The Lossless Self, By Elizabeth Newton

I big thank you! to my friend Stephen Mejias for pointing me to The Lossless Self by Elizabeth Newton. It is among the most cogent, coherent, and thoughtful essays I've ever read on our hi-fi hobby.
"Audio fidelity is more a matter of subjective emotion than empiricism. But what are we trying to be true to?" Elizabeth Newton
I could go on quoting her, but instead I'll just highly recommend reading The Lossless Self yourself.

derneck's picture

...much of what you loudly preach here on Audiostream will be challenged in that article.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Secondly, good ;-)
Michael Lavorgna's picture
Why not take the time to support your statement. Let's have a discussion of where my views differ from Elizabeth's. You know, something more than a one-liner. Ironically, I find that people use the word ironically as shorthand for "I just can't be bothered to make a valid point so I may as well just be snarky." Prove me wrong ;-)
derneck's picture

Why do you automatically assume I mean it negatively. Like I said before, I enjoy your reviews and admire your taste in music, mostly. Now, I do fail your challenge since I am not going to dissect Elisabeth's article to prove that your beliefs may not be in line with her views. I will say however that the human brain is immensely powerful and is the one tweak you don't need to buy. While relaxed in the flow of music... It's capacity to de-jitter audio reproduction "bits" out of thin air is far greater than what the presence of silver in an Ethernet cable can do. Just remember how good and intoxicating music sounded in your youth, regardless of how crappy your playback equipment was... but your young brain was unmolested by audiophile dogmas.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I view it as a negative.

My idea of hi-fi is to make the possibility of losing oneself in the music happen as often as I choose with the least amount of brain processing as possible.

monetschemist's picture

I dunno Michael, this sounds like a 3rd year philosophy paper to me.

Look at this for instance:

We have been freed from comparing recordings to originary live musical events held to be “real,” but we remain as tied down as ever to our own originary moments of feeling, of loss, of discrimination and evaluation. We seek affective fidelity: faithfulness to our own pasts, preferences, and principles.

Many audiophiles find it difficult to admit this.

Really? "many audiophiles" find it difficult to admit that they seek "affective fidelity"?

Hmmm. Well that explains my angst - it's not generated by my uncertainty over whether the CD version of "August and Everything After" is distinguishable from the 96/24 version; it's a result of me failing to admit that I am actually seeking harmony with my past....

Or something.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...that the author is a PhD candidate in Musicology. Her work has been referenced in the Harvard Business Review. Academics...
crenca's picture

That's right, "nonsense", because by her definition and philosophy, music (and probably EVERYTHING) is wholly subjective.

So it is too easy to turn it around against her, because it is my own perceptions against hers (following her radical subjectivism).

No, music, fidelity, everything has an objective component. Her article is just her own philosophy. Luckily, the objective world rejects her philosophy...

Michael Lavorgna's picture a figment of your imagination ;-)

Let's try to behave like rational adults and show some respect for other people. If that's not possible for you, your comments are not welcome on AudioStream.

crenca's picture

" a figment of your imagination"

You see, I don't take that "as a child" - we are all adults here I think... ;)

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Did you miss that part?
derneck's picture

every Sunday, and happily go to some place where they will be preached to...

I admire your idea of hi-fi. That indeed is a worthy goal, to get your conscious brain out of the way (that's the part that gets in the way of music enjoyment).

The brain processing that you DO want while listening to music happens in the background, connecting the melody (sound pressure waves) to your emotional being. Of course good, quality hi-fi can greatly facilitate that process by creating more beautiful sound waves. Needless and ceaseless tweaking, however and the pathological need to spend large amounts (of money and energy) in order to justify music enjoyment which should come naturally, is sometimes promoted here. Not snarky or trolling, just telling you what I think.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...promoted here. The simple fact of the matter is the gear that gets out of the way the most is not the least expensive gear. Does that mean that everyone needs to spend $X? Of course not. That's why we recommend things like DACs starting at just over $100.

