“Don’t believe half of what you see and none of what you hear” — a Lou Reed lyric pulled from “Last Great American Whale” (New York), half-borrowed from Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 short story The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether: “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see”.
After last week’s YouTube and Twitter polls, it would appear that this sentiment lives on in the audiophile community…and beyond. I had asked “Do you trust your own hearing? Yes or No”.
From a Twitter sample size of 581, 24% said “no”.
The surprises don’t end there. Over on YouTube, almost 4000 people responded to the same question but with a whopping 31% saying “no”.
Jaw collected from floor, my surprise gave way to consternation: how do you pursue better sound when you don’t trust your own hearing?
Was such a large percentage of “no” merely a collective acknowledgement of our age-related decline in upper-frequency hearing capabilities? Or perhaps more people (than I’d anticipated) have suffered hearing damage due to excessive exposure to high SPLs at concerts or at work? Perhaps others suffered from Tinnitus.
Or maybe people answered “no” because of psychology: many listeners distrust their own hearing because of their perception of the placebo effect and/or psychoacoustics. This is where our mind, engaged by factors other than sound, convinces us that we are hearing what is not there.
However, would these same people not concede that they would only need to hear (and not see) a single spoken word to separate their mother’s voice from someone else’s? Would they not consistently blind pick the sound a car from the sound of a bicycle from a 2-second sound sample? Of course they would!
Could it be then that the influence of placebo/psychoacoustics is a matter of degree: that the bigger differences are written more obviously than the smaller differences? That the differences heard between two pairs of loudspeakers are less susceptible to placebo than those heard between, say, two DACs or two phono pick-ups?
That brings us to the sharpest question of all: where and when does a large audible difference, less troubled by placebo, cross over to a small audible difference that’s more likely to be influenced by placebo? And more importantly: who says so?
Without a clear determination, if placebo/psychoacoustics presents when comparing, say, analogue interconnects, it’d not be impossible for them to turn up again when assessing the subtler differences between two loudspeakers.
Therefore, how do we know with any degree of certainty when to invoke the possibility of a placebo effect or psychoacoustics (and when not to)?
Until the placebo effect’s point of inflection is objectively established, one person’s determination of when psychoacoustic effects come into play won’t be the same as another’s. Like many other things in audio, it remains a subjective call.