Nothing is Too Wonderful to be True
"Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature . . ."Michael Faraday
"When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in confederacy against him."Jonathan Swift
I quoted Faraday and Swift in an essay I wrote in March 1991 discussing how to distinguish effective audio tweaks from those that appear to be more about delusion than about any real change in performance. Back then, it was the Tice Clock (a RadioShack digital clock that George Tice claimed to have treated with a proprietary secret process) and the Belt devices (nylon cable ties, metal clips, and other household objects that Peter Belt claimed to have treated with a proprietary secret process) that were disturbing audiophiles' collective equanimity. These past few weeks it has been the "Intelligent Chip" from accessory manufacturer Golden Sound that has audiophiles at each other's figurative throats, to witness the postings on the Audio Asylum. Rather than offer my own explanation of what the GSIC does and why, I'll quote from Golden Sound's website:
"The Intelligent Chip is a 'new generation,' high-tech device that corrects a particular problem inherent in all commercial CD/DVD/SACD discs, including movies and video games. This problem is produced by slight fluctuations in the master clock(s) when pressing the disc. This 'clock fluctuation' problem (jitter) is one reason why consumer digital discs frequently 'don't sound quite right,' or have a 'high-frequency edge.'"
Well, jitter, or time-base error, in optical discs is certainly a real phenomenon. CD transport manufacturer Plextor even offers a suite of programs that, in conjunction with its Premium CD-RW drive, allows you to measure this jitter.
"The Intelligent Chip is a thin, orange 1x1.5 inch rectangular wafer that automatically upgrades the disc in the player when the Chip is placed momentarily on top of the player above the spinning disc. The upgrade itself is virtually instantaneousand permanentthe sound and picture of the upgraded disc more closely resembling the original master recording. The Intelligent Chip corrects the clock-fluctuation problem within 2 seconds, resulting in sound that is clearer/less distorted, with a deeper soundstage, more 'air' and lower background noise. This improvement is especially apparent on very good discs."
The GSIC10 costs $16 and is claimed to upgrade 10 discs; the GSIC30 costs $40 and upgrades 30 discs. (Let's hope that UPS doesn't carelessly put the package containing a GSIC next to a box of CDs in the brown van.)
Hmm. $1.50 per disc but I get sound that is "especially apparent with good discs." And while the mysterious field emitted by an active GSIC can "virtually instantaneously" affect the physical structure of the spinning disc through the player's metal chassis, it can be blocked by the polyethylene container that contains the GSIC when not in use. Well, in the words of the old sage, I may not know about "clock fluctuation problems," but I do know about bullshit, and the GSIC sounds like bullshit to me.
I can hear the screams from here. How can I even express an opinion about the GSIC when I haven't tried it? How can I willfully dis a product made by a company whose cones and other mechanical devices have long been denizens of Stereophile's "Recommended Components"? Does this outrageous behavior on my part mean that I have a closed mind, that I am [shudder] a closet objectivist, and that pretty soon I'll be forcing not just the magazine's writers but also its readers into endless double-blind testing rituals until, goddammit, all of you admit that everything sounds the same? Even when it doesn't?
No, I'll not be doing that. But if I was tired 14 years ago of tweaks that offended my experience, you can imagine that I am slightly more weary these days. As I wrote in 1991, I haven't so much closed my mind as put up a lightweight semantic curtain at its gate. Things of real worth can still easily push aside that curtain, which I have modestly dubbed "Atkinson's Law of Effective Tweaking." But when the price is high and the explanation is bullshit, why should I waste my precious time?
In a world where the listener's state of mind cannot be eliminated from how he perceives soundsee Jim Austin's "Industry Update" essay on this subject in the March Stereophile (p.24)"Atkinson's Law of Effective Tweaking" examines the relationship between how much a tweak costs and how much it runs counter to accepted knowledge. (A clue is when the manufacturer claims to have discovered a hitherto unknown form of energy or phenomenon or bandies words about with scant regard to their established meanings. Like "jitter.")
The best tweaks to try are those that seem to have good explanations for how they work and cost nothing. Changing absolute phase, moving your loudspeakers around the room to find the optimum position, cleaning your contacts by unplugging and plugging cables, or determining the correct AC plug polarity, all fall into this category. They can effect an improvement in the sound of your system varying from small to large, and the only cost is your time.
If a tweak sounds unlikely but still costs very littlewater-based green ink on the edges of CDs, spiking speaker stands, for examplethen why not try it? The price of admission is low enough that even if the effect is small, the sonic return on the financial investment is high. You can enjoy the improvement while reserving judgment on the reasons why.
If the price is high but the explanation offered for any sonic improvement fits in with your worldview, then try it. Your intelligence is not being insulted, and you can still decide that the improvement in sound quality is not worth the number of hours you have to work to earn the money to pay for it.
But when the tweak is both expensive and comes with a ridiculous explanation, file it away in your Pending tray until someone else you trust tries it out. Either the effect will be real and the price will fall as commercial success comes the inventor's way, or the effect will turn out to be as fictitious as the explanation. In which case you haven't wasted your time and energy.
The case of the GSIC reminded me of something similar that erstwhile audio scribe Enid Lumley demonstrated to me at a hi-fi show many years ago. Except it wasn't a magic chip costing $1.50 per use, if I recall correctly, but the plastic tripod out of a pizza box. Enid (who was a very persuasive person) placed the tripod atop a CD player and convinced her audienceincluding methat the sound was better. I could never replicate the effect in my own system, but hey, the tweak was free, and that's equally important.
Of much more significance than the GSIC to the high-end audio industry is Apple's Airport Express. Wes Phillips cryptically referred to this inexpensive WiFi hub in his "As We See It" essay in the forthcoming April issue of Stereophile: "When Apple introduced its Airport Express wireless multimedia link," Wes wrote, "it even included a digital port so that an audiophilesuch as Stereophile's editorcould network his system, using the AE to feed his Mark Levinson No.30.6 outboard D/A converter. 'Sounds okay,' deadpans JA."
And yes, the AE did sound "okay." I was sufficiently impressed that I wrote a review of the piece for our May issue. I won't give the game away, but I will say that, in combination with iTunes running on a Mac or PC, an Airport Express feeding that high-end D/A processor that you never could decide sounded better than your one-box CD player is the easiest way of piping CD-quality music throughout an audiophile's home.
"CD quality"? Yes, the data appearing on the AE's digital output are identical to the data in the original file. While preparing my review, I compared a WAV music file with a duplicate that I had captured on my PC from the Airport Express's S/PDIF output. I used iTunes on my PowerBook, playing a version of the file encoded with Apple Lossless Compression, to feed data to the AE. Despite the lossless encoding, despite the 128-bit encryption I use in my home network, despite the transmission of the packetized data through the air, and despite the circuit in the AE having to reencode the data as an S/PDIF stream, the files were bit-for-bit identical.
Apple's Airport Express is most definitely not bullshit. And it costs only as much as three Golden Sound "Intelligent Chips."John Atkinson