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Some thoughts on the different 'schools' in audio, methods, audio measurements.


Although the audio community seems to be divided into "objectivist" and "subjectivist", this kind of portrayal is too simplistic and misleading. Subjectivism is a faith-based system that comes from a misinterpretation of measurements, misinterpretation of the principles of sound reproduction or sometimes the scientific method. On the other hand, objectivism is less uniform, some forms are better, some worse.

Subjective testing and "subjectivism" are not the same. Subjectivism is using subjective test methods without an objective understanding of the world. On the other hand, subjective approach (subjective testing) is just a method, and like all methods, it can be used correctly or incorrectly, though its reliability is quite limited (unreliable when the differences are small). However, there is one important thing that neither subjective tests nor "objective" blind tests can provide: understanding how amplifiers, speakers, audio formats or human hearing work. Furthermore, there is no "objectivist" who don't use subjective testing at all.

The objective approach (based on models and measurements, supplemented with tests) also has its pitfalls. Typical flaws:

Blind test is a solution to only one problem: eliminates the possibility of self-deception arising from perception (unreliable auditory memory). Blind test doesn't provide a solution for how to avoid false positive results and if the test is free of errors, correlation still doesn't imply causation. The exclusive use of tests can lead not only to misconceptions but also to superficial knowledge.

The goal is to remove human fallibility from the test procedure by any means...

Blurring different wrongs is a good way to spread lies. Being wrong on a topic is not an absolute state, there are "gradients of wrong": it's very wrong to cherry pick a false result or to misuse basic concepts, it's little wrong to look at all but one possibility. ("It's a little wrong to say a tomato is a vegetable, it's very wrong to say it's a suspension bridge." Blurring different wrongs is popular in comedy as well.) False positive results are more harmful and more common than false negatives, because after a negative result we tend to reconsider the test ("What if I wrong?"), whereas after a positive result there is an urge to communicate the result to others as quickly as possible.

The most important criterion for an audio measurement is the correlation with perception and fidelity. How can we measure the "right thing" in the right way and interpret the result in the right way? Any problems related to audio fidelity requires a three-level analysis:

This three-level analysis is the most important principle in audio science: just as a compass helps us find the right direction, it helps us find the right questions. (A similar three-level analysis can be applied to display technology and vision.)

In addition to a different attitude to measurements, blind tests are often portrayed as a dividing line between subjectivism and objectivism. Now we can see that this is a huge misconception, mainly because our knowledge doesn't come from blind tests. Blind tests with music can be used as a secondary, demonstrative tool, but to find a causal relationship we have to perform an experiment that doesn't depend on blind testing ("If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment." - Ernest Rutherford). The point is that understanding technology and hearing is more important than constant blind testing.

Our auditory memory evolved for communication and surviving, not for testing amplifiers or cables. If we compare hearing and vision then we can see that the ear's analytical ability is much worse than the analytical capability of vision. We can completely separate one part of the image from the rest, but we can't completely separate one part of the music from the rest. Analytical and focusing ability of hearing is very limited. If we also add that humans are visual thinkers, which means that we need a visual representation of a problem to understand the problem, it's no surprise that hifi has become so subjective.

Csaba Horváth
(2024-02-06)




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