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Why do so many audiophiles think everything sounds different
Richard Greene
post Sep 15 2009, 23:32
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I need some help explaining an audiophile husband to his non-audiophile wife.
His audio spending is causing much friction with his wife.

I know this subject may be more about human psychology than about audio, but this isn't the first time I've known an audiophile whose spending on his hobby is excessive compared with his family income.

I'm a music collector who typically spends $2 on used CDs and has an inexpensive stereo that sounds fine to me, while the "real audiophile" thinks nothing of spending $1,000 or $2,000 for "better" speaker wires.

How can I explain the illusion that every new audio component or wire changes the sound, and usually seems to make the sound quality better, to a non-audiophile who doesn't notice any changes?

Is this nothing more than male adults having fun with new toys?

To my ears, this audiophile's stereo has a problem with an echo off a very high ceiling. No component upgrade changes that. The stereo almost never creates the illusion of a band playing in the room no matter how much money is spent on it.

Meanwhile, the audiophile's wife is having a serious problem with all the money that "disappears" into the stereo system.

What's the psychology behind the audiophile "everything sounds different belief?
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zipr
post Sep 16 2009, 00:08
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I think that what you're asking about isn't specific to audiophiles. People do the same kinds of upgrades to cars, computers, sporting equipment, and so on, and perceive that their investment results in improvement of whatever it is they're putting their money in. Maybe it improves things, maybe it doesn't. The only way to know: testing.

This sentence that you wrote is interesting:

How can I explain the illusion that every new audio component or wire changes the sound, and usually seems to make the sound quality better, to a non-audiophile who doesn't notice any changes?

I would suspect that if your 'audiophile' friend actually did rigorous testing of some of these upgrades, he may come to the same conclusion as the non-audiophile: there's no difference. The downside to that is the knowledge that money was spent on something and nothing really was received in return -- expect perhaps for a nasty case of post-purchase dissonance.


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Axon
post Sep 16 2009, 00:15
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This topic is almost invariably going to devolve into stereotypes on this forum, so I'll do my best to back up what I say with how I felt when I was more engaged in such pursuits.

QUOTE
What's the psychology behind the audiophile "everything sounds different belief?

There is a presumption being made here of the primacy of personal perception. That is, one's sensory experiences/emotions - good or bad - are being directly interpreted as "knowledge". So, if one perceives a sound or emotion which appears different than what happened before, the "logical" conclusion that is reached is that something is different, and that whatever changes were made in the process were the cause of the difference in perception.

Obviously the whole skeptical interpretation of sensory perception as being fundamentally fallible makes this whole house of cards fall down, but that is not what audiophilia is all about, really. Most random people on the street would probably identify more expensive gear as better in a sighted listening test, but that doesn't make them audiophiles.

More speculatively, I would imagine (extrapolating from personal experience) that there is a very strong feeling of meaning and satisfaction from the "knowledge" gained by having invested and listened to various rigs. That is, once one goes along with the idea of subjective listening experiences as more or less not fallible, and that other audiophiles are more "knowledgable" than oneself, there is a natural urge to "learn" this missing "knowledge". In audiophile culture, one's own experiences are limited by the limitations in one's own components, so this learning is in the form of experience with different components. Hence, the constant desire to upgrade/sidegrade - and in fact, the lack of any other allowable way to learn or advance in the "field". This desire to "learn" is what separates audiophiles from random people on the street, who could generally care less what they may or may not be "missing out" on.

In all honesty, this has quite a bit to do with male psychology specifically, particularly regarding knowledge as a sort of totem pole. Like zipr said, there isn't a huge amount of difference between this hobby and others, and this desire to advance/learn in a hobby is pretty common, I think. High-end audio happens to be special because of its particularly strong disconnection from mainstream science/reality and its wildly skewed market dynamics.

This post has been edited by Axon: Sep 16 2009, 00:22
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DVDdoug
post Sep 16 2009, 00:28
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I don't understand the psychology. Why do some women spend too much money on shoes? Why do I lust for a Ferrari?

The real issue here is family relationships and family budget priorities. It's not that important if some expensive new speaker cables really sound better or not. The important thing is if he can afford them, and if he and his wife can agree on some monthly audio budget, or some amount that they can afford to "blow".

