Random thoughts about our hobby

Discussion in 'General Audio Discussion' started by k4rstar, May 19, 2022.

  1. k4rstar

    k4rstar Britney fan club president

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    I have been meaning to write about some uncommon perspectives on audio here and elsewhere for a while, and a recent conversation with @E_Schaaf made me want to just post about them all at once here. it may seem like I took many of these takes from his recent profile post, but the truth is he stole them from me. 8) just kidding, we came to similar conclusions independently, although from different paths.

    at the end of 2020 (which seems like a lifetime ago) I wrote an article titled 'Alternative Audio Wisdom for 2021' which I was quite proud of. I've learned exponentially more since then, and I feel like my perspective on audio has somewhat come 'full circle' since I started in 2015. consider this post a 2022 update to that article.

    I encourage questions and open discussion around these topics.

    Thought #1

    I have almost completely lost interest in inefficient or hard to drive headphones. I had already lost interest in inefficient or hard to drive speakers in 2020, but for some reason never carried over that logic to the headphone world until now. In some sort of misguided thought it seems that difficult to drive headphones are commonly unconsciously or consciously associated with better scaling ability or being somehow truer to source. I used to unconsciously accept this too, but the more I think about it, the more I believe the opposite is true.

    This will tie into point #2, but out of all the headphones I have tried and owned, a definite preference has emerged for high-sensitivity and typically lower-impedance models which can essentially be driven 'from the source' and thus provide a higher degree of musical clarity.

    Thought #2

    External DACs and headphone amps (this includes computer sound cards) are basically bullshit and the idea of needing them for acceptable sound has become something of a permanently engrained but misguided trope in the personal audio hobby.

    They are bullshit because all most of them seem to do is impart sound color (softening or emphasizing sections of the frequency spectrum) and reduce musical clarity. I think people fall into a trap, they start by 'upgrading' from the headphone jack on their computer or phone (back when phones had headphone jacks), are impressed by the sound color of the new device(s), and all future upgrades from that point are assessed against the initial upgrade. Therefore, no future comparisons are made back 'to the source' and the user does not recognize the loss of musical clarity from the complication of the signal path.

    Is it possible to create or chain together a series of audio devices which have a balanced (harmonized) sound color and have a negligible impact on musical clarity? Yes, it is. It's really difficult, actually almost impossible when consideration is limited to only commercially available products. There are those components that are 1 in 100, and there are those magic combinations of components that are 1 in 1000, but putting them together is like building a puzzle where you don't have the picture on the box and you have to pay money for each piece before you try to fit it in.

    This is why you see so many people churn through gear every few weeks/months. It took me about 6 years to assemble such a system and many thousands of dollars spent. Now I have roughly $8000 of equipment sitting on a rack next to my desk but for the past several months have neglected to turn it on. I just listen to a pair of sensitive headphones from the headphone socket on my Mac. The musical enjoyment is actually roughly the same. This is not about diminishing returns, but that in actuality attention is not paid to the weakest links of the path: the source and transducers.

    I only evaluate DACs and amplifiers now by using efficient headphones, so that a comparison can be made against 'the source' (the headphone jack). In almost all cases, the results are in favour of the headphone jack.

    Thought #3

    Speaking of sources, computer audio is really complicated and people spend so much time focusing on the wrong things. When you're talking about computer audio (which is what 95% of people in the personal audio sphere are engaged in as so few spin CDs or vinyl with headphones), the DACs on available on motherboards actually sound really good. Like, un-ironically. I spent a fair amount of time playing with old Macs since Apple seems to do onboard audio better than anyone else. If your motherboard DAC doesn't sound good it's not the DACs fault, but rather the fact that it is sharing a power supply with noisy components that have nothing to do with sound, and also a software problem (see Thought #4).

