Deeper Meanings Letters part 8

Scientists were faced with such a dilemma in the 1930s because one form of radioactivity (beta decay) appeared to violate conservation of energy. The situation had reached a point that the idea of abandoning conservation of energy was discussed. But it was too sacred a cow to kill and Enrico Fermi devised a clever theory that was mathematically neat although it involved a ghostly particle named the neutrino. The neutrino was discovered some 20 years later. Scientists will not abandon fundamental principles even when faced with apparently overwhelming evidence (footnote 8). To abandon a principle even more basic than the conservation of energy on the "evidence" of the claims of a few audiophiles seems a little drastic.

I will continue to appreciate music, both live and recorded, regardless of my inability to perceive the differences that he hears and my skepticism that they are entirely real. My palate is apparently more sensitive than my audio perception even though I am a left-handed (right-brain) mathematical scientist with significant experience in musical performance.—Robert B. Moler, Catharpin, VA

Stop squabbling and look for answers
Editor: In "As We See It," July 1990, Robert Harley reports that the often snide and sometimes hostile stand-off between the golden ears and the meter-readers goes on. The former disparage the name of Julian Hirsch as representing what they see as the everything-sounds-the-same, if-you-can't-measure-it-you-can't-hear-it point of view, while the latter dismiss the flowery wine-tasting prose of subjectivist reviewers as self-deluding fantasy and nonsense.

I submit that many objectivists, when they really bother to listen, can hear differences, while the subjectivists, straining to hear subtler variations, are often guilty of verbal excess in trying to describe and justify what they hear.

Objectivists certainly hear differences among speakers, and while they may attempt to relate those audible differences to measurable phenomena, they readily admit that much of the variation among speakers derives from qualities of the design that elude any attempt at quantification. When it comes to amplifiers, however, they don't trust their ears with subtler differences, so retreat behind their engineering degrees to declare that no differences exist, or that if they do exist, they are too insignificant to have meaning. High-enders, on the other hand, hear the differences, know they exist, and are willing to pay dearly for them, no matter how "insignificant" they may seem to the unwashed.

For many years Julian Hirsch has given us lucid, well-researched and well-written component reviews. He gives the facts and makes no attempt at subjective judgment, leaving that to the buyer. But he may offer some concession. In Stereo Review, May 1990, he concluded his review of a Sony CD player: "Our test results leave no doubt that the Sony CDP-X55ES represents the current state of the art in CD players....But it would be unreasonable to expect that the superior measured performance obtained from the technical advances embodied in the player would yield better sound than that of other good CD players with normal recordings. Maybe with carefully selected discs and ideal listening conditions, keen-eared listeners could detect some differences. They will have to make their own judgments." Now there's a glimmer of acknowledgement!

Then in Audio, June 1990, Leonard Feldman reviews the Sony CDP-X77ES: "I chose two recent CD releases for my initial listening tests. The first was a Telarc recording, Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos.1, 2, & 3, Op.2 (CD-80214), played by John O'Conor. It is no secret by now that recording a piano digitally and having it reproduced so that it sounds like a real piano is not easy. Yet this recording, played on the Sony, came as close to realizing that goal as anything I have ever heard. What's more, as good as the recording is, I found that when it was used with two other CD players in the lab, the piano lacked some of the detail and took on a somewhat 'colder' sound, with some of the subtler shadings of O'Conor's playing no longer distinguishable." A clearly stated subjective judgment!

I refer to these reviews not to promote Sony (who can do that quite well for themselves) but to make a point. These two players use the same "High Density Linear Converter" system, and any technical person examining the almost identical test findings cited in these reviews could reasonably conclude that no meaningful difference could exist between them. But they sound different! Heard through a good high-end system, the CDP-X77ES clearly captures more low-level ambience, reaches deeper into the nooks and crannies of the concert hall. And it should—it sells for almost twice the price of the CDP-X55ES. But why? Is there something we're not measuring—or can't measure with present techniques?

Consider amplifiers again. It was once assumed that a power supply with enough capacitance to ensure stability to 5 or 10Hz would be adequate. Now we build amplifiers with power-supply time constants of many seconds. Why? Because they sound better. Similarly, it has been assumed that the behavior of an audio amplifier above 1MHz could have no audible effect. But in "Resonances and Repercussions," HFN/RR, June 1989, Paul Miller demonstrates that RF nonlinearities can give rise to RF/AF IMD that correlates closely with perceived graininess in audio amplifiers with otherwise excellent specs.

I would admonish the objectivist camp not to dismiss the testimony of dozens of high-end reviewers and their thousands of correspondents who routinely discuss and debate (and frequently concur in) the audible merits of electronic components. Let them look for answers, as Paul Miller has. Above all, let them learn to listen. It's not facile. It takes time, practice, and patience to hear and identify the subtleties that high-enders focus on.

And I would suggest to the subjectivists that they improve their analytical and descriptive skills. Too often reviewers with backgrounds in music rather than technology perceive audible differences in detail or definition as subjective changes in tempo, phrasing, or melodic line, which no amplifier can effect, and which, expressed in print, only fuel the incredulity of the objectivists. Further, it's not good enough just to declare that blind testing doesn't work, for any of a dozen reasons. Observations among qualified listeners must be repeatable, even if it means living for days with concealed amplifiers, if the meter-method people are ever to seriously consider subjective claims.

To all of you—please, stop squabbling and look for answers.—Jerry Landis, Berkeley, CA

Fewer philosophical debates
Editor: I would hope Stereophile would publish fewer philosophical debates and more information from readers and dealers who have put together combinations of equipment that sound good to them. I admire the efforts in your reviews to suggest which components complement one another. How about a column that lets dealers explain their favorite systems?—Bill Swenson, Colfax, CA

Footnote 8: It took more than 20 years for geologists to accept the ideas of Alfred Wegener on continental drift, despite the huge body of evidence supporting it. The abandonment of basic laws was not required. Scientists are conservative. Even general relativity was slow to be accepted. Turns out it is probably not correct after all. (Can't be quantized and is not re-normalizable.)