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Subjective Versus Objective: If It Sounds Good, Is It?

Does science (objective) or art (subjective) play the more important role?

By Karl Winkler October 1, 2018

Image courtesy of Paweł Ludziński

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.

Fixed Level Of Bandwidth

I call these changes through exposure successive thresholds of awareness, and contend that part of this is that human perception is scalable in terms of resolution. With computers and test equipment, there is a fixed level of bandwidth and resolution available.

Not so with people – the longer someone spends being exposed to an experience, the more resolution that person is able to impart to that experience. An analogy closer to home for us audio geeks: the person that has only used a cheap dynamic microphone for years will likely find that even the lowest-grade condenser mic sounds amazing. He will hear tons more resolution, less distortion, and better transient response.

This same person will also wonder how a Neumann mic costs much more, and whether or not it would be possible to sound that much better. And in fact, upon hearing the Neumann in comparison to the cheap condenser, he will conclude that indeed, there is not really that much difference between the two.

Now take that same person five years later, after he’s made several records and used a plethora of top mics of various makes. Now he should clearly be able to identify the differences between the cheap imitation and the real thing, having reached a much higher threshold of awareness between the different mics.

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About Karl

Karl Winkler
Karl Winkler

Vice President of Sales at Lectrosonics
Karl serves as vice president of sales/service at Lectrosonics and has worked in professional audio for more than 25 years.


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Keith Broughton says

"If it sounds good, it is good."
It's a matter of perspective.
If you like paintings of dogs playing poker rather than a Picaso, then it is good...for you.
IMHO, it's the same for sound.
I have mixed the same high quality performance on a variety of low end to very high end systems and every time, the audience is satisfied they had a "good" experience. It is good...from their POV.
Sometimes we get bogged down gazing at our 48k navels and forget the big picture. ;-)

Erin says

I think some bias has crept into this article. If the intent is to record acoustic instruments as naturally as possible and capture the acoustics of the room during the recording I think the best approach is to use the most natural sounding microphone with a flat frequency response. But if the intent is to create a pop album with a certain fashionable sound then it's ok to choose microphones with a certain flavour (uneven frequency response) and use post processing.

A power amp that has DC to light frequency response would be a very impressive achievement, and should someone be able to design such an amplifier it probably would have extremely low noise and distortion, and drive loads down to 0.01 Ohm too! I can think of no reason whatsoever why such an amp would be perceived to sound bad by anyone. That would be a theoretically perfect amp! Yet this author proposed the suggestion that such an amp would sound crappy. Why?

But let's continue on that theme, what if there was a theoretically perfect speaker which has zero distortion, zero phase error, and reproduces audio from DC to light.
Is there any reason whatsoever that such a speaker would sound bad?
I can't think of a single reason why.

The greatest advances made in audio technology have been in both frequency response and lowering noise and distortion. Engineers will continue to improve on these achievements because that's what they do. In the same way that microprocessors can perform more instructions per second today, and in a smaller form factor than they did 30 years ago.

Improvements in noise and distortion have happened because that's what people want. And they want that because they want better sound.

Music is a form of art and it is also a language. The best music relates emotion and, emotionally moves us.

It's up to front of house engineers to give audiences an awesome sounding mix. It's up to recording engineers to serve up a great sounding album.

It's my humble opinion that the electronics should get out of the way of the music. The music should be presented in whatever way the artist intends, and flavoured in whatever way the artist wants. But if the playback or PA equipment itself is not up to the task of revealing the nuances of the recording or the live performance, then part of the message is lost.

Much of the problems relating to these sorts of discussions happens because we simply don't have perfect equipment and what we have is a bunch of compromises. We have loudspeakers that don't have a perfectly flat phase and frequency response. We have power amplifiers that sound different when driving different loads. We can get microphones that measure quite flat but might perhaps don't handle the SPL we need to record certain instruments. Then we start quibbling about which compromise is better than the other compromise. Condenser microphones do seem to have more detail but then they have this sort of unnatural tinge and a bit of hype and sibilance when compared to a good dynamic microphone. It's all a bunch of compromises. The equipment is designed with the purpose of listening so of course the final judgement needs to be made by listening, but we wouldn't get to that point without engineering and measurements. The two go hand in hand.

Karl Winkler says

Erin, you make some great points, and I agree 100%. I think the point of my article was, as you suggest, to point out that in the world of compromises in which we live, it is generally better to go for "good sound" (whatever that means to you) vs. "flat". Often, they can be one in the same but just as often, they are not. Otherwise, we would all have studio monitor speakers in our home but we do not.

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