    I had a 2005 Powerbook running OSX Tiger, plugged my HD600 into its headphone socket and played a Metric CD I had lying around. I heard the most pristine treble I had ever experienced from a digital source, resolution was so high that I could hear when individual mics were being cut in and out of the mix, I could hear the air contributed from each microphone to the otherwise black vacuum of the studio-processed mix, etc. These are sounds I never ever experienced from any number of fancy DACs, and I have tried an awful lot of them.

    Honestly the type of sound upgrades people are hoping for when buying successively fancier and more expensive DACs are more readily available and fundamentally impactful when paying attention to the source. I think that the concept of innovation in digital audio has since the beginning been dominated by numbers and food for the mind instead of the ear. Manufacturers push mathematical boundaries to massage the signal in an effort to meet arbitrary specifications to have an excuse to sell a new product. The marketing department has their way and people think they will get better sound by buying the latest converter. The Cirrus chips in old Macs and the TDA1541 from the 80s are still the best I've heard. The chip is almost irrelevant.

    Thought #4

    It turns out that the operating system (and playback software) influences the sound a great deal. Different versions of Mac OS sound wildly different, and the sonic signature is consistent whether listening to the analog or digital outputs of the computer. Windows is by far the worst-sounding operating system for audio. Linux is all over the map but generally inferior to Apple. Don't ask me why, I don't know why. It's not just related to the minimalism of the OS either, as there are a few stripped-down Linux distributions designed just for audio playback which sound quite terrible. It has nothing to do with jitter, bit-perfect, WASAPI vs ASIO, or whatever other silly tropes people come up with to provide material explanations for esoteric phenomenon.

    The operating system problem carries over to mobile sources too, I have noticed successive decreases in playback quality with each iOS update on my iPhone, which is why I have now disabled auto-updates. This is a serious problem for the music lover, as older hardware and OSes which simply sound better will become deprecated to the point of only being able to play local files without network support. It's depressing for me to think about, as the latest M1 Mac's running the latest OSX sound simply awful: lacking dynamics, tonal color, deep bass and midrange body.

    Thought #5

    Cables matter a lot. In that if you aren't careful, they can fuck your shit up. It turns out that wire (electrical conductors), their dielectric, shielding, connectors, etc. all influence the sound a great deal. In my experience the technical parameters of the wire such as capacitance are irrelevant, though some manufacturers are obsessed with them.

    I do not advocate for expensive cables. In fact I think most cables marketed to audiophiles are worse than what you can buy at guitar center or the ones that came with your dad's VCR: they color the sound and reduce musical clarity. Likewise, many of the budget champions such as the often recommended Blue Jeans sound like muddy shit to my ears. Choose carefully. The shorter your signal path, the less you have to worry about the influence of wire, but it does influence the sound as much as anything else in the path.

    By the way, if you don't believe that cables can affect the sound but you do believe in other passive conductors such as transformers and capacitors sounding different, then you're a fool.

    Thought #6

    I don't like the sound of transformers in the signal path (this includes the power supply, but they are of course necessary there). Opinions on transformers vary wildly, some view them only from the point of technical parameters and see their influence on the sound as innocuous. Others, often for esoteric beliefs, want as many transformers as possible in the chain. It turns out that everything in the material construction of a transformer influences its sound character, including the wire, the frame, the laminations, etc. They should be utilized very well or not at all. So far I have yet to hear a transformer-coupled headphone amplifier I like, and gravitate towards OTL or direct-coupled options.

    Experiences with inexpensive transformers such as Jensen, Cinemag, Hammond which are focused more on filling specification requirements have provided quite bland sound. If the system is already bland, the effect is not noticed.

    Experiences with more expensive or exotic transformers such as Lundahl, Tango, Tamura, Hasimoto have not satisfied me, they feel like devices made for audiophiles and not the enjoyment of music. It is difficult to relax when listening to devices that use many of these products.

    The best transformers I have heard have been vintage or home-made using esoteric materials and construction methods.

