Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, January 6th, 2010 | ISSN 1556-5696

eSkeptic: the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Ethan Winer (an audio engineer, musician, and skeptic), reveals that the worlds of audio engineering and consumer electronics are filled with pseudoscience.


couple listening to records

Audiophoolery

by Ethan Winer

YOU MIGHT THINK that a science-based field like audio engineering would be immune to the kind of magical thinking we see in other fields. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. In my 35 years as a professional audio engineer and musician, I’ve seen some of the most outrageous pseudoscience sold to consumers, and even to other audio pros who should know better. Not unlike claims for alternative medicine, nonsense is shrouded in scientific-sounding jargon to confuse the uneducated, or a sales pitch will cite science that is legitimate but irrelevant. The result is endless arguments among audiophiles over basic scientific principles that have been fully understood for fifty years or more.

As a consumerist, it galls me to see people pay thousands of dollars for fancy-looking wire that’s no better than the heavy lamp cord they can buy at any hardware store. Or magic isolation pads and little discs made from exotic hardwood that purport to “improve clarity and reduce listening fatigue,” among other surprising claims. The number of scams based on ignorance of basic audio science grows every day. Surely some of these vendors know they’re selling snake oil, but I’m certain that just as many believe their own hype. I’d respect these people more if I thought they knew they were conning people!

Few of us have unlimited budgets and must spend what funds we have wisely. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to help consumers distinguish truth from fiction in order to determine what is and is not worthwhile. Experience has shown that it’s futile to claim I know what someone else can or cannot hear. Therefore, I will relate only those things that matter to my experienced ears, and explain what makes sense from the perspective of science and logic. You don’t need an engineering degree to understand the explanations that follow, though I’ll assume you’ve played with a stereo receiver and CD player or cassette deck a few times. I’ll begin by defining the four basic audio parameters so that when I describe some common audiophile scams you’ll understand why they are scams.

Audio Parameters Defined

Only four parameters are needed to define everything that matters for audio reproduction: Noise, frequency response, distortion, and timebased errors. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

1. Noise is the background hiss you hear when you turn your receiver way up, and you can also hear it during quiet passages when playing open reel or cassette tapes. A close cousin is dynamic range, which defines the span (expressed in decibels) between the background noise and the loudest level possible before the onset of gross distortion. CDs and DVDs have a very large dynamic range, so any noise you may hear was either from the original analog tape, was added as a byproduct during production, or was present in the room and picked up by the microphones when the recording was first made.

Subsets of noise are AC power-related hum and buzz, electronic crackling, vinyl record clicks and pops, between-station radio noises, tape modulation noise, and the triboelectric cable effect. You’re unlikely to notice tape modulation noise outside of a recording studio because it’s specific to analog tape recorders, which are fast becoming obsolete, and it is usually hidden by the music itself. You can sometimes hear it if you listen carefully to a recording of a bass solo, where each note is accompanied by a “pfft” sound that disappears between the notes. The triboelectric effect is also called “handling noise” because it occurs when handling poorly made cables. I haven’t seen a cable with this defect in about 20 years.

2. Frequency response is how uniformly a device responds over a range of frequencies. Errors are heard as too much or too little bass, midrange, or treble. For most people, the audible range extends from about 25 Hz at the low end, to just shy of 20 KHz at the high end. Even though many audiophiles believe it’s important for audio equipment to respond to frequencies far beyond 20 KHz, in truth there is no need to reproduce ultrasonic content because nobody can hear it. Subsets of frequency response are physical microphonics, electronic ringing and oscillation, and acoustic ringing. These subsets are not necessary for consumers to understand, but they are important to design engineers and acousticians.

3. Distortion is the common word for the more technical term nonlinearity, and it adds new frequency components that were not present in the original source. When music passes through a device that adds distortion, new frequencies are created that may or may not be pleasing to the ear. The design goal for audio equipment is that all distortion be so low in level that it can’t be heard. I’ll return later to the notion that distortion can be pleasing when I explain why some audiophiles prefer vinyl records and tube-based electronics.

There are two basic types of distortion—harmonic and intermodulation—and both are almost always present together. Harmonic distortion adds new frequencies that are musically related to the source. In layman terms, harmonic distortion adds a slightly thick or buzzy quality to music. All musical instruments create tones having harmonics, so a device whose distortion adds a little more merely changes the instrument’s character by some amount. Electric guitar players use harmonic distortion—often lots of it—to turn a guitar’s inherent plink-plink sound into a singing tone having great power and sustain.

Intermodulation (IM) distortion requires two or more frequencies to be present, and it’s far more damaging because it creates new content that is musically unrelated to the original. Even in relatively small amounts, intermodulation distortion adds a dissonant quality that is unpleasant to hear. Another type of distortion is called aliasing, and it’s unique to digital recording. Like IM distortion, aliasing creates new frequencies not harmonically related to the original, and so is unpleasant and irritating to hear. Fortunately, in all modern digital gear, aliasing is so low in level that it’s inaudible.

4. Time-based errors affect mainly pitch and tempo. If you’ve ever played an old LP record where the hole was not quite centered, you’ve heard the pitch rise and fall with each revolution. This is called wow. Analog tape recorders suffer from a different type of pitch instability called flutter. Unlike the slow pitch change of wow, flutter is more rapid, producing a warbling effect. Digital recorders have a unique type of timing deviation called jitter, but with all modern equipment, jitter is so much softer than the music that you’ll never hear it. The last type of time-based error is phase shift, but it’s benign even in relatively large amounts.

Room acoustics could be considered a fifth audio parameter, but it really isn’t. Nearby room boundaries can create frequency response errors (called comb filtering) due to wave reflections combining in the air. Reflections can also create audible echoes and reverb, but these are timebased phenomenon that occur outside the equipment, so they don’t warrant their own category either.

The above parameters encompass everything that affects audio fidelity. If a device has noise and distortion too low to hear, a response sufficient to capture the entire range of audible frequencies, and time-based errors small enough to be insignificant, then that device will be audibly transparent to music and other sound passing through it. However, clarity and stereo imaging are greatly affected by room acoustics; without question, the room you listen in has far more effect on sound quality than any of the audio components.

You may have noticed that several times I referred to errors that can be too soft to hear, like the inherent background noise of a CD, or are inaudible because they’re much softer than the music and are thus masked by the music. Masking is an important concept because it prevents us from hearing low-level artifacts in the presence of a source that is louder—especially if both contain similar frequencies. For example, low frequency hum caused by a bad connection is the same volume whether the music is playing or not. So when you stop the CD, you can more easily hear the hum. If the music consists of a cymbal or tambourine only, you’ll hear the hum even while the music plays because those instruments contain primarily high frequencies. But when drums or a bass play, those instruments will probably mask the hum. Some artifacts like tape modulation noise and jitter occur only while the music plays. So unless they’re fairly loud, they won’t be audible at all.

The Cable Guy

The earliest audio scam I can recall is fancy wire for connecting loudspeakers, and it’s still going strong. These days vendors claim their wire yields better sound quality when compared to normal wire, and, of course, it’s much more expensive than normal wire. In truth, the most important property of speaker wire is resistance, which is a function of its thickness. The resistance must be low to pass the high-current signals a power amplifier delivers. For short distances— say, up to five feet—16-gauge wire of any type is adequate, though thicker wire is needed for longer runs.

The three other wire parameters are inductance, capacitance, and skin effect. But those are not a factor with usual cable lengths at audio frequencies, especially when connecting speakers to a power amplifier. Low capacitance wire can be important in special cases, such as between a phonograph cartridge and its preamp. But high quality, low capacitance wire can be had for pennies per foot. Wire scams are very popular because wire is a low-tech device that’s simple to manufacture and the profit margin is extremely high. I could devote this entire article to wire scams, but instead I’ll just summarize that any audio (or video) cable costing more than a few dollars per foot is a rip-off.

Even sillier than expensive speaker wire is replacement AC power cords and most other power “conditioner” products. The sales claims sound logical: Noise and static can get into your gear through the power line and damage the sound. In severe cases it’s possible for powerrelated clicks and buzzes to get into your system, but those are easily noticed. The suggestion that subtle changes in “clarity and presence” can occur is plain fraud. Indeed, every competent circuit designer knows how to filter out power line noise, and such protection is routinely added to all commercial audio products. Spending hundreds of dollars on a six-foot replacement power cord ignores the other hundred-odd feet of regular wire between the wall outlet and power pole.

Some audio scams are so blatant you wonder how anyone could fall for them, like a replacement volume control knob that sells for $485. The ad copy proclaims, “The new knobs are custom made with beech wood and bronze … How can this make a difference??? Well, hearing is believing as we always say. The sound becomes much more open and free flowing with a nice improvement in resolution. Dynamics are better and overall naturalness is improved.” Yes, I bet that’s just what they always say. Wood is a common theme among audiophile scams, falsely implying a relation to a fine old violin where the wood’s vibration really is a part of the sound. But a volume control knob?

illustration by Joe Lee

illustration by Joe Lee

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Among devoted audiophiles, one of the most hotly debated topics is the notion that ultrasonic frequencies are necessary for high fidelity reproduction. Put aside for a moment that no human can hear much past 20 KHz. Few microphones respond to frequencies beyond that, and even fewer loudspeakers can reproduce that high. If maintaining an extended frequency response were free, I’d have little objection. But in this digital age, storing frequencies higher than necessary waste memory, media space, and bandwidth. Even sillier is the way audio is handled on DVD soundtracks. DVDs accommodate frequencies up to 96 KHz, but then “lossy”data compression— which results in an audible loss in quality—is often needed to make it fit! Record companies and equipment manufacturers just love that millions of people replaced all their old LPs and cassettes with CDs. They’re trying very hard to get us to buy all the same titles, and new gear to play them, yet again with the false promise of fidelity that exceeds CDs.

Another popular scam is mechanical isolation devices. The claims have a remote basis in science that are skewed to suggest importance where none is justified. If you ever owned a turntable, you know how sensitive it can be to mechanical vibration. Unless you walk lightly, the record can skip, and if you turn up the volume too high, you’ll get a low frequency feedback. A turntable is a mechanical device that relies on physical contact between the needle and the record’s surface. CDs (and DVDs) work on an entirely different principle that is immune to mechanical vibration. As the CD spins, the digital data is read into a memory buffer, and from there it is sent to your receiver or headphones. Several seconds of music are always in the player’s buffer, so if the player is jostled enough that the CD mistracks, it simply sends from the buffer until the drive can find its place again. Large buffers are common on CD players meant for joggers for this exact reason.

Isolation has no advantage for other electronic gear either. You can spend thousands of dollars on fancy isolation devices for preamps and receivers, yet they don’t improve the sound even a tiny bit (though mechanical isolation with loudspeakers is valid). A related scam is cable elevators— small devices that prevent your wires from touching the floor. Like so many other audiophile “tweak” products, the claims for cable elevators sound magical, and they surely are.

Bi-wiring is a more recent scam, and it’s a pretend relative to bi-amping, which is legitimate. No single speaker driver can reproduce the entire range of audible frequencies, so manufacturers use two or three drivers—called woofers and tweeters—to handle the different ranges. Biamping splits the audio into low/high or low/mid/high ranges, and each range is sent to a separate power amplifier that in turn powers each speaker driver. This avoids passive crossovers that add distortion. Bi-wiring uses two separate speaker wires, but they’re both connected to the same single power amplifier and a passive crossover!

Vinyl records and vacuum tube equipment are very popular with devoted audiophiles who believe these old school technologies more faithfully reproduce subtle nuance. There’s no question that LPs and tubes sound different from CDs and solid state gear. But are they better? Not in any way you could possibly measure. Common to both is much higher distortion; LPs in particular have more inherent noise and a poorer high frequency response, especially when playing the inner grooves. I’m convinced that some people prefer tubes and vinyl because the subtle distortion they add sounds pleasing to them. Adding small amounts of distortion can make a recording sound more cohesive, for lack of a better word. Recording engineers sometimes add distortion intentionally to imitate the sound of tubes and analog tape, and I’ve done this myself. Simply copying a song to a cassette tape and back adds a slight thickening that can be pleasing if the instrumentation is sparse. But clearly this is an artificial effect, not higher fidelity.

Other common scams are small devices that claim to improve room acoustics. You can pay a hundred dollars each for small pieces of rare wood the size and shape of hockey pucks. The sellers instruct you to place them around your room to improve its acoustics. But with acoustics, what matters is covering a sufficient percentage of the room’s surface. Real acoustic treatment is large and not always conducive to a living room (as my wife will attest), so lots of folks want very much to believe that something small and unobtrusive will solve their bad acoustics. If only it were possible.

Free, But Stupid Anyway

The key to identifying most audio scams is the very high prices charged. As an audio pro, I know that $1,000 can buy a state of the art power amplifier. So it makes no sense to pay, say, $17,000 for an amplifier that is no better and may well be worse. However, some scams are more like urban legends — no products are sold, but they’re still a waste of time. For example, one early legend was that you can improve the sound of a CD by painting its outer edge with a green felt marker pen. Yes, it must be green. (I guess other colors won’t create the proper energy field.) A related legend is that cables and electronic devices must be “broken in” for some period of time before they achieve their final highest fidelity. Aside from a manufacturing defect, the notion that wire or a solid state circuit changes audibly over time makes no sense. This legend becomes a scam when you deal with a vendor who says you must break in the product for 90 days to realize a benefit. Why 90 days? Because credit card purchases are protected for only 60 days.

The Devil is in the Details

As you have learned, all four audio parameters are important, but what matters most is their magnitude. Test data is sometimes graphed at low resolution to hide the true performance. So a frequency response line may look reasonably straight, implying a uniform response, yet a closer examination shows that each vertical division on the graph represents a substantial deviation. Using excessively large graph divisions is just another way scammers try to fool uneducated buyers.

Many (but not all) audiophile magazine reviews include impressive-looking graphs that imply science but are sorely lacking if you know what the graphs actually mean. Numerous irrelevant data is presented while important specs are omitted. For example, the phase response of a loudspeaker is shown but not its distortion, which is far more important. One magazine recently reviewed a $4,400 tube preamplifier so poorly designed that it verged on self-oscillation (a high-pitched squealing sound). The reviewer even acknowledged the defect, yet still summarized by saying, “Impressive, and very highly recommended.” The ignorance and misguided loyalty of some audiophile magazines is a significant problem in this business.

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The Bottom Line

Many of the scams I have described do have a factual basis in science, but the effects are so infinitesimal that they can’t possibly make audible differences. I often see “believers” proclaim that science has not yet found a way to measure what they are convinced they can hear. In truth, it’s quite the other way around. We can easily measure jitter that’s 120 dB below the music, which is a typical amount and is about 1,000 times softer than could be audible. Likewise for distortion, frequency response, and noise, especially when you factor in the ear’s susceptibility to masking. Many audiophiles truly believe they hear a change in quality, even when none can possibly exist.

The biggest variables in audio quality come from transducers—microphones and loudspeakers that, being mechanical devices, must physically vibrate. When assessing frequency response and distortion, the finest loudspeakers in the world are far worse than the cheapest electronic device. And any room you put the speakers in will exaggerate that already poor response even further.

Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, many people let themselves be conned into believing that a higher truth exists, even if they cannot hear it. There is no disputing that hearing can be improved with practice and that you can learn to recognize detail, but that’s not the same as imagining something that doesn’t exist at all. And, logically speaking, just because a large number of people believe something does not alone make it true.

It can be difficult to prove or disprove issues like those I have presented here because human auditory perception is so fragile and our memory is so short. With A/B testing—where you switch between one version and another to audition the difference—it is mandatory that the switch be performed very quickly. If it takes you fifteen minutes to hook up a replacement amplifier, it will be very hard to tell if there truly was a difference, compared to being able to switch between them instantly. Even when switching quickly, it is important that both amplifiers be set to exactly the same volume level.

When all else is equal, people will generally pick the brighter (or just louder) version as sounding better, unless of course it was already too loud or bright. People sometimes report a difference even in an “A/A” test, where nothing changed! And just because something sounds “better,” it is not necessarily higher fidelity. Boosting the treble and bass tone controls often makes music sound “better,” but that is not more faithful to the original source material.

Beliefs and the placebo effect are very strong. When people argue about things like this on the Internet, it’s commonly referred to as “religious arguments.” I’ve even heard people argue against double-blind testing, claiming such tests “break the mood” and thus invalidate the results. Sound familiar? That’s just like the psychics who, when tested publicly, blame their failure on negative vibes from the skeptical testers.

Psychological factors like expectation and fatigue are equally important. If I brag to a friend how great my home theater sounds and that person comes for a visit, it always sounds worse to me while we’re both listening. Finally, it is important to consider the source of any claim, though someone’s financial interest in a product doesn’t mean the claims are necessarily untrue. But there’s more than a little truth to the popular sentiment, “The most important person in a company that makes audiophile speaker wire is the head of marketing.”


photo

Worlds of Their Own

Robert J. Schadewald

Robert J. Schadewald

Robert J. Schadewald

Lois Schadewald

“The Universe does not bend itself to our ignorance.” This simple truism is just one of the many observations made by author, skeptic and former president of the National Center for Science Education Robert J. Schadewald (who died of cancer on March 12th, 2000).

This week on Skepticality, Swoopy talks with Robert’s sister Lois Schadewald, who compiled and published a humorous, insightful volume of her brother’s articles, essays and interviews in 2008. Entitled Worlds of Their Own: A Brief History of Misguided Ideas; Creationism, Flat-Earthism, Energy Scams, and the Velikovsky Affair, Robert Schadewald’s work reminds us that in order to understand the difference between science and pseudoscience we must investigate the unique claims and personalities of some of history’s most unorthodox thinkers. Only then can we begin to learn what leads some people to embrace critical thinking and science, while others cling to their own realities despite all the evidence in the universe.


Follow Daniel Loxton on twitter, facebook, and skepticblog.

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Daniel Loxton asks how skeptics can best navigate our individual social landscapes? How should we react when our loved ones embrace conspiratorial thinking or paranormal beliefs? What should we say when ideas like “I’m absolutely certain the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile” find their way into our seasonal celebrations?

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188 Comments »

188 Comments

  1. Neil Weightman says:

    Ethan Winer: That audio article is excellent. Very interesting and informative. Although you briefly summarise your background, it would be useful to have a fuller description of your experience and maybe some research paper references or hints for finding these. Thanks!

  2. Roy Henock says:

    Thanks for an interesting & informative article, too bad I didn’t read it years ago before wasting hard-earned dough on some “monster cables” to cut out excessive static in my stereo. Punchline: I later realized I had left the ground cable disconnected, which solved the static problem!
    If it’s OK to plug a non-profit organization here, “Consumer Reports” magazine (www.consumerreports.org) has unbiased reviews & ratings of audio equipment, they’re not perfect but I feel safe going with their “best buys” in audio equipment.

    • Shalin Kochar says:

      Consumer Reports is good at evaluating utilitarian stuff. But I don’t think they have the capability to keep up in more challenging fields where the science of what ought to be measured is itself in a state of flux. Their recommendations on loudspeakers are categorically unreliable. I believe Sean Olive has blogged about this.

      • Steve says:

        Although useful for many other products, Consumer Reports has the WORST reputation as a source for audio reviews. They tend not to listen to the products.

      • Boris says:

        Sean Olive has blogged about this and Consumer Reports has actually changed the way they evaluate speakers based on his papers and findings. They are a pretty reliable source of information for speakers now; for utilitarian purposes (as stated earlier).

  3. Nick says:

    Interesting article, however, as noted by N Weightman, it would be helpful to see some references, otherwise this is simply one person’s opinion, and hardly qualifies as science.

    Please show us the A/B or double blind tests comparing $5000 speaker cable and $1.00 lamp cord, recordings at different sample rates, etc. Do only people with “golden ears” hear the difference? Often they’re the only ones who are used as subjects in these studies, which is in itself bad science since they’re not a representative sample of the audio-buying public.

    • Mike Painter says:

      Google to find a few.
      Note that Randi has offered his $1,000,000 to Pear cable. They turned it down and called the offer a hoax.
      http://tinyurl.com/y8mhvjo
      His offer stands for all or almost all the items mentioned in the article.
      Since science says there should be no difference, his claims are in fact paranormal.

    • John Beck says:

      This bugs me.

      It isn’t appropriate to make the accusation “it is not science” of this blog submission just because it doesn’t cite sources. Even Scientific American articles – which almost always cite scholarly papers – are not *scientific papers.* It is not the references which make it science.

      But that is a minor point – writing a formal paper with citations on the level of Sci Am is painstaking work, which should be compensated. I haven’t paid for access to this skeptics blog so I do not expect the same detail as I would from SciAm or Consumers Reports (which I pay to read). We should be thanking Winer for freely giving us a primer in Audiofoolery. Those who want to learn more may use this as a starting point go search for more information.

      If you don’t know how to do your own digging, you probably wouldn’t find scholarly articles much use anyway.

    • Shalin Kochar says:

      The science on this is well settled. The difference between trained listeners and the lay public is that trained listeners reflect overall tastes but are much more expedient in conveying sonic attributes. Their use improves the sensitivity of experiments that evaluate end-point outcomes. These methods have been developed by Canada’s National Research Council. Floyd Toole and Sean Olive have covered this topic extensively in their papers. They also shed surprising light on what sort of consumer or professional is truly golden eared – many who claim to have exceptional listening skills are just full of it. Anyone claiming the efficacy of super expensive cables are without question on that inglorious list.

  4. Joel Treshansky says:

    An outstanding article, comprehensive enough to convince any reader to ignore ridiculous advertising, and instead use some common sense when buying in the world of audio. At the same time, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use the same sort of logic when thinking about the “Global Warming” controversy.

  5. John Wagner says:

    Great article and very informative. I have been recording engineer music producer for 50 years after receiving a BS degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Mexico. I have experienced every phase of recording technology and still have people coming to me who think if they record analogue instead of digital it will assure that their poorly written song will be a hit! I remember an article many years ago where they played successful engineers and producers music that had gone through various levels of analogue/digital encoding to see how music quality held up in the conversion process. It was an interesting outcome that they favored the sound of music after repeated losses through multiple analogue/digital conversions. And lately I have confronted the crazy issue of sound quality and accurate pitch being used to cure cancer and other ailments. I have been told by homeopath types that all kinds of herbs will make music sound better and clearer….and all of this while the whole world has turned to listening to compressed music files on Ipods!
    My 50 years of experience in the real world says your article hits the right note! Thanks!

    John Wagner

  6. Conner says:

    Very informative article. I always felt there was something wrong with me for not “hearing” the difference.

    My confidence in my local high end audio retailer has now been reinforced. I needed shielded speaker wires for a recent kitchen reno and they suggested the 50 cent/ft. wire would be fine. I was told by many aquaintances and friends to buy the heavy guage $2.00/ft or more or I’d be sorry. The kitchen speakers sound as good as the speakers that are 25 feet closer to the amp.

    Now I can simply turn up the bass and turn down the treble to achieve that warm “LP” sound that investing in a $1000.00 turntable, I am told, can only reproduce.

    I’ve always been more interested in what music is played on my stereo than how perfect it sounds.

  7. John Wagner says:

    I for got one thing….. it seems like my personal research shows that for a short amount of time a shot of tequila and a beer enhances the quality of all audio sound systems…. but things recorded in that state of mind seem slightly lackluster when reviewed later…..

    John

  8. Rich Wielgosz says:

    I think the most specious audio claim that I have ever heard came from the article itself. The idea that analog tape decks are becoming “obsolete.” :-)

  9. Bill says:

    Overall I think this is an excellent article. I have fallen for some of these scams myself. Some speaker cables do sound better than others and it only takes a listen to hear a vast difference, but you don’t need to spend big bucks to get the good sound. When I replaced the wiring in my tonearm the sound was significantly clearer and I could hear details that the old wiring simply couldn’t reveal. Most tomearms have terrible wiring.
    The author implies that digitally produced music sounds better than an all analog signal which is simply not the case. Digitally recorded music doesn’t replicate sound as accurate as analog. It’s not just the distortion as he claims. Sound is a series of waves, digitizing them distorts the curvature of the waves and must artificially recreate them. Analog recreates the shape of the sound wave better. The general rule is: the better your stereo, the worse your cd’s sound and the better (quality)analog equipment sounds. On a good system, records sound much more pleasant than cd’s. That is why modern digital amps have such high distortion, they need it to cover up the imperfections of the digital to analog conversion. Listen to your cd’s through a very low distortion amp and the difference is easily noticed. Digitizing music does remove many analog imperfections as the author mentioned so neither system is perfect. It all comes down to preference, which imperfections are more annoying to you. Few things sound worse than an IPOD, they’re popular because of convenience not sound quality.
    Our ears are the best instruments, no test equipment can truly replicate them.

    • John Beck says:

      Before you say that Digitizing music is bad because sounds are a series of (sine) waves you should pick up a copy of Bracewell’s “The Fourrier Transform and its Applications”

      Sampling theory tells us that we can accurately reproduce a signal comprised of a superposition of sine waves as long as the sampling rate is above the Nyquist frequency. Whereas it is true that bit resolution of CD’s limits the accuracy, transducers are still the weakest link in reproducing sounds.

    • aphid says:

      Bill,

      In competently engineered D/A converters, the “stairstep” is removed from the system by a piece of hardware call a “reconstruction filter” which smooths the signal before it gets passed onto another piece of hardware. There are some “high-end” manufacturers who do indeed make D/A converters which lack this and they do, in fact, sound different than ones that are competently designed.

      In addition, while LP, tape, and other analog media have a “continuous” representation of the music, continuous does not mean “infinite resolution.”

      In properly done, level-matched, time synced double-blind tests, trained listeners cannot tell the difference between a direct analog feed (either live or from an analog source) and a digital feed that has gone through dozens of generations of A->D->A transitions. A properly done CD recording of a vinyl album is indistinguishable from the original.

      • fabb says:

        To the Reconstruction Filter: an ideal one would be non-causal thus non-realizeable. So there’s a tradeoff also for a Reconstruction Filter. (same thing with the perfect LowPass)

  10. Clint Armitage says:

    One thing that I felt was left out of the article is the tactic by shameless marketers to use PMPO ratings instead of RMS ratings on systems – I am assured by my Audiophile friend Ross (electronics engineer) that the PMPO calculation is a way of “pumping up the volume” (so to speak) of the speakers power rating, whereas RMS is a more accurate figure delineating the true power of a speaker.
    We are inclined to buy a 300W PMPO rated speaker, but the RMS rating is much lower. Wikipedia has a nice article on Audio Power.

    On another note, after years of tinkering I can assure you that we can hear below 20Hz – apparently at sufficient volume 20Hz can be felt in the internal organs :-) My car is case in point! Ahh, the young and not yet deaf…

    • Chromer says:

      To be accurate, a speaker does not have a “power” rating… It has a “power handling” rating. A speaker does not have any inherent “power”; it is a device which responds to power. Amplifiers create power, and this is where I have seen the PMPO ratings lately, particularly with subwoofer amps.

      I agree with your premise, though, in that RMS tells what an amp can do constantly on average, whereas PMPO can only tell us how the amp can “sprint” or peak. Definitely misleading

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        PMPO ratings are indeed ludicrous, but then RMS means little in terms audio reproduction (unless you are intent on melting your speaker cables). Fortunately, due to the dedication of some very clever people, modern semiconductors are so robust and clean-sounding speakers are so efficient that power ratings have little importance anymore (unless you are trying to annoy your neighbours).

  11. Bill says:

    Here’s an analogy (pun intended),
    remember the old etch-a-sketch toy? It had two knobs that you turned to draw shapes. It was great at drawing strait lines and angles but when you tried to draw a curve it looked like the artist had brain damage. That is because it was a binary system, I.E. two knobs. To replicate arcs and curvy lines you need a trinary (three way) system.
    Digital is a binary system, sound is made of curves and arcs. To replicate that accurately, digital must use complicated algorithms to estimate the curves. Estimate is the key word. Digital can’t replicate the entire path it must replicate thus it has an artificial and unnatural sound.
    When someone eventually invents a trinary digital recording system they will have created the holy grail of sound recording. Until then analog recording will always sound more accurate and pleasing to the discerning ear.

    • Mike Painter says:

      “To replicate that accurately, digital must use complicated algorithms to estimate the curves. Estimate is the key word. Digital can’t replicate the entire path it must replicate thus it has an artificial and unnatural sound.”
      Had you used “precise” you would be partially right, but not in any meaningful sense. (Few people will go back to tape and an analog TV set after 1080p and blu-ray even thought your argument applies there.)

      If you repeatedly accurately measure and record a digital signal after it passes through a digital system, then accurately measure and record an analog signal after it passes through an analog system you will find that comparing the digital signals will give you the same results time after time.
      No two analog records will be the same.
      Hysteresis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysteresis) is the reason. It is why the analog computer was replaced by the digital computer.

      If you can demonstrate that a human ear can distinguish the difference in those steps you would have an argument.
      A good start would be to have somebody cut an inch or so out of an analog tape and splice it back together.
      My ear is not good but I did this one at 3 3/4 speed and had to cut several inches out. I could never hear the cut even in the first few plays when I knew where it was.

      • John M. Dlugosz says:

        “[hysteresis] is why the analog computer was replaced by the digital computer.”

        I don’t think so. Analog computers need to be physically reconnected to change the problem, and they only give a few decimal places of precision — the accuracy of measuring the final analog signal.

      • Chromer says:

        I always let myself get sucked into these discussions…

        In defense of the OP’s assertion that analog is more accurate, I submit the following, and I feel it is within the intent of the original article.

        Yes, there are many scientific and engineering criteria which can be measured to show that digital is more accurate and therefore should be better. The only thing that matters, however, is how it sounds to the listener. With a good analog rig, and I’m not talking about 5 digit component prices either, I can listen at high volume levels for long periods of time without listening fatigue. At the SAME volume levels with a HIGH END Cd player and the same material, my ear and mind fatigues much more quickly.

        My brain is simply more appreciative of an analog source, and that’s all that matters to me…

        • Donald Clarkson says:

          I guess what you really mean is digital is more ‘precise’, which is seldom the same as ‘accurate’.

