Across the Great Divide Page 2

If the objectivist posture is one of logical and moral superiority, then the aesthetic high ground certainly belongs to the subjectivists. Their claim was staked at the expense of credibility with a mainstream readership, due partially to their prolonged dismissal of the significance of specifications and objective measurements, partially by their willingness to entertain crackpot theorists (and their products), and partially by their encouragement of the practice of ritual magic. To date, no one who has published the results of his attempts to correlate the perceived effects of any of the various CD tweaks with any measurable improvement has either found an improved measurement or suggested a viable pathway whereby the sonic benefits of these tweaks are transmitted to the music. This, of course, does not mean that the pathway does not exist or that the perceived effects are purely suggestive. It means only that the pathway has not been found.

In the realm of toxicology, when a contaminant is found in a patient, we do not assume that because we do not understand how it got there that it is the product of his imagination. If the contaminant appears in a number of patients, we look for common modes of behavior, common environmental factors, anything which might point us in the right direction. We may exhaust all the methods of scientific investigation and come up empty-handed, but our patients are still contaminated. It is simply a case of bad science. The addition of new, insightful members to the investigative team or the discovery of previously unknown information may make the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Or the mode of transmission may be so glaringly obvious that no one has even considered it.

The circumstance of the tweaked CD is a bit different, of course. There is no measurable chemical to be traced, only the shared perception of an improvement in depth or clarity or bass extension. Does this imply that the improvement is there because the listener believes it is? Is it like finding the face of the Holy Virgin in the stains on the side of a building? Perhaps the improvement brought about by ritual magic is the result of the placebo effect, which is, incidentally, a real effect in that it often produces real results.

One would think that because the compact disc system was designed and produced by human beings, its operation would be fully understood. On the other hand, we've created cities and governments and transit systems, and we certainly don't understand everything about how they work.

Eloquently expressed but unsubstantiated opinion tends to be given more weight than solid reasoning in the subjectivist press. This makes for fun reading but promotes disdain for cold, hard rationality. Rationality is, well, so boring. But a little dose of rationality would serve many of us well, for there is a great deal in the audiophile canon which doesn't make sense when one really thinks about it.

Take, for example, the doctrine of "absolute polarity." This doctrine holds that the only correct polarity for the proper reproduction of sound will have your speakers compressing the air in front of them exactly "in phase" with the air which compressed the elements of the recording microphones. Now, even if this were possible, it would make sense only if you, the listener, were exactly the same distance away from your speakers as the microphones were from the performers, and then only if they (the mikes) were arranged in a purist, binaural fashion.

How many inversions occurred during the mixing and recording of your favorite music? How many phase shifts occurred due to the insertion of God-only-knows how many signal processors into the recording chain? Forget for a moment any nonlinearities which may be inherent in your amplifying equipment. Concentrate instead on the unavoidable phase shift caused by the crossover network in your loudspeakers. It's there, it will always be there, and you can't do anything about it! The laws of physics may be sometimes bent, but they can't be broken. It's enough to give a real subjectivist a severe case of audio anxiety.

But relax. The problem is all in your mind. Pretend that you and two friends go to the symphony but are unable to sit together. You have a great seat, fifth row center, but friend A is sitting three rows in front of you and far to the right. Friend B has been relegated to the left rear. Throughout the performance the three of you will be hearing entirely different sets of phase relations, but all three will be listening to the same music. In fact, as far as the upper octaves are concerned, the stranger sitting next to you will be hearing a quite different set of phase relations, too. Of all possible sets of phase relations, all possible perspectives, which one is correct? The answer, of course, is easy. It's the one you prefer!

Subjectivists/audiophiles have gotten a deservedly bad reputation in objectivist/engineering circles because they have been too willing for too long to accept gossamer as gospel. The need to believe, while an endearing quality, often works to the detriment of scientific progress. Like it or not, it is science which has given us the marvelous technology which enables composers and performers to communicate so intimately with listeners over vast reaches of time and space. And that is as it should be: Science in the service of Magic.

The time has come to stop the vicious and unreasonable ridicule of colleagues with whom we do not agree (footnote 2). Rancor and hysteria have no place in the quest for scientific knowledge, or in the pursuit of the elusive musical truth. This internecine dispute serves only to distract us from that great passion which unites us: the love of music.

Footnote 2: See also "Letters" in this issue.—John Atkinson