A WEE TOUCH OF SCIENCE:
A Sure Cure for the "I Heard It" Disease
I usually hate those so-called "think pieces." You know the ones -- they occasionally mar the pages of the non-mainstream audio press. Boringly pedantic, self-absorbed, ignorant, or just sorta dumb, they remind me of excess stomach gas after a particularly bad meal, the literary equivalent of intrusive and impolite burps.
So I wrote one.
Why? Im really torqued at the ever-increasing level of nonsense I see in some quarters. Laughable but unchallenged claims. Explanations that dont. Conclusions that arent. Although we call todays intellectual environment the "Information Age," its really more of an "Unsupported Opinion Age," devoid of real authority and trustworthiness.
So whats this essays claim to fame? None really -- it isnt about fame. Its about the discipline of thinking and the obligation to seek some level of truth in our observations. Stuff like that.
Im convinced that a more rigorous approach to evaluating audio reproduction will actually enhance our enjoyment by preventing time-wasting exploration of the absurd. And so this piece lays the groundwork for an approach to more meaningful observation and the exchange of truly informed opinion. For some, this might be painful. But it sure beats the circus of outright ignorance all too often masquerading as fact.
But youll be the final judge of that, wont you? If youre provoked enough to respond, you might even find yourself immortalized here. Hows that for a chance at, dare I say it, fame?
Lutèce aint your local burger joint. Dinner here, at one of New York Citys finest French restaurants, will probably cost you just under $100 -- and thats before the sommelier even pops a cork. Pick one of the rarer vintages and youll be cruising at an even higher altitude. In fact, its rumored that a few unsuspecting patrons were last seen entering geosynchronous orbit after receiving the tab for an evenings repast. And a stunning repast it would be. Pricey to be sure. But stunning nonetheless.
If youre intrigued but not flush with spare change, theres a way to build the reserve youll need to enjoy Chef Mullers creations. Just go to a local audio society meeting and count the number of times you hear the phrase "It made a difference!" However, you must (as in must) stuff a dollar in your piggy bank (how appropriate!) for every time those four words registered on your consciousness. No cheating, either. Youll be amazed at how quickly youll be able to enjoy that dream meal while sipping a truly luxuriant Bordeaux.
Thats because no other idea in the world of subjective audio is as sacrosanct and seemingly unassailable -- or as poorly understood and ultimately misleading -- as that one.
"Oops," some of you are saying, "Now I know where this geek is coming from -- hes just another objectivist who denies the obvious fact that our ears are better arbiters of sonic performance than measurements."
Wrong, oh fuzzy-headed wonder! Im not at all against subjectivity. Im certainly not against the enormous enjoyment some of us get by changing components or "tweaking" our systems. Im not even denying that these changes may have an effect. But Ill bet a case of Merlot to a thimble full of skunk scent that the effects we think we "hear" are very often not even audible at all.
" . . . Ill bet a case of Merlot to a thimble full of skunk scent that the effects we think we "hear" are very often not even audible at all!"
"Right," youre saying, "You mean to tell me that I can hear something that isnt audible in the first place? Lets have another good one!"
OK, try this: You routinely "hear" more than sound waves alone convey. In other words, your ears do play tricks on you -- and most of the time youre not even aware of it! More to the point, the resulting sensory confusion so disorients us that we readily attribute an effect ("tighter bass," for example) to a cause (our new amplifier) when, in reality, theres only a minor correlation -- if one exists at all!
THE LOGICAL, THE ILLOGICAL, AND THE "DUH, I DUNNO!"
Lets begin this charged discussion by introducing the word "alogical." Uncomfortably positioned between "logical" and "illogical," "alogical" is one of the least used words in the language. Thats a shame as a bit more understanding of its importance would defuse many emotion-charged conversations in the audio world.
The dictionary defines "alogical" as "Beyond or outside the bounds of logic." Notice that an alogical statement is not necessarily wrong, just not covered by our normally accepted patterns of thinking. For the record, lets note that some of our most illuminating ideas began life as alogical statements.
But neither is an alogical statement necessarily correct. Consider this example: "Single-ended amplifiers produce a more musical midrange than push-pull designs." This statement may or may not be true. It certainly calls for further investigation but, until that investigation produces repeatable observations and defensible data to support the claim, the statement remains alogical, neither condoned by logic nor tainted by illogic. It is simply unproved -- and possibly unprovable.
" . . . the statement remains alogical, neither condoned by logic nor tainted by illogic. It is simply unproved -- and possibly unprovable."
DEFINING THE PROBLEM
Now that we understand the significance of an alogical statement, lets look more closely at the confusion that often produces the claim "I heard a difference!"
