Blind Testing, Golden Ears, and Envy. Oh My!
The outrage aimed at audiophiles is for the most part about envy.
noun: envy; plural noun: envies
1.Don't believe it? Follow me...
a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck.
I rounded up a few comments that illustrate my point from various articles on audiophile goods. The exact subject of the article doesn't matter as you will see. Enjoy!
"What a scam. But hey, dimwit audiophiles with too much money are easy prey."Let's remember that these people are commenting on other people selling and buying stuff related to listening to music which makes the alligator clips attached to genitals, i.e. torture, that much more comical. Now, does it matter if I were to tell you that the outrage expressed above was over a $2.50 product? How about a $25 product? How about $250? Or $2,500? How about $25,000? Moral indignation grows right along with price regardless of what we're talking about. There is also the notion of relative value; if you can buy something for $20 and $200, those people spending $200 are obviously fools according to some.
"A wonderful example of how to make money off people's cognitive biases."
"More audiophile drivel. Let's see it all subjected to double blind testing. That's cool if it's what you want to spend your money on."
"Fools and their money are soon separated. Ask these so called "audiophiles" how great an investment they made when they reach retirement age."
"Just more examples of snooty audiophiles."
"But the feeling of superiority is priceless!"
"My sneaking suspicion is that there is a sucker born every minute."
"In fact, I don't have a problem with taking money away from people who have 'way too much of it particularly when combined with a negative IQ."
"Here is the only true ABX test that matters...
Have the president/CEO of the company that is making certain claims about their (overpriced) product set up their product in the manner that backs up their claims. Then set up the competing product that is supposedly inferior, and wire up the output in an agreed-upon blind A/B test platform. Hide the products from view and begin the A/B test, in which there will be ten runs.
The president/CEO sits in a chair with ten checks for $1000 each stacked next to it, one for each test run. These are to be rewards for when they correctly identify their product's claims. Meanwhile, a set of alligator clips connected to a 220V circuit are attached to their genitals. This is to be applied each time they incorrectly identify their product's claims. Let the testing begin!"
"Moral indignation in most cases is, 2% moral, 48% indignation, and 50% envy." Vittorio De Sica
While we all know about envy, and more to our point money envy, the psychology of pricing is an interesting field of study. Tests have been done that show how price can effect not only our buying habits but our senses and brains. From a study of wine and price by the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University:
The subjects consistently reported that they liked the taste of the $90 bottle better than the $5 one, and the $45 bottle better than the $35 one. Scans of their brains supported their subjective reports; a region of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, or mOFC, showed higher activity when the subjects drank the wines they said were more pleasurable.There have been a number of other studies performed regarding wine (see this article in the New Yorker for some other examples) and every one I've read indicates that most people, even experts, cannot reliably tell the difference between wines. That includes red from white, and expensive from cheap. While I am certainly not a wine expert, very far from it, I have enjoyed some wines more than others and that enjoyment has at times been related to price. But not always.
There was a catch to the experiment, however. Although the subjects had been told that they would taste five different, variously priced wines, they actually had sampled only three. Wines 1 and 2 were used twice, but labeled with two different prices. For example, wine 2 was presented as the $90 wine (its actual retail price) and also as the $10 wine. When the subjects were told the wine cost $90 a bottle, they loved it; at $10 a bottle, not so much. In a follow-up experiment, the subjects again tasted all five wine samples, but without any price information; this time, they rated the cheapest wine as their most preferred.
"What we document is that price is not just about inferences of quality, but it can actually affect real quality." Baba Shiv
Can we then conclude that hi-fi falls into the same perceptually biased category as wine? Yes and no. One significant difference between wine and hi-fi is we enjoy the latter repeatedly over time—the enjoyment of music on the hi-fi is not in the least reliant on short term memory.
What About The Scientific Method?
You will also see in the above comments, as well as in some of the comments to my review of the AudioQuest Ethernet cables (see review), a plea or outright demand for some sort of test, either double blind, blind, or ABX. The idea here is the same as it is with wine—our senses are easily fooled and only by taking part in a blind test can we remove our perceptual and cognitive biases.
Here's a favorite quote from neurologist Daniel J. Levitin's excellent book This Is Your Brain On Music (see review):
The scientific method requires that we control all possible variations in order to be able to draw firm conclusions about the phenomenon under study. Yet such control often creates stimuli or conditions that would never be encountered in the real world, situations that are so far removed from the real world as not even to be valid. The British philosopher Alan Watts, author of The Wisdom of Insecurity, put it this way: "If you want to study a river, you don’t take out a bucketful of water and stare at it on the shore."And here's John Atkinson, Editor of Stereophile, from his highly recommended article Blind Listening:
But when you have taken part in a number of these blind tests and experienced how two amplifiers you know from personal experience to sound extremely different can still fail to be identified under blind conditions, then perhaps an alternative hypothesis is called for: that the very procedure of a blind listening test can conceal small but real subjective differences. Having taken part in quite a number of such blind tests, I have become convinced of the truth in this hypothesis. Over 10 years ago, for example, I failed to distinguish a Quad 405 from a Naim NAP250 or a TVA tube amplifier in such a blind test organized by Martin Colloms. Convinced by these results of the validity in the Consumer Reports philosophy, I consequently sold my exotic and expensive Lecson power amplifier with which I had been very happy and bought a much cheaper Quad 405—the biggest mistake of my audiophile career!My point being, taking part in any kind of blind listening test necessarily creates an unnatural condition, one that we never encounter when listening to music for pleasure. I am not saying that science doesn't matter, I am not saying that measurements of hi-fi equipment have no value, or that blind testing is not a valid approach to remove perceptual bias. What I am saying is that listening tests of hi-fi gear at best tell you about the listening capabilities of the people taking the test under those specific testing conditions. That's about it. At their worst, listening tests mask real sonic differences.