In most good-healthy marriages, there is some amount of money that each partner is "allowed" to spend without consulting the other. Of course if money is really tight, he shouldn't be buying any stereo equipment (or anything else unnecessary) without consulting his wife.
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pdq
post Sep 16 2009, 02:20
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QUOTE (zipr @ Sep 15 2009, 19:08) *
I would suspect that if your 'audiophile' friend actually did rigorous testing of some of these upgrades, he may come to the same conclusion as the non-audiophile: there's no difference.

No, he would just conclude that the test was flawed because he "knows" that there is a difference.
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southisup
post Sep 16 2009, 03:13
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QUOTE (Richard Greene @ Sep 16 2009, 08:32) *
His audio spending is causing much friction with his wife.

QUOTE (zipr @ Sep 16 2009, 09:08) *
I think that what you're asking about isn't specific to audiophiles. People do the same kinds of upgrades to cars, computers, sporting equipment, and so on, and perceive that their investment results in improvement of whatever it is they're putting their money in.

QUOTE (DVDdoug @ Sep 16 2009, 09:28) *
I don't understand the psychology. Why do some women spend too much money on shoes? Why do I lust for a Ferrari?

A lot of "popular science" books touch on the psychology (in the context of human evolution) behind these compulsions / obsessions. I wish I knew of such a book that concentrated on the subject - it would make a good "self help" book!

I think when obsessions become a problem, it is a symptom of unhappiness in work / relationship / lifestyle. Could you talk him into spending the money on taking his wife to live music events instead? It might satisfy him AND involve her at the same time.
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Ed Seedhouse
post Sep 16 2009, 04:02
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The fact that all the major magazines that deal with our hobby echo the "everything is different" party line might have something to do with it. Since they get their revenues from advertisers who want their readers to buy their particular product they are presumably under at least some pressure in that direction.

This post has been edited by Ed Seedhouse: Sep 16 2009, 04:03


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cliveb
post Sep 16 2009, 08:38
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We're all human, and susceptible to having our perceptions influenced by external factors. In addition, expectation tends to be self-fulfilling. As a result, in a sighted comparison, pretty much everybody perceives differences where none actually exist.

The thing that distinguishes audiophiles is the peculiar belief that they are immune to this. When they hear a difference, they refuse to acknowledge the possibility - nay, the liklihood - that it is nothing to do with any change in the actual soundfield.
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Axon
post Sep 16 2009, 09:14
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QUOTE (cliveb @ Sep 16 2009, 02:38) *
The thing that distinguishes audiophiles is the peculiar belief that they are immune to this. When they hear a difference, they refuse to acknowledge the possibility - nay, the liklihood - that it is nothing to do with any change in the actual soundfield.


And like I said, there seems to be something peculiarly male about that behavior... speaking as a stereotypically behaving member of the gender, of course. cool.gif

Going back to the OP:

QUOTE (bassnut)
How can I explain the illusion that every new audio component or wire changes the sound, and usually seems to make the sound quality better, to a non-audiophile who doesn't notice any changes?
One (potentially impolitic) example you could cite could be more everyday activities and buying decisions which tend not to be well rooted in science or reproducible reality. Explain how the culinary/vinologic notion of terroir is ludicrously less substantiated by blind taste testing than expert opinion (and chemical analysis!) might have one believe. Or how organic foods generally don't taste any better and generally aren't any healthier than conventional foods on virtually every scientific metric currently available.

In the more general cases you can tie the whole thing to other major targets of skepticism which may help the wife relate the emotions involved in audiophilia to somebody involved with such practices (either herself or somebody else she knows). eg, explain how astrology claims to have a completely scientifically justified basis, tends to be nonfalsifiable, etc - similar to how one may analyze some aspects of audio. Bonus points if the wife actually believes in astrology.

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odyssey
post Sep 16 2009, 10:05
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The term is quite simple. It's called "The placebo effect". It's a biased illusion that something is better, based on ones preference. It origins from sugar-pills (or other pills with no effect) given to people that believes they suffer a certain condition, while it's all in their head.

