I was scrolling through my Facebook feed because I had a million better things to do and came across a post by an industry figure. He’d found a advertorial from a vendor, where the pitch was for a very expensive power cord. His post carried the link, and the following comment:
Now THIS is a power cord, and it costs “only” $6,900!
How can people be so gullible? The best line in this review is typical:
“They consist of conductors that are impregnated with a substance that when magnetized, aligns the signal flow at the atomic level.”
I didn’t realize that AC power cords pass “signal,” but what do I know?
Less than a week later, I saw this:
Cables are ruining high-end audio. It’s as simple as that.
I noticed that people who already “invested” in pricey cables staunchly defend their decisions.
I know it stings if I get suckered out of ten bucks. I can only imagine what it feels like to fall for the cable con, to the tune of three, four, or five figures.
I love seeing this kind of thing. And not because I’m snarking snarkily up my sleeve, either in agreement or in disagreement with the premises, however convoluted and however strident. I love them because they’re puzzles. And puzzles are fun.
So, anyway, since it was on my mind, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts.
0.1, audio cables are not “The Enemy”. You’re thinking of apathy. Con men and con jobs have been around as long as there’s been commerce, so getting outraged about such happening in high-end audio is a little silly.
0.2, there’s a difference between advertising and reviewing. Admittedly, this isn’t as obvious as it ought to be (if you’re suffering from insomnia, feel free to see Part 1, 2.1, 2.2, 3, and 4 for more). But I think we can all agree that there’s a certain license taken in the act of advertising and that the onus, at least here in the US, isn’t on the purveyor to prove the truth of their claims. Sucks, but there it is. So, if you’re going to rail about a review, you really ought to be sure you’re referring to a review … and not an advert. Pretty rookie mistake.
0.3, audio cables are kinda necessary. Maybe less so, what with batteries and Bluetooth, but it’s still pretty unusual to find an audio system without them. So, they’re hardly “ruining” anything. I say that because generalized statements tend to be pointlessly inflammatory — if you have a particular beef, spit it out.
So, here’s my summary of the main specific issues that The Cable Indignant seem to have with “audiophile audio cables”.
- The price of the product
- The efficacy of the product
- The pitch used to sell the product
I’ll take all three of these in turn.
1, First, about pricing. This is a bullshit complaint. Bitching about the price tag of a product says two things.
1.1, you don’t understand business. There’s no shame in this, that is, until you start showing your rear while railing. The problem is, very few of us really bother to take the time to peel this particular onion, so a lot of gut-reactions full of intuitive misinformation make the rounds, but no one bothers to stop and actually ask WTF? Of course, that’s not nearly as much fun as flipping the car over and setting it on fire, but that’s me, Captain Buzzkill.
Look, the cost of any product isn’t tied to wishful thinking. If a vendor makes products on the scale of Apple, they can achieve some remarkable cost-savings just on the economies of scale. They can do even more by outsourcing. But, if that’s true, they’re also likely to be spending tons of marketing and all of those other “hidden costs”. (Somewhere,) I’ve talked about how prices on cables get set, and yes, it’s true, they’re terrific money makers. Eventually. Maybe. Assuming the maker can get their sunk costs out of the rather hideous up-front charges (anybody want to buy a mile of copper — no? Then no new cable for you!), that is. Which is why the cables tend to have exorbitant costs — they need to make that money back. This is one of the reasons that crowd-funding is interesting — with that model, you only buy the materials you need (and have sold), so there’s no guessing about sales, which means you can recoup your costs predictably, which means you can keep your prices lower. None of that is true with traditional models, however. Sucks to be an entrepreneur sometimes. Especially a small scale one.
1.2, you can’t afford it. Again, there’s really no shame in this either, but aside from a rabble rousing the thronging hordes into a potential storm-the-Bastille endeavor, all you’re doing is trolling, whether for attention (whether clicks, Likes, page views, or clan-building), to create a polarizing moment (kind of a cheap move), or some kind of wannabe Jedi mind trick (sour grapes?) — doesn’t matter, still trolling. So, you can’t afford a BMW. That doesn’t mean your Honda sucks, that you’re a failure, or that Life is Unfair. Get over yourself and move on.
