. But there are certainly prominent voices on the internet who run measurements of products and condemn them for some rather abstract technical flaws -- and I read it and want to scream "HOW DOES THAT CORRELATE WITH LISTENING TESTS?!?! WHY DOES IT MATTER!?!? HAVE YOU EVER EVEN CONDUCTED A MULTI-LISTENER BLIND TEST?!?!" Measurements are pointless unless correlated with subjective impressions.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thyn · 4 months ago
    I understand you doubt the quality of MQA. But did you do A/B comparison of non MQA and MQA yourself?  I myself did it. I compared non MQA format (flac) files of the same sample rate with MQA. And I recognized the benefit of MQA, though I listen to no
    audio professionals. They were not bad quality subscription, but I bought them downloading. I see so many theory-only people on the net. 

    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      First, I share your disdain for theory-only discussions. For me, nothing in audio is interesting unless it can be shown to be audible in blind tests. 

      I wanted to keep the column brief so I left out part of my MQA experience. The company later did two A/B demos for me (both covered on SoundStage Global). The first demo was through headphones (I think Sennheiser HD 800), where they compared high-res files to MQA-encoded files, the point being to show me that the MQA files sounded the same, i.e., did not degrade the sound. The second was Peter McGrath playing recordings he'd made that were MQA-encoded -- the point being to show that the MQA recordings sounded much better, and substantially different. Which they did, but what, exactly, is the message I'm supposed to take away? MQA is a nearly transparent vehicle for high-res on the Internet? Or MQA is some sort of sound enhancement technology -- like Carver Sonic Holography, which Bob Carver told me looks very much like MQA when you examine both on an oscilloscope? When I see bogus demos, followed by demos presenting conflicting messages, I get suspicious to say the least.
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Thyn · 4 months ago
        Thank you for your response, and showing your experience about MQA.
        I attended MQA demos for four or five times.The first one was in October17th in 2014. It was MQA encoded song of Carpenters. It was good
        . I believe the song was MQA. Not MP3.
        Every time, Bob Stuart demoed MQA, but no A/B comparison.
        So users themselves should do it. I doubt the reliability of A/B testing
        of many people in a big hole.
        About transparency, don't mix two things. About technology, MQA is not transparent. But in sound, MQA delivers transparent sound. I am not telling about subsuciption. I am talking about MQA-CDs and downloaded MQA files.
        Do you always believe in oscilloscope? I sometimes don't. In other words, do
        you believe the current audio parameters reflect true sound quality correctly?
        Apart from MQA,I love the natural sound of Soulnote D-2 DAC. Its no oversample sound. If you use oscillosope, the sound wave would be not smoooth, angular shape. The distortion goes up to 1%, I heard. But the sound is smooth. Not angular.
        I haven't heard about Carver Sonic Holography. But MQA is not a crosstalk compensation technology. To recognize MQA,  reading Stereophile articles would be better.
        My conclusion is "Use your ears". Preconception and prejudice lead to no good results. Though to be suspicious is OK.
        I'm sorry for slow hand. I'm very poor at writing in English.
        • This commment is unpublished.
          Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
          This is the kind of anti-intellectual, anti-expertise nonsense that infests audio publications, and exactly what I was complaining about. Do I trust oscilloscopes? YES! Because I have put in the hours to understand how they work and the meaning of what they are telling me. Bob Carver has more than five decades of experience at using oscilloscopes and understanding what they mean. We have both worked hard to understand our field because we have a great passion for it and the discipline and devotion to learn about it. Sadly, almost no audio enthusiasts or writers ever attempt measurements or read technical journals, and thus they never develop useful knowledge of the field.

          Unless you are doing blind testing at matched levels, you are not trusting your ears. I encourage you to try it. You can start for free using Foobar2000's blind testing feature. I suspect you will find your ears work much better without help from your eyes. But I can promise that it will radically change your perspective on high-end audio and on audio publications.

          I apologize if I seem belligerent, but there are plenty of audio publications who will happily tell you your ears are magical and that you understand audio better than all the scientists and engineers do. I'm not going to pander to that sentiment here.

          • This commment is unpublished.
            Thyn · 4 months ago
            Belligerent, yes you are. Very belligerent. Uselessly aggressive.
            You should know better.
            And I don’t know and care about your friendship with Bob Carver.
            I don’t deny blind testing. I trust my ears. You are totally misunderstanding.
            And I said “sometimes”.
            Don’t be careless.
            I don’t ignore the specs of audio products, but still there should be unknown parameters. Like T.I.M. found by Matti Otala in 1960s.

