Art Versus Science in Audio

I sit and listen for placement of the first violin. My wife is teary eyed because the baritone is about to kill the girl's her father, setting up a passionate conflict that will last until her third act demise at the wrong end of a dagger. When I start thinking the French horns are smudged, my wife signals me for another tissue. "Love is so painful," she gasps! So are these tweeters, I think to myself. Why am I focusing on sound in the middle of this painful aria? Where is my passion? Where is my soul? I know pain and sometimes I get so frustrated I am ready for the dagger; "Oh, I cannot live another moment without perfect love. I crave the sonic beauty of the stage and cannot live through another harsh upper mid. I have spent thy wad on every object within my weary grasp, only to be smited by the cruel hand of physical laws. Take me now, oh cruel hand of fate!" But let me hear the perfect system first.

Physics is not exactly an operatic theme. But our struggle against the laws of science is an epic one and worthy of a scream or two. We all get stuck somewhere in the gray area of the art versus science debate. We all know music is about the art of sound, but we are damned because it takes so much science to get us there. Should we really care how a phono cartridge works, how a CDs is mastered, or if a connection is gold plated? Should or not, we do. We defile our art by obsessing over the path that that gets us there. In other words, we tweak.

Enter the Golden Sound Intelligent Chip (GSIC). Enter the Dragon. This little guy has spilt more ink on the art versus science debate than anything since Bybee filters. How did GS do it with almost no advertising and no dealer network? By pricing the GSIC low enough to be at the "what the heck, I will give it a try" tweak level. Then, like all audio tweaks, a couple of obsessive people thought they heard something and they tell someone else who buys the GSIC and invariably hears nothing. Then we debate. The GSIC people also positioned the chip dead center in the gray area between art and science. We cannot prove it works, nor can we prove it does not. This is marketing genius at its peak and I wish I thought of it.

I cannot think of another item that is so cheap yet promises so much. If these guys charged $95 for the item, it would have died a quiet death. But at $16, they will sell a million just to those just who want to prove something or to those desperate souls at the end of their rope. Clearly, the GSIC cannot work. The physics it claims to use simply do not exist in our universe. The basic premise of rearranging molecules is not far fetched as we do that every time we cook or eat or type on a computer. It is the intelligent part that takes us into the ozone. How can any device know what to align on a disk? How does it know what the right molecular structure of the CD is (or was at a moment in the past)? Does the GSIC have all the master tapes ever recorded stuffed into its tiny intelligent head? It is contacting the mother chip to retrieve information about the disk in question? How will it know not to make Bach corrections to my Pink Floyd CD? I know the GSIC cannot do any of these things. It does nothing.

If the GSIC did work, we would have something truly amazing on our hands. For instance, if I put it under my hat, will it fix all those brain cells I lost in college? Will it fix my aged back? Will it put Viagra out of business? Most importantly, what will it do if I put it under my wife's pillow? Will it work on ten wives without a recharge? If this was real science and it worked, the world would be beating a path to the GSIC guy's door and cleaning up CDs at $1.60 a pop would be pretty low on the list of profit centers.

The question then becomes; why do some people think it works? Why did some tests score consistently on the side of the GSIC? Any Stat101 graduate knows that sometimes number simply don't correlate. We also know that in any perceptual evaluation, we can only control a small portion of the variables. It is east to put the statistical claims to bed. What about respected listeners? We have a group on the "I heard it" side to cast doubt on the "I heard nothing" group. The problem with science guys is that we know we cannot hear everything so we lean on measurements. At the same time, we know that not everything is measurable. So maybe those GSIC guys did hear something. Maybe they have better listening skills than we do. We know that what the GSIC does is impossible, but we cannot dismiss it "just in case." A little bit more of the "I don't know what" is "there", but I don't know what it is.

Now we are back to talking about art. When we know this something does nothing. When we know something measures poorly. When we know the press thinks it is stupid. When we like it anyway. That is when we are ready to care more about the passion of the music than the presentation of the music. That is when we are ready to cry because the baritone is about to kill the girl's father. The key to art is not in the things that change sound, but the thing that releases us from hearing sounds.

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Copyright Peter Jay Smith 2005 Return to