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
arve's picture

Why do you think such a study has never been done?

Because if it had, and it had the results the cable companies wanted, every cable company would endlessly refer to the study, and they don't.

ChrisS's picture

Arve,

Did you just say... a study like this has never been done before because a study like this has never been done before?

Please take that course on Research Methodology and another on Logic.

arve's picture

You need to read what I wrote again, and if you still fail to get it, you probably should take that class on basic logic you are trying to use as some lame ad hominem attack.  Again, here is what I said:

Such a study hasn't been done with an outcome the cable industry wants to see.  Had said study existed, then it would have been endlessly referenced by the cable companies as proof they aren't snake oil peddlers.

ChrisS's picture

We're talking properly done studies right? Not a bunch of guys in someone's basement fiddling behind bed sheets...  You still haven't said that a study of this has ever been done before. John Atkinson has written about tests he's participated in.

Arve, hint... Go back to your hypothesis.

John Atkinson's picture

Quote:
it's true the electrons don't know the difference, since they don't think or hear. They just go where the conductors route them, and do it as the cabling dictates.

Please note that the electrons in a cable don't carry the audio signal. Instead the signal is an alternating electrical field that travels close to the speed of light outside the conductor in the dielectric. The electrons actually travel at few cm/s.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

eugovector's picture

I knew it was in here somewhere...

Scorpio69er's picture

Let's settle this nonsense once and for all. You and the rest of the Stereophile staff show, in double-blind ABX testing under controlled conditions, that you can consistently pick out cables X, Y and Z vs. lamp zip cord. Or, vs. the nicely made and very cheap cables/interconnects I get from Monoprice that sound perfectly fine.

Unless and until you can show that without knowing the cables under test you can actually discern any difference, we must assume this whole business of esoteric cables is really just a lesson in marketing. 

P.S. Also publish the results of hearing tests administered to each of you. 

ChrisS's picture

Know anyone who shops for stereo components by doing double-blind ABX testing? Do you know of anyone at all who does double-blind testing for the purpose of reviewing any products?

Been coerced into buying a Ford truck lately?

Scorpio69er's picture

If someone is trying to tell me that a piece of esoteric wire costing hundreds of dollars ± per foot is in some magical way better than standard cable from Monoprice, he should easily be able to discern the differences while blindfolded and do so consistently in a controlled setting. If he cannot, that settles it. This isn't that difficult. When I go shopping for stereo equipment, I do not take cabling into account at all, since no one has ever shown that there is any actual difference by passing this simple test.

Now, if you are convinced that wire A is worth 100x the price of wire B, knock yourself out. 

ChrisS's picture

You don't shop and compare?

I have a 1998 Pathfinder that I'd like to sell. It only has 350,000 miles and just a spot or two of rust, but it runs great! Interested?

ChrisS's picture

My son shops like you Scorpio69er.... He buys two pairs of Sears brand jeans for the price of one pair of Levi's. He can't tell the difference either.

John Atkinson's picture

scorpio69er wrote:
You and the rest of the Stereophile staff show, in double-blind ABX testing under controlled conditions, that you can consistently pick out cables X, Y and Z vs. lamp zip cord.

Michael Fremer and I have done so, in a single-blind test administered by a mainstream reporter at a CES a few years back. In addition, Michael Fremer accepted the Amazing Randi's "Million Dollar" challenge regarding his ability to identify cables, but under the condition that the testing not be administered by Randi's associates but by independent experts from, IIRC, Scientific American magazine. Randi backed out.

Quote:
Unless and until you can show that without knowing the cables under test you can actually discern any difference, we must assume this whole business of esoteric cables is really just a lesson in marketing.

If you are so skeptical about what this magazine's writers say, then I have to ask why you subscribe to Stereophile in the first place?

Quote:
Also publish the results of hearing tests administered to each of you.

Kalman Rubinson and I have both done so in the past.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

arve's picture

If you are so skeptical about what this magazine's writers say, then I have to ask why you subscribe to Stereophile in the first place?

As opposed to most of the subjective audio press, you provide measurements for, which is usually what I click right through to in a review.  This is also the chief reason why I visit your SORC sibling Innerfidelity.   I don't come here for the subjective descriptions or anything else.

(On that note - have you considered publishing power cubes for amplifiers?  It's a pretty telling means of evaluating how an amplifier will behave in the real world)

Scorpio69er's picture

re: "in a single-blind test adminstered by a mainstream reporter at a CES a few years back..."

This, of course, hardly constitutes scientific proof of anything, as you well know.

What I am skeptical of, sir, are your claims regarding pieces of wire and the magical musical properties you assign to them. Now, it should be a simple matter to set up a scientifically controlled test of the type everyone here would like to see performed, taking into account all of the variables I and others have pointed out. Forget Randi and have an independent entity set up the tests with those whom you chose: "independent experts from, IIRC, Scientific American magazine". Just because Randi "backed out" doesn't mean you should or that this is somehow "proof" of your assertions regarding wires. 

I have been reading Stereophile since the glory days of JGH, long before esoteric wire became a religion. Somehow, JGH was yet able to make meaningful judgements about, particularly, loudspeakers (Bob Carver kinda fried you guys on amps), and somehow all of us were able to enjoy our stereos and the music. This wonderful hobby of ours must be taken with some sense of humor, as I recall Sam Tellig many years back urging us to Armor All our records, claiming sonic nirvana would result (which many also attested they heard), only to later retract his recommendation. Oops.

