Snake Oil or Spikes With Everything

The Eyes Have It

In blindfold tests…

  • Fruit Pastilles all taste the same, regardless of their colour
  • Canned pink and red tinned salmon taste the same
  • It takes a very trained palate to establish whether a wine is red or white when served at room temperature.  Or chilled. 
  • Pork and beef are largely indistinguishable when cooked to the same degree.
  • Brandy and whisky are remarkably similar in flavour. 

Furthermore…

  • Heinz once marketed brightly-coloured 57 Tomato Ketchup – yellow, green, blue sauces were available.  Despite tasting identical to standard red ketchup, many considered the new colours of sauce difficult or impossible to stomach 
  • Chocolate flavour ice cream that has been dyed green will taste like mint to a majority of people
  • Tinned strawberries, minus added food colouring, are a limpid yellowish white.  They are considered inedible, not because of flavour but because of their colour.  A bright red dye is added at the cannery to make the fruit appear appetising
  • A gourmet meal served on paper plates with plastic knives & forks will not taste as good as when dished up on  bone china with silver cutlery
  • Fine wine drunk from a coffee mug will seem inferior to that from a crystal wine glass

Our senses are easily deceived.

Hi-fi buffs are just as easily deluded.  Almost willingly, it would seem. 

The King is in The Altogether!

It is a central precept of audiophilia that all hi-fi equipment is capable of a hidden level of enhanced performance.  Just as a boy racer, armed with little more than a socket set, believes that he can fine tune his hot-hatch far beyond the manufacturer’s specification, hi-fi buffs remain convinced that audio nirvana is attainable from the incorporation of exorbitant knick-knacks and gew-gaws, all masquerading as accredited and dependable audio hardware and software enhancements.
 
Invariably, a finely-tuned and properly assembled audio set-up will make a far more agreeable noise than one that is poorly maintained and thrown together.  The owner of the former will have connected their equipment properly, experimented with speaker positioning and tried all manner of settings in their quest to extract the best possible sound from their investment.  The latter might feature a poorly adjusted amplifier, a worn stylus and poorly-sited loudspeakers that may even be connected out-of-phase. 
 
However, hi-fi tweakery plays to the eyes (and the wallet) as much as it does to the ears.  And audiophiles love to tinker.  Don’t we? 

What’s The Colour Of Money?

Years ago, wishful thinking amongst certain sections of the hi-fi press was that coating the exposed edges of a compact disc with green ink from a felt pen would positively transform its sound.  The belief was that the veneer of lurid green ink would contain and absorb rogue particles of laser light that otherwise might be bouncing around within the layer of polycarbonate, causing unnecessary stress on the error correction system.  It was not long before a variety of green marker pens were being offered for sale at wallet-worrying prices ($25?  Oh, please…) complete with baseless claims as to the improvements that were possible.  Huzzah!  A generation of CD-hating audio purists finally had a tool by which these evil, spiteful and brittle-sounding little discs could finally be made at least listenable.

Some years back, once in possession of a CD Stoplight pen (as marketed by Audio Prism) I invited some friends over for a demonstration.  Thanks to employment in music retail and broadcasting, locating two or more copies of the same disc was quite easy.  My friends auditioned un-treated and treated copies of five albums.  Their enthusiasm was uncontained – on the treated discs, my guests heard tighter bass, a newly-defined soundstage, three-dimensional imagery and a more natural quality of sound.   Had I a boxful of CD Stoplight pens for sale that evening, everyone present would have bought at least one each without hesitation. 

However, no-one had considered that the audition was a sham – although the treated discs were offered for visual inspection, none of them were played that evening. In all cases, thanks to sleight of hand, only untreated CDs were used.  There was no actual before-and-after. The same CD of Arthur Baker’s Love Is The Message, and all the other audition discs, was simply re-inserted into the CD machine.  Hi-fi autosuggestion had overtaken the senses.   The music was exactly the same, but the listeners’ perception of the sound had changed.

Sleeps With The Fish Fingers

Further well-publicised nonsense regarding CD enhancement entails keeping discs in the freezer overnight.  Although a cost-free exercise (assuming that a deep freeze is available) the effort involved demands a careful listen - afterwards.  You’ll hear much more from a disc prior to it being stored alongside the ice cream and petit pois.  It won’t actually sound any different, but now you’re listening closely. 

