Audio & Alternative Medicine More Letters part 2

The following letter was received too late for publication:

Ross Responds

Editor: I read George Reisch's response to my letter carefully, and have decided that George's writing is more interesting to read than mine is. Alas, however, his thinking is not so good as his style. This is also the opinion of the elves who have been diligently working at his house substituting Radio Shack cables into his system for several months now. On a more serious note, I hope you'll let me reply to the points George makes one by one. I thank you for allowing those of us whose opinions do not agree with your editorial stance to get a word in now and then.

First, George indicates that he believes that, for example, cables, have their own characteristic sound but that this can only be heard if he knows in advance what cables have been installed. My position is that if they do, then double-blind testing will reveal that fact. I make no comments about the nature of the sonic differences, just that blind testing will yield any available real results. George argues (call me Ross OK?) that his belief in these differences means that they must exist. Well then, try believing that you have enough money in the bank to buy a new car, write a check and let me know how it turns out. I think that invoking belief in the Almighty to defend subjective testing audio components is not a refutation of my point, and rather detracts from any useful debate.

To restate my position—to attempt to separate belief (or theory) from fact—blind testing is the correct and probably the only method you can use. His second point regarding my position, comparing it to blind testing of the sexual experience, is flawed and absurd, but admittedly amusing. First of all, he is guilty of attempting proof by analogy and proceeds only to demonstrate what a poor method that is. Sex is a multisensory experience, listening to music isn't. Furthermore, we are not talking about actually blindfolding anyone, but rather about not allowing the evidence of our eyes to convince our minds that something is going on in our ears—when it is not. I am not talking about sex, there's just no comparison. However, George seeks to divert the readers of your magazine from his inability to refute my argument by invoking sex (on top of the part about God earlier on the same page).

Once you realize that I am talking about listening, not sex, there is not any "test interference" of the type which George tries so hard to describe. The psychological impact of beautiful or expensive equipment is precisely what I am trying to eliminate in making judgments about whether or not (let's just stick to) cables make a sonic difference in a hi-fi system. I am not objecting to someone buying hi-fi equipment because it's beautiful. Nor do I wish to intrude on anyone's psychologically derived satisfaction from having happily spent $150,000 on their hi-fi system, mostly on cables and tubes. That's cool. I have a Swiss watch which I love, and I have a German car which I love. They're beautiful. I also take some pride in the fact that I can afford them. However, a simple Seiko digital watch for $49.95 keeps better time and a much cheaper Corvette has better 0-60 performance.

If what we are discussing is whether or not it's more fun to own beautiful and expensive things, then there is no argument. However, that's not my point. My point is simple—the only differences that you can hear sonically between cables will be revealed by blind testing. Goodness, if you have to know exactly what cables are in your system to assign them a characteristic sound, then you are just fooling yourself. I mean that's just completely illogical and totally circular.

Next, I take real issue with George's comments regarding the difficulty of the test I propose. First, I am not asking him to talk and write at the same time. (Another proof by analogy.) I am just asking him to spend a bit of time each evening deciding if there is anything different in his system. If you read the reviews of the equipment which you publish, then you have to conclude that these differences are substantial and quite obvious. I would also think that this would be a valuable exercise for him because he could save thousands of dollars over the coming years if my proposition is right. We all listen critically to out systems periodically, if for no other reason than to make sure that everything remains in working order. There is just no evidence that blind testing obscures actual measurable differences, all the evidence that I know of points to the opposite.

We could, incidentally, through trickery, determine whether state of mind allows the accurate detection of sonic differences which is then destroyed by formal testing. Just make changes in a system which someone uses without telling them and observe their behaviour. If they start checking the connections and looking for problems then clearly something audible is happening. If you then repeat the test as a test, then you have your test. Of course, we are limited in number of people we can calibrate that way, but I don't believe that anyone can see light in the X-Ray band either no matter what they claim and I wouldn't test too many people to determine if that is true or not.

People who take it upon themselves to advise others about how to spend their money cannot hide behind "people don't like tests". They are being paid to test; we are discussing methods, not whether or not testing is stressful. Besides, many people love tests. While it's an inherently an unproveable proposition, it would be incredible if only those people who found tests stressful could hear the differences made by cables in hi-fi systems.

As far as other fields are concerned, I would hesitate to trust any food critic who I thought couldn't identify spices, tastes, etc. I'm still trying to figure out how "poets" got into this debate, but I would expect that any poet who set himself up as a critic of poetry would need to be able to objectively demonstrate that he knew something about poetry! I think that George suffers from confusing performers with experts—we all listen to music, we are trying to ascertain who are the experts with regards to sound, not who plays the piano the best.

I think we have all encountered in our personal and professional careers people set up as experts who possessed no qualifications whatsoever. In the area of audio, just give any Best Buy audio equipment salesman a ten question quiz about electricity and you'll see exactly what I mean. I try to validate the qualifications of any expert whose advice I take, and you should too. So, George, my test destroys your ability to hear the differences, does it—well that's because just like the Emperor's new clothes—they just don't exist.

Your magazine could be greatly improved if you would just listen to me. Increasingly, in the hi-fi press, complete idiots are writing about things they don't understand. You could easily become the authoritative source if you would just give even handed coverage. I would renew my subscription for life if you did.—Ross Salinger, rsalinge@bellatlantic.net

Despite Mr. Salinger's protests, George Reisch's main point was well-made: that any scientific test must be free from all interfering variables, and it is incontrovertible that the test procedure itself can be a serious interfering variable when it comes to listening tests.John Atkinson

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