Working in the Front Line Page 3
The High End
If any sense is to be made of it, then true high-quality audio, the "High End," must be set apart from the audio business as a whole. Quality audio is a relatively small, specialist industry composed mainly of companies run by enthusiasts who in the main believe in what they're doing, namely the advancement of the fidelity of reproduced sound. Yet this industry is founded on a solid scientific base, melding mechanics, acoustics, and electronics to advance the listening experience. Nonetheless, its top designers have learned to mistrust a significant proportion of conventional scientific wisdom, having found that it did not adequately describe or control the observed subjective aspects of equipment design and performance.
This is also true for professional equipment reviewers. Using natural sound as the ultimate arbiter, they have been increasingly driven to use a greater proportion of subjective analysis to successfully differentiate among the devices under review.
From a greater audio perspective, an outsider could legitimately ask what is the point of pursuing such small audio differences in sound quality when audio reproduction as a whole is more or less perfect? There are also those who say that the available engineering results prove that reproduced sound is about as good as it needs to be, given our limited ability to control the acoustics of the listening room. Conversely, those who are very familiar with the sound of live music judge reproduced audio to be a travesty of the truth, and refuse to take it seriously.
Both sides of this debate are often outraged by the large sums of money asked and paid for high-quality audio equipment; they appear to take comfort from the belief that the industry is engaged in some sort of elaborate deception, hoodwinking the unsuspecting public. Nevertheless, the subjective properties of high-quality audio equipment are real, and are both readily perceived and valued by enthusiasts who want to spend their cash as wisely as any other careful consumer. It is not the function of academics or reviewers to tell someone what he or she should or should not want.
Subjective testing in other fields
A classic example of subjectivity in action is the assessment of wine. Those practiced in the technique can perform seeming miracles of discrimination, analysis, and even specific identification, both of a wine's origin and year. Such abilities, hardly a matter of public dispute, form the basis of quality control and assessment for a vast industry, where the final price relates very little to the chemical composition of the end product. The price asked for a bottle of wine depends on how you and others value the pleasurable subjective response which derives from its consumption.
The subjective analysis of the quality and worth of wine is a learned skill from which we all can benefit. There are, of course, many who care little for the difference between an ordinary and a great vintage, but the craftsmen do not work their skills for undiscerning customers.
There is a distinct parallel between this and the purchase of a good-sounding power amplifier. Here the designer's skill has resulted in an exceptionally accurate sound, an achievement which parallels that of a vineyard manager who nurtures a superb growth. Such creations must be worth more than run-of-the-mill products.
Subjectivity overrules engineering in many other fields; for example, in the manufacture of musical instruments, or the technique of a good chef. A concert-goer familiar with good music-making is immediately aware whether an orchestra is playing well, and if the conductor has a good relationship with the band. Interestingly, one of the subjective effects of poor-quality audio equipment is to give the strange impression that the orchestra is not playing well. This aspect cannot be associated with any single specific measurement at present.
Subjectivity in audio reproduction does not always have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator and forced to endure the scientific methods of insensitive double-blind trials to prove its existence.
How to get an academic paper published
A paper presented to an academic body or published in a journal is subject to referees, supervised by an experienced periodicals editor, and may also be supported by colleagues or cross-checked by senior members of the community before seeing the light of day. Such procedures are intended to filter out low-grade material and ensure that the paper is worthy of publication. By contrast, many submissions to the consumer press are of dubious worth, and sometimes their claims horrify the scientific community, which prides itself on substantial research based on tried and tested methods.
Many of the advances made by the industrial world rely on such established practice and, above all, the correct mental attitude. Young scientists are trained—I would hesitate to say brainwashed—to comply with the status quo. They are instructed to follow the established advice and direction of their mentors. However, such academic structures are generally conservative, opposed to change, and poorly receptive of new and radical ideas.