"Truthiness" in hi-fi

Stereophile has discussed the pandemic occasionally because of its relevance to our industry and our listening lives. But for the most part, I've steered the magazine away from politics and current events, and I will continue to do so. In this essay, though, I will engage, glancingly, not with politics or current events but with an idea that's drawn from them. I'm doing it to make a point about audio.

It's hard to believe that it's been 15 years since Stephen Colbert—then of The Colbert Report (pronounced in the French style)—coined the word "truthiness" to describe statements that feel true without actually being true. Colbert, in his right-wing media-figure guise, told viewers that truth "comes from the gut" and not, for example, from books. He ended the segment with a promise "not to read the news to you" but to "feel the news at you."

Writer Joan Didion was expressing a similar idea when she wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." The essay that comes from is called "The White Album." It's not about the Beatles, but it is about the culture that album arose from (footnote 1).

Colbert's segment, which became a pre–"fake-news" meme, was funny, but Colbert failed to acknowledge how deeply human the impulse he was describing is. Didion's seminal essay, which was written in the late 1970s, was more sympathetic to the human plight. For people seeking meaning and fulfillment, facts can seem cold and unwelcoming. We want our lives to feel like a coherent, meaningful story, as if it all fits together somehow. We work at that, not always consciously.

Music—including the music we enjoy at home on our audio systems—is a part of life. Many of the same considerations apply. We want our musical experiences to have meaning. We work to find ways to relate to our music, to feel connections to it. We tell ourselves stories to make our listening better.

I own a Thorens TD-124 turntable. I bought it years ago from a guy who ran the movie theater in a small Alabama town, near the small town I was born in. He got it from his father, who bought it when it was new in 1957 or '58. The father had died years before, but his listening room remained untouched until his mother passed.

As connections go, this one's kind of sad, frankly. The Thorens 'table belonged to his father, not mine. I own it only because I was able to work a slightly illicit, off-eBay deal with a stranger. (I hate auctions.) I'm a first-generation audiophile, with no childhood audio stories of my own, no memories of hanging out with my dad listening to old jazz records. It's not much of a story, but it will have to do.

In his first Gramophone Dreams column, Herb Reichert wrote about his thrift-store acquisition of a 7" single by the Animals, which helped reconnect him to vinyl. That's just one of Herb's stories; he has more than I do. Herb has since told many of his audiophile stories in these pages. Telling audio-related stories is a big part of the job of Stereophile contributors, especially columnists.

There are many kinds of audio stories. Tubes is a story. Class-A is a story. Analog is a story. Zero-feedback is a story. Each of these things has, in our minds, certain associations. Assembling an audio system is partly a matter of assembling our preferred associations into a coherent, meaningful whole we can believe in and feel good about. A story.

A life lived strictly according to fact, with no enfolding narrative, feels sterile, alienating, devoid of feeling. Stories deepen our relationships, including our relationships with our audio systems and the music they make.

It's implied, I think, in that Joan Didion quote that while there is truth in the stories we tell ourselves, our stories are never entirely true.

This is a good place to express my belief that those who would deny us our pleasure and meaning by insisting we test our listening against hardcore fact—against statistically valid listening tests and proven theories of physics—are doing a disservice to us and our hobby. Please don't try to save me from myself. I embrace this perspective consciously. I know what I'm doing.

It's true that, in audio as in life, we must do some work to remain tethered to reality. "Truthiness" is dangerous in politics, even more so in medicine. When you're choosing a treatment for a disease, I strongly encourage you to listen to scientists. When lives are at stake, do not do as Colbert satirically suggested and go with your gut. Our hobby, though, is more forgiving. We're all consenting adults; there really aren't any victims. Maybe some undeserving entrepreneur gets a little bit richer at our expense. I can live with that.

Balance is important, though, even in audio. In fact, much of the time, in audio as in other fields, science and fact are our best guides. That doesn't mean you have to give up your stories, though, to set them aside because they don't meet the criteria for strict objectivity.

I'm a scientist by training; I respect fact and evidence. I also understand that life is hard. Music is an escape. I'm sympathetic to the impulse to find ways to feel good about it. Keep your stories, but also keep your moorings.

The best way to keep your moorings, I've found, is simply to remain skeptical, in a good-humored way—skeptical, not cynical. Believe in your stories, but don't take them too seriously. Subject them to scrutiny and revise them as needed. Don't take yourself too seriously, either.

Trust your ears, but verify. If you hear something that you can't explain—some improvement, say—don't reject it outright. Instead, ask yourself, "Are you sure you heard that?" and listen again.

Or don't—it's up to you.—Jim Austin


Footnote 1: I encountered this quote in a review in The New Yorker by Rachel Syme of a podcast series called You're Wrong About, which, The New Yorker tagline says, is about "the battle between fact and feeling."

COMMENTS
cgh's picture

I am a mathematical physicist by training and a business executive by profession operating in an incredibly complex industry. Nobody dies in my world but empires or born and die impacting people, governments, and nations; so there's an undeniable litmus test for true/false, right/wrong. In avoiding catastrophe much of my work tends to be governed by the interaction two things:

1) Narrative psychology is a perspective within psychology concerned with the "storied nature of human conduct", that is, how human beings deal with experience by observing stories and listening to the stories of others.

2) Cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own "subjective reality" from their perception of the input. An individual's construction of reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behavior in the world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.

David Harper's picture

Your second axiom (if that's a correct use of the word) may be the best definition of the audiophile mind that I've ever read.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Every human being possess such "cognitive bias" - being a sorta byproduct of our mental action of acquiring knowledge & understanding through thought, experience & the senses. In other words. bias is our human nature.

So what's the problem of having "bias"?

Like it or not, if I were to marry again, I would not go for a lady with skin colour alien to mine ! So what's the problem????

Likewise for HiFI, do I give a damn to whoever's comment? NOPE!

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

Hi

HiFi is a pass-time, a leisure. Does it related to yr "physicist" "profession" at all? Sorry, I don't think so, pal.

Say, if I want to go fishing to kill my weekend, do I have to observe the protocol of the fishing "profession" in order to avoid "catastrophe" ???

Why should we keep on going around & around for such moot red herring fallacy concerning our own personal music enjoyment.

Listening is believing

Jack L

cgh's picture

That's not really my point. And I agree with you, I think, when you say that listening is believing. In fact, I've had this conversation elsewhere here, science does support things like "listening is believing" and other sensory experience when you add the observer into the equation. The brain appears to actually appreciate and like things that cost more, are coveted more, or that have more lore behind it (related to my comment on narrative psychology and why I mention it after JA2 referring to these things as a story). We like Strads more even though double-blind will choose the Zyg. It doesn't invalidate the Strad experience that the Zyg is objectively better. Ever come back from some far away place with a ton of wine or food only to wonder what you were thinking when you thought it was the best thing ever? That Tyrolean wine tasted great because you were in NE Italy at an alpine chalet when you had it first. The greatness of that bottle isn't independent from that view and that air and that cost and that travel time. When knuckleheads I know spend days gluing crystals to their listening room walls I completely believe that it sounds better for them. They are invested. Crystals and weights are a story and listening is believing. But nobody is dying here. Coffee enemas are a story too, until you need a real doctor.

This is all very well-trodden. What's interesting, and why I, and I think others, mention their scientific backgrounds, apart from it's *my* bias, is because its's a rigorous form of training that seems to guide things... until... a... certain... point. Much of the math is almost 120 years old and it clearly works because we have all this technology - computers, satellites, microwave transmitters, etc. - to support all these conversations in SP's chat section. We also relied on objective science and the same math to design the circuits, determine the parameters of the passive components, etc. etc. in these metal boxes we argue about. Ohm's Law isn't really up for debate. The interpretation of signal output through a scope isn't really up for debate - you don't want your amp falling off in the presence region and I am not going to listen for when the amp should stop working when I can write it down. The math behind those winds in that hugely heavy and expensive transformer and the associated voltage gain and magnetic hysteresis isn't really up for subjective debate. So it's all very quantitative up until this point when the human gets to legally own the thing, using their own hard earned money, or not be able to own it because they don't have the means, and at this point the math, as a rule, or simply a guide, just stops working objectively or being accepted. It's just interesting that unless you have a designer that steals a design and buys parts OEM - which happens all the time anyway - the entire apparatus is supported by measurement.

I can categorically guarantee that the combination of those two items I mention - cognitive bias and narrative psychology - has impacted you personally in matters much, much more serious than messing around with the pressure of the air molecules in your house; and not always for the better.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Yes, I agree yr above statement in making sure the parts/components so designed & installed in the apparatus will function per the measured specification. This is a must for manufacture of the apparatus. We should never dispute its importance.

