Archive: June, 2012

The Case for ABX Testing

Rob Schlette, writing for The Pro Audio Files:

The topic of audio perception has been pretty hot lately. From the popular news media coverage of Mastered for iTunes to the pages of TapeOp magazine, it’s not uncommon for people to be asking the question, “Can you really hear the difference?” This is very good news for music and music lovers.That might not seem like an extraordinary question for people to be asking, but the elastic reach of hardware and software marketing nonsense has devalued sensory feedback. We are routinely exposed to the most outrageous qualitative claims that have never been proven (or even suggested) with a marginally systematic listening test.

He’s right. The question, “Can we hear a difference?” shouldn’t be extraordinary or controversial in any way. He goes on to write:

I’ll bounce the same audio source twice—once with each codec product set to identical digital audio precisions. Absolutely nothing else about the two bounces can be  different, or the test is pointless. If I’m really being honest, I get someone else to load up the examples into the tester app so I don’t know which is which.

I’ll go further and say that the only way to do a proper ABX test is to have someone else load the examples into the tester app (or better yet, create a tester app that randomly assigns the examples. Are you listening, Takashi?). Or better yet, have one person load the examples, then present the test to another person who doesn’t even know what they’re supposed to be listening for.

Ethan Winer on Perception

Ethan Winer in Tape Op, on how the limits and fallibility of human perception cloud our judgments about sound (or should I say sound judgment?):

Hearing fallibility has implications beyond doubting our own mixing decisions. It’s the main reason audiophiles believe the sound of their hi-fi improved after replacing one perfectly competent AC power cord with another, or after raising their speaker wires off the floor on special “anti-resonance” cable lifters. Understand that I’m not talking about real differences, such as the sound of modern digital recording versus analog tape or vinyl records. Those differences are real, and are easily measured using the standard metrics of frequency response and distortion. Skilled listeners can easily identify which is which every time in a blind test. Rather, what I’m addressing are differences that are perceived but not real—the placebo effect if you will, or perhaps wishful thinking.

Bob Clearmountain chimes in the next issue’s letters section:

Hats off to Ethan Winer! His article, “Perception—The Final Prontier” echoes my sentiments exactly. It’s great to see that someone in this business has the balls to apply intelligence and reason to the science of audio…You can make a great record from pretty much any recording and mixing device, if you have four things: 1) a great song, 2) a great performance, 3) great production and 4) a great mix—in that order. And the last two aren’t even necessary if the first two are incredible. When it comes to the gear it’s more important that the recordist, mixer, producer and artist are comfortable with it and that it doesn’t get in the way of getting a great performance.

In other words: Get your hands on some decent tools, learn how to use them quickly and effectively, then promptly and completely forget about them, so you can focus on, ya know, the music.