Friday, 26 September 2014

MUSINGS: Stereophile's "Recommended Components" & the shift to objectivism.

The other day, I was perusing the Steve Hoffman forum and ran into this thread. Yup, Stereophile's Fall 2014 Recommended Components list is up.

A thread poster noted that the Sony Playstation 1 remains on the list again. And it's a beautiful reminder of how questionable a list like this is.

Ridge Racer! This first generation game fits in the 2MB RAM of the PS1. After loading the game you could take out the CD and put in your own (audiophile) music while racing... Nothing like chillin' to some Diana Krall while pulling power slides :-).
As someone who has listened to and tested the PS1 (my objective results are about the same as Stereophile's), I can say without a doubt that this makes no sense even though they list it as Class C (lower fidelity but "far more musically natural than average home-component high fidelity"). The device has been discontinued since 2006 worldwide but nobody has said good things about the sound of the later PSOne iterations (and the PS2 came out by 2000 already). The user interface is atrocious - skipping through tracks with the PS1 controller? Hook up to TV to see what track you're on? Pop-up plastic lid? It's not a good looking device - all plastic, cheap gray, ugly controller wires... Has a paucity of features: no digital output to hook up your own DAC for example. Is somewhat noisy in operation and has reliability issues (I know, because I traded in a really well constructed 3DO FZ-1 for an early PS1).

Which then leaves only the sound which is objectively noisier than most cheap CD players and has a characteristic uneven frequency response curve starting around 2kHz and up.

It's a beautiful example of how a particular reviewer (Art Dudley) took an idiosyncratic subjective interest and spun it into something which to this day still "graces" the memory of audiophilia.

Objectively it's far from ideal and subjectively I found it sounded fine but nothing special... But isn't being a "Recommended Component" an achievement to suggest special redeeming qualities found above the equipment's peers? Even if one believes that the standard objective measurements typically performed like noise floor, harmonic distortion, crosstalk, etc. are incomplete, how is it ever "good" to promote a device that can't do these basic parameters of accuracy well? And to even mention something like this in 2014!? I might as well happily recommend my <$100 JVC 5-disk CD changer bought at Costco in 2000 over the PS1 in every way I can imagine - including having cleaner sound quality and the option to hook up a DAC through TosLink. 

More recently, consider the 'promotion' of something like the Lector Strumenti Digitube S-192 as a Class A Digital Processor. Well, at least they didn't list it as A+! But how is this a "good" DAC when objectively it's a fact that this thing can't even reproduce down to the 16th bit accurately? That "192" in the product name implies that it's capable of 192kHz "high res", but what's the point when the output noise level is so high? If this was 1995, then maybe it'd be competitive with other DACs; but in 2014, isn't this a bit of a joke? Just because again, a certainly reviewer (Art Dudley) seems to like this type of inaccurate sound? (Oh, pardon me... Music reproduced with this kind of sound.)

As others on the forum post had suggested regarding the Recommended Components list, I agree that it represents a form of vacuous entertainment (I see the word "porn" offered). While I of course agree that many of the A+ components are excellent, there's clearly much that's questionable and I surely hope few readers take these lists seriously!

In cases like the Strumenti, I wished Stereophile took the approach of saying that the objective measurements supersede the subjective opinion because the facts say so (oooohhh... scary thought...). I know Mr. Dudley is well known, has worked in the industry for years and has heard a lot of good quality gear... But I know nothing of how well he hears at his age, and whether he should hold a Golden Ears certificate. Nor do I agree with the philosophy that subjective reviewers somehow have the task/responsibility of tapping into and reporting on "musicality". Please, let the artist do his/her thing, let the gear be accurate, and let the listener judge if what the artist did sounds musical or not. As discussed previously, purely subjective reviews I believe have limited utility once equipment is tested with objective scrutiny in regard to audio quality. This should not be surprising.

Don't get me started on the Cables or many of these "Miscellaneous" recommendations :-).