            The things I care is the way, the procedure of testing. The result of test would be affected much by that. You can draw wrong result if you do blind testing intently.
            If it’s a blind test, the method is OK? Nonsense!

            Anyway you wouldn’t listen to me.
            • This commment is unpublished.
              Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
              I get upset when I see audio enthusiasts and writers pontificating about measurements, when they have no experience doing measurements and haven't bothered to learn the science behind them. The sentiments you express are constructs popularized by Harry Pearson, who didn't do blind testing or measurements, writing at a time a decade or two before most of the science we now rely on was established. Audio writers and enthusiasts continue to parrot these ideas 45 years later, as if nothing has changed, because they learn only from reading audio publications written mostly by people with no technical experience and little understanding of audio science.

              The NOS DAC is just another example of the faddish "simple is better" belief. Also the ignorant embrace of anything outdated and the reflexive rejection of the new and functional. You're basing your like of that device on casual, sighted listening tests, which are always greatly affected by bias, as research shows. Based on your conclusions, you're casting doubt on the function of devices (like oscilloscopes) that work perfectly well, and on the competence of scientists and engineers who are infinitely more knowledgeable about and devoted to the field of audio than you are. Stop reading audio reviews written by people who haven't studied their craft. If you want to read Stereophile, great -- read Atkinson's measurements. If you read a year or two worth of those, all available free online, you will learn most of what you need to know about audio.
              • This commment is unpublished.
                Thyn · 4 months ago
                Again, thank you for many misunderstandings. I had read The Absolute Sound magazine from late 1980s to 1990s. Not all, I bought some at an audio shop. And bought some Stereophiles. The Bible-sized books. So I knew about The Absolute Sound and Stereophile at that time.
                About two years ago, I subscribed Stereophile (digital) and read about John Atkinson’s
                criticism about MQA. Of course I read the articles you raised, not once.
                And is he still criticizing the “sound quality” of MQA? Did you visit the site recently?
                He still writes about MQA, but not about sound quality.

                About commercial base, there would be many complaints about it. I also have some.

                About technical aspect, there should be many complaints about unknown area of MQA.
                I myself have.

                About sound quality, I don’t have complaints at this point.

                HP might be an icon in The Absolute Sound. But about me, I didn’t trust HP. His words were stimulating, but not full trustworthy.

                What made me trust The Absolute Sound was their way of evaluating audio equipment.
                One reviewer’s comment was not enough. Other reviewer put other comment, sometimes correcting the original. Sometimes reinforced the original comment.
                And reviewers showed their Listening Bias. Their favorite music, the layout of their listening rooms, their audio equipment. And they took long time for review. More than three weeks or so.

                I understand you don’t like HP, but the way of The Absolute Sound had something to
                follow.

                Science and technology are not enough to evaluate audio equipment. Through 1970 to
                1990s many audio equipment which had good spec, but had lifeless sound were made.
                At that time I stopped to trust catalogue specs. I see them only for reference.

                NOS is not an example of simple is better, it indicates there should be something more important than THD modulation.
                Your advice to read Stereophile is useless, for many years I already read Stereophile.
                Anyway I think I had enough stuff to understand what you are.
                • This commment is unpublished.
                  Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
                  I miss the digest-size Stereophile. The measurements were nowhere near what they are today, but the writing had a lot of spark. As far as "what I am," it's all out there on the Internet, nothing to hide, and I'm comfortable with whatever judgment anybody comes to.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lars Tofastrud · 4 months ago
    As someone who design recording studios, I often tune our own speakers in our studios as well as other manufacturers speakers in studios designed by others; I find that “room-correction”, is useful but most of the time, they are set up wrong. The target is flat, or if the user has attempted to approach the Harmon curve, they don't dare to do it right. Even with a guideline like the Harmon curve tweaking is required depending on the characteristics of the system. So even if an automated EQ box could get you 90% there, some tweaking is necessary to make the optimization complete.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      I agree completely! But 90% is better than 0%. The vast majority of audio systems are in rooms where no consideration has been given to acoustics. Even if it has, most audiophiles have only a sketchy idea of how to improve their room acoustics. Even if they seek out advice from acoustic treatment manufacturers or professional acousticians, that advice will vary from person to person. It disappoints me that so many pros make so many proclamations about acoustics, but almost none of them are backed up by formal listening tests. There is much work to be done here, and sadly, as I pointed out in my column, most high-end audio writers are incapable of grasping the problem or appreciating solutions that work.
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Mauro · 4 months ago
        On this subject this is a very good video for all the Pros and not only:
        https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=6RiuwqzjqlQ

