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The McGurk Effect

Our Perception of Audio Quality




One of our customers, Gary Litchfield, sent me this link to a video of a person mouthing the word "ga," but with a synced voice-over of that person saying "ba." What we end up hearing is a third variation that's never been said! That word is "da". That’s right, we hear a sound that isn’t there!

Try it first by watching the video and listening, then close your eyes and listen again. It’s amazing even though you know what to expect you still hear two different sounds even though the person is making the same sound!

Link provided here

So what does this have to do with audio? Given the close coupling between our visual and audio brain processing perhaps there is something about the appearance of our audio components that preconditions how we hear music through it.  The McGurk effect shows that our sense of sight can override or distort our sense of hearing.

I worked in a speech-processing lab for a good many years and learned from that experience that the way we process voice is profoundly different than for music. So the McGurk effect may not affect the way we hear music. Or maybe it does. I know many audiophiles who prefer to listen to their music in darkened rooms. To them it sounds different - better - than when brightly lit. 

Consider the expectation of listening to a large speaker system compared to a small one. You automatically expect bigger deeper sound from the large one. Yet I’ve heard small speakers reproduce a bigger sound - and deeper than some very large speakers (but not all of course). (This would make an interesting test case - first play the small then the large speaker in a lighted room and score. Then repeat with the lights off and score again. I’d be willing to bet the scores would change).

S
ame with cables. Many audiophiles expect a larger more robust-looking cable to go deeper and have better bass than a thinner more flexible cable. Yet our minimalist designs consistently best their larger counterparts not just in deep bass but also across the board.

Consider an RCA plug.  Most of us weigh it in our hand and if it feels heavy and if the metal looks highly glossy and golden we judge it a high quality plug. Our experiments show precisely the opposite. We find that the thinner and lighter the RCA plug, all else equal, the better it sounds. We also find that gold plating hurts the sound and is inferior to clean brass.

So it would seem that our perception of what makes a quality audio product may be more influenced by our sense of feel and sight than by our sense of hearing. The only reliable way of determining the sound quality of an audio component is by careful and disciplined listening.