What's That Noise PK?

Phenomenology of Musical Experience

what you hear may not be what I hear

Manufacturer: Human Evolution (Lamarckian or Darwinian or Epigenetic) or Deity (may your God go with you)
Price: irrelevant but value is priceless YMMV
Reviewer: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: Summer-Autumn 2017

What's that noise PK?

What IS that noise?
To your Old Scribe it could be music.
To you it could be noise that you just want your Old Scribe to turn down (in which case you're likely to be a parent of adolescents or partner of an audiophile).
Jazz Drummer Paul Humphrey asks "What's that noise PK?" (b-side of Northern Soul favourite Cochise). What is he asking about? Why does it matter to TNT-audio.com readers? Perhaps PK means 'Peak', in which case Peak to Peak is only about 1:1.141 (the square root of 2) of the energy of numerically similar RMS values, which looks like it could be less disturbing to your poor old ears. Then it will be that much less satisfying to Old Scribe ears. Ho hum. What is the point of reading about music and audio?

A quick glance at the size and shape of other people's ears (actually their pinnae, the visible part that acts as horn loading for the ear canal) is enough to indicate that we must all hear things differently. In addition to this we all have different musical experiences and different educational experiences (formal and informal) that change the way we listen to music. Those of us schooled in childhood to clap along with the rhythm, or to follow written music with our finger, will listen differently from someone learning chords from charts and trying to play along with records. Those with no formal training in music but an intuitive passion for it will bring different a priori experiences. Some may not enjoy recorded music but love attending live performances anywhere from the local bar to the national opera house. Others may have come to music through recordings and whose experience of live music is always internally referenced to the familiar recorded performance.

Those who have tried to improve their experience of recorded music, likely to be readers of these pages, will have their own unique history of that journey. This applies just as much, if not more so, to reviewers and writers of audio opinions (refraining from the word wisdom at this point). Those of us who subscribed to the numerous comics in the Hi-Fi heyday, soon got to learn that some writers changed direction every month as they became newly excited about some aspect or other of audio reproduction, while others ploughed a consistent furrow seeking improvements in the same areas, time after time. A third group, who we may consider now to be éminince grise, tended to eschew the winds of trends and try to express pragmatic, if less exciting, opinions of equipment under review. We learn, by familiarity, the prejudices of this group and continue to value their opinions automatically, while we may want to try for ourselves to check out the validity of the enthusiasms of the other groups. Each one of them has a set of preconceptions, which wax and wane in relation to each other over time, but fundamentally built on their own personal audio journey.

Many years ago your Old Scribe offered some ideas about the unreliability of reported listening experiences. Not only are the listening experiences inconsistent between individuals, but they are inconsistent between episodes and between descriptions of those episodes. All sorts of theories are proposed for why our systems seem to sound different at different times of the day or different times of the year. Numerous external factors, from sagging mains voltages to ambient temperature, have been proposed for these phenomena. Much more likely is the mood of the listener, the state of their ear-wax and the expectations they bring today to the experience of listening to music on their audio system.

Personality or phenomenology?

In the Western world, theories of 'personality' prevail, which tend to locate any differences of perception within individuals. An example might be attributing 'Seasonal Affective Disorder' n(SAD) to an individual's sensitivity to the changing seasons. The evolutionarily recent habit (just 200 years) of living and working by clocks could equally be considered to be primarily responsible. Could SAD instead be attributed to being forced to rise from our beds in darkness in the Winter months, and then to work every day well beyond the time our melatonin is triggered by dusk's falling light levels? Despite this dominant notion of the locus of experience being embedded in the individual, the Western Genus Audiophilia defaults to a systemic view that audio changes must be due to mains voltage sag or mains noise pollution causing falling sound quality at certain times of the day.

Within the Genus Audiophilia there exists many species of audiophile. Each species tends to prioritise certain characteristics of performance, based on formative experiences of pleasure or irritation. Because audiophools tend to be human beings, who are primarily pattern makers (That's how come we've evolved to be so effective at controlling our environment in the cause of our continued survival), audiophiles attempt to attribute cause and effect, rational linear explanations for their experiences. Even within 3 decades, within similar philosophical traditions, there seem to be almost as many theories as authors, and few could encapsulate the experience of ackshully listening to musik.

