At least it can be, when that bun is freshly baked and straight from the oven. And, happily for me, my wife bakes a pretty mean bun! But can you quantify just how good that bun is? And does it necessarily follow that a random sampling of people will agree on what makes a good bun, or that a particular warm bun will make all of those people equally happy? Finally, when a person says the warm bun makes him happy, what do we have beyond his word for it? Is it possible to quantify exactly how happy he is? And would The Beatles agree?
Such are the problems with the subjective/objective debate. Some things which seem blindingly obvious at the macro level, are a lot harder to pin down at the micro level. If everybody is agreed that cinnamon in the bun makes for a good bun, does a pinch more or less cinnamon make for a slightly better or poorer bun? If you are as serious about warm buns as some of us are about high-end audio, questions such as these can lead to sleepless nights.
When it comes down to it, my high-end reference system makes me happy. If I could improve it, that could probably make me happier. On the other hand, if I sold my car, my house, and my wife to raise the money to buy the MBL über-system of my dreams, the net outcome would most assuredly not be an overall increase in my happiness. But you’d only have my word for it. You can’t plug a happiness meter in my ear and read off the value. Plus, I might be a tad less happy if you tried it ….
On the design and manufacturing side, though, there are many objective tools that can be brought to bear which, if carefully selected and implemented, can be shown to correlate well with a wholly subjective assessment of the outcome. Sadly, this gives rise to an often acrimonious debate which afflicts our industry, or at least its community of users and commentators: “What happens when the objective assessment is at odds with the subjective assessment?” Because the fact is that, deep down at the micro level, this is uncomfortably often the case.
Here on the Campus of BitPerfect Global Headquarters, most of what we do is governed by a subjective self-assessment of our efforts. Sure, some of our work makes use of intelligently-designed signal processing, and this is solidly underpinned by both theory and measurement. But at the end of the day we release the products we develop only when we think they sound right – when they make us happiest.
For the most part, BitPerfect itself does not rely on any signal processing. It focuses just on getting the original audio data from your Mac to your DAC as cleanly as possible. However, the mere fact that software can have an audible impact on how that sounds without in any way altering the data presents us with an objective minefield. The truth is we only have an arm-waving rationale to explain how software can have that sort of impact, and we don’t have the measurement tools (or the budget to acquire them) at our disposal to give substance to it.
We’re not alone. The high-end audio niche in general lacks tools that enable us to objectively quantify many of the subjective attributes we value, particularly when it comes to differentiating performance at the bleeding edge of the art. My favourite example here is stereo imaging, which is a mission-critical system attribute for most audiophiles. Holographic Imaging is a 100% subjective quality. Some systems image incredibly well, others less so. I am not aware of any test that directly measures this attribute, although there are some key ones that have been shown to correlate quite well with it. But direct measurement and correlation are not the same thing.
Happiness is a similar thing. There are many attributes that correlate very well with it, and we can measure and quantify many of them. But none of them are happiness. At the end of the day, only we as individuals can truly know whether we are happy or not. Only we can know whether some external thing has made us happier or not. But the Internet is home to some very special people. They, evidently, know far better than I do what makes me happy, and therefore, by extension, presume to be the arbiters of whether I am in fact happy or not. One thing they all know to an absolute certainty is that I cannot claim to be truly happy unless a double-blind test proves that to be the case. And absent such proof, my protestations to the contrary are evidence of nothing but the ‘placebo effect’. They could use a warm bun or two. In its warm glow, they could perhaps devote their pent-up energies to devising a foolproof double-blind happiness test!