Audio Without Numbers, by Herb Reichert

Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank, Paul Klee (Etching and tonal etching on zinc, 1903)

"Knowledge" that a storm is a Level 5 hurricane with 200mph winds and 30-inches of potential rainfall is nothing more than a quasi-imaginable cultural abstraction compared to sitting on the roof of your house clutching your water-soaked cat - waiting to be rescued.

As you know, meteorologists are scientists who measure and study temperature, wind speed, barometric pressure, etc. They speak quantitatively. Television weather persons are weather-media-professionals that convert raw data into public explications about the probabilities of our weather futures. They speak declaratively. Meanwhile, roof-sitting hurricane survivors are neither hurricane experts nor weather professionals; they are real humans who are naturally entitled to speak qualitatively about the experience of the wind and water and how it affected them while losing their cat in the rushing torrents. In audio, I am not a meteorologist or weather person—I am a hurricane survivor.

Self-proclaimed audio objectivists, like those that troll audio forums, are not scientists, or audio professionals; they have not directly experienced the giant Sound Lab speakers or the acoustic-wind of a 15A/13A Western Electric horn system. They are pathologically self-centered people who watch the hurricane on TV and then later, tell the hurricane survivor that lost their cat, "That wasn't a hurricane—it was only a tropical storm."

I regard self-proclaimed audio objectivists, ones that parlay a few quasi-imaginable cultural abstractions and a middle school smattering of Newtonian Physics, into entitlement and authority -- as the self-declared enemies of poetry, love, and humanist culture. If they simply Googled 'logic and the world' they would quickly discover the Enlightenment Paradigm (Voltaire, Locke, et al.) they cling to was rejected by scientists and philosophers—before 1930 (Einstein, Heisenberg, et al.).

Their puffed-chest-DIY-objectivism pays zero respect to any plausible relation between logic and the realms of experience (Bertrand Russell). Amateur objectivists can't imagine that numbers and counting are little more than cultural fabrications with a stronger history in banking than science.

Interestingly, objectivists like behavioral psychologists do not believe consciousness exists. They can't see it or measure therefore it is not real. I always remind them they can't see or measure that roll of c-notes in my jeans pocket—but it is there just the same.

I personally believe that the unqualified acceptance of measuring and quantification automatically rejects the reality of human awareness and denies the verity of sensory perception.

I haven't told anyone, but lately I've been rendezvousing with a cult of self-proclaimed audio objectivists. Why? Because I need them to explain: how shall I recognize a superior audio system when it is playing and I am sitting in front it? What real, irrational, or transcendental numbers must I generate to accurately predict its usefulness or pleasure-giving ability?

I have gotten no satisfying answers, but I have discovered a few truisms.

At the core of audio-objectivist belief is the assumption that component that measure best will render the most accurate facsimile of the input signal. This might be true—but only if the input signal is a simple repetitive laboratory-generated test wave—not waves generated by some guy on heroin wailing on a saxophone. What I am alluding to is the conceptual junction of a cultural and technical disconnect—a disconnect that audio-objectivists appear to require—in order to feel safe, and righteous about their choices in audio playback hardware.

Unfortunately, troll-objectivists are not free of bias. Nor do most subscribe to scientific method as they claim. Their minds are not open to any forms of anecdotal evidence or unbiased collection of raw data. Instead, they demand illusionist parlor tricks like ABX blind "testing" (which certainly they imagine will support their preexisting notions).

They believe their unfulfilled demands for unsighted listening comparison entitles them to dismiss even the most experienced reviewer's claims. I can hear them now, "All audio cables that measure the same sound the same." To which I always respond, "Just because you can't hear the difference—who says I can't?"

Actually, I believe everyone can perceive subtle differences in audio sound character—but only if they have been schooled some in what to listen for. Like I always say, "You can't find what you are not looking for."

Whenever I tell an objectivist about the unidentified flying object I saw, they automatically discard my direct multisensory observations without any further investigation. If five more persons, or a million other persons, report the same observation—their reports are automatically dismissed.

Dutifully, I remind these dismissers, that, by definition, an 'objectivist' is an experienced, unbiased and unprejudiced observer; and that every editor at Stereophile, Analog Planet, InnerFidelity, and AudioStream fits that description.

When I report that DAC A is boring and annoying and turns my Lead Belly into Lawrence Welk—while, in comparison, DAC B is exciting and makes Lead Belly jump down turn around and sound time-machine real, I believe my statements about the quality of my DAC experience are more useful truths than jitter numbers or THD specs. I believe sensory awareness, mindful reasonably unbiased observation, and careful data-collection, are powerful scientific tools. When coupled with a few descriptive measurements we can trust, they can deliver enough 'facts' to form reasonable conclusions about an audio product under study.

