The debate about the usefulness of lab measurements in predicting listener preference rages nowhere more furiously than in my own mind. (Why do I suspect that lede just lost me half my readers?) I’m one of the small number of headphone reviewers who has lab-grade measurement gear, and the similarly small number who belong to the Audio Engineering Society and regularly follow the scientific research on the topic. But I’m also one of the few reviewers who routinely seeks out the opinions of others, and who values their opinions as much as my own. You could say I get it from both sides—and that’s why I’ve come to believe that neither side has all the answers.
Some stories spring from surprising origins. About a decade ago, I was riding in the back of the car with my family on Interstate 10 from Houston to New Orleans—a journey that would intrigue only those with a fetish for swamps or oil refineries. Tired of whatever my dad was listening to on the radio, but having forgotten to bring headphones with me, I grabbed a $10 set of off-brand earphones at a truck stop near St. Charles, Louisiana.
The Harman curve—the well-known, science-based “target curve” for headphone and earphone frequency response—has been with us for almost a decade. Yet it seems more controversial than ever, and a group of audio enthusiasts who could be called “Harman curve haters” has emerged. I knew this phenomenon existed on some level, but I started to realize how prevalent it has become only after I recently reviewed the Apos Audio Caspian headphones. The Caspians were voiced by a reviewer/consultant named Sandu Vitalie, who describes the Harman curve as sounding “soulless and boring.”
In audio, as in so many fields, language unites us and divides us. Specifically, I’m talking about the use of technically questionable and scientifically unquantifiable jargon in subjective reviews. To subjectively minded audio enthusiasts, this is just an honest attempt to describe what they’re hearing. But to objectively minded audio enthusiasts, this jargon—terms like “inner detail,” “microdynamics,” and “texture”—may suggest the reviewer’s grasp of their subject is informed more by reading other reviewers than by digging into technical books and scientific papers.
When I turned in last month’s column, “What Playing Music Taught Me About Audio,” SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider replied, “I like it. But from reading the headline, I thought it was going to be about what you learned from recording your new album.” Fair enough—because actually recording, mixing, and releasing my first serious attempt at an album taught me a lot about audio and music, even after being deeply involved in both for decades.
When someone on Facebook recently commented, “Compressed audio sounds horrific, and even uncompressed 16/44.1 isn’t great,” I felt terrible. I knew he came to these conclusions not through any sort of careful, unbiased testing, but because the audio industry—manufacturers, press, dealers—has told him he shouldn’t like compressed audio, and that 16-bit/44.1kHz audio is, after decades of enthusiastic acceptance by billions of users, now unacceptable.