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Objectivist or Subjectivist?The July/August issue of Positive Feedback Online includes an article by Teresa Goodwin titled "Why I’m a Subjectivist." She begins by proclaiming, "In our world of music enjoyment there are subjectivists and objectivists. I’m a subjectivist." Her definitions are thus: "Objectivists believe in a dictatorial unyielding totalitarianism of science over human interaction with music. Subjectivists believe in total freedom to enjoy music however one chooses, without any scientific validation."

She goes on to attack those she calls objectivists: "Objectivists seem unwilling to listen for themselves and don’t understand that everyone hears differently and that a difference important to one person may not be to another person, whereas a subjectivist knows that each person must listen for themselves to determine if the sonic improvement is important or even audible to them." On the other hand, subjectivists "have a live and let live attitude and anything that makes music sound better for someone else is wonderful." She goes on: Objectivists "do not trust their ears, if they hear a difference and cannot measure or quantify it, they believe they are imagining the difference and reject it." Although subjectivists "never require objectivists submit proof on why they don’t hear a difference, we just accept that everyone hears differently." Goodwin makes every attempt to invalidate those she calls objectivists ("do not believe their own ears") and their methods ("ABX testing does not work with human subjects"), while attempting to advance straw-man fallacies attributed to objectivists ("claiming the difference they thought they heard was not real because current scientific theory cannot explain the difference").

Toward the end of the article, Goodwin writes: "Subjectivists know differences in sonics are real, whereas objectivists reject any differences they hear that does not have scientific proof as placebo effects." Goodwin seems to grow angrier as she goes on, ending with this opinion of objectivists: "I reject them all as irreverent and will continue to select audio equipment, tweaks and recordings based on how I like their sound."

Let’s start with some more generally accepted definitions of objectivism and subjectivism. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, the relevant definition of objectivism is "any of various theories asserting the validity of objective phenomena over subjective experience." In the same dictionary, subjectivism is: "1a: a theory that limits knowledge to subjective experience; b: a theory that stresses the subjective elements in experience; 2a: a doctrine that the supreme good is the realization of a subjective experience or feeling (as pleasure); b: a doctrine that individual feeling or apprehension is the ultimate criterion of the good and the right." Goodwin’s article is based on two premises: 1) that objectivist and subjectivist actually do apply to audiophiles (and, therefore, audio reviewers); and 2) that each and every audiophile can be cast into the objectivist or the subjectivist camp.

One of the big problems with Goodwin’s article is her premise that the two camps are mutually exclusive -- and, apparently, in a death struggle no less vicious or absolute than the one between vampires and lycans. Negating the impact of a few outliers (of whom Goodwin is apparently one), I don’t personally know anyone who swears sole allegiance to either camp. It’s most logical not to do that. Why does Goodwin think we have to choose? We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Let’s imagine some scenarios. In the first one, your car breaks down. You take it to a garage to have it fixed. The mechanic comes out to the waiting room and says, "Sir, I can either look under the hood for you to see if I can diagnose what’s wrong, or I can hook up your car to our computer and let the diagnostics tell me what’s wrong. But I cannot do both. What’s your preference?" Or how about this: Feeling ill, you walk into a doctor’s office. The receptionist asks which doctor you would like to see: the objectivist or the subjectivist? When you ask her to explain the difference, she says, "The objectivist doctor will run blood tests on you. The subjectivist doctor will examine you and ask some questions. Whether or not their diagnoses differ, they will both know they are absolutely right."

Obviously, in those admittedly absurd circumstances, we would most trust a mechanic who looks under the hood and runs diagnostic tests. And we would prefer a doctor who examines us, asks us questions, and runs the tests that he or she feels will help inform a sound medical diagnosis. Mechanic or doctor, we want someone who chooses to be fully informed. That’s how credible professionals in virtually every field actually work. Why would it be any different for audio reviewers and writers?

Consider how audiophile equipment is designed. I know of no credible designer who does not use measurements and listening tests in designing components. Having talked with hundreds of designers over the past 15 years, I can tell you that the vast majority of them -- and the vast majority of companies who employ multiple design engineers -- work by using measurements in conjunction with listening tests, often going back and forth between them until they’re satisfied with the results of both protocols. Why not? Is there a good reason not to do it this way? Not that I can surmise.

Take loudspeakers, for instance. Is there anyone other than Teresa Goodwin who doesn’t think that a speaker’s measured frequency response, including its responses both on and off its tweeter axes, doesn’t tell us something about that speaker’s tonal balance? Would not a measurement of a speaker’s level of distortion give us some indication of how loudly and cleanly that speaker might play? Is there anyone who doubts that such measurements can tell us some useful things? Key point: In order to be useful, those measurements don’t have to tell us everything.

On the other hand, I could not write a product review without having listened to the device under test in my system for some weeks or months, and without having taken detailed listening notes of their reproduction of recordings I’m intimately familiar with.

I see no room in audio reviewing for the objectivist or subjectivist labels. To my mind, it comes down to this: I’d rather have more information than less. Those who choose to bury their heads in the sand, deliberately ignoring potentially useful information, are not doing their due diligence.

I want to see the measurements. I want to hear the product in my system. And if there is any other way to glean information about a product, I’ll take that, too. The combination of all of these sources of information gives me my best shot at being accurate in my assessment of the product. Isn’t that what you’d want from any responsible reviewer?

And if my assessments are accurate, then perhaps I’ll earn the one label I most want to wear: that of a credible writer. I’ll take that over objectivist or subjectivist any day.

. . . Jeff Fritz
jeff@soundstagenetwork.com