[myth or mithter]

Mythologies

Signs, signifiers and Siren Calls

[Italian version here]

Author: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
More debunking by TNT-Audio, January 2017

"A phenomenon remains unexplainable as long as the range of observation is not wide enough to include the context in which the phenomenon occurs. Failure to realize the relationship between an event and the matrix in which it takes place, between an organism and its environment, either confronts the observer with something 'mysterious' or induces him to attribute to his object of study certain properties the object may not possess"
Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. & Jackson, D.D. (1967) Pragmatics of Human Communication. NY: Norton, p21

Like any group of people,coming together for a common purpose, audiophiles have developed mythologies. Indeed, audiophiles have been coming together for long enough and in sufficient numbers to create lots of mythologies. The diversity of mythologies helps create factions, split mostly along lines that fit with those mythologies. Given we're all perusing better enjoyment of music in the home, it might be surprising that these differences are so profound and held so vehemently by their proponents. This seems as horribly familiar as those differences between pursuers of spiritual truths, expounding stories of peace and love, while killing anyone who suggests a different idea. The virtual equivalent is the vigorous trolling of those who challenge, however gently, the passionately held beliefs of those who troll.

Some of the distinctions began during your Old Scribe's audio odyssey, in the English speaking world, while others evolved in Japan, Germany, France and elsewhere concurrently. The internet has allowed us all much wider access to everyone else's prejudices and ideas. Has this explosion of global communications helped to make the dividing membranes of narrative more permeable or merely served to reinforce prejudices already held?

It is said that 'Common Sense' is the collection of prejudices we acquire before we are 18 years old. In audiophile terms, the notions we collect are now often a mixture of high school science (however poorly recalled), our earliest musical priorities (louder and more bass), overlaid with the formative experiences of our early audiophile odysseys. After this there may be moments of epiphany when we hear for the first time, an optimised system of a particular persuasion. Each persuasion has its own mythologies.

The Oxford English Dictionary Dictionary announced "Post-truth" as the word of the year for 2016. What does this mean for audiophiles?

The Pre-History of British Audiophile Mythologies

Each sect has had its own sacred texts, which like those of conventional faiths, at this early stage in the first centuries of audiophilia nervosa myth formation, the myths appear in fragments as they are created. The fragments take the form of magazine articles. Just like the evolution of beliefs changing from oral traditions to the written word, the writings are not part works. A 'part work' in publishing, is a magazine-like document that over a fixed period of time, is expected to build into a complete finished body of work.

The Encyclopaedia of Audio: in 26 weekly parts, builds into this magnificent set of bound volumes from Acoustics to Zithers. Each issue comes with one component of a turntable that you build yourself and will be proud to own. Imagine the look of wonder on your fellow audiophiles' faces when they see your new turntable and you say, "I built that!"

Imagine your friends' envy as you seem to have audio facts at your fingertips. You reach for the Encyclopaedia of Audio binders on your shelf and answer any technical or opinionated point raised in your listening room.

Audio myths are not constructed coherently in such part-works; they arise independently of one another, as individual inventors and experimenters observe a phenomenon and become excited by it. Then they invite others to listen out for the phenomenon, which the others do indeed hear, for reasons covered in a later article. In the beginning was the word, and the word was in printed magazines.

The mythologies your Old Scribe encountered in the first decade of his audio journey, were the wise pronouncements of the venerable authors in backnumbers of the sacred texts available at the public library. The monochrome pipe-smoking pundits illustrated in The Gramophone were backed by their presence in the oldest audio journal on the planet and believed firmly in bench measurements for the equipment and subjective judgements were reserved exclusively for evaluating performances of classical repertoire. HiFi News & Record Review even added 'objective' ratings to the recordings reviewed in their august pages, while HiFi Sound simply seemed to measure equipment and offer those measurements to their readers. The Haymarket question Wot? Hifi? and the Haymarket reply HiFi Answers offered exactly that; clear opinions that "Product A was best in its class" and there was a clearly defined upgrade path from Japanese separates to British separates. All these titles, until the mid 1970's, protected their readers from ever having to experience any kind of uncertainty, indeed, readers were not have to rely on their own opinion at all. Meanwhile, every British town could support several competing HiFi and vinyl record dealers, some independent and some representing national chains. In these stores, there would often be maverick voices who had noticed that a particular turntable, arm and cartridge (Transcriptors Hydraulic Reference, Fluid arm, Shure V15 IIIfor example) didn't sound the same as a similarly priced turntable and arm (Thorens TD125, SME 3009 II improved) with the same cartridge. Worse than that heresy, different listeners expressed different preferences. The established order might be crumbling. Dealers went further when they noticed that one particular amplifier seemed, against all conventional wisdom, to drive a certain pair of loudspeakers better than another amplifier.

