Listening #113

In last month's column we met May Belt, whose contributions to domestic audio—made alongside her husband, designer Peter W. Belt—all have to do with reflexive perception: conditions under which a listener's comprehension of music can be altered, given the presence or absence of certain nonsonic stimuli.

Because those stimuli seldom have much to do with the science of audio playback, products intended to control them don't have much to do with normal audio gear; so it goes in the world of Beltism, where fanciful and often bizarre techniques—ointments, stickers, pens, paper clips, metal washers, and household freezers all play a role—are used to exploit the mutability of perception, all to the listener's benefit.

The Belts' bread-and-butter product is P.W.B. Cream Electret (£20 per 15ml jar), a reportedly nontoxic emollient whose active ingredient was discovered, by Peter Belt, to improve the listening experience by means of stress relief (see last issue). The method of delivery is not, I assume, olfactory, since the P.W.B. Cream is as free of odor as New York State wine is free of flavor.

Following up on our recent conversation, May Belt kindly sent me a jar of P.W.B. Cream Electret, along with a packet of P.W.B. Rainbow Electret Foil (£20 for three 170 by 15mm strips). My 14-year-old daughter, who was with me when I opened the small package, seemed interested in the prismatic stickers but regarded the Cream with suspicion: The jar, she said, bore an uncomfortable similarity to the products offered by such renowned audio salons as Sephora and Claire's. What are they teaching these kids?

A couple of Belts in the morning
My first morning with the Cream went like this: I warmed up my system, put on a record—a reissue of Rafael Kubelik and the Vienna Philharmonic's recording of Smetana's Má Vlast (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL-2064/5)—and sat down to listen. A short while later I lifted the tonearm and smeared it with a light coating of Cream, then returned the stylus to the beginning of the record. I don't think I heard much of a change. The harp arpeggios might have sounded a little prettier the second time around, with a little more percussive snap to them. But I'm not sure.

I switched to guitarist Tony Rice's Manzanita (LP, Rounder 0092) and listened to the first two tracks. Then I stopped the music and applied a thin schmear of Cream under the front edge of my preamp. I relistened to the first two songs and was somewhat startled by the improvement. I wasn't startled by the degree of improvement, which was actually rather slight: I was startled that I heard any change at all. There was definitely a little more bounce to the picking: more nuance and sheer force audible in the downbeats carried by the upright bass. Consequently, the music sounded a bit more fun.

I skipped ahead to the instrumental "Blackberry Blossom"—a watershed recording, by the way, before which few listeners had ever heard a guitarist flat-pick this ancient fiddle tune at tempo—and was unsurprised to hear that it, too, sounded wonderful. Then I schmeared some P.W.B. Cream on the outlet strip into which all my components are plugged, and I listened again. The sound improved again: The playback was now irresistible, bouncy, nuanced, and human.

A specific example: At the very end of his first solo in that number, Rice digs in with his pick on a brief Clarence White–like flourish, hammering from the second to the flatted third of the tonic chord. That flourish jumped out as I'd never heard it before: I could almost see the young Rice grinning at his musical joke. To me, that's the sort of thing—that humanness, that organic quality—that separates music from mere sound. The Cream seemed to bring it to the fore, howsoever subtly and slightly.

Flush with my success, I creamed the cable links between the HF and LF terminals of my Audio Note AN-E loudspeakers. If it made any difference, I couldn't hear it. Likewise running a bead of cream along the underside of the front edge of each speaker stand: The music was still fine, but no better than before. Maybe my listening environment had simply gotten as good as it could?

I turned off the hi-fi and thought of three possible explanations for the improvements I did hear:

• I heard the change because I psyched myself into hearing the change.

• I heard the change because, at the moment of relistening, my system was that much more warmed up.

• I heard the change because Peter Belt really is on to something.

This Beltism business is even less straightforward than I feared.

The going gets sticky
Later that day I powered up the hi-fi again and listened to a few more selections from Manzanita. The album still sounded as good as it had earlier in the day—ie, a shade better than it usually does.

