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

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    WBF Technical Expert [Technical Expert] tonmeister2008's Avatar
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    Are There Cross-Cultural Preferences in Quality of Reproduced Sound?



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    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 sound adjustment menu 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 it again 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, and sound bass shy in the American home. 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 Cultural 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 them, if they do exist, and that catering to them either 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 that allows you do download different mixes of the songs based on your choice of nationality or culture.

    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 service 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 its sound reproduction should 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.


    Conclusions

    Very little research has been done in cross-cultural preferences in the sound quality of reproduced sound. What we know is that different cultures have similar perceptions of the sound, but may use different language or descriptors to describe the attributes. Preliminary investigations by the author in preferred spectral balance of music reproduced through loudspeakers have not revealed any significant differences in cross-cultural preferences. 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 shows that they 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.


    References

    [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).

    [6] William L. Martens, Sungyoung Kim, Atushi Marui,”Comparison of Japanese and English Language descriptions of piano performances using popular multichannel microphone arrays,” J Acoust Soc Am. 2008 May ;123 (5):3690
    Last edited by tonmeister2008; 07-03-2010 at 07:40 PM.
    Cheers,
    Sean Olive
    Audio Musings

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    [WBF Founding Member] Addicted to Best! JackD201's Avatar
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    I am rather inclined to believe in this one Influence of Regional Building Construction and Room Acoustics. While it hasn't been proven, it would at least partially explain differences in say the east coast and west coast sound as well as the british sound.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JackD201 View Post
    I am rather inclined to believe in this one Influence of Regional Building Construction and Room Acoustics. While it hasn't been proven, it would at least partially explain differences in say the east coast and west coast sound as well as the british sound.
    I've spent my adult life in the south, and have always preferred the "East Coast/British" sound.

    P

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    Wasn't the origin of this people wondering why Japanese speakers never made it into US even though the rest of their products did?

    I spoke to a major Japanese CE company years ago. They had done large scale (subjective) testing of college kids and had arrived at the conclusions that their boomboxes and mini systems had to have different sounds for the three regions in the world (Japan, Europe, and US).

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    WBF Technical Expert [Technical Expert] tonmeister2008's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JackD201 View Post
    I am rather inclined to believe in this one Influence of Regional Building Construction and Room Acoustics. While it hasn't been proven, it would at least partially explain differences in say the east coast and west coast sound as well as the british sound.
    Yes, I agree with you that this could explain some of the regional preferences.

    Regional preferences could also be simply explained by what products are made locally in the region and how they tended to design and measure their products. There were 3 schools of loudspeaker measurements: the on-axis response, the sound power response, the in-room response.

    British people tended to buy British speakers (KEF, B&W,Monitor Audio, Wharfdale) that were heavily influenced by the BBC research (Shorter and Harwood) and their monitors at the time. They focused mostly on the direct sound or on-axis sound.

    The USA East Coast sound was largely attributed to the loudspeaker design philosophies of the local manufacturers (AR, Allison,Bose,Advent...) who at the time, paid most attention to the loudspeaker's sound power response. Since early 1970s, Consumer Reports (based in NY) until recently rated speakers solely on their 1/3-octave measured sound power response, which they claimed should be flat. I wrote a paper showing that there was actually negative correlation between CR's calculated sound accuracy ratings (based on measurements) and listener preferences ratings in controlled listening tests. After I presented this research, Consumer Reports changed how they measure speakers and calculate their accuracy scores.

    The West Coast sound (JBL) tended to be from the direct sound school, although I think they paid some attention to the off-axis measurements as well.

    Strong proponents of in-room loudspeaker measurements were the Scandinavians (Staffeldt, Gabrielsson).

    Today science has told us that we need to measure everything produced by the loudspeaker and look at all three components of sound the produce: the direct, early and late reflected sounds, as well as the acoustical interaction with the room.
    Last edited by tonmeister2008; 07-04-2010 at 12:41 PM.
    Cheers,
    Sean Olive
    Audio Musings

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    WBF Technical Expert [Technical Expert] tonmeister2008's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by amirm View Post
    Wasn't the origin of this people wondering why Japanese speakers never made it into US even though the rest of their products did?

    I spoke to a major Japanese CE company years ago. They had done large scale (subjective) testing of college kids and had arrived at the conclusions that their boomboxes and mini systems had to have different sounds for the three regions in the world (Japan, Europe, and US).
    I think a lot of confusion can be traced to Japanese marketing executives who think Americans and Europeans have different sound quality tastes than Japan - sometimes based on questionable market research. The Japanese have designed excellent speakers for their local market that we tested at NRC. So we know they are capable of making great loudspeakers.

