An argument for measurements

In my early years of writing about audio (footnote 1), I was known—to the extent that I was known at all—as something of an objectivist. I was, after all, working as an editor at a leading science journal at the time, just a few years out from a brief career as an actual scientist, still in recovery from the physics PhD I'd earned a decade or so before.

In those days, I was more inclined to rail against obvious snake oil (footnote 2) than to defend subjective listening. I even participated in a number of spirited online debates with major industry figures, such as the late, great Charley Hansen of Ayre and the great John Curl, who these days consults for Parasound, iFi, and AMR. Those industry insiders insisted that you shouldn't dismiss anything without listening to it first. I argued that it's okay sometimes to dismiss, without listening first, tweaks for which no plausible mechanism of action exists (colored foils, photos in freezers, electret creams, little plasticky chunks of stuff under CD players, supposed high-temperature superconductors operating way above their critical temperatures, and so on).

What changed? Has Jim gone soft?

My impulse is to take sides, as it were, against whichever extreme I find to be most destructive. Lately, that has been the narrow-minded objectivist extreme. But my beliefs don't align with those of the subjectivist fringe.

I believe it's foolish to claim hegemony for measurements when the goal of music is the conveyance of human emotion, which can be experienced subjectively but not measured. Hook up listeners to an FMRI machine as they listen, and we'll talk, but until then, beyond some basics (footnote 3), attempting to measure or predict emotion-conveyance via THD+N, frequency response, or other measurable parameters is a fool's errand.

There is, however, a—umsound argument in favor of a measurements-based approach to hi-fi, even if it's not one I often hear made by advocates of an objective approach.

Hearing is a complex phenomenon. Our ears connect (via nerves) to our brains, and neurons in our brains connect to a wild array of other neurons, some close, others far away, physically and in function. What we hear—and we do hear it; we don't just think we do, even if it doesn't correspond to any change in the physical world—is affected by what we see, think, smell, and have experienced, recently and in the distant past. Through long experience, we can learn to set those influences aside, partially but sufficiently. It's scarcely different from gaining expertise in any other field, like hitting a baseball or performing microsurgery: No, we reviewers (and other audio pros) don't have golden ears, but thoughtful, self-aware repetition builds sensitivity, competence, and some ability to seal out distractions and sources of bias.

The more compelling argument in favor of a quasi-objective, measurements-based approach to audio can be summed up by an exchange I had a while back with a loudspeaker designer of note, who is also CEO of a major speaker company:

Me: Is there any reason to believe that accurate reproduction is the best way to convey music's emotional message?

The Designer: Why wouldn't it be?

Why, indeed?

Music moves us. The gold standard for affecting music reproduction is live acoustic music—so surely music is most moving when it is presented as closely as possible to live, or to the musicians' intentions. What could be gained from deviations from the characteristics of live performance: changes in frequency response, added distortion, or whatever?

Many of the most subjective subjectivists prefer old-school tube amplifiers, which we know alter the frequency response, due to the interaction between their high output impedance and the complicated complex impedance of loudspeakers. Call this the "tubist" school of audio philosophy. Tubists insist that their tube amps make music sound more real, more live, even though we know that in measurable respects, their reproduction of music is less real, less accurate. Surely the tubists are falling victim to some kind of illusion—perhaps euphony resulting from a heavy measure of second- and third-harmonic distortion.

What is music? A dose of reality or an intoxicating drug? Maybe it's both at different times. Or at the same time.

This is a good place to remind people that all reproduced music is an illusion.

Measurements provide reliable, repeatable access to key aspects of the world as we know and experience it—to aspects of reality. If we love live music, shouldn't reproduced music move us more if it's demonstrably more like the real thing—that is, when it's conveyed with the highest fidelity? If not, then surely the universe is skewed.

I've heard people from the tubist school of audio philosophy argue that in the process of recording and reproducing music, something is lost that consequently has to be added back. The more advanced the technology behind the music reproduction, the more they claim there is to repair. Tube amps, they say, go at least partway to restoring what is lost. But tubists cannot say precisely what is lost, or what is added back. How does that tube amp know what's missing, anyway? This is the point at which the tubists start to get mystical.

Music is about conveying emotional truth—so isn't it better to listen on a system that tells the demonstrable, measurable truth, at least according to what factors psychoacoustics research tells us are most important? In audio, we talk a lot about emotion. The truth part should get equal time.—Jim Austin

Footnote 1: My first Stereophile contribution was published in the March 2003 issue.

Footnote 2: See, for example, "Chips for Chumps," from 2005.

Footnote 3: ... although substantial deviations in some easily measured characteristics can be linked to emotional resonance, such as high-order distortion and the quantity and quality of bass.

davip's picture

Well, if your argument is for pushing measurements, then there's a doozy that no-one has ever done systematically (or even randomly and occasionally for that matter) that is potentially one of the most needed in Audiophilia as it revolves around the highest quality, readily available source. Why no-one does it I don't know (Lord knows I've made enough noises about it on a few sites), but it should be a cinch to knock-off and the test-equipment would scarce cost a-few-100 bucks.

Accelerometer testing of motor-noise on turntables.

I would contend that the vast majority of the 'sound quality' differences between turntables is down to the isolation (or lack of) of the arm and platter (thus the transducer) from the motor. Set a tape-accelerometer on the plinth (or whatever stands-in for the plinth on today's skeletal-foamy cobblers TTs) with the motor running and the arm parked and see how much of the motor noise of the ~ 300 rpm belt-drive or 33.3 rpm direct-drive motor is picked-up.

It would then be relatively straightforward to see if those TTs that are Class A Stereophile-sound-wise are also those that have gone to the trouble of properly isolating the arm/platter from the motor and have the lowest detected noise, whether they be sprung-subchassis or pumped air. We could also see then if all the 'mass', foam', 'lightness-and-rigidity' etc. schools of thought have any objective, measurable basis to their performance claims (or if they just 'sing-along' to themselves, eh Roy?). It would certainly shine a much-need spotlight on all of the non-engineered TTs from the bolt-a-motor-to-a-piece-of-MDF-and-charge-$4K-for-it brigade...

Just an idea, (to the Editor... )

CG's picture

Isn't that already built into every turntable system?

I think it hangs at the end of the pickup arm. (OK, a strain gauge is a little different.)

Conceivably you could examine the electrical spectrum output from "playing" an unmodulated groove in a record and get that information, couldn't you?

davip's picture

not unless you wanted to either 1) muddy the picture by adding multiple new variables to the measurement (different arms, cartridges, etc), or 2) fit the same arm and cartridge to every TT you wanted to measure. The simplest thing to do, as stated, would be to use an accelerometer -- which provides the standard output trace that we're interested in free of the necessity to deconvolve groove-noise from that output to reveal the motor component.

It's bizarre -- motor-noise piggybacked on the audio signal to a greater or lesser degree in what most would agree is the highest-end audio source, and no-one (save for Linn, Michell, and SOTA) care enough about this to do anything about it or even to test for it in audio magazines where measurement is ostensibly their metier...

CG's picture

I get your point about wanting to separate the variables. But, just where would you place the accelerometer to be sure that you are capturing the peak vibrational point that affects the turntable performance? How could you be sure that you are not at a node? Is the tonearm mounting point the key location? The bearing? Does the vibration pattern change at the various points of contact to the vinyl as the tonearm moves across to track the record groove? It certainly varies between turntable designs because of the shapes and materials used. At least when using a tonearm, you know that your measurement device is at the exact right point where the desired vibrational recovery - the grooves - is located.

Using a common arm on each turntable just for measurement would solve this problem, as you suggest. That's a good idea to give relative performance measurements. But, then, you'd be also be measuring how that one arm interacts with rest of the structure. That may or may not be helpful unless in the end the listener chose to use the same model arm, which might or might not be the best match for that turntable.

Measuring a turntable with an assortment of arms with that turntable would let you ascertain the contribution of the motor and drive system. Any measurement patterns that are common to all the combinations would probably and practically be associated with the one factor that isn't changed - the table itself and its support structure. That would also let you find out which combinations work best.

All that is a lot of work though, requiring resources beyond what magazines probably could support. (From what I can tell, writing reviews for an audio magazine may be a path to glory, of sorts, but it's not a path to wealth.) Perhaps you could establish the DAVIP Institute of Turntable Measurements and provide that information.

davip's picture

My comment was, as-stated, posted to the Editor, not for bored, patronising trolls with too much furlough-time on their hands. What you go-on at endless length to outline is indeed "...a lot of work", but then I didn't suggest it -- You did.

Read again what I proposed: "The simplest thing to do, as stated, would be to use an accelerometer", and (obviously) to do so proximal to the arm-base given the variety of plinth-forms.

Would the results be perfect? No. Would they be better than the current nothing-at-all? Absolutely, but then nitpickers like to make sure that nothing ever gets done, something I encounter regularly in my day-job as an observational scientist in a world filled with abstracting modellers...

You'll be talking to yourself hereon, but do feel free to have the necessary last word.

CG's picture

Not directed to davip, obviously.

I have learned my lesson. This doesn't appear to be the place for thoughtful interchange.

For American readers - have a great holiday next week. For all - stay healthy. (Even davip)

Glotz's picture

I find both of your concerns about approach and completely valid. Davip is right, but so is CG.

Yes, Davip would like to reduce the test to a simple accelerometer for an easy Judgment on turntables, but I wholeheartedly agree with CG-

One would be looking to come to short, easy conclusions, but there are Many variables within a turntable System, and where to measure and what to measure become Completely important.

Davip's jump to ascertaining that he is being trolled or condemned was not the tone of what CG was bringing up, but rather informing him that 'a simple test' isn't simple at all (with all of the resonant points in a tt system and best practices surrounding the where and the how.)

As well, the jump to finding a quick and easy way to judge turntables in the fashion that Davip suggested would be equally dangerous to rushing to judgment, as well as his assumption that these Class A turntables were reviewed by fallible, old man ears.

Lastly, if you are writing a letter to the editor... Do So. Don't expect to shut out other valid voices. There Are faults in Davip's thinking, but he is not open to hearing them.

Timbo in Oz's picture

There is one other brand, that use / used a suspended platter to isolate the platter, mat and LP from the motor.

I still own two TD150s and use one regularly. It is a slow job to get one of these turntables set-up properly, in situ. I still do it for folks, for money.

I'm not sure I agree with you about Vinyl being the highest-end source. R2R tape IME can be way better, if the tapes are the original ones, and if the miking was simple stereo.

Next comes solid-state digital recordings made live with a stereo array. I made a fair few live acoustic classical and HIP classical recordings for Artsound FM -

One I made helped a HIP band get a recording contract with Australia's ABC (think BBC). For which way too many mikes were used, IMO.

Tim Bailey

CG's picture

Maybe the problem is one of understanding.

What I mean is that the popular explanation of why something affects the sonic character of a playback system the way it does might well be way off base. Or, maybe, misleading. Perhaps even deliberately misleading. That can be quite galling, and it might be difficult to separate the motivation or misunderstanding behind the myth from the actual product itself. But, that doesn't make the effect any less real. In other words, the product may not be "snake oil" but the explanation certainly might be male bovine droppings. (Of course, a fancy explanation doesn't necessarily equate to a product having a positive effect, either.)

Saying that tube based products make the sound better emotionally is not the basis of either myth or truth. It's just an observation that a number of people have made. Jumping to the conclusion that it's the tubes is a leap of faith. It could just as easily be that the kinds of circuits used in tube based products are less susceptible to RFI problems. I'm not saying that RFI is the reason or isn't - just offering one of many, many possibilities.

Until all the possibilities are fully investigated, you can't say what the underlying mechanism is. Up to that point, you only have observations, not explanations. I think this is where things go awry. It's always hard to discuss dogma rationally.

