Saturday 12 August 2023

The Different Types of Subjectivisms in Audiophilia (And How to Get Rid of Them) - guest Taylor Christensen

By Taylor Christensen

I joined the audiophile hobby less than 10 years ago, and, as a person who relies heavily on understanding and applying scientific literature in my day job, I was baffled (pun intended) to discover the extent to which the culture of this hobby is shaped by “pseudosciency” beliefs and even frank scientific ignorance, especially when considering the high prevalence of the audiophile community being well educated and affluent.

Since then, I have thought a lot about this phenomenon. Whenever I am trying to make sense of the world, I find that exhaustive, mutually exclusive categorizations help a great deal, and I have come up with such a categorization that helps me organize and understand the strange things we see in this culture.

To communicate clearly, I need to explicitly define any words whose definitions may be ambiguous – in this case especially, because they sound very similar. Therefore, let me start with three definitions.

The first one, which I will be using frequently throughout this article, is "subjectivism," which I am defining as "any false belief in audibility".

Contrast that with the second word I want to define: "subjectivity," which relates to a person having a personal preference.

I see a lot of confusion that arises from an unclear distinction between those two words, and that confusion often results in people mistakenly questioning the acceptability of subjectivity. So, let me state here that subjectivity is totally appropriate and necessary. We all can rationally have different preferences for our audio experience, and it applies to a lot more than just having different tastes in music. Some may prefer a perfectly transparent playback system, avoiding all forms of audible distortion, while others may criticize that kind of sound as being too "clinical" and prefer instead certain colorations, such as a non-flat frequency response (Harman curve, anyone?), or the euphonic distortion ("warmth") of tube amplifiers, or even the nostalgic crackles and pops of vinyl. Others may say that simple stereo playback systems are unsatisfying compared to the immersive experience offered by multichannel setups. And still others may prefer the headphone listening experience to loudspeakers. All those examples only relate to different preferences in the auditory experience, but there are many non-auditory subjectivities as well, such as the look of giant tower speakers with a nice stack of boxed components and beautiful cables running in between them, or the convenience of a minimalistic and simple all-in-one playback system without any visible cables or boxes.

There is absolutely no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to subjectivities; it's all preference. Identifying your preferences and then acquiring gear that allows you to experience music in your (auditorily and non-auditorily) preferred way is a foundational part of every audiophile's journey. Let's accept and embrace these differences among us!

Claims about audibility, on the other hand, enter into the realm of facts, which are scientifically testable and can be proven true or false. This is why I defined subjectivism as false beliefs in audibility.

The third definition I want to discuss is "subjectivist." This term is sometimes used in a derogatory way to imply someone exhibits a lot of subjectivisms, but I hope it can break from that association and come to simply refer to a person who focuses on the subjective ("subjectivity") aspects of gear. As you will see, I believe all segments of the audiophile world are susceptible to different types of subjectivisms, so accusing another audiophile of having subjectivisms like this is tantamount to being a pot and calling the kettle black.

Now, with those definitions in mind, here is my categorization of the different types of subjectivisms:

Categories of subjectivisms (and objectivism).

Let's discuss this 2x3 table. First, take a look at the axes.

On the Y axis, I have dichotomized scientific legitimacy into yes or no. But, realistically, it's more of a spectrum, with many things being in the gray in-between area. For example, could a fancy audiophile power cable potentially affect an amplifier's output? It could, depending on contextual factors (such as if there are issues with the existing power cable). So, does that lump it into the scientifically legitimate category? Not exactly. It all depends on the specifics of the claims being made and, in cases where the scientific legitimacy of the claims are ambiguous, how you decide to interpret the nuances.

On the X axis, the categories relate to evidence of the audibility of something, and this is also technically a spectrum depending on the strength of the evidence. The strongest evidence would be from well-designed direct tests showing that people can or cannot hear the difference between two things. But there are other levels of evidence. Measurements that show no meaningful difference between two things can be persuasive evidence of inaudibility depending on the confidence that the measurements are really capturing all the potentially audible aspects of something. Another form of evidence is appealing to well-established scientific principles, which can be convincingly applied to a question of audibility if the applicability of the principles to the specific situation is clear. Often, we rely on a combination of all of the above to help establish the audibility of something.

Consider, for example, these digital cables, which cost $6,000 and come with a "Multi-Frequency High Voltage Conditioning Process" that claims to achieve "holographic realism". Are direct measurements of the output from these cables versus generic S/PDIF cables needed to prove the illegitimacy of this particular product's audibility claims? I would argue simply no based on (1) our scientific understanding of how digital cables work and (2) existing measurements of similar "audiophile" digital cables that find no difference.

And now that I have acknowledged those nuances, I am going to leave them behind because the real utility of this table lies in providing a more structured way for us to spot and understand the different types of subjectivisms that we come across in audiophilia. Maybe these will even help us to discover some subjectivisms in ourselves.

So, let's take a look at each of the 6 categories, starting with the bottom row...

