From the "any publicity..." file

Imagine my delight at receiving the following:

From: "Clink Admin" ><
Subject: A review?
Date: Sat, 21 Aug 2010 15:21:37 +1000

Hi Dan,

I was wondering if you would do a review of something on my website, address in signature.
Not sure if anything on there is along the lines of stuff you would normally but think there may be a couple of items that fit in.

Would love if you would do a review of my Vortex Analogue Interconnects, these have proven very popular cable. (bottom of the page)
So would be great to get an independent and unbiased view of these.
Would only ask you to do a cable review though if you feel it is something that has an impact on audio quality.
If your of the school of thought that they have no impact then prefer not to have a review done as it would be very short, probably in the under 10 words variety of short.

Cinema Link, Sales
675 Elizabeth St
Waterloo NSW 2017
Ph: (02) 9698 4959

[There was a bit more to this e-mail; I've corresponded with Gregory previously. He asked if I'd like to check out one of his HDMI switches, which I don't actually have the equipment to test but which seem quite handy; by linking to them and other pages of his without so much as a nofollow, I hereby repay Greg for what's going to happen to him in the rest of this post!]

My answer:

Yeeeahhh... you haven't read much of my site, have you :-)?

(Or this blog, for that matter.)

It's the "school of thought" part that I think is the problem. There's no need to separate people into pseudo-religious "schools of thought" over a question that can be settled by scientific means.

We know, with the same certainty that we know that the GPS system and personal computers work and for many of the same reasons, that none of the conventionally-measurable electrical characteristics of analogue cables have any effect on the sound. Well, except in particularly pathological cases where some truly bizarre cable architecture adds substantial reactance or something, in which case it only makes a system sound better if there was something wrong with the system in the first place. Like, your speakers have 14 drivers wired in parallel and thus have far too little impedance for your amp to happily drive, so hooking them up via carbon spark-plug leads or something that add a lot of resistance un-ruins the sound.

(See also those occasional fringe-audiophile products that are actually quantifiably bad, like this amplifier, plus a veritable cavalcade of dreadful valve amplifiers. All of which have users who insist that they sound GREAT.)

[Oh - in case you're wondering, yes, Cinema Link have fancy digital cables, too...]

The analogue-cables-sound-different response to the electrical-engineering argument is to say that DC-to-daylight frequency and phase analysis just doesn't measure some special something that they know when they hear it, science doesn't know everything, et cetera.

But a vanishingly small percentage of the people who say this ever bother to do even a simple single-blind test to see if they, themselves, can actually hear any difference between their special cables and lamp cord. Such tests really are not difficult to do at all - all you need is a trustworthy friend to flip coins, swap cables and make notes, some very elementary experimental design, and a spare afternoon - but they're amazingly unpopular. Un-blinded tests remain immensely popular, but it's trivially demonstrable that those don't work.

This is my favourite recent example, but there are countless others, covering the entire breadth of live and recorded sound. Vision and hearing are subject to an immense amount of processing by the brain before consciousness gets to perceive them.

(Another favourite of mine: Famous concert violinists are often certain that they can tell the difference between a priceless antique violin - especially if it's their Stradivarius or whatever - and a high-quality modern instrument. But when you do a blinded test, the results, once again, drop to chance levels! They can probably pick the Strad blindfolded if they're actually holding it in their hands, but that's all.)

Some audiophiles go so far as to say that no matter how perfect the experiment design, with no possibly-sound-colouring ABX switchboxes or skull-resonance-changing blindfolds involved, these sorts of differences just can't be detected by science, in the same way that God will never permit Himself to be detected by scientific investigation. Exactly how these people figured out that the new cables sounded better is, in these cases, something of a mystery.

(The people who insist that cables need "burn-in time" have a particularly neat way out of blinded tests; they can just assert that the... phlogiston, or whatever... leaks out of burned-in cables when you disconnect them. But I'd be willing to bet quite a lot of money that swapping out their expensive burned-in wires for hidden $2 interconnects and bell-wire speaker cables would pass entirely unnoticed.)