But my point is: HOW does the apparatus so designed, assembled & quality controlled by measurement, will make the end-user satisfactory & to what degree of satisfaction ?

For Hifi, how does the measured specification of the audio equipment tell us HOW it would SOUND to the end-users ?? This is therefore a subjective issue to the end-users.

We are talking about 2 totally different criteria: measured specification of the audio equipment, & sound quality of the same.

Up to todate after deacdes of using the conventional standard measurement & specification so produced, of an audio equipment, bear very little relevance, if not none at all, to what we will hear.

What does an audio amp measured 0.00001% total harmonic distortion means to our ears? So does an amp measured 0.000001% distortion sound much much much better than amp measured 10% ????? Objectivists will surely agree as they ASSUME to believe measurement will tell the truth, nothing but the truth. They also assume to believe our ears will work the same way like the measuring equipment.

But I would say NAY !

Again, let me quote Cheever's audio engineering Master's thesis. He tested 2 audio power amp: one solid state amp measured total harmonic distortion 0.0005% & one tube power amp measured 5% of much lower power output. He auditioned both the amps & concluded the tube amp measured much much higher distortion sounded much better !!

His verdict was later verified & confirmed by another party using different makes of solidstate & tube power amps basing on ABX double blind tests.

So both party proved "listening is believing" !

Jack L

ok's picture

less on "pure theory" and much more on trial-and-error, pure luck that is; hadn't that always been the case, satellites and cellphones would pop out of century-old physics books in full shape with no need for experiment or evolution.

Glotz's picture

to reject the cognitive bias and like Jim stated.. listen and listen again.

After decades of active, critical listening, there is no cognitive bias... there is no bullshitting oneself... as we know now whether something is an improvement or not.

When one's wallet is on the line, it becomes required not to lie for a bias.

RH's picture

Glotz,

You seem to have a misunderstanding of how bias operates. You can't just "will" bias away like that. The nature of biases is that you tend to be UNAWARE of their presence in your thinking!

This is a significant part of why the scientific method arose as it did, with it's attempt to account for, winnow out bias, add levels of testing, double-checking by other scientists, etc.

My son was part of a study for a new peanut allergy treatment. It was a huge placebo-controlled study, which meant neither we nor the researchers were allowed to know who was receiving a placebo or the active ingredient.

This is important because the researchers know they can't just "will" that they introduce no bias in to the interpretation, can't "practice it" away. It has to be controlled for because you don't know when it's there!

Earnest people (with "wallets on the line") all over the world buy into every crazy product or idea you can think of, thinking they are being critical thinkers ascertaining truth. High End audio isn't some bubble immune from this, where consumers can will their bias away.

Glotz's picture

with critical listening regarding bias simplistic and assumptive. Moreover, you're insulting and you're trying to gaslight. You have no idea of what my scientific method is over the years or as a process to determining how I purchase, judge or listen to high performance audio. Your automatic conviction of myself being 'UNAWARE' is instantly assumptive and unfounded, given you feel that were all victims of the morass of our minds (and ears).

Your son's allergy treatment utterly inappropriate. It's a one-time process vs. 35 years of comparisons, testing, listening and judgment. And one that uses efficacy as a basis, not a complex system like a 10 piece stereo system. Using an allergy example as such shows you may not understand how bias works in audio.

You CAN will away bias. One must challenge themselves and trust others, whether they be audio consultants, dealers, reviewers or fellow listeners (and their systems which are different from others'). It takes an open mind not to judge others' systems and appreciate they bring to the table of audio performance and perception of that system or component. What one person hears from elsewhere almost always challenges one's own personal perceptions.

A great example is someone who determines that planar speakers are nowhere near as impactful as dynamic cone driver speakers (in the mid-bass and dynamics), but over time and much listening, challenging one's one benchmarks becomes second nature to audiophiles as they see the complex set of positives and negatives beyond 'impact', or any other given set of variables we previously deemed tantamount to all else. It also changes over time based on our listening tastes, from Rock only to more Jazz for instance. Those expectations about level-setting change as a result of the music we listen to over time.

We evolve our convictions of our decisions and purchases, as well as our understanding of the very observations we make as listeners.

There's a lot more, but I won't waste my time on a poster that clearly has his own obvious biases about a total stranger!

RH's picture

Well...as they say "that escalated quickly."

Your automatic conviction of myself being 'UNAWARE' is instantly assumptive and unfounded,

Actually, not knowing you at all I have no bias as to what you think. I simply made a reasonable inference from the evidence you presented in your post that you misunderstood bias. It turns out to be a justified inference, given your follow-up post.

given you feel that were all victims of the morass of our minds (and ears).

It's the human condition. Sorry for the reality check.
Yes there are types of biases that can be mitigated through training (but rarely totally removed), but the nature of bias means we are never free. For instance, if you think you can "will" away your
bias such that you'd be able to test, say, two different cables, you'd be wrong. Blind testing exists for this reason. And it's the same reason a scientific researcher who may have worked on a drug or medical therapy for years can not "will" himself to be utterly objective and without bias no matter HOW many trials he performs.
That's why there is the double-blind protocol as the gold standard.

Your characterization of how you think bias works and is mitigated seems to be fairly naive. That's not an a priori assumption - it's what your writing suggests.

There's a lot more, but I won't waste my time on a poster that clearly has his own obvious biases about a total stranger!

As you wish. But do you think your response to me was somehow "free of bias?" You seem to have assumed, in a biased way, that I was biased.

If you want to say "no I didn't assume you were biased, I inferred it from what you wrote" then that is what I did too, and thinking YOU can draw such an inference from a short post while I can not is...a clear example of bias. ;-)

Glotz's picture

You insult me and then say it 'escalated quick'.

Here's proof of your hypocrisy: "You seem to have a misunderstanding of how bias operates." This is an unwarranted attack. This is also gaslighting.

Save the rest of your insults of 'naivety'.

All of my responses were utterly free of bias, and drawing your 'inferences' are still insults, implicit or explicit.

I see how you did not address my examples or assertions above whatsoever. Save your ill-conceived, backpedaling response for those that believe your (cowardly) BS.

If Jim thinks you are acting with respect here, then he too, is wrong.

David Harper's picture

Glotz ;If everything in your post was true we would never read another review of a power cord, digital interconnect, or speaker wire. Because the bias that you "will away" would render sonic differences between these things nonexistent.

Glotz's picture

I didn't use that phrase, but responded to the accusation of it from someone else. Your last sentence makes zero sense. Reviews are done by others in the magazine, not me. They're job is to observe and review. You may have biases against them, not me. And if there is bias, I call it out.

One example that comes to mind from years ago is EL's review of the Totem Beak alongside his speaker review. I called out his bias there. A recent example is JVS's review of the Benchmark LA4 within his ARC preamp review. I felt the additive nature of the ARC preamp colored his comparison of the LA4.

And I don't need a review to purchase cables or any stereo gear. Get a return policy and make up ones own mind. Reviews are just sign posts or pointers of where to look initially.

I have worked very hard since the 80's in viewing and destroying my own biases in and around my system and elsewhere. I guess one can 'will away' by acknowledgement of bias, by observing it and addressing it - if one tries. My guess is you don't and project bias on me, as if I trust the Stereophile staff blindly. I do not.

Jack L's picture

......interconnect, or speaker wire. Because the bias that you "will away" would render sonic differences between these things nonexistent." quoted D Harper.

Bingo!

Being an addict to analogue classical music (own 1,000+ vinyl LPs). I can hear distinctly the sonic difference among audio cables. Bias or whatever, I don't give a damn !

Being an engineering DIYer as well, I design/build audio signal cables, & power cords since last decade for my audio rig & for other discerned ears.

The audio signal cables/power cords I design/built are NOT available in the marketplace yet:-

(1) 99.99% pure silver solid conductors;
(2) air dielectric (best signal dielectric next to vacuum)
(3) airtight teflon outer jacket (best dielectric next to air)
(4) No overall shield - minimizing inter-conductor capacitance.

Why pure silver conductors? Silver is the conductor with the BEST electrical & thermal conductivity on this planet !!

Pure silver cables sound so so much better than cables using copper & silver coated copper in the marketplace: Fast transient, see-thru transparent, detailed & "elegant" (only pure silver possesses such unique sonic quality.

Listening is believing

Jack L

RH's picture

Jack L,

No reason why you shouldn't follow your own bliss in how you approach your audio gear. And if by "sounds better" you mean "I have the impression of the sound being better," no argument.
Subjective experience is subjective experience.

It's moving from subjective experience to objective claims that becomes tricky.

