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Difficulties In Sound Reviews

Out of all the components/sub-systems that comprise the modern PC, the sound sub-system is the most difficult to review and evaluate.

Why do I think this? Unlike most other PC components or sub-systems, the performance of sound cards, headphones/headsets, and speakers sytems is not so much objective as it is subjective. After all, can headsets/headphones or speakers add frames per second (FPS) to a game? Some might claim that a sound card would indeed add to system performance because it takes on some calculations that the CPU would normally do, but whatever gains are made are so small they are rather insignificant. This is especially true today, the age of the poly-core CPU and mega-powerful GPUs.

It's true that there are metrics and measurements by which you can measure sound outputs. There are SNRs (signal-to-noise ratios), input/output bit-rate, number of output channels, number and type of inputs/outputs available, etc. At the end of the day, though, sound sub-system components are all about what your ears hear. Assuming that the reviewer has fully-functional ears, the review then becomes an attempt to describe what is likely a unique experience.

After all, how do you quantify a sensory experience? In a way, it's a bit like a piece of binary code: It's either a one or a zero. In terms of a sound card or speakers, it either produces sound output, or it doesn't. Obviously, though, there is much, much more going on than that.

How can you describe what sounds "good"? What is "great" sound? How much better is "good" compared to "very good" or "great"?

Moreover, what may sound good to one set of ears might very well be not so good to another.

Curiously, though, it's easier to have agreements as to what is "not good," or even "bad" sound. Sometimes, all you have to say is "It doesn't sound good." You often don't have to elaborate, as in "the high notes sound thin," or "the bass is muddy and muffled."

Good sound (and, by extension, great sound) is much harder to describe, especially when making comparisons. Moreover, positive evaluations of sound are always going to be colored by the individual value judgments of the reviewer.

Some reviewers prefer to have copious amounts of bass; others like excellent definition in sound, so that you can hear lows, mids, and highs clearly and precisely. Positional audio performance also counts for much for many reviewers. Some reviewers, for whatever reason, think that an audio component's visual appearance (!) should count for a lot.

With such a diverse and wide variety of criteria, it's no wonder why it's all too easy to just parrot the same recommendations over and over and over again ("Psst. Get the X-Fi thingamajig!", or "Don't get 5.1 headphones, man!"). The only true way to know which audio subcomponents are the best for you is to try it out for yourself.

Alas, there's the rub. It's all but impossible to go out and get (if only just to "test drive") all sorts of parts to see which combination will work best for your ears. Even for those with deep pockets, it's simply a black hole just waiting for any money to grab.

So to where does this discussion ultimately lead? I think that prospective buyers should definitely read as many reviews as possible. I would seek out positive as well as negative appraisals, for this is the only way to really have a complete picture of the product(s) you want to buy and use. If you have opportunities to try out various pieces of kit, never pass up those rare chances. Also, never be afraid to explore a different solution compared to everybody else; your requirements are unique, so your solutions should also therefore be unique. Finally, when you finally do get your audio components, BE HONEST WITH YOUR OWN SELF-APPRAISALS. This last bit is the most important thing to do.

You can't fool your own ears, after all.

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