The Phineas Gage Fan Club blog has just put a post up on audiophiles and the limitations on hearing. It has a good discussion of why many people will believe the bunk presented by subjective reviews. Another point mentioned by the author, that I have not previously elaborated upon, is differences in hearing abilities. We know, for example, that sensitivity to high frequency audio drops off as a person ages. This rate is not constant, and varies by individual. It is also extremely common for people to have greater sensitivity to all sound in one ear or the other. I've never heard of audiophiles taking hearing tests to determine these characteristics of their own hearing, then tuning the system in a compensatory fashion. All audiophile review sites, in my opinion, should post a profile of the reviewer's own hearing sensitivity. Only by doing so is it possible for the reader to insure that he experiences the same response from the system.
It is possible to claim that perhaps I am going overboard on this. There is a lot of money involved in this realm, and people should be able to make informed decisions on what they buy. I am in no way condemning the ultimate goal of the audiophile - that is, the pursuit of high-quality audio reproduction for personal enjoyment. I listen to a lot of music(mostly bluegrass and old time, oddly enough), and music brings a great deal of joy into my life. The pursuit of a well-built and designed stereo system is a worthy and interesting one. The problem is that if we are to accept audio cables worth $7,000, and audio amplifiers worth $20,000, it behooves us to be very careful in our evaluation of the claims made about these products.
Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof
That truism is a profoundly unpopular one. It means work, hard work. Physicists and chemists and mathematicians and other scientists spend their entire lives satisfying this maxim. It is because of the demand for proof and logical reasoning that we have computers today. We have better steel, better food, better water, better concrete, better everything than ever before. It is said that the steel in the hull of the Titanic was of such poor quality that today it would not even be used in rebar. We have achieved miracles and forged the impossible through persistence and ingenuity. Why should I not ask the same of stereo systems? Is it unreasonable to demand of audio the same methodology that has served us so well in other fields? The demand for real numbers, for real science, exists not to diminish the field. It exists to expand the field. The goal is to shed the husk of mythology and smelt out the scummy dross of subjective measurement, so that only the pure truth may remain. We are on a hunt for gold, and only methodical and careful refinement can extract it.
Of course, if we just declare pyrite to be gold we can go home early and get drunk. Decisions, decisions...