The Shun Mook Affair Letters
Stereophile, Vol.17 No.5, May 1994
Whither Shun Mook?
I'm really disappointed with Jonathan Scull's review of the Shun Mook Mpingo resonance-control devices in February. I had been really impressed with Martin Colloms's review of the Harmonix devices last July. I was just about to whip out the ol' checkbook when I noticed that the little buggers were "tuned to A=440." Well, I suddenly remembered that many conductors are moving to alternate standards of 441Hz and even higher. Until Harmonix makes sets attuned for these new standards (and CDs are clearly marked so that I know which set to use for which recordings), I don't think they will be effective.
Now I'm reading about the Shun Mook products, and I'm really excited about improving my system's soundstaging and such. But then I noticed that the Mpingo discs are made of ebony (the non-politically correct word for the PC native word Mpingo) because it's the material used for the fingerboards of fine cellos and double basses. Unfortunately, I play the guitar, not the cello or double bass, and fine guitars use rosewood fingerboards.
Well, when Shun Mook can shake off the post-bagel lethargy and produce a line of rosewood resonance-control devices (and do the obligatory research to find the PC native word for rosewood, to remove all potentially harmful vestiges of colonialism), then I can buy them with the assurance that they will perform their wonders in my system.
Please tell me it was a joke---April Fool's Day came early, or Santa spiked the staff eggnog bowl, or Hillary sent you some hash brownies. Say anything...All joking aside, at least Mr. Colloms tried to put his review in perspective. Someone even made a tongue-in-cheek suggestion about using quarters and Blu-Tack for a low-budget approach. That would probably be as effective, lacking only aesthetic appeal.
There is neither magic nor solid theory behind "resonance control." There is both solid theory and empirical evidence for the resonance damping disparaged by Dr. Tan. It is the reason why an Acura Legend is quieter than my Nissan Sentra. It is the reason why an 18,000-ton Ohio-class submarine emits only 1W of acoustic energy. It is certainly the reason why the Harmonix and Shun Mook products have any noticeable effect.
The fingerboard of an instrument must be durable first, and resonant second in priority. Ebony may be chosen for some instruments because it has a desirable resonance compared to other materials of sufficient durability. Or maybe just because it's black. Shun Mook is trying to sell the idea that their product works because they think it should. I believe that many audiophiles (including myself) are highly susceptible to such suggestion. If the Shun Mook guys had tested a couple dozen different types of wood and claimed ebony worked best, by some measurable parameter or by opinion alone, then I would be less likely to think they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Deceitful or not, they would simply be doing a more credible job. I am made all the more suspicious when I see that they are catering to the vanity of the audiophile. That is, after all, the nature of tweaking. It is saying, "I can improve this multikilobuck equipment by using this cheap little fix." Anything that sounds too good to be true usually is: proceed with due caution.
Did Mr. Scull hear differences when manipulating the Mpingo devices? Maybe so. Are the differences improvements in fidelity, or euphonic distortions, or just plain differences? It seems that the answers are not coming because the questions were not asked. I strongly suspect that filling boxes with newspaper and stacking them in the corner is responsible for more improvement in the Scull-residence listening environment than moving little wooden discs lying on the floor by 1/4" increments.
Before I bought a set of Michael Green's RoomTunes, CornerTunes, and EchoTunes, I first made every attempt possible to determine answers to such questions in both subjective and objective ways. I then attempted to justify the expense of purchasing such equipment rather than making something of my own. In the end I opted for the RoomTunes, et al, primarily for aesthetic reasons. I didn't want boxes stuffed with newspaper (or some other DIY remedy) stacked in the corners of my living room. Mr. Scull should look into getting some RoomTunes.
Other unasked (and, therefore, unanswered) questions abound. How do Mr. Scull and his "monk" buddies know that marking the Mpingo disc with a hammer and nail doesn't irreparably alter the resonant characteristics of the disc? After all, they didn't bother to find out what kind of wood actually works best. For that matter, why doesn't Shun Mook clearly mark their product's directionality on the side which is visible when in use? I suspect that they are again, wittingly or unwittingly, appealing to audiophile vanity. How you mark your Shun Mook discs is part of what makes it work in your system.
This is not quite as bizarre as the guy who dismissed green ink on CD edges because purple is the "edge color," not green. A reader said that he had secretly altered the acoustics of some world-famous venues by placing Harmonix devices on the walls, just to point out how ridiculous some of the claims presented become when carried to a logical conclusion. I know this is a publication of subjective reviews; but if not reminded frequently, reviewers, like politicians, forget that their work is subjective.---
Donald E. Weaver North Augusta, SC
Jonathan Scull is indeed experimenting with the latest RoomTunes, while Barry Willis examines issues raised by the Shun Mook devices elsewhere in this issue. The Shun Mook Mpingo discs divide me straight down the middle: I can't see why they have any effect; yet I have heard them make an improvement. But while I can think of no mechanism by which the Mpingo discs can work their magic, that doesn't mean any effect must be non-existent. I am not so arrogant as to suppose that the only things that can happen are those that I can imagine. (Those who declare that, unless they can think of a mechanism for something happening, it can't happen, are presuming knowledge of all that was known, is known, and is still to be known. That they actually possess such knowledge seems unlikely.) I will not allow my skepticism to interfere with the joy I get from my music, therefore.
I am reminded of a powerful essay by Stephen Jay Gould, "Velikovsky in Collision" (reprinted in Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, Norton Paperback, 1977), in which the biologist logically and carefully destroyed the colliding-world "theories" the ill-informed Immanuel Velikovsky had advanced to explain Biblical history. Yet having done so, Gould concluded that he "will continue to root for heresy preached by the nonprofessional," on the grounds that only after the event can you tell which scientific heresies will become orthodoxy. I feel the same way: I want to live in a world where I can still be surprised, where Velikovsky might be out to lunch, but it still might be possible for a handful of small ebony discs to improve my system's performance.---JA