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The Role of Psychological Factors in the Evaluation of Audio Products

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by: Laurence A. Borden & Chris White

Audiophiles tend to spend a lot of time evaluating audio equipment. We evaluate equipment because we are trying to decide what gear to buy. Other times, it’s because we are reviewing equipment for a publication (paper or electronic). Most of the time, it’s simply because it’s fun and informative comparing and contrasting gear. Such evaluations often consist of what can arbitrarily be separated into two aspects that can occur in either order (or even simultaneously).

The first is something of a blow-by-blow assessment of the product’s sonic attributes: Is the midrange natural? Is it forward or recessed? Are the high frequencies rolled off or shrill? Is the bass tight and deep? And so forth. The second aspect is more of a thumbs up/thumbs down value judgment, in which it is decided whether the sound is pleasing, and how the gear performs relative to its cost.

Implicit in either case is the notion that one can shed all preconceived notions, rid oneself of any emotional baggage, shut out extraneous cues, and thereby evaluate audio components/systems from a completely unbiased perspective. While it is theoretically possible to achieve this lofty goal, the reality is that human beings are not machines. We are influenced by a wide variety of factors, often in complex ways.

Following up on the previous discussion of the Economics of Audio, in which mention was made of the influence psychological factors have on the monetary valuation of audio gear, in this article we explore in somewhat greater depth the nature of psychological influences on audio evaluations. We do so by drawing on well-established, experimentally verifiable principles of cognitive psychology.

Psychologists posit that evaluation is a comparison process in which consumers:

1) hold pre-consumption expectations,
2) observe product performance and compare the performance to their expectations,
3) form confirmation or disconfirmation perceptions (did the equipment perform as expected?), and then
4) form summary judgments.

Translating this into English, and relating it to audiophilia, this means that when listeners audition a piece of gear, they: compare the sound to what they expected, decide whether the gear fails to meet, meets, or exceeds those expectations, and then arrive at conclusions about the gear.

Let’s take a closer look at each part of this process.

Pre-Consumption Expectations

When we evaluate something, we compare the performance to what we expect. According to psychologists, when we make this comparison, our expectations act as anchors for future evaluations, meaning evaluations are not absolute, but are made relative to all expectations. How are these expectations formed?

Psychologists distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Examples of intrinsic factors include experience, knowledge, need for social validation, and the like. In contrast, extrinsic factors include parameters such as price, reputation of the manufacturer, competitive efforts (i.e., how much we know about competitors’ offerings), advertising, and word-of-mouth.

It’s often said that we are what we eat. In the case of audio evaluations, this might be modified to “we are what we’ve heard.” Because we have all had different experiences, it stands to reason that we will each have different responses to a particular piece (or system) of audio gear. Moreover, because we frequently experience new gear, our attitudes change with time. Accordingly, our evaluations of audio gear are profoundly influenced by what came before.

The product attributes desired by the consumer also play an important role in forming expectations (and thus on listener evaluation). For example, when listeners place a very high value on clout, they are less likely to be pleased with, and to fairly judge, lower price items, regardless of their sonic performance. Conversely, if listeners place great value on bang-for-the-buck, then they are less likely to fairly evaluate more expensive items. Sonic preferences are usually an important influence on a listener’s expectations. For example, if you favor very dynamic speakers and audition a speaker that is only average in this attribute, you are more likely to take a negative view of the product and fail to appreciate its other sonic virtues.

Comparing Performance To Expectations

When we compare the performance of equipment to our expectations, we are predisposed to maintain cognitive and attitudinal consistency. To reduce dissonance or maintain balance in mental representations of ideas, we selectively process information that maintains consistency. To put this in simpler terms, if you’ve always enjoyed the sound of CD player A, you are subconsciously motivated to do so on subsequent listening sessions. If the performance of a particular CD player A is less than what you’ve come to expect, you’ll tend to attribute any shortcomings to other elements of the system.

Further, it is likely that this desire to maintain consistency extends not only to the same equipment, but also to equipment from the same manufacturer, or even to similar designs (say, single ended triode amps).

Confirmation/Disconfirmation Perceptions

As we noted earlier, a key factor in evaluation is the degree to which perceived performance confirms or disconfirms performance expectations. What’s interesting is that we tend to be more satisfied when low expectations are significantly exceeded than when high expectations are met. In other words, we tend to be more satisfied when a $100 CD player sounds much better than we expected than when a $1000 CD player sounds as good as we expected.