The Oxford dictionary defines science as, "The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment." That definition and the developing practice of science insist: measurements and direct observation are of equal importance—one does not trump the other. (So why then can't objectivists and subjectivists respect each other?).

I, and all my associates at Stereophile and AudioStream, can truthfully say we are engaged in the intellectual, practical, and systematic study of what constitutes a qualitatively-effective audio playback system. Of course, all reviewers have bias—but we try to listen around them.

Whenever I get a new Stereophile, I read the measurements first because I am a nerd, I admire JA, and I find them intriguing. Besides, they might help me understand a little more what the reviewer experienced.

A comical aspect of this nerdy indulgence is: if John sent me a copy of some loudspeaker or amplifier measurements—but no photo, specs, brand names, or prices—I swear I could probably write a convincing report about how the measured component sounded with several of my favorite records. But every qualitative declaration would be a lie. This is why I am against measuring before listening.

In my view, reviewers that measure first and listen second have almost-zero credibility. Why? Because: seeing those quantifications is the ultimate in sighted listening and creates the highest possible level of pre-existing bias. This is so because lab studies have a different set of game rules (i.e. quantification) than listening mindfully (observation) ---- and everyone knows you can't play one game with the rules of another. Everyone knows you can't love Lead Belly while you're imagining THD+noise.

In conclusion, I am asking you to study a famous 1903 Paul Klee etching entitled, Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank (Zwei Männer, einander in höherer Stellung vermutend, begegnen sich). The naked unbearded fellow on the left is a left-brain Apollonian objectivist, the fatter bearded guy is a right brain Dionysian. Do you believe they should walk together? I am proposing they do.

Herb Reichert is an artist, writer, and amp builder. He has written for Sound Practices, Positive Feedback, Listener, and Stereophile.

Wavelength's picture


Great Article! Michael we should have this up on the top page every couple months to remind people that it's about the musical experience and not the numbers.

We should also remember that just because we can, doesn't mean we should. Sample rates, upsampling, oversampling, higher and higher. Look... If you record today with the best AD converters in the world the max sample rate is 192K and in most cases artist have found that using anything over 88.2K sounds bad to them.

I work with a lot of artists and always ask what they record at and it's surprising how many say 24/88.2K. Nobody told them this, but over time they found that if they use this rate it sounds best and of course it is easily converter to 16/44.1.

The same thing with DAC chips, though they have better specs than most AD chips, the use of excessive sample rates just because you can doesn't mean it will sound better than lower ones.

Take some time to listen and compare.

On a side note if you don't play an instrument, it's never too late to learn. Playing music can really help you with your audio as you really have a true reference for what a note is and how it should sound. A percussionist since 13, I picked up guitar about 12 years ago. Having even a simple $500 acoustic around to pluck on can reform your ideas on your system.


FransZappa's picture

The joy you get from walking in a forest is not measured by the number of trees. And I loved what the Leeds Radio guy said in the Stereophile video: the less neurotic you make an activity, the more joy you get out of it!

Steven Plaskin's picture

Herb has eloquently stated what we at AudioStream believe in terms of audio reviewing and our devotion to the overall musical experience. Great to have you here Herb.

mskaye's picture

as much as I look forward to any great writer writing for any publication/website. His writings make me learn and I'm always introduced to new music and new ways of appreciating music and the equipment that reproduces music. More Herb R in Audiostream!

PeterMusic's picture

Great piece! I'll go a couple of steps further:

First, while I agree that almost everyone can hear subtle differences with a bit of training, I'll also assert that almost everyone can distinguish a great hifi or component from a very good one. It does not require expertise to perceive beauty, it takes an open heart. In the same way that one does not need to be a chef, oenophile or art historian to appreciate great food, great wine, or a beautiful painting; we can easily feel great sounds move us.

Second, obsessive measure can actually suck the joy out of the whole process. I love my hifi not when I'm listening critically, but when I'm just feeling the music. In a great stereo, the measurements only serve to highlight the small weaknesses. Once we start focusing on those small weaknesses...

midfiguy's picture

The relationship between aesthetes and artists famously described by Barnett Newman is not exactly analogous to the relationship between objectivists (of a certain sort) and those more inclined toward to qualitative experience, but, hey, here it is: "Aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds." In today's hot-take Internet world, I think it's important to take the constant commenters and the denizens of the forum with a grain of salt. There are a slew of self-proclaimed experts on all sorts of things out there to whom we should feel free to pay no heed. Whether it's music, food, art, Christmas lights - enjoy what you enjoy!

