What Is Reality?
I am having some renovations done to my house in Miami. Various tradesmen are doing the work. In the course of the day, we talk about everything from ObamaCare to alien abduction. During an intense tropical downpour, one man opined that such showers were unusual a few years ago but are common now. I asked, why is that? He replied, because of climate change, of course. Other conversations turned to audio. Another man described how he collected hundreds of CDs. Then he heard that digital sound quality was inferior to analog, so he stopped buying CDs. Also, he heard that downloaded music sounds bad. So he doesn’t buy music anymore.
Both men were well informed and were basing their opinions on information that has been passed down to us from experts. Many tasks (like hanging a door) require much more skill than most of us possess. Likewise, we rely on experts to study meteorology and explain their findings to us. It seems unlikely to me that climate change would have altered rainfall patterns in Miami over the past few years. But who knows? I’m not a climatologist.
When it comes to audio, it turns out that I am an expert. I could have affirmed the man’s opinion about CDs and downloads, or rebutted it. But I said nothing. Partly, that’s because I’ve had that conversation too many times already. Trust me—way too many times. In the course of those discussions, I’ve learned to appreciate the veracity of the opposing viewpoint, yet I reject it. To me, the answer is not gray. The question of whether or not analog sounds better than digital is black and white. To me, that truth is completely knowable. And yet, the question fascinates me. In today’s reasonably scientific age, how can people disagree on whether one source sounds better than another? Whereas climate change is enormously complex and is playing out over decades, a determination of sound quality should be as simple as an A/B listening test.
But of course, it is far more complex. For starters, no one seems to know what “good” sound is. For example, should a good sounding playback device sound warm, or should it be neutral? If warm sound is good, what does it sound like? Should a playback device improve the sound of a recording or transparently convey all its flaws? If its job is to improve, what should the improvement sound like? Is good sound the same for rock music as for classical music? Is it the same for a Chinese listener as for a British listener?
Questions like these have occupied me for years. As an engineer, I approach sound quality as a technical problem. (When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.) Logically, it seems that the system with the best numbers should sound the best. Of course, that logic falls short. A major corporation recently asked if I could supervise construction of a computer program that would analyze the acoustic signal of an audio system and adjust its parameters until it achieved the optimal sound quality. They assumed it would be a straightforward project. I assured them it was not.
And so the debate continues. My interim solution is this: Much like reality itself, good sound quality is what we believe it to be. This frustrates the hell out of me, but the reality is that audio is not only an engineering exercise, it is an emotional exercise. Brain and mind. And that is why it so fascinates us.