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January 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
The Amazing Aspirin
What do aspirins have to do with sound or music?
Article By Roger Skoff


  Did you know that if you take one aspirin a day forever, you'll never die? Of course you must never stop taking them or it won't work. Similarly, a single aspirin, held tightly between a lady's knees is the perfect contraceptive. It is absolutely foolproof and pregnancy will never result as long as the aspirin stays firmly in position.

In one of the most famous (albeit possibly apocryphal) mail fraud cases of all time, the sellers of the "Guaranteed Roach Killer" (a real product) were, so the story goes, found innocent because their "product" actually worked! What they had for decades advertised in a great number of magazines and newspapers and sold by mail-order (hence the "mail fraud" claim) to thousands of people as an absolutely sure-fire way of killing cockroaches and other noxious insects was two small blocks of wood and an instruction sheet that said only "Place roach on block A. Strike hard with block B". When (again, so the story goes) they appeared in court with their blocks of wood and a number of roaches and other insects and demonstrated that their product did exactly as claimed, the court had no choice but to drop all charges.

The fact of it is that ALL of the things I just mentioned ― not just the "Guaranteed Roach Killer", but all of them ― will work exactly as claimed as long as the directions are followed to the letter. That's not the issue, though. The real issues have nothing to do with "Do they work", but with the twin points of "How do they work" and "Is the explanation of how they work (whether stated outright or even just implied), both true and sufficient".

For the roach killer, no explanation was given. The ads just described a benefit ― the killing of bugs ― and let the customers assume (You know what they say about assumptions) whatever mechanism and level of technological sophistication they saw fit. The aspirin examples, however, are much different: Both of them do the old con man's (or stage magician's) trick of setting up something for the sucker to look at while the real action is going on someplace else, entirely.  In reality, the aspirins they call for have nothing at all to do with either longevity or contraception: If you do anything at all without stopping, you'll live for at least as long as you keep on doing it! And if a lady keeps her knees pressed tightly together, whether or not there's an aspirin between them, lovemaking will be impossible and successful contraception will be a certainty!

AspirinSo what do aspirins or any of the rest of this have to do with sound or music? Everything!

In audio, perhaps more than anywhere else, we're constantly presented with things that neither we nor possibly anyone else may understand. And for each of those things, we are either given an explanation (or sometimes even multiple, sometimes conflicting explanations) or are allowed the opportunity to supply our own. It seems to me that good many of those "explanations" may really be "aspirins" in another form.

A good example of this is tube electronics: Do you like them? Do you think they sound better than solid-state? If they do, why do they? It is certainly possible that tubes are inherently superior to transistors, but if that's the case, why do people "roll" them ― switching from one brand, or batch, or even one specific tube to another until they get the sound they want? If tubes are just naturally "better", does that mean that some tubes are less better than others? And if that's true, can it be that some of the "less better" ones are no better (assuming that other tubes really are better) than transistors? And if some tubes are no better than transistors, isn't it possible that tube electronics really aren't any better than solid state electronics at all, but are simply designed by better designers? Or use better other parts? Or just different parts?

All of those are certainly possible: Just the fact that a designer decides to work in tubes might very well indicate that he sees himself as one of the High-End. And if he does, then mightn't he be just a little bit more careful than someone else in thinking-out his designs? Or use better quality or more carefully selected other components (capacitors, resistors, etc.)? Or, how about this? Most people agree that transformers can, and usually do, have their own noticeable sonic "signatures." That's why so much attention is paid to (and often substantial money is paid for) designing or selecting just the "right" transformer for whatever may be desired application. Except for the rare, and often Futterman-inspired, OTL amps, all tube amplifiers do have output transformers and no solid state amp has one. Is it possible, then, that at least some part of the classic "tube" amplifier sound has nothing to do with the tubes at all, but comes from the transformer or from something else, entirely? Could the tubes just be the "aspirin" that everybody's looking at while the real cause or causes for sonic difference are actually to be found somewhere else or in multiple other factors?

What about cables? We already know that low-resolution systems or systems that are poorly set-up or are set up in poor acoustical or electrical environments can keep listeners from hearing the difference between one cable and another. We also know that people kept from hearing such differences may really think that no difference exists, and thus sincerely believe that premium cables are a waste of money. What, though, if a system were set-up perfectly, in a perfect listening room, and consisted of, in addition to a full complement of perfectly "neutral" other components, just one wildly over-bright and uncomfortably "analytical" component (I'm sure we can all think of at least one brand that might fit that description) and one "way-too-dark" and excessively "musical" cable (we probably all know one of those, too) that would offset that one bright component perfectly and create a false  impression of total-system neutrality?

In a case like that, to change the "dark" cable for one that was neutral would certainly produce an instant and clearly audible result: Instead of "neutral-sounding", the system would suddenly sound too bright, and a listener, hearing the difference, would almost certainly believe that it was the new cable that had caused it!

He'd be right, too, but for the wrong reason. And, to make it even worse, for as long as he believed it, his incorrect (though, at first glance, entirely reasonable) explanation for the sudden change might very well keep him from ever finding-out the real cause for that "brightness" and fixing it.

In this example, another "aspirin" ― the cable (either the "dark" one or the neutral one; take your pick, it doesn't really matter) is acting, just like the con man's or stage magician's distraction, to keep the listener from finding out what's really happening in the system ― that a completely different component from the cable (the overly bright and "analytical" one), is flawed ― and as long as he keeps thinking about the cable instead of about the problem, the problem will never be properly solved.

It is perfectly okay to use complementary flaws in one element of a system to "cancel out" the flaws in another, but if you're going to do that, at least do it with full knowledge of what you're doing and the conviction that your action is the best way to accomplish what you're trying to achieve. That's what an equalizer is for it's a device to create tailored frequency response peaks or valleys to correct for "flaws" in an original recording or just to make it sound "better", and the engineers who record the music we love use them more often than you might think. Making corrections isn't the problem. It is figuring out what the problems really are that's the problem!

In order to do that, you've got to really understand your system; understand how it works; what it does; and what each of its components (Including the cables) is contributing ― whether positive or negative ― to its sonic whole. Once you've done that, all the rest will follow: You'll know what needs to be improved, and you'll even have a pretty good handle on how to go about getting it done.

I know that that sounds like a bit of a headache, but isn't that what aspirins are supposed to be used for? Take some, do what you have to do, and then relax and...

Enjoy the music!













































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