The Objectivity of Subjectivity: A Philosopher Considers Audio Reviews

by Eric Hetherington | March 21, 2013

declared my major in philosophy before my freshman year of college began. If other students questioned this, I’d point out that philosophy was a very good major for admission to law or medical school. Law school wasn’t really my backup plan at the time; my backup plan was to be a composer of electronic music. Obviously, I had a serious knack for choosing practical pursuits.

I never had to enact my backup plan as I have been a professional philosopher my entire adult life. Every year I teach hundreds of students about philosophy and, hopefully, get them to think critically about themselves and the world they inhabit. Philosophy has become my vocation, but music remains my passion. The pursuits of philosophers are similar to the interests of audiophiles in that philosophers and audiophiles both strive to understand truth and beauty. Philosophers do so abstractly and academically, audiophiles through their pursuit of ever-improving audio systems.

There are times when I find my two interests intertwine in ways that get under my skin. Mostly this happens when I read Internet audiophile forums. The forums almost always seem more for those who want to be heard rather than those who want to listen. Contributors are more interested in stating their opinions than really discussing substantive issues. Thus, we find people criticizing the nature of subjective audio reviews, calling them superfluous or corrupt. Such criticisms are like a house built on sand, but illustrating the reasons for their shoddy foundation is more complex than the sound-bite world of Internet forums allow. In what follows, I explain why I think these criticisms are ill-founded.

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et’s consider two kinds of evidence we might have about the behavior of a piece of audio equipment. On the one hand, we have measurements concerning certain electrical properties a piece of audio equipment might have. On the other hand, we have qualitative assessments made by reviewers while they audition and evaluate the equipment. Many audiophiles divide these two kinds of evidence in the following way:

1. Quantitative measurements of audio gear are reports of objective properties that the gear possesses.
2. Qualitative assessments of audio gear are reports of subjective experiences that reviewers report while using the gear.

If you read any audiophile forums you will likely find someone asserting that claims of type (1) are really all you need since those report the objective properties of the equipment. If the equipment measures well, it will perform well. So, any claim of type (2) is not as reliable or useful because it only reports subjective experiences of listeners. These types of claims seem most often directed at non-component parts of an audio system, especially cables or very expensive components. As the cables’ function is merely to send an electrical signal from one component to another, any cable that measures reasonably well, it is argued, should sound the same. After all, that is what the objective measurement tells us. What could a subjective assessment possibly add other than some placebo effect caused by seeing the cables, knowing they cost a lot of money or, the most pernicious commenters claim, maybe the reviewers are being paid off?

These kinds of criticisms result from a misunderstanding about the nature of objectivity and subjectivity. Objectivity and subjectivity are two distinct things. Something being subjective does not mean that it is also not objective; something being objective does not mean that it is not subjective. Objectivity has to do with whether or not there is a matter of fact about something. Roughly speaking, something is an objective statement if it is correct to think of it as being true or false. Subjectivity has to do with something originating within a subject (a person like me or you). To call something subjective is to say that it is about a subject; the content of the claim is about, at least in part, some person or his experience. Thinking about objectivity and subjectivity this way, we end up with four kinds of things, not two:

3. Objective, non-subjective claims
4. Objective, subjective claims
5. Non-objective, subjective claims
6. Non-objective, non-subjective claims

Critics of audio reviews think that evaluative reviews are composed of claims of type (5), but they are actually claims of type (4). In what follows, I’m going to concentrate on looking at claims of type (3) and (4). For completeness, I’ll just say this about types (5) and (6): non-objective claims are those for which there is not a matter of fact, and while there are some interesting philosophical issues related to these kinds of claims, they are not relevant for our discussion.

Here are examples of claims of type (3), all are taken from reviews on The Audio Beat.

  • The rated power output of the JE Audio VM60 mono amplifiers is 60 watts.
  • The dual 6 1/2" woofers in the ProAc Response K6 are manufactured by Volt.
  • The Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player uses Burr-Brown PCM1792 DACs in a fully balanced configuration.

