The 2011 Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture: "Where Did the Negative Frequencies Go?" Nothing is Real

Nothing Is Real
It is a common put-down of audiophiles: "You're imagining things." But is this a meaningful criticism? Is there a real difference between "reality" and "illusion"? Or was Professor Dumbledore on to something?

I have been interested in human perception almost as long as I have been working in magazines. This sound is something with which everyone in this room will be familiar: a 1kHz tone at –20dBFS.

[Play 1kHz, –20dBFS sinewave tone]

What I'd like you to do now is to imagine the same tone for 10 seconds.

I believe a scan of your brain would show the same activity in both situations: with a "real" sound and with an "imaginary" sound. We can't directly experience reality; instead, our brain uses the input of our senses to construct an internal model that reflects that external reality, to a greater or lesser degree. So what is reality, what is the illusion? Internally, they are the same thing. That's why hallucinations are so unsettling—there is no way of knowing without further investigation that they don't correspond to anything in the outside world.

I am sure that some are shifting a little in their chairs, so I will demonstrate this conjecture with some music. A couple of years after the Abbey Road sessions I mentioned earlier, the band got back together to record an album for DJM Records. Here's a picture of us in 1974: three sharp-dressed men.

The Obie Clayton Band (L–R): John Atkinson, Michael Cox, Alan Eden

Baggies and platform shoes were mandatory in 1974, otherwise Mark Knopfler wouldn't have had anything to rail against in Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing." Here's a needle-drop of a track from our LP, which was released in 1975, engineered by Jerry Boys (of subsequent Buena Vista Social Club fame), produced by Tony Cox at Sawmills Studio, and mastered by George Peckham. (Yes, it was a "Porky Prime Cut.") I am playing bass guitar, I'm one of the backing vocalists, and I supply the choir of clarinets in the bridge.

[Play Obie Clayton Band: "Blues for Beginners," needle drop from Obie Clayton LP, DJM DJLPS 458 (1975)]

Think about what you've just heard. I mentioned bass guitar, vocals, and clarinets. There is also a lead singer, a piano, guitars, drums, a harmonica. What's so unusual about that?

What is unusual is that none of this is real. There are no individual sounds of instruments being reproduced by the loudspeakers. Even though you readily hear them, there is no bass guitar, there are no drums, there is no lead vocalist. The external reality is that there are two channels of complex audio-bandwidth voltage information that cause two pressure waves to emanate from the loudspeakers. Everything you hear is an internal construct based on your culture and experience. The impression you get at 2:51 that someone is striking a match to light a cigarette at the right of the stage is something that exists only in your head, your brain back-interpolating from the twin pressure waves striking your ears that that must have been what happened at the original event.

I first heard this phenomenon described in a talk given by Meridian's Bob Stuart a quarter century ago, and it was discussed at length in Edmund Blair Bolles's A Second Way of Knowing: The Riddle of Human Perception (Prentice Hall Press, 1991). Your brain creates "acoustic models" as a result of the acoustic information reaching your ears. We do this so naturally—after all, it's what we do when our ears pick up real sounds—that it doesn't strike us as incongruous that the illusion of the sounds and spatial aspects of a symphony orchestra can be reproduced by a pair of speakers in a living room.

As with our experience of liquid water, the familiarity and apparent simplicity of perception hides depths of complexity. We just do it. Yet there is as of yet no measurement or set of measurements that can be performed on those twin channels of information to identify the sounds I have just described, and what you perceived with no apparent effort when you listened to that recording of my band.

So if the brain creates internal models to deal with what is happening in the "real" world, let's examine how those models work.

Live from the 131st AES Convention: JA throws a baseball for Stephen Mejias to catch.

I was at a Mets game a few years ago, thinking how difficult it is for an outfielder to catch a pop-up, given that when the ball leaves the bat, the fielder has almost no data with which to calculate where the ball will land. I was reminded of something Barry Blesser wrote in the October 2001 issue of The Journal of the AES (p.886). "The auditory system . . ." Blesser wrote, "attempts to build an internal model of the external world with partial input. The perceptual system is designed to work with grossly insufficient data."

