The unreliability of human senses ....
It never ceases to amaze me the extreme confidence non-engineers, non-scientists dedicated audiophiles place in organic senses. This is despite the evidence around us (and has been around us for hundreds or thousands of years) that our ability to compare X with Y is extremely poor unless a 'known' factor is introduced to aid the comparison.
The ruler was invented because of our inability to accurately determine distance
The camera was invented to capture and faithfully record optical events without relying on vague human memory
The scales were invented because of our inability to accurately judge mass by hand
The sound recorder was invented to record and replay sonic events then without relying on human memory
The ammeter and volt meter were invented to accurately measure electrical properties because of our innate inability to do so
The radiation meter to measure invisible, perhaps deadly radiation none of our senses can detect
The magnetic flux meter was invented to accurately measure magnetic field properties because of our innate inability to do so
The light meter was invented to accurately measure luminance properties because of our innate inability to do so
The clock was invented to accurately measure time because of our innate inability to do so
The barometer was invented to accurately measure pressure properties because of our inability to do so
The thermometer was invented to accurately measure temperature properties because of our inability to do so
The speedometer was invented to accurately measure velocity because of our inability to do so
The lens was invented to amplify the weak ability of our eyes to see small details
The sound level meter (or the VU meter) was invented to accurately measure 'loudness' because of our inability to do so
Currency was invented to represent an agreed unit of value
Examples of numerous instruments man has invented here. Indeed, even the laboratory was invented to eliminate or control variables that creep into measurements and tests.
... but the human ear is held-up by serious audiophiles (who generally are of middle age folk (like me) and hence will undoubtedly have significant natural degradation in their hearing depending on exposure and hereditary factors) as the most accurate - indeed only viable - sensor for the evaluation of sound. And those same middle aged folk, who select audio equipment for characteristics that (obviously) suit them and the condition of their ears, may inappropriately influence and excite others who may be younger, with better hearing and and entirely different evaluation process. Marketing people revel in that confusion!
Imagine a world where the instruments listed above ceased to exist or work. Complete chaos would result because of one humans inability to agree values with another, even down to the most basic bartering for food. It makes no sense at all, in fact, it is a denial of the human condition, to outright dismiss the technical measurement of audio equipment and to rely solely on our poor, unreliable and disease and age prone hearing. That's asking for trouble. I'd like to know how often the audiophile, the individual who places total confidence in his ears, has those very same non-instruments checked. The technical instruments I list above need to be routinely verified - but the ears?
Measuring instruments need routine calibration when they can usually be corrected for drift and returned to original accuracy. The ear of a man of 55 can never be as good as a man of 35; the 80 year old ear can never be as good as the 60 year old ear. The ear always degrades and unlike the technical measurement instrument, cannot be returned to 'as new' condition. Next week, sadly, our ears will be fractionally less good than this week, They are also, I'm advised, inoperable on.
Anyone who has or does experience any of these everyday events should recognise the potential effect on their hearing and be duly cautious about critiquing audio equipment:
- A head cold
- Numerous illnesses and diseases incl. mumps, glandular fever, tonsillitis, ENT infections ...
- Takes anti-depressants, heart pills, blood thinners etc.
- Has long shaggy hair that covers their ears (which greatly absorbs high frequencies and resets what other consider very bright as that listener's normal)
- Wears spectacles (changes sound diffraction around the head)
- Has suffered concussion
- Does not clean and de-wax their ears (I clean mine every day but that may be excessive)
- Is stressed
- Suffers dizziness or palpitations
- Is fatigued and suffers sleeping difficulties perhaps through pain
- Attends pop concerts without hearing protection
- Uses power tools without protection
- Lives in a noisy city (damages hearing acuity, desensitises hearing)
- Smokes (cigarette smoke hardens the ear drum making it leathery, less flexible and reduces HF sensitivity)
- Takes narcotics
- Consumes more than the maximum recommended dose of alcohol
- Has a job in a noisy environment
- Argues with his spouse, boss or children (raises blood pressure, creates anxiety, hyper-sensitises or dulls hearing depending upon fight or flight response)
- Has ear disease, diagnosed or not
- Has not had his hearing checked at least every two years exposing natural age-related degrading (or other factors)
- Has continuous background noise from street, neighbours, air conditioning, lift movement etc. (dulls sensitivity)
- Has to ask for speech to be repeated, cannot hear conversation in noisy restaurants etc.
