Art or science?

November 2, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

I am often asked whether high-end audio is an art or a science. Of course, the convenient answer is both.

Maybe a better question would be the degree to which the two are divided.

At PS Audio, the balance between art and science varies depending on the project's phase.

When we first dream of a new product it's almost purely art: dream about what we would like to have in our own systems without any concern for the technological hurdles.

The next phase is where we roll up our proverbial sleeves and generate schematics specific to the various systems that will be required: experience from prior art coupled with a lot of science.

Phase 3 is a 50/50 mix of art and science: how does it sound and what should we change to maximize performance? It is often necessary to think outside the box.

Phase 4 is all science: test, measure, test again.

But that's just us. Other manufacturers bounce around from zero art and all engineering science to a myriad of other combinations.

When products become personal you know there's a good blend of both art and science.

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30 comments on “Art or science?”

  1. So go to an art gallery, you find yourself in 17th C portraiture, you’re looking at things by Rembrandt, Velasquez, Van Dyck, and to a lot of people they look pretty much the same. Move on to the 18th C and you might have a feeling of deja vu. This is no accident, because the artists (perhaps more correctly artisans) were using the same knowledge base about how to paint (and science is just a posh word for knowledge). Of course the arty types will talk you to death about every last detail and difference to the point that you question whether what they are talking about actually exists.

    This is not that much different to walking into an audio store. For the average Joe, there are lots of boxes that look pretty much the same, and do pretty much the same, any any one would be fine in Joe’s house. Like the art world, some of the price tags may be inexplicable. Of course the audiophile could keep Joe there all week explaining the differences between each item and their value, to the point where he would question if those differences exist.

    Occasionally someone will use a different knowledge base, or create a new knowledge base, and even average Joe will sit up and listen. I had that experience this weekend at an exhibition of work by a Hungarian called Maria Bartusova, who used balloons and condoms with fine plaster. You could tell from peoples’ faces they were blown away.

    So it seems to me a case more of what science is applied, and the extent to which it is an art is as much dependent on the impact it has on the observer or listener.

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          Flooding in northern NSW/southern QLD & mid VIC.
          'Royal Ascot Mike' has been keeping me abreast
          of the similarly crazy weather in Blighty.

  2. You have ignored phase 5. What art have you created with the final application of science in phase 4? If there is no art then the whole outcome is not overly successful especially in the context of high end audio which is what you celebrate

  3. Assisi is right on. Music is an art. Too much hi-fi equipment stops at the science (phase 4) and misses the art in music. It’s why many people prefer tube amplification over solid state, despite the superior science of transistors.

  4. I don't build the gear, I used to sell it.
    So, for me it's about listening & matching.
    Another manufacturer is probably going to quote slightly different ratios of art & science.

      1. Is it going to be called ARSE? A chap round the corner wanted to form a group called the Association of Renal Surgeons of England, simply so he could have those letters after his name.
        And there was I thinking sinad was Simpletons In Nirvana About Distortion.

  5. The title can be misleading. It’s not OR but rather a combination of both. It’s interesting in that both are needed. Two components of the exact same published spec yet they can sound different. (Tubes are a prime example)

    Circuit topology and layout of the exact best components can sound different.

    Interesting to me that “musical art” is so subjective. Yet science and engineering are required to produce and reproduce that musical art for most ‘everyday’ anywhere listening.

    I suppose you could call engineering the application of science, rather than a science unto itself - but that’s a different discussion. ✌️ 😀

  6. There is a lot of science necessary for the engineering and overall technical performance of audio equipment that follows consistent principles. There is more of a “right or wrong” aspect.

    When art is involved, human interpretation is introduced. It’s shifted to a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” situation. It’s why I immediately discount any manufacturer’s claim of being better than the others. It’s like claiming a Monet painting is better than a Picasso. I do honestly believe each manufacturer thinks they sound better, but it’s because they have tailored the sound to their liking. My experience from listening with others that there are as many perceived “best sounding” setups as there are people I have listened with.

  7. Seems to me this discussion is relevant to technology as a whole. One of the design criteria at Cray Research was to base a new generation on the art of the previous generations with one new unproven or non-existent technology, but no more. To do so was overreach, where the science could prevent successful implementation of the art.

    Indeed, when the late Seymour Cray broke from CRI and began work on the Cray-3, his design required multiple unproven technologies, five as I recall. The Cray-3 never became commercially viable with many schedule and cost over-runs. Only one complete machine was ever built.

    I view this all as a matter of balance. Too much science and you never get the product to market. Too much art and you risk unhappy customers expecting better performance. And so you take what you learn from this generation and apply it to the next. @assisi is correct.

