Are hi-fi fans being taken in by ludicrous claims made by sellers of preposterously expensive gizmos? DR RICHARD VAREY has some advice for you.
We find the archetype ‘mad scientist’ in science fiction, horror, and even conspiracy theory. The mad scientist is a bad scientist, and may be incompetent, misguided, incomprehensible. Or belligerent, dishonest, and devious. (Or all of the above). We can readily find such characters masquerading in hi-fi home audio.
Many of the claims made about “breakthrough” and “I can’t explain why, it just works” audio enhancement “innovations” are of dubious standing. The perpetrators may be serious, and they often seem to believe their own hype, but snake oil claims are mostly deluded if not deceptive – mistaken or pseudo-science, if not just plain silly or even mischievous prank.
And for the gullible they can be costly, both in financial and emotional terms. Snake oil claims are unsubstantiated and promise at least questionable and generally unverifiable quality or benefit. Snake oil products are fake or at least misguided. Enhancement products may be authentic. Then again, they may be derived in a belief based on false knowledge or incomplete information. Worse, they may be manifestation of an ignorance of strong belief in the face of contrary evidence. Some are just plain fraudulent.
Whatever the basis or motivation, the outcome for the buyer is disappointment and loss when claims are not borne out in performance and effect.
As an example of what seems to be pseudo-science, from personal experience, take grounding boxes. I’ve tried grounding my understanding of grounding (earthing) in science and engineering. I think I failed. The producers of the particular grounding box I have in mind claim that connecting it to a hifi system will widen the soundstage, dig out more details, improve the clarity, relax the sound, increase the separation, and reduce the digital effect to make the sound more analogue in character. The explanation given is that it reduces the inherent electrostatic charges/potential, giving the chassis and ground plane of attached electronic equipment a regulated potential. Oh, and it reduces the free electrons floating around the ground plane, affecting the micro-currents.
What makes sense is the observation that increasing use of electrical appliances inevitably introduces more noise and interference into the power line. This pollutes the mains supply, leading to significant degradation of audio and video performance. Stray electrons are apparently highly undesirable in high performance music reproduction equipment. Seemingly, a dedicated ground treatment creates a stable potential on the equipment to keep the number of free electrons under control by channeling them to ground at a constant rate. Extensive research and tests, it is claimed, led to the design of the grounding device to prevent free electrons from thus polluting the audio signal transfer.
I studied physics – including electronics – at university, and there is a hint of something sensible in this account. Yet I couldn’t explain what was supposed to be happening with this grounding device. Listening was my only recourse. Would I hear a desirable enhancing effect? I connected the box to my music system, along with the supplied hospital grade mains plug and heavy duty copper cable. At first I connected it into an adjacent mains supply socket for several weeks, then on the advice of the supplier, to the earth tag of my phono preamplifier.
It could discern no change in the character of the music I played, even though I was told the effect on sound quality would be both substantial and immediate.
The designer/supplier was clearly sincere and expressed much surprise to my report of no discernable effect on sound quality. But that product costs $300 and I would have been both disappointed if there was no music enhancement and embarrassed at being taken in by the dubious promise unfulfilled. Was it merely incompetence or actually dishonesty I was witnessing? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but the end result is the same. Expensive disappointment is the worst outcome.
Is a reputable brand name a safer option? Not always. Sales patter is always partial and often prone to over-selling. The only surefire way to get good value reliable enhancements is through testing with your ears with some critical listening to discern evidence of sonic realism: musical definition of instruments, natural presence and musical balance. By all means explore the promised land of upgrades, but trust your listening skills and subjective music experience first and foremost. That’s what you will be living with long after the bank account has been debited.
Think about the claims. Do they make sense? Do some research and ask questions. Talk to other enthusiasts. Never buy anything unheard! Audiophiles may have discerning listening ability, but not always reflective critical reasoning. The gullible are always lawful prey in a commercialised world of dubious business ethics in the pursuit of wealth. Trust your listening ears and befriend the designers and makers who honestly and evidently believe that music matters most.
When you see the next miracle audio enhancer, just ask yourself if this is just common-sense, and why didn’t I think of it earlier? Can I do it myself? If it looks like pseudo-science, is it really plausible? You may be in tenuous territory. If the claims seem outlandish and outrageous, and this is often easily spotted, then “you cannot be serious” moment may be the point to turn away.
Those expensive tiny wood cubes which when placed on equipment and throughout the room miraculously induce astounding improvement in sound quality may just be criminally costly nonsense.
Some call it snake oil, I call it messin’ with your id #. [Note: This line is a play on the title of a classic Rory Gallagher song, which as far as I know is not about snake oil hi-fi!]
I chose the term id for its meaning in connection to basic instincts and primitive urges. Appeals to the pleasure principle promising immediate gratification deny the possibility of reflective judgement of value and morality. Urges not subjected to reasoned thought are the snake oil salesman’s pathway to your wallet. Buyer beware. DR RICHARD VAREY