Of Gravity, Clocks, and Audio Dragons

John Atkinson examines the role of myth and magic in high-end audio.

"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

"The problem with having an open mind," someone said to me recently over Tanqueray'n'tonics, "is how do you keep it clear of garbage?"

"Depends on what you mean by garbage," I pondered.

"You know—the kind of mystic pseudoscience that gives high-end audio a bad name. The tweaks and treatments that make it harder for this industry to become accepted out there in the 'real' world."

"Depends on which ones you mean."

"You know—the ones generally accepted as baloney and balderdash."

"Depends on which ones they are. Another round?"

Thus we went on into the night until I feared missing my bus. Back in the Golden Age of the High End—which I loosely define as 1975 to 1985 on the grounds that we knew then almost nothing about why some systems sounded good—it seemed that we would be hit with a new impossible or contradictory thing to believe every second week:
• Why signal polarity mattered; or didn't;
• Why pre-to-power amplifier cables should be short and speaker cables long;
• Why pre-to-power amplifier cables should be long and speaker cables short;
• Why speaker cables should have a high capacitance;
• Why they should have a low capacitance;
• Why those cables should be suspended in the air rather than draped along the floor;
• Why those cables might sound better one way around than the other;
• Why only a high-mass Japanese direct-drive turntable could create music; and then, only when it was sitting on a solid mass of marble weighing two tons;
• Why only the belt-drive Linn turntable could create music; and then, only when it was sitting on an open-frame stand weighing next to nothing;
• Why an LP sounded best when clamped tightly to a nonresonant mat;
• Why an LP sounded best when sitting lightly on a felt mat;
• Why only MC cartridges could produce music from the LP's grooves;
• Why MC cartridges were a no-no on the grounds of their too-high mechanical impedance, hence poor tracking;
• Why ultra-low-mass tonearms, allowing the cartridge to track at just a quarter-gram downforce, were best;
• Why medium-mass tonearms with a cartridge tracking at two grams' downforce were best;
• Why all signal-path contacts should be kept clean and mechanically sound;
• Why all signal-path contacts should be coated in an insulating layer of a substance like Tweak;
• Why the best-sounding amplifiers were solid-state designs with their output stages running in class-A;
• Why the best-sounding amplifiers were tube designs with their output stages running in class-B;
• Why it was important not to have an undriven loudspeaker or a telephone in the room;
• Why it was important not to have a TV near the loudspeakers;
• Why speakers should rest on spikes and Tiptoes;
• Why amps and preamps should rest on spikes and Tiptoes;
• Why amps and preamps should rest on a compliant support, a Sorbothane pad, for example; ad infinitum.

With 20/20 hindsight, it's possible to see which of these things were genuine advances in music reproduction and which were wishful thinking. (I'll leave it to you to decide which!) But at the time, who knew? Without an open mind, it was about equally likely that you would ridicule some things that did improve reproduction and eagerly embrace others that were mere suggestion. The only way to ensure that this didn't happen was to try what was being proposed, listen carefully to hear if it increased your enjoyment of the music, and only then reject or accept it.

But how many things can you try in that manner before becoming sufficiently swamped that you're no longer listening to the music? I have to say that I've been getting dangerously near that point: "Enough is enough!" I cry, as I give the whatever-it-is to Tom Norton or Bob Harley for them to try.

I know, this sounds dangerously like the closing of a mind once carefully kept open. Let me say in my defense that 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 that curtain aside. But when, triggered by a comment in this month's "Letters" section, I reread Peter Belt's literature (footnote 1) promoting the virtues of his "Black Electret Rings" (what appear to this lay eye—and to J. Gordon Holt's—to be black nylon cable ties) to learn that "The interaction of gravitational energy with every object within our modern home environment produces adverse energy patterns that confuse the brain's cognitive processes...Objects that are present within a room which are placed in a position giving conflicting energy information require treatment to reduce their own individual gravitational energy pattern...internal wooden bracing bars between the faces of the loudspeaker cabinet also have the potential to create high adverse gravitational energy patterns," that semantic curtain goes into action.

