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July 2018
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Can That Possibly Be Real?
Roger Skoff writes about High End Audio's never-ending debate.

Article By Roger Skoff


Can That Possibly Be Real? Roger Skoff writes about High End Audio's never-ending debate.


  Do specialty cables work? What about Shakti Stones or Mpingo Discs or Cable Wraps? Or cable lifters? Did painting the edges of CDs green or marking them with purple actually do anything? What about magic brass bowls? Or Magic Dots? Or Magic Clocks? Or those little stick-on or set-on things claimed to neutralize or improve room acoustics? Or spikes or special feet or vibration mounts? How about accessory AC power cords? Or line conditioners? Or battery power supplies? Or clear plastic instead of metal top covers for our electronics? Or any of what seems to be a thousand other "tweaks" for our systems? Are all, most, or even some of those things "Voodoo" or "Snake Oil" as so many apparently knowledgeable people claim? Or are they real products, providing real sonic benefits?

The standard answers to those question seem to be either "Listen and draw your own conclusions"; or "Find a reviewer (or reviewers) that you trust and follow his (their) professional advice"; or "Check with an expert or your engineering or physics textbook". Each of those has its own problems:

For one thing, if you don't know what a recording should sound like, how can listening to your system tell you if it's being reproduced correctly? And, face it, the odds are overwhelming that we weren't at the original performance or recording session, so we can't know what it actually sounded like. Not only that, but, even if we did happen to be there, if it was a live concert and we were sitting at any position other than where the microphones were placed, (Hard to do if the mics are widely-spaced), we would have heard something different from what they did.

And for a great many popular music recordings, there never was an "original performance" at all, so nobody could have been there. Instead, the recording was done by bringing-in the separate instrumental sections (rhythm, strings, brass, etc.) and vocal artists separately; recording them, one section at a time, onto separate "tracks", and finally mixing them all together to produce a single recording that may have had at its production no audience other than the mastering engineer, the artist(s), and a "producer".


Can That Possibly Be Real? Roger Skoff writes about High End Audio's never-ending debate.


So much for using your own ears to a very substantial degree, all they can do is to tell you what you like; not what ought to be. That's nicely brought out in Harry Nilsson's 1970 LP and 1971 movie, The Point, where Oblio, the story's protagonist, is told by another character that "You see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear." Anticipatory mindset or "placebo effect" does exist and can be quite powerful in its effect on our perception. Just hearing something may not prove anything at all.

What about relying on the opinion of one or more professional reviewers? Well, not only was I, in earlier days, an audio reviewer (and even the editor of an audio industry publication), but I also personally know and have been in the listening rooms of many other reviewers, including some of the most influential in our industry. So what do I have to report? Easy: reviewers are just like the rest of us; their listening rooms are usually just rooms, neither better nor worse than many of ours; their systems may or may not be well set-up, to give the very best sound possible from whatever equipment they're using or reviewing; and their subjective tastes and preferences range all over the place. One, for example, who wrote for one of the same publications I did, liked his sound so bright as to be near unlistenable.  Another, by his own statement, preferred "classic tube" sound dark, warm, and slow. Both gave the highest praise to the things that sounded as they thought they should and lesser marks to the rest.

There's also the story that I've told elsewhere of myself, Tony Di Chiro (then President of the electronics company, Kinergetics Research) and what happened to us with two different sets of speakers.  Tony and I often used to listen together, either at his house or mine. Our listening rooms were nearly identical in size, shape, and configuration, differing only in one seemingly small detail: Each of our listening spaces was a linked living room/dining room, with the speakers placed where the two rooms came together. The difference was that In mine the rooms were separated by a center wall with two side pass-throughs and his had an open center and two side stub-walls as separators.

The speakers I was using as my reference at the time were Acoustat Model 1+1 electrostatics. Tony liked them a lot and, when a new upgrade was announced, he told me that he was going to order a pair from the manufacturer. I. also wanting the upgrade, asked him to order me a set, too, and some while later, we each got our new Acoustats, ordered at the same time, made in the same batch, and shipped and delivered at the same time.

