The Audio Cynic

Objective/Subjective: Here We Go Again

“Seeing as ‘objective review’ is an oxymoron, ‘subjective review’ is moronic.”

My contentious friend Michael Lavorgna—late of Stereophile and AudioStream, currently of his own site, Twittering Machines— recently posted that statement on Facebook. Michael often mocks unthinking convention, challenges authority, and incites debate. As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of Joisey, but you can’t take the Joisey out of the boy.

Wait: he still lives in New Jersey. Never mind.

Anyway, I think Michael has a point here. Maybe several of them.

Can a review be objective? If all you have is a collection of data, is that really a review—or just a bunch of numbers? And isn’t deciding what data to gather a subjective act? Likewise, interpreting that data?

I’ll fall back on the laziest trick in the writer’s bag o’ tricks: how does the dictionary define “review”?

First, we’ll have to find an online dictionary that isn’t just a holding page for an available site-name. The online presence of the Oxford English Dictionary gives us this definition: “A critical appraisal of a book, play, film, etc. published in a newspaper or magazine.”

One step removed: can there be a “critical appraisal” without subjectivity? I don’t think so: that’d be like sitting through the credits of a movie without having any knowledge of any of the names rolling past.

From a fast and dirty review (verb form, “examine or assess something formally with the possibility or intention of instituting change if necessary”) of “review” I’d say that Michael is correct.

I’ve been immersed in the world of audiophilia for most of my life, and am still puzzled by the contentious and extremist nature of the camps of objectivists and subjectivists. I see them as complementary parts of the whole: while certain preferences of listeners seem arbitrarily subjective, the more we learn about psychoacoustics, the more we see a rational, objective underpinning to those preferences.

Whenever the question, “nature or nurture?” pops up, my answer is always “yes”. I think it’s impossible to separate the two, and we are all affected by both genetics and environment.

And just as different folk perceive shades of color differently, it’s clear that we hear differently, as well. Just look at forum threads discussing recent audio shows: you’ll hear the same room, the same system, described as “detailed but not overly-analytical” and “lacking in snap and impact”; another room described as having “tremendous bass impact” and “monotonic bloated, boomy bass”.

Is one right, and the other one wrong? Possibly. Different demo material may present a system in radically different ways. Normally, one expects a show exhibitor to present their gear in the best possible light, but things happen. Especially when a showgoer demands to hear Crash Test Dummies. Or whomever.

I think it would be interesting to take a panel of 10 people or so, have them listen to several demo rooms, hear all the same tracks, and write their impressions of each system and each track.

I have a feeling the results would differ so much you wouldn’t believe folks were hearing the same things.

And you know—really, they’re not.