        Check it out! Kali audio, ex Jbl engineer on the console 😍
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve Goff · 4 months ago
    As a long-time audiophile with roots in high-end audio, including manufacturing, I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments. I believe in picking audio electronic that meet basic transparency requirements and spending much of the budget on loudspeakers that score high in listener preference, using the scoring system devised at Harmon by Floyd Toole and others. This may involve spending a fair amount of money on speakers. For me this has meant Revel speakers. Now I’m thinking to replace aged Revel speakers in my home theater with new speakers, including the be line for left, right, and center, and f206s for the surrounds.

    I still look at the magazines and sites that review high-end audio products, but often to just see what is new. There are certain writers I would never trust, and often these are the most smug and condescending in their wrongheadedness. I too fear that they are killing our industry.

    By the way, there are some electronics designers who are extremely knowledgeable about what they are doing, but nonetheless design products that I would never own. Thankfully these days they can design circuits that are basically transparent. But they are usually extremely expensive. I prefer to spend less and put my money where it counts.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Audioreviev.dk · 4 months ago
    The writing is just so much spot on. And I am saying this as a professional audio reviewer.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Graham Boswell · 4 months ago
    Excellent piece. Somebody had to come forward and say the emperor has no clothes. Its a pity that at a time when we have access to so much recorded music and plenty of it really well recorded, that we don't bother or haven't time to listen any more. Try listening to an orchestra. There really isn't that much bass and for many people it may seem not loud enough. But how much of todays music is actually performed in an ensemble who can all hear each other playing together without headphones? So what does it matter what the playback system is like? There is no original sound to match. Its just a matter of personal subjective preference. Welcome back the high end audio writers!

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Carlo Lo Raso · 4 months ago
    This is a good piece and, while I largely agree with it, I think putting the lion's share of the blame on the writers for "Killing the Industry" is a little too pat. I agree that the slavish embrace of MQA by many in the audio media is an embarrassment, but most people I know outside of our audio community have never heard of MQA and couldn't care less about it. The audio press doesn't set trends so much as we report on them and hopefully give out reasonable opinions and useful information. Where we as the press fall down, whether we report from a more subjective or objective angle, is when we are not honest about what we find or don't take the time to be thorough in our process. The public will ultimately make or break a technology if they find it useful and worthwhile. Again, most people that I know aren't exactly interested in the equipment that I am. They tend to want something that sounds decent, is easy to use, looks good and is affordable. Too many hi-fi manufacturers and retails don't do enough to meet most consumers where they actually are. Beyond making a sale I don't see a much effort expended in establishing a longer term relationship so a customer comes back as their needs and desires evolve. The industry itself also needs to evolve as consumers do. Hence the demise of places like Lyric Hi-Fi. Audio isn't immune to cyclical trends either, kind of like fashion. If you had told me years ago that a resurgence in vinyl was going to happen, I would have said you were off your nut. And yet here my teenage sons both have turntables. Not because they listen to Spotify less or because they think vinyl sounds better than digital (they're too smart for that) they like the whole experience and ritual of it. Who knows, in a few years we may see a shift in consumers back to wanting physical media because of recent concerns that they might not actually really permanently own their digital media on servers and the cloud. I don't think the industry, high end or otherwise, is dying so much as it needs to better change with the times. Most manufacturers I've talked to have had surprisingly good sales during the pandemic and it caught a lot of them by surprise. The question is what will they do once things eventually return to a more normal situation and people go back to other ways of using their disposable income?  
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chris Launder · 4 months ago
    I remember reading Stereo Review back in the late seventies and wondering , is Julian Hirsch actually going to describe how this equipment sounds or simply how it measures ? People can bag Harry Pearson but the 1st few years of TAS were like a breath of fresh air , HP's reference was live music , not an oscilloscope .
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      Kudos to Harry Pearson for conceiving such an appealing idea and message. But his construct doesn't survive examination, as Gordon Holt pointed out in 1985 in his article "The Absolute Sound of What?" 