Yippee!  Frozen CDs that no longer sound cold and brittle.  Oh, hang on…

So far I am unaware of anyone storing digital media in a coal bunker, a tool shed or an outdoor lavatory – but give it time.  There must be some more everyday objects or locations that can be employed to improve the audio reproduction of these pesky little silver discs. 

Mind Over Matter

Dr Ben Goldacre records in his book Bad Science that in the Great War of 1914-18, medics that ran out of opiate-based pain killers (i.e. morphine) instead applied shots of a mild saline solution to their patients, informing them that it was something for the pain.  The injured servicemen survived their emergency treatment (invasive surgery, amputations and the like) with a minimum of discomfort – they implicitly trusted the medics and the dummy pain killers they had been given[i].

In medicine, a reliable drug test relies on a double-blind experiment – neither participants nor researchers are aware who is being administered the medicine (the test group) or the placebo (control group).  I have yet to hear of a blindfold test in hi-fi circles that went to such lengths.  In many gushing reviews of dubious tweaks, gadgets and add-ons, the researcher and the subject are one and the same.  In cases where the researcher (i.e. the listener) and the subject also happen to be the (deep pocketed) purchaser, there is little chance of there being an objective view taken of the efficacy of any ferociously priced accessory

[i] In Bad Science, the good doctor turns his marvellously sceptical mind towards acupuncture.  In one extensive series of tests, patients receiving treatment from unskilled and untutored nerve-jabbers recorded positive results, similar to those who had been treated by qualified acupuncturists i.e. where needles were applied in the “correct” places and to the required depths

Shock Treatment

Much has been written by those who have purchased and installed equipment designed to improve the quality of the mains electricity to their hi-fi equipment.  The standard to aim for – short of constructing one’s own power station – is to install a dedicated mains spur.  Your kit will be running off a mains supply that is untainted by the noise and fluctuations caused by other household equipment – computers, ovens, televisions.  Everyone who has gone to such lengths agrees that the audio improvement is substantial and worth every last red cent. 

In simpler terms, after all the time, effort, disruption and expense of installing a dedicated mains spur, one’s stereo will sound magnificent.  You’re going to listen long and hard for the detail and imagery that in all honesty, previously went unnoticed.  The same logic may apply to any number of audio tweaks.  Enthusiasm for a new add-on or modification will rise in direct proportion to the time and expense afforded to it. 

I doubt that a clean power feed to an amplifier, CD machine or turntable can be detrimental to its performance.  However, the nature of such an upgrade precludes any chance of a blindfold before-and-after test, let alone a double-blind sample[i].  Worse still - I have yet to read any studied and controlled analysis performed on such an enhancement.  How hard would it be for a technically-minded hi-fi journalist or audio engineer to take a series of readings before and after any audio enhancement is installed?  Sonic variations are easy to record with the right equipment i.e. quality microphones and a spectrograph.  Indeed, the more technical hi-fi press frequently support appraisals of equipment i.e. amplifiers and CD players with copious visual and numerical readings and data.  Manufacturers and journalists even (for what it is worth) quote resistance and capacitance data for elaborate cables and interconnects.  However, I have yet to see such analysis used to support claims made in favour of serious upgrades such as dedicated mains spurs, let alone drawing over compact disc with felt pens.  Instead, all such assessment is either highly emotive and flowery or impenetrably complex, steeped in unqualified and unreferenced mumbo-jumbo.

[i] Let’s assume two identical properties each containing identical audio systems.  One property, however, has a dedicated mains spur for the hi-fi – the other does not.  Neither the listeners (test subjects) nor the demonstrators (researchers) know which property is which.  That all parties are ignorant of the distinction between properties/audio systems is essential to the double blind.   Were the audio demonstrators aware of the difference, it is likely that they would, subconsciously, influence the opinions of the listeners – body language, vocal inflections and the like would give the game away.

Time Well Spent

There are, of course numerous useful tweaks that represent time well spent and value for money.  Rock-solid and isolated turntable supports, quality speaker stands alongside careful speaker & turntable placement are essential.  Clean and solid connections (i.e. screw terminals, RCA or XLM) will help avoid crackly and fuzzy interruptions.  Common sense as well as cleanliness are the key to a well-tempered audio system. 