Glotz's picture

This is the essence of of what CG was saying earlier.. and a hugely important point to every audio freak wielding a cudgel to smite naysayers-

It's What we Don't know, what we Don't understand about measurements, what we Think we are hearing and finally after years of experience what we Do Know from our listening and measuring sessions.

barrows's picture


"Hook up listeners to an FMRI machine as they listen, and we'll talk"

Are you not aware of much of the recent research in this area? I was particularly interested in one study out of China where they measured the brainwave activity of both musical performers (a string quartet if I am remembering correctly) and the audience. The most interesting outcome of this experiment was that when the music was subjectively deemed to be "good", the brainwave activity of the performers and the listeners synched up, showing similar patterns of activity in the same regions of the brain.
With the advent of brain imaging, there is a lot of very interesting research going on in this area-as the editor of Stereophile, I think you owe it to yourself and your readers to do some googling and become familiar with the research.
As one working in audio (product development and production) I am very interested in measurements, but I also realize that the measurements we commonly use are inadequate to describe all elements of sonic performance. This does not mean that we cannot measure everything, it only means that we do not. I am certain that we have the capability, technically, to measure everything which matters, the problem appears to be that we are not sure what measurements we really need to do.
We totally agree in the assessment that audio systems cannot possibly add back in "what was lost" during the recording process, as that idea is clearly nonsense. Yes, tubes may add "something" in, but what they are adding is certainly not what was lost during recording! Although I do believe, sometimes, that microphone placement can, sometimes, compensate a bit for what is lost in the recording process, especially close miking, sometimes...
BTW, I tend to prefer components which both measure well, and sound subjectively "good".

laxr5rs's picture

The first thing I want to say is, it's been a long time since I commented, and I wasn't nice. I've appreciated Mr. Atkinson's measurements over the years, and I felt bad about being unnecessarily mean. I'll try not to do that again. This is a very prickly topic for me. In every single other scientific endeavor, we use strict measurements to achieve knowledge regarding systems which can be tested. Human hearing is very frail, and studies have clearly shown that the human hearing system is very complex and given to strong non-linearity. On top of this, humans, including me, have a strong penchant for believing those things that happen to go through our minds, about our senses, without question, true or false. False is often the case and we don't like to admit that to ourselves. If measurement does not support subjective belief, then it is subjective belief that must bow, regarding the measurement capabilities we have now. If I tell you I believe that a car has 300 horsepower at the wheels, and we put it on a dynamometer, and it only has 200, and I tell you, "but it has 300," do you believe me, or the dynamometer? Say we calibrate the machine so we know it's error is within .05% and it again comes out to 200? Obviously you should believe the machine. Subjective beliefs are important in audio because music and sound are something people respond to and love. But mere belief based on very flawed human hearing to achieve a definitive understanding of performance is not even worth betting on. Yet, we apparently have this wide chasm between "The Subjectivists," and the "The Objectivists," pertaining only to audio. Subjective claims, are not objective claims. We can put a speaker in an anechoic chamber and measure distortion - at all frequencies, in a very short period of time, down very close to the noise floor. Of course, this measurement says, "this is how things differ compared to what was going in to what was coming out - very close to exactly." There isn't one human on the planet that can do that. Some listeners have more experience than others, then they get old and their ears fail. We should be less subjective, and more objective in our audio proclivities if we actually want audio quality.

Jack L's picture

....... is subjective belief that must bow, .." quoted Laxr5rs.

To cut the never stopping argument: measurement vs our aural perception,
whoever they are, have measured the wrong thing since day one decades back. Period.

Listening, not bench measurement alone, is believing.

Jack L

laxr5rs's picture

When you accelerate in car, do you believe it has 300 horsepower by feel?" How good are we at measuring acceleration compared with, say, your smartphone? I'm not arguing. When I claim that the human hearing system is deeply flawed, I'm stating a fact. No one should ever pretend that their senses are giving them anything like reality, if they care. No one should believe a car has 300 horsepower based on someone's feelings. Neither should they believe that an elevator is moving at a very specific rate of acceleration in relation to gravity, just by feel. Satellites don't work by feel - for example. It's exactly the same with the human hearing systems, and sound. If you say, "I like it," Then I have no argument with you. If you tell me that the human hearing is "better," than our ability to measure audio at this time, that's simply incorrect. Belief is not necessarily reality. Just ask those in the World who believe in thousands upon thousands of different gods. If someone cares about what is actually happening in audio, then measurement is a must. Period. There's a reason why studio monitors are all aimed towards a flat frequency response, low distortion, low time based errors, etc. And, anymore, major companies don't commit large amounts of money to manufacturing studio monitors based on someone's beliefs. Studio monitors are used, of course, because they are designed to be as transparent as possible. That's why producers mix music on them and not speakers that have audio problems problems - because of poor design/measurements.

Belief is often not in concert with reality. If someone cares about truth, and I do, then truth dictates to me, based on scientific findings, that I cannot trust my own hearing system in very specific ways. Audio includes the foibles of the human hearing system whether listeners can or cannot tell. As you know, humans are generally not in the habit of showing foibles.

This is one way human hearing is deeply flawed.

Jack L's picture


Please don't put yr words in my mouth. Thanks.

I simply stated that whoever they are, have measured the WRONG thing for ages. showing data having very little relevancy , if any at all, to what our aural perception.

Instead of using realtime musical signals to test the dynamic performance of audios, sinewaves & squarewwaves have been used to test their static performance since day one decades back. Audios are for processing musical signals of MUSICAL performance recordings for our enjoyment. So what is the logic of using something else to test audios?

Orange to apple comparison ! Yes. audio measurement technology todate is still yet to be further developed to face the MUSIC, & would not be available in the foreseeable future.

Again I repeat here what I posted her & other Stereophile forums not long ago re: Cheever's audio engineering Master's thesis. He measured & auditioned 2 power amps: one triode tube power amp of a few watts output: THD 5%. A sold state power amp of much higher power: THD 0.05%.
He stated the tube amp sound so much better.
His experiment was later verified by another party with another make of triode tube power amp using ABX double blind tests.

This proves standard bench tests measure the WRONG thing !

Yes, our ears are "flawed" but this is human nature. We can't deny it. We got to work with it.

I posted how "flawed" are our ears not long ago here. including the extremely non-linearity of loudness contour chart. Our ears most sensitive frequency 4KHz: 0dB, & least sensitive frequency 20Hz: -80dB.
My question: What good would be an amp with frequency response: 20Hz-20KHz +/- 0dB to our so "flawed" ears ?

Listening is believing

Jack L

laxr5rs's picture

Do you really want me to explain to you why we use standards in measuring audio equipment? Most of the hi-fi audio industry sacrificed many things for linearity over the twentieth century to today, including efficiency. I assume you understand why they did that? If you do not understand the concept of audio transparency, then you will not understand me when I tell you why a flat frequency response is desired.

Exactly what is "wrong" with these measurements? Exactly what should we be measuring? Please explain.

Respectfully I do not see that you are supporting your statements well either philosophically or technically.

Jack L's picture

......should we be measuring?" quoted laxr5rs

Please re-read what I posted above before you asked. Thanks.

Per above my post, I stated clearly realtime MUSIC signals should be used to test any audios as all audios are for processing music singnals of the orginal music performance recordings. Not sinewaves & squarewaves.

That's why the data measured out using sinewaves/squarewaves, e.g. total harmonic distortion, intermodulation distortion, phase distortion, do NOT tell our ears/brains how good/bad the subject audios SOUND. This is very "wrong"!!!!

I already quoted above Cheever's audio engineering Master's thesis to prove my statement.

FYI, I've design/built/upgraded audios for decades, thanks to addiction to classical music (owning 1,000+ stereo vinyl LPs), supplemented by my electrical/electronic engineering education+some 3-deacde experience in the power engineering industries.

"If you do not understand the concept of audio transparency,"

I DO know transparency is important because I demand ALL audios I auditioned, including all my design/builds, reproduce music with see-thru TRANSPARENCY, details, precision imaging, lifelike soundstage, emotion & being-there engagement.

So please tell me which data from the standard bench measurement would ever tell us any, if not all, above aural perceptions.

Again, apple to orange comparison? NO comparison at all !

So answer me the question I asked you per my above post to you: with the extremely non-linearity of our ears frequency response (minus 80dB@20Hz vs 0dB@4KHz as you rightly brought it up), what good it is for an audio amp with straight-rule frequency response ?? IMO. totally irrelevant !

We are dealing with MUSIC & critical ears will tell you conventional bench measurement produce data irrelevant to music. Please face it.

The dilemma is not many technical people still think conventional bench measurement will tell us how good/bad an audio will sound.

Listening, not measurement alone, is believing

Jack L

laxr5rs's picture

Power engineering is not audio. But tell me. If you had a transformer that operated with +/- 50% voltage stability - when you wanted a specific level, would that be good enough for you?

1. All sound is made up of sine waves. See Fourier transform.

2. You claim to understand "transparency," but also claim that modern measurement cannot indicate speaker distortion, or time based errors, or efficiency, or anything else that we know for a fact contribute to transparency. Your ears and dead reckoning are not measuring devices. They are flawed, and not in any small way by your internal biases.

3. We do not understand consciousness, I do not understand consciousness, and you do not understand consciousness. We do not yet understand exactly how audio data is transferred into consciousness. We do understand that the brain has a strong ability to mask audio based on our attention and other factors. We know that the human hearing system is deeply flawed. You are stuck with these facts. If all that is important to you is your perception, as you interpret it, I'm fine with that. But don't kid yourself that your hearing can tell you more about the phase relationships, or cabinet problems, which can easily be measured with a highly accurate and very inexpensive accelerometer. Please avoid telling me that you can feel cabinet vibration with your hand and will can plot a 3D function of the vibratory behavior of the cabinet, or the driver, or be able to tell anything about how the crossover built, unless you use your vision to see it.

In every single other area of Science, we use standard Scientific reasoning and knowledge. We send satellites into orbit with highly sensitive high frequency systems. Audio is simple low frequency waves. We understand audio deeply. To believe your own senses over that which a battery of measurements can tell you, is tantamount to religious faith, and I'm not bothered by that. If you're not bothered by that. We're good.

4. I still cannot believe, if you know anything about audio equipment, why I need to explain to you why we should aim for linearity. You honestly want me to explain this too you? You go into a stereo shop. You listen to two sets of speakers. They are otherwise equal in performance, except brand A has 20 DB wide Q boost centered around 400hz. The same speaker has a several narrow and wide band non-linearities, throughout the frequency band. Brand B is accurate in frequency response to 3db +/- between 45hz, and 19,000hz. They are the same price. You listen to them. Are you telling me that your highly skilled hearing system cannot tell that the frequency response on the first speaker is totally whacked? Can you tell when you have a multi-band EQ, that you're making changes? Linearity is there to get out of the way, and allow the human hearing system, with all it's flaws, to hear the signal as it was created. If you knew anything about additive and subtractive interference, you wouldn't ask this question. And yes, room treatment is by far, the next item on the list in attempting to flatten the frequency response so the listener can have a better chance of hearing, at least at their ears, a low distortion linear signal. Now would you stop asking this question, or I'm going to have to keep piling on the obvious explanations that you should know.

5. MUSIC IS SINE WAVES. SEE FOURIER TRANSFORMS. GOT IT? If someone creates "music," between 25,000hz and 35,000hz is it still music? Is the electrical signal that goes through a speaker, music? Are the waves recorded on vinyl music? Is the digital data in a digital recording, music? No, none of this is music. None of it. Music is what you hear. Music is what your human consciousness makes it out to be as you interpret it. And that is why you cannot use "music" as the basis for speaker design.

I'm glad you're a "believer." Lots of people believe in all kinds of things. If your subjective magic audio perspective is satisfying to you, I have no problem with that. But if you attempt to project it into the real World, you're going to have to do a lot better with you evidence as to why I should believe you. If I wanted to create a speaker company and got advice from Andrew Jones (PhD Physics, ELAC), and he told me as he has clearly said, "design first, then listen. If something is wrong, there is something wrong - in the design." If I asked you, would you tell me, "listen to music on the speakers you make." I might ask, "well, how would you create the speakers."

