what is “ultra fi”?

well, i suppose to answer this question one has to start with an even more elemental definition… what is “fi”? and, unfortunately, there is very little chance of making a considerate case for any definition without a context. that brings one to the dreadful job of figuring out what the hell “hifi” is, and saddest of all, “audiophile”. yes, without one, none of the others. we should also place this in time, because meanings will change. they already have… the most important aspect of this is that we live now in the post modern… the cult of authenticity is over. it’s slice and dice, sample and steal, it’s the age of the virtual. real ain’t the deal. not only that, but we live at a time when the most highly compensated work in the world is a white guy with high blood pressure and a spreading ass has his secretary call another fat white guy’s secretary… generally speaking, the more closely associated one is with their own hands and body, the less paid and regarded the work is. say you are a… secretary? and if you’re a woman as well… that must have been one hell of a phonecall. the point is that money replaces a great many things when it comes to value, and a great deal of worth can find it’s way into an idea these days. not so much the thing itself.

i don’t like audiophiles. i have to start there. and hifi is kinda smarmy just by association. yes i know it’s a strange line of work for me to be in, but hear me out… i never said i was sane or healthy either. the archetypal audiophile is a man, passive aggressive, a crappy dresser, probably drinks a lot, possibly morbidly obese. probably has a bad case of dandruff and halitosis but doesn’t know it, utterly self-centered, yet lacking in backbone… also lacking irony. an arrogant door mat. has a strained relationship with the romantic partner, or no romantic partner. at the CES in vegas, maybe 10% of them smell like liniment (does that mean they’re old, or just pained? both?). an audiophile is an expert masturbator, as skilled as can be. they are skinflints, yet somehow utterly profligate.

for the honest to god audiophile, “music” has nothing to do with musicians or reality. they don’t know this, they take it for granted. “music” is a recording after all, and much like the Madonna, not really sullied by a specific act of procreation. it is a divine intervention, the good ones anyway. a recording’s merit is built upon standards of perfection and refinement that can be deconstructed reliably with “gear”. “gear” features more, later (the church of scientology is built on a similar conjunction, i believe. the machine is part of the deal…). audiophiles are semioticians, with tiny vocabularies, hyper aware of the interaction and import of particular sonic relations and details, recent history (republican revisionary) as well as branding, and of course, economics. beyond the fingertips (remote and on/off buttons) and the ears, reality only distracts from the play of symbols and is utterly unreliable besides. recordings are so reassuringly repeatable and ripe for categorization and grading.

my buddy, herb reichert, has said the passion of the audiophile is in grading. “perfection”, as the top grade, is an ideal but also a process for these strange people. a long drawn out effort of spending, borrowing and most assuredly, stealing. but, while wearing puritan hats, they fart wendy bombs. the dark underbelly of this alchemical purification of the base metals of analog and digital electronics, is an algebra of need, much alike opiate addiction. possession of the recordings and the gear is the key act in this dance of symbol and idea. it’s classic trophy fetish. i think this tends to create an obsession with precious bodily fluids as well.

the “absolute sound” is the noise the ego makes when it hears itself telling everyone else to “fuck off, mine is perfect… pfffffft”! (a broccoli fart, for you carlin fans). i actually kind of enjoy that part…

of course, i also have a great deal of compassion for those who cross the line from music lover to audiophile. many an innocent started with just one little puff…! oh how low we stoop. you wind up selling your ass on 3rd street for crack. there needs to be a 12 step program for them too… some do escape into the sub-cellar of “DIY” audio. the main difference is that you can take all your clothes off. no more pretending. you can get real free once you forgo social norms, general hygiene, and spending limits. there’s a Buddhist path to enlightenment along these lines i think? some are saved.

and then there is “hifi”; “fi”?; it is a simple idea. fidelity; truth; honesty, accuracy… what bullshit! hifi is expensive consumer electronics designed to play back audiophile recordings. there are many different camps, or schools, of what denotes perfect fidelity, and sometimes this can be quite contrary in terms of aesthetics or form. they can’t all be right? the “music” considered here often has more in common with sound effects than anything one might sit down to enjoy, or make out with your romantic partner to. audiophile “music” is strange music for sure. given that this is such a heavily constructed cultural practice, and not in the least “objective”, it is interesting to consider the engineering in the mix, which is supposed to be “above” such opinionated subjective drivel? it’s difficult to say it is made without art, although it does tend to sound like that. but no matter, it will cost you. there are rules to be followed. there are rings to be kissed. and it is usually big, silver, black and gold, puts more strain on the romantic partner, and it can require fetish material or lube in order to be completely absorbed. it puts organizations, such as the AES, and iEEE into a strange light, too. but there you have the crux of the situation. “music” (recorded) is clearly not simply an electrical signal… it’s an all nude review, not including pasties. so why the puritanism? why the hypocrisy? audiophiles wanna play footsy with the dicks in the men’s room, what’s wrong with that as long as it’s out and among friends? ok, i’m getting sidetracked here. so how does “ultra fi” fit into this? what is it?

