Across the Great Divide

The audio community's "Great Debate" has reached an amazing level of absurdity. On one side are the Objectivists, whose rationalist argument insists that all human auditory experience is the result of electro-physical phenomena which can be measured and mapped using established scientific methods. On the other side are the Subjectivists, romantics who believe in the synergistic interplay of music, room, equipment, and listener, and whose attempts to describe their experiences tend toward the florid and metaphorical.

This debate—over so plausibly silly an issue as "Do cables sound different?"—has grown from a topic of pleasant, reasonable inquiry to a malevolent quarrel of quasi-Inquisitional proportions. A member of the objectivist faction would be politically incorrect to admit, even privately, that there might be some validity in the subjectivist approach. His subjectivist counterpart risks ostracism if, in a failure of faith, he confesses an inability to perceive differences blatantly apparent to his more sensitive colleagues. By some reports, careers and friendships are made or broken across this philosophical chasm (footnote 1).

The vociferousness with which this issue is being argued is unjustifiable. Neither side has a case which ultimately can be proved or disproved. Both positions consist of strongly held opinions backed by statistical and anecdotal evidence, both have elements of truth, and both are seriously flawed. As in most disputes, fanatics on both sides take themselves far too seriously.

Objectivists are correct in their assertions that electrical/electronic and acoustical properties and behaviors can be accurately measured. To use the currently contested example, an audio cable has three basic characteristics (resistance, capacitance, and inductance) from which may be extrapolated its impedance, bandwidth, etc., when used to connect the output impedance of device x into the input impedance of device y. In a similar fashion, we can plot the acoustical properties of any enclosed space. We can make very accurate measurements of sound waves as they impinge upon the ears of a listener in a fixed position. We can take a Fast Fourier Transform of any musical signal, at any point in its acoustic or electronic transmission, to describe its frequency content with an astounding degree of resolution. With this information, we can create with scientific exactitude a computer model of a complex waveform, replete with reflections and reverberations, as it appears to a hypothetical listener. This model can be extremely useful in the design or renovation of performance or playback space. In the engineering sense, whatever can be heard can be measured.

But all this measuring will only hint at the listener's experience. For an objectivist, the musical experience begins with the compression and rarefaction of the local atmosphere by a musical instrument and ends with the decay of hydraulic pressure waves in the listener's cochlea; in other words, with tangible, quantifiable physical phenomena. The pursuit of an "objective reality" is marred by confusing the uninvolved process of gathering information, of observing, with the participatory process of responding to and internalizing one's own reactions in the musical moment. (An amusing paradox here is the fact that subjectivists are quite objective in observing their own responses.) For the subjectivist, sensory stimuli are simply triggering events, because his musical experience takes place not in his ears, but in his mind.

Music stirs a simmering stew of memory and desire. A musical experience is as influenced by chance and emotion as it is by surroundings or playback equipment, and by its very nature is evanescent, ephemeral, and often irreproducible. It is this irreproducibility which objectivists find so vexing. Thus, their ceaseless railing against the cosmic injustice of a life in which not everything can be quantified, in which no graduated scale exists with which one may assign a numerical value to such experiential qualities as "depth of image" or "harmonic integrity."

It is frustration and failure which fuel the objectivist crusade: frustration with their own inability (or refusal) to perceive qualitative differences too widely recognized to be merely journalistic hype or cult belief, and a failure to recognize the limits of standard methodology. Our friends who pride themselves on their scientific orthodoxy would do well to review the history of science and discover how many insights have come from outside the confines of well-controlled, statistically significant, repeatable double-blind experimentation. They would do well to remember that performing a chemical analysis of a wine, or charting its biochemical path through the body, or conducting experiments with wine drinkers, while all valid and important scientific pursuits, are vastly different from actually drinking wine. They need look no farther than the field of wine-tasting to be reminded of just how acutely perceptive a well-educated human being can become. What oenophiles do recreationally and sommeliers professionally exactly parallels the activities of audiophiles and subjective reviewers.

The wine-steward's job is to study, evaluate, and recommend wines. Advancing in his profession depends on improving his ability to make finer and finer distinctions between ever-decreasing differences, and to develop an intense familiarity with his products, to the point of being able to consistently identify them in blind tastings. This is nothing so gross as simply differentiating a Madeira from a Merlot. It can be as daunting a task as correctly naming ten different Cabernet Sauvignons, or distinguishing the same year, same grape from two neighboring wineries. While this might be impossible for the casual drinker, professionals and serious amateurs frequently ace such tests, perceiving some difference in what, for most practical purposes, are two chemically identical liquids. Chemists, like audio engineers, have the ability to make accurate measurements, but few would have the audacity to claim that because gas chromatography showed two wines to have a high degree of similarity, no difference should be detectable. None would be so gauche as to recommend a '91 Thunderbird over a '61 Margaux because, with the same alcohol content, the Thunderbird was a better buy.

It's interesting to note that the influence of subjective reviewers has been so pervasive over the years that some of their terms have crept into the lexicon of their opponents. Even Julian Hirsch, in his loudspeaker reviews for Stereo Review, routinely refers to "imaging" and "soundstaging," concepts once dismissed as the products of hyperactive imaginations. Perhaps the best advice one could offer staunch objectivists is the Zen proverb attributed to Huang Po: "The foolish reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see."

Footnote 1: A philosophical chasm that, in examining the question whether there is an objective reality that exists independent of observers, or if everything only exists when observed/measured, has persisted for more than 2000 years. Check out John L. Casti's Paradigms Lost (William Morrow & Co., 1989) for a fascinating and entertaining account of how this chasm affects modern scientific thought.—John Atkinson
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