          Anecdotal, I know, but I still use the same turntable I bought 27 years ago (just recently replaced the belt for the first time). In the same period I have gone through five CD players. Eventually I found a nice-sounding Arcam but it is getting old and pernickety and I dread the day I have to start looking for a replacement, especially now that the likes of Linn have stopped production of CD players. Funny though, they still make turntables.

    • ron says:

      every curve is made up of “steps” just like every line is made up of “dots.” digital isnt some low resolution version of a curve where you can see the steps.

      • Bill says:

        Sorry Ron, I have to disagree with you. Only in digital does your steps theory apply. It is quite easy to hear those “steps” on a cd or see the “dots” on a print ad. But they are not there in live music or a painting. True, no curve or strait line is perfect, they have variances in their deviations, not identically shaped steps or dots. That is precisely the difference.

    • Kim says:

      In reference to Bill…one word “Heroin”

    • Jim Sky says:

      Those digital steps that you are concerned about exist only for a short time in the train of electronic components that go from the digital storage to the speaker. In most cases the the steps are smeared into analog transitions after passing through the capacitor coupling the digital to analog converter (DAC) to the first amplifier or filter. Every analog stage has a finite bandwidth and so cannot instantly transition from one step to the next. The steps thus get smoothed into curves indistinguishable from those derived from analog storage. Hook up an oscilloscope (an analog one if you can find it) and see if you can see the digital steps in a digitally recorded sound wave using at least 44 khz sample rate and 16 bit resolution. Bet you cannot.

      • Chromer says:

        It doesn’t matter what it looks like on an oscilloscope; it matters what your ears and mind hear. I’m listening to Steely Dan on vinyl as I type this. The maracas and splash cymbals sound real; they sound like they’re in the room with me.

        Same song on CD, the instruments have a “sandpaper” quality. I don’t care what the scope screens look like. My ears hear a difference

        • fabb says:

          about “same song on the CD”: are you sure they are unaffected by the loudness war? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cd_loudness_trend-something.gif

          • Donald Clarkson says:

            A fair point, fabb. Hard to know who has screwed about with the sound before it got onto CD. Properly implemented, I think CD is the ultimate compromise between sound quality and accessibilty. Sadly, it is a dying format, not due to competition from SACD or DVD-A, but from MP3 and the internet. Such is the harsh reality of democracy.

          • Chromer says:

            And to be fair, part of my attitude regarding the sonic quality of CD’s may have developed based on a (not so) subconscious reaction to today’s generally abysmal CD mastering, a-la the loudness war(s)

            An ever moving target to say the least…

    • John Beck says:

      Newton developed a branch of mathematics which shows clearly that if the steps are small enough it simulates the smooth continuous curve as closely as well need. He called this “differential calculus”

      It is true that CD’s have a limited bit resolution so there is an error in how well they can reproduce the analog signal. However, you should do the math to calculate the error between original and digitized signal (it isn’t hard). Then compare that error to the errors produced by the imperfect frequency response of your speakers (and the non-linear effects introduced by things in the room – including YOU).

      I think that you will find that Winer was right that the speakers and the room (and even your physical presence) have a bigger effect than the digitization. (BTW: If you change clothes the sounds measured *at your ear* will differ. To take an absurd & extreme example imagine if you were wearing plate mail vs a fluffy parka.)

    • Jason says:

      er… Nothing against your general argument, Bill, but an etch-a-sketch is definitely not a binary system; it’s crude but it’s analog. Because we’re all familiar with how jagged “curves” look on an etch-a-sketch (when made by an amateur), it is a nice way to illustrate your point.
      But binary only allows for on’s and off’s. A more accurate analogy would be likening digital reproduction to drawing a portrait by filling in squares on a piece of graph paper.
      And this analogy better serves what is truly at issue here, which is sample rate. Because the smaller the squares on your graph paper, the better your portrait looks. If your graph paper only has 36 squares on it, your portrait looks like an Atari 2600 sprite (not coincidentally). An additional layer of color information helps, too.
      And, just as color photos can look pretty good printed on a computer printer at high-resolution, the higher the sample rate of digital sound, the better the reproduction.

  12. Nathan says:

    Bill is either a very subtle comedian, or an example of the kind of person the article was talking about. “Nonsense is shrouded in scientific-sounding jargon”. Too right.

  13. Carl Strange says:

    I enjoyed the article as a non-expert, a classical music fan, and a sometime listener to arguments about the superiority of digital or analog. I would like to have heard the author’s take on related phenomena, such as the “deterioration” of CDs over time. I have CDs I purchased in 1985 and still play, but perhaps I’m not wise enough to see these imperial clothes.

    • John M. Dlugosz says:

      That you can measure. Look for a program called KProbe, that will report the low-level errors from the CD drive’s firmware. If it has deteriorated to the point that the player has to approximate based on a second level of (approximate) error correction, or worse has to fill in holes in the data, then you will hear deterioration. (unlike Data CD’s, audio CD playing won’t quit when it finds an error)

      If the error rate is beyond the CD’s standard specification, then it was either poorly made or degraded over time. If you measure a new one (I measure used DVDs I buy to make sure they are still good before playing them) and note the values, you could indeed tell that it changed later.

  14. Bill says:

    Yes Nathan,
    I am a comedian. This was an excellent article. I was however, trying to point out that both analog and digital have their imperfections and limitations. In the end all that matters is what sounds good to your ear. There is a place in this world for both audiophiles and tone deaf IPOD lovers. Science can’t fully measure, much less replicate, the infinite qualities of the human ear; or for that matter, Pink Floyd and magic mushrooms!

    • John Beck says:

      “Science can’t measure…”

      Well, I’m not sure what that means – but people who work with cochlear implants may beg to differ on what *measurements* we can make. (Yes, I am aware that we cannot build a human-machine interface which functions as well as our natural ears, but that doesn’t mean we cannot *measure* it).

    • Dave says:

      A lot of iPod bashing going on here. I think mp3 and AAC encoding are the real boogeymen, not the player. It is certainly possible to play wav files or lossless compression formats on an iPod. (I’m not an iPod lover, I don’t own an iPod, and I generally only listen to music through my component system home stereo. Just wanted to point out that one thing.)

  15. Donald Clarkson says:

    Thirty-five years ago it was an established scientific fact that data rates of more than 1200 bits per second were impossible on a telephone line. Fortunately this ‘fact’ was not accepted by certain sceptics, and today we enjoy 24 million bits per second on those very same telephone lines.

    Let’s not forget what ‘scepticism’ means!

    There exist only two parameters in music reproduction: the original sound, and noise. Distortion is just another type of noise. CDs may have an impressive theoretical dynamic range, but listen to a silent CD (make one yourself with GoldWave) and hear for yourself how much noise your CD player generates.

    The need to accommodate an excessive bandwidth is in order to maintain linearity and phase coherence within the audible band. A filter (which is what a cheap amplifier is) starts to roll off at about half its cut-off frequency. High-order filters (with a sharp cut-off) create phasing problems which destroy the accuracy of the sound stage.

    Modern microphones work up to 40 kHz, and speakers up to 50 kHz. Speakers present a highly complex load to the amplifier which is why the amplifier itself needs to be over-specified, and is required to remain stable and linear far beyond human hearing, to avoid unpleasant heterodyne effects.

    Microphonics have nothing to do with frequency response, but everything to do with isolation. All electronic circuits exhibit microphonics and hence the need for isolation. Speakers, by contrast, do not require isolation, but substantiation, so that the tail (the speaker diaphragm) does not wag the dog (the speaker cabinet).

    If Mr Winer is unable to hear the benefit of bi-wiring then I am afraid he disqualifies himself as a critic of audio reproduction. In mono-wiring, the several amperes required to drive the woofer simply modulate (by virtue of mechanical losses in the cable) the small currents driving the tweeter, creating artefacts which are detrimental to the overall sound. I am surprised he did not mention ‘directional’ cables. These mystified me until I came to realise that sound itself is directional. A weak analogy, perhaps, but stand in front of an office fan and feel the breeze, then stand behind it, and what do you feel? Similarly, sound coming out of a speaker is more important than the sound going ‘into’ the speaker.

    Early solid state amplifiers had high gain (allowing lots of negative feedback – so they generated very little harmonic distortion) but were horribly non-linear, which created oodles of jangling intermodulation. Tube amps were just the reverse – nice warm harmonic distortion, but no intermod. So tube amps sounded ‘nicer’. So what? Audiophilia is a hobby, not a religion. Its adherents do it for pleasure, not for redemption.

    Replacing the volume control knob seems unlikely to improve sound reproduction, but the volume control itself is the most crucial (and expensive) single component in the reproduction chain.

    Blind A/B testing is not relevant in audio appreciation. At the upper end of the market, you would have to listen to a ‘good’ system for a week or so and then be subjected to an inferior system to appreciate how bad it is. Just as someone who regularly drinks inferior wine is unlikely to immediately appreciate a fine wine, someone who regularly drinks fine wine will immediately identify an inferior wine.

    ‘Running in’ amplifiers and CD players has limited benefit (down to the stabilisation of electrolytic capacitors, mainly) but ‘running in’ speakers has a profound effect, modifying the rigidity of the support structures until they match those used by the designers in choosing the materials.

    As I said before, audiophilia is not life-changing stuff, it is just a hobby some of us use to escape the mundane meaningless of reality. Maybe the green CD pen makes no difference, but so what? Should we collect stamps instead?

    Donald Clarkson

    • John M. Dlugosz says:

      “Thirty-five years ago it was an established scientific fact that data rates of more than 1200 bits per second were impossible on a telephone line”
      Indeed, a modern 96K modem would not work on such a phone line. Phone lines got better. By that I mean the whole link between the home and the phone company and the switching equipment. Early phone systems were designed to reproduce voice well enough at reasonable cost.

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        Subscriber cabling is the same PVC-insulated wire it was 35 years ago. The switching network has no bearing on local loop data rate.

    • John M. Dlugosz says:

      Directional cables: Hmm, isn’t the signal a waveform that’s centered around zero? Not being centered is known as a DC Bias. So the electric current goes both ways in the wire, in a symmetric manner. If you were to monitor the electricity inside the wire, you could not tell which way it was connected!
      If those directional cables are actually made with diodes in them, it can’t matter which way they are facing.
      Perhaps you are modifying the part of the signal that is above (or just the part below) the zero crossing, so that the speaker is treated differently when it is pushing out vs. when it is pulling in? I think the speaker is already designed to behave properly symmetrically with respect to that signal, and the details on what such a modification would do would depend on the speakers.
      I fail to see the point of your fan example. Some tings have a front and a back, therefore everything does?

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        Sound propagates in air, and air has inertia. The outward wave front behaves differently to the return front. If cable can be made to conduct ‘better’ in one direction than the other then directionality is plausible, though getting the phasing right is probably more important. Personally, I have not witnessed it but when the geniuses at Mapleshade say they can hear directionality I give them the benefit of the doubt. Like charity, scepticism begins at home. Doubt everything you think you know.

        • wil says:

          And also, being skeptics, we would benefit from doubting that “the geniuses at Mapleshade” have thoroughly proved that their cable “directionality” is not just a placebo effect.

          • Donald Clarkson says:

            Yes, indeed. In fact I engaged in a protracted debate with the guys at Mapleshade because I find directionality to be just a little bit out there. But those guys simply produce the most marvellous recordings using their own handmade equipment, so in the end it was like arguing with my doctor about the medicine he prescribes simply because I don’t understand how it works. The proof for me is in the Mapleshade pudding. They understand something I do not. I accept what they say for the same reason I accept that the people at CERN know what they are doing, without me understanding a goddam thing about it. Same reason I trust the people who canned the beans I ate for supper, for that matter.

    • John Beck says:

      “Thirty-five years ago it was an established scientific fact that data rates of more than 1200 bits per second were impossible on a telephone line.”

      As a scientist, my response to this statement is “I doubt that but even if it were true, so what?”

      That statement says that they measured a particular phone line and established that data rates more than 1200 bps were impossible. Certainly they didn’t measure EVERY phone line, so they couldn’t establish a ‘fact’ that this was true for all phone lines.

      Besides, I doubt anyone ever said that twisted pairs could NEVER support > 1200bps. IIRC: The bandwidth of twisted pairs depends on a lot of little details (are they shielded, what is the twisting scheme, etc) but all of them are in the Mega-bit per second range.

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        For decades, Shannon’s Theorem was accepted as an inviolate law, and no-one really tried to exceed his theoretical 1200 bps limit on a 3 Khz line. It took a true sceptic to challenge the received wisdom. Scepticism is not about mocking things we don’t understand, but rather about doubting our own perceptions.

        • Donald Clarkson says:

          I ought to have conceded that many early telephone lines were loaded with inductance to neutralise the line capacitance and so flatten the response in the 3 kHz speech band. These ‘loading coils’ would have made data transmission beyond 1200 bps impossible and so the 1200 bps limit was likely imposed to ensure that data equipment (fax machines, for instance) were compatible with all lines. Notwithstanding, this is still representative of the sort of Luddite-mindedness that stands in the way of progress.

    • Steve says:

      Donald,

      I’m coming in late, but fantastic post. It always amazes me how many people talk about what is or isn’t audible without ever feeling the need to audition the equipment for themselves.

      “Let’s not forget what ’scepticism’ means!”

      Precisely!

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        Thanks, Steve. I was beginning to feel quite lonely out here. Your article says everything I have been trying to say, but so much more eloquently. I hope people take the time to read it.

        • Steve says:

          You’re pretty eloquent yourself. I’m just trying to help you hold down the fort.

          This whole discussion has led me to imagine doing some experiments of my own. The pure objectivists claim there are established testing methods for determining if people can hear subtle differences between pieces of gear. Many in the audiophile community reject those methods because they claim that the methods themselves mask or diminish one’s ability to differentiate, a stance which invites ridicule from the objectivists. But what intrigues me is that this subjectivist claim is testable. As a skeptic, I would find it interesting to determine which, if any, testing methods provide obvious contrast to a set of listeners, which other methods obfuscate the differences to those same listeners, and whether or not testing methodology does indeed have a dramatic effect on the outcome of comparative listening. I’ve been thinking up some good test conditions to demonstrate the effect.

  16. Willie says:

    I don’t understand the authors intention here. He claims to have great knowledge in electronics based on training and experience. He gives explanations of how various distortions occur, then he insults those who purchase expensive audio gear based on those very parameters. He claims to be a proponent of audio science then ridicules those who fall for it. He states, “As a consumerist, it galls me to see people pay thousands of dollars for fancy-looking wire that’s no better than the heavy lamp cord they can buy at any hardware store”. Is this so-called audio expert saying lamp cord will sound as good as quality speaker wire? Nonsense! If certain speaker wires have better sound test results than others then of course they are superior sounding. Can we hear a difference? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the individual, but I assure you lamp cord will sound far worse, just try it.
    The author goes on to state “logically speaking, just because a large number of people believe something does not alone make it true”. In fact, audiophiles are the minority, poor quality sound systems are enjoyed by the majority as evidenced by the number of IPODs and WAVE radios in use.
    I agree that many of the claims made by audio equipment manufacturers may be moot, but the bottom line is if someone enjoys the way something sounds isn’t that all that really matters?
    In the end you get what you pay for. Buy a cheap stereo and it will sound crummy. But if that makes you happy, so be it. If you want a great sounding system you’re going to have to shell out the big bucks. Just be sure to let your ears guide you, not the advise of authors, be they marketers or skeptics.