As far as spending energy goes, that's our job. The idea being we save you time & energy, ideally.

derneck's picture

"The simple fact of the matter is the gear that gets out of the way the most is not the least expensive gear."

Very true, you get what you pay for. However, in most cases with such (quality) gear you get more than you think. For example, the incoming noise was already taken into consideration. It was already dealt with by actual engineers at design / testing stage. No need to tweak everything to death in order to enjoy music and / or to get your money's worth out of a component. The opposite is often promoted here or am I wrong.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
The idea that "actual engineers at design / testing stage" have completely eliminated all incoming noise is a theory. In practice, we have found this not to be the case. For example the REGEN and JitterBug, both products designed by real engineers btw, have proven to offer improvements in reproduction.

I have to say I find your language rather hostile; "preaching", "audiophile dogmas", "Needless and ceaseless tweaking", "pathological need to spend large amounts"...etc.

Here's my preachy dogma in a nutshell (something I've been saying for years): the best hi-fi is the one that's used to discover and enjoy music most often.

Archimago's picture

Interesting article Michael.

But I'm not sure if we're all referring to the same goal and definition of "high fidelity".

She's interested in musicology, philosophy, the experience, individual subjective affects of mood, memories. Social implications, etc...

For me, "high fidelity" as an audiophile ONLY relates to hardware "quality" as in fidelity to reproduction of the source whether it be LP, CD, DVD-A, SACD, etc... How I *feel* when I hear it or the memories the music evokes is unique and totally subjective; more to do with perhaps the artist's choice in rendition or the producer's recording/mixing/mastering technique intermingled with my own personal experience and interaction with the music. Recorded music is different from live and I do NOT believe "live" music is the standard for much of what I listen to.

All I want is faithful reproduction of the recorded signal. Accuracy to the *recording source* as best I can (again, this could be the LP, CD, digital data, etc...). And I believe *that* standard can be achieved and objectively verified. And likewise, whether equipment like jitter tweaks, cables, DACs make a difference and how much can be measured. How I react to it is of course my business and what others think/feel rather irrelevant to me other than as discussion of preferences which is futile to argue about.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...the purpose of hi-fi is the enjoyment of music. I find that listening to music is the most effective way to get there. You feel "fidelity to reproduction" is the goal and this is a measurable, objective quality. I see no problem, no conflict, no argument since we are both, in the end, talking about the enjoyment of listening to music on the hi-fi.
Archimago's picture

The *purpose* at the end of the day is enjoyment.

But the *meaning* of "high fidelity" is about accuracy; or at least as "faithful" as we can achieve... One can achieve enjoyment with "euphonia" as well, which does not necessarily mean accuracy.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I wrote this years ago but I still stand by it:
Let's redefine high fidelity as being faithful to the passion for and discovery of music. This means that the best hi-fi is the one that perpetually fans the flame of this passion.
Archimago's picture

I find that definition too broad and unable to help clarify what we're after hence ongoing arguments which can never be resolved.

I think that definition is great for "what is an audiophile?", but the use of "high fidelity" in there is confusing. I think being an "audiophile" as those who read blogs like this and Stereophile incorporates 2 actual hobbies.

1. MUSIC LOVER - this is the passion you speak of.
2. GEAR LOVER - this is the "hi-fi" piece.

We can be passionate about the art of the music. Likewise we can be passionate about what the hardware can do for us - which in my case is convey an accurate reproduction so that I can love what the artist laid down for me to hear. I see the hardware as fantastic pieces of consumer electronics but it's a different "passion" than artistic appreciation of the music itself.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
crenca's picture

This is an entirely subjective, "emotional" definition. The fact (and it is a fact) is that music, ourselves, the entire world is not so one-sided, so "subjective" to the exclusion of fact, actual musical fidelity, objectivity, etc.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
What is "actual musical fidelity" being faithful to?
johndarko's picture

I've not 'eard that Basinski album for years. It's REALLY good. Didn't it get a 10yr anniversary reissue recently? Must find a copy.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
johndarko's picture

That's quite a workout!