I'm inclined to go easy on people who buy fancy cables and reckon they sound good. We all fool ourselves frequently, which is why science is so important, but a fooling of oneself that leads to essentially harmless happiness is not a major crime.

But I really must insist that people who're in the business of making and selling fancy cables have no right to make any claims about the "sound" of their products, if they haven't at least hired a few first-year electrical-engineering students to spend a day doing an independent test.

If, when blinded tests were done, they at least reasonably frequently showed that fancy cables sounded better, then it'd be no big deal to sell such products without doing the tests yourself. But what we instead keep seeing is that in a blinded test people can't tell the difference between Monster Cables and (literal) coat-hanger wire. (Monster products may be overpriced and often sold in a blatantly dishonest way, but surely they ought to beat coat-hangers!)

Given this, I cannot help but consider the basic rationale for products such as your cables as being as unproven as the notion that a chiropractor can cure diabetes, or that all poor people are poor because they do not adequately desire wealth.

It's not the Middle Ages any more. We know where lightning comes from, we have machines that routinely fly hundreds of people thousands of miles in (relative) comfort, and our doctors have figured out that it's a good idea to wash your hands before operating. Every day, people in First World nations are surrounded by proof of the effectiveness of scientific inquiry that's so bright, loud and ubiquitous that we, apparently, have developed the ability to tune it out when it suits us. But that doesn't make it a good idea to do so.

You're not a quack, and I don't think you're a scam artist, either. Your cables aren't outrageously expensive relative to the price of the components and assembly - they might as well be free, when compared with the truly out-there cable vendors. And you don't sell $1000 power cables, either ( you? Tell me you don't!). But this doesn't mean that sending samples of new cables to your existing customers and using their testimonials in advertising is an acceptable way of proving your claims.

If testimonials were a good way of proving the scientifically dubious, I'd be torn between devoting all my time and money to Transcendental Meditation in order to develop the ability to fly and walk through walls, or devoting just as much time and probably even more money to Scientology in order to develop the ability to control space and time.

At the end of the day, I suppose you do end up with "schools of thought", but the members of those schools are not "people who reckon special cables sound better" and "people who don't" (or "people who reckon Uri Geller has paranormal powers" and "people who don't"; I'm sure you can provide many of your own examples). They're "people who believe this question is amenable to rational investigation" and "people who don't care".

You're allowed to not care. Everyone's entitled to his opinion. But nobody's entitled to be taken seriously.

Gregory replied:

Thanks for taking the time to reply in depth, and for the informative links.

I've taken a little more time this time to read some of the pieces on your site and understand a little more of your thoughts on audio cables.

So I'll take that as no, or at least I'll take it as something that would be detrimental to my business health.

To which I replied:

...and you are thus acknowledging that if you made an attempt to figure out if your fancy cables worked, you'd find that they didn't? :-)

[Greg's, regrettably, not yet found time to reply to that.]

As I said, for hi-fi this really doesn't make a whole lot of difference either way. Even the really wacky Shun Mook or Peter Belt (...or just about anything else that 6moons thinks is fantastic...) sort of hi-fi cultism doesn't really hurt anyone - certainly not by the standards of the usual kind of cult. Some nut out there has probably bought speaker wire instead of nutritious food for his children, but that is hardly a probable situation.

That doesn't mean that the same patterns observable in truly harmful things like crazy cults and medical quackery aren't valid when you see them in other contexts, though. One I find particularly common, which is very much on show in the audiophile world, is the peculiar and inexplicable situation in which the better you investigate something - eliminating extra variables, reducing experimenter bias, reducing the ability of subjects to fool themselves - the less effect that something turns out to have.

