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Testing audiophile claims and myths

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by prog rock man, May 3, 2010.
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  1. GearMe
    It's 10x TOO FRICKIN' LOUD!!! :hear_no_evil:

    (or not)
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2019
  2. bigshot
    In the kinds of music I listen to, it isn't an issue at all. If compression bothers you so much, you should explore other kinds of music. I think you'll find that the problem isn't as pervasive as you seem to think it is. And there are some kinds of music that actually benefit from compression. If you understand why it's happening, you can figure out how to avoid it.

    I had an uncle who at every family gathering would bring up the topic of duck hunting. He would say, "Speaking of duck hunting..." and the whole room would go quiet. Everyone had learned that if you just let him get his comments out, the conversation could turn back to other more interesting subjects.

    When I have family and friends over and I put on music or a movie, we talk about the music or the movie. The movies and music I play have enough about them to think about and discuss that we don't need to get to technical minutia about how it was recorded.

    By the way, have you considered picking up a second hand dynamic expander? It might help your system a bit. Loudness can also be exacerbated by room reflections. Room treatment might help too... if the wife will allow.

    He must throw very large parties for his wife and guests to number 1000! Perhaps he has a harem of wives!

    If you are seeking the solution to a problem occurring in quite different situations, it's best to look for a common denominator. Perhaps the wife is the problem. (says me, the confirmed bachelor!)
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2019
    Light - Man likes this.
  3. TheSonicTruth
    I'm pretty sure without proper amounts of compression a lot of the classic rock from the '70s, and rap from the '80s would not sound quite like it does.

    In the nuclear(digital) era - mid-1990s to present - it, combined with limiting, has been overused, at least in the popular genres(rock, pop, rap, country, r&b).
  4. bfreedma
  5. bigshot
    It isn't a problem in the rock, rap, country and r&b I listen to, but that stuff probably isn't considered contemporary pop music.
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2019
  6. AudioThief
    Head-Fiers, I have a question for you.

    On the subreddit /r/headphones, they like to mock head-fiers (and audiophiles in general) for believing in sound improvements that "can't be scientifically proven". Now, I know of measurements, and I know of THD measuerments etc.

    If we agree that measurements by and large tell you about the headphones balance and linearity, and that a low THD number is an objectively good thing, can we also agree that most reasonably made headphones score well here, objectively speaking?

    So then, my question becomes - How can you "prove" objectively that a Stax headphone has more clarity and detail, and a faster transient response than say a Philips SHP9500? Can someone prove that to me?

    Obviously I've heard electrostats and the philips, and I know that the stax are much better. But how can you prove it? How can you even prove scientifically that there is a difference between the sound quality of a Stax SR-009 and ATH-M50s beyond their differing measurements, that tells you nothing about soundstage, timbre etc.. ?

    I am asking because it seems that a lot of people, especially on reddit, has gotten this bizarre notion that everything and anything can be proven. As far as I can tell, there is very little science behind headphones, and it seems to be very much an art. This also goes for amplifiers and DACs. How can you prove that one amplifier is better than the other? You can't right, so does that mean there is no difference? Again, I am assuming nothing horribly badly made, cheap or broken. I am assuming competently built stuff.
  7. castleofargh Contributor
    typical measurements are going to quantify a specific variable under specific conditions, so if you measure say THD in a given frequency range while using a given source at a given listening level, you can usually tell that one headphone is doing better for that variable than another one. but even with something that simple, let's say both headphones have very similar total amount of distortions but one has more second order harmonics while the other has more third order. then what? unless we predefined that for example between even and odd harmonics, one is less objectionable to the listener, we have no simple way to decide which is objectively better. and then at a different listening level or with another amp, the result will probably change a good deal confirming one headphone's superiority, or just showing how loud each can go before struggling.
    and that's only for 1 type of measurement. now multiply the measurements that we can do for headphones, and very often you will end up with one headphone having maybe a more balanced frequency response but also more distortions than another one. who's to decide in an objective way that +2dB at 4kHz is worst than say 3%THD at 30Hz? and +2dB compared to what frequency response target? we end up trying judge apples and oranges.