    • John Beck says:

      Maybe I can help explain the author’s intentions with an analogy.

      Suppose someone with great training in health and medicine wrote an article explaining that many alternative medicine treatments were ineffective (and a waste of money) despite the fact that they attempted to support them with scientifically sounding statements. He went on to show that the scientifically sounding statements were either misleading or untrue – and suggested any positive effect which results from these treatments were due to wishful thinking or the placebo effect.

      You may think that he was ridiculing those who fell for these scams, but he was trying to warn them – and a closer look who show that his ridicule and negative comments are reserved for those who peddle this ‘snake oil’ – not those who fall for it.

      That is akin to what Mr Winer was doing with his article on Audiofoolery.

  17. Donald Clarkson says:

    Bearing in mind the Spinoza-derived skeptic.com credo…

    “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

    …let’s avoid labels like ‘stupid’, shall we?

    Donald Clarkson

  18. Eric Winesett says:

    I had been aware of the dubious claimed benefits of Monster Cable for years, but was shocked to find recently that I could pay over $100 to replace the four one-inch wires that connect the phono cartridge to the tone arm on my turntable. I bought the $9 set.

    What’s amusing to me is that audiophiles are spending tens of thousands of dollars on equipment to reproduce music that may have been originally recorded (at least in part) with $90 Shure SM-57 microphones. Even if the studio used $4000 Neumann mics exclusively, I guarantee the cords were not held off the ground with exotic wood “elevators.” So the best you could possibly achieve is to reveal the inferiority of the original recording process.

    If you need comic relief:

    http://boingboing.net/2009/10/25/the-14772-audio-grad.html

  19. Arie van der Reijden says:

    Being skeptical and not rich I decided to pick up my soldering iron and produce some home made cables, both power cords and interconnects. Well, the results are really amazing. My power cords have a fair amount of silver in them and are shielded with braided copper. It opened up the sound more than substantial, I have a very direct sound now. I’m using this cord for my guitar amplifier only. Same with the interconnects, some of them are built up in silver, others in carbon fiber and the results are astonishing. Took a while to get it all done, but I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot from it and it was fun to do. For me it’s impossible (well, so to speak) to go back to off the shelf products! Amount invested: some 30 to 40 euro (I’m from Holland).
    p.s.: I’m switching back and forth between standard cables and home made every now and then just to be sure I’m not fooling myself…

    • Barry says:

      > I’m switching back and forth between standard cables and home made every now and then just to be sure I’m not fooling myself…

      Yep, because there’s no chance whatsoever of fooling yourself with that non-blind test you’ve devised.

      • Steve says:

        We don’t go through life blind-testing everything. To suggest that every non-blind test invites obvious bias, especially to someone posting on a skeptics web site, denies how we humans live, and strikes me as a little insulting. If you go to an ice cream shop and ask for samples, do you close your eyes and tell the attendant not to reveal which flavor is in each spoon? Blind testing is certainly useful, but rational adults are entirely capable of making decisions of preference with our eyes wide open.

  20. Al says:

    Do you remember “Transient Inter-Modulation” distortion ? The closest physical reality to this would be “slew rate” which shouldn’t be a factor at audio frequencies. What got to me was the fact that the T. I. M. “papers” were written by audio engineers !
    By the way, all of my cables are “oxygen-free”.

    Al

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      During slewing, the amplifier becomes non-linear, and thus a modulator. Where’s the mystery?

  21. Greg says:

    If 20db is multiplication factor of 10 then 120db would be a 1,000,000 or .0001% not 120db is 1000 X. Ethan should get the science right. I agree with most of what he says anyway. however it is possible to very easily hear certain dissonant tones at 60db or 1000x below another signal, say a pure sine wave then introduce a dissonant tone 60 db below.

    • Another Point of View says:

      10 db is a multiplication factor of 10 and 20 db is a multiplication factor of 100, look it up before making corrections. We are talking power. 3 db is the smallest change we are able to hear, approximately double the power.

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        I was taught that the decibel was regarded as the degree of change appreciable by the average ear, which is why it was adopted instead of the Bel or the Neper.

        • Steve says:

          I was taught the same as Donald. 1 dB is the smallest increment of change perceivable by the average human ear (though those of us who work in audio frequently make much smaller adjustments to audible effect) and a 3 dB increase in volume requires a doubling of the power applied.

  22. Masked Evangelist says:

    My amplifier goes to 11.

  23. John M. Dlugosz says:

    No kidding! I’ve seen ads for a magic marker that you draw around the edge of a CD to make it sound better. The “reviews” are amazing reads in self-deception. I’m sure I could sell something to those people, but have resisted.

    • aphid says:

      The “green pen” thing, according to one source, dates back to an April Fools post circa 1987. Quoting a 1991 post, in part:

      “I am not sure why the urban legend has it that a green pen should
      be used. Green is the “opposite of red”, but so what? It seems
      especially silly for compact discs. Perhaps some unfortunate
      credibility was given by an lenghty April Fool’s article I wrote on the subject about four years ago for rec.audio wherein markers of
      different color and brand were ficiticously compared for CDs. The
      article did, however, state that it was an April Foolie.”

      http://tinyurl.com/yabovfq

  24. John M. Dlugosz says:

    Even people who know better will suffer. For example, the article points out the foolishness of expensive cable. Yet, it neglects the fact that poor-quality lamp cord or the like can be detrimental. With all the hype, how do you buy good, properly rated, cable without spending a fortune for the snake oil? How do you know the difference between poor lamp cord and OK lamp cord, when the spec they are sold for (current carrying capacity) is identical? Perhaps moving up a gauge and tinning the bare ends is all you need! But without proper scientific experiments, it’s just more (though more believable) anecdotes.

    (To explain, my dad was complaining about his system not sounding good anymore. I found the ends of the zip-cord used as speaker wire were visibly tarnished. Cutting off an inch and re-stripping, and reconnecting the speakers, apparently fixed it.)

    • John Beck says:

      “How do you know the difference between poor lamp cord and OK lamp cord, when the spec they are sold for (current carrying capacity) is identical? Perhaps moving up a gauge and tinning the bare ends is all you need! But without proper scientific experiments, it’s just more (though more believable) anecdotes.”

      Wire’s pretty simple stuff (at audio Hz) -if it can’t ‘carry’ the current it will be obvious – it’ll get hot and even melt.

      If you’d rather not rely on (dangerous) empirical tests, compare the max wattage of your amp to the max watt rating of the lamp cord – if you’re still nervous go to the next bigger wire.

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        Oh my goodness, I don’t know where to begin to address the ignorance implied in this statement. Lamp cord is designed to carry sinusoidal 50 Hz or 60 Hz at an ampere ot less. Try to run your ADSL/broadband connection via lampcord and see how far you get. Audio covers 10 octaves over a 300000:1 current ratio.

        Lamp flex is encased in soft plastic because flexibility is a primary requirement – but flexibility allows the conductors to move relative to each other – and that allows energy dissipation (look up the definition of the Newton). Speaker cable has to be rigid not only to support the pos and neg but also to support individual wires within each pos and neg leg so that they are unable to move relative to each other.

        But ultimately, if you can’t hear the difference, it makes no difference. Any decent audio retailer will tell you that.

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        Speaker cables getting hot sounds crazy but in fact resistive loss is a linear function and can be compensated for by simply turning up the volume. It is not a ditortion, as such. However, cable resistance influences the response of the cross-over filters, and also the resonances of the driver units themselves. It also compromises the control the amplifier has over the speaker cone (damping). Fortunately, driver coils themselves usually have a few ohms of resistance, which helps to ameliorate the effects of lead and connector resistance. Keeping total source resistance to less than half an ohm should normally suffice. Allocating half of that to amplifier and connectors imposes a minimum wire diameter (for 3 m speaker leads) of 0.7 mm. Skin depth at 20 kHz is 0.5 mm which suggests a maximum wire diameter of 1.0 mm. (I refuse to speak in terms of wire gauges. They are the work of the Devil. Do your own conversions to whatever ‘standard’ wire gauge pertains in your neck of the woods.)

    • Audiophail says:

      The way to keep from getting ripped off is simple. Buy cable where the pros buy it. A couple places that come to mind first are Markertek and BTX. Audio/Recording/Broadcast pros stake their jobs on quality (not fancy) cable everywhere every day and it is more than “good enough”.

  25. Audio Truth says:

    Some of what the author states is quite true about snake oil salesmen in the audio industry which I have been battling for years, but as a member of the Skeptic Society I never thought a fellow member would be calling me a “snake oil salesman”. I owned a company that did manufacture high end audio equipment and for the past few months have been contemplating doing it again when the economy picks up.
    There are constraints of writing a column however so many topics were missed and some of the others are not fully understood.
    As someone who has been in the audio industry for over thirty years I discovered long ago some people don’t have good ears. For those who can’t hear the difference between low-fi and high-fi you really have my sympathies. Music is the best when you feel like you are there when it was recorded.

    • John M. Dlugosz says:

      “Music is the best when you feel like you are there when it was recorded.”

      I was present at a Shenia Twain concert recording before she did her regular tour. It was for DirecTV, and on DVD. When I was there, the acoustics were terrible and we could not understand what she was singing. Someone suggested “rear wave cancellation” from the concrete arena.
      On the live broadcast and DVD, the sound is very good, almost as good as the released CDs that made here famous.
      So, recording can sound *better* than being there when it was recorded. There is “engineering” that goes into the final music that you miss in the live performance.

      • Steve says:

        You’re talking about an amplified concert in a large arena. I think what the OP was referring to is the sound of a band, theoretically unamplified except for the electric instruments, playing in the room where the music was recorded. Also, the dirty secret about “live” albums and concert videos is that much of the audio is replaced afterwards and the whole thing is remixed.

    • John Beck says:

      Recordings don’t really sound like “being there” because the audio signal is always processed (e.g. it is often compressed – highs made lower). The acoustics of the venue and peculiarities of the microphone placement alter the signal they are measuring – so no two recordings will sound the same.

      There is not much you can do ‘downstream’ to remove the fact that the signal has been altered ‘upstream’ – you can alter it again to get something you like but you will never recover the original signal – no matter if it were stored in an analog or digital representation.

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        Or you could source your music from reputable studios who have a regard for high-fidelity.

  26. kapn' krunch says:

    i agree with the point of gear being ridiculously expensive(for people with more money than taste).
    But- I disagree on the Hi frequency content point. After embracing CD in the 80s, but NEVER getting rid of my vinyl, , I recently started doing software conversions of SQ Quad LPs, which have a lot of info above 20K, some go up to 45K!. Now , I KNOW I can’t hear above 19K by my audiometry test, but I can hear the difference between an LP and a CD -same title-to me cd’s are eunuchs, cut off at 20K, poor things. So, for example I can A/B Synergy’s “Cords” with the normal cd to the Hi Res 96/24 LP rip I did on DVD-A, and the DVD-A crushes the cd in my system. Now, I KNOW I can’t hear past 20K , but the extra harmonics do add a lot to the sound. Now I cringe when I listen to cds that I also have on HiRes(LP,sacd and dvda).
    To me it’s like a Monet painting, from far away you can see solid colors, but the closer you get , those solid colors are made from different colors that create the illusion of the solid color you see from far away.
    I know I hear the ultrasonic info “embedded” in the 20-20K, and it has been a revelation.
    My wife’s hearing is way more sensitive than mine,but my other firends can’t hear the sdifference.. I guess it all boils down to what kind of Alien..err, I mean HUman (Freudian slip) you are…

    • John Beck says:

      I thought Winer addressed this phenomenon: LP’s add distortion which can make music sound more ‘pleasing’, despite the fact that it is less ‘accurate’

  27. Audio Truth says:

    I referring to acoustical instruments works of art like Miles Davis 1959 recoding of Kind of Blue or 1957 Sherazade with the Vienna State Orchestra and Rudolf Streng on violin. You listen to Shania Twain concert an IPOD will work.

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      Indeed. Horses for courses. Ripcord will suffice for speakers in the kitchen or the car, but trying to achieving some realism in your listening room requires effort and experimentation.

    • tomasz. says:

      so sound quality is also partly dependent on perceived artistic merit? interesting.

      • John Beck says:

        Although I agree with your sentiment I think they were referring to the fact that different styles of music have different abilities to mask low sound quality. e.g. Many rock bands add distortion to their sounds (BTW: This was in the original article).

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        You have probably all seen this Joshua Bell performance in a Metro station:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnOPu0_YWhw

        Funny though, even music you would normally hate can sound lovely on a decent sound system. That’s if you appreciate having the gift of hearing, I suppose, rather than just being devoted to a particular musical genre.

  28. David Hadaway says:

    Your list of important factors left out polar pattern (in speakers).

    • John Beck says:

      You are right.

      However, it doesn’t cost much to move speakers to find ‘sweet spots’ also well designed speakers should have big enough ‘sweet spots’ that it sounds good most everywhere in the room.

  29. Shenonymous says:

    It is nice to know how we the public keeps getting ripped off! Yeowie kazowie. Thanks I needed that sobering up.

  30. david moran says:

    in your frequency response paragraph, add (for spatial listening) FR “as a function of angle”, per the hadaway comment above. what we hear in an enclosed space is the radiation pattern of the source.

  31. Ictus75 says:

    I used to work for what was at the time the largest single Monster cable retailer in the USA. I could not believe how people would believe the propaganda and buy that stuff. Snake oil indeed. The thing that really opened my eyes/ears was talking to the repair dept guys. They would laugh about all the claims. The best example they showed me was a very high end speaker they had opened up to fix. Even if you had the best and biggest cable money could buy, the wires from the terminal plate to the speakers themselves were just very thin and inexpensive wire—nothing monstrous about it. You’re better off spending all that money on reasonable cables and some acoustic room treatment.

  32. Karnac says:

    Wow. Some of the comments on here show how hopeless the situation is. Ethan, thanks for the article. To people like Donald Clarkson. I can only pat you on the head and say “Uh huh, suuuure there’s a difference.”

    More money than brains, for sure.

    • Conner says:

      Well put Karnac.

      Whenever the audiophiles are overwhelming us “tin ears” with dbs, ohms and resistance figures I wonder to myself if they are missing the point(s).

      I might have spent $800 – $1000 on my home audio, not really sure, but it works. Maybe it doesn’t convey some subtleties or distorts sound in some inaudible manifestation. If it does it does it in such a way that I still get goosebumps when I hear a certain musical hook, a vocal lilt, or maybe a new artist I want explore further.

      And yes, I do own one of those heretical MP3 players that allow me to have the goosebump experience whilst walking. I haven’t been able to find an extension cord long enough to facillitate the home system on these excursions.