Next I turned my attention to the P.W.B. Rainbow Foil, beginning by using my scissors to cut a number of smaller strips, each about 15 by 3mm. (The instructions suggest that strips as small as 15 by 1mm can work perfectly well, but that's just too small and fiddly for me.) I listened to Tony Rice's recording of "Nine Pound Hammer," then stopped the record and placed a bit of Rainbow Foil on the label on each side. The Belts advise using one of these adhesive strips specifically to cover the number 33 1/3 on each label. Manzanita's labels lack such a number—the folks at Rounder Records have a libertarian's faith in our ability to know the right speed, apparently—so I had to guess at the right position.

I replayed "Nine Pound Hammer," and my first response was uncertainty: The recording didn't sound any worse, but if it sounded better—a little more colorful, perhaps?—the difference was exceedingly slight.

I stood up and walked away, leaving the record playing, and when I came back—Bang! The sound seemed to have taken yet another very slight step toward the live ideal. There wasn't one single performance parameter that I could identify as having improved; rather, I now had the sense that all of the earlier improvements were cumulative, and had jelled somewhat. The performance was stronger. It was more on.

I tried using the Rainbow Foil on CDs as well as LPs, but it seemed my winning streak had ended. I began by listening to World Party's Egyptology (The Enclave/Virgin 56482), which sounded thoroughly wonderful. (This was, of course, après la Crème.) Then I applied a small strip of Foil to the label side, being again confounded by the absence of what the Belts describe as a specific ideal location: the generic Compact Disc logo, central to which is the word disc in stylized lowercase letters. With the Foil strip pressed onto the approximate target, I replayed Egyptology—or as much as I could stand before realizing that, although the sound hadn't seemed to change, the music was no longer as electric and involving as before. I removed and discarded the Foil, then played the World Party disc once again—and, again, all was well. The immediacy of the performance had been restored.

Wondering if that was just a fluke, I grabbed a different CD: a fairly recent reissue of Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (Columbia S3K 87703). Again, the music thrilled me when I first played it; again, it sounded dull and lacking in animation with the application of a strip of Rainbow foil—this time covering disc in the thankfully present CD logo. Speaking of Gould, I also tried my CD of the controversial 1962 Carnegie Hall performance in which he, Leonard Bernstein, and the New York Phil played the Brahms D Minor concerto using very unorthodox tempos and dynamic markings (Sony SK 60675). Although fascinating, this CD seldom makes for easy listening: The sound is awful, some of the woodwind and brass musicians are laughably out of tune, and Gould's playing, though mostly incandescent, is sloppy in a few places. (Bernstein's fatuous "This wasn't my idea, so don't blame me if you don't like it" speech, also included on the disc, doesn't help.) Anyway, this one was screechy coming and screechy going: The Foil didn't make things worse or better.

After that, I decided to save the rest of the P.W.B. Rainbow Foils for my LPs, which appear to appreciate them a great deal more.

The going gets strange
Last month I alluded to one of the more interesting of May and Peter Belt's free tweaks (free in being offered by the Belts without charge, and performable without cost). But this one is far removed from the domestic audio norm, and may be similarly far from the comfort zones of most enthusiasts. Still—what's the harm?

The Belts believe that there are various energy patterns both inside and outside every living animal—ourselves included—and that our senses work, in part, by comparing asymmetries in our internal energy patterns with asymmetries in our external energy patterns. That sounds tame enough, but here's the strange part: The Belts suggest that the very act of photographing a person imposes a temporal asymmetry on the subject's internal energy patterns, thus disrupting that person's ability to perceive any number of things, sound included. (No wonder Elvis was so unhappy.)

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Kal Rubinson's picture
Art- It seems to me that


It seems to me that your list includes both tweaks as well as rationally understandable accessories/tools and a couple that fall in between.  Why would you put record cleaning devices in there?   I would think they are essential.

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