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Literary Transgressions of the Audio Community

by June 20, 2016


We live in an audio world of cliché, hyperbole, misinformation, lies, factoids, and general horsehockey. And those of us who toil in this arena are all somewhat guilty.

It’s hard to come up with “new stuff” to say about audio and video. I always feel for the poor automobile or bicycle publications who have to feign excitement over the newest mundane technology, like new tubeless tires on road bikes or the latest super-exciting Toyota Camry. (Do they still come with auto-reverse cassette decks?) The pressure on writers to come up with unique descriptors for every new product or technology is absolutely daunting. In olden times (the ‘80s and ‘90s) we would toil with a thesaurus next to us, occasionally thumbing through it to find a better word to use than “crappy.” Now we just use “the Google.” And, yes, we are all guilty; salespeople, marketing folks, manufacturers, engineers, enthusiasts, and especially reviewers.

A term came up recently, seemingly out of nowhere, and it is what has precipitated this protracted rant. Currently, the term that has permeated every part of the audio industry is "immersive." Seriously, stop it. It's not a cutting edge term. In fact, "cutting edge" is no longer a cutting edge term. From what I can discern, the term “immersive” can apply to an experience where the subject feels “immersed” in an audio and/or video experience, or possibly in a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, or in rare cases, being waterboarded. For audio, it appears to refer to a dozen surround channels and speakers, which isn’t in-and-of-itself a bad thing. For video, it usually means a video display or screen that is far too big for the viewing distance, thus compromising brightness, detail, contrast, and black level. “Immersive” may be another term for “overwhelming” in a world where most of us will settle for just being “whelmed.” Got it? “Immersive.” I am hipping you to the lingo.

Fitness Immersion

Immerse Yourself into Fitness

Triad Gold mini-monitor speakersLast year, I rewrote all the web product pages for a speaker company that I previously toiled at happily for fifteen years. I think I did a nice job, but I cringe when I read how many times I used the term “robust” to describe the substantial nature of the company’s designs. I think I referred to their enclosures as being as inert and solid as a “bank vault” a few times, too. Fellow Audioholic Steve Feinstein and I both have overused “acoustically-inert,” and we’ve both made reference to the ceremonial “knuckle-rap test.” I guess I could have stated that the cabinets were as dead as Kelsey’s nuts, but instead, I went with “bank vault.”  

Some common audio phrases are not only overused; they’re inaccurate. We’ve all heard qualities ascribed to bass performance, and some are useful and accurate subjective observations. Most of us can tell when bass is “boomy,” or “bloated.” We also know what “warm” or “lean” bass sounds like. Or “flatulent.” Almost always, these observations are based upon a product’s frequency response. Bloated or boomy bass may not be extended, but it probably has a one-octave hump centered somewhere between 100 Hz and 140 Hz. A person who prefers this anomaly might call it “warm.” A recession in frequency response over the same band might yield bass that could be called “lean.” These terms actually mean something, but there are other bass terms that are more puzzling. My favorites include “bass attack” and “fast bass.” My contention is that neither exists, although many Smart Professional Audio Mavens may disagree with me. When you hear a bass drum struck hard, the frequency of the beater hitting the drum head is what is perceived as the attack. And that frequency accompanies the bass tone from the drum shell, but it occurs at a midrange frequency; ergo, there is no bass attack. (My overuse of italics is purely to stress my point.) The same goes for “fast bass.” Bass isn’t fast. Or articulate. Those perceptions come from accompanying frequencies out of the bass range. If you listen to a pure 80 Hz tone, there is no speed or articulation in it. And if you listen to it for a long enough period of time, you will find it annoying…

That brings me to another confounding term that reviewers tend to use often; “PRaT.” This stands for “Pace, Rhythm, and Timing.” As an ex-professional drummer, I don’t see how an audio component (other than a turntable running fast or slow) can influence Pace, Rhythm, and Timing. Maybe someone more sophisticated than I can explain how this 50-year audio veteran and former studio and touring musician can be so dumb. And be nice, because I am a fragile, sensitive guy with feelings.

