Saturday, 20 December 2014

MUSINGS: Passion, Audiophilia, Faith and Money



Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.   --- Daniel Patrick Moynihan


Human passion is an interesting phenomenon isn't it? With it, we as individuals can strive to achieve in ways we look back on and marvel. Passion drives creative pursuits like symphonic compositions or visual masterpieces. Prosocial acts of compassion and love flow from this most mysterious fountain to produce individuals of such distinction that we cannot help but show reverence. Scientific achievements likewise require the passion to fuel the drive for understanding whether in creative ways (consider Einstein's "thought experiments" resulting in the theory of relativity), or the power to endure and overcome the monotony of experimentation (how many prototype light bulbs did Edison make?).

As a community, a common passion provides the glue that bind us together. A sense of vision; of purpose. Consider the joys of a close-knit family, teamwork (hopefully!) at one's place of employment, or the excitement fuelling the rise of one's favourite sports team, or the pride of one's nation in the Olympic Games.

Passion also ties us together in less grandiose ways of course... For whatever reason, the fact that you're reading this post probably means you have an affinity to audio of some form. Perhaps you're an avid album collector revelling in the ownership and experience of music, or maybe passionate about the hardware side; the fascination with the equipment itself which can enhance the joy of music. Given that I have put together many articles on this blog on the hardware, I must count myself also in some way as part of the "hardware" subculture of audio.

As much as human passion (and emotion in general) can be positive, we must be careful of the converse effect. Consider notorious individual "crimes of passion", terrorist groups, racial acts of hatred, or destructive cults and religions throughout world history. Again, these are the extremes, but they highlight the dangers inherent in individuals or groups when emotions rule, but rational thought, and reality-testing become suppressed.

The folks on the Squeezebox Audiophile Forum bring up interesting articles on the web every once awhile. Recently, there's this discussion about this ethernet cables and jitter article. On the surface the author makes a case for timing being inherently important in audio. Sure, that's true. But of course, for anyone who understands the asynchronous nature of ethernet data communications and how jitter originates in the DAC and can manifest in the analogue output, it's quite clear that the simplistic explanations presented just makes no sense. Yet in the "hardware audiophile" subculture, it's somehow encouraged to accept magical thinking such as this about needing "better" ethernet cables and those who are bold enough to state the facts are often painted as "closed minded" or those unable to hear the reported subjective difference are branded as having "cloth ears" or accused of not using equipment of adequate resolution (or adequate price?). Of course, audiophiles of this variety discount objective analysis that "captures" and measures the sound and refuse to acknowledge methodology which would remove subjective biases as if they are immune to well described psychological phenomena (eg. banning discussion on ABX or blind testing in some forums).

When a group of people gather together with a common passion, share ideas initially based on some semblance of fact but in time builds and are fuelled by purely subjective testimony, and ultimately discounts divergent opinions (confirmation bias), what we end up with is a subculture based on faith. It's quite evident that this is what has become of discussion around high fidelity audio reproduction in many parts of the Internet and in the print magazines in general. Where there is faith, fought with vigour, breeds a form of religion.

Since time immemorial, money and religion have always been intertwined. The sale of items of faith has always been a high margin proposition (consider the sale of indulgences). As a business, audiophile equipment is of course about the profit motive. However for years now, claims have been made about various dubious hardware (particularly tweaks, cables, "room treatments") and in recent years software (like OS optimizers and playback software) based on articles of faith without any evidence whether directly (see p. 128 in the January 2015 issue of Stereophile for a contemporary example) or indirectly through published articles in the audio "press". The question of journalistic ethics is certainly questionable with a number of websites where financial supports remain undisclosed. Complicit in this is the audiophile mainstream media's apparent lack of courage and conviction to take a stand to question or test these claims in any reasonable manner as to whether these items make any discernible difference. I can only presume with the loss of subscription income, magazines probably are at a point where they are at the mercy of advertising dollars to survive (in this regard, we can't blame them I suppose since "biting the hand that feeds" them will lead to their own demise). But without a media willing to engage in critical thinking to sort out faith from science, how then can the typical audiophile be educated? I cannot help but believe that in the face of all of this, independent blogs and message forums become important for critical thinking in this day and age (and not just for audio).

