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Audiophile Aesthetics: The philosophy of hifi

Discussion in 'audio' started by PHILOSOPHERDAN, Nov 26, 2019.



    I just came across a philosophy paper that some of you might find interesting. It is published in a highly regarded philosophy journal so should be worth reading, though I have not had a chance to read it myself yet:


    Here is the abstract:

    Audiophile Aesthetics

    What little work has been done on high fidelity/audiophile aesthetics uniformly agrees that the aesthetic aim of high fidelity is to achieve maximum transparency—the degree to which the listening experience is qualitatively identical to hearing the live instruments. The present paper argues that due to modern recording techniques, transparency is often impossible and may not be the proper aesthetic goal even in cases of documentary recordings. Instead, audiophilia should be understood as a broadly pluralist artistic endeavor that aims at an idealized generation of a musical event. This positive conception serves to explain away certain debates among audiophiles themselves.


  2. John Phillips

    John Phillips pfm Member

    Thanks. That was an entertaining read. It's quite long and I read it fairly quickly, but I found it instructive to compare the author's commentary with my own attitudes to the hobby and those I see expressed on PFM. There are many things to think about before drawing any conclusion.
  3. adamdea

    adamdea You are not a sound quality evaluation device

    Don't know how I missed it. Interesting discussion of what reflective audiophiles may regard as the goal of audiophilia, but it seems to muddle this up with what audiophilia actually is.
    cf 195 "Audiophiles also come under fire for being self-deluded and scientifically ignorant (e.g., Winer 2005). If there is truth in those charges, then one might suspect that there is no genuine aesthetic merit to high-end audio."
    with 206 "Audiophilia properly aims at the production and appreciation of sonic art, and it is on that basis that it deserves appraisal."
    The bit in the middle is an interesting discussion about transparency, whether there is a real audio event to reproduce etc.
    The elephant in the room is ignored- what distinguishes audiophiles from non-audiophiles is not whether they really like recorded music, or even that they wish to appreciate sonic art, but the extent to which they attribute their appreciation of it to kit, and strategise to increase their enjoyment of it by upgrading it.

    "Someone planning to sit and listen to Arvo Pärt’s subtle, spare piece “Sarah Was Ninety Years Old” (Pärt 1991) will find the Martin Logans to be mesmerizing. But the Klipsches are a better choice for someone intending to host a party and play Kanye West’s thump-ing “Wack Niggaz” (West 2005). Which are the superior speakers depends on one’s own musical choices.

    But will they "find the Martin Logans to be mesmerizing"?
    So now the expression "genuine aesthetic merit to high-end audio". What has the aesthetic merit, the kit? How would we approach a group of people whose hobby was the exploration of different types of paper and typography, and its effect of the reader. How far is that question advanced by an article by a member of the group arguing that maybe the works of Edgar Allen Poe and the works of St Augustine are best appreciated with a different font?
    Millennium and Hove 100 like this.
  4. Mullardman

    Mullardman Moderately extreme...

    Not read the article yet but thanks for posting. I will have a look later. Your post reminds me that I once set out to write a series of semi humorous articles on the Sociology of Hi Fi. When you start to look at the many different attitudes, beyond science, which lead people to become adherents and advocates of certain brands or technologies (Linn v Naim, Valve v SS, Analogue v Digital etc.,..) or to reject the concept of hi fi altogether.. it can be great fun. You can also draw comparisons with similar attitudes which dominate car ownership and many other areas. It's definitely not all about the sound.
  5. tuga

    tuga European

    Interesting article, although it's not always clear if the object of the discussion is transparency in recording or transparency in playback; and I find his take on some of the concepts a bit confusing or perhaps confused would be a better way to describe it. For example:

    However, in the case of purely digital recordings, such as a digital synthesizer directly connected to a digital mixing board, there never was any movement of air to be picked up by microphones that constituted the sound of the synth. The “sound” was in its origination nothing but a series of ones and zeros until converted to analog and played back over loudspeakers. So, in the synthesizer case, the recording is completely transparent because it is strictly identical to the original performance.

    If the sound produced by the synthesizer into the mixing board wasn't pan-potted, EQ'ed or subject to effects like reverb to create space or soundstage then the system becomes the instrument and it's not a recording we are dealing with but something closer to a performance by proxy or a time-delayed, repeateable creation of what the author calls the original sound. The system is not so much reproducing the sound of recorded instruments but has become the instrument.

    This distictintion between production (instrument) and reproduction (system) is of the greatest significance when discussing the domestic reproduction of recorded music.
    The hi-fi system is designed to reproduce the recording with the highest possible accuracy. And because the only connection between the system and the music is the recording the only "transparency" possible is to the recording, not the original event (when there was one). When we say that our system reproduces music we are referring to the recording; the recording (signal) is in every practical sense the music.
    If we use photography as parallel, the system is our photo printer. It has no direct connection to the Mona Lisa painting so it relies on the quality of the photograph of that painting to reproduce the original. A higher fidelity printer will reproduce the recorded image more accurately, regardless of how accurately the photo is representing the original (painting), and no amount of tweaking or "tinting" will make it look like the original if you don't have it next to your computer display for direct comparison.

