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.


MVBC's picture

Looking forward to read about these measurements in relation to audible qualities.

ChrisS's picture

The air waves are full of sound, the silence just in your head.

MVBC's picture

ChrisS no.

JA responded with interest to my proposal although not after being pressed. Aren't you at least interested in relating measured parameters and audible characteristics? As for a cable manufacturer company, there must be an objective way beyond the cost of producing one versus the other, to rank their products and their benefits. Let's get to the bottom of this instead of shouting birds name to each others. 

ChrisS's picture

Sorry, spoke too soon! I still find however that trying different components in my system and listening is the bottom line. I have  Linn (perhaps that's why I get so feisty!), so of course, I'm always told Linn works best with Linn. I've tried components "outside the box" and have found some that made my system sound awful and some that made significant improvements. The numbers might prove to be interesting.

MVBC's picture

My sources are Linn (LP12 and Unidisk 1.1). Regardless if effectively we can hear a difference between speaker cables, this difference has to be quantified and related to measurable parameters in order to become a repeatable characteristic. It might very well be that interaction between the same cable and different electronics will produce variations. Fine. We need to know why and we also need to know if more information is indeed true to the signal. That's how science works and that's offering reliable information to potential buyers. Everyone should be interested in this and just as this approach works in determining investment strategies, it also would weed out the overpriced/overclaimed ones and reward the true quality. 

ChrisS's picture

Most of my system is Linn (except for DVD, tape player, tuner). I am happy to leave the number crunching to the manufacturers and those who need to analyze this kind of data for their specfic uses.  As a consumer "enthusiast", I rely solely on my ears and my response to what I hear to guide me on that twisty, winding path towards better sound and, perhaps, better music as Jason has described in his article. Personal finances, of course, ultimately dictates the level to which I can aspire and although I know there is always better (the bane of reading Stereophile!), I am quite happy with the system I have now. I believe the years of reading publications, like Stereophile, has provided the education and mentorship, as John Atkinson has written above, that has led to greater fun and enjoyment of this hobby and a deeper appreciation of the entire process that can bring John Coltrane, the Boston Symphony, and Arcade Fire into my living room.

Joe8423's picture

Maybe you can't tell the difference with normal lengths of wire but say you took some everyday type wire and measured these values.  Then, you took a 2 foot pair and compared it to 10, 20, 50 and 100 foot pairs.  If the 2 foot pair has 20pF and the 100 foot pair has 1,000 pF then you'd better be able to hear the difference in a dbt.  If the difference is still too subtle for a dbt then anyone who claims there's a substantial difference between 92 pF and 118 pF for 10 foot pairs of the above is clearly a silly goose.  If you can hear the difference in a dbt then it would be possible to find the dbt threshold.  Maybe 35 feet is the shortest length where the differences can be scientifically proven to exist by a dbt.  That would be fantastic.  Then dbt would be a new parameter that cable manufacturers could use.  They could do measurements and advertise that their cable is scientifically determined to be distinguishable from zipcord at a length of x feet.  The lower x is the better the cable must be.  Dang!!!   I've just solved this whole problem.  Then, golden ears could claim they hear and appreciate the difference at only 40% of the scientifically determined audible difference length. 

ChrisS's picture

Can't possibly DBT enough combinations of wire, wire length, music systems, source material, rooms, and listeners to do this.

Joe8423's picture

If there are differences in wire that can be heard in a system, and those differences  increase with length, then it would be possible to figure out what that length is in a system.  Obviously, the length wouldn't be the same in all systems.  Comparisons between wires would need to be done in the same system.  If 1 wire was distinguishable from zip cord at 40 feet and the other wasn't distinguishable until 200 feet it would be a meaningful comparison. 

ChrisS's picture

Learn about Scientific Methodology.

Find out how testing is done in the real world.

Ask any high school science teacher.

Go to college.



Joe8423's picture

I'm sure in real science they change every variable on every trial when they're trying to uncover subtle differences.  I just don't have the time or inclination.

I think I'll start my own cable company.  I'm gonna name my cables after famous deaf people.  I'll have the Helen Keller, old Beethoven, Lou Ferrigno and the Johnnie Ray. 

ChrisS's picture

In real testing, all variables are controlled. That's why it can't be done in your basement.

Joe8423's picture

What about my living room?

ChrisS's picture

Please take a course in research methodology- check out your local college or university.

Starting your own company will be educational. At least take electrical engineering.

Joe8423's picture

As much as I enjoy being talked down to by someone who offers nothing, I think you should just name one relevant variable I can't control. 

ChrisS's picture

I've named them all above. Find out for yourself, you know how to use a computer. Come back when you've learned about research methodolgy.

Joe8423's picture

Or which comment named just one? 

ChrisS's picture

Do all zip cords sound the same?

Beyond this, I can't help you.

Joe8423's picture

think it's a reasonably safe bet that they'll have the same basic properties.  I'll buy a whole spool and cut off different lengths.  I could specify Radio Shack 14 awg speaker wire, part number ?????.  Would that make you feel better?  Then, when I compare that to my 50k Ferrigno cable (comes in a green box) we'd have a standard comparison. 

I realize that if there were to be a dbt parameter there would have to be a bunch of rules for it to be valid.  There's no need to go into minute detail in the comments section of this article.  My basic point is that if cables make a difference, the difference is related to measurable parameters and those parameters change linearly with the length of the cable, then we ought to be able to prove it with a dbt. 

ChrisS's picture

You make a lot of assumptions. You have to test each assumption. Them's the rules.

Go back to Step 1. Learn basic theory.

Joe8423's picture

You just can't grasp that this is a place for conceptual arguments and generalizations.  I'm not gonna go into minute detail here about how a test would be conducted.  You're basically just changing the subject over and over.  It's bizarre but really common in this hobby. 

ChrisS's picture
Joe8423's picture

I'm gonna be clear and direct, see if you can understand this.  I don't disagree with the scientific method.  This is a general, conceptual conversation. 

ChrisS's picture


There seems to be a lot that happens in your mind that doesn't happen in the real world.

Perhaps, if you stop reading Stereophile you won't have to imagine what John and his staff may or may not be doing while reviewing audio components.

Scorpio69er's picture

I'm sure JA and the rest of the Stereophile gang feel validated by your keen insights and incisive commentary. Truly, you leave me speechless.


ChrisS's picture

My comments are made only for your benefit.... You're welcome.

Erkit's picture

Your "hobby" is not alright, if only because there are moral questions assosiated with spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on anything, certainly wires, and "to each his own" ain't no kind of answer. But maybe most important: I'm sure your passions enjoy themselves elsewhere. Go outside, toss a frisbee. Volunteer, learn an instrument, ask a beautiful woman good questions. Quit with the pettifogging and live!

JL77's picture

John, I read read your Heyser AES Lecture long ago. Bravo! Heyser is the TEDTalk of the audio industry. I'm certain that everyone on this forum would benefit from reading it.

John Atkinson's picture

I read your Heyser AES Lecture long ago. Bravo!

Thank you. It was indeed an honor to be invited to give this lecture.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

simplecl's picture

I don't think there's much point in arguing.  Many of the ideas presented above are more in alignment with "religion of audio" than "science of audio".  The "followers" will never be convinced otherwise so let them be.  We can be entertained by the beliefs without being critical, and without believing the same things.  Some enjoy their belief system and there's no reason to change their minds.  Simply enjoy music you like through equipment that meets your various personal needs and budget.  The article below is a good example of the "religion" mentality that makes people so emotional.  I don't see any reason to tell them there's no Santa coming down the chimney.


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