Audio reviewing is very much like a crime scene. The job of the reviewer is to gather evidence and then use her experience to determine who did it and how it was done. The objective part is the evidence - the size 43 foot print of a Nike Trainer; the hair; the blood sample; the bullet. The subjective part is connecting the evidence to a sequence of events in an effort to determine the suspect. Does the foot print belong to the murderer, an accomplice or a bystander passing the scene five minutes later? Though only one bullet was found, how many were really fired?
The relevant point of this connection is this. The evidence is objective. It is what it is. What you think it means is where subjectivity enters. In review terms, what your ears hear is objective. What you think it means; what contributed; how it compares - all of that is subjective. It's subject to errors of judgment just as the innocent can be found guilty based on a faulty interpretation of the evidence. Unlike crimes where suspects routinely are identified and apprehended beyond any reasonable doubt, a completely satisfactory audio trial where all loose ends are tied up and there is no interpretation, interpolation and guesswork but just the facts doesn't exist, period.
As a reviewer, the important thing is to trust one's ears. They are the tools of our trade and what they hear is the evidence, period. What happens subsequently should be cause for self-doubt and second-guessing - interpreting the evidence to pin the deed on a specific suspect and pretend, at the conclusion, that the case was solved. Not. Audio cases are never solved. At best, they're psych profiles with a reasonably high probability of accuracy.
The only thing that separates or distinguishes a reviewer from a non-reviewer is the former's implicit trust in his or her hearing. Secondarily, you hope for more experience in the subsequent profiling bit and more comprehensive techniques to gather even the smallest of evidence which might elude a lesser investigator to create a more plausible reconstruction of the scene and event. You also hope for a professional lab or work space where tools are honed and fit for the job. That's it. It's not that reviewers hear better. There's plenty of evidence that often, they don't. It's not that they always know more. Routinely, they don't. It's that they have to trust their ears if they're to perform a credible job. (And you'd also hope that their place of work reflected professional pride unlike the crime scene below.)
What non-reviewers should glean from today's column is simple. Trust your ears as well. They're no different. Well, in fact they are but you wouldn't know that since it's the only set you've got. You'll never ever hear with ears other than your own to compare. Neither can a reviewer. The evidence which your nervous system provides you with free of charge is objective. It is what it is. How you interpret that data is subjective all the way. View your assessment of what your impressions mean with a good deal of mistrust and second-guessing yet never ever mistrust for one second that you heard what you heard.
Of course I'm overdrawing for emphasis. As any police officer would tell us, have 10 witnesses recount what they heard the proposed suspect say at the scene of the crime. If it's of any length at all, you'll be lucky to get the same overall gist. Forget about identical phrasing using identical words. But that's not the point. The overriding issue in audio is that listeners do not trust their own biological equipment. If you took that assumption to its logical conclusion -- i.e. if you honestly believed that your equipment was malfunctioning or inferior -- you should either give up the entire pursuit altogether or admit that you can't tell the difference. In the latter case, save yourself money and hassles. Buy the cheapest thing that sounds the same to you as the most expensive one you could afford and be done with it.
In conclusion, this view of things inverts absolute polarity of how many regard it. Many believe that hearing is subjective and that the subsequent assessment of comparisons and evaluations is objective - this is better than that, this component sounded like so, period. I propose quite the opposite. Of course you could insist that I have to. How else to justify my existence as a reviewer while protecting my tush? Fair enough. But try it on for size regardless. What does it really matter that what you call turquoise blue is seafoam green to someone else? You can't see with their eyes nor can they with yours. To doubt your own perception is foolhardy when it comes to functioning in this world. Yes, anyone inclined to meditation in any of its forms sooner or later suspects that perception and reality are intertwined and that our usual self identity is one severe limitation imposed by habit and neurological programming. But all that fancy self inquiry doesn't override one very practical and mundane concern: choices have to be made!
Because audio is enjoyed with our ears, these same ears should be trusted to make the relevant choices. After all the reviewing arguments and snazzy lingo blow over, that's really what we're left with: something pragmatic, something eminently practical and doable - non-exclusive, non-sectarian, free of beliefs and prerequisites. Trust your ears! How much simpler could it get? It does seem that simple is not on the agenda of most audiophiles. In a way, it keeps guys like us in business. Perhaps I shouldn't complain. But then, I'm not complaining. I'm simply telling you the truth as I hear it. I do trust my ears implicitly. I think you should too. It's the only ears you've got. You might as well act like it now that you're all growed up and are supposed to be self reliant and in charge of your life. And remember - unlike reviewers, you don't have to justify or explain a thing. Merely acting on what you heard and preferred is enough.