Overt Subjectivism: Beliefs in this category are a double whammy of absurdity – not only is the claim not scientifically legitimate, but also there's actual evidence proving a lack of audibility. Most (but not all) claims by the manufacturers of fancy cables of all types fall into this category – they have no scientific legitimacy and there is convincing evidence (including direct evidence in many cases) that they confer no audible difference except in extreme cases (which is not how they're being advertised). I came across another example of overt subjectivism at the Pacific Audiofest this year. In one room, there were short wooden discs placed on top of each component. For a picture, see Archimago's discussion of the Millercarbon room, or check out a similar product here. When I asked the company rep what they were, he said they were there to help with "holographic" imaging and claimed that they made a huge difference. We don't need direct evidence to be able to put these sorts of gimmicks into the overt subjectivism category. Green pen on the side of CDs, demagnetizing CDs, "audiophile" fuses and outlets, tiny acoustic dots to stick on walls, cable risers, claims about analog being of superior fidelity to digital, and MQA's claims all fall into this category. And this is not an exhaustive list by any means! Unfortunately, these sorts of overt subjectivisms are endemic in audiophilia, although the specific beliefs (and the products that exploit those beliefs) change over the years.

Ed: an example of overtly bizarre subjectivism with zero scientific basis. See more info here. Like other snake oil, the lack of audibility would be easily testable using measurements and controlled listening. (Here's a review with no audible benefits reported in subjective listening.)

Ed: Careful with "professionals" selling snake oil to the naïve.

Naïve Subjectivism: This category of subjectivism is almost the same as overt subjectivism – the beliefs in audibility are still not scientifically legitimate, but the difference here is that the evidence against audibility is just not as convincing as the overt subjectivism category. Why? Because (1) there's not enough direct evidence (which is generally more convincing) of a lack of audible benefit and (2) the indirect evidence (i.e., appealing to well-established scientific principles) is not understood well enough to be convincing. This is why I called this category naïve subjectivism – it's founded in ignorance about science. Thus, all that's needed for a naïve subjectivism to arise and propagate among credulous audiophiles is to give an idea a scientific-enough-sounding justification for how it makes an audible difference, which is usually accomplished by misusing legitimate scientific principles and jargon. I don't know if these beliefs are originally created by companies that are trying to prey upon gullibility by convincing people of these pseudosciency ideas for the sake of selling products to them that capitalize on those beliefs, or if the originators of these ideas truly believe in them themselves. Either way the financial and cultural harm is the same. I appreciate the efforts some audiophiles have made to eliminate naïve subjectivisms – which, in turn, triggers the phasing out of the products based on them – by explaining the indirect evidence against them and, where necessary, acquiring direct evidence against them as well. Archimago has done much of that over the years, including helping shift MQA from the naive subjectivism category to the overt subjectivism category by gathering and explaining evidence that disproves their claims. The obstacle any myth-busting effort faces is that companies profiting from these false beliefs are generally unwilling to provide data or products that allow for independent testing and verification of their claims, which is suggestive to me that they have unscrupulous intentions. Examples of beliefs and products that fit into this naïve subjectivism category include power conditioners, many claims about what make an amplifier sound better (contrast the description of this PS Audio monoblock that costs $32,500 with Archimago's description of this <$500 2-channel amp), system "synergy", "audiophile" network switches and servers, and many more.

Ed: Here's a beautiful example of naïve subjectivism. There's no real scientific basis for network switches somehow improving sound with bit-perfect digital data transmission. No reason to believe there's any "pixie dust" that can make a difference; just claims of higher quality components that can reduce "noise" and improve "dynamics", even improve picture quality of Netflix! Despite how odd this is, I don't think there's evidence around this specific device so certain audiophiles unfamiliar with digital technologies might be easily bamboozled. A little testing will more than likely put this Fidelizer EtherStream Network Switch in the "overt subjectivism" category:

X: I put an X in this box because if an idea about audibility is not consistent with current scientific knowledge, but then solid evidence comes forth proving it does make an audible difference, the belief about audibility shifts up to the "objectivism" box as the state of the science is updated to take into account this surprising new finding. I'm sure this has happened many times in the past as the understanding of audio science has evolved; I'm not sure how much it will happen in the future based on the mature state of our understanding of the scientific principles that underlie the engineering of each component in the audio signal chain. Not that this means we know how to perfectly apply those principles to make perfect gear yet! But at least we have a good understanding of the principles that apply to our ongoing efforts to make better gear. And yet, who knows – maybe the mysteries of psychoacoustics or insights from the quantum revolution will generate some X-Files-type findings that disprove some of the current science about audibility, and that will be a great day for our hobby!

Now for the top row of the 2x3 table...

Scientific Subjectivism: This is the most under-recognized of all the types of subjectivism. The beliefs of audibility in this category are scientifically legitimate (and usually even measurable!), it's just that there is also evidence that the differences in sound are inaudible – presumably because they are small enough that they cannot be picked up by our limited human auditory perception. I almost labeled this category "obsessive subjectivism" because I think this is a major contributor to the obsessive tinkering that many audiophiles do with their systems; they learn about scientifically legitimate ideas that are supposed to improve fidelity even further and immediately have to "upgrade" their system. This makes me wonder if scientific subjectivism is the main reason that most audiophiles are not demanding that hi-fi companies make them products that are more convenient such as speakers with "good enough" built-in streamers and DACs and amplifiers and cables – it would inhibit their tinkering!