As it became obvious to manufacturers and customers alike, that equipment could and did sound different for all sorts of mysterious reasons, the magazines began to reflect this. The pages of the long established Link House journal, HiFi Snooze, were suddenly filled with debates between subjectivists and objectivists. Attempts were made to identify the mechanisms involved in the audible aesthetic differences between moving coil and moving magnet cartridges for example. Haymarket rival HiFi Answers nailed its colours firmly to the subjectivist mast, British audiophiles now depending on its Belt & braces of to keep them off the wall. New titles sprang up to meet the demand for diversity. The flat earthed met with a Flat Response (later HiFi Review), while elsewhere there was an International Audio Review pushing the high end ceiling upwards. Both of these titles were forerunners of TNT-audio.com in the they did not accept manufacturer advertising. Believers in single ended triodes undertook Sound Practices, while the more generally thermionically inclined offered Positive Feedback or dwelt in the Vacuum Tube Valley. In each magazine (and these are but a few of the hundreds of titles that appeared in the latter two decades of the twentieth century) the reader's prejudices would be confirmed, and new layers of arcane ritual added to the affirmation of these increasingly sophisticated myths.

Your Old Scribe has heard some fantastic old skool Linn-Naim Active systems, some magnificent single-ended triode & horn systems, some superb push-pull big valve systems and many more duff or disappointing systems of every philosophy and none.

What Happens Now?

The reason this article assumes greater relevance now is that since 2016, social commentators are describing a "Post-truth" environment. The diversity of experience and expressed opinions in the universe of audiophools may have got there earlier than the rest of society.

There are increasing numbers of people in society adhering to medieval explanations of the world just as science (recently physics) has provided more ideas about the origins of our universe and our species. Fundamentalist, literal readings of religious texts have become tests of faith for many of the world's population, struggling with the uncertainties of the 21st century. We easily forget that the foundations of modern science and mathematics were originally laid down by deeply religious scholars, which were then built upon by devout followers of another religions. These scholars managed to hold simultaneous positions of faith in that which cannot be proved, while pursuing scientific enquiry built upon evidence. Apparently this is more difficult now, especially among those of particular audiophile faiths. The uncertainty of agnosticism is needed before anything new can be thought about. There can be no progress without allowing that our existing beliefs can be modified by new information and discoveries. However, new does not mean better. New is as likely to be cheaper or more profitable as to be any genuine advance in product quality.

When presented with new information that may support or undermine our belief systems, the majority of us respond in either of two ways. When confronted with evidence against our belief we "Backfire", our positions actually harden in the face of "facts" that contradict our positions. We often turn to the narcissistic echo chamber of our own group, sharing our particular beliefs, to help undermine the credibility of these new facts. This was tested by experiment.

In the experiment, entirely phoney numerical evidence was created for the performance of skin cream and the same numbers were also applied to an imagined correlation between gun control and non-violent crime rates. The experiment involved presenting the figures reversed to half of the sample, offering evidence for two contradictory positions. The test subjects were registered voters in equal numbers with political parties holding traditionally different views on gun control. Whichever party the subjects came from, they responded to the figures on the fictional skin cream by accepting the evidence offered and forming an opinion based on that evidence. On the more contentious subject, those shown evidence supporting their position did not change their opinion on their position. The surprising outcome was among the groups given data that opposed their position (remember that all the data was made up). A majority of people in each group shown data opposing their position actually hardened their existing position. The research conclusion was that data supporting an a priori opinion has little effect on our opinions but data which appears to contradict our securely held beliefs actually makes them stronger. Supporters of either position were disappointed to discover that there was no real evidence either way, but it is surprisingly easy to persuade people that there is evidence for or against their own beliefs.

Two of the most philosophically important texts concerning home audio must be Walter Benjamin's 1955 "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and Roland Barthes' 1957 "Mythologies". Yet these texts are rarely mentioned alongside Laura Dearborn or Gilbert Briggs, who received 10,000 letters from avid readers of his first book.