What’s also interesting is that this satisfaction often extends beyond the simple pleasure of having saved some money, but will likely influence how “good” the product sounds. In other words, because exceeding expectations generates more satisfaction than meeting expectations, we may very well decide the $100 CD player sounds better than the $1000 CD player. It’s easy to see how exceeding low expectations can explain the oft-heard phrase, “this player outperformed players costing ten times as much!” Interesting food for thought.

Another interesting tendency associated with confirmation/disconfirmation is that the disconfirmation of “disbenefits” is often more powerful than confirmation of benefits.

Disbenefits refers to expected shortcomings of a product. Consider for example, inexpensive monitor speakers. Such speakers are generally presumed to have “thin” bass. Confirmation of this particular disbenefit – in other words, listening to an inexpensive bookshelf with thin bass – will have minimal impact on an evaluation, because such a speaker was not expected to behave differently. On the other hand, disconfirmation of the disbenefit -an inexpensive bookshelf with tight and deep bass – is highly salient and will likely lead to an unjustified evaluation, whereby the speaker will be perceived to be better than it really is.

Conclusions

We have thus seen that audio evaluations are affected by several very powerful psychological influences. When we evaluate audio equipment, we are influenced by what we expect to hear, what we want (and don’t want) to hear, and whether our judgment of what we hear is worse than, the same as, or better than what we expected and wanted to hear. Whew! So, what are the implications of all this? In considering this, it must be kept in mind that the factors discussed above operate at the subconscious level. This has two important implications.

First, it means that the biases occur without intent, and second, that they are not readily controlled. How then can we benefit from our knowledge of these biases? While the following is most relevant to reviewers, it can also be applied to audiophiles who evaluate equipment for themselves.

Think about your expectations (reviewers should spell these out). Specifically, what do you expect to hear from the equipment you’re considering? This should include expectations of (a) the type of sound, and (b) how well you expect it to perform (on, for example, a one-to-ten scale).

Second, the vaster your base of knowledge and experience, the better equipped you are for making comparisons. For example, if the most expensive preamplifier you’ve previously heard retails for $500, it will be difficult at best for you to accurately judge a $5000 preamp. At the very least, we believe reviewers should acknowledge when the price of equipment under review is substantially different from the prices of equipment with which they are most familiar (or most comfortable).

Third, recognize that your evaluation may be influenced by whether you’ve listened to a particular piece of equipment before. In our effort to be consistent, we expect a piece of equipment to sound like its predecessor. Try to always evaluate equipment in a stable environment since (in an effort to be consistent) we tend to attribute disconfirmation to “other” factors. Reviewers should always state whether they’ve heard a particular piece of equipment before, and should list the complementary equipment they are using for the review.

And fourth, remember that your evaluations are influenced by your sonic preferences — something reviewers should reveal. If they like ribbons and hate horns, they should state so. If they are enamored of 300Bs but are much less fond of 845s, the reader should be made aware of this fact. If they like tubes more than solid-state gear, they should make this clear. If they like everything they’ve ever heard from the manufacturer of the piece they’re currently evaluating, we should be told. Any audiophile evaluating equipment will similarly benefit from keeping in mind these points.

In conclusion, we have attempted to describe, in simple terms, some of the psychological factors that influence audio evaluations, and offered some suggestions that we feel may improve the process. We feel that these suggestions, which apply to both reviews and the evaluation of equipment for one’s own benefit, will allow one to obtain a higher degree of “objectivity” (or more accurately, less subjectivity, since no listening-based review is ever objective in the strict sense of the word). By sharing their likes, dislikes, experience and biases, reviewers will better enable their readers to decide how much credence the review should be afforded. Taken together, this should make the review/evaluation process more informative for both reviewer and reader, and hopefully more fun as well.

Dr. White has been an Assistant Professor at the Michigan State University since summer, 2003. He was also a former Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida.

His primary research interests are in Marketing Strategy and Management:
*Strategic Decision-Making
*Marketing Strategy Formulation and Implementation
*Managerial Information Processing

His research has been published in the Journal of Marketing, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Retailing, Marketing Education Review, and Marketing Letters.

Dr. White holds a Ph.D. in Marketing from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Dr. Borden is a reviewer of DAGOGO.

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