A 'more objective' take for Rational Audiophiles. Among other topics!
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Saturday, 14 April 2018
MUSINGS: On the joy of numbers... Yet more on that audio "Subjectivist" vs. "Objectivist" debate.
You might recognize the opening graphic from a previous post years ago where I commented that I actually believe it's healthy to maintain balance rather than seeing extreme polarities. In that post, I mentioned an article by Michael Lavorgna from AudioStream that I thought was grossly off base. That was in 2015. Here we are again in 2018, with another post on AudioStream, but this time penned by Herb Reichert called "Audio Without Numbers" that I think needs to be addressed. (Hmmm... What's wrong with numbers? :-)
Before getting into the discussion, let me lay out a couple of suggestions not just for this post, but also in general when we're simply talking about audiophilia, the science and philosophy behind our hobby.
First, let's talk plainly. Yes, we can bring up the names of long dead philosophers all day long... Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle of classic fame, to more recent men of high thinking like Hume, Kant, Poincaré, Popper, and Kuhn - they likely all have something to say about this debate depending on philosophical leanings around the nature of "truth", "knowledge", and other metaphysical ideas. Over the years, I've dropped a couple of these names as well where I thought a quote or reference might be meaningful, but ultimately so what? Time has passed since these thinkers put down their words, scientific knowledge has advanced in ways that the thinkers above have not been privy to and perhaps they would have vastly different ideas if alive today. For
example, other than Kuhn and Popper, the rest of them were gone by the
time the double-helix was discovered, or the advent of modern molecular
biology or neuroscience to explain sensory phenomena and the limits of perception. Besides, I'm not sure any of them were audiophiles :-). Second, let's not appeal to scientific domains that more than likely have no practical relevance to the hobby. Yes, relativity, Einstein, and Hawking were way cool guys! Likewise, quarks, hadrons, superstrings, the wave-particle duality, and Erwin Schrödinger and his cat are also very much worth pondering about. While these concepts have great relevance in this universe, as far as I am aware, there is no evidence that sound waves, the consumer electronics we're talking about, or even human perception "materially" requires that we engage in laws governing subatomic particles, the space-time continuum, or velocities approaching light speed. Who knows, maybe consciousness involves quantum-level phenomena (as per Roger Penrose for example), but this is highly speculative. To bring forth these theories as if of relevance is IMO at best engaging in some unnecessary science fiction writing, and at worst it makes the writer sound pretentious. BTW, I think audiophile companies need to keep this in mind while advertising their products to maintain some semblance of sanity (folks like this, this, and this likely have crossed the line).
I think it goes without saying that we as humans are highly tribalistic. We naturally congregate in cliques, feel "at home" with those we're most similar with whether in appearance, shared culture, faith, or creed. And in so doing, we have a tendency to see ourselves as "us" versus "them". This binary tendency seems innate from the time we're young; just look at young children and notice the concrete tendencies and "black or white" thinking during the early years of moral development. So too I think we can see the "subjectivist" vs. "objectivist" debate as a shadow of that simplistic and rather immature worldview. Like so many dialectical opposites in life, much of reality typically ends up in that gray zone rather than the radical extremes (for the most part...). I have not met a "radical" audio subjectivist who over a good discussion could not appreciate that measurements actually do correlate with sound quality. Conversely, I can appreciate another's subjective preferences and admittedly have my own prejudices about what kind of gear I like and what kind of "sound" I subjectively prefer. As such, I read Mr. Reichert's article as unrealistically divisive and unreasonably bitter when he calls out against the "Self-proclaimed audio objectivists, like those that troll audio forums, are not scientists, or audio professionals... They are pathologically self-centered people...". By doing this, he has created a fairytale, but more so, a logically flawed "strawman" whom he then sets off to attack as if there are legions of these narcissistic "audio objectivists" he needs to warn otherwise defenseless "subjectivist" audiophiles against.
