Truth or preference?

April 27, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

In our search for sonic truth, there comes a point where the systems get so good their “truth” is more about our personal preference.

In fact, personal preferences often trump truth. We know we’ve gotten closer to the truth when it matches what we believe to be the musical truth.

Of course, no one knows what musical truth is. Even if you were present when a recording was made, all you can really know is whether or not you got close to the studio’s monitoring system.

That’s not truth unless you’ve managed to copy everything in the recording chain down to the room itself.

Maybe it makes more sense to suggest that what we’re really after is getting as close as possible to what our personal preferences are.

When my system puts a smile on my face I figure I am closest to achieving sonic truth.

That’s certainly my preference.

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41 comments on “Truth or preference?”

  1. Agreed. However there are some basic requirements for a stereo (2-channel audio) system. The dominant requirements are absolute symmetry and identical (!) channels – and minimum room treatment of course. There are some nice test tracks to check the fulfillment of these requirements: The famous LEDR-test and the “Walk-around” track on the XLO/Sheffield Test & Burn-in CD. It took me years to get these tracks perfectly reproduced. Having established the basics you can start optimization of tonal timbre by basic equalizer adjustments! 🙂

  2. “Maybe it makes more sense to suggest that what we’re really after is getting as close as possible to what our personal preferences are.”
    I would go further than that & say simply that it DEFINITELY makes more sense to suggest that what we’re really after is to hear a pleasing reconstruction (audio illusion) of the music that we love listening to from our home-audio rigs…no “maybe” about it.
    Except of course for those poor misguided souls who have a stronger connection with the unobtainable accuracy & the critical measuring of audio hardware than the joy & spiritual nourishment of the music.
    We should all say a prayer for those sad, tortured creatures 😉

    From yesterday

  3. To cite yet another Stephen, Mr Colbert, we return to the concept of ‘truthiness’: that which one believes to be true without any actual evidence or even in spite of contradictory information. In many instances, going with your gut regardless can get you and/or others into real trouble when the nature of reality says “Wrong!” and undesirable consequences, to put it mildly, ensue.

    However, in the case of reproduced music putting a smile on your face, even from a flawed recording played over a deficient system, that’s not so bad. Yeah, it could always be better, but sometimes good enough really is good enough. Enjoy.

    1. Sorry, the audio community can’t measure truth, so it can’t exist! Now we can hear from the truth vs the anti-truth groups, just like vinyl vs digital, MQA vs non-MQA, etc. if it brings a big smile to your face, that is all that matters in that moment.

    2. “Three Sides to Every Story” — Coco Montoya (2007) on the album “Dirty Deal” Alligator Records ALCD 4913

      Highly recommended Strat-driven blues. Powerful singer, too.

  4. Truth or preference. Aren’t they really one in the same when it comes to judging audio gear? Or do they have to go hand in hand, and be mutually exclusive?

    I don’t think it’s hard to find ‘truthful’ electronics. Speakers on the other hand almost scream personal preference.

    3D holographic aural images extending up and out. Truthful or preferred or both?

    After reading the last couple of days of posts I about threw in the towel when it comes to the audiophile equipment part of this hobby. Then I listened to some great music. Completely Truthful presentation? Probably not. Best most satisfying session, based on my preferences and current choices? Possibly. It must have been the preferred music –

      1. Paul,

        Nothing to do with you or the daily posts. They provide an opportunity to learn and read others opinions. I’ve let myself get caught up in the hype of constant improvement and some unobtainable goal regarding 2 channel audio. I guess in the end if audio was my first and foremost passion I’d think differently. It’s something I enjoy immensely when I have the chance to be home, and instead of being lost in the ‘boob tube’ I relish the few hours I get when I can just relax and listen. Having a separate isolated, treated room helps tremendously.

        The trap I seem to fall into, is to read and then let my mind wander into the land of ‘critical listening’. The musical enjoyment can diminish at that point and the spiral down starts. Usually walking away and a couple ‘puffs’ or a mug of scotch along with a little time is all it takes to cure the ‘meh’s’.

        I’m under no illusion that my system would be considered mediocre by many who post here, and maybe flat out wrong. It’s revealing enough that changes made are readily apparent and most of the time enjoyable to listen to. It’s not the best ‘sound stager’ but not an optical flat presentation either.

        I guess in the case of the last few posts I felt like the choice I made going to computer based audio instead of sticking with the ‘spin’ was the absolutely wrong one. But after a little time to reflect, maybe not the best choice, but not the wrong one either.

        In the end the problem is me, and not you or the posts. I’ve enjoyed audio from my ‘tween’ days, and even more now.

  5. Some people look desperately for dynamics, others fret over sound stage.
    When the hairs on your arms tingle for whatever reason that is the truth.
    The most dangerous thing on your sound preference is someone else’s opinion.
    We are all very different.
    Turn it up!!

    1. Of all of the responses, this one hit’s home for me. Thanks Albert Zap, Love this one because absolutely no one knows your personal truth but you. Advice is fine, but you have to make the ultimate choice of equipment and music. So here’s my “advice”, love your sound, make changes when you feel like it and what is it I always say….. Just keep listening 🙂

    2. I’m like Paul, I DO NOT LIKE MQA!!! But if anyone else does, and gets great pleasure listening to it, fantastic. I couldn’t care less how they get to musical nirvana. I just care that they get there. I also don’t care what formats, music, electronics, sources, cables, etc. they use. I only wish them the best musical moments possible.

  6. After much debate and discussion the members of my audio forum formed a plurality consensus that there are four primary, but not mutually exclusive, alternative objectives of high-end audio:

    1) recreate the sound of an original musical event,

    2) reproduce exactly what is on the master tape,

    3) create a sound subjectively pleasing to the audiophile, and

    4) create a sound that seems live.

    The objective an audiophile selects drives the answer to Paul’s question.

    Someone who prefers “getting as close as possible to what [his] personal preferences are” seeks Objective 3) “create a sound subjectively pleasing to the audiophile.”

    Each of these objectives is a valid subjective goal of the hobby. The objective we select drives much of our opinions, music source preferences and audio component selections.

    By recognizing that we implicitly have adopted different objectives we can avoid much of the mindless “talking past each other” us audiophiles experience in person and on audio forums.

    1. Good analysis. Lot’s of audiophiles confuse #1 with #4. The problem with #1 is that there is no such thing as an “absolute sound” of a musical event in any way, shape or form.

      — The vast majority of recordings are mixed from multiple mics and multiple takes, so there wasn’t a live musical event to recreate. The mixing engineer uses artificial means to create something that either sounds pleasing or sounds kind of live (or both).

      — Even a purist recording of a live event can’t sound close to the live experience because mics don’t hear like ears and stereo recording/playback methods can reproduce only a pale reflection (pun intended) of the dimensionality of a concert venue. The recording engineer places the mics in positions that create the possibility of having a recording that sounds sort of live, but it’s not close to what a human would hear at the concert.

      And then we have to deal with what my preferences for “best seat” are. I like row F; some good friends like the mezzanine. Recordings that sound kind of “live” to me sound like crap to my friends. My idea of live music is not theirs.

      I want a system that’s capable of sounding “live” with appropriate recordings (#4), that’s pleasant to me (#3), and that at all times reproduces what’s on the source, which is as close as I can get to the master tape (#2). It’s pointless to chase after #1.

    2. This is very good. It respects that there are different points of view and we don’t all have the same values, kind of like the real world where some like vanilla, some chocolate, both OK.

      My usual statement in the subjective/objective debate is “where you stand depends on where you sit.” I can’t imagine an engineer designing without measurements. But I’m a consumer. My goal is to maximize my enjoyment.

    3. I’m not trying to recreate the live performance, just the best sound possible. Two or three tracks of the 1977 Jackson Browne album “Running on Empty” were recorded at a Merriweather Post Pavilion concert which I was lucky to attend (that obnoxiously loud guy you hear was me). What my stereo recreates is far more pleasurable than what I heard at the concert. Why would I, then, try to recreate the live performance. I am sure that many live recordings are also better sounding than the actual performances. Buy in either case, it is rare that we actually know what either the performance or the sound captured by the mikes sounds like. That is why I try to just get the sound that gives me the most pleasure, be it extremely accurate, or not. Accuracy does not always equate to the best listening experience.

  7. Paul, I’ve never been in a recording studio. So I can only imagine what playback sounds like there.

    I have however attended many live musical performances, especially acoustic when possible. So I have a general sense what instruments and voices sound like in person. And that becomes my measure with recorded music. How much of the tone, dynamic, and emotion of the live performance is presented by the recorded playback?

    For me, the experience of hearing live performances is one of the most critical elements in judging an audio system.

  8. When I was young I had some advice that I tried to follow and give to other people. If like me you tried to upgrade your system when your financial means would allow it then I would go listen to the best system that the various audio stores had and then go buy the gear that first I could afford and second came as closest to the sound of the “best” system that I had heard. “Best” of course is your personal choice of what sounds good.

    This is hard to do for several reasons. First, you have to learn how to have a good audio memory ( which is a whole separate topic ). Second, once you have that audio image fixed in your mind everything else you hear that is less expensive gear probably will not sound as good and it is hard to spend money on second best. Third, today B&M audio stores are becoming fewer and fewer even in places like NYC which is near to where I live, but in St. Louis, were I grew up, there are no audio stores anymore.

