Tweaks & DVD: Listening to the Crazies!

In common with the mood of our times, there seems to be an increasing amount of bad temper in the High End. There are more people around who, in Jonathan Scull's timeless phrase, have a "level of audiophile rage very close to the surface." Witness, for example, the "cancel my subscription" letter from Professor Daniel H. Wiegand in this issue: he obviously feels a line has been crossed.

Professor Wiegand was pushed over the edge by Jack English's recