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Art vs Science of Audio Reproduction: Which Team Are You In?

by October 07, 2015
Left brain vs Right brain image courtest of Golfstinks.com

Left brain vs Right brain image courtest of Golfstinks.com

In this latest YouTube video, Hugo and I discuss the art and science of audio as well as which is the right way to approach.

Team Science - measure sound to quantify quality and only use Double Blind Tests (DBT's) to determine which is better or if upgraded components in the audio chain really make a difference.

Team Art - reject measurements and the science of sound, and instead believe in all the voodoo and magic.  Measurements can never be a replacement for the human ear or the emotional impact we experience listening to a high fidelity playback.

In my opinion, you don't want extremism on either end.  As Mr. Miyagi said "balance is key to karate, if you don't have balance, you better pack up and go home". 

Before reading the rest of this editorial, it is recommended that you watch our YouTube video discussion on this very topic below.

 Art vs Science Of Audio: Which One Is Correct?

The Science

SpockHarman has some of the best research done for consumer audio.  They came up with a predictive algorithm based on objective anechoic measurements to predicted listening preferences.  These measurements not only allow for direct apples to apples comparisons between loudspeakers but also gives them a 0.86 correlation coefficient of determining listener preference too. This .86 number yields a confidence level of p = <0.0001 which is impressive but the data set is limited to only 70 loudspeakers (circa 2004).  It's far from perfect but still better than anything anyone else has done to date.

You can read more about this in: Objective Loudspeaker Measurements to Predict Subjective Listening Preferences

How do you make a good loudspeaker? 

Do you need 1000's of measurements?  No, this is BS or pseudo-science.  Anyone telling you this is simply trying to over-complicate speaker design to the uninitiated in order to sell a story of why their products are different. At the same token, you don't want people just throwing parts into a box and hoping for the best without empirical analysis and measurements.  Harman has it down to 70 measurements done via spinorama in an anechoic chamber to get all of the on and off-axis behavior of the speaker and to also isolate deleterious resonances.  The reality is, if a loudspeaker produces good on and off-axis measurements for the first +-60 degrees of radiation both horizontally and vertically, chances are the design will be well executed and offer solid consistent performance from room to room.

It's important to recognize most manufacturers do NOT reveal much useful data on their loudspeakers.  If fact, Dr. Floyd Toole once told me you can often get more useful information off the side of a tire than you can on a loudspeaker manufacturers website.  Manufacturers often smooth their measurement graphs to make them look ruler flat and/or they test at very low power levels where the speakers behave fine.  It's important to also look at power compression testing (especially in subwoofers) to see how the speaker misbehaves when driven to its limits.

Please read:  Loudspeaker Measurement Standard and Subwoofer Measurement Standard

What about distortion?  This is often the most nebulous specification in loudspeakers as nobody has been able to quantify down to an exact science just how much and what type of distortion is tolerable. 

For more information, see:  The Audibility of Distortion at Bass Frequencies

What about Double Blind Tests (DBT)?

This is the single most abused term in the audio industry by Team Science.  Be very leery of manufacturer run "DBT's".  Most are not true DBT's and we've found some companies actually use their own employees in the test while not revealing a big source of bias called familiarity bias.  That said, true DBT's can be invaluable to snuff our small differences in audio testing such as comparing sound quality of various recording types (ie. SACD vs Vinyl vs MP3 vs CD, etc) and they can be very useful in reducing sighted biases for loudspeaker tests too.  Just recognize the source of the test and whether or not they disclose all of the biases as there will ALWAYS be biases.

For more information, read: Loudspeaker Double Blind Test & Demo Flaws and Marketing Disguised as Science in Loudspeakers

The Art

Peter Gabriel - a FlowerFlip the clocks back 6-7 years ago and I'd freely admit I was about 90% science and 10% art when it comes to sound reproduction.  I've always been a skeptic and my Achilles heel has always been snake oil myths in audio, especially surrounding speaker and audio cables.  With age, and dare I say accumulated wisdom, I've come to the conclusion that not everything can be quantified down to a mathematical formula or computer simulation.  A prime example is my recent love affair with Vinyl.  Yes I will admit Vinyl is inferior in EVERY way to CD (SNR, distortion, frequency response, etc).  Yet, the experience of Vinyl can be quite magical.  I can't quantify it, but I just feel it.  Am I wrong and do I really care if I am truly enjoying the experience?

See:  Vinyl vs CD Listening Comparison Results and Dumbing Down in Audio

I've come to the realization that not only are there different goals in production vs reproduction of sound, but there can also be limitations of the process more than the media itself that can alter the experience in a negative or positive way.  So, you can't just ALWAYS declare format superiority will translate to a better or more "accurate" listening experience in sound reproduction.

The same holds true when measuring loudspeakers.  I've heard it said by wiser audiophiles than me that not everything that can be measured matters and not everything that matters is measured.  This is why I use measurements as a tool for troubleshooting more than just declaring product superiority.  I've listened to many products that didn't produce stellar measurements on the bench but they sounded wonderful to me.  Does this make those said products any less valid?

See:  Why We Measure Audio Component Performance


So there you have it.  Clear as mud?  I hope this brief editorial and accompanying YouTube video gets your wheels churning in your head to appreciate and embrace the art and the science of audio reproduction.  Perhaps the art is in making the music while the science is recreating a replica of the music the artists made.

If you think everything can be equated down to a neat little formula to determine product superiority, then I'm sorry to say you are sorely mistaken.  If you think measurements don't matter, you're equally mistaken.  In order to have a Zen line balance in audio and in life in general, you must embrace all aspects of the art and science of sound.  After all, we aren't robots.  We are living emotional mechanisms that respond NOT just to audio stimuli but visual as well.  The listening space, lighting, and vibe of the room will also affect your audio experience.  So don't listen with blinders on, or discard your protractor.  There is a time and a place for both and they can mutually co-exist.  Yin and Yang, East meets West, cats and dogs can be friends and to a lesser extent, even Democrats and Republicans can unite.  Well, perhaps I'm reaching a bit too far on the last point, but we can all hope for a better more cooperative future shown to use in the Star Trek universe (heck even Captain Kirk made peace with the Klingons).  But, until then, at least we can all rally around our mutual passion of audio.

Please share your thoughts on this topic in the forum and let us know if you are Team Science or Team Art or Both.


About the author:
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Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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