    As for the meaning of musical event, it refers to the activity of musicians playing together, simultaneously, in the same place (though modern technology does allow for a musician to play remotely in the case of an amplified performance), like a piano recital or a rock concert.
    Many studio recordings are not the result of a single musical event but a collage of individual events which may have taken place in the same studio or sometimes in studios that are located in different continents: a second "nature" is created. These types of recordings, which we can perharps refer to as studio mixes or studio productions, usually consist of a combination of isolated recordings of different instruments and vocals, usually picked up in mono, close mic'ed in semi- or non-reverberant environments, or plugged directly into the mixing desk. In this case, the mix is the music. It did not originate from a (single) musical event.


    An event takes place when these same artists get together for a live performance but vocals and acoustic instruments will still be picked up in mono, close mic'ed, in non-reverberant environments and electric and electronic instruments plugged directly into the mixing desk and then amplified to the audience. Therefore a recording of an amplified performance is still a mix.

    My concept of "documental" recording is considerably different from that of the author.
    As I see it, "documental" recording aims at registering a live event so that its reproduction will create the illusion of being part of the audience. It's how the recording is produced, not the object of the recording that gives it its name.
    It requires the use of minimal mic'ing, adequately positioned to include both direct sound from the instruments and vocals as well as the ambience cues (early reflections, reverberation) of the space where the event took place.
    This type of approach, capturing the sound of instruments and vocals in a naturally reverberant space, is mostly but not exclusively used to record classical music. Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session album was recorded in a church with the band playing live into a single two-channel microphone, though to be honest no one would be listening from the centre of a circle formed by musicians (2L label does this too).


    Unlike most studio mixes, the purpose of "documental" recording is to represent reality. And because realism consists of both timbral fidelity and soundscape correctness it is of paramount importance that the most accurate equipment is used but also that the technique mic'ing chosen is fit for purpose. This rules out both close-mic'ing and multi-track or spot-mic'ing.
    "Real stereo" is the only way to faithfully capture a soundscape; other methods can only produce a fabricated soundstage. And "real stereo" requires that each channel be the result of the sound captured by a single dedicated mic, though in cases where the acoustics are difficult or the ensemble is too big the benefits of sensibly adding a pair complementary ambience mics will outweigh the disadvantages.

    With documental recordings the "transparency" begins with the placement of the mics.

    This page was taken from a old 1950s EMI document titled "The Pursuit of High Fidelity...":



    When Transparency Is Impossible

    An effective criticism of transparency as an audio possibility will have to do more than show that listeners play a crucial role in music appreciation, or demonstrate that they have variable preferences. It is too tempting for a defender of transparency to appeal to a neutral, ideal listener. So what would conclusively undermine transparency? The central conceit of transparency is that there is a possible auditory isomorphism between the original performance and its reproduction. Such isomorphism is possible only if there is something that the original performance sounded like. If there is no such thing as an original performance, or nothing that it sounded like, then transparency would be unattainable.

    When it comes to the playback, it is perhaps safe to claim as indisputable fact that the ultimate goal of a music reproduction system is to provide listening pleasure.

    But if or once we agree that the only "transparency" possible is to the recording (signal) then the writer's argument for a "tinted" (non-transparent) system collapses.
    Most recordings have issues, some more pronounced than others but if the argument for a "tinted" system is to increase the realism then surely one must agree that different recordings require different kinds and magnitudes of "tinting".
    And one must also take into account that most forms of "tinting", even in very minute servings, will almost invariably have a negative impact on signal / sound quality and consequently on realism. Distortion in playback makes the reality that we are listening to a reproduction all the more obvious.

    Perhaps "transparency" in regards to playback is more relevant for the reproduction of "documental" recordings.

    On the concept of "transparency" in regards to recordings I believe that it makes sense as a goal in documental recording.
    It is not achievable with studio mixes, though some genres like jazz benefit from a kind of production that constructs a more realist illusion whilst others have only to gain from the creative use of effects and colourations.

    One particular effect created in stereo mixes that has a lot of success amongst audiophiles is the soundstage.


    I agree with the bit about musical preferences (I'll add also cultural bias and live sound experience) ultimately impacting our equipment choices as well as defining our stance in regards to "transparency" in the playback:

    Understanding audiophile aesthetics in this way helps to shed some light on debates and choices within the audiophile community.

    Which is a better speaker system: full range electrostatics by Martin Logan or a pair of comparably priced horn-loaded speakers from Klipsch? There is no absolute answer to this question. It is largely dependent on the music and listening that one does. Martin Logans are very inefficient, highly directional, and have relatively weak low bass response. On the other hand, they are incredibly precise, accurate, and seem to disappear behind the sound. What Klipsch speakers lack in finesse they make up for with ringing clarity, tremendous efficiency, and stentorian bass. Someone planning to sit and listen to Arvo Pärt’s subtle, spare piece “Sarah Was Ninety Years Old” (Pärt 1991) will find the Martin Logans to be mesmerizing. But the Klipsches are a better choice for someone intending to host a party and play Kanye West’s thump- ing “Wack Niggaz” (West 2005). Which are the superior speakers depends on one’s own musical choices.
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2019
  6. Bob McC

    Bob McC Living the life of Riley

    This thread could be appearing in Private Eye’s pseud corner soon.
    Millennium and mr sneff like this.
  7. tuga

    tuga European

    I think that magazines and subjectivism may have played an important role in diverting the attention from how playback reproduces recorded music to the sonic presentation of individual playback equipment...
    Julf likes this.
  8. davidjt

    davidjt pfm Member

    The ever-expanding definition of what constitutes philosophy is clearly essential if would-be PhDs are to find virgin territory for their papers. Whether it serves any other useful (?) purpose is debatable. :rolleyes:
    Julf likes this.