    However, they tend to think that Americans don't like neutral sound, and hire Best Buy or local consultants to design the speakers sold in America. One of the worst speakers we ever tested was designed by Best Buy with a famous Japanese brand on it.
    Cheers,
    Sean Olive
    Audio Musings

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    WBF Technical Expert [Technical Expert] tonmeister2008's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JackD201 View Post
    I am rather inclined to believe in this one Influence of Regional Building Construction and Room Acoustics. While it hasn't been proven, it would at least partially explain differences in say the east coast and west coast sound as well as the british sound.
    The other explanation that I think might explain cross-cultural preference is the Cultural Social Practices/Norms. Subwoofer sales in Japan for apartment dwellers are negligible. They may well listen at lower volume levels, and like less bass so not to disturb their neighbors.

    But this social behavior is contextual. Put them into a live concert or public cinema and I suspect they want to hear and feel the bass and explosions in the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the same sound pressure levels as Americans. I also suspect these preferences may be demographic or aged related. The younger more Westernized Japanese may be less influenced by these traditional cultural norms than the older generations. These are all things that can be tested.

    Cultural factors can influence how people scale or rate sound quality in experiments. I've been told by a colleague of mine doing research in Japan that the Japanese do not like using the bottom half of the preference scale because they don't like being too negative or critical about the sound of a product.

    This behavior also tends to be common among untrained listeners of any nationality. Once the listeners are trained they have no problem being too critical about the sound of a product, in fact, they revel in being critical.

    Our new speaker designers are always depressed when they see their first listening test report on a product they designed and was reviewed by our trained listening panel. If they do their jobs well and the product measures well, the criticism from the listeners is usually minor.
    Last edited by tonmeister2008; 07-04-2010 at 12:34 PM.
    Cheers,
    Sean Olive
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    [WBF Founding Member] Addicted to Best! JackD201's Avatar
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    Whenever I go to Tokyo I see a much wider selection of JBL products (particularly the domestic horn speakers) than I would see in the US. Is there a "preference" reason for this Sean?

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    WBF Technical Expert [Technical Expert] tonmeister2008's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JackD201 View Post
    Whenever I go to Tokyo I see a much wider selection of JBL products (particularly the domestic horn speakers) than I would see in the US. Is there a "preference" reason for this Sean?
    There is long history of selling JBL products specifically designed for the Japanese market and tastes, and horns with compression drivers seem to popular there - for reasons I don't clearly understand. It could they are in love with headroom, or horns have a strong tie and association to JBL's Professional Heritage.

    The reviewer in Japan reigns supreme and what they think and write strongly influences what consumers buy and think - more than any other market. Needless to say, reviewers in Japan are more wealthy than reviewers in the rest of the world.
    Last edited by tonmeister2008; 07-07-2010 at 07:35 AM.
    Cheers,
    Sean Olive
    Audio Musings

  10. #10
    I'm no sound engineer or marketing guru, but I've lived around a bit, done some basic anthropology and I can definitely see some difficulties. Obviously, differences are going to be complex - regarding the walls situation, my apartment in Hong Kong has incredibly thick structural walls, much thicker than anything I had living in NYC. But elsewhere in Asia the apartment walls may well be thinner, or they might all live in houses. There is also the problem of tracing the source of the preferences. Is it cultural? Is it something lasting with the culture (e.g. as you mentioned, linguistic), or just a passing music fad? Or is geographic and only based on the housing preferences of people in a certain area? If you took a Japanese person and made him live on the West Coast of the USA for a few years, would his preferences change?

    Whilst I do believe it is possible to make generalization or at least study trends within cultures, it is a complicated matter. There's a lot I could say, for example, even about different Asian communities in North America (NYC tends to be more urban, Canadian Asians on the whole have to closer ties to their roots in Asia etc...). One linguistic link I could imagine is sibilance, Mandarin is full of s, xu, ci sounds (all candidates for recording sibilance when pronounced in Mandarin, ci is pronounced cccczzzzz for example) and it often drives me crazy. Given the preponderance of Mandarin female vocals in the Chinese market, maybe some people will prefer rolled-off highs.

    After the research is completed, it also depends on what the marketing department decides to do with that information. When I spoke with Playboy marketing a while back, they mentioned on the topic of international expansion that "I think people understand we are selling an American lifestyle [in foreign markets]." The idea also kind of transfers to cars, and I've definitely seen people in Asia link sound characteristics to the company's country of origin. So it might be a commercially viable to market 'American sound' internationally, even if there is no actual category known as American sound. Of course, there is also a distinction between marketing and the products' actual sonic signatures.

    Of course, as a consumer I personally try my best to be objective and performance orientated. But it is a fascinating topic nevertheless.

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