Daily Blog – Chris Groppi – February 14, 2008 – MY TAKE ON SUBECTIVISM VS. OBJECTIVISM IN MUSIC LISTENING.

I just finished a review of cables. I also have a Ph.D. in astrophysics with a concentration in electrical engineering. How can this be? In this little blog, I want to give you my take on objectivism and subjectivism in evaluating audio equipment. This is my personal take on the subject, and I have no desire to change your mind if you have strong feelings on the subject. I figure it would be good for you all to know my ideas so you can take what’s in my reviews accordingly. Just a few bullet points should do the job:

The primary reason we all have home theater and audio equipment is to listen to it. Therefore the primary tool for reviewing audio equipment should be the human ear. What sounds subjectively better is better, period.

It really doesn’t matter why a person thinks some change in their system makes it sound better. If whatever change, imagined or not, makes the system sound better to them, then it does. The brain listens to the sound, so if the brain thinks it sounds better, then it sounds better.

What sounds better to one person might not to another. When I review something, I try to give you my personal impressions. Those may or may not be the same as your impressions listening to the same equipment and recording.

Measurements can help in determining why one piece of audio gear sounds different or better than another. They have little place in determining if a piece of audio gear sounds better than another.

If a given measurement is identical for two pieces of audio gear, but they sound different, then you measured the wrong thing, or didn’t measure well enough. To think that a few simple measurements decided on by the audio industry decades ago can explain all there is to know about the sound of a component, is in my opinion, ridiculous.

If two pieces of audio gear measure slightly differently, it is not valid to blindly conclude “you can’t hear the difference.” Research in pyschoacoustics is not advanced enough to conclude that we know all there is to know about how the brain hears and interprets sound.

Double blind testing is great, but requires a HUGE sample size to detect small differences. Huge meaning thousands or tens of thousands of samples. Doing a double blind test with a few random listeners each listening to a few recordings could statistically tell the difference between a cassette tape and a SACD. Maybe. Double blind testing with a large enough sample to test small differences between components is not feasible for pretty much all audio companies and reviewers. That doesn’t stop some from trying and making statistically unsupported conclusions from those tiny samples like “all amplifiers sound the same” or “CDs have perfect sound.”

I could come up with plenty more bullet points, but that’s enough for now. If there are any rabid objectivists or subjectivists that would now like to have a verbal cage match throwdown, feel free to have it amongst yourselves. I personally have no desire to argue with you, but I’m sure there are others that will oblige.

3 Responses to “Daily Blog – Chris Groppi – February 14, 2008 – MY TAKE ON SUBECTIVISM VS. OBJECTIVISM IN MUSIC LISTENING.”

  1. Computer Audiophile Says:

    I agree 100%.

    I’ve always said, if it sounds good to you then it sounds good. Period.

    The boys over at Hydrogen Audio are really going to be fired up by this blog.

  2. Jason Victor Serinus Says:

    Hey Chris,

    Thanks so much for this. Recently a tech writer from the Wall Street Journal wanted to engage me in a blind test to prove that cables sound different. I replied, “I can hear it. What’s to test?”

    There is no reason for people to have to prove what they hear, and what they feel. Others can spend day after day on forums attacking people who say they can hear differences. Ultimately, it’s about the attackers. The rest of us just enjoy the music. Your final paragraph says it all.


  3. ovation Says:

    I’m no expert but I do think the power of suggestion is quite powerful and rare is the human being who is immune to it.

    I’m generally sceptical of the effects of power cords, interconnects, etc. (primarily because I’ve never been able to hear a difference). However, I have done level-matched tests of different audio players with different DACs and I believe sincerely that I detected a difference (enough that I have a preference–it’s why I have a player for hi-res audio SACD/DVD-A and another player for CD playback). There are those who would argue that the only reason a DAC would sound different from another is because one is faulty. I don’t think this is the case in my gear as the difference is not “one is crappy the other is great” but rather “one has a wider soundstage and the other is bit more bassy” (I prefer the wider soundstage).

    I think things affect sound in the following order of importance:
    Room-speaker interaction
    Amplifier (in the sense of having sufficient headroom and power for the speakers; also tube vs. solid state)
    Pre-amp (whether as a separate device or as part of an integrated amp/receiver) design (tube vs solid state)
    playback device (DACs, op-amps, etc.)
    speaker cables
    power cords

    I’ve never been able to tell the difference from speaker cables down on the list (which is good for my wallet, I suppose). I don’t think the first two elements are open to debate (anyone who argues all speakers sound alike is deaf) and tube vs solid state is easily enough detected (in my limited experience, anyway).

    In the end, I do think the whole system interaction of equipment plays a role as well, so that what may make a noticeable difference in one system may be wasted on another. If anyone wants to “tweak” with cables and such, that’s their prerogative. Where I get a bit peeved is when sales people try to take advantage of the ‘innocent” (my uncle recently purchased a nice flat panel TV with a modest HT and was bamboozled into buying HDMI cabling that cost nearly 40% of his whole purchase–totally unnecessary and mercenary practice, IMO–that was ONE HDMI cable six feet in length for nearly 800$). I also suspect there is a level of resentment aimed at high priced cables, simply because ordinary ones work well enough for those who are primarily interested in music as a background noise, rather than a critical listening experience.

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