    measurements have value when we have a very specific thing to test. if the question was which headphone gives a signal closest to the input signal, we could just record what comes out null it with the original signal and whichever headphone has the quietest remaining signal wins. but even for that you would have to define a few things like listening level and some concept of the ear that should be the judge as different people will have different ears that will alter the frequency and thus the result of a null. what that also means is that objectively, a certain headphone might be objectively more accurate for one person and not for another.

    at some point you have to define the exact question, make sure it's a question that can be tested, and then define precisely the testing method and conditions that should be used to try and answer that question. more often than not you will have to make somewhat arbitrary decisions that may affect the results of the test. so it's important when we get a result, to also pay attention to the conditions of the test to know when the result is valid and when we don't actually know.

    you talk about detail and clarity, those are subjective impressions from a given listener. so a listening test will probably be the way to go about it, but that might be easier said than done. first because we'd have to be able to put both headphones on your head without you being able to tell which one is the Stax. and another issue comes from the fact that for some subjective impressions, different people will perceive different things. 10 people might sometimes have 10 different subjective impressions of 1 single objective event. so proving that you consistently prefer one headphone or find that it has more details and clarity, it might be annoying but we can probably test and prove it. but that probably wan't demonstrate much for other listeners. to know about them, we'd have to test them, or at least test enough people and get a consistent enough result for us to confidently say that headphone whatever is judged to have more clarity by X percent of the subjects tested. and then you count on stats to properly represent the entire world. but that remain fundamentally a test about a subjective notion.
    about faster transient, that's something objective and we can easily measure it. but how much impact that actually has on our subjective impression of fidelity? just recording a sweep or a Dirac pulse won't answer that. so I insist, it's very important to clearly define what we want answered, and to avoid questions that turn out to be very vague once we start considering all the possible usage conditions and things that could be measured.
    AudioThief likes this.
  8. Andrew LB
    Hate to break it to you guys, but music these days is definitely recorded with a higher overall volume than in decades past. The past decade and a half has seen music transition largely to digital and streamed content and due to advances in processing power, songs can now be equalized by software and the way they've done it is to first drop all track volume by 5-10% in order to give headroom for the software to the level up the tracks that don't fit within the desirable range of loudness. In response the industry really began compressing the dynamic range to make the music louder. Go listen to the original release of Rage Against the Machine and then the remastered version, both are on spotify.

    Check this out as well: https://www.npr.org/2009/12/31/122114058/the-loudness-wars-why-music-sounds-worse
    TheSonicTruth likes this.
  9. KeithEmo
    I would absolutely agree with that statement...

    ANYTHING you can hear CAN be measured...
    However, out of the many things that can be measured concerning a DAC, or an amplifier, we often only measure a few standard ones.
    And the number of things we can and do measure with headphones is even less.
    Some of those other things may be difficult to measure...
    And still others may be difficult to correlate with what we hear...
    (In other words, just having a whole bunch of measurements doesn't necessarily tell us which ones make something sound a certain way.)

    For example, "soundstage" is not a "thing"...
    It is more accurately an emergent property of several other characteristics...
    An electrical audio signal is a simple two-dimensional value (it is a voltage that varies over time).
    "Soundstage" is a sort of composite characteristic our human brain MAKES UP...
    What we perceive as "soundstage" is made up from some combination of frequency response, phase shift, time delays, distortion, and directional information we actually hear.
    And, while we can measure all of those things individually with great accuracy...
    Figuring out what complex combination of them our brain looks for and represents to us as "sound stage" may be somewhat less certain.
    (If you play two absolutely identical electrical signals through the same gear they will exhibit the same sound stage.
    However, if your two signals aren't identical, determining how the differences will affect the sound stage is not so easy.)

    In your headphone question....

    Electrostatic headphones have a much lighter diaphragm than pretty much all dynamic headphones....
    So I would expect the Stax model to be able to make better square waves and deliver a much cleaner waterfall plot.
    (I would expect to see major differences in those two areas.)
    Also, because the diaphragm is lighter, there is less of an impedance mismatch between it and the air it is driving (which can reduce other issues)

    I would expect it to be obvious what the differences are if you were to look at those measurements.
    However, those aren't measurements that are typically taken for headphones...
    (Probably partly because they aren't "traditional measurements for headphones" and partly because they may actually be difficult to measure with headphones.)