Once you start making objective claims - e.g. that pure silver conductors "sound so much better" because it actually produces an objectively altered, and audible, change over copper...then you are in the empirical realm, upon which engineering and science can comment. At that point it's reasonable to ask for more than mere subjective impression or say-so: for instance evidence that the signal has measurably changed, and that those changes are within the audible range (and in determining audibility, how have you controlled for imagination?).

Again: no one needs scientific rigor to choose or enjoy audio gear of course. But, there can be good reasons for someone to be skeptical of your claims.

"Listening is believing"

You said a lot there. ;-)

Jack L's picture

Hi

First off, we got to understand HiFi is a passtime, a leisure. So it is therefore personal & subjective. I only "claim" what I hear.

If objectivists "claim" to qualify such passtime qualitatively, be my guest. But please make sure such objective "claim" can be verified by measurement.

The dilemma is there is NO, repeat, none objective methodology yet to measure any audio cables or conductors in term of dielectric loss etc etc. I have read enough cable conductors lab tests by big engineering firms, e.g Philips. The reports were, IMO, inconclusive.

Since no effective measurement yet available, the best approach is design/build the cables with the best available materials, in term of dielectrics, low capacitance, low DC resistance, etc etc, in order to obtain the best sonic results.

Otherwise, please school me how you so called "objectivists" would carry effective measurement before you could "claim" that my subjective sonic
"claims" are invalid.

There is a long long way to go to get effectively objective assessment of audio cable & wire. So face the music. objectivists !!

Listening, not measurement, is believing

Jack L

agb's picture

What he likes is better; what he doesn't like is objectively not as good. This proves that bias confirmation is not real. What is real is what Jack L likes.

The fact is, everything in life is measurable. Even feelings. Audio equipment - all of it - is, or should be, designed using measures and numbers - and standards of measure. Numbers can define it all, provided you have the right numbers and measures. None of this comment should be interpreted to suggest that you'll like the numbers. What you'll like are your preferences and you'll discard the numbers.

Standards, numbers, separate one from another. What is better, what is not. Now, before you jump down my throat at this wording, I didn't say one number or set of numbers. We know low distortion alone will not describe how an amplifier sounds. However, a complete set of numbers and measures will tell us much about what it might sound like. Well, you don't like how it sounds? Maybe you should look at the speaker that amp is driving. Or the cable. Or the room. Or your ears. Or the time of day.

We know we can voice a speaker such and such, make it warmer, tighter, closer, more distant, or to design an amp by putting tubes in the front end, MOSFETS at the output, because we've heard how these devices color the sound. And they do, color it. So a designer chooses to voice, color, his speaker or amp, to match the idiosyncracy of the other.

The thruthiness of all this is that we are combining the colorations of one component on top of the colorations of the next and then express our opinions about one or both. At this point all the measures will not do us much good as there are too many chefs in the kitchen. And too many ingredients with their own smell and taste, to determine what the final stew will taste like without actually having tasted it.

What this means is that the ingredients are figuratively numbers, and the stew is the result of the mix of numbers over which we have some control, but not all in combination.

It is one good reason for eliminating all the variables in a system that an integrated system can provide. And cables and wires. I speak of powered speakers here, where the manufacturer can voice the speaker as well as the electronics driving them. These often way outperform separate components at much higher prices. Subjectively speaking that is.

We audiophiles are influenced by what we like, even after 35 years of listening, by what we see, touch, and expect from a component. And then we convince ourselves by the truthiness of our observations. We might deny it - for mans' ability to fool himself is without limit.

That is why some kind of blind testing is necessary - even in audio - and even for subjective reviewers who deny the necessity for evidence.

In sum, RH is entirely correct, for one cannot bypass bias. One is only left with preference and opinion. And like anuses, we all have one.

As a great military man once said it: THE ADVANTAGE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION IS THAT IT IS FACT-BASED.

Opinion and preference is not fact based, silver plated or silver wires are not better, but they may sound better to your ears on your system in your own room at 4 PM on every third Tuesday in your own opinion. Every word following "wires" in the preceding sentence is immaterial to measurable reality.

This comment comes from a reviewer who wrote for one of the top subjective audio magazines for 15 years. Thank you for the opportunity.

Jack L's picture

Hi.

Yes, "everything in life is measurable". But HOW accurately would be the measurement TODATE !!

So tell us HOW you can measure HOW we enjoy our music??? IMO, it may take many many.... years to achieve this objective goal, pal. Simply because whatever measured in audio todate gets very little relevancy to what we hear. The dilemma is those do the audio measurement somehow do not want to admit it.

So please school me HOW YOU can measure ACCURATELY how the music sounds to our ears/brain !!

From yr above post, it shows clearly YOU don't know & love little music. Please tell me how much music software, e.g. CDs, LPs, tapes etc etc you get at home ??

Sorry to say, you talk like a music alien !

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

Hi

Nobody deny this "fact".

But audio, like wine, is something else.

FYI, what conventional audio measurement methodology since day one decades back does not come up with the correct FACT !!!!! The wrong things have been measured & unfortunately are taken for granted as the audio "fact".

So before the right things can be measured accurately, trust our ears which are far far more accurate than the wrong things are measured as "fact".

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

Hi

Please, for goodness sake, don't open yr big mouth on cable technology which you sound so alien to it.

To prove you know something about cable science, please tell me what
physics related to a signal conductor ??

FYI, I've been dealing with design/build of electric conducting cables for decades professionally & leisurely. Obviously you don't know my electrical engineering background & 3 decades experience in the electrical power industries.

Listening, not mere measurement, is believing

Jack L

agb's picture

I appreciate your rapid fired three comments to my single one, with the caveat that those who shout the most often and shout the loudest tend to be the, excuse my French, the wrongest.

This generally translates not just to audio, but everything else in human experience. In other words, it is not knowledge, but character we speak of.

Yours and others' electrical engineering and background is what I have critiqued at the Absolute Sound and others, for decades, and as a professional reviewer and consultant to several audio companies. In other words, what a good reviewer does is first, debunks Tice Clocks and green ink. Those who have not taken that route - most - are not as good as they think.

The biggest mistake a military planner can make is to underestimate the enemy. Worse, to go into a war prepared only with feelings, not weapons and a plan. Pretty much what you are doing.

It doesn't impress us reading your self-serving rants about what you feel or know. Nor are we interested in your background, unless you've provided this industry with products that have excelled. Because in this industry, only excellence matters.

Have you?

I never said numbers describe the music we are hearing. Those are YOUR words.

I said that we can measure the performance of equipment fully, either with what we have now, or will have in the future. You have not provided a counter to that reasonable assumption.

I said everything can be measured, including emotions.

And it is YOUR emotional response to music of which you speak so fondly. Since your emotional response is measurable - and we do such measures daily - we can measure your response to music as well.

What we can also measure, is the range AND sensitivity of your hearing, but we cannot measure opinion and fantasy. The last two are intimately related. Which brings us to the self-evident:

One can deny reality, but one cannot deny the consequences of reality. Science is never settled. It moves on.

We had NTSC for decades, it sucked, and now we have 8K and panel TVs that measure over 80" diagonally. Audio tech moves in the very same direction, because the two digital technologies are essentially the same or similar. One audio, the other imaging. Both use sensors and conversion to digital.

I don't have to prove to you my experience or knowledge about cable science - or for that matter, anything else not part of this discussion. I had made no comment about cable science, so I don't need to answer to it.

The burden of proof is for you to address, since it is you who've repeatedly attacked sensible people on this blog and made claims for which you have provided no scientific support to prop up your Aesop's fable.

Listening, and not measurement, is believing, you say.

Do you know how many experiments have demonstrated that listeners can easily be fooled? Bob Carver did it to the staff of Stereophile and others. And he can do it again. So can I.

You see, the audio arts, and politics too, is like magic.
You are most often watching the hand that's moving.

What about the hand that is not?

Jack L's picture

.....about cable science" quoted agb

Sorry to tell you: you forgot so conveniently what you just posted in yr first post to me:
"silver or silver plated wires are NOT BETTER..."

I already stated very clearly the physics behind my choice of pure silver wire: silver is the conductor of lowest electrical & thermal conductivity on this planet. Obviously you failed to read carefully before you made such erroneous comment, showing you know so little if any at all, about cable science.

Besides electrical & thermal conductivity of the metal used in building an audio cable, other cable properties, e.g. DC resistance, AC inductance, capacitance, insulation dielectric etc etc are scientific factors to be considered.

That said, with all these above measurements done, it can never tell us how a pure silver cable vs non-silver cables would sound to our ears. So
like it or not, only our ears can tell TODATE !!!

