The 2011 Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture: "Where Did the Negative Frequencies Go?" Is There Something There?

Is There Something There?
Over the almost 35 years during which I have taken part in or organized listening tests, I have become convinced that what is fundamentally important is to respect the listeners—to listen to what they tell me. Yes, there may be a trivial explanation for what they hear. But there may be something there. When I first heard of so-called LP "demagnetization"—where an LP sounds better after being subjected to the action of, for example, a bulk tape eraser—I was skeptical. But I didn't dismiss the reports; I just filed them away for further investigation, if and when I had the time: it is never clear where the science ends and the silliness starts!

Then, inadvertently, I took part in a blind test examining this very factor. I was visiting one of my reviewers, and while I was setting up my speaker-measuring gear in the vestibule outside his listening room, he was playing LPs to my assistant, Stephen Mejias. There was a short delay after one cut, then it was played again. From where I was in the vestibule, it had more bass.

"Was that a different pressing?" I yelled.

"No, we demagnetized the LP before playing it again."

Okay, so I heard a difference from something that, to the best of my knowledge, could not produce any difference.

Back to the first-principles thing. There are two facts:

1) The reviewer took the record off the turntable, "demagnetized" it, then played it again.

2) I heard a difference.

I could think of three hypotheses to explain these facts, one involving what was done, one involving what it was done to, and the third involving the listener:

1) Subjecting an LP to an intense AC magnetic field that decays over time does something that produces an audible change?

2) When you play an LP soon after an earlier play, the prior deformation of the groove walls changes the sound when it is played again?

3) As Stereophile writer Art Dudley has said, perception is not a linear continuum: The second glass of wine doesn't taste the same as the first, and the sixth glass of wine definitely does not taste the same as the second.

Which one (or more) of these hypotheses is correct? I have no idea. More work is required, and I am happy to leave that work to others. In any case, the cost of a Benjamin bulk tape eraser is low enough that if there is a real benefit from "demagnetizing" LPs, it is not going to break anyone's bank. So I filed away that day's events in my Perhaps file.

As I wrote in Stereophile 20 years ago, "If a tweak sounds unlikely but still costs very little, then try it. Why not? The price of admission is low enough that even if the effect is small, the sonic return on the financial investment is high. You can enjoy the improvement while reserving judgment on the reasons why.

"If the price is high but the explanation offered for any sonic improvement fits in with your world view, then try it. Your intelligence is not being insulted, and you can still decide that the improvement in sound quality is not worth the number of hours you have to work to earn the money to pay for it.

"But when the price is high and the explanation is bullshit, life's too short! File it away in your Pending tray until someone else you trust tries it out. Either the effect will be real and the price will fall as commercial success comes the inventor's way, or the effect will turn out to be as fictitious as the explanation."

But what puzzled me was the reaction of others when I published the account of this inadvertent blind test:

"You didn't hear a difference!"—except that I did.

"There's nothing in an LP to be demagnetized!"—except that the carbon black used to make LPs black is often contaminated with iron. (If that matters.)

"You were hearing what you expected to hear!"—except that I had no expectations. I wasn't even in in the room, nor was I aware of what I was listening to. And as a listener, you must throw yourself open to what your ears are telling you without your brain intervening. The Placebo Effect works in both directions, in that it is possible for people not to hear what they don't expect to hear—more on this vexatious topic later.

All I had were my three hypotheses and an agnostic attitude as to which one of them was correct. To return to Richard Heyser, "I no longer regard as fruitcakes people who say they can hear something and I can't measure it—there may be something there!" I take seriously all tweaks that someone, somewhere has found to result in a sonic improvement. Some will turn out to be bogus, but there are those magic few whose effects are real. The absence of rational explanations for these effects shouldn't prevent audiophiles from appreciating their sonic benefits.

The Golden Rule for listeners: To thine own ears be true.
An example: When I was preparing Stereophile's Concert CD in 1994, I received reference CD-Rs from the mastering engineer, who awaited my approval of them before starting the plant's presses rolling. To my surprise, though the engineer had assured me he had not used any equalization or compression—all he did was to add the PQ subcodes—the CD-Rs sounded different from my masters. I ripped the CD-R data and compared them against the original data. Not only could I not null the production data against the archive file, the production master was longer by one video frame (1/30 second) for every 20 minutes of program.

Examining the difference between the files, I found that all the changes made to my data were at such a low level—30dB or more below the analog tape hiss—that you would think that whatever the mastering engineer had done, the differences introduced should have been inaudible. Yet what had alerted me to the fact that the data had been changed was a change in sound quality—a change that I heard even without having the originals on hand for an A/B comparison!