Like you, I've also been an audio freak my entire life. I created a class in college, in the late 80s with a physicist who was writing a manual on how to build and tune speakers. I helped him edit and make sure the book communicated well. He and I built a pair of speakers for me, carefully based on well known principles, with the limited measuring devices the college had, which included some audio testing facilities, oscilloscopes, etc. We built built them, then listened. They were very close to the design parameters. It turned out that when we pulsed measured them, the frequency response was slightly off. It just took a minor adjustment in one of the crossover values. My Dad who was an audio fan heard them, and he said, "those are the best speakers I've ever heard." He actually was not a good judge (having been in a war), but I have good hearing for a human. I'm 57, and have worked to protect my hearing my entire life. I can still hear solid to 14khz. I've spent my entire life loving audio. I have meridian speakers now, and they are fantastic. So, yeah, I care about the "musicality" of speakers. But that only means that they can transmit the waves into the atmosphere as linearly as possible.

Non-linearity hurts the speakers ability to transmit the electrical signal they are being called on to reproduce accurately. That's why studio monitors - everywhere - are designed to be as low distortion, and linear in frequency response as possible. Because producers need to hear what is actually happening. If the frequency response of a speaker is wildly off - then a producer will not understand what is happening in the mix.

Have I yet made my point? If I haven't, please tell me where I have missed. I've told you that music is simply a conglomeration of sine waves (Fourier transforms). I've explained the well known and evidenced weaknesses in the human hearing system. I've explain why linearity, as measured, is important. So, please explain to me how "listening to music," is better at determining the exact performance of a speaker, than a battery of modern tests, including testing in an anechoic chamber. You do that, and you'll win a Nobel Prize. Because you will show that large areas of physics are wrong.

It appears to me that we are, at least in your case, having a apples and oranges argument. I'm telling you from facts, why my position is sound. You are telling me from your beliefs, that you think listening is best. If you do not accept scientific facts, we're done.

Believing is believing.

Jack L's picture


No, you just don't get it right1

Fourier Transformation is only a mathematical approximation of realtime muscal waves. This is not yr SONIC bible, pal.

Please check up the music waveform of an musical instrument vs sinewaves/squarewave waveforms. Do they both look identical ??? Musical soundwaves are DYNAMiC vs bench test signals are STATIC.

Listen to the SOUND of a squarewave which sounds AWFUL while musical waves sound pleasant. So are you telling us sinewaves/squarewaves can replace realtime musical signals to test audio ????????

Yes, measurement is indispensable as a standard of manufacturing audios, like measurement of loudspeakers in echoic chamber.

So you quoted Andrew Jones: "Design first, then LISTEN". So if measurement can be so 'accurate', why need our ears to be involved ???
Simply because the data so obtained still can not tell us HOW the loudspeakers so tested SOUND !!! Our ears get the final say. YOU got or not???

FYI, loudspeaker distortion is the worst of all audio components, in the range of 2-10% THD across the audio spectrum. Our ear (inner ear) produces large harmonic, intermodulation distortion, besides being extremely frequency non-linear. Yet my critical musical ears can tell the sonic difference between one active stage vs 2 active stages in the phonostage I design/built years back.

I never ever ever dispute this usefulness of measurement in the process of design/manufacture. Like it or not, I don't buy all those data prints. My critical ears tell me the sonic truth.

But my point, which you totally missed since day one, is the relevance of such manufacture standards, e.g. frequency response, total harmonic distortion, intermodulation distortion, phase distortion, to what our ears/brains actually perceive.

So you may know too well yr measurement "physics:, but you don't know our ears physics. You believe yr measurement physics can dictate our ear/brain physics. IMO, it is the reverse situation. That's your own misbelief, not mine.

"flatten the frequency response so the listener can have a better chance of hearing, at least at their ears, a low distortion linear signal. "

Explain in engineering term HOW a "flattened frequency response can have a BETTERR hearing, considering our ears loudness response is -80dB deviation from it mean level.

I repeat: bench measurement todate is for audio design/build standard, not our ears/brain perception standard.

We have yet a lot lot to learn about our aural perception. So don't hold your breath !

Listening is believing


Jack L's picture


Yes, linearity if critical for any audio design/manufacture.

The most critical part which our ears detect most noticeably is the active devices used in an audio amplifier.

The main stream of design uses bipolar junction devices, e.g. transistors, FETs, & op-amps (made of many transistors/FETs with feedback loops) to build 'solid state' amplifiers. It takes min 90% of the amplifier sales market.

Another 'sideliner' is employing vacuum tubes instead of solid state devices to build amplifiers. It covers only very small part of the audio amp market.

We can easily detect the sonic difference between sold state amps & tube amp. Critical ears, like yours truly's, would refer tube amps which sound so much better in term of transparency, imaging, soundstaging, emotion & being-there engagement.

How come? Quality solid state amps measured almost zero total harmonic distortion, & close to ruler-flat frequency response ???? Much much less distortion than any tube amps!

The reason is very simple: triode, a vacuum tube, is a LINEAR active device with fully linear signal transfer characteristic. Any bipolar junction devices get a set of NON-linear signal transfer curves which bend off systematically by a kink or 'knee' on each curve !!!!!!!
So ALL solid state devices are NON-LINEAR !!!

So how come solid state amps built with non-linear devices measured so low low harmonic distortion?? The nearly zero harmonic distortion & straight-lined frequency response are done by global loop negative feedbacks. That's the 'trick' used by most most amp designers to get the amp so designed measured flying colours. IMO, this is cheating the consumers at large, who may not get good ears to hear the difference.

Local & global loop feedbacks can 'whitewash' any design deficiency & make up excellent specs by bench tests using static sinewave/square test signals. The problem is such loop feedbacks will screw up dynamic music signals built with high order of harmonics.

Sonically, solid state amps using transistors, FETs, op-amps with 'whitewashing' negative feedback loops sound clinical, & not that musical.

My critical ears just can't tolerate the sound of any solid state amps due to the above said design issues. This is electronic physics. No gimmick.

The best sounding power amp I ever auditioned was the USD125,000 Audio Note Japan 'Kegon', silver loaded 17W+17W ALL triode SET class A stereo power amp.

This confirmed triode tube amps are best sounding. That's whyt all phonestages, linesstages, & power amps I design/built since day one are ALL trioides. Strictly for good sound, period.