There have been some creative descriptions in reviews over the years, and I do have my favorites. One high-end journal referred to a particular speaker with “the fruit cellar is too good for these.” Another magazine described a popular, high-powered, inexpensive amplifier as sounding like “an unmitigated horror show.” I applauded the creativity then, as I do now. Those are not clichés. That is real talent.

Pong Video Game

Pong - State of the Art Video Game?

The hackneyed term “state-of-the-art” is rarely invoked anymore, and my theory is that is because it is no longer a “state-of-the-art” term. (See what I did there?) Thirty-some years ago, every company’s flagship model was touted as being state-of-the-art. During the same period; in the early days of CD players; many speakers and amplifiers were also boasting that they were “digital ready.” That always confounded me because the sound coming out of an amplifier and into a speaker was always analog. And, as an aside, all that extra dynamic range wasn’t because a CD played louder; it was because the noise floor was lower; thus, higher (broader, actually) dynamic range.

The obligatory, hackneyed, boilerplate terminology.

There are some go-to high end terms that have been (cliché alert) “beaten to death” by those of us in the business, like Steve Feinstein; certain words like palpable, muscular, floppy, ethereal, seductive, spacious, taut, delicious, immense, or even soundstage. Treble must have air and transparency. Bass must have authority or be fraught with testicular fortitude. Midrange must be liquid, which very well could make it immersive. Just this morning I read the phrase “dynamic ambience” in a review, and I am at a loss as to what that means. I don’t believe there can be static ambience, but now I may be overthinking this.

And then there are the stock phrases we have been seeing for decades; usually used as hyperbole in describing piddling little changes to one’s system, such as toeing in the speakers an additional 2 degrees. Or changing interconnects or speaker wire. (Yup, I am going there.) I am not saying that these minuscule or minor changes can’t make a measureable or slight audible difference, but to say that changing your interconnects made a “night and day difference” is unreasonable, unless the previous cables were defective. “Like turning on a light switch.” Or maybe they sounded better “after a month of break-in.” My customers used to tell me things like “My wife could hear the difference all the way from the kitchen.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an enthusiast tell me they “had an epiphany,” which sounds like a painful medical procedure, or possibly a new Hyundai model.

Sliced BreadComponents are often lauded as “the best thing since sliced bread.” Maybe they “punch above their weight class.” And how about the favorite so-and-so “removed layers of grunge?” Or a certain amplifier “allowed me to hear details in the recording I previously didn’t know were there. Everything just snapped into focus!” This cliché is related to one of my favorites: A customer told me his new speaker wires he had purchased from me gave him more bass punch, more detailed midrange, and clearer treble. Upon further investigation, we determined that he was just listening at a much higher playback level. More bass; more midrange; more treble…check. His “order of magnitude” improvement was just a twist of the volume control away. And in the same vein, if you elevate treble frequencies a great deal, you’ll “hear detail you never heard before,” too, but it will be unnatural, like cupping your hands behind your ears. I am a staunch advocate of “seasoning to taste,” though, so have at it.

A common audiophile cliché is to say that a minor change in a system “removed an invisible veil” from in front of the speakers, or “it sounded as if invisible curtains in front of the speakers had been opened.” I actually like that shopworn phrase, and I’ve experienced it. I’ve also heard speakers with real curtains in front of them, and they sounded better when we opened them. That actually happened to me after a heated discussion with a client’s interior designer.

The thing you have to remember is that a tired, worn out cliché is…a tired, worn out cliché. Valid and accurate descriptions do tend to become clichés. And, “at the end of the day,” I prefer  flowery, esoteric audio terms to the old Stereo Review reviewer summaries that would state, “All in all, if you’re looking for a speaker system, we can heartily recommend that this is, in fact…a speaker system.” Now, speaking of clichés, I am going to listen to some Norah Jones and then some Diana Krall, followed by “Jazz at the Pawnshop.” Later, I might even have an epiphany.

Let me know what some of your favorite descriptive audio terms are in the related forum discussion.