Written by 4:44 am Audiophile • 12 Comments

The Dichotomy Between Engineering and Listening

Paul Wilson wonders which is right, his ears or his eyes…

In engineering, solutions to problems or design initiatives are approached scientifically. If something is done in a particular fashion it will produce results in a certain way. Alter the design and the results will change. This concept is well known in far more circles than audio. Sometimes the design changes and the results they produce are known entities. Other times they are the result of trial and error. And sometimes, positive, or conversely, negative results are achieved by simple happenstance. 

AR-SoundsGood.jpgIn audio, there exists the ever-present struggle of why we hear what we hear and if aural perceptions are the result of anything measureable. There are those who find difficulty in accepting any result without scientific confirmation. Those so inclined will typically want to see test data in support of a particular sound. Others still place their belief structure in the simple act of listening. 

Dichotomy is defined as “a division into two especially mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities.” How, then, does that equate to an examination of whether or not we trust our ears based on what we hear, or trust measurements that by practical standard cannot be false? 

We use instruments on a regular basis to show test results. One frequently used is the simple dB meter. We can continue to increase the amplitude until the music sounds too loud. Or, we can use a dB meter to know precisely how loudly the music is actually playing in the room. Oddly enough, on occasion, reducing the noise floor, or the level of distortion the system sends to the speakers, can easily make what I call the “perceived amplitude,” or how loud the music sounds to the listener, seem as though it is not as loud as it previously was. I have heard this before, for example, after the addition of anti vibrational devices. This is a result of our ears and brain playing a trick on our eyes. Our ears tell us one thing, our eyes reading the dB meter tells us something different. 

AR-FFTGraph.pngWe use real time analyzers (RTA) to check frequency range. Another popular tool is Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) that converts audio signals from their original domain (often time) to a frequency domain. It therefore stands to reason that taking an RTA reading, or performing an FFT analysis, and the results show bass response is not as low as it sounds to our ears when the music is being played, we then have a decision to make. We can either trust our ears or trust the test results. Perhaps the better choice is to listen to what our ears and brain are telling us. For me, this is often the route I take. If the bass sounds pleasing to me, and I like what I hear, having the knowledge that it is not as good as it might be is a two-edged sword. And not always will that knowledge be well received.  Knowing improvements are possible is often times a gnawing inconvenience in search of a mitigating solution. 

“Contradictory groups or entities.” That is what it all boils down to, right? Our ears and brain might be telling us one thing, measurements and test results might be telling something else entirely. That is the one central question and one supremely difficult to answer – just because it measures less than ideal, does that automatically mean it sounds bad? Because that is the real crux of the equation, right? How does the thing sound? Can we have one without the other? If history is any barometer, the answer is a resounding yes. 

AR-tubedamp449.jpgTake a low wattage, high distortion SET amp, for instance. Some of these components have disturbingly high distortion figures. If a potential buyer were judging the worthiness of an amp exclusively by the numbers, once they saw the distortion, they might very well disregard the inclusion of an SET amp on the short list of potential products. And that would be a mistake because anyone who has ever heard a well-built SET amp knows how magnificent they can sound – high distortion and all. 

To a certain extent, ours is a hobby of scientific discovery. It is one reason why I so enjoy being an audiophile. Understanding, for example, the physics of how sonic energy moves through an enclosed space, in our case a listening room, the better that room may be designed to improve the musical portrayal. So, if a hobby so supremely dedicated to electronics, math and physics tells me one thing, should I heed those results or eschew them completely for something totally unverifiable like how something sounds? 

AR-FlatEarthTheory.jpgWe have a variety of names for this condition – “objectivists, subjectivists, flat Earthers, well, there are certainly more. Irrespective of into which camp one might fall, the fact remains we are constantly faced with this struggle of which perception should be the standard bearer. Do we err on the side of test results, secure in the knowledge that a fine audio system is predominately about numbers? Or do we instead choose the actual sonic portrayal and simply ignore what modern science is telling us? 

I suppose many of us try to find some balance between both. If I take an FFT reading and the results are troublesome, yet despite this I am happily tapping my toe and feel the need to sing and dance, is a meter actually necessary? Conversely, if the meter indicates I need better bass, and I am unhappy with what I am hearing, is this alone an indication of a required change? Or is the meter possibly delivering false positives and I became convinced a change was needed exclusively because of a metered result? 

Either way, it’s a dichotomy. 

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