Blind Testing, Golden Ears, and Envy. Oh My!

"Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all." Joseph Epstein

The outrage aimed at audiophiles is for the most part about envy.

en·vy
ˈenvē/
noun
noun: envy; plural noun: envies

1.
a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck.
Don't believe it? Follow me...

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."

"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!"

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.

"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 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.

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.

"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!

Some amplifiers which cannot be distinguished reliably under formal blind conditions do not sound similar over lengthy listening in more familiar and relaxed circumstances.

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.

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.

COMMENTS
Patrick Butler's picture

Bingo

bobflood's picture

but, as I said in an earlier post, we do need some combination of subjective and objective analysis lest we be completely at the mercy of those who would take advantage of us from within our hobby.

I could care less what people spend their money on and defend their right to do so. I would just like the best guide posts when it comes to spending my own money within this my life long hobby.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
That's why I'd like to incorporate measurements on AudioStream. As I've said before, due to budgetary constraints, this is not currently possible. To provide meaningful, accurate measurements is not an inexpensive or simple endeavor.
...we do need some combination of subjective and objective analysis lest we be completely at the mercy of those who would take advantage of us from within our hobby.
Let's take the two most controversial products we've reviewed—the AudioQuest Ethernet cables and the Synergistic Atmosphere Tuning Module. Some people will discount these products automatically because they believe they cannot possibly make a difference. So they are "safe". Then we have some people who are on the fence, waiting for some objective data, so they are also "safe". Finally we have people who may be swayed, one way or another, by a subjective review. These people are clearly the ones that are potentially at risk.

Let's say some of these at risk individuals actually go out and buy some expensive Ethernet cables or the Atmosphere device without even listening before purchasing, which is something I advise against. Let's also say that some people hear a difference, for whatever reason, and some don't. In the latter case, if it was me, I'd return the product and the worst case scenario is I'm out the return shipping charges. For those people who hear a difference, we're all good.

What I'm saying is, I just don't see a rational scenario where anyone is at anyone's mercy. That said, I would recommend not buying anything that you are the least bit unsure of without being able to listen over time. Preferably in your own system.

bobflood's picture

I hope you understand that my comments are not meant as any criticism of your not providing objective measurements. I know that it is very expensive and difficult for any one reviewer to do. I wish there was an independent lab (like the UL certification that insurers use) that all the reviewers could contract with and get the cost down to a manageable level.

JA at Stereophile is the last one standing in the USA and I fear that they will abandon it when he retires. He is the perfect person to do it as he is an engineer, musician, reviewer/journalist and manager. Replacing him will be very difficult.

I agree that the more liberal return/paid in-home demo policies are very helpful and as we return to a more Caveat Emptor way of doing business, they will become more the norm. In the end though they cannot replace a balanced subjective/objective review process.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Replacing him will be very difficult.
I think that is an understatement.
tubefan9's picture

mainly for equipment or labor? Any idea on what type of real costs these are? If people spend 30K on a DAC I don't see why we can't start a crowd funding campaign to fund these purchasing decisions. Am I wrong?

Anyway.. I hope we can move on from these topics and go back to the equipment/software/music reviews.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...to see what is the most cost effective approach.
Anyway.. I hope we can move on from these topics and go back to the equipment/software/music reviews.
Part of the reason for this post is these issues come up over and over. Now I can just point people to this post so I don't have to repeat myself over and over in the comments. At least that's the idea.
highstream's picture

How much of what measurements mean relative to sound is knowledge, how much speculation and how much falls in the category of "we don't know." Ask developers and good engineers and you'll find a whole lot falls in the latter two.

pwf2739's picture

Michael,

What an insightful, articulate, well researched piece. I couldn't agree with your assessments more.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Cheers.
orgillian's picture

While I have learned a lot over the past decades from those folks learned enough to write and review audio equipment for various publications, and now online as well, I am struck by the obvious lack of logic by those who would throw bricks from behind their glass walls. If you disagree with a reviewer's conclusions, and you are certain he's wrong, audition the product(s) yourself, preferably in your own system. Even if you agree with him or her, the same holds true-audition the product(s) yourself, preferably in your own system. You've got to trust your own ears at some point, else you'll waste a lot of time and money.