Some amplifiers which cannot be distinguished reliably under formal blind conditions do not sound similar over lengthy listening in more familiar and relaxed circumstances.
What we see when people are confronted with stuff they feel is overpriced yet has been shown in blind tests and measurements to be in fact audibly different (refer to above linked Stereophile article), is the argument turns toward one of degree, "The law of diminishing return kicks in." What some people are saying is the extra performance, even when proven to be real, just doesn't justify the extra price. As if I, or anyone else, can judge the value other people place on their enjoyment. Not only is this an absurd position to take, it is also rooted in some psychology that is not very complimentary in terms of one's emotional maturity. Yes, we're talking about envy rearing its ugly head yet again.
Is there a price, above which, things just get silly? Of course but this is a completely subjective matter. I have these inbuilt price thresholds for everything I buy whether we're talking about shoes, clothing, food, wine, LPs, hi-fi equipment, furniture, antiques, art, etc. But I do not get all hot and bothered when other people's price thresholds are well above mine. I do not morally object if someone else's every day wine costs $20 or $50 or even $500. As some of these wine tests have shown, when people just think they're drinking more expensive wine they enjoy it more and their brain's reaction attests to this fact. Who am I to limit someone else's enjoyment based on my notion of what represents a reasonable price?
In terms of hi-fi and preference, my approach is to listen over time. This includes when I'm buying stuff as well as when I'm reviewing. While audio dealers may hate me for saying so, I took about a year to purchase my Auditorium 23 speakers. I not only went to the dealer a number of times over that period, but I got to know an owner and had an opportunity to hear these speakers in two different locations, in two different homes. It was only after these long term listening sessions over time in multiple locations with different accompanying gear, that I felt comfortable making a purchase decision. The amplifier I use to drive them, the Shindo Cortese, took even longer and I've been enjoying this system for about 8 years (due to our move back in October, I have not set up this system yet but I look forward to doing so when time allows).
Golden Ears Exist (Sorry)
Here's John Atkinson again from the same Stereophile Blind Listening article:
"There is also the fact that the ability to reliably hear differences between hi-fi components varies considerably from person to person."And here's Dr. Bill Budd a lecturer and scientist at the University of Newcastle who specializes in neuroimaging and auditory processing:
"We do have people we refer to as 'golden ears', people who have much better hearing than others."While I know this fact bothers some people, it is none the less true. If you have a hard time believing this simple truth, your attitude and knowledge needs adjusting (here's another easy example from NPR and another from ScienceBlogs which gets into the science of hearing). The fact that some people hear better than others helps explain why some people hear things in hi-fi that others don't. Not to mention the fact that listening well is a learned behavior and does not necessarily require "golden ears". For example, musicians have been shown to be much better listeners (see the above linked NPR story). Michael Fremer of AnalogPlanet and Stereophile comments, "I like to say that with experience anyone can become a discerning listener—and you don’t even have to have 'state of the art' hearing."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a troubling phenomena has been explored by Hendrik Böhne et al. of the University of Hamburg in the paper MP3-compression artefacts in practical application. Here's the gist of their findings:
"So the exclusive use of compressed media seems to lead both, to a decrease in sound perception ability, as well as to a tendency to favour the compressed music over the uncompressed music."This may help explain why some of the "tests" of the PonoPlayer and high-res audio files had people preferring their MP3s. What should we call this? MP3 ears?
I'll share one story of a "golden ear", or better yet a discerning listener, from personal experience. A few CES's ago, I walked into a room (I don't recall which) and Michael Fremer was sitting in the sweet spot. The person running the room was putting on a record and within a few seconds of it playing, Mr. Fremer said, "The speed is off." The person running the room checked the speed with a strobe. It was running slightly fast. Now, how many people had listened to that same turntable without noticing? Your guess is as good as mine. CES is a busy place.
"Envy is especially directed at those with whom we compare ourselves...In our age of equal opportunities and mass media, it is hardly surprising that envy is so rife, particularly when our culture of empiricism and consumerism emphasizes the material and tangible over the spiritual and invisible." from Psychology Today,We're All Subjectivists In The End
If you were to round up all of the people who complain about how much audiophiles spend on their hi-fis and take a look at what they buy and how much they spend on their hobbies, you'll obviously see as broad a spectrum of prices and hobbyist stuff as you do when you look at how much audiophiles spend on their music and hi-fi. ATVs, bikes, boats, cars, cameras, gaming, wine, whatever. This fact does not bother me one bit nor does it mean that people who spend more money than I do on their passions are misguided morally corrupt fools. The truth of the matter is, if you get bothered by how much money other people spend on stuff, you are being a misguided morally corrupt fool.
Even if you restrict that grouping to self-defined objectivists and their hi-fis, I guarantee you will see people spending differing amounts on their hi-fi, with few people owning the same components. The point I'm getting to is those objectivists who cry foul over other audiophiles spending money on stuff without performing some kind of test are in fact doing the exact same thing. They are purchasing within their price threshold and using subjective means to inform their decisions. That's why all objectivists who are also cable deniers do not own the same cables.
Let's also put things in perspective. All of those wine studies do not mean that all wines taste the same, just as all amplifiers do not sound the same. While I have no interest in taking any kind of test to prove the latter, I will gladly take part in any type of wine test you can dream up. Just send the bottles on over, the more the merrier. Oh, wait, I mean the more statistically signifigant ;-)
Who's to say what's too much? The real answer to that question is no one but ourselves for ourselves. I don't know about you, but I'm not afraid to spend money on stuff based purely on how much enjoyment it delivers.