When "lousy test" shows "huge effect" and "better test" shows "medium effect" and "further-improved test" shows "not much effect at all", it may be that the latter two tests were false negatives.

But it usually does actually mean that "perfect test" would show "zero effect".

20 Responses to “From the "any publicity..." file”

  1. Alex Whiteside Says:

    A product review site that I usually respect recently put up a piece on the amazing benefits of a power conditioner for a television. Bewilderingly its putative benefits decline with the quality of the television it's hooked up to.

  2. bramankp Says:

    I've been reading Dan's Data for quite a long time and, more recently, following you on Twitter. Suffice it to say, I'm well aware of your stance on this subject. :) I guess I stand somewhere in the middle. I'm a fan of purchasing cables/components of some reasonable quality (basic Vampire Wire #CCC/II cables addmitedly in part because I love the name and logo) but have never fealt the need to spend hundreds of dollars on such things.

    I understand your passion for blind testing but admit that it's possible such testing, in and of itself, isn't always perfect. Consider this blog post which tends to counter such arguments.

  3. Alex Whiteside Says:

    I may be confused, but the letter printed in that link suggests that there may be quantitative differences between two systems that are impreceptible to people due to the vaguaries of human senses. The audiophile stance is the opposite, that they can percieve differences between two systems that are quantitatively identical.

  4. Alex Whiteside Says:

    I'll also note that I've never encountered an audiophile review that did a side-by-side, simultaneous comparison of two systems, for obvious reasons. In both audiophile and ABX testing, there is a break between listening to the old system and listening to the new. The only difference between the tests is blinding.

  5. rikkus Says:

    Those selling expensive cables which don't actually improve (or audibly change) sound reproduction will always have customers because many people seem to want to be taken in by claims.

    Why? I expect there are several factors which influence: Visual design, the 'substantial' feeling of weighty connectors and thick cable, the hope that there is more bass/clarity/juju to be eked from their components, the desire to spend 'spare' money, the desire to impress others.

    There is also a possibility that the expensive cables actually do sound better to the listener. Note that I'm not saying that the sound reproduction is altered, only that the listener hears a difference. The same effect may be at play as that which makes brand name pharmaceuticals more effective than generics. The customer wants and expects a better experience - and that's what they get.

    Of course this would explain why the more you refine your comparisons, the less effect is noticed by the listener. If they have to choose between cable A and B and aren't told which is the more expensive, they really don't notice the difference.

    I refuse to allow my brain to alter my perception based on imaginary quality differences, so I'll be taking generic medicines and using boring old adequate conductors for my listening, but I'll still be slightly envious of those who are fooling themselves. Ignorance may indeed be bliss.

  6. Bibble123 Says:

    On a related note, did you see this one the other day? Someone was claiming that some sooper-dooper new SATA cables made the MP3 files played from his NAS sound way better than before.

    Sadly, the page has gone from his web site but Google has cached it for posterity :)

  7. rndmnmbr Says:

    I've had a lengthy discussion with members of a local band I'm friendly with, to wit, Monster Cables. The band likes Monster Cables for their warranty and durability. I'm of the opinion that Monoprice is the way to go. So far we're at a stalemate - while they acknowledge that the price is lower and warranty technically the same with Monoprice cables, they insist that the ability to walk into any given electronics store and get their cables warrantied is double-plusgood. This in spite of the fact that when you're not a successful band, price really matters, and when you are a big successful band, your technical crew will most likely be building their own out of cheap stuff. And how they destroy multiple cables per show is still a mystery...

  8. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Oh, that's awesome.

    From the bottom of the post, before he un-published it:

    "I have disabled Comments on this post so that respectable visitors do not have to read the remarks made by a small number of extremely ignorant, rude, malicious and disingenuous individuals who cannot tolerate people expressing opinions that do not concur with their own."

    Apparently suggesting someone apply the scientific method isn't just ignorant and rude, but is a mark of active wickedness.

