What is an Audio Objectivist.
If you've ever visited any audio forums you'll probably have
noticed a plague of "Audio
Objectivists" (AO) . The percentage varies according to the forum, with
some being close to 100% AO. (one famously does not allow any subjective comments at all unless they are backed up with double-blind tests!)
The basic AO philosophy goes something like this :
- Measurements are a superior (or the only) way of determining
how audio gear performs (compared to listening tests)
- Listening tests, if sighted, are worthless. Only
proper 'double blind' tests are considered valid.
- All similarly measuring devices will sound the
same. This can apply to amplifiers, DACs, CD players, power cords,
interconnects, etc, etc. The only thing that is universally agreed that sounds
different are loudspeakers.
- Much of what is sold in the audiophile world is
useless junk and close to fraud.
This position is seemingly bolstered by the apparent numbers
of scientists and engineers among the AO fraternity. In a similar vein, the subjectivist camp
often seems to be composed of untrained crackpots. I can say with some
certainty that the maddest crackpot I ever knew was an extreme subjectivist
audiophile. Also probably the second and third maddest as well..
So this post attempts to debunk the Objectivist position - I
do this because I believe there are genuine mysteries in high-end audio. I'm not saying that audio gear implies some kind of new-physics, but any decent scientist knows that there are emergent effects that are not well understood in any field.
I was first exposed to a good audio system when I was a young
teen, and I was an instant convert to the quest and have been an avid audiophile
ever since .. when I could afford to be..
But I have to admit that for many years I was an audio
objectivist. It's natural I guess if you studied electronic engineering at
university and spent your career as hardware and software engineer.
I thought it logical
that such things as interconnects, power cords, vibration control devices and
so on made no difference. And I figured
that electronics didn't have much influence either, especially digital gear.
My journey away from this position was gradual; firstly
accepting that amplifiers could sound very different. Now I am willing to believe just about
anything - if the evidence supports it.
OK so let's take the points above and refute them..
AOs love their measurements.
However, the measurements that they are able to perform are so
rudimentary as to be virtually useless. In nearly all cases, the measurements
turn out to be :
- Total Harmonic Distortion normally using sine
waves, often 1kHz
- Signal/noise ratios of various types
- "Jitter spectrums" using JTest
- Intermodulation Distortion using 19khz and 20khz
- Frequency response using sine waves
This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.
There are huge problems with this approach; sine waves are
simply not music; they are the easiest thing for any gear to reproduce. So in one
sense it's not surprising that all the gear they test sounds the same - playing
sine waves. This also matches with the real-world observation that many systems can reproduce simple music but fall down when presented with complex music (eg full on symphony orchestra).
Determining audio system performance using these kinds of tests is like trying to figure
out the real-world performance of a race-car by measuring fuel flow, damper
rates, dyno output and so on, rather than seeing how well it actually performs
on a track.
AOs will claim that music is all composed of sine waves
anyway. Now this is not actually true as it's a misapplication of Fourier
theorem. But even if you accept that, it's like music is thousands of sine
waves playing all at the same time, not one simple 1kHz wave.
The second thing that so-obviously-wrong about the AO approach to
testing is down to vibration. AOs don't consider this important, so even the
tests they normally do are done in silence. So the gear is not bathed in
slightly-delayed vibrations of the signal they are reproducing. But for a sine
wave this would likely not make a huge difference unless the gear was
particularly prone to 1kHz resonance.
But for real music it makes a huge difference; as there are
so many frequencies present, music will stimulate resonances across the whole
audio band. And dealing with vibrations in various ways makes easily-audible improvements.
In a similar vein, AOs ignore or downplay other second-order effects like EMI (to give one example).
The big problem with this kind of measurement regime is
that the results do not always correlate well with what people find sounds good.
When I first considered starting Mad Scientist Audio I have
to admit that my listening skills were not that great. Although I'd been an
audiophile for almost 40 years I simply had not practised analytical listening
enough to be that good at it. My wife had more luck than I did at blind tests.
So I resolved to do something about this if I was serious
about Mad Scientist. I started making it a habit to spend 2-3 hours every
day doing analytical listening (i.e. listening tests) rather than just
"playing music". This is a habit I've had for about 5 years now, 7
days a week, 365 days a year (well,
almost..). This comes to over 4000 hours of listening tests.