He of course obliges with an attack on the "self-proclaimed audio objectivists" strawmen as "self-declared enemies of poetry, love, and humanist
culture". Yes, how predictable - and inane... A few weeks back, I already posted an article on the definition of what the terms "subjective" and "objective" imply and characterstics of each. The way I see it is that "objectivity" in audio is simply an attempt to get directly at underlying "constructs" of how we understand this world works not based simply on an individual's beliefs, but scientific foundations built on empirical evidence over the generations. These are not the "quasi-imaginable cultural abstractions" that Reichert speaks of in his article. Rather, we are talking about concepts of science and technology that applies to every culture on planet Earth. Clearly concepts like frequency, noise floor, dynamic range, time-domain characteristics correlate to external physical phenomena whether one lives in North America or in rural Asia regardless of culture, language, transcending time into the generations of men and women who have graced this Earth. History may have dictated certain outcomes such as our use of certain units of measurement (eg. Hz, dB, μs, V, Ω, etc...), or the modern use of the A-440 pitch standard in Western music. Just like the physical properties of "a rose by any other name" will remain measurably "rose-like", the physical properties of sound waves define the stimulation of the cochlea and ultimately mental processing even if at the individual biological level, we each are different.
An audiophile who appreciates objective analysis can state that these foundational properties can be comparable between different devices. This is a logical proposition because these measurable scientific concepts (frequency, noise level, various distortions, jitter, etc...) permeate through the whole endeavor of audio engineering from hardware design to the recording/production chain to home playback and room characteristics. As referenced above, these physical principles creating sound waves are not materially governed by the complexities of relativity nor require quantum mechanics principles when it comes to accurate mathematical modeling. To bring these advanced physical principles up (as per Reicher's paragraph about "Enlightenment Paradigm" being "rejected by scientists and philosophers" like "Einstein, Heisenberg, et al.") when simply discussing consumer electronics - even if "high end" and expensive - sounds ridiculous! Just because Newtonian physics can be seen as a subset of a greater understanding of physics doesn't mean it's not more than adequate for the calculation of projectiles on planet earth. Who's got a "puffed-chest" here?
Do we actually think that respected "high end" hardware designers don't understand these underlying principles when they create good gear? Are these physical characteristics of sound not universal and apply to all audio engineers and circuit designers transculturally whether designed and built in the USA, the UK, Germany, or China? While we can say that some designers might not be aiming for technical perfection and perhaps there are corners to cut at certain price points, surely it would be ridiculous these days to suggest principles of objectivity such as measurements are not highly important in design and verification of these machines! A device that deviates from reasonable measurements of basic electrical (eg. DAC, amplifier) and ultimately mechanical characteristics (eg. transducers like speakers and headphones) beyond a certain amount will be audibly different and potentially no longer be capable of "high fidelity" reproduction.
Compared to direct assessments and measurements of sonic attributes with objective methods, subjectivity refers to an indirect type of assessment. If I were to ask any audiophile to assess for me these physics constructs like smoothness of frequency response, time-domain accuracy, amount of detail retrieval, etc... I'm sure an audiophile would give it his/her best effort by listening to some music or even a frequency sweep if he/she wants to use a controlled signal. But that assessment would have been a complex sequence of steps having the sound processed by one's ears, mental auditory processing, comparisons made with previous memory of events, cross-referenced with the lexicon of words to use, and then consciously expressed in language. This is not even to mention other important variables like accounting for the room being used or the ambient noise level, etc. that would have significant bearing on the perception.
We can grab a hundred trained listeners to study the qualitative aspects of their perception and experience (Which DAC / amp / speaker sounds "better"? Which one sounds tonally the most natural? Which one reproduced the best detail?). In this way we can get a numerical survey based on some kind of standardized scale (which will also need to be tested for validity), thus "objectifying" the exercise by obtaining subjective measurements. The results can give us nice "group effects" and we can calculate things like standard deviation or even plot out the results and perhaps see a typical "normal" curve. Ultimately, we would still say that each person as an "instrument" of perception will be providing an opinion based on his/her subjective experience governed by listening acuity, and sharpness of mind. Group results therefore could point us in the direction of general preferences but would also reflect the variance in the population tested.
In this context, Mr. Reichert is absolutely off base when he claims:
"Dutifully, I remind these dismissers, that, by
definition, an 'objectivist' is an experienced, unbiased and
unprejudiced observer; and that every editor at Stereophile, Analog
Planet, InnerFidelity, and AudioStream fits that description."