Anyway, before I share any specific examples of this category, I should clarify that there are actually two forms of scientific subjectivism: the more egregious form, where there is direct audibility evidence debunking these beliefs, and the more subtle form, where there is only indirect (extrapolated) audibility evidence suggesting these beliefs are false. Objective-leaning audiophiles like to think that they are impervious to all types of subjectivism, but I have noticed that they are particularly susceptible to both forms of scientific subjectivism. For example, on the more egregious side, they see that Amir from AudioScienceReview has posted measurements of yet another DAC with an even higher SINAD, and they compulsively sell their existing excellent-measuring DAC for the highest rated one. (To his credit, Amir does a pretty good job of highlighting audibility considerations.) And on the more subtle side, I will share another example I came across at Pacific Audiofest this year. The new Børresen M6 speakers were possibly the biggest hit of the convention. They cost $550,000 per pair, and they are so expensive in large part because they have zirconium speaker baskets, pole rings made of pure silver, and cryogenically treated metal components. (You can read the scientific justifications for those design choices on their website.) I suspect the effect of each of those expensive design choices individually is small enough that they are inaudible, and the combination of all of them is also likely inaudible, but anyone who tends toward scientific subjectivism would be more inclined to believe that they are audible in spite of indirect audibility evidence that suggests otherwise. I hope that example clarifies how insidious the mild form of scientific subjectivism can be. Thanks to high-quality tests that acoustics researchers and audiophile reviewers are doing, we are slowly accumulating more audibility evidence and thereby reducing scientific subjectivisms. For example, we now are pretty confident that modern digital sources have no meaningful audible differences, jitter concerns with modern asynchronous DACs are irrelevant, harmonic distortion is already well below levels of audibility in well-designed modern equipment, and even that 24-bit audio is indistinguishable from 16-bit audio (also here).

Research Frontier: This is where the action is. The things in this category deserve the focus of researchers and reviewers so we can push the state of the science forward and achieve even better listening experiences for less money and with more convenience. For example, if indirect audibility evidence isn't enough to make us confident that those expensive design choices in the Børresen M6 provide no audible benefit, I would love to see a direct audibility test that checks if blinded test subjects can reliably hear a difference between a binaurally recorded level-matched recording of the output of two versions of that speaker (taken in the same room and with the same placement, of course) – the expensive version with all the expensive design choices and the less-expensive version without any zirconium baskets or silver pole rings or cryogenic treatments. (Another way to do this test: use the Harman speaker shuffler!) If nobody can reliably tell a difference between the two, then save the money and build a great set of speakers without all the scientific subjectivism-induced money-wasting frills. I believe the main areas of research where the most progress is yet to be made (i.e., the areas of research that fall into this research frontier category) are (1) speaker design and (2) room acoustics, plus the interaction between the two. And I include in those two categories things like multichannel speaker setups and digital room correction.

Objectivism: If a subjectivism is a false belief in audibility, an objectivism is a true belief in audibility. This is what modern high-quality components are built upon. They are the things that we have proven make an audible difference and have become the standard. Modern setups reproduce music more accurately (i.e., with less unintended distortion or noise, higher fidelity) than vintage setups precisely because of all the things in this category, and they continue to get cheaper and more convenient as the technology progresses. For example, well-constructed speaker wires have been transparent and cheap for decades, 16/44.1 digital audio files are cheap and perfectly preserve a song for forever, acoustically transparent DACs can cost less than $100 these days, and an efficient and powerful two-channel amplifier that adds no audible distortion or noise (i.e., essentially a straight wire with gain) can be had for less than $500. The hobby has never had it so good. This is why the list of things in the research frontier category is so short. And it's why I have no interest in these mature ("transparent") parts of the signal chain anymore except where they are becoming cheaper, more convenient, and more aesthetically pleasing (gotta have that audio jewelry!). But I can understand how audiophiles who are seeking a certain type of coloration to their sound (appropriately exerting their subjective preference) would still be very interested in these parts of the signal chain.

Well there you have it. We've gone through all the categories. That was a lot of information. The important thing to remember is the characteristics of the three types of subjectivism (overt subjectivism, naïve subjectivism, and scientific subjectivism) and that they are all based on false beliefs of audibility.

Thinking about subjectivism in this way has helped me better recognize subjectivism when I come across it – it acts like a "subjectivism alarm", if you will. When my subjectivism alarm goes off, I can then immediately assess whether the claim of audibility is scientifically legitimate. If it seems to be, then it is likely scientific subjectivism. If not, then, depending on the quality of evidence on the topic, it is either overt subjectivism or naïve subjectivism. Having a well-refined subjectivism alarm like this can help audiophiles recognize and root out these types of subjectivism that plague our hobby.

