Deeper Meanings Letters

Letters in Response appeared in the October and November 1991 issues of Stereophile:

EDITOR'S NOTE: "As We See It" in the July 1990 issue of Stereophile, entitled "Deeper Meanings" and written by Robert Harley, addressed the nature of "quality" in a hi-fi context. His essay had been triggered by a conversation Bob and I had had with Stanley Lipshitz at last May's AES Conference on "The Sound of Audio" concerning the correlation—or, more properly, the lack of correlation—between good measured performance and "good" sound quality. I had raised the example of the Wadia 2000 D/A processor as having measured performance far worse than the cheapest Japanese CD player, yet it is widely regarded to sound "good," only to have Dr. Lipshitz respond with "Ah, but how do you know what is good?"

A simple question, but a deep one that cuts to the bone of this and every other value-judgment-oriented review magazine's existence. For if these magazines' writers and editors have no world view that allows them to recognize what is good (and what is bad), then what right do they have to continue writing and publishing reviews? "Deeper Meanings" attempted, therefore, to answer that question; in turn, it prompted a veritable flood of correspondence. Uniquely for Stereophile, therefore, I decided to devote the November 1991 "Letters" section to discussion of just one subject: the question of "quality" as described by Robert Harley in July.—JA

Harley must be kidding!
Editor: In response to Robert Harley's "Deeper Meanings" article in July—he must be kidding! If I were to spend 20 grand on a so-called "high-end" system, it'd better sound like a 20-grand system even if I were standing in the street with doors and windows shut. If I couldn't tell the difference between this system and a mid-fi system—each and every time, eyes closed, blindfolded, standing on my head, whatever—I would feel ripped off!—M. DeSouza, Destin, FL

Living in the real world
Editor: Regarding the subjectivity/objectivity debate (or "everything which exists can be measured") raised in the July issue, I'd like to offer an analogy from the world of physics. Modern physicists acknowledge the existence of neutrinos, subatomic particles which pass through "solid" matter as easily as through a vacuum at close to the speed of light. Until comparatively recently, neutrinos eluded measurement due to their [lack of mass and] enormous speed. In 1956, however, scientists managed to capture a few as they passed the Earth on their journey outward from the Sun. Are we to believe that, prior to their detection, neutrinos did not exist? Would Stanley Lipshitz believe this? I somehow doubt it. Why then must we believe that current measurement techniques reveal the intrinsic nature of an audio component's sound quality?

The performance of live music is, essentially, a four-dimensional experience (musicians playing in three-dimensional space over time). The goal of music reproduction is to capture this four-dimensional reality. How can anyone expect to represent or evaluate this experience exclusively with two-dimensional frequency-response graphs and linearity charts or [unidimensional] signal/noise ratios and the like? Listening to music, whether live or reproduced, is a fundamentally subjective experience. As Robert Harley says, it involves excitation of the right hemisphere of the brain, whereas objective, quantitative analysis is primarily a left-brain function. Subsequently, the musical experience, like the human mind itself, defies strictly objective explanation.

Of course, objective measurements are necessary in designing and evaluating products in order to determine and correct for gross deficiencies that would otherwise inhibit accurate sonic reproduction. However, in this case, what is "necessary" is not sufficient. Subjective evaluation must be done in order to approach a true understanding of any electronic component.

One might ask who should perform the subjective evaluation: "Whose ears should I trust?" Since perception varies from person to person, each individual is his/her own best judge. The opinions of others, particularly those with experience in the field, are important. They help to rule out non-contenders, thus narrowing the competition. But the final decision of what is "musically accurate" must be made by each individual. In other words, do what Stereophile has always told you to do: don't take their word for it, listen for yourself.—Christopher Boylan, New York, NY

Arrogance & the AES
Editor: In respect to Mr. Harley's "Deeper Meanings," several general comments must be made.

• The apparent position of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) that every meaningful nuance of recorded music is measurable is indicative of extreme arrogance on their part. Measurement of a component's sonic characteristics is valuable and worthwhile to the (apparently subhuman) audiophile as manifest by the inclusion of Mr. Harley's findings in the equipment reviews. His reference to the derisive comments of the AES toward audiophiles does nothing to enhance the integrity of the AES (footnote 1).

The credibility of the AES is open to question when they become steadfast in their reliance on current evaluative techniques. All of science is predicated upon the replacement of the current paradigm (not truth) and/or methodology with the new. The AES seems to content itself with generating new ideas within its own narrowly defined and limited arena. It is ironic that the "audiophiles" were referred to [at the Washington Conference] as "flat-earthers," as this represented the paradigm belief of the scientific community until a more global perception became accepted.

• I dispute neither the intellect nor the contribution of the AES, only its arrogance. I am not an "audiophile"—I am not adept at wading through the graphs and measurements—and thus not defending a perceived self-image.

• There is an obvious parallel between the AES/audiophile scenario and the movie Dead Poets Society. I wonder if members of the AES who watched that film were sympathetic with the students and their beloved and passionate teacher or the administration of the prep school?

• Finally, the dismissal of that which is not measurable—in this case, the "musical experience"—manifests not only arrogance, but ignorance. This is not a new malady of the scientific community, just an unfortunate one. After all, is there empirical proof of God's existence or just the emotion of seeing your child for the first time?—Daniel Starr, Hamburg, NY

Audio excellence & incompetence
Editor: Re: Robert Harley's "Deeper Meanings": Judging by the horrific quality of many massmarket recordings, it appears the objectivist "meter readers" have a lot to learn from the subjectivist "golden ears."

Haven't those tone-deaf engineers ever listened to Chesky, Reference Recordings, Proprius, Sheffield Lab, and all the rest of the ever-increasing number of companies committed to audio excellence? I sincerely doubt that any of these companies use $200 components in their production chains.

As for the blind tests, here's one for you objectivists: cover your eyes, plug your nose and ears, and try to differentiate between slices of equally ripe apple, pear, and potato. Come on, you tone-deaf techno-nerds—you've got five senses...use them! Or perhaps your greatest fear is incompetence.—Frank Mahon, Toronto, Canada

Footnote 1: I think it a bit extreme to regard the AES in this monolithic a manner. Many different "faiths" are represented within the AES—Robert Harley and myself are both members, for example—and it is more fair to say that Mr. Starr's comments should be directed at a strong faction within the AES membership, of whom Stanley Lipshitz is one of the leading voices. However, for a precise statement of Dr. Lipshitz's position, see his letter elsewhere in this issue.—JA