Chips for Chumps

In his "From the Editor's Desk" in the March issue of Stereophile's e-newsletter, John Atkinson recounts how, years ago, "erstwhile audio scribe Enid Lumley" demonstrated her pizza-box-tripod tweak at a hi-fi show. Lumley, JA writes, "placed the tripod atop a CD player and convinced her audience—including me—that the sound was better."

The subject of JA's newsletter column was audio tweaks in general, and specifically the recent debate over Golden Sound's so-called Intelligent Chip. This small, plastic-encased device is claimed to permanently improve the sound of CDs. Just place the chip atop your CD player, insert a CD, and press Play. "The sound of the upgraded disc more closely resembles the sound of the original master recording," reads the description on the website of distributor Machina Dynamica, "with less congestion, more information, greater dynamic range, and more air." The change, MD says, is nearly instantaneous, and permanent. Happy customer Patrick Conroy reports (on the MD site) that Intelligent Chips are more versatile than the distributor claims: "The disc I treated this morning by placing the chip beneath the player. It worked that way too."

So how does the Intelligent Chip work? Some have implied that it has something to do with quantum dots. Aligning protons has also been mentioned, along with "artificial atoms" (possibly another reference to quantum dots) and the rearrangement of "stray bytes"—unruly ones and zeros, presumably—on the typical CD.

The confusion over the mechanism of action is understandable. As a physicist with a PhD in such studies, I'm comfortable in asserting that whatever is going on here, if it has anything to do with chips and discs, it's beyond any science currently known.

But why limit yourself to science? Some very high-profile people believe—or seem to—that there's more to audio than mere science. John Curl, whose Parasound Halo JC 1 amplifier is listed in Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components," seemed downright evangelical when he wrote, in a post on www.AudioAsylum.com, "there is more here than any of you can understand or even accept with your limited view of what audio reproduction is all about." If I misunderstand his meaning—that is, if he did not intend to invoke metaphysics, mysticism, or religion—I hope he'll write in and set me straight.

Despite what Curl seems to suggest, there's no need to turn away from science to understand the mode of action of the Intelligent Chip. In the March 2005 "Industry Update" (p.24) I described a recent study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the brain activity of people drinking Coca-Cola and people drinking Pepsi. When participants knew they were drinking Coke, two things happened: their preference was affected, and parts of the brain were activated that are thought to be involved in emotional and affective influences on behavior. These areas of the brain, the researchers noted, "may participate in recalling cultural information that biases preference judgments." There's nothing to be done; perception is inherently subjective. Whether it's taste or sound, perception has as much to do with the brain as it does with the sensory organs.

There's some interesting science behind the Intelligent Chip, but it is not especially novel, and it's happening between our ears, not between the chip and the CD. JA admits that, years ago, he was at first convinced by Enid Lumley's demonstration of the pizza-box tripod. "When she did the test, I did hear the difference," he wrote to me in a recent e-mail correspondence. "On my own, no difference, which I ascribed to Enid's powers of persuasion."

Not everyone is comfortable with that level of introspection. Some people would rather see angels, aliens, and forces unknown to science than admit that much of the crap that goes down inside our brains is sordid, subjective, or just plain embarrassing. It's human nature, I suppose; plenty goes on inside my own head that I'd rather not share with the neighbors, though I do try to keep tabs on it myself.

Human nature or not, this phenomenon is very good for business: There's money to be made from people's open-mindedness (if you want to call it that), not just from daft tweaks and obvious snake oil like the Intelligent Chip. Even in the realm of real devices, real components, and real effects, differences are often so subtle that you can hear them—really hear them—only if you have a very good ear and lots of listening experience. The differences are so subtle that double-blind testing—the standard method for distinguishing real effects from imaginary ones—has been rejected by much of the audiophile community as useless, except in the most obvious cases. This rejection is justifiable—even statisticians agree that DBT misses some subtle effects—but those of us who like to keep a tight grip on our wallets must mourn DBT's passing.

For in the absence of rigorous test procedures and a certain level of consumer cynicism snake oil flows freely. Though a sizable population of canny, critical audio consumers would undoubtedly be healthy for the industry in the long term—a self-critical, better-informed clientele would lead to more rapid value creation—in the short term it would make the job of selling audio much harder. Manufacturers and resellers know this. In this respect, the hi-fi market parallels the art market: Artists may care most about the opinions of respected insiders and knowledgeable connoisseurs, but they can hardly afford to ignore the unsophisticated art-buying public, who buy good art for bad reasons. How much money would even talented artists make if the only people who bought their art were people who really understood it, with their good taste and deep knowledge of art? Rich, gullible people are far easier marks.

Like many before it, the debate over the Intelligent Chip is about far more than an inexpensive tweak; it's about making money from audio. There are real, audible differences between preamplifiers, power amplifiers, CD players, etc.—but the imaginary differences are far easier to sell.—Jim Austin

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