I do have concerns about how difficult swaying people away from their subjectivisms will be. When you believe something to the extent that it is integrated into your interpretation of the world, those beliefs tend to stick even in the face of evidence that they are false. The reasons for this are explained brilliantly in the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Tavris and Aronson. In short, when we see ourselves as generally smart and rational people but then are exposed to evidence that is inconsistent with that self-image (say, we hear of evidence that indicates that one of our beliefs about the audibility of something is false), it is extremely painful for our brains to deal with. The more time and money we have invested into something that has been shown to be wrong, the more painful it is. That pain is called cognitive dissonance, and our brains are constantly subconsciously finding ways to eliminate all forms of cognitive dissonance, large and small, that we experience every day. Our brains perform these mental gymnastics of their own accord, so it's not a mark of being a bad person if you realize you've been exhibiting cognitive dissonance-induced automatic biases – it's a mark of being human.

But there is hope because, as we become consciously aware of these biases (such as with the help of a well-refined subjectivism alarm!), it gives us the choice to question them and decide in a deliberate way what to do about them. Some of the biggest cognitive dissonance-induced automatic biases our brains use include avoiding or conveniently forgetting information that is dissonant with our beliefs and, for the information we couldn't avoid nor conveniently forget, undermining it by focusing on real or perceived flaws in its reliability.

I bet a number of readers of this article experienced cognitive dissonance from at least a few of the things written above! Did you notice your brain immediately searching for holes in the arguments that you disagreed with? Noticing those automatic biases is so powerful because it can help you be more deliberate when assessing evidence and lead you to a firmer grounding in truth, which sometimes involves painfully discovering and rooting out false beliefs in yourself. It's a process I'm constantly going through as well.

On the whole, I am hopeful that subjectivism will decrease in audiophilia over time as (1) more people start acknowledging the evidence against their overt subjectivisms, (2) more direct evidence comes forth and existing indirect evidence is understood better to debunk naïve subjectivisms, and (3) more audibility evidence delineates the limits of human auditory perception to tamp down the scientific subjectivisms.

I could end the article right there and feel satisfied with the explanations I have given. But I don't think just knowing about subjectivisms and cognitive dissonance is enough. We need to do more to reduce subjectivism in audiophilia. And I have some suggestions. So, I intend the rest of this article to be read as a call to action.

First, I want to reiterate that, from a big-picture point of view, reducing subjectivism in audiophilia is vitally important. I will give just three of the many reasons for this:

  1. All the interest, products, and money dedicated to subjectivisms are a major impediment to achieving the best music listening experience possible because they are a distraction from products that are pushing the research frontier forward. This is probably the most important reason.

  2. Subjectivisms tend to bleed out from the audiophile culture (we are considered by many to be the experts, for better or worse) and have detrimental effects elsewhere. I have personal experience with people in the production side of the movie and music industry, some of whom have nontrivial roles in shaping the sound experience for us, who exhibit subjectivisms, which they surely got from the audiophile culture and that ultimately degrade the quality of their final products.

  3. Some people who have a fledgling interest in thinking beyond Bose and delving into the hi-fi world are quickly turned off by the strange claims and impossible price tags, not having any idea that those things are not a core part of achieving high fidelity but rather are the unfortunate eccentricities from a longstanding plague in the culture that surrounds it.

Second, before I talk more specifically about the changes we need to make to reduce subjectivisms, I need to re-emphasize that I am not talking about reducing subjectivity. If owning a beautiful or expensive piece of kit elevates your overall experience simply because its beauty or even its price meaningfully contributes to the non-auditory aspect of your music-listening experience, by all means, enjoy it! There is no problem with that as long as no false claims about audibility are made. And what if a reviewer of audiophile products wants to place an emphasis on their subjective impressions of gear? Again, there is nothing wrong with that as long as there is no deception, intentional or not, about audibility. Subjective impressions and preferences have an indispensable role in helping us select gear that best caters to our sound-related and non-sound-related tastes.

Now, what specifically is needed most to help us reduce the three types of subjectivism?

This may already be obvious from the other parts of this article, but really it boils down to (1) education and (2) audibility data. These two factors apply to varying degrees to each type of subjectivism:

Overt subjectivism primarily needs education. When more people understand the implications of existing direct audibility data and also understand how well-established scientific principles apply to a false audibility claim, overt subjectivism will decrease.

Scientific subjectivism, on the other hand, primarily needs audibility data. Only audibility data can illuminate the point at which further scientifically legitimate improvements, even measurable ones, will not yield any further audible benefits.

Naïve subjectivism requires a bit of both – more education and more audibility data. When combined, the two can be persuasive enough to reduce the false beliefs in that category.

So how do we (1) do more education and (2) get more audibility data?

The education piece is fairly straightforward. It can come through continued thoughtful efforts by audiophiles on their blogs, YouTube channels, and in forums to disseminate the evidence against subjectivisms using accessible and innocuous explanations. Hopefully audiophile magazines and companies could pitch in here. And how about lectures at audio conventions/shows? Doubtless some of these channels of information will not participate until the tide turns within the consumer side of audiophilia to go from interest in subjectivisms toward interest in actual audibility instead, and then the industry's focus will follow. But, in the meantime, media that do not have adverse financial incentives limiting them can be leveraged.