Despite my criticisms, I still think Stereophile is the best audio publication these days. The fact that they are the only ones in North America (with wide circulation) to attempt balance is to their credit. And the fact that it irks me enough to bother writing this obviously also means I care enough to wish that it could get better.

Here's a thought. In my opinion, change the list to "Recommended Current Components" to identify that this list is meant to contain equipment currently available or reviewed over the last few years. The PS1 should really not be there. Then create a supplemental list of "Recommended Vintage Components" which contains a running list of all the gear previously recommended over the years. Forgo the paragraph blurb in the Vintage list but identify which past issue it was reviewed; maybe create a link to a $1 PDF for purchase of the review... Might as well make a few bucks and I for one probably would be happy to purchase a few at that price point which I think is very reasonable considering how cheap an electronic subscription costs!

PS: Speaking of using the PS1 as a music player, here's a cool DIY site.


This brings me to some final observations and parting thoughts for the week. I'm definitely into major speculative musings here.

I think the tide towards "more objectivism" has started. The forces of change are many, some of which have been highlighted by AudioPhil's personal journey. I suspect his trajectory isn't all that uncommon; a shift over time from the grasp of the so-called "high end" of subjective hype and superficial reputation / appearance, into a realization that "good sound" these days should not be determined by a fascia made of aeronautical milled aluminum nor has anything to do with extravagant cost.

The rationale I believe is fourfold:

1. Technology has advanced and engineering has easily reached a level where affordable equipment can surpass human auditory acuity. This has been the case for more than a decade now where reasonably well engineered devices can achieve >16-bit resolution as a concrete example. The cost of a device that can objectively achieve this should be <$500. A simple DAC like the <$200 AudioEngine D3 or my AUNE X1 DAC (<$300) are examples of this at low price points. That's just plain reality. Good, accurate sound should be a pre-requisite for "recommended" gear by default, and if one is recommending based on a "colored" sound (tube sound, NOS DAC sound), just say so.

2. I believe the Music Industry will start "objectivisation" of music further. As much as I feel it is misguided (vis-à-vis the 16-bit vs. 24-bit test) to sell more remasters in the form of a veiled attempt at promoting sound quality, the marketing departments are gradually "educating" the masses about lossy vs. lossless vs. hi-res. And they're doing it using the lowest common denominator - promoting the parameters of the file container (simplistic idealization of high bit depth and samplerate while demonizing MP3/AAC). Look at how Pono idealizes "24-bits!" and "192kHz sampling rate!". I believe soon, digital equipment reviewers will need to prove that indeed the piece of gear is capable of benefiting from the greater bit-depth - the only way would be at least a partial acceptance that measurements are necessary. This isn't all bad since it will promote more accurate devices. In time, I believe purely subjective reviews will ultimately lose readership; essentially becoming an extension of the advertisement arm of the Industry. (I believe those glossy picture-filled audio magazines are already there.) Depending on the desperation of the industry to promote the high resolution digital meme, there will be continued push towards a (again misguided) comparison with vinyl in order to sway those who have special reverence towards all things analogue. There might even be increased animosity between the two camps to gain market share.

3. In the big picture, generational dynamics will IMO strike a blow against subjectivism. As the Baby Boomers age, diminish in societal influence, and depart, those that come after will take up the audio hobby in their own way with their own values. The so-called Gen X and Gen Y (Millennials) are without question more technologically savvy. Raised in an environment witnessing the rise of digital in all areas of communication and media since a young age (and noting benefits of the digital age without undue fear or sentimentality), the new generation will gradually dilute analogue biases and practices. Something as simple as lossless file formats being free from multi-generational copies or that the sound of FLAC is no different than WAV/AIFF (this seems to be lost on folks like Cookie Marenco) will be as obvious as swiping a touch screen. In any other area of digital gear evaluation, it is well accepted to use objective measurements (is that SSD faster than HDDs? How much faster is USB3 vs. USB2? Does the Retina iPad Mini display look clearer than the new Galaxy Tab? So how good is the color space rendition of that new monitor?). For decades now, computing sites like AnandTech or Tom's Hardware have done reviews demonstrating objective ability. Look around your local bookstore, at least around here, gone are the 'generic' thick monthly computer magazines like PCWorld and in its place are either enthusiast magazines like Computer Power User (chock with reviews using objective measurements) or the various "iPad for Seniors" special editions. There is no reason audio hardware should be spared from a greater level of scrutiny. Of course, I do believe subjective opinions have their place and would be valued when it comes to usability, look & feel, verification that the sound isn't unexpectedly awry, some music recommendations, interesting anecdotes, and of course general entertainment value.