Benjamin's essays actually date from a much earlier time but form the core of a set of ideas about authenticity that have become the dominant ideas driving the pursuit of audiophilia nervosa for a particular faction of the Genus Audiophilia (I do hope my old biology teacher, who was an audiophile, sees that sentence). On the other hand, the semiotics of Barthes and his cohorts formed the core of the ideas that eventually led to postmodernism (carried further by Foucault and their ilk). Barthes wrote concise pithy aphoristic essays, collected into equally easily carried prêt-à-porter volumes.

In 1954 Barthes began a series of essays addressing modern encounters with the material world and our invention of stories about stuff. This manages to straddle the materialist (it's about stuff), the narrative (what we say about stuff), the semiotic (what stuff means to us) and phenomenological (our experience of stuff). This was quite an achievement in essays about soap-suds or Lego bricks.

Myths & Legends of the Ancient Audio Scribes

The Arcana of Audiophilia fits this analysis perfectly. HiFi is seemingly useless because it neither feeds us nor keeps us warm, even if the sub-genus, Audiophilia Thermionica manages this obliquely and inefficiently. Audiophiles have developed myths as sophisticated as the ancient Greeks, and as ludicrous as anything annotated by Hesiod, Homer or Sophocles. Some audio commentators have expressed concern about the ethics of journalists repeating audio myths that may benefit particular companies. Barthes too worried about the predatoriness and all-invasiveness of the mythology consumerism relies on to maintain its eating habit of 'desire and spend' and food supply of money. When the actual material content of a fancy speaker wire may be 1/1000th of its retail price, is this comparable to the linseed oil based pigment value of a painting's relationship to the gallery price, or is it a clear example of myth fuelled desire being fulfilled?

Barthes asked if there is there no meaning which can resist the capture which form threatens us; this may not be a brand, as in the coffee served in Barthes' favourite cafe, but in ideologies like zero negative feedback single ended triode, or kilowatts of class A biased solid state, being mythologised. The mythologies invested in and by music lead, unconsciously to the sound of E flat major, like Wagner's Das Rheingold moment of creation, to be chosen by the Apple Mac when starting it is from sleep. Then a great firmament opens the screen, accompanied by the stock images of imagined landscapes, the creation of the earth. This is soon followed by the apple from the tree of knowledge with its first bite taken. The world of the audiophile is inhabited by mere amateurs compared with this.

Barthes preferred irony to engagement, so we might be suspicious of his ironic detachment, inferring from it an ambivalent attachment to the world around him. Audiophiles immerse themselves in their hobby, whenever they are not twiddling and tweaking they are likely to be listening to music via their audio systems. Consumerism is built on the gloss of the form of presentation, like the glossy magazines of the fashion industry and the glossy audio magazines of the past. Wine is just one more of the products that consumer capitalism urges us to consume and invest with ludicrous mythology and whose authors share simialr mangled and overworked descriptors.

The Halitosis Social Pariah Myth

Nothing beats Listerine mouthwash for an entire edifice built on an advertising industry created myth, and the audio parallels are obvious. Listerine was invented in the nineteenth century as powerful surgical antiseptic. Listerine was later sold, in distilled form, as both a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea. But it wasn't a runaway success until the 1920s, when it was pitched as a solution for "chronic halitosis" a previously obscure Latin term meaning "unpleasant breath", rendered grander by its ancient language associated with medicine. When the agency started putting the vaguely medical sounding "halitosis" in their ads, they framed it as a health condition that was keeping people from being their very best selves. Listerine's new ads featured forlorn young women and men, eager for marriage but turned off by their mate's rotten breath. "Can I be happy with him in spite of that?" one maiden asked herself. A lot of companies were offering the emerging middle classes ways to cater to their social anxieties, just as many companies now offer panaceas to our audiophilia nervosa. Listerine ran advertisements in many papers talking about the sad, unmarried Edna, who remained single as she watched her friends getting married, just as the next accessory purchase will release the full potential of our audio systems. Until that time, bad breath was not conventionally considered such a catastrophe.

Listerine changed that. As the advertising scholar James B. Twitchell writes, "Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis." In just seven years, the company's revenues rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million. The company should be praised for drawing attention to bad breath as it can be a symptom of poor mouth hygiene and decaying teeth, but their products were sold purely on the basis of social anxiety.