And regardless of the medium used, an emphasis will need to be placed on communicating with patience and tolerance because, remember, cognitive dissonance is real and automatic and is a normal part of being human. So, if someone joined this science-intensive hobby without a science background, they likely acquired a variety of subjectivisms during their cultural adaptation, and this is understandable and even expected until we make significant progress at reducing the subjectivisms in the culture.

I said that the education piece is a fairly straight path forward, but getting more audibility data is another story--it will require a deliberate shift in direction.

Before explaining that shift, I first need to give some context by briefly introducing the three categories of data that we, as audiophiles, need...

Measurement data: These are all the graphs objective reviewers work so hard to generate for us, including polar response curves, noise and distortion measurements, waterfall graphs, etc. We have truly entered an age of plenty in the last several years when it comes to measurement data, and it's been amazing to watch. Thank you, measurers!

Audibility data: These establish whether humans can hear a difference between things. Generally, this means performing ABX tests, although there are alternatives, such as two-interval forced choice tests, that may work better in some situations. Also, the design of these tests needs to allow for participants to switch quickly between options because slow-switching ABX tests are not as revealing. (Notably, there are naïve subjectivism arguments often thrown against ABX tests – likely a product of cognitive dissonance-induced biases – which are addressed well in this article.) Hardware components designed to facilitate rapid-switching ABX testing, such as ABX switch comparators, already exist, and there are also software-based solutions.

Preference data: These establish which audible differences are preferred by listeners (including by whom and in what situations). Importantly, preference data are only valid after an audible difference has been established because research consistently shows that people will develop a false preference, which means they develop a preference for one option over another even when they cannot reliably hear any difference between them. This even happens when the different options are actually the exact same! So, any test that assesses preference data must first ensure audibility in some way. Up to this point, it seems that Harman has been our main source of preference data, and we owe them a lot for that, but there are still many gaps.

So that's a summary of the three categories of data we need, and now we have the context for my recommended course correction to make sense: We need less of a focus on measurement data and more of a focus on audibility and preference data.

Let me explain by discussing some of the problems caused by this lack of audibility and preference data.

Most importantly, it means we are severely limited in our efforts to reduce subjectivisms. Measurement data certainly do help with reducing subjectivisms, especially when paired with educational efforts, but they are often not convincing enough for those who already believe in the audibility of something. This is why so many audiophiles still buy expensive cables and still chase unreasonably high SINAD ratings. More audibility data will help with this.

A lack of audibility and preference data to go along with our measurement data also means we are unable to extract much of the potential information that objective measurements offer us. For example, without audibility data to correlate with measurement data, we don't know which aspects of the measurements are truly relevant to our listening experience. (There are a lot of things we can measure that are inaudible!)

Another example: Without more preference data, we have no way of predicting which measurements correlate with our personal preferred sound. An intriguing conundrum is happening in the headphone world right now precisely because of this lack of preference data to correlate with IEM measurements. So, what I'm saying is that we have all these measurement data, but we still don't have all the tools needed to know how to best use them. Which measurements matter the most for audibility? Which ones correlate with specific listening preferences? We need more audibility and preference data to answer these questions.

Another way we are limited without more audibility data is that we can't meaningfully improve the measurement protocols to de-emphasize the things that are irrelevant to audibility and hone in on the things that are more relevant. And for audible things that we are still uncertain about, how best to correlate with measurements? Combining audibility data with measurement data will be the key to figuring that out. Crinacle, the headphone/IEM/earphone measurement guru, highlights some of those existing uncertainties well in this article.

I hope those paragraphs have sufficiently established how important it is for us to shift some of our focus toward acquiring more audibility and preference data.

Note that I am not saying that we don't need measurement data. Of course we do! I want more of all forms of data, including measurement data. But in a world where data-gathering resources are limited, we need to find the right balance.

Based on all that, this is how I propose we move forward:

Subjective reviewers need to develop ABX testing capabilities and include their positive results (comparing the device under review to a reference product) whenever they make any claims about the sound of a product. This not only helps us gather more audibility data, but it will be a goldmine of preference data from some of the most respected listeners! Speakers are obviously more difficult to ABX without a speaker shuffler, which is probably prohibitively expensive for most, but having two different sets of speakers set up close to each other, with the position as optimized as possible for each set, could be a start. A headphone comparison of binaural recordings taken from each set of speakers when they are set up in their optimal position would be another option. But if any such speaker ABX tests are performed, they need to account for differences in bass extension if the speakers being compared are not both full-range, either by normalizing both by crossing over to a subwoofer or by avoiding test material that contains appreciable amplitudes of frequencies below the range of either set of speakers. This is important because bass extension is one of the most important aspects of speaker preference, so it needs to be standardized if the other characteristics of the speaker are to be evaluated. I would also expect any subjective comments about any product – again, only for times when an ABX test is passed – to include a description and pictures of the listening room so we can evaluate the effect that may have had on the listening experience. I regularly hear acousticians say that about 50% of what you are listening to is the room, although I have not seen the evidence to back up this claim. And for any products where no positive ABX test results are included – either because they didn't do one or because they did do one and the result was negative – reviewers should abstain from making any comments about sound quality, but instead they could focus on the other aspects of the product such as its convenience, build quality, and aesthetics.