That said, I am grateful there are thoughtful designers of audio equipment out there who are able to keep a foot in each camp.

jkingtut's picture

"That said, I am grateful there are thoughtful designers of audio equipment out there who are able to keep a foot in each camp." Whoa for a second there I thought Herb had a foot in each amp, being a builder and all. But methinks he's smoking some that that stuff MF has been passing around-- way too worried about the trolls while there are records you have you will never listen to again by simply running out of time writing about making the red lights green and the green red. (Stop on the red go on the green don't mess with mister in between). I got called a troll on a financial forum the other day-- by a guy who made me over $200k, not a misprint and I had a good laugh (on my own). I read everything Herb writes because he is good at it, I learn something, I met him once at Capital Audiofest, and he will probably save me some money one day when I buy some new "stuff". Not herb. Herb not herb. Who me? I'm with mid-fi.

TubeDriver's picture

LOL! When I hear folks summarily dismissing someone's experience without a second thought, I think that either 1) their ideology has fallen in the way of their ontology or 2) their hearing is just not that good or 3) their on some dark, personal vendetta (ie asshole). I no longer feel the need to educate them and seldom the desire to debate the merits either. Life is just too short. We can all walk along without getting in each other's way, but not always in the same direction and certainly not holding hands.

TubeDriver's picture


sordidman's picture

Thank you!

("So why then can't objectivists and subjectivists respect each other?)."
You answered this so well, (indirectly), by saying the "agendae driven" objectivist is simply not engaging in science.

bobflood's picture

Please tell us what you really think.

Seriously, Great piece.

tmtomh's picture

This is a tantrum, not an argument. At the end, you propose that left-brain Apollonians and right-brain Dionysians walk together. All well and good, except you've just spent your entire article caricaturing and character-assassinating left-brained Apollonians. Rhetorically, it's abusive behavior: beat the living tar out of them and then offer your hand in partnership.

It's quite difficult to engage with the specific points you make, because they're dripping in rigged adjectives and straw-man argumentation. But I will say that the idea that you "try to listen around" your biases reveals the weakness of your argument. If you really believed in the ideas you profess here, then you'd say something to the effect that so-called "bias" is something to be embraced so long as it is disclosed - you'd argue that bias is just a slander for the qualitative "hurricane survivor" listening you do.

But you evidently don't have the courage of your convictions, so you cop out with that pathetic "listen around my bias" hedge. Easier to be pure and forceful when attacking others than when articulating your own position.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
You are walking a fine line by using words like "pathetic" and "courage...", between commentary and what I consider abusive language.

While we welcome commentary, we can all live without abusive language, here.

tmtomh's picture

Thank you for your reply. I take your point RE "pathetic," and would happily remove that adjective if it were possible to edit comments. I do not wish to engage in abusive language.

As for "courage," I would respectfully note that I used the word as part of the phrase "courage of your convictions" which is a well-established idiomatic expression that is not about questioning anyone's personal character. Rather, it's about consistency of behavior (or in this case, consistency of argument).

Finally, while I do apologize for using the word "pathetic," I believe it must be noted that Mr. Reichert's piece calls objectivists "pathologically self-centered people" who "parlay a few quasi-imaginable cultural abstractions and a middle school smattering of Newtonian Physics, into entitlement and authority -- as the self-declared enemies of poetry, love, and humanist culture."

In my view that's not walking a fine line; it's blowing right past it. I understand authors have prerogative that commenters might not have. But I also believe in fairness and mutual accountability. Thank you for the opportunity to comment and dialogue.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
If you choose to self-identify and put yourself into the shoes, so to speak, of the 'objectivist' Herb is describing, I can see how you might take his comments personally.
tmtomh's picture

Actually, I don't consider myself an objectivist, and it has nothing to do with taking it personally, since I don't. Offensive language is offensive, and straw-man arguments are straw-man arguments, regardless of whether or not one considers oneself the target.

I'm not an engineer and I don't by a long shot believe that measurements can tell us exactly what a piece of equipment is going to sound like. But calling those one disagrees with "pathologically self-centered people" who are "self-declared enemies of poetry, love, and humanist culture" - that's nasty and in your words "abusive language" on its face (not to mention an completely unsupportable claim).