      I equate audio systems with a bottle of wine. If you pay any more than $25 only the oenophiles and sommeliers can tell the difference. They can only achieve this when they sniff it, twirl it and then spit it out in a clinical manner. Sophisticated I suppose but that is not how I want to enjoy wine. Just as sitting in a hermetically sealed room listening to a $10,000 system so you can hear the faint foot tapping of the trumpet player seems nitpicky.

      I ask myself, does the artist require me to spend wads of cash to understand their intentions? I’ve read and heard many interviews of my favourite artists and not run across this demand. Maybe the artists are assuming I already have the proper audio equipment but I doubt it.

      • Donald Clarkson says:

        Fortunately for us there are dedicated wine-lovers who have spent the time and money so that today it is possible to craft superb wines in Australia and New Zealand that we can enjoy for under ten bucks bottle. Similarly, there are dedicated audiophiles who have invested heavily in the art of music reproduction so that a modest system today sounds as good as the state of the art allowed 35 years ago. Anyone who enjoys music (or wine) should give praise to these ‘pioneers’, not call them ‘stupid’. Some musicians go to pains to achieve the best sound, and probably hope that we take some effort too; some surely don’t give a stuff as long as the royalties keep rolling in. Some of us try to appreciate art; some of us just consume it. Whatever floats your boat, I say. If you want to call yourself a sceptic yet base your judgement of others on your own limited faculties, so be it.

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      More money than brains? I have a friend who spent more on his speaker cables than I have on my whole system. But he is a successful businessman who designed his house around a home theatre and a listening room, and I am an out-of-work bum. I suppose that should not stop me judging him.

  33. Donald Clarkson says:

    It is true that modern CD players have jog-proof buffers but it wasn’t always so. When CDs were introduced in the ’80s memory was still measured in kilobytes and CD processing was pretty much done in real time. Sony opted for a cheap player that required precise, expensive media, whereas the more expensive Philips design anticipated cheap, mass-produced media and expected run-out and got confused if it couldn’t see an error signal. As a result, some European CDs did not work well on Japanese machines, and vice versa. Also, some early CDs were poorly produced; held up to the light you could actually see pinpricks of missing data.

    At around the same time the turntable was being ‘re-invented’ and new low-noise plastic from JVC and half-speed mastering from CBS and others was producing outstanding LP reproduction.

    The combination of these factors I think helped to give the CD a bad reputation. With my first CD player, I couldn’t tell the difference between the original CD and a home recording of the CD made on a compact cassette tape. No doubt the investment in turntables and LPs made by manufacturers, suppliers and consumers and the consequent lobbying from all of them helped to cement the idea of the CD as an inferior medium.

    Early MP3 was very clever and newer techniques are quite impressive. I wonder though how well the old noodle copes with having to fill in all the missing bits in lossy-compressed music. Could it result in anxiety rather than relaxation? The ultimate listener fatigue?

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      Oh, and another thing. The fascination with ‘digital remastering’ by upstart audio ‘engineers’ desperate to find some use for their new digital toys meant that many old standards transferred to CD no longer sounded much as they were intended to by their producers. No wonder CDs were regarded by many as inferior!

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      And yet another thing…MP3 pays no regard to sound-staging. Even at 320 kbps instruments meander all over the place, left and right and up in the air. It might ‘sound’ okay but it is not realistic. Funny though how haters of MP3 think DAB is great, even though the technology is the same.

  34. Dale Leopold says:

    As a long-time fan of Mr. Winer’s writing (both on audio and in his previous life as a PC Magazine columnist), I was very pleased to see this article in Skeptic. His web site (www.ethanwiner.com) has loads of good articles that relate to some of the statements made in this article. There’s also a cool video where he plays an army of cellos.

  35. Shalin Kochar says:

    Ethan Winer has plenty to contribute on the subject of audio, especially his mastery of bass traps. Insofar as his skepticism is concerned, he hits the right notes – the rudimentary ones.

    The charge of the article being facile would not be fully deserved. One cannot go over every controversial nuance given the constraints of article length and audience type. Yet, one too many of his positions are themselves a consequence of tenacious engineering myths, not solid science.

    One would be led to believe that if perfection were achieved under lab conditions for his parameters of noise and distortion, temporal errors and frequency response, reproduced music would be indistinguishable from that of a live unamplified musical performance. That is not the case at all. The role of sound power response and the polar radiation AWAY from the listener profoundly influence the realism of reproduced sounds. Psychoacoustics is a field in its infancy and is tremendously exciting. Unlike in video where the parameters of reference performance have been specified, that of audio remains elusive. Our binaural hearing mechanism with its complex processing in the brain presents an infinitely more challenging specter to understand.

    It is in the vein of under-appreciating a sound’s polar response that Ethan gets it wrong on room acoustics. A musical instrument played outdoors is sonically lifeless. Indoors, the same instrument sound blooms. If a playback system can relay a sound with the same exact fidelity of an original performance, the same indoor/outdoor relationship should still stand. And so it is that a good loudspeaker shines indoors whereas the same speaker outdoors produces a vapid music-out-of-a-keyhole experience. The comb filtering that Ethan derides is actually information rich fodder for the brain’s hearing centers. Indeed, incontrovertible evidence for the positive role of early and delayed reflections in small room acoustics continues to mount. Comb filtering is alarming as measured in a room. And it’s alarming to listen to if encoded in the original signal. But in the context of room acoustics, it’s not just innocuous but helpful. Attempts to reconcile comb filtering “distortion” and the fact that it is never perceived as objectionable have been risible; that fourth or fifth early reflections are good and lend to desirable indoor sound but the strong first and second reflections that result in ugly looking graphs must be an anathema. What more could showcase skepticism gone astray? The argument is in brutal violation of scientific tenets of “algromithic comressibility” or “parsimony of explanation.” In other words such excuses only serve to inflate a conundrum and explain nothing! Nor are any of the counter-arguments in harmony with established knowledge on the desirability of early reflections gleaned from controlled anechoic conditions. There you have another skeptic tenet violated. To expect us to give credence to a proposition incongruent with existing body of facts and evidence would lead to countless blind alleys.
    Apparently audiophoolery is far more insidious than outlined in the article and Mr. Winer himself has fallen victim. In audio and acoustics in particular, run-of-the-mill street level engineering is deracinated from the arch of science under which it lives. Measurements and mathematical models aren’t meant to serve our sense of pulchritude or soothe egos. Scientists who conceptualize measurement standards and mathematical models must be aware to the extent to which they are predictive of end-point outcomes. To Ethan, they are not.
    In summation Ethan states that the room has the greatest effect on audio fidelity. This is again misleading. Rooms do introduce distortions, primarily to lower frequencies. Ethan’s own bass traps and judicious equalization help with that. But a better sum-up would be that an accurate loudspeaker is the most important contributor of fidelity. Its relationship with the room is that an excellent loudspeaker will translate very well in a variety of domestic rooms, excessively reflective or dead spaces notwithstanding.
    Scientifically savvy resources on audio are sparse on the web. Skeptics ought to look for webzines and blogs by Peter Aczel, Tom nousaine, Sean Olive, and Seigfried Linkwitz. They may not be spot-on right on everything. But these are clear thinking journalists and scientists whose positions are fairly unpopular among audio engineers and audiophiles. Instead, they pass a much tougher skeptic test. Their opinions more closely reflect the consensus of thinkers who contemplate research paradigms at the edges of human knowledge – scientists with high citation rates in papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

  36. Brian X says:

    What I see in a lot of these comments — especially Donald Clarkson’s — is exactly the sort of self-deluded, special-pleading-ridden mindlessness and dismissal of standard scientific protocol that makes this field such a ripe source of mockery to begin with. (The abuse of science regarding conductivity — especially such absurdities as “directional” cable — is particularly egregious.) The simple fact is that subjectivist audiophiles have so locked themselves into their beliefs about their equipment that they can’t bring themselves to admit that much of what they report is confirmation bias.

    Then again, many of us are more than happy with MP3 and AAC and find the obsession with perfection a little strange and overblown.

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      Your last sentence really puts it all in a nutshell. It is more than obvious that most people do not really regard seeking a cure for cancer to be worth the effort. What fraction of the world’s six billion try to make a contribution? Even in the First World, how many of us take the trouble to study medical science? Does that mean that those who do are misguided? In any given field, very few bother with perfection. In what specific area do you yourself pursue perfection?

      Surely not in scepticism? Perhaps you would define for us your view of what scepticism entails? Is it dismissing out of hand anything that you don’t understand?

      • Brian X says:

        My view of skepticism is as follows: everything that can be observed is subject to scientific scrutiny, not only as to what happened, but whether it happened in the first place, and anything that cannot be observe does not matter.

        In the case of subjectivist audiophiles, most of what is claimed can be tested in scientific terms. The problem is that scientific tests (for things such as fidelity of reproduction, distortion, amplifier quality) tend not to bear out the claims of subjectivists, so subjectivists (like many a wine snob, alternative medicine supporter, claimant for psychic phenomena, and the like) discount the value of scientific testing because it doesn’t give the results they claim.

        Skepticism is about following *all* the evidence, not just that which most appeals to your particular tastes. You, like many a pseudoscientist, argue for special consideration without any real justification that such special consideration is necessary. (Also, the nicest thing I can say about your likening audio engineering to cancer research is that it’s tasteless hyperbole. It doesn’t have any bearing on your arguments (which still suck) but it does make you look rather… frivolous.)

        • Donald Clarkson says:

          Mr X, what do you mean by “wine snob”? Is that anyone who knows more about wine than you? Do you understand why aged wine is smoother than fresh wine? Why Chianti is especially nice with pasta? Why over-oaked wine tastes sour? What exactly is your field of expertise? Found any cures for cancer lately?

          Scepticism does indeed involve following all the evidence, and that includes what I see and hear and feel and taste. Are you one of those lost souls who does not believe something unless a scientist tells you it is so?

          What special consideration have I argued for? I don’t give a shit if you listen to your music on a wind-up gramophone. I don’t ask that you subsidise decent speakers or well-constructed cables, or even green marker pens for that matter. I have been building my own kit since I was 14 years old, from bits and pieces collected on the garbage dump. It is hardly the best but it affords me great pleasure. I am sorry if my pleasure displeases you. Are you sure you’re not Catholic?

          You call me a pseudoscientist. If that means trying to imagine something beyond what I have been taught, perhaps you are right. But what sort of scientist are you? You refer to ‘scientific scrutiny’. What does that mean? That we know how to measure everything? ‘Anything that cannot be observed does not matter.’ Really? You poor man. Try to expand your scepticism to include the field of science. Not the scientific method, you understand, but science itself. Once you regard science as settled you lose the right to call yourself a sceptic.

          “Most of what is claimed can be tested in scientific terms.” Have you tried to speak to a computer lately, on your telephone banking service for instance? They still can’t tell the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but you believe that an instrument can do a better job than the human aural system?

          My reference to the select few who take the trouble to research cancer was not related to my argument, but to yours. You intimated that audiophilia was worthless because it engages so few. I was pointing out that the same could be said for cancer research, and that your argument was therefore specious. (Actually, I was never arguing at all, but merely stating a point of view. As were you, I guess.)

          Live and let live.

          • Brian X says:

            That you equate the use of instruments in a scientific process with a badly implemented voice menu system tells me pretty much everything I need to know about what you know about science. Good day to you, sir.

        • Steve says:

          “My view of skepticism is as follows: everything that can be observed is subject to scientific scrutiny…”

          Your view seems to be that everything that can be observed BY YOU is subject to scientific scrutiny. Everything observed only by others is subject to ridicule.

          Wine “snobs” spend many years cultivating their palates in order to distinguish particular characteristics that are not measurable or definable by current science. Is it your position that everything they sense through that practice is confirmation bias? What kind of skeptic are you? Is there nothing that you’ve cultivated a skill at which allows you to perceive things that most people cannot to the same degree? Would they be justified in calling you delusional?

          • Brian X says:

            There is a difference between a wine fancier and a wine snob — it’s the same as the difference between a foodie and a gourmet. The deciding factor is the snob’s lack of open-mindedness to contrasting data and outside experience.

            As for saying anything that can be observed BY ME, I don’t see where you get that out of what I said. There are plenty of things that I can’t observe directly that are easily observed using the right piece of equipment — a spectrometer, perhaps, a paleontologist’s pickaxe, or a piece of litmus paper, or an oscilloscope; on the other hand, there are plenty of things that people report with their own senses that weren’t actually events at all. The problem with wine snobs, parapsychologists, and subjectivist audiophiles is that they refuse to try to correct for confirmation bias and reject any control that would help them do that. Despite this clear, glaring methodological flaw, somehow it’s us skeptics that wind up labeled as “closed-minded”.

          • Steve says:

            OK, let’s say ‘observable by you or scientific devices that you believe to be credible,’ the underlying assumption being that everything observable is measurable. Here’s the problem with that…

            I’ve been working in audio for nearly 30 years. For even longer than that, people have been claiming that everything there is to know about sound can be measured and is published on spec sheets. But every few years, some new spec become popular (TIM distortion, slew rate, etc.) and the very same people who were previously claiming that everything important was on the spec sheet suddenly become interested in the new spec too. It’s as if every few years, the larger engineering community says, “OK, we were wrong then, but now we REALLY know everything. No need to look for any new parameters.”

            Meanwhile, the people who are driving the movement to measure for and publish newly discovered audio parameters are, and always have been, the people who say, “I hear something that you’re not accounting for in your numbers.” For this, they’re usually ridiculed; but then eventually, someone working in psychoacoustics publishes a paper about the observed phenomenon, everyone accepts that there’s something unaccounted for, someone devises a measurement for it, and that gets added to the spec sheets. This process has been repeated over and over again for decades.

            What never happens is that the people who were consistently claiming that the observed phenomenon was illusory admit that they were wrong, nor do they ever change their thinking to consider that perhaps there are people with highly trained ears who are hearing things that we haven’t figured out a way to measure yet. THAT’s what gets them labeled as closed-minded.

  37. fabb says:

    on the 96kHz: didn’t know that DVDs compressed that, how stupid, thank you.

    i thought they were superior to CDs due to the fact that they used 24bit and so it was possible to leave much headroom which preempted the loudness war going on with CDs. bleh, overcompression. they even had established a standard which determined the average level of the outproduct. this in the ear of CD producers! -9dB, pffff.

    can we take usage of 96kHz? i can’t hear the difference of 96kHz compared to 48/44.1kHz (but well, i can hear the realtime resampling artifacts of 44.1kHz files as most onboard soundcards just support 48kHz).
    but “theoretically” the difference could be heard, according to some sources.
    Citing from http://www.jamminpower.com/PDF/New%20Audio%20Formats.pdf :
    “If you put a pulse into one ear, then a pulse slightly delayed into the other ear, most people can hear a time delay of 15 microseconds or more. Under some circumstances, some people can hear time delays of 3-5 microseconds. Note that one sample at 48 kHz is 20.833 microseconds. At 96 kHz, it is 10.4167 microseconds. The minimum inter-aural (across the 2 ears) time delay that most people can hear is less than one sample period at 48 kHz.”

    while the paper sounds a bit “philo”, this statement definately is questionalble on a scientific base.

    what do you think?

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      Not entirely sure about this, but I think PCM and DVD-A are uncompressed. AC3 and AAC and ProLogic and so on I think are compressed.