Listening is believing

Jack L

laxr5rs's picture

Your statement about transistors being non-linear devices is incorrect. I'm a guitarist, and understand how guitar tube amps - can sound. They are not designed as linear amplifiers. I am familiar with tube characteristics. I am familiar with some transistor characteristics, but not the 10 or so Quantum Mechanical principles that are required in their design.

Maybe this will clear up this part of your thinking. Linearity is measure ... at the output.

You do not understand negative feedback but like a conspiracy theorist, you think it's a grand plot. I suggest you get Bob Cordell's, Designing Audio Power Amplifiers, and read it. This is not a religion.

It does not matter what your delicate ears can tolerate or not. You cannot trust your ears. I have now explained why that is a fact multiple times. Do you reject my claim, and if so why? Do you have statistically unusually sensitive hearing? How is your high end frequency hearing doing? I can hear to 14K. How about you?

I notice you use Hi-Fi buzz words like, "critical hearing," and "auditioned." I just use the phrase, "listened to." Us beggars down on the floor here - you have to simplify things for the way our little minds think.

I don't have to believe anything. Nor do you.

Jack L's picture


Yes, you are correct. But you don't seem to understand WHY?

Guitar public performances need special sound effect. So most guitar amps are built purposely to deliver such special sound effect, by:

(1) using multiple pentodes for more power output. Pentodes like transistors & FETs, get non-linear 'kinked' bent transfer curves. So when overdriven to overload during public performances, the music sounds sorta distorted.
(2) special biasing applied to the power output pentodes so deliver
sorta distorted sound effect.

FYI, not ALL vacuum tubes are linear. Only triodes (built with internal 3 electrodes) are 100% linear. Other 2 types of vacuum tubes: pentodes (5 electrodes) & tetrodes (4 electrodes) are non-linear active devices with kinked /bent signal transfer curves similar to FETs.

Jack L

Jack L's picture


I don't care whoever power amp designers you 'worship'.
Since you recommend Bob Cordell, he design/builds solid state amps, analague, switching mode amps etc. He believes in negative feedbacks!!

Sorry, apparently he designs for the sake of designs.

Contrary, I design for the sake of MUSIC. Audio amps are designed to magnify MUSIC. So the bottom line of whatever amp designs is to reproduce music faithfully.

To judge one's design good or bad is how faithful it will handle MUSIC sonically, not how linear be its frequency response, how low be is total harmonic distortion etc - using sinewaves/squarewaves in standard bench tests.

If an audio amp designer knows only electronics but does not know & LOVE enough music, he/her design/builds will never fly !!!!! How could such designs handle MUSIC faithfully if the designers don't even know or love music ?

Like if the chef was a vegan, how could he/she be trusted to cook good beef steaks ????

Sorry, my philosophy of audio design is on music, using my own critical ears to gauge (reference to live performances I attend frequently). Very unlike many many audio designers out there spend most time on bench works instead of live music listening.

How can a designer produce good amp designs without the love of music ????? What is the logic ??

FYI, I am addicted to music on vinyl (owning 1,000+ stereo LPS). I shop vinyl LPs weekly to better my love & enjoyment of analogue music.

Listening to music is believing

Jack L

laxr5rs's picture

I bought this recently. Can you name one tube amp on the planet that can measure this well? Do you believe you could hear the problems in the output of this amplifier with your ears? Here is a detailed test. I am not advertising for this forum, but it's a good open resource.

Jack L's picture


Sorry, I never like headphone music. So I can't help.

What more you still want from a headphone/preamp which cost you only USD130 (from Amazon) ? So cheap !

Jack L

laxr5rs's picture
Timbo in Oz's picture

A mike where your head would be recording what your room does to the sound coming from the speakers

Few speakers are terrible and few amps are non-linear into most typical spkr loads.

But most rooms in most homes have powerful negative effects unless you're very lucky AND you are using spkrs which once positioned as designed can 'ignore' what the room might otherwise do.

Not once mentioned above here - because EQ is 'out' for way too many audiophiles.

DSP Eq devices are way better value than any $$$$$$ CD player, ADC after your streamer, and .....

Until I can afford one, I'll continue using 1.3rd octave Eq'rs from 150 Hz down where most room problems occur.

I used to set-up folks systems in their homes - for money.

And can assure you that minimising the effect of the room boundaries and corners - from the upper-bass down is really worth doing.

Your find the centre of the bass-array / bass speaker - from the floor - and make that distance = 1, you then make the short (straight?) distance to the side wall and to the rear wall - 1.5 to 2.25.

BUT 1:1.6:2.6 can work quite well.

Early reflections can remain a problem - although sitting in the near-field can help.

Yes, I already have

i) 4 DIY absorber-diffuser panels under decorator cloth - chosen by SWMBO - for early side reflections,and the second two to help damp other midand treble reflections.

ii) Small 45cm square cream-fabric covered cushions in all the ceiling/wall corners.

iii) two office-ceiling noise-panels for early ceiling reflections as my spherical speakers are angled back to Time & Phase align there 2 drivers. The VC of the tweeter is positioned slightly behind the VC of the mid-bass driver which has no low-pass.

? They sit on a stack of dished circular off-white concrete* rings stacked and covered by off-white painted sections of form-work tubing.

The spheres are themselves made of off-white concrete cast using two molds.

One of which makes the flat front baffle and its insets for the drivers frames and the hole for the white PVC pipe port.
The edges of the front baffle are curved, and this minimizes edge-diffraction.

These are the current main system.

The one being built will use QUAD 63s and 4 subs in an arc / swarm, ala Duke LeJeune's swarm subs.

cgh's picture

I can't recall the citation, and I was having this discussion in my classical guitar / violin luthier circles a while back - where fighting about these things easily rivals audio - but there's this study, if I recall using imaging, that showed that people enjoyed certain wine more when they knew how much it cost. We expanded the argument to knowing your hearing a Strad, or seeing Brazilian rosewood, etc. The conclusion was meaningful because the imbibers objectively subjectively enjoyed the wine more. By extension didn't the Strad sound better, truly? Even though we've shown through double blind that people can't tell the difference between a strad and a new violin built well (e.g., Zyg) By further extension, if someone spends days gluing crystals to their walls and golden ratio'ing their monoblock stands, why couldn't their music actually sound better.

cgh's picture

I was working while writing that before... quick google and here's that reference

I think this applies to my luthier arguments (which are identical to these audio arguments). Said differently, even though we know that some of these unmeasurable things are bull$hit, the perception of "better" is totally real.