Such differences in sound quality are often dismissed as being due to expectation. But note that I was emotionally and financially invested in wanting the reference CD-R to sound the same as the originals. If I were to hear any difference, it would both cost Stereophile a lot of money to have the project remastered, and delay shipment of the CDs. In fact, it took time to work through the cognitive dissonance to recognize that I was hearing a difference when I expected—and wanted to hear—none.

Yes, what you think you are hearing might by dismissed as being imagination, but as the ghost of Professor Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, "Of course it's all happening in your head, Harry Potter, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

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Comments
ChrisS's picture
Who's on First?...

Who's doing the listening in your tests, JRusskie? Do you know any 18 year old musicians? Oh, of course not...But you probably keep company with a bunch of construction guys (lucky you!) with damaged hearing. They should all find that there's no difference between any products.

ChrisS's picture
What's on Second? The Man of La Mancha...

Once again, comrade JRusskie, you are on your Quixotic journey down that twisty, winding path for "truth"... Being an upstanding citizen of the former-USSR, you should know about "truth", right?

DBT is SCIENCE, and SCIENCE is ALWAYS RIGHT, especially during the heyday of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and you've been hanging on to this idea since the dissolution of the USSR. Hanging on to something you really want to be TRUE.

Comrade JRusskie, just because you want it, doesn't make it so.

Ariel Bitran's picture
Hiya Johnny

just wanted to let you know i haven't forgotten about you.

i've been south of the equator spending time with my father and brother, but now that I'm back in the Stereophile office, i'll answer your question in full a little later.

peace out homeslice.

be nice.

Regadude's picture
Asking Johnny...

Asking Johnny to be nice... Wow, you are very optimistic Ariel! 

GeorgeHolland's picture
Ariel, how about doing your

Ariel, how about doing your job and deleting post and start placing a 30 day BAN on Regadude and ChrisS for spamming this whole article day after day with nothing less than pure drivel and taunts? I've seen kids frums better moderated than this fiasco but it's already turned into a child's forum the way they act. You would think they had some dignity but we haven't seen any yet.

Ariel Bitran's picture
My Policy

I believe the internet is pretty much open range, so I'm happy to just watch folks speak their minds using whatever manner to express themselves.

one thing that bothers me is when a member is unneccessarily rude to someone who is being respectful or even innocently posting unknowing of the snark they may receive. in those instances, I say something so new users are not discouraged to continue posting.

On the other hand, if you're being provocative with your initial comment, I can only expect others to react to your provocation. 

******

The other policy I encourage and have stated many times is as follows 

"don't feed the trolls"

******

Finally, we do delete comments from ANY member we feel is totally off-topic and insulting to an individual member, as we want the conversation to continue and bring light to the subject  at hand rather than turn into a name-calling game. That being said, I'd like to delete Regadude's comment above since it just makes fun of Johnny. Also, I probably shouldn't have typed be nice. i dont know what i was thinking. I think i just wanted a rhyme in there, and also to include a general suggestion of positivity, but deleting RegaDude's comment would delete your reply, and this is a conversation I'd like to keep around.

Regadude's picture
What?

What did I do? In response to your comment of "be nice" to Johnny, I merely joked that you were asking a lot. A lot, because Johnny is often not nice. He is that way, that is a fact. I have no responsibility for his behavior. I just pointed it out.

Don't shoot the messenger!

ChrisS's picture
"...and made them cry"

What is reliability?

Think, Georgie, think.

Ariel Bitran's picture
So I read

the two links provided earlier giving examples of some DBTs.

I found the matrixhifi test to be ignorable: who is the sample? how did they select these people? how are they representative of a population of listeners as a whole? in order to gather significance from these these tests, the first and most important step is determining your sample, sample size, and how you select your sample. this just seems like a bunch of friends having fun. also, since there were multiple components being switched at the same time, system synergies could have been the cause of the weaker sounding more 'hi-fi' system. maybe those components weren't right for each other, but the cheaper system just sounded better. at least in ABX, they only changed one piece at a time

what i found interesting in the ABX test was the user's ability to control the change of system component themselves. this helps eliminate the idea that the listener might feel like they are getting 'duped' or constantly searching/guessing for the difference.

Also regarding the ABX method, the # of times a difference was heard was 33. the # of times no difference was heard: 29. Interestingly, cables were the least discernable. 

DBT is time consuming and for signnificant results you need a large sample size (to represent a large population of listeners). With a small sample size, as in both of these tests, you risk a greatly flawed hypothesis and will lack confidence in your results. 