1.3, like any endeavor, there are the outliers in high-end audio and also in high-end audio cabling. So, yes, there will be products that do not have a linear relationship between cost-to-make and MSRP. Even when calculating the marketing, inventory management, distribution costs, and retail commissions, there are still some products that are wildly profitable. It happens. Welcome to capitalism. Go to Helen Waite, she’s handling all such complaints.
1.4, it’s worth separating out price from value. I think a lot of the complaints swap these inadvertently when the make say that something “isn’t worth that price” — deconstructing that, the weight seems to fall much more heavily on value.
For whatever it’s worth, I’m pretty crisp on the whole value thing. To me, value is a relationship between cost and performance in the context of some market segment. A product is “worth it” when I can’t meet or exceed its performance with a less expensive product. Not complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wholly subjective — and worse, the whole notion rests squarely on performance. All I’ve done is move the goal posts around. But assuming we can make those kinds of judgments (see Section 2.3, below), and better, make them meaningful and relevant, I think we are still carrying the points made in Section 1.1, above. That is, if there are products that are clearly better at lower price points, and the price of the product in question cannot be lowered to below that of those superior products, the vendor has a real problem.
The corollary to that, of course, is that if the performance cannot be bettered, the vendor is pretty much free to charge whatever the hell they want for it — and it will still have value.
2, I think this issue of efficacy has the most teeth, but that said, they’re still not all that sharp. There are the “Radical Empiricists” that claim that there can be no value unless there is measurements. No claims, unless there is justification. And somewhere, someone is going to have to
have sex with a squirrel perform a double-blind test.
2.1, about the whole measurements thing. This is a bit like handing someone a calculator and asking them about their favorite color, and then pounding them when they say “Alfredo Sauce”. There are so many smart people in the world. I believe that. I like to believe that I myself have a tolerably long head. I know many things. But I’m not your guy when it comes to structural analysis of a load-bearing support. I’m not going to be your guy when it comes to dosage-per-pound for anesthesia administration. I’m not going to be your guy when plotting the most fuel-efficient flight plans between Earth and Titan. I have limits. We all do.
Interestingly, Science does too, and I don’t need to get all “Mysterian” on you to make that claim. Like many of you, I’m an empiricist, and unlike many of you, I really mean that. If it’s in my ability (both in technical know-how, and in budget) to test something, I probably will. I also happen to know that failing-to-confirm is not the same as disproving something. Still, we soldier on. And when I don’t know, or don’t know why, I’ll say that too. I say all that, because I’m aware of certain weird little oddities. Like the fact that the Laws of Physics are false. I also know why. I also know that, while that’s absolutely true, it doesn’t matter a lick. It’s just weird. Science, like any set of tools, just happens to be a little bit limited. Oops.
2.2, As to why “cables matter”, I have several answers.
2.2.1, “Everything matters.” I’m not sure who first applied this to audio, but I adopted it from a contributor over at ComputerAudiophile.com named Barrows. To his adage, I appended: “But nothing matters very much.” Cables matter. But sonically, they matter less than the loudspeaker, the amplifier, the preamp and the source. They matter much less than the quality of the mastering and subsequent capture and/or encoding. But they also matter more than footers or your rack (usually). John Atkinson, the editor of Stereophile Magazine, has been quoted as saying that the most impact a set of cables can make to the overall sonic presentation is less than 5%. To me, this seems a wholly arbitrary number, but the point is that it’s small. After the “everything else” has been fully sorted, cables are left.
