In scientific audio circles, it is believed that if you are aware (or think you are aware) of what hardware you are listening to, then you are incapable of any sort of objective assessment of its quality. This leads to the blind listening test being held up as the Gold Standard for audio science.
But here’s an irony: almost everything of value that man creates comes into being through a process of ‘sighted’ creation and refinement – and it seems to work. Bridges are designed by architects who refine CAD models on a screen, but the finished products don’t fall down, and are admired by ordinary people for their appearance. Car bodies are designed by engineers and stylists in full sight, yet the holes line up with the rest of the car, and they achieve great measurements for aerodynamics and the cars look good as well. Pianos are tuned by people who know which way they are turning the lever as they listen.
So if ‘sighted-ness’ leads to a completely fictitious, imaginary perception, then presumably our pianos are not really in tune, but we imagine they are? Maybe everyone but the piano tuner would hear an out-of-tune cacophony when the piano is played? But no, it turns out that everyone, including the piano tuner, can tell consistently when a piano is in tune without resorting to blind tests, and this can be confirmed with measurements.
So how come ‘sightedness’ is so problematic for the creation or assessment of audio equipment? I think that the question is “not even wrong”. The faulty logic lies in the erroneous idea that audio equipment is being listened to, as opposed to through, and that the human brain when listening to music is similar to a microphone. There is no reason to believe this at all; to me, it is just as likely that the brain is acting as an acquirer and interpreter of symbols. The quality of the sound is part of the symbol’s meaning, but cannot be examined in isolation.
As a result, it may just be that there is no way for a human listener to reliably discern anything but the most obvious audio differences in A/B/X listening tests. Using real music, the listener may be perceiving sound quality differences as changes in the perceived meaning of the symbols, but repeated listenings (like reading a phrase over and over), or listening to extracts out of context, kills all meaning and therefore kills any discernment of sound quality. Consciously listening for differences as opposed to listening to the music, pressing buttons while listening, breaking the flow of the music in any way, all have a similar effect. Alternatively, using electronic bleeps, or randomised snippets as the ‘test signal’, the listener is effectively hearing a stream of noise without any context or meaning, so the brain has nothing to attach the sound quality to at all.
In effect, the act of listening for sound quality in scientific trials may kill our ability to discern sound quality. Can this be proved either way? No.
I don’t see this as a problem to be ‘solved’; it is simply the kind of paradox that pops up when you start thinking about consciousness. Music has no evolutionary survival value, but we enjoy listening to it anyway – so we are in Weirdsville already. The extreme ‘objectivists’ who hold up ABX testing as science are extremely unimaginative if they think their naïve experiments and dull statistical formulae are a match for human consciousness.
Within the limitations of their chosen technology, most hi-fi systems are created with the aim of being ‘transparent’ to levels that exceed the known limitations of the physiology of the ear, and people seem keen to buy them. Without referring to scientific listening test data, the customers know that, in normal use, proper hi-fi does sound better than an iPod dock with 2″ speaker. But, as their own preference for the sound can’t be proved scientifically because of ‘the observer effect’, and because a human is bound to be influenced by factors other than the sound, then at some level they have to buy their hi-fi equipment ‘on faith’; maybe being influenced by the look of it, or because they believe the meme that vinyl is superior to digital. So be it. But they may find that, later, the system fails to meet their expectations and they are on a ruinous treadmill of “tweaks” and “upgrades”.
On a strictly rational basis, bypassing all that anguish, the new generation of DSP-based speakers gets even closer to the ideal of transparency by virtue of superior design – no listening tests required. I am confident they will sound great when being used for their intended purpose.
[Last edited 06/08/16]