Music? Or Sound?

The demo seemed simple enough. A distributor proposed a session for the Bay Area Audiophile Society (BAAS) that would pit his relatively low-cost speaker cable against an ultra-expensive competing model named for a Norse god. We would listen to the music first with the high-priced spread, then with his cable, then discuss the differences. As far as the distributor was concerned, everyone would hear that the Nordic Emperor had no clothes.

When the first of two groups of BAAS members arrived, I played three complex selections that challenge a system far more than does the standard choice of female singer with small combo: the beginning of the first movement of Mahler's Symphony 2, from Iván Fischer's recording with the Budapest Festival Orchestra (SACD/CD, Channel Classics 23506; "R2D4," February 2007); mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's entire recording of Handel's "As with Rosy Steps the Morn Advancing," from her Handel Arias, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Harry Bicket (SACD/CD, Avie 30; "R2D4, February 2005; November 2004); and a few tracks from the Charles Lloyd Quartet's Mirror (CD, ECM 2176; December 2010). We listened to all three selections consecutively, then switched cables.

To my ears, the differences between how the cables interacted with the music and equipment were clear. Beyond the sound's being exceedingly airy and open with the expensive cable, with more refined highs, tighter bass, and exceptional transparency, it let me hear music more organically, in ways that touched me deeper. But when several BAAS members said they either couldn't hear a difference, or preferred the lower-priced cable, I realized that they were having a major problem in perceiving unfamiliar, complex music that contained multiple ideas, piquant harmonies, and emotional shifts.

So I prefaced the second listening session with some tips: "When I play orchestral music such as Mahler's, one thing I listen for is the balance between instruments. You may hear a lot of powerful low energy from timpani, bass drum, cellos, and basses, but is that energy in correct musical proportion to the midrange and treble instruments? Can you clearly discern the pitches of the lowest sounds? When you listen to Hunt Lieberson accompanied by period instruments, are the instruments in balance with each other, and are they in correct proportion to the sound of the singer's voice? Are the timbres of the instruments true? Are you hearing all the overtones and subtle dynamic shifts you might hope to hear?

"Beyond all those specifics, when you take a deep breath and let the music flow over you, does what you hear make musical sense or does it seem unbalanced? Does the music move you, conveying the emotion you sense the composer intended to communicate? How does it make you feel?"

Nice try. After we'd listened to the Handel and had been pummeled by out-of-control mush masquerading as two period-instrument cellos and a double bass—indistinct sounds that overwhelmed both the 11 violins behind Hunt Lieberson and the sound of her voice—two audiophiles claimed that the lower-priced cable transmitted more, hence "better," bass. After the Mahler, I was dismayed to find some people preferring the lower-priced cable's brasher, less-refined presentation of the horns and strings, and an overall more limited palette of colors for this music. While there's no reason some cable can't bring the Norse god to his silver-clad knees, this claimant of that throne was clearly a pretender.

I couldn't figure out why so many people were missing obvious giveaways of inferior sound. Certainly the expensive cable's I-could-buy-a-house-for-this cost has made it a sitting target and stirred up resentment. If I had $100 for every cable distributor who has claimed that their cable can trounce the false god and make the world a better place for audiophiles and their recalcitrant spouses, I'd be in Europe right now, listening to Handel in the halls for which his music was intended, and hopping from one jazz club to another. But was the resentment so great that it had led people to plug their ears?

No, something more than cable envy was going on. Instead of blaming the listeners, I began to wonder if we who review equipment have unintentionally helped create a community of audiophiles who lack the ability to listen deeply. Might it be the case that, because we often spend the bulk of a review discussing certain musical elements to the exclusion of others, we give short shrift to how the totality of the musical experience affects us, and have thus led our readers astray?

True, we reviewers sometimes speak of a bass line, a singer's voice, or the much-vaunted "presence region" as if they were somehow separate and distinct from the rest of the music we hear. Pointing out specific musical elements and how a component re-creates them can be quite useful. But if we fail to make the musical connections—to put the pieces together—are we misinforming listeners who are not always able to embrace the entire gestalt of the musical experience?

To test my theory, I began to scan reviews, both in print and online. While I was delighted to encounter reviews that spoke of music as an organic whole—check out Stephen Mejias's monthly column, "The Entry Level," for many examples—I also found numerous examples like the following, paraphrased from an actual review: "The music I picked included one piece to test the sound of acoustic and electric guitars, a very different one to test the ability to handle delicate sounds while still maintaining bass authority and slam . . . and three other selections to evaluate bass performance."

There's nothing wrong with the latter approach. Most reviewers have, or ought to have, favorite recordings that they use to evaluate such attributes. But when all we talk about is the sound of specific sonic elements, rather than how the entire musical experience makes us feel, I fear that we ultimately lead readers astray. We contribute to the schooling, not the education, of a generation of audiophiles who focus on individual fragments of the sonic experience instead of receiving music as an organic whole. Or, as the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once described his countrymen, "The English may not like music—but they absolutely love the noise it makes."

The wonder of the audiophile experience is the ability of a sound system to communicate the entire musical gestalt: the sum total of a work's ideas, emotions, and spiritual truths as expressed by and embodied in tone, rhythm, pitch, and artistic inspiration. As reviewers, that's what we must strive to convey each time we critique a cable, a black box, a loudspeaker, or the like. Unless we discuss how what we hear moves us in ways that transcend the sum total of its parts, we do our readers a disservice, and fail to give the music we love its full due.

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COMMENTS
poopfeast420's picture

If anyone on the planet can blindly discern 16 gauge copper wire from "audiophile" wire, let him come forward.

eugovector's picture

...but only by price tag.

audioclassic's picture

What, I thought we settled this 35 years ago. Of course, I can hear the difference between high performance audio cable and zipcord. And I'll bet most of the guys reading this can, too.

ppgr's picture

stop wasting your time with infidels (missing obvious giveaways of inferior sound) and start your own idolaters society of Norse God.

eugovector's picture

So, you knew which was the expensive cable.  Those who didn't couldn't tell the difference.  Have you ever considered the the only constant in all your failed relationships is you?

Ajani's picture

I agree with some of what is said in the earlier posts. I'm not some diehard DBT fan, but I think you really should consider the possibility that it's not everyone else in the room who couldn't hear the obvious inferiority of the cheaper cable. Maybe, it really is just a case of your own bias in favour of the Nordic God's Cable.

 

I will however agree that there maybe a problem in reviewing products by focusing solely on specific aspects of the sound, rather than the whole musical presentation. Having deeper bass, clearer treble, etc does not guarantee that the overall experience is better.

kevon27's picture

Buy what ever cable you like and can afford. If you can afford $3000 per inch speaker cables to connect to your $300000 a pair speakers and you believe it will bring you closer to the music.. More power to YA.. Your purchase will keep certain peoples employed.
The cable argument is boring and tired. I believe print and E-zines constantly bring up this topic to get people charged up and increase readership of a moment.

I can bet you there is a group of audiophiles out there that hate pre-recorded music. They believe music must be live and played on acoustic instruments only. Any electronics, amplification, wiring is bad thing.

kevon27's picture

"To my ears, the differences between how the cables interacted with the music and equipment were clear. Beyond the sound's being exceedingly airy and open with the expensive cable, with more refined highs, tighter bass, and exceptional transparency, it let me hear music more organically, in ways that touched me deeper"

 

You use some fancy audiophile terms to describe what you are hearing. Please explain what these terms mean.

Airy: What is Airy ness? How does a cable manufacturer design a cable to be airy? Where in the audio spectrum does the airy ness takes place? Can someone measure Airy ness? 

Open: ? What does open sound sound like? what about Closed sound? 

Tighter bass?  I know one can affect bass with electronics and EQ but how does a cable able to make the bass response tighter? What if a manufacture of cables want there cables to have loose sounded bass how would they do that?

Organically: what the hell is that? 

Can any of the terms you use to describe the sound you are hearing be measured? If so then how? If not then how does a manufacture have quality control on their products?

MVBC's picture

"exceedingly airy and open"

Indeed: I understand what "airy and open" means, but what is "exceedingly airy and open'? It is like washing your T-shirt whiter than white for detergent commercials...

mauidj's picture

Brilliant response. This article completely spotlights the crazy direction that Stereophile and most other audiophile publications are headed. No wonder the industry is getting nowhere in regard to enticing the man or woman in the street to test the high end waters.

Jack_Mlynek's picture

No, something more than cable envy was going on. Instead of blaming the listeners, I began to wonder if we who review equipment have unintentionally helped create a community of audiophiles who lack the ability to listen deeply.

Are you seriously contending that reviewers shape the ability of people, audiophiles at that, to listen to music deeply? I've seen arrogance before, but this takes the cake. Who the hell to you think you are? If the music is worth it, then one can enjoy it at any level and as deeply as one wishes. I can assure you that cables, whether megabucks for megalomaniacs or zip cord for those that can only afford that, have zero to do with music. 

I remember a system Stereophile detailed recently that totalled well over six figures. When I added up the cost of the cables, they were over half the total! 

dalethorn's picture

It would seem that the argument is not whether they sound different (everything sounds different), it's whether anyone can hear the difference, and following that, evaluate the difference. It would be good if everyone clarified that. I don't doubt that very short cables made properly would have little effect on the sound, but get beyond short to medium length or long and strange things begin to happen. Maybe some more information about where the cables were deployed and how long they were....

The Federalist's picture

With all due respect Jason... You've really stepped in it here.

The "honest" audiophile should be able to admit to himself that he is at least as much in love with the pieces of kit and gears involved in the hobby as the music itself (if not more!) I tend to believe most fall into the latter. But understand that you guys are crafting an illusion in order to move product.

You review cool new stuff and say its better than last years stuff because they implemented whatever boutique upgrade so people who have a DAC want to get another DAC or people who have a great set of speakers want to get more expensive speakers. 

But the truth is that you can only listen so deeply into a recording... Recording equipment, studio mixing, final mastering and production media, will always limit the actual music file (be it digital, LP, CD or tape) to containing a finite amount of information to experience, hear or reproduce. Not to mention our own ears are limited in the amount of information they can take in.

It is not some cosmic ocean of sonic information that you can plunge yourself ever more deeply into with better equipment and a bigger spend.  

But this doesn't stop most review sites from portraying it that way... because it makes for good copy.... and it moves units for the manufacturers. Deeper bass, more air, timbral authority... our ears and the media the track was laid down on max these out somewhere well short of the highest end.... and cables just can't impact it that much. A little (yes, maybe) but not $5,000 worth.... Gold plated copper interconnects do not create a warm and lush tone... but it makes for enticing copy doesn't it? 

Example: 'The Gold Tune oil filled caps and gold plated copper interconnects yielded a lush, warm tone with rich tonal colors and vibrant timbral finesse yet its discretely constructed output gave it a lithe and supple feel through the upper register creating a immersive and intoxicating experience'.... Oh I gotta get that!

Don't start believing your own illusion too much Jason.... we mostly (who are honest) know how much is music and how much is just good old fashion consumerism. But you start getting self righteous and incredulous and the hard line objective types will storm the gates. I am good with the game as long as no one on either side starts taking themselves too seriously.... be forewarned... you sound like you are. 

Paul Luscusk's picture

 is better.I found this out when friends from Ixos gav me some ultra high end rca's to replace my stock rca's that came with my Tandberg 440A . Long story short The stock Tandbergs blew the Ixos away for making high end recordings, wasn't even close.

handler's picture

Oh the audio belief system:

If YOU can't hear the difference (read: superiority) of component A over component B, then your ears are bad or your system isn't resolving enough.

I'm not gunna say there's zero difference between cables, but why can't we be more scientific about audio? At least have the identity of the two cables hidden.

Can you imagine if sighted testing was the norm for new drugs coming to market!??

Come on, sighted testing isn't even used for high school chili cook-off judging.

The mind will believe what it wants to believe and is easily deceived and confused!  

untangle's picture

I attended both BAAS sessions that JVS describes. As is usual with 20 audiophiles in a room, unanimity of opinion was not to be had. That's cool. We all bring different experiences and expectations to the table. Jason goes on to analyze this behavior, musing on the reasons for the "outlier" conclusions.

That analysis is wrapped in an editorial style that abrades some (many) readers. I get that. But if we strip off some of the attitude from the writing, we are left with some pretty clear assertions:

  • At a BAAS event, the sonic differences of two cables were apparent, and one of them was "truer" to the source
  • That truth is embodied in both the macro ("musical whole") and micro ("musical elements") performance of the cable.
  • Many listeners may be spending too much time on the elements.
  • Professional reviewers may be fostering this behavior.

With the exception of the first point (DBTs, physics, etc.), the other three seem straightforward to me.

So while the tone of the piece was a bit off (pun intended), I took no offense to the thesis. And I was there. But then again, I preferred the nordic wire....  ;-)

Bob Walters   President, BAAS

Ariel Bitran's picture

this is exactly what i took from the piece as well. thanks for your comment Bob.

MVBC's picture

"But when several BAAS members said they either couldn't hear a difference, or preferred the lower-priced cable, I realized that they were having a major problem in perceiving unfamiliar, complex music that contained multiple ideas, piquant harmonies, and emotional shifts."

Wow, what a condescending tone! Perhaps, these members had attended multiple live concerts and were able to make the difference between the real experience and the artificially enhanced recreation that the author fanes about? It is always funny to host some audiophile esthete who claims listening to the real sound through speakers that even with 2,000wrms could not reproduce a single flute's dynamics and is suddenly surprised at that very dynamic range that even the most efficient drivers can barely reproduce.

So I prefaced the second listening session with some tips:

LOL Hilarious! So when the result is not what the good doctor prescribed, a dose of psychobabble is supposed to influence the audience to seek certain qualities deemed by the master of ceremony as truer to the reality, something that the listening session did not reveal at first.

The problem with this is of course that he was not at the recording session and is likely to impose his own bias -like hyper detailed high frequencies- that could very well be an addition from the gear. Unless the comparison had occurred with a live show, this whole affair lacked the live reference, the base line that no contest can proceed without and demonstrates a severe case of hubris from its author...

As for Ariel's comment, well after the Silence of the Lamm loving piece, what else would be expected if not unconditional agreement?

And you guys wonder why High End is in trouble?

mauidj's picture

Oh please. This is wrong on so many levels. You work with the guy so you are not likely to say anything negative are you. Hey mr editor you really think your writers should be commenting on their coworkers articles. Lame.

Ariel Bitran's picture

(NT)

pwf2739's picture

I recently went to hear a local jazz group at a club where they regularly perform. I had never hear this group before and I enjoyed them so much I thought about their performance for several days. I can assure you that while there I was not thinking about bass response, openness and certainly not cables. The music touched me and I liked it. Simple as that. 

I think that is what recorded music should strive to accomplish. Leave the listener with a feeling of excitement. Leave them thinking about what they heard after the music stops. 

Just over a year ago, I had a very modest system. An inexpensive integrated amp, DAC and speakers. I streamed my music from my home computer. I think my original speaker cables cost about $200.00. And it sounded pretty good. But it didn't move me in any significant way. I wanted something better.

My current system has a power cord from the wall outlet to the conditioner and speaker cables that are of the extremely expensive Norse God variety. I can say without hesitation that after each of these two additions the quality of the music improved. Profoundly so. Just from a cable change.

I am not a reviewer and frankly, have a lot to learn about high end audio. I don't typically sit around and write myself a review after each song is played. I do, however, have a keen sense of what I like and what moves me. And I can say without reservation that my current system, which is yes quite expensive and has two (soon to be three) Odin cables, sounds closer to what I heard in that jazz club than anything I have ever had in my home. Regardless of what I was previously using. And I think about what I have heard long after the system has been turned off. Each time I listen to it. If that is the work of a cable then I'm in favor of that cable. 

I've been on both sides of this fence- the justification of an expensive system vs. an inexpensive system. Had my first system really had a lasting effect on me I would still be listening to it. But it did not and I wanted to make a change. An audio system should only be as nice or expensive as the listener wants it to be. At the point where one is happy and it moves them, then no more changes are really necessary. Should that occur for less than, say, $5000.00 then that is a wonderful thing. If it takes more than that, even substantially so, then to each their own. If they can afford it then so be it.  

