Tuesday, 7 July 2015

MUSINGS: On Audiophile Debates and "Placebos do in fact work..."

From drugsdb.com.

Let's think for a moment what "audiophilia" is about...

'We' love music so the likelihood is that 'we' have lots of albums to listen to. That's one of the great things about computer audio - a unified, easily accessible library. (This is of course not necessarily the case for everyone.)

'We' enjoy talking about hardware that can make the sound better. 'We' in fact often spend a lot of time considering how to match the pieces of an audio system to extract the most out of the collection above.

'We' argue about what's "best" in terms of the hardware because 'we' are passionate about the pastime and it is fun to find ways of making things sound better. When passionate about something, natural human biases (especially among men!) will result in arguments, disagreements, and debates, does it not? Just ask the guys rooting for their favourite team or the "friendly" competition between nations in international sports... The way I see it, there's nothing wrong with this. Debate sparks thought, hopefully ideas which come to fruiting with advancement. Of course, sometimes things do turn ugly and we see unfortunate brawls or riots with alleged fouls or outright unsportsmen-like anger or hatred. Last I checked, nobody got murdered or trampled to death in audio-related debates thankfully.

It is interesting that in the audiophile world, perhaps more than in other technology hobbies, we do have this "tension" with epistemic authority (as the title of the Perlman article Golden Ears And Meter Readers: The Contest for Epistemic Authority in Audiophilia (2004) suggests). That is, where do we find our compass with regards to actual "knowledge" about what we believe to be true? Is it "experiential knowledge" in the subjective sense - "I know it because I feel/experience it." Or does one gravitate to "empirical knowledge" which is born of objective attempts at verification - "we know the basis in science, so let's see if we can show a difference/quantify it". This "big debate" will likely rage indefinitely, but we can still show humour, grace, and gentlemanly behaviour through this. Plus, I have never suggested that this is a true dichotomy since we can embrace elements of both; experience and verify.

Within this dichotomy, there are of course smaller "battles". One which this article (The Computer Audio Wars on AudioStream) highlights is the debate over the merits of DSD64 vs. PCM24/96. It's not a new debate - much of it already well-travelled - for more than a decade as technical folks mull over the ultrasonic noise, noise floor, time-domain, phasic accuracy, and overall accuracy of the two different encoding methods. It's an interesting intellectual argument with merits on all sides and which most objectivist audiophiles would appreciate and can figure out for themselves whether they prefer DSD or PCM (remember, there are all those practical issues with tagging, compression, and difficulty with DSP apart from sound quality; not to mention relatively little DSD content available).

But what I don't get is the ugly "subjective is best" tone to that article which does not seem to present a coherent, defensible position...

1. The author quotes John Siau: "Nevertheless, the differences between PCM 96/24 and DSD 64 should be inaudible. Both systems are capable of delivering high-resolution audio, and both systems exceed the performance of the CD by a significant margin." Yup. Agreed. Yet he follows this quote with "Oh. You mean one is not "better" than the other and both can be enjoyed? I'm shocked!" Huh? What's that sarcastic tone supposed to imply? That objective people cannot enjoy what they hear? Nonsense. Realize that ultimately it really are the folks who can hear "everything" that adds to the fear, doubt, and anxiety about what we have and what we hear (like this article from him where apparently the jump to DSD resulted in a "holy crap", "real space" moment). As far as I know, no objective-leaning audiophile would argue that they can't enjoy a great piece of music in DSD64 or 24/96 because 'we' generally accept John Siau's statement as likely correct - audible differences are likely minimal. The argument between what's "best" is an academic one and that is exactly the kind of interchange between Murison - Waldrep - Siau, no need to add a melodramatic flair. The author of this article really has nothing of value to add in the academic discussion. The fact that we can read about the exchange and consider for ourselves the different points these folks raise does not change one's ability to enjoy anything, but if we were offered the choice, we can develop our own judgements based on the facts as to which side of the debate appears to have more merit.

2. Why the anti-intellectual stance? "Facts, the truth, and science, are often paraded around as the saviors of ignorance and gullibility." Well, are facts and truth (derived from the scientific method) not the antidote against ignorance? Remember folks, we are talking about audio hardware, and even more so, computer audio hardware. We're not arguing about what album you like or which piece of art gives one the goosebumps. There are indeed facts to contend with, to be known, to be understood, and to apply to decision-making. Of course, not all decision making is based on sound quality alone; consider those "non-utilitarian functions" discussed a few weeks back. Nothing wrong with those reasons for spending money.