Yes. as you comment correctly, science advances. We are talking about the audio measurement technology TODATE, not 100 years later.

Jack L

PS: vous comprenez le francais?

Jack L's picture

.......and a plan. Pretty much what you are doing." quoted agb

Your quick & easy ASSUMPTION again.

FYI, I am an audio engineering DIYer. I've design/built/upgraded audios for last 2-3 decades: phonostages, linestages, power amps, all with TRIODES only, pure 99.99% pure silver & silver plated oxygen-free copper audio cables & power cords, loudspeakers, etc etc on technical & sonic ground.

So I think I am pretty prepared to go into this audio "WAR" with all the "weapons" needed: engineering knowledge, handy-man tools & experience, & critical ears, backed up by my addiction to analogue classical music.

So in return, what can you tell us what "weapons" you got to go into this audio "WAR" ???

Listening is believing

Jack L

ok's picture

..of prescription drugs and never failed to be amazed by the fact that their celebrated "rigorously tested scientific background" in most cases translates to zero therapeutic efficacy.

RH's picture

ok,

Your anecdotal experience has me convinced. I'm going to throw out my peanut-allergic son's epinephrine pens. We were duped in to thinking they could save his life during an anaphylactic reaction. After all, what has science learned about the immune system? Forget the covid vaccine too, just a bunch of scientists groping in the dark.

;-)

ok's picture

..once or twice amidst an ocean of con artists, wasted money and endangered natural health; fair enough I guess. As far as I know seasonal flu and commom cold are still at large in spite of all the recurring vaccines, ridiculous precautions and con medicines.

RH's picture

I'm unclear: are you blaming science for not having a knock-down vaccine for the flu, or for the common cold?

Are you familiar with why a vaccine for both of those are particularly challenging? And of course, there are efficacious vaccines for the flu. Not as efficacious as the mrna COVID vaccines, but given the challenges for a flu vaccine, very useful!

teched58's picture

Every one of these turgid essays seem to be sub rosa justifications for why measurements should not be the be all and end all. OK, we get it. Point made.

You've been EIC for several years now. Stereophile is the top consumer-facing pub in the audio industry. Why don't you write about something related to that? Give us some of the insight you've acquired. Talk about speakers, DACs, amplifiers. Anything, other than the same old. same old.

Rant off. Thanks for listening.

Jack L's picture

......... Zero-feedback is a story." quoted J Austin.

Sorry. tube, class A, zero-feedback NFB are NO story at all. This is physics.

Like every audio fan, I went thru the 'promising' digital era & switched to tubes for better musical sound a few years back. I would never look back. I know I have done the right thing musically.

Tube is not a "story". Tube, I mean only Triode, is the only linear active device available for audio use. Why? Only triode gets a full set of 100% linear signal transfer curves. Other gain devices, e.g. tubes like pentodes, tetrodes; bipolar junction devices, e.g. transistors, FETs, operation-amp chips, all get NON-linear signal transfer characteristics with a full set of signal transfer curves bent off by a kink or "knee" !!! That's explain why music sound unpleasant when driven to overload momentarily. My critical ears approve only triodes, period.

Class A is not a "story". All voltage gain stages of preamps & power amps work at class A. Class A amplification is to amply the ENTIRE music signal at the same time. Or "Full time".

But power output stage of an audio amp also operates other modes or classes beside Class A, i.e.: Class AB1, AB2.. Class B & Class C where the music signal is amplified its different part NOT at the same time like Class A. The purpose is to improve the efficiency of the amplification to increase the output power bigtime vs Class A. The downside is of such amplification timing breakups of the same music signal will cause 'cross-over' distortion, pretty unpleasant to critical ears. My ears approve only Class A amplification. To be more exact: single ended class A. Zero cross-over distortion. USD125,000 Audio Note Japan 'Kegon' 17W+17W single-ended Class A power amp used only triodes.
It is so far the best sounding commercial audio amp I ever auditioned though its harmonic distortion level was MEASURED much higher than most most solid state power amp!

Analogue is not a 'story'. It is for real music! Digital music is a conversion from analogue (sinewaves) to digital (1010 like square-shaped waves) to then back to analogue. However highest sampling rate of the back conversion to analogue, square-shaped waves can NEVER ever restored to its analogue waveform 100%. This physics !!

How can one get back the original cake after eating it ? My critical ears confirms it.

ZERO negative feedback NFB is not a 'story'. This is physics.

Negative feedback, historically, has been used by designers of any audio amps manufacturers to improve the specification of the products: straighter frequency response, much lower harmonic distortion, noise level etc using sinewaves & squarewaves, which are NON-musical signals.

IMO, this is some 'WHITE WASH' tactics to cover up the defects of the designs to fool the consumers at large by presenting some superb specifications using static test signals which get nothing to do with the dynamic music signals the amps are designed to process. IMO, this is cheating !

Critical ears, like your truly's, can detect the sonic defects of negative feedbacks built in an audio amp when playing with music signals.

To sum up, ALL my design/build of phonostages, linestages, power amps were/are/will use only triode tubes, single-ended class A & zero negative loop feedback. No fairy tales. This is physics. Thanks for my addiction to classical music (1,000+ vinyl LPs), backed up by my electrical/electronic engineering background & decades' experience in the power engineering industries.

Listening is believing

Jack L

agb's picture

This follows my earlier today. I would not have bothered until I received Jack L's three rapid fire putdowns to my earlier post about measurements. But nothing as inane as the title of his...

1. Tubes are a story, says he. Many of us in the game had many tube preamps and amps that were soundly beaten by competing solid state preamps and amps, sonically AND technically. Sometimes vica versa. Some people prefer oranges to bananas. That's the story.

2. Class A is a story says he. Many of us in the game had on hand several class-A amps, some good, some better, and later class AB and even class D amps that were better yet. Some people prefer Porches, other Mercedes AMGs. That's the story.

3. Analog is a story, he writes. That's about it, I have nothing to add to the analog story, except that my very large 50 year widely curated LP collection is sitting packed in moving crates in my basement. They used to take up entire walls of my listening room in bookcases, now I have genuine art to have replaced them.

4. Streaming as a story too, and that's the story that's winning.

It is unfortunate, or fortunate, depending on the various sentiments among audiophiles, that a $450,000 turntable may not be the best investment one might make among alternatives. One can of course justify the sentiment for buying such a set up - and then try to prove with mere words why a half million dollar analog system will trounce a $13,000 DCS DAC, but then one can justify any sort of delusion and scam too. One reviewer here makes a living doing just that.

That too is a story on its own that will open a Pandora's Box. But ultimately, one story will hold the bag, as in after a bad buy on stocks for a business that has gone belly up the next day. The other story will walk away with $450,000 in his pockets that he will double in less than two years. Way after the $450,000 investment spinning an off center LP that cannot possibly reproduce a piano or any steady-toned and tuned instrument - has been obsoleted. And then put it up for sale to the shipping industry for $25,000.

As a boat anchor.

And that, will be another story retold for ages in the yachting business, by drunk sailors playing strip poker.

This story comes from a man whose entire collection of LPs are off center, are slightly or severely warped, and all of which are filled with noises not even categorized by earthling science. Every LP ever made is off center, bar none, and none of them can produce a steady tone.

A man who lives right next to one of Europe's finest opera houses, hearing live performances through open windows regularly, the world's finest music academy a block away at which he is a frequent guest for master classes, and who has among three Steinways, two grands back to back, and a Kawai in his homes in the US. That's his story.

For this comment I refer you to The Absolute Sound December issue P48. Which makes it clear that anyone who is even remotely familiar with a piano and the sound of the live, especially meaning a musician who does know live music far more intimately than those who don't, will have serious reservations before plunking down change on an analog system much better set aside for charity. That too is a story that will hang around the neck of the analog fan like the aforementioned boat anchor.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Please school me HOW you would "verify" our aural perception.

Please don't tell me you would use conventional bench measurement using sincewaves/squarewaves which bears very little, if not zip, to realtime music signals which all audio amps are designed to process !!!

Listening is believing

Jack L

mememe2's picture

Have made this request before but no sites on Daily Audiophile seem to want to publish it in their comments section. I'll give it another go. Why don't the reviewers (of all the audio publications) have a yearly test of their hearing by an audiologist and, more importantly, have the results published by their respective publications. What is the big deal about this that no one does it? I thought transparency was one of the goals of the high end?

tonykaz's picture

Take it for granted, hearing starts tapering off below 80hz and above 8khz at age 65 or earlier. No exceptions!

Can taper off by 8db or more at both ends.

A person's synapses, nervous system and Brain will attempt to make corrective programming changes.