These are all of type (3) because they are objective (they are either true or false) and non-subjective (they do not concern a person or persons in any way). The Audio Beat is also full of claims of type (4). From the same reviews:

  • "So the piano part on 'Perfect Day' is solid and present, without ever getting strident or brittle, the strings swell convincingly from well down in their range, while Reed’s voice is full of expressive shape and the poignant sense of longing that makes the song so effective."
  • "The K6es' midrange pulled everything together, deftly transitioning from the sheer resolution of the treble into the quickness of the bass with purity and directness. The mids were neither rounded nor full, and they displayed no tonal excesses that could translate to fullness or warmth."
  • "The Reference CD8 did not make for sound that was soft or veiled. Rather, the presentation was slightly different -- more corporeal and relaxed, slightly less up front and lively -- than with the Audio Research Reference 5, either single-ended or balanced."

Each of these claims reports the subjective experience that Marc Mickelson or Roy Gregory had while using the equipment they were reviewing. While they report a subjective experience, they are just as much objective claims about the world as the first set of claims taken from these reviews. It is either true or false that Marc or Roy had these experiences and that the equipment sounds the way described just as much as it is true or false that the amplifier outputs 60 watts or the CD player uses that specific Burr-Brown chip.

If someone objects to the use of subjective evaluations, it is not because those claims are not objective. Their concern must be that the claims arise from a measuring device that just so happens to be a person rather one that isn’t a person. To decide whether or not there is a good reason to be so skeptical about subjective evaluations we’ll need to look at the nature of testimony (evidence offered by others).

We are predisposed to believe that people tell us the truth or what they believe to be true. Consider any conversation you’ve had with another person. Outside of acting or role-playing games, we assume that what people tell us is true. If we didn’t, it isn’t clear why we would engage in any conversation at all. It seems to be a presupposition of communication that what we are trying to do is convey truthful information. So, our default assumption is that people are telling us the truth. This suggests that for us to doubt someone’s report, there must be a good reason for doing so.

In our specific case of audio reviews involving subjective evaluations, we need to ask if there are any good reasons to not believe the reviewers’ assessments. There seem to be three kinds of reasons that I have read (or can easily be inferred from what I’ve read) on audio forums, and it turns out that none of them offers generally persuasive reasons for discounting subjective evaluations. Here they are in what I take to be ascending order of seriousness.

7. Reviewers are dishonest.
8. All that can be reasonably said about a component can be revealed in laboratory measurements.
9. There is no guarantee that what the reviewer experiences is what any other listener will experience.

We’ve already seen that our general outlook is to trust that people are telling us the truth. I cannot think of any reason to mistrust reviewers in general, though there may be good reasons to mistrust particular reviewers. If you find out that a reviewer has lied in the past, then there is reason to doubt future pronouncements from him. For example, if a former reviewer admits that towards the end of his audio reviewing career he didn’t even unbox the equipment before writing reviews, then I might continue to enjoy his fiction, but he has given me no good reason to read his earlier audio reviews.

If you find that a reviewer has abused the trust given to him by manufacturers, then there is also good reason to think him dishonest. Suppose a manufacturer tells you that certain reviewers slide him the bill when they have drinks at a trade show. This does not directly show that such a reviewer will be dishonest in his reviews in the same way the admission of not even opening the box does, but it does go to the reviewer’s character. Perhaps he is always honest in his reviews and just behaves unprofessionally at bars, but the behavior shows something about the character of the individual and at the very least raises concerns about his professionalism and commitment to being virtuous.

Some reviewers are just rather unpleasant to interact with, but that does not, on its own, suggest they are dishonest. It is possible to be a self-righteous blowhard and still be honest. It might be that, on balance, you decide that, while they are not people you want to deal with personally, such reviewers still know what they are doing and are honest about their assessments. Or, you might decide they're just too overbearing to even bother to read, whether or not they are truthful.

All of this suggests that there are good reasons that could lead you to think particular reviewers are dishonest and that there are some behaviors that may color your opinion of a reviewer’s personality without impinging on his honesty. But, there seems to be no good reason to dismiss all reviewers as dishonest.