    It's unfortunate Seymour was lost in an auto accident. He never got to work on his Indium Phoshide machine, which would have been largely resistant to electro-magnetic pulses. We could use that about now.

    1. Your Cray brings back a flood of memories from 1980-1982. My wife and I were both newly minted Ph.D.'s in 1980 that got hired to work at Exxon's research company ( ERC ) in Houston, Texas. ERC had just bought the fastest and most expensive Cray computer made at time. Since my wife's thesis was on parallel processing she was hired to work in Cray group at ERC. So soon after starting work she was sent to Cray school at Cray for about a month. Some of her stories from Cray were amusing.

      Cray referred to the oil companies as their greasy customers. Obviously, the Cray sales team did not use that description.

      When my wife went to the Cray school it was winter and very cold up north. One of the Exxon team that went with my wife was a native Houstonian. The poor guy did not have a single winter coat to his name. He had to buy a really expensive coat to get through that month. He asked his boss if he could put it on his expense account. His boss said no, but told him he should eat it. Thus he added a winter coat surcharge to each of of his meal charges.

      After about two years at my wife's behest we left ERC to work at IBM in NY. It seems like a million years ago.

      1. Ha! Another Crayon. I stayed with them up until about two weeks before Silicon Graphics bought the company. You could see it coming. There was carnage strewn about the landscape as CRI tried to jettison financial load to make themselves attractive to a suitor.

        Cray was an experience I will never forget. I spent my time optimizing software codes, mostly for computational chemistry, but some climate / weather, seismic and splat (what you do with neutrons). We were chasing the HIV virus structure and rational drug design at that time. Oh, and I spent a lot of time in Exxon's research facility in Clinton, NJ. it was a ghost town. Exxon built it but never populated it.

  8. Paul, You are in good company. Recently, my good friend Martin ( Fat Rat ) sent me links to three You Tube videos that cover an extensive factory tour of Magico led by Alon Wolf. The three videos are a total of about five hours long. When I read your post today it was like a flashback to those videos. How PS Audio does things and Magico does things are not very different. Maybe you an Alon should get together sometime over a few drinks and talk shop.

  9. Or?

    First, show me two components that measure exactly the same in every way.

    I LOVE science but pseudo-science claiming what we can or what we can't hear is ego-tripping nonsense.

  10. Art is required because the science has not progressed sufficiently to ensure that a playback system does the job that IMO it should: reproduce the recording subjectively accurately. That is, a track should "sound the same" played through two different setups - often, it's like hearing captures of two separate events.

    Why is the science not up to the job? Because, there has been little interest in evolving measuring procedures to understand better why systems sound different; a large part of the variation is how well a rig rejects interference and noise factors, and how much the low level detail is distorted and blurred. These are measurable attributes which are never measured, and hence art, or using the ears, has to climb on board, and fix, or make better, aspects of how components and systems are implemented and assembled, to achieve higher SQ.

    1. Because audio is primarily about one's hearing, you can say for absolute certain
      that using one's ears, in the final judgement, will always have to "climb on board".

      1. Wrong. I suggest that it is all about our respective brains. Our brains and how they react or respond to stimulus vary very subtly especially in the context of the emotional response to the signals that our ears send to our brains. The audio signals provoke different responses in each of us. Hence the art.

        1. Wrong??
          Without your ears there's no aural input to your brain.
          Actually, if you want to get it completely correct,
          it's both ears & brain.
          Hearing requires the combination of both.

          1. You said that audio is primarily about our hearing. Now you have qualified it to say that audio is about both the ears and the brain. All the ears do is capture the signal and transmit it to the brain for processing. To me that is not overly different to the speakers responding to the signal from the amplifiers. The ears are important. However, it is the brain that does all the processing of the signal from the ears. The brain does the heavy lifting especially with the very important emotional response to the signal from the ears. This is the art part after the brain has done the science bit. To me the brain is the most important aspect in the whole matter of audio.

              1. I know that what I say is opinion. It is based on my reading to try to explain to me why we all respond differently to music or art etc that we listen to or see. The answer to me it is the miracle of the limbic system in our brains

                1. assisi,
                  You have completely missed the point of my reply to 'fas42'.
                  Please read his last sentence wherein he states,
                  "...or using the ears..."
                  This makes you "wrong" because you have replied to me completely out of context.
                  Please read the whole of 'fas42' 4:05pm, November 2 post & have a discussion with him about the unimportance of ears, if your view on this subject is so strong.
                  If you're going to tell someone that they are "wrong", at the very least you should firstly get the context of the discussion right.

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