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...dismiss this piece (while not having taken it personally). I see.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

tmtomh's picture

I'm sorry if I gave the wrong impression. I do think the piece is more of a rant than an actual argument, but I did read it fully and do have specific thoughts on it. One, for example, is how Mr. Reichert chastises "chest-puffing objectivists" for misunderstanding the Enlightenment and the context in which some of its key figures operated. I certainly agree with him that a critique of scientism was part of the Enlightenment. But I think his argument is flawed in exactly the same way he claims objectivists' views are flawed: Where they see the Enlightenment only as an embrace of the scientific method, he sees it only as a reaction against that view. The reality is that it contained both, and he's just as mistaken as the objectivists in reducing it to just one facet (a facet that happens to fit neatly with his own pre-existing perspective).

I also should clarify that not only am I not an engineer, but I'm also not in a STEM field at all. I teach in the humanities, and I prioritize enjoyment of music above all else. So I would venture that Mr. Reichert and I, and perhaps you, share more than you might think in terms of what we look for in the hi-fi audio experience.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...has been writing for a few decades, and at something like 10+ years for me (a relative newcomer), there's plenty of "us" to be read beyond this one piece. If you take the time to read other things we've written, I think you'll find that there's absolutely no doubt about our shared love of music and its enjoyment.
tmtomh's picture

While I'm newly registered here, I have read many other pieces each of you has written (and in Mr. Reichert's case also watched videos), and will continue to do so. My father has been a Stereophile subscriber for about 25 years now, and a TAS subscriber for about 10, and subscribed to other audio magazines in the early '80s; I've been reading them since I was 12. So I've come to digital and computer-based music playback and discussion from the more traditional hi-fi world (not the converse). I have no doubt of your love of music (just didn't want to be too presumptuous in my prior comment, is all). Thanks again for the dialogue.

Chigo's picture

While I am no objectivist, I have to say I agree with tmtomh in this case. If your aim is to keep the discourse on Audiostream civil and free of abusive language, that standard should be applied to the authors and the commenters equally. Herb makes many excellent points in this article; unfortunately, he undermines them with hostile language and ad hominem attacks, and a point of view that appears confused between wanting to unite and wanting to further divide. I do not visit Audiostream for incendiary trolling from either the main articles or the comment section; I hope this does not become a pattern.

m_ms's picture

Mr. Lavorgna --

Poster "tmtomh" provided Mr. Reichert a fair, well-written and well-argumentet critique, and yet for all tmtomh has to say the one and only thing you care to point out here is his one-time use of the word "pathetic" - when in fact you could as well and more properly have raised concern at Mr. Reichert's similar, yet worse misdemeanor in above article (both for the sake of his own argument and to adhere to the stance you're so rigorously proclaiming). Most importantly though you completely ignore the arguments themselves, instead resorting to a red herring in how named poster should have taken the comments of the article personally, which is indeed irrelevant. This, I find, is the case of yours, Mr. Reichert and Atkinson in a nutshell: you presume to solely take action against and calling out one-sided trolling activity, when in fact you're throwing out the baby with the bathwater and don't want to face the real arguments placed in opposition to your own. One might wonder: is that indeed your true agenda?

Perhaps it's fitting here to call to mind the responsibility of the administrator/moderator: take care not to insulate yourselves as the all-knowing entity with posh, literary references and namedroppings, and refrain from dialogue with those whose views you'd rather flush out with the toilet water. If you truly want to avoid abusive language, at least try not to provoke it.

ralphfcooke's picture

It's all very well proclaiming oneself to be a Subjectivionist (is that even a word?), but without objective, scientific investigation, and the technology that derives from it you would not be listening to any recorded music at all.
It is easy to find references that back up a given point of view, but it's equally easy to refute it. As an example Richard Feynman's quote:-

“I have a friend who's an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say "look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. Then he says "I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing," and I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is ... I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there's also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.”

I agree that some objective individuals take things to extremes, but it appears that only in audio is the dichotomy between measuring and observing taken so personally.
We have instruments that are capable of measuring any physical phenomenon with a higher degree of accuracy than could possibly be observed, yet it's only with hearing that this is questioned.
What is even more interesting is that it's not our ears that we should be wondering about, but our brains.
There have been many studies that show how easy it is to trick our brains with regards to music, just one simple example here:-
That there are differences between amplifiers, speakers, even Dacs is beyond question, but when expressions like 'night and day' are used to describe the differences between two 1 meter lengths of ethernet cable it is difficult to take the reviewer seriously, especially when it is 'almost' always the much more expensive component that comes out on top, in fact I cannot remember ever seeing a reviewed product that receives a less than glowing report, even if, 'heaven forfend' it measures worse than its peers.
All in all this article demeans the writer more than those who it purports to critisize - for shame!