    (Unfortunately, the post wasn't up for long enough for to notice it. Curse those disingenuous rudesters!)

  9. frasera Says:

    @ bramankp
    color perception is not the same as sound. that that "blogger" had to resort to false analogy says it all.
    anyways theres no "surrounding colors" when all you've done is swap cables back and forth. nothings changed in the environment unless you are pretending that sound waves reflect off the cables physically changing them specially before they hit your ears again.

  10. corinoco Says:

    I went to this page, and my head exploded.

    People who pay for this don't deserve to have money (or the vote for that matter). They should give ALL their money to me, so that I can buy more Lego. I will guarantee their music will sound better if I have more Lego. There will be less rattling ABS plastic blocks near their stereo (waves travel forever; so rattling Lego near them WILL effect their listening spacial ambiance) therefore the spacial audio temperature quotient modulus WILL be made substantially more open and crystallized. I will sacrifice my listening pleasure for them.

    1. Give me your money.

    2. I buy Lego... therefore...

    3. Less Lego near you... therefore...

    4. Better listening quality for you at a reduced cost!

  11. Popup Says:

    Please tell me that the whole of that link-web of nonsense (6moons) is a joke!

    (Although I must admit that GetBetterSound sounds tempting...)

  12. methuseus Says:

    I personally would buy more expensive cables if I believed they were better connected at the ends. I also have had a Monster cable that was horribly expensive and looked very substantial slake out somewhere in the middle with never having been bent or overly coiled.

    So maybe cheapest is the best to go...

  13. FeRD Says:

    Bibble123 wins at Internet, with that link, for making sure we didn't miss out on the all-too-short-lived fun! "The ['Super'] SATA Cable Saga" (as the person responsible for the whole mess is referring to it) seems destined to live on in "audiophile"-claims history, even if only in anecdotal form.

    Decades from now, we'll be telling our grandkids (cue strained senior citizen voice): "I remember once, some so-called journalist actually posted an article on his blog -- a blog was like a prehistoric version of the IMP [Implanted Media Publisher -ed.] they installed on the back of your hand when you started school, Billy -- he actually posted an article claiming that using a certain brand of SATA cable resulted in a discernible enhancement to sound playback from files that were read by a NAS controller from drives attached via those cables, transmitted encapsulated in IP packets over a twisted-pair ethernet cable, and then reassembled by the (at the time) fancy-schmancy networked audio jukebox component of his Naim stereo system!" Billy won't believe a word of it, of course -- and who could blame him? He'll say it's just silly grandpa spinning his yarns again.

    The best part is, he's still trying to defend the completely-batshit-crazy claims he made originally. The article was bad enough, swinging around jargon like noise floor without even the hint of a defensible conceptual model in which the term can be meaningfully applied. But in the followups, he seems hell-bent on pursuing points completely irrelevant to why his original arguments are demonstrably divorced from reality. After all, wherever there's a point of contention, it could mean that his original claims have merit (except it doesn't).

    There are some doozies, too. Like the part where he pushes a model of digital data transmission that considers it "essentially analog" at the wiring level. Or the way he conflates the presence of error correction in digital communication with some imagined power of a SATA cable to impart "sonic character" on the resulting audio when encoded files traverse the wires. Despite the fact that the (still-encoded) data that crosses those wires is in a form that shouldn't even be considered audio. Not to the point that analog-signaling concepts of issues like "noise floor" are applied with the implied assumption that they affect a cable's output in a signal-agnostic way.

    I can't locate any point at which he explicitly states, as was Bibble123's no doubt tongue-in-cheek characterization, that the cables affected the playback of MP3 audio. That claim could have expedited things, as it would've likely been too much for even the most gullible true-believer to swallow. But, absent any discussion of source data, we're left to concede he may have tested with extremely high-resolution, information-dense digital audio in a lossless format ideal for high-end sonic reproduction. In his original yammer about building the NAS he mentions EAC, so the data may even be uncompressed PCM WAV. That possibility distracts, if only briefly, from a critical truth: you'd need to be heroically ignorant regarding the process by which encoded digital audio is reproduced, on the most basic level, to even momentarily entertain the possibility that his "findings" represent accurate conclusions drawn from correct analysis of well-understood experimental observations.