Thanks for the link ML.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
My pleasure JD.
derneck's picture

I like to think of myself as a friend of this blog. But, there may be a language barrier since I am a French Canadian so when I speak frankly maybe I sound hostile.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I'm from New Jersey so I'm naturally hostile ;-)
Martin Osborne's picture

The image and link made me laugh and think.

Bill Leebens's picture

The piece is clearly painstakingly thought-out, but seems entirely left-brain, missing the emotional component that is so critical in both performing and listening to music. I think that while it is intellectually somewhat rigorous--it only tells a fraction of the story.

My internal reaction upon typing that was, "if you can do better, do it"--so you don't have to go there, Michael. ;->

jim tavegia's picture

It is her generation's lack of ability to critically analyze things. They lack the ability to concentrate hard enough, to listen deep enough and to critically think about the small differences that audiophiles hear. This does not surprise me.

And then I think of the shoot-out going on over at InnerFidelity and what those fine gentlemen can hear and pick out as the best. Takes desire, hearing acumen, and a true love of music to do it. You can't be a casual listener and do this right.

When you have spent your life in free-dried land with blaring mp3s and crap earbuds through your phone and wonder why you can't discern good from bad, why be surprised?

Would you take a lover of Mogan David to a wine tasting party? Pick the best one you can find, sir, and he is running over to the gallon jug.

crenca's picture

I might have agreed with some of it (at least the part about "fidelity" being an entirely subjective "feeling" and completely over-hyped) - until about 3 months ago. That's when I purchased a quality headphone and DAC/Amp (JDS Labs C5D + NAD Visio HP50's). I used to be a $20 ear-bud and mp3 guy. No longer, now I can HEAR the difference, and for the first time I can listen to Jazz, Classical, and other forms of acoustic music. A violin sounds like a violin, and not a screeching cat!

I also took that NPR test, and got most of it right (I think I flunked the poorly recorded Neil Young track - most did, but that was the point I think) with my new gear. I tried it with my old gear - true, it all sounds bad and I could not tell any difference.

I also am a subscriber to Tidal now. Occasionally, I will be trying out a new artist/track and say to myself "something is wrong". I then check the "hi-fi" indicator and it is almost always off (yes, Tidal is not 100% CD SQ). With my old gear, I of course would not have been able to hear this difference.

Michael, I think you got caught up in the writing, and the fact that you are philosophically inclined to agree with her (you are probably a radical subjectivist about everything - including much more important things than music and "fidelity").

Contrary to the authors philosophy, their is an objective world, and our perception of it is not entirely subjective. Those who claim otherwise (such as the author of the linked article) are spouting philosophy, not truth.

To be perfectly blunt, you promotion of this sort of thinking is contrary to your otherwise good site and work IMO.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I'm trying to promote thinking.
crenca's picture

That's what I and most of the others who posted here did, we "think". We thought about the radical philosophy behind the authors perspective, thought about it some more, identified it (it is rather obvious to any of us with backgrounds in philosophy), and stated why we disagree. That's thinking for you.

By the way, she might not be all that self conscious of the presuppositions behind the main thrust of her thesis...

Michael Lavorgna's picture
The idea that we cannot even read/entertain thoughts other than our own and by doing so "you promotion of this sort of thinking is contrary to your otherwise good site and work IMO." strikes me as nonsense.
crenca's picture

Is what happens if you do not take her assertions with all the seriousness they deserve. Allow me to quote:

"...We know the concept of fidelity to be a sham..." and "Listening for fidelity is not about empirical comparison between two measurements, but about similarity, or resonance, between two emotional experiences. Fidelity is not something absolute but something dreamed, sensed, and felt."