      It assumes excellent acoustical memory, which no one has. Even if Pearson could recall performances from weeks or years ago accurately, he's listening to, say, a certain string quartet playing a certain piece of music in a certain hall with certain instruments with their own interpretation. Is this a reliable reference for a different quartet, instruments, venue and interpretation? 

      As Holt points out, Pearson was using recordings of live performances to test gear, and expecting those recordings to sound like what he remembers. Yet in addition to the variables cited above, you have different miking schemes (ORTF, M/S, X/Y cardioids, multiple close mics, etc.), and unknown EQ, compression, etc., settings applied during production and mastering. So Pearson was just guessing what these recordings should sound like.

      We no longer need to rely on Pearson's simplistic ideas or Hirsch's primitive measurements. We have 40 years of scientific research and technological development we can tap. It disappoints me that so many audio writers are mired in mid-'80s thinking.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    todd fetterman · 4 months ago
    The only reason we can enjoy recorded audio in our homes is because of science and measurement, not audio black magic and alchemy. The same industry that exists because of physics and science denies science.

    Brent keeps them honest. Thank you Brent you are truly a treasure

    Gone are the columns of Julian Hirsch and David Ranada who I learned from when I was growing up. Now, a review of a Macintosh amp may be fun to read but no discussion of which taps to use if say you are speaker is rated at 8 ohms but dips to a little less than four at certain frequencies. It would certainly be helpful to write about how Macintosh has different taps for different ohm rated speakers but NAD can manufacture an amplifier that delivers the same current into four or 8 ohms without an auto transformer.

    Just one example of how the high-end audio press uses marketing materials to prepare their reviews more than a critical eye and educational content.

    But not Brent of course, he educates, informs, measures and tests. In addition, he utilizes blind listening tests with multiple listeners and evaluates similar products in head-to-head competitions. Something that was done a lot when I was growing up but no more.

    The music industry shot itself in the foot, by being greedy and not responding to the needs of the customer and now the audio industry is doing the same by embracing the past instead of the future and by denying the science that makes their products possible. And it is probably true that an audio salesman cannot know the Emperor has no clothes, but if you are an electronics manufacturer you are probably well aware of the science, or your gear would not work in the first place.

    Brent has shown us that in current products, though they are on the lower end of things he identified a bass limiter in a Sony receiver and audible distortion in an  Onkyo receiver. Time was sound and vision magazine  tested products and measured them but no more. Now their reviews are purely subjective.

    If Brent is the only one who will hold the industry accountable, and it becomes difficult to find a place where we can even listen to  the likes of Revel speakers anymore without having them shipped to our home, it is no wonder most people are listening to music through their phone or laptop.

    Thanks again Brent  for the great article.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      Thank you so much, Todd! But Soundstage deserves a lot of credit, they've been doing measurements for more than 20 years, and Doug was the one who gave me the idea for this article. And there are many others doing serious, rational evaluations of audio gear. Audioholics has been at it forever, and newcomers like Erin's Audio Corner, for one, are also carrying the torch. And as much as I criticize Stereophile, they have been the most consistent and active in doing audio measurements over the last few decades, and they seem to be getting less reluctant to call out obviously flawed engineering.
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    Jim Noyd · 4 months ago
    Great observations Brent! In addition to your Room Correction mention of Trinnov for their 32 or 16 channel Altitude preamp/processors, they also offer the two channel Amethyst preamp/processor and the ST2 HI-FI processor that feature their Optimizer: https://www.trinnov.com/en/products/product-applications/hi-fi/

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack Shafton · 4 months ago
    Hey Brent, great read, lots of truth in what you say. I wouldn't be quite so fast to condemn Harry Pearson though, he and Gordon Holt helped define and encourage the audiophile, high-end audio community. Perhaps one could say they were partly responsible for the growth in the category. I remember the impacts of the latest TAS or Stereophile issue would have on the high-end audio community. Right or wrong, it provoked lots of conversations and created lots of enthusiasts. At that time, the Audio and Stereo Review magazines' editors and writers were telling us everything sounded the same. That was a much more destructive message to the high-end audio community, which was basically "if I can't measure it, it doesn't exist". That was surely as wrong-headed as the "subjective" crowd's lack of focus on actual science and technology.

