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February 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Hi-Fi Tweaks
Which ones are snake oil and which ones are real?
Article By Roger Skoff


JC Whitney Catalog  Do you remember the old JC Whitney catalog? Yes, the company is still in existence, but no, I don't mean now; I mean the old JC Whitney catalog – of the 1950s and ‘60s (and maybe even the 1940s, but that's too far back, even for me!). When I was just a kid, I, like many of my contemporaries seeking to prepare for manhood, would pore over the JC Whitney catalog for hours, shopping in advance for speed, economy, and just (although it wasn't called that at the time) "coolness" parts and accessories that I could put on my car as soon as I (Oh please, oh please!) ever got one.

JC Whitney was the home of "Thundervolt" spark plugs, that were supposed to increase your horsepower and fuel economy by 10%, and "Vortex" carburetor inserts that were supposed to increase your horsepower and fuel economy by 10%, and all kinds of other air cleaners, cold air intake systems, mufflers, exhaust cut-outs, fuel additives, doodads, thingamajiggies, and you-name-its – all of which were each supposed to increase your car's horsepower and fuel economy by 10% (except, of course, for the ones that were supposed to increase your power and economy by 15% or even more, but they were usually either too expensive for a kid to even consider, or had to be professionally installed).

Glorying over the cheap pulp paper and often blurry black-and-white pictures and blurbs of those JC Whitney catalogs of yore, my youthful eyes would often glaze over as I thought of what might happen when – older and richer, and actually having a car – I would someday buy and install ALL of the offered toys and goodies and possess a vehicle that would amaze the world both with its near-infinite horsepower and its requirement for practically no fuel at all!

Sound familiar? Sure it does. The only things that have changed are the times and the subject matter: Now that we all have cars, and have mostly grown-up past our hot rod days, it's our audio systems that we dream about, and not horsepower or fuel economy but "musical reality" (whatever that may mean to each of us) that we hope to achieve. And unlike, the JC Whitney catalog, which was pretty much a one-piece wish list, today we have quite literally hundreds, if not thousands of places to look for what we might want and an even greater number of people telling us why we should or shouldn't want them. Even so, the questions, remain the same: What's real; what gives the most "bang" for the buck; who or what can you believe; and why?

Practically every manufacturer offers at least some kind of reason why his products are better and more worthy of your buying dollars than his competitors'. Sometimes, though, no reasons are given, and sometimes the ones that are given are anything from "not fully supported" to "iffy", to purest bullsh*t. There are even reasons that are perfectly correct and true, but of little or no consequence. How is that possible? , How can you tell them apart? And how should you deal with them?

Well, just to put it all in perspective let us try this: It is certainly possible, harking back, for a moment, to JC Whitney and an automotive example, that "magic" sparkplugs could increase both horsepower and fuel economy – but only if the regular spark plugs weren't doing what they were supposed to do to begin with. A sparkplug that sometimes misfires, or that doesn't fire at all, will certainly limit an engine's output and will certainly waste fuel, but as long as a "regular" plug is working properly, a "magic" plug won't do anything better at all! The very expensive platinum sparkplugs that are used almost universally, these days, are certainly an improvement over what went before, but it's because they last far longer, not because they make more power or use less fuel than a properly-working conventional plug.

In audio, we have all kinds of things that, like those two sparkplug examples will make an improvement over conventional products: Some of them, just like the "magic" sparkplugs, will work their wonders only if the parts they're replacing have been or become a problem by not working properly; others, like those (really 100,000 mile) platinum plugs will make a real improvement, but it may not be the kind of improvement you'd expect or were looking for. Still others (some cables, for example) may make a real improvement for reasons that can't be measured and that even (some of) their manufacturers may be unable to explain. Finally, there are others that make a real improvement, but either it could have been made better or more easily some other way (pantographic radial tonearms, for example, that, with great expense, great complexity, and many [potentially "chattering"] bearings reduce LP tracking error that a tangential arm would eliminate entirely) or that – like silver plating on an amplifier or preamp's chassis will certainly increase its surface conductivity, but at great expense for an improvement that, while real, serves no known purpose.

Many of the "improvements" available from the JC Whitney catalog were, like many audio products, made by small "specialty" companies. Many of those companies, like so many small audio companies, were more enthusiastic than they were knowledgeable or heavy on engineering talent. Some of the products in the catalog may, as so many of us have suspected of so many audio "improvements", have been purest snake oil or may – just as even a stopped clock will still tell the correct time twice a day – have been the lucky guess of a clueless wannabe "inventor" who, like the "one hit wonders" of pop music, will never get lucky again. Others may be the real thing, unexplained by a manufacturer who doesn't want to educate his competition or who knows full well how to build great stuff, but not how to write about it in a way that others can comprehend and accept. Then, too, there seem always to be products crafted by genuinely gifted and ahead-of-the-curve designers who can explain them, but whose explanations are disregarded by trolls and Luddites who won't listen to what they don't already believe.

The problem for a potential buyer, whether of auto parts and goodies long ago from the JC Whitney catalog, or now, looking for Hi-Fi "tweaks" in the audiophile press, the groups, and the blogosphere, is to figure out which of all the contending products and supporting claims out there are real; which really are "voodoo" or "snake oil"; and which of the "real" ones are actually likely to make a difference at least as great as their cost.

I have no hard and fast answers for you on those subjects, but I do have some rules that might help you make up your own mind when choosing products or "tweaks" for your System:

  Everything that really works must work in some way: Try to find out what that way is, and if there isn't one, or if it doesn't sound real or possible, and the seller can't prove to you that it is, run away.

  The greater the claimed benefit of a tweak is, the more you should doubt it and demand a demonstration, a free trial period, or some other credible proof. Unless you're starting from nothing or from a pretty awful "mid-fi" system, it's not likely that you'll achieve great ("poke you in the ear") improvement without either considerable effort or considerable expense. Whatever you get easily or cheaply will more likely be subtle than world-changing. There are exceptions to this, though, and they are (like cleaning the contacts on your cables, properly setting-up your turntable and tone arm, doing simple room treatments, and properly placing your speakers) often cheap or free.

  The less "normal" or "mainstream" or obvious the explanation of how a product works is, or the more the product costs, the more detail, documentation, demonstration, or actual in-system trial you should demand before you buy it.

  If you can, try to quantify the improvements you actually hear (one unit, two units, etc.), and always buy the product or tweak that will give you the level of improvement you want for the lowest price. If, for example, buying a new "Thing A" for a dollar (Don't you wish…) will give you the same amount of improvement as buying a new "Thing B" for three dollars, always buy the "Thing A"!

The more you follow these simple rules in building your system, the better it will sound, the less time, money, and effort you'll waste on things that sound better twice – once when you put them in your system, and once again, when you take them out– and the more you'll...

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