Audio McCarthyism

In the early 1950s, a quiet, undistinguished Senator named Joseph Raymond McCarthy began a crusade against what he imagined were subversive, dangerous elements in American government. His tactics included irresponsible accusation, militant attacks on his opponents, and self-aggrandizing witch-hunting. So virulent were his methods the term "McCarthyism" entered the language. McCarthyism came to mean any unjustified persecution and the false conformity this strategy engendered (footnote 1).

Do you now, or have you ever, heard differences between loudspeaker cables?

At the Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York in October 1991, a three-hour "workshop" was held called "New Cable Designs: Innovation or Consumer Fraud?" The workshop's format included presentations from six panelists, open auditioning of loudspeaker cables, a double-blind listening test, and audience discussion. The panel consisted of Stereophile's Corey Greenberg, listening-test "expert" David Clark, psychologist Jeff Corey, engineer Fred Davis, and Wilfredo Lopez from the New York Department of Consumer Affairs. The entire event was organized and run by Dan Dugan. Yes, this is the same Dan Dugan who attempted to discredit audio cables at the San Francisco chapter meeting of the AES by disregarding the results of his own blind test (footnote 2). It was obvious from the outset that the "workshop"'s purpose was not to discover if new cable designs were indeed "innovations or consumer fraud" but rather to present a public diatribe against audio cables. As we shall see later from Dugan's closing remarks, cables were merely a convenient subterfuge; the meeting's real and unstated purpose was to attack audiophiles and critical listeners in general.

I was intrigued by the presence of Mr. Lopez from the New York Department of Consumer Affairs; what contribution would he make to the debate? My ominous feelings were soon to be justified. Dugan offered that although "neither of these people [Lopez or psychologist Jeff Corey] are wire experts," they were included to provide a "fresh view" on what is a "social phenomenon" (footnote 3).

The meeting began with Dan Dugan attacking cable advertising by showing examples that had appeared in Stereophile. According to Dugan, the "philosophical position" that believes in differences between cables "leads to this," at which point he showed an ad for the Tice clock—a common, if not particularly ethical, technique of attempting to discredit one position by falsely associating it with an extreme or absurd position (footnote 4). Nevertheless, it achieved the desired end by raising a laugh from the audience.

Dugan then began the open listening portion of the "workshop," where a 10' pair of MIT loudspeaker cables was to be compared with 10' runs of 12/2, a generic 12-gauge, 2-conductor loudspeaker cable.

An examination of the listening conditions reveals much about the beliefs and prejudices of those conducting the test. The playback system which had been hastily thrown together late the previous evening—it included a Spectral CD player, preamp, and 80Wpc power amplifier, and Thiel CS3.5 loudspeakers—had been borrowed from Brooklyn retailer Innovative Audio under somewhat false pretenses (footnote 5). A ballroom in the Hilton, seating about 400 people, and far too large for the amplifier's and loudspeakers' loudness capabilities, was chosen for the listening tests. The loudspeakers were on top of 4'-high tables. Most of the audience was in front of one speaker or the other. Many were seated to the left of the left speaker or to the right of the right speaker. An ABX double-blind comparator box was connected to the power amplifier with 2' of generic 12/2 cable. The MIT cable and 12/2 were both connected to the loudspeakers, and switched in by the ABX box. The amplifier thus saw both cables' capacitance at all times.

In addition, the panelists' microphones were live during the initial auditioning; the sound from the loudspeakers was being picked up by these microphones, amplified, and reproduced by the room's PA system. The audience thus heard the direct sound from the Thiels accompanied by a delayed, colored version reproduced by the PA system.

Dugan suggested that there are "different philosophies of how these listening tests are done." Indeed. The difference in care and setup between this "listening test" and those conducted by responsible reviewers was thrown into sharp relief. Dugan should visit Santa Fe and learn how real listening tests are performed. No Stereophile contributor would even consider making any kind of evaluation under the circumstances of the New York test. It is ironic that the most vehement critics of subjectivists' listening methodology are the ones who themselves show such incompetence in devising their own listening tests. Listening conditions, however, are irrelevant if one seeks to demonstrate a position, rather than to acquire new knowledge. Since Dugan knew the outcome in advance—no audible differences—why expend effort on setup?

Footnote 1: From the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990 edition, Vol.7, p.611.

Footnote 2: See "Industry Update," July 1991. A few words on Dugan's background are illustrative. He confesses to being a member of several "skeptics societies." These groups, according to Dugan, "...get together and talk about the follies of humanity. We talk about how people go wrong. We have meetings where people who have busted quacks and frauds speak, or we have the frauds and quacks themselves come and talk."

Footnote 3: All quotations are taken from the two cassettes available of the entire workshop. These can be ordered from Conference Copy, Inc., 2222 Avenue X, Brooklyn, NY 11235. Charge card orders are accepted at (718) 934-2890. Ask for tapes WS2.

Footnote 4: In a letter last summer, Dugan explained to me that Stereophile's accepting advertisements for the Tice clock "has led the point of absurdity." I responded with two points: a) that freedom of speech applies to advertisers as well as to writers; and b) that whereas Audio, a magazine that also accepts advertising for the Tice clock, had performed no evaluation of it and expressed no opinion to its readers, Stereophile had indeed investigated the Tice claims for improved sound quality, the result being that Tice now advertises in Audio but not in Stereophile. Mr. Dugan didn't feel this to be germane.—JA

Footnote 5: A month before the convention, Dugan had asked Corey Greenberg to offer guidelines on choosing a playback system. Dugan wanted two systems, one to show how loudspeaker cables are used in a typical home system, the other to use for a formal listening test in a large room. Dugan proceeded to ignore Corey's recommendations for the blind test playback system and used the "domestic" system for the workshop. Having taken advantage of the good nature of Innovative Audio's Casey McKee in this manner, Dugan proceeded to hold him to ridicule at the workshop as an example of the high-end mindset.

sudont's picture

Clearly there are differences in sound between various components, even cables. What disturbs me, is that over the last couple of decades, reasonably priced cable has all but disappeared from the market. If there's a justification for the ridiculous prices of cable, I haven't heard it. It's certainly not in the cost of the materials.