    Magazines like Soundstage, Audioholics, Secrets, and others, have done an admirable job of combining "science" and performance to create a good mix for advancing high-end audio honesty and in pursuit of the best sound. However, the real problem that's lead to the collapse of the category is the industry's long standing lack of promoting the concept. Not since "The Playboy Lifestyle" meant a cool hi-fi did you have people sitting around listening to music as a pastime, like they did in the 70's, because it stopped being cool. Most people don't even know what a pair of speakers is anymore (ask the checkout clerk at the grocery store). When Steve Jobs was pictured sitting in his big empty room with his Acoustat electrostatic speakers, separates and a high-end turntable, well, THAT was cool. That message got lost in the promotion of every other technology … even with home theater, arguably something most everyone wants, the high-end failed to promote itself into a position that would have prevented the powered soundbar from being the home theater audio playback equipment of choice.

    Thanks again for the great read, hope all is well.
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      Doug Schneider · 4 months ago
      A great post, Jack! I mean so great that I've sent it to our staff. Definitely things to think about in there about how hi-fi used to be appealing -- which might lead to ways to make it appealing again.

      Doug
      SoundStage!
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      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      Agreed with Doug -- great post!

      I didn't usually get that much out of Julian Hirsch's reviews, either, but I thought his columns were often very insightful and informative. Same with a lot of the stuff Larry Klein and Ralph Hodges wrote in Stereo Review. My favorite was David Ranada, his explainers were clear and entertaining, and he always asked the tough questions and would not let manufacturers BS their way through them.

      Reading (and getting to know) Gordon was also enlightening. 

      I guess vintage audio still has that cool factor?
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    Merrill Audio · 4 months ago
    HI Brent, A brave article and absolutely correct. More so, the top magazines won't publish a review unless you pay them for it, and you only get top billing if you pay them a lot. There are a few exceptions, and Soundstage/Doug Schieder is one of them. Not even a squeak about advertising after a big review.  
    My other encounters are many of the top reviewers from the top print magazines who simply cannot hear.  One of them from a top magazine, liking MP3 over wav!! go figure. And on a system over $200k! 

    It seems the old, nostalgia wins over good sound. I recall a top magazine writing 2nd order harmonic "addition" (they refused to call it distortion) was good. 

    So many truths in your article, It is great to see this. AES is a treasure trove of excellent information on audio and why things sound the way they do. Every Audiophile should subscribe to that rather then the advertisers.

    Keep up the good writing. And the good listening. 
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      Thank you! Yeah, the intentional addition of distortion is appalling to me. If the artist wants to do that, it's just a gain knob or a plug-in away. The idea of some amp manufacturer wanting to put his own stamp on the music by adding distortion is something the press should be smart enough to condemn, but many are not.
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    Robert Bristow-Johnson · 4 months ago
    Hay Brent, are you by any chance related to or descended from Stephen Butterworth, of whom the class of filters are named after (probably because he invented the mathematics of the Butterworth filters)?
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      Surprisingly, that's the first time anyone ever asked me that. I honestly don't know. Obviously I have ancestors from England, where he lived, but I don't know anything about any family tree going back that far.
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    DrE · 4 months ago
    I enjoyed your piece. If you re-read and edited again, do you think your first paragraph makes a oversimplified sweeping assessment? Please correct me if I am wrong. You wrote, "I think high-end audio writers (and podcasters and YouTube influencers) are mostly to blame". Could you be ignoring many other factors? High-end audio is a niche market, correct? Active listening requires a level of commitment, learning, study, focus, and mostly a desire to "sit and listen". That's an even smaller niche within a Bluetooth iem world of folks who listen to their music via a smartphone or over computer monitor speakers and are happy. 

    Brick-and-mortal stores in many industries are failing. It seems an oversimplification to blame it on "x". Certainly, the internet expanded our access to information -- good and bad -- and the ease and benefit of online shopping adds new factors to consumers. 

