The 2011 Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture: "Where Did the Negative Frequencies Go?"

In the summer of 2011, Stereophile's long-time editor in chief, John Atkinson, was invited by the Technical Council of the Audio Engineering Society to give the Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture at the 131st Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York, October 21, 2011.

The AES website notes that the Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture series was established in May 1999 by the AES Technical Council, the Board of Governors, and the Richard Heyser Scholarship Fund to honor the extensive contribution to the Society by this outstanding man, widely known for his ability to communicate new and complex technical ideas with great clarity and patience. The Heyser Series is an endowment for lectures that will bring to AES conventions eminent individuals in audio engineering and related fields.

With thanks to the AES Technical Council for their permission, the preprint of John Atkinson's lecture is presented here.—Ed.

Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture: "Where Did the Negative Frequencies Go?"—John Atkinson, Editor, Stereophile magazine

"Even a cursory read of the academic literature suggests that in audio, all that matters has been investigated and ranked accordingly. But his 40-year career in music performing, record engineering and production, audio reviewing, and editing audio magazines leads John Atkinson to believe that some things might be taken too much for granted. The title of his lecture is a metaphor: all real numbers have two roots, yet we routinely discard the negative root on the grounds that it has no significance in reality. Perhaps some of things we discard as audio engineers bear further examination when it comes to the perception of music. This lecture will offer no real answers, but will perhaps allow some interesting questions to develop."

Essential reading for the informed audiophile: the AES anthology of the late Richard Heyser's writings

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is an honor to have been invited to present this evening's lecture in memory of the late Richard Heyser. Audio theorist, engineer, reviewer, scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, inventor of Time Delay Spectrometry, and Audio Engineering Society Silver Medal recipient, Dick was a man I was privileged to have met just the once, at an AES meeting in London in March 1986. His comments that night gave me much to ponder in the years ahead. I was also in the audience for the presentation of his final two papers to the AES, given by telephone at the fall 1986 AES Convention in Los Angeles, from his hospital bed. I had not realized until that evening that his illness was terminal.

My wife got to know Dick well when they both worked for Audio magazine; she remembers going round a Consumer Electronics Show with him. Before entering each exhibitor's suite, Dick would cover up his name badge: "That way they won't know who I am," he said with his usual modesty, "and I will hear the system as it really is, not how they want 'Richard Heyser' to hear it."

It is also an honor to follow in the footsteps of such visionaries as Ray Dolby, recording engineer Phil Ramone, futurist Ray Kurzweil, mathematicians Manfred Schroeder and Stanley Lipshitz, film-sound pioneer and editor Walter Murch, Andy Moorer of Sonic Solutions and Adobe, Roger Lagadec, Kees Schouhamer Imminck (who developed the optical data-reading technology used in the CD), Karlheinz Brandenburg of MP3 fame, and acoustician Leo Beranek.

When Robert Schulein of the AES Technical Council e-mailed me last summer to invite me to give this lecture, I was sure that a mistake had been made. The gentlemen above invented the future. By contrast, I am just a storyteller; worse, I am a teller of other people's tales, including tales told by some of the people above.

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," Laurie Anderson was once supposed to have said, and to be an audio journalist is not too different. However, as a generalist in a world of intense specialization, I think I can dance a step sufficiently varied to cast some interesting shadows.

I am sure that some of the questions I will ask in the next 50 minutes or so have already been answered, perhaps even by one or more of the people in this room. Nothing I will say is either original or new. Much of it has been examined in articles I have written and speeches I have given over the past decades. However, it is unlikely that everything will have ever been grouped together in the same presentation before. And, of course, given the large amount of ground I will be covering, I am well aware that I am skating over crevasses of deeper understanding. So I beg forgiveness for the inevitable generalizations.

Early Days
I had a schizophrenic education. On the one hand, I was an academic overachiever in the sciences. On the other, music meant more to me than any other interest at school, and I continued playing bass guitar in bands, first while I kept my nose to the scientific grindstone at university, and later when I took a job in scientific research.

I started out working, in a government laboratory, on the development of LEDs. This is my ID card at the lab—long hair was mandatory for government workers at the end of the 1960s, of course.

