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I got a surprising phone call a couple of weeks ago from a fellow audio writer working on an earphone review. He doesn’t review a lot of headphones or earphones, and didn’t know what to make of the latest review sample he’d received. “They have no bass at all. None. I don’t get it,” he said. I happen to have discussed this issue a few years ago with the manufacturer of these earphones, who told me, “I have a lot of customers who want that sound.” I’ve battled online with a few of them, who insist that headphones and earphones with elevated treble have more detail. I advised my colleague to write one of those “If this is the kind of thing you like, you’ll like this” reviews for which the old Stereo Review was notorious.

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The issue emerged again the very next day, when SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider commented on Facebook about audio reviewers who are “trying to give the impression that measurements just don’t matter,” despite the fact that “very few seem to have much, if any, experience actually measuring products.” Predictably, his post garnered hundreds of comments and digressed into all sorts of sub-discussions. Just as predictably, I tossed in a few of my own observations, one of which was that thoughtless reverence for any subjective impression, no matter how casual and uncontrolled the listening circumstances or how uninformed the listener, has given rise to the notions that “any audio product, no matter how ineptly designed, is OK if some listener somewhere likes it,” and that “any opinion of any listener (including reviewers) of any product is valid.”

I was surprised to see John Atkinson, until recently the long-time editor of Stereophile (he’s now technical editor), comment that Stereophile founder “J. Gordon Holt used to refer to this as ‘My Fi’ and condemned it throughout his life.”

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Holt had perhaps a greater influence on my thinking about audio than anyone. One of the most significant events of my early career was a night at an audio show in Miami in 1994, when he and I smoked and drank and talked audio until the hotel bar threw us out. So I was thrilled, once again, to hear a little bit of his philosophy -- and to learn a useful term that sums up much of what’s going on in high-end audio these days.

What’s going on, as I’ve observed from visiting recent audio shows and reading most of the leading audio websites, is a drift away from design principles developed and proven over decades, and more toward a “gut feel” approach to audio design. Designers are creating audio gear that expresses their own idea of what music should sound like, rather than seeking any sort of neutral or accurate reproduction of sound. It’s gotten to the point where many audio writers are railing against the very concept of accuracy, claiming that audio is purely a matter of opinion. Or as Gordon Holt derisively dubbed it: My Fi.

This has always been an issue with headphones. Not only do we have “audiophile” models with hyped-up treble to create the impression of added detail; we of course have bass-enhanced models that make every recording sound like Dr. Dre mixed it. Fortunately, both of those flaws can usually and easily be fixed with EQ. What’s worse is when designers start monkeying with the midrange to suit their personal taste, dropping in big dips and peaks wherever they personally think it sounds good. While S. Andrea Sundaram showed in a recent column that it’s possible to fix such headphones with EQ, you may need measurements (which aren’t always easy to find) to do so.

Why not just voice the headphones for natural sound in the first place? We have plenty of good research now that will dependably get designers safely into the ballpark of good sound. Audio manufacturers ignoring that body of knowledge because they think their personal ideas about headphone tuning produce a superior result might be a good marketing angle, but it’s unlikely to give their customers the best sound.

Examples of this trend in traditional, two-channel high-end audio include the new (or should I say old?) wave of single-driver speakers. The laws of physics dictate that these speakers will have ragged response and narrow dispersion at high frequencies. In their quest to follow the appealing yet ignorant “simpler is better” mantra, they substantially color the sound for the sake of nothing but a few dB of added efficiency.

Driver

Another example is amplifiers that intentionally add harmonic distortion. This may make music sound better in some ways; since the 1960s, guitarists have been using various devices to add distortion to their sound. But if the musicians, producers, and mastering engineers wanted extra distortion in their music, they could add it with the flick of a finger. They don’t need their judgment second-guessed by an amplifier designer who supposedly possesses some profound idea of what music should sound like.

If any listener wants more distortion, they don’t need to spend thousands on an amplifier to get it. They’re better off spending $449 on an Aphex Aural Exciter, which adds harmonics (i.e., distortion) in a much more controlled and adjustable fashion.