    Yet some markets are failing because they have failed in other ways. If high-end audio exists only for a select few (like you or self appointed audio experts?) then it will remain very small. If those of us who love music and view this more than a hobby, but a wonderful part of our lives, then ongoing education and learning must continue, right?
    complaints rather than taking opportunity to educate and encourage folks to, as Hans Beekhuyzen closes all his YouTubes, "no matter what you do, enjoy the music". Just my 2 cents.
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      DrE · 4 months ago
      Forgive me. Some of what I wrote was truncated. My last paragraph was to read: 

      It seems you chose to make a list of
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      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      I think the writers created this faith-based, quasi-mystical approach where the rules of science and the laws of physics are suspended, and the audience is expected simply to believe whatever they say. Then the manufacturers responded to that, understanding that they only needed to persuade people of their claimed benefits rather than prove them.

      I blame Harry Pearson for most of this. He understood well that telling people what they want to hear is easier and more profitable than explaining facts to them, and in my view, he created an industry based too heavily on emotionally appealing nonsense.
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    hilde45 · 4 months ago
    Excellent article. Spot on. I second the wish that writers would research the background of what they're writing more thoroughly. That's a skill they might (or might not) have learned in school. But wherever they learned it, they need time to practice it. If they spend time on a review or article, they need to be compensated appropriately. Someone must pay them. As we know from the wider world of journalism, there are very few New Yorkers or Atlantics or NYT's, etc. willing to invest in the time their writers need to produce substantive and (fact checked) pieces.

    Rather, what we mostly get, is information churn. In the news biz, this leads to clicks and "eyeballs" and advertising revenue. In audio — well, some of the same, plus also support of audio manufacturers who also need to churn out stuff. Churn, churn, churn. New iPhone, new television, New Coke. And didn't New Coke teach us that newer is not always better?

    The economic compulsion to sell quickly and often is the mindless economic propulsion which keeps people dancing to the tune of triviality. I'm glad you're inveighing against it, but I need to point at the larger forces of consumerism for their role in all this. 
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    Rudi · 4 months ago
    I wouldn't blame just the writers. They're just providing a service which is tailored to what the readers want. Even more so with modern business analytics.

    I'd put the brunt of the blame on the public. Being an audio enthusiast nowadays is more about being able to own certain things, rather than having a certain attitude towards audio. Does owning a lambo or a 'vette make one a car nut? Not necessarily. I'd say that being an audiophile means being unafraid to face potentially infinite complexity to improve one's audio. Is the average audio enthusiast willing to face the infinite complexity of physic behind sound reproduction? Most would just be fine with something that tells a soothing story and plays "Live in Paris" in a sufficiently exciting way.

    Most audio manufacturers like the audio press cater to those not really interested in audio. They cater to those interested in owning things.
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      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      I agree strongly with what you've said. Too much of the high-end press exists only as a way to put an artsy veneer on luxury consumerism. Want to hear what's on the recording? Get a competently designed set of speakers or headphones, some kind of a reasonable receiver or integrated amp, and your source of choice, and you're there. Simple. Or you can spend 100 times the price for speakers and amps that may not work as well as a pair of ELACs and a Yamaha receiver.
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        Robert · 4 months ago
        That is entirely correct but you miss the point. Luxury is not about product or purpose, and it is up to the media to play (Audiobeat?) or not.
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          Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
          Indeed! My issue here is that they pretend this is all not just luxury consumerism, that it's in the lofty pursuit of some greater appreciation of music. Nope. 
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            Robert · 4 months ago
            Of course. What I mean is if you buy $300 000 gold plated speakers, you know you buy $300 000 gold plated speakers. You also buy the eco system that comes with it: the reviews, the decor, the grandeur...    and think of it, the same thing is true for the $300 vinyl-clad speaker, different eco system :)
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      Doug Schneider · 4 months ago
      Being inside the hi-fi press for so long -- I don't only put the blame on the public, though some can be laid there. Inside deals, pay for play, and on and on has led many reviewers to say things about products that probably wouldn't otherwise. I remember reading one of the print magazines about 5 years ago and one of their chief reviewers proclaiming a $200,000 pair of speakers to be a "good value." I know value isn't all about low price, but come on, on what planet are $200,000 speakers "good value"? I think readers are tired of that kind of nonsense.