    The guy who wrote the essay that I linked to is a well established philosophy professor. It raises interesting questions and helps us think rationally about it. There are comparable discussions in the visual arts.
  10. davidjt

    davidjt pfm Member



    You should study philosophy, it could help you improve the quality of your reasoning.
    narabdela likes this.
  12. John Phillips

    John Phillips pfm Member

    And perhaps independence of thought.

    Pursuing audio reproduction is a hobby for me. I periodically try to assess exactly what goals I am trying to achieve. It would be easier to latch onto someone else's published opinions and pursue them. It would also be more comfortable as often there's ready-made social media validation for those opinions. But for me it's much more satisfactory to look at the fundamental issues; come to an independent view of what I am trying to achieve (and understand what is not so important); and then decide how to pursue the hobby.

    A philosophical discussion, as in this paper, provides an argued view of some of the fundamental points. I do not necessarily agree with all of what is written and I am sure the paper is not intended to be didactic. But for me it does stimulate independent thought. Private Eye's editorial philosophy notwithstanding.
    narabdela likes this.
  13. Tony L

    Tony L Administrator

    I found it a rather interesting perspective. I suspect Paul Klipsch would be mortified (he only ever listened to classical as I understand it), but other than that interesting stuff!
  14. cooky1257

    cooky1257 pfm Member

    Press play, listen, enjoy.
    I.D.C., Millennium and John Phillips like this.
  15. Marchbanks

    Marchbanks Hat and Beard member

    Or in my case - press play, listen, can’t hear anything, which bloody switch is in the wrong position now, repeat.
    cooky1257 likes this.
  16. davidjt

    davidjt pfm Member

    I find some writers on aesthetics interesting and thought provoking - Elaine Scarry springs to mind. This paper just seemed so typical of the average academic thesis, written not to enlighten or entertain but solely to add another publication to the cv.
    The author states that 'there has been next to zero philosophical investigation into these issues.' Could there be a valid reason for that? Perhaps any genuine link between audiophiles and aesthetics is tenuous at best?
    If some find it useful, fine but it seems to me to use the prescribed jargon, umpteen academic and other references and pages of invented argument to reach a conclusion that should be self-evident.
  17. John Phillips

    John Phillips pfm Member

    Agreed. But quite some time ago I looked at exactly what it was that I enjoyed about the hobby. It became clear that I could perfectly happily enjoy recordings of great musical performances from the earlier parts of the 20th century with their impaired audio quality. But it also became clear that good sound (for some definition of "good" I have been working on understanding) was also a factor.

    I adopted the philosophy "sound matters but music matters more". I observe others have different views and I don't expect anyone else to have exactly the same view as me.
    darrenyeats, cooky1257 and Durmbo like this.
  18. cooky1257

    cooky1257 pfm Member

    Maybe it's a age thing-I've certainly stopped obsessing over minutiae once I realised how easy it is for them to be lost/blurred, obscured in the human noise floor of mood, nasal congestion and ambient factors.Too many of my hifi buddies seem to be more concerned with what's missing-the meal never satisfies and thus they actually don't seem to enjoy the listen. My formative years consisted of AM radio, Caroline, 208, Radio 1, Bush record player etc yet they all provided me with what I needed at the time. Great HiFi reproduction is just a bonus now but that said theres nothing quite like that visceral buzz you get from big JBL's or Tannoys pumping out a 3d image of Orbital or Taj Mahal in my front room...
    John Phillips, davidjt and Durmbo like this.
  19. Millennium

    Millennium pfm Member

    I have printed the article - but I read this thread first (before posting).

    I will certainly read the article at some point as I have an interest in Philosophy having studied a little and we are an interesting bunch aren't we?

    We've got the 2 camsps:

    1) Press play, enjoy, your recording is making some sound
    2) The recording is God, She must be played to the Nth extent and there should be no small clue left as to what the hell is making the sound from a record.

    When they intertwine, audio fun happens. This is how I'm moving forward with my 2 home systems - sure I may not have the absolute best but if it's a clear punchy sound when it needs to be and just floats into the background story when I don't need to be dancing.

    What was the goal again? Oh yes, Triangle BR08 review (give me a chance).
    The first pair was damaged by courier so Elite Audio UK are having another pair sent and I may get them next week.

    (sorry that's Just a personal goal lolL)
  20. ssimon

    ssimon pfm Member

    Another quick response. Obviously the music is more important, but some music, especially non processed acoustic music benefits more from better reproduction.

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