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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
May 2006

Inconvenient Truth

Political writer Joe Klein's new book, Politics Lost, is subtitled "How American Democracy was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid." Klein, who has written about politics for over 35 years, makes the point that American politicians are no longer in charge of their own messages. Instead of trusting their own instincts, Klein argues, politicians trust pollsters and consultants, who help them craft rhetoric that the public will like. In a recent interview, Klein said that the politicians we trust should be brave enough to convey "the inconvenient truth," echoing the title of an upcoming documentary on global warming, a truth that's about as inconvenient as any today.

High-end audio certainly has its politicians, and it also has its own inconvenient truth: measurements. People write us all the time asking if we have plans to review a particular speaker or amplifier that has become the current darling among some of the audio press. In essentially every instance, the people writing in also ask us to measure these products, as they doubt the claims of reviewers and the companies that make the products in question. Measurements are what they are; they indicate exactly what a product does in various defined circumstances, as opposed to what its maker or a reviewer says it does. Speakers with claimed high sensitivity and exotic amplifiers that put out a handful of watts are the most obvious examples of equipment for which good measurements are very useful.

I am baffled by the animosity and defensiveness that measurements create in some audiophiles and audio writers. Isn't objective information about audio equipment a good thing, especially in these days of raging subjectivity? Not in the minds of some people. Years ago we at SoundStage! had a heated debate among our staff about the measurements we publish along with many of our reviews. I was surprised that a few writers believed that our measurements were misleading or even downright dishonest. The syllogism, nave as it is, goes something like this: Audio equipment is made to be heard, and test equipment can't hear; therefore, measurements are of little or no value. For speaker measurements, the argument is even more elementary: Speakers are placed in rooms, not anechoic chambers.

I remember years ago hearing a speaker with an obvious dip in the midrange. When we received that speaker for review and measured it, there it was -- a 5dB trough centered around 3.5kHz. Identifying this with my ears was no superhuman feat; any careful listener could have done the same thing, and following our review of the speaker, many did. Where measurement haters leave their senses is in the meaning of such an anomaly. You can like the sound of such a speaker, even love it; that's what preference is about. However, you should, at the very least, be willing to acknowledge that the midrange is "recessed" or "laid-back" or some other code phrase for what the speaker obviously sounds like and the measurements plainly show.

We at SoundStage! value the subjective process; describing sound and its delights with words is an important and useful endeavor. However, it is our belief that people read us primarily to make audition and buying decisions, and the feedback we get from you upholds this. Therefore, the more information we can present about the products we review, the better -- including in the form of measurements. I'll ask again: Isn't objective information a good thing?

Not if you're trying to avoid the truth. While the effects of grossly colored loudspeakers are inconsequential compared to those of global warming, the ways in which both topics are spun, and obscured, are similar. Sadly, truth is under attack everywhere, even in our listening rooms.

In his book, Klein talks about an impromptu speech that Robert Kennedy gave to a crowd in an inner-city Indianapolis neighborhood immediately following Martin Luther King's assassination. Kennedy spoke in frank and honest terms; if you read the transcript of the speech, you'll realize right away that, in America, politicians don't address the public in such a straightforward manner any longer. The same holds true for some audio publications.

...Marc Mickelson

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