Rather than seeking high-quality, neutral music reproduction, many audiophiles now embrace cults of personality -- seeking out gear made or recommended by those whose taste they share (or more likely, whose statements best resonate with the audiophile’s self-image). This isn’t hi-fi. It’s pure My Fi. It reflects not an appreciation of music, but the opposite -- the desire to inflate one’s ego by imposing one’s own alterations on an artist’s work. The late (and much reviled) artist Thomas Kinkade cannily exploited this desire, equipping stores to customize prints of his paintings to customers’ taste by adding sparkly highlights.

J. Gordon HoltJ. Gordon Holt (photo by Steven Stone)

The easy path for high-end audio enthusiasts, writers, and manufacturers is to pretend that we don’t know much about audio, and that My Fi is the best we can do. (Hey, they don’t have to read all those boring scientific papers!) But the fact is, we do know a lot about audio, and we do know a great deal about what technologies and engineering techniques will lead us toward more natural and satisfying reproduction of music. That’s the direction the audio industry should follow. I’m confident J. Gordon Holt would agree.

. . . Brent Butterworth
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  • This commment is unpublished.
    mifta · 3 months ago
    Good..
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
    Note that Doug got the indenting problem fixed, so we are no longer limited to ~10 comments per thread.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Carlo Lo Raso · 5 months ago
    As a reviewer, I always find it interesting when I listen to a given product and I think I like it. Then when I bench test it, it turns out to be, objectively, not so fabulous. As I don’t have an engineering or even a strict audio background, it’s become a continuous learning experience as to why this happens and how those different states reconcile themselves to my ears. Thanks, as always, for being a dependable source of information!
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
      Hi, Carlo. I just checked out a couple of your reviews on HomeTheaterHiFi. Nice work!
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      Dustin · 5 months ago
      It's well known that psychological biases can influence our opinions during sighted testing. If you don't already, you should try blind testing. You may have different results. If not, then try double-blind testing.
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
        The more I was able to make my testing blind, and the tighter I got my level-matching, the more flaws I found in the "just listen to it for a few weeks and share your emotional reaction to it" style of reviewing. Usually if you match the levels and make the test blind, you find that many of the "insights" gained through casual listening don't hold up. Having worked with probably around 100 reviewers in my career as an editor, I've come to believe that if the reviewer doesn't cite the method and tolerance of the level-matching, it didn't happen.
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          Dustin · 5 months ago
          So what is your opinion then on blind vs. sighted testing?

          According to Floyd Toole, blind testing is the only way to remove the psychological biases that may affect our judgement during sighted listening tests.

          You are much more experienced than I am, but it seems to me that the best way to blind test is to level match (as you suggested), but then compare multiple speakers side-by-side with the ability to switch between them as quickly as possible. Since our hearing memory is so poor, I’m not sure you could reliably distinguish between multiple sets of speakers if you only take turns listening to each over extended periods of time.

          Properly conducted sighted listening tests have something like a 97% correlation between objective measurements (Spinoramas) and listener preference. I don’t know for certain, but based on my experience in reading online reviews (that were done sighted), I would be surprised if there were any significant correlation at all between measurements and reviewer preference.


          What are your thoughts?
          • This commment is unpublished.
            Dustin · 5 months ago
            Typo in my last post - in the first sentence of the last paragraph I mean to say, "Properly conducted BLIND listening tests..."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
    Some of these threads below are getting so long that it's no longer possible to respond. I'll simply ask anyone perusing this to be sure to read Gordon's own words, in the interview he did with John Atkinson in 2007. It's short, engaging and wise: http://www.apogeeacoustics.com/oldforum/006762.html.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Norman Varney · 5 months ago
    In the audio industry, much of what we measure does not correlate well with what we hear and vise-versa. Measurements will continue to evolve as technology and the sciences evolve. If accuracy in audio reproduction is important, trained ears are the most important component. Training and recalibrating our ears by listening to unamplified music is the means. Typically, this is easily available and free in many forms and venues. Audio measurements are very important to designers for R&D, and to manufactures for QC. They are much less meaningful to the end user. Specifications don’t tell you how it will sound, let alone if it will appeal to an untrained ear. Our preferences are all about our experience.
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      Dave Collins · 10 days ago
      If you measure the right things, it is, of course, very valuable and correlates well with perceived performance. Audiophiles have been taught that measurement is useless - presumably as so many well-reviewed (and expensive) products have the absolute worst measured performance.
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      Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
      Norman, I couldn't agree more with the idea of recalibrating your ears. I encourage all audio enthusiasts to go to a Guitar Center or Sam Ash and tap on a few cymbals (they'll be happy to provide drumsticks you can use). They will quickly understand how far some audio systems deviate from natural sound. Or go to a live performance of unamplified classical music. There's probably a local music school that would love to have more people in the audience, and they rarely, if ever, charge admission.

