As with the ever-ongoing debates about “tubes versus transistors,” “analog versus digital” and “Mac versus PC,” there’s not likely to be agreement any time soon about “objective versus subjective” when it comes to sound quality.
Extremists in the “Objectivist” camp argue that, “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist” while on the other hand, the “Subjectivist” side firmly backs the idea that “human beings can hear things that can’t be measured.”
How often has it been suggested, “use your ears as the final determinant” in making a decision about sound? At the same time, most would agree that a fundamental understanding of audio systems, including the basics of how each component works, how to set gain structure, and so on, logically can lead to “better” sound quality.
Does science (objective) or art (subjective) play the more important role?
ABX Or Death
Since its development as a scientific testing method, ABX has gained ground as a clear way to determine the threshold of perceptibility in a group of test subjects.
The basics of ABX: two different sources are compared - source “A” and source “B” - and the subject must make the decision as to whether choice “X” represents either A or B. If the subject can reliably (i.e. in a statistically significant manner) identify the sources, then it is concluded that there is a perceptible difference between the sources. Otherwise, the differences are deemed insignificant.
There are some good things to be learned with ABX, and it’s proven to confound many the “golden ears” in tests involving things like 44.1 kHz versus 96 kHz sampling rates, 16-bit versus 24-bit quantization, and others. And it turns out that it’s not common for subjects to be able to reliably identify these sources.
However, I contend that there’s a vast difference between a short-term test like ABX and a longer-term experience with a product, system and the subject itself. Humans have demonstrated a truly amazing ability to learn just about anything.
Take a person who’s never spoken anything but the English language, and stick him/her in Japan for a couple of years. This person will most likely learn to speak Japanese, engaging a new part of the brain.
Or take a person who’s only tasted wine costing less than $10 a bottle. A few months after being introduced to $150 bottles of wine (let alone $3,500 bottles!) and learning about the different varietals, harvest timing, and other specifics, he/she will balk at the cheap stuff.
Even more importantly, this fledgling student of wine will have picked up the ability to discern much finer differences between all types of wines.
In both cases, what changed these people? Exposure, mostly. We all have what some call “paradigms,” meaning that we each filter outside stimuli through our own various levels of experiences and beliefs.