2.2.2, Personally, I think cables do matter. Not all. And not all the time. But with some very fancy systems, there seems a rather delicate balance to the overall system’s sound that can be affected by little shit. Like different cables. In such cases, I find that cables can make a system sound quite different, where “quite” = “clearly audible”. In my experience, cables will never “transform” a system, unless we’re talking about going from “not operational” to “operational”. But I do use them quite regularly to tune an overall presentation one way or another. Some cables seem to be tonally threadbare, like there’s something wrong with the presentation, something missing. Some cables seem to be tonally overblown, again, like there’s something wrong with the presentation, something gets tilted. Some cables seem to provide assistance to the lowest registers. Some to the highest. Some seem to obscure detail. Some don’t.
In short, they’re tone controls.
This may be anathema to some, and I can hear you hissing from here. Whatever. The idea that a cable is actually a filter is about as “out there” as saying “tubes sound different”. The notion that they’re all filters may be odd. Yes, the Romex in the wall is part of the system and yes, it’s a filter. Given that you can’t do much with the juice upstream from the box, your zone of control begins there. Everything that comes after that is “doing something”, but to be honest, it may not be doing much. But to say that it’s “doing nothing” is an entirely different sort of claim.
2.3, there’s a difference between “how we know” and “what we know”. Both fall in the Philosophy program of Epistemology, but it’s helpful to keep them separate, I think. We tend to talk about the latter as “knowledge” or “facts”, that is, as some kind of collectible, while the former are the tools used to extract such things from the world.
2.3.1, Double-blind tests (DBT), or any other kind of test, is not knowledge. It is, only and exactly, an epistemic tool for mining data. There’s nothing particularly privileged about it; it has its uses and its limits, its fans and its detractors. The success (or not) of any epistemic tool rests almost entirely on the methodology under which it’s used. That is, there are “good” DBTs, and “not good” ones. I say this because DBT is lifted up, rather routinely in this space, as some kind of holy grail. In fact, there were numerous “contributions” to the original Facebook post that said something to the effect of “Give me DBT, or give them Death!” A sentiment that I find particularly moronic, given what I’ve just said, and what follows in the next.
2.3.2, double-blind tests are terrifically useful — especially when you’re looking for really big, obvious stuff. As in, “did you die or not die”. But trying to tell shades of color apart from each other? Not a DBT kind of thing. What that tells you, at best, is that Average Joe fails or succeeds. But who cares about Average Joe? Is Joe particularly gifted at such tasks? Does he have eyes like a hawk? A nose like a hound? Ears like … something with particularly keen hearing that isn’t a dog because I just used that as an example in the last sentence? It doesn’t matter about Average Joe, because we’re not interested in a prediction of what some poor, randomly selected shrub is or isn’t going to hear. We’re interested in whether or not it’s possible to hear it. And that is an entirely different kind of test.
Please. Put the DBT thing to bed. Unless you’re testing drugs to combat cancer or Ebola or something similar, just stop.
2.3.3, do your own flipping tests. I really don’t understand why this is so hard. This is pretty much what “empiricist” implies, for whatever that’s worth — you actually do the experiment. If you’ve ever rested on your heels and said “no experiment is necessary”, you’ve pretty much hung up the lab coat and in favor of the surplice and white collar. Just sayin’.
So, if you have a good system, and you’re curious about the potential impact of cables, get some. Try them. If you don’t like what you hear, don’t buy them.
And … done!
Note that this is, at best, a “null result”. This is sufficient to abandon the project, if you see fit. But this is in no way a proof that cables do not have, or could not have, an effect. Making that jump is called “illicit transference”, and that’s a logical no-no.
2.4, which brings me to another, related problem — why did you get a null result? I mean, assuming you’re curious. This, perhaps obviously, has three answers — because you did not hear it, you cannot hear it, or there is nothing to hear.
2.4.1, starting with the last one, there’s nothing to hear, we’ve just addressed this — a “null result” has no ontological weight. Said another way, just because you didn’t hear it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there to hear. There’s really no way out of this trap without making some sort of appeal to either methodological error, a corrupt data set, or a logical flaw. It’s interesting to note that all there have been attempted.
