Audio groupthink creates mythologies

Another nail in the coffin of objectivity
and the pretence of reliable subjective reporting

Manufacturer: Mammalian Evolution, whether (Lamarckian or Darwinian or Epigenetic) or, if designed by Deity(ies), may your God(s) go with you
Price: irrelevant but value is priceless YMMV
Author: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Spawned: Winter 2017-2018

Mythological creationism or evolution?

Escaping the mythologies of audio groupthink enables TNT-audio readers to enjoy better sound quality and to sustain the habits of the genus audiophilia with fewer resources. Being sceptical of groupthink helps inoculate against the temptations of the flavour of the month. This leads to reduced anxiety, protection against audiophilia nervosa and therefore prolongs life and the pleasures therein. We have previously considered how audio myths take hold, and how these myths gain traction because the psychological mechanisms that promulgate and reinforce them are the same mechanisms that helped the human species become the most successful on this planet at manipulating the environment to our advantage. Here's a typical scenario:

A Cosy Scene

Arnie Audiophile invites some friends around. Arnie has recently had a go at making a cable all by himself
Arnie plays his old commercial cable, which is a familiar audiophile brand group test review winner, at a mid (by audiophile standards) price
Arnie tells his guests why he became dissatisfied with this commercial cable, as he has done several previous well reviewed cables, over the years
Arnie describes the lengths he has gone to get his new cable to be as good as possible
Arnie describes his materials choices and his reasons for them
Arnie describes the construction and why he believes this construction is superior to any of the alternative ways he could have employed the same materials
Arnie talks about the features he admires from numerous commercial cables and how there wasn't one he could buy with all his favourite features
Arnie then substitutes his newly built cable and his friends do indeed notice exactly the differences that Arnie did
Arnie's friends also notice other differences, for they have different ears
Arnie's friends notice advantages to his cable that he hadn't even noticed himself
Arnie's friends feel really smug that they've noticed things in one evening that the cable's maker hadn't even noticed himself in weeks of development
Everyone feels good. Arnie swells with pride that his friends think that his DIY efforts are better than a 'Group Test Winner' cable

Then his friends ask Arnie if thy may hear some of the prototypes that didn't make the cut. Arnie's friends are actually quite impressed with Arnie's other prototypes too. Arnie points out the differences for them in A-B comparison, he has, after all, spent many hours with all these cables so he has an advantage of experience. Arnie's friends hear why Arnie prefers his final version, but ask if they can borrow his other prototypes to try in their own systems and they think these prototypes are probably pretty good anyway.

Arnie's friends all leave clutching cables that they're excited to try in their own systems. Some ask Arnie to make them copies of the 'best' cable for them too. Arnie is happy to do this at the cost of the materials and brings them round to his friends houses, installing them with an explanation of the advantages and any extra tweaks he has tried. They all agree that Arnie's cables are much better than famous brands like the Behemoth Hawser or the Translucent Magic Box. Arnie makes his at a quarter of the price of established reference cables. Even the audio sceptic twins, Vera and Valerie Vinyl can hear the differences, and they usually leave this kind of faffing to the boys. Arnie and his friends all realise that the reason for this is that Arnie does not factor in his time, nor does he have distribution overheads, marketing overheads, business overheads nor retail profit margins to factor in. They are not fools nor are they easily fooled.

To create these fine cables, Arnie has used some principles of physics half remembered from high school, some ideas learned from those audio reviews that cut & paste press-releases and some ideas of his own about what is wrong with the audio cables he has bought and used in the past. Arnie is determined enough that he has created numerous slightly different prototypes, coming up with modifications (improvements might be too directional a word) as soon as he starts listening to the latest prototype. The prototypes peaked and each new change after Version 7 has been very slightly inferior. It has all been a bit like Arnie's last visit to the optician. Wearing those big head clamp adjustable frames, Arnie reached what seemed a nearly sharp enough test chart view with a particular combination of glass. Then the optician tried numerous extra lenses, rotating them and making subtle adjustments, but each time the image was slightly less sharp. Arnie came home with spectacles that were as accurate to his eyes as was possible to achieve by such empirical methods. Arnie's cables are as well matched to his system as he can achieve by similar, well informed, trail & error methods.

