Monthly Archives: March 2013

Dumbed down audio

It’s interesting to me that when you look at what’s behind the accusation (often heard on certain partisan news networks) that people are in any way “dumbing down”, what they usually mean is that the people accused don’t know or aren’t interested in what the accuser thinks they should be interested in.

In the meantime, people are busy learning what THEY think is important. Most people really are not dumb, they are smart enough to know what skills the society REALLY wants, which it indicates through how it rewards people who acquire them. Business, Sports, Politics, Entertainment and Financials are where the rewards pretty much are. Science and Mathematics are mostly for the “nerds”, who rarely get paid (I say rarely because there is the intersection between Finance/Business and mathematics where the nerds do manage to get paid. But those are the exceptions). One pundit (me) observed that if we paid Teachers and Scientists even five percent of what we pay athletes, actors, bankers and politicians, we would be scientifically unstoppable. But when the rubber meets the road, we just don’t do it.

Subjective testing of audio gear is often cited as dumbed down audio. But really, you don’t have to understand graphs and mathematics to listen to audio equipment and decide which of it you think more evocative of real, live music. The technically inclined may think one is going about it from a position of ignorance, but the non-technically inclined think they are doing just fine, Jack. And they are. You don’t need to study meteorology to know it’s cold in the winter so bring a coat, or to check out the Weather Channel for the forecast. But knowing how Twitter and Facebook work and how to text on your iPhone can lead to “enriching social interaction”, so that’s technology worth knowing…

Now, understand that I am not saying there is no value in the charts and graphs. I work in a technical field and understand them fairly well and like to see them as a checkup of sorts on what I hear. But if, ultimately, what matters in music is the emotional/intellectual state it induces in the listener, then what better test than listening to see if a particular piece of equipment does that job?

It’s kind of hubris that some people think people should buy what is determined “objectively” best rather than what they think is best through their own aural evidence. To paraphrase Chico Marx, “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own ears?” I could argue that charts and graphs are most interesting out of intellectual curiosity (at least to those not actively engaged in the actual design of components, speakers, etc.).

All this does put a premium on the listening/evaluation process. I am always suspicious (keeping in mind I can only conjecture about other people’s actual abilities) of someone who listens to a piece of equipment for ten minutes and has definite, unshakable opinions. Personally, I can tell something I probably won’t like fairly quickly, but once it has passed that test of being at least adequate, it takes me a while to formulate a useful opinion.

In fact, in some ways, the most useful information comes in those “ah ha” moments of just listening for pleasure when it hits you how good (or not) a particular piece of music sounds through the equipment in use. In combination with your familiarity with live music and the time you spend listening analytically to recordings you know, this gives you the best chance I know of to make a sound (ahem) evaluation.