Saturday, July 3, 2010

Are There Cross-Cultural Preferences in The Quality of Reproduced Sound?

Do we need a new user menu where you dial in your nationality to match your taste in sound quality?
[click on image to see a larger version].

The field of audio is ripe with myths and unsubstantiated opinions. One of the most enduring opinions is that there are cross-cultural preferences in the sound quality of reproduced sound. Some of the more common cross-cultural assertions I hear repeated among audiophiles, audio reviewers and audio marketing executives include these:
  1. Americans prefer more bass than Europeans and Japanese
  2. Japanese prefer less bass and more midrange (and listen at lower volumes)
  3. Germans prefer brighter sound
  4. The British prefer “tighter” or more over-damped bass
To my knowledge, these statements are anecdotal, and have not been tested in any rigorous scientific way. Marketing has already given us misguided menus in media players and automotive head units that adjust the equalization based on music genre (e.g.jazz, classical, hip hop, rock, country music, Christian music, and heavy metal, etc). Do we really need another one based on where we were born? What could the “Canadian” sound have in common with a predisposition towards liking cold long winters, hockey, Molson beer, maple syrup, beaver tails, national health care, and the music of KD Lang and Celine Dion?

While it is easy to dismiss the importance of cross-cultural preferences, the subject is gaining serious attention from audio manufacturers expanding into new markets like China, India, Russia and South America. Now the same age-old questions are being asked: Are there cross-cultural preferences in the quality of reproduced sound or is good sound universal and transcend cultural differences?

Possible Reasons Why Cross-Cultural Preferences in Sound Quality May Exist
Very little research in cross-cultural sound quality preferences exists. Nonetheless, here are some proposed reasons why they may exist according to various sources.
Language, Dialect, Music
Certain spectral balances may compliment and enhance the timbre and intelligibility of different languages and dialects. Similarly the culture’s ethnic music and its instrumentation may be enhanced from certain loudspeakers or EQ. Wouldn’t this enhancement be added to the recording by the artist or the producer when it was mixed? If so, why do we need to duplicate in the playback chain? Is there such a thing as too much enhancement (think Dolly Parton)?
Influence of Regional Building Construction and Room Acoustics
One explanation for regional tastes for certain types of loudspeakers is related to the design and construction of the region's homes and apartments. This would affect the noise isolation and acoustical properties of the room, and its interaction with the loudspeaker. Massive, rigid plaster walls commonly found in older construction in Europe would provide more noise isolation and less absorption of bass than less massive and rigid walls used in typical American construction today. It is argued that a loudspeaker with less bass might sound better in the European room. It should be pointed out that if the different rooms and loudspeakers combine in ways that in the final analysis produce the same sound, this doesn't really constitute a difference in preferred sound quality. Different means are being used to achieve the same end goal. Fortunately, there are technological solutions for dealing with loudspeaker-room interactions at low frequencies so that decent bass performance can be achieved regardless of the room’s size, dimensions and stiffness of its walls.
Influence of Social Norms and Practices
Cultural practices and norms may influence how much bass people like, and how loud they listen to their music. For example, Japanese apartment dwellers may prefer to listen to reproduced sound at lower volumes to avoid disturbing their neighbors, which is a serious social infraction. On the other hand, American urban apartment dwellers may be more tolerant of bass and higher playback levels due to better noise isolation from the wall construction. Tolerance to your neighbor's subwoofers and loud music comes more easily if you know they own a handgun. The right to listen to loud music and bass in America is sort of protected under the second amendment (i.e. the right to bear arms). :)

Possible Reasons Why Cross-Cultural Preferences May Not Exist or Matter
The following arguments do not directly prove that cross-cultural sound quality preferences do not exist. They do provide evidence that the cultural entertainment, broadcast, recording and audio industries have largely decided to ignore cross-cultural preferences. Either they don't believe they exist, or if they do, catering to them doesn't make sense from a business or philosophical viewpoint.
Audio Manufacturers: One Product, One Sound
Most audio companies sell the same model of product in every country, only changing the language of the packaging/owners manual and the power supply voltage to meet the local requirements. Measurements of loudspeakers from different countries of origin tend to aim towards the same performance target. There is nothing in the objective measurements or the listening test results that indicate a unique sound, voicing or preference that can be attributed to the country of origin whether the loudspeaker is British, German, Canadian, American, French, Italian, Danish or Japanese [1]-[3]. Accurate sound seems to be the common universal attribute that matters most. These studies did not formally or systematically study the culture or race of the listener as a factor in loudspeaker preference, so the definitive study remains to be done.
Recording/Film Industries: One Product,One Sound
To my knowledge, record companies do not release different mixes of their recordings to satisfy different cultural tastes in sound quality. Fans of Lady Ga Ga apparently equally like (or dislike) her sound on the recordings whether they are in America, Europe or Asia. Similarly, there is no option in the iTunes store where you indicate your nationality or culture before downloading your music.
Universal Loudspeaker / Audio Standards in Broadcast
If you look at international audio standards for broadcasting (AES, IEC, ITU, EBU), and read the loudspeaker papers written by researchers within the BBC (British), CBC (Canadian) and NHK (Japanese), you will find a common set of performance criteria: flat on-axis response, extended bandwidth in bass and treble, smooth off-axis response and low distortion. At the broadcast level, the playback chain in different countries is not being influenced by cross-cultural preferences in the targeted audience where the content will be heard.
Concert Halls and Live Music Performance
Acoustical design of concert halls have generally followed well established standards and practices based on research using international listening panels. Qualities such as spatial envelopment, reverberation, clarity and richness of timbre are universally accepted as desirable qualities. The classical and romantic composers specifically wrote their music for these particular acoustics, and to radically alter the acoustics would not well serve the art.
The Global Economy
In the new global economy, the political, cultural, socioeconomic and technological barriers have been largely removed. As communication between different cultures improves, this will likely influence their attitudes, tastes and perception towards culture, music and sound reproduction. If there are cross-cultural differences in sound quality preferences, it seems likely that in the future these differences will converge, and taste in sound quality will become more homogeneous (hopefully, in a positive way).
Audio is science in the service of art
This philosophy assumes that music, its performance and recording are part of the art, and the goal of sound reproduction is to accurately reproduce the art. To serve the art, there is no room for cultural preferences or individual tastes in the design of the audio equipment used for reproduction of the art. It is presumed that any cultural sound quality preferences will be encoded in when the music when it is performed and recorded, and doesn’t need to be added again in the playback chain.

