For the Love of Music Down with the Audio-as-Math Brigade

Down with the Audio-as-Math Brigade

While Robert Stuart wryly refers to psychoacoustics as his "enduring hobby," he also says his continuing effort to understand the dynamics of human hearing "underpins everything I've tried to do." He doesn't have much patience with what he calls "the audio-as-math brigade."

"Good math always helps to make sure what you've done makes sense," Stuart says, "but math can never provide the full answer in audio design. According to the audio-as-math brigade, there should be nothing to distinguish between a great violin and one that costs $5. And yet almost anyone can hear the difference."

And he means anyone—or nearly so. "I have an almost infinite respect for how well people hear. They hear better than they think they can. Our inherent ability to discriminate is very high. We use our hearing for everything—whether it's being aware of automobiles around us when we cross the street or listening to music.

"We can all be trained to hear better, to make very fine distinctions. But that training must take place under favorable conditions. People under stress literally can't tell the difference between coffee and tea, but with practice and when put at ease the same subjects can make precise distinctions among types of coffee. The same applies to listening."

But what we hear—that is, our interpretation of audio performance—depends on our individual personalities and experiences, Stuart says. He does not subscribe to the proposition that, in a properly trained group of listeners, most will like or not like the same things.

"People listen for different things, depending on what they bring to it. To take an extreme example, someone who plays in an orchestra has a very specific idea of how orchestral music should sound. The truth is, we don't know what other people hear. We only know what they tell us they hear."

As for the audio-as-math brigade's contention that audio perception can be quantified, Stuart smiles:

"I think they're guilty of not really listening."—LBJ