As you are no doubt aware, focused concentration and
repetition are the keys to learning or improving skills, and this worked great
for me. In that time I've collected a
wide range of test tracks across all musical genres. Some are chosen because
they sound great. Others because they don't ! (these usually are
hard-to-reproduce tracks, often very complex). Each is like a tool in my audio
toolbox - for example I have sets of tracks that tend to be over-sibilant on
vocals, or tracks that have great bass, etc.
Before I actually started the company I needed to prove to
myself that I was not imagining things, that the products I had made really
did make a difference. So to this end I designed a series of blind tests,
comparing real Black Discus devices against dummy ones that were same size and
weight. The tests were blinded by the
devices being wrapped in small envelopes
by an assistant.
The point being that I needed the tests to be properly
blind, so that I was completely unaware of the device under test. I was not
going to start a company that sold useless items, despite what you AO folks
The results were conclusive - I could pick the
real and fake Black Discus in almost 100% of trials.
Audio Objectivists like to point to numerous double-blind
tests that have been performed and documented
by various audio societies, magazines, websites, etc. Nearly always they show the desired result - that the amplifier/cable/snake oil under test cannot be determined correctly by
the participants (although you will often find a few folks that could
apparently tell the difference, but that is written off as statistical chance,
and the results are usually given as statistics).
Also nearly always : the tests are performed using an
unfamiliar system, in an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar music. Is it any
surprise that they get the results they do. Bear in mind that it only takes one
person who can reliably tell the difference between, say, various
interconnects, to disprove the theory that "interconnects sound the
same" (This is akin to the black swan argument; it's also a case of experimental data trumping
I'm not sure that I would be able to be successful in an
unfamiliar setting. Let me give an
example to explain why..
Example : Wire Directionality
This is one of those hot-button topics for the AO folks.
Suggest to them that wire can and does sound
different in different directions and it's likely to set them off: " Wire
can't be different as the signal is AC (you dummy) so half the time it's
flowing one way, half the other" and so on.
I did not believe in wire directionality for many years - it
was simply obvious to me that it could not make any difference. But then I sat down and actually did some
For analyzing small differences like this, initially I do sighted listening; two sets of cables, two
different directions. The idea here is
to figure out if I can hear a difference, and if I can, to isolate the sonic
signature of the differences. Also to
find some test tracks that highlight the differences so as to make it easy to
pick which is which.
Once I've done that part I can do blind tests.
before. I simply wouldn't know what to listen for, and trying to figure that
out in a small amount of time would not be easy, especially with a test track
that did not highlight the differences very well.
A while back I performed a blind test of wire direction as a
demonstration to a cynical friend.
In the normal production of our
interconnects, the wire (and carbon fiber) direction is tracked. In this case
the 'destination' end was marked inside the RCA plug, so you had to unscrew the
barrel to find which end was which.
So I had 10 of these cables - they were digital SPDIF cables
- and I proceeded to test each cable each way and "guess" which direction
was preferred, all while my friend looked on.
(Yes, cynics - wire direction is important for
digital cables as well. Quelle horreur!)
By this time I was pretty good at picking the correct
direction. The "trick" was knowing the sonic signature of each
I used a test track that had two things : a solid bass-line and a centrally
located singer. When the direction was correct, the bass-line had more drive
and the singer's voice was more tightly focused.
During the test, I tried the first two or three cables both
ways, and picked the direction after around 10 seconds of music. For the rest
of the cables I could easily pick "right way" or "wrong
way" on first listen, often after just 2-3 seconds.
Needless to say I got
10 out of 10 correct. That was never in doubt.
But trying this test on a strange system with previously
unheard music could likely be beyond my skills.
While on the subject of wire direction : I have to admit to
being baffled by this. (One of many things that baffles me about audio).
In one sense the AOs are right - this makes no sense.
But you can't deny experimental results. Where would we be if people had
declared that photons simply cannot pass through both slits..(Actually quantum
mechanics is a case study in things that fail common sense.)
So the 'scientific' thing to do is to look for reasons why, rather than just deny the effect exists. I believe anyone who is serious can hear wire direction differences with some practice.
I don't have a good theory of why the directional effect
happens. My best guess is that it's to do with the microscopic mechanical
properties of the wire interacting with the current flowing and/or the various
vibrations that the wire is bathed in. I know this doesn't hold a lot of water,
but the effect is beyond doubt in my mind because of the numerous blind tests
I wish wire was not directional. It a nuisance having to
test each new batch of wire I receive to determine the correct direction.
Blind vs Double-Blind vs Sighted Listening Tests
One favorite tactic of the AOs is to decry any listening
tests that are not strictly double-blind, which are the gold standard for
medical/drug tests. It's done to prevent any conceivable source of bias in medical tests, which are frankly much more serious than listening tests, which are hardly life-or-death situations. But crucially, it's fairly easy to do in drug trials as it's easy to make placebos.
Double-blind means that
nobody involved in running the test knows the identity of the
device-under-test. This can be done sometimes, but it's really difficult to do
for a lot of things.
For example, you
could get an assistant to change between two types of interconnect. But he
would see them and would know which was which. There are ways around this but
things get cumbersome very fast. How does this work with amplifiers?
The reality is that for audio tests, the majority of the
time it's almost impossible to conduct true double-blind tests outside of a
research environment, and then you get all the unfamiliar-system problems.
However it's often possible to conduct single blind tests.
I'd encourage people to try this as it's an instructive experience. It really
is much harder to pick things blind; some is no doubt confirmation bias, but
some is down to pressure to perform, etc.
The reason that AOs bang on about double-blind testing is that it gives them an excuse to reject mere single-blind tests, even though double blind would be unfeasible. I wager most of them have never performed a true double blind test in their lives.
In reality, most listening tests are performed sighted - there simply
isn't enough time to set up blind tests for everything. The AOs will tell you
that confirmation bias completely invalidates sighted listening. Perhaps it does for naive or untrained listeners, but for people who are well practiced, and can repeat tests multiple times, I say that they have validity.
If sighted listening was all about confirmation bias, you'd never be surprised during sighted listening.
And I often
am surprised enough to exclaim "you've gotta be kidding me" and
similar less family friendly retorts.
Confirmation bias is very real though. For instance if you
believe that interconnects all sound the same then if you test them you will
(usually) fail to hear any difference. But for some reason, AOs forget about their own confirmation biases.
Similar Measurements = Similar Sound
This just doesn't hold water in my opinion. A well-known
blogger routinely tests various DACs and unsurprisingly they all measure pretty
much the same. The differences are written off as impossible to hear. So his
implication is that pretty much all DACs sound the same.
I have to wonder about such folk. The first thought is
"Are they deaf or something?"
Really, it's not so hard to tell the differences between
DACs. Not like picking cable direction.
Often there are gross differences in
tonality, presentation and dynamics that means you don't need to resort to figuring out micro-differences..
The same sort of thing applies to amplifiers. In fact it's fairly
easy to produce an amp that measures impeccably on sine waves, in fact it may
measure much better than say a tube amplifier.
But the tube amplifier might be preferred by all listeners.
What's going on here?
The AOs will tell you that these
stupid audiophiles actually like the sound of distortion, that they think it
improves the sound quality!
Right; so the extra distortion is responsible for ambient
hall sounds now being audible, the two singers that were previously blurred together now being separated, and all the other effects
that we can hear.
It's much better to
believe that the measurements were simply not measuring the right thing. Distortion and/or noise will only ever reduce the information content (see : 2nd law)
(The latest version of this I heard is that these silly audiophiles prefer the sound of upsampled DSD to normal PCM because of the differences in ultrasonic noise - DSD has more - and that this extra noise works just like tube-amp distortion. They will also tell you in the next breath that you can't hear ultrasonic noise anyway!)
Audiophile Products = Snake Oil
The logical conclusion of the AO's arguments is that many
audiophile products are fraudulent (that would include just about everything I
make and sell). Of course I completely reject this.
If I come across such a person in real like (as opposed to
online) I normally do the following demonstration for them:
play some music for them
replace the power cords and interconnects with
remove the blackpod footers from everywhere
play the same music again and defy them to say it sounds the same..
Normally it's not necessary to replace the "tweak"
items again. Doing steps 2,3 and 4 so ruins the sound that even non-audiophiles
are easily able to hear.
Another thing that is strange - no seller of actual snake oil would offer trial or money-back guarantees. But we offer that, and so do many other audiophile companies.
In the end I think the AO phenomena is a lot about ego, the need to be right, and most of all, a patronizing way to feel superior to all the stupid audiophiles like us.