    Thought #7

    A short signal path is preferred but a signal path can be too short. The path should be exactly as long as it needs to be. The length of the path is not measured in centimeters or raw number of components, but in an esoteric living sense. I generally don't like passive pre-amps or single-stage amplifiers. They rob the sound of some sort of vitality. This doesn't have anything to do with technical parameters like impedance or gain. Just my consistent, long-term experience.

    Thought #8

    Generally exotic components provide disappointing sound. A device designed with the goal of incorporating as many exotic components together for marketing purposes provides the most disappointing sound. I call this 'douche-fi'. Douche-fi is about spending your budget on coupling capacitors, RCA connectors, IEC inlets, silver wire, amorphous cores, thoriated tungsten filaments, etc. That's not to say these things don't make a difference, of course they do, but any time I have bought a product on the principles of douche-fi, I have been extremely disappointed. The cheap stuff usually just sounds better. Don't be a douche.

    This is what I can think of for now. I will add more thoughts later.
     
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  2. Tekker

    Tekker Acquaintance

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    Been in the hobby since 2012. My most relevant discovery by far is that a lot of cheap dynamic headphones have more even tonal balance than most expensive headphones, and with simple mods can be made to sound extremely satisfying.

    *Positioning of dynamic drivers on your ears is EXTREMELY important (though planars have less variety in this regard) and understated. I feel like a lot of people only focus on getting a good seal, but having the driver on different positions on your ears can literally make the difference of them sounding like dollar store cans (harsh, resonant, muddy) to the opposite.

    Even the HD650 can sound edgy and harsh with certain regular use positions.

    *The closer your ear is to the transducer (IEMs and headphones) the smoother sound (in terms of transients) you get. Smoothing the treble out with physical mods is preferred, since you get more quantity there when your ear is closer. This comes at a cost of having a worse seal.

    I always chose the thinnest earpads possible, and cut off the stems of the eartips to be as short as possible without losing the seal.

    *A bright recording, doesn’t have to sound peaky on refined gear. It can be bright with all the imperfections of the recording, yet still presented in a smooth manner. The Chord Mojo (properly isolated with the iSilencer 3.0 and Black Dragon USB) taught me that.
     
  3. E_Schaaf

    E_Schaaf MOT: E.T.A Headphones

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    I wasn't going to type nearly this much but I appreciate these thoughts being tossed out in the open. In my experience, people aren't ready to 'go there' and will meet most of these thoughts with heavy skepticism, and I get it, the denial grows deeper as the investment (of time, energy, and money) grows larger. Maybe the trend towards more difficult to drive headphones (which, by the way, is probably often a conscious design choice and not just something that happens magically during R&D) is strategic - to make people feel like they need more and bigger peripheral products to not 'miss out' on the supposed untapped nirvana their headphones perpetually have to offer, but only once you pass the 5-figure mark, blah blah blah...

    People have innate bias based on what they see - high price tag, nice casework and aesthetics, imposing size, patented/proprietary tech, spruced up packaging, rarity, expensive parts (douche-fi as you put it). It must be the better because of the higher perceived cost to build or obtain it, right?

    I'm over the gear, and I acknowledge the imperfections of my ASUS ROG Windows 10 jack even vs other lowly devices. The errors with my headphone of choice are just fewer and less disengaging than I have yet found with any combo of electronics with this or any other headphone. The headphone always presents the most gross error in the component chain (assuming basic competency is met in the digital domain and you're not clipping anything in the path) - and therefore a better headphone will always give the most improvement with the least cost. This has just been my experience.

    However, I'm more or less at the point now where I don't think my phones can get much better to my tastes, at least with the tools and parts I have at my disposal - their gross errors are ones that I find innocuous or even enjoyable. So now I just want something with loads of utility in terms of I/O, that sounds better than my laptop jack, and without giving me software OS nervosa... and to focus on my analog path which also has a high degree of gross error (and room for growth), while also bringing me the most enjoyment.

    I can't be only one who finds buying and selling new DACs and headamps more of a dysphoric than euphoric experience. Gear cycling is exhausting...
     
