If you explain the trick, does the “magic” go away?

For most of my adult life I’ve worked in sales in the consumer electronics industry, retail and wholesale.  I worked for a speaker manufacturer for nearly a decade and for a while actually became an audiophile myself.  Since I’ve been a guitarist (far) longer than I’ve been an adult, playing guitar actually lead me into the industry as I had enough background in both music and electronics that lerning the technical side of the business came naturally to me. 

I can’t help but notice the similarities between a component audio system and an electric guitar rig.   In both cases an audio signal passes through a chain of parts that, although designed for a certain level of compatibility, were not designed specifically to work together as a system: you might have a Shure phono cartridge in a Technics turntable, connected to a Yamaha receiver powering a pair of JBL speakers just as you might have a Fender Telecaster running into an Ibanez TS-9 in front of a Marshall amp head powering a Sunn cabinet loaded with JBL speakers. These two worlds share common roots as demonstrated by this 1930 Oxford speaker advertisement.

The main difference between the two being one system is meant to produce music and the other to reproduce music.  The two activities are similar enough that there are plenty of people who have an interest in both and there are a number of people who’ve also worked in both industries: there is a certain degree of cross pollination going on.

There are some people who approach both tasks with a certain level of detachment who view all the parts as tools of the trade, and others who get very involved and view the final system with a degree of affection usually reserved for close friends or family members.  They might even go so far as to frequent a web page dedicated to a particular part of their system or read magazines devoted to the object in question. There is a certain level of pride attached to having the skill set and taste required to put together either type of system as well as a certain level of self-identification.

The two hobbies to some decree share some of the same controversies: tube vs. solid state, digital vs. analog, big amps, vs. small ones, etc.    There are products marketed to both camps that are on the edge of plausibility for some: $1000 power cords, high end speaker wire and parts made of expensive, quasi-exotic materials along with a fairly steep cost curve as one moves up the ladder.   There are $100,000 audiophile speakers out there and $25,000 guitar amplifiers that test the limits of any rational cost/benefit analysis. 

Both activities attract people who look at the object of their affection as avatars:  they are part of us and we expect others to make assumptions as to who we are based on ownership of these objects.  Our identities become interwoven with “stuff” and our relationship becomes somewhat more involved than mere child/toy interaction.

I could go on with this comparison, but I think by now, you get the idea.

Since the final products in both cases are difficult if not impossible to evaluate by any objective standard (I know, there’s considerable controversy concerning this itself, but that’s an entire separate subject.) there is an enormous degree of potential for both argument and discussion when the evaluation system is the sense of hearing.    Humans are amazingly susceptible to hearing what we expect to hear and have an auditory memory that lasts only a couple of minutes.  To a certain degree, we are people who, if presented with a beautiful landscape, might focus on the quality of the glass in the window we are looking out of, or if examining the framing of a house, on the quality of the hammer used to drive a nail into a 2X4 without leaving a mark on the face of the wood.

In advanced cases, as we get closer and closer to “perfection” we often develop our focus to a degree that we are prone to looking at increasingly obscure portions of the big picture: what was once a minute, barely audible defect becomes all that we hear. If only one record in our collection makes our woofers fart or if our intonation on the 19th fret of the sixth string is off by a couple of cents, we’ll lie awake at night pondering ways to fix it. Only our spouses or therapists (bankers?) can determine when we cross the line into obsession here. You’ll notice I use the term “we” here, I’m not just accusing others as having an active neurosis or unhealthy fixation on inanimate objects. Any man who owns a dozen guitars and five amplifiers can’t really point fingers.

We’re apt of attach some degree of mysticism to any endeavor we don’t fully understand via “scientific” means. At this stage of the game, science isn’t even sure why music exists and why we derive so much pleasure from it. Working backwards from that standpoint, we’re not all that sure how to measure what human beings actually hear and absorb while listening to music. Therein lies a lot of the “fun”.


At last, the front to back depth I’ve always wanted to hear!


Author: fauxsuper

Guitarist since 1964, motorized vehicle enthusist all my life, Married with two step children. Born and rasied in Lebanon, Ore.

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