Catching a ball illustrates Blesser's point, not just about the auditory system's but also the visual system's ability to use incomplete information. At first the fielder has very little info on which to create a model of the ball's trajectory. Certainly there is not enough information to program a robot to catch the ball (footnote 1). The robot needs to use math. By contrast, the fielder's brain continually updates the model with new information—a process of successive approximation, if you will—until, plop, the ball lands in his glove.

This internal modeling of reality is quirky. First, with visual stimuli, there is a latency of around 100 milliseconds while the brain processes new data. Visually, we experience the world as it existed a tenth of a second in the past. It has been proposed that we have evolved mechanisms to cope with that neural lag; in effect, our internal models predict what will occur one-tenth of a second in the future, which allows us to react to events in the present—such as catching a fly ball, or maneuvering smoothly through a crowd (footnote 2).

But certain situations can unmask that lag. Something that we must all have experienced is when we have glanced at a clock with a second hand or with a numeric seconds display: The first tick appears to take longer than subsequent ticks. But this isn't an illusion: the first tick does take longer—at least in your reality, as opposed to the clock's—because of the time required for the brain to accommodate new data into its model.

I remember discussing perception with Bob Berkovitz when I visited him at Acoustic Research in Boston, in the early 1980s. The conversation stuck in my mind because Bob, who was working with Ron Genereux on digital signal processing to correct room acoustic problems, defined audio as being "one of the few areas in which an engineer can work without the end product being used to kill people."

During that visit, Bob subjected me to a perceptual test. I sat in a darkened room with a red light flashing in the left of my visual field. At some point, Bob switched off the light on the left and turned on a similarly flashing red light on the right. The question is: What did I see?

The answer is not "A red light flashing on the left, then a red light flashing on the right."

What I saw was a flashing red light on the left that then slowly moved across my field of vision until it was on the right!

It was another moment of satori. The conflict between "reality" and what I perceived seemed to demonstrate that, once the brain has constructed an internal model, it is slow to change that model when new sensory data are received. The brain's latency in processing aural data is shorter than it is with visual data, but it still exists. Otherwise there wouldn't be the phenomenon of "backward masking," where a loud sound literally prevents you from hearing a quiet sound that preceded it.

Here's an audio example analogous to the clock's slower first tick with which everyone will be familiar. When you hook up a new component but with the channels reversed, at first, all you're aware of is that something is not quite right. The orchestral violins are on the left, as they should be, but their image wobbles, and is ambiguously positioned. You don't hear them on the right, where they now should be. Then, when you realize that Left=Right and vice versa, the imaging solidifies and is correctly heard as a channel-reversed image. The thought crystallizes the perception, not the other way around.

Although evolution has optimized the human brain to be an extremely efficient pattern-recognition engine that uses incomplete data to make internal acoustic models of the world, as this example suggests, that same evolutionary development has major implications when it comes to the thorny subject of sound quality.

Footnote 1: Following the lecture, I read in Steven Levy's 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution that students at MIT in the 1950s programmed a robot arm to catch a ball, but I don't have any further information on this. Also, on how a fielder manages to catch a ball, I am told that as part of the successive approximation process I describe, he adjusts his position to keep a constant angle between the ball and his eye.

Footnote 2: See, for example, the essay at

ChrisS's picture

Who's doing the listening in your tests, JRusskie? Do you know any 18 year old musicians? Oh, of course not...But you probably keep company with a bunch of construction guys (lucky you!) with damaged hearing. They should all find that there's no difference between any products.

ChrisS's picture

Once again, comrade JRusskie, you are on your Quixotic journey down that twisty, winding path for "truth"... Being an upstanding citizen of the former-USSR, you should know about "truth", right?

DBT is SCIENCE, and SCIENCE is ALWAYS RIGHT, especially during the heyday of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and you've been hanging on to this idea since the dissolution of the USSR. Hanging on to something you really want to be TRUE.

