Harmonic Technology CyberLight Wave & P2A interconnects Unpublished Letters #1
Editor: I find Michael Fremer's Review of Harmonic Technology Interconnects to be a quintessential example of a significant dysfunction in the audio press, or at least in Stereophile.
Unless I missed something along the way, a widely accepted criteria for electronic audio equipment is to add nothing to the audio signal except gain or transmit signal without altering it. This product, however, adds a great deal according to your own measurements, so much so that it might better be described as a signal "enhancing" processing device. Mr. Fremer finds the signal processing effects very pleasant. Good for him. That's obviously a matter of taste.
But Mr. Fremer seems to conclude that the device provides a purer, more accurate representation of music being reproduced. How is it possible for an additive device do this? Since turntable, preamp, speaker, and amp manufacturers do not use Harmonic Technology "wires" internally, but instead use rather mundane copper, it seems ludicrous to suppose that substituting 3' of "perfect" optics for an imperfect 3' of copper in a 50' (I think I'm being conservative) chain of copper can have such a dramatic effect. Unless of course that the 3' of optics is "better than perfect". But how can that be?
I'm not trying to tell Mr. Fremer that he didn't hear what he thinks he heard. However, I think he owes us a more skeptical exploration of his observations and the fact that they seem to fly in the face of logic. Even if rigorous examination of the results confirms the benefit of the these effects (that somehow unintentionally they correct other shortcomings), a further question is whether a simpler, less expensive processing device might yield the same result for those who like it.
These observations follow, IMO, rather directly from John Atkinson's measurements and comments.
But I think there's more to it. Mr. Fremer, as he himself notes, makes quite bold statements about the efficacy of these devices. Whatever effect he notices, it should in fact be quite a significant one, because it is clear that quite a bit has been added to the audio chain. So by his methods of analysis, subjective as favored by you and many others, Mr. Fremer concluded a vast improvement has occurred, when in fact it clearly hasn't at least by the criteria I cited above. So it is really a significant alteration of the signal found to be extremely pleasant by Mr. Fremer which he falsely identifies as an improvement. We see this clearly because the degree of alteration in this case is so gross.
But in most instances, with most electronic equipment, signal alteration is much less. I suspect that nonetheless, more minute alterations of signal will be perceived as improvement when in fact they may not be such by an objective standard. So a $5000 amp compared to a $1500 amp of the same power is simply a subtle but expensive signal "enhancing" device that reviewers are predisposed to favor because of the price tag and nonfunctional build quality. So to $1000 (or more) interconnects vs $50 (or less) ones.—Bruce Stram, email@example.com
Dear Mr. Stram: I think you definitely "missed something" along the way, namely that I based my review on what I heard, not on what John Atkinson measured. I didn't get his measurements first.
If measurements guided my listening, I would chuck my turntable in favor of CDs. In fact, some audiophiles have done just that. More power to them. But count me out. To my ears LPs sound far better than CDs, and much more like real music, though of course, they measure terribly compared to CDs. So please keep that in mind.
And if the "widely accepted" criteria for electronic audio gear is to add nothing except gain or transmit the signal without altering it, then guess what? Tubes have to go too, yet recording studios are full of tube gear—more so today than in decades—still, tube gear measures terribly compared to solid-state. So please keep that in mind.
If you don't think cables can make a difference, fine. I do. I hear it all the time and I demonstrate it to the most conservative skeptical electronics manufacturers on a regular basis. Recently I plugged an amplifier into an AC jack plated with one material and then into one plated with another material, and much to the consternation of the amplifier manufacturer, his amplifier sounded quite different plugged into each. Don't ask me why, but he heard it, despite being rigidly prepared not to. That despite all the copper wires, blah blah blah as you write below.
I am quite certain that all of these cable differences are "additive," and when describing sonic differences among cables I usually try to place what I hear within a continuum.
When it came to hearing the CyberLight cables, I did not have the benefit of the measurements first. I could only go by what my ears heard and among the many trained listeners who visited my home, most preferred the sound of the Cyberlight cables and many were fooled into thinking the CyberLight Cables better because they removed the negative effects of long lengths (16') (resistance, capacitance, skin effect, EMI, RFI etc.) as opposed to adding negatives because the transducers did such a poor job, though after the measurements were taken, we now know that that's the case.
CD dynamic range measures wider than vinyl but subjectively most listeners find vinyl to have wider dynamic range (there are some who claim vinyl measures wider too, taking into account dynamics in the noise floor).