    Last edited: May 21, 2022
  4. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    @k4rstar honestly, what did you expect when you wrote this post, that everyone on this entire forum would go "oh wow, you're right, everything I've been hearing from my outboard DAC(S) and amp(s) is just placebo, I've been fooling myself and I'm an idiot and the MacBook headphone jack does sound just as good" ? You're essentially telling this entire forum that they are fools.

    I'll first just respond the way you wrote your post, in absolute terms and say that the HD650 out off a MacBook headphone jack sounds like absolute garbage.

    But I do want to congratulate you on writing such a contrary perspective on this forum, it's great that members feel the freedom to express alternate views. So cheers for that. Seriously.

    But there are 2 basic problems with your post

    1). You wrote this not as your experience, but as absolute fact. This should have been a post about your own experience, not telling people what is true and what is not in absolute terms like this. Especially when you're basically telling this entire forum that their experience is wrong and yours is right.

    2) My experience is vastly different from yours. Have a whole collection of very efficient Audeze headphones, which I've spent an incredible amount of time and work at maximizing the potential of the transducers. They sound way better out of my Pi2AES -> Yggdrasil -> Liquid Gold X than out of my MacBook headphone jack. Way better.

    The only thing I agree with in your post is that the transducer by far has the biggest impact on sound quality in the whole chain, by a huge margin. And I would take an efficient headphone I like out of my MacBook headphone jack over a headphone I dislike out of $8,000 worth of gear any day.

    I think a better version of this post would be divided up between absolute sound quality vs musical enjoyment. Because there is something very enjoyable about having a simple gear chain, and just listening to music and not focussing on the gear. But the way you wrote this post, you're just going to annoy or anger people and get a bunch of responses telling you you're a jackass. Unfortunately. Though again, thank you for feeling the freedom to write a contrary opinion on SBAF.
     
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  5. k4rstar

    k4rstar Britney fan club president

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    nothing, I was just bored. I find it a little exhausting to add IMO YMMV to the beginning and end of every sentence. these are just thoughts and personal opinions based on my experiences. I think that should be obvious and if someone gets offended by it IDK what to tell them other than to not take forum posts so seriously.

    I am kind of a jackass, though working on it every day:)
     
  6. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    Cool, I was just trying to soften the blow before the pitchforks came out. I do appreciate your opinions here and again, your willingness to share them. Cheers mate.
     
  7. k4rstar

    k4rstar Britney fan club president

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    I get it. to clarify, the Sennheisers do sound pretty bad from an integrated headphone jack in most departments, damped and cramped. but the resolution is still there. they come alive with voltage swing. I have limited experience with your Audeze, but I guess they come alive with current delivery despite sensitivity specifications.

    right now most of my listening is with the Radioshack version of the Koss KTXPRO1 (more in my vintage HPs thread) and a modified pair of Hanadomi B8 (Aliexpress special with 16ohm insanely sensitive beryllium-coated film drivers).

    You mentioned absolute sound quality versus musical enjoyment. The thing is it's now difficult for me to have musical enjoyment if certain factors aren't entertained. so there are several factors of absolute sound quality which are very important for me if musical enjoyment is to take place, and they are:
    • clarity or lack of homogenization; the ability to hear differences between recordings, the ability to hear subtle intonations
    • tone; an even tonal response, particularly in the presence region where I am sensitive
    • transients; sharp sounds must sound sharp, linked pretty closely with clarity
    these traits give me goosebumps when listening to music and maximize my pleasure. for these traits, so far the Koss from the headphone jack win. the HD600 from a nuclear reactor stack with 12 tubes in the chain improve further still in some areas but not much in the three listed above, so it becomes redundant.

    if anyone wants to engage in a conversation about the 8 thoughts I posted I'm happy to do so, just know that my brain shuts off if objectivist debate starts.
     
  8. atomicbob

    atomicbob dScope Yoda

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    Personal paths of development, revelations and insights into finding personal preferences are great data points to share with all. It is important that these not be confused with universal Trvths.
     