Arnie Audiophile's friends all agree that he does make exceedingly fine cables. They have all heard the improvements his cables bring to his audio system and to their other friends' audio systems and now they hear it in their own audio systems.

Two psychological mechanisms are at work in this cozy scene. One is that our mirror neurons establish empathy and we tend to become infected by another's enthusiasm (if we are neurotypical) and the other is that we are primed by information to experience what we are expecting (confirmation bias). The phenomenology of our latest encounter with Arnie's efforts includes not just our sensory perceptual capacity, but also all the data we have operating in the cylinder heads of our conscious process and the inarticulate material we have sloshing around in the sumps of our unconscious processes.

So another friend says, "Hey, listen to this: when I move my turntable from this sideboard to this table, it sounds better". We listen to the two conditions and it transpires that our friend is correct (confirmation bias helps us to seek the positive change). Numerous repetitions of such positive discoveries by our friend lead us to expect the best whenever our friend invites us to come round to hear the latest improvement. We're not bad at writing, and already do the match reports and theatre reviews for our local evening paper, so we begin writing our friends "tweaks" down and submitting them to a magazine. When our friend starts a small company to see if he can make some of these things to sell to fellow audiophiles, we are on hand with an exclusive story for the magazine. Magazines are driven by the need to excite readers with novelty, to ensure readers buy each issue with the expectation of learning something new in their quest for audio improvement. More readers equal more advertising revenue, including from our friend's new company. Everybody involved is happy with this state of affairs.

We are brought up by our education systems and by religious and philosophical traditions to believe in ideas that have already been discovered and written down, we are indoctrinated to value the written word highly. The written audio texts, are thus raised to the status of sacred texts, if the posts on numerous forums and blogs are anything to go by. The early audio writings were a few pages, reluctantly allowed, in music and recording review magazines. You read the latest news of forthcoming recordings, then you read the record reviews, then you read an article about making a balsa wood tonearm for your gramophone. When audio only magazines emerged, they were laid out like professional journals, with all the adverts at the front and back and all the editorial in a block in the middle. Such magazines even had a prepaid page to mail back to request further information from the advertisers. Schoolboys like your Old Scribe routinely sent these off to be deluged with lavish glossy brochures for imports and established brands, along with Roneo mimeographed typed technical arguments from the smaller concerns constructing hifi hardware in their shed.

Most audio texts, then and now, are merely the monthly outpourings of editorial designed to fill the gaps between the revenue generating advertising. Each month enough editorial needed to be written to entice the casual buyer at the news-stand, or to encourage the subscriber to renew. Valuable relationships would build between innovators, makers and writers. These relationships would enable the writers to learn the newest ideas ahead of their rivals and the innovators to disseminate their innovations. The relationships that formed tend, inevitably, to be those male bonding exercises where defining how our gang differs from another gang is important. Mention any team sport in a group of men and quickly someone will ask which team you support. In the English speaking world, the peak of audio popularity was the late 70s and the 80s. The bands you liked defined your adolescent subculture and a few years older it was how you played them at home that pegged your success in life as much as the car or motorcycle you drove. In that period the battle lines were drawn and the audiophiles clustered around the colours of the magazine of their clan.

Here on we have written about the mythologies of the audiophiles' written word and how these clans, families or other hangers-on would continually reinforce their preferred dogma through those pages under the colours of their tribal masthead. Periodically these periodicals would rally the clan in the face of a new threat to their hegemonies. The advent of CD boosted the adherence of The Flatter Earth to its vinyl only position, even though the tight bass sealed loudspeakers of the Flat Earth were far better suited to this new extended bandwidth music carrier than the plummy higher Q reflex loaded boxes of the Pipe & Slippers Middle Earth dwellers. These entrenchment and retrenchment processes are documented in psychological experiments evaluating people's responses to evidence. Where and when beliefs are already held strongly, any objective evidence to the contrary actually strengthens the reader's prejudice (or dearly held position, depending on your own point of view). Thus, when the Genus Audiophilia became big enough to sustain divergent family groups, competition replaced cooperation and what might have been differences of taste and preference became stoically maintained positions of faith.