As for objective reviewers and other audiophiles with large online followings, they are the ones perfectly positioned to start running larger-scale audibility tests because (1) they have the audience size required to generate sufficient participation in their studies, (2) they are generally free of financial conflicts of interest, and (3) they often have the technical knowhow to run tests like this. The statistical aspects may need input from others, but this is a surmountable obstacle. Essentially, I am suggesting that these audiophiles run online tests such as what Archimago has done in the past – many of which I have already referenced and linked to above – although hosting in-person tests could also be fun and effective depending on the concentration of willing audiophiles in an area. Many of us have a great time participating in these audibility tests, particularly because of how they hone our listening skills, so really the challenge will probably be less in recruitment and more in figuring out how to conduct these tests and then interpret them. There's an opportunity here for someone to step up in this area and become the preeminent audibility and preference tester. I believe this is the single most important effort prominent audiophiles can make right now to improve the hobby, and it's important enough that it's even worth sacrificing some of the time that they are currently dedicating to doing objective measurements.

One other note for objective reviewers. They generally also make subjective comments about the devices they are testing, which means that the same recommendations I gave for subjective reviewers above apply to them for this aspect of their reviews.

Well, there you have it. Those are my proposals for how we move forward in our work to reduce subjectivisms through (1) continued educational efforts and (2) a refocused data-gathering effort.

And just to tie this all back to the benefit of reducing subjectivisms. When we reduce them, it will shift the general interest, R&D investments, and consumer spending toward products that push the research frontier forward even faster. And that means better listening experiences.

In conclusion, let's be cognizant of the difference between subjectivity and subjectivism. Let's enjoy our subjective/preference differences while maintaining a well-refined subjectivism alarm. Let's work toward getting more education and audibility evidence to help make the audiophile culture more grounded in science and progress faster.

And, most importantly, let's enjoy each other and the music along the way!


Bravo, Taylor! Thank you for this brilliant discussion and presentation of the Audiophile Grand Unification Theory of Subjectivism and Objectivism (Audiophile GUT-SO? :-).

In this article, you've wonderfully addressed the core definitions and thoughts in the longstanding subjectivism-objectivism debate plus honed in on the various categories of "subjectivisms" that audiophiles can fall into, opening up the plethora of snake oil products to cater to these desires. That discussion on "scientific subjectivism" is an important one reminding us that erroneous evaluations of audibility can affect both those who listen only, and those who take the steps to measure devices. Excellent laying down of the "prescriptions" for ways to change and more consistently express truths for readers whether we approach it from a more subjective side (ie. controlled listening to reduce biases and confirm audibility), or the more objective side (ie. discuss magnitude of audibility of findings).

I wholeheartedly agree with the comments around the importance of contextualizing results into what is meaningfully audible, and learning about listener preferences. I suppose the "ultimate objectivist audiophiles" could still obsessively seek out the highest SINAD (lowest THD+N), flattest frequency response from 20Hz-20kHz, almost zero amplifier output impedance, etc. Though intellectually we could say that these results indicate state-of-the-art engineering, I believe that very quickly, that quest for objective fidelity will go from "diminishing returns" to basically "no returns" given the quality of today's products at very reasonable prices. This search for "ultimate fidelity" then simply becomes yet another pointless neurotic exercise; IMO, time and money better spent enjoying music.

Yup. Good listening tests done corporately as audiophiles and individually (like this from 2013) with "basic honesty controls" would preserve the objective method + help understand sensory acuity of the human animal + correlate preferences.

Finally, let me just address one other term used to unfairly criticize objectivist-leaning audiophiles. The claim is that objectivism is a form of "scientism", which is viewed as a pejorative, as if some kind of cult.

Let's be clear about what "scientism" is. Here's a definition from Wikipedia which seems to best define the term when used against objectivist audiophiles:

The belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry", or that "science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective" with a concomitant "elimination of the psychological [and spiritual] dimensions of experience". Tom Sorell provides this definition: "Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture." Philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg have also adopted "scientism" as a name for the opinion that science is the only reliable source of knowledge.

IMO, charges of "scientism" do not apply to audiophile discussions at all when it comes to audibility of high-fidelity hardware. "Psychological [and spiritual] dimensions of experience" are not denied by scientific objectivists. I believe that objectivists are actually more open and believe that there are psychological elements in the audiophile pursuit that affect what we prefer. There is a science of psychoacoustics that can address the hearing apparatus and how we perceive sound. Listening tests like the one done here a few years ago acknowledging that psychologically some listeners may prefer higher THD is an example of that broad acceptance that these preferences can be investigated empirically. This is implicit in Taylor's suggestion that we engage in more listening tests.