Stage musicians are impacted at much lower ages.

Hearing aids are EQ devices with In- Ear Monitors.

Stereophile reviewers are presenting opinions ( useful opinions ) based on decades of industry experience.

John Atkinson presents facts.

Readership subscribers might extrapolate from published concepts but probably get differing results base on purchase and system variables.

Hearing tests for everyone writing won't be of use to subscribers, we can't agree on anything!

Tony in Venice

John Atkinson's picture
mememe2 wrote:
Why don't the reviewers (of all the audio publications) have a yearly test of their hearing by an audiologist and, more importantly, have the results published by their respective publications.

While you are correct that reviewers at other magazines/webzines don't publish their hearing test results - why give people a stick to beat you with - both Kal Rubinson and I have done so at Stereophile.

It's been 5 years since I last had a formal test, though those tests only go up to 8kHz. However, I perform an informal test with every loudspeaker I test. At age 72, my hearing sensitivity still extends to 13.5kHz at normal sound pressure levels. I also have a slight dip in sensitivity in the presence region, though it still falls within the bounds of"Normal" hearing.

But what matters more than hearing sensitivity to people reading reviews is listening ability. When I joined Stereophile, the magazine's founder J. Gordon Holt had a high-frequency sensitivity cutoff around 11kHz. Yet he was the most perceptive listener I knew.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

dbtom2's picture

Good people all.

"Music is an escape."

"Please don't try to save me from myself. I embrace this perspective consciously. I know what I'm doing."

Exactly.

Thanks for reminding me why I read Stereophile.

T.

tonykaz's picture

It's rather all-inclusive and even exclusionary, isn't it?

I like it and agree.

But, you might be a little short of empathy for the folks that own ( or buying ) Transducer systems with lowish efficiencies that demand gigantic & flexible Power Amplification. For them: there is no such thing as too much amp power at low impedances.

People love owning big glitzy Mono amps and the giant wire connecting everything.

People with the big rigs are far up the Caste rankings, aren't they? Which rig owner is tops? WAAM or IRSv5 ?

I'm personally Solar Powered ( eating only Cheeseburgers ), my bicycle is Solar Powered getting 10miles per cheeseburger, soon my music will be Solar Powered ( low powered Class A probably ). Even my digital music memory is Solar Powered.

I'm trying to be a good person.

Tony in Venice

Jack L's picture

Hi

Keep up yr green powering !!!

Jack L

kshekar's picture

Very much appreciate you writing this – essentially a philosophical take on how to approach the hobby. It aligns very well with my perspective, and feels like a breath of fresh air.

It is a hobby. If you are not getting joy out of it – and that joy can be multi-faceted from sound quality, to aesthetics, to the origin story of a given gear – then perhaps the approach is off kilter. I appreciate that we recognize it's ok to have an objective function that can incorporate great sound, but may not solely have measurements as what to solve for.

Matt Ruben's picture

We all have "enfolding narratives" we use to interpret facts - no one is disputing that, and to characterize those who put stock in measurements as living without such narratives (or as claiming to live without them) is just another instance of Jim Austin's chronic strawmannirg whenever he wades into this particular topic.

More concerning, though, is that the problem with much of the gear that gets praised by Austin and others in Stereophile is that the narrative doesn't "enfold" the facts but rather *contradicts* the facts. It's the credulity towards implausible claims - in the name of "listening for oneself" - that is the problem here, and blaming objectivist boogeymen won't change that.

Time to put on another record, Jim - this one isn't any good and you've played it to death.

JHL's picture

...that "the narrative doesn't "enfold" the facts but rather contradicts the facts" cuts both ways*, the question is what *are* measurements.

Near as I can see they're abstract snippets of certain behaviors, listed one after another, with simple loudness linearity being given high primacy.

The Measurements, as loudness linearity is very commonly termed, is an enormous misnomer. There is no The Measurement anywhere in audio indicative of a bone fide sonic Q factor that jumps off the page and onto the listeners shopping list or into his ear.

*Which is the more offensive metric: That measurement bias rules all as the objective assessment, or that the ear does, as the point of the whole affair. And if the ear is unreliable, why is the pleasure assumed to arise from a simple chart so important, even to the point of it being used to submit the other guy's considered opinion to it or else?

ok's picture

..is actually a good measurement.

Archimago's picture

"a bad measurement that sounds consistently good is actually a good measurement"

But that statement is incomplete. It should really be:

A bad measurement that sounds consistently good is actually a good measurement for me.

The nature of subjectivity is that it is also at once personal. Nobody denies that. Nor that we all have stories built from personal experiences. How far and wide they're shared, and how much we value those stories are another matter. :-)

ok's picture

by saying that I agree I'm rendering my statement a little more objective :-}

michaelavorgna's picture

"Sounds ... good" is a subjective statement making "for me" superfluous.

"That tastes good! For me."

Happy Holidays Archimago

David Harper's picture

I'm pretty sure your statement "a bad measurement that sounds good....." describes my experience with the maggie LRS speaker. From what I've read these speakers measure very badly in most respects. But they sure sound good to me.

DH's picture

Yep, no on need to save you from yourself in audio, and no one should try - it's not life and death.

But it's a straw man argument - the problem is when you claim what you hear in sighted/biased listening has some kind of general application to all of audio or to what other will hear - it doesn't.

So listen to whatever and however you want - just don't claim what you are "hearing" actually exists outside your own perceptions/bias.
Your comparative listening and conclusions about playback/equipment has no meaning for anyone but yourself in these situations, and isn't a "true" basis for recommendations/conclusions.

That's the problem a lot of those you complained about have.

Herb Reichert's picture

is a brief outline of why science, like literature, is a socio-cultural construct:

https://www.nature.com/articles/42342-c2

It states, "Predictive success is, of course, a vital measure of the merit of bodies of knowledge, and an important cause of their acceptance or rejection."

For me, the main question is always: which body of knowledge – art or science or religion for example – best 'mirrors' our (all humans – not just Europeans) experience of the world?

hr

Lars Bo's picture

I agree, Herb - truth of facts and things, moral rightness, and aesthetic authenticity all have a singular, irreducible body of knowledge.

So, I have a story:

Organized sound is a common definition of music. Hifi is as much about the organisational part as the sound in itself.

There's certainly more science to hifi than to music, but there's more art than science to good hifi.

While correlation between the measured and the heard isn't obvious, grave measurable flaws, too, seldom play well.

JHL's picture

Science is a temporary state of affairs produced by whim or selection and is therefore subject to endless error. Not in what it knows; in what it thinks it knows and what that portends.

This then means that using science as a quasi-conscious authority possessing will and intent - BUT SCIENCE SAYS! - is about as dangerous an endeavor as exists.

Science is thus wholly capable of the greatest human travesties imaginable, which tends to say something about its presumed objectivity.

RH's picture

^^^ That is one of the most misleading and ignorant things I've seen someone write about science on this site (or, most other places).

Wow.

JHL's picture

...it's exactly right. It won't be appealing to the standard armchair take on "science" - which is that it is virtually complete and unimpeachable at any given time - but it's still true.

Science is a *current state of knowledge*, one that like history, is written by the status quo at the time. It *may* be completely correct as far as it goes, but it has zero guarantee of being complete or free from institutional bias.

Wiki: "Science (from the Latin word scientia, meaning 'knowledge') is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe."

Typically, knowledge is simply incomplete and knowledge is compounded in that incompleteness by simple human behavior. This is absolutely true for audio.

You've fallen into the standard false dichotomy where audio science is perfected and witness subjectivity is automatically fraud.

RH's picture

No it's not "exactly right" to say that science is "produced by wim." It's close to the opposite insofar as "whim" won't cut it: any hypothesis has to go through the crucible of testing and double-checking, coherence with other reliable scientific knowledge, etc. So the "whimsical" is what is weeded out!

It's also bizarre to say that science is "subject to endless error" is what Daniel Dennett would term a "deepity." It is either wrong in the wider profound sense, or right but in a trivial sense.

Science doesn't create endless error, given science has gotten so much right. If you simply mean that the scientific endevour will always ALSO contain errors, after all it's a human endevour...well whoop-de-do, that's about as obvious and unenlightening a claim as one could possibly write.

So what? If you make a claim, we talk about the evidence for or against it. The fact that science can contain error or scientists aren't armed with omniscience is a red herring. And it's the red herring typically thrown out by people trying to justify dubious claims, because "science doesn't know EVERYTHING you know, and scientists have been wrong before!" Join the endless line up of crack-pots saying the same thing, if that is actually what you are wanting to say.