      DS
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      Rudi · 4 months ago
      I appreciate the replies, fellas. I worked for a company called Sonarworks for 5 years or so and did press/influencer relations, and content marketing for them. At least in the pro audio side of things it wasn't my impression that there were a lot of backstage deals going between the MOT's and the press. I was able to get us on the front cover of SoundOnSound in 4 months without paying a dime for ads or anything else. We did of course buy ad space to go with the review and the front cover, but otherwise it was squeaky clean. Some mags would ask to buy ads before they do reviews, but we wouldn't budge for that. Some YT'ers would also upfront ask a sum for a video, but usually I could get enough press by just going with guys who'd do a review free of charge (and would get to keep the software + mic). That's why I usually disagree with people who go with the "the press is bought" conspiracy. If anything, I'd say the biggest impact I've had on journos has been by being good pals with them. Obviously having a reasonably good product for a decent price was also a benefit...

      As a writer, the biggest freedom I've had was actually writing the Sonarworks blog. We weren't obliged to walk on any eggshells and I could go on for years telling people that most headphones suck. Pretty sure that anyone who has measured headphones for a living will agree that the story there basically writes itself. I've also had good success with articles on what studio sub to get or why it's bad to put your monitor speakers on their sides, so I'm pretty sure that there still are people hungry for knowledge. Of course, unlike with most of the press I wasn't under the pressure of ad partners. Having only a few years under my belt as a news agency journo, I don't have actual experience in that environment, so I can only imagine how it is.

      In any case, I really appreciate the work you do, Brent Butterworth. With Tyll, sadly out of the picture, we need people who can do measurements and interpret them in meaningful way. Otherwise it's just line art.
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        Doug Schneider · 4 months ago
        Great insight. The publications and how they operate are on a case-by-case basis.

        BTW, interesting you brought Sound on Sound up. I've always loved that magazine. It really seems to be the bible for the pro-audio side.

        DS
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          Rudi · 4 months ago
          SoS has the best mix of good gear reviews and studio stories. TapeOp on the other hand has terrific stories from the field, but their reviews are sometimes all over the place. Depends very much on who's the author. You really read TapeOp to get a taste of that old studio world. All I learned from it was to not be clueless when I was at NAMM and the big guys came to our booth!
          • This commment is unpublished.
            Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
             I think TapeOp is one of the best magazines I have ever read. Agreed that the reviews don't provide much useful info, but in terms of conveying different techniques and philosophies of recording, TapeOp is incredible. IMO, back when Stereophile was digest-size, it really crackled with life like TapeOp does now -- although the measurements are of course much better now.
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    Bill Whitlock · 4 months ago
    Agree with all you say in the piece.  Audiophilia has advanced to the status of religion - and mysterious and unproven are sold by know-nothing "influencers" to herd the sheep to the most profitable and glitzy "jewelry."  The internet, and especially social media, have made opinions just as valid as facts in the public eye and science just as suspect as governments.  It's a sad departure from several decades ago!
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    Mark Lawless · 4 months ago
    Good article,  I think things are changing in the industry.  But a lot has to do with streaming and good DACs.  With high quality sources people will find that they don't need to spend nearly as much as they've been told in order to get high quality sound.  Get some high quality speakers, perhaps an amp with some room correction, good speaker placement a decent streamer with lossless music and you're going to have some fantastic sound.  
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    Glendon O'Brien · 4 months ago
    The new breed of audio critics seem to be always praising the emperor's new clothing, such as MQA, and not doing the hard work of testing and verification required. I'm not sure writers are killing audio though. Hi end clients are opting for online purchasing, many makers of higher end audio have incoherent mixes of audio showrooms and online merchants selling their product with no plan and the new generation of buyers seem immune to the value of true hifi ownership. 
    Hi end audio will adapt!
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      Doug Schneider · 4 months ago
      I've long thought that MQA is the perfect example of things that have gone wrong in the hi-fi press. If you noticed, from the word "go," the print press in the United States got on board with MQA with nary a criticism in sight. Words like "brave new world" and "gamechanger" were tossed around. Entire articles were written about how this would revolutionize sound. Yet no one who I could find did proper listening tests to compare if MQA was actually all that the promises made it out to be. In fact, in a McGill study, in Montreal, they found that all their listeners couldn't discern differences at all and even admitted in the results that had they done the test over again, it would've been wiser to start with determining if anyone could hear any differences at all -- instead of assuming differences would be heard. But the real takeaway from that was that all the supposed sonic revelations that the print press raved about simply weren't there. Now, a lot of those same writers want us to believe they didn't "jump the shark" with MQA. But they did -- and that mislead a lot of readers.