      In my experience, the advantage of measurements (which, as Doug points out, do in many cases correlate closely to what we hear) is that they tell you how far the product deviates from established standards -- which is something that a single reviewer, performing tests in uncontrolled, sighted conditions, with (except in a few cases) little technical understanding of the product, cannot reliably do. If the product deviates a little from the norm, and a listener likes it, fine. If it deviates a lot, and the listener likes it, then maybe the listener needs to recalibrate as you suggest.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Doug Schneider · 5 months ago
      But there's much that does correlate well, particularly with headphones. There's a well-known frequency-response curve that many are gravitating towards -- the so-called "Harman curve." PSB's is similar, as are many others when you start looking at the measurements and seeing how close some are -- and how far away so many others are. Sensitivity, too, is very useful to the consumer. Distortion is useful too -- but less useful in the headphone world as it's often so low already that it's well under control. But if a design does pop up with high distortion, can help the buyer to know.
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    Chris · 5 months ago
    The problem with Gordon's angle, Atkinson's regurgitation,. and Butterworth's investment in that philosophy is this" they think that technical accomplishment deserves commercial reward. This is simply not true.

    If the end user isn't happy with the result of A, and is happy with the result of B, then they will spend their money on B no matter how it measures. The only standard applicable in a MARKET is what the consumer wants and is willing to pay for.

    "Good" is what delights the customers. "Not Good" is everything that doesn't delight customers.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
      You appear to be under the impression -- as many audio enthusiasts and writers are -- that technical standards are an arbitrary, abstract creation. They can be: I've seen audio writers proclaim they won't recommend any amp with distortion above, say, 0.01% THD, without citing any testing to back up such a standard. I agree that doesn't make any sense. Properly conceived and applied, though, technical standards are created specifically in order to reliably predict what will delight the customer -- something single-tester subjective reviews cannot do because we cannot know how the testing conditions and the writer's biases affected the result, and the results hold only for that writer. (And probably not even for that writer if they repeat the tests under blind conditions.)

      The gold standard is the work that originated at Canada NRC and continued at Harman Research, where blind comparison tests were conducted of numerous speakers with dozens of listeners, then the speakers were measured in a variety of ways, and a correlation was sought -- and found -- that clearly showed what frequency response and dispersion characteristics (power response) listeners preferred. Manufacturers who build speakers to these standards will delight their customers.

      Unless the customers are seeking something that makes them feel good because it differentiates them from the masses -- say, a boutique speaker with a single, full-range driver made by a small company and costing many thousands of dollars. That may delight the customer because it flatters his ego -- which is fine, but it has nothing to do with music.
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Chris · 5 months ago
        "Unless the customers are seeking something that makes them feel good because it differentiates them from the masses -- say, a boutique speaker with a single, full-range driver made by a small company and costing many thousands of dollars. That may delight the customer because it flatters his ego -- which is fine, but it has nothing to do with music."

        Utterly disagree. Let's cast aside your insult to the consumer's 'ego' for a minute ...

        "Music" is what happens when a listener's heart connects with the intention of the artist. Everything else is just sound.

        That is to say: What is music's purpose except to emotionally move the listener and create a continuum between object and subject?

        You appear to be under the impression that sound and music are interchangeable. That the impulses in air, recorded and reproduced, are the same as the "music" - or, perhaps, that the essence of music is no different than the essence of sound.

        But music is an abstraction that can only cohere in the heart of the listener.

        But further to my original point: if no one likes your dingus enough to buy it, you have failed no matter how you have succeeded in making a well-measured one.

        Customers are seeking DELIGHT. That's it in a nutshell.

        You may be seeking something else, or perhaps your version of delight is in the measurements (a fair point), but the ear and the tongue are the same. Consumers don't necessarily want to taste the cow as it was in the field (or the farm or the factory), they want to taste the steak. And if the steak doesn't make them delighted, they will buy someone else's steak. A better tasting steak. Because they want to be delighted.