I don't want to whip out my textbooks, b/c i have other stuff to do, but 17 listeners is not nearly large enough of a sample size to even represent a population of 70,000 Stereophile readers (for example). Then we run into an even bigger problem of "who" is selected-->ie what type of sample you are trying to represent.

I've heard repeatedly that H/K does have a successful DBT model. I'm sure it takes them years to perform each experiment, and it is wildly expensive and time consuming. You need a large sample size for any of this stuff to matter, not a few dudes in a basement.

GeorgeHolland's picture
More excuses from

More excuses from Stereophile?  Why am I not surprised. You scoff and blow off any attempts at doing a DBT by the people I linked to yet when it comes to "reviewing" cables and amps it's suddenly okay to accept a sighted biased review as being true?  Laughable sir but then I suppose you being an emploee have to toe the line. So be it.

I give up. Go on and trust your sighted "tests" while ignoring a DBT or even a SBT. I know your boss won't let you do any. He "knows" it all. *eyeroll*

Regadude's picture
More of the same...

Hey George! Ariel provided you with a more than satisfactory answer. So why are you still complaining? You never heard the expression "agree to disagree"?

Ariel is right; sample size is crucial. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of statistics understands this. 

JohnnyR's picture
Yawn

George was talking about simply doing a DBT or SBT among friends like he linked to. Let's say you and 5 pals think the "Humungo" amp  blows away every other amp you have listened to. So you set up a simple DBT or even a SBT to see if you can RELIABLY pick which amp is which WITHOUT sighted bias. In other words using your EARS???? I have read on the forums here how much people rely upon "What I heard" yet don't trust a simple test to prove that they can.

So lets say the "Humungo" amp is just simply "liquid, lifts 400 veils and makes the back ground blacker", what ever silly terms you wish to use, If so then you should be able to pick it out 100% of the time doing a DBT. If not and lets say you only choose right 50% of the time then that's proof you were only guessing and couldn't tell which was which. So much for saying sample size is critical. If no one can pick the "Humungo" amp from the other one then where are your rationalisations for saying it's better?

I can tell though that none of you have even bothered to try a SBT or DBT so it's all a waste of time speaking to the peanut gallery. I love how much money you both have WASTED on pricey products that only look good and sound the same. Funny as hell, go on spending YOUR money I love ityes

ChrisS's picture
Everyone stand back!

JRusskie just beat himself with his own thinking...

Regadude's picture
Money spent?

 

Johnny wote:

"I can tell though that none of you have even bothered to try a SBT or DBT so it's all a waste of time speaking to the peanut gallery. I love how much money you both have WASTED on pricey products that only look good and sound the same. Funny as hell, go on spending YOUR money I love ityes"

How do you know what I've bought with my money? I will go on spending my money (but not on your plywood speakers you make in your basement), that's what it's made for!

 

JohnnyR's picture
Thnak You For Proving The Old Saying...........

.a fool and his money are soon parted.

Regadude's picture
Well...

Well I am not that much of a fool with my money. I have not yet bought any of your JohnnyR brand speakers! 

ChrisS's picture
"When the boys..."

"...came out to play,

Georgie Porgie ran away!"

Delusions of absolute truths cloaked in "science" aren't much to hide behind, eh Georgie...

I hear our Man of La Mancha, JRusskie, is looking for his Sancho Panza to accompany him on his journey in search for TRUTH.

Happy trails!

ChrisS's picture
Call Me Maybe...

Georgie, Look at all those scientists backing you up!

If you take a college level research methodology course, Georgie, you may not appear so laughable. At this point, there appears to be very little knowledge in what you say about reviewing audio products.

GeorgeHolland's picture
Here is how you review audio

Here is how you review audio products........ looks in Stereophile and buys whatever the product of the month is. Spends too much money but doesn't care. Goes online and talks like a 5 year old and spews insults and THINKS he's smart. Case closed.

Regadude's picture
Name one product...

George, name ONE SINGLE product that I have bought. Just one. You and Johnny have this little fantasy in which you think you know everything and everyone. 

How about you list your gear? If you are so good and knowledgeable about buying audio products, do share with us the products that are George Holland worthy. If you actually have any audio gear...

GeorgeHolland's picture
ZzzzzzzzzZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz

ZzzzzzzzzZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz sorry but conversing with the likes of you is boring and makes my brain hurt considering the amount of BS you spew,

ChrisS's picture
The cure

Take one course of college-level research methodology and call us in the morning...

rl1856's picture
Objectivist- Subjectivist

Do you like what you are hearing ?  If no, move on until you do.  If yes, then shut up and relax.  This is a hobby focused on the enjoyment of the creative output of artists.  It is not about how many proverbial angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Go listen to MUSIC !

hnipen's picture
Thanks John !!!!

