The Shun Mook Affair Barry Willis
Stereophile, Vol.17 No.5, May 1994
Nowhere does pseudotech parade more brazenly than down the high-end accessory highway. I turned up my BS detector and went searching for interesting stuff. Did I ever find it...
Shun Mook Audio's offerings were mind-boggling. In a welcome departure from technobabble, Shun Mook's literature makes no pretense of invoking the Western scientific tradition. Instead, it refers to the I Ching and hypes the mystical properties of the exotic hardwoods of which their products are made. If I understand correctly---and I'm not certain I do---Shun Mook products enhance the listening experience by re-radiating "good" harmonics back into the room. Such products include the Resonating Record Clamp---a $900 chunk of African ebony that looks like a small, attractive, inverted flower pot---and the Ultra Diamond Resonators ($800 for three), which replaces stock feet under pre- and power amps.
My favorite was the Mpingo disc, a small piece of wood about the size of a half dollar. At $50 each, the spendthrift audiophile can toss these about like rose petals. HeadRoom's Tyll Hertsens and I were treated to a demonstration of the Mpingos by Dr. Yu Wah Tan, who, when asked what they did, simply replied, "Change the sound." He cued up some music, let it play for a minute, walked over to one of his small loudspeakers---which bore a Mpingo disc on its far right corner---gave the disc a 180-degree twist, and looked expectantly at us for our reaction. Perhaps Shun Mook's products perform in a realm to which I am not psychically attuned.
The Art of the Scientific Illusion
Stereophile Vol.17 No.5 May 1994
According to a friend who surfs the Internet, Jonathan Scull's recent rave review of Shun Mook Audio products (Vol.17 No.2, p.119) stirred up a storm of controversy. Much derisive commentary has cropped up on the various audiophile electronic bulletin boards. The thrust of this derision is that the Shun Mook products cannot perform as advertised because they are not rooted in the tradition of Western rationalism. Rife as the audio hobby is with hokum, quackery, pseudotechnology, and non-science, this seems an inconsistent and insubstantial base from which to mount an attack on products which may or may not contribute to an audiophile's enjoyment of music. In Hi-Fi Land, faith has traditionally prevailed over reason, often to the benefit of people who make items of marginal or imaginary value.
Most of these accessories or processes have won acceptance through alluding to scientific research. Look at the advertising, read the copy---they all pretend to be on the cutting edge of technology. Even totally useless items are hyped in an instantly recognizable amalgam of engineering geekspeak and Hallmark metaphor.
So many buzzwords, so many specifications, so many allusions to sensory enjoyments and perceptual pleasures lying just beyond the almost-attainable horizon. How convincing are the technical drawings of cross sections of wires and connectors or cutaway views of loudspeaker enclosures? How glibly reassuring are the revealed details of the latest breakthroughs out there on the frontiers of research? We discovered it yesterday. We perfected it today. It can be yours tomorrow!
The proliferation of wildly divergent designs in cables, each accompanied by its glossy brochure, proves not that one is superior to the others, but that there are many possible approaches to a single goal. There's no more universal agreement about the best geometry for a loudspeaker cable than there is about the best shape for an airplane's wing. Look around at any airport and marvel at the variety of shapes, sizes, and configurations of aircraft. They all fly. We take this diversity in stride, because it appears in the familiar guise of useful technology.
In the promotion of audio products (or anything even slightly technical) it's not necessary to be scientific. In fact, doing so might be counterproductive, because a battery of impartial tests and a sheaf of measurements might disprove your claims. For the purposes of advertising, it is far, far better to simply appear scientific. The public can't tell the difference (footnote 1). The only thing a manufacturer needs in order to win his or her rightful share of the market is a hint of plausibility. We are a nation of scientific illiterates, incapable of making truly rational choices. Advocacy, not science, informs our decisions and molds our opinions.
Many audiophile products of dubious utility have been carried into hobbyists' homes in the wake of assumed technological usefulness: clocks with proprietarily programmed electrons, magic unguents and unguent removers, sprays, vaporizers, ionizers, de-ionizers, bricks, blocks, weights, cable trees, clampers, dampers, and green pens---enough to fill an entire warehouse of the strange and mysterious. Most of these products, in their advertising, build an elaborate raison d'être upon a tiny grain of truth, then enjoy a brief lifespan in the marketplace before being cast aside for the next panacea. This is not to say that they don't work; on the contrary, they work as far as their users are willing to let them work. In other words, they work to the limits of their users' belief.
Footnote 1: The constantly decreasing standard of education may be partly to blame for this; certainly no one would argue that the widespread elimination of breadth requirements in the universities has, at the very least, contributed to a general willingness to suspend critical judgment. For 20-some years now, people have graduated with degrees in "marketing," "rhetoric," or "community relations" without taking even one basic science course. Conversely, science and engineering grads emerge without the most fundamental grounding in their own culture. High-schoolers graduate without knowing how to add or subtract or find Canada on the map; their collegiate counterparts do likewise without the ability to distinguish methane from marmalade or Schubert from Shakespeare. Worse, studies have shown that even very highly educated people---doctors, scientists, and college professors---are no more capable of detecting untruths outside their specialities than are other people. For the most technological society history has ever known, the implications are frightening.