There is nothing like witnessing firsthand a behavior you’ve read about, observed, and done yourself, but have a hard time understanding how or why. Seeing it happen before one’s eyes doesn’t help make it anymore understandable. It does, however, bring home with a sledgehammer the scary reality of common human foibles.
The short version of the story— I am with a small group of people in a dedicated listening room. It’s large, has pleasant acoustics and select equipment. We listen to a few cuts using the owner’s active crossover (a budget professional digital X/O), and his outboard digital-to-analog converter (an expensive audiophile DAC) through a pair of fine speakers. The X/O and DAC are later pulled out and replace with a computer based system for the X/O and a 4-channel DAC. The same few cuts are repeated. Almost immediately the owner and one other visitor start to comment on improvements they hear. They talk about the new clarity, the improved harmonics, the veil being lifted, etc. Then there’s talk about how the professional X/O has been a suspected weak link in the system all along. Now, there’s proof.
I’m asked about the improvement. I’m stumped. With only a few samples of music, played once through each setup, and with over 15 minutes of time between samples, there’s too little to go on. I can’t honestly say I heard any obvious change. I’ve had no repeated A/B comparison to allow me to focus in on various aspects of the sound or to find differences I can reliably recognize time after time. There’s been no careful level matching. There’s been no measurements to backup any perceived change. How can I make a fair evaluation, or come to a definitive conclusion? How can anyone? I expressed my inability to hear a change with such limited listening, or to be certain that the pro crossover has a negative effect. The owner repeats his confidence that he has heard a distinct, unmistakable improvement.
It’s baffling to see this happening smack in one’s face. My forehead is wrinkled in bewilderment as I write. Yet, there I was witnessing this puzzling behavior in action. It doesn’t explain why we humans do this, but it shows the power of belief and suggestion. Wow! All you need is to believe a low cost item is causing problems, even if you haven’t heard anything wrong, and that a costlier option, much costlier, has to be better. Cost alone requires us to see, hear, experience the world differently. This goes for anything we judge subjectively, beer, wine, food, art, audio. And studies, many studies, have been done that expose this phenomenon. Belief is formidable.
One common belief is the correlation between price and quality, commonly known by the saying, “You get what you pay for.” It’s especially powerful with things we don’t know much about, can’t thoroughly investigate, or have a difficult time comparing head to head, such as, electronics, speakers, amps, and other categories of technical items. Even for people who have the knowledge, getting the specifics on a particular product can be difficult or impossible. Less than transparent companies hide behind their supposed secrets. Less than transparent marketers hide behind their pricing. They let you believe their secret proprietary technology justifies the price. It’s an everyday tactic, yet some don’t even bother to pretend. They rely on the price alone to make believe the price justifies itself. The psychological mechanism that allows this to work is “The Less You Know” principle. The less you know, the easier it is to believe. The more you believe, the easier it is to be deceived.
We need to be on guard. We need to question. We need to challenge our own beliefs. We need to vigilantly watch out for suggestion, especially self-suggestion. Who knows when you or I will be the next victim of a Wow! moment that isn’t real?
There’s been more research on Price/Quality perception than you might imagine. Each of the following links takes its own approach, yet each supports the others, and all draw essentially the same conclusions.