Once it fidelity is negated as anything real (at best a subjective artifact of the psychological self), then it becomes a subject for a pseudo-marxist political interpretation:

"How we listen seems to echo, if not dictate, how we think about the world. Though audiophiles’ obsession can border on egomania, their resistance to low quality is instructive, a form of conscious listening that, at best, may be likened to a kind of political consciousness."

And a subjectivist pseudo psychologicalism:

"Affective fidelity reframes what is false in sound as a byproduct of our own subjectivity rather than some flaw of sound design...To cope with loss of all kinds, we aestheticize loss as a gain...Perhaps audiophiles are concerned less with loss of quality than with loss of motivation to recover from that loss..."

I suppose in our "hyper-sensitive" age disagreeing with someone, is not as common as it used to be, but I am unapologetic about it (honesty demands it). I reject the idea that "fidelity" is mostly, let alone entirely subjective (though it surely has a subjective component - we are persons after all). I reject the idea that perceiving the reality of fidelity is a psychological need, or worse a political need or impulse on my part.

Nope, fidelity can not be explained in these categories (no matter how popular they are in certain academic circles)...

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...when you speak of fidelity in hi-fi, what are we being faithful to?
crenca's picture

That is, the Real. Reality, is not a mere pyschological state of mind (as the author explicitly argues with reference to "fidelity", and seems to presuppose in general/implicitly).

Thus, when I perceive (through imperfect senses) reality (such as music that is to a greater or lessor degree *fidelis* to real instruments playing, real persons singing, etc.) it is not a *mere* subjective evaluation. No, it rather reflective of a reality outside ourselves.

I won't get into a argument that is pure scientism (as seems most common based on my limited experience with the "audiophile" press and blogs). One can be a realist and not be an arm chair "scientist".

I also won't get into this or that about "the audio chain" and what not. I am a audiophile "novice". I only threw out my mp3's three months ago.

I simply want to affirm that what I perceive is real, and not an artifact or illusion of my psychology. Audio fidelity is not "a sham" as the author asserts - on the contrary...

Michael Lavorgna's picture it ignores reality. If you were to ask 50 people what hi-fi most faithfully reproduces the sound of music, you'll get 50 different answers. You also may want to read Daniel Levintin's "This Is Your Brain On Music" where you'll learn that a recording is its own "reality" especially in those cases where there was no musical event being recorded.
crenca's picture

However, my first thought is what is "simplistic" is the expectation that perception of anything requires a "simple" agreement for something to be real, objective. Nothing works that way. Does not mean that reality is negated and a radical subjectivism is the truth...

Is Mr. Levintin take a radical subjectivist approach? The title use of "Your Brain" would certainly suggest that he does...I just look him up, he is a modern "cognative psychologist" so the answer is almost certainly yes...

Michael Lavorgna's picture
For someone new to this hobby, you sure do carry a lot of excess baggage.

The truth in terms of listening to music on the hi-fi is we listen for pleasure. Pleasure being about as radically subjective a thing as any thing. If you'd like to believe that you have achieved some objective goal with your hi-fi, and you are therefore closer to "reality" than someone else, have at it. Just realize that outside yourself, your hi-fi reality doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed-up world ;-)

crenca's picture

You mean a familiarity with the current in vogue philosophy(s) and modes of thought in academia, then guilty as charged. I agree with you that we "listen for pleasure" (though I would also add joy, which is not as a subjectively laden concept classically understood), I disagree with that the *cause* of said joy is itself "radically subjective". In other words, the source (music, sound) is an object that has a real qualities (one of which is fidelity), and yes this cause and it's characteristics are most certainly "outside myself".

I also agree, musical fidelity is not a very important thing ultimately in "this crazy mixed-up world".

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...I meant baggage.

If by "the source" you are referring to a recording, then I'd say the notion of fidelity as a "real quality" doesn't apply. Let's remember that people make recordings and there are many subjective decisions that go into the recording process. Just look at different miking techniques for one easy example, not to mention the choice of mic, venue, etc. Then there's one's choice of music which is paramount to everything else.