Thanks John for a very interesting and exciting presentation, lots of interesting information here and I'm surprised, to say the least, from the lack of positive feedback.

There are many who are skeptical to some of the ways of doing measurements in Stereophile and in some ways I'm one of them too, especially the way speakers are measured so close, large array speakers like the bigger Dunlavy's and some others will not sum up very nicely in this way. We do, however, not live in a perfect world and Stereophile cannot afford an anechoic chamber, so this is probably the best they can do.

I wish John would share more of this kind of information as he has gathered lots of knowledge during a long interesting career at Stereophile and other places.

Go on John :-)

Merry Christmas

Cheers harald

absolutepitch's picture
Heyser lecture

John, thanks for getting this lecture pre-print available for us to read. I have been looking forward to this.

I agree that there is a lot fo information combined into one lecture that anyone would need a lot of time to learn and understand the details. Pardon me for paraphrasing some of your words below.

Regarding the null result of DBTs, your description of the interpretation is in agreement with what I remember from statistics classes. I might add that a statistician would include a probability value or confidence band with the interpretation (something to the effect that 'the null hypothesis of no-difference-detctable is accepted with high probability'), and equally for the case when a difference is detected with high probability. I personally think DBTs should be done for product reviews, but agree that valid DBT's are difficult and time consuming (expensive) to do correctly, as Dr. Toole has shown in his writings.

The example of the 'backwards' impulse being not agreeable to listeners is something I have noticed in reference to digital recording. It's a wave form that does not occur naturally in music production, so reproducing it should sound 'bothersome'.

I also agree with the previous post, that more articles like this would be welcomed, to further highlight how complicated this field really is.

bernardperu's picture
Congratulations, Mr Atkinson!

I have read your essay with great pleasure (all of it!) and I think it is a great example of the Liberal Arts and Science coming together. In the end, it feels like a piece of applied music philosophy, which I find fascinating. It also seems to be free of busines-oriented interests, as your opinion on cables clearly suggests. It is awesome and very unsual to meet an accomplished person who gives priority to his passions and principles over financial interests (as also expressed on your 2012 writing on the CES and Las Vegas). 

I consider myself to be an audiophile that turns off the lights and tries to connect his emotions with the music with a very relaxed mind (this seems to be a category in itself, as the un-relaxed passive listeners who cannot focus on the music on a mid to long term basis tend to be very opinionated). Having said this, I recently purchased a pair of Class D mono amps that can clearly connect me to the music (Hephaestus brand). I have not ever listened to amps which are over 15k. Within similar prices, class D seems to be the better choice (but how relative this can be, Jon!)

I will continue to follow your writings with deep admiration and I thank you for making a difference on my musical experience (which is passed on to my girlfriend and my child). 

 

Bernard

GeorgeHolland's picture
Clueless you are if you think

Clueless you are if you think Mr Atkinson is something special angle

ChrisS's picture
Georgie?

Yoda you are?

Andreasmaaan's picture
Thank-you JA

It's a pity that some proponents of DBT as the only valid methodology have used the comments thread here to launch personal attacks against JA. Personally, I found the lecture fascinating and thought-provoking, and I thought that the nuggets of personal history provided a powerful context for the thoughtful opinions expressed. For better or worse, Stereophile doesn't restrict itself to DBTs as their only reviewing tool, but JA does measure every piece of gear his reviewers review - a practice which ensures that the opinions of the reviewers are grounded in objective data, or otherwise as the case may be. I'm not sure why this approach, coupled with a reliance on an income stream from advertising, seems to place JA in line for so much personal vitriol. If similar attacks were levelled at me in my professional life, I'd be mortified and enraged.

To cut what is risking becoming a lengthy expression of indignation short: thank-you JA for a wise and thought-provoking read.

JohnnyR's picture
Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh Sorry But You Are..............

WRONG!

"For better or worse, Stereophile doesn't restrict itself to DBTs as their only reviewing tool, but JA does measure every piece of gear his reviewers review - a practice which ensures that the opinions of the reviewers are grounded in objective data"

Do you even READ the reviews? Seriously dude. Stereophile DOESN'T do DBTs at ALL! Atkinson has said repeatedly that they are "too difficult to do". Show me ONE single DBT he has done in a review please. Plus he does NOT "measure every piece of gear his reviewers review". Cables, power cords, record demagnitizers, just to name a few. You obviously have been reading another publication NOT Stereophile.

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