"You've fallen into the standard false dichotomy where audio science is perfected and witness subjectivity is automatically fraud."

No, that is a strawman that jumped fully formed out of your imagination.

But we've been here before...

JHL's picture

Your comment is quite leading. Let's review:

"No it's not "exactly right" to say that science is "produced by wim."

But I said whim *and* selection, meaning simply that one must first decide to investigate whatever one investigates. That's entirely self-evident and correct. In audio, an amplitude response - being raw, objective and therefore ostensibly scientific data - simply is not sufficient to predict behavior. It is *a* behavior and when it's abused, it interferes with knowledge. Therefore the premise that "science" is decided upon is quite correct: We do not know what we do not know, and we know what we know only when we know it.

"...any hypothesis has to go through the crucible of testing and double-checking, coherence with other reliable scientific knowledge, etc. So the "whimsical" is what is weeded out!"

You're conflating two different things (which I point out deeper in this thread). Your crucible - which is a flowery term alluding to a presumption of a complete knowledge which we never arrive at - is produced by a decision and followed by that guaranteed incompleteness. See the example of the speaker.

"It's also bizarre to say that science is "subject to endless error" is what Daniel Dennett[*] would term a "deepity." It is either wrong in the wider profound sense, or right but in a trivial sense."

I don't know what you mean - obviously knowledge is fragmented and subject to revision. We've already seen how presuming its not leads to error.

"Science doesn't create endless error, given science has gotten so much right."

Are you prepared to condition that assertion by saying that science - to which you've already given the equivalent of a tacit intent when it has precisely none - because it "has gotten so much right" is flawless, where flawless means utterly complete and uniform and consistent?

It isn't, obviously:

"If you simply mean that the scientific endevour will always ALSO contain errors, after all it's a human endevour...well whoop-de-do, that's about as obvious and unenlightening a claim as one could possibly write."

I see you're giving yourself an escape clause. Science is not unlimited, just your opinion of it's potential is, no?

*That's* the flaw in the formulation, the fatal one that always prefaces these pointless Science versus Snake Oil battles. Science *is* impeachable in it's human factor, says you finally.

"So what? If you make a claim, we talk about the evidence for or against it. The fact that science can contain error or scientists aren't armed with omniscience is a red herring."

Hardly. It's exactly the disclaimer that in audio, for one example, must accompany the work. Science is simply incomplete and what science exists must, if it hews to its very dictionary definition, be both ongoing and without an implied intent. It's not conscious, after all. Intent and behavior is what we project onto it.

"And it's the red herring typically thrown out by people trying to justify dubious claims, because "science doesn't know EVERYTHING you know, and scientists have been wrong before!" Join the endless line up of crack-pots saying the same thing, if that is actually what you are wanting to say."

You're incensed. I think that's because you worked your way into a corner and now defend that position by name-calling.

I'd said: You've fallen into the standard false dichotomy where audio science is perfected and witness subjectivity is automatically fraud.

"No, that is a strawman that jumped fully formed out of your imagination."

Yes, it is fully-formed but it's simply an observation of how this debate generally goes. You have made two approximate claims: That science is flawless - except where you allow it to be flawed, somehow - and that snake oil is the opposite dynamic.

Both are wrong and saying so is just not a fallacious argument. Or do you have a third way?

I'd like to see where science has built a perfect tool to predict the quality of reproduced sound. Is there one? Of course not. And yes, we have been there before.

*Dennett is many things, the most impressive to me being his rebuke of postmodernism. Obviously reality is not open to interpretation, although every mind will necessarily interpret it. In no way does any yearning for knowledge produce all knowledge, RH, which is why even for the sacred sciences a philosophy of truth must first lead. Assuming a purported desire for knowledge is absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that it'll emerge or that we have it.

RH's picture

"Your crucible - which is a flowery term alluding to a presumption of a complete knowledge which we never arrive at"

No. Again, this is literally a strawman leaping from your imagination to the page. NOWHERE did I even IMPLY that we have or ever arrive at "complete knowledge."

I pointed out it was OBVIOUS that science, being a human endevour, will contain error and that of course no one is omniscient. That entails any empirical knowledge is provisional - understood to possibly be in error and therefore open to correction or revision should new evidence or better theories arise. And nowhere is this acknowledgement of human error and the provisional tentative nature of knowledge more explicitly acknowledged, in theory and built in to the practice, than in science.

So for instance, scientifically, it is understood that your computer will work in a way that does not violate the first law of thermodynamics. This is an extremely reliable claim. However, as no one is omniscient it is always part of a scientific claim that it "could be wrong" - there may be something yet to learn about that area of physics. But the theory as it stands is so fruitful and reliable in it's predictions that you better bring very strong evidence if you are going to contradict or revise it. So scientists try to scale their confidence levels with the quality of evidence they have for any proposition, but are by the nature of the project, understanding they don't have the whole picture.

You have made two approximate claims: That science is flawless -

NO! That is a strawman! It is your tiresome strawmanning that sunk previous conversations.

except where you allow it to be flawed,

"allow it to be flawed?" Science simply has flaws! It's a human project. Science is simply our most rigorous way of ATTEMPTING to reduce error and bias, and arrive at reliable (but provisional) knowledge. It's not perfect; it's simply the best we have.

Science can get some things "right" (in the sense I've discussed) and somethings "wrong." Your bizarre complaint about me pointing this out amounts to "Look, science is either PERFECT or FLAWED, you can't have it both ways!" But of course nobody is trying to have it both ways. Science is "flawed" in the sense scientists can be wrong, that's just trivially true. But to say "science is flawed - that is not perfect" is NO ARGUMENT in support of any particular empirical claim you'd want to make! Like I said: either you have good evidence and theory, of the type that produces reliable knowledge, or you don't.

"somehow - and that snake oil is the opposite dynamic."

Well, yes, snake oil tends to arise from, if not an opposite dynamic, a warped dynamic. It tends to arise from having a hypothesis that doesn't go through the crucible of checking that the typical scientific hypothesis must endure. That's why "snake oil" tends to derive from fringe ideas and claims where someone dreams up a phenomenon, or an explanation, that hasn't been vetted in a carefully rigorous manner, or survived checks or endorsement by the relevant experts.

If it's actually part of our established science or engineering, it is by definition not "snake oil."

JHL's picture

"NOWHERE did I even IMPLY that we have or ever arrive at "complete knowledge."

Then we agree that knowledge is incomplete from which it's no stretch to conclude that it flows in fits and starts depending on the human variable.

"I pointed out it was OBVIOUS that science, being a human endevour, will contain error and that of course no one is omniscient."

Actually *I* pointed that out to which you promptly lit your hair on fire about snake oil and profound ignorance because, I suppose, you like to argue on the Internet. Said it was one of the most misled notions you'd ever seen (not that you'd ever be given to rhetorical extremes like that when taking liberties with others). By the way, you really should go back to Herb's link and take that up instead.

[Two paragraphs of pedantry snipped.]

"NO! That is a strawman! It is your tiresome strawmanning that sunk previous conversations."

Well, no: I'd said: You have made two approximate claims: That science is flawless ... *and that snake oil is the opposite dynamic*, that last part which you promptly edited out. I said that, RH, because you attacked a perfectly valid view of the sciences (before allowing your own version of the same view) *after* titling that attack with the very words *snake oil*.

"...'allow it to be flawed?' Science simply has flaws! It's a human project."

Gosh. Thank you. I guess that capitulation is something, following your original attack thereof.

[Copious pedantry and back-filling snipped.]

"Well, yes, snake oil tends to arise from, if not an opposite dynamic, a warped dynamic."

As you see it, and as you initially projected it when faced with a view of science that while you won't allow it from me and others, matches your own eventual capitulation, more or less. In other words, and I quote: "...no wonder snake oil sells!" emphasis yours. In fact, those were your very first words.

Incidentally, here we see that same tension played out: There is Science - which is always assumed to be used as a cudgel - and over there are the unwashed and all the snake oil. And we desperately need our snake oil police, QED.

Let's recap for the last time: Snake oil is somehow the inevitable product of - or at least the lead-off harassment thereto - a reasonable and even agreeable view of the inherent vagaries of science, science that while being necessary in engineering equipment, in audio has yet no comprehensive or apparent talent for predicting the authenticity of reproduced sound. And we know this simply because we know this.

And lastly:

"If it's actually part of our established science or engineering, it is by definition not 'snake oil.'"

Well no. The misapplication of presumptions about so-called science by the armchair critic and scientism-ist - my original word - may be the most harmful, snake-oily thing to happen to the pursuit of genuinely authentic, thrilling, immersive, realistic sound on the market.