3. Why the cult of personalities? Whether it's "Monty Montgomery", "Neil Young" or "Experts in the field like Mark Waldrep, John Siau, Bob Stuart of Meridian and MQS [sic], Dan Lavry of Lavy Engineering, and countless others like Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Music, Mort Lindberg of 2L, and Jared Sacks of Channel Classics..." So what? It's easier to throw out a name and claim this guy says this or that, but much more fruitful to consider the facts and learn, don't you think? They are all humans with idiosyncrasies. Focus not on the person, but whether the thoughts are logical, sound minded, and cognitively consonant. No man/woman is without his/her biases, in my experience especially when financial reward is a motivator.

 4. Oh boy. This last one is a doozy. "Placebo is the pat answer from the "right". One problem with this argument is placebos do in fact work in medicine, often times better than even approved medicines from the pharma world, and we are still learning important things about the placebo effect including how long it lasts. In other words, people crying Placebo don't know what they're talking about." So let me get this straight... It's OK to sell something that purports to improve sound quality (which is the Holy Grail of hardware upgrade), knowing that it's a placebo, and so long as people subjectively "feel better", that's somehow OK and justifies the product? Is this ethical? Does it really matter how the placebo effect works when by definition, the thing itself is knowingly inefficacious? Sorry, not in my world view. That's called fraud.

Speaking of placebo and medicine, realize that in this day with numerous medications demonstrated to be significantly beneficial, in many areas of research, it is in fact unethical to be doing placebo-controlled trials any more. For many drug trials, to pass FDA (and related) approval or obtain medical institutional ethics support, one actually needs to perform head-to-head trials of a new agent against a recognized older agent because to use placebo (ie. not treat with something that is generally known to work better) is unethical and exposes the patient to potential harm. I seriously wonder what experience the writer has in the field of medicine to make such a claim about the placebo effect... Please, no more romantic fantasy claims about what we know or don't know about the placebo effect, OK?


Coming up soon... Results from the Digital Filters Test.

Have a great week everyone!


  1. There was an interesting documentary on the BBC last week about the placebo effect. A number of researchers are looking at this to try and see if it can be replicated reliably. The documentary showed a number of experiments that proved that placebos were at work, and the question is as much why, but also why can't we keep doing this? Since placebos ofter provide relief with no side effects, the question is therefore can we use that to cure people, or rather to turn on their self-curing mechanism. (Obviously, this doesn't work for things like cancer...)

    Interesting thoughts. Applied to audiophilia, the question is therefore: if these expensive cables sound so great, how can we convince people that the cheap ones sound great too? :-)

    1. Neat. I'll have to check this documentary out!

      Sure, placebo can allow people to feel better, but to a limit of course. Typically placebo controlled trials show improvement in something around 30% of people for conditions where the mind and faith can have a significant impact - like mood, pain, anxiety, autonomic functions... But obviously when we're talking about conditions like cancer, surgical abdomen, infections, autoimmune conditions needing disease-modifying effects, I'd be cautions!

      Yeah, that's the tendency isn't it: expensive == better! Must convert that to inexpensive == even more awesome cuz I got a great deal! :-)

  2. If every discussion of audiophile controversies had your even-tempered view of the healthy tension between the skeptic/objective/testing side and the critical listening/subjective/pleasure-oriented side, well that would be a groovy thing. Tone-deafness (isn’t that ironic??) and an emotionally unintelligent style of overtorqued aggression afflicts so much of the rhetoric on both sides. Keep fighting the good fight and may the best both sides win.

  3. Now I am on your side on these issues generally, and Lavorgna's position is indefensible IMHO. But I would like to say something about subjective impressions.

    You wrote, in part, "...knowing that it's a placebo, and so long as people subjectively "feel better", that's somehow OK and justifies the product? ..."

    To some degree I would say, Yes!

    It's important to recognize that our overall subjective impression of a recording being played back, and that we attribute to the term 'sound quality', includes the auditory information, plus other information, stirred together. And we hear it as 'the sound', i.e. we wrongly attribute all of it to the auditory information only.

    To the extent that the audio equipment industry plays along with that (self) deception, and claim that is is all in the auditory sound waves reaching the ear, then I suppose that is moral fraud, if not legal.

    But, you know, this unconscious processing and mixing-in of non-sonic information by our minds, is not under our conscious control. The (self) deception happens all the time, automatically. Put a thicker, expensive looking faceplate on the same amplifier and it *will* sound better to many subjective listeners, in *sighted* listening tests. Et cetera ad infinitum.

    And here's the kicker: all of our audiophile hobbyist listening is by way of *sighted* listening. It's the normal condition. Change this or that and, depending on the person, it *will* sound better --- or worse. Even when we know that it shouldn't. Or couldn't.

    So, what to do (pragmatically)? Get annoyed with ourselves? Punish ourselves with the thinner faceplate model, which doesn't sound subjectively so great, because we so resent what our mind is doing with the knowledge we are listening to an amp with better looks? Isn't that faintly ridiculous? We are here to maximize our personal listening pleasure.

