Scientists vs Audiophiles 1999

Call me naÏve, but I thought the Hi-Fi Wars were merely in-house squabbles. Yes, meter-carrying objectivists and wide-eyed subjectivists can carry on worse than Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But I always figured that once someone cues up Dark Side of the Moon or Kind of Blue, the partisanship subsides as we revel in our common passion for music and sound. C'mon, everybody—group hug! Okay, I exaggerate.

NaÏve no more. Audiophiles aren't the only ones fighting. A couple of weeks ago, I sat in on a seminar about professional recording gear, PA systems, and that sort of thing—"pro audio" is what they call it. Our teacher was Jim, a tall guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of microphones, mixers, signal processors, and room acoustics. At first, the seminar was great. It fed my fantasy of becoming someday a great producer or recording engineer.

But nearly every time I drifted into a daydream of adjusting my vintage Neumann tube mikes in front of Julian Bream's guitar—a smidgen here to improve imaging, a jot there for transparency—I was jolted by Jim's comments about how silly and stupid audiophiles are.

Out there in the world of pro audio, it seems, audiophiles are laughingstocks. "You don't need to use fancy gold-plated connectors on your cables," he told us. "You don't need to keep them up off the ground, either. Have you seen these little telephone poles that some audiophiles buy for their cables?!?! Jeez!" As the rest of the class chuckled, I just smiled..

But then the barbs came directly at me: "...and those fancy hi-fi magazines!?!? I hardly read 'em myself—except when I want a good laugh."

I have a pretty thick skin, but these snide remarks about "hi-fi magazines" got my goat. Still, I never let on that I write for one of those silly rags. Like a spy in the enemy camp, I just sat back and tried to figure out where this hostility was coming from.

Had Jim been beaten up by a bully subjectivist? Was he a failed tube-amp designer? No. His logic and motivations were simple (but only at first). It always boiled down to science. He told us again and again that if you want to get into pro audio, there's just a handful of "scientific principles" and "physical laws" that you need to know. Get these basics right and you're on your way. And as a bonus, you'll never become one of those silly audiophiles.

If only it were so simple. Jim was a classic example of what happens when Physics 101 goes to your head. Yes, Ohm's law, exotic theories in quantum mechanics, and other laws of physics go a long way toward explaining a circuit or a silicon chip. Last time I checked, however—and Jim never did—there is a huge gap between our theories of electrons, wires, and chips, and how equipment actually sounds. Audio involves physics, but also chemistry, biology, psychology, psychoacoustics, and even those misty heights of abstraction called aesthetics. Physics and other hard sciences are just one part of that big pie. Sorry, Jim, but physical principles do not tell us everything we need (or would like) to know about audio.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that spooky or mystical events occur when you listen to your system. Like Madonna, I'm a materialist. Every link in the chain, from the vibration of your stylus to the goose bumps on your arms, is grounded in physical processes. In philosophy-speak, everything "supervenes" on physical events; in Nietzsche-speak, God has left the building. But that doesn't mean that we understand exactly what those processes are—especially the ones inside the brain.

More important, we do not know how they all fit together. Welcome to one of philosophy's greatest hits—the debate over the unity of science. Since Plato and Aristotle, scientists have envisioned human knowledge as a huge jigsaw puzzle. The hope has always been that, as we learn more and more about the world, the different pieces—physics, chemistry, biology, etc.—will eventually interlock in a seamless fit. Physics will become powerful enough to explain chemical theories, and physics and chemistry will someday illuminate the laws of biology, psychology, even economics and sociology.

This is a dream. In fact, the sciences are Balkanized. They have their own laws and principles, their own terminologies, and it's just not understood how they might someday connect. Within physics, for example, it's taken hundreds of years to unify the equations that describe magnetic, electrical, and nuclear forces, and there's still only speculation about how gravity fits into the picture. The ideal of a complete unified science, encompassing everything from physics to psychoacoustics, is a long way off.

If and when that day comes, we'll know a lot more. We'll settle all kinds of stubborn controversies, such as nature vs nurture, the existence of free will, and how Michael Jordan does it. We'll also put the lid on controversies in audio, including the one that most bothered Jim: the existence of "golden-ear" audiophiles who can hear differences caused by the slightest variations. "I'm not one of those golden-ear types," he said. "It doesn't make much difference what kind of wire you use, as long as it can handle the current you're putting through it. You know, I once met a guy who claimed he could hear the difference between different brands of XLR connectors!"