Steven Plaskin's picture

Gee guys,

I have never experienced any of these anti-audiophile types while writing for AudioStream :)

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Like!
deckeda's picture

"all objectivists who are also cable deniers do not own the same cables."

And there it is in a nutshell. Subjectivism exists, even where they think it doesn't.

whell's picture

I'll never forget one year when I set up a listening room at the Audiokarma Fest. For those of you familiar with the Fest, the AK mission statement of "all audio, no attitude" is part of the vibe at the Fest as well, and "member listening rooms" where forum members bring their systems from home and set them up for display and enjoyment of other members are interspersed with vendor rooms.

Now, my system was/is relatively modest compared to some of the other gear and systems on display at the FEST. But no matter, I enjoy listening to it and also enjoyed getting good feedback from visitors to the room. However....

I'll never forget one self-important Fest attendee who visited my room. He was quick to tell me everything he though was wrong with my set up, including specifics using time honored words such was inner - detail and PRAT and sound-staging etc etc. Unfortunately he decided to stay in the room a while for extended listening. I guess he thought that others could benefit from his vast expertise. Frankly, he was a boorish turd.

One thing I suspect the Internet and its anonymity does is bring some of our overly-opinionated audio compadres out of he woodwork. But I also suspect that it comes with he hobby, just like your observations about those who regard themselves as wine aficionados. While some can share their ideas and passions about their hobby without resorting to sarcasm, insult, and the insatiable desire to defend precarious rhetorical and technical opinions on internet forums, others resort to behaving like boorish turds.

threewire's picture

Well said, sir. And further along your point, it strikes me that this insidious "envious indignation" is disproportionately directed at audiophiles when far more deserving targets abound. Nearly everyone I know who has the means to buy an expensive car, does so, while almost none of them could reliably define "snap oversteer," let alone recover from it on the road. Likewise, I know plenty of people who will watch standard definition TV for hours on an expensive HDTV without even noticing. Both these groups of people have spent considerably more money than was necessary given their (obviously low) level of discernment. Perhaps people are conditioned to assume that all high-dollar, luxury good purchases are status-driven because that's the primary motivation behind their own legion purchases of McMansions, granite countertops, BMWs, and carbon fibre bicycles. So while there are already many legitimate reasons why consideration and purchase of audiophile gear need not limit itself to specious ABX testing or oscilloscope observations, throw this one on the pile: I'll more likely feel compelled to prove my need for a specific brand of KT-88s the second every BMW M3 owner in the world laps the Nurburgring in under 8 minutes. So unless Hans Stuck has a problem with my Gold Lions, the rest of the world's audio skeptics can waltz their tin ears down to the local Bose store and keep their mouths shut.

Old Fool's picture

JA: that the very procedure of a blind listening test can conceal small but real subjective differences.

That's certainly easily understandable, and is not unlike how the listening environment can dramatically affect the sound. So, if we buys room treatment or move speakers around, why shouldn't we spend some effort on blind listening? If blind listening makes cheap equipment sounds indistinguishable from expensive equipment, why shouldn't we just listen blind?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
And whenever I have to buy anything, houses, food, clothes, wine, etc. I just buy the cheapest available then close my eyes and hope for the best.
Old Fool's picture

Some (not me) would certainly argue that picking a wife blind is the way to go. But I digress.

Of course, you knew very well that I was not saying just buy the cheapest equipment, but rather we should buy based on our ears, not our eyes, IF sound is all you worry about. I wouldn't discount the value of blind listening evaluation just because I don't like the results.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
You can read all about it right here.
Old Fool's picture

No doubt sound preference is subjective. And no one is silly enough to say that all equipment sounds the same. Your previous article is well written and I pretty much agree with the sentiment.

But the current article seems to suggest that the ABX people grew out of the cynical motive of envy. I just don't think that's generally true.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
But the current article seems to suggest that the ABX people grew out of the cynical motive of envy. I just don't think that's generally true.
I did not mean to imply that "the ABX people grew out of the cynical motive of envy." I brought up self-defined objectivists to illustrate how we are all actually subjectivists in the end.

To your earlier point:

I wouldn't discount the value of blind listening evaluation just because I don't like the results.
One of the main issues I have with most blind tests is they rely on short-term memory. As we know, our short-term memory is notoriously fragile and even the tiny number of things we can store in it are easily disturbed and easily forgotten.