An individual may be "experienced", but when we do not control for the multitude of variables, there is no way any of us can humbly and realistically claim that we're "unbiased" and "unprejudiced"! To insist that as conscious, complex beings with intrinsic preferences, experiences, and emotions can be "unbiased" is absolutely unwise, obviously lacking in insight into the nature of humanity and especially ridiculous coming from an "artist". Apart from the objective measurements in Stereophile, InnerFidelity, and occasionally in Analog Planet, the "observations" by the editors might be accurate, but if the method of evaluation is that of uncontrolled sighted listening, then the opinions rendered are obviously not in any way derived objectively. Yes, we can hope that Atkinson, Lavorgna, Reichert himself, etc. possess developed, elevated, and educated "auditory palates" or "golden ears" when they review these devices by virtue of experience. However, we cannot know their perceptual limitations (eg. age-related loss in high frequency hearing) or whether recommendations are made based primarily on idiosyncratic preferences. Furthermore, if the claim is that some kind of rigorous comparison is being done mentally, we cannot know what "standards" they have in mind when making judgments. Over the years, we have seen examples where objective evidence clearly demonstrates limitations of a device not caught by numerous subjective reviewers precisely because performance characteristics can be directly assessed (like the limitation of the Wadia 121 I discussed years ago).
For those who want to watch an interesting lecture that combines objectivity/subjectivity, art/science, here's one of the most respected names in audio recorded in 2015:
It is this kind of knowledge and understanding that I hope brings joy to the inquiring audiophile as it satisfies the intellect!
Dr. Toole reminds us of the importance of controlled testing (10:50). He also uses objective testing to explore the ability to predict with some level of accuracy the preferences among most "subjects" for various speakers but of course not everyone will have the same preference.
We can imagine subjectively that some people might prefer the sound of a speaker with significant high-frequency roll-off below 10kHz or a DAC that is incapable of >16-bit performance, or an amplifier with high THD. Although personally I would not see these characteristics as indicative of achieving high fidelity, that is the privilege and freedom of subjective opinion and I would not say anyone is "wrong" to have such preferences. Remember though that there are also situations when subjective opinions (beliefs) are simply wrong. For example, an uneducated man looking at the horizon might come to the opinion that the Earth is flat based just on that sensory evidence. I do not know if there are many true believers in the "Flat Earth" cosmology still these days but this belief permeated human history for most of the time Homo sapiens have been around. Opinions based just on one's perceptual limits while ignorant of the wider scientific context can obviously be fantastically incorrect!
Coming back to audio then. Ultimately, we each will have to find an insightful balance between our idiosyncratic preferences and awareness of physical properties of the devices. We should find a way to be satisfied with what we like intellectually and emotionally. Subjective opinions whether stated by an audiophile friend or "professional" reviewer are good to consider while accurate direct objective measurements remind us of external realities.
As much as Mr. Reichert wants to caricature the "objectivist" as a souless, artless, cultureless, utilitarian nerd, he has only successfully shown himself to hold on to beliefs of an extreme subjectivist audiophile stuck in a pretentious imaginary world with little to show in actuality. A state where the "truth" of sound quality is nothing but faith in oneself and one's "ears" to the exclusion of objective universal principles. Ultimately this philosophy appears to be a form of solipsism. Perhaps in this mode of thinking, numbers in audio mean nothing to him.
In my opinion, if we as humans are gifted with emotions, are able to engage in artistic appreciation, reasoning, and able to understand the concepts that technically constitute the sounds we hear, then why not embrace it all? The "objectivist" agenda I speak of is one where both numbers and emotions commingle (remember, from the start I have always said this blog is about being 'more objective', never to the exclusion or repression of one's feelings). There is no need to almost fear the ability to judge sonic attributes with numbers, or comparison charts, or graphs (this reminds me of Art Dudley and his issue with scientists a few years back).
It looks like Stereophile is in the process of going through some changes. I see that there have been no updates at all on AudioStream since Mr. Reichert's April 4th article. As much as I have had some strong disagreements with the comments and articles in the magazine and affiliated sites like in today's post, I certainly do wish everyone well. I hope change can bring new insights, benefits and improve respectability for this hobby through the press. Hey folks, here's what the UPS Guy brought me the other day:
Yup, as I said last week, it's the Oppo UDP-205 UHD Blu-Ray player. I'm in the process now of playing with this, enjoying some movies and music. Early impressions in the first few days regarding sound quality: subjectively excellent, and technically beautiful based on some early explorations :-). There's quite a bit of interesting stuff to explore with this device, so I'll probably take my time and demonstrate/discuss over a series in the weeks/months ahead as work demands are heating up. Enjoy the music!