it’s ridiculous… but it is so ridiculous that it cancels itself out and then becomes radioactive. you can laugh at it, but it’s a nervous, anxiety filled cackle that fades into twitchy panic. as the extent of folly, expense and effort become apparent, many passers by feel obliged to choose fight or flight.  others defend themselves from the experience by denying it. “it didn’t happen and anyway it doesn’t mean anything…” and, “those people are sick and ridiculous”. audiophiles have a unique experience though. for them, it is an auto-erasable info bomb. it is an idea that eliminates itself almost as soon as it is created, and then replicates itself like Ebola, nearly killing the recipient: first vapor and then bleeding out. once completed it is also immediately doomed to becoming outdone. and yet, while the idea itself is always more important than the object, the physical evidence is necessary in order to jam the thing so far up the ass of the audiophile sensibility, surgery can’t remove it without killing the victim. it doesn’t work without the gear! the hard thing to understand is that audiophiles are drawn into this vortex willingly, even though it chokes them half to death while the air gets sucked out of their lungs…

for the “consumers” of ultra fi, it is a rarefied atmosphere. mind and body are expected to have reunified at this point, just for them. there is no point in impressing others with the magnitude of the effort… they are more interested in the concepts being tested and proven by reality. the cost and time aren’t the important things, most often, although some will lament the constant raising of the bar. “here’s my shit, what do you think? where’s yours? how about that cobalt amorphous?”, and “how are you doing with that crossover on the 15A, it only started happening for me when i got rid of it and ran the 555 full range?”… they already know the answer. so do you. one interesting thing about this is the similarity between them and the DIY world at the really obsessed level… it’s very similar. no one talks much about cost or time spent. that’s a given. it’s all about reality, although they live in a fairy tale world.

i say “leave the bullet in there”! ultra fi, or, as me and herb reichert used to think of it, “stupid fi”, is taking the art of audio design to the extremes of cost, detail, optimization, scarcity, difficulty in construction, and un-repeatability. it can return power to the human hand… the power of craft. the uniqueness of a particular hand and touch. something almost impossible today. it represents terminal uniqueness. it is at the same time an achievement but also sick. it’s a virus. it requires great wealth, taste, capriciousness, and intellectual depravity on the part of the players: the patrons, the designers and the builders. it has to be shocking, and yet it works wonders. there is, of course, faux ultra fi and lots of wannabe out there, but no one really gets fooled by it. you can’t miss the aura, if you are really in the scene (“hey, where do you find the brown dope?”).

the main thing about it that attracts me, and this says quite a bit about my own character (or lack there of…), is that it resists commercialization absolutely but, markets like nobody’s business! “it’s not for sale”! “you can’t afford it”… “there’s only 3 in the world, and the billionaires who own them are black holes”, etc. people want it because they can’t have it, and they can’t. it has the power to connect vintage work with the present day in simple ways that many manufacturers can only dream about in pushing their own crap. that’s because, like the vintage stuff, it can be really really scarce. if it is built with obsolete tech, it can both comment on or honor the history in a way the modern mass produced stuff can’t. it can push the status quo “state of the art” in unpredictable directions (my personal fave) by suddenly shifting the value system. and, it fits the audiophile psychosis for constantly becoming disappointed with what they have just bought and then abandoned and run out and bought more. fits like a glove. it is based fundamentally on resentment. resentment of authority, of other homo sapiens, of the passage of time. it is resentment and self-hatred. it’s also about power, and how to get some. it’s the dark side of the force.

i like it.

silbatone RI-25

fabulous! now, that we have that out of the way, we can look at some specific examples. unfortunately, once you are into it, it’s easy to lose sight of what goes for “normal” audio after a while. you forget about all of the ordinary obstacles. it’s usually strange unnecessary problems that need to be solved. please forgive me if it seems i focus on particular details and completely ignore more obvious issues. it’s a great gift for me, whose life has mostly been concerned with the obvious details of someone else’s crap. it may not last long, but i do know where i belong these days. check out the silbatone RI-25. it’s been written about in other places and i am here encouraging people to try and build their own version. of course, it’s hard to really copy it. like all honest analog, the parts are as much responsible as the design. maybe more so? in this case, the parts cost more than much of the most expensive assembled retail high end hifi out there. they are hand made using methods and materials that are prohibitively expensive and require expertise in handling that is hard to source. they employ unobtainable and irreplaceable tubes, specially designed input and output transformers that cannot be bought without the amp, and i designed the circuit in a fit of savage contrariety almost by accident. it is meant to piss the fuck out of the vintage guys AND the high end guys. it sounds heavenly… one of my best, but it’s not the “end of amps”. in fact, it raises the bar so fuckin high, it’s difficult to imagine where to go next. well, actually, it isn’t that difficult. it goes next wherever this one isn’t. that’s ultra fi.

Leave a Reply