4. With generational changes as big as what we are likely to witness with the Boomers,  there will come societal changes in terms of wealth and values (among a myriad of other issues like health care entitlement, debt obligations, environmental concerns, even the fabric of societal morality). For example, I think most of us would not argue with the idea that there's something wrong with how things are going with the economy. Disparities and inconsistencies appear the norm rather than the exception all over the place. It will not be a surprise to see a shift in the appetite of debt and consumerism to one of saving and maintaining wealth in the decades ahead. This will change our values and attitudes about luxury goods and what really is "good". Although a miniscule piece of the big picture, tides of change will not spare the "high end" audio industry. These are massive issues and not ones I can fathom discussing with any sense of justice to the topics in this humble blog.

No, I don't expect these themes to take hold overnight. Fundamental shifts almost never change quickly (sometimes they do during times of revolution of course) but these are some of the trends I'll certainly be looking for in the days ahead. Hey, maybe in 10 years I'll come back to this post and review the scoreboard assuming I care about audio hardware at that point!

Until then (2024), get a nice seat in front of your favourite audio set-up. Put on some good tunes. Enjoy the music. :-)


  1. Nah... I don't think subjectivism is getting smaller nor that it will ever disappear.

    It has this very appealing 'mystical' thing about it and lets face it ... many people using their newly bought and expensive USB cable will always KNOW it sounds better. It HAS to, so it does to their ears. Money well spent.
    I don't mind as long as it increases their listening pleasure.

    The 'uber expensive' looks of 'high-end' will also always be appealing and even hard core objectivists, who are happy with their ODAC and O2, will secretly be wondering if that expensive and gorgeous looking device might indeed sound better.
    After all so many noted and knowledgeable people, reviewers and magazines say it does.

    The expensive (and doesn't even need to measure 'good') equipment will always be sold, if it were only to rich people that like to show off or have something 'mortals' can't afford/don't have and have loads of money burning in their pocket.

    Subjectivista's will never accept measurements OVER their ears and they will always be annoyed by 'the measuring and not listening' crowd and either get mad or walk away with their heads shaking in disbelief.

    It's in the human nature.

    I hope this doesn't stop you from posting more 'objective' stuff though :-)

  2. Hi again Archimago!

    I am happy to see some *more subjective* thoughts on your *more objective* blog :-)

    Few months ago I linked WHAT HI*FI's *Best DACs to buy in 2014* list > < to my fellow CRO audiophiles questioning the credibility of lists like that, and pointing out that almost all of the recommended DACs are British brands. I would say that 99% of people do not take lists like this seriously, but unfortunately in my experience they are very much read and considered especially by people that are buying low and mid priced gear. This sort of *marketing* is very profitable - and lists like that are marketing and nothing else.

    BTW Mr. Dudley also swears 2.400$ Quantum Resonant Technology Qx4 tweak with questionable scientific explanation! For the price of this TWEAK! in a real world one can feed a family of six for a year, and in a real HiFi world (supposing one is TECHNICALLY skilled and experienced) can set up a system that would on blind listening SONICALLY fool all of them subjectivists (or anyone for that matter) thinking god knows what. Typical subjectivists assumption: You get what you pay for!