It is difficult to buy hi-fi racks, speaker stands or floor-standing speakers that do not feature adjustable inverted cones of some description.  Arguably, spikes can improve the sound of a loudspeaker - rigidity is important for accurate audio transmission.  But one is far less likely to experiment with speaker positioning when spikes penetrate the carpet and make repositioning tricky.  Try leaving them off until you are 100% happy with your choice of placement.  

Turntable mats are without doubt important.  I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to spending £££s on nice, thick rubber/cork/felt mats.  I’m pretty confident that good support beneath a record is important – in one record store, we had a lovely Goldring Lenco turntable – for some unknown reason the outer platter had been removed, so the records sat on the 6” inner spindle.  I retrieved the outer platter from the basement and put it back where it belonged – the results were pronounced.  I had always thought that our in-store system was bass-light, and was not capable of any real impact.  Replacing the turntable platter revealed that the system was capable of some very deep and punchy low frequencies.  Moreover, the new sound seemed to leap out of the speakers., whereas before it was as if someone had packed some old socks between the speaker covers and the driver units. 

Wired for Sound

The most valuable market share for hi-fi accessories is surely that for speaker cable and interconnects.  Surely, everyone agrees that quality cables are essential for a well-maintained and properly set up audio and visual system.  Don’t they? 

Heavy-duty and specialised cables are now offered for sale not just by specialist audio-visual dealers, but by white-goods electrical stores, high street entertainment shops, supermarkets and even discount retailers such as B&M and Home Bargains.  One can even buy what purports to be hi-fi speaker cable in the 99p shops that can be found in every town centre. 

The widely-held belief that expensive cables (speaker, power or interconnect) can improve the performance of a home entertainment system is somewhat misplaced.  Consider instead that sound and video quality can be affected by poor quality and/or defective cables.  A £1,000 Van Den Hul or Townshend 1m interconnect cannot replace what was never present in the first place; but a cheap and flimsy cable with badly-soldered and corroded plugs might arguably dull the sound, as well as inflicting interference or static to the connection.

Bundle of Joy

Some years back I purchased a set of Quad Electrostatic loudspeakers via a well-known auction site.  I was unprepared for the job-lot of gear that awaited me on collection – the seller had included his MHZS valve CD player, EL-34 valve amp and selection of esoteric and expensive cables in with the auction for the speakers.  He had neglected to mention that this additional kit was included in the listing; nonetheless I was not going to refuse this unexpected windfall.  I felt as if I had won the National Lottery.

Back at home, I set to work connecting my existing amp, speakers and CD player with the heavy duty braided kettle leads, bi-wired speaker cable and near-rigid triple-shielded directional interconnects.  I can honestly report that once introduced into my home set up, I could not hear the slightest improvement.  I researched the combined cost of my haul of fancy wires – I would have seen little change from £500 had I bought this stuff new.  Two mains leads, two interconnects and several metres of inch-thick speaker cable.  If I was in the market for some new cables, and had been given the opportunity to audition this lot, I would have kept my money in my wallet. 

Cable Tied

In the mid-1990s I was involved in the opening of a new city-centre megastore in Newcastle.  The audio engineers wired the many speakers and industrial-scale power amps up with reel upon reel of high-quality Shark Wire[i].  Countless leftover part-reels of this desirable speaker cable ended up in the trash, only to be retrieved moments later by a swarm of skip rats.  Myself included.  Everyone that salvaged a reel (or two!) took it home and re-wired their loudspeaker connections.  Everyone reported 100% satisfaction.  Hooray for quality speaker wire.  But what were the sonic differences that we had heard from swapping over the speaker wire?  No-one seemed really sure.  But we all agreed that it did sound good. 

A few years later I purchased – without auditioning - a heavily-discounted and highly rated set of Mordaunt Short loudspeakers.  Back at home, and having connected them to my stereo I was rather underwhelmed, even after allowing them to “break-in”[ii].  After long sessions experimenting with speaker placement and working my way through my favourite albums, in desperation I bought some expensive speaker cable to replace my trusty and dependable Shark Wire - and to hopefully reveal the supposed fidelity of these impressive-looking but dull sounding floor standing speakers. 

I needn’t have bothered.  The extra funds spent on the posh speaker cable went for nought.  Now in possession of two sets of speaker wire, I tried bi-wiring the Mordaunt Shorts.  Hmm.  No difference.  Was it possible that the speakers were just not very good or totally unsuited to the rest of my system and living room?  I connected back up my TDL RTL 3s[iii] and wondered what to do with my now-unwanted up/downgrades.  I vowed not to buy without an audition ever again, and not trust the hype and wishful thinking of the hi-fi cognoscenti.  My bad. 

