Scientists vs Audiophiles 1999 Reisch Replies

With his July column in response from George Reisch:

If the bestseller was about the politics of audio, it would be called Audiophiles are from Mars and Pro Audio Engineers are from Venus. That's what I learned from the audio seminar I described in March's "Undercurrents." In this issue's "Letters," Gordon Emery Anderson seems to agree. As a physicist and audiophile, he's no stranger to audiophile bashing from engineers and scientists.

Still, Mr. Anderson thinks I was too easy on Jim, the seminar leader who poked fun at audiophiles. To debunk Jim's prejudice that golden-ear audiophiles are phony, he says, I should have rested my argument on my ears. Forget psychoacoustics and quantum theory—the proof is in the listening. Some cables sound different, period. Line conditioners can make a difference, period. "I trust my ears," Mr. Anderson writes, "and frankly, I trust the ears of the audiophile community as a whole. So when it comes to understanding what we hear when we listen to high-end equipment, it isn't necessary to go to quantum theory or quantum electrodynamics."

You're preaching to the choir, Mr. Anderson. I know you're right, and so do most audiophiles. I don't need or want differential equations to appreciate how much better my system sounds with my new Monster Cables. But naysayers like Jim are "living in the comfort of their own intellectual prejudice," as you say, so there's only way to reach them: make them look squarely at the allegedly "scientific" basis of their prejudice.

Telling Jim that I really do hear subtle differences—really!—among cables would play into his prejudice. To him, I'd be just another silly audiophile, and about as persuasive as new-age mystics who've "seen" auras and "heard" spirits talking through channelers. Unfortunately, that's how many pro audio engineers see us. Audiophiles claim to hear things in components and cables that those engineers think aren't there to be heard. Maybe if those prejudices are shaken, our critics will be less apt to dismiss us. Well, I tried.

Indirectly, Mr. Anderson suggests another way to build a bridge from Mars to Venus. By comparing engineering rules of thumb and complicated physical theories, he points to a traditional division in the world of physics—that between applied physicists and theoretical physicists. The two camps tend to think about scientific knowledge and where it comes from as differently as audiophiles and pro audio engineers think about equipment and sound. In fact, both divisions bear the stamp of an ancient dispute.

It's all in Raphael's famous renaissance painting, The School of Athens. As the great minds of antiquity mull about, Plato and his greatest student, Aristotle, walk through the crowd, conversing and gesticulating. With his right arm, Plato points up to the heavens. Compared to this imperfect, ever-changing world, he believed, the heavens were perfect and eternal. Studying how the planets and stars circle the world with geometric regularity and precision would train the mind properly to understand the highest abstract concepts, such as justice, goodness, and beauty. For Plato, those were the ultimate goals of knowledge.

Like any good student, Aristotle added a caveat to his teacher's pronouncements: "Not!" He insisted that the path to knowledge begins and ends at home, not in the clouds. Aristotle insisted that we study the world around us, using all the information that our senses provide. That's why Aristotle, to Plato's left, points toward the ground before him. This debate laid the groundwork for the history of Western knowledge: Plato, the rationalist, vs Aristotle, the empiricist.

Ask any physicist, "Are you an experimentalist or a theorist?" They'll know what you mean because the two kinds of work are so different. With Plato's devotion to mathematics and abstract concepts, theorists often need little more than a pad, a pen, and their mind. Experimentalists, on the other hand, are more like Aristotle. They'll spend weeks and months surrounded by instruments and machines, taking careful measurements or observing how nature behaves under conditions they've created in their labs. Not surprisingly, experimentalists and theorists sometimes poke fun at each other. (And both pay attention to whether an experimentalist or theorist wins the Nobel Prize.)