So yes, you are correct, a more skeptical exploration is called for, once all of the data is in hand, but I only had my ears to go by. That's one of the reasons I enjoy reviewing for Stereophile. I produce observational reviews based upon what I hear. Then come the measurements. Yes, in this case, I couldn't have imagined that the manufacturer—a reputable cable producer (unless you consider that an oxymoron)—would market a product that measured so poorly. I spent a great deal of time with the Telecom-based engineers who designed it and they assured me the measurements would show great linearity and I took them at their word knowing we'd get our own measurements.
I have been doing this for almost 20 years and I believe the correlation between my observational reviews and what's later measured stands up as well if not better than for any other reviewer out there. Am I always correct. No. In this case I got a hen house worth of egg on my face.
However, despite the poor measured performance of tubes and turntables, I use both in my music listening. When it comes to cables, the performance of these CyberLights is unacceptable to me and I will not use them as a reviewing tool but I have to admit, I still like what they sound like. My belief that they reduced colorations caused by cable transmission issues was clearly mistaken.
As for your last paragraph, I don't understand what you are trying to say.—Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor
Dear Mr. Fremer: Perhaps you missed this comment in my letter: "I'm not trying to tell Mr. Fremer that he didn't hear what he thinks he heard."
In any case the last paragraph of my letter goes to the heart of the matter IMO.
I listen to music over audio equipment for pleasure, and I'm sure I spend a lot less time scrutinizing it than you do. Naturally I look for help and advice per equipment for the purpose of perhaps getting even more pleasure out of the experience.
However, were I a "professional" reviewer of such equipment and I found myself hearing what I thought were improvements in sound quality from devices adding extraneous material to the signal, I'd be very perplexed. It would seem such an addition can only be either correcting some other heretofore unperceived, but substantial, failing in the typical signal path, or represents a distortion that I find so pleasant that I am fooled into thinking it an improvement.
In the first instance I'd be eager to try to determine what the failing is and break new ground in audio engineering to the benefit of all who love music.
In the second instance I'd be quite concerned so as to understand my listening biases and preferences more acutely and explore whether they might cause me to make misjudgments in the nature of my praise or recommendations of equipment. Further, I'd explore whether such pleasant effects might be added to the signal more effectively and economically with devices specifically designed for that purpose rather than by "accident." Why would one suppose that an interconnect is the best and most economical point to introduce the effects you like?
Let me state my point in the last paragraph another way. Posit that there are some differences among reasonable amplifiers at least driving certain speakers. That means they add (or subtract) different things to the signal besides just providing gain. I suspect most people would have a tendency to presume these differences in favor of the more expensive, seemingly better built component, ie, the difference will be perceived as an "improvement" of the one over the other. But in my example of the $1500 amp vs the $5000 amp, the a better question is whether the "difference" can be added to the $1500 amp for less than $3500, and whether the perceived improvement survives a double-blind test as an improvement, not just a difference.
Absent this sort of perspective, I fear reviewers run the risk of helping sell me and others very expensive signal altering devices. Even if the signal alternation is pleasing it may be way too expensive because we don't understand it.—Bruce Stram
I didn't know the cables were adding extraneous material to the signal! I thought I perceived a removal of certain extraneous qualities I hear from cables...especially either a hardness and brightness on one end of the scale from some cables, or a soft, rounded dull sound heard at the other end of the continuum from other cables.
The CyberLight sounded as if it removed the hardness and brightness without inducing dullness or softening transients. It simply sounded open and "pure," though if you go back and read what I wrote, I noted a slight "glassy" sound.
Since I had no way to measure the cables and was assured by the designers that it would measure "flat" and ultra-low in distortion, I wrongly attributed the "purity" of what I heard to the loss of additive problems caused by long runs of wire, namely resistance, capacitance, skin effect, RFI/EMI, etc. Given how poorly the cables measured, especially in terms of distortion (not heard as such, believe me), clearly my conclusions were wrong.
As for amplifiers, at this point I think there's no substitute for lots of low-distortion, wide-bandwidth, linear power, and much more than most people think necessary, which is one reason I am firmly in the solid-state camp at this point. Lots of clean power, into low impedance loads tends to be expensive. Why an amp "sounds" the way it does is the result of a complex serious of interactive design choices, I believe, and how a designer juggles them will have a profound effect on the sound: how much and what kind of feedback, circuit topology, power supply circuitry, etc..
I am not trying to sell anyone anything but entertainment. I am trying to provide some assistance and guidance where possible and especially I am trying to improve people's observational skills by noting how and what I listen for. Judging by the emails I mostly get, I am succeeding at that. I have never tried to portray myself as a "guru" or a "know it all," or as someone making pronouncements about what is good and what is bad, though, like everyone else, I have opinions.
I agree with much of what you've written about investigating what's heard versus what's measured, but what you are suggesting could only come after I'd written about what I'd heard and after I'd been shown the measurements.—Michael Fremer