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 memory serves, and this is a long time ago, CR also tested Allison, and gave them a very high rating, after which Roy Allison criticized their testing and evaluation methodologies.

erik - CR’s testing of audio equipment at that time was very much a measurement approach - using primarily frequency response as the metric for their "accuracy" rankings. But they also wrote listening impressions. Their issues with the 901’s were the larger than life and any imaginable instrument image that they sometimes projected - e.g., a piano could be wide as the room even if the room was 15’ in width. I remember when the 901’s were introduced going to listen to them - they were pretty startling (whoa, how’d that guitarist get on the ceiling?!!?) and, even taking into account the limitations of the most popular speakers at the time (which were primarily bookshelf models), they departed considerably from the norm as well as what one might expect from live music. That was the first iteration - I admit that I have not listened to the later models. Although I don’t remember the particulars, my guess is that Roy Allison objected to the FR measure that was CR’s primary accuracy criterion which, I believe, was conducted in an anechoic chamber. That, of course, would negate the feature of Allison speakers that distinguished them from most others (positioning close to the wall to take advantage of the reinforcement effects the boundary afforded.
If I told you Karl-Anthony Towns is just as good as LeBron James because they both averaged the same number of points per game, would you buy that?  What if I went further and said and perceived greatness of LeBron was simply snake oil that you dreamed up in your head?

There has been a revolution in sports analytics in this century to the point where it is now very easy to show why LeBron was better than KAT in a number of different ways. 

The audio measurements crowd needs to similarly step up its game.  Distortion and frequency response is points and rebounds.  Points and rebounds are important, but Karl-Anthony Towns ain't leading you to a championship.
Good analogy whoopycat.   We should continue to investigate the nature of audio reproduction, perception, and appreciation.  Certainly, at this point in time all of the meaningful measures have yet to be defined and curiosity about what is missing is a primary driver for scientific investigation.  The bottom line, to me at least, is that we can draw some conclusions from the measurements we can make, but we certainly can't completely describe the behavior of any piece of gear nor how we will perceive it.  At this point, the quote below certainly obtains.

"Not everything that counts can counted and not everything that can be counted counts." (commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, but probably coined by William Bruce Cameron).


I'm sorry but I don't see any correlation between studying random seasonal basketball stats and studying precise electrical measurements.

None whatsoever.