Monday, October 22, 2007

Perception, Common Sense, and Audiophiles

Recently I've seen a resurgence of the "audiophile product makers are snake-oil dealers" meme. I'm not going to defend any particular make of audiophile product (I don't know anything about Pear Cable, which has been getting the attention recently) but I do feel compelled to defend audiophile stuff from out-of-hand dismissal, because I hate the false reasoning used by a lot of the critics and because I know from a couple years working at an audiophile store that some of the stuff is honestly pretty amazing.

Samurai Jack fights blind

I think the reason this particular topic draws the kind of debate it does has a lot to do with the nature of our sense of hearing.

Human hearing is incredibly sensitive, but it's a fundamentally indirect sense. Sight is direct in that you can look at something and describe it in great detail, and will probably say very similar things to another person describing the same object. If two people hear the same sound, however, they are more likely to perceive it differently ("did you hear something from over there?"). Nonetheless, there is a huge amount of information you can get from a single sound: things like the direction and range of the sound, size and shape of the space you're in, proximity and sometimes materials of objects nearby -- and those don't even address what the sound itself is.

The problem is that the indirect nature of hearing makes it much harder to make direct, objective comparisons. No matter how much art and science is put into the design of an audio product, some people will always disagree about the goodness of the product, or even if it sounds "better" when differences are heard, because they're listening for different things or are focusing to a greater or lesser degree on details. Conversely, if you put two TVs next to each other, they are very easy to directly compare."

Ah, but that's why we use performance metrics to make objective comparisons," some will say. That's true, but with something as very subtle as audio reproduction, performance metrics will only give you the crudest of comparisons. In fact this is true for video reproduction as well, where things like contrast, brightness, and color gamut are used for comparisons. But having worked in the HDTV industry for a few years now, I can tell you that while those statistics tell you something, they tell you far from everything. The same holds true for audio gear.

Take the numbers that people always use to slam on audiophile stuff: frequency range, signal-to-noise, and total harmonic distortion. All three are useful measures of audio performance, but let me try to illustrate how little they tell you.

Miles Davis

Imagine a man blowing a note on a trumpet in your living room (ahem). If we put a curtain between you and the player, high frequency information is lost. If we run the microwave while he plays, the ratio between the noise level relative and his "signal" gets much worse. And finally, if we place a bunch of chimes of a variety of tones in the room, resonating with harmonics of the trumpet note, total harmonic distortion goes way up.

The performance is now quite ruined, but with your eyes closed you would still be able to tell that the performer was physically in the room when compared with a perfect recording of him playing, even if you used a single speaker at the same spot in the room, at the same volume and so forth. How can you tell? There is a lot more audio information that your ear is picking up beyond frequency range, signal-to-noise, and THD -- subtle cues such as how crisp the "attack" sounds (transient response, in engineering terms) and being able to hear quiet sounds like the rush of air from the horn even when overwhelmed in volume by the horn's tone.

It's that subtlety that audiophiles pay for, even when regular audio gear does the basic stuff right. Well, in theory they do; some audiophiles are out of their minds and they'll claim they can hear the difference when placing wood blocks under their CD player. But like the video systems that I've worked on at an engineering level, you might be surprised how much various pieces in an audio system can materially improve sound. So I get annoyed when people create false justification to back up the "common sense" that audiophile stuff is rubbish and it's impossible to hear the difference.

Yes, I have heard differences between "regular" cables and insanely expensive ones. Those are about the lowest-order differences I've heard, but they are there (and they are very much about matching the right cable to the right amp/speaker combination, if you wanted to know). And yes, the stuff can get outlandishly expensive, but the performance is (at least sometimes) there to back it up, just as surely as it is if you buy a Porsche instead of a Honda -- it's just a less direct thing than a drag race to "prove" it in the case of the audio gear.

Of course I'll create a different debate entirely if I try to claim that a Porsche is better than a Corvette, despite having a slower 0-60 time. Don't dismiss the subtle.


exurban001 said...

I don't have a problem with audiophile vs. consumer level gear. I've heard some audiophile stuff and can hear what I've percieved as difference in quality. I do believe in the subtle, etc.

I think the criticism and outrage comes from the prices of select components. I may have read some of the same things going into this you have. The main piece of audiophile gear that seems to get people's dander up are cables. The concept of a turntable thats gyroscopic stabilized and an amp with tubes that were hand blown by beautiful women and the corresponding price is more acceptable than $10,000 stereo cables. I think thats all it is.

Most of us aren't materials scientists but for some reason the sort of 'high-oxygen/beryllium/kryptonite content cable' tends to sound like snake oil.

There seems to exist a category of products that serve little purpose other than, to paraphrase Busta Rhymes, to show how frivolous one is. Stuff like the Vertu series of cell phones. I think some of the high end audio stuff, the ultra high end, just comes across as being in the same vein. I also think most of that stuff comes across as extremely tedious, unless you're the type that buys it or the type that finds it really impressive.

sherkaner said...

Yeah, I can understand that, but even the argument about the sheer price of seemingly unimportant stuff is often backed up with pseudo-technical reasons why it's "impossible" for cables of that price to sound better. That's the part that irritates me.

If the real objection is that it's crazy to spend that much on cables then yeah, I'll agree with you there... except that if you have the money to spend on a $150,000 audio system, $10,000 on cable isn't really out of line. And yes, I've listened to systems that cost that much, and listened to the difference the cables make in such a system. Again, it's the smallest part of the improvement in sound, but it's also the smallest part of the system cost.

Oh and just by way of some social commentary, the high-end audio buyers who are getting their stuff just to show off typically are buying the mid to low-end audiophile stuff, but are choosing the options with big power specs, outlandish cooling fins, arrays of blue LEDs and machined metal cases. The guys buying the seriously expensive systems are usually the ones who lock themselves in a room alone to do their listening, at least in my experience. You don't get that much money by spending your time trying to impress people with it.

exurban001 said...


sherkaner said...

That said, I sure can't imagine any amount of money that I'll ever have that would justify a $150,000 audio system for me... [cough]

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