The Intelligent Chip debate has spawned a lot of HiFi discourse. Most of it goes well beyond the chip's presumed functioning. That's as it should be. Explanations for the latter's operation still fall outside of what most would consider even remotely plausible. The only solution at present? Try it. If you can hear a difference, good on ya. That's satisfactory as far as being an audiophile goes. That's satisfactory even if neither you nor the manufacturer can offer a solid explanation that appeals to common sense. Remember, we all live - and none of us understands how that happened beyond how our bodies were biologically conceived in the womb. Alas, the vital process of spirit and consciousness assuming and animating a body is still beyond our best science to measure. Phenomena continue to exist without us being able to account for them. All we can do is acknowledge their existence (and our ignorance about such basic matters as life and death, consciousness and love).
What's more globally relevant about the subsequent discussions kicked off by the chip debate? Where's the fine line between keeping an open mind and wasting one's time on being taken for a fool? The open-minded attitude is laudable for being a prerequisite to learn. However, it can also lose touch with reality as we know it and become airy-fairy mysticism without real discipline. Belief. This mind set is expressed by the Shakespearian pointer to Horatio, about there being more between heaven and earth than human mind can presently comprehend.
Taken too far, the scientifically grounded counter position that insists on prior proof becomes an impediment to advances. After all, history reminds us that many breakthroughs encountered such initial opposition. They succeeded only because their inventors had the temerity to think outside the box and pursue uncharted territories in utter defiance to the common sense of their times and on purely theoretical or intuitive assumptions.
The operative ingredient of real breakthroughs is scientific discipline. This involves repeatability. It also involves a working hypothesis or theory. That's always based on what came before. Technological advances can mean that prior theories need to be rewritten or abandoned. But a bigger and newer truth always contains within it the smaller older truth. The latter is simply no longer all-inclusive. It no longer accounts for everything. It's henceforth regarded as a relative truth superseded by a more encompassing understanding. Still, common processes of Physics and chemistry don't suddenly become invalid. They continue to work just as they did before the breakthrough discovery.
Scientific breakthroughs nearly always rely on experiments that are predefined with regard to what methods will be applied and what one hopes to discover. One has a sense of what to find and how to go about finding it. Discoveries don't just happen in a vacuum (though some are, admittedly, accidental). Otherwise you'd literally be pouring the world's beach sands through a sieve in the hopes of finding a living dinosaur in the process.
One should thus expect that claims for a new discovery be presented along with the working hypothesis that inspired the research in the first place. A complete disconnect suggests a con job or at best highly unscientific and undisciplined methodology. Why should a rational person be condemned as narrow-minded for insisting on at least a plausible hypothesis that's offered up together with an invention? You can't find anything of true consequence unless you have some prior notion where to look for it in the first place. Ready-made working scientific breakthroughs don't fall into the laps of starry-eyed babes.
Audio -- as much else -- often finds itself polarized. On one end of the spectrum are those who believe that everything makes a difference. Everything leaves a lot of room. On the opposite end of this spectrum are those who will acknowledge a difference only once it's passed double-blind listening tests. Somewhere between those two extremes is where the vast majority of audiophiles pitches their tents. Where exactly should audio reviewers pitch theirs to predetermine what's review-worthy? How whacked-out of a claim should we be prepared to swallow to perhaps discover something truly newsworthy or waste our time on gobbledygook?
Stereophile attempts to cover both polarities - subjective listening impressions and "laboratory" measurements. Presenting both of course isn't enough. Someone must connect and correlate them. That dubious role has fallen on the erstwhile JA who -- in his commentary accompanying his test results -- does his level-best to predict what those results should mean in audible terms and then attempts to make sense of those predictions vs. what his reviewer actually heard. As Stereophile readers well know, correlating measurements and predictive assessments with subjective listening notes can be a frustrating exercise. But like any scientific process, the period of raw data generation can be endless before a pattern emerges that suggests how to catalogue those data into a hierarchy of cause and effect.
Data acquisition can be tedious. Prior to conclusive evidence, experimenters are subject to intense scrutiny and ridicule if theoretical predictions and actual (subjective) findings don't match up. Still, those who belabor the lack of scientific discipline in audio reviewing should credit Stereophile. They are doing more in the US audio press than anyone else in this regard. To merely provide measurements without accompanying commentary what the measurements mean and how they compare to the norm is worthless. Data must be correlated to actual applications - and JA does exactly that.
Naturally, some of us believe that not everything important about audio can be measured yet nor that basics such as THD and deviations from flat frequency response always mean what they say. Still, competent design should have measurable competence to go with it and manufacturers' claims should be backed up by measurements that are repeatable outside the factory. But where should one come down on apparently ludicrous claims? Disregard the object in question, period? Inspect it and ridicule its inventor and his claims if -- as one expects -- it doesn't work?
Real journalism (something for which most audio commentators lack any and all formal training) includes investigative journalism. Certain in-depth audio investigation -- to either debunk or confirm claims and operational explanations -- requires not only scientific rigor but a solid grasp of whatever sciences the claims invoke. Nano tech? Quantum physics? Super conductivity? Chances are that any audio writer truly qualified to investigate such matters isn't actually working in our field but making a very good living in that other capacity instead. So what's a well-meaning, open-minded but ultimately unqualified audio hack to do about intelligent chips and their kind?
It's a conundrum alright. From where I sit, the best our little 'zine can offer is broad-minded reportage coupled to honesty. If we don't understand how something works, we'll say so. If all we have to go on are implausible manufacturer's claims, we'll make that clear. We simply won't set ourselves up as the so-called experts but rather, view ourselves as fellow enthusiasts on equal footing with our readers (some of whom, in their professional lives, may actually be well-versed in the exact sciences we would have to know to make heads or tails out of certain gizmos). Our readers are thus always encouraged to pitch in when they can shed light where ours fails. It's a cooperative spirit of discovery that invokes communal action. It's not that we are the providers of truth and you its blind consumers. It's a bi-directional good-natured sharing - for fun and learning and to enrich our enjoyment of this hobby.
Learning requires making mistakes - or opportunities as Edison would call 'em. Reporters shouldn't be afraid of making mistakes that perhaps might incite riotous laughter from a small segment of their readers with either a more solid scientific understanding or who belong to the "everything that measures identical sounds identical" religion. A good commentator will simply confess to personal ignorance where applicable and amend his position when conclusive proof of published errors becomes available. To me, this seems the best middle road to take - between ungrounded open-mindedness as one extreme and close-minded "prove it first" thinking. Common sense - it's a good commodity to have as long as we recognize its limitations and reach out to expand what it covers.
In closing, I'd like to appeal to our readers (hobbyists and manufacturers) to jump in when we're making mistakes or to offer corroborative evidence on the fringes. Two heads are always better than one - and with the sheer number of readers we have, chances are good that someone out there is perfectly positioned to help us out on occasion. If and when you do, know in advance that we'll sincerely appreciate your efforts (but please make sure to indicate if something isn't for publication as otherwise, everything's fair game.)