Written by 6:00 am Audiophile, Audiophile News

Audio Psychoacoustics – Real or Imagined?

Paul Wilson explores whether or not our ears and brain are playing sonic tricks.

Recently, just before and during the July 4th Holiday weekend, I found it difficult to spend time with my audio system. In fact, for the better part of three weeks, I had not even entered the audio room. Oh, I’d walk by the door and gaze inside to be sure whatever indicator lights should be lit actually were. I would reluctantly keep walking because at the time, there wasn’t time for audio. Life was getting in the way. 

When finally I was able to position myself in the listening chair and press play, I was immediately shocked. State of near disbelief. My system sounded absolutely stunning. I mean, over the top unbelievable. Song after song, both the ones I knew well and the ones I didn’t sounded otherworldly. 

This was really confusing to me because between the previous time I was in the audio room, through an almost three-week absence, to the day I was so mesmerized by what I was hearing, nothing, and I mean nothing had changed. No new equipment, no repositioning of anything, nada. I simply walked out three weeks prior, hit the light switch and that was that. 

Why such improved sonics? 

I have always been intrigued by what makes one person like a song and another not. Put two people in a room and play a song, if one loves the song and the other despises it, what is going on? Is it the beat, the dynamics, tone, timber, arrangement or cadence of the song causing disparaging opinions? I have always maintained I cannot actually describe what I am looking for in the sonics my system produces but I will know it when heard. Again, what’s going on here?

Enter the term psychoacoustics – the science of sound perception, or how we perceive the sounds we hear. Hearing in humans is, for one, a mechanical function – sound waves enter the ear canal and are processed by both the outer and inner ear thus sending signals to the brain. 

Our ear / brain mechanism, the amazing process it is, also has the ability to subjectively perceive sound. These perceptions may easily differ widely from person to person. How one person perceives the sound they hear might undoubtedly be quite different than someone else’s discernments.  

This perhaps explains a lot of what happens in our particular hobby. When that day, after a nearly three-week absence, my system sounded so magnificent despite no changes being made, the reason why may be due to my own perceptions. Is it possible that because I was away from my system for so long, what I was hearing sounded new or better to me? Could absence have falsely created improved sonics? Could my perception of my system’s sonics been artificially improved because my ear / brain mechanism was making it happen – all through psychoacoustics? 

In thinking about this more, it would explain a lot. I’ve been listening when suddenly the imaging sounded like a singer was two blocks down the street. Obviously, that wasn’t happening but my perception of it sure seemed that way. 

I’ve had instances when what I heard on a different system than mine differed from what others thought. 

This phenomenon might also help explain the differences various audiophiles hear in cables. I have always maintained that regardless of how well cables are engineered and measure electronically and mechanically, unless I hear them, I will always be hesitant towards buying them. 

Music is where I feel psychoacoustic principals really apply. Why do I like any one particular song when someone else does not? Why do I prefer music with a good beat as opposed to something slow and mournful? Why is smooth jazz my preferred genre above all others? Why, when I was much younger, I despised classical and country music and now I like both? In some ways, this might be likened to the reason why I disliked squash for most of my life and now I don’t. That, however, is my tastebuds changing, music is different. 

Logic and common sense tell me my audio system had not changed the sonics produced after nearly three-weeks. The room size or treatments had not changed. Nothing had been moved or repositioned. No new equipment or revised settings on existing equipment. Everything was exactly how it was before. Yet it sounded so much better. 

Our ear / brain mechanism processes sound in measurable parameters such as frequency, amplitude and time alignment. Based on those criteria, we are instantly able to discern if someone with a high pitched or low-pitched voice is yelling at us or whispering. We can instantly tell if the thunder we hear is directly above our home or off in the distance, and if so, the direction from which the sound originates thus defining directionality. 

Mechanical processing allows us to sit in the audience and hear the bass player on the right of the stage and the pianist on the left. We can see where the instruments are placed but we can also hear where they are placed. Same for our audio system imaging, the goal being an accurate representation of the instruments on a soundstage and our ability to discern them. 

How we sense what we hear is also a listening experience based on a different set of parameters than mechanical. Our perception of what we hear may be influenced by our mood and how our brain tells us we are feeling at any one point in time. Hearing perception is likely the reason my system sounded so spectacular after a three-week absence when logic and common sense tells me it should have sounded exactly the same as before.

All of this begs the question of whether or not the improvements I heard that day were real or imagined. Logic, once again, tells me they were imagined. I also know what I heard. That does not, however, completely satisfy my curiosity. I can imagine flying a plane but until I actually do so, it is not real. 

In the end, I suppose the best thing to do is simply be happy the experience that day was so enjoyable. If what I heard was actually a product of some type of improvement or my mind basically playing tricks on me matters not. I’m just happy that day is now such a memorable listening experience – all made possible by the remarkable achievements of the ear / brain mechanism. 

Well, that and good cables…

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