Listening to music on the hi-fi does not involve short-term memory. This is why I say that listening over time is the best way to determine what we prefer listening to.

Bill Leebens's picture

Seriously?

Maybe my experience with women has been limited to combative types, but I can't imagine THAT statement leading to domestic tranquility!

...And was she the "cheapest available"??

Oh, man....

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Thankfully people, as we know, no longer come with price tags.
GuillaumeLN's picture

This is the most interesting article I read on higher end audio in years.

Ralph HyFy's picture

Hi I this is my first comment and first time I've visited this website. I found the article through a link on an unrelated audio website.

I'm a little troubled by what this little essay is about. Is about jealous and envious cynics or is it DBTs? If these cynics use DBTs to berate our experience as audiophiles it doesn't negate the potential value of DBTs.

What is the problem audiophiles have with DBTs? I know "it's not how we listen to music at home". But is it? Let's look at how you review components per the link to the review of ethernet cables you provided: "My methodology for this review consisted of my usual routine more or less; listen, swap, listen. Listen longer, weeks at a time, swap, listen again." Is this a real world means of comparing components for the average audiophile? I think not! Few if any retailers will provide a component let alone 2 or 3 for such a lengthy evaluation. My experience is most retailers will provide an hour maybe more with some number of quick switches between components for comparison. Actually that sounds more like a DBT methodology than yours.

It also occurs to me more and more audio gear is bought on line without any sort of listening audition.

In my view the only problem with DBTs is there are no where near enough of them and those we have are mostly done by amateurs in an amateurish manner. But that doesn't negate what value they may offer. It may help people where to spend their limited $. Speakers make big difference. Some other components less so.

FWIW I have made a quality audio system a central part of home for 30 to 40 years depending how you want to define quality. My current system cost me several thousand to put together and includes Magneplanar MG 1.6 speakers, a Benchmark 1 USB Dac and a NAD M3 integrated. I know others are both able and eager to spend more and I'm fine with that. I am less interested in can I do better now than am I happy with what I've got.

Thanks

Michael Lavorgna's picture
"Blind Testing, Golden Ears, and Envy."
Is this a real world means of comparing components for the average audiophile? I think not!
You can buy AudioQuest Ethernet cables online from sites like Amazon so their 30-day return policy gives you plenty of time to listen.
In my view the only problem with DBTs is there are no where near enough of them and those we have are mostly done by amateurs in an amateurish manner. But that doesn't negate what value they may offer. It may help people where to spend their limited $. Speakers make big difference. Some other components less so.
As I've said in the article and in the comments, my main issue with most DBTs is they rely on short term memory which has nothing to do with how we listen to music.
Ralph HyFy's picture

Perhaps not but where it's been done, trying to accommodate such issues by providing longer listening times for A B and X or providing learning sessions to listen to unblinded components has never produced a different result as far as I am aware.

As both an oenophile and a home wine maker I also disagree that unlike listening to music wine tasting only involves short term memory. Even with wines I make in my basement I can tell how a wine changes as it ages week to week and month to month until it peaks then declines. Likewise I can tell if how this year's vintage differs from last or even years before. I taste then I remember. Best I can. As we all know our memories particularly long term memory is imperfect.

Reading the New Yorker article I couldn't help but wonder if some of those more expensive wines had been allowed optimal cellar time. Generally the more expensive the wine the longer the cellar time often several or more years is ideal. But that's another topic.

I'd also note oenophiles continue to use and be interested in blind and dbt testing.

So are musicians. We have a local jazz radio program where musician guests are asked to identify the artist on edited music selections. They get it right most of the time. I have heard this done for classical as well and surprisingly classical musicians are less likely to get it correct. Not hard to figure out why.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Perhaps not but where it's been done, trying to accommodate such issues by providing longer listening times for A B and X or providing learning sessions to listen to unblinded components has never produced a different result as far as I am aware.
I've never read a study of ABX tests for hi-fi that compared short ABXs to longer ABXs. Sounds like torture. But this is just quibbling over nonsensical details. I'm happy to agree to disagree.