    Beyond even that, electrostatic headphones tend to have a very flat, or slightly rising, frequency response at very high frequencies...
    Which tends to convey the impression of greater detail - even beyond a measured difference.
    (We tend to perceive devices with a rising high frequency response, or a bump at certain higher frequency ranges, as "more detailed".)
    (And, yes, if you were to actually compare measurements of a bunch of headphones people describe as "very detailed", you would find similarities between them.)

    In the case of DACs...

    If you actually look at a variety of measurements you will see that DACs measure quite differently in a variety of ways.
    Name ANY two DACs and you will have little difficulty finding obvious and easily measurable differences between them.
    (The arguments start when people start insisting that this or that difference should be ignored "because it can't possibly be audible".)

    AudioThief likes this.
  10. Steve999
    And I would add for our kind guest, @AudioThief , the same holds true for amps. With DACs, you are the most unlikely to get audible differences. With respect to amps in the context of headphones, please see the second sticky in this sub-forum re: headphones and amplifier impedance interactions.
  11. TheSonicTruth
    RATM's catalogue has ZERO business being 'remastered' in the first place.
  12. AudioThief


    Thank you for the great replies. I am in over my head on a strictly technical level here, so if what I am saying doesn't make too much sense.. then thats why.

    My first question is, how do we know that blind testing, ab/x etc is the correct way of finding out about what is factually right in terms of sound? I've never tried to blind test anything, but I predict it would be very difficult for me to hear the differences on a variety of equipment.. Because I am used to always use my hearing in conjunction with my other senses. I think we can all agree that all headphones in a given category is relatively similar to each other when we consider all sources of sound we have ever been subjected to in our lifetime. So it makes sense that it is very difficult to distinguish one thing from another in a blind test where we don't readily understand the source of the sound beyond it being headphones. Or the differences being in a hidden box, as with testing DACs and amps.

    But clearly, there exist consensus on a lot of things in the headphone world.. Now I know that parroting is very prevalent in the audio community.. Its one of my biggest pet peeves, in fact. People often just parrot what they've heard about a piece of given equipment. But even still, there is consensus on a lot of things. For instance, the HD800 has a big soundstage. Or TH 900 has a hot treble. Or the LCD 2 has a lot of body. So clearly people somehow generally come to the same conclusion about a lot of equipment. Those same people, in a blind test, likely would not be able to discern these qualities out of the headphones unless they knew they would be using those headphones, and actively look for those qualities. Lets say you took a group of people and had them blind test the th 900, lcd2, hd800 - none of them had ever heard those headphones.. And lets say you took 500 people who underwent that test. Would they give us those characteristics? I would be surprised if they did that. Hell many would probably have issues hearing any significant difference! If that were the case, and the results showed that the differences were small, would that mean the TH 900 doesn't actually have a hot treble, the HD 800 doesn't actually have a wide soundstage, and the LCD 2 doesn't actually have a lot of body?

    I am just thinking out loud here, to me blind testing doesn't sound intuitively right to me.

    As for bright given an impression of detail.. Well, what is an impression of detail? My thinking is that the HD 800 isn't more detailed than the 007s, however they are clearly brighter to my ears. And wouldnt detail just be how much detail you could hear, not how loud it is relative to the other sounds - obviously if you can't hear the details because its drowned out, then its not a detailed headphone.. Which is why the LCD 2 to my ears would be more detailed than the th 900... Because its more even in FR and thus there is more space for details if that makes sense.

    My question is basically.. What is the difference between impression of details vs details.. ?

    I am sorry if I sound very dumb, as I said I am in way over my head here.
  13. KeithEmo
    I'm just going to take a shot at your first question.....

    The whole purpose of blind testing is to isolate what we're hearing from all those other factors.

    The reason you do blind testing is because you want to be able to judge how something sounds without allowing any of those other factors to interfere.
    We all have a variety of human biases.
    For example most of us expect more expensive equipment to sound better.
    While others may expect bigger amplifiers, or shinier ones, or more complicated ones, to sound better.
    By blocking out all of those causes of bias we are better able to focus on one aspect - how it sounds.
    (In an audiophile forum context we assume that our goal is to asses how something sounds - so all that other stuff would merely be distractions to that goal.)

    Even if you're quite willing to spend more money for "the fancy trim" or "the pretty display"....
    Audiophiles generally prefer to be able to determine how something sounds independent from all that other stuff.