Of course, there are times when that statement is true -- and eminently logical. Youll almost certainly hear a difference when you substitute a new pair of speakers for your old reference pair. Youll hear a difference if you move your current speakers to a new location in your room. You may hear a difference in power amplifiers, for example, particularly if you move from a solid state design with low output impedance to a tube design with a much lower damping factor. In general, however, the statement "I heard a difference!" simply results from premature and unsupported enthusiasm. In short, its alogical, at least when you first utter it.
With the exception of gross artifacts, correctly correlating different aural perceptions to a thing (a new D/A converter, wall dots, etc.) or a process ("demagnetizing" your CDs, rerouting cables, etc.) is far more rigorous and demanding than most folks realize.
Before we can accept even our own observations at face value, we need to examine them critically. Some will quickly evaporate into vaporous ridiculousness. Some will demand serious attention. The problem is, we dont know which direction theyll go until we apply a little discipline.
Two elements are critical here. The first is the pervasive confusion between "hear" and "perceive." The second is the "scientific method." Both would take pages -- books, really -- to fully explore so I'll just outline some basics here.
M'BOY, IT'S SIMPLY A MATTER OF PERCEPTION!
Hearing and perceiving are not the same. But we dont often distinguish between these very different functions, particularly when dealing with "sonic differences."
"Hearing" refers to our physiological response to an external phenomenon that produces air motion within a certain frequency range. As such, "hearing" combines only physical and neurological responses.
"Perceiving" is a more integrative or interpretive function. Although triggered by something we physically "hear," it involves the brain in a more holistic way. Our handy dictionary defines perception as "a process by which sensory stimulation is organized and interpreted into usable experience based chiefly on memory."
Perceiving, then, is a patterned response predicated on past experiences, expectations, prejudices, here-and-now emotional states, etc. Our perceptions owe more to our psychological makeup than to objective, measurable, verifiable phenomenon. Thus, theyre more emotional than physical and therein lies the problem.
Of course, we have far more than dictionary definitions to guide us. Perceptual psychology, a comparatively recent outgrowth of Gestalt psychology, investigates anything from how a frog distinguishes flies from dust motes to how an artist translates a mental image of colors and shapes into a painting. It also suggests some useful methods for testing the validity of aural "differences.".
Perceptual psychologists know that most of the sonic stimuli from our ears are almost instantaneously and subconsciously "corrected" into percepts, or practical, patterned structures. Think of it this way: No matter how many times a composer changes keys, we can always follow a musical theme through a maze of individual notes and rhythms. That's a "percept" in action.
Percepts have negative effects, too. If we're overly dependent on them, we force-fit stimuli into patterns that don't really exist or block the stimuli entirely. The result? How about hallucination? And if a friend suddenly claims that giant ants are devastating the countryside, what are your standards for differentiating that somewhat bizarre claim from your friends insistence that ebony wall pucks really do make a difference in what he hears? Think about it for a moment.
"Percepts have negative effects, too. If we're overly dependent on them, we force-fit stimuli into patterns that don't really exist or block the stimuli entirely. The result? How about hallucination?"
To further complicate the matter, understand that percepts themselves can be organized, just as they organize direct sensory stimuli. In fact, percepts advance the speed (but not necessarily the accuracy) of interpreting things around us. For better or worse, our world view is simply the aggregate of our percepts.
Unfortunately, we don't know a great deal beyond this. Researchers have had little success in breaking perception down into analyzable units. That's because its study depends mostly on subjective reports and this makes scientifically verifiable findings difficult to obtain in the first place, let alone repeat.
In the audio world, we can easily have a percept that tells us tube amplifiers are more "musical." But there's no guarantee that it's correct -- or that it originated from unbiased aural analysis of many amplifiers. In fact, it is probably just another personal prejudice, this one eminently tolerable as it commits no social nuisance as it enhances our enjoyment!
If we look closely at many of audios accepted "truths," we find a surplus of percepts, most of them somewhat questionable. That doesn't mean theyre invalid for an individual, just that they are not necessarily valid for the rest of us.
One of the ways we can test our "audio percepts" is to subject our observational skills to the rigors of a situation that attempts to strip spurious stimuli away so that we must, finally, rely solely on a physical hearing process. But that's very difficult and depends on a successful implementation of the "scientific method." (Some folks just began running for the hills. Oh, well . . . )
WEIRD SCIENCE -- NOT!
The scientific method is simply a way of structuring an investigation into anything (sub-atomic particles, the mating habits of panda bears, salsa, interconnect effects, you name it) so that we can clearly and unequivocally link cause and effect. Proper scientific methodology requires objectivity, verifiability, and repeatability.
Objectivity means that we attempt to observe things as they are without falsifying those observations (perhaps unconsciously) to make them more congruent with our percepts. How well we do this is judged, in part, by how repeatable our experiments and observations are.
