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A/B, See?

??????????????????????????????? By Roger Skoff Camera fans regularly disagree on which film, which lens, or which camera is best. They’ve even -- just like audiophiles – been known to go to war for and against digital. Car buffs do the same thing, and cheerfully go at each other’s throats over -- if they’re performance types -- the relative merits of carburetors versus fuel injection, single versus double overhead cams, or supercharging versus sheer brute displacement. Or, if styling is their “thing”; the fight might be whether it’s classics, exotics, street-rods, low-riders, or something else entirely, that ought to get the glory. About the only thing they never argue about is the basic shape of the wheels: Round seems to be pretty much the accepted standard. It’s the same with every other hobby or profession-related group that I’ve ever heard of: They all have their internal differences, or even warring factions, over preferred tools, technologies, or ways to do things, and they always seem to have multiple opinions about the best way for things to look or work or be. Audiophiles battle, too, but over different things: They may be the only group in the whole world who will gleefully fight, seemingly to the death, and do it over and over again, NOT about which one of a number of contending variables is best, but whether there’s any difference between those variables at all!

Although the easy thing to say is that the differences in all those other things are more obvious or more easily perceived than differences in audio, to quote George Gershwin, “…it ain’t necessarily so.” It’s certainly no problem to tell, for example, if a photograph is blurry, “grainy”, or apparently taken from closer or farther away; or if a car is a “deuce” coupe, a Duesenberg, or a dune buggy; but, to those who have the ears to hear and the willingness to listen, audio differences are just as obvious and just as easily perceivable: Tubes and solid-state DO sound distinctly different; so do LPs and CDs; cables DO clearly and obviously affect the sound of a system, and “tiptoes” or cable lifters, or Mpingo discs, or magic bowls, or any number of other things, ranging from basic storage media or operating systems to the tiniest or weirdest of “tweaks”, may all be possible for someone to hear, whether I can hear them or not: One reviewer for Sounds like… Magazine, years ago, actually reviewed and heard significant differences in the sound of record cleaning fluids!

It may also be that some aspects of audio are less, or less easily, or less directly, measurable than those in other hobbies or arts or professions, but what does that prove? And what does it even prove it about? The audio? The measurements? Or our ability, thus far, to dream up and implement suitable tests? Certainly it’s easy to measure the focal length of a lens, the horsepower of an engine, or the quarter-mile-time of a vehicle, but so what? When we figure out how to measure those as-yet-unmeasurable aspects of audio, those will be easy, too.

The big problem is not the testing, but the way we approach the comparison. In other hobbies, arts or disciplines, people expect that doing different things, or doing the same things in different ways or with different tools will produce different results, so, when they ARE different, no one is surprised and no one resists the evidence of their senses. In cameras or cars (and undoubtedly, were the issue to arise, in shoes and ships and sealing wax, as well), if they see a difference, people simply accept it and try to figure out how to explain, duplicate or improve it. In audio, though, just as the church and the scientific establishment resisted Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin (please note that I am not equating audio, astronomy and evolution; only pointing out similar attitudes – no one doubts that audio is more important), we have a strong and well-entrenched sub-group so certain in their technological orthodoxy that they can never even consider any alternative, but must, every chance they get — in seminars and articles, on the internet and elsewhere — attack anyone who even proposes one.

This is hardly new: One perfect example, that was so outrageous that it inspired Stereophile to coin the term “Audio McCarthyism”, was the “Cables, Threat or Menace?” — actually, it was called the “New Cable Designs: Innovation or Consumer Fraud?” (yeah, really!) — “workshop” in New York, in 1991, which pitted Stereophile’s Corey Greenberg against half-a dozen hand-picked establishment-types (including a government fraud investigator and psychologist Jeff Corey, whose major function seemed to be to prove that Greenberg and anybody else who thought you could hear differences in cables was nuts), and ended-up with an A/B comparison of MIT’s then top-of-the-line speaker cable and hardware store “speaker wire”.

Robert Harley, (now Editor of The Absolute Sound, but then writing for Stereophile ) said of that and of another similar event in San Francisco that “The entire event was organized and run by Dan Dugan. Yes, this is the same Dan Dugan who attempted to discredit audio cables at the San Francisco chapter meeting of the AES by disregarding the results of his own blind test. It was obvious from the outset that the “workshop”‘s purpose was not to discover if new cable designs were indeed “innovations or consumer fraud” but rather to present a public diatribe against audio cables. … [C]ables were merely a convenient subterfuge; the meeting’s real and unstated purpose was to attack audiophiles and critical listeners in general” (Stereophile: Jan 11, 1992).

