Friday, May 22, 2020

Precious Media

Mike over at ToP is now going on about speaker cables and it makes me so sad I'm not even going to link to it. He's going full audiophile "double blind testing is shit" which just makes me clutch my head in despair.

There is a relationship here to photogaphy, and specifically to printed photographs.

Our sensory system is, in certain ways, eerily competent. In decades past there were cases in which Science Types were pretty sure that there was no way a human could hear "that" or see "this" and it turned out, nope, you actually can detect freakishly small phase differences. These surprises have not actually happened for some decades now, so there's good evidence that we, collectively, know what the human ear and eye can and cannot actually detect in a properly blinded test. Which is why people like Mike get so grumpy and dismissive about properly executed tests.

Mostly, though, what we "see" and "hear" is fabricated by our brain based on remarkably shoddy, imprecise, low-resolution input from our sense organs. There is a great deal of content in what we perceive which is not present in what we sense.

What this means, and what I think Mike is actually thrashing about trying to say without admitting, is that while you do in fact hear the difference with expensive speaker cables, it doesn't make any difference whether they're hooked up or you merely think they're hooked up. The perceptual difference generated by "audiophile grade" whatever the hells is real, but internal. It is, basically, emotional.

Mike treats prints the same way. He talks about how platinum prints give one impression, of being "in" the fibers of the paper rather than "on" them. This is exactly the same sort of language audiophiles use: the sound is more "open" or something. That is to say, it's bullshit, or more kindly, emotional language. He's describing a feel, not a concrete thing. He is describing, when talking about prints, things that almost certainly depend on knowing things about how the prints are made.

Blind testing on prints is almost impossible. If someone thinks platinum prints are "3 dimensional" or some shit, you're going to have a very hard time even devising a test to prove otherwise even for that single subject. They have, likely, developed some skill at recognizing actual platinum prints based on pretty mundane criteria that have nothing to do with some fantastical 3 dimensionality. They are, likely, are unconscious of the fact and will read whatever it is they are actually seeing as "aha, there's that 3D effect."

All this strikes me as, basically, a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s.

This seems to me to have been some high point of masturbatory medium-hacking. People built stereos not to listen to music but, per the old joke, played music so they could listen to their equipment. At the same time we have a fever pitch of fine-print making, wherein darkroom heroes competed to impress mainly one another.

Mike gets pleasure from all this, and more power to him, and to his compatriots. Having almost become one of those darkroom heroes myself, saved only by my native laziness, I get it.

In the real world, though, the medium hardly matters. People listen to Beethoven on their phones, not because they're stupid animals, but because Beethoven's music transcends the device through which it is played. People are happy to cut a Monet out of a magazine and stick it on the wall. An actual Monet would be inconveniently large, but might make up for that by being extremely valuable. The client's pleasure in the picture, though, would hardly change. Monet also transcends the medium.

The point here is that people mainly like content, not medium. It is in general a small population of specialists that take pleasure in the medium. Photographers with a special interest in printing will carefully examine those details of the print, and may spare only a cursory glance at the actual content (as Mike did with his first print crit piece. 1100 words about the print he was sent, and almost literally nothing whatever about the thing its a picture of.)

Audiophiles tends to get huffy when you suggest that they're missing out on, you know, the actual music and then blather on at length about jazz for a while before drifting, inevitably, back to the merits of Class L Amplifiers But Only If They Use Tubes. In the same way, I have to say I think Mike and his ilk don't actually like photography quite as much as they think they do. I mean, a guy sent him a perfectly pleasing picture of a church, and all Mike could talk about was a crease in the paper, the watermark in the paper, and the tones.

That's kind of a shame. Photos are kinda cool.


  1. Totally agree and it also seems to be a mostly ‘guy’ thing.

  2. Could not have said it better. Totally agree.

  3. I've suffered from tinnitus and partial deafness for some years so my internal kit is about as crap as it gets, and music is no longer the pleasure it once was. Or silence come to that... But at the time of my greatest musical pleasure I was listening on the classic British teen's Dansette mono portable, made of plywood and covered in vinyl. The only reason for desiring better kit was more volume, as LOUD was good. Hence the tinnitus...

    I agree that Mike Johnston is probably less interested in photographs than he thinks, although you'd never make a living out of a site that didn't mainly discuss gear. However, you really need to handle some master prints to realise there *is* a difference. A friend was the best printer I've ever known, and his selenium-toned, air-dried prints on the original Agfa Record Rapid paper were astonishing. You'd have to be utterly visually insensitive not to appreciate their intrinsic qualities as objects. To an extent, yes, this is "content vs. medium", but art happens in the place where the two meet to best advantage. Which sometimes means a reproduction of a painting is actually better than the original!


  4. You have to admit though that Mike over at TOP knows his audience. I'm guessing for the majority of readers, that post (and the audio cable post) was like porn.