[i] This quality wire is sadly derided by certain knowledgeable contributors to hi-fi forums because it is now available exclusively from electrical accessory specialists Maplins.

[ii] In my humblest of opinions, hi-fi gear does not run, or break, in.  One just gets used to the way that it sounds after a week or so. 

[iii] An exceptional floor-standing budget (but sizeable) speaker from the 1990s, the RTL 3s were a freak of hi-fi nature – equipment that could compete with kit costing far more than their asking price (£400).  In particular, the bass response of the RTL 3 is as natural, balanced and deep as any loudspeaker that I have ever heard

Hung Out To Dry

The last word on expensive speaker wire might go to Dr Bob Dean.   In June 2004, Bob wrote that along with his audio engineer brother, he had hosted a blindfold test for five friends. His Martin Logan SL-3 speakers were hooked up with alternately Monster Cable, and then Belden general purpose electrical wire.  Swapping the cables was performed effortlessly and discretely with a switching box.  Only two of the blindfolded guests could identify the Monster Cable.  Then, unbeknown to anyone except Dr. Bob’s audio whizz-kid brother; the Belden wire was replaced with a set of speaker cable fashioned from some unravelled coat hangers. Still blindfolded, and unaware of the change of cable, neither the guests or the host could distinguish the Monster Cable from its competitor.  And everyone present considered that that both Monster Cable and coat-hangers sounded excellent.

Every Minute, One Is Born

Hi-fi fans with long memories will surely recall the antics of Peter Belt.  His experiments and successful marketing of seemingly frivolous knick-knacks were designed to both improve one’s perception of sound[i] and to dent one’s bank account.  Peter is still active, his PWB website will sell you creams, foils and pens with which one can smear, affix or scribble all over one’s expensive stereo gear.  Best of all is a crocodile clip and tweezer (The Quantum Clip) that retails for a cool £500.  PWB state in their marketing blurb that,
 
“…any object within the environment, by virtue of its interaction with…basic energy sources creates, depending upon the material, a distinctive energy pattern and the senses of human beings are incompatible with the energy patterns created by modern materials…”
 
Also…
 
“…when the points of the Quantum Clip Tweezers are gently but firmly squeezed across any two opposing flat surfaces on the nut at the end of the Quantum Clip energy, from the human being, passes through the Tweezers, to the jaw end of the Quantum Clip…”
 
Like so-called alternative medicines – such as homeopathy – any success experienced from using Peter Belt’s products must surely depend upon the unquestioning faith of the end user.  If one can afford £100 for a piece of foil 170mm x 20mm, and as a result experience some kind of sonic improvement, no matter how slight, so be it.   
 
Contrary to reports, PWB do not market a device that improves the perception of the sound made by one’s audio system as paper money is torn up and flushed down the nearest lavatory. 

[i] The PWB website refers to “perceived sound” which might be interpreted as an admission that their products do not (cannot?) have any measurable effect on the performance of audio equipment


Sticks and Stones

If Peter Belt did not necessarily pioneer the introduction of dubious and frivolous accessories, he was at least in part responsible for an avalanche of seriously expensive add-ons being peddled by hi-fi dealers and internet shops.  It does appear that the more radical an innovation appears, the higher the asking price becomes, alongside increasingly questionable claims being made, invraiably backed up by ludicrous pseudo-scientific drivel.

Urban mythology holds that once, a mail-order scam offered for sale the oldest artefact in the world for the price of, say, £5.  A buyer would then receive in the mail a small pebble.  The seller/scammer had designed a scheme that would maximise his profits for the smallest outlay whilst exploiting the gullibility and greed of his clientele.  A classic confidence trick. 

Machina Dynamica of Falls Church, Virginia market small stones (or, as they would have it, Brilliant Pebbles) for between $39 and $159, depending on their size.  They recommend that the stones are affixed to speaker terminals, interconnects, placed on top of CD players and speakers and in the corners of listening rooms.  The marketing blurb states,

“Brilliant Pebbles is a unique and comprehensive system for tuning the room and audio system based on special physical properties of highly symmetrical crystal structures…”

And...

