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

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

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.

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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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