The audio equivalent social anxieties are too numerous to mention, but your Old Scribe will use an example from one of the most respected and successful audio companies who enjoy a deservedly fine reputation for sound engineering. That company changed design priorities a few years ago, in response to changes in partnering equipment from other manufacturers. They based the advertising material for their new designs on what appeared to be relevant and important engineering arguments. They introduced two new models at the top of their range which, at the time of introduction, according to their specialist magazine advertising material, were differentiated by three features and the finish colour.

The products were a pick-up arms and the manufacturer was SME. A large segment of the prevailing market had suddenly changed direction. For years SME had produced low mass pick-up arms to keep up with the high-compliance war of pickup cartridge manufacturers, who were chasing 'Trackability' and 'Tracability' as the holy grails of vinyl replay. SME had to join this arms race, changing their emphasis from 12inch (305mm) arms to 9inch (232mm) arms, as low mass became more important than tracking error. Then they reduced mass further by replacing the 12g 3009 Series II (with detachable headshell) with the 5g 3009 II Improved (saving mass by removing the assembly required to render the headshell interchangeable). Finally they created the ultra-low-mass titanium armtube 3009 Series III. In retrospect, enthusiasts now recognise the excellence of all the 3009/3012 generations of pick-up arms for the purpose intended for each.

Fashions then changed again, and the Japanese audiophile retro-trends towards moving coil cartridges and valve amplifiers became noticed in Europe and North America. Legendary cartridge manufacturers, known to favour exotic materials in their hand made flagship transducers, were reputed to use ancient SME3012 arms as their reference cartridge carriers. Other manufacturers, like Dynavector, were developing new moving coil designs and old Ortofon SPU and Denon DL103 were compared with the latest 0.75g tracking moving magnet designs and found to have some advantages. Manufacturers introduced modern versions of their moving coil cartridges of low to medium compliance but few modern top-flight arms could match them. SME understood the different needs of these cartridges and developed new models of appropriate mass and rigidity to meet this market.

The ABEC Bearing Myth

In order to distinguish the features of these new arms, as well as arm-tube difference, features differences and finish differences, SME decided to specify different bearing qualities for each of the new models. They announced that the Series IV features a stainless steel cross shaft carried in massive yoke on 10mm ABEC 3 ball races, and 23mm diameter vertical steel pillar, heat treated, ground and honed, carries two 17mm ABEC 7 ball races. Their contemporary blurb stated that the SME Series V has "ultra-high quality 10mm and 17mm ABEC 7 radial shielded bearings [that] were selected to provide low friction vertical and lateral movements, while holding the tone-arm motionless against front/back and torsional forces. The support afforded by these large, wide contact angle bearings, excludes the possibility of chatter and wear or damage in normal use".
Models below these (312s, 312, 309) do not specify the ABEC rating of their bearings. The SME M10 uses Abec 1 bearings "as opposed to the higher-quality Abec 7 bearings used in the more expensive IV & V". When introduced, the SME Series V selling price had risen above the initial target, to a then eye-watering 1200. This prompted one contemporary reviewer to state it was, "Without any doubt a fantastic price for a tonearm".

"Where else are the ABEC ratings of bearings accorded such high significance?" demand plebs, stage left.

In skateboard wheels, your Old Scribe replies. ABEC is a primarily American standard and there is a similar ISO standard. It is useful for high speed bearings if it is specified alongside other useful parameters. For pick-up arms it is only of any relevance among other parameters like starting friction (stiction) and the starting torque needed to overcome it, the surface finish and the amount of play (both radial and endfloat). Lubrication and the measures to prevent ingress of contaminants, like dust, are crucial for long service life (ask Porsche 996 owners about their IMS bearing). Typical prices for ABEC 7 skateboard bearings are less than 10 (around $12.300US or €uro11.70) for a set of eight. For ABEC 3 bearings, the skateboarder will pay more because they are rarely used by them compared with the more popular ABEC 5 and ABEC 7. The skaters have their own mythologies, one being that ABEC 5 are lower friction but ABEC 7 are smoother. Boards in the 1970's used ABEC 1 bearings designed for vacuum cleaners, which may be where the myths first arose. An experienced skateboard builder is more likely to attest that bearing manufacturer and quality are more important than ABEC number. Sets of ABEC 9 skateboard bearings can be had for as little as 8 (9.40€uro or $US9.80) perhaps supporting the foregoing statement about manufacturing quality. If skateboarders would need to travel at over 120mph (200kph) for the differences to be detectable, then bearings of whatever ABEC number are not going to be tested, even by warped, off-centre 78rpm discs. Reviewers regurgitate the press release about bearing ABEC ratings as though they understand them or that they matter but all the SME bearings I've encountered have been overspecified for the intended purpose and worked beautifully. Even the nylon knife-edges of a brand new SME3009 II improved worked excellently with a brand new Shure V15 III when we unboxed and played them in 1975.