This is how it works. I note that Mr. Belt's uses of the words "electret," "gravitational," and "energy" imply meanings for those words with which I am not familiar. I might still try tying a "Black Electret Ring" around every cable in my system, though to accept Mr. Belt's statements at their face value means having to unlearn everything I know about electrets, gravity, or energy. In itself, this would not stop me from trying the things out. Then, however, I note that Mr. Belt proposes that audiophiles pay through the nose for his black cable ties, plain-Jane versions of which can be bought from Radio Shack for $1.99 for a pack of 30. I also remember that Mr. Belt has previously said that the retail price of his devices bears no relation to his costs.

I conclude, therefore, that either Mr. Belt has unwittingly discovered a new force of Nature which manifests its effects on an audio system in the form of cable ties, for which Mr. Belt proposes I pay him a lot of money, or that Mr. Belt is suffering from delusions but still proposing that I pay him a lot of money. I therefore throw the Belt literature away and return to listening to Martha Argerich turning in a blinding performance of the second Beethoven piano concerto (Denon 35C37-7322).

In a sense, my semantic curtain (modestly dubbed "Atkinson's Law of Effective Tweaking") is based on the relationship between how much the 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.) The best tweaks to try are those which seem to have good explanations for how they work and cost very little. Changing absolute phase, moving your loudspeakers around the room to find the optimum position, or determining the correct AC plug polarity, all fall into this category. They can effect an improvement to 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 little—CD Stoplight, spiking speaker stands, and cryogenic treatments, for example—then try it. Why not? 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 world view, 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 price is high and the explanation is bullshit, life's too short! 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.

Which brings me to the TPT Clock reviewed in this issue by Tom Norton. Not only is the Clock expensive, but in my not-uninformed opinion—both my degree and some of my postgraduate work involved research in the very areas of physics cited by Mr. Tice—the explanations offered for how the TPT process works are nonsensical. "Atkinson's Law" would therefore suggest that it not be worth trying the TPT Clock. Yet, because Mr. Tice, with his Titan and Power Block, has produced conventional components that improve a system's sound, I gave the Clock the benefit of the doubt and spent a couple of weekends "auditioning" both an early and the latest versions.

To my surprise, the Clock did seem to have an (occasional) effect on the sound. Like Tom, I felt voices moved forward a bit in the soundstage, this effect independent of the orientation of the Clock's AC plug. Like Tom, I felt this to be a degradation rather than an improvement. Unlike Frank Doris and Harry Pearson at The Absolute Sound, I couldn't reliably detect any visible effect on my video system. To put the audio effect into perspective, the difference introduced by the Clock was significantly less than that produced by moving one 4'-by-2' RPG Abfusor around the rear of my listening room. It was significantly less than the difference I have perceived between an ordinary copy of the Stereophile Test CD and one that has been cryogenically treated or has had a Sims ring applied to its circumference. It was the kind of difference for which, on the days I thought I heard it, I might pay $50 tops.

Does this mean, as George Tice says in his letter to a Stereophile reader in this issue, that my "audio system is not up to the standards by which anything can be accurately judged," or that my "hearing ability is not as refined as that of other music lovers and audiophiles"? Or does it mean, as Mr. and Mrs. Tice mention in their "Manufacturer's Comment" on p.217, that, along with TJN, I "do not perceive soundstage space as well as others do"?

I'll leave it to you to decide on what level it would be appropriate to continue this debate. But to be fair, as Mr. Tice does categorically state (footnote 2) that "all Tice Audio dealers allow you to try a TPT Clock before you buy it," you can find out for yourselves if the difference the TPT Clock makes to the sound of your system is worth $350. Write to tell me what you think after you've tried it.

Footnote 1: Available from P.W.B. Electronics, 18 Pasture Crescent, Leeds LS7 4QS, England, Tel: (011-44) 532-682550.

Footnote 2: In a white paper cowritten with Eric Miller, "Tice Pulse Technology, a new material treatment system."