In 1862, skepticism among the educated was exemplified by the medical establishment, which ridiculed Joseph Lister's notion of "animals in the air." By contrast, the professional skeptic of 2012yes, it's now possible to make a comfortable living in the fieldfinds himself inconvenienced by 150 years of discovery, and makes do with ridiculing Lister for his Quaker faith. I guess that passes for progress in some circles.
By all means, it is the scientist's job to doubt. Yet while science's greatest discoveries also seem to have been precipitated by imagination, the latter quality is apparently no longer in the job description. (Science and chance are also strange bedfellows, but it's only by dint of the latter that we occasionally get visionary men and women of the former.)
Science's credo is to doubt, but journalism's is to keep an open mindand to report with accuracy, and without an agenda. Unfortunately, for good journalism to have the desired effect, it assumes good reading comprehension at the receiving end. (As with Ohm's Law, power can be developed only across an appropriate load.) I have learned from sad experience that one cannot air controversial topics in the 21st century without at least a dozen imbeciles confusing reportage with tacit agreement. (You may recall the twit who declared, famously and wrongly, that Stereophile "endorsed" the Tice Clock simply because we wrote about the poor thing; had he actually read the pieceassuming, again, a minimum sixth-grade level of reading comprehensionhe might have noted that we dismissed the Clock.) Yes, I blame goofy-liberal educators for the decline in the American intellect. Yes, I blame mass-media stultification, too. And, yes, I hope to keep the outrage down to a dull roar this time out.
Here's the thing: Englishman Peter W. Belt makes some of the strangest audio accessories imaginable (footnote 1). I first heard of him in the late 1980s, via the English magazine Hi-Fi Answers, then edited by Keith Howard. There appeared an article about Belt and his accessories, accompanied by a photo of the inventor, apparently with a paper clip attached to his face. That's the sort of thing that leads some people to think, I must learn more about this guy, and others to think, Perhaps there's something good on TV.
The products of P.W.B. Electronics, Ltd., all derive from a discovery that Belt, an electronics engineer, former radio repairman, and England's only manufacturer of electrostatic headphones, made in 1979. A wooden table in his listening room had suffered a spill of some sort, so Belt used a cleaning producthe refers to this as Chemical Ato try to remove the stain. Right after doing so, he and his wife, May, noticed that the sound of their music system was markedly worse than before. They removed the table from the room, upon which the sound improved. Then, out of curiosity as much as anything else, they brought the table back into the room, and the sound worsened againand so it went, back and forth, until the curious relationship between poor sound and the newly "treated" table was beyond all doubt.
Not long after, the Belts happened on an article in a scientific journal that described a compound given off by a certain species of plant when under stress. That compound was, in fact, their Chemical Awhich led Peter Belt to wonder if some negative playback experiences might have less to do with the playback gear than with the reflexive perception of the listener. He further wondered if human beings might be sensitive, in a manner hitherto unexplored, to mixtures of certain chemicals used as danger signals in nature. And, most significant, Peter Belt wondered if he might then be able to identify chemicals that induce not stress but relaxation: happy-face chemicals (other than Scotch, I mean).
Eventually, Belt says, he hit on a compoundcall it Chemical Bthat seemed to have a consistently positive effect on music listeners. He describes applying this substance to the windows in his room, to the fireplace, even to the dustcover of his turntable, all to surprisingly good effect. At first, according to May Belt, the discovery left Peter feeling miserable rather than elated: The notion of improving sound by refining the listener's perceptionsrather than the design and manufacturing techniques to which he was accustomed, given his engineering backgroundwas disheartening. But as one empirical discovery seemed only to trigger the next, Peter's misery turned to enthusiasm. Before long, Peter and May Belt were in the business of offering productsvery unorthodox products, mind youintended to produce patterns of reassuring energy in their users (other than Scotch-drinkers, I mean).
I'll save for the next issue my own experiences with their techniques and productsthe latter exemplified by their signature product, the P.W.B. Cream Electretbut make no mistake: Neither Peter Belt nor May Belt, who has in recent years become the public voice of the family firm, is a charlatan. I say that with utter confidence, for a number of reasons:
Peter W. Belt (82) and May Belt (77) live humbly in Yorkshire, England. They are not bons vivants or world travelers, although May still speaks with excitement about visiting her best friend in Florida a few years back.
Peter Belt has a solid background in audio engineering. He understands the engineer's mindset, and has spent much of his career steeling himself for the inevitable ridicule from those circles.
The ratio of the number of free tweaks openly described by Peter and May Belt (visit www.pwbelectronics.co.uk) to the commercial products offered for sale by P.W.B. Electronics is now something like 30 to 1.
It's obvious from talking to the Belts for more than three minutes that they are utterly without guile. They believe everything they say, and they appear to harbor an almost bottomless wonder and delight regarding the unmade discoveries that await them.
That last one is key: After buzzing around the topic for several years, and even in light of the occasional jokes I have made at their expense (I hope Peter and May will forgive me, but the whole picture-in-a-freezer thing is irresistible), May Belt agreed to let me interview her during the first week of this year.
"She turned me into a newt"
From leeches to trepanation to fluoroscopes to chemotherapy, the medical arts have their share of products and techniques that were developed to save lives, yet themselves pose considerable risks to the patientan irony that's accepted by the majority of practitioners and patients alike. Yet in the perfectionist audio community there lives an elderly couple who suggest that the technology of domestic playback equipment may itself have a deleterious affect on our ability to perceive and to understand the subtleties of sound. The latter irony is arguably less extreme than the former, yet its very mention is enough to provoke cries of Burn the witch! from the villagers with the pointiest hats. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.
Thus I began my conversation with May Belt by asking her to tackle the apparent dichotomy between audio engineering and the study of reflexive perception:
Art Dudley: The first products of yours that crossed my radar were the P.W.B. Electret Foilswhich, I believe, were once given away by the magazine Hi-Fi Answers, in little packets attached to the magazine.
May Belt: That's rightattached right to the front cover.
Dudley: Those and other P.W.B. products of that day were intended to affect the gear rather than the perceptions of the listener . . . ?
Belt: No, it has always been perception, from the earliest things that Peter was discovering, which couldn't be associated with affecting the signal.
Dudley: Let's look at that distinction between affecting the gear and affecting one's perception of it: You have observed that, although there is now common agreement that different component partssay, capacitorshave different sounds, the explanations of those differences offered by the engineering community are probably not correct.
Belt: Right. When human beings don't like or react adversely to, say, capacitors of one sort, and we prefer those of another sort, it's not necessary that those capacitors are affecting the signal. It could be our reaction to their being present in the environment. That's the thing that changes the sound. That's sometimes why you can go to a capacitor that you found was the worst-sounding, and you can cream it with our cream, and that will [then] be the better-soundingeven better than the one that you preferred in the first place.
Dudley: Because of the presence of a chemical . . . ?
Belt: I'm not highly technical, but I understand that there are certain things that we could react to. In a transformer, the signal is coming in to one winding, A+B, goes over the gap, and is inverted in the second winding, to become B+A. It may be that we don't like that. We might not like that, but we don't know that we don't like it. If you then put [in] a second transformer, attach it to that, and you've got this B+A going in to the first winding, and [the signal] is induced into the second winding and becomes A+B . . . we may like that!
But an engineer, coming along and deciding that two transformers working together sounds better . . . well, it might not be the signal: It might be us!
Footnote 1: P.W.B. Electronics, 18 Pasture Crescent, Leeds, West Yorkshire LS7 4QS, England, UK. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.pwbelectronics.co.uk.