With regard to audio, the steps in a proper investigation are:
|1.||We observe a sonic difference.|
|2.||We note all the possible variables that might be responsible.|
|3.||We try to determine which variable (or combination) is responsible.|
|4.||We formulate a hypothesis to explain our observations.|
|5.||We test the hypothesis to make sure we can repeat our initial observations by using some sort of test protocol to eliminate other variables and our own prejudices. (This is the dreaded "blind test.")|
|6.||We modify our hypothesis to conform to the results of our testing.|
|7.||We teach others the skills needed to verify our observations and ask them to confirm our results.|
|8a.||If others verify our observations, we promote our hypothesis to the rank of theory. (And we try not to be too dazzled by our own brilliance when we investigate our next aural phenomenon.)|
|8b.||If no one can verify our observations, we revisit Step 2 and begin again. (Or we just go back to being total subjectivists. Our belief in the initial observation is totally unaffected in any way and the original hypothesis -- if we bothered to form one in the first place -- stays the same.)|
Step 5 is crucial. And it's here that most subjectivists get a severe case of the shakes. Science, at least to some of them, means measurement, and measurement is bad (a percept -- and an alogical statement -- if ever there was one!)
Notice, however, that we haven't used the horrid word measurement once! We're not measuring anything, just trying to assure reasonable objective and repeatable observations. Of course, some minor measurements might be necessary to eliminate unwanted variables. For example, we need to measure an amplifier's output at the speaker terminals to eliminate level differences that might otherwise prejudice our observations about preamps or D/A converters. Notice that we're not trying to quantify our perceptions here, we're just trying to keep ourselves focused on the phenomenon we claim to be able to hear.
Blind tests are just that: The observer is "blind" in that he or she does not know what component/technique/treatment is being evaluated. A "single blind" test means that the observer is ignorant of exactly what changes are made in a system. In a "double blind" test, not only does the observer not know what changes have been wrought, but those who facilitate the change don't either. (Some try to satisfy double blind test protocols by making sure that theres absolutely no interaction between subject and a facilitator who does know whats being changed. Although acceptable on the surface, this shortcut poses serious problems and professionals avoid it.) Needless to say, double blind tests are more difficult to set up but they're more valuable in that they eliminate any cues that may inadvertently pass between tester and testee.
"Needless to say, double blind tests are more difficult to set up but they're more valuable in that they eliminate any cues that may inadvertently pass between tester and testee."
THE DOUBLE BLIND LEADING THE DOUBLE DEAF?
Many subjectivists abhor the "blind test." They claim that it increases the tension around a listening session, that it clouds their ability to bring their perceptual skills into full play. I agree with the first. But not with the second.
Having participated in more than my share, I am here to tell you that blind tests increase tension: They simply leave little room for obfuscation and second-guessing. If that poses a problem, I submit that it's more correctly attributed to the individuals ego and "need to be right" than to the methodology.
Most subjectivists state that blind tests are simply too hurried to allow them the necessary time to fully determine a component's sound quality, that a preamp's "inner voice," if you will, will not immediately reveal itself. This may or not be true but it is of no real concern to the blind tester. Whether one component stays in a system for three minutes or three months is not the question: The criteria here is that the testee not know what's there when particular observations are made!
Thus, it is perfectly possible to structure even a double blind test to take a week or a month, at least with some components. (Extended double blind tests with front ends -- a CD transport or a turntable/arm/cartridge combination -- are admittedly difficult.)
But difficulty should not provide an excuse. If someone claims to hear a difference, that difference should be audible under all reasonable test conditions. If it isn't, the difference, though real to that individual, is probably results from percept rather than audibility.
" . . . the difference, though real to that individual, probably results from percept rather than audibility."
FROM THE ABSTRACT TO THE PRACTICAL
So where does this leave us as we continue our audio adventure? Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Consider all claims about the audibility of some thing or process as alogical statements. Theyre neither true nor untrue until subjected to rigorous investigation.
- Remember that not everything we "hear" is truly audible. A lot of what we think we hear comes from a complex interpretative process thats dependent on many things that have nothing to do with audibility.
- The only definitive test of true audibility requires that the person identifying sonic differences be totally ignorant of any changes made in the signal path during any evaluation session. The only way to really do this involves the dreaded "double blind" procedure.
- When its impossible to perform a real "double blind" test, make sure that theres absolutely no contact (even the opportunity to exchange glances!) between the person setting up the equipment and the person trying to identify a difference.
- Remember that cynicism isnt always bad!
But please enjoy what youre doing! Following the proper test procedures, eliminating all the possibly distracting variables, subjecting yourself and your friends to the rigors of controlled listening, etc., isnt for everyone. Many of us are more than happy to kick back, relax, and enjoy. To them, I say "Knock yourselves out -- thats what this whole hobby is really about anyway."