      Don’t really get the relevance of inter-aural delay in all of this. Using higher sampling rates simplifies the design of anti-aliasing and integrating filters, especially in mass-produced players. Philips recognised this from the start with their 14-bit DAC running at 176 kHz. It doesn’t really add to the music but it can improve the transparency of the medium.

      • wil says:

        Just wanted to point out that there are technically three types of “compression” in digital audio. Lossless compression (ZIP type codec, no information loss), lossy compression (perceptual coding, removes the most information) and range compression (using matrix transforms, reduces the dynamic ranges). DVD-A can contain either uncompressed PCM or lossless compressed MLP. TrueHD is lossless compressed MLP also. MP3 and AAC are both lossy compression. AC-3 and ProLogic use a range compression.

  38. Mostly a skeptic says:

    My brother switches out expensive speaker wire and interconnects and tells me he hears a difference. I never do.
    Last time I was at his house, he showed me his new gadget. WalkerAudio’s Talisman is a piece of wood with magnets inset into it in a specific way to “demag” a CD or record. Is this snake-oil or what?! There is even a specific way to use it! Naturally I don’t believe it will work simply because CDs only have plastic and a thin Aluminum layer. Anyway we listened to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” after which he then “treats” the CD and we listen again. Zoinks! WTF! I CAN’T believe it. I hear a difference! It sounds better. I feel like I’ve seen a ufo or a ghost. I can’t explain why it would work and yet I can’t deny what I’ve heard.

    • Brian X says:

      Confirmation bias. You aren’t doing a blind test, so you, consciously or subconsciously, expect to hear a difference. The only change was your perception of the situation, but it was enough to make you think you were hearing something different, perhaps listen a little closer and notice things that weren’t there before.

      That’s why anecdotal evidence isn’t useful in scientific terms — it may provide a research hook, but subjective experience by itself has very little value in terms of data.

      • Mostly a skeptic says:

        I prefaced my experience with the comments about never hearing a difference when my brother changes out cables to demonstrate that I, once again, expected to hear no changes. That is why I was astonished to hear a difference.

  39. Tom says:

    No doubt speaker wire is overpriced and marketing efforts are filled with magical thinking, but the sound differences are noticeable and not neccessarily correlated to price. I auditioned 5 different cables, all of the same length, in my system and found that the least expensive was best suited to my system. Some of the cables resulted in thinner bass, others made the system sound bright. It was somewhat subtle but even my wife, who has no interest in audio, could discern differences.

    As for tweeks, the best one I know is to cup your hands around the back of your ears to make your ears larger. It’s also free.

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      Well done, Tom. You are a true sceptic. You allowed your own ears to decide.

      But the term ‘overpriced’ is perhaps incendiary. Churning out mile after mile of consumer cabling can be done for peanuts, but retooling for a limited run of specialist cable for a small and discerning market takes courage. A few bad reviews and the whole production run might be lost. As with every commodity, price is determined by the customer, not the producer.

  40. Bradley Foster says:

    I agree with the previous comment, that the dyanmics of the system and the ear of the listener vary. I had some standard speaker wire on my system that sounded okay. I was given a couple lengths of fatter wire (maybe monster cable) and with some effort, fit the fatter wires into the connectors. I found the sound is much fuller and brighter with these cables for some reason. I’m not claiming it is scientific. In any case, I wouldn’t have bought high priced speaker wire because it doesn’t make sense it would make a difference to the sound.

  41. Just A Music Fan says:

    My interest in the article was as an outsider who has an audiophile friend (Electrical Engineer) with a quirky setup and a great record collection. I always enjoy listening to music at his house. The comments were fascinating, as well. I can appreciate the audiophile sentiment expressed by Mr. Clarkson, that pushing the limits of sound reproduction can ultimately benefit everyone, while still appreciating those who have “every day consumers” in mind. I think both can quite easily coexist. Ultimately, however, it is a love of music that counts, and hearing something “great,” as in a work of art that moves you, the subjective listener, in a meaningful way, is what counts. My brother is a talented musician, and for a time he was living in Manhattan with a very successful, great musician, who was then touring with Miles Davis. When I first visited them, I looked forward to hearing some interesting music, and wondered what set up I would encounter, given that the sideman was making a lot of money. It was a boombox.

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      So true. My interest in sound reproduction began with a love of music, but now I enjoy the sound more than the music. Perhaps hi-fi is indeed a religion. And maybe music is. One would have to concede that, of the two, music attracts the larger congregation. Does that make it the more profound faith?

  42. Steve says:

    This article really got under my skin, and not just for its obvious errors and bias, but for its failure to be truly skeptical. I’ve written a rather long rebuttal and posted it here:

    http://wp.me/pjX3y-a

    Thanks.

    • Brian X says:

      The Salem Hypothesis pops up in the strangest places.

      • Steve says:

        Really? Where? My post mentioned nothing about creationism.

        • Benjamin says:

          I think Brian X is referring to this:
          “Skepticism is not about replacing blind faith in mysticism with a new blind faith in science, a field that has the constant evolution of knowledge as its central premise. We must be skeptical about the science too. The assertion that science has already explained everything there is to understand about any topic is itself anti-scientific, and not in any way skeptical.”
          This is pretty similar to arguments used by the Intelligent Design nuisance to further their agenda. I would say it takes away from the main thrust of your rebuttal, which is focused more specifically on audio engineering.

          No one rebutting the main article is disputing the origins of instruments or audio reproduction devices; no one is positing we look to the supernatural for insight into how to build a better amplifier (though the equivalent IS happening in far-flung corners of the internet).
          What is being said is that there are under-cultivated fields of engineering, such psycho-accoustics, and that while their lack of development has not prevented outstanding recording and playback achievements, the likelihood that the field can evolve without bearing an influence on audio engineering is little. In other words, there is still work to be done to more fully account for pleasant and unpleasant listening phenomena. Though it is anecdotal, there is no lack of testimony in support of this hypothesis.

          • Steve says:

            Ah, I see. Thanks for explaining that. FWIW, that’s not at all what I meant to imply and I think the ID folks are irrational morons. My point was simply that, as skeptics, we shouldn’t be questioning only the unexplained, but also questioning the explanations (as science itself seeks to do).

  43. Benjamin says:

    How the existence of fraudulent claims and scams in consumer audio comes as a revelation among an audience of skeptics is genuinely surprising. Was there some sort of evidence that consumer audio would somehow be immune to the hucksterism prevalent elsewhere? Or perhaps some cheerleading was needed for those who choose the most inexpensive options in a market notable for it’s ridiculously high-priced top tier.
    Most objectionable is the implication that all audiophiles can be fairly classified in such a manner. Despite my skin crawling at the thought of being lumped in with a group of nonsense-speaking, pseudo-scientific affluent white men who play dreck like Celine Dion on systems more expensive than my house, my wife and friends can think of no better title than ‘audiophile’ with which to describe me. Such is life when you openly criticize overly compressed mp3s for sounding like garbage.
    A truer skepticism might question the unqualified metric of Harmonic and intermodulation distortion. Scientific studies conducted by Dr. Earl Geddes call into question the audibility of such distortion in percentages long considered objectionable, yet these are the major criteria cited in disqualifying tube amplification as obsolete. Papers on these studies can be found here: http://www.gedlee.com/distortion_perception.htm; Dr. Geddes’ resume is here: http://www.gedlee.com/Earl_resume.htm Disclosure: he sells loudspeakers, however, his shared passion for music and science recalls that of Fred Langford-Smith and Harry F. Olson.
    Additionally, while the hype surrounding the “rediscovery” of the LP may be riddled with misguided adoration of it’s pops, cracks and well-worn warmth, these are hardly the traits championed by those who have stood by it though the coming of the digital age to the present. Check out this excellent in-depth analysis of the CD vs LP debate at Audioholics, a skeptical audiophile site: http://www.audioholics.com/education/audio-formats-technology/dynamic-comparison-of-lps-vs-cds-part-4
    So while the bad science, greed and absurdity that lies at one end of the audiophile spectrum may provide comfort for those who find reaffirmation of their beliefs in articles critical of that (while lacking in any specific citations themselves), there is a viable middle-ground to this audiophilia which progresses in harmony with, rather than despite of, science. The author of this article would have been wise to investigate this.

    • Randy Bessinger says:

      I know Earl personally and also know that he thinks the difference between wires has long been settled and in that he aligns nicely with Ethan. He agrees with most all of Toole’s studies except some of the room interactions with different speaker desgins. Disclosure, I own his speakers.

      • Randy Bessinger says:

        To add to the above. You should know Earl also believes like Ethan that the money should go into the speaker. Having had the pleasure of listening to his set-up, he is NOT a big believer in spending mega bucks on amps (has Pioneer receiver) etc. and so forth.

        • Randy Bessinger says:

          I have to add this….we did listen to Celine Dion.

          • Benjamin says:

            Hopefully a doctor as smart as Earl can develop a vaccine to cure the ear-AIDS you undoubtedly contracted from this listening experience.

            On a serious note, I know Earl likes to post of his “rocking-out” with respect to his speakers. I can only hope this pussified garbage is not the most his speakers can be expected to handle.

        • Benjamin says:

          My own (eventual) home theater receiver purchase will be based off of the Pioneer model Earl uses. I would love to compare a two-channel tube vs two-channel transistor setup.

          I agree the transducers are where the money should be spent. That is why my short-term interests lie in the more affordable realm of a headphone-based setup.

          • Donald Clarkson says:

            You plan to choose your electronics based on the choice of a man whose knowledge of the subject you respect? Good. I am not being flippant when I say that is safer than relying on your own untrained ears. In time you will learn to tell the difference, but only if you expose yourself to decent sound. Limit yourself to one ‘gospel’ and you will never learn the whole truth.

            No point though spending megabucks on speakers if you’re going to couple them to your amp with unsuitable conductors. Just as ridiculous spending loads on fancy wires if your speakers are crap. Get the balance right, from the source all the way through to the listening environment. Any decent retailer will give you the option to audition equipment in your own home.

          • Randy Bessinger says:

            Well, Celine is not really my cup of tea but his theater sounded great.

      • Benjamin says:

        I would love to own a pair of Nathans. I love Earl’s passion towards establishing a meaningful metric as well.

        My beef with the article was not with the specifics, but rather the general anti-audiophile tone. Audiophilia is a valid interest; an interest worth pursuing regardless of who may be benefitting from it (Earl Geddes included).

        Not all audiophiles are confused about speaker wires, just the ones suggested by this article. Many audiophiles would love to call this characterization a straw-man argument, but alas, we cannot. All we can say are there are shades of grey worth respecting if you are handling this topic with any sort of intellectual honesty.

  44. Brian John Mitchell says:

    I’m curious what people in this vein think about true bypass modification for guitar pedals. A friend of mine that builds pedals says it’s a scam & any pedal worth using has good enough wiring that true bypass isn’t really that important.

  45. Derek says:

    As an audio engineer, I come across these same myths regularly. It drives me nuts. Great article. I’ve never understood what the people at Tannoy are doing with their ridiculously spec’ed monitors. IMO, it’s lowering the criticial listen skills of engineers because it makes them believe they can hear a difference where none trully exists. It is a matter of the emperor’s new clothes.

  46. E. Brad Meyer says:

    I’ve written a fair amount on these subjects over the years, and I think Winer’s summary is excellent. He manages to cover all the important ground and his explanations of the issues are both accurate and clear to the non-techie.

    Someone mentioned blind tests of cables. A former editor of one of the big U.S. audio hobbyist mags told me a story of a visit they (he and his technical director) paid to the home of the president of a large cable company. The exec had been pestering them to run cable reviews, so they took some Radio Shack 12 gauge and did a blind test against the company’s most expensive cable on his own system. He couldn’t hear the difference, and the pestering stopped. The company continues to be very successful, and big (hint, hint) anyway.

    I’m happy to say it is not one of those outfits in the business of bilking people out of thousands of dollars for a pair of speaker cables, though such scams are regularly perpetrated. — EBM

  47. Randy Bessinger says:

    Well done Ethan. Of course, we both know that it won’t stop the “true believers”, but it is good to see the article on Skeptic’s web site.

  48. Jim Pelton says:

    Last year I bought some 12 gauge electric wire (the kind you find behind your drywall)and substituted it for the much more expensive 12 gauge speaker wire I had been using. To my ears the sound might actually have improved. I never put back the expensive stuff. But I don’t like the ugly green plastic coating much.

    FYI, there is an emag called “Audio Critic” that discusses these issues at length and comes to similar conclusions, often in harsher terms. It derides (and is much derided by) the expensive accessory gang, which validates it in my mind.

    In the course of the conversation above, a number of comparisons have been made to the consumption of wine. As much as I would like to believe “In vino veritas”, I think that world is even more full of call-it-what-you-will than audio is. There is a lovely and entertaining documentary called “Wine for the Confused” starring John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) that I recommend to anyone who feels insecure about their preferences in that arena.

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      Not sure what green wire you’re referring to but if it is solid core 1 sq.mm copper it makes quite reasonable speaker cable in a modest setup. Even better is cat5 network cable, if the run is not too long.

      When Cleese is asked to ruminate about his work he usually replies in the vein of ‘we were just having some fun’. Don’t take him too seriously. And for heaven’s sake don’t feel insecure about the wine you drink or the music you listen to or the wires on your speakers. Just have some fun.

      • Brian X says:

        Cat5 is massive overkill for anything operating at baseband audio range over the typical cable runs in a home stereo system. The only thing I would use twisted pair for is running raw PCM data from a CD transport to a DAC on the other side of the house, and it’s a lot easier to do that with Wifi.

    • Steve says:

      Wine is just a common example of something that people have a known passion for. They have developed a set of skills and language relating to that passion. But you could just as well be a pizza fanatic and have the same experience. If there are two pizza places on your block that serve very similar styles of pizza, which measure out nearly identically when subjected to lab tests, but you consistently prefer one, are you just delusional for believing there’s a difference? Or is it possible that you, as a pizza expert, can taste something that the lab cannot measure?

      • Brian X says:

        Have you ever read “Molecular Gastronomy” by Hervé This? Being a Frenchman, he spends a fair amount of ink on the minute chemical differences that give different wines their specific character. Given sufficient determination and the proper equipment, a food laboratory could in theory tell the difference between two otherwise identical wines from different microclimates just by knowing what flavor components each microclimate promotes. It’s the same with pizza — if they were to test out identically (which is rather unlikely), the difference might be entirely confirmation bias. In all likelihood, though, there are subtle differences in seasoning even between two pizza shops owned by the same people who otherwise share a recipe.

        Remember, you can’t analyze something without making sure it happens in the first place. That’s what ABX tests and similar controls are for; anyone who says that blind listening tests are useless is deeply self-deluding.

        • Steve says:

          I’m not arguing that blind listening tests are useless. I’ve conducted many of them myself (although I am careful about the methodology, because the outcome can be easily influenced by adverse conditions).

          I have no idea if the wine example you cited would be true, but for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that current technology allows us to identify every parameter known to influence the flavor of wine. Thirty years ago, before that technology existed, did the differences in flavor still exist, even though we couldn’t measure them? Because what you’re essentially arguing is the same thing I’ve heard for 30 years: we already know how to measure everything we can perceive, despite the fact that we’re constantly improving the science of measuring.