So why would anyone do that? Why would they attack not the quality of something, but the fact of it?

The point here is not that, in these and other instances, some people or some organization didn’t like a proposed alternative, but that they attacked it at its core by insisting that the proposal was a sham and that there was no real alternative at all! And were they correct? I don’t know; I wasn’t there in every case, but I was there in the audience at the New York event, along with several other reviewers for the magazine I was then writing for, and so, if I remember correctly, was Clark Johnsen, a Boston-area high-end dealer.

What we all heard, and saw and heard that the audience also heard, were significant differences: not the ones that you would expect from a properly conducted test, though. In fact, the promoters or whoever had set-up the cable comparison, whether purposely to spoil the test, or simply for convenience or out of ignorance, had placed the speakers much too far apart and well above the heads of the audience, in a two or three hundred people room. Because of this and the seating arrangement, there was no hope of imaging or soundstaging, and much of what knowledgeable listeners would want to compare (the upper treble, for example) was simply not there. What was there, though, and was so obvious that many people in the audience were grumbling or laughing about it all through the comparison, was that, whether because of the thinner gauge and higher resistance of the cheaper cable or because of higher inductance, or both, there was a clear and obvious poke-you-in-the-ear-difference in the volume level whenever they switched cables. If nothing else, the “good” cable was simply a lot louder than the cheap one.

How could the promoters and their supporters not notice that? Or was it, as I suspect, that whether they could hear it was not the issue—they simply didn’t want to hear it!

Years ago, Anthony H. Cordesman, in one of his many facets, a well-respected audio reviewer for Stereophile, the absolute sound, and others, described High End audio as not so much a hobby as a team sport. If you’re an audiophile, you certainly know what he was talking about: Audiophiles, like fans of other sports, tend to rally behind and support a favorite “team” – tubes or solid-state; or vinyl or digital; horns or planars or “boxes”; or whatever. Maybe the “there are no differences” people are just one of those teams. Or maybe “perfectly” reproducing recorded music, or even enjoying the music at all, really isn’t some people’s goal. Maybe they just like being contrary. That’s not my idea of fun, but maybe it IS theirs. Otherwise, why would they do an A/B listening test and not listen?

About the Author

Roger Skoff was founder and designer for XLO Electric, which he sold in 2002. His first published writings were in the field of consumer electronics, where he was a reviewer for Sounds Like… Magazine, a consumer audio publication, and later became Editor of Sounds Like…News, an industry publication in the same field. In whatever spare time he has from his current consulting activities and ongoing research in cable physics, he writes for Part-Time Audiophile, Audiophile ReviewPositive Feedback Online, and Enjoy The Music.

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7 Comments on A/B, See?

  1. Gabriel B // May 10, 2014 at 1:56 PM //

    The comparison involving Galileo, Darwin and Copernicus opposed to bigotry is bullseye, except that the myths and irrational thinking come from the audio press and the audiophile world in general instead of some “technological orthodoxes” obsessed with their measuring devices. Galileo, Darwin and Copernicus all made studies and backed-up their theories with experimental facts. They had arguments. The typical subjective audiophile is saying something like “I can hear it, therefore a phenomenon that is not yet discovered by science must happen”. This is faith, not innovative scientific thinking. Their “theories”, as soon as they are put to the test, consistently fall apart. Modern electronics are sonically transparent, cable parameters that matter are R-L-C, etc. there is no real argument against that and every (I insist, every) test made blind (from the most improvised to the most careful) have come to this conclusion. MIT and most high-end cables are plain fraud, and the whimpering term “Audio McCarthyism” seems to be misplaced and loose its signification as much as the term “antisemitism” used indiscriminately become meaningless.

