The inevitability of cable

If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you know who Steven Stone is. That dude is everywhere. I think he publishes articles in something like 85 different audio blogs and magazines, and when that’s not enough, he blogs on his own rag, AudiophileReview. His latest offering, called “The inevitability of cable”, is yet another in a long string of old-school audio mumbo-jumbo I’ve come to expect from those making a living through hyperbolic exaggerations of tenuous distinctions.

It’s odd, however, criticizing a critic for their philosophical viewpoints or their biases. It’s rare that you get a reviewer that actually purports to a neutral or objective stance, and in fact, most are quite the opposite, they stand adamant in their subjectivity.

But it bugs me when anyone advances a self-serving world-view by attacking and defeating a straw man.

Straw man in question?

Flat Earthers [who] trot out “placebo effect” and “double blind testing” and hold them up like good luck talismans to drive away the doubt and queasy feelings of uncertainty that even the mere concept, let alone the reality, of AC cables, interconnects, and speaker cables making a sonic difference engenders.

Logically, this is question-begging of the first order and is just the sort of idiocy that makes audiophiles reviled by anyone with even an iota of natural, healthy skepticism.

First, cables do make a difference. How do I know? Try listening to your system without them. Q.E.D.

Second, the question that the “Flat Earthers” (FEs) have is legitimate and must be addressed as such before any other claims can be advanced. The problem is that it’s a logical problem, and a rather deep one about the nature of the evidence being offered. In short, the FEs are not saying that there aren’t sonic differences between cables, they’re saying “how do you know” there are such differences. You say you heard them, fine, but what if you were confused? Tired? Fooled? Tricked by your subconscious? The FEs are not calling into question the observation, but rather, the veracity of the observer and this is a rather significant problem. The audiophile’s dismissiveness here is what leads the FEs to assume, perhaps wrongly, that the audiophile has no answer here, and then the FEs go on to conclude that the absence of evidence implies an evidence of absence — namely, that the audiophile is simply wrong. This is a fallacy of course, but unfortunately for the audiophile, he has failed to follow the logic from the premises to the conclusion and only “hears” the conclusion. Which makes their protestations seem a bit clueless at best.

So, yes, the audiophile and the FEs have both done wrong.

Third, the interesting question almost never gets asked. It’s this: how much do cables matter? Again, here we wander into the realm of hyperbole. The people in the best position to make discriminating claims about performance deltas with component changes are also those paid to do so, which means that they’re also paid to find them and exaggerate them for publication. Imagine the success of the audio reviewer who routinely reported that the differences between product x and product y were “vanishingly small and well within any reasonable margin of error”. I’m just guessing here, but I suspect that that reviewer may well get a lot less freelance work than the guy who waxes poetic about “night and day” and “being blown away”. The latter approach is, sadly, much better theater. Even if it’s an absurd indulgence in hyperbole.

My own experiences are that cables can and do matter, but like many things in the realm of audiophilia, they don’t matter terribly much. Yes, this isn’t a universal. I’ve heard with my own tin ears the very clear and audible difference a set of digital coaxial cables can make. That said, the one clear example in that set was designed as a tone control — that is, made in such a way as to produce a particular effect designed to counter a present flaw in the sonic character of a given system. Your system too bright, where “bright” = “tipped up treble”? Well, try a Straightwire cable — it’s designed to attenuate the treble frequencies. Bam! Tone control.

But from the fact that some cables are tone controls it doesn’t follow that all are! Anyway, tone controls aside, most cables are, in my own experience, indiscernible from each other — and rightfully so! If a wire is well-made (with no flaws in shielding or terminating) and designed to excel along certain electrical parameters (say, a low capacitance), then it shouldn’t be surprising that the wires turn out to be interchangeable.

Now this isn’t to say that they are the same. Or even that they “sound” the same. But what I am saying is that its quite possible that the differences on offer are so few, so minor, so utterly inconsequential, that for all practical purposes, they’re not even there. Elsewhere, I’ve called this the Threshold Problem, where the idea is that there is some point at which performance deltas must be below the ability of the average person to discern. The “problem” is then twofold — where does that level lie with you and your system, and then, does the change being made fall over or under that line. Said another way, it could well be the case that there are changes that you, as a human, can’t hear. Or that in a different system, perhaps one imbalanced in a just so sort of way, the differences might be readily apparent. Maybe.

Given the very well documented effects of cognitive dissonance, the placebo effect, and perhaps even the Threshold Problem — and I haven’t even brought up the utter failure of established scientific practices to reliably indicate any differences at all, regardless of the niceties of shielding or specification — it’s really not surprising that the FEs have some serious doubts about audiophile wiring. Especially since, one, they generally can’t afford to have more than one cable loom on hand, and two, reviewers are notorious exaggerators.

Okay, so there you have it. Flat Earthers are not idiots content to wallow like pigs in their own filth. They’re not necessarily right, either. But dismissing them and their doubts out of hand is the height of arrogance. Especially when that arrogance is anchored so firmly in something as laughably obtuse as a basic logical fallacy.

Tsk, tsk.

About Scot Hull 1039 Articles
Scot started all this back in 2009. He is currently the Publisher here at PTA, the Publisher at The Occasional Magazine, and the Executive Producer at The Occasional Podcast. There are way too many words about him over on the Contributors page.

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