Systems lean: more thoughts on Munich and Hi-Fi

Narcissus, Caravaggio (1594-96)

"Systems lean." So read my notes in reference to the experience of listening to lots of systems at the High End Show 2016 in Munich. Systems lean.

The idea that we are all striving for the same sound from our hi-fi's is pure, unadulterated silliness. We aren't. That would mean that the differences we hear from room to room and system to system at hi-fi shows are rooted in mistakes; deviations from some objective ideal. While I'm all for Plato, at some point we have to accept reality: Systems lean in favor of the sound their designers and owners prefer. It is that simple. It is that human.

These are just some of the 19,489 attendees at the High End Show 2016. One thing you'll notice right off the bat is they do not look alike. These people are not all wearing the same uniform, nor do they sport the same haircut. They are different in appearance because they have different tastes and style.

While this is some obvious stuff, there are people within the hi-fi hobby that want to make believe this human diversity ends once you step into hi-fi: that all of a sudden, only the things they deem to be important are important. I find it best to ignore these people since their misbegotten beliefs only have validity when reinforced by others. Believing you know the best does not resonate for very long inside one's own head.

Some people, like many of the people I saw in Munich, appear to go to a hi-fi show to enjoy themselves; it's an outing, in many cases a family outing. In a word, fun. Others, whom I mostly encounter at US hi-fi shows, look as if they're lost in a maze and can't find the cheese.

Thinking the differences we hear between hi-fi's at hi-fi shows are rooted in mistakes, rather than preferences, is like thinking the differences in our appearance are rooted in deviations from an ideal that can only be found in a reflection.

Fetuso's picture

I agree with you about how people's preferences dictate their systems, but getting there can be difficult. Sometimes I feel like the fact that I enjoy my system is nothing but a happy accident. Since I decided to put together a proper music hifi a few years ago I'm on my 3rd set of speakers, 4th amplifier, and 2nd disc/media player. I won't even mention cables and all that ancillary stuff. It's not easy for an average guy like myself (but I admit, it has been fun) putting together pieces that work well with each other. I've spent a lot of time on sites like this one trying to educate myself, reading reviews, comments, etc. Now there's MQA to worry about. Good grief.

beaur's picture

It's a whole lot easier these days to put a system together that you like on the first try. With all these audio shows it's not much of a problem to listen to a variety of systems and combination that float your boat. If you have any retailers within a reasonable distance go there or barring that plan a visit to NYC, LA, etc and go to as many places as you can to listen. A ticket to and hotel in NYC or LA is cheaper than getting on the hampster wheel of gear. Sure there's always something better around the corner but always remember that when you bought your first hifi you supposedly enjpoyed it. It's doesn't get objectively worse if you find something you like better.

Fetuso's picture

Maybe, but that doesn't take into account the room that your system is set up in. Some of the gear I swapped out was because it didn't work well in my room. And honestly some of it didn't work because I made some wrong choices. I have found that it has taken me sometime to truly understand the type of sound that I actually want, and which gear is going to give it to me. Fortunately I've dealt with an accommodating on - line dealer that took pieces back, even after their return time frame had expired.

ednaz's picture

We really do live in the golden age of audio. The quality of some "low end" systems today would smoke the high end systems of 20 years ago. But... that's only true if your definition of awesome sound is flexible. Some systems create spectacular images across the front of the room. Some create immersive, multi-dimensional sound that's not quite so solid and precise, but feels like being in the middle of the band in a real venue.

bubblewrap's picture

Wouldn't we find at an exhibition of photography or video equipment that even though everyone is an individual, their tastes in what constitutes good performance are remarkably similar?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
If we take a look at reality, e.g. look at the cameras being toted around the show at Munich, you see nearly as much diversity as there are people carrying them.
beaur's picture

If performance was all that mattered most people would still be using view cameras and hoping theirs turned out as well as Ansel Adams. The high resolution of an 8x10 view camera would have been useless to people like Capa, Wegee and Ut as they would have never gotten their shot.

Just the fact that there were over 500 vendors at Munich selling lots of different paths to audo nirvana shows that there is more than one yellow brick road.

Anton's picture

My main failing as an audiophile is that I have always considered "fidelity" or "accuracy" or "beauty" to be a moving target.

No system is perfect, so sometimes I simply prefer one imperfect experience to another. My favorite thing about the hobby is saying, "Hmmm, I wonder what 'this' will sound like?"

I like systems that sound better than they 'ought to.'

I like systems that do one thing so well, it helps me define just how great something can sound with regard to one parameter.

I like systems that are all-arounders.

Sometimes I want imaging, sometimes I want 'live in the next room.'

Sometimes I want Burgundy, other times a Bordeaux. Other times, a Mai Tai or Mojito. Martini, or Margarita. Manhattan or Moscow Mule. It does seem to be that the best cocktails have names starting with the letter "M."

So, systems lean, you lean, Eileen...and at different times in different ways! And that is the best part, the sacred beating heart, of the hobby. Imagine how awful it would be if the further we all got into it, the more homogenous it became!

I always think of going to someone's house to hear their hi fi as though that person is sharing with me a certain world view of sound reproduction. I like to do that as part of knowing the person, and they all end up sounding pretty good, but different.