Deeper Meanings Page 2

The book's central theme, the relationship between science and human values, is particularly appropriate to the chasm that exists between those who pursue musical truth by listening and those who pursue it through measurement. The goals of both are the same, but the underlying modes of thought are very different. In addition, the entire 412 pages of Zen could be considered an answer to Dr. Lipshitz's question: "Ah, but how do you know what is good?"

I have more than a passing interest in this question. A large part of my job—indeed, of my life—is to decide what is good and what is not good in audio reproduction. My judgments carry substantial commercial implications for the companies whose products I review. More important, my overriding mission is to steer you, the reader, toward components that are good and away from those that are not so good. In addition, my continued success as a reviewer is predicated on the accuracy of my value judgments. Clearly it is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Thus the question: "How do you know what is good?," besides being of fundamental philosophic importance, has immediate, practical significance for me and, indeed, for the entire foundation of subjective audio reviewing. It is just this question that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance resolves with profound insights into the real nature of science. I must add that the ideas expressed in this essay, far from being my own, are taken directly from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I take no credit for them other than their application here to the conflict existing in the audio community.

Let's take a closer look at how the audiophile judges quality in music reproduction (Dr. Lipshitz's "what is good?") and the audio engineering establishment's view of this process.

During the evaluation of audio components, I have frequently had the experience of switching a component in the playback system and, with the same piece of music, having a profoundly different musical perception. Where I had thought that, yes, the sound was good, after switching a component something very powerful happens. Suddenly I am more involved in the performance. My concentration is focused, not distracted by peripheral thoughts. There is an uncontrollable urge to tap my foot. There is a physical connection between my body and the energy of the performance. The "groove" established between bass player and drummer locks in. During an improvised solo I feel as though I am riding the edge of discovery with the musician, following the twists and turns with exhilaration and delight at where he or she is taking me. I am completely immersed in the music and removed from my surroundings.

The fact that the same music could produce such different experiences when a single component in the playback system is changed is a very powerful indicator of that component's quality. It is just this intimacy (or lack of it) with the music that distinguishes a good component from a great one. To reject this experience and dismiss it as "merely" subjective is to ignore the most important indicator of a product's worth that "objective" measurements will never reveal.

The superficial goal of good audio engineering practice is to provide wide bandwidth, low distortion, high signal/noise ratio, etc. In other words, good measurements. The real goal of good audio engineering is to provide a musical experience like the one I just described. It is a fundamental and tragic error to mistake the superficial goal for the real goal. Furthermore, it is commonly assumed by the audio engineering community that by achieving the superficial goal (good specs) the real goal (musical enjoyment) is an automatic consequence.

Let's look at the underlying reasons why such a powerful force—the musical experience—is not an accepted method of measuring a component's quality. Not only is the musical experience not accepted, it is considered a threat to the advancement of audio engineering, much the way astronomers view astrology. The whole field of subjective evaluation of music reproduction equipment engenders a unique and violent hostility among the scientific audio community.


First, the musical experience is not scientifically defensible because it defies measurement. It contains no matter, has no energy, and cannot be measured by any "objective" instruments. Therefore, it has no physical reality and exists only in people's minds. Furthermore, listening is antithetically opposed to a cornerstone of the scientific method: objectivity. The scientist must be detached from the event, a passive observer, so as not to become a variable in the experiment. He shouldn't care what the results are. In addition, a phenomenon under study must be quantifiable and repeatable under different conditions, with different subjects, different scientists, but with the same measurement techniques.

Clearly, the listening experience doesn't meet the criteria set forth by science to be a real phenomenon. The musical experience is anathema to the concept of the scientist as a passive observer. Indeed, the feelings produced by music break down the passive, detached, non-caring attitude demanded by the scientific method. How can one experience musical elation and be a passive observer?

The reason that listening to a piece of equipment to assess its value is the object of scorn by the AES is that the whole premise threatens their belief structure. To the scientist, there is only one path to knowledge: unwavering adherence to the scientific method. If science produces the wrong conclusions, the flaw is in the application of these methods, not the methods themselves. Consideration of any event outside the measurable and repeatable is to stray from the scientific method and thus away from the truth (footnote 6). Discrediting the musical experience is akin to saying, when truth knocks at the door, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth."

To the objectivists, the audiophile's belief that there are differences in components is nothing more than an act of faith—faith in the reality of what one hears. And we all know faith has no place in science.

Or does it?

To dismiss the audiophile's claims because they cannot be scientifically proven and to refuse to listen for oneself is just as great an act of faith—faith in the infallibility of the scientific method.

Furthermore, perhaps the knee-jerk hostility toward audiophiles stems from the mistaken belief that to give credence to an irrational (by their definition) and unscientific experience calls into question the validity of the scientific method in which they have put their faith. To accept that listening can produce conclusions about a component's quality where measurements have failed is to abandon rationality itself. Nothing could be more wrong! The exclusion of one's perception of "what is good" because it is not a scientifically defensible entity is to misunderstand the underlying role of "what is good" in the scientific method. Rather than rejecting "what is good," it should be acknowledged as the very foundation from which science grows.

The only scientifically acceptable form of listening, the blind test, requires examination.

Footnote 6: I saw several people at the conference who I know believe that amplifiers and cables sound different, yet who kept their opinions to themselves. It is very dangerous to argue scientifically indefensible positions with scientists if one wants to remain a member of the scientific community.