Among Barthes' essays are those on soap suds and building bricks. Barthes compares advertising for two rival brands of laundry detergent (both incidentally soap based) and their advertising claims. The myth persists, even now, that bubbles = cleaning power, despite the common knowledge that pure detergent produces very few bubbles. The bubbles in laundry and washing up liquid come from additives. Audiophiles only have to contemplate the ideas we think we know, and to recall how often these came from sales literature, but persist in editorial material and get repeated in chat-rooms, on blogs and elsewhere, to realise the persuasive power of a coherent argument, however flimsy. Attempts to test these myths, or worse, challenge them, are met by the howls of backfire, even when it is not merely a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle.

High Fidelity to What?

Benjamin's ideas about the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction apply particularly to "High Fidelity". To attempt to reproduce the concert experience in faithful audio terms, if not emotional terms, is a fool's errand. The history of audio is littered with bright ideas about reproduction of concerts in the home or an alternative concert hall. These include providing a microphone channel for each instrument of the orchestra, feeding a recording or distribution channel for each microphone and an amplifier and loudspeaker for each channel. These would be arranged in a similar arrangement to the original orchestra but scaled for the venue in which they are reproduced. Oh yes indeed.

The development of the recording studio as another instrument, exemplified by George Martin's production on Sergeant Pepper and Hendrix's Electric Ladyland. Other studio as instrument moments include Pink Floyd's uncanny Ummagumma percussion on side 4. Lou Reed's Street Hassle and The Bells were recorded binaurally, on a dummy-head remix, using Loudspeaker playback rerecorded on dummy head microphones. What is truth? A postmodern narrative allows your Old Scribe (who generally dislikes headphones and post-modernism in equal measure) to enjoy binaural presentation through loudspeakers.

The audio experience is often described intersubjectively (the writer's subjective use of words meeting the reader's subjective interpretation of those words) more usefully than when objectively measured. It is remarkably difficult to apply scaling to audio experience, despite the Old Scribe judging system using Likert scales as aides memoirs to help the reviewing process. The post-modern position is one of both-and rather than either-or, how could we measure the experience of PRaT?. We can use measurements, we can use the received wisdom and myths, we can use reviews, to help refine our choices, but finally we must use our own ears to decide what we think sounds better to us.

Conclusion

Devout audiophiles have become as much victims of pseudoscience as the buyers of hair cleansing products (not merely shampoo, surely) with pseudoscientific sounding ingredients tested in 'clinical trials'. Psuedoscience has taking over the commercial world since the purveyors of snake-oil wonder cures, while others use a busload of faith to survive. All communities develop myths and audiophiles are no less prone to myth-making than any other.

"Was that it?" challenge disappointed plebs chorus, stage left,

Some popular audiophile myths might be exp[lored later this year among the pages of TNT-audio.com, as in every year since we began.

"Ignorance is not the problem in the world. It's the things people "know" that aren't so," Will Rogers

Music enjoyed while writing this editorial

  • Robert Cray Band: Strong Persuader, ironic vinyl in this context
  • Cream: Disreali Gears (running on ABEC 1 bearings)
  • Pink Floyd: Ummagumma, vinyl on Harvest SHDW1/2
  • Lou Reed: Street Hassle; , vinyl on Arista
  • Mozart: Requiem, K626, Christopher Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music; L'Oiseau-Lyre 411712-1
Played on a system with a SME309 pick-up arm with unspecified bearing quality.

Go out of your house/apartment/tent and buy more records NOW!
If you are confined to your house, factory or office, go online to independent records shops and labels and buy vinyl, CD's and hi-res downloads Don't waste my time, or yours, thinking about it. Just buy more stuff to play on your hifi!!!
Go to a concert this week, especially if you've never heard of the artist/composer/ensemble.

Copyright © 2017 Mark Wheeler - mark@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com