Sounds good? Or doesn't sound bad?

edited February 2020 in Other hi-fi gear
Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms.

I found the following quote on another forum by Dr Floyd Toole, the author of the linked book (which is based on his years of research at NRCC and later at Harman labs:

"The resolution of your dilemma is that listeners in these tests show more evidence of responding negatively to flaws, than responding positively to virtues. As you correctly point out, the listeners have no knowledge of how a recording "should" sound. But, it turns out that most listeners have an instinct about recognizing how a recording "should not" sound - responding to the characteristics of reproduced sound that are not "normal" for live sounds."

I must admit, I always listened for positive attributes in loudspeakers, but the suggestion here is that just the opposite is actually happening/more appropriate. I find the notion very interesting, I wonder if I'm the only one? 


  • What are some examples of the “virtues” and “flaws” identified in Dr Toole’s test?
  • edited February 2020
    I don't think that identifying such factors was the point of the overall 'test'. And, the test as such, is the accumulation of over four decades of group listening tests covering many aspects of music reproduction  - the first twenty five at the National Research Council of Canada. 

    It appears that describing the sound of loudspeakers was left very much up to the listeners themselves, who tended to reference flaws in loudspeakers' performances rather than describe positive attributes. Which makes sense, especially if good quality speakers were used as control. Comparative listening is quite different to an audition of new kit, a product review, or how we listen for pleasure.

    Here is another quote:

    "In the multiple-comparison tests I started in 1966 at the NRCC and that have continued since at Harman (A vs B vs C vs D, not just A vs B) it is easy to recognize and separate the timbral characters of different loudspeakers as distinct from the common factor, the recording, whatever it is. This is why the most revealing program material exhibits wide bandwidth and a dense spectrum (complex instrumentation vs. simplicity; wide bandwidth vs simple spectra like voice or solo instruments).

    So, as I say in the book, evidence is that listeners tell us that the highest rated loudspeaker is the least flawed, not the most virtuous, although that is precisely what is meant. Looking at decades of listener response sheets yields enormous volumes of critical comments, some quite colorful, and slim volumes of compliments, mostly versions of "sounds good". Of course subjective reviewers have added to the verbiage with terms that often are meaningless, but poetic. "High resolution" loudspeakers turn out to be the ones with the fewest timbral distractions - it is not an independent variable.

    Further analysis showed that the dominant flaw has been resonances, which alter the timbral signature of whatever sound is being reproduced."

    I don't want to speak for Dr Toole, I'm not qualified in the slightest, but my observation is that I would have fallen into the "subjective reviewer using poetic verbiage" as a test subject! Which tickles me somewhat. 😂👍 I wonder if that's true of most of us?

    These tests say nothing about what sounds right or pleasant or exciting to any of us as individuals, by the way, but serve as a reference point for designers and engineers. I do believe they facilitate a better blank canvas to work upon.
  • edited February 2020
    Ah. Thanks for helping me understand.
    I hadn’t realised that it was comparative statements. So people more likely to say “A is shitter than B”, or “B is less shit than A”, rather than “B is better than A”.

    (But using audio adjectives, obviously.)
  • edited February 2020
    Well that's not poetic verbiage! 

    But basically, yes. In comparing loudspeakers, it seems listeners notice that A images poorly compared to B, B has bass overhang compared to C but D has a harsh treble compared to C...
  • As an arm chair psychologist, I’d be interested to see how “virtue v fault comparison” differences correlate with other population variables (e.g. age, gender, personality type).
    i wonder if we’d find that the typical middle age male hifi enthusiast is grumpier than the overall average. Oops! Or should I say that the overall average is cheerier than the typical middle age male hifi enthusiast. (Giving myself away there...)
  • I'm not sure Ben, but I would feel confident suggesting that the NRCC & Harman labs tests used a wide cross section of listeners precisely to avoid slanting the data. Having read a little about this, one of the takeaway lessons from the body of research is that listener preference correlates strongly both on the preferred sonic attributes and also the results are all consistent across all listeners, notably both trained and amateurs.
  • A human trait then. Interesting.
    Thanks Alan. Good stuff.
  • It's an interesting subject for sure, and a fine attempt to qualify at least a few aspects of 'good sound'. I don't know how many hundreds or thousands have participated in these tests over the years?
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