Music? Or Sound?

The demo seemed simple enough. A distributor proposed a session for the Bay Area Audiophile Society (BAAS) that would pit his relatively low-cost speaker cable against an ultra-expensive competing model named for a Norse god. We would listen to the music first with the high-priced spread, then with his cable, then discuss the differences. As far as the distributor was concerned, everyone would hear that the Nordic Emperor had no clothes.

When the first of two groups of BAAS members arrived, I played three complex selections that challenge a system far more than does the standard choice of female singer with small combo: the beginning of the first movement of Mahler's Symphony 2, from Iván Fischer's recording with the Budapest Festival Orchestra (SACD/CD, Channel Classics 23506; "R2D4," February 2007); mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's entire recording of Handel's "As with Rosy Steps the Morn Advancing," from her Handel Arias, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Harry Bicket (SACD/CD, Avie 30; "R2D4, February 2005; November 2004); and a few tracks from the Charles Lloyd Quartet's Mirror (CD, ECM 2176; December 2010). We listened to all three selections consecutively, then switched cables.

To my ears, the differences between how the cables interacted with the music and equipment were clear. Beyond the sound's being exceedingly airy and open with the expensive cable, with more refined highs, tighter bass, and exceptional transparency, it let me hear music more organically, in ways that touched me deeper. But when several BAAS members said they either couldn't hear a difference, or preferred the lower-priced cable, I realized that they were having a major problem in perceiving unfamiliar, complex music that contained multiple ideas, piquant harmonies, and emotional shifts.

So I prefaced the second listening session with some tips: "When I play orchestral music such as Mahler's, one thing I listen for is the balance between instruments. You may hear a lot of powerful low energy from timpani, bass drum, cellos, and basses, but is that energy in correct musical proportion to the midrange and treble instruments? Can you clearly discern the pitches of the lowest sounds? When you listen to Hunt Lieberson accompanied by period instruments, are the instruments in balance with each other, and are they in correct proportion to the sound of the singer's voice? Are the timbres of the instruments true? Are you hearing all the overtones and subtle dynamic shifts you might hope to hear?

"Beyond all those specifics, when you take a deep breath and let the music flow over you, does what you hear make musical sense or does it seem unbalanced? Does the music move you, conveying the emotion you sense the composer intended to communicate? How does it make you feel?"

Nice try. After we'd listened to the Handel and had been pummeled by out-of-control mush masquerading as two period-instrument cellos and a double bass—indistinct sounds that overwhelmed both the 11 violins behind Hunt Lieberson and the sound of her voice—two audiophiles claimed that the lower-priced cable transmitted more, hence "better," bass. After the Mahler, I was dismayed to find some people preferring the lower-priced cable's brasher, less-refined presentation of the horns and strings, and an overall more limited palette of colors for this music. While there's no reason some cable can't bring the Norse god to his silver-clad knees, this claimant of that throne was clearly a pretender.

I couldn't figure out why so many people were missing obvious giveaways of inferior sound. Certainly the expensive cable's I-could-buy-a-house-for-this cost has made it a sitting target and stirred up resentment. If I had $100 for every cable distributor who has claimed that their cable can trounce the false god and make the world a better place for audiophiles and their recalcitrant spouses, I'd be in Europe right now, listening to Handel in the halls for which his music was intended, and hopping from one jazz club to another. But was the resentment so great that it had led people to plug their ears?

No, something more than cable envy was going on. Instead of blaming the listeners, I began to wonder if we who review equipment have unintentionally helped create a community of audiophiles who lack the ability to listen deeply. Might it be the case that, because we often spend the bulk of a review discussing certain musical elements to the exclusion of others, we give short shrift to how the totality of the musical experience affects us, and have thus led our readers astray?

True, we reviewers sometimes speak of a bass line, a singer's voice, or the much-vaunted "presence region" as if they were somehow separate and distinct from the rest of the music we hear. Pointing out specific musical elements and how a component re-creates them can be quite useful. But if we fail to make the musical connections—to put the pieces together—are we misinforming listeners who are not always able to embrace the entire gestalt of the musical experience?

To test my theory, I began to scan reviews, both in print and online. While I was delighted to encounter reviews that spoke of music as an organic whole—check out Stephen Mejias's monthly column, "The Entry Level," for many examples—I also found numerous examples like the following, paraphrased from an actual review: "The music I picked included one piece to test the sound of acoustic and electric guitars, a very different one to test the ability to handle delicate sounds while still maintaining bass authority and slam . . . and three other selections to evaluate bass performance."