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Point of fact - the article is not disappointing, *you* are disappointed buy it. As you can see from other comments, not everyone is.

But this plays very nicely into illustrating Herb's theme, imo of course.

Ortofan's picture

... "middle school smattering of Newtonian Physics" and, if so, to what level?
Has HR ever heard Huddie Ledbetter (or Lawrence Welk) perform live?
How complex might an audio test signal have to be before HR would deem it to be valid?
By what process would HR go about designing and producing (not simply selecting) the components for a "qualitatively-effective audio playback system?"

Michael Lavorgna's picture
So many new voices all inspired by Herb. Lovely!


Ortofan's picture

If you don't mind my asking, were you reluctant to stir the pot yourself? Is that why HR was brought in to do it?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I don't mind you asking but that's plain silly (no offense meant).
grantray's picture

So much sass! Does this also mean Herb has begun secretly building amps in his Bed Stuy bunker of the feral kind? If he is, just tell me where the line starts.

Alex Halberstadt's picture

"By definition, an 'objectivist' is an experienced, unbiased and unprejudiced observer"

...and conversely, a person who denies phenomena because they don't conform to his pre-existing beliefs is a "fanatic."

Beautifully written and brilliantly reasoned. Bravo Herb!

DH's picture

I find this column and the April 1 serious/not serious video to be pointless. It seems to have no real point other than to be click bait. The present column is not a realistic or fair portrayal of many audiophiles who it seems to be talking about. And dividing us into simplistically defined camps of "subjectivists" and "objectivists" also seems pointless. Many of us are somewhere in the middle. Are subjectivists like Herb going to deny that there are not a lot of audio "snake-oil" based products on the market that make all sorts of claims to improve "SQ"?

I'm not an objectivist, but subjectivists who deny the possibility of expectation bias in their sighted comparisons are fooling themselves and ignoring well based science about how human perception works, including audio perception.

There are also a couple of specific points here I disagree with:
" I remind these dismissers, that, by definition, an 'objectivist' is an experienced, unbiased and unprejudiced observer; and that every editor at Stereophile, Analog Planet, InnerFidelity, and AudioStream fits that description."

I'm sorry, that statement is on its' face untrue and wildly self serving. I enjoy reading reviews and find them helpful, but claiming that professional reviewers are by definition unbiased and unprejudiced is almost laughable. Herb's column by itself proves the opposite. Even the fact that they often know and/or are friendly with the people who's products they are reviewing means they aren't unbiased and unprejudiced. I'm not saying they aren't trying to be fair and unbiased, but the claim itself is clearly not true on its' face.

The Oxford dictionary defines science as, "The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment." That definition and the developing practice of science insist: measurements and direct observation are of equal importance—one does not trump the other. (So why then can't objectivists and subjectivists respect each other?).

This quote reveals an absolutely fundamental misunderstanding of science and the scientific method. "Direct observation" in science means you have to also collect data - it doesn't mean observation=looking at or listening to something and leaving it at that.

When Fleming "observed" a petri dish in which the penicillin mold killed bacteria, he and others had to follow up his "observation" with more "observations" and trials to collect objective data about how the penicillin mold worked. The discovery was in 1928, the practical application was in the 1940's.
In addition, in science your observations and claims have to be able to be objectively repeated by others for them to be considered true.
So Herb's conclusion about direct observation and measurement based on a one sentence definition of science from the dictionary is a false conclusion based on a simplistic distortion about how science works.

Individual observations prove nothing in science unless they can be objectively repeated and backed up by data. Without that, they remain at best interesting and unproved observations.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...does not make them so.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Erasmus's picture

One thing that never ceases to amaze me in discussions about the "methodology" of reviewing / rating audio components and labels such as "subjectivism" and "objectivism" (which do not correspond to how these terms are used in science or philosophy) is that the wealth of psychological research that is currently available about how sensory perception and memory operates is not acknowledged in them in any way. For instance, one often sees in the audio press mentions of required "burn-in" time for various devices, usually without any reference to what components are supposed to be affected during the initial hundred hours or so of use, and how. Yes, there probably are mechanical / electronic components whose operation changes somewhat during that initial period. But the other very plausible explanation -- that it is instead the listener's perception of the sound produced by the system that actually changes through psychological adjustment -- is practically never entertained as a possibility.