If you know that you are playing an mp3 you might already believe it sounds bad or lacks "ambience" (or other vague terms that you can't define properly), compared to a CD. Such people often refrain from performing proper ABX tests of fear that they would fail and then have a problem explaining all the expensive equipment wink.gif


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honestguv
post Sep 16 2009, 10:24
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QUOTE (Richard Greene @ Sep 16 2009, 00:32) *
Why do so many audiophiles think everything sounds different

Because it probably does to audiophile believers. Sound perception is affected by more than the sound impinging on the ears and so changes in other relevant factors will change the perceived sound.

Here is an example of a strong believer perceiving differences during a blind test and having the grace to discuss it (post #37):

http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread....1184&page=2

Why people work themselves up into a state where luxury goods trigger these responses I lack the knowledge to say. But I would agree with an earlier poster that it is likely to be a symptom of a problem elsewhere and tackling the problem rather than symptom is probably the wisest course.
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Gag Halfrunt
post Sep 16 2009, 13:24
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Having been there, it's a belief system...

I read something about this in a forum on AVGuide (The Absolute Sounds' website) Blind Listening Tests are Flawed (page 2). I quote:

"That foundational belief in audio is that "all things can influence sound". That is held a priori. Anything from there - whether what we hear has a correlate with measurement, the robustness of our perception mechanisms, the amount those mechanisms can be biased and the relative merits of particular testing methodologies – is contingent upon that a priori statement."

This was from the editor of Hi-Fi Plus, apparently. Just what we need... yet another bloody philosopher. Still, it gets around having to rely on real-world evidence, I suppose.

To use his own words, the problem is one of nave belief in "the robustness of our perception mechanisms" and no understanding of "the amount those mechanisms can be biased". Reinforced by their peers, their dealers and the magazines that support the audiophile belief system, audiophiles constantly strive to find improvements where no improvements can be found. This means they deceive themselves into thinking B is better than A and that B makes a profound improvement over A, and in its own right. That deception will ultimately fail over time, but fortunately by then yet another review of yet another sensational improvement in performance has been printed. The hapless audiophile visits their dealer who agrees with the reviewer and sells the audiophile C (which everyone has deceived themselves is better than B and makes a profound improvement over B, and in its own right). More money changes hands and the audiophile goes away happy... for a while. So it goes on, and on.

I suspect in most cases, the deception process occurs at all ends of the chain. The guy who spends his life making cables thinks he's making a difference. He then explains this difference to the reviewer who takes those differences at face value, and finds their own listening (magically) confirms the suggestions of the guy who made the cable. The dealer reads what the reviewer says and what the cable guy says and when its their turn to listen, they (magically) believe what the other guys said. That gets passed on to the end user. Every now and again, someone begins to doubt this and they leave the audiophile club.

The echo you mention is one of the true indicators of audio nonsense. Audio magazines pay lip service to room acoustics, preferring to recommend people spend thousands on new audio gear (an advertising-friendly recommendation) than hundreds on room treatment (or even less if you make them yourself). If you read a magazine that has a Q&A section, you'll rarely read anything about treating the room (which would likely solve the bulk of the problems), but you'll read plenty of fairy stories about how "cable X will damp down that brightness" or "amplifier Y will warm up the sound of those speakers".

The difficulty is, I don't see how it can be any different now. Let's say this editor of Hi-Fi Plus - who later said "All that being said, perhaps it is time to start investigating the robustness of the foundational belief once again..." - did more than a bit of navel gazing and came to the conclusion that what we hear does have "a correlate with measurement", that our perception mechanisms aren't all that robust and can easily be biased after all, and the best testing methodology to determine real changes in performance was considerably more forensic than we might come to expect from an audiophile magazine. What then? Would he continue to be editor if he stuck to his guns and said there is no sonic difference between a cable costing tens of thousands and the one given away free in the box? How long would he last if he said that multi-box Krell pre/power offered no real sonic benefits over a cheap Harman/Kardon receiver? Would these statements, backed up by objective tests, be well-received by readers happy that they were not being ripped off any longer? Or would his readership, his advertisers and his publishers have him removed from office immediately?

Unfortunately, it sounds like your friend has got it bad. There's no easy way to get around that 'foundational belief'. It works so well that if shown through a series of ABX tests that what they think they can hear is in fact nothing of the sort, they will be more likely to reject the ABX tests in the light of the 'evidence' from a single, sighted AB test. You can show him the dots and the pencil, but he has to join them up.