Much of what I describe above isn't unique to the audiophile world. Consider homeopathy, alternative health care, or the nutraceutical industry where likely much (or all) of the "effect" is placebo, yet many subscribe to the beliefs wholeheartedly and spend significant dollars as well. At least there are some regulations in that industry and even Dr. Oz got his hands slapped before the Senate earlier this year. Many of these alternative theories can of course be discounted, but medical science still holds many mysteries to be discovered as it develops and secrets of the body are revealed. The thing about audio of course is that this is a mature applied science we're talking about (especially digital computer audio), not discovering some new frontier in genetics for example! We could argue about audibility of things like 16/44 vs. 24/96 knowing that maybe 16/44 is cutting too close or that there could be filtering issues with some DACs around the Nyquist frequency. But there are other things like ethernet cables where there really is nothing to argue about by virtue of what it is and what it was engineered to do! All of that stuff about timing and jitter (referring to the article above) are just not possible "issues" between otherwise error-free ethernet cables. A belief or "faith" that it is possible constitutes some kind of magical thinking which when systematized (as the Industry might want to do to instill fear and uncertainty) adds to the overall audiophile myth. Not some new frontier for science to explore, but certainly more ground for manufacturers to create revenue from the unsuspecting audiophile told to expect an upgrade in sound and cheer-led by the press.

I do not begrudge companies for making £1,600 ethernet cables. If money went into the materials used in construction of these cables, I'm sure they'll look and feel nice. But Patek Philippe makes nice expensive watches and they don't claim superior time accuracy. But Chord feels their ethernet cables sound better ("big differences") and evangelism from the "priests" in the audiophile press continues (here, here) with not a shred of evidence over these years. (Could it be? There just is no evidence other than mere testimony? And how much money are you willing to tithe to the Church of Audiophilia?)



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Merry Christmas everyone! No matter how busy the holidays may get, I hope you find peace, love, and time to enjoy the tunes. :-)



6 comments:

  1. Thank you for continuing to post your thoughts and your findings. I really enjoy seeing your measurements that show the *tiny* variations some of these folks claim make huge differences ;)

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  2. Good post. Covers most of my thoughts but is far more forgiving :-)

    And then we have people like Mr. Dudley who get paid to write things like this - http://www.stereophile.com/content/listening-143

    This "audiophile" industry makes me sick.

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  3. Archimago, your best article to date! Excellent insight, right to crux of the issues in the consumer digital audio industry.

    Re: “…how then can the typical audiophile be educated?” Audiophiles can educate themselves with their own ears by learning a bit on how sound works, starting with understanding the
    decibel (dB).

    Why is understanding the decibel important? Because being able to correlate digital audio levels (e.g. dBFS) to how loud it sounds as perceived by ones ears (e.g. dB SPL) unlocks the secret to audibility testing.

    Audibility testing is determining the threshold level in dB where our ears/brain can’t register a difference between comparing the original music to the “changed” music at regular playbacks levels. Changed meaning added distortion, noise, jitter, changed bit-depth, frequency response, dither algorithms, whatever, pick your poison, to the original music file and comparing the two through ABX listening tests.

    Establishing ones audibility threshold in dB serves as a reference level to make relative comparisons to the audibility of digital audio artefacts (i.e. distortions of any kind).

    Here is one way to determine your own audibility threshold

    While the tests are easy to replicate, folks can simply download the music test files and listen to determine, within a range, their own audibility threshold.

    What does this mean? Well, given that Archimago’s blog is chock full of comparisons of digital audio software and hardware, and all the comparative differences are typically -90 dB or lower, I wonder if I can hear any audible differences given that my audibility threshold is approximately -70 dB? The answer is no.

    If one spends a little time understanding the decibel, the fact is for every 10 dB, increase or decrease, the perceived loudness level to our ears either doubles in loudness level or decreases in half, depending if one is going up or down the decibel scale

    For example, -90 dB is a -20 dB difference in level compared to my audibility threshold of -70 dB. Translating that into a perceived loudness level at my ears means -90 dB is 4 times quieter than my audibility threshold of -70 dB. What is 4 times quieter than already inaudible?

