If the Hifi Guru Says So...
Thoughts on musicality and the art of hifi

Bad coffee, beautiful women

Bad vs bad

We were at a cafe near Los Angeles Airport, killing time before we made our way home after CES 2003. The coffee was bad; a cup of tasteless brown water.

I asked the Guru: "How does it compare with the coffee back in the hotel?"

Immediately, I realised what a meaningless question that was. When both are bad - terrible, in fact - does it make sense to compare and say that one is somewhat less bad than the other? Does it make any sense to use one of them as a reference?

Yet this is precisely what audiophiles do when they evaluate hifi components. They have a hifi system at home, and it may be good or bad sounding, depending on the equipment, on their set-up skills, and other factors.

Whatever the case, they use this as their "reference system" to judge all other components. If they want to evaluate a new CD player, amplifier, cable or whatever, they remove the "reference" component, plug in the new piece and listen for the difference.

This is called A-B comparison. It is what most experienced hifi reviewers do. It is what hifi novices do as well.

It seems a good way to make sound judgements. Many people consider this to be the only valid way. All other ways are considered "unscientific".

But you can run into serious problems here, such as in the case of the two coffees, when both the reference and the piece to be evaluated are equally bad. Can you make any meaningful conclusions?


We (the Guru, myself and our American hifi dealer) were at a Vietnamese restaurant in Las Vegas during one of the nights of CES 2004. In walked a Vietnamese girl, wearing revealing clothes and heavy make-up.

"Wow! She's beautiful," the American remarked.

I can agree that she was sexy, because she was flaunting her body. But "Wow! Beautiful?" The Guru and I whispered to each other in Chinese dialect, "Ching chor lor" (Very rough).

Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder and a person's concept of beauty changes with exposure and experience.

If you have not seen many beautiful women before (our American friend probably had not seen many beautiful Asian women before) you will be easily wowed. Once you have seen some outstandingly beautiful women, you will be more discerning.

In my case, the first year I visited the Consumer Electronics Show in 1999, I was easily wowed! Almost every room sounded great to me. By the third year, I found only three rooms with acceptable sound. I had become more discerning.

The Guru often speaks about a broad band versus a thin, narrow line. To the novice audiophile - and, sorry to say, many audiophiles remain "novices" even after decades in the hobby, myself previously included - a broad band of sound can be considered "good".

To the experienced audiophile, however, acceptable sound is defined by a thin, narrow line. Anything that falls outside this line is unacceptable.


Another aspect of beauty deserves some discussion here - naturalness.

A woman can look good with heavy make-up (especially in semi-darkness, such as in sleazy bars!). Some women look good with artificially enhanced breasts and with other parts of the body sculptured by plastic surgeons. In Chinese societies, many women go for an artificially created double eye-lid.

The true connoisseur, however, prefers natural beauty. Yet those who are unaccustomed to natural beauty may find it too plain.

This happens in audio and hifi as well.

One example that audiophiles sneer at is when absolute beginners go for hifi systems that produce thumping, boomy bass. To the beginner, it is great. To those more experienced, it is ugly.

However, experienced audiophiles have their own versions of unnaturalness and artificiality which they hail as "good sound" - overly tight, "constipated" bass, exaggerated midrange, silky smooth highs, limitless soundstage, and so on.

At CES 2004, we had gone to a room for a listen with our own demo CD. When we finished, the person at the room took out some cream and applied it on the CD, saying it would improve the sound.

This was a product that had been around for some time. I knew about it, including the fact that it sold well, but had never tried it.

When we played the music again, everything sounded much smoother. It no longer sounded real.

Likewise, the big thing in high end tube hifi is the single-ended triode tube amplifier using output tubes such as the 300B, 2A3, 845, 211, PX25 etc. These tubes are beautiful sounding.

But - like women with make-up and who had undergone plastic surgery - not quite real, not quite natural.

No need for A-B

All this talk about women brings up an interesting point about A-B comparisons in hifi. There is no need for it. When you see a woman, you can decide right away whether or not you consider her beautiful.

There is no need to take her home to make an "A-B comparison" with your wife, girlfriend or any other reference. There is no need to make her wear the same clothes or make-up the way you evaluate different hifi systems by playing the same pieces of music.

The reference is in your mind.

Whether we drink a good cup of coffee, eat a well-prepared meal, breathe fresh air or watch a beautiful sunset, we just KNOW when come across something good.

Except in audio. That is probably the only area of our life where we commonly hear people, even experts, say, "Well, I cannot really make a judgement until I take it home, compare it with my reference system and listen to my reference CDs."

Transpose that same statement into another context and it sounds quite riduculous: "Well, I cannot say whether that girl is beautiful until I take her home (hmmm... good excuse), compare her with my wife and make her wear the same clothes that I am accustomed to seeing my wife wear!"

This method of comparison throws up yet more problems. A different girl may not look good in your wife's clothes, but this does not mean that she is less beautiful.

In audio, the same can happen when you fit a new component into your existing hifi system.

We ever had a customer who upgraded from the cheaper DIVA Classic 100 preamp (discountinued model, now replaced by the Classic One) to the top model M-7. Initially, the system sounded worse. Some adjustments later, after shifting the loudspeaker position, it sounded fabulous.

We ever had a customer who borrowed our preamp for home audition and complained that it did not sound good. When we checked, we found out that the person had plonked the new preamp on top of his existing preamp.

Well... if you bring home another woman and plonk her on top of your wife, you will surely create an ugly scene!





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