Monday, 28 July 2014

The Best X?

Today I just posted up a list of my 5 favourite IEMs. I've been thinking about doing this for a while, and in particular thinking about how I would organise or rank such a list. I thought I would write an accompanying blog post to explain some of my thinking.

I often get asked the simple enquiry, "what's the best X, in the price range of A dollars and B dollars?" When it comes to audio products, I honestly find this question bewildering. Best in what sense? What music do you listen to? Will you be using it at home or inside? What kind of sound do you like? How important is design to you? Do you treat your gear roughly? etc. etc. etc.

I understand why people ask questions like this. People like simplicity, and in this world of analysis paralysis we often don't have time to sort through a million options. So we want someone to tell us what 'the best' is. And often times we don't even know what that even means because we simply have no standards of comparison. It takes a few experiments and maybe a few bad purchases to figure out what we are actually looking for. Not everyone has the time or the insanity to adopt headphone collecting as a hobby.

What makes this even worse is that sound quality is so subjective. One person's 'fart cannon' is another person's nirvana. And there are so many good sounding products out there that frankly these days I sometimes feel a bit absurd saying that "a sounds better than b". I mean sure, I like it more, but I also like choc-peppermint ice cream and depressing indie games. I can say I like it more, but who am I to say that anything is objectively better than anything else?

I think we can all agree that when a headphone distorts horribly, or it has a frequency response that makes people sound like aliens, or etc. then it probably will sound bad to most people. But even this is a tricky relative minefield. I really like certain songs BECAUSE they were deliberately mastered to sound terrible. I really like certain camera lenses BECAUSE they have horribly poor optical performance that renders some interesting effects. One man's trash is another's treasure.

So in my reviews I tend to concentrate on many factors besides sound quality, because I tend to think those at least have universality. But even this is tricky. Sure we can agree that if a product falls apart or doesn't work as advertised, it's a bad product. But on questions of comfort and design aesthetic? Some people are willing to put up with a great deal of pain or bad engineering for their audio pleasure. Other people want something that looks good, sounds good, feels good too.

And this isn't even getting to the question of money and value, which is a horrible morass of relativity. As much as I think some products in audio are absurdly expensive, I know that I look like an idiot to the person on the street who refuses to ever pay anything more than $20 for a pair of earbuds because they will just break anyway.

And despite the renewed attention paid to objective, measurable performance as spearheaded by figures like Nwavguy and Tyll Hertsens, in the end audio will always remain a subjective hobby. We can be guided by measurements, they can tell us interesting things and give us insights about sound and engineering, but in the end the ear likes what it likes.

Manufacturers know this, and since it's so easy to convince someone that something is better if it costs more, often times the price of a product has very little relationship with its quality. Margins on audio products are stratospheric. Often they are just made of a few cents of mass produced plastic. So what companies must sell is a narrative. A narrative of quality, or of craftmanship, or of technology and research, or of celebrity endorsment - just something that will differentiate a product from every other piece of plastic and metal.

If you want to understand how important narrative is, have a look at the Significant Object's Project, where by attaching fictional narratives to junk they were able to sell it off at tremendously higher values, even when the buyers knew that everything was made up. Because they could tell a story about a purchase, and in some ways tell a story about themselves.

This is the same with wine tasting and expensive watches and audio products and any number of luxury goods. People like a good story, some people buy things because they like to surround themselves with nice things, we want to be people who like nice things and are discerning and know what is nice and what is not, and maybe some of this magic of the nice product rubs off on us and makes us nice people. And actually, in some ways it does.

So what started out as a simple exercise in reviewing products and ranking them in my mind, has become something of a philosophical inquiry for me. This is how most things go in my life because I'm weird like that.

Don't get me wrong, I like this hobby and I like reviewing products. But sometimes the whole absurdity of the exercise strikes me. I don't know how my opinion is better than aggregate opinions of many reviewers, casual or professional, and I sincerely urge people to take my opinion with a big chunky salt lick. I only hope that by doing what I do, I can get other people to know what to look for, to be more critical, and in doing so make the industry better with what I think are sensible purchases.

So. I guess this little piece of naval gazing is the beginning of some kind of mission statement of sorts.

And the TLDR version of this entire post is, when someone asks you, 'What is the best X?', the best answer is always 'it depends'. Because, as much as that is a lame and unsatisfactory response, it always, always does.