One of my tasks was to grow my own junctions, using a slice of a zone-purified n-doped gallium phosphide crystal and depositing a layer of p-doped material on it with a vapor-epitaxy oven. I would then cleave the material into individual dies and make transistors from them under a stereo microscope. I would characterize the charge-carrier mobility by measuring the Hall Effect with an enormous magnet—I once stuck my hand in the magnet but felt nothing, despite all the ions in my nerves presumably pressing against one side. I later worked for a mineral-processing laboratory, where I learned to pan for gold, among other skills.

But even as I began slowly climbing the scientific ladder, music pulled even more strongly, and I resigned from the lab in July 1972 to join a band that had just been signed to Warner Bros., and was to make an album at Abbey Road Studio and then embark on a tour of America. Well, we made the album, but our manager did a runner with the advance from Warners and the LP was never released. One memory I have of Abbey Road was this young tape op who, one lunchtime when the producer and engineer were at lunch, sat at the console and did a superb mix of one of our songs.

This slide is a montage of two photos I took in Abbey Road's Studio 3—you can see that the tape op sitting by the 16-track Studer machine was a youthful Alan Parsons!

For the next four years I played with other bands, toured, and made other albums, but it eventually became clear that I would need a steadier source of income, and in September 1976 I joined the British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review as an editorial assistant. At a magazine devoted to audio equipment and recordings, I felt as if the scientific and musical sides of my brain could finally coalesce. And working on audio magazines is what I have done ever since.

As I said, I am a generalist in a world of specialists. The problem with being a generalist is the vast amount of information published in every field. It is impossible to stay current. Back when the Scientific Method was a radical new idea, and science was the preserve of wealthy gentleman amateurs, it was just about possible for a single person to know everything. But those days are long gone . . . one group of researchers reckon that 1.3 million articles were published in scientific journals in 2006 alone.

I am also old enough that my education in electronics and audio was exclusively based on tubes. Even the logic circuits I constructed at school used tubes! But looking back, I think there was one experience that foreshadowed my career as an audio reviewer. For one of my bachelor's degree final exams, I was handed a black box with two terminals and had to spend an afternoon determining what it was. (If I recall correctly, it was a Zener diode in series with a resistor.) That experience is echoed every day in my endeavors to characterize the performance of the audio components reviewed in Stereophile—every product, be it speaker, amplifier, CD player, is fundamentally a black box with input and output terminals. All I have to do is ask the question "What does it do?" And remember that testing a product is not just a case of pressing "F9" on the Audio Precision; you are faced with trying to get into the head of the designer and asking, Why did he do it this way? What is the trade-off the designer has felt worthwhile? (There are always trade-offs.) And why?

Concours d'elegance
I am addicted to elegant ideas. When I first realized that the square root of negative 1, i, could be visualized as meaning a rotation of 90° into a second dimension of what was hitherto a one-dimensional number line, it was a moment of satori. In the one-dimensional world of numbers, the concept of the square root of negative 1 is meaningless. But by adding a new dimension, you enter a new, rich reality where i does have meaning.

But it didn't take me long to realize that elegance is not always equivalent to truth. As a teenager, I thought that the hypothesis of the Static Universe propounded by Fred Hoyle, along with Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi (whose passing significance I'll mention later), was supremely elegant. (And it didn't hurt that, as a science-fiction fanatic, I was familiar with Hoyle's fiction.) Hoyle's idea was that, as the universe expands, it causes new matter to be created, if I remember correctly, at the rate of one hydrogen atom per century in a volume "equal to the Empire State Building," so that if you took a series of snapshots of the universe, one every billion years, they would all be identical. Of course, as soon as the cosmic microwave background was discovered, Hoyle was proved completely wrong. (This is ironic, as Hoyle had invented the term "Big Bang Theory" to disparage what turned out to be the correct theory.) But the Big Bang Theory means that the universe had a beginning and will have an end, which strikes me as inelegant in the extreme.

A glass of what by rights should be a gas at room temperature

I am also fascinated by things that don't seem to fit. For example, when I first studied the Periodic Table of the Elements, it struck me as very strange that water is a liquid at normal temperature and pressure. If all you knew were the properties of its constituents—two of the lightest elements in the Periodic Table—you would expect water to be a gas like hydrogen sulfide, but less dense and less smelly.

But water obstinately isn't a gas, and we all take for granted that it isn't. In fact, our lives depend on it not being a gas. It takes a deeper knowledge of the properties of water to understand why it doesn't fit.

It is the combination of elegance and apparent anomalies that I will be talking about in this lecture. Which brings me to an explanation of its title:

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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