This approach would seem to imply a position about the capabilities of an "experienced, unbiased and unprejudiced observer" that is at odds with the key results of scientific research regarding human perception.

Now, I do not mean to say that the audio press is necessarily the venue for discussing such matters to begin with; and I would not expect Stereophile or Audiostream to usually carry rigorous pieces on the psychology of listening tests or the philosophy of language (cf. Michael's curious "points of fact" about the English language in the comments). But for precisely the same reasons, it is unwise to try to further rambling arguments about such technical topics by e.g., insulting straw man opponents and then reciting a dictionary definition of science and interpreting it in a highly idiosyncratic way.

TubeDriver's picture

(if the responses here are representaive) how closely objectivists follow columns written by people like Herb. I wonder if these objectivists are as engaged with objectivist reviewers they actually approve of? Are there long discussions somewhere about how much better this component with 0.00001% THD is than that one with 0.0001% THD (both 20Hz-20kHz at 8 ohms)? Is that a significant difference? I wonder if lots of “subjectivists” flood those sites with comments? And if so, are they “engaging” or merely trolling?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...and rather misleading if we assume they are ;-)

If someone is interested in engaging, they ask questions.

foxhall's picture

This commentary was much needed - thanks for your words.

monkeybrsin's picture

"Mutual criticism is a most healthy policy, and helps to establish final and definite rules in life - practical, not merely theoretical. We have had enough of theories."
"If one criticism is hurtful so is another; so also is every innovation, or even the presentation of some old thing under a new aspect, as both have necessarily to clash with the views of this or another “authority”. I maintain, on the contrary, that criticism is the great benefactor of thought in general; and still more so of those men who never think for themselves but rely in everything upon acknowledged “authorities” and social routine.

For what is an “authority” upon any question, after all? No more, really, than a light streaming upon a certain object through one single, more or less wide, chink, and illuminating it from one side only. Such light, besides being the faithful reflector of the personal views of but one man - very often merely that of his special hobby - can never help in the examination of a question or a subject from all its aspects and sides. Thus, the authority appealed to will often prove but of little help, yet the profane, who attempts to present the given question or object under another aspect and in a different light, is forthwith hooted for his great audacity. Does he not attempt to upset solid “authorities”, and fly in the face of respectable and time-honoured routine thought?

Friends and foes! Criticism is the sole salvation from intellectual stagnation. It is the beneficent goad which stimulates to life and action - hence to healthy changes - the heavy ruminants called Routine and Prejudice, in private as in social life. Adverse opinions are like conflicting winds which brush from the quiet surface of a lake the green scum that tends to settle upon still waters. If every clear stream of independent thought, which runs through the field of life outside the old grooves traced by Public Opinion, had to be arrested and to come to a standstill, the results would prove very sad. The streams would no longer feed the common pond called Society, and its waters would become still more stagnant than they are. Result: it is the most orthodox “authorities” of the social pond who would be the first to get sucked down still deeper into its ooze and slime."
"For truth, according to an old Belgian proverb, is always the result of conflicting opinions, like the spark that flies out from the shock of two flints struck together."

from "In Defense of Criticism" by Helena P. Blavatsky

Brent Butterworth's picture

Those of us who were raised in hurricane country know that when the meteorologist warns of a Class 5 hurricane coming, you get out of town. The people who dismiss the judgment of scientists are the ones who end up sitting on their roof waiting to be rescued.

Toe Jam's picture

by the articles’ wit and accurate depiction, yet bored by the predictable comments from those who epitomize the characterization. What a species!

S_A_M's picture

We are the smaller group, "us". We have both subjectivists and objectivists, but also many who defy classification. We may disagree on our perspective, but we love to teach and learn, and we communicate civilly, with mutual respect. We don't feel obliged to convince or win. We focus on enjoying music.
The other group, "them", is so large, they have separated themselves into sub-groups, their own "us" and "them", subjectivists and objectivists. Vitriol and ad hominem attacks are their favored forms of discourse. Enjoyment of music seems secondary, although some claim otherwise.
We "us" are not so comfortable with "them" and find it all a shame.

Toe Jam's picture

You are using an Ad hominem argument to claim you are above such tactics in discourse. I enjoy music, but I respectfully reject your attempt to lump me in with you.

