Tuesday 17 March 2015

MUSINGS: Audiophiles "Us vs. Them" (Objectivists vs. Subjectivists) Attitudes and Envy!?

Since I'm stuck at LAX on my way home from a wonderful Spring Break with the wife and kids down in Texas as well as a Caribbean cruise, I thought I'd polish my response to Hal Espen's comment in the last post... BTW, I enjoyed visiting Bjorn's in San Antonio just to see the audio and home theater gear they had on display. Some really nice stuff and it looks like they're upgrading their main demo room to Atmos soon. I appreciated the knowledgeable staff and friendly attitude; taking time to demo the gear even though they knew I didn't even live in the USA.

So Hal, nice comment:
Pure confirmation bias from beginning to end. None of this really exists. : )
You can't have it both ways. Either your blog is about providing the little bursts of brain chemicals that us vs. them skeptics receive when scientism is seen to be crushing audiophilia, or you're going to go wafting into the subjective realm of the subtle and imaginative "classy" pleasures of reproducing music electronically, as you do with evident misgivings here.

Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on>
Gets right to the heart of some of the heated debates and arguments I suppose... I guess I "swing both ways" in some regards. :-)

Remember though, I am "more objective" in my leanings in terms of intolerance for some of the true BS (like certain cables). However, I have no issues with enjoying the finer things in life. If a $50,000 pair of speakers made with premium materials look fantastic with my decor, sounds great, and I really wanted them; I would happily buy them! But as an objectivist, I would just like to make sure that they are built to scientific principles around the ability to convey accurate sound (decent frequency response, minimal enclosure resonance, good time alignment, rational crossovers, adequate power handling...). The philosophical issue I have with pure subjectivism is that I see these parameters as pre-requisites as an informed consumer to my purchase and essential to any complete review due to psychological limitations (biases) and limits of human hearing acuity based on personal experience with my own failings and knowing the limits of various "golden ears" I have come across in my travels. I don't think it's unreasonable to state that some folks lack insight into their own abilities and limitations - this is not just a comment about audiophiles but apply to many other situations as well.

There are many examples in the Stereophile reviews where IMO it's quite clear that certain "recommended" components should be viewed with suspicion in the eyes of those interested in objective criteria of accuracy and "high fidelity". An example is something like the DeVore Orangutans - they don't "measure up" as can be seen with the Stereophile measurements and there's even a comment about audible coloration with solo piano by JA. Many interesting comments in that post. For the asking price of $12000/pair, I think that's unreasonable performance for the expense given a myriad of other options at that price point and below. BTW I have heard them and although they sound OK especially with low power amps, I am just not interested in gear that "color" the sound in a significant way. No matter what some subjective folks "think" or "hear" or "feel". (Esthetically these speakers do nothing for me either.)

This principle is all the more relevant with stuff like cables (especially for digital signals) where there's literally nothing there to measure or difference to be heard once any kind of controlled protocol is put in place. Other than subjective esthetic preferences and psychological "feel good" about owning expensive copper snakes. I really don't care enough about the "bling" of cables to feel it's worthy of the expense since that is all they offer.

Ultimately, I think it's OK to embrace the various "shades of grey" in audiophile philosophical leanings and I hope I don't come off too intolerant of anyone's freedom to believe what they want. However I don't have to believe everything I hear/read and I choose to take a stand on buying gear based on what appears to be reasonably "sound" science. Some folks seem to think it's about expense or "envy" about the cost of audiophile gear; and that's the reason why some people criticize the equipment or company. While this may be the case at times, personally I do not believe this is my concern at all (nor have I met many objectivists where I thought they might be projecting envy as a major reason for their disdain of nonsense). Over the years I've easily spent >$50,000 on audio gear and much more than that to buy a house meeting my criteria for a decent enough sound room (yet another pre-requisite - something I wish all audio reviewers would talk more about and show us pictures of the soundroom rather than listing likely insignificant accessories like cables used).

I truly find it bizarre that recently folks like Michael Lavorgna at AudioStream keeps talking about "envy" (like here and here)... Folks, when objectively some things don't make sense like $1000 ethernet cables, what is there to be envious about unless one is honestly willing to accept that they are in this audio hobby not for sound quality but acknowledging that "bling" is worth coveting (like that $17,000 Apple Watch)?

Gents (and ladies). Enjoy the music!

No need to get upset in flame wars since it's just a hobby... One of I hope a number of others since there is so much in this world to enjoy. Figure out what's important to you and your stance. Most of all, for the love of the community, stay cool when it comes to debates out there :-). IMO, the objective perspective has so much to offer in terms of reality testing, tools to help adjudicate qualitative differences, and a way to tease out collective facts from individual beliefs... For something as obvious as ethernet cables, put the facts forward and wait for reasonable responses or evidence to show otherwise. Hopefully folks will think about their beliefs and engage in reasonable conversation about what is important and how we can all benefit from improved sound quality.