When mine came, I hooked them up to burn-in and, after a few days, they were up and running and sounding very fine, indeed. Tony wasn't so lucky: Even after extended burn-in, he complained that his new speakers just didn't sound as good as they should and, after still more burn-in and still more unsatisfactory sound, I went out to Tony's house to see what was going on.


Can That Possibly Be Real? Roger Skoff writes about High End Audio's never-ending debate.


When I got there, we listened and, sure enough, his pair just wasn't up to snuff. To do a direct comparison, we then loaded them up and drove over to my house to listen to them side-by-side with mine. What we heard surprised us both: His sounded just fine, with none of the problems we had heard at his house. They sounded so good, in fact, that I bought them from him, which is why I still, to this day, have three pairs of Acoustat 1+1s.

The story's not over yet, though. A few weeks later, Tony called me and told me that he had bought a pair of Bruce Thigpen's Eminent Technology ET-4s, and that they were spectacularly good. To hear for myself, I drove over to his house and found that he was absolutely right; they were so good that I thought I might want a pair for myself. Having learned my lesson from the Acoustats, though, before placing the order, Tony and I loaded-up the ET-4s and carried them to my house, where we put them up against my Acoustats and they sounded... awful!

The moral of the story is that the same speakers can sound completely different in different rooms so, unless you not only have the same tastes and preferences as a reviewer, but also have an IDENTICAL listening room, relying on his opinion may be a mistake.

So what about the remaining option: "Check with an expert or your engineering or physics textbook"?  The problem there is that, surprising as it may seem, there are still a lot of things that the experts and the textbooks don't know.

Not too many years ago the Audio Engineering Society (AES) officially contended that there were no audible differences between amplifiers of the same performance specifications, and even held seminars and blind tests to prove it. They also did something similar with cables: In a move that was so conspicuously biased that Stereophile invented the term "Audio McCarthyism" to describe it, the AES held, in New York in 1991, a "workshop" called "New Cable Designs: Innovation or Consumer Fraud?" this put together a panel of one audio reviewer, a number of establishment engineering types, one consulting psychologist, and one government fraud investigator to disprove any possible difference between the sound of different cables. According to Stereophile (January 11, 1992), "Cables were merely a convenient subterfuge; the meeting's real and unstated purpose was to attack audiophiles and critical listeners in general".

This is not to disparage the professional community in any way. The fact of it is that in the absence of a reasonable reason to believe something, not believing it may be wise. On the other hand, to absolutely deny the possibility of something without a full and fair examination of it may not be wise.

Think, just for example, of these absolutely simplest of "tweaks" to a hi-fi system: using matching right- and left-channel speakers and moving the speakers around to get the very best possible "imaging" and "soundstaging". Years ago, when people were first converting their systems from mono (single channel) to stereo (two channels), they had never before had to worry about either having matched speakers or about moving their speaker around to get the very best sound. For that reason, when some people (who had done both of these two simple things) started to report not just simple right, left, and center placement of singers and instruments but also actually three dimensional depth of position and a sense of the size and shape of the recording venue, others (those who hadn't) didn't believe them, and sometimes even went so far as to call such claims "snake oil" and "voodoo".



We now know that three-dimensional imaging is certainly possible from a good-enough system properly set-up in a good enough room, to play a good enough recording. It took gaining more knowledge, though, to give us the reasons for it and to make it both do-able and comprehensible. Maybe that's the case with some of the new (or even the older) seemingly "weird" tweaks that people are claiming to produce real results.

Frankly, as a former cable manufacturer, I have my own thoughts and knowledge on at least that subject. As far as some of the others, though, all I can say is that if I (believe that I) hear it I'll at least give it serious consideration.

Snake oil or not, I'll embrace anything that will help me to...


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