Stereophile's Writers on an Audio Quest Page 5

Sommerwerck: Let me just say something on this business: anecdotal listening is unscientific. There's no question about it. [hubbub]

Olsher: I disagree with that.

Sommerwerck: Now, bear with me a moment...

Atkinson: No, you can't get away with saying that...

Olsher: Bill, you can't say that...

Thomas J. Norton: Not here...

Sommerwerck: The point is that you want it both ways, because you said just a few minutes ago it wasn't science. Look, the point that I'm getting at is that every time I sit down to listen, I am aware that I know what component I'm listening to, that I have prejudices, that my mood varies from day to day, that I do not know the absolute quality of my source material. I am fully aware that there are dozens of uncontrolled factors in the listening that I do. And therefore even though I cannot be perfectly scientific about it, I don't just ignore everything, I try to control the things that I know that I have problems with to try to reduce their effects on my opinions.

Olsher: Science is not an issue in this business...

Sommerwerck: That's one of the problems with it.

Olsher: ...because how can science claim to tell me how I perceive a particular product? It's getting back to Bill Low's earlier point: one of the biggest myths in science is that if something exists it can be measured. Therefore, if you cannot measure something, it cannot exist.

Sommerwerck: You're twisting it around completely. One of the major problems with subjective reviewing is that people want it to remain unscientific. They don't want to prove anything. They want to remain in their ivory towers and never have any demonstration of something that is measurable.

Lipnick: Wait a second! Now I'm getting angry. Look—I'm a musician, right? My feeling is, this stuff's made to listen to, right? Okay. Now, I've got a recording that I played in, right? I was there, I know what it sounds like. I listen to it with 32 different cables. With one cable it sounds more like what I heard when I was there than with the others. I will say, "I'm not going to tell you which one is better, but my feeling is that with this cable it sounds more like what I heard when I was there than the other ones."

Atkinson: Perhaps it's compensating for everything else in your system.

Lipnick: It's possible, yes. But how can you then say one is better than the other? You cannot! You can only say, "That's my opinion. That's what I hear in this case." This is why I talked about reviews before. That when you come out with an opinion, it's important, but at the same time it may not be valid across the board. It is your opinion in that place and at that time. Now, it could change in a different situation. It could be entirely different...

Olsher: The point I was making, and to which Bill alluded earlier, was that if you claim to hear differences, there are people out there who say, "Ah! If you cannot measure those differences, they cannot exist. Therefore you're deluding yourself into believing there is a difference." That's a very serious attack on audiophiles.

Sommerwerck: That's a complete misdefinition and misinterpretation of science!

Holt: But that's the Audio Engineering Society view.

Lipnick: But they're wrong. And you know they're wrong!

Low: We all agree. [laughter]

Sommerwerck: Look, science is not a collection of facts. A good scientist is curious. He or she wants to know why. He or she wants to understand. He doesn't just want to get only a subjective opinion.

Olsher: He or she wants to get a Nobel Prize.

Sommerwerck: He or she wants to know how it works. Suppose for the sake of the argument that Lewis felt that one cable sounded better than another...

Lipnick: More accurate, not better.

Sommerwerck: Okay, "more accurate." Suppose that we could show that by a measurement that seemed to correlate with what he heard. Then we would have taken one more step toward understanding what's going on rather than simply depending only on subjective opinion.

Atkinson: You still only have anecdotal evidence. You haven't taken the next step where you do an experiment where you deliberately introduce that measured difference to see if it produces the same difference in sound quality.

Sommerwerck: Okay. But once you've collected enough data about these things, then you do that experiment later on. You don't expect to learn something instantly. You accumulate information and you work on it to build up theories in the testing.

Atkinson: Having worked as a "scientist," I'd like to agree with Dick and disagree with Bill. You can't categorize science as being "pure." People have political motivations, they're trying to preserve their status, they're even trying to get status. Sure, ideal scientists are as Bill describes them, but the reality is that they're not ideal. In practice, scientists only behave more like Bill's description when they're young. When they get to 40-45, however, they start to become more concerned about preserving their position in society. That is exactly the kind of split that you have at the moment in the AES, where a lot of the younger members are totally au fait with everything we say in Stereophile, yet those who are the establishment, the older engineers, know that everything that is said in our pages is delusion. It has to be; it is a threat to their position and therefore must be rejected.

Sommerwerck: But you're confusing the way other people behave and how we might choose to behave ourselves. Those two things have nothing to do with each other. Just because scientists are incompetent doesn't mean we have to be incompetent.

Atkinson: They're not incompetent, they're human!

Larry Greenhill: Or biased and prejudiced.

Sommerwerck: Let me give an example. A couple of years ago I reviewed a Sony Beta Hi-Fi recorder. It wasn't hi-fi. It took all the life out of the sound. I didn't have time to check into that and I have no idea what measurements would correlate with what produced that degradation of sound quality. But I assume there are measurements that would correlate with it, and I'm very curious to know what they are. I would like to see this industry as a whole make more of an effort to find measurements that correlate with what we hear, instead of having to depend as much on just subjectivity. We would see an improvement in the sound quality of products, better interfaces, and maybe lower prices.

Lehnert: That's possible. But as soon as something is proven beyond a reasonable doubt and everyone more or less accepts it, that becomes the new orthodoxy. And then something else comes up that has not been measured and that cannot be measured yet, and there you are again. There's no progress per se, no absolute progress.

Sommerwerck: Oh yes there is.

Peter W. Mitchell: Sure.

Lehnert: But there's always more to discover...

Low: Absolutely, you can't close the door.

Lehnert: But do you think it will ever get perfect?

Mitchell: I don't think it's important whether it should or not. I don't think it will, but I don't think it's important that it needs to. The point is that it gets better than it was.

Lehnert: But if we can never achieve perfection, then whatever increments we achieve will always be part of an infinite progression.

Venere 2's picture

That is some read! Nice to know that Mr. WEL is a sharp knife! Kudos to him for his perseverance, his clarity of thought, and his vision and success.

Now, if I may ask; Bill, where are my Jitterbugs? ;-)