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Reflecting on Audiophilia - some personal stories

Ilkless

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Last year I was invited to write an article series on Harman curves for a headphone website. It became a comprehensive 3-part series that contextualised the curve's development amidst other efforts to standardise/improve headphone playback. It got a much better reception than I ever dared hope for (long-form writing online is always a risk), endorsed by Sean Olive himself on his Twitter account. It has also been linked as a reference on numerous audio forums, from major English-speaking ones like Head-Fi, AVS, Archimago and r/headphones to French, German and Russian forums.

I was invited back to write what is a rather more reflective and personal piece about "audiophilia". Think of it not so much as a manifesto (e.g.: Stoddard, NwAvGuy etc.) as me poking at some of the most enduring contradictions in the hobby for you to consider, with a lot about my personal experience in audio to sketch out how I navigate these contradictions. Quite coincidentally, we have some recent threads on the same issue as well with some great insights.

I think a lot of what is in this article is already understood by most on ASR (this article was meant for a broader audience), so I think I'll just emphasise a few points:

- There is the rise of moderate reviewers that do measure and do use evidence, but very selectively to rationalise their subjective impressions post-hoc. IMO, this is more insidious than pure mysticism as the pitfalls of this approach are more subtle. Not naming names, but many of these types appear to believe that what they perceive in the sound of the equipment either overpowers the many biases and confounding factors in place, or that they can consciously tune out these biases by sheer force of will. There is quite a lot of cognitive dissonance there. Furthermore, there are equipment manufacturers like Harbeth and Chord that occupy such a position; competent engineers manipulating their expertise to rationalise their prejudices (one for the BBC approach, the other for FPGAs and taps).

- Descriptors of the perceived characteristics of audio very closely track non-auditory properties of the equipment. Class D is a classic example, but another writer for the website actually found a similar trend for cables. It takes quite a lot of mental gymnastics to ignore this.

- There is not just confirmation bias. Gear fetishisation is increasingly social and with it comes the risk of in-group biases. We already see it in various cliques that ascribe some cult of personality to certain classes of gear they like, while piling on for some others - often with reasoning that at best bears a tenuous connection to the sound waves transduced at the end of the equipment chain. This is amplified by the sources of unavoidable variance, especially for headphones. Headphone placement changes even for the same listener across different listening sessions, leading to significant tonal changes. Production variance also means specimens differ. Before we even talk about HRTF differences, headphones couple differently to different listeners in terms of ergonomics. And somehow the perceived characteristics of amps and DACs can be determined quite consistently between different people and headphones (e.g. "review tours") despite these variances. I find accepting the potential corrupting effect of bias stretches credulity much less than believing listeners can pierce through all that variance towards ascribing certain tendencies by consensus to audio gear.

- A more rational, evidence-based approach does not homogenise audio equipment and its sound (common strawman) - it supports individuality by clarifying how to individualise equipment more effectively than purely instinctive/intuition-driven experimentation. Headphones would be all the better with good HRTF individualisation rather than haphazardly combining DAC-headamp-headphone in some unproductive and unsystematic manner in hopes the result works for you. Unfortunately there is a massive suspicion towards anything other than the antiquated "purist" audio chain that's only starting to be broken with EQs like Sonarworks.

Feel free to share it elsewhere as well.
 

Blaspheme

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I do love Sonarworks. Not just for headphones.
 

Bullwinkle J Moose

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Harman curves "DO NOT" standardize or improve headphone playback.

A Harman curve can only add as much sonic benefit as a blue power LED
 
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Ilkless

Ilkless

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Harman curves "DO NOT" standardize or improve headphone playback.

A Harman curve can only add as much sonic benefit as a blue power LED

I did not argue it was. In fact, as I demonstrate by comparison to other target curves in my Harman series, it's just as much of a band-aid as any other target curve. Maybe a different colour of band-aid ;)

It's not the first curve of its sort. Many curves with many different starting points exist. Some curves have slightly more basis in reality, because they cohere more to certain shared aspects of hearing physiology at the most general level (e.g. some degree of pinna gain, notwithstanding individual variance). These band-aids exist because headphone enthusiasts are more concerned with gear fetishisation than actual innovation and tangible improvements like HRTF individualisation.
 
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