Listening #112

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 2012—yes, it's now possible to make a comfortable living in the field—finds 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 mind—and 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 piece—assuming, again, a minimum sixth-grade level of reading comprehension—he 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 product—he refers to this as Chemical A—to 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 again—and 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 A—which 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 compound—call it Chemical B—that 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 perceptions—rather than the design and manufacturing techniques to which he was accustomed, given his engineering background—was 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 products—very unorthodox products, mind you—intended 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 products—the latter exemplified by their signature product, the P.W.B. Cream Electret—but 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 patient—an 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 Foils—which, I believe, were once given away by the magazine Hi-Fi Answers, in little packets attached to the magazine.

May Belt: That's right—attached 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 parts—say, capacitors—have 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-sounding—even 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, 2 Northbrook Croft, Hill View Mount, Leeds LS7 4QZ, England, UK. E-mail: pwb@pwbelectronics.co.uk. Web: www.pwbelectronics.co.uk.
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COMMENTS
remlab's picture

If any of this had any truth to it (And out of respect for the Belt's, I'm not saying it  doesn't). It would call into question anything and everything that is subjective about the high end. The variables involved(And the interactions between those variables) would be infinitely complex. Audiophilia Nervosa? Insanity? This hobby is insane enough as it is! We don't need to go there!

John Atkinson's picture

Quote:
It would call into question anything and everything that is subjective about the high end. The variables involved(And the interactions between those variables) would be infinitely complex

This does appear to be the way things are. From my Richard Heyser Memorial Lecture that I gave at the 2011 Audio Engineering Society Convention:

"We can’t directly experience reality; instead, our brain uses the input of our senses to construct an internal model that reflects that external reality, to a greater or lesser degree. . . evolution has optimized the human brain to be an extremely efficient pattern-recognition engine that uses incomplete data to make internal acoustic models of the world. That same evolutionary development has major implications when it comes to the thorny subject of sound quality."

The brain is used to using incomplete data from which to create its internal models of reality, which in turn means that _everything_ we perceive, not just sound, contributes to our judgment of sound quality, which is what Mrs. Belt is suggesting.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

popluhv's picture

After reading the follow-up, I'm inclined to think that Art's 14 y/o daughter would make a better reviewer. 

dalethorn's picture

If a table with a stain on it - a table I'm not even consciously aware of - would have a significant impact on my music perceptions, then I wouldn't be as concerned about my gullibility as I would be about my susceptibility to substances and subtle aromas. Should I live in a sterile house, or allow my emotional state be held hostage to unseen and unsmelled chemicals hiding in the walls, the drapes, and countless other household things? People like Michael Jackson were afraid of germs and wore gloves. Could Michael have been tuned into a wavelength that others of us are blissfully unaware of unless we try a jar of Belt's magic cream? I think before I smear some creamy substance from a jar onto my prescious amps and music players that that cream is going to have to give me a better high than some of those substances I was acquainted with back in my college days.

Kal Rubinson's picture

It is interesting read of these things and the introspection of the Belts is appreciated but I cannot regard their work as anything more than entertainment in the absence of objective testing.  There are many approaches to the study of the mechanisms of perception that can be applied to these phenomena, given adequate motivation and funding.  I know the latter is always in short supply but, apparently, no one is sufficiently motivated.

Kal

remlab's picture

  This means that you could send the same piece of equipment out to ten reviewers, and all else being equal(HA!), will give a positive or negative review based on how they personally interact with the chemicals in their particular brand of deoderant... Or how the shampoo residue interacts with the deoderant residue after the reviewer gets a whiff of his wifes perfume residue, and then only when combined with the chemical interactions of the lemony fresh Pledge residue?  SHEESH!

soulful.terrain's picture

 

I usually just circumvent the all the tweak stuff and just channel Nikola Tesla's cosmic aura for improved audio results.

Waxxy's picture

I'm talking of course about Art's list.  I'm still a user/fanboy of roller blocks, tiptoes, and even a little squishy stuff once in a while. Best regards.

sudont's picture

I have no difficulty believing that chemical compounds can enhance the listening experience. My own tweak - let's call it chemical "c" - greatly enhances the emotional impact, sweetness, liquidity, and three-dimensionality of my system. Instead of rubbing it on components, or placing it near cables and power supplies, one simply smokes a small amount at the beginning of the session.

The improvement is immediate and undeniable. One becomes deeply engaged with the music, and the equipment "disappears." In other words, it's just you and the music. Thoughts of newer, more expensive equipment are replaced by a contented feeling of, "I can't believe how freaking awesome this sounds!" And, relatively speaking, it's an inexpensive tweak.

Zorch's picture

I've done tweaks and heard nothing. I've done tweaks that made things worse!. But the three things I do to CD's pretty mach always work magic are: 1) CD Stoplight [green permanent marker is just as effective) on the CD's vertical edges; 2) Bedini Clarifier (the six beam just kills the old Ultra; and 3) CD surface oil (Yamamura Churchill Millennium CD Coating Oil Q-151).

Perhaps the reason you abandoned these tweaks is that your hearing is not what it used to be? All of these tweaks results in reduction of work clock jitter in the D/A converter.

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