- Is taking specialist 'herbal' extracts
- Is in continuous pain
- Is significantly over-weight
- Has recently travelled in an aircraft at height
- Has journeyed to/from home by noisy public transport
- Has journeyed in a car especially with a noisy exhaust or car radio playing loud
- Has a subwoofer and powerful amplifier as car audio system
- Prolonged use of headphones/in-ear speakers incl. TV talkback earphones
- Prolonged working in recording studio environment at high sound levels
- Professional musician performing in the near-field of their instrument
- Works with machinery which (unknowingly) generates sound at certain fixed tones (which kills hearing sensitivity at those frequencies)
- Work or leisure activity with firearms or explosives
- Has suffered from perforated eardrums
- Has had ear grommets fitted
- Has ever experienced ringing in the ears after exposure to loud sound
- Suffers from tinnitus
- Is into performance swimming
- Has to wear ear plugs at night to be able to sleep
- Extremely hot, cold, humid or dry atmosphere
- Has had ears syringed (be cautious: short term sensitivity boost, long term ...?)
- Repairs noisy machinery
- Works in the motor repair trade or tyre replacement trade (loud explosive noises, hard metallic high-energy noises)
- Is head over heels in love
and so on. A consultant audiologist would be able to add plenty more examples.
It is clear beyond doubt that the human ear, whilst a wonderful sense, cannot be separated from and be truly independent of the observer. It is therefore a personal gauge but not a reliable instrument. Its usefulness as a sound gauge can be greatly enhanced if as many variable are removed from tests involving the ear, and its predictable and recognised limitations (the list above) augmented by the use of technical instruments and procedures which are, unlike the ear, repeatable daily. Under those circumstances, it becomes a much more reliable and helpful sense.
Nobody wants to deprive the audiophile of the emotions associated with listening to music any more than depriving the Ferrari owner of admiring his car. We, in our western world need continuous consumption. But unless the emotional element of acquisition and ownership is recognised as a fact of human nature, marketers will pull those emotional strings to steer those would-be buyers towards their products. That's their job! The issue is, are those products actually the best sonic and Long Term Satisfaction solutions for the consumer? That, the marketeer is completely disinterested in: he's banked the money and skedaddled. To answer that, you have to set aside - or at least factor-in - the inescapable emotional components of consumption. And 'emotion' is just another word for 'psychological'.
I once bought a very attractive, powerful car when I was a bit miserable and susceptible on a wet Wednesday afternoon when I needed a thrill. The short term euphoria turned into a financial nightmare due to high running costs. It was entirely my own fault: the salesman merely sensed my state of mind and played to it. He was doing his job. The long term satisfaction was negative. Had I been blindfolded I would not have bought that Jaguar.
For me, the short term thrill of owning counts for nothing and the long term satisfaction of ownership counts for everything. I could buy any production car but out of choice my car is nine years old, long out of production. It is what it is: a large, reliable, boring, fuel efficient, comfortable vehicle with zero brand image: nobody is kidding anybody. It's a tool to get from A-B, just as an amplifier is merely a tool to magnify the microphone's signal. I have zero motivation to "trade-up", to "flip" the car for another. Nothing can be 'better', only different. I dread the day when I will have to part with her through lack of spare parts.
She's given me total Long Term Satisfaction. I feel the same about you owning Harbeth speakers.
Alan A. Shaw
Harbeth Audio UK