As for the "spiritual" dimension of the musical experience, well, should we audiophiles even care whether another person describes having a "spiritual" experience while enjoying the musical arts? Isn't that very personal? Will "High End" audiophile products including cables and network switches convert a merely "enjoyable" song to something "spiritually" significant? Unless proven to be otherwise (again, with the use of blinded controls), I just don't see how a person's mental, emotional, or "spiritual" response to the work of an artist needs to be connected to hardware performance to a strong degree. IMO, hardware playback that's simply "high fidelity" - true to the signal encoded in the medium - is as close to the potential "emotional connection" to the artist as possible; whether that emotional connection elevates you to a 'spiritual' level is your business! :-)

As with Taylor, I hope you're having a wonderful experience with your music along the journey of the audiophile pursuit!

Speaking of journeys... Greetings from Mexico, dear audiophiles:


  1. Thanks Taylor, for an interesting discussion. I just don't know whom you so sincerely believe you might convince.To paraphrase Paul Krugman's paraphrase of Upton Sinclair, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his income depends on his not understanding it. And quite frankly, that is the position most paid equipment reviewer are in. (In a similar vein, I'd also recommend Brent Butterworth and Dennis Burger's entertaining and informative discussion about "Oligarch-Fi" in the latest episode of their podcast, "Audio Unleashed.")

    I also think you could say pretty the same when a significant aspect of a man's sense of superiority over the unwashed masses depends on not believing an argument, such as yours in this essay. In this second case, I'd say it's actually closer to impossible to convince him. After all, there it's a matter of his own sense of self, and a favorite way by which he differentiates himself from those "loosers" too poor to buy what he buys, and too envious to admit it's (and his) inherent superiority.

    So, in the end, why bother? Ignore them, or just nod politely and only pay attention to reliable, empirically based sources that also provide discussion of the subjective aspects of their experiences. You have quite a few to choose from. For example, Archimago's posts, articles and videos on Audioholics, Erin's Audio Corner, and Amir's ASR reviews. (But not the comments of his blog members who chase SINAD to support their own narcissistic consumerism.)

    1. Thanks for the interesting discussion on people's willingness to change. It's true that some people will choose not to change when given information that opens their eyes to things that they were previously blind to, but that doesn't mean I'm going to take the defeatest approach of giving up on helping them see. My task is to share the insights, theirs is to decide what to do about it (even including choosing to disbelieve it or ignore it). I can accept their autonomy and how they use it, even if it's not how I want them to respond.

      But for those who are receptive for whatever reason, be it only a few or many, I think it's a very important course correction to talk about, to help shift the focus of this hobby more toward the research frontier.

    2. A much needed clarification, thanks.

      I enjoy reading about the activity of listening to recorded music. There doesn't seem to be much in-depth reasoning and analysis that delves into the experience of music listening with hi-fi audio. Some in musicology. Do you have any recommendations, please?

    3. Are you talking about research into the subjective experience of listening to music? If so, what aspects of the experience are you asking about?

    4. Hi - I'm looking for other good sources of thoughtful practitioner writing, rather than formal research publications.

    5. More specifically, the subjective experience of 'hi-fi audio' listening to music.

    6. Ah, thanks, Richard, for the clarification. I'm not sure I have any strong recommendations for you. I enjoyed AIX Records' Mark Waldrep's blog (, but he hasn't posted for a couple years. Most of the others I'm aware of that focus on the more subjective side of hi-fi are pretty full of subjectivisms, so I have a hard time recommending them.

    7. Thanks Taylor. I see that Dr AIX is back with a new post recently. That's good to see.

    8. Hey Richard,
      Just thinking about your comment and the huge area of the experience of listening to music.

      If you haven't read it yet, check out Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. A little older now, released in 2007.

      It has been awhile since I read it. There is discussion of the neuroscience and experience of music in there. Certainly in the research literature there have been attempts at finding objective physiological responses to music; typically autonomic changes like skin conductance & temperature, heart rate, EMG (muscle activity). Also measurements of EEG (brain wave) changes.

      For example, here's a recent paper looking at audio-visual integration and the emotional response:

      We could imagine running research like this but the independent variable being the quality of the sound (eg. objectively poor & distorted audio tracks vs. pristine lossless audio played on hi-fi system) looking at correlating subjective impression and physiological parameters. Won't be easy to find a good "signal-to-noise" I think! Plus there are other variables like personal preference for music genre, etc. which could play a huge part in response.

      Don't know if any manufacturers or university running studies on hi-fi sound subjective-objective correlation these days though...