Here is a parallel analogy in painting: When a Monet art exhibit travels to different countries, the art is not altered, transformed or "improved" to suit the local tastes of the country. Art lovers want to see the original Monet, not a new and improved version with edge enhancements, higher contrast and 3D effects. The same is true of the sound of Vienna Philharmonic when they do a world tour. When they tour Japan, they don’t leave half the bass section at home because the Japanese do not supposedly like bass. So why would we want to tamper with the original sound of the Vienna Philharmonic when playing recordings of them through our audio system?

Research in Cross-Cultural Preference in Sound Quality of Recorded and Reproduced Sound
In the realm of perception there is an essential pan-human unity, and that most differences among cultures is only a “fine tuning” [4].
To date, very little cross-cultural research has been done in the perception of sound quality. One of the challenges in cross-cultural research is ensuring that the listener instructions, sound quality descriptors and semantic definitions of the scales have the same meaning across cultures. Fortunately, there are methods for removing language from the perceptual task. Multidimensional scaling allows listeners to judge different pairs of sounds based on their similarity. Then the perceptual attributes of the sounds (e.g. timbre or spatial related) can be identified through multivariate statistical methods like principal component analysis. In a study of different guitar timbres, Martens et al. found that native speakers of English, Japanese, Bengali, and Sinhala perceived the same underlying dimensions, but used different adjectives/semantics to describe the attribute [5].
In another study that compared Japanese and English speaking listeners’ perception of music recordings made with four different 5-channel microphone techniques, the authors found a common understanding of three critical dimensions in which the quality of the recordings differed [6].
Recently, we have begun testing cross-cultural sound quality preferences of music reproduced through different loudspeakers, equalizations, and automotive audio systems using American, Japanese and Chinese speaking listeners. While this work is still ongoing, the preliminary results do not show any evidence of cross-cultural preferences among the different groups. Accurate sound reproduction seems to be the common link across the preferences of the different cultures.

Very little research has been done in cross-cultural preferences in the sound quality of reproduced sound. What we know is that differe Preliminary investigations by the author in preferred spectral balance of music reproduced through loudspeakers have not revealed any significant differences in cross-cultural preferences to date. If cross-cultural preferences exist, the music and audio industries have largely ignored catering to them, instead distributing products that are optimized for a single universal audience.
Finally, an important question is whether audio companies should even be catering to these cross-cultural preferences if research eventually finds that they indeed exist? If the audio industry takes an “audio science in the service of art” philosophy where the goal is to faithfully and accurately reproduce the art as the artist intended, the question of cross-cultural preferences becomes moot. If certain cultures don’t like the sound of the art, then that becomes an issue between the artist and the recording producer/record executive - not the audio manufacturer.

For more discussion on this topic, please head over to WhatsBestForum.

[1] Floyd E. Toole, "Loudspeaker Measurements and Their Relationship to Listener Preferences: Part 1" J. AES Vol. 23, issue 4, pp. 227-235, April 1986. (download for free courtesy of Harman International).
[2]Floyd E. Toole, "Loudspeaker Measurements and Their Relationship to Listener Preferences: Part 2," J. AES, Vol. 34, Issue 5, pp. 323-248, May 1986. (download for free courtesy of Harman International).
[3] Sean E. Olive, "Differences in Performance and Preference of Trained Versus Untrained Listeners in Loudspeaker Tests: A Case Study," J. AES, Vol. 51, issue 9, pp. 806-825, September 2003. (download for free courtesy of Harman International).
[4] John W. Berry, Ype H. Poortinga, Janak Pandey, Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Volume 1 Theory and Method, 2nd edition, Aug. 21, 1996.
[5] Martens, William L.; Giragama, Charith N. W.; Herath, Susantha; Wanasinghe, Dishna R.; Sabbir, Alam M.” Relating Multilingual Semantic Scales to a Common Timbre Space - Part II,” presented at the 115th Audio Engineering Convention, preprint 5895 (October 2003).

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