Measurements Alone Cannot Tell the Whole Story

I recently attended Summer NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in Nashville, Tennessee, the little sibling to the larger Anaheim NAMM convention every January.

NAMM may be an unfamiliar name to you – and with good reason, since it’s a professional audio and music equipment convention. One of the biggest in the world actually, alongside the MusikMesse in Frankfurt every year, which attracts both professional and more audiophile and consumer-oriented manufacturers.

I’ll be upfront with you in saying the two NAMMs and the MusikMesse are superior shows to any audiophile show. The benefit of audiophile shows is often a certain coziness that comes with small, niche hobby hangouts. CANJAMs for example afford an opportunity to see friends in the community and industry, and have very focused seminars on specialized topics like headphone measurements. However, what they don’t do well is bring together a diverse group or encourage the growth of the community. If you’re under the age of 50, a woman, non-white, etc., you’ve almost certainly been asked, “Why are there no women, young people, etc. in audio?”

NAMM, at the Music City Centre in Nashville, Tennessee.

Well, as it turns out, while the music industry has its own issues, if you want to see more diverse crowds, go to the pro-audio world. What you’ll also find in the pro-audio world is a lot of discussion about music, gear and audio that is friendly and open, even when people are disagreeing.

I find it ironic that an industry in which people’s livelihoods are even more dependent on the equipment, the discussions tend to be more welcoming to a variety of opinions. At Summer NAMM I had wonderful discussions about fairly detailed and technical topics, and every one of them started and ended with us expressing our sonic opinions of said gear. Ultimately, customers of recording engineers, producers and musicians want things to sound good, and they couldn’t care less what we have to do or how it measures to accomplish that. This has a lot of interesting implications, especially considering many of the engineers I talked to would consider themselves audiophiles, or at least enjoy listening to diverse music on high-quality playback systems.

Firstly, I’d like to emphasize the point about many engineers and producers very much understanding and enjoying technical discussions. We work with audio technology, and despite it being a creative field, almost all of us do take at least some joy in the gear we work with. There’s also a certain degree of technical understanding required just to do many of these jobs – from programming midi instruments, to mixing or cutting vinyl. Not everyone is a tech savant, but there’s a base level of knowledge about circuits, measurements, and usually digital-audio theory. So why are people who are expected to accomplish fairly technical routing and mixing tasks so ready to talk about the subjective audio experience? Why isn’t every audio control room standardized, clinically precise and identical?

It comes back to the creative element of the job. You might be surprised at how wildly different even well-treated and digitally corrected mixing and mastering rooms can sound. Personal taste is still very much at play. As engineers and producers we have to make decisions about how the music should sound that are entirely subjective – should the vocal be forward or should it sit further back in the mix? The answer is of course, whatever suits the song based on our tastes and the clients preferences. There are no EQ or mix police who come knocking at our door to tell us the recording isn’t holographic enough, or the bass is too high in level. Let’s set aside the fact that many engineers are the only advocates for good sound quality on any record, and apply this same idea to audiophiles.

I’m currently reviewing the Manley Absolute headphone amplifier. It’s got EQ controls on it – baxandall treble and bass shelves, and they’re some of the nicest sounding tone controls I’ve heard in a piece of hi-fi gear. So far the hi-fi police haven’t come by to break down my door. I think in recent years EQ, DSP and other tools have become more accepted, but the majority of the community still doesn’t use them. I think on the one hand, using things like the Harman target curve and measurement rigs have benefitted the collective knowledge base and manufacturing methods very positively. However, it’s also galvanized a segment of the hobby that sees themselves as extreme objectivists. I’m not here to tell you that’s wrong, or that we should all be total objectivists – quite the opposite in fact. I think the reality is that seeing these two things as opposed is a fallacy.

