If You And I Disagree About Audio, Who's Right?
I am an audio expert. I've been in and around our hobby for so long that a person born on the day that I became an audiophile could now legally collect Social Security benefits.
Since the mid-1950s, when I first got started, I've seen our hobby grow and change – from tubes to transistors and back; from point-to-point wiring to printed circuits, to chips and ICs; from mono to stereo, and on to (a never very popular attempt at) multi-channel; from analog to digital (and back to analog again, at the extreme high end); from horn speakers, to cones, to ribbons, to electrostatics; to any kind or combination of drivers and enclosures you can think of.
And I've not only written more than 700 articles about it in many of the best high-end audio publications, I've also done professional recording; been a classical music radio announcer; and produced and done the voice tracks for two of the (possibly even still) very best and best-selling audio test and burn-in discs of all time. (It's possible, for that matter, that with combined sales approaching 200,000 units, they may be among the best-selling audiophile recordings of any kind ever made.)
Add to all those things the facts that I'm a longstanding cable designer, and out of the nearly 25,000 members of one Facebook audiophile group, I was selected as one of just ten "Group Experts"; and it should be easy to tell that, as such things go, I really am an audio expert.
So what? And who cares?
If it ever comes down to a disagreement between us (or between you and some other so-called expert) regarding your system, your equipment choices, your listening room, or your taste in sound or music, I'll always advise you to believe yourself and not me or whomever else.
There are three things that will always favor you, your own ears, and your own decision-making ability over those of anyone else in any such discussion. I'll go into what they are in a moment, but before I do, let me clarify that those things ONLY apply to matters of taste; to issues of what resources are, can, or should be made available for your use; and to how or whether they should be allocated and applied. In all else, reality rules and must be recognized and dealt with regardless of any concern for tastes, preferences, or predilections.
The problem is that to determine just exactly what reality is can be a major challenge, just in itself.
One question among many that must be answered is "How can you tell the difference between real knowledge and simple orthodoxy when the two come into conflict?"
Until Columbus proved otherwise, people accepted without doubt that the earth was flat and was the center of the universe. That was obvious, and dissenters – even such notables as Copernicus and Galileo, were ridiculed, accused of blasphemy, and in the case of Galileo, even imprisoned, when they dared to challenge the orthodox view.
In High-End audio, we're not quite so harsh, but much of the same problem does apply: We are, for example, the only hobby I know of whose participants, instead of arguing over what (or which or who) is better, seem to spend more of their time debating whether, in any number of subject areas, there's any difference at all!
It all comes down to an issue of perception and, ever since some clever psychologist came up with the idea of "placebo effect", the entire concept of relying on our own perceptions has come into question. Put most simply, placebo effect is the experiencing of anticipated effects for no reason other than just because they are anticipated."
Now, every time we hear something that someone else doesn't hear or doesn't think possible (different amplifiers with identical spec's and distortion figures sounding different, for example), all they have to do to end the discussion and leave us spluttering is to dismiss what we've heard as "placebo effect" and walk away.
Because of this, audiophiles have largely been divided into two opposing camps – the "subjectivists", who simply believe what they hear and accept it as true, and the "objectivists", who doubt the evidence of their senses and demand some other – usually quantifiable – form of proof before they can pass what they regard to be reasonable judgment on what their ears tell them.
The answer that's regularly proposed to resolve this divide is double-blind testing, a test protocol where neither the tester nor the testee knows which of a number of choices is actually being tested, and therefore no anticipatory bias (placebo effect) can apply.
For medical testing or other cases where a single variable can be isolated and tested for, double-blind testing is undoubtedly the "gold standard". Even for such single-variable audio-related questions as "which of two 1kHz tones is louder or of greater duration", double-blind testing works just fine, and produces answers that can be of undoubted value to a designer or statistician. For music, though, or for equipment or technologies intended for its playing, storage, or reproduction, double-blind testing simply doesn't apply. Music is, by is nature, constantly changing in tone, tempo, dynamics, harmonic structure, and many other things.
That's what makes it appealing to us, but it also means that no single variable of any significance can ever be isolated. When, to that, the other facts are added that music occurs over time; that human beings – the testees – have varying attention spans and listening preferences, and that no one instant of music can ever cater to all of them (otherwise it would simply be white noise) double-blind testing is easily recognized as not being the answer.
Another thing that should be considered is that if you hear something, but what you hear isn't subject to proof by testing, any one or more of the following may be true: You may be using the right test in the wrong way; you may be using the wrong test; or you may be testing the wrong thing. Believe what you hear. Doubt the test.
A modern solid-state audio electronics designer has told me that people will write to him on the internet to ask questions about subjects on which he is an accepted expert. All too often, he says, when he answers them, he is challenged because his answer isn't what the writer expected or doesn't comply with existing standards of orthodoxy.
According to NEMA (the National Electrical Manufacturers Association), electricity travels through a wire carrying it. According to James Clerk Maxwell, believed by many to be the real father of electronics, it travels in an "electrical field" surrounding the wire. According to Roger Skoff, both are true, and understanding the relationship of wires and signal involves at least two fields.
At least two of the things just stated are orthodox, but as few as none of them maybe be fully true. How can you tell what's actually the case?
Now's the part where I tell you about when your opinion, your circumstances, and your budget are the only things that matter:
Instead of concerning yourself about which of conflicting authorities is correct or applicable, leave the business of being an expert to the experts. Let them do their stuff and build products or technologies for your use and judge the validity of their knowledge by how well those things serve you. When it's your money buying something for your system, to be used in your listening room, for your enjoyment, no opinion matters but your own.
If you're shopping, do read the reviews, but do, also, understand that the reviewer is listening on his system, in his room, with his own set of concerns and listening biases, and use him to rules thing OUT of consideration, but never finally in.
In the end, you are the only person whose opinion matters.
Now, go to your listening room, turn on your system, sit down in your favorite spot, close your eyes and...