S_A_M's picture

I had no intention to lump you and I together. Sorry if I was unclear.

ri_stretto's picture

the original title of klee's etching "Zwei Männer, einander in höherer Stellung vermutend, begegnen sich" contains a notion that has been lost in translation (sometimes the same happens in audio when translating sound waves into electrons and back). the german title can also be interpreted that each of the two men thinks that *he himself* is in the higher position (and not only the other). fwiw…

toxicnewt's picture

Thank you for the best comment yet given the clear jockeying for status and high ground that this particular line of thought has generated. :)

myrantz's picture

at a company dealing with meteorology and oceanography. It was a fun 10 years and the gig paid for everything I own now - house, car, hifi #1, hifi #2 and hifi #3. And we call them cyclones over here.

In my previous line of work - we measure real data, and we have models. In my ten years over there the company have worked relentlessly and over the years the correlation of measured data vs modeled data are really good (we sort data by percentiles, then plot measured vs modelled). This corelation stat is just one of many reports we have to generate, and that's just QA and QC. And we have to send buoys out every season to constantly update our models.

We measure as many variables as we can, and then use formulas to convert some quantities from one to another. This is so we can cross reference the data and make sure everything 'makes sense'. It also helps when a sensor fail (they almost always do with long deployments). We can still be able to derive data another way using already measured values (at a lost of accuracy and/or precision). And so on.

Give me 2D or 3D raw data, and I can generate a surface wave spectrum. From there I can calculate Hs, Tp, Tm, Tz, ThetaM, ThetaP, etc, etc.

But show me anything in Hifi, and it feels all made up. Ever since I lost my oceanography job I have no interest in debating with the self proclaimed objectivists any more.

One day I hope to listen to BACCH (I think that's what it's called). Hopefully my faith in audio measurements will be restored then.

mskaye's picture

"But show me anything in Hifi, and it feels all made up. " To sum extent maybe, but there are patents out there and most of the cable makers are engineers and whether this all can be measured or not, I (and others listening with me ) have heard distinct, clear, differences in soundstage depth/height and richness of tone/ fullness when doing cable comparisons. There was a difference TO ME and I also understand that some people love (I don't) the hyper detail delivering from very expensive cables of all kinds - power, interconnet and speaker. I don't see this as a black or white issue but I understand that others do.

myrantz's picture

"but there are patents out there and most of the cable makers are engineers and whether this all can be measured or not, "

Music cannot be measured.

Let's take an example. We can use measurements from a weather system to predict if/when a cyclone will form. This is possible because we understand the relationships of various measurements over time. Simple things like ambient temperature, sea water temperature, humidity, wind direction, wind speed, current direction, and so on. How they interplay over time allows us predict the conditions that will form a cyclone. And estimate it's intensity and it's likely paths.

That's prediction. And we can do so because we placed a lot of scrutiny in obsevation.

Audio measurements don't work like this. It's often a single metric and often that single measurement is the all and be all for an argument. Nobody bothers to cross check the data, replicate the experiment, or so on. Some thing is published, and it spread like gossip all over - and everybody suddenly think it's a well researched fact.

They also do not have the same interplay and the derivatives are often useless or outright meaningless.

Objectivists often focus on a single point and then win the argument. However, if you put all their won single points arguments together. They often contradict.

e.g. People cannot hear above 16 kHz (or 22 kHz)so high res is a fraud. And then they say there are some 'problems' in the ultrasonics and above so this codec is not good.

At the end of the day, we are in a society now encourages people to argue. Like you I know from experience the effects of different cables, components and so on. I also know from experience these cannot be measured. The latter could be wrong now (as BACCH may well prove me wrong).

Anton's picture

If you are reading this: if you ever need anything I can help with, let me know!


teodorom's picture

I’m a Theoretical Particle Physicist, Taoist, jazz guitar player, photographer, and (mostly) on the objectivist side.
Given that I feel quite disturbed to be (possibly) included among the “pathologically self-centered people”. More: I’m quite disturbed in reading those quotations about Einstein, Heisenberg and Feynman. The vision of the World of a Physicist is more holistic (here comes the Taoism) that you can imagine.
If I trust more the measures than the listening tests, it’s because measures are repeatable and then falsifiable, so (as Popper could say) leading to a better level of “truth”. Listening tests (after a certain level) are not.
Stated that, let me say that I can accept some of the points of the subjectivist. Everyone can remember the period when quality of an amplifier was defined by the number of zeros in is THD. Then came Matti Otala ( and the measures of TIM. The rest is history.
Having learned the lesson, I can admit that listening tests can help to improve the measurement protocols. On the other side I’m completely disappointed when someone speaks “night and day” when the effect is (perhaps) only second order, and the repeatability of the listening test is a lot concerned.
It was funny to read discussions about the audibility of the kind of ethernet cable on streamed music. Me, since I’m using Wi-Fi, I asked if they could suggest some snake oil vaporizer that could help the propagation of the electromagnetic waves in aether (that do not exists, but nobody noticed that) …
So, I don’t deny completely the validity of the listening tests, but … there is a limit!

volvic's picture

So glad Herb joined the Stereophile group several years ago, has been so great reading his work, almost feel like I am there. As an Art History major (one of my many majors) I so enjoy the iconography in the Klee drawing that Herb has included to make his point. Good stuff!

