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What We Really Taste (or Hear)

Monday, July 14th, 2014

avi-hi-fi-neutrons-wine-578-80When I see a post or article whose title suggests a discussion of reality and perception, I dive right in. It’s bound to connect with listening to reproduced music in the home, the stuff of audiophiles.

Maria Konnikova’s “What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine” (The New Yorker, July 12, 2014) provided numerous rewards. All one needs to do is think of some stereo component when reading the word “wine.”

Coming along shortly are the bits that I particularly appreciated (in italics) with commentary by yours truly. A click on the title in the paragraph above will take you to Ms. Konnikova’s whole posting. Like many pieces in The New Yorker, it’s expansive but not enough so that its length exceeds its value.

Ms. Konnikova begins by reporting on an experiment in perception based on tasting wine. It took place in June. Daniel Salzman, a neuroscientist with an apparent behavioral bent, set it up.

[Satzman’s] premise is that no event or object is ever experienced in perfect, objective isolation. It is instead subject to our past experiences, our current mood, our expectations, and any number of incidental details—an annoying neighbor, a waiter who keeps banging your chair, a beautiful painting in your line of sight.

 We experience and have knowledge of reality only through our perceptions. Mine isn’t the same as yours and I specifically mean my reality vs. your reality. I also mean my reality this afternoon vs. my reality tomorrow evening.

One of Brother Dave Gardner’s most telling bits: “And ain’t you ever heard someone say, ‘Let’s do this again.’ Now, how you gonna do that? You cain’t do anythin’ again, brother. Once it’s done, it’s gone! You can do somethin’ similar.”

In other words, that reality is gone. Subsequent realities will be similar.

As our experience grows, so do our expectations. Every time we have a wine, we taste everything we know about it and other related wines. Then there are the unconscious factors: the weather is getting on our nerves, or our dining companion is; we’ve loved or hated this restaurant before; I’m mad at my boss over something he said this morning; the music is too loud, and the room is too cold. These can all affect taste, too, even though they are unrelated to the wine itself.

I call this “the Chinese restaurant syndrome.” I prefer to use chopsticks when at most Asian restaurants (note the quick updating of the adjective). If asked why, I might say “The food just tastes better.” But I know it doesn’t really change the food itself, the flavor. It changes my perception of it, the taste.

Appreciating the qualities of hi-fi gear works the same way. When I put upgraded speaker cables in my system and find I enjoy my music listening more, I say “It sure sounds better.” It’s very likely that it sounds better not because of changes in the motion of electrons in the loudspeaker voice coils or changes in the motion of molecules in the air of the room but rather because of electrochemical changes in my cerebral cortex. Those, by the way are just as “real” as the other changes mentioned.

Just one more snip and comment.

But here’s the real question: Does it matter? Do we actually want to eliminate expectation and create an experience of tasting that approximates blindness? [Antonio Galloni, the former lead wine critic for The Wine Advocate] doesn’t think so. Having spent a big part of his career as a critic in blind tastings, he now fully embraces context as one of the major parts of his enjoyment of and appreciation for wine. “Take art criticism, restaurant reviews, smart phone or car criticism,” he told me. “In none of those fields do you ask someone to critique a product blind. It’s just not done, and it would be crazy. A reviewer tells you about the context, the arc of an artist’s or a chef’s career, how they are doing now relative to before. How this version of the iPhone compares to the others.”

 Bingo! Blind testing of audio gear can be a handy tool for designers and engineers. If they can get a significant listening consensus on the effects of changes in circuitry, for instance, they can make useful adjustments in an amplifier that they’re in the last stages of tweaking. It’s not all that useful for folks who are listening with the goal of selecting a component for purchase.

When we listen to our stereo gear, many things that may affect the experience are known. Appearance counts (to paraphrase the lady in the old truck commercials “Don’t buy no ugly speaker!”), the acquisition experience counts (“Wow! Did I get a good deal on this stuff!”), reviews by recognized authority counts, brand name status counts.

Had enough? Me, too, and I didn’t even get into the quantum mechanics and the affect of “measurement” on “reality.” Another day for that.

LON Little Speaker: some sound observations

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

It’s even littler than I expected.