“We employ a number of highly-specialized, proprietary techniques in the preparation/assembly of Brilliant Pebbles to enhance the crystals' inherent characteristics. The fundamental operating principle of Brilliant Pebbles involves a number of atomic mechanisms in the crystals…”

Not forgetting…

Brilliant Pebbles will enhance the performance of your audio system so your favorite music and even your experience playing online fantasy games will become a mind blowing auditory experience…”

Sadly, I have not yet had the chance to try out this marvellous innovative approach to maximising the acoustic and technical performance of an audio (or audio-visual) system and its immediate environment.  Before I hit the pay now button on the website, I think that I may present for scrutiny the following claims of Machina Dynamica to the committee at the next bi-monthly meeting of the local Amateur Geology and Particle Physics Society…

“Any mechanical energy (e.g., acoustic waves or mechanical vibration), applied to…extremely cold crystal material forces the atoms to begin to vibrate around their equilibrium positions in the lattice - the greater the energy applied, the more energetic the vibration of the atoms. At the same time, the electric forces binding the atoms together begin to stretch and compress slightly to allow for the higher energy configuration; each atom acts as if it were connected to its neighbors by extremely small springs…”

Meanwhile, I’m off to the beach to collect a bag of pebbles, all of which I shall polish up with some Brasso before giving them a coat of the wife’s nail polish. 

PayPal is accepted. 

Music for Money

Your money is your own - you may (legally) spend it how you choose.  It is worth considering however that the outlay required for the “upgrades” as described above might be better spent upon some new equipment – the £2,000 or so required for a dedicated mains spur would buy a very nice new cartridge, tone arm or CD/SACD player, for example. 

Perhaps you are in the high-end zone whereby the next audio hardware upgrade would require several months or even a year’s salary, if not more.  Maybe £2k represents only a fraction of the cost any of your existent components – in which case you might feel justified in buying and experimenting with seemingly preposterous additions to your high-fidelity audio/visual set up.  If it works, it works.  Ambient Field Conditioners Ultra Animators ? Cable risers ? You will hear a difference.  Won’t you?  Which absolutely justifies the expense.

There is one area, however, where further expenditure is guaranteed to improve the noise that your stereo makes.  The next time that you find a grand or two burning a hole in your pocket, instead of shopping for helium-free crystal-conditioned cobalt-doped cables, try this.

Buy some more music.  Head over to Discogs and eBay and plug those gaps in your collection.  Buy a Japanese 1st pressing of Dark Side of The Moon.  Get a mint original American copy of Aja, Blonde on Blonde or Hot Rats. 

Browse to MiniLPs.net and fill up on absurdly desirable SHM and/or Blu-spec Japanese replica card sleeve CDs. 

Treat yourself to some box sets.  The Beatles – in mono, or stereo.  Vinyl or CD.  Immerse yourself in the fabulous 54-disc Decca Analogue Years collection .  Or the magnificent 50-disc Deutsche Grammophon Originals: Legendary Recordings.    Maybe try the stunning 51-disc Mercury Living Presence box .

Support your nearest record shop; rediscover the thrill of browsing through thousands of albums and compact discs. Head to the city and discover the musty backstreet stores; crate-dig your way through an afternoon or two.  Drool over the most sought-after items on display in the window.  Revive that feel-good retail therapy as you walk away from music retailers with your haul of new music. 

Discover SACD – get some Stones and Dylan albums in this terrific format. Try some 96kHz and 192kHz hi-res downloads at HDtracks .  Take out a Spotify subscription, hit the random button and let the advanced algorithms in the software introduce you to some tremendous new music.  Try Neil Young’s Pono site for some serious HD streaming. 

Better still, buy some concert tickets.  Go to the Opera.  Get to The BBC Proms this year and gasp in awe at the sound of a symphony orchestra in full flight.  Thrill to a big band in full swing at your local theatre.  Hear a jazz trio or quartet in an intimate jazz club.  Catch Springsteen when he’s next over - get tickets for the mosh pit.  Hear the pure rock ‘n’ roll of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or The Jim Jones Experience.  Hear some raw and earthy country.  Hear some folk & roots.  Hear the power and majesty of a church organ. 

Your stereo will never sound that good.

Or, buy and incorporate some ridiculous phoney-baloney overpriced accessory into your audio system in the slim hope that it will unlock the doors to a private audio Valhalla.