Comrade JRusskie, just because you want it, doesn't make it so.

Ariel Bitran's picture

just wanted to let you know i haven't forgotten about you.

i've been south of the equator spending time with my father and brother, but now that I'm back in the Stereophile office, i'll answer your question in full a little later.

peace out homeslice.

be nice.

Regadude's picture

Asking Johnny to be nice... Wow, you are very optimistic Ariel! 

GeorgeHolland's picture

Ariel, how about doing your job and deleting post and start placing a 30 day BAN on Regadude and ChrisS for spamming this whole article day after day with nothing less than pure drivel and taunts? I've seen kids frums better moderated than this fiasco but it's already turned into a child's forum the way they act. You would think they had some dignity but we haven't seen any yet.

Ariel Bitran's picture

I believe the internet is pretty much open range, so I'm happy to just watch folks speak their minds using whatever manner to express themselves.

one thing that bothers me is when a member is unneccessarily rude to someone who is being respectful or even innocently posting unknowing of the snark they may receive. in those instances, I say something so new users are not discouraged to continue posting.

On the other hand, if you're being provocative with your initial comment, I can only expect others to react to your provocation. 


The other policy I encourage and have stated many times is as follows 

"don't feed the trolls"


Finally, we do delete comments from ANY member we feel is totally off-topic and insulting to an individual member, as we want the conversation to continue and bring light to the subject  at hand rather than turn into a name-calling game. That being said, I'd like to delete Regadude's comment above since it just makes fun of Johnny. Also, I probably shouldn't have typed be nice. i dont know what i was thinking. I think i just wanted a rhyme in there, and also to include a general suggestion of positivity, but deleting RegaDude's comment would delete your reply, and this is a conversation I'd like to keep around.

Regadude's picture

What did I do? In response to your comment of "be nice" to Johnny, I merely joked that you were asking a lot. A lot, because Johnny is often not nice. He is that way, that is a fact. I have no responsibility for his behavior. I just pointed it out.

Don't shoot the messenger!

ChrisS's picture

What is reliability?

Think, Georgie, think.

Ariel Bitran's picture

the two links provided earlier giving examples of some DBTs.

I found the matrixhifi test to be ignorable: who is the sample? how did they select these people? how are they representative of a population of listeners as a whole? in order to gather significance from these these tests, the first and most important step is determining your sample, sample size, and how you select your sample. this just seems like a bunch of friends having fun. also, since there were multiple components being switched at the same time, system synergies could have been the cause of the weaker sounding more 'hi-fi' system. maybe those components weren't right for each other, but the cheaper system just sounded better. at least in ABX, they only changed one piece at a time

what i found interesting in the ABX test was the user's ability to control the change of system component themselves. this helps eliminate the idea that the listener might feel like they are getting 'duped' or constantly searching/guessing for the difference.

Also regarding the ABX method, the # of times a difference was heard was 33. the # of times no difference was heard: 29. Interestingly, cables were the least discernable. 

DBT is time consuming and for signnificant results you need a large sample size (to represent a large population of listeners). With a small sample size, as in both of these tests, you risk a greatly flawed hypothesis and will lack confidence in your results. 

I don't want to whip out my textbooks, b/c i have other stuff to do, but 17 listeners is not nearly large enough of a sample size to even represent a population of 70,000 Stereophile readers (for example). Then we run into an even bigger problem of "who" is selected-->ie what type of sample you are trying to represent.

I've heard repeatedly that H/K does have a successful DBT model. I'm sure it takes them years to perform each experiment, and it is wildly expensive and time consuming. You need a large sample size for any of this stuff to matter, not a few dudes in a basement.

GeorgeHolland's picture

More excuses from Stereophile?  Why am I not surprised. You scoff and blow off any attempts at doing a DBT by the people I linked to yet when it comes to "reviewing" cables and amps it's suddenly okay to accept a sighted biased review as being true?  Laughable sir but then I suppose you being an emploee have to toe the line. So be it.