I enjoy learning about what's out there in stereoland, since I cannot attend CES or have manufacturers send me their wares for my own evaluation, but the fact is 99% of us who love music cannot afford such gear. I have no doubt your reference system sounds superb, but when you and others venture off into la-la-land about cables, I call bullshit, because that's what it is. 

ChrisS's picture

Just because you believe it so?

Paul Luscusk's picture

Just keeping the record stright.

Scorpio69er's picture

Yes, you are correct. Not nearly half as crazy as putting Armor All on vinyl. laugh

John Atkinson's picture

Scorpio69er wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
in a single-blind test adminstered by a mainstream reporter at a CES a few years back...

This, of course, hardly constitutes scientific proof of anything, as you well know.

I am not impressed by your claim to be able to read my mind. I was offering that this test was performed and had a positive result in response to the claims that there had _never_ been any blind tests of cables that produced positive results and that Stsreophile's writers had never taken part in such tests. That you don't believe the result doesn't mean the Gomes test wasn't valid.

Quote:
Forget Randi and have an independent entity set up the tests with those whom you chose: "independent experts from, IIRC, Scientific American magazine". Just because Randi "backed out" doesn't mean you should or that this is somehow "proof" of your assertions regarding wires.

I mentioned this in response to the poster who said we could win Randi's Million Dollar challenge if we believed cables sounded different. When the opportunity did arise to take the challenge, it was Randi that backed out.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

audioclassic's picture

What? Didn't we settle this 35 years ago? OF COURSE, I CAN HEAR THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN JUST ABOUT EVERY CABLE IN THE WORLD AND I'll bet most of the guys reading this can, too.

Bill Leebens's picture

...and welcome to the world of the forums!

Any of y'all with Jason's level of musical knowledge and skills as a listener, feel free to comment on his writing. Most of what I see here, however, is the same old tired "anything beyond zipcord is a waste of money and only DBT tells the truth" bullshit.

If you really believe that, why are you here? Did mom banish you to the basement again?

Man. Good luck, my friend. You are far more patient than I !

Scorpio69er's picture

What is "bullshit", sir, is spending more than a few cents/ft for any piece of wire for dubious results. Of course, those who believe in magic want to believe in magic. If spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on wire makes you happy, feel free. For the rest of us who do not have money to burn, it makes a big difference as to whether spending more actually gets you more. Oh, the esoteric cables are certainly pretty, but the question is what spending more than a few bucks at Monoprice actually gets you. For someone to claim some musical magic from a cable is all well and good, but if I blindfold them and suddenly they cannot tell any difference between a $500 interconnect and a $5 one, there's a real problem.

ChrisS's picture

If you don't want to spend the money, don't. If you can't hear a difference, too bad.

Scorpio69er's picture

 

re: "If you can't hear a difference, too bad."

 

Don't feel bad for me! You're the one apparently willing to drop ridiculous amounts of $ on a product that no one on God's earth can prove sounds any different than the fine, inexpensive wire from Monoprice. Just because you believe you hear something doesn't make it real. But, hey, if it makes you feel better, go for it. 

ChrisS's picture

I have a great bricks and mortar stereo shop that I've been shopping at since my university days, and that was decades and decades ago.... This shop allows me and other customers to borrow various pieces of equipment to try out at home for several days at a time. The last "major" purchase I made was for a power cord- I tried out 3 different models of WireWorld power cords and settled on the mid-priced one for a whopping $160!

As I've asked in another post here, what constitutes proof for you? And why do you not trust yourself and your own ears?

When was the last time someone made you buy a Ford F-150 just because that person felt that it's the BEST TRUCK in the world? Would you do a DBT to know if it's true or not?

Scorpio69er's picture

re: "why do you not trust yourself and your own ears?"

Oh, but I do. It is precisely because I do that I know that, when blindfolded, nobody, including moican differentiate wires in a controlled setting. So when someone claims that they can, but refuses to "trust their own ears" by submitting to such a test, I call bullshit.

I'll spend 100x more on a piece of wire when it can be shown scientifically that it yields even a 10x improvement in sound quality. Until then, spending hundreds of $ on cables that would be much better spent on a better pair of loudspeakers is foolish.

ChrisS's picture

How do you know that?

You believe...therefore it must be so?

Scorpio69er's picture

Show me the tests that prove me wrong. They do not exist. Try it yourself, if you really want to prove it. Of course, that would take a bit of doing, since I am talking about controlled listening tests. But perhaps for your own amusement, have a friend randomly swap in some cheap cables into your own system over a period of a month (no peeking allowed!) and you keep a journal detailing what you think you hear on any given day. See if you can actually discern any differences with any degree of statistical significance in your own system.

In the mean time, check out this piece:

http://www.nousaine.com/pdfs/Wired%20Wisdom.pdf

Still not scientifically conclusive due to the lack of control, but interesting nonetheless.

ChrisS's picture

You're right- 3 different "tests" with 3 different listeners wtih 3 different systems does not constitute "science". Nor does opinion.

Scorpio69er's picture

You have shown nothing in any of your posts, except a dogged belief in magic. Good luck to you, sir, and may I recommend to you a few meters of my fabulous Asian Forest™ cable. It is a true bargain at only $50000/meter, as attested to by my dog, who actually has super hearing and impeccable taste in music.

 smiley

ChrisS's picture

You've shown us how you shop.

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