[Rant mode disengaged]

This post has been edited by Gag Halfrunt: Sep 16 2009, 13:41
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jhart71
post Sep 16 2009, 14:15
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Here's an excerpt from a review of the latest Beatles remasters (link to full review below):

However, it does depend somewhat on what you intend to do with them. If your plan is to buy the CD, scan it into your computer and upload it on your iPod, you're going to be compressing the file and losing a lot of that sonic face-lift you just paid for.

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09252/996422-388.stm

Now, I think that excerpt does a considerable disservice to the digital music community. We have EAC/XLD lossless rips, with considerable knowledge about drive offsets, limiting, etc. To imply that listening to the plastic disc vs. listening to digital files through a high-end system is better - that is wrong. It's ALL digital, as long as you're comparing lossless codecs. Now, a comparison of analog vs. digital could be made, but that's not what we're discussing here.

Having said that, I am not an audiophile. I do rip my music at a higher bitrate than others - not obsessively, just 192kbps VBR AAC whereas my friends rip 128kbps MP3 and think nothing of it. I can tell easily tell a difference between 192 and 128 bitrates. Can I tell a difference between 192 and 256? No - but some people can, especially in classical music. As far as that goes, what someone considers their point of "transparency" is personal.

I think beyond a certain point, it is a placebo effect. But up TO that point, basics such as bitrates, ripping, soundcards (on the computer side) and cables/equipment/headphones/speakers (on the playback side) do go a long way. Just have to be reasonable about it.

Also, arguments have also been made about SACD/DVD Audio. Some say the differences are night-and-day, and others say the differences are beyond what the human ear is capable of hearing. Who's right? Most people concur that a lot of the difference is in the mastering process. It all depends on the individual.

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andy o
post Sep 16 2009, 14:20
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Jesus that Robert Harley guy's name keeps popping up in these threads.

Anyway, it's one thing that the audiophilia deludes some people into spending money they can afford to spend, but if it's affecting a (supposedly) loved one then more than rationality and logic, that person might need a smacking around instead.
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odigg
post Sep 16 2009, 15:52
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Hobbies are hobbies and are contingent on there being some point in the hobby.

If everybody accepted the conclusions typically drawn from blind testing and objective measurements audio would be a dull hobby with no real point.

So there is certainly good reason to reject any statement of "People cannot tell differences between eqiupment in blind testing." Only if you reject this statement does the audio hobby hold any interest.

As already stated, it's not really any different from people who upgrade their computer parts every 6 months and claim great "improvements" when benchmarks show only minor tangible improvement.

As for the comment about woman's shoes, I'd just like to point out that plenty of women curse and complain about the "fact" that women are expected to have a much wider variety of clothing than men. Yet, plenty of these women delight in buying another pair of shoes, finding a skirt to match a shirt, etc. Whether they accept it or not, clothing is a hobby for them. There are women who have rejected this social mindset and approach clothing like men do.

Companies seem to be trying to get men into this mindset as well with this new idea of "Metrosexual." The goal, ultimately, is to make men crazy about clothes and sell a lot of stuff. I guess in some ways this will justify women's interest in clothes (and the nagging to dress well some men get from their spouses) as well.

One could argue that companies should be more honest but the world economy now runs on creating and selling stuff, even worthless and junk stuff.

Maybe people should adopt hobbies that actually have valuable differences such as painting, learning about science, inventing, helping the poor, fixing houses, etc. But it's a lot easier to compare two pairs of shoes or talk about differences in amplifiers. There is little money to be made with selling a physics book to a customer who will take 2 years to get through it. There's a lot more money in selling amplifiers!

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Ethan Winer
post Sep 16 2009, 16:05
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QUOTE (Richard Greene @ Sep 15 2009, 18:32) *
What's the psychology behind the audiophile "everything sounds different belief?


Where's JJ? laugh.gif

odyssey nailed it - placebo effect. And when you prove it's just placebo with a blind test, the believers attack blind testing as flawed. You can't win. crying.gif

JJ and I are presenting a workshop at the AES show in New York next month on exactly this topic:

Audio Myths - Defining What Affects Audio Reproduction

--Ethan


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bawjaws
post Sep 16 2009, 16:32
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QUOTE (odyssey @ Sep 16 2009, 01:05) *
The term is quite simple. It's called "The placebo effect". It's a biased illusion that something is better, based on ones preference.


