About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Rationally Speaking podcast: On Wine, Water, and Audio

In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia and Massimo turn their attention to connoisseurship -- or snobbery, depending on your point of view! Fine wines, bottled water, high-end audio equipment -- what all these have in common are passionate customers who are discriminating enough to pay top dollar for subtle differences between options.

Or are they? This episode explores the evidence on whether connoisseurs can really tell the difference between, for example, the $7 wine and the $700 one -- or whether it's a distinction without a difference.

Julia's pick: "Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work"

Massimo's pick: "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin"


  1. Obviously, if you compress audio with enough loss, it'll sound unintelligible. So the question is what amount of loss is imperceptible, but that varies by person. For example, kids can hear high frequencies that adults can't. And perceiving a difference doesn't necessarily mean preferring the cleaner sound. Music professor Jonathan Berger was frustrated that students increasingly prefer the sound of compressed mp3's, but are they any worse than audiosnobs who prefer the hissing and popping, err I mean "warmth" of vinyl?

    Measuring the amount of signal lost to compression is not easy. One type of compression may lose high frequencies, another may introduce artifacts like "sizzle." Which one is worse? Depends on the listener or the application. If you can't hear high frequencies anyway, then losing them isn't a big deal.

  2. Max, much was made of Berger's assertion, but I never found any explanation of his actual testing methodology. On the other hand, Dr. Sean Olive, who has a background in conducting proper double-blind listening tests, found a different result: http://seanolive.blogspot.com/2010/06/some-new-evidence-that-generation-y.html
    It seems that when given an opportunity, teens prefer CD quality over the mp3 quality as used in the test. (see the article for details regarding the mp3 encoding parameters used)

    As for audiophiles, the very few properly controlled listening tests that I've seen demonstrate that no one has been able to reliably tell the difference between CD quality audio and the better-than-CD-quality audio of greater bit depths and higher sampling rates, at a rate better than chance guessing. My main issue with those tests were choice of audio and sample pool, but for what the tests showed, I think they're valid. Further testing is needed of course.

    And then there are the "can-you-hear-a-difference" and the "what-sound-do-you-prefer" issues. The audio forum http://hydrogenaudio.org is dedicated to double-blind listening tests of all claims of "I think X sounds better than Y". They require everyone making such a statement to first do a double-blind test to demonstrate they can actually hear a difference between X and Y. So when someone says they "can't stand mp3s..." (and a critical part of mp3 encoding is the bitrate... if people don't include a bitrate when they talk about mp3s then their statements are missing crucial information) "...and prefer a lossless 96kHz 24 bit version of a recording, they need to prove that they can hear the difference.

    One someone has shown they can actually hear a difference then they can discuss the subjective merits of various lossy audio encoding schemes. (or Vinyl for that matter) But the Hydrogen Audio forum is a stickler about sticking to science.

    One more link from Dr. Olive about why double-blind listening tests are crucial: http://seanolive.blogspot.com/2009/04/dishonesty-of-sighted-audio-product.html

  3. Hell’s Kitchen had episodes where blindfolded contestants had to guess what they were being fed, and they mistook fillet mignon for chicken, fish for crab meat, and black truffles for watercress.

    The $300K Day and Night wristwatch doesn't tell time, it only tells whether it's day or night. When you're that rich, you don't need a watch to tell time, you need something unique to show off how rich you are. Anybody can get an accurate radio controlled watch for $30.


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