There's nothing wrong with the latter approach. Most reviewers have, or ought to have, favorite recordings that they use to evaluate such attributes. But when all we talk about is the sound of specific sonic elements, rather than how the entire musical experience makes us feel, I fear that we ultimately lead readers astray. We contribute to the schooling, not the education, of a generation of audiophiles who focus on individual fragments of the sonic experience instead of receiving music as an organic whole. Or, as the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once described his countrymen, "The English may not like music—but they absolutely love the noise it makes."

The wonder of the audiophile experience is the ability of a sound system to communicate the entire musical gestalt: the sum total of a work's ideas, emotions, and spiritual truths as expressed by and embodied in tone, rhythm, pitch, and artistic inspiration. As reviewers, that's what we must strive to convey each time we critique a cable, a black box, a loudspeaker, or the like. Unless we discuss how what we hear moves us in ways that transcend the sum total of its parts, we do our readers a disservice, and fail to give the music we love its full due.


John Atkinson's picture

John Atkinson wrote:
arve wrote:
I have repeatedly written, both in the magazine and on this website, why I believe quick-switched double-blind testing as typically practiced is very poor at identifying small but real differences.

Could you point us to those writings.

I gathered together my thoughts on blind testing for my 2011 Richard Heyser lecture to the Audio Engineering Society: But first read

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

arve's picture

… I've only had a chance to briefly skim the writing, so I'm not going to draw conclusions on it.  

My reason for asking was simply that my experience with rapid-switching blind testing has identified differences where the truly hardline objectivists tell me that I shouldn't be able to hear them (e.g. 16/44.1 vs 24/96) in tests that are rigorous enough to satisfy a statistican - one example of such a test I've done is here:

Done on decidedly low-end gear, but under conditions that exaggerate the differences somewhat.  Note that when I passed these ABX tests, it was easy to identify the differences, and easy to translate to a long-term subjective experience - differences in timbre of background noise in recordings and blackness of the sonic carpet on which we paint easily change both our perception of dynamics, detail and listening fatigue.

Note, there seems to be a problem with the second of your articles - The audio started autoplaying, and the playback controls are partially hidden, so it was very hard to find them (Browser: Chrome on OS X).

ChrisS's picture

Ahh, so you were doing your ABXing on the internet through your computer... Then no need for bed sheets to hide the equipment!

Read the articles, carefully.  Very informative.

Scorpio69er's picture

re: "The staff at this magazine may be experienced and careful listeners but..." the end, you're really no different than the rest of us. You have two ears and certain tastes and biases. Perhaps the only real difference is that you are immersed in a world of uber-expensive audio equipment supplied to you by fawning manufacturers who, by supplying you with such equipment, serve to affirm your delusion about being an audio guru, which, I am sorry to tell you, you are not. Whatever you write about whatever it is you think you hear is, in the end, your own subjective judgement. Nothing more and nothing less. It is not "the truth", so my questioning of it is not an attack upon your integrity.

It is also a simple fact that your magazince is chock full of ads for ridiculously priced pieces of equipment and could not help but be adversely affected, economically speaking, if your tests actually showed, for example, zero sonic differences between Acme's Speaker Cable or DAC or Amp and [insert brand here]. I mean, who would run an ad for $500/meter cable in a magazine that told its readers to save its $ because this stuff is essentially no better than Monoprice cable?

Now, you may fancy yourself a "careful listener", which can only mean that the rest of us untutored rubes are therefore "careless listeners", but somehow it is you who feels slighted when your pronouncements are questioned and your methodology observed to be less than scientfic. You may reject employing such methodology, which is certainly your prerogative, but you cannot say that it is not valid, scientifically.

That you would even think to advise anyone who does not literally have a pile of money to burn to shell out hundreds or even thousands of $ from their hard earned paycheck for a friggin' piece of wire(!) with (alleged) "small but real differences" illustrates how out of touch with the vast majority of your readership you really are. 

Come down from the mountain, sir. Mingle among the umwashed masses. Realize that this hobby is, first and foremost, about music, and 99.9% of us will never drive an $80000 amp cabled with $5000 worth of magic wire. It is also irrelevant whether or not we can hear the timpani player scratch his nuts after the second violinist clears his throat. This is not music, and it is most assuredly not fun.