If you'd like make the argument that the recordings of the music you listen to, listened through your hi-fi bring you joy and pleasure, I'd say that's all that matters. If you want to say that these same recordings of the music you listen to, listened through your hi-fi will bring everyone else either the same amount of joy and pleasure or the amount of joy and pleasure related to those characteristics which are "most certainly outside" yourself, I'd say you have either made an error in judgement or a pointless point.

crenca's picture

"If by "the source" you are referring to a recording, then I'd say the notion of fidelity as a "real quality" doesn't apply."

This is demonstratably (and thus objectively) false. If I record a person playing a piano on the one hand, and an elephant with flatulence on the other, and you tell me they "have no real qualities", then that means people can not in fact distinguish an elephant fart from a piano in principle and practice. This is absurd of course. Yes yes yes, the recording of these two things can be of greater or lessor quality/fidelity, but that does not make the recording and it's interpretation and identification a radically subjective "state of mind". On the contrary, fidelity is real and objective.

Such radical subjectivity quickly breaks down into absurdity, which is why "normal people" laugh behind our philosophical and academic backs so often. It is NOT the reason they reject something called "hi-res" and "settle" for their compressed, low res, low fidelity music and audio chain.

This "debate" (such as it is) has too much "if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound" quality to it, which is another reason why it is not very important... ;)

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Does it sound like a piano? E♭perhaps?

This is no debate since we are not communicating. I've lost interest in trying.

crenca's picture

...Not it if it has some degree of fidelity ;)

We are communicating, we just have different understandings of reality, mind, perception, etc. It's quite common actually, though academics are too often perplexed when folks understand and then reject their philosophy - they too often attribute it to an "ill will" of one type or another.

The "common man" is at once less educated and more wise, in that he does not usually engage radical philosophies directly, instead understanding there are better things to do with his time and intellect.

Here is one for you - I agree with those who believe "beauty" is objective, and not a mere (and ever changing/changeable) state of the organic brain (which coincidentally is almost everyone who has ever lived). Thus, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is untrue, and a species of the radical subjectivism that is so much a part of "popular culture" now. This realism and objectivity was widely understood by all of our ancestors until about 3 generations ago. The "common man" understands this as well, though he can hardly articulate it - he simply knows that the telephone pole wrapped in foil and bald tires that is now in front of city hall (and that his town council paid good money for) is not "art" :)

Michael Lavorgna's picture
You are an irrational objectivist ;-)
emnewton's picture

Hello Michael, thanks so much for sharing my essay with your friends and colleagues. I am so delighted to know that it has prompted some passionate discussion among you all. As a fellow music lover, I find the issue of fidelity to be endlessly fascinating.

I must say that some of the responses to my essay make me wonder if the writer of the response even read my essay once through, let alone more than once! In philosophy, and many other fields, it is common practice to read a dense piece of writing multiple times in order to fully understand the author's point of view and overall message. Perhaps this practice is analogous to the way a recording engineer might listen to a recording in many different rooms or spaces, with different equipment, to better hear the recording in all its richness and ultimately improve our experience of it?

Though my training is as a historian, not as an engineer, I'd like to note that I am an avid listener, owning not one but *four* different pairs of headphones -- and this is not to mention the various speaker systems I have owned over the years. My two, nearly three, degrees in music have attuned me to many subtle gradations when listening, including not only elements like EQ but also intonation, phrasing, and other "purely" musical qualities.

As you could probably surmise from my article, I don't actually think that formal education indicates that a person is any smarter than the next guy (or girl!), and that it is rather a useful aid in gaining knowledge, but the comments here suggest that you all are concerned very much with credentials, which is why I note them here for you. Don't worry, this experience is not unfamiliar to me -- you can likely imagine that, as a young woman, my credibility and intellect are constantly being called into question!