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  9. Erroneous

    Erroneous Friend

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    I didn't take any offense to Sina's post. I think there are many paths to Hi-Fi and my path may be strikingly different from anyone else's. I take this as Sina sharing what he has learned as his truth, which may be different from anyone else's truth. Dude's just documenting his version of the truth. I don't subscribe to his ideas, but it's always fun to hear what people have to say so I did enjoy reading it.

    In short, I'm not selling all my gear but let the man go forth and share his version of what he believes to be true.
     
  10. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    Ah I agree sorry I was just trying to add some logic and something calm before people started attacking @k4rstar because people in this hobby get really personally attached to their gear.
     
  11. Erroneous

    Erroneous Friend

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    Sina's been kicked in the dick enough at this point that I don't think people will just pile on unless he makes an egregious error. Sharing experience isn't an egregious error when the person has enough experience to actually share, even if it goes against traditional dogma.
     
  12. Erroneous

    Erroneous Friend

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    It's the noobz who try to speak their truth when they know exactly fuck all who get roasted, and that's kinda fun actually so I'm still all for it.
     
  13. rhythmdevils

    rhythmdevils MOT: rhythmdevils audio

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    Yeah maybe I went too far. I saw pitchforks and I like @k4rstar so was trying to say what others would say in a kind way. Oh well. That's what happens when you read SBAF and post first thing after waking up (I'm on a weird sleep schedule). Over moderating asshole. :)

    :bow:

    I wasn't offended either, and I also appreciate different options and perspectives. I've just experienced so much anger and hatred directed at myself for expressing contrarian views or negative reviews of popular gear that I saw that happening here. And honestly it may have if I didn't post what I did. People take attacks on their gear very personally a lot of times.
     
    Last edited: May 19, 2022
  14. wbass

    wbass Almost "Made"

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    @k4rstar I respectfully disagree, generally, but still find some interesting points in your post.

    I'm semi-convinced by the approach to system building that doesn't try to achieve "synergy" by matching a bright component with a darker one, etc. And I sort of lost patience, a couple years ago, with A-Bing DACs. Never mind the XLRs vs RCAs on Yggdrasil version whatever, etc.

    I did some compro on streamers a while back and determined that the Lumin U1 Mini is ever so slightly more resolving than the Node 2i and ultraRendu. But I have to be an awfully specific frame of mind to catch those micro subtleties.

    The HPs I get the very most use out of are a pair of Bose SoundSport I keep in my jacket pocket and AirPod Pros (I thought they should've gotten a Golden Schlong). But last night I fired up the Starlett (for the first time in a long time) and hooked up the HD800S, and, holy heck, that's some damn good hi-fi. I put a lot of thought into that pairing, and it paid off, and now I don't have to worry about it anymore. The HD800S are comfortable. They work with most music. Hell, they rule. Not out of an iPhone, to my ears, but whatever, YMMV, etc. Lately, my mood's been less fiddling, less forums, more music, and that seems a good place to be.
     
  15. E_Schaaf

    E_Schaaf MOT: E.T.A Headphones

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    I don't think anyone is claiming a laptop jack is the ideal DAC/amp solution for every headphone, but rather, with an efficient and optimized-enough headphone, it might be all many may need to achieve satisfying sound - perhaps even more satisfying than a more expensive approach (at least in his case and in mine). But of course 'satisfying' and 'problems' are going to differ with tastes... I mean, of course it depends on which headphone we're talking about.

    (((edit - I'm editing this post instead of making a new post bc i don't want to dominate conversation and am looking forward to other tangents. That said, dropping this rant below:

    I see this discussion more as extending from experiences than principles. The principles just solidify based on those experiences, especially when patterns seem to arise. However, it is much more easily digestible to discuss experiences than principles. A lot of the time, principles are just speculative in nature and subject to change over the course of life. Anyway...

