In Defense of Audiophiles, Bose, Pass, Toole and Science

I don’t know why I look at Audio Science Reviews equipment reviews, they usually make me bang my head against my desk. The claims they make of being scientific is pretty half-baked. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate measurements, and the time it takes to conduct them, along with insights into the causes, but judging all electronics based on 40+ year old measurements which have not really become closer to explaining human perception and enjoyment, they claim to be objective scientists. They are not. Let me tell you some of the people who are:

  1. Bose
  2. Harman
  3. Nelson Pass
  4. Floyd Toole

This may look like a weird list, but here is what all these have in common: They strive to link together human perception and enjoyment of a product to measurements. Each have taken a decidedly different, but very successful approach. They’ve each asked the question differently. I don’t always agree with the resulting products, but I can’t deny that their approach is market based and scientific.

Floyd Toole’s writing on room tuning, frequency response and EQ combines exact measurements with human perception, and as big a scientist as he is he remains skeptical of measurements, and with good reasons.

The process Nelson Pass uses is exactly right. His hypothesis is that a certain type of distortion, along with other important qualities, are what make for a great sounding amp, and lets face it, the process, and his effectiveness cannot be denied as not being scientific or financially successful. Far more scientific than designing or buying an amp based on THD% at 1 watt alone.

Bose is also very very scientific, but they come at the problem differently. Their question is: What is the least expensive to manufacture product we can make given what most consumers actually want to hear?" Does it work? They have 8,000 employees and approximately $4B in sales per Forbes:

Honestly, I don’t know how your average Bose product would measure, but you don’t get to these numbers without science. Assuming they measure poorly, doesn’t that mean measurements are all wrong?

The work Harman has done in getting listening panels together, and trying out different prototypes while adhering to previous science is also noteworthy. Most notably and recently with their testing of speaker dispersion which has resulted in the tweeter wave guides in the latest Revel speakers. They move science forward with each experiment, and then put that out into their products.

Regardless of the camp you fall into, crusty old measurements, perception measurements or individual iconoclast, we also must account for person to person variability. It’s been shown for instance that most people have poor sensitivity to phase shifts in speakers (like me), but if you are THAT person who has severe sensitivity to it, then all those studies don’t mean a thing.

My point is, let’s not define science as being purely in the domain of an oscilloscope. Science is defined by those who push the boundaries forward, and add to our understanding of human perception as well as electron behavior through a semi-conductor and air pressure in a room. If it’s frozen in 40 year old measurements, it’s not science, it's the worship of a dead icon.



If humans can hear it it can be measured. How the brain interprets that sound is the focus of science now. Speakers and room acoustics determine most of what we hear. As long as the reproduction chain is as neutral as possible which can be done now then what’s on the medium will get to the speakers. Some don’t like what the recording engineers put on that medium so we have tone controls of various kinds to tweak it to our liking. Distortion in some tube and SS amps, cables designed as tone controls, EQs, Digital processing etc.. are ways we tune our systems to our liking and correct the flaws of our speakers and rooms. But the notion science can’t measure or understand the recording and playback process isn’t correct.
Sorry, but science wouldn’t know sound if it came up and bit them in the buttocks. Old and stodgy, as slow as molasses in January, the science community can’t see the forest for the trees. Lead, follow or get out of the way! The Argument that science or measurements can come to the rescue of audiophile dilemmas is an example of appeal to authority perpetrated by English and history majors. Once we found out that THD doesn’t really mean anything the jig was up and that was 40 years ago. A loss of naiveness as it were.
"The brain is not a computer, and the ear is not a microphone."
 - Nelson Pass

Good post Erik, agree 100%
Look, I have never bought Bose, but NO ONE spends more money on R&D, including measurements and consumer preference than Bose, which they pursue in a very organized and scientific fashion.

I think what many are missing can be summarized:

  • Science includes measuring psycho acoustics and user preferences
  • Science may not lead to the same preferences you have
  • Science can be used to come up with a product you personally dislike

Regardless of your taste or desire to own Bose or Pass, you cannot deny their organized methodology based on experimentation, measurement and discovery.  That. Is. Science.

What is not scientific is recommending a product for humans to buy based on ancient measurements. To make a car analogy, buying based on MPG doesn't tell you anything about your enjoyment or comfort while driving, but those ARE measurable too.  Just like the food analogy introduced above, there are plenty of food scientists who work every day in figuring out how to make a tastier cookie, and only some of their work involves the chemistry lab.

And that's my problem with ASR.  They stop at the chemistry lab and ignore the mouth feel, crunchiness, and taste of blends to the point where they have no correlation between the two, unlike a food scientist who would constantly be connecting the two.


Toole advocates direct A/B comparison of speakers.  Quickly switching between two or more sets of speakers will almost always end you up with the most forward and fatiguing speakers.  The more neutral speaker will seem dull and flat in comparison.  The best way is to spend time with a set, or single for that matter, and play as wide a range of music as possible.  Then switch to the other set, and repeat the process.