        There is no truth to the original signal unless you are listening through the mastering engineer's system, i.e. : Bob Ludwig's source, electronics, cables, speakers presented him with the version of the 'musical truth' that he signed off on. It doesn't matter how well your gear measures - it won't sound like what Bob Ludwig heard. Not even close ...

        So what are you really after? It's not what Bob Ludwig heard (unless you're after that, which means a visit to Gateway Mastering in Maine, if you're lucky).
        • This commment is unpublished.
          Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
          Agree completely with your last statement. Audio products that substantially color the sound take us further away from that goal, they do not bring us closer to it.
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            Chris · 5 months ago
            My last statement is an object lesson in why you cannot possibly be after the true original sound - because you would have to perfectly replicate the mastering engineer's system.

            What that means is simply - no matter how wonderfully your gear measures - its coloring the sound if it doesn't match what Bob heard in his studio.
            • This commment is unpublished.
              Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
              Right. But you're implying that if we can't replicate the mastering engineer's system (and hearing), then all bets are off and just do whatever you want because audio is this big, unknowable mystery. You are wrong, for reasons clearly pointed out in the article.

              The museum in which "Guernica" hangs does not precisely replicate the environment in which Picasso painted it, but that doesn't mean that viewing "Guernica" with dark sunglasses on is perfectly OK. That's an expression of ego, not appreciation of art.
              • This commment is unpublished.
                Chris · 5 months ago
                I'm implying that the standard of "high fidelity" means something unachievable.

                Now - you'vr stuffed words into my mouth to create a strawman. You say I'm "implying that if we can't replicate the mastering engineer's system (and hearing), then all bets are off and just do whatever you want because audio is this big, unknowable mystery."

                Absolutely incorrect. You missed the point.

                What I'm saying is that, for this who fly the flag of "High Fidelity" as a standard, I'm simply saying that you are tilting at windmills. There is only one standard that will be true, and that is what the mastering engineer heard. Everything else - even your meticulously engineered and measured system, will change the sound to something else. That's a failure.

                Furthermore, as I originally explained, the only thing that matters in a market where consumers are concerned, is that they are delighted enough to part with their money. That is a standardless-standard that depends entirely on the proclivities of the consumer, and depends not at all upon measurements.

                As for your strange and mistaken reference to Guernica: the painting is its own context, and the viewer will either enjoy it or they won't. At the end of the day, if it sells tickets ... great. If it doesn't, then we must ask: If a Guernica hangs in Museo Reina Sofia and no one comes to see it, does it make a difference?
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                  Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
                  Have to edit this, I didn't see your full response. As it turns out, I didn't put words in your mouth, your above statements confirm my condensation of your previous statements. You're saying that everything other than what the mastering engineer heard is a failure -- and you are thus lumping together ALL audio systems, and drawing no distinctions among them other than what the listener happens to like.

                  The fact is, research (of which you have obviously read none) clearly shows that listeners prefer systems that do not impose gross colorations.

                  Yes, some listeners may decide they prefer gross colorations -- but at that point they're flattering their egos, not pursuing a love of music. As stated in the article.

                  I'm sorry, Chris, but your comments here and on Facebook show you have no comprehension of science and either little grasp of rational argument or a willful disregard of such. You, more than anyone else I can think of, embody the trend this article targets. While a meticulously groomed beard and an artsy line of B.S. are all you need to succeed with many audio writers (especially those who themselves have no more to offer), the intellectual standards are higher here on SoundStage.
                  • This commment is unpublished.
                    Chris · 5 months ago
                    Brent ... Brent, Brent, Brent ...

                    I have (and use) science, engineering, etc. in all of my work. What I have come to find out is just what I have shared with you : consumers want to be delighted, want to have experiences of music ... and measurements from journalists are a cop out, really.

                    People who make things should probably measure their things, have internal standards against which they compare what they make. But this is an internal standard - and this is not your job, really, to measure things,

                    Your job is to tell the reader what you think of the performance of the product by using your ears and relating your experience.

                    Because people are shopping for experiences, not for measurements. Musical experiences. Things that connect them to the abstract world fo the musician's creations.

                    And don't be so insulting. We've had a relatively reasonable conversation until you insulted my intelligence. It's poor form, and not a good example to set for a reputable publication. Don't be so fragile. All I've done is outline the truth about how things actually work in the world where consumers drive a market.