126.96.36.199, The methodological error is the most common complaint — someone screwed up the sampling or the test. I’d argue that this isn’t the case — that instead, we’re using the wrong tools, but put both aside as we’ve already discussed them. At some point you have to realize that you’re not going to be able to create “the perfect test” and get on with it. But even if you do have a great test, there’s still the question of what you do with the results. Which brings me to:
188.8.131.52, the issue of corrupt data, the second result, is rather interesting. To that little bonfire, I’ll reintroduce the term “outliers”. In statistics, we have many useful tools for making our data look more interesting than it is, but how we handle outliers is one of the first things that gets applied. Namely, we toss the suspicious ones — a curious move, if you think about it. Did someone get all the answers right? Out they go from the sample pool! Did someone get all the answers wrong? Out they go from the sample pool! Now, let’s normalize the rest — et voilà, a nice distribution curve! Wait — your curve is all wonky? Then dump some more outliers and repeat until smooth. Makes it sound like we’re making gravy, doesn’t it? The problem with this I already outlined in section 2.3.2 — you tossed the wrong respondents! The outliers are exactly the ones you want because, again, we’re not testing for “what Average Joe might hear”, but what’s possible to be heard. Outliers are wonderful indications that there’s someone in your sample pool able to tell you something really interesting. Dumping them is methodologically perverse.
184.108.40.206, the remaining possibility, that it was because of you that you did not hear anything, is not very kind. Being incendiary, it tends to not be terrifically helpful in a “discussion”, unless you’re actively trying to prove Godwin’s Law. The argument here is usually made contra-doubter in that it comes from the ones that are already “”invested in pricey cables” “that staunchly defend their decisions and views”.
The argument goes like this: “the reason you can’t hear the differences a cable can make is because you’re either deaf or your system is not resolving enough“.
Note that I’m going to put aside the issue of hearing loss — it’s a real, and perplexing problem especially for and amongst the aging pool of professional reviewers. But lets take on that “resolving” bit there.
As I mentioned, there’s this kernel of elitism that’s both as unnecessary as it is mean-spirited. I’m going to note that and move on.
The argument here can very well sound like cognitive dissonance to an outsider, that is, a subconscious need to justify a judgment that was expensive to make. That’s fair, and interesting and allows for a counter argument that can cite this as an insurmountable bias, and then dismiss any resulting claims made by “the duped” — even if those claims were made after rigorous methodological procedures had been conscientiously followed. Doesn’t matter — the perceived bias trumps, and the over-spender is vanquished.
It’s a load of crap, of course. It’s enough to put a pin in this and simply say that this is an ad hominem move, and out of bounds. Very much like the snide “you’re too poor to hear what I hear” subtext might be. Both are petty and stupid.
But getting back to the resolving thing — this is interesting.
It’s a truism that quality doesn’t entail cost. Said another way, a thing doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. But quality and cost do reverse-correlate — quality rarely improves with the less that you spend. There is a point after which this breaks down, but it’s almost always true when that curve is getting off the ground.
The problem is that the folks in high-end audio don’t always value the same stuff. Not in looks. Not in sound. Not by the consumer. Not by the designer.
Jeff Joseph, of Joseph Audio, once told me that all loudspeaker designers are likely to be chasing some kind of formative sound — that is their idea of an ideal and not a “flat response curve”. Whether universally true or not, it speaks to the potential for the large variation in the sound of the products you’ll find in audio’s high-end.
Some designers just like their products to sound a “certain way”. A certain way that, to some certain others, sounds hot. Or bass-heavy. Or treble-challenged. Or smooth. Sometimes, it comes down to a choice in materials or designs that forces a sonic characteristic, and the designer has decided (for better or worse) that the drawbacks of a given approach or a given material or component are fewer and less egregiously bad than the positives that it contributes. Given that every product is a series of compromises (or sonic preferences), it’s hardly a leap to assume that there will be some products that show differences better than others. It’s also hardly a leap to assume that many of us use such “sonically challenged” products.
