God is in the Nuances Page 4

Then the participants were played the same tracks on a different system, and again had to fill out the three questionnaires; and so on with the third system. The sequence of the three systems was randomized so that familiarity effects, or fatigue, could not influence the overall outcome.

After the third trial, the participants were asked to fill out, besides the three standard questionnaires, a final questionnaire asking whether they had a music system at home, what it consisted of, and how expensive the components were.

Finally, the participants were asked by the student which of the three still-unidentified systems they would buy. The student also took notes of the participants' behavior during the tests: Did they react to the music by moving their feet? Did they sit through the presentation, or did they talk or stand up while the music was playing? and so on.

The tests were not exhaustive, in the sense that further questions might have shed even more light on the subjects' response to the three systems. But, as each test took about two hours, it was felt that this was the maximum time that people without any interest in the outcome of the experiment would be willing to be subjected to the rigors of being under very close scrutiny (13 multi-page questionnaires to fill out---what a chore).

Care was taken to keep exterior factors constant. The listening room was not darkened, because it was felt that listening in a dark room would be too far outside everyday experience for most participants. It is well known that lighting conditions have an effect on people's mood (or why do you turn out the lights when you want to share a little intimacy with your partner?). To keep lighting conditions constant, the experiments were restricted to a time slot between around 10am and 2pm, which meant that only two or, at a pinch, three persons a day could be interviewed. The time of day at which each interview was conducted was noted; it will be interesting to see if there is a correlation between time of day and the results.

Giving the complete results of Jürgen Ackermann's experiment would be way beyond the scope of an article such as this one; besides, Ackermann has not yet completed his statistical analysis. But there are already some results that seem interesting enough to warrant a preliminary report (footnote 3).

Let's start with the emotional states of the participants. The participants began with a base tension level of 3.26; with the digital system this dropped to 2.35, and with the analog system to 1.75. Nervousness was raised from a base level of 1.8 to 2.2 by the digital system, but fell to 1.1 with the analog system. The need for relaxation fell from a base level of 2.6 to 1.9 with the analog system, but rose to 2.9 with the digital system. The ability to concentrate remained constant with the analog system at 4.3, but fell to 3.6 with the digital system. Relaxedness stayed constant with the digital system at 4.0, but rose to 4.6 with the analog system. This shows that the analog system worked toward a feeling of serenity in the participant, whereas the digital system heightened tension and stress.

Equally interesting was the response to the question of whether the participants liked the music they were played. With the analog system, 43 out of the 53 participants said they liked the Larry Conklin piece, 46 the baroque music, and 38 the Sally Barker piece. The music was heard as interesting, emotionally appealing, and engaging. Via the digital system, the levels fell to 31, 33, and 33, respectively. The same music was now more often experienced as boring. Food for thought.

The questionnaire asking for the listeners' experience of the music gave just as interesting results. Thirty participants sang along with the music under their breaths when it was played via the analog system, and only 19 with the digital system. Forty-seven participants said they had let themselves be carried along by the analog system, 19 with the digital system. When questioned whether the music had influenced their movements (tapping their feet, etc.), the numbers were 30 and 25. Forty-six participants had been inspired to think about the music by the analog system, 34 by the digital system. Forty-seven participants said the music had improved their sense of well-being via the analog system, 31 via the digital.

Conversely, no participant said that the analog system had impaired their sense of well-being, but 16 participants said so of the digital system! This must be one of the most astonishing, and irritating, results of Ackermann's experiment. How can it be that we spend a lot of money on something that makes us feel worse?!

The results of the "intermediate" CD/tube system were consistently between those of the digital and analog systems.

At the end of the test, the participants were asked which of the systems they would buy. Those listeners who had some experience of things hi-fi preferred the digital system, which they thought sounded better. Those participants without such experience preferred the analog system's sound. The conclusion Ackermann drew from this is that the sound of modern hi-fi is the result of a learning process. When told that a certain sound is what they should aim for, often enough people will accept this concept of sound as their internal reference.

Another inference that may be drawn from this question is that there was no correlation between what the participants experienced as good sound and which system made them feel good. In other words, the perceived quality of sound had no influence on whether the participants liked the music and its emotional impact on the listeners. One participant, a musician, even responded that he could hear absolutely no difference in sound between the presentations, yet his emotional response was very different on the three trials, and showed complete conformity with the rest of the participants.

Footnote 3: If you're interested in the complete experiment, contact Jürgen Ackermann directly: Dipl.-Psych. Jürgen Ackermann, Varrentrappstr. 51, 60436 Frankfurt/Main, Germany, tel./fax 069 709223.

dcrowe's picture

Markus Saur's article lists several effects that I have noticed myself.

1. Increased accuracy, lower distortion, and increased speed do not assure increased enjoyment of music for many listeners. Hearing things never heard before in the music is considered a sign of superior audio equipment performance [I agree with that myself], but the new things may be distractions to some listeners. My teenage son, who is a musician as well as a brilliant computer and science student, prefers the sound of his game grade headphones to my high end audiophile headphones. It is the sound he expects and it masks the limitations of the rest of the sound system he is using. I am reminded of people who prefer McDonald's to gourmet food. [my son is not one of those, he is a gourmet cook himself].
2. The sound of one Watt class triode amplifiers is preferred by some. I wonder if the electron cloud saturation of these amplifiers compresses the dynamic range so that quiet components in the music are more prominent without turning the peak sound level up to the threshold of pain.
3. I happen to prefer highly accurate playback. It enhances my enjoyment. For example, the distortions caused by wear and mis-tracking on vinyl discs irritates me. I prefer high quality digital sources. I also prefer amplifiers that have power in reserve. So I may be in a minority camp, but in that camp accuracy is in, distortion and compression are out. I can hear the forest AND the trees simultaneously, and am displeased with equipment that falls short of giving me both.