Stereophile used to have a sense of humor. I read it in the same way I would read MAD magazine. It was funny and we all realized that we were perhaps a bit nuts, or at least suffered from a harmless obsession. You and the rest of your humorless crew are in desperate need of a wild week of sinful abandon. When you wake up dazed and confused and suffering a severe hangover and wondering who in the hell is this woman in a catsuit lying next to me on the pool table, brush yourself off and get back to work reviewing equipment that makes some kind of rational economic sense, given that 99% of us are listening to the 99% of music that is a totally manufactured product, a la a box of Corn Flakes, and that what is "accurate" when it comes to this music can only mean what the engineer who finalized the recording heard on his studio monitors and therefore all we really need to know is the answer to two questions: (1.) Do I enjoy listening to music on this gear? (2.) Can my readers afford to buy this gear?

May the spirit of J. Gordon Holt be with you. smiley

ChrisS's picture


You sound happiest when shopping at Monoprice and unhappy when you can't control the lives of others.

Go back to Monoprice and back to reading Mad Magazine.

Scorpio69er's picture

You make me cry with laughter, mixed with actual physical pain. You need your own TV show. I can only imagine the results of your interviews with various movers and shakers and celebrities. The results would be priceless.

ChrisS's picture

I am so glad that you allow me to inhabit and enrich your fantasy life!

Scorpio69er's picture

You confuse "fantasy" with "nightmare".

Dude, you are so far out in right field that you're over the wall, beyond the bleachers and somewhere out in the third parking lot with the winos.


ChrisS's picture

Wow, if you say so....Be sure to see someone if you're nervous about the dark under your bed, too.

John Atkinson's picture

John Atkinson wrote:
Scorpio69er wrote:

The staff at this magazine may be experienced and careful listeners...

in the end, you're really no different than the rest of us. You have two ears and certain tastes and biases. Perhaps the only real difference is that you are immersed in a world of uber-expensive audio equipment supplied to you by fawning manufacturers who, by supplying you with such equipment, serve to affirm your delusion about being an audio guru, which, I am sorry to tell you, you are not.

Wow, I seem to have touched a nerve. I have never claimed that I am a "guru," to use your emotionally loaded word. And I am certainly not claiming inherent superiority on our part. Instead, as I wrote earlier in this thread, while It is inarguable that we all start out with the same hearing apparatus, people differ in their listening skills, as they do in every other skill. It is also inarguable that those skills can be improved by learning and mentoring. I am merely suggesting both that this magazine's reviewers, including myself, have spent decades listening critically to audio components and we have been the beneficiary of guidance from people with greater listening skills and experience along the way.

Scorpio69er wrote:
Now, you may fancy yourself a "careful listener", which can only mean that the rest of us untutored rubes are therefore "careless listeners" . . .

I don't understand how you can reject the effect of that experience and mentoring. This is not a zero-sum game. Anyone who had been subject to it (provided they did not have physical hearing damage) would be a better listener at the end of it than they were at the beginning. Why do you believe Stereophile's reviewers are immune to this learning experience?

Scorpio69er wrote:
but somehow it is you who feels slighted when your pronouncements are questioned and your methodology observed to be less than scientific.

Nothing I have written in this thread suggests that I feel slighted because of what you say above. What I have objected to is your unsupported and insulting conjecture that serving the magazine's advertisers governs what I say and do at Stereophile.

Scorpio69er wrote:

You may reject employing such methodology, which is certainly your prerogative, but you cannot say that it is not valid, scientifically.

I most certainly can when such testing is sloppily performed, with no control of interfering variables, with biased analysis of the results, and with misuse of statistics, all of which was the case in the example you linked to. That you have an unquestioning belief in the validity of such tests because the results align with your prejudices is the opposite of "scientific," I am afraid.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Scorpio69er's picture

There really is not much more that I can say, so I will leave it to anyone who reads this thread to come to their own conclusions. Others must now judge who makes the most sense in their arguments.

However, when the day arrives where you are turning off the lights in the Stereophile world headquarters for the last time because no one is any longer willing (or able) to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for alleged minute differences in audio gear that only the initiated think they hear, you may wish to recall this discussion. As others have said in this very thread, it's no wonder high end audio is dying. You guys seem to really believe that the rest of us bumpkins dull listening "skills can be improved by learning and mentoring" -- by you, of course. If this wasn't so bloody arrogant and laughable I'd cry. 

As I peruse your latest Recommended Components list I see, for example, a pair of monoblock amps costing over TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS(!!!!!!!!!!!!!) that yet only make your "Class B" designation. Let me say this plainly: If someone can't make a Class A1+ superb sounding amp or any other piece of audio equipment for home use for $3000 or less, depending of course upon the actual type of component (with loudspeakers being the most expensive) they should be banished to the dark side of the moon. That someone could charge 3x, 5x, 10x (or more) this amount and still make any list other than "the biggest shysters in audio history" is beyond my understanding and, I would wager, anyone else's who is not utterly delusional. 