          Are you prepared to say that the process of determining what is measurable, either in food or audio, is now complete and there is no reason to develop it further? Is it your belief that the entire sub-field of measurements in food science or psychoacoustics is now at the point where any further refinement would only reveal differences that are imperceptible to humans? If so, why now? Why is THIS the point in time beyond which there will be no significant advancement in these scientific fields?

          • Brian X says:

            Look, let’s take my point down to the barest essentials. In any field where there’s a lot of subjective testing involved, there is a reason why blind tests (ABX or the equivalent) are vital — without blinding, people will sometimes report things that aren’t really there because the tester told them to watch for them. Although scientific testing can’t account for personal tastes, it can (depending of course on whether you’ve got the instrument to measure it) find every *actual* difference between two test samples and, with enough research, the tester can figure out exactly what’s going on. But the effect still has to be isolated enough to prove that there is an actual difference and confirmation bias on the part of the person taking the test.

            Applying it to audiophoolery, the explicit rejection of ABX tests is an implicit rejection of scientific testing of any sort, since it’s rejecting the only way to eliminate confirmation bias on the part of the test subject. It’s also how Riedel scams wine-drinkers into buying $100 glasses — have you ever read any descriptions of their tastings? It’s all leading questions and bad information.

          • Steve says:

            I don’t know why you keep arguing for blind testing. I did not contest the usefulness of blind testing in my post, and I explicitly conceded your point in my subsequent reply. I’m talking about accepting that there may be a difference between what’s perceivable (in blind tests or not) and what’s measurable. I feel like I keep saying “the apple is red” and you keep saying “but oranges are sweet.”

          • Benjamin says:

            Brian,

            Double-blind tests (sound familiar) have confirmed that a cross-section of listeners cannot detect THD and IMD in amounts long considered “objectionable”. In fact, it was not the amount of distortion that was found to be the determinant of audible distortion, but the distortion profile (i.e. the harmonics involved). These results, and the specifics of the experimentations, were twice presented at AES conventions. A new metric was proposed, but due to a lack of research grants is stuck in it’s early phases of development. The links were provided in my first post.

            For lack of anything else, we still rely on the old metric despite it’s being useless. This is in part because it sells gear to the average consumer about as well as anything praised in Stereophile does to the audiophool. It’s ad copy. And I think Winer’s article was essentially boilerplate for the set of beliefs he’s found himself comfortable in believing, despite evidence to the contrary, whether he’s aware of it or not.

            What we need is more experimentation and more DBX, not less. Something IS afoul when there’s room for this much superstition in a field that survives off the scraps that fall off the table of science. Perhaps audio is due a good home-cooked meal.

          • Steve says:

            Benjamin,

            Excellent points. The _science_ demonstrates a gap between what we typically measure and what many of us perceive. The right move — the truly skeptical move — is to review the science behind how we evaluate audio equipment, not just blindly dismiss what many listeners perceive. As pointed out elsewhere, some very good work has been done on the psychoacoustics behind these previously unmeasured phenomena in Tokyo and at Harman Intl, resulting in scientific papers published by the AES. Mr. Winer has conveniently ignored those.

  49. JT Fiore says:

    I am an electrical engineer and have been interested in high end audio since is was fourteen years old in 1971. I have no commercial interests as I am a software developer. Many in the high end have devoted their lives in search of the ultimate in sound. Much like musicians who work for peanuts just to be close to the music. I think the author Ethan Winer has that sort of devotion. However, like any complex endeavor Ethan does the field and himself a great disservice by stating that “Only four parameters are needed to define everything that matters for audio reproduction: Noise, frequency response, distortion, and timebased errors.” I could pontificate in the same way about the entire universe: “ There are only four fundamental forces in the entire universe.” So what? Even if I agreed with Ethan’s premise, does that lead to the Ah Ha! Moment whereby all of the secrets of the audio world unfold in front of me? I could just as easily reduce it to, “”Only two parameters are needed to define everything that matters for audio reproduction: the flow of photons from optical media or the flow of electrons from electrical media.”

    Riddle me this Ethan. If I take Billy Joel and put him in a large room with a piano and I also put a “reasonably priced” audio system in the same room and have a recording of his performance, how many people out of an audience of 100 blindfolded people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the live and the recorded? Then, if I did the same test with the state of the art in audio reproduction equipment, with a $1M budget, would I fool any more people? Because remember it only comes down to those four parameters in your world and two parameters in mine.

    Just so you don’t go away with the wrong impression, I think much of the wiring and power stuff is audio voodoo also but almost nothing in this world is as simple as Ethan is trying to make it out to be.

    • Telfot Charles says:

      You have spoken Truth.
      However, and thankfully, I don’t think the OP was trying to be as severely simplistic as audio denial types usually are. Still, lumping wooden preamp dials with tube amps is a bit much.

  50. Mostly a skeptic says:

    Interesting comments from George Reisch *Stereophile • March, 1999
    http://stereophile.com/thinkpieces/165/

    • Brian X says:

      “Interesting” is one word for it. The author fundamentally misrepresents the nature of science as a field in much the same way as creationists do.

  51. RWetmore says:

    Nice summary/article. As much as I’ve tried to discern differences between cables and interconnects, I’ve not been able to.

    On the other hand, I have observed small audible differences between amps and CD/SACD players. The differences I’ve heard are slight differences in frequency emphasis and/or what one might call ‘tone color’. For example if a player’s output is a little skewed toward higher frequencies, it might sound a little bright compared to one that isn’t. Or a player’s frequency response may have a slightly unique tone quality, Etc., Etc.

    As far as hi-rez recordings…for the vast majority, I hear nothing beyond what I’ve heard on a regular CD. I’m not entirely convinced that analog tape or LPs with an abnormal amount of hi frequency noise or distortion is totally inaudible. Unfortunately, I lack the proper equipment to accurately test this, so I still don’t know.

  52. Sean_O says:

    Thank you for your piece of writing about pseudoscience in high-end audio. You’ve confirmed many of my suspicions that I have long held to be true, but somehow have not been able to convey in words.

    The ONLY assertion I would disagree with in your article is that ultrasonic freqs cannot be heard by the “average” person and that therefore they are not worth special consideration when designing audio components. As any person who can hear a “teen frequency” cell phone ringtone or the annoying ‘whistle’ of an old TV’s flyback transformer can say, many people CAN and DO hear beyond 20kHz. And even if one cannot hear these frequencies, keeping them in along with the rest of the signal is essential in keeping the musical subtleties of the signal that goes to your loudspeaker (or headphones). Their presence/absence isn’t going to make much difference for something like Jimi Hendreix’s riffs, but for a four piece chamber orchestra or one of Buxtehilde’s organ pieces, it can make a tremendous difference to the extremely discerning ear that is likely to be listening with the type of equipment that they are likely to buy.

    I have always told people when I sold high end audio products, the first and foremost move you can make if you want to get into the world of audio electronics connoisseur, is to invest in a Class A Amp. Class A Amps reproduce the entire sine wave of the audio wave at close to 100% fidelity, and, properly configured, can obviate thousands of dollars worth of useless add-ons, equalizers, companders, signal “clean-up” boxes, etc.

    High end audio unfortunately is highly subjective and falls into the category of recreation/hobby and is pursued by people with lots of disposable income. So it isn’t surprising that there are a lot of scamsters in the industry who want to jump in and milk things for all they are worth (unlike healthcare or mortgages, there is no tangible proof of the (in)validity of a product, and the product doesn not involve life or limb, so risk of legal action on the basis of validity of a product claim is just about zero).

    Folks, the best way to avoid throwing your money away in this field is to concentrate on your amp (and the preamp, if you have a turntable). The amp is after all where “the rubber meets the road” since it is by definition 100% responsible for increasing the signal to levels where it can drive your loudspeaker or ‘phones. If you are going to drop $10K or $100K on your equipment, do so on your AMPLIFIER. Any “add-ons” such as expensive cables, esoteric equalizer/compander boxes, etc., only add more noise and aberration and will NEVER compensate for a crappy amp.

    Cheers,
    CO

  53. E. Brad Meyer says:

    Re the importance of sounds above 20 kHz: There is no solid evidence for this assertion and a ton of evidence to the contrary. The sounds you’re talking about are not above 20k; the TV flyback transformer is 15,750 and the ring tones are about the same.

    For most people there is a frequency well below 20k at which their sensitivity falls very rapidly. Assuming you are over 30, that you can still hear a TV transformers is a sign that you are lucky, and/or have taken good care of your hearing, without a lot of exposure to loud headphones or rock concerts. That’s an asset whatever the facts are about the octave above that.

    If you are curious to test your upper-frequency limit I can send you a sound file that will help you do that. We tested most of the subjects in our research on high-bit vs. CD-quality audio. The younger people were predictably the best but no one we found could hear above 18kHz. — EBM

  54. emansnas says:

    Although Mr. Winer sadly dismisses the qualitative importance of room environment variables, when such are not optimized even the best available sound equipment will fail to deliver an optimal listening experience. Most important among these variables is of course the primary medium that conducts the sound itself – namely the air between the loud speaker and the listener’s ear. Just as one would not use poor quality speaker wire to conduct electrical impulses, one should not rely on poor quality room air to conduct quality sound.

    Scientifically speaking, such factors as air constituency, molecular charge and temperature play a critical role in sound quality. Once these are optimized one notices a distinct improvement in perceived sound quality. Fortunately for audiophiles, a company called ScamLabs will soon to make a product available for air optimization. The product, aptly named ScamAir, will provide substantial perceived sound improvement by:
    - Removing micro pollutants in your listening air (these are the primary source of an ‘unclean’ sound)
    - Removing CO2 (which is a heavy molecule whose high inertial mass impedes sound transmission)
    - Ionization (positively charged air molecules provide a beneficial polarizing effect which enhances sound clarity and brightness – (same principle as used in sunglasses))
    - Instant but transient air molecule temperature reduction (ever notice how sounds are much cleaner and crisper on a cold winter morning)
    - And last but not least, the introduction of Helium atoms to reduce heavy sounds and to provide the purchaser an appropriate voice with which to broadcast the merits of the product.

    Expect an exorbitant price tag commensurate with your confirmation bias quotient.

  55. Ethan Winer says:

    Holy cow, I just came across this. I could spend an entire day replying, but I have time to address only a very few points:

    #11 Bill wrote, “remember the old etch-a-sketch toy? It had two knobs that you turned to draw shapes. It was great at drawing strait lines and angles but when you tried to draw a curve it looked like the artist had brain damage. That is because it was a binary system, I.E. two knobs.”

    That is fundamentally wrong. Yes, it’s very hard for humans to turn two knobs and make a circle, but that has no relation to how digital audio works.

    #15 Donald Clarkson wrote, “Thirty-five years ago it was an established scientific fact that data rates of more than 1200 bits per second were impossible on a telephone line. Fortunately this ‘fact’ was not accepted by certain sceptics, and today we enjoy 24 million bits per second on those very same telephone lines.”

    I couldn’t get DSL at my house until a few years ago when AT&T added boosters / repeaters all around town, and one is now near my house. So it’s not like they discovered some new previously-unknown way to get more bandwidth through a twisted pair.

    #50 JT Fiore wrote about my “four parameters,” “If I take Billy Joel and put him in a large room with a piano and I also put a “reasonably priced” audio system in the same room and have a recording of his performance, how many people out of an audience of 100 blindfolded people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the live and the recorded?”

    I’m sure 100 out of a 100 could tell, but what does that have to do with the four parameters? The reason Billy Joel live will sound different than a playback through speakers is easily defined using the four parameters. For certain, the frequency response will be very different due to recording with microphones, and their proximity to reflecting surfaces in and around the piano.

    #57 Marcus G. Harvey wrote, “the author of the article has been posting under fake sockpuppet* names in his own comment section … The webmaster should be able to match up the IP addresses of these accounts with the one used for the article.”

    I thought that was a joke, but apparently not. Yes, the webmaster should definitely check the IP addresses for all of those posters. I suggest you email the web master and ask him (her?) to post here whether they’re the same or not. My IP address is 99.63.184.140. Marcus, after you have your confirmation that those are all different people, I’ll appreciate a full retraction and apology from you.

    –Ethan

  56. Gordie says:

    Firstly, that is my real first name.

    Ethan seems to think all people are deaf or delusional when it comes to listening to higher-end stereo gear. I thought listening was what this all about. It seems not. It is supposedly about gaining graphical results and double-blind tests. Ethan, if your ears are so limited as to not tell the difference between power cords and interconnects, then so be it. That’s not the rest of the world’s problem. Please keep it to yourself. Don’t go on a childish rampage to warn others of the ‘bad’ people out there who sell such items. It only makes you appear to be foolish and frustrated. Not a put-down, just an honest opinion.

    A simple test – if you are running two mono block amps, replace one cord on one side and then sit back and listen. Golly, what have we here? They sound different. The side with the higher priced cord/cable sounds clearer and more distinct. Imagine that. But no, we are supposed to think we are hearing things and immediately organize strict double-blind tests. Huh? Really? Are our brains and ears so delusional that we cannot hear the difference between left and right? Please.

    It always strikes me that our ears are so innacurrate during relaxed listening but they become so articulate during a double blind test….according to the skeptics. When we simply listen, we are supposed to be totally confounded and have no idea of what we are listening to. We cannot tell the difference between cords, components, cables, etc. Even left – right comparisons are not possible. Our thoughts are totally confused.

    Yet, during a double-blind test, I can imagine someone thinking – ‘Are they really switching the cords? Are they tricking me by keeping the same cord for all tests?’ I think there is more going on in the minds of people during tests than just relaxed listening. But, even then, how can those totally useless ears suddenly become calibrated microphones that can be relied upon to make accurate measurements during the double-blind tests? If we don’t know what we hear during relaxed listening, then we cannot know what we hear during a test. No, we are not influence by our eyes during the test, but still, our supposedly useless ears are still providing the data.

    I read in Hydrogen Audio that one person couldn’t tell the difference between an MP3 player and a Bang and Olefson stereo and their comment went untouched. But, when someone posted that they could hear a difference between two power cords, they were pounced on within a few minutes.

    How about just closing your eyes and trying to determine if the left and right sound different? No, I don’t think that is allowed by the skeptics. Your silly brain tricks you into ‘thinking’ that both sides sound different. I guess your right eye can also be tricked into thinking it sees blue while your left eye thinks it’s seeing pink. Overall, a person has no idea of that their senses are telling them. It’s all in their minds. Does all this sound foolish? It does to me.

    Ethan, that you can constantly go out of your way to attack other fellow manufacturers of their wares is rather disgusting. If these cables and cords did nothing, their manufacturers would have gone out of business a long time ago. With the number of people and companies (yes, companies) who purchase (yes, purchase) these items and are perfectly happy with them, you would appear to be the lone kid standing in the rain after the baseball game crying,’ No, we didn’t loose! Really, we didn’t! The ref didn’t know what he was seeing. Everybody is wrong but I’m RIGHT!’