Component measurements certainly tell us quite a bit about a piece of audio equipment, but they do leave out an important set of data: how the component actually sounds. If we accept that the goal of audio equipment is to reproduce recordings as accurately as possible, then there is good reason to think that components that measure well will sound good since they will be better able to reproduce the recording accurately. However, that does not mean that those measurements alone will tell me all I need or want to know about the equipment. I think it might be easier to see why if we adapt a philosophical thought experiment developed by Frank Jackson for a very different purpose. My presentation of it here lacks detail and subtlety, but should work well enough.

Suppose you are a neuroscientist trying to understand how the brain processes color vision, but that you are only able to see in shades of gray. Through a great number of experiments you are able to identify what happens in the brain when subjects report seeing red. So, you have a great deal of data and understanding about measurements related to seeing red. But, since you see only in shades of gray, you don’t really know what it is like to see red. You could tell me something like, "Oh seeing red is just having such-and-such activity at a particular location in the brain," but you still wouldn’t be able to describe red to me in a way that would make me know what it is like to see red.

Shades-of-gray scientists are in a state similar to those who would like to rely on quantifiable measurements only in evaluating audio equipment. They can tell me how something works and collect measurement data, but they can’t tell me what it is like to experience it. I am reminded of the opening lines of the e.e. cummings‘ poem "since feeling is first":

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

When Marc describes the sound of the Audio Research CD player as "less upfront and lively," I learn more than if I had just read a data sheet. I know, given my experience listening to music and equipment, what he means and what I should expect when I listen to the same equipment. I can think of three possibilities that might account for someone having a vastly different experience than Marc’s, but none is particularly troubling.

First, if someone has a very different sensory apparatus than a normal person, his experience with a piece of gear might be very different. Again, consider our shades-of-gray scientist. He will, no doubt, have a very different experience at an art museum than someone who sees in color. And, he may learn to ignore color-seeing critics, as their interests are impacted by their ability to see colors that he does not.

Second, if someone uses a piece of gear with vastly different equipment or in a vastly different room, he will end up with very different experiences. If I take the Audio Research CD player and connect it to throwaway computer speakers, I likely won’t get the same kind of experience Marc describes. This is really the same kind of problem faced by the scientist above -- in each case some equipment (either the subject’s physiology or audio gear) is vastly different than the reviewer’s. Outside of philosophy classes about skepticism, there doesn’t seem to be good reason to doubt that the sensory experiences of two people are so vastly different from each other’s unless there is a reason -- physiological or environmental -- that is causing that difference.

There’s one more reason that a person’s experience might differ significantly from a reviewer’s: expertise. It may very well be that some people are not as aware of subtle differences as others. Consider, for example, the case of wine tasting. People who are new to wine, do not drink a lot of wine or merely drink it as a casual accompaniment with dinner may just be unaware of subtle differences that exist between wines. In some cases they are unable to describe how a wine tastes other than to say whether they like it or not. The more serious a person becomes about wine, the more effort that person puts in to describing wine and learning the terminology that other wine aficionados use to describe wine, the better able he becomes at describing not only wine but what he likes and dislikes about it.

It is very likely the same with audio equipment. I think it safe to say that Marc has listened to more CD players than most people and he has done so carefully and thoughtfully in a way that most people don’t or can’t. When he describes the sound made by a CD player he is reporting an expert’s opinion in the same way a wine expert reports on the characteristics of a particular wine. If someone lacks experience he may be unable to fully understand an expert’s description of a CD player, a wine or anything else that might require expertise. It might be reasonable to decide you don’t care enough about a certain thing to attain a level of expertise. You might decide, for example, that as long as the wine tastes good and is under $20, you’ll be satisfied with it. You might even decide the same thing about audio equipment. But, it would be a mistake to then assume that people who do care and who put in the time to evaluate audio equipment or wines carefully are reporting phony differences.

When people say some decisions or evaluations are subjective, they should not be taken to mean that the decisions or evaluations are not objective nor that they are without value to others. What I think they often mean by saying something is subjective is that it doesn't really matter to them. "That’s subjective" more often means "I don’t care what you think." "Whether this change is worthwhile is a subjective matter" means "It doesn’t matter to me what you do." And if that is the real meaning of these claims, then it is difficult to see why anyone would bother to make them.

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