Indeed, your entire approach to reviewing and rating audio products is upside down. You should begin from a premise that makes some sort of rational economic sense, given that what we listen to in terms of recorded music is an utterly manufactured and highly manipulated product. For example, set an absolute upper limit to the amount any human should spend for a home stereo system, say, $15K  for speakers, amp, preamp, etc. Even this amount is far beyond what 99% of your readers will ever in their wildest audio fantasy spend on stereo equipment. Then, call this your ultimate reference system. Any manufacturer who cannot work within such constraints and yet be able to produce  absolutely stunning sound is worthless and should be banished to peddling his wares to coked-out Wall Street crooks and self-proclaimed "careful listeners".

"Class A" components, under this new paradigm, would be those that come the closest to the reference system at the lowest cost, not the highest cost. If your reference amp, for example, cost $2000, then the $500 amp that gives us 90% of its wonderfulness would be Class A, and the $1900 amp that gives us 95% would be Class F. Now, there's a real challenge that also makes sense. It is what would best serve the interest of struggling brick and mortar dealers and the 99.9% of us audiophiles who aren't swimming in money. It is indeed the only thing that's going to save high end audio from flaming out on its own hubris and delusional thinking.

ChrisS's picture

Once again, you're right! So many words in your stream of consciousness and none have any root in reality.

You would like Monoprice to carry Krell, no?

John Atkinson's picture

scorpio69er wrote:
There really is not much more that I can say, so I will leave it to anyone who reads this thread to come to their own conclusions.

That's fine by me. It appears that you wish Stereophile was a very different magazine to what it currently is. I am sorry but that is not going to happen and I have nothing more to say on that subject. But I will address one more point you have made:

scorpio69er wrote:
You guys seem to really believe that the rest of us bumpkins dull listening "skills can be improved by learning and mentoring" -- by you, of course. If this wasn't so bloody arrogant and laughable I'd cry.

First, no-one has described our readers as "bumpkins," nor would we. And I don't understand why it is "arrogant" of me to bring up the subject of mentoring. Often when I share a listening experience with one of my writers, or a designer, or a retailer I learn something I wasn't aware of before. None of us start out as expert listeners; all of us undergo a lifetime of learning. I am a more perceptive listener now than I was 25 years ago; I hope I will be a more perceptive listener in the future. That doesn't mean I used to be a "bumpkin," only that things can go unnoticed until someone points them out. You then hear them every time!

Earlier in this thread I mentioned my experience listening to CD with the late Raymond Cooke as an example of mentoring from my own life. I was also lucky to have shared many listening experiences with Martin Colloms in the 1970s and it was Martin who taught what me much of what to listen for in loudspeakers. Was that "arrogant" of Martin? Of course not. If you had been in the audience in the loudspeaker seminars I have conducted at audio shows recently, you would have witnessed me in turn passing on such information by playing, for example, the sound of music afflicted with reflex port resonances. Is this "arrogant" of me? I don't think so.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Scorpio69er's picture

You have convinced me of one thing: Stereophile, a magazine that used to be fun and funny and actually useful to relatively normal people of normal means, is now lost in its own imaginary universe of $10K "Class B" amplifiers, magic multi-hundred dollar/ft cables, and "mentored" listening to even begin to be able to discern the wonderfulness these insane items allegedly produce. It is no longer worth my time. For that, I thank you, though tearfully.

Good night and good luck.

ChrisS's picture

That magazine must also have existed only in your imagination.

Ariel Bitran's picture


ChrisS's picture
Richard Dale's picture

If you think all HiFi equipment sounds much the same, and you don't think an individual can come to sound conclusions by themselves about what sort of equipment or cables they should buy, then you don't share the same hobby with the rest of us. If I wasn't able do that, then I would not have a HiFi hobby. And because I don't share the same hobby with you, I personally have no interest in your opinions.

I can listen to equipment, including my very good Nordost speaker cables, and form opinions about what it sounds like without needing to turn to 'objectivity police' such as yourself, to vindicate my preferences.

Stephen Majias has written plenty of excellent Stereophile articles about entry level equipement, and his experiences have indicated that it makes a lot of sense to consider which cables to use when optimizing the performance of even relatively budget systems.

MVBC's picture

"If you think all HiFi equipment sounds much the same"

Nobody said that. Strawman argument. For that matter even the same digits on, let's say burnt on a Maxell CD and a HHB CD support, will have a different sound.