    With the power of knowledge of the decibel and determining ones audibility threshold, it is likely most folks will be in the -70 dB to -90 dB range, relative to comparing digital artefacts at regular music listening levels.

    Given the state of the art of digital audio today, 99.99% of all digital audio music players, software and hardware measured distortion figures, jitter levels, noise levels, comparisons, whatever, again pick your poison, all measure -90 dB or (much) lower, how is it that anyone of us can say we hear any audible difference at regular listening levels? It seems the only ones disputing this are some folks that have a vested interest in the consumer digital audio industry.

    Audiophiles learn about the decibel and learn your own audibility threshold. Once you do, you will be free of any attempt by “the consumer digital audio industry” to convince you that one can hear infinitesimal measured differences between any digital audio bit-perfect playback software, lossless file formats, converters, digital cables, whatever, as you know what your digital audio audibility threshold is and anything below that is simply inaudible.

    Apologize for the length Archimago. Wishing you Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year!

    All the best, Mitch

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    Replies
    1. I fully agree that audiophiles who are interested in finding the(ir) truth should educate themselves. It's what I did as I started doubting the audio media about 30 years ago and thus did many audibility tests to find out MY thresholds. I am glad I did ...

      The problem with educating/testing yourself is that (IMO) you need to have more than just basic knowledge about audio related things to test yourself (or gear) properly.
      Here's one for instance that is educational:
      http://www.audiocheck.net/soundtestsaudiotesttones_index.php
      don't forget the tab 'blind listening tests':
      http://www.audiocheck.net/blindtests_index.php

      It is easy to test things in the wrong manner though or to look for 'tests' in the wrong places (websites/forums).
      Even mr Dudley and people like S. Guttenberg and M. Colloms (as well as many others) are well educated in audio related things but simply have 'searched' in a different direction and 'believe' different things based on their own observations. Even if I don't agree with most of it ...

      WHERE one searches for their 'truth' depends on what someone 'believes' and the 'tests' one sees in the places they prefer to look (websites/forums).
      Usually one only visits forums where there is a lot of 'confirmation' of their own experiences and 'other minded' forums is made fun off or rejected.

      Secretly I read all 'types' of forums now and then. It makes me laugh, cry, disagree or agree wholehartedly.
      I rarely see people looking outside of their comfort zone and test in other ways then they are used to, or better yet, test themselves instead of their gear.

      I recommend the latter very highly but the results of this depends on 'belief' and which tests you take to make up your mind.


      But in any case... Happy Holidays and a great 2015 from me as well.

      Delete
  4. As Mitch pointed out it is indeed about the magnitude of the “problem”.

    I really love the signature of Thorsten (Loesch)
    “At 20 bits, you are on the verge of dynamic range covering fly-farts-at-20-feet to untolerable pain. Really, what more could we need?”

    Indeed -120 dBFS is a loud as a fly fart.
    But true audiophiles will hear it without a doubt!
    Not to mention the horrible smell.
    BTW: the smell proves that measurements are flawed by design!

    Anyway, although facts can’t beat faith, keep up the good work.

    A Happy 2015

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  5. It is hours away from a new year and I have spent the last week sitting at home with a cold surfing the internet. For some stupid reason I got hooked on some audio forums and ended up having several posts deleted because I stated facts (objectivism) that some did not like to hear, like a CD has a better SNR than an LP.
    I was accused of trolling or not understanding audio, or not having good enough equipment to be able to hear the difference.

    Well, lucky for me I received a great belated Xmas gift. I stumbled on this blog while looking for some evidence to show that 5ps of jitter is not audible (but of course my ears aren't good enough to hear this shift). This blog is great and I hope more people find it. I work with the audio industry and there are some really great engineers out there doing good work, but there are plenty of snake oil salesmen and bad marketing people that really mess things up.

    I was getting so frustrated I was thinking of buying an Audio Precision SYS2722 and start doing my own tests, but this blog has stopped me from doing that. Someone is already doing measurements and someone has pointed at that you probably won't be able to sway the subjectivist no matter what you do.

    Thank you very much Archi, I look forward to more reading in the future!

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