More recently this has evolved, with the advent of online forums and unedited review sites, to include an additional layer of opinions, primarily being the repetition of existing theories that seem to fit the writer's current experience. This has also evolved, equally due to the advent of online forums and unedited review sites. to enable opinions outside existing hegemonies, to be expressed. This also leads to new groups of audiophiles noticing that these ideas fit their own experience better than the dominant theories expressed in advertising driven media. This changes the a priori expectations of the audiophile entering a HiFi shop or a room at a show.

On one visit to the splendid HiFi Wigwam show meeting the Wammers prompted fresh ideas. Here was a show that was by audiophiles, only very few of whom were trying to sell product. Many were trying to sell their philosophy as a way of affirming, by definitional ceremony and outsider witnessing, their decisions and opinions. They were trying to transform their doubt into authoritative doubt, to arrive at the "I do believe I know a lot but I am still open to new ideas, but..." position.

The theme of that show seemed to be idler drive turntables. There was a time when most homes would have hosted an idler drive turntable or two, in the radiogram and the Dansette. Just a decade after that time, by the 1970's, the only mention of idler drive turntables in the HiFi Year Books, was for products like Black Knight Rumblecure. In 1976 punk rock and the Linn Sondek LP12 were the big news for home music lovers. 40 years later the idler drive turntable was back, ancient 50 year old examples being resurrected by the amateur heirs and successors of Black Knight Rumblecure who may also have once been those 1970's punks.

The Wammers (and the online forums and small commercial operations) have almost as many solutions to making those old turntables work as there were examples of the breed there. There are closed plinth boxes, lightweight (even MDF aaargh) planks, sophisticated isolation and decoupling systems etc etc. Some sounded great, some sounded even better in some respects but worse in others. It was a matter of taste, but why?

Brain knowledge was built on injury effects until recently when fMRI and PET scans became relatively commonplace. We originally gained most of how our brain functions by learning from people who survived severe localised brain damage. We began to learn how which bits of our brains affect our capacity to think, perform tasks, make and retrieve memories and above all, relate to each other.

From famous examples that have even passed into popular culture, and less well known studies of those with damaged brain tissue, we learned how crucial the frontal lobes and pre-frontal cortex are to human relationships. This part of the brain includes those areas usually involved in 'theory of mind', that sense most people have that other people might be having different feelings, thoughts, opinions and ideas from ourselves. The obsessive hobby community is often thought of as particularly male and prone to asperger-ish monomania (the single minded pursuit of a particular interest, not a love of single-channel audio) but we still value each other's ideas and opinions.

However, the continued existence of an audio format the industry tried to kill a quarter of a century ago, is a useful vehicle to demonstrate how differently we all experience audio. The vinyl LP has not only survived beyond its palnned commercial life, it is outselling the contemporary format (downloads) in many genres.

Anticipation, expectation and confirmation bias

Your Old Scribe and his equally adolescent journeyman hifi buddy, heard an early ribbed rubber mat Linn Sondek LP12 in a hifi shop, in the mid 1970's, in the presence of 2 Linn representatives. The Linn reps suggested what to listen for. They offered some grandiose claims for this modest Thorens lookalike. Then, they placed the felt mat on the platter and repeated the demonstration. The felt mat had originally been marketed with the Linn "for tag cueing", presumably to overcome criticisms of its slow start up time, but people at the factory heard that it sounded better. The hypothesis offered by these two reps (whose hyperbole kept us amused for several hours) was about improved support more evenly distributed under the LP. They suggested that this helped maintain a closed loop, a more accurate relationship between cartridge body and LP surface. They even suggested that we go home and remove the arm base grommets from our SME and Hadcock pickup arms for this reason. After they reps had left the shop, we took the felt mat from the Linn and put it on a Thorens TD125 (MkI or MkII?). Both turntables carried SME 3009 imp with similar (probably Shure V15III at that time) cartridges.

Removing the ribbed rubber mat from the Thorens TD125 and replacing it with the Linn felt mat made the same difference as it had to the Linn sound. The £30 more expensive Thorens was also now better than the Linn, even at the things the Linn reps had told us to listen out for: Pitch stability, rhythm, tune-following Linn hype. We attributed the Thorens TD125 superiority to the motor power supply (the LP12 was still in pre-Valhalla form), but may also have been the heavy cast subchassis against the Linn's then spotwelded thin steel thing (the glued subchassis was more than a decade away). On another occasion we tried the Linn Sondek LP12 against a Thorens TD160 (with TP16 arm), which the Linn comfortably beat. This all happened at a time when turntables were supposed to affect sound quality only by noise (rumble) and speed stability (wow & flutter) so the Linn company representatives' setting up of an expectation of difference was essential to our experience.

