In our ongoing series of the Art of Listening it makes sense to touch on ABX testing, a subject that has caused no end of confusion and mistrust over the years. The affair became public back in the early 1980's by a fellow named Dave Clark, among others. My memory of the tests and furor it caused is only from my vantage point of thinking it was originally an honest attempt at trying to add some science to the art of listening but soon degraded into a finger pointing match.
The basic idea is to have three choices of what one listens to: A, B and X, where X is either A or B chosen at random. These were called double blind listening tests because neither the listener nor the tester knew what X was. The problem of ABX testing turns up really quickly when tastes, emotions and testing pressure enter into the fray: people lose the ability to get in touch with their emotional senses and are forced to rely on their analytical sides. On the other hand, it's equally easy to convince yourself you're actually hearing something you're not.
The issue would benefit from good testing but ABX is only a one sided process and as such doesn't get to the truth. ABX is an analytically based test trying to determine the validity of emotional responses - a rather absurd way of going about it IMHO. Imagine trying the Coke vs. Pepsi challenge using ABX testing, standing in a supermarket with people examining your every response. By the time you try three samples you've already disconnected from your emotional brain and switched on the analytical side - which won't tell the testers what they want to know unless.......
Unless what they want to prove is that there is no "real" difference. You've probably seen the taste tests between a house brand and a name brand product? The goal is to prove you cannot tell the difference - like diet Coke vs. sugar Coke. I can spot the difference between the two instantly in my own space - put me under pressure in front of a tester and my level of acuity drops well below the threshold of value quickly.
What happened back then is a shame. The one camp believing that if you cannot measure something it does not exist vs. those that believe everything they hear must be true. The truth is somewhere in the middle (as always) and we as a music loving community and they as an analytical community lost out on what could have been some real discovery and furthering of our knowledge.
Before long the ABX results "proving" the differences between CD's and vinyl, solid state and tubes, high end product vs. Japanese receivers were non-existent and that threw gasoline on the fires of the measurement camp's claim of voodoo. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, this sealed the deal and those folks moved on as did we.
You can see this same senseless approach today in the climate change debates.
Tomorrow Bill Low from Audioquest weighs in on the subject. I think you'll enjoy his words.