    Different headphones do sound different...
    And most people find it easier to focus on those differences when the distractions are removed...

    NOTE that "a blind test" does not necessarily mean that you have no frame of reference or even that you can;t see any of the participants.
    For example, you could listen to several different headphones, while being able to see them...
    You could then do a blind comparison of Brand X, to decide how "Brand X" compares to the known ones, without being able to see the price tag or color scheme on Brand X.
    (Without being able to see it, you have no way to form an expectation of what it will sound like, so you can concentrate more on what it DOES sound like.)

    And, in a different way, your assertion may also be true....
    If you FAIL to notice much difference, or any difference, when you can't see what you're listening to....
    Then any difference you imagine you hear when you CAN see them must be due to something else....
    (if they really sounded different then they would still sound different - even with your eyes closed...)

    AudioThief likes this.
  14. bigshot
    That may be true of pop music, which is mastered to be played on cell phones with earbuds in the street, but it isn't true of other genres of music. For instance, classical music is more dynamic than it's ever been.

    It's a way of eliminating variables that you don't want to affect your comparison. If you are testing one amp to see if it sounds different than another amp, your personal bias about the brand shouldn't enter into it. If you want to buy a McIntosh amp simply because you like the idea of teal blue lights and the status owning a McIntosh system gives you, there's no reason to do a blind comparison. But if you want to know if a McIntosh sounds different than a Pioneer, you probably should compare blind. Everyone is subject to bias. It's hard wired into our decision making process.
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2019
  15. castleofargh Contributor
    about the changes and difficulties of doing a blind test, you're right that it can feel difficult, or even a very poor way to test something. because we will often seem to do poorly compared to all the stuff we noticed in a sighted impression. but that's perfectly normal and only revealing how much of our impressions isn't just sound. if I was to make a crude comparison, it would be similar to testing our sense of balance by standing on one foot with our eyes closed or with our eyes open. the difference is pretty radical because we rely so much on what we see to correct our balance. while our actual sense of balance from the stuff in our ears, that sense isn't very impressive on its own. just because we get discomfort for doing things with fewer senses than we usually have, doesn't mean that the test doesn't work properly for the specific sense being tested. on the contrary, it might be the only time when we're really relying on it fully because for once, it's all we have.

    about the differences in interpretation and actual experience, I would say that the bigger the difference, the more homogeneous the result over a large sample of listeners. if a headphone has 15 more dB at 80Hz compared to another with an otherwise similar signature, even if not everybody has the exact same impressions of the actual amount of bass, everybody will at least agree that it has significantly more bass than the other headphone. now when the difference in signature is more subtle, it's very possible that just the difference in the shape of the head and ears will cause to perceive a certain frequency as boosted by a few dB while someone else won't. and at last, when the differences are really tiny, coming close to the threshold of audibility or below, then many people in sighted tests will "hear" whatever they already expected to hear. at this point not only do we get a vast disparity in impressions, but a many of them are wrong and they're not actually hearing that sound the way they think they do.
    so I should logically tell you that blind tests are really only useful to test small changes in sound. and that would be correct if we didn't encounter a big problem in the hobby: maniacs who discuss tiny irrelevant like it was a super big deal, and keep calling them night and day differences. as a result of adding superlatives for social effect, half the time you get a feedback about subjective impressions, you have no clue as to the actual magnitude of what is described, or even if it's true at all. and that's ultimately the reason why we end up asking for measurements or a demonstration in the form of a blind test for almost anything. not because it's always needed and people are always wrong, but because we often aren't able to tell if something big is happening, or if a guy is just exaggerating everything because he thinks that how you show you're an elite audiophile, by showing that not only you always notice a difference, but you notice it massively because of how good your ears are. as a result I trust almost nobody's subjective impression of a product. :slight_frown:

    if you start testing the reliability of sighted listening, like for example letting subjects think they're having a sighted test, but the devices in front of them are dummies, people tend to fail so bad that it's usually mainly used for comedy or to troll fans of a given product to show that they don't know what they're doing. audiophiles don't know about the weakness of a sighted impression for small differences, or start shouting "lalalalalalala I can't hear you" anytime those issues are brought on the forum. but the issues are real and they don't go away just by pretending that they don't exist or that they only happen to others. having some mean to control how we do in a test is nice, if only for our own peace of mind.
    AudioThief likes this.
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