So, if you cannot hear the differences between components, it might not be you. It might be your speaker. Or your source. Or your amp. There is no shame in this. It happens. I remember building several audio systems that sounded just marvelous but were absolute shit at dynamics. Or detail retrieval. That had obvious challenges in the bass.
In case you were wondering, this is the game of whack-a-mole that we call “being an audiophile”. And put that way, the whole elusiveness to any answer around “cable contribution” make a whole lot of sense.
3.0, when it comes to a sales pitch, all bets are off. What was it that PT Barnum said? Ah, who cares.
3.1, I think the EU now has some pretty good and interesting restrictions on what marketing departments are allowed to include and what they’re not allowed include. That is, it’s much more clear about what egregious nonsense is actionable in court, and what is merely shameless eyeball grabbery. Shame we don’t have anything like that in the US. But if you’re really upset about it, we do have these periodic events called “Election Day” where we’re able to express ourselves around this issue and others issues like it.
3.2, I’m not sure that “modest claims” of performance enhancement will really do a whole lot to sell expensive products. Again, please refer to Section 1, above. Given that the entrepreneurs have been, in large part, trapped into a pricing structure due to their size (no economy of scale) and their go-to-market strategy (“channel distribution” means significant mark-ups to cut those middle-men into the sale), they might have a lot less wiggle room than either you — or they — are happy with when it comes to final MSRP.
3.3, while I’m a big fan of hyperbole-busting, hyperbole is different from what many cable vendors are doing. Instead, a cable vendor advert tends to read a lot like one for a Swiss watch, and for good reason. The use of rare and exotic materials may not (or may) have impact on the sonic characteristics that are audible within the context of a large and complicated audio system, but they do still have appeal. Your audio system may not cost thousands of dollars. It almost certainly does not cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But if it does, chances are that you have a really fancy watch too, and one that keeps significantly worse time than the toy that my seven-year-old son “forgot” under my bed with the alarm set to 1:34AM. Why do we buy such crap (where “crap” = “obviously inferior-performing products”)? Well, because of advertising, most likely. The entire segment was defined by the idea that precision was not preferred, but instead, what was to be sought out and valued was artisanship. And that’s where we are now. Again, welcome to capitalism. As I mentioned, you are free to go to Helen Waite, as she’s handling that department these days.
3.4, note that this is not to say that, occasionally, some lunatic doesn’t take a dive off the crack pipe, seize the keyboard and vomit nonsense; but if we’re charitable, we can assume that that’s not really what they’re usually going for. Not usually.
Chances are, they’re just bad. Bad writers. Bad sales people. Crack will mess with your judgement and that’s a fact, Jack.
3.5, it’s another truism that good sales people are generally not engineers. Or scientists. That’s how you get nonsense like “quantum tunneling” being singled out as the key sonic differentiator in a given product’s design. The claim makes absolutely no sense in any possible universe — quantum tunneling is a real thing, it’s a bizarre feature of our quantum universe, but to say that by bypassing the device entirely (quantum tunneling is also called “quantum teleportation”) has any effect at all on the device in question is the logical of equivalent of a non sequitur. You could just as easily have said — and had it be exactly as true — “This device is superior precisely because the moon is a banana.” It’s nonsense. But it happens.
In all fairness, engineers really ought not to be allowed near consumers for similar reasons. When asked if a given feature will address a given performance gap, the answers an engineer might be likely to give may have some relationship to the question at hand, but will almost definitely not be in the format requested, which was “yes” or “no”, and may require an advanced degree to untangle. Welcome to the corporate world.
Those observances made, we have to cut marketing some slack. They’re neither sales nor engineers, but professionals that synthesize aspects of both. When a real marketing person is involved, the chances of pure fantasy invading the literature are lower.
The prior comments about “crack pipe diving” still apply, however.
3.6, if you want to talk about how reviewers go off the deep end … because it happens … let me refer you back to the links in Section 0.2, above.