That is correct: Arguing on the internet while armed with a graph is just that. It is no more than that. It is neither science or good sound.

I think that's an entirely fair and reasonable premise when the option to such a pervasive bias is simply to go bloody well audition the gear or the systems of gear. Because any listener knows that is the final and only proof.

Like engineering, science is one thing. Faith in snippets of it is completely another.

RH's picture

"capitulated?" (When I started out with the very stance I describe?)

"escape clause?" (For simply writing that science can arrive at reliable, provisional knowledge but isn't, of course, perfect?)

And this..?

"You've fallen into the standard false dichotomy where audio science is perfected and witness subjectivity is automatically fraud."

Neither of which accurately represents what I have written in my responses to you. (Audio science is not perfected, and subjectivity clearly plays a central role - it's the "subjective experience" that audio engineering is seeking to satisfy. Listening, correlating what we hear to guide the engineer's design to get the result he wants, is clearly part of the process).

Yet again, I can not debate with the shadows dancing in your imagination that have taken place of what I've actually written. This is like trying to have a conversation with someone hallucinating.

Farewell...

JHL's picture

I'll agree with you on one thing, RH: As another poster just observed, your stuff is somewhat pointless. For example:

"Neither of which accurately represents what I have written in my responses to you."

And yet I summarized your first remark in which you attacked the notion that science was perpetually influenced by human interest and you ignored it. Now you've camped out owning my notion, mad as hell at my pointing *that* out.

And this:

"(Audio science is not perfected, and subjectivity clearly plays a central role - it's the "subjective experience" that audio engineering is seeking to satisfy.)"

Here you conflate the subjectivity of the sciences - as opposed to the objectivity of the scientific method and that objectivity's result - with subjectivism in actually using audio. They're certainly not the same thing, and I have no idea why they'd be conflated.

"Yet again, I can not debate with the shadows dancing in your imagination that have taken place of what I've actually written. This is like trying to have a conversation with someone hallucinating."

Actually it's neither debate nor is your interlocutor not bringing completely valid points: Science is what I said in my original post. You found this observation the most incredible thing ever...before you went on to own it as yours. To you now I'm somehow inventing what's clearly in those posts in black and white.

The Settled Science, as a social *belief* built on the thin air of conventional wisdom and oceans of fallacy, is very commonly bullsh*t. We all know that. The valid scientific method, on the other hand, is a partial, changing view of pieces of reality. This is also self-evidently true. And the armchair audio experience owes precious little to audio's version of those settled sciences, especially when they are projected assertions also based on scant comprehensive evidence. (In fact, there there is virtually no correlation at all, save that created by a leading bias, interestingly, where some find that a certain measurement must necessarily create a certain sound.)

Meanwhile *engineering* hinges on good science, which is to say, it hews to various abstracts that appeal to the bench, the eye, and the accepted or acceptable theory of operation, behavior, and phenomenon.

Restart with a valid definition of science, RH, and another of scientism. Bad science is just as harmful in armchair audio as it is in conventional wisdom, they being one and the same. Audio is not privileged to escape the vagaries of human whim and selection, to say nothing of our darker motives.

agb's picture

The long comment to which I reply here is pointless. We always speak from the point of reference: what we know as of today. What we will discover - the knowledge - is never complete. For we will discover more going forward.

Given former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld's explanation with respect to the War on Terror - not verbatim: "We know what we know. We don't know what we don't know. And we don't know what we don't know we don't know."

Ayn Rand put it another way, so I assume the two knew each other, they just didn't know everything there is to know about each other.

Rand said: "There are only two kinds of knowledge. That which we know and that which we will discover." There's nothing in between.

Ronald Reagan, who did know both, said it another way, again, not verbatim: "They know everything that isn't so." He was speaking about his political adversaries.

Which leaves me off with the only thing we all know.

That is SETTLED SCIENCE.

It's been settled in Kenya, while the man was wearing an Empty Suit while sitting in his Empty Chair, after which he sat down in a field of daffodils for his presidential portrait. That science too, has been settled by the consensus of this man's fans and no one else with a half a brain. It goes like this:

Since February-March of 2020 through September of 2020, global industry and commerce have arguably come to a halt. Flights have been grounded by up to 90%, cruise lines 100%, shipping and freight up to 60%, office buildings across the world by 90%, manufacturing by up to 50%, sports, theater, concerts 100%, road travel 50% or more, and all human activity other than eating, sleeping and PORNHUB, have ground to a halt by a large unknown percent.

Meanwhile global warming has accelerated dramatically, this November it was 7F higher than last year's on the East Coast, where we predict the world will end by next Thursday the latest. We're done for, stick a fork in us.

I am awaiting an explanation from the warming fans for the above. I will hold my breath until that explanation will have arrived. This time hoping for one that has some evidence so far missing from the warming narrative.

The suspected purpose of which, some say, is to part you from the contents of your wallet and control what you think and how you think it. This means that warming, which is natural for the most part (with only man missing from the "man-made") having everything to do with it.

So what is the answer to all of mankind's troubles?

It is this:

We need a new power conditioner and AC that puts out the right voltage. As for California, its great governor has mandated that all cars will be electric by the year 2035; and California will have electricity by the year 2035.

And these are the points we have settled in Settled Science 101.

mememe2's picture

If a reviewer's hearing drops off at 11KZ, why should we believe his assessment of a speaker that actually goes to 20khz? Because he perceives it? That sounds a lot like a cult religion. Knowing the limits of a reviewers hearing doesn't give anyone a stick to beat them with. But it does give them an insight into the reviewers honesty. How can a reviewer tell us that a component produces more "air around an instrument" when he can not hear the full range of that instrument. Tony writes - "Hearing tests for everyone writing won't be of use to subscribers, we can't agree on anything!" That's a cop out. Hearing tests seem to be too subjective i.e. based on repeatable scientific measurements -for objectivists to embrace - a fear of facts that contradict "perceptions".

ok's picture

would not be a truly representative specimen of the remaining audiophile community..

Part-Time Audiophile's picture

Colbert's genius was lampooning through exaggeration, not fabrication. That is, he was rarely making stuff up, he was just putting so much emPHAsis on a peculiar syLAHbull that it just sounded like he was making stuff up. Loved his show.

But I'd push truthiness back to Sir Karl Popper and not to Joan Didion. Popper was famous for many things ("we must be intolerant of the intolerant", for example), but "verisimilitude" always comes back to me as the most important.

The idea, logically, is that one can approach truth but whether or not one achieves it is unknowable (an epistemic problem). He told an allegory of a climber, reaching the loftiest of peaks, only to discover a still higher peak, one that had not been seen till then. The search for truth was asymptotic, not punctuated. Interesting, I think, and occasionally useful.

In audio, there is no best. Better: if there is an absolute best, it lies beyond what is currently conceived of as best. More pointedly, there is no such thing as the absolute sound, not as a thing that can be achieved, only something that we can aspire to.

John Atkinson, back at the 2012 (I think?) NY Audio Show asked a panel of writers the following: "Why do cost no object speakers sound different?"

It's a devastating question. Because if 10 designers were to pull out all the stops, and each hit the limits of physics and materials science, one would expect that the 10 resulting designs would be identical (or at least extremely close to identical). But they're not. In fact, cost no object speakers (or speakers that approach that goal) sound all rather distinct.

The answers from the panel (audio journalists) were really not helpful, so being curious, I put the same question to Jeff Joseph later that day.

His answer surprised me: (paraphrasing) the reason that cost no object speakers sound different is that each designer is reaching for their own definition of "the best". That is, "the best" varied according to each designer. And there is a deep truth about our hobby in that insight.

I have no issue with testing and measurements. I find them useful, but not necessarily revealing. I know a great many designers use them to finalize and tune their designs. I know of only one designer that starts with measurements and then tunes by ear, but whatever. Measurements are interesting--when they explain something I wouldn't otherwise be able to grasp, or underscore something that would otherwise have been lost. If I had the time, talent, and treasure, we'd have implemented all manner of testing on Part-Time Audiophile. Why not? Graphs are cool ... but I'll never understand why some have them, but don't explain them, or don't bother to explain them in ways that make them relevant to the story and not just clutter or a fluffy appendage.

For me, and on whole, a review (or Op-Ed) is really about telling a story. One reason I so loved reading Art Dudley, and why I am a huge fan of Herb Reichert, and Michael Fremer, and Stephen Mejias--their stories were arresting. And that's why Stereophile is still an incredible destination. The stories. At root, I believe that's really what music, and our weird audiophile hobby, is all about. Native American writer Thomas King's book, The Truth About Stories repeats the following line, as a sort of motto: "The truth about stories is that's all we are." And there's a deep truth about our hobby in that insight, too.