You taking exception to the blind tests I quoted from and linked to for wine illustrate another problem with blind testing. The results are very easily discounted by questioning the validity of the testing procedure. Those who want to believe that people who buy expensive wines are really deluded fools will believe them while some wine lovers won't. And just look at the continued debate over the Meyer and Moran study which has been widely debunked because of the lack of real high-resolution content used during the study. Yet people still refer to it as proof that high-res is nonsense.

Even with wines I make in my basement I can tell how a wine changes as it ages week to week and month to month until it peaks then declines. Likewise I can tell if how this year's vintage differs from last or even years before. I taste then I remember. Best I can. As we all know our memories particularly long term memory is imperfect.
Sure but this only reinforces my point. You are not talking about doing short, blind, ABX tests which rely on short term memory. You are talking about long term memory.
We have a local jazz radio program where musician guests are asked to identify the artist on edited music selections. They get it right most of the time.
Sure. Our long term memory is very good at recalling all types of sounds. That's why we can easily recognize music from short snippets and someone's voice over the phone even when we haven't heard it for years.
Ralph HyFy's picture

I haven't debunked anything. I simply said I wonder. I think the results of the wine test stand even though like most studies some extraneous variables may have crept into the experimental design. Like all studies it's results only apply to the test environment. It takes quite a lot of tests and positive results to start thinking the conclusions apply to the real world. However there have been a number of such studies and DBT studies are used by the wine industry in a number of ways. Of course wine is big profitable business and has money to spend on such things.

Your article jumped to the conclusion that wine tasting involved short term memory. This wasn't stated in the New Yorker article. I simply pointed out that is not consistent with my experience and as such can't discredit DBTs as was done in your article.

Musicians such as say a Jazz Saxophonist who can recognize an artist on a recording is recognizing that artists' unique signature - Coltrane sounds quite different than Coleman Hawkins for example. Yet a classical violinist may have difficulty distinguishing Menuhin from Szeryng because the classical tradition puts far more emphasis on uniformity of style while jazz emphasizes it. We recognize voice by telephone readily even though the phone radically degrades the sonic quality of the voice. Likewise I can quickly recognize passages of Brahms 4th Symphony (as I just did on my drive home) on my car radio as at a live concert or through my home audio system. Yet the quality of all 3 source is radically different and in the first case markedly inferior. So how can such examples really prove our long term memories definitely distinguish difference between something like ethernet cables?

But I certainly do recognize your experience as valid for you. Me I can't say having never listened to almost all the items reviewed here or in Stereophile (I am a subscriber). I agree that we are all subjectivists. How else can we make decisions about such things.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
"I haven't debunked anything."
I didn't say you did. What I said was, "The results are very easily discounted by questioning the validity of the testing procedure."
"Like all studies [its] results only apply to the test environment."
And I said:
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.
So we are nearly saying the same thing.
"Yet the quality of all 3 source is radically different and in the first case markedly inferior. So how can such examples really prove our long term memories definitely distinguish difference between something like ethernet cables?"
I did not say that these examples prove we can hear a difference between Ethernet cables. What I said was "In terms of hi-fi and preference, my approach is to listen over time." In other words, if you want to know whether or not different Ethernet cables make a difference, you're going to have to listen to them for yourself, over time. If you want to infer other stuff from what I wrote, I would also say that if you want to pretty much guarantee that you will not hear a difference between different Ethernet cables, or most anything else for that matter, do some ABX tests where you listen in short, rapid comparisons.
I agree that we are all subjectivists. How else can we make decisions about such things.
I agree with your agreement.
Ralph HyFy's picture

"The results are very easily discounted by questioning the validity of the testing procedure."

What results? The wine study or audio DBTs? Finding an error in the test procedure or an extraneous variable? Finding them does not easily discount the validity of the results. While very gross errors may, most studies have them. That's why most studies lead to more studies.

When I said I was not debunking anything I was referring to wondering if the expensive wine had been cellared to an appropriate age.

For me if there is a point in referring to a Wine DBT relative to audio DBTs it's that wine aficionados don't seem to get their knickers in a twist if a DBT isn't consistent with with their subjective experience. For example DBTs that indicate (not prove) there is no long term (ie beyond a month) flavour difference from filtering a wine, many still don't filter their wine believing it can affect the flavour

This also makes me think that one of the major differences in audio DBTs and others is often the questions posed in those DBTs are done so in a pejorative manner. Cable DBTs compare brand name cables to stock stranded cable as opposed to asking what characteristics of cables may make an audible difference?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...in some conversations where you simply have to admit you are not communicating. We have reached that point. If you want to know what I think, just re-read what I've written.
Ralph HyFy's picture

well thank God for that.

