Should high-end headphones and speakers be designed for "good sound" rather than for technical accuracy? One consumer audio blogger thinks so.
The author of CNET's The Audiophiliac blog recently asked, "Who wants perfectly accurate sound?" His answer? Most headphone and speaker buyers prefer less accurate sound reproduction.
This may be the case (although he doesn't supply any real evidence to support this assertion). If so, so be it. However he doesn't stop there. He goes on to suggest that "accuracy" - in this case apparently represented by frequency response - is somehow not an important design criterion for a consumer audio product, and that, in fact, "truly accurate products don't sell."
This all ties in with the typical audiophile view that designing audio equipment is more of an art than a science. In fact, many audiophiles dismiss the idea of measurements altogether, and shudder at the thought of audio equipment being designed by mere engineers relying on measurements.
Instead, according to audiophile orthodoxy, the "best" audio equipment is designed only by audio designers with "great ears," because they "know what good sound sounds like." These are quotes by the same author in a previous post ("Can sound quality be measured?
"). After all, he says, "audio is too complex to be analyzed with just numbers alone."
Needless to say, most people making this claim - including "The Audiophiliac" - have little or no technical background. So it's not surprising to see similar such comments in his latest article, including "measurements have little to do with the sound of music" and "the real goal of a hi-fi is to play music and not test tones."
Of course such "audiofool" notions are easily refuted. And the author is certainly entitled to his opinion that the best path to achieving "good sound" is through subjective evaluation and the use of less-than-accurate audio reproduction equipment. But wait, there's more.
One of the underlying points the author uses to support his "accuracy isn't all that important" argument is that if all high-end headphones and speakers were designed primarily for "accuracy" they would all sound very similar. But, he says, they're "not even close." From this he appears to conclude that such products can somehow be divided up between those that are designed for accuracy and those that are designed for "good sound."
There is certainly no doubt that there are audible differences among headphones and speakers designed by different manufacturers - and even among models from the same manufacturer. These are, after all, electromechanical products that cannot hope to achieve the same level of precision and technical specs routinely found in solid-state electronics. And they are being designed using a variety of different technologies, design philosophies and materials.
So when it comes to audio transducers, the goal of "perfect accuracy" - where different properly designed products are audibly indistinguishable from one another - has yet to be achieved. So even if "accuracy" was the prime design goal in all cases - and admittedly it may not be - it's not reasonable to assume these differences would not exist. For example, which is the more accurate transducer - one with a 3-dB dip at 3 kHz or one with a 3-dB peak at the same frequency, everything else being equal?
And this brings up an even larger problem with the view that somehow such products can be divided into categories of "designed for accuracy" and "designed for good sound." Apart from the impossibility of trying to define the subjective term "good sound," there is no such thing as a "perfectly accurate" audio transducer. So the distinction becomes meaningless.
And finally there is the notion that somehow audio "accuracy" implies a certain sound quality. In fact it implies the opposite - a lack of coloration. A more accurate product will be more "transparent" in reproducing the original source. If a product designed for accuracy doesn't "sound good," then where does the "blame" lie - with the product itself, the source material, or the listener's biases?
I don't expect a comprehensible answer to that from the "Audiophiliac." But I can certainly provide an answer to his question "Who wants perfectly accurate sound?" - I do.