A Linn Journey of Discovery

The expectation we brought to hearing the pre-Nirvana, pre-Valhalla Linn Sondek LP12 enabled us to make space in our conscious experience history, for the possibility that we might hear something we were not otherwise expecting from a turntable. We brought a different way of listening to the experience, following individual instruments and melody lines, for example, because of what we had been told. We heard, and we told each other that we heard, changes in bass performance (that until then might have been expected to come from loudspeakers) and changes in the music's propulsion that we had not noticed before in the differences between turntables.

We had previously heard various direct drive turntables, from lightweight platters and plastic plinths, to the heavyweight flagship models. We were all very familiar with the Thorens and Transcriptors models that our older, more more solvent, friends owned and all heard at each other's homes. We had heard idler drive autochangers belonging to relatives and even used stripped down idler drive turntables to build disco decks. Until we had an expectation of differences other than motor and bearing noise, feedback resistance and arm/cartridge effects we had not noticed such differences.

That Linn demo experience led to Thorens TD125 ownership with SME 3009 S2 imp with Stanton 681EEE and AKG P8ES cartridges. Compared with the Linn Sondek LP12 with a Valhalla power supply and Ittok, the Linn now reigned and a used example was duly bought. The Linn evolution was joined, a handy means of selling more stuff to Linn's existing customers, as each new trick came along. A Karma replaced the Asak DC2100K. Then the glued subchassis and MDF cored armboard reduced some of the bloom compared with the spotwelded subchassis and plywood arm board.

Each time something new came along it was compared (on a bang-fer-yer-buck parameter) with alternative system upgrades. If the magazines were to be believed, further expenditure on the Linn LP12 was always the best destination for any surplus coin. Despite the magazines' gushing enthusiasm, the Troika didn't seem to offer much over the Karma in comparison with spending the same on a Naim HiCap pre-amp power supply to replace a SNAPS. Front end first had been the dominant GIGO influenced narrative but the dogma didn't fit this experience.

That early solid walnut plinth Valhalla example was compared with with (then brand new) Cirkus & Trampolin modifications. Th Cirkus equipped Linn in the shop had lost much of the joyful quality that had originally sold the Linn, despite another reduction in colouration. The dealer said, "Listen to this one". It was another brand new Linn Sondek with a Cirkus kit but no Trampolin. It was much better than the first sample, but the architectural solidity characteristic of the earlier iteration Linn LP12 had evaporated. The story now became one that the expectations set up by press releases regurgitated in audio magazines, and glowing 'newer is better' reviews could no longer generate easily confirmed expectations in this listener. Confirmation bias became tempered by scepticism bias.

Motoring analogies

Motoring analogies are popular among audio writers. Probably because both audio & cars tend to be a bit blokey and many audiophiles are keen drivers too. It is another desperate attempt to convey subtle subjective experience in a way another mind might comprehend. This is linear and explicit, rather than the subtler 'theory of mind' stuff described above.

The Editor Lucio and I both run a similar vintage unfashionable version of an otherwise collectible sports car. Objectively this model runs rings around all its predecessors. It accelerates faster, it corners better and it has just as much potential to blow-up expensively. However, for reasons of group-think and repetition of hoary old chestnuts, this model can be bought for less than a quarter of the money its predecessors fetch, and less even than its successors. To identify and enjoy such exceptions is the philosophy of TNT-audio.com. Such purchases won't engender as much envey from the self-appointed cognoscenti, but they will enable us to enjoy being in the moment with our systems. We achieve this with fewer expensive mistakes and for considerably less outly than if we follow prevailing trends.

That Linn LP12 remained as it was, and was kept it serviced and used the primary source. However, many audiophiles were never convinced by the Linn. They wondered how anyone "put up with that £75 impossibly coloured turntable". Many bought CD players. Despite numerous auditions, no CD player arrived alongside the Linn until one could be found to be tolerated for a whole disc. The comics were enthusing about the Marantz CD63SE and the Arcam AA5 which simply did not hack it in the context of an active Naim system. A Revox A77 and Accuphase tuner bothy worked in that system creating the (probably false) impression that the system was neutral and even handed with sources. Eventually a Rotel RX965 BX Discrete found cohabited with the Linn after lengthy home auditions. The meeting of context & expectations encountering first-hand sensory experience are of primary value in these stories.