    I don’t know what to add – I will still trust my ears in this hobby. I didn’t even think there was an issue with hearing when I started this hobby. Then I came across a few forums like this. The first thought was,’Are these people deaf?’ There have been tweaks that made no difference to me and some that have sounded plain lousy. That just reinforces that I ‘can’ hear properly. Just my two cents.

    Play on.

  57. emansnas says:

    Dear Mr. Harvey,
    We here at ScamLabs wonder if you would consider joining us. We have read your long winded ad hominem attack on Mr. Winer that contains virtually nothing substantive and find it perfectly consistent with our own business philosophy. We especially like your dispicable capacity for deceit and deception when attempting to discredit Winer. We imagine you presently have other business interests and we would of course not expect you to reveal these publicly since they most likely would be perceived by those under the delusional spell of Winer to impinge negatively on your own credibility, but I’m sure we can come to some agreement – possibly even a merger!?

    Please contact ScamLabs at your convenience, there’s always room here for one of your insidious ilk.

    PS: There’s room here for your puppet ‘Thanks’ too (that was a nice touch accusing Winer of ‘sock puppetry’, which you so likely practice yourself).

  58. Music Lover says:

    Wow- audio is all about listening to music and some would have us ignore our ears? If I can’t hear or appreciate the difference between audio equipment I will pass, but if I DO HEAR a DIFFERENCE then I should not trust my ears? Really?!! Is it not our subjective enjoyment all that matters where music is involved?

    Sorry but I’ve had enough of pepole trying to do my thinking; that’s why I’m a skeptic.

  59. Music Lover says:

    I have heard powercords, interconnects, speaker cables, isonation devices and cones, basically EVERYTHING this Ethan guy says to have no effect, make a profound difference for good in an otherwise high end system. I have heard this many times with ears which have been evolving since the dawn of human life.

    I trust my ears and I am skeptical of anyone who ignores their sences in favor of test instruments that are not even ten years old and will be laughably obsolete in another ten years. I also mistrust anyone who tries to get me to ignore my reality in favor of theirs, especially when their reality flys in the face of what I know to be true.

  60. Gordie says:

    Music Lover – you said it! I can’t imagine how someone who is in the audio industry can be so unknowing and seemingly have a tin ear. I’ve been using Symposium Roller Blocks under my two amps and pre/pro for a couple of year. To say these and other isolation devices do nothing positive for the sound of any component is just plain ignorant.

    Ethan – please explain why an isolation device under one amp of a biamped system can positively changea the sound of that channel when compared to the other channel when both are played at the SAME time. Be as ‘scientific’ as you wish. And, please spare me the old ‘did you do a double blind test?’ routine, or ‘you don’t know what you are hearing.’ My testing dismisses audio memory. Left and right are listened to simultaneously. I await…..

    • Ethan Winer says:

      Since you wrote “please spare me,” it’s obvious you don’t really want my opinion. Regardless, I’ll try to help anyway.

      Do you have a way to record audio from your amp’s speaker output terminals? If so, record ten seconds or whatever with and without the “isolation device” in place. Then you’ll have a controlled way to tell if there really is a difference. Or just record the output of the loudspeaker with a microphone fairly close, with and without isolation. If you email me the files I’ll be glad to give you a second opinion.

      –Ethan

  61. Gordie says:

    Ethan – thank you for responding. Sorry for sounding quite so negative. I was expecting to be told that I do not know what I hear. In a way, I guess I was as you seemed to disregard my experience by listening and suggested dealing with the issue by a tech-based method. Perhaps I am wrong. If I was to record the sound from my speakers with and without the device, how would that be controlled? Would I play it back later and try to determine a difference by listening? Wouldn’t that be the same as simply listening to the system in the first place? My ears would still be the determining factors. Isn’t that the method that you do not recommend?

    Your response seems to highlight a concern that so many of us have. That is that listening initially takes precedence over electronic testing. Anyone who has invested a great deal of time and money in a system would be foolish to plug in a new power cord and convince themselves that ‘boy this is going to sound great!’ That is not the way it works at this level. There are no kids here that have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on a sound system.

    Early on, I wanted to eliminate auditory memory and built a biamped system. Evaluation is easy and reliable. Change only one side – listen, change only the other side – listen, change both sides – listen. No preconceptions or expectations. Knowing what I am changing does not convince me one way or another of what the resulting change in sound will be. I have no interest in promoting or purchasing new products in order just to ‘have one.’ Listen, just listen. I’ve listened to power cords that changed to sound for the worse, or at least in a way I did not appreciate. Others for the better. The hobby is about listening, not wishing.

    You do not seem to recognize that a ‘controlled way’ of testing ‘is’ listening to both channels of a biamped system at once with either different power cords, interconnects, isolation devices, or whatever is being tried. Auditory memory is not applicable. If I am not able to distinguish between both channels of a system, then I should indeed find another hobby. I’m not able to record my system at this time. I personally have found no need to. I’m not sure if you want to evaluate such resulting files by listening or by technical means. You did not specify.

    Once, just as a joke, I changed all my power cords to stock and took away any isolation devices or other such products. I sat back and listened. I sat there quite surprised by how much all those tweaks helped after all. I paid how much for all this? That session lasted for about five minutes before everything was replaced. Never again!

    Gord

  62. Marcel P. says:

    Having read the article, and tested many isolation devices for audio myself, and had many positive experiences with them, I also can’t see what basis you are telling people in your article that “Isolation has no advantage for other electronic gear either”. I would like to see you support that claim yourself, with scientific evidence to back it up. You have as yet failed to prove your position isn’t one of ignorance, as Gordie suggests.

  63. Ethan Winer says:

    Guys, turntables obviously are mechanical and very subject to vibration. To a much smaller degree, vacuum tubes can also be susceptible to vibration. But solid state electronics are immune, discounting earthquake amounts of vibration. If that were not true, airplanes wouldn’t fly straight, and the electronic ignition in your car would vary constantly and create engine knocking and pinging. Clearly this is not true.

    There are several problems with changing only one channel to hear differences in sound from applying tweaks. Have you ever measured the room response of your system at high resolution? I’m sure the left and right channels are very different! So that alone makes this not a great test method. If you’ve never measured your speakers and room with software like Room EQ Wizard (PC) or FuzzMeasure (Mac), I urge you to do so. I promise it will be a HUGE eye-opener.

    Here’s the crux of the problem:

    Gordie wrote: “Your response seems to highlight a concern that so many of us have. That is that listening initially takes precedence over electronic testing.”

    Testing is infinitely more reliable than listening, assuming you test the right things. This is not to say that testing will tell you if a change to the system made it sound “better.” That’s entirely subjective. But testing can surely tell if the sound has changed at all, and by how much, far more reliably than using ears. Every time you play a piece of music it sounds a little different, even when nothing has changed. This is a complex issue, and is the subject of my recent AES Workshop video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYTlN6wjcvQ

    My point in asking you too record with and without isolation was to be able to play the result two times in rapid succession, and without having the sound come from different places. I also hoped you would email the result files, so I could compare them here scientifically to see what differences there might be.

    To Marcel, it is easy to prove or disprove the effect of putting a pillow or whatever under a power amp. The way to prove this is to record audio both ways, then compare the recordings. I extend the same offer to you. If you’d like to make recordings both ways and send them to me, I’ll be glad to evaluate the files and report here what I find. You can email me from my web site http://www.ethanwiner.com. In the mean time, find an hour when you can watch my video undisturbed, and let me know if the points made make sense to you.

    –Ethan

  64. Gordie says:

    OMG. I’m actually sitting here laughing. Thanks for your time, but it underscores the continued avoidance of listening. The reference to an airplane does not make sense to me.

    The same idea persists – It’s not the cords, cables, or isolation devices that make the sound change. It’s the room, it’s that you are not putting your head in exactly the same place, it’s what you ‘want’ to hear not what you ‘actually’ hear, it’s buyer’s remorse, it’s something, ‘anything’ not related to any of these devices. You have to test a system, not listen to it. Believe me, if I could not tell a difference, I would not keep such a product. I would return it.

    Do you honestly think that anyone in their right mind who purchases a product tests it rather than uses it to determine if it works? I certainly hope not. I don’t. Again, I don’t ‘want’ a product to work, I simply ‘determine’ if it works using my own senses. I once tried a maple butcher block under one amp and found it to sound more relaxed than the other, not as harsh. I then tried a 1 1/2″ granite slab under one amp, fully expecting it to be the Holy Grail. Egad, what a mess. Too sterile, too cold. Out it went. To deny to myself that these differences in sound did not exist would be absolutely ridiculous. I would imagine that you would have taken our microphones and testing equipment to determine something that was so obvious. That seems to be your approach. That if fine by me.

    In your presentation, state that a double-blind test is suitable if changes are subtle. In my experience, there have been times when accessories made subtle changes and times when they did not. My acid test for my system is if I can sit back and look at the front wall and imagine that the orchestra is playing right in front of me. Can I tell where instruments are? Are choirs simply groups of people or are they a collection of individual voices. Your mind quickly leaves behind any components, tweaks, or preconceptions. It’s just enjoying the music. Honestly, if you have not experienced this, you have indeed missed out. With a stock power cord, this feeling simply does not exist. It just doesn’t. I’m using dual Shunyata V-Ray power conditioners. I tried plugging amps into the wall but found that just didn’t cut it. Not a subtle difference, either. Also, you won’t get this from a $500.00 receiver, no matter what cord or cable you attach to it.

    I might as well tell the names of my selected cables I use – power cords are Shunyata Anaconda Helix Alphas. And, they are on every single component in my system. All my speaker cables are Tara Labs The 0.5 and all my interconnects are 0.5s as well. Each and every cable and cord has gone through many, many hours of evaluation over many months. For someone to brush aside my experiences and simply tell me that I am fooling myself is laughable. To suggest that I have to record the sound and run it through an electronic analyzer to prove a difference in the sound is nonsensical.

    Have you ever listened to an expensive power cord or interconnect on a ‘good’ system? If you cannot actually hear a difference, I honestly feel sorry for you. You ARE missing out.

    Gord

  65. Ethan Winer says:

    Gordie, I think you should continue doing exactly what you’re doing.

  66. Howard Roark says:

    Ethan,
    I have been following this thread for a while now and wonder why it is you feel so many people who profess to hear a difference between amplifiers, cables, isolation cones, power cords, line conditioners, and so on, should not trust their ears? I know that in the animal kingdom humans do not have the most evolved ears but we are still at the top of the food chain so our hearing must be pretty good right?

    I’ve got a pretty nice system – Arcam Solo (integrated amp/pre/cd) and Vienna Acoustics speakers all hooked up with inexpensive Monster Cable and stock power cords. Until recently I have not felt the need to experiment with exotic cables but after all the fuss from people who profess to hear a big difference and the avalanche of people who seem just as certain in their denouncements of cables and tweaks in general, I am wondering if maybe it’s time I take a listen for myself. You know, where there’s smoke there’s bound to be fire and all that.

    So my question to you Ethan is this, is there any reason why I should not at least give cables a listen in my system? Also if your answer is “no you should not give cables a listen” then please explain why. I might add that I am not interested in anyone telling me I should not “trust my ears” as the only reason for trying cables will be to gain increased satisfaction from my current stereo system and if it sounds better to me, then great, mission accomplished.

    Thanks,
    Howard

  67. Ethan Winer says:

    Yes Howard, you should try whatever “tweaks” you think might make a difference. But before you spend any money, watch my AES Workshop video which explains why our “evolved” ears are not as reliable as you might think. Here’s the link again:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYTlN6wjcvQ

    This article offers another compelling explanation:

    http://www.ethanwiner.com/believe.html

    Also, I extend my standard invitation to everyone who lives near me in Western Connecticut to visit some weekend afternoon for listening tests and discussion.

    –Ethan

  68. Gordie says:

    If our ears are that useless, why would anyone ever spend any amount of money on a stereo system in the first place? If our eyes can be fooled also, why purchase high-definition video? If our taste can be fooled, why purchase expensive food? Is ‘hot’ really hot, or do we need to hold a thermometer to everything to prove that it is so?

    Ethan, have you ever tried an expensive power cord or pair of interconnects on your system? What are your components?

  69. Don Phillips says:

    Gordie you are a class act idiot.It’s not that our ears aren’t that good, it’s that people are influenced by their eyesight as to what “should” sound better also. You place a big expensive looking amp with the word Krell on the front and next to it an average looking Yamaha amp and 99% of the time people are going to take one look and assume that the Krell amp is better sounding. No matter that inside the case someone has replaced the original components with the SAME Yamaha components so you are comparing the SAME amp. Understand now simpleton?

  70. Ethan Winer says:

    Don, I gave up trying to convert the believers because there’s nothing we can say that will change their mind. I’m more interested in helping those people who truly want to learn. I think the core problem is that many people don’t understand how fragile our hearing really is. That’s why I did that AES workshop and made the video version. Most of the believers won’t watch it, and if they do they refuse to understand what it says and means. They think they’re above that, and believe placebo effect doesn’t apply to them. I wish this weren’t a lost cause, because I don’t think these people are stupid.

  71. Gordie says:

    Really, Don? How nice of you to visit. Since we are stooping to to name calling, dimwit, I don’t assume anything sounds better because it is more expensive or has a fancy name attached to it? Understand, dimwit? Really, do you? If you want to take the inner workings out of a Krell and replace them with Lloyds, I couldn’t care less. That’s your little hobby. I’m sure it will amuse you to no end. Please refer me to a written paper that verifies your premise. Please do. I always hear that there are no written studies of how people could tell the difference between components. Refer all of us to your Krell – Yamaha study. If you want to jump in, please be able to back up your names and results with data. Otherwise, get lost.

    I ‘listen’ to components to ‘hear’ what sounds better to ‘me’. The sounds of components are subjective. There can be no universal claim of ‘this sounds better.’ When I try two different foods, I don’t ask which is more expensive. I ‘taste’ them. Understand now? Probably not. There is no placebo effect when you have no interest in which item sounds, looks, tastes, or feel better to ‘you.’

    Ethan, why are you avoiding listing your components? I’m sure people would like to know what they will be listening to if they take up your kind gesture of having a visit. Also, again, have you ever tried an expensive, no, ‘different’ power cord or cable?

  72. Ethan Winer says:

    My “components” are listed and shown in photos all over the Internet! I have two separate systems in different parts of the house – a home theater and a home recording studio. Both are fitted with high quality gear, speakers, and acoustics. Which system do you want to know about? Not that the gear I own has any relation to the validity of my technical statements!

    –Ethan

  73. Don Phillips says:

    “Gordie” or whoever you really are. I’m guessing you are the same person who posts all over the internet claiming that Ethan is trying to discredit his “rival” We both know who you mean pal so quit trying to hide under assumed names. I’ve seen your same reference to Loyds on another forum. You’re just here to cause trouble and have no basis for your subjective claims. You’re just another audiophile with an axe to grind and more of the tired old “My ears are perfect” and “I don’t need to try double blind tests”

    Did you even WATCH this link?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYTlN6wjcvQ

    JJ talks about a double blind test he gave between amps. I bet you couldn’t have passed it either.

    Good bye Froggie, I meant Gordie.

  74. webmaster says:

    Comments are now closed.

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