That said, I'd like to reiterate that I am so very grateful that you all have engaged closely with my work. You are exactly the community with whom I hoped to connect!

Thanks to Michael again for sharing, and my very best wishes to you all.

Happy listening,


Michael Lavorgna's picture
I shared your thought-provoking article with the hope that it would provoke thought and ideally discussion. I'm afraid my expectations were for the most part unrealistic.

Passion in our hi-fi hobby equates, for some people, to standing on one side or another of an imaginary divide where being "right" is far more important than thinking outside of that box. Oh well.

I look forward to hearing more from you.


crenca's picture

In what way? Radical subjectivism is a well trodden road in Academia and life - and one that is rejected by most folks for very solid reasons...

Michael Lavorgna's picture hardly an argument.
crenca's picture

A comment box on a site such as this is hardly the place for a philosophy 101 explication of "radical subjectivism", or "objectivity", or "realism", "nature vs nuture" or any other major understanding of life, the universe, and everything (including human perception and music) I would think.

If however you want me to, I can post easy to find resources on the web that would give a person a basic understanding. Somehow I don't think that is what you are wanting. It strikes me you want agreement (I unapologetically disagree) and of course decency - I never disparaged the author in any way. I simply reject her thesis (for reasons already stated)...

Michael Lavorgna's picture
So you cannot explain yourself? I didn't think so.
crenca's picture

You want a philosophy 101 introduction to a philosophical position/school (and the necessary definitions/background to grasp it), I can do that. However as you know, it's not comment box/sound bite material. Are you suggesting I submit an article?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I am not interested in a philosophy 101 bla, bla, bla. I wanted you to explain your position as it relates to the article under discussion. We finally seem to be getting there in your other response.
crenca's picture

Is not thought of as an attack on your person! I simply reject the presuppositions (the philosophy of mind, reality, etc.) that lays behind your rejection of anything called "fidelity" being objective, or that it is anything more than a mere psychological event.

Thus, I do not believe your main points hold together though I do appreciate the energy you put into the article....

Michael Lavorgna's picture
"Her PhD is nonsense". You wrote that.
crenca's picture

...of what happens when one take radical subjectivity to it's logical conclusion (I thought it was a rather obvious thought exercise). Subjectively, I can reject her credentials for entirely arbitrary reasons. Perhaps I have a political grudge, or perhaps I don't like the fact that the sky is blue - it does not matter...

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Here's a thought experiment for you -- try explaining your position.
Jarcher's picture

Thanks for sharing the article - definitely thought provoking - a lot of interesting ideas worth exploring for the open minded. But if we are to accept the premise that referring to "fidelity" is just an attempt to confirm our own past biases and preferences, where does that leave reviews and reviewers? Does it make sense to even say that gear A is any better at reproducing sound - say the sound of a piano or voice - than gear B? What basis do we have to make any meaningful conclusions? Or do we qualify the conclusions as saying : over the review period it agreed or disagreed with my biases / preferences, but your mileage may may mine depending on whether my emotional state was or will be different. Seems like a slippery slope.....

I'm an admitted "as you like it" listener and don't stress measurements etc. But on the other I don't claim that my preferences in musical reproduction represent "fidelity" - if anything they probably don't as I find a lot of "real" amplified music really loud and bright. But in advising others about hifi purchases I have to be not only cognizant that both I and the customer may have preferences, sometimes quite different, on sound reproduction, but that in end there probably is some nebulous middle ground that we can agree is "neutral" to work from. Otherwise there's not much to talk about other than each of us demoing it for ourselves and coming to our own conclusions. Which while preferable and ideal, is not often a practical starting point. I can't answer every inquiry with : you'll have to listen for yourself - I can't tell you anything objectively true about it. A. Interesting tactic to get the customer to come in, but not very practical.

So again - if we are to accept the articles conclusions, where does that leave us?