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Science, and having good conversations

My friend Dmitri, who majored in philosophy, once explained to us the appeal for him: he was interested in having good conversations. Meaningful conversations. How could one go about that? He found good answers and good questions in philosophy; particularly from the pre-Socratics.

I have not been able to find philosophy interesting, despite some efforts. But I do find Dmitri’s comment interesting. And I think it is applicable to science.

The larger art of having a good conversation is not in scope and cannot be, but there are particular types of conversation that are frustrating and unproductive, where science can help.

This has been on my mind recently, as I had a relapse of my audio obsession and went headlong into research. You can find the details in my technical blog post.

The summary is that I learned to take acoustic measurements of my room and my system, and I joined the audio community Audio Science Review (ASR).

The conversations you can have once you start following the science-based approach are very different. In audio, and especially in audiophilia, equipment reviews have often been highly subjective. To the point of reminding me of people going overboard when showing off their wine connoisseurship.

It still is common to find florid reviews of a piece of gear that would allow one to more clearly perceive the hope and warmth in Diana Krall’s vocals. All sorts of old arguments persist to this day, on CD versus vinyl, tube amplifiers versus solid-state, digital versus analog. It seems there is no settling them.

At ASR, a newcomer asking for advice to improve their system will generally be asked what specific weakness of their system they are trying to fix. Have they taken measurements already? If not, the first advice is generally to get a calibrated microphone and to learn to take frequency-response readings of their system.

Once you learn how much room acoustics will influence the frequency response of your system, you realize subjective reviews are severely limited. This loudspeaker is wonderful … wait, wait. Under which conditions have you tested it? The same loudspeaker in my room will likely sound very different.
And, when comparing two pieces of gear, have you done controlled tests to make sure uneven conditions or brand loyalty aren’t clouding your judgement?

Is it possible to make equipment evaluations that get around these problems? Yes, and there is much research about that. The bible is Floyd Toole’s book on room acoustics and sound reproduction1. ASR is also a great source of information and practical know-how.

There are still frustrating and unproductive discussions at ASR, mind you. Some people go too far, attacking anything that they cannot pick up with their measurement gear and with their imperfect knowledge. Some people join the community specifically to criticize the science-based approach and declare that their fine hearing and impartial judgement are unimpeachable.
As always happens, the more thoughtful and knowledgeable community members are far better at dealing with dissent, and also far more effective when stopping a conversation that is moving in circles or is predicated on a false premise.

It is good to remember that science is only human.

  1. Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms by Floyd Toole, Routledge; 3rd edition (2017) ↩︎

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