    1. Agreed Tony. The NYC landscape has completely changed. Other than Park Avenue Audio, just about all the remaining audiophile dealers are open by appointment only. The days of just dropping in to hear new gear have disappeared. I remember the 70’s when I bought my first true audio system with AR 11 speakers and an AR turntable. There was no shortage of incredible places to hear dozens of great brands. As Eric Carmen sang, “…Those days are gone.”

  9. True. Many great sounding records were mixed on NS10s. But I don’t think many of us would prefer listening to NS10s over our own systems. The NS10s might be more “accurate” to what the mix engineer heard during the mix, but they won’t be as fun as our own preferred systems.

  10. I remember back in the 60’s hearing Leslie West live while he was playing in the Vagrants from the NYC area. He later went on to become famous with the band Mountain and played with the likes of Jack Bruce. Etc… I so happened to have heard his band live twice in two different places near where I lived. What was the truth? When I stood right near the band? When I stood back from the band? When I heard them in one room, or the other? Need I add.. it did not always sound pleasant to my ears. If I heard it over a stereo system I may have opted to change a power cord, or interconnect in hopes of getting the “truth.” Truth is… it would have sounded bad if I got the truth.
    I would prefer my personal preference… Make the equipment that can achieve my preference, please. A preference I will need to “discover.” For when I hear what I like? It becomes my “truth.”

  11. “What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate in John 18:37.
    In high-end audio, truth is in the ear (and mind) of the listener. We tend to prefer different shades of the truth, and minimize or discard elements of the truth that we find unpleasant. The truth is shaded beginning with the recording, mixing and mastering; by the recording medium(s); then by the listener through their selection and setup of audio components in their listening room; and by their listening position, hearing faculties and mental state. That any truth at all can be faithfully preserved through this arduous chain is a miracle!

    1. Yes, all recorded music is facsimile (that word yet again). Doesn’t mean that it can’t be tremendously enjoyable. I eagerly await the return to a reasonable semblance of the old normal so I can hear/see live music again, either unamplified in a good venue or over the house sound system. Until then (and afterward), God bless the stereo.

  12. So glad this wasn’t about “Truth or Dare.” 😉

    Yes. Preferable sound is important because many upon many manufacturers create unique and wonderful sound signatures. I urge people to experience and try the many because that is one of the most redeeming and fun qualities about being an audiophile is. It is also part of the adventure.
    So whatever it may be in audio equipment regarding the main source I support trying the many and the one signature that you end up truly loving in actually becomes your Truth. 😉

  13. This has to be one of the most puzzling and contradictory posts by Paul. Nevermind the over 50 years of research into psychoacoustics, never mind all the findings about listening, engineering, acoustics. Never mind science. Just do what you like. What was that short ditty? “Don’t worry, be happy!” At least that guy sold a lot of records singing and whistling that.
    If you like it it is OK. You will never “know” what the artists wanted you to hear, so just do what you want.

    Of course recording acoustic instruments is difficult, recording “classical” music is very difficult and the answers for proper reproduction at home are elusive. But to throw away everything else with the “just be happy” is utter nonsense.

    Also never mind the contradiction of this post to all previous ones by Paul. It is as if each day he has no recall of what he said before.

    1. CtA,
      That’s right, “never mind” all that science crap;
      just use your ears & enjoy the music.
      I think that you’re finally starting to ‘get it’ 😉

    2. Embrace the contridictions.

      ‘The universe never did make sense. I suspect that it was designed by committee.’ Or words to that effect. — Robert A. Heinlein

      1. Part of intelligence measurements is understanding contradictions and being able to deal with them. Or better said, with opposing views. But Paul’s post is just beyond comprehension. Why would anyone ever “buy” high fi stuff or pursue any of the voodoo devices to “improve” sound or “remove veils”, if one only needs to get “happiness” or preference?

  14. The truth is an immediate and organic silky smooth liquid detailed midrange, airy highs, bass that is round and tight with just the right amount of warmth. Detailed transparent and linear over the entire frequency range without being bright. There should not be a trace of hardness or harshness to the sound. And yes it should be musical with beautiful overtones. Acoustic guitar strings should be well defined and sound like strings and not blurred in anyway. Voices should sound natural. And effortless. You don’t want to hear anything that sounds strained or restricted.

  15. I have an objective measure of truth growth. My tomcat. He ignores artificial sounds. But as soon as I improve the sound – its truthfulness so much that I trick him and he shows attention, I know I’m on the right track. He learns quickly and before I come up with new improvements he accepts the old-new level of quality as uninteresting. The best was when I first played the demo from NativeDSD, he even got up 😀

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