Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The state of audio discourse

There's an ongoing 'discussion' over on the Stereophile readers' forum about audio differences in cables, which true to form has quickly come down to discussions of double-blind testing. Even truer to form, the discussion that ensues is less about testing or audibility and more of a back-and-forth, 'he said, she said' about the poster's wording or apparent bias (apparent that is, to all but the accused). The predictable positions that are adopted in these arguments render progress difficult. Once you get beyond the ad hominen attacks you find all sorts of weazeling to avoid the rather depressing fact that for all the claims, people invested in the industry often seem to argue that DBTs are pointless. Out are trotted all the problems with DBTs (many of which are true, it IS difficult but that's not a sufficient excuse to ignore the effects of bias induced by sighted reviews); then we get the complete list of all the ways one can manipulate such tests (of course, but that's true of any review method); and finally the last gasp attempt to trump everyone by claiming participation in tests on occasion and, being able to discriminate A from B in that test,  your reported differences with sighted reviews on components C through Z somehow have greater authority (as if the DBT is a test of the reviewer's abilities which somehow are immune to bias).

It's worrying how quickly this debate becomes a war of words that dismisses the typical callers for better tests as "joyless" or ridicules the idea of serious DBT by claiming none of us would really do such tests ourselves when making decisions. Of course we wouldn't but that's not the index of the DBT method's value.  I am sure we would all feel better if we knew how many people reported hearing a difference when they did not know which component they were hearing. Yes, a good DBT is hard to design, and I really don't imagine we can expect every review to contain such data but it's surely not beyond the professional audio community to arrange some benchmark tests that are not so easily dismissed as flawed or biased by the naysayers. Given the heated exchanges whenever this topic comes up, I don't buy the argument from some insiders that people don't want to read about this.  Of course, this is a two-way street as many reviewers get justifiably touchy at the suggestion that they cannot 'really' hear the differences and are only fooling themselves (and their readers) when they report such in reviews, particularly of cables, cords or tweaks. What is amazing is how the issue lingers, only to flare up on occasion to generate more heat than light on various forums.

My thinking on reviews is that where differences are so obvious, knowing what you are listening to is not that important but not  every component I review offers a black and white difference. Of course we can all tell the difference blind between a ghetto blaster and our audio rig, but I remind people to try this with increasingly similar components, e.g., DACs or interconnects,  and see how soon it is before they are less confident in the perceived differences.  Where possible, I have a family member switch connections when I am out so I am occasionally listening with the expectation that I am hearing component A when in fact B is playing. This is not always possible or easy to do, but sometimes it is enlightening. Blind tests are a useful way of calibrating your listening skills and giving you a reality check on what you think you're hearing. In the recent EVS Ground Enhancer review for HiFi'Zine I gave up after a few days of switching as I could not tell, though when sighted, I thought I could make out slight differences. Cables are the hardest  here as the changeover in my rig is not simple. That said, I've been doing some power cord listening these past days and prepared myself for quick changes (sighted) by pulling my amps out and running comparison cords in parallel from the PPP for quick loading/changing. I've actually found a cord where the effects seem pretty obvious from the get-go each time. This is not usual. Review to follow, but no blind test as my trust in family members making that kind of power cord change without trouble is not there yet.

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