Just dont totally disregard your common sense. OK? Oh, and turn up the volume, will you? This is a killer track . . . !
THE DAY OF THE TUBISTOR
As an example of the intellectual challenges we sometimes encounter in our journey to audio nirvana, lets take a close look at claims by a small California company, Tomorrows Research Today, for their TubistorTM, a device with, er, unusual properties.
In their "Official Worldwide Press Release," TRT presents the Tubistor as ". . . a revolutionary device that combines the best of tubes and transistors . . . " and continues with the claim that Tubistors " . . . sound like tubes but act electrically and physically just like solid state devices." In addition, "Tubistors are available as exact replacements for all solid state devices, so electronics manufacturers can instantly convert their production lines to Tubistors."
Then comes the pitch: "End users and resellers can ask their favorite OEMs to release Tubistor versions of all their products. Existing products in the field can be retrofitted." (Emphasis theirs.) And, we are told, Tubistors are available as exact replacements "for all solid state devices: transistors, FETs, IC chips, LSI chips, DAC chips, diodes, rectifiers, regulators, etc."
Every IC? Every DAC? Every transistor? This would mean that TRT, a company with no discernible engineering or manufacturing base, can duplicate the massed efforts of established behemoths like International Rectifier, Crystal Semiconductor, Motorola, and Burr-Brown (to name only five of hundreds). This seems unlikely.
Another sheet (this one titled "OEM Info") tries to support the press release with the following comments: ". . . TRT's process for making Tubistors works retroactively. You can simply send us your solid state devices, and we can make Tubistors from them. How do we make Tubistors? Let's just say our unique (pats. pend.) process involves bombardment with exotic irradiation. We can make Tubistors from solid state devices even when mounted on finished PC boards, or in completed products. We guarantee confidentiality."
NEW SCIENCE . . .
Look at the phrase "exotic irradiation" for a moment. Just what is it? Isn't most radiation potentially harmful to electronic components? Just ask the military for a definitive answer to that one. Ever seen what a Zerostat (do you remember the Zerostat?) can do to a microprocessor, for example? And don't responsible designers and engineers go to great lengths to guard against spurious radiation? Yet TRT says you can send a complete component, a surround sound processor, for example, to them for "treatment."
Im not sure Id want a component I spent good money for "treated" in this way. On the other hand, I have this vision of someone at TRT taking a preamp out of the shipping carton, removing the top cover, and setting it under a window in a patch of sunlight. Well, they mention "exotic irradiation." Maybe this qualifies?
. . . PATENTED EXCESS . . .
When you ask TRT exactly how their mysterious Tubistor process works, youll hear "Oh, we're sorry, we can't tell you until after our patent application has been approved."
Theres a serious side here. It involves the (pseudo-)legitimacy conveyed by the phrase "patents pending." Theres nothing mysterious here. Hell, a few drawings, a list of claims, some superficial research into "prior art," the all-important fee, and anyone can use "patent pending." But understand that this simply means that an application for patent protection have been filed with the United States Patent Office. Nothing more and nothing less. And, given the fact that a United States patent application is not a public document, there's no guarantee that the patent examiner is doing anything more than holding his sides while, teary-eyed with laughter, he rummages through his desk drawer for the big rubber "DENIED" stamp!
Until something definitive happens with that application (a process that usually involves prolonged negotiations with the examiner over the extent and validity of the claims), "pats. pend." can simply provide a protective wall behind which a company might, shall we say, take maximum advantage of the gullible.
. . . OR JUST OLD NONSENSE?
Obviously, I'm slightly more than skeptical. In fact, my Bovine Byproduct Detector went off-scale as I read the material TRT sent. This seems a perfect example of the irrational as opposed to the arational. To be honest, I suppose I should treat these claims as arational. I should investigate. I should compare. But I wont. The overwhelming aroma of snake oil keeps me away.
In fact, Ill submit the Tubistor as a perfect example of the obstacles the "high end" community regularly endures as it tries to attract new devotees, of the pitfalls we need to guard against in our admittedly difficult search for an elusive musical ideal.
TUBIS OR NOT TUBIS, WHAT IS THE QUESTION?
Will some "hear" the Tubistors effects? Yes. And, as misguided as these folks may be, their aural acuity may be just fine. But, if they're ready to hear a difference, they will. Thats another example of percepts in action. And another example of the real need for some rigorous testing to see exactly what those folks are responding to. Yes, even though it's tempting to pursue almost any avenue to enhance our enjoyment of music in our homes. But a little rationality, a little science if you will, is needed here.
Hows that for a percept?
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