  2. Hej,

    Thanks, Taylor, for a comprehensive and interesting read which encouraged me to ponder a bit about the following;

    “That which can be measured is not important, and that
    which is important cannot be measured"

    So claims the Swedish company Entreq in response to ideas that their highly dubious products provide no measurable sonic improvements. Check them out on Our Story | Entreq.
    A quick search for “snake oil hifi “will provide hours of entertainment and despair that these products can exist and worst of all, sell. The gullibility of deep pocketed enthusiasts is sad and unfortunate. If one for whatever reason wants to spend huge sums on traditional products such as speakers, amplifiers etc. then that purchase should at least hopefully guarantee the owner great sounding gear. Are the sums necessary to achieve the desired results? That is of course debatable. But, to spend crazy money on crazy products to maybe improve the sound is disheartening. A quick search should provide ample information that these “solutions” give nothing but empty promises.
    So why are so many convinced that products with questionable claims will improve their listening experience? Why are they willing to part with so much money for this silly gamble? That I cannot answer. 4 out of 10 Americans believe in ghosts, demons and other supernatural beings. 22% believe that demons definitely exist. Many Americans believe ghosts and demons exist | YouGov
    These percentages are possibly the same worldwide. We have no scientific proof that supernatural entities exist, yet many are convinced they do. If someone claims his magic box can take your stereo to new sonic heights, then perhaps if you believe in goblins and fairies then why not? Perhaps there is a correlation between superstitious people and their willingness to invest in snake oil? 😊
    Why are people so incredibly gullible? - BBC Future provides an interesting read on the subject.


    1. Hey Mike,
      I didn't know about Entreq and just checked out that quote on the page.
      "That which can be measured is not important, and that which is important cannot be measured."

      What a wonderful statement that must bring great joy to snake oil salesmen - not just audio scam guys but also medical quacks and psychics! It's wrong of course. I think it would do the audiophile community well to recognize that the most important things when it comes to audio can be measured - like frequency response and noise level; typically easily I might add.

      After all these years of science, if something is so important, why is it not measurable!? What have the scientists been doing all this time?! :-|

      I prefer this one instead:
      Galileo's aphorism: “Measure what can be measured, and make measurable what is not so.”

    2. Hej Mike, I appreciated your Swedish salutation! Tack for the comment. I like Archimago's alternative quote already shared, but I'd like to address the question of why so many are convinced that snake oil products will improve their listening experience. I think there are a couple factors.

      The main one is that our ear-brain system is easily tricked. If we expect something to sound better, we can easily convince ourselves that it does. This is probably what has allowed so many subjectivisms to originate.

      The second one is a lack of audibility evidence (or a lack of belief in existing measurement evidence) to disprove those subjectivisms, which has allowed them to persist.

      I think the comparison to people believing in goblins and fairies is an interesting one. I suspect people who have a lot of subjectivisms are more likely to believe in other cultural myths because both probably depend on (1) how scientifically minded they are and (2) how critically they are willing to evaluate the assertions contained within their cultures.

      Fortunately, I think subjectivisms are more easily cleared away than cultural beliefs in ghosts and the like, and here's my best attempt at explaining why:

      Some forms of evidence have an asymmetric utility, which means a positive finding has a different (bigger or smaller) persuasiveness than a negative finding. For example, if you believe that ghosts exist and you keep searching various "haunted" places for them, each time you don't find a ghost (a negative finding), it slightly lowers the likelihood that ghosts actually exist. But if you find a ghost even once (a positive finding, assuming you truly find one and it's not a figment of your imagination), then it's definitive proof for you that ghosts exist. In this case, a million negative findings were outweighed by a single positive finding. Asymmetric utility.

      The tricky thing with looking for ghosts and fairies, etc. is that we keep getting negative findings, which have a low utility. No amount of negative findings will ever take us truly all the way to zero.

      Testing the audibility of audiophile products, on the other hand, is in a different (and much better) situation. We can do a blind listening test with a bunch of trained listeners, and if none of them can hear a difference (a negative finding), that result has a very high utility in convincing us that it's unlikely that whatever was being tested is audible. And a positive finding, assuming no cheating was involved, is also very persuasive in convincing us that something can be audible, although then it becomes important to delineate to whom and in what situations is it audible.

      So, I guess my point with those last few paragraphs is to say that we are fortunate in audiophilia that audibility data stand to make a very big difference in eliminating false beliefs. So what do you say, Archimago, is it time to run another blind listening test? Haha

    3. Just 2 short comments here:
      1. Remember the green pen, re: "our ear-brain system is easily tricked. If we expect something to sound better, we can easily convince ourselves that it does." Play anything twice and you can convince yourself that something has changed.
      2.Inability to prove non-existence (of perceived difference) means it exists:

    4. I've never seen that Logically Fallacious site--I like it! The link you included is on point.

  3. I hope those terms help to clarify that (1) all subjective preferences are good and necessary in this hobby, (2) focusing on the subjective experience with gear (as opposed to objective measurements of that gear) is also completely appropriate, and (3) subjectivisms have no place in this hobby. Those terms are mostly useful in helping to properly frame the discourse rather than dictating the discourse itself. I'm not sure if that fully addresses the intent of your question.


  4. International oil prices have always been a subject of significant interest and concern due to their far-reaching economic and geopolitical implications.

  5. My rule of thumb: if I have to debate or think about whether the stock cable is better than the "upgrade", then it is clearly not worth "upgrading".

    As to intelligent, professional people falling for "snake oil", think of politics.

    BUT, on the other hand, there is tons of belief that certain measurements are objective and therefore the product measured sounds good...a physical/logical relationship between the graphs and the sound quality has to be established (but does not exist), and no measurement setup is objective. Measurements are at best internally consistent. The reader has to look at the measurements critically.