You're correct that it's the Placebo effect. However, note that the Placebo effect is a weird and wonderful thing with quite deep implications and often misunderstood. For example, the placebo effect doesn't make you *think* stuff sounds better, it will actually make it sound better to you. Just as, for certain medical conditions, it won't just make you *think* you feel better, it will actually make you feel better. Also interesting is the term 'nocebo' which is when your expectations (about e.g. digital or lossy encoding) make something worse rather than better.

The finding I found fascinating was a recent result where insomniacs where given a sugar pill and told it would keep them awake. Because they blamed the pill for keeping them awake, rather than their own circular thought processes they actually fell asleep easier by being given an inert pill that they were specifically told would make their problem worse. Truly bizarre.

It's also relevant to this discussion that more expensive things seem to trigger more of a placebo effect. This has been demonstrated in medicine and seems pretty clear in audiophiles.

As to the original poster, is the wife actually caring whether the money is spent on real improvements? Even if the improvements are real, by what measure can you gauge ROI or value for money? I'd guess it's the money being spent that's the problem and challenging his beliefs is probably only going to make a bad situation worse. Put him on an appropriate budget and let him spend that on whatever he wants. Maybe he'll be more open to evaluating his equipment properly if he can't just buy anything he takes a passing fancy to.

This post has been edited by bawjaws: Sep 16 2009, 16:46
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tfarney
post Sep 16 2009, 16:34
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QUOTE
"That foundational belief in audio is that "all things can influence sound". That is held a priori. Anything from there - whether what we hear has a correlate with measurement, the robustness of our perception mechanisms, the amount those mechanisms can be biased and the relative merits of particular testing methodologies is contingent upon that a priori statement."


OK, that is about as imprecise and pretentious as the English language can get, but I'm an old English major and a long-time writer, I can deconstruct it and determine what it actually means. That would be:

We believe this, therefore it is true, regardless of any and all evidence to the contrary.

There is no counter argument. I guess we have to let them believe what they believe, throwing their money away in the process. There is absolutely no point in trying to talk any sense into them. Thanks for posting that. It solves a lot of problems.

Tim
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buktore
post Sep 16 2009, 16:39
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QUOTE (andy o @ Sep 16 2009, 20:20) *
If everybody accepted the conclusions typically drawn from blind testing and objective measurements audio would be a dull hobby with no real point.


So, what is the real point of this hobby?

Most of the examples saying that it's just like other hobbies doesn't looks fit to me. IMO, clothing isn't a hobby for women, it's their nature.

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I agree with Gag, there's nothing you could do for your friend..

Well, you could tell your friend's wife to make him addict to some cheep, illegal drugs. It should work and might save some money (or not.. rolleyes.gif )
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2Bdecided
post Sep 16 2009, 16:44
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Whatever being an audiophile is or isn't, for this specific person it sounds like a serious addiction...

...and one that's hurting his marriage.



So even if the audible benefits were real and measurable, he should still stop.

e.g. Drinking alcohol has a real and measurable effect - it's no placebo - but people who can't stop, even when it threatens their marriage, are in need of help. They need to find a way to stop. Same here.

Cheers,
David.
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Richard Greene
post Sep 16 2009, 17:00
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QUOTE
You're correct that it's the Placebo effect. However, note that the Placebo effect is a weird and wonderful thing with quite deep implications and often misunderstood. For example, the placebo effect doesn't make you *think* stuff sounds better, it will actually make it sound better to you.


I'm not ready to credit only the placebo effect. In my own experiences as an audiophile,
I've found that if I listen to a song twice, it never sounds exactly the same to me even if no audio components changed!

For example, listening to a new song in the morning, compared with listening to the same song after eight hours at work -- the song doesn't sound exactly the same to me, probably because my ears were exposed to noises over the day, which affects my hearing, and/or my mood couldn't possibly have been as good after work, as it was first thing in the morning!

For another example, listening to a new song the first time I tend to focus on the vocals. The next time I play that song, even if I play it twice in a row, I will tend to focus more on the band, and less on the vocals -- so the song sounds different the second time because of what instruments/voice I focus on. The audio equipment hasn't changed. The volume hasn't changed. ... If the audio equipment was changed, AND I listened to the same song twice in a row to compare two audio components, I suspect they would sound "different" simply because I'm not perfectly consistent when listening to music (the sound quality will change with my mood, and what instruments in the song I chose to focus on, which could change several times during a song!)

