Deeper Meanings Page 4

Perhaps this explains why some people don't hear differences in components. Is there a fundamental difference in the way people experience music (footnote 9)?

I am not entirely convinced that blind testing will never reveal differences. Although blind tests will tend to obscure differences, it may be possible to devise a blind test that satisfies the objectivists, yet is run in such a way that the subject has every condition in his favor—except, of course, knowledge of the component's identity. The subject would need to be aware of the trap of trying to intellectualize and quantify his reaction to the music, a feat that requires great mental discipline in a test environment.

Now that we've examined the conflict and called each other names, it's time for both factions to recognize that there is a common area of understanding. I offer the following observations.

I've been using the word "experience" to describe the subjective evaluation of a musical event as a measure of a component's worth (rejected by the scientist), and the word "experiment" to describe an objective test of a component's value (rejected by the audiophile). I find it interesting that these terms, which define the very essence of the dichotomy between "meter readers" and "golden ears," actually come from the same root word. The fact that a single word, divided and permutated by the intervening centuries, can define the division between two modes of thought, indicates that both ways of looking at the world may have more in common than either faction may want to admit. At some point, experience and experiment were not separated in people's minds. It is only the result of 2000 years of intellectual wrong turns that has made them distinctly different, indeed opposing, entities.

Without measurement and application of the scientific method to the field of audio reproduction, the miracle of hearing a selected musical performance whenever one wishes would not exist. Before science and technology, this luxury was the province of royalty. Moreover, measurements contain a tremendous wealth of information about the underlying form of an audio system. It is hard to imagine designing and building an audio component without measurement. But measurement, by itself, is not enough. Listening is not a rejection of scientific method, it is an expansion of it. There are phenomena in audio electronics that defy measurement and are revealed only by listening. To claim that every phenomenon that affects sound quality is measurable and quantifiable is arrogant conceit.

It's a bit ironic that I find myself arguing the importance of the visceral musical experience in audio engineering after having spent so much time arguing the importance of science in audio. While teaching a two-year recording engineering program at a California college, I was faced with students who saw only the surface appearance of recording—sitting at a console mixing a record—and didn't want to hear about the underlying form. Nanowebers, common mode rejection, fluxivity, retentivity, were all just intrusions on what they thought recording really was—creating "what you like" in music. They didn't want to get into all that. It was my job to convince them that understanding the theories and principles behind the surface appearance gives one the power to create "what you like." "What you like" is still the goal, but the path to that goal is an understanding of, and affinity for, technology.

With all this talk about the dichotomy between the "meter readers" and "golden ears," I would like to acknowledge a point where audio science and audio art meet: the high-end product designer. Armed with a thorough knowledge of electronics (and often advanced engineering degrees) and the sensitivity to musical differences, designers of high-end products bridge the gap between science and art. And look at the result!: products that provide a more musical experience than those designed by specifications alone.

These designers don't feel threatened because the listening experience is not scientifically defensible. They don't have a distorted view of science to protect. To them, listening is an integral and vital part of the science and art of audio engineering. In fact, they don't separate science and art in their minds. This separation is an artificial construct tacked on to the process of circuit design. To say circuit design is not art is to misunderstand the nature of art. Their goal is building musical components and they will use whatever methods available to arrive at that goal, scientifically defensible or not (footnote 10). They care about music and, by extension, care about the products they build. The relationship between the caring designer and his product results in a similar relationship between the product and its user.

Another important commonality we should recognize is the loudspeaker listening tests conducted at Canada's National Research Council by Dr. Floyd Toole. Although his foundation is certainly in the objectivist camp, his work has important lessons for both sides. To the objectivists he says, don't discount the listening experience. To the subjectivists, he acknowledges the role of listening, but would like to see scientifically acceptable controls on the process so that variables other than the one under study do not influence the conclusions. Both factions would do well to recognize this important work. (footnote 1 (footnote 1

Now, to get back to Dr. Lipshitz's question that prompted this essay: "Ah, but how do you know what is good?" The question was clearly not meant to be answered. Rather, the question was an attempt to discredit any judgment of what is "good" because it is based on what one knows inside oneself and thus, in Dr. Lipshitz's view, is meaningless. Since this essay is based so heavily on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it is only fitting that we answer Professor Lipshitz's question with these words which appear just before Zen's first chapter:

And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good, Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?



Footnote 9: "The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is mov'd with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; The motions of his spirit are as dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus: Let no such man be trusted."—Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Footnote 10: "Taste is the intermediate faculty which connects the active with the passive powers of our nature, the intellect with the senses; and its appointed function is to elevate the images of the latter, while it realizes the ideas of the former."—Sidney Smith, On the Principles of Genial Criticism (1814)

Footnote 11: A bound edition reprinting Dr. Toole's earlier papers is available for $3.75 (US) including postage from the National Research Council, Division of Physics, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0R6, Canada. These papers are essential reading for anyone seriously interested in loudspeaker design and testing.

Share | |
Site Map / Direct Links