In my view this article was not a debate about the cost of a cable. It is about which one sounded better and why the various participants chose the way they did. I'd like to believe that had I been there I'd have chosen the Norse cables myself. But who can say with certainty.

This much I can say without equivocation, in my system and in my home the better components with the Norse cables are without equal compared to any of the previous components I have owned. They make a difference, they move me, and they enable me to sit and enjoy the music. Just how it should be.  

noelberkowitz's picture

I think its also important to remember that there are no absolutes in our hobby. or at least not many. every review is an opinion-piece. every preference is that, a prefence. does one group like cable A? yaay for them. does another group like cable B: well yaay for them too. I really do not understand why people always have to make a bloodbath when someone simply has a different opinion or different taste. just chill out and enjoy the music. that would be the point of all of this.

deckeda's picture

JVS authors a piece that includes music listeners missing the forest for the trees only to have several commenters then miss the forest for the trees.

thecanman's picture

with this ridiculous post. How about...

1. The author displays breathtaking arrogance. "The unwashed masses didn't hear what I think I heard, so I tried imparting my exalted wisdom to no avail." Please.

2. The author knew which was the expensive cable. Hello! Does he have any concept whatsoever of the scientific method, the placebo effect, or expectation bias?

3. If the author wants to worship at the altar of consumerism and Norse gods, he is welcome to do so. If some of us are skeptical, that doesn't make us imperceptive dolts.

4. I would challenge the author to a test: have someone else set up 20 high-end, nearly identical systems in accoustically identical rooms, the only difference between the systems being that one system has a single inexpensive cable whereas all the rest of the cables in each system cost $1 million an inch. Then bet your house and one of your kidneys that you can instantly pick out the system with the less expensive cable, blindfolded, because it will be just so freakin' obvious. Have unbiased witnesses and post the results on this blog. This is too logistically difficult? Tough. You're a professional audio reviewer. Put your money where your mouth is and make it happen, or stop telling those of us who are cable skeptics that we're deaf and musically illiterate.

End of rant. Flame away.

Ladyfingers's picture

No scientific method was employed in this "test", so it's just nonsensical rambling.

If the writer is so convinced of his listening skills, there's a million dollar prize waiting for him at the Randi foundation.

James_Seeds's picture

Jason's piece certainly sounds a bit much to digest but I agree at times with his conclusions

I owned a modest system that is now 15 years old comprised of a solid state amp, preamp and floor standing speakers that cost then somewhere in the vicinity of 10k but now maybe if I'm lucky 1k never the less I replaced the tired 12 gauge cables with a set the cost $600.00 and I must say the difference was night and day, I should've done it sooner the boost in detail and clarity was a welcomed surprise.

Would I spend 5k on speaker cables, if I was made of money probably but for me $600.00 was money well spent 

eugovector's picture

Were the old speakers cables, presumedly copper, also 15 years old?  Did you try replacing them with new $20 cables (basic copper of an appropriate guage) to see if that also made a difference?

JL77's picture

"thecanman" gets it right: The author knew which was the expensive cable. Placebo effect and expectation bias are proven, objective effects. Any time a subtle listening test is non-blinded, it loses ALL objectivity.

Using trained audio listeners in a repeatable lab environment, we've learned about the diminishing ability to hear subtle audible differences over time. The only statistically-acceptable method to hear JNDs is via quickly switched A-B comparison. After a short period of time, discerning subtle audible differences (cable differences) becomes statistically improbable, and usually impossible.

VandyMan's picture

 began to wonder if we who review equipment have unintentionally helped create a community of audiophiles who lack the ability to listen deeply.

Wow, you are really full of yourself! To the vast majority of your readers, most audio writers, including you, are interchangable. Most of us skim your articles and simply not that deeply influenced by your writing. Get over yourself.

GeneZ's picture

What if some cable Z was technically perfect?  But speaker technology or amplifier capacity today is still lacking a certain factor in music reproduction yet to be discovered?  The perfect cable may sound not so good because of how speakers and amps are made, not the cable. 

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