    The way I see it is, we should run with what our mind is doing with the contextual information that creates our subjective listening experiences, and use it to maximize our personal listening pleasure. BUT, and it's a big but as you can see, we can't use our personal subjective impressions to advise anyone else about what 'sounds better' in terms of sound waves, or what will sound better to them. It only applies to ourselves, personally, individually. And that is where Lavorgna and the subjectivist crowd fall over and cross the line, because they don't 'get it' that there is a distinction to be made.

    1. Well reasoned comment. I like it!

      Agree, sighted listening is the normal state and knowing *what* we're listening to (brand, face plate, esthetics) plays a role in the overall experience of "quality".

  4. For me the whole subject is a fascinating study in irony. Audiophiles obsess over aspects of their systems that make almost zero audible difference, and are completely unaware of the errors that are baked into the traditional single amp/passive speaker system. I can't take my eyes from the on-going car crash of pseudo-science, ghastly personalities, self-deception and victims who spend their family's inheritance on the latest pieces of wire. It's infuriating but it's also quite entertaining!

    1. "I can't take my eyes from the on-going car crash of pseudo-science..."

      That can't be good for you, man :-).

  5. These "arguments" from the other side are like a schoolboy's attempt at his first debate, having never heard of logical fallacies.

    One thing I've noticed about some audiophiles is that they cannot "shut off". They cannot just enjoy music and ignore the equipment, instead they listen to the equipment that plays the music.
    Of course if you constantly worry about audio quality then doing something that you think will change something will very likely indeed change something for you. It's like a hypochondriac taking a pill against some imagined illness - it doesn't even matter if it contains active substances or not.

    There's also the position that _everything_ makes an audible difference, which seems to be supported by the fear that if you don't hear a difference then you're deaf.

    The audiophool industry builds upon this FUD and general scientific illiteracy and ignorance of their customers. It's sad but it works.

    1. "One thing I've noticed about some audiophiles is that they cannot "shut off". They cannot just enjoy music and ignore the equipment, instead they listen to the equipment that plays the music."

      And this is an interesting observation. Although articles like this one referenced intrudes upon the technical discussion unnecessarily, it does so as a projective & pejorative "here's an example of technical people not able to enjoy DSD64 vs. PCM24/96!" While all along it is the insecure extreme subjectivists and magazine writers that seem to always be looking for the next "best" thing that can grace the cover of the magazine or news headline... "Digital Done Right"... "Best Turntable Ever!"... "Ultimate DAC"...

      There is no sense of security or confidence. Likewise there is ridicule what someone says technically something is "good enough" for human hearing whether it be hardware or software (24/96 not good enough? Then we need 24/192? Maybe 32/384?). Somebody, somewhere always insists he/she can hear it and then a chorus of the like-minded jumps in and effectively it gets repeated enough that it becomes "real" in the culture. No verification needed.

      Fascinating element of human nature which I'm sure all of us can get caught up in...

  6. Hi Archimago, how are you?

    Personally, i'm getting tired of all this flamed discussions about who is right. Everyone talks like snobs with all the pomp!! Man, didn't they have anything better to do, like make some good recordings from GOOD ARTISTS (not some John doe), or maybe discuss a way to make a real and SOLID next step in hi-fi audio (i think that the great last improvement was multi-ch audio, but it was not well received like the stereo was in mono days...).

    I don't know, i'm a bit tired today (bad day, you know...), but it looks like all audio magazines and audio sites entered this "i'm more right than you" world, and i feel that the objective of all this is only attract people's attention so we can see the sponsors ad's in the pages.

    Honestly i see that people are forgetting the final objective of all this stuff: to be happy with your music (and concerts or movies). It's like smartphones with all that social apps and communication apps: it's supposed to make communication easy, and bring more people together, so everyone can meet and be friends, but when they're face-to-face, nobody talks, they're just attached to the apps...

    As always, good article. I'm reading all your posts, i'm just a little quiet because i'm having some bad days in the last months (financial problems can drive us crazy!). But i saw some light in the end of the tunnel, so i hope that everything will be ok till the end of the year.

    Best regards!!

  7. Archimago,

    Reading your posts have got me wondering about eliminating the human element of reviewing audio components. For loudspeaker audio setup, if one setup an "ideal" room and placed microphones where the listener's ears would be, would one be able to measure what waveform over time the listener would experience? This would be a scientific way to compare A to B.

    To take it a step further, would you postulate that the "as listened" via microphones compared to the actual waveform would be the ultimate test of the accuracy of a setup?

  8. Placebo-controlled trials are definitely still used in biomedical research. They're one of 5 protocols that the FDA recognizes as useful for drug trials:


    The claim that placebos 'work' is specious unless it is qualified (work *for what*, work *how well*, etc) ...something audiophiles are pretty lax about doing with their claims.