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Gryphon Diablo 300

201009_microphoneMeasurements don’t tell us everything. My ears are more accurate. They don’t measure the right things. They don’t equate with how I hear music. I just don’t care.

Some audiophiles don’t like measurements. I think that many are afraid of them. I’m going to tell you why.

One reason is that most audiophiles, and many reviewers, don’t understand measurements. They haven’t bothered to learn how to interpret them, or what makes them important, or which ones most reliably indicate perceived sound quality. It takes a commitment of time to seek out explanations, ask questions, and learn how to correlate the measurements with what you hear when listening to your favorite music in your room. Gaining that basic understanding can sometimes mean hard work. For the math-averse, it can even be painful.

I have no problem with a consumer going out and buying a product based solely on what he or she hears in an audition -- you don’t need to understand measurements to enjoy an audio system. But audiophiles who are entrenched in high-end audio are typically far more involved in their hobby than the average Joe or Jo -- and they spend a lot more money on it.

Audiophiles are an opinionated bunch. There are numerous Internet message boards where audiophiles gather to discuss all manner of gear: what they’ve bought, what they think sounds best, what they don’t like. These discussions nearly always lead to the subject of measuring audio components, because it’s a variable some audiophiles take seriously. Then the arguing begins.

I’ve been involved in some of these discussions, and usually I try to strike the balance that I believe in: that it’s best to use everything at your disposal to judge an audio component, particularly if it really matters to you and you’re spending a lot of money. That includes listening, talking to dealers and other audiophiles, reading reviews, examining construction and finish quality, listening some more -- and, yes, examining measurements. What I’ve noticed in these exchanges is that at this point many audiophiles, because they don’t understand measurements, simply tune out any discussion of them.

This lack of understanding is perhaps the simplest explanation of why some audiophiles dismiss measurements. But there are other reasons. One is that measurements can threaten an audiophile’s belief system. A classic example: An audiophile believes that a specific product performs exactly as the manufacturer says it does. He hears what he’s been told he’ll hear, and so has bought into the manufacturer’s advertising claims. Then, along comes a set of measurements that directly contradicts what he’s been told, and thus what he claims to hear. This situation can be embarrassing to the audiophile, even stressful, and the easiest way out of it is to dismiss the measurements altogether. After all, if the manufacturer states A, and I hear A, then B just can’t be. Which brings us back to the beginning: Measurements don’t tell us everything. My ears are more accurate. They don’t measure the right things. They don’t equate with how I hear music. I just don’t care.

There’s a chance that, in some instances, our hypothetical audiophile could be right. Back in the 1970s, many designers of power amplifiers chased the goal of low distortion. A specification of 0.001 distortion couldn’t possibly sound as good as 0.0001. But over and over and over, that’s not what people heard; therefore, that particular measurement is no longer considered a good indicator of sound quality. More recent testing, both subjective and objective, has revealed the flaws in that measurement’s validity as it applied to audio reproduction, and some audiophiles like to cite this as a reason why measurements can’t be trusted today. But if you believe that we’ve concluded to everyone’s satisfaction that some measurements don’t matter, you also must conclude that that same scientific and experiential evidence has proven that many measurements that are routinely taken do correlate with sound quality. We’re a lot further along in the audio game than we were in the 1970s. If you haven’t tuned in to measurements since then, you’ve missed a lot.

In March 2008, I wrote an article titled "There’s No Right Way to Enjoyment, but High Fidelity is Different." In it, I outline the distinction between simply enjoying music through your audio system and declaring that a component is faithful to the source signal -- which is the very definition of high fidelity. I hate to put so sharp an edge on this -- we want people to come here and read our articles; we don’t want to offend them enough that they go somewhere else -- but sometimes, you need to be blunt. If all you want to do is enjoy your system, then by all means, ignore measurements. I understand this position; in some ways, ignorance can be bliss. Like any married man, I enjoy a lot of things I don’t fully understand.

But if you want to fully understand audio equipment -- why it sounds the way it does -- and you’re on a quest for truly, verifiably high fidelity to the source signal, then understanding measurements is key to your completion of that quest. You can’t have a fully informed opinion without some grasp of measurements. Dismissing measurements because you’re afraid of them, or because you disagree with them, or because they don’t jibe with your audio worldview, or whatever, doesn’t invalidate their importance. Either you want the full picture or you don’t.

. . . Jeff Fritz
jeff@soundstagenetwork.com