  2. Lawrence de Martin // September 3, 2013 at 1:03 AM //

    Anyone who claims to know which set of colorations sound the best has no credibility with me unless they listen to live acoustic music regularly. Without that absolute reference, human perception is lost in a sea of relativism. The listeners’ ears are acclimated to their own system in their room listening to their accustomed recordings. Any improvement in sound is likely due to one component’s defects cancelling flaws in something else in the ears of the beholder,

  3. Roger,

    The photography analogy is a good one, not least because I have the same problem with much of the claim and counter-claim culture in both hobbies. It’s in the best interests of manufacturers, reviewers and, indeed, folk who’ve committed considerable sums to one product or another to identify notable (some might say startling) differences in performance between A and B. To my ears and eyes, these differences are often – relatively – marginal, and certainly not worth an outlay of £/$000s to correct. My own experience with cabling (and the tiresome PCM/DSD, vinyl/cd, cd/high-res businesses, all of which gleefully emulate the sectarian divides of the 16th century) is that I can sometimes – but not always – hear small but often modest differences which may or may not represent improvements. That’s not to say that I’m correct, but I suspect that the hyperbole deployed puts off a lot of people like me who don’t claim to have, or quite fully believe in, golden ears.

    I’m not saying that differences aren’t there – If I thought that I wouldn’t have taken time and c. £6000 to assemble my system (I know some people would regard that as a modest cabling budget!) – but I can’t be convinced by claims for black v. white when everything’s really a matter of greys/grays

  4. Clark Johnsen // September 2, 2013 at 8:49 PM //

    Roger is right, except that by the time of the NY AES Convention I was no longer much of a dealer but was becoming an audio writer. Jeff Corey, the psychologist and NY Comsumer Affairs staffer, was afterwards unapproachable, being all in a public tizzy that anyone could even *dream* of selling cables at those prices. He was a veritable whirlwind of disparagement and rebuke. Later I looked up Dan Dugan on the exhibit floor and it turned out he was peddling… intercoms! Yes. Later he and I had a go-around in some magazine but I no longer recollect the details, which is just as well.

  5. Superb article.

    I am SO tired of these “team” competitions that I just tune them out. My latest cables and power cords are so much fun that I don’t have time to bother with people who are irritated by how I spend *my* time and money. I suspect the grin on the faces of those who are having fun is what makes the “crusaders” so angry. They’re like all fundamentalists in that they begin to resemble their own enemies: in this case, they rail about “evidence” all the while ignoring the proof of what is right in front of them to hear.

  6. Reinhard Haberfellner // September 2, 2013 at 1:18 PM //

    You are touching an important discussion here , Roger. But let me add one more thing: What I found always to be a real problem is the fact that putting the A/B/X equipment into the chain for a fair blind test degrades the chain so much that it is not possible to hear the fine details any more. In other words : Its impossible to listen to highest performance level of the equipment cause adding the necessary switches destroys the beauty . I recall a test from the eighties of last century ( yes , im in this game for quite some time 🙂 ) , wher we wanted to convince a dealer of new equipment and he wanted to use his huge speakers/amp switching board , which destroyed all the joy. We asked ( or better forced ) him to forget the switching board and it was immediately clear how much better our speaker/amp combination sounded compared to everything he had on stock. With the switching equipment in it would have been no big difference ( muddled sound and very muddled sound are not really different ).
    One last thing: I still dont know why so many “technicians ” are frightened by things they cant measure or they don’t understand with their knowledge coming from a university degree and current acoustic or electronic wisdom. But I have to admit that sometimes ( or better some days ) its really difficult not to fall into the trap of a tick louder performance , a nicer color of the cable or just the reputation of the company providing the gear . So we all are trying again and again to find out about it , and thats part of our wonderful team game.

  7. I was a big user of “UseNet Newsgroups” back in the day, and it mostly devolved into “yes it is” “no it isn’t” shouting matches on nearly any topic. When I dipped my toe into audiophilia, I found the cable controversy to be based upon stances and less on facts. I liked this article since it pointed that out.

    But while I find the arguments kind of tedious and rarely join in the fray on them, I have found that the right cables can subtlety (and sometimes not so subtlety) influence the sound. In the most gross sort of way is they attenuate the signal less (as was pointed out), but I have found they affect the tonal balance some and the reproduction of transients some, too. And in a very gross sort of sense, for a SPDIF connection, a really solid 75 Ohm connection of about 1.5m long or longer is really needed to avoid poor sound – and the sonic signatures of the distortions/jitter caused by alternative approaches are very noticeable, too.

    Great article – keep ’em coming! 🙂

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