Venere 2's picture

It has been written on many forums that Michael Lavorgna has been released from Audiostream. Is an official announcement coming soon?

Will there be a new editor? Will Audiostream continue?

funambulistic's picture

... sad, if true. I've noticed no new posts in a week. What forums are you perusing with this info?

Venere 2's picture

There is a thread on the subject on CA. Michael Fremer also confirmed it on the Steve Hoffman forums.

funambulistic's picture

Michael, Robert and Jana - that's a shame. I enjoy all of their work

440Hz's picture

funny, you start your mocking of everyone who doesn't believe in super-human golden bat-hearing, the differences in sound between 18K and 24K gold-cables, placed on 1000$ ceramic isolators, by talking about the ONE thing everybody agrees on does NOT all sound the same, ie is "transparent" : Transducers - and you know what +
they ALL measure more or less horrible, ie what you hear is 100% reflected in the measurements .

RGibran's picture

...and engaging article and comments I’ve read on this site. Shame powers that be would seem to attempt to discourage the opinions of anyone.

kirkmc's picture

It's funny how this profession, which is mostly men who are middle aged or older, leans toward "I know what I hear." How many have had their hearing tested? I have, and there are frequencies where it is deficient. I wouldn't suggest that, for really detailed listening, that my hearing is representative of anyone else's.

The dismissive tone of this article is nothing new; it's just dressed up with a few ten-dollar words and the names of a few philosophers.

kirkmc's picture

"When I report that DAC A is boring and annoying and turns my Lead Belly into Lawrence Welk—while, in comparison, DAC B is exciting and makes Lead Belly jump down turn around and sound time-machine real, I believe my statements about the quality of my DAC experience are more useful truths than jitter numbers or THD specs. I believe sensory awareness, mindful reasonably unbiased observation, and careful data-collection, are powerful scientific tools."

Except that the acuity of your hearing varies over time, notably in your perception of volume. If you listen to music long enough, your hearing will dampen what you hear. And if you happen to be listening with a glass of wine or a beer, your hearing will also alter.

Your subjective opinion of the second or third thing will be affected by your opinion of the first thing, and notably affected but what you think you are going to hear, or what you really, subconsciously want to hear. And this, of course, assumes you're listening blind; if you know what you're listening to, then all bets are off. Subjectivity of sensory experiences are grossly filtered by a wide range of observers' paradoxes, and this gets more complex over time as your senses alter in the detail of their perception. So that magical cable that sounds so good? It might just be your subconscious. This is why measurements are important.

Ali's picture

Since 4th of Apr. this website has not been updated; something going wrong?

Venere 2's picture

Michael Lavorgna has been fired.

Jana Dagdagan will be replacing him. Links to this have been already posted in older comments.

dysonapr's picture

It's subjective, and as is becoming more apparent every day in our brave new double-speak world, humans have a limitless capacity to deceive themselves.

volvic's picture

Rumor has it that Rafe Arnott will be joining Audiostream and Innerfidelity. If true this is good news, you will not find a better reviewer and more honest individual than Rafe. I have dealt and communicated with him personally over the last few years and consider him a gentleman and true to his word. Again if true then welcome aboard Rafe, I am very excited for the future of Audiostream.

Joseph95's picture

Regardless of the niche, genre, topic - there will be folks that will use some sort of silly (though often not at first glance) arguments to make them look like they're better, "in the know", elite.
It makes me laugh. My father is almost 80, he's half deaf, he listens to music on the radio and enjoys it to the fullest, even though I'm sure these "scientists" would argue he shouldn't be heaving fun..

hrboucher's picture

I’ve been comparing two DACs, trying to decide which one to keep. They sound very alike such that I am not sure I could identify them in a blind A-B test. Except for one thing: When I play music I love, with one DAC my feet are moving to the music and my arms are flailing about as if I am Leonard Bernstein. With the other DAC, I just sit and hear the music. Can John Atkinson tell me with measurements why this happens?