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.