    But really, his master stroke is in first "withdrawing" the post that sparked all of this (conveniently eliminating from the conversation not only his original article, but all resulting commentary), then proceeding to reframe the "discussion" in an exclusively one-sided manner via his followup posting monologues. The reaction is represented only by a microscopic "selection" of hand-picked email responses. So, not only is his the only voice that gets heard, but we're expected to accept at face value his descriptions of the other side's arguments. Descriptions biased enough that he's not above pathetically transparent sympathy ploys. Even, my favorite, stopping a hair's breadth short of implying that he's received death threats. I suspect in reality people have just informed him that they'd be quite pleased should he f--- off and die, or similar. (And it's theoretically possible his children might see that! Think Of The Children!)

    I'm sure all of the different ways he's just plain Confused (at best) have been extensively pointed out. But since he's decided to hoard all of the responses for himself, there's no visible record of any dissenting points. At least, not on his site. Though his "findings" are sure to be a topic of conversation on... oh, I don't know... "certain sites" where there's little patience for those who to scurry away from the harsh, blinding light of rational thinking.

    Which is everything I can think of to say on the matter, plus twice as much more! I had no idea I'd end up going on at such length. Since this text was constructed in fits and spurts over several hours, I beg indulgence should it contain any lapses in syntactic or editorial coherence. If/when I spot them, I'll go back and edit the text (comment system permitting).

  14. Bibble123 Says:

    Thanks FeRD

    The bit that I thought he was suggesting he was getting a "better" sound quality was this bit...

    My only guess is that the Super SATAs reject interference significantly better than the standard cables and in so doing lower the noise floor revealing greater low-level musical detail and presentational improvements in the soundstage and the ‘air’ around instruments.

    The only special SATA cable I have ever bought were locking ones for a PC where a tight bend was forcing the connector off the drive. I don't believe that there is any kind of SATA cable that produces a better quality 0 or 1 (Assuming that the cable is not faulty of course)

  15. dr_w00t Says:

    Making stuff up is fun.

  16. corinoco Says:

    Surely the SATA cable site was a joke... but it does make me think: if he tried playing say, 'Orinoco Flow' by Enya, would have have only got silence, as Enya's songs are massively electronically processed to 'layer' her voice? What would New Order sound like over these cables, acapella?

  17. Kagato Says:

    This was on Slashdot a few days ago.
    There were some choice comments there:

    Perfectly straight ones! Unbelievably round zeros!

    Don't buy cables from the parent poster! I did, and the ones were so straight that they jammed at the bend where I plugged in the cable. The pressure of zeros behind them pushed one of them right through the cable, and I ended up having all of the ones leak out all over my floor, while only the zeros went into my amplifier.

  18. nonreality Says:

    There is many meanings if the USB cable have any influence on the result or not. We only can say they have. You better believe us!

    I really think this says it all.

  19. nonreality Says:

    I do believe that there is some merit to a heavy duty cover and a good quality wire but not that it will effect sound. It will probably hold up better and in some ways monster cable when I find it on sale is ok by me. But not for the reasons that they put out or the reasons that the more expensive cables use,just because it's a bit better made. I see no problem with paying a bit more for a cable that holds up. Thats about is though. I'm not going to pay for a sound floor, roof or side feel. Air is tempting but no, not going to pay for that either. Surrounding air, space and room are also not going to be in my cable buys.

  20. Anthony Hersey Says:

    I get into arguments about this stuff all the time with True Believers. I like to break their minds by getting them to complement my home theater setup, and then reveal that I'm using pack in stereo RCA cables for component connections.

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