                    Rule #1: Delight the customer

                    Rule #2: See Rule #1
                    • This commment is unpublished.
                      Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
                      I've been reviewing audio products since 1990, so I don't need some guy who has no demonstrated familiarity with measurements, a documented ignorance of scientific method, and an obvious willful ignorance of audio research telling me what to put in my reviews. You have demonstrated no reason why I should respect your viewpoint, and many reasons why I should not. In fact, you have shown clear reason why I should be appalled by you: You haven't bothered to read the research done by people who devote their lives to making audio better. Instead, you make up whatever nonsense suits your business pitch. We have great research and a clear idea of what works and what doesn't. You, and many others, pretend that we don't, but that doesn't erase the accomplishments of the people who have worked for decades to deliver better experiences for consumers.

                      And by the way, I didn't say that you're not intelligent. Only that the intellectual standards here are higher than those of audio publications who need nothing more than an artsy pitch to be convinced. Whether or not you can deliver something more than that (perhaps some of the science and engineering knowledge you claim to possess) is up to you.
                      • This commment is unpublished.
                        Chris · 5 months ago
                        You're being snitty, Brent.

                        Moreover, you have missed the point again. Ove and over, you miss the point - you erect strawmen, put "implications" in my m,outh, and then charge after windmills. I will waste my time with you ONCE MORE, but - seriously - you are clearly challenged and terribly fragile.

                        "You haven't bothered to read the research done by people who devote their lives to making audio better." Not true. I'm speaking of something completely different, a point that continues to evade you.

                        "You have demonstrated no reason why I should respect your viewpoint ..." yes I have. I seem to know volumes more than you about why people shop for and buy audio components, and why Gordon's insistence on listening - and not measuring - was a paradigm shift that made things better by moving the emphasis to the experience rather than to the lab performance.

                        "We have great research and a clear idea of what works and what doesn't. " I doubt that sincerely. I have no reason to believe that you bring anything more than Julian Hirsch brought to Stereo Review. Indeed, you talk about Gordon Holt while flying Julian's flag.

                        "You, and many others, pretend that we don't, but that doesn't erase the accomplishments of the people who have worked for decades to deliver better experiences for consumers." Don't you include yourself in the accomplishments of the people who really mattered and who brought excellence to high end audio. Gordon, as a journalist, shook the industry with his insistence that LISTENING and not MEASURING was of paramount important. Harry Pearson moved that standard even further up the ladder, and audiophiles were enthralled with the approach.

                        You are no Gordon Holt, you are no Harry Pearson. You are a Fabianist Julian Hirsch.

                        What I have said is this:

                        Measurements don't matter to consumers, experiences do.

                        Measurements DO matter to engineers and designers, but this is a completely different conversation. This is what happens inside a company when they are developing products.

                        Now - you yourself said, above, and I quote:

                        "The fact is, research (of which you have obviously read none) clearly shows that listeners prefer systems that do not impose gross colorations."

                        You prove my point: listeners prefer systems that do not impose colorations. That means they can hear it for themselves, and that they do not need you to measure a blessed thing.

                        What they need you to do is listen, critique based on listening, and communicate your experiential impressions to the reader so that they might know if this is something they might be interested in auditioning.

                        But please don't wag Gordon's flag and then start talking about the importance of journalists measuring things, because that is precisely what he stood against when he founded and launched Stereophile.

                        This temper tantrum from you is entirely unbecoming a journalist, Brent. Really. Grow up a little, eh?
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                          Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
                          You dismiss my statements as "temper tantrums" because you can't refute them. Then you go from criticizing Gordon to lionizing him. Whatever works for you, but in fact I think we all have many lessons to learn from Gordon Holt AND Julian Hirsch, both of whom I admire because they worked hard to attain greater knowledge of audio. But let's let Gordon speak for himself, in the brief interview he did with John Atkinson in 2007: http://www.apogeeacoustics.com/oldforum/006762.html
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                            Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
                            "For the record: I never, ever claimed that measurements don't matter. What I said (and very often, at that) was, they don't always tell the whole story. Not quite the same thing." I know of no one who actually does measurements who would disagree.
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                              Chris · 5 months ago
                              I don't disagree with Gordon, but - of course - he didn't measure anything. He used his ears. That was the founding and core principle of Stereophile (and The Absolute Sound).