    Crazy priced High End gear and +1000$ tweaks just don't make sense, same as frantic gear changing, collective delusion listening sessions, strictly subjective reviews, and many other subjectivist hypes. I LIKE your description of "so-called high end" :-)

    First hand experience:

    This spring I was in Munich visiting *High End* show with two friends. My subjectivist blog friend (graphic designer) and a guy that have a master in Physics and Mathematics, specialized in acoustics, developing speaker boxes for RCF, working with pro room acoustics and so on, you get the point - geek :-)

    We attended Nordost's presentation of *Sort Füt* (350$ each) that is "mechanically tuned resonance control device" meant for speakers, and *Sort Kone* same sh*t meant for components …..mechanically WHAT!? ..WOOOW… The presenter Bjorn Bengtsson explained a bit about the problems with unwanted vibrations blahblahblah…. then a bit about their unique products blahblahblah…. *Sort Kone* is available in four models starting with the AS (aluminum - steel) model (80$), to the top-of-the-line TC (titanium - ceramic) Kone, that costs 420$ each!!… After a while he played a single track *James Black's, The Wilhelm Scream* (DR5!! sonic mess, ideal for High End presentation?). Speakers were Audio Physic Scorpio 25 mounted on generic spikes, and then they switched speakers for the same model, not exactly the same, first pair was black, and second white ;-) with *Sort Füt* on. Difference in freq response of the speaker seemed so obvious that my *objective* friend started to laugh. Objectivist asked Mr. Bjorn if we can play something of our USB stick, and if one of us can stand by the laptop while songs are being played. Answer was NO, of course. After demo, Mr. Bjorn vividly explained how important is to sync hight and adjust perpendicularity of speakers, and if you buy *Sort Füt premium boxed set of 4* for only 1.500$ you get a *Laser leveling system for precise installation* … WOOOOWW - basically a 20$ spirit-level with laser and a small X target for the second speaker :-)
    Geek friend and I started asking questions …. be continued……

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. ……EDIT: objective/subjective...:-)

      Q: What is minimum height difference between tweeters that humans can perceive? A: It depends on the speaker, there is no general answer…:-))) hahahaha, Q: To what degree is perpendicularity of a speaker important? A: Well, it is individual, depends on the listener, speaker, room, air density, stellar constellation …… and so on… answers were *political* Mr. Bjorn was very nice and very skillful avoiding direct answers. When we asked why Al?, why TI?, what is the purpose of Ti Kone for 420$/piece!!??!, asserting that Al is much cheaper and probably better material for the purpose,…. A: Ti is expensive because tools for working with titanium cost a lot, and NOT because it is SONICALLY BETTER!!!….. we said thanks, and exit the room. Could not believe that people would pay say 3.000$ not knowing does it work, how it works and why? Legitimate question: Why Ti cones? Answer: Because it is expensive! I do not see any other reason.

      We promised writing to Audio Physic engineers about obvious flaw in their product, since with generic spikes the speaker performed very inaccurate, no focus in upper freqs, muddy and withdrawn in lower freqs. Never kept our promise :-(

      What is my point.

      As we started asking questions, our *High End subjectivist* friend started to frown, saying where are our manners, he was NOT interested in scientific side of the story at all, and found him self offended as we questioned what he a priori knows for a fact. He heard the difference and that was it!! To continue our visit we all had to cool down with few *Paulaner weissbier's* :-) What is even worse, most of the people attending the presentation left the room immediately after demo affirmatively shaking their heads, showing NO interest at all for the technical side of this 3k$ tweak. That is a pattern of behavior that I am seeing for years. Objective approach is exception in HiFi, and rarity in High End. Sadly, in my experience most of the *High End-ers* are on the SUBJECTIVE side.

      As for X. Y…. generations, under the influence of marketing, loudness wars, fast food mainstream music, etc. they seem to have very low interest in HighFidelity sound. What is the point of HiRes DAC measuring way beyond human hearing threshold, if you connect it to LoFi portable gear and play highly compressed artificially produced music on the bus.