Ralph HyFy's picture

including this one?

"P14-3 The Audibility of Typical Digital Audio Filters in a High-Fidelity Playback System—Helen M. Jackson, Meridian Audio Ltd. - Huntingdon, UK; Michael D. Capp, Meridian Audio Ltd. - Huntingdon, UK; J. Robert Stuart, Meridian Audio Ltd. - Huntingdon, UK
This paper describes listening tests investigating the audibility of various filters applied in high-resolution wideband digital playback systems. Discrimination between filtered and unfiltered signals was compared directly in the same subjects using a double-blind psychophysical test. Filter responses tested were representative of anti-alias filters used in A/D (analog-to-digital) converters or mastering processes. Further tests probed the audibility of 16-bit quantization with or without a rectangular dither. Results suggest that listeners are sensitive to the small signal alterations introduced by these filters and quantization. Two main conclusions are offered: first, there exist audible signals that cannot be encoded transparently by a standard CD; and second, an audio chain used for such experiments must be capable of high-fidelity reproduction.
Convention Paper 9174"

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Since you appear to have difficulty with this concept let me help:
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.
And what pray tell happened to thanking God?
highstream's picture

"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.'"

You've made a lot of good arguments, but this is not one of them, at least without substantial qualification. Watts must not spend much time by rivers, because his statement is simply not true. As someone who grew up by an ocean and lives by a few rivers and streams, I can attest that taking samples is one essential component of studying water bodies, as it is with a whole lot of other things in the world. In fact, listening to (taking) samples plays a big role in audio, production to reviewing. You thankfully try to balance that by listening for longer periods (studying as much of the river as possible), but you'd never get around to writing if sampling weren't involved.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...was talking more about reflection than analysis. If you're familiar with his work, he was very much involved in Eastern philosophy.
monetschemist's picture

Michael, a thoughtful article. I mostly agree with you but differ on one point, and that is something being over-priced.

I can't define over-priced, really, but I sometimes recognize it when I see it. I'm pretty sure most of us have been to a restaurant or bought a bottle of wine that we remember from five or 10 or 15 years ago that has increased a crazy amount in price; while other examples seem to have prices in line with inflation. Maybe in some cases those now-more-expensive things deserve their price, because they've been improved, or they were introduced at a low initial price, or something similar. But I can think of examples where the price today doesn't justify the value received.

And to me, it is worth pointing this kind of situation - over-priced goods - out to others. There isn't a need to hate it or belittle folks who still buy those kind of things, but there isn't a need to shrug and walk away without comment, either.

Personally, I like the idea of finding a great product at a fair price. And I think manufacturers who sell into this market deserve a great deal of credit, especially from thoughtful, careful reviewers like you.

joelha's picture

Michael,
I absolutely love that you wrote about this issue.
The behavior you reference has frustrated me for some time.
Rather than envy, I want to suggest a different reason for the intensity of some of the posts I've read.
I believe, at least in some cases, that there's a political or philosophical aspect to these comments.
Increasingly, I find that people have a problem with the wealthy (whatever "wealthy" means), possibly because they believe that person’s wealth came unfairly at the expense of their employees, unsuspecting customers, or some other vulnerable party.
So, bad enough if one has an issue with those who are quite well off, but worse still when the very privileged start talking about what they've purchased and how great they feel about their purchase.
I believe, for those who have issues with unequal outcomes in life, and I'm sorry to say that too many people seem to, talking about expensive audio equipment purchases appears to wave the proverbial red cape in front of the egalitarian bull.
Taking issue with the value of a purchase is one thing. Making it as personal and emotional as I've seen in some posts, suggests that the poster sees one of their fundamental principle of fairness being violated or at least irritated.
Just one audiophile's theory.
Your article is courageous. Keep up the great work.
Joel

Michael Lavorgna's picture
"...talking about expensive audio equipment purchases appears to wave the proverbial red cape in front of the egalitarian bull."
Nice.

Red is a much more generous color than green ;-)

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