Friday, April 9, 2010

The Senses: Fooling Our Ears

This isn't a post full of examples of how our brain can fool us when we listen to sound. This isn't even a post with an example video of how people will hear messages in songs played backwards when they are told there is a message to be heard. (If you haven't seen Simon Singh's demonstration I'd suggest you watch it. Isn't the brain a wonderful thing?)

No. This post isn't about fooling our brain with sounds or fooling our hearing with our brains.

This is about the idiocy of fooling our brains and our hearing with our wallets. This is about the money wasted on useless technology in the world of the audiophile.

Audiophile Extravagances

There are a lot of myths held by audiophiles. But would you spend:
I thought not. But some people do. It's bad enough that there are pages on nothing but audio snake oil and the debunkers. It's so bad that there's even a collection of audiophile BS.

Now don't feel all smug. Just because you wouldn't spend as much on your stereo, speakers, and various attachments as you on a small car doesn't mean you're in the clear. This isn't just about the absurdity of those with money to burn. Right now the biggest gouge isn't getting a few people to spend thousands on useless technology. The big ripoff is that the rest of us are convinced we need to buy expensive high quality cables to hear our music clearly. We spend too much on audio, video, and computer cables.

Why Use Special Wires at All?

For those of us who like nice neat well run double-blind experiments that prove the point... may I present a forum post by Dr. Bob Dean (savelife) on audioholics. You can skip the entire first section unless you want to hear how audiophiles explain their individual setups to each other. They take this very seriously. For example when describing his home theater setup he says:
Acoustical treatment consists of hung decorator rugs on the back walls, large back wall book case stuffed with books and nic-nacks, an acoustical fluffed (popcorn) ceiling, a 9 X 12-ft. area rug, and very soft, absorbant, dual pleat blinds which may be dropped down on the side walls exactly where the first sound wave launch hits the wall.
I couldn't make this up if I tried. The best part starts further down with "One last thing regarding your comment...". This is where the fun really begins.

His brother, an audio engineer, decided to help prove that you don't need expensive cables to enjoy good quality sound. His brother setup a true double blind experiment for himself and a few audiophile friends. They listened to music they'd never heard before on two different types of cables. Repeatedly. They couldn't find a difference between the cheap cables and the expensive "oxygen free ... stranded copper wire" cables.

Then his brother pulled a fast one while they where blindfolded:
Keeping us blind folded, my brother switched out the Belden wire (are you ready for this) with simple coat hanger wire! Unknown to me and our 12 audiophile buddies, prior to the ABX blind test, he took apart four coat hangers, reconnectd them and twisted them into a pair of speaker cables. Connections were soldered. He stashed them in a closet within the testing room so we were not privy to what he was up to.
Neither he nor his friends could find any difference. Even when just asked if things sounded good while the coat hangars where acting as wires they could only agree that the sound was excellent.

Debunking Speaker Wire in Depth

Very smart technically minded people have had spent a lot of time and effort debunking speaker cable myths. Here's some illuminating examples of the lengths people have gone to clear things up for the rest of us.

Roger Russell worked at McIntosh Labs and writes at length about testing cables. He starts immediately into the technical details. Those without a technical background beware. The interesting part is further down about The Truth about Speaker Wire.
 Looking at this from a different perspective, there will always be those who will want expensive wire, not because there is an audible difference, but because they may value pride of ownership and prestige in a similar way to that of owning a Tiffany lamp or a Rolex watch.
He even gets sarcastic near the end of the page:
We have been told by advertising that the exotic speaker wires offer fabulous advantages over ordinary lamp cord. It would seem reasonable that using this same wire for lamps would also enhance their performance. In the same vein as wire literature, you can have your lamp reproduce light with the full spectrum color fidelity of natural daylight, finally allowing you see light the way it should be seen and bring out the natural performance of your lamp.
Another long technical treatise is by Rod Elliot of Elliot Sound Products in Australia. Cables, Interconnects & Other Stuff - The Truth also methodically explains away the need for expensive cables.

In this digital age the gouge continues. High quality digital cables are sold at incredible prices. Which makes even less sense. Digital signals consists of bits. Just ones and zeros. On or off. There are no subtle nuances as in speaker cables carrying an analog signal. Either the digital bits make it from one end of the cable to the other or they don't. Those ones and zeros don't get partially garbled so your TV (via HDMI) or your monitor (via DVI) ends up wondering what to make of a a bit that is one half instead of a one or a zero.

So why do we think things sound better because we bought expensive cables? Why are we convinced that spending $100 is better than spending $25? I'm not completely sure of the answer.

Value judgments are highly selective. We expect more expensive things to be worth more. We expect more value when we spend more money. This is one of those areas where we are getting mislead. To the betterment of the cable companies and the detriment of our wallets.

Now I'm off to rewire my speakers with coat hangers.

1 comment:

the ex said...

It's everywhere! It's everywhere! How else do you explain stores that sell things at highly inflated prices. $4.00 for a small bottle of water simply because it comes from Starbucks? Ditto the cost of ground beans run through with hot water. $6.00 for a large. An extra large coffee from Timmy's? A much more reasonable $1.72. Same shit, different smell.