And it's always good to realize there's more to this than a simplistic and childish "us vs. them" attitude of course...

BTW: I just couldn't help but run into this article on the "JCAT Reference USB" cables. Can someone tell me the definition of a "true believer in the audiophile experience" or the "true hobbyist"? So what does that make "us" or are we "them"? :-) Also, shouldn't we be reserving phrases like "true believer" for religion and faith rather than engineered products based on applied physics!?


  1. Thanks for this eloquent and generous response to my comment — other less charitable bloggers mights have interpreted those somewhat snarky remarks as a sharp poke with a stick. The non-jesting half of my heckling came not so much from anything I've read at this fine blog, with its cheerful immersion in cool science and open-minded testing, but more from the way your mild-mannered debunking sometimes gets passed around the internet and turned into mean mockery along the way.

    I love the technological wonders of my beautiful-sounding hi-fi but my belief system is pretty much across the big divide from Objectiveville, in a zone of musical mysticism, unhealthy hedonism ("dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music…"), and highly suggestible enthusiasm for the mythology of certain audio brands and the pleasure of reading about unscientific critical listening, sometimes even when the claims being made are clearly based on hallucination and self-hypnotism. The buzzkill smugness of stuff like "24/192 Music Downloads…and Why They Make No Sense" just makes no sense to me as a compelling way to shape how I'm hearing what I'm hearing. Not only that, but the weird mob ferocity and general fun-lessness of today's tech-skeptic denunciations of audiophilia, versus the deeply affectionate love for the beauty and sonic architecture of recorded music that I tend to find largely among the subjectivist audiophiles, makes it easy for me to know which deluded souls I'd generally rather hang out and spin tunes with. Still, among the measurements-and-objectivism crowd, you're definitely one of the coolest funnest sanest cats, and I'll continue reading with interest whatever you have to say. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks Hal. I too very much enjoy your perspective on this and the wisdom in expressing your position...


  2. I'm more inclined to the objectivists side, I also try to respect the subjectivists when they respect me...

    Rafael Lino aka JourneymanPT

  3. I like to think I can see both sides too. I have read articles written by strict objectivists that argue that all amplifiers of the same topology sound the same for instance. This is a ridiculous extreme but it does serve to illustrate a point - objectivists rely of assumptions that measurements will tell them all there is about a component even if there is compelling and obvious evidence to the contrary (don't believe your ears in other words!). On the other side of the camp we have vendors flogging mystical stones that magically improve sound in your stereo with no attempt to reveal their inner workings or to allow them to be tested.
    I find it interesting that staunch subjectivist bloggers always seem to rank the component they are listening to in order of price and in the case of the Stereophile test on the Orang-utan speaker, it almost smacks of "too big (expensive) to fail, i.e.If this sort of colouration or unevenness of response was observed in a budget speaker, it might have been criticised more heavily but this is a $12,000 speaker right? It must, as a function of its price we brilliant despite any unarguable evidence to the contrary! What I am trying to say is both objectivists and subjectivists suffer from bias and will ignore the evidence if it does not fit into their world view. I think a balanced view is worth exploring. Some types of distortion and inaccuracies sound pleasant in our equipment but it is an honourable goal to strive to gain as much accuracy as possible. To me it's the great dichotomy of enjoying music both for its closeness to real instruments but not forgetting to actually enjoy it.

    1. Have you done any blind test? Two nominally driven amplifiers will sound the same, if they don't one of them is inferior quality if our preference is transparency. That"nominally driven" is what usually is lost first, when we start to reach the amp limits, sound does change, audibly.. And of course when the amps are highly different, they are not the same.. We are talking about two amps that are similar in design and there should be no audible differences. If there are, check yourself first cause that is the most possible cause of issues.

      There are no golden ears.

      I've been in this business for 25 years now. I haven't heard amp sound.. If i had to estimate, i've connected thousands of amps over the years, if there is something audible and the culprit is the amp, that unit is marked defective and sent to repair.

      you totally missed the point of objectivist viewpoint: we change our vies when provided with evidence, ou can't be objectivist in any other way: it means exactly leaving bias and beliefs, no matter if we like it or not, facts are facts. Also, objectivists listen their gear much less and listen music much more; we know what the system does, we don't need to decipher some ancient magical code of sound in our head constantly.

  4. Frankly I cringe when I go to AudioStream only to find another review of a USB or Ethernet cable. My first thought is of course here we go again. The comments seem so predominantly negative I wonder what the point is of spending all that time evaluating the product and writing the review. Maybe the comment feature should just be turned off. Of course that's not right either.

  5. Frankly I cringe when I go to AudioStream only to find another review of a USB or Ethernet cable. My first thought is of course here we go again. The comments seem so predominantly negative I wonder what the point is of spending all that time evaluating the product and writing the review. Maybe the comment feature should just be turned off. Of course that's not right either.