June 11, 2010

Why is blind testing such a hot topic?

Blind testing has been the focus of a lot of flame wars in the audio community. Part of the reason for this is that it cuts to the heart of the biggest divide. Audio enthusiasts are inclined to hold to either an objectivist or subjectivist position. It's not black and white, but there are many shades of grey and there will always be some that sit on the fence. But the flame wars happen between those who sit at the extreme ends.

Are you an objectivist?

An objectivist takes a scientific view. They believe that a sound system is best set up following good scientific and engineering principles. Sonic differences can be measured and explained in scientific terms. This does not necessarily mean a denial that subjective differences exist, but when it comes to audio beliefs, the objectivist believes there is an answer that can be found, even if it hasn't yet been found.

The objectivist believes in blind testing as the ideal way to compare equipment. They see it as the sensible way to remove bias and make a comparison honest and valid.

Are you a subjectivist?

A subjectivist takes a view that is more like that of a critic. They prefer to evaluate the sound of components subjectively while knowing what they are listening to. They don't necessarily deny the value of science or engineering, but they believe that there is an art to setting up a system and that it's best done by ear. They tend to see measurements as having limited value and believe that the aspects of a system that most interest them can't be measured.

The subjectivist finds blind testing unnecessary and even detrimental. They see it as a sign that one hasn't learnt to trust their ears and will tend the feel that the process obscures the result. They believe that sighted listening tests are more valid.

Why can't we all just get along?

It happens like this. Often a discussion will start on a topic like cables, or in fact anything other than speakers or room acoustics. Someone will claim that all cables sound the same and demand that a blind test should be done to prove the claims that are made. An ordinary person might expect a response like "you can do it if you like but I'd rather not." But audiophiles aren't ordinary people, but a bunch of passionate nut cases. These discussions heat up and let's face it, audio enthuasiasts can't be trusted to just get along.

I'd like to appeal to both sides of the divide.

An appeal to objectivists

There is a tendency among some to be a little obtuse and blunt. It can be perceived as very arrogant and abrasive. Many opinions in this camp are formed without doing any kind of listening test.

My appeal is this - try to cut people some slack. When you see long descriptions of the sonic differences of cables, find another thread. If you feel the need to change other people's point of view, then do it in a helpful way. Offer to host a listening test designed to reveal differences if they do exist. If you feel that you are superior to these people, then you should be warned. Some of them may hear differences in a blind test that you cannot. It could end up being a humbling experience for you. Make sure your invitation is a friendly one and if you find that unpalatable, perhaps you should re-consider the circles you are mixing in. If you can't find many others that share your view online, then there is a problem!

An appeal to subjectivists

I notice a trend with some to become a little elitist. You feel that your ears are superior because you can hear what the blind test brigage can't. You may actually have better listening skills, but that's besides the point. It is the attitude that "I'm a cut above you" which others find abrasive. "If you can't hear cable differences, you should choose another hobby!" Or you might refer to some as unbelievers with disdain. This attitude only feeds the flame wars.

Time for a truce?

The flame wars end when each side drop the attitude and accept that the other side has something to contribute to the community. It doesn't mean we have to agree or compromise views on which we are passionate. It just means we have to treat other enthusiasts with respect and conduct ourselves as we would at a social event.

Have you been demanding people take a blind test as proof? Instead, repeat after me "wooooo - saaaaaaa" and take a deep breath. For a full description of the technique, see the movie Anger Management.

In case you have wondered, I lean towards the objectivist camp but I don't take an extreme position. I believe science gets us most of the way there, but a little salt to the taste isn't a bad thing.

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