                              So again my point is simple: consumers don't want journalists to measure things. They want experiential evaluations.

                              Your statements don't need refuting. They are attacking straw men. Let the straw men refute for themselves.

                              I *also* never claimed that measurements don't matter. They matter to manufacturers and developers. To consumers, they are filler. At the end of the day they want to know how they SOUND.

                              Don't you agree?
                  • This commment is unpublished.
                    Chris · 5 months ago
                    Course of action? No course of action is needed. The way things have been working for half a century or more is the way they will work: the consumer seeks an experience, the critics will offer some ideas about the experience of listening to various components, the dealer(s) will help guide them toward acquiring the kinds of components that offer the experience.

                    This is the point that evades so many, and yet it is the foundation of all purchases: the customer wants an experience, not a book of measurements. Experience is a peculiar thing in that it depends as much upon the customer's proclivities and capacities as it does on the gear, the room, the source material.

                    If your steak isn't delicious, they will change steakhouses on you in a hot second.
                    • This commment is unpublished.
                      Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
                      Exactly. And as stated repeatedly above, while we can show that measurements can predict what experience consumers will have, we have no such data regarding the recommendations of dealers or individual reviewers. I encourage anyone who wants to examine this research to start here: https://www.harman.com/innovation.
                      • This commment is unpublished.
                        Chris · 5 months ago
                        Consumers can have the experiences without the measurements ... they just need to Listen.

                        Like Gordon did.

                        Like Harry Pearson did.

                        Like everyone eventually does.
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                          Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
                          As long as consumers trust their ears -- i.e., they listen without knowing the identity of the product, as Gordon recommended in the interview I cited -- I'm all for that. But as those who have substantial experience in blind testing know, such tests are usually complicated and costly to set up. Measurements provide a useful check -- so consumers don't waste their money on products that have colorations, or that don't actually deliver the benefits they claim to. In my experience, manufacturers and reviewers who are afraid of measurements are those who have something to hide.

                          Sadly, the post you made above has become so skinny that it's impossible for me to scroll down, so you may wish to repost where there's more space.
                          • This commment is unpublished.
                            Chris · 5 months ago
                            "In my experience, manufacturers and reviewers who are afraid of measurements are those who have something to hide."

                            This is a separate subject, certainly one that has been discussed to death. I doubt there are any manufacturers in business who are not measuring their products. So, again, straw man,

                            As for reviewers not measuring, then you lump Gordon, Harry, and hundreds of others (many well regarded) into that bunch. But the critic as a critical listener, not a lab rat measuring things with machines, is the very foundation of modern audio critique as established by Gordon and Harry (et alia).

                            So - to revisit my original idea, so that we can wrap this up. My point, which was whitewashed along the way, is that measurements don't matter - to consumers. They have ears to hear, and at the end of the day that's what they're supposed to do (and you, too).

                            If the end user isn't happy with the result of A, and is happy with the result of B, then they will spend their money on B no matter how it measures. The only standard applicable in a MARKET is what the consumer wants and is willing to pay for.

                            "Good" is what delights the customers. "Not Good" is everything that doesn't delight customers.

                            These things are made to be listened to, enjoyed, even critiqued ... by ear.
                            • This commment is unpublished.
                              Andre Prudhomme · 11 days ago
                              I think it should be noted that Chris is the owner of a company that makes extremely expensive speaker cables & interconnects. If more audio journalists properly used measurements and ABX testing it would undermine the absurd marketing claims that form the foundation of Chris’ business.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ryan · 5 months ago
    This article is just another testimony of why Brent Butterworth is one of the best - and most sane - hi-fi journalists in the business.

    I just read Doug Schneider's Facebook thread that ran amuck.... a lot of "trust your ears" folks opining...

    I guess they never had anyone pull the old "Which do you prefer, A or B?" - only to find you had been tricked into listening to source A BOTH times. When you expect to hear a difference you will hear a difference; our brain/ear mechanism is highly susceptible to suggestion. That's just the way it is - like it or not!
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      Doug Schneider · 5 months ago
      I, too, believe to a point in the ears - but your ears can fool you, just as your eyes can. I'm not sure why so many audiophiles refuse to accept that.