    If I have a headphone that sounds similar or better from my laptop jack than out of an $8000 digital front-end (DAC+Amp), why would I use or recommend the $8000 front-end? Someone could say 'well the headphone must be deficient if the $8000 front end doesn't make this headphone sound dramatically better'. However, if that headphone is bringing more enjoyment from the laptop jack than any other headphone does out of the $8000 front end, why would there be any inclination to blame the headphone and not the gear? Someone might say, 'well, the right synergy hasn't been achieved' - why then does the laptop jack give similar or superior synergy? Why didn't the other 20 amps and 40 DACs auditioned in the system bring more to the table with the headphone in question? Why didn't the other 100 headphones auditioned in these systems give more enjoyment than the current headphone from the laptop jack?

    If higher efficiency really is 'free power' in terms of amp requirements, is it that hard to believe that [with the right headphone] a simple laptop output jack could be sufficient or even truly excellent?)))
     
    Last edited: May 19, 2022
  16. wbass

    wbass Almost "Made"

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    Sure. Elex/Elear or HE400S, those both work out of a laptop mini-jack. No one seems to rep the HE400S much these days, but I take them on trips sometimes and get a lot of enjoyment, and see that you can still get them for $98 on Amazon. Not the last word on anything, including build quality, but they've got decent tonality and comfort and they fold up flat enough to go in the suitcase. I'm way into stuff you can just, you know, use without much faff.

    Edit: Curious what other no-fussing HPs folks are using.
     
  17. Deep Funk

    Deep Funk Deep thoughts - Friend

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    If the truth is necessary, make a good sobering coffee. The one that makes you go "damn, that's a strong coffee."

    If you are a tea person, apply that to tea.

    Next, take some headphones with bass like the M50X and play Faithless' "God is a DJ." Enjoy.
     
  18. ColtMrFire

    ColtMrFire Writes better fan fics than you

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    All true for some people, but need to be careful not to paint everyone with the same brush. There are alot of sophisticated folks on this forum who aren't suffering from audio based neuroses and have sound strategies for attaining what they want. Even some who gear cycle just want to try alot of different things, which is perfeclty valid.

    Anyway, I've been out of town for a few weeks and have been using my Focal Clear out of my android phone and it sounds great. But it does not sound anywhere near as good as Yggdrasil LIM/ZDSE. There is a degree of fleshing out, expanding and magnifying of the audio with better gear. While I like the Clear out of my phone, I am not as compelled to listen to it as I was with Yggdrasil LIM/ZDSE, and that is the true test of gear.
     
  19. yotacowboy

    yotacowboy McRibs Kind of Guy

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    Yeah, too bad my old "The Decision..." thread got nuked in the hack. I have to say, the more time I spend in the hobby, especially lately, the more I enjoy cheap dumb things that shouldn't sound as good or affect my perception of the sound of things as much as they do for the better. And I very much agree with the intent Sina has expressed via the "HD600 + Mac" or similarly simple setups; everyone who can spend some time with a setup like that should. And don't just listen to it, live with it. It's funny to me because I look at a simple setup like HD600+MBP as either the result of years and years of reasoned auditioning, pensive and exhaustive research, asking opinions from friends, perhaps some or several expensive mistakes, nervousa, self doubt, then maybe enlightenment, OR, it's just dumb luck. How skeptical should we be when a newb with HD6XX+RU6 walks into the bar, tells us that most of us need to quit dicking around with Wavedreams, Stellaris' (Stellarises? Stellari?) and Utopias, and that we're really just alcoholics and should get a job? (I know, mixed metaphor... but you get the point.)

    If 1950's console/TV speakers and relatively obscure European 2W amps are nirvana, I'm willing to accept that as a valid opinion, and I don't think I'd go so far as to call it contrarian.

    Oh, and to @E_Schaaf's point, I think the concept of a principle or of a set of principles assumes too much from it's own structure. I prefer heuristics for these types of scenarios.
     
  20. Armaegis

    Armaegis Friend

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    Speaking as a fellow in a happy committed relationship, I spend a lot of time with cans on my head but my headphones have been collecting dust. Priorities man.
     
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