Discernment

Now this deserves a mention because of the variation that exists here.  I’ve met people who’ve have told me that they’ve never done acoustical treatment at any place they’ve worked in, and their systems have always sounded excellent, and that the software we acousticians use to validate our estimates is only cosmetic, and is only for reporting purposes. I have no issues with their fond opinion. I only have an issue with the notion that it could be an absolute ‘opinion’.

The point is, satisfaction is a classic case of roti kapda aur makaan – how much “more” you want depends on you, and there are no absolute standards. Every construction worker who passes by in front of my house has a pocket radio blaring sickly-sweet bollywood songs from the 90s ( for some reason, their musical taste is stuck in that era – I mean ALL of them – nothing before or after that!). You should come and see how happy those workers are, singing along. I should just start with myself – a pair of Creative 2.1 speakers with a rented computer can arguably contend for one in top five slots for best memories of college days –  I thought the world of them, and have spent wonderful years listening for HOURS daily. What I’m trying to say is that not everyone shares a particular level of discernment.

The field of subjective testing is a very interesting one, and amateur enthusiasts are eagerly getting into it. The field is closely related to Psychoacoustics, and subjective testing methodologies ( AB, Blind AB, etc). It’s a very interdisciplinary subject – it starts with the wonder of biology, and ends up on statistics. There are broad definitions of terms describing music, and many would concur with those, but only when the sample is played in contrast to something that doesn’t fit the definition. I should write another post on the terminology used to describe audio, and what they mean on a physical level. Audiophiles need to understand that for economical reasons, the vast majority of the population is very happy with commercial “low-end” systems.   We will instead try to see what the “discerning” ear looks for. Turns out, there’s a rather huge variation here as well.

Obviously, hisses and crackles and clip sounds are not acceptable. Assuming clear audio quality and no system-induced distortion, we still have a wide range of preference. A lot depends on the genre that’s being played. When I look at home theatres, I necessarily have to ask the client what their main purpose is. A ghazal afficionado will not buy a system that a gaming enthusiast finds awesome, etc. Similarly, room acoustics for a DJ area is not the same as that for alive area, though it seems to be a trend to have both in the same space these days.

Coming back to speakers, this DIY guy I know (Sreekanth) makes bookshelves and tower speakers that have fantastic detailing, and we’ve had a great time trying out the differences between the systems he’s designed! (Exclamation, yes!). The difference in the soundstage between version 1 and version 2 of his bookshelf speakers is stunning. Version 2 is not for everyone. I took some time to warm up to it. But version 1 had me spellbound. Similarly, his tower speakers for the HT setup made me feel like I was right in the middle of those skyscrapers that Batman was planning to jump on. Leave aside brands, and DIY speakers. ( I will discuss about the genuine talent pool that the DIY club of speaker makers is in another post – cannot do justice to that here).

I’ve auditioned enough systems and find some bright, some clear, some mellow, etc. Honestly, before even discussing fidelity etc, we ought to all get our ears tested. Speech and Hearing institutes typically will only test for speech frequencies, though a couple of them may offer extended audiometry upto 12kHz. I’ve been lucky to have checked the full range of my hearing in my labs at my university, and realized that my hearing is acutely sensitive around the female high pitch range. Which is why Lata-ji will grate on my ears if the volume is too high, while others in the room are perfectly happy. When I tune spaces for sound, I depend on readings heavily for this range, and am able to trust my hearing for all other octave bands.

So, there’s stuff for everyone out here – pocket radios, low-end computer speakers, custom handmade speakers, audio engines, AV systems that the aforesaid vendor sells, and let’s just skip a whole lot of stuff to reach close to the top end at Goldmund home theater systems at 2 crores for a set. AV guys will obviously market the products they deal with, but they should be aware that what they’re saying is not the absolute truth most of the times. Owners of such spaces should be even more aware of this fact. Marketing cannot be the only reason why systems can be priced so far apart from each other.  So in summary, what sounds awesome to one conditioned mind may sound terrible to another. For this reason, audio “shootouts” never made sense to me.

To summarise, there’s a certain terminology of description of sound that is fairly standard, but wide variations are possible at the subjective testing level. Blind AB tests must be carefully structured to get the best results out of them. Very few absolute opinions exist beyond a point. But that’s fine no?  There’s a reason why we’re all not clones of each other, so why should we expect our hearing mechanism and preferences to be identical?

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