I give up. Go on and trust your sighted "tests" while ignoring a DBT or even a SBT. I know your boss won't let you do any. He "knows" it all. *eyeroll*

Regadude's picture

Hey George! Ariel provided you with a more than satisfactory answer. So why are you still complaining? You never heard the expression "agree to disagree"?

Ariel is right; sample size is crucial. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of statistics understands this. 

JohnnyR's picture

George was talking about simply doing a DBT or SBT among friends like he linked to. Let's say you and 5 pals think the "Humungo" amp  blows away every other amp you have listened to. So you set up a simple DBT or even a SBT to see if you can RELIABLY pick which amp is which WITHOUT sighted bias. In other words using your EARS???? I have read on the forums here how much people rely upon "What I heard" yet don't trust a simple test to prove that they can.

So lets say the "Humungo" amp is just simply "liquid, lifts 400 veils and makes the back ground blacker", what ever silly terms you wish to use, If so then you should be able to pick it out 100% of the time doing a DBT. If not and lets say you only choose right 50% of the time then that's proof you were only guessing and couldn't tell which was which. So much for saying sample size is critical. If no one can pick the "Humungo" amp from the other one then where are your rationalisations for saying it's better?

I can tell though that none of you have even bothered to try a SBT or DBT so it's all a waste of time speaking to the peanut gallery. I love how much money you both have WASTED on pricey products that only look good and sound the same. Funny as hell, go on spending YOUR money I love ityes

ChrisS's picture

JRusskie just beat himself with his own thinking...

Regadude's picture


Johnny wote:

"I can tell though that none of you have even bothered to try a SBT or DBT so it's all a waste of time speaking to the peanut gallery. I love how much money you both have WASTED on pricey products that only look good and sound the same. Funny as hell, go on spending YOUR money I love ityes"

How do you know what I've bought with my money? I will go on spending my money (but not on your plywood speakers you make in your basement), that's what it's made for!


JohnnyR's picture

.a fool and his money are soon parted.

Regadude's picture

Well I am not that much of a fool with my money. I have not yet bought any of your JohnnyR brand speakers! 

ChrisS's picture

"...came out to play,

Georgie Porgie ran away!"

Delusions of absolute truths cloaked in "science" aren't much to hide behind, eh Georgie...

I hear our Man of La Mancha, JRusskie, is looking for his Sancho Panza to accompany him on his journey in search for TRUTH.

Happy trails!

ChrisS's picture

Georgie, Look at all those scientists backing you up!

If you take a college level research methodology course, Georgie, you may not appear so laughable. At this point, there appears to be very little knowledge in what you say about reviewing audio products.

GeorgeHolland's picture

Here is how you review audio products........ looks in Stereophile and buys whatever the product of the month is. Spends too much money but doesn't care. Goes online and talks like a 5 year old and spews insults and THINKS he's smart. Case closed.

Regadude's picture

George, name ONE SINGLE product that I have bought. Just one. You and Johnny have this little fantasy in which you think you know everything and everyone. 

How about you list your gear? If you are so good and knowledgeable about buying audio products, do share with us the products that are George Holland worthy. If you actually have any audio gear...

GeorgeHolland's picture

ZzzzzzzzzZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz sorry but conversing with the likes of you is boring and makes my brain hurt considering the amount of BS you spew,

ChrisS's picture

Take one course of college-level research methodology and call us in the morning...

rl1856's picture

Do you like what you are hearing ?  If no, move on until you do.  If yes, then shut up and relax.  This is a hobby focused on the enjoyment of the creative output of artists.  It is not about how many proverbial angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Go listen to MUSIC !

hnipen's picture

Thanks John for a very interesting and exciting presentation, lots of interesting information here and I'm surprised, to say the least, from the lack of positive feedback.

