Empirical Audiophile Gets Philosophical (What is Fidelity?)

Accordaning to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word empirical means, “relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory”. We associate the term empirical with measurement, but it really centers on direct experience and observation as opposed to quantification. While any decisions or judgements I make about sound quality remain subjective, I base them on unbiased observation, which has nothing to do psychoacoustics or the placebo effect (“it must sound good to cost that much”) or, by definition, a belief system. I have no problem with theories that say, as example, that an extremely wide bandwidth amp could produce better sound because the frequency extremes have no practical limit; but, at the same time, none of Audio Note’s DAC explicitly filter the analog waveform after reconstruction from a bitstream because, empirically or observationally, that sounds better even though the math suggests that you have to filter the waveform to correctly recreate the original analog signal.

I worked with cameras long before I learned about music and audiophile electronics. My background in photography cones from the West Coast F64 approach that centers on reproduction and faithfulness to the subject matter. However, that does not mean I strive to create a photograph of a tree that looks exactly like the tree does in nature. It means I try to convey the sense of the tree as I saw it when I looked through the viewfinder. In other words, I want to make you feel what I felt when I saw the tree regardless of perfectly accurate reproduction. Ansel Adams said that taking a negative felt like composing a piece of music and that printing the negative felt like performing the music. Before he worked with photography, he studied classical piano. In that same sense, when I talk about fidelity in the context of reproducing music, I don’t mean that I want recordings to sound exactly like they did in a concert hall (or in the mind of the composer for, say, electronica). I want to feel what the audience and/or performers felt when they played, say, Barber’s Opus 11, and I don’t mean the adagio alone, I mean the whole Opus 11, a generally dissonant composition punctuated by the beauty of the climax in the adagio within the context of the whole work.
I attended a performance of a string quartet at a local venue back when I used a Rega Planar 2 as my turntable. After I returned home, I took an LP of the same quartet and played it first with a Grace F9E phonograph cartridge, then with a Linn K9 cartridge. In the most literal sense of reproduction or realism, the F9E allowed the quartet to sound more like it had when I attended the performance less than an hour earlier, but I felt nothing at all like I had when I attended the performance. The Linn K9 added colorations to the sound that gave it a bright edge, sounding much less like the live performance in terms of tone and other, more objectively measurable factors. However, the K9 allowed me to feel more like I had when I heard the live performance resulting in a greater sense of satisfaction, an entirely different way of thinking of fidelity, or truth, than something I can demonstrate with, e.g., a spectral analyzer. I knew at that point that I preferred the K9’s ability to draw me into the music and not only feel something, but feel what I had at the concert hall.

I have mostly Audio Note gear because I find that it connects me to the music emotionally in a way that I don’t feel with equipment that might measure better or draw more comments about the quality of the imaging and soundstaging, dynamic range, etc. Not all of my Audio Note gear cost a lot though compared to mainstream companies like Wilson, Spectral, and dCS. In fact, my OTO SE Phono Meishu Signature costs about half of what the Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp does without a phono stage, and the Ayre sounds extraordinary. I just feel more when I play music with the OTO at the center of the system than with any other integrated amp or preamp/amp combination that I have personally auditioned. I call this site Empirical Audiophile rather than Subjective Audiophile because my conclusions come from direct observation rather than theoretical underpinnings or, yes, measurement. I see no problem with measurement. I just don’t rely on it to tell when I should and shouldn’t feel moved by the music.

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Author: Andy Schaub

Software Developer/Designer, Technical Writer, English Major

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