      Doug Schneider
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    Sunil Merchant · 4 months ago
    Great new companies are emerging, NAD has some amazing new amplifiers, We are seeing a surge due to Covid in a renewed interest in audio. High school kids are purchasing Vinyl, Newer DAC's are being released by so many companies. We all have to do our part in supporting our industry. Let's stay positive. I have personally sold new turntables, DAC's speakers, and more to several under 30 year olds. 
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      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      I admire your optimism, but as a dealer, you're an increasingly rare resource. Most high-end audio products (new DACs are a great example) can't show a demonstrable advantage without help from a sighted demo and a sales pitch. The number of venues in which that sales pitch can be delivered has been shrinking for at least a decade.
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      Doug Schneider · 4 months ago
      Sunil, I hate the words "supporting our industry" if it means promoting bad products or misleading claims. That's not supporting the industry -- that's destroying the industry because it's promoting rubbish.

      Doug Schneider
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    James Shaw · 4 months ago
    Good poop. But beware the class of barkers touting fads and chintz for Adsense income. Threatening their rice bowls will not be suffered gladly. 
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    Andrew Hutchison · 4 months ago
    All true, but as someone who has written a few reviews but mostly has sold gear over 4 decades, many customers hanker after rubbish like speaker cable supports and fancy USB cables. Someone has to review the snake oily stuff I suppose. The lines are blurred. Where there is BS there is $$$ I guess. Many newbies must be turned off by this tosh though.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      Indeed. But the industry, rather than be honest and say, "You don't need to spend more on X, it's a waste of money," just says, "Oh, you STILL want to spend more? OK, we'll jazz up the cosmetics, throw in some 'magic' or 'exclusive' components and materials, concoct a backstory about how it's better, then give it out for free to some reviewers, and if that doesn't work, throw around a few ad dollars."

      I know this happens in other luxury industries, but rarely to this extent. For example, I used to write about cigars. In CA, handmade cigars start at about $6 a stick, and ones I'd consider worth smoking are usually around $10 to $12 each. Most stores top out at $30 or $40 a stick, and some of those products actually are better than the $10 ones. So about a 5x multiple to go from cheapies to top-of-the-line. Industries like spirits have similar multiples. In audio, you can easily get into 100x multiples, and many of the high-priced products cannot show an advantage over generic products in controlled testing.
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    Lars Risbo · 4 months ago
    spot on
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    Avi Greengart · 4 months ago
    More of this, please.
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    John Loose · 4 months ago
    Brave piece, Brett! I know it sound old foggie-ish, but the age we live in does favor the influencer over the real analyst. Long live the AES! 
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    Gene DellaSala · 4 months ago
    Good form Brett. Love the fullrange whizzer cone driver comment. I went to a demo years ago at The SHOW where the exhibitor was showing  a large pair of speakers that only have a single 7" driver with a whizzer cone and wood phase plug. They were spinning Grace Jones records and preconditioning the listeners of how great the speakers were. I walked out after about a 20 second very unimpressive sound demo.

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      Brent Butterworth · 4 months ago
      Hello, Gene, and thanks! Just noticed on your site that Jerry Del Colliano wrote a similar piece only a few days ago. I promise we didn't copy, I submitted my text before JDCs article posted. 🙂

      https://www.audioholics.com/editorials/future-audiophiles
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    Dave Collins · 4 months ago
    All true, imo.
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    SEAN E OLIVE · 4 months ago
    Gordon Holt, founder of Stereophile predicted this in 1992  for similar reasons.

    “Audio as a hobby is dying, largely by its own hand. As far as the real world is concerned, high-end audio lost its credibility during the 1980s, when it flatly refused to submit to the kind of basic honesty controls (double-blind testing, for example) that had legitimized every other serious scientific endeavor since Pascal. [This refusal] is a source of endless derisive amusement among rational people and of perpetual embarrassment for me..”    

    https://www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/1107awsi/
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    Jeffrey Saunders · 4 months ago
    1. Thank you. You are right-on. Reviews should progress from a brief overview (incl. price), setup, Sound, Opinion. Then, you can tell me about special technology, conversations with the designer, what you had for breakfast, etc. Nothing matters until I know the "Sound quality per $". Most readers I know skip to the sound first, check the price second, then decide whether to read or skip. 

    2. In addition to books for a technical grounding, you forgot something: Season tickets to a symphony or chamber orchestra or jazz club so you know what the acoustic music should sound like. 

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