There are many who are skeptical to some of the ways of doing measurements in Stereophile and in some ways I'm one of them too, especially the way speakers are measured so close, large array speakers like the bigger Dunlavy's and some others will not sum up very nicely in this way. We do, however, not live in a perfect world and Stereophile cannot afford an anechoic chamber, so this is probably the best they can do.

I wish John would share more of this kind of information as he has gathered lots of knowledge during a long interesting career at Stereophile and other places.

Go on John :-)

Merry Christmas

Cheers harald

absolutepitch's picture

John, thanks for getting this lecture pre-print available for us to read. I have been looking forward to this.

I agree that there is a lot fo information combined into one lecture that anyone would need a lot of time to learn and understand the details. Pardon me for paraphrasing some of your words below.

Regarding the null result of DBTs, your description of the interpretation is in agreement with what I remember from statistics classes. I might add that a statistician would include a probability value or confidence band with the interpretation (something to the effect that 'the null hypothesis of no-difference-detctable is accepted with high probability'), and equally for the case when a difference is detected with high probability. I personally think DBTs should be done for product reviews, but agree that valid DBT's are difficult and time consuming (expensive) to do correctly, as Dr. Toole has shown in his writings.

The example of the 'backwards' impulse being not agreeable to listeners is something I have noticed in reference to digital recording. It's a wave form that does not occur naturally in music production, so reproducing it should sound 'bothersome'.

I also agree with the previous post, that more articles like this would be welcomed, to further highlight how complicated this field really is.

bernardperu's picture

I have read your essay with great pleasure (all of it!) and I think it is a great example of the Liberal Arts and Science coming together. In the end, it feels like a piece of applied music philosophy, which I find fascinating. It also seems to be free of busines-oriented interests, as your opinion on cables clearly suggests. It is awesome and very unsual to meet an accomplished person who gives priority to his passions and principles over financial interests (as also expressed on your 2012 writing on the CES and Las Vegas). 

I consider myself to be an audiophile that turns off the lights and tries to connect his emotions with the music with a very relaxed mind (this seems to be a category in itself, as the un-relaxed passive listeners who cannot focus on the music on a mid to long term basis tend to be very opinionated). Having said this, I recently purchased a pair of Class D mono amps that can clearly connect me to the music (Hephaestus brand). I have not ever listened to amps which are over 15k. Within similar prices, class D seems to be the better choice (but how relative this can be, Jon!)

I will continue to follow your writings with deep admiration and I thank you for making a difference on my musical experience (which is passed on to my girlfriend and my child). 



GeorgeHolland's picture

Clueless you are if you think Mr Atkinson is something special angle

ChrisS's picture

Yoda you are?

Andreasmaaan's picture

It's a pity that some proponents of DBT as the only valid methodology have used the comments thread here to launch personal attacks against JA. Personally, I found the lecture fascinating and thought-provoking, and I thought that the nuggets of personal history provided a powerful context for the thoughtful opinions expressed. For better or worse, Stereophile doesn't restrict itself to DBTs as their only reviewing tool, but JA does measure every piece of gear his reviewers review - a practice which ensures that the opinions of the reviewers are grounded in objective data, or otherwise as the case may be. I'm not sure why this approach, coupled with a reliance on an income stream from advertising, seems to place JA in line for so much personal vitriol. If similar attacks were levelled at me in my professional life, I'd be mortified and enraged.

To cut what is risking becoming a lengthy expression of indignation short: thank-you JA for a wise and thought-provoking read.

JohnnyR's picture


"For better or worse, Stereophile doesn't restrict itself to DBTs as their only reviewing tool, but JA does measure every piece of gear his reviewers review - a practice which ensures that the opinions of the reviewers are grounded in objective data"

Do you even READ the reviews? Seriously dude. Stereophile DOESN'T do DBTs at ALL! Atkinson has said repeatedly that they are "too difficult to do". Show me ONE single DBT he has done in a review please. Plus he does NOT "measure every piece of gear his reviewers review". Cables, power cords, record demagnitizers, just to name a few. You obviously have been reading another publication NOT Stereophile.


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