MontanaMontanaDana's picture

We can't agree on restaurants, movies, Scotch, or what constitutes truth. What are the chances we'll agree on accuracy in music reproduction? What does it matter?
Let's record as accurately as possible, and let the consumer spice the playback to taste.

georgehifi's picture

To put it another way, "without measurements in audio" you'd have snake oil, voodoo and mayhem, wouldn't that be nice, back to banging a hollow log with two sticks, while the missus cooks your dino steak.

Cheers George

Doctor Fine's picture

Playback of recorded music is an artistic PERFORMANCE in and of itself.

If the way your stereo plays the piece moves you, sounds "juicy and alive" and is intoxicating---mission ACCOMPLISHED.

If your stereo is precise, clear and accurate but DOES NOT put on a performance that moves you---then it is a fail.

This is why testing is not the end-all of "what is good."
You can have "special sauce" in your set IF it moves you and nobody can tell you different.
This is why measurements only tell you what makes sense being measuresd.
The rest of our hobby is "Art."
I personally try to own non-distorted equipment in a well planned and acoustically supportive room that has been check for frequency response and listening performance.
I like measurements for assessing power requirements and the like.
But there is more to life than you find in your philosophy my dear Horatio.

Ortofan's picture

... performance that moves you, then where lies the fault?
Is it because the system needs to be made even MORE precise, clear and accurate or does it need a helping of "special sauce", which would make it LESS precise, clear and accurate?

Timbo in Oz's picture

Testing what your room does, and minimising it is a vital first step.

DSP Eq boxes can pretty much eliminate the room for you.

tonykaz's picture

...hobby magazine ! Phew!!! ( or in the last few years )

"Reviewers are not Golden Ears" ? Hmm, can I quote you ?

"Live acoustic music is the Gold Standard". It should be ( I'd suppose ) but who gets to hear Live acoustic music? Seems like everyone has a guitar and little Amp. Tuba Skinny in New Orleans is always worth finding and paying, bring a folding chair. Live String Quartets, sitting up close, are electrifying no matter what they are playing.

"Tubest School of illusion" I quoted wrong but nailed the meaning. I love this wonderful phrase. I'll quote you and give you credit. I'm in that dam School and have been since the old Round Tube TV days of horizontal & vertical adjustment controls. Tubes make a Singing Voice sound much better! Tubes improve sound. If Tubes are wrong, I don't want to be right! Dam good wire is in that same category: Brissom Cable interfaces make all gear sound better, as does one of those PS Audio Power Plants!

"Intoxicating Drug". Absolutely! Audiophiles are addictive personalities, Music brings the High! ( why else would we want to see a $250,000 record player write-up?, we're chasing a bigger high.

"Reproduced music is an illusion" Hmm If I have it in my head and it moves me, is it an illusion? This needs thinking and pondering and wondering.

There are things that I feel are "Mystical" nonsense but part of the "hair shirt audiophile" superstitions and obsessions, I don't have to yield priority to most of them.

"Equal time for truth". I don't know enough to contemplate something like this.

This piece is a gigantic Statement for AWSI !
You jammed up my mental gears as I started to read this piece one week ago, a day after it arrived in my mail.
"As we see it" , it doesn't read like the WE of the Magazine's many contributors.

Is this a statement for the Magazines's Policy? I don't think so.

So, just who is the we in AWSI? I think its Gordon Holt. Holt wrote with the Royal We, he might've even spoken with the same Royal We ( or Soverign We ). I did a bit of research about this. It dates back Centuries when Sovereigns ruled with God and spoke of We as deciders of things. As We See it: "Reviewers are not Golden Ears" ! ( one of Stereophile's writers writes and seems to behave as if he is and has a Golden Ear ).

Anyway, I'm powerfully impressed with this AWSI and it's writer. If I was ever worried about Stereophile's guidance, I now realise the whole thing is in good hands. They chose well, thank all y'all .

Tony in Venice

jimtavegia's picture

Sometimes, it seams, thoughts do provoke. A well thought out piece.

As for the TT issue, I was glad to see that long ago it was Music Hall that had their Model 9? with the motor outside the plinth on a separate small base with some gummy footers to try and isolate the motor from the TT. A great idea. Since it was sourced from Project it is good to see that they have added that concept to one of their own models, if that matters to a TT owner. I remember the late AD writing about replacing the "gummy muffins" on his Thorens with fresh ones to "isolate the motor from the metal plinth. I have the same issue with my old Dual 502 (belt drive) with a Rega 202 arm on it. No turntable product I have ever owned is class A Stereophile, so I cannot worry about the these issues or I would never play an LP again for fear that I may hear the built-in defect of my pedestrian lp playback system.

Now at 73 I am saddened by the fact that on Mary Chapin Carpenter's latest album, The Dirt and the Stars, I cannot understand all of her lyrics she sings. Her lyrics are a huge part of her music. It is me and my hearing deficiencies that are now coming into full play and robbing me of my listening enjoyment. Something that nothing will ever fix in these, my later years. I will try listening on my AkG K701S later today and that might help.

Or, may be I need to new amp, special cables, maybe even new speakers, but during this pandemic I would never chance going to a dealer and take this CD and audition some new things. On Monday prior to my prostate cancer surgery I had a covid test that was negative, but I would still never put anyone else at risk for a possible improvement in musical enjoyment, at least not right now. Even Elon Musk proved that 4 tests can give two results, so how does that help?

During these times my turntable motor noise is not even on my top 50 list of things to worry about, sorry. I will bet it is not for most of us. And, if it took a $250K turntable to eliminate it, that is not happening in my world.

Glotz's picture

and they are the benchmark needed when a company wants their product to deviate from accurate into the musical (Color saturation, air in a recording, bass response, fullness of images, etc.), or a percentage thereof.

supamark's picture

I have a question y'all probably don't get much - I've been hired on to write for one of your competitors (yay me), how will that affect how I interact on the Stereophile family of websites (like, should I update my profile to real name, etc)? I'd like to do this by the rules.

