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15 March 2013 @ 03:49 pm
The Myth of the $100,000 Listening Test  

Ever since we started working on Opus at the IETF, it's been a recurring theme. "You guys don't know how to test codecs", "You can't be serious unless you spend $100,000 testing your codec with several independent labs", or even "designing codecs is easy, it's testing that's hard". OK, subjective testing is indeed important. After all, that's the main thing that differentiates serious signal processing work from idiots using $1000 directional, oxygen-free speaker cable. However, just like speaker cables, more expensive listening tests do not necessarily mean more useful results. In this post I'm going to explain why this kind of thinking is wrong. I will avoid naming anyone here because I want to attack the myth of the $100,000 listening test, not the people who believe in it.

In the Beginning

Back in the 70s and 80s, digital audio equipment was very expensive, complicated to deploy, and difficult to test at all. Not everyone could afford analog-to-digital converters (ADC) or digital-to-analog converters (DAC), so any testing required using expensive, specialized labs. When someone came up with a new piece of equipment or a codec, it could end up being deployed for several decades, so it made sense to give it to one of these labs to test the hell out of it. At the same time, it wasn't too hard to do a good job in testing because algorithms were generally simple and codecs only supported one or two modes of operation. For example, a codec like G.711 only has a single bit-rate and can be implemented in less than 10 lines of code. With something that simple, it's generally not too hard to have 100% code coverage and make sure all corner cases are handled correctly. Considering the investments involved, it just made sense to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure nothing blows up. This was paid by large telcos and their suppliers, so they could afford it anyway.

Things remained pretty much the same through the 90s. When G.729 was standardized in 1995, it still only had a single bit-rate, and the computational complexity was still beyond what a PC could do in real-time. A few years later, we finally got codecs like AMR-NB that supported several bit-rates, though the number was still small enough that you could test each of them.

Enter Opus

When we first attempted to create a codec working group (WG) at the IETF, some folks were less than thrilled to have their "codec monopoly" challenged. The first objection we heard was "you're not competent enough to write a codec". After pointing out that we already had three candidate codecs on the table (SILK, CELT, BroadVoice), created by the authors of 3 already-deployed codecs (iSAC, Speex, G.728), the objection quickly switched to testing. After all, how was the IETF going to review this work and make sure it was any good?

The best answer came from an old-time ("gray beard") IETF participant and was along the lines of: "we at the IETF are used to reviewing things that are a lot harder to evaluate, like crypto standards. When it comes to audio, at least all of us have two ears". And it makes sense. Among all the things the IETF does (transport protocols, security, signalling, ...), codecs are among the easiest to test because at least you know the criteria and they're directly measurable. Audio quality is a hell of a lot easier to measure than "is this cipher breakable?", "is this signalling extensible enough?", or "Will this BGP update break the Internet?"

Of course, that was not the end of the testing story. For many months in 2011 we were again faced with never-ending complaints that Opus "had not been tested". There was this implicit assumption that testing the final codec improves the codec. Yeah right! Apparently, the Big-Test-At-The-End is meant to ensure that the codec is good and if it's not then you have to go back to the drawing board. Interestingly, I'm not aware of a single ITU-T codec for which that happened. On the other hand, I am aware of at least one case where the Big-Test-At-The-End revealed someting wrong. Let's look at the listening test results from the AMR-WB (a.k.a. G.722.2) codec. AMR-WB has 9 bitrates, ranging from 6.6 kb/s to 23.85 kb/s. The interesting thing with the results is that when looking at the two highest rates (23.05 and 23.85) one notices that the 23.85 kb/s mode actually has lower quality than the lower 23.05 bitrate. That's a sign that something's gone wrong somewhere. I'm not aware of why that was the case or what exactly happened from there, but apparently it didn't bother people enough to actually fix the problem. That's the problem with final tests, they're final.

A Better Approach

What I've learned from Opus is that it's possible to have tests that are far more useful and much cheaper. First, final tests aren't that useful. Although we did conduct some of those, ultimately their main use ends up being for marketing and bragging rights. After all, if you still need these tests to convince yourself that your codec is any good, something's very wrong with your development process. Besides, when you look at a codec like Opus, you have about 1200 possible bitrates, using three different coding modes, four different frame sizes, and either mono or stereo input. That's far more than one can reliably test with traditional subjective listening tests. Even if you could, modern codecs are complex enough that some problems may only occur with very specific audio signals.

The single testing approach that gave us the most useful results was also the simplest: just put the code out there so people can use it. That's how we got reports like "it works well overall, but not on this rare piece of post-neo-modern folk metal" or "it worked for all our instruments except my bass". This is not something you can catch with ITU-style testing. It's one of the most fundamental principles of open-source development: "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". Another approach was simply to throw tons of audio at it and evaluate the quality using PEAQ-style objective measurement tools. While these tools are generally unreliable for precise evaluation of a codec quality, they're pretty good at flagging files the codec does badly on for further analysis.

We ended up using more than a dozen different approaches to testing, including various flavours of fuzzing. In the end, when it comes to the final testing, nothing beats having the thing out there. After all, as our Skype friends would put it:

Which codec do you trust more? The codec that's been tested by dozens of listeners in a highly controlled lab, or the codec that's been tested by hundreds of millions of listeners in just about all conditions imaginable?
It's not like we actually invented anything here either. Software testing has evolved quite a bit since the 80s and we've mainly attempted to follow the best practices rather than use antiquated methods "because that's what we've always done".