We sing, we play instruments, we write-- we tell stories. Stories about the world, about ourselves, about ourselves in the world. We tell ourselves that these stories are important, independent, and perhaps even transcendent. We tell ourselves that stories about science, measurement, and fact, all have meanings that are independent of us and the intricate web of our beliefs, experiences, and biology.

But they are just stories (and yes, there's an argument in there, for sure, one that Sir Karl would have loved to have) -- and that's not a bad thing. The mark of an interesting person is that, I would offer, they tend to tell better stories the older they get (I'm thinking of Baron Tim De Paravicini as I write this, may his memory be a blessing). As Aristotle said, no one under 50 should bother to study Philosophy -- life is a classroom that you have to spend considerable time in before you can be expected to have anything interesting to say about it. And there's a deep truth about our hobby in that insight, too.

Anyway, thanks Jim. Appreciate the provocation. Keep steering the great ship of Audio through the channels of Truth. You may have 99 problems, but the truth ain't one.

cgh's picture

Good comments PT-A. I'll ask, riffing off your Popper reference and squaring with you last paragraph: are you suggesting that the whole argument is non-falsifiable and that it's pointless to use science (engineering, physics, whatever) in accessing final design?

I think JA2 wrote something recently about isolating speaker platforms. Had a discussion once, maybe 7 years ago, with a well known speaker designer about the rubber balls he puts under his speakers to isolate them. I was reminded of this because you mentioned Joseph - he was standing next to me. Said designer / manufacturer spent ten or so minutes offering an explanation that violated not only common sense but basic Newtonian physics and acoustics. People still buy his speakers and they don't sound horrible and no amount of tuning will account for the smearing those silly balls create. In this regard I think I agree with you, if that's what you meant: it's all non-falsifiable.

Popper was my age when he got into it with Wittgenstein. If only he waited 6 more years he may not have cared. Or maybe he would have? I suspect the audio argument over these matters is largely taken up by the over 50 crowd and no amount of philosophy will prevent a row. Thankfully the internet prevents a very real threat of being impaled by a fireplace poker! :-)

ok's picture

fundamentally wrong, most useful nevertheless.

agb's picture

Even though I think Colbert is third rate; even though I know for a fact that one writer for Bill Maher, a good friend, was an ultraconservative, and another for Jon Stewart was the same. In other words, the words uttered from the mouth of both ultraprogressive "comics" (I use that last word liberally) were clickbait written by conservatives to knee-jerk the lemmings who watch these shows.

It never failed to amaze us here (Stewart is one of my neighbors.)

But getting back to Part Time Audiophile's well-constructed argument: That's all we are - stories. Terrific, and thanks! And to Jim's provocation. For to write anything not provocative enough to make a reader think is a waste of time.

Both men have succeeded. - AGB

agb's picture

Indeed Scott, JA's question is far more powerful AND relevant than any answer.

The right answer rarely exists. The right question always does.

The reason is, because we always know the answer to things that are not so.

Gerry930's picture

I am a neuroscientist, molecular biologist, and computational biologist (Professor at a Medical School)...blah, blah, blah. I would suggest that you all are dithering about nonsense and should be listening to, and/or playing music. Joan Didion condemned "hippies" because she could not understand the culture, Karl Popper was great, John Locke was good ("life, liberty, and property" - later revised), but I would rather listen to Rachel Podger, Itzhak Perlman, or Jimi Hendrix.

I would suggest that audiophiles learn the basics of the human auditory system, including the organization of mesencephalic "coincidence detectors" that reconstruct sound in 3D space and ascending pathways to the medial orbitofrontal cortex. This higher-order cortical structure exhibits limited "neuronal plasticity", unlike the hippocampal formation, and is relatively invariant between individuals. It provides the neuroanatomical substrate for the so-called subjective interpretation of music.

"Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been. The greatest scientists embrace change and nonconformity, the greatest engineers embrace convention." - attributed to Albert Einstein

RH's picture

"A life lived strictly according to fact, with no enfolding narrative, feels sterile, alienating, devoid of feeling."

Agreed. But since this seems the crux of your piece, it leaves me wondering: who is it you think is living in this sterile, narrative-free, devoid-of-feeling manner?

I hope we are avoiding strawmen.

RH's picture

"This is a good place to express my belief that those who would deny us our pleasure and meaning by insisting we test our listening against hardcore fact—against statistically valid listening tests and proven theories of physics—are doing a disservice to us and our hobby. Please don't try to save me from myself. I embrace this perspective consciously. I know what I'm doing.".

I wouldn't deny you that at all. Nor, from what I've seen, would the majority of folks who prefer a measurements-heavy approach (I'm not really one of them when it comes to my own purchases).

I say this as someone who has voiced, with the attempt at civility, the case for skepticism about various audio claims on various audio forums: the reactions from died-in-the-wool "subjectists" is often ad hominem attacks - "you must have cheap gear, or poor hearing" - yet the skeptical posts receive MANY likes and supportive "PMs" indicating they are speaking for a significant contingent of the forum.

So I'm trying to get at the actual scenario you would envision as acceptable. What would acceptable input from those who emphasize measurements/science, or who are skeptical about X claim, look like?

Personally, when it comes to being skeptical of particular audio claims, or certain audiophile shibboleths, I've attempted to balance this by a combination:

1. State my view, giving reasons for the skepticism.

2. Emphasize that goals and values being subjective, one audiophile's approach shouldn't be assumed for another, or pushed on another. If someone wants to buy a piece of gear on measurements only, good on him. If someone wants to evaluate everything on his own (and others) subjective impressions, no problemo. If someone is more into the music than the gear, or more in to the gear than the music...it's all good. Everyone has their own bliss to follow.

mememe2's picture

"a full-range reviewer
would not be a truly representative specimen of the remaining audiophile community.." Truth or truthiness?

David Harper's picture

...strictly according to fact, with no enfolding narrative,feels sterile, alienating, devoid of feeling"

My brother-in-law believes the moon landing was staged in a warehouse, 9/11 was an inside job, Oswald was framed, and we didn't kill Bin Laden.
Your statement would seem to mean that these things that he believes really are "true" for him. They are his "enfolding narrative", just as the audiophile belief that wires have sound quality really is true for them. It is their "enfolding narrative".

Briandrumzilla's picture

The premise could be taken seriously however, all was lost relying on the preachings of the extremely far left Colbert.

JHL's picture

The jester class on truthiness is rank gaslighting.

ChrisS's picture

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ea6i0J8W2U

Jack Pot's picture

Back to our hobby.

I always wondered why I favour analogue over digital.
Please note that I recognise the bias, admit it, and indulge in it.
And because ours is an "innocent" hobby, it does NOT matter. In other fields of human endeavour, such attitude would be "criminal".

Courtesy of partimeaudiophile:
https://parttimeaudiophile.com/2020/10/17/hi-fi-why-do-records-sound-better-the-ivory-tower/

Where would we be without science and measurements?

JHL's picture

...is that they're not actually analysis. As sciency as they are - where sciency is the scientism directly akin to truthiness in its fault - they fail because they project. They also assume, wrongly identify, and so on.

Let's break it down.

1. Assertion: Audiophiles are inherently, eternally hidebound to hear wrong and to bias themselves accordingly. This is false. This is false on many levels.

2. Scientism - and this is inescapably scientistic part with little to do with *science* - is just as faulty. It also assumes knowledge is complete, that domains conflate, and that positions of presumed authority must be heard because they cannot be wrong.

3. Concluding, both sides of the artificial Objectivist vs Subjectivist fence lack for *a body of knowledge connecting sound directly to engineer in a common language* that any real scientist would find comprehensive, complete, and thorough enough to remove performance audio from being a deeply human-based experience - we having ears and all - and making it a true scientific endeavor. Likewise the listener cannot find anything approaching a scientific rigor with which to predict and guarantee authentic, thrilling reproduced sound.

This does not make *design and engineering* an unscientific, unobjective endeavor, but it does not also make design and engineering necessarily an endeavor, in all ways and places, either predictive or assuring of great sound. We have to see the difference.

Great sound - that sound that dispels disbelief and leave the witness astounded - is simply not a scientific endeavor in the sense that it is created by or limited to what we *think* is "science". And that's why we argue without positive resolution.

The subjectivist has, however, the upper hand: S/he need only experience and deliberate on the sound and how to get, improve, and perfect it as best s/he can.

Spare me the paragraphs on this false dichotomy, commenters. They're fruitless and they have been fruitless for decades.

And Editor, no more Cobert. You'll never make a good point invoking a gaslighter-class jester.

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