By: Derrick Poon

Living roomSubjective audio is the evaluation of reproduced sound quality by ear. It is based on the idea that, since audio equipment is made to be listened to, what it sounds like is more important than how it measures electronically. This helped create the idea that an audio system as a whole, should reproduce what is fed into it, without adding anything to it or subtracting anything from it.

Traditional measurements of such things as harmonic distortion, frequency response, and power output can reveal many things a product is doing imperfectly, but there have never been any generally accepted guidelines for equating the measurements with the way they affect the reproduced sound. And there was strong evidence that many of the things people were hearing were not being measured at all. This implies that when presented with objective measurements, listeners tend to have a confirmation bias and begin misconstruing certain characteristics they “hear” into the problems they see with the objective measurements. Subjective reviewing simply skirts the question of how objective test results relate to what we hear, endeavoring to describe what thereproducing system sounds like.

But what should it sound like? The trivial answer, of course, isthat it should sound like “the real thing,” but it’s a bit more complicated than that. If the system itself is accurate, it will reproduce what is on the recording. And if the recording itself isn’t an accurate representation of the original sound, an accurate sound won’t sound realistic. But what does the recording sound like? That’s hard to tell, because you can’t judge the fidelity of a recording without playing it, and you can’t judge the fidelity of the reproducing system without listening to it—usually by playing a recording through it. Since each is used to judge the other, it is difficult to tell much about either, except whether their combination sounds “real.” But it can be done.

The casual audiophile hears reproduced sound as a whole, and judges its quality according to whether it sounds good or not. Many reviewers never reach that stage of perception because the measurements and specifications of the competing products are already affecting the way they listen to the product. These listeners never make the effort to listen critically and without bias. The reason a subjective reviewer hears more than the “objective” reviewer is not that his audio system or measuring devices are superior. It’s because he has accepted the premise that objective measurements do not tell the entire story.

The experienced listener does not just hear the reproduced song as a whole. He hears into it, observing how the system handles a variety of different sounds. Instead of simply “all the highs and all the lows,” he may not hear the sharpness of a snare drum that his experience has shown to indicate a lack in attack. Or he may hear a lengthening of normally brief notes which he has learned to equate with a driver not moving fast enough. Both these problems would be revealed by measurements, but conversely it is very hard to look at objective measurements and determine the effects on actual sound. To do that, we need words to attach to these effects. Those words are what we call subjective terminology.