For example, in recording we often talk about ‘sweeting’ or ‘thickening’ a signal. What we mean by that can be broken down in a couple ways; by manipulating frequency response curves, or harmonic saturation, we can achieve these specific sounds. There’s been extensive research and measurement around this, and it’s also widely accepted in audiophile circles that tubes, which have a specific harmonic distortion profile, color the signal in ways that some find pleasing. This is an objective observation – tubes cause saturation and distortion. Let’s say I enjoy listening to tube amps particular harmonic characteristic, and I recognize that even though this is distortion, it can be a pleasing distortion. This is a subjective preference, informed by an objective measure. As an informed consumer, I can use this information when assembling a system to ‘tune’ it to my preferences, perhaps matching a tube amp with a very clean sounding headphone to achieve the kind sound signature I like. This is of course a pretty basic example, but I think it illustrates the point. We are, after all, trying to assemble systems which sound pleasing to us in the audio hobby.

Professional engineers assemble systems using largely this same metric (combined with other factors such as usability of course) and in reality, the only people who assemble systems purely to measure well are people who get paid to make measurement equipment and take measurements for a living. I’m excluding community and reviewer measurements here as they serve a different, albeit useful function in my mind.

So, why even measure at all?

This is the part both subjectivist and objectivist crowds often miss, and that is the fact that without those measurements, I cannot make an informed decision about exactly why I like the gear I do. If there is a rare soul amongst us audiophiles who can truly claim complete technical ignorance, they are lucky indeed to live an audio version of ‘ignorance is bliss.’ I have not met anyone like this yet. By its nature, this is a gearhead’s hobby – we want to know about the gear. It’s fun and interesting, and if we were just music lovers who cared nothing for gear, we would be musicians, or groupies, not shut-in weirdos tinkering with headphones and amplifiers.

Even a subjectivist can tell you the harmonic characteristic of tube amps is part of what gives them a distinctive sound that we’ve come to subjectively label the ‘tube sound.’ We need measurements to inform our sensory observations and for subjective opinions, as a whole system of understanding sound. Recording engineers, perhaps the most subjective of all audiophiles, understand this intrinsically as part of their work.

So why am I so obsessed with this idea of engineers being audiophiles? Because when any fad in consumer audio dries up, the engineers and audio professionals will be the ones still listening in traditional ways. Much like the stereo craze of the ‘70s gave birth to the North American hi-fi speaker market, the Walkman, iPod, Beats and lifestyle headphone fad gave true birth to the audiophile headphone market we enjoy today. Sure, there were outliers who helped start things and companies experimenting earlier than that, but I imagine there will be a time when high-end headphones go much the way of the stereo market. The evidence is already here, that gaming, VR and lifestyle audio products are the consumer audio products of the future, and they already have their own nascent versions of ‘audiophile’ communities. But engineers will still be plugging in their speakers and headphones by wires, even when consumer audio has progressed even further away from traditional wired hi-fi.

My point here is that from my perspective as an audio professional, the subjective, objective and sensory are all coherent and necessary parts of the audiophile experience. Every engineer has had that experience where we ‘heard’ something that turned out not to be there.

We are building auditory systems to please the very subjective and ever-changing sensory systems of human beings. The frequency response, natural pneumatic compression, and filtering of our ears changes constantly. It’s almost a miracle we can measure or hear anything with any sort of reliability or repeatability. The audio police still haven’t come to arrest us. I’ll also add as an audio reviewer, I doubly appreciate that measurements can let me know if I’m full of bologna, because without a baseline it’s too easy to find a setup or piece of music with which almost anything can sound decent, or to let personal preferences color critical insight into a piece of gear. Beyond just keeping hobbyists ‘honest’ In my mind, taking a position as a simple objectivist or subjectivist is sort of antithetical to the audio hobby. We get gear because we enjoy how it sounds. It is after all called the ‘audio’ hobby and not the ‘measurement’ hobby.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I realized how much control the engineers had in the final sound and we all like or value different sonic signatures. Also here is where quality doesn't come cheap and a weak link in the chain is a bad thing.

I also found out how difficult it is to make a great recording and how much effort and intent listening one must do and really agonize of all the details. The ambient noise of the room is a huge factor. It is a much harder job than I ever thought and an expensive one. My mic cabinet keeps growing and they all are as different as loudspeakers.

It is great hobby for me and I am glad I took this turn in my audiophile life. Now all my tracking is at 2496 or 24192. Maybe DSD by the year's end. That will be a big jump.