But that’s a good thing.  LON Little Speaker (LLS)  is beyond portable.  It’s  packetable, almost pocketable.  I’m keeping an eye out for a little drawstring bag to put it in when transporting.

It plays nicely.

The music that comes out of LLS is totally listenable.  Even a big band recording sounded appropriate, symphonic a bit less so.  Voices have great humanity.

Find (or make) a sweet spot.

LLS responds to location.  Experiment a bit with placing it near vertical surfaces or corners.  If you need a corner, you can make one out of a CD case or open book.

Be patient with your Bluetooth connections.

My wife’s Android phone found LLS and connected immediately.  My own similar phone  couldn’t find LLS at first.  It did so only after repeated attempts.  Ditto for an Android tablet.  An older laptop with a BT USB dongle and Windows XP connected right away.  A newer desktop running Vista (64 bit) and using the same dongle was much less cooperative but eventually gave in and connected.

Feeling frustrated at the lack of quick connectivity, I contacted LON Little Shop.  They assured me that “We haven’t had a device that hasn’t been able to connect.”  So I didn’t give up.  It turned out to be the right approach.

“Your mileage may vary.”

How good the music sounds that comes out of  LSS is going to be influenced by the Bluetooth radio in your phone, tablet, or other device.  I note that available loudness varies quite a bit depending on the source device, too.  My best listening was a Pandora feed via the tablet.

Use that input, Jack.

You can make a wired connection to LLS using a standard stereo 3.5 mm cable.   The cable allows LLS to work with various non-Bluetooth sources:  portable CD player, MP3 player, even a Walkman.  I have a cheap Android tablet with no Bluetooth, but it’s very compact and plays nicely with LLS and a wire.  I checked out using a wired connection to a phone.  It may well have sounded a bit better than the BT feed.  (See “Your mileage…” above.)

Reading the indicator light.

The LED between the USB and INPUT jacks has a little (of course) story to tell.  A fast blue flash says it’s offering to make a connection with a Bluetooth device.  Solid blue indicates an active connection.  A slow blue flash seems to be a waiting around for something to happen message.  “I’m fully charged” is conveyed by either a clear red or a reddish cast to the blue.

It’s what it is.

LON Little Speaker is a small, reasonably priced way of playing music from a variety of sources out loud.  As such, one of its most welcome features is that it doesn’t tether the listener to a device the way headphones do.  It doesn’t isolate the way headphones do.  It doesn’t produce 7.1 surround sound like home theater systems do.  It doesn’t reproduce the largest pipe organ with full authority.  It doesn’t fill the room with sound.

For what it is, it’s awfully nice.

Steinway CD player and CEDIA Expo

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

CEDIA ExpoOne of these years I’m going to show up at the CEDIA Expo. From my perspective, it’s sort of the new kid on the block, dating back to 1990.  And although sound reproduction is important for a “trade association of companies that specialize in designing and installing electronic systems for the home,” audio is not quite as driving a force as in the older and larger Consumer Electronics Association and its International CES trade show.  I expect that the CEDIA focus on installation necessarily leaves out a lot of interesting gear.

On the other hand, CEDIA Expo does offer a few High Performance Audio Rooms.  These rooms are sufficiently separated from “the additional noise of the show floor” so that attendees can “get a true and intimate experience with some of the most sophisticated audio products in the industry.

This year’s rooms provided experiences from Bose, D+M Group (Denon, Marantz, Boston Acoustics), McIntosh Laboratories, Sonance, Steinway-Lyngdorf, and Wisdom.  I wasn’t there so I didn’t experience the intimacy, but “one of these years…”

I do receive a few press releases and product announcements from companies that exhibit at CEDIA Expo. I’ll be feeding some of the info along.

CDP-1-FrontI’ll start right here with the new CDP-1 high end CD player from Steinway-Lyngdorf, a company that aims to be “the best of the best” and seems not to think about price until it’s satisfied with the product.

CDP-1-BackIt’s not easy to find out what the retail price might be: “If you have to ask,” right?

In this case the cost isn’t all that out of line with other extremely capable CD players. It seems that the CDP-1 will sell for $4400.

Here’s a link to the CDP-1 product page on the Steinway-Lyngdorf site.