So that's another explanation (in addition to the Placebo Effect) of why I think "everything sounds different" to audiophiles. In addition, different components will play music at slightly different volumes, which could be audible and thought to be something else!

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odigg
post Sep 16 2009, 17:18
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QUOTE (buktore @ Sep 16 2009, 11:39) *
So, what is the real point of this hobby?

Most of the examples saying that it's just like other hobbies doesn't looks fit to me. IMO, clothing isn't a hobby for women, it's their nature.


It's probably important to differentiate between audio science and audio as a hobby. There's plenty of stuff to be explored as far as psychoacoustics, electronics, programming codecs, etc and that is science. Buying amplifiers and comparing them in uncontrolled tests is what I would define as a hobby.

If clothing is part of women's "nature" then I propose craziness for gadgets is mans "nature." Perhaps this partly explains the craziness for hearing differences between audio eqiupment.
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krabapple
post Sep 16 2009, 17:25
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QUOTE (Axon @ Sep 16 2009, 04:14) *
QUOTE (cliveb @ Sep 16 2009, 02:38) *
The thing that distinguishes audiophiles is the peculiar belief that they are immune to this. When they hear a difference, they refuse to acknowledge the possibility - nay, the liklihood - that it is nothing to do with any change in the actual soundfield.


And like I said, there seems to be something peculiarly male about that behavior... speaking as a stereotypically behaving member of the gender, of course. cool.gif



Peculiarly, but not exclusively...I remember a peculiar character named Enid Lumley who used to write for The Absolute Sound. IIRC one of her recommendations was that no metal objects be allowed in the listening room. At the time I wondered if 'she' was a parody, but apparently not; she passed away in 2008.



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krabapple
post Sep 16 2009, 17:31
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QUOTE (odigg @ Sep 16 2009, 10:52) *
Hobbies are hobbies and are contingent on there being some point in the hobby.

If everybody accepted the conclusions typically drawn from blind testing and objective measurements audio would be a dull hobby with no real point.


There is a plenty of interesting exploration space in the hobby even after you factor out the woo, because loudspeaker performance and room acoustics are not only still problematic to get 'right', they are usually the least-attended-to parts of an 'audiophile's' setup.

And then there's the whole realm of multichannel (>2 channel) reproduction, which is the future of home audio whether 2channel purists like it or not.

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odigg
post Sep 16 2009, 17:31
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QUOTE (bawjaws @ Sep 16 2009, 11:32) *
You're correct that it's the Placebo effect. However, note that the Placebo effect is a weird and wonderful thing with quite deep implications and often misunderstood. For example, the placebo effect doesn't make you *think* stuff sounds better, it will actually make it sound better to you.


I don't know if many people misunderstand the placebo effect as much as they are shocked by the responses to it. Let's say we have a large group of people who believe in audible differences between similarly measuring amplifiers. We then tell them "The differences you hear are from volume differences are placebo." You will get at least these 3 responses.

1. Really? That's good to know. I can save my wallet.
2. Nonsense. Your tests are flawed. I know what I hear.
3. So What? Even if it is placebo I'm going to use the more expensive stuff because it improves my experience.

Why are 2 and 3 there? For the consumer (as opposed to the seller who stands to make money), it seems like this information would be welcome. It's like finding out the store (generic) brand product is exactly the same as the luxury brand and spending that extra money is pointless.

Some people privilege their senses and personal evaluations over controlled tests. Why? Is it ego? Is it a attachment to audio eqiupment as a hobby?

QUOTE
I guess we have to let them believe what they believe, throwing their money away in the process. There is absolutely no point in trying to talk any sense into them. Thanks for posting that. It solves a lot of problems.


I'm sure many people (me included) don't care at all what certain people do with their money. Expensive DACs, expensive watches, expensive toilet seats...

The problem comes when their purchasing decisions and reviews start influencing the market for everybody else, including the jobs and lives of engineers who build the stuff. When the price of a "top tier" headphone jumps from $300 to $1000, that may effect the availability and pricing of the products available for everybody else.

This post has been edited by odigg: Sep 16 2009, 17:33
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