"And because I don't share the same hobby with you, I personally have no interest in your opinions."

And the next sentence is usually: I should go back where I came from... angry

I have a low budget bridge to sell you that will help make your Nordost cable sound even better: is that now the same hobby?

My "hobby" is access to music i.e. culture through a tool and since money is still an object in pursuing this interest, so far experience showed me professional sound is a better quality/price tool to achieve my goal.

Now, of course, you have total freedom to spend your dough as you see fit.

Joe8423's picture

the way the measurements do.  You don't buy based solely on measurements but they do uncover things that can contribute to a decision to buy or not.  If test data shows that spending 10k to upgrade speakers will most likely improve your system more than spending 10k to upgrade wires why wouldn't you want to know that?  Since it's a very subjective hobby I like to have as much objective data as possible to help give me perspective and keep me grounded.  I think it would really help the reviewers with perspective and grounding as well.  They'd be less likely to exaggerate and imagine if they knew that once a year they were going to have to back up a review with a blind test of the component.  It sounds like a ton of fun to me.   

ChrisS's picture

Blind testing won't tell the average consumer anything. Trying a component in one's own system is all it takes.

Joe8423's picture

Why are you even here? 

Scorpio69er's picture

re: "Why are you even here?"

I'm a heretic. cheeky 

ChrisS's picture

If you're shopping, you have to start somewhere, and Stereophile does a way better job than Consumers Report!

MVBC's picture

After reading Stephen Majias column about Kimber cables, and the associated debate about measurements and what they'd show or not: 

I believe this whole affair could be easily settled: there must be sets of measurements since these smart engineers who manufactured the better cable created it, no? And since they even went into designing a series of cables at incremental prices, it must be easy to simply ask the manufacturer for the comparative designer sheet that guided their research in performance, beyond the obvious differences due to 18k versus 24 k gold plating connections. So Stereophile reviewers have simply to ask manufacturers. Mr. Atkinson?

P.S.: Please do not tell us that manufacturers do not have such laboratory tests... or that those are "secret defence". Thank you.

MVBC's picture

Speaker cable sublime

High purity class 1.003 extruded Flourinated Ethylene Propylene (FEP) Precision Dual Micro Mono-Filament design 24 x 20 AWG extruded silver over 99.999999% OFC Capacitance 9.2pF/ft Inductance 0.15uH/ft Propagation delay 98% speed of light

Speaker cable almost sublime

High purity class 1 extruded FEP 40 x optimized diameter in micro mono-filament construction 78 microns of extruded silver over 99.999999% OFC solid core Capacitance 11.8pF/ft Inductance 9.6uH/ft 2.6ohms/1000ft (304M) Propagation delay 96% speed of light

So I guess some audio critics are able to differentiate 96% versus 98% of speed light... notice a difference of 2.6pF/ft of capacitance and 9.45uH/ft of inductance and claim the difference is "massive"... Notwithstanding that if your speakers are not internally cabled with the gods, the propagation delay will be lowered to that of the lesser element.

I do not mind to entertain the notion that a well built and designed cable could bring a subtle difference compared to an inadapted lamp post wire, but all this for tens of thousands dollars seems quite over the top unless of course money is no object; however, when a firesale seems to be all the rage at one of the righthand column advertisers -no less than 50% discount!- and we all know they still make money at that price. cool

Scorpio69er's picture

I could supply you with the technical data from my fabulous Asian Forest™ cable, but I'm afraid it would make little sense to you, since the methods and equipment I use to test and manufacture God's favorite cable* are of proprietary design. I can, however, tell you this much: We mine our ore strictly by hand, using only tiny diamond-tipped forks made of Brazilian Rosewood that have been blessed by a local shaman, so as to not disturb the "time alignment" of the ore and the midichlorian counts in our workers.


*As he so informed me in a dream I had after spending the previous evening sinning mightily in a local gentlemen's club with a young lady by the name of "Kissy" and a bottle of fine Scotch Whisky.


ChrisS's picture
MVBC's picture

Complete radio silence from Stereophile staff on the proposal to publish cables' technical data and no comment about the measures versus audition benefits of the gods cables... Speaks volume. no

John Atkinson's picture

MVBC wrote:
Complete radio silence from Stereophile staff on the proposal to publish cables' technical data . .

Apologies for the tardy response.  Life occasionally interferes with my ability to get involved in Internet fights. Yes, this is a good idea and we will endeavor to do so when the manufacturers make the data available.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile


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