I couldn't find any discrete way to ask this.

And one note about the article (good stuff), the more you use a sense (like spending a lot of time listening critically) the more of your brain is devoted to that sense. It's the same principle as a sommalier being able to tell when and where the grapes in a wine were grown. So, it's not so much "golden ears" (or taste buds/nose) as "golden neurons".

DaveinSM's picture

Not to be snarky, but the word you used in that context should be ‘discreet’ as in ‘discretion’ and not ‘discrete’ as in ‘separate’.

supamark's picture

this is why I wanted to do this elsewhere, separate from the forums.

Jim Austin's picture

(like, should I update my profile to real name, etc)? I'd like to do this by the rules.

Posters with industry affiliations must disclose them. That's longstanding Stereophile policy.

Jim Austin, Editor

Kal Rubinson's picture

Some of my best friends write for other audio publications. :-)

Dave_MacKinnon's picture

What a timely article. I just published my first formal review of a car audio product after a ~10 year hiatus. As feared, the industry is more excited about power ratings and the size of the radio screen than the distortion and noise specifications. Sad.

I won't back down. Like it or not, they'll all learn how to interpret this information and raise the bar for product quality expectations.

drblank's picture

There are two types of measurements. one that measures the performance of a product from an engineering standpoint and the other is a measurement to show Quality of Sound. The later seems to be the one that is lacking, and maybe more difficult to devise a standard to measure these types of aspects of a playback system.

The main issue that I have seen is that most "audiophiles" simply don't have very good rooms and lack "Proper" treatment to create the best listening environment.

Most small rooms have low frequency issues and they are the most difficult to manage and it's a costly endeavor to properly treat a room for all of the low frequency modes that are in small rooms, whether you do it yourself with the aid of a high quality room designer with the right materials to treat a room.

Here's a video of a room with a high end system and I highly doubt your average "audiophile" has this kind of room for their system.

Room acoustics is going to be the biggest and most return on your investment in terms of improving the quality of sound of your "system", and it's the most often ignored.

As far as conducting measurements, go conduct measurements of your room first so you understand the problem of your room. There are a few that can be done that only require a dB or RTAS app on your smartphone with some frequency generator. One can also calculate the room modes for Axial, Tangental and Oblique modes within a room.. One can perform a RT60 measurement, but that's a little more involved, but if you can analyze the room, then at least you can get a better understanding of half of your "system". Your gear is only 1/2 of your total "system", the room is the other half..

I am deeply concerned and surprised that room acoustics is one of the biggest areas for improvement in the quality of sound, but it is largely misunderstood, let alone investigated and deployed properly, if at all. Even a lot of books available on room acoustics aren't as good as they could because little attention is placed on low frequency management and there aren't that many products on the market that really do the job well.

My suggestion, leave the measurements for the engineers to design their products and focus on your room. Focus on the room's acoustics, speaker placement, listening position and getting someone that really has the best knowledge to help you achieve better sound with room treatment..

romath's picture

Jim, You've made an odd argument: "tubists" claim that what they hear is the real thing, but since audio is an illusion, therefore quasi-objective measurement is needed. Seems like you have yourself twisted in a knot here. First of all, not all tube lovers claim it's the real thing. How could they, at least seriously, since not all tubes and the gear running them sound the same (tube rolling anyone?). Second, leaving aside your "quasi" for the moment, measurement already takes place all the time within a limited framework, by developers and your magazine, for example, to help understand what a piece of gear is doing and gain insight into what we hear, and for whatever else. All fine. The question however you haven't really spoken to is, like the ones being asked about covid vaccines, Measurements are effective for what? Because you're no dummy and know the answer to that is "very limited at this stage of un understanding," you are forced to use the term "quasi" in front of that "objective." But then given that, what are you really going on about that doesn't exist and isn't known already?

Jack L's picture

......... but since audio is an illusion..." quoted J Austin.

Is audio is merely an "illusion" ? So when someone's baby son called him "papa" for the first time, would it be an "illusion" due to overreacted emotional expectation, or a fact ??

Give me a break please. Contrary, those believers in standard bench measurement, are "illusionists" instead as they fancy measurement can bring them what our ears/brain perceive !!!

I am a die-hard tube hobby DIYer: I design/build triode TUBEs only amps for decades. Why? I do so for superior music that NO solid states amps with excellent measured specs, can match.

Am I an "illusionist"? I don't think so as my critical ears can tell the superiority of vinyl record music over digital music, just quoting an example.

Whoever can't hear such sonic difference better spends more time in music listening rather than bench measurement which will bring it nowhere musically. No intended to offend, bench measurement guys without music love are human robots !

Listening is believing

Jack L

romath's picture

Since I take you're responding to Jim Austin, it's been better if you'd done so directly than as a reply to me, since it's not.

Jack L's picture


Nope. I responded to yr above post addressed to J Austin, quoting J Austin's post "....since audio is an illusion."

As "since audio is an illusion." was quoted by Jim Austin, not by you. I had to quote the person who originally quoted this statement, ie Jim Austin, not you.

Hopefully this clarifies the misunderstanding

Jack L

David Harper's picture

A recent test in "Audio Science Review" revealed that my magnepan LRS speakers measure pretty much horribly. The reviewer who did the tests is very good and the article included very scientific and comprehensive graphics of the various parameters that were tested. Yet these are the best sounding speakers (IMO) that I've ever heard and I've been an audiophile (I hate that term) for 40 years. What's going on here then?
They measure extremely poorly in nearly every aspect (one of the worst that said reviewer has ever tested). So there is obviously something involved that is not capable of objective measurement. I just don't know what it is. Maybe it's something that only exists in our heads and doesn't exist in external reality at all.

Jack L's picture

........objective measurement" quoted D Harper

Simply they measured the WRONG things.

Again the dilemma is loudspeakers maker, the reviewers, or whoever, did such erroneous measurement, do not want to admit it.

So let your own ears have the final say. It is YOU enjoy the music. Not them !!!

Listening is believing

Jack L