      I'll have to agree with Frans on this. I just do not see that "tide" coming, or any progress in objective approach to HiFi. On the contrary. Your AudioPhil friend is I am afraid *Excepto firmat regulam* ….in my experience…hope I am wrong, especially for XYZ... generations ;-)

      Munich HIGH END 2015?
      Europe is just an ocean away. It is a must, Ganges for audiophiles :-)

  4. Very pleased to have discovered this objectivist blog!

    I am all for "objectivisation" but I find it fascinating that even objectivism is very subjective... We all choose subjectively the aspects we want to measure, while completely ignoring other 'elephants in the room' that we could be measuring but don't.

    I would think of myself as an objectivist, but in my particular case I am prepared to accept that for practical purposes, modern DACs are pretty much perfect and not worthy of further enquiry. I am happy that 16/44.1 is transparent. The main issues as I would see them, are all related to speakers:

    1. Phase/time domain response is completely ignored as though huge distortions are utterly inaudible (- while we think it worthwhile to differentiate between two DACs with SNRs of -106 and -110dB)
    2. (Related to 1) I cannot understand how ported speakers can possibly be thought of as high end hi fi. We can show objectively that they are doing terrible things to the time domain response (and other bad things like rolling off sharply below resonance), but for some reason this is completely ignored, almost universally.
    3. Passive crossovers are 'legacy technology' that cannot be justified in this day and age unless we really are on an extreme budget - and therefore not expecting real hi fi.
    4. In an absence of bass extension and adequate volume capability, then all bets are off with regards to making a system sound good. If that means we need very large speakers in an average room, then so be it. I would suggest that everything else is a toy, and the mystery is that we spend so much time and money attempting to make a silk purse from a sow's ear.

    But I know that there are things that other people worry about equally strongly, and I don't. Can any of us really claim to be objectivists?

    1. As soon as electro-mechanical-acoustical conversion/interfacing comes into play it will be extremely hard to include all aspects of it.
      In that sense 'objectivism' is indeed not that applicable any more when one wants to measure all aspects.
      This simply isn't possible for many reasons.

      On the purely electrical plane, however, MOST things can be measured but not every manufacturer/reviewer/tester doesn't have the appropriate (expensive) equipment for it nor sees the need/added value of certain measurements.

      In the end a stereo signal is just 2 voltages, with a close relation, independently varying over time.
      These electrical aspects can be measured in many different ways/aspects.
      Also in the digital plane things can be measured/reasoned and analysed with great accuracy.

      Sadly audio isn't just electronics confined to individual boxes but has conversion points, has to be connected and may interact and also involves mechanics AND acoustics and above all is subject to human interpretation.

      This does make 'audio' as a whole highly subjective, no matter how 'objective' one's standpoint is.
      Isn't that the fun part of audio ?

  5. "In the end a stereo signal is just 2 voltages, with a close relation, independently varying over time."

    It does seem ironic, though, that if a novice were to ask for a definition of hi fi we might say something like "Ensuring that what comes out of the speakers is the same as was on the original recording", but if the novice then measured the setup with a microphone and compared what went in to what came out the signals would *look* nothing like each other. We would then say something like "Oh, that's just because of some phase shifts and the bass characteristics of the speakers. Even the most expensive speakers do that. Our ears can't hear any of that. Nothing to worry about."

    We start off with a time domain explanation, and lapse into the frequency domain (i.e. magnitudes only) as though it is the most natural thing in the world. Are we sure that we are not discarding something quite important?

  6. Not sure if this is the right place to make a request. But I would like to see an informative and unbiased discussion on one of popular speakers by Bose. It is because most everyone in audiophile community says that they are garbage, no one reviews them but still they cost more and are the best selling speaker brand in the world. Now I know popularity does not equate quality. But I also know that it is nearly impossible to sell poor quality stuff at premium prices for very long.