If these expactations, or learned respnses to sensory experiences are changed, the experience becomes fundamentally different, even if the other objective facts remain the same. A brain injury destroyed all sense of time; a minute could be an hour or a day not have existed. Despite hearing being unaffected, all that could be heard from the Linn was the colouration and bass bloom. The Linn now sounded exactly like all the critical reviews I had read over the years. The Linn Karma cartridge was swapped for a Sumiko Blue Point Special to reduce the energy being dumped into the ITTOK. This improved the situation slightly. Soon luxuries likje that Linn Sondek LP12 had to be sold to raise money, having been unable to work since the injury. As brain and finances were both rehabilitated, changed perceptions meant that the vinyl source could not be another Linn. Despite fully regaining sense of PRaT the knowledge of that bass colouration could not be unlearned. Whatever we acquire as direct experience, however informed or misinformed by influential outsiders, becomes ingrained in the phenomenology of our encounters with every subsequent experience.

A Michell Gyrodec SE (with the big PSU) and Hadcock GH242SE became the resident vinyl disc spinner. Received wisdom suggests that the Gyrodec is a set-up and forget subchassis turntable. Recovery (through neural plasticity and training) of PRaT perception soon indicated this not to be true. The Gyrodec (despite contrary inference from its maker's claims) needs as much attention to set up as a Linn if it is to portray PraT. The Hadcock is a big advantage in this but improving perception of time demanded upgrade to the Michell Orbe SE The Gyro SE had not become inferior but listener expectations had changed.

"What was all that about?" Ask the mystified Plebs' Chorus, stage left


We prioritise what we have learned to prioritise. Some SET followers hear an Audio Research amplifier combination and all they can hear is a big bleached sound; they may notice but they don't value the massive soundstage and macro-dynamics of the ARC. The ARC owner hears the flea-powered SET set-up and just hears it straining and the transformer cores approaching saturation. The Naim owner might hear them both as distant and disengaging. Doug Dunlop valued soundstage scale and energy and a quality he called "phe-ew" and his flagship Concordant Exquisite majored on these qualities. Audtioning many of his prototypes and production models the Concordant Excelsior stood out as the most musical, most PRaTful, and a bargain giant killer to boot. Doug was the designer and his perception was of a clear hierarchy, without qualification, through the four preamplifier models with the Exquisite standing out at the top, at twice the price of the Excelsior. Listeners, whether fans of the brand or not, took different positions, despite being unlikely to have read reviews to direct their hearing of these pre-amplifiers. They were bringing the expectations and priorities they learned in previous encounters with music and audio equipment.

Philosopher Jenny Diski (2010) describes her treatment to unlearn a lifelong phobia of spiders. She wonders whether that phobia has served some hidden function in sublimating or repressing some intolerable material (a shift from old skool behaviourism to old skool psychoanalysis) but considers how animal experiments, escaping from the labs, applied to humans, assumes response is totally to stimulus. When we listen to music, live on on our audio systems, we are not merely responding to stimulus in the present. We are bringing our own history to the moment (regardless of how much effort we make towards mindfulness) and our experience is the product (more than the sum) of this encounter. There are more lenses than behaviourism to consider in audio experiences.

Every time we listen to our audio system, we bring the forces of a different context. This may be conscious, as we invite a new listener to hear our system. This may be unconcious, as we settle down late at night. The implications of our choice of music, the room temperature and the day we've had, operate as unseen forces to colour the experience as stylus lands in the groove.

Music enjoyed on vinyl while writing this review

  • Paul Humphrey: Cochise/What's That Noise PK?, 7" single, ABC black label
  • Paul Humphrey: Cochise/What's That Noise PK?, 7" single, Blue Thumb label
  • Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Full Moon Fever
  • The Ramones: Rocket to Russia, another excellent Ryko reissue
  • Jon Martyn: Solid Air, so-so reissue on Back to Black
  • DJ Format: Music for the Mature B-Boy cut at a higher level, presumable for the CD generation/
  • Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks, reissue 180g Simply Vinyl
  • Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks, original copy owned from new
  • Bob Dylan: # ', reissue 180g Simply Vinyl
  • Bob Dylan: Desire, original copy owned from new
Multiple copies due to record cleaning tests and reissue evaluation

"The Old Scribe's been listening to too much Bob Dylan, which explains his pretentiousness," Observe the Plebs' Chorus, stage left

Jenny Diski (2010) What I Don't Know About Animals

Copyright © 2017 Mark Wheeler - mark@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com