As with any religion, divisions soon emerge and each religion divides into sects competing over the 'truth'. The sacred temple of the bleeding ears soon spawned orthodoxes recognisable only to one another. From the outside the audiophile world, it looks like a bunch of mostly blokes spending far too much money on sacred relics, like bits of wire, than could never be objectively justified on the same planet where people are starving to death. To the non-believer, arguments about whether on not sound could be ruined by the current feedback of a cathode-follower circuit bears a remarkable resemblance to arguments about how many angels may dance on the head of a pin. To the believer, faith in the opinions of trusted allies can lead to adopting whole canons of audiophile dogma. This stifles innovation, drives up values of used products 'approved' in that circle and leaves the rest of us with undervalued forgotten gems to mine for ourselves.

Just as there is no system of measurements yet created that adequately correlates to hearing reproduced music, there are no quantifications that encapsulate the listening experience. At best, we can attempt comparative audio aides memoires to mitigate the unreliability of reported listening experiences. Likert scales can be used as devices to quantify comparative experiences, but they are merely numerative relative expressions of subjectivity. These are just as subject to groupthink.

When a panel of listeners have been offered this system to try to get typical or average responses, the conversation in the room unconsciously influences the responses recorded. Our human need to maintain our friendships undermines our capacity to challenge an expressed opinion. Even highly experienced listeners, who may know each other's prejudices, may withhold or tone down opinions that they suspect will undermost the group's cohesion. At a recent panel, there was a rolled-off sound and one member suspected that a component they believed to be excessively warm sounding caused this phenomenon. Fortunately, after this opinion was expressed, that component was swapped out to test the hypothesis, rather than accept the stated opinion. The problem remained. Only then was it possible to identify the correct problem elsewhere.

It would have been easy for the group to accept the hypothesis of a very knowledgeable experienced listener and create a belief that the blamed component did indeed sound dull. The group matrix is a powerful force capable of convincing us not to trust our own sensory experience, or to temporarily discount our own previously held beliefs. If a member of the group appears to carry more authority, this will even enable group members to act outside their previously strongly held beliefs. Thus one group will attest to certain components, or types of component as being the only ones capable of reproducing music, while another group will maintain an opposing position equally vehemently.

"You won't catch any of us being caught out by groupthink," chorus the Plebs' Chorus, stage left, in unison


We are all prone to groupthink in many circumstances. In the subjective world of domestic audio experience, and the intersubjective world of gangs of audiophiles, we are even more prone to groupthink. We can take advantage of the groupthink of other audiophiles to buy bargain used equipment that is temporarily unfashionable.

The Garrard 301 turntable, featured ion the YouTube clip at the top of the page, is a prime example. In the late 1970's, it was almost impossible to sell an idler drive turntable at any price. Your Old Scribe used to advise on matters HiFi a store more familiar with the white goods and group equipment market. Once this advice was to remove a SME 3009 from a Garrard, and sell it separately, because at that time the arm alone was worth more than the pairing. Groupthink had cursed all idler drive turntables with a reputation for inferiority compared with the latest belt drive offerings. Now certain Garrard, Lenco and EMT motor units command premium collector prices and equally premium plinths to house them.

Listen past groupthink's hegemonies to hear those audiophile bargains.

Music enjoyed on vinyl while writing this editorial

  • Caron Wheeler: Beach of the War Goddess
  • Stevie Wonder: Songs In The Key of Life
  • ROB: Funky Rob Way, Analogue Africa
  • Roy Harper: Bullinamingvase
  • Mahler: Symphony No 10, Simon Rattle, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Copyright © 2018 Mark Wheeler - The Old Scribe -