Audio & Alternative Medicine Pornography or audio journalism? part 2

Now, before objectivists go to their computers and fill John Atkinson's e-mail account with letters about how stupid I am, I am not claiming that listening to recordings and the pleasures of the flesh are equivalent (though there's something to the idea of aural sex). I'm saying instead that this test would interfere with the behaviors it attempts to measure in much the same way, and for similar reasons, that Mr. Salinger's test would make it harder to hear the effects of tweaks and cable swaps. In both cases, most test subjects would fare poorly. But that would have less to do with their abilities than with this interference. It's simply more obvious in the former case than in the latter.

The interference arises because sensations and perceptions are as psychological as they are physiological. Experts say the mind is the main sex organ, and it has to cooperate in the right way with the rest of the body. Everyone knows what Elvis Costello meant when he sang, "The spirit is willing but I don't believe in miracles" (from "Boy with a Problem," on Imperial Bedroom, rereleased on Rykodisc RCD 20278).

The mind and body have to cooperate when listening, too. Take the common wisdom that audio systems sound better late at night. One explanation is that AC power is cleaner at that time because of lower demand on the power grid. But it could also be because of lower demand on the mental grid. For me, the day is over, the phone's stopped ringing, and the promise of several hours' sleep is a comfortable buffer between me and tomorrow. I'm relaxed, and then is when I often do my best listening. That's when the characters of individual recordings, cables, or speaker positions (if I'm in the mood to tweak) stand out the most. On the other hand, if I indulge in a quickie listening session during the day, my system is more likely to sound dull and hi-fi-ish. It could be the power grid, but I think the problem is closer to home: my conscience. Then Elvis sings, "The ears are willing but I do believe I've got a deadline tomorrow..."

How relaxed could I be were I always wondering whether Mr. Salinger's elves had visited my listening room? Whenever I notice something about the sound quality that seems novel—and, remember, we're talking subtle effects here (no one doubts that swapping speakers makes an audible difference)—how can I help but wonder if it's due to the elves, my state of mind, the wax in my ears, the condition of the power grid, or what-have-you? It might even be a quality that's been there all along (in the system or in the recording) that I had simply never noticed. I'd be reasoning, supposing, analyzing, and, as a result, distracted from the intimate one-on-one session I want to be having with my audio system. It just wouldn't be the same. If it could talk, my system might ask me if something were wrong. It might even accuse me of infidelity.

Mr. Salinger's test is more demanding than it sounds. It requires you (ideally) to do two things at once that exclude each other. One cannot listen and write (or think about writing) at literally the same time. When I'm thinking about some difference I seem to hear—questioning if it's really new, fishing for the right adjective, etc.—and actually jotting down my thoughts, I will not be then listening to my system. It would be like trying to eavesdrop on two conversations or listen to two songs at the same time. Your ears take them both in, but the mind can make sense of only one at a time. The best you can do is switch back and forth.

Mr. Salinger's test requires a similar dexterity. The problem is not missing segments of music, but the switching back and forth between two states of mind. Returning again and again to my notepad and to these questions about what the elves may have done would prevent me from fully sinking into that relaxed but focused state of mind that's the hallmark of a good (late-night) listening session.

Unfortunately, the language of the debate obscures this point. The issue is not whether or not some audiophiles have "golden ears" in the same way that some people have good teeth or low cholesterol. Those qualities can be measured objectively at any time you like. Golden-eared audiophiles have ears and auditory nerves that function well and are good at extracting information from what they hear. That's the mental, psychological side of things that blind testing interferes with.

Nor are these circumstances unique to audiophiles. I doubt that Mr. Salinger's test "works perfectly in all other fields" and that audiophiles uniquely (and suspiciously) shy away from testing situations. Take food critics, poets, actors, or even audio engineers and ask them if they'll submit to controlled test situations designed to validate (or refute) their claims about their expertise. As long as they know that they'll be working in an environment outside of their full control, that variables will be changed behind their backs, and that their self-observations will later be scrutinized and analyzed, most will act, think, and perform differently. No matter how benign you try to make it, it's still a test, and people don't like tests. Many will self-consciously fear that they are making mistakes, will be distracted by that, and won't carry on naturally.

None of this counts against Mr. Salinger's observation that audiophiles can be full of hot air about sonic differences among components and cables. As he notes, there are lots of reasons and incentives to tell big-fish stories. But that issue has nothing to do with my point. Logic compels us to admit that it could be true that some audiophiles (at least) may clearly be able to discern subtle differences in one frame of mind, but not when they know that they are taking part in a test. Skeptics may doubt this interpretation all they like, but they can't disprove it. To be fully effective, Mr. Salinger, your test needs to eliminate this awareness. But without that, there's no diary describing listening sessions. And without diaries there are no data, and there is no test.

Still, there's something unsettling about my argument. If audiophiles avoid blind tests for these reasons, what are we to make of audio reviewers? In a way, they spend their professional hours in testing situations. They listen to components, live with them, and compare them in just those ways that, if I'm right, diminish one's auditory acuity. Of course, the test anxiety is lower because they control precisely what's changed in their systems. Nonetheless, their observations are published for all the world to read and criticize. That would make me nervous.

There are always exceptions—even with my fictional blind tests of sexual performance. While the tiger in most of us would be subdued by the task of keeping a regular journal, some would jump at the chance. They'll do fine when sharing every detail with others, even—or especially!—if surrounded by lights and cameras. Could there be an undiscovered personality type that leads some into pornography and others into audio journalism?