News & Opinion

Are Hi-End Audio Reviewers Liars?

I’ve written a lot of articles about hi-end audio gear and the reviews of them. One question that I’m often asked when I’m refuting some of the more outlandish claims is about those reviews. How can there be so many of them if none of their claims are real? Can all hi-end audio reviewers be liars?

As I’ve said before, it is possible that the reviewers are really hearing a difference. They may attribute those changes as being beneficial. If they are in rooms with terrible acoustics or are using gear with strange characteristics, their new hi-end cable might actually be acting as an EQ. There are lots of ways to improve the sound in your system that doesn’t cost much money—much less than the thousands they ask for hi-end cables. Most receivers come with DSP and room correction programs that will do a better job of “fixing” your sound than trying to find just the right speaker cable.

What About All Those Reviews?

I am a big believer in Occam’s Razor. This is the school of thought that the easiest and simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In this case, is it more likely that there is a complicated conspiracy of manufacturers and hi-fi publications working together to sell you overpriced cables for nefarious purposes? Or is it more likely that the reviewer heard something?

Or at least thought they did.

Hi-end audio equipment has a lot of psychological push behind them. Their price alone is a clear signal that they must be “better” in some way. Add to that the reams of marketing that hi-end audio manufacturers tend to lavish upon their gear and even the most stalwart of objectivists will question their beliefs. Plus, there have been thousands of articles that have extolled the virtues of hi-end gear for years. Surely, they can’t all be wrong? Could they?

I don’t know. But I do know that if you sit a person in a room long enough and tell them that there is a difference between two pieces of audio gear, they will eventually find it. That’s just an objective fact. It may be because of the illusionary truth effect or cognitive dissonance. It may be confirmation bias or some conflation of all of these and more. What it amounts to is simple: They heard something because they wanted to hear something.

Hi-End Audio Reviewers are All Liars?

Not to them. They truly believe they have heard a difference. I can guarantee that these people could not hear those differences in any kind of controlled experiment. But don’t take my word for it. James Randi offered a million dollars for someone to prove that hi-end speaker cables were better than off-the-shelf models. That prize remains uncollected. If the differences in this hi-end audio equipment were as great as these reviewers sometimes claim, they’d be a million dollars richer.

But let’s not put push hi-end audio reviewers into some sort of corner and label them as an “other” or a “liar.” These same psychological processes work on all of us. Have you ever spent a lot of money on something and then found something better for less? Did you feel your brain trying to justify why you were right to spend that extra money?

This is the same mental gymnastics that reviewers go through when they are convinced something SHOULD be better but aren’t hearing it.

I’ve seen completely reasonable people go through this process. I’ve sat in on more than one speaker comparison where one person’s speakers were not picked (in a blind test) by their owner. The confusion that ran across their face was visible. In every case, within 24 hours I got a call from the person explaining how their speakers were, in fact, the best and why.

Never mind that they were the ones that didn’t pick them in the blind test. Their speakers couldn’t be the worst because they JUST COULDN’T!

So We Should Pity the Poor Reviewer?

Let’s not go that far. The reviewer has a responsibility to the reader. Their job is to report what they experienced. That’s true. But they also have a duty to the truth. That duty requires them to question every assumption they have. It requires that they make sure that their claims about differences hold up to more objective measures. A reviewer should ensure that what they say can at least somewhat be backed up by science. It is not enough that it is heard. There should be an underlying measurement that suggests why the reviewer observed what they did.

Too often, the hi-end reviewer falls back on the mantra that their ears are more sensitive than any measurement equipment. There has never been any objective evidence that this is true. Instead, the audiophile claims that since they can “hear” the difference that cannot be measured, their ears “must” be more sensitive. That’s the sort of fallacious thinking that has people spending hundreds of dollars on a foot of speaker cable.

In the end, we must hold the reviewer accountable. We must look at their words and methods and see if they have tried to eliminate their own bias. If they haven’t and have instead embraced them as evidence of real performance differences, then we must ignore them.

They might not, in their own minds, be liars. But that doesn’t mean we have to believe them.

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