      DS
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    Peter Lyngdorf · 5 months ago
    Timely article! A great Audio system should be as transparent as possible and add the least amount of character as possible. It should have no "opinion" about the sound. And then it should be able to integrate in normal living environments while maintaining these virtues. That's really all there is to it!
    Measurements are essential in the development process and also in evaluating products. But always be very careful not to make the wrong measurements or to draw the wrong conclusions from measurements.
    I vividly recall from the early Eighties one time we were testing a new tweeter for a DALI speaker on our trusted B&K system. We had measured the response to be absolutely linear to 30K. We listened and agreed it was the best Tweeter ever, just to discover that the B&K plotter was stuck in the Y-Axis!
    Later when experimenting with the first room correction systems - back in 1992-93 at Snell Acoustics, later NAD, and TacT Audio I found that most of the corrections that "perfected" the frequency and time response made the sound worse. It was only much later that we found that we had made the wrong measurements and the wrong assumptions about their meaning.
    So do be careful - but make use of measurements to verify that your product is not just designed to compensate for faults somewhere else in your system, and hence would be useless in other combinations of products.
    IMHO its very unfortunate that science is taking a back-stage to opinions in the Audio Industry. I am convinced that only science and diligent engineering will bring us closer to the truth in Audio.

    A sobering reminder from ancient times:

    The founder of Steinway H.E.Steinweg (later Steinway) was much more an engineer than a traditional instrument maker. He was a mechanical engineer par excellence. He identified the shortcomings of Pianos around 1850; They did not play loud enough to be heard against a Symphony orchestra, and the dynamic range was poor. Steinway teamed up with Dr. Hermann von Helmholz, the first real audio scientist, to create a better piano. (The holes in the Iron frame of the Steinway are Helmholz resonators to increase the level of the higher notes) So Steinway applied physics and science to create the Steinway grand Piano. Within a few years the Steinway was the preferred piano of virtually all concert houses around the world. To this day Steinway have a 98% market share in concert pianos.

    (And - by the way - the harpsichord died by the wayside due to it's lack of dynamic rage. This could be a warning to music producers who strive for no dynamic range, but that's a whole other story -:)

    So this was Steinway using Science and engineering against an industry of tinkerers who did not have a methodical approach to improving instruments. - A bit equivalent to the good Audiophile of today trying our different capacitors, resistors fuses potentiometers etc etc instead of trying to simplify the signal path.

    Remember - no resistor is better than no resistor.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Doug Schneider · 5 months ago
      Peter,

      Fascinating story about the tweeter. So what did the tweeter REALLY measure like?

      Doug Schneider
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Peter Lyngdorf · 5 months ago
        The tweeter was good but not extraordinary. But seeing an extraordinary measurement made us pre-conditioned to liking it.
        • This commment is unpublished.
          Doug Schneider · 5 months ago
          I'm a believer in measurements -- but the listener can't know them before listening. The mind is very good at playing tricks!
          • This commment is unpublished.
            Peter Lyngdorf · 5 months ago
            Exactly!
            • This commment is unpublished.
              Doug Schneider · 5 months ago
              Question Peter: I know they did these types of formal tests in the past where they looked at listening preferences and how "biases" affect them, but what's Denmark's history with that? I'd have to think that with as rich an audio history as Denmark has, there has to have been some of that.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Brent Butterworth · 5 months ago
      That is an AWESOME story about Steinway, I have never heard that before! And very relevant to the topic at hand.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dustin · 5 months ago
    Great article. You could actually make the argument that measurements are the only thing that matter. As you know, the science says that the majority of listeners will agree with what sounds good and that can be predicted with a remarkable degree of precision simply by measuring the frequency response. Many uninformed people would tend to argue against this, instead supporting the notion that subjective listening experiences should be enough to decide what sounds better. But as we know, sighted listening tests contain many hidden psychological biases that can influence our decision. Couple that with the fact that our hearing memory is quite poor and it’s easy for someone to make a mistake in thinking they like one product over another. However, someone is unlikely to make the same mistake by basing their decision on a set of accurate, objective measurements. After all, blind tests have confirmed this.

    I wish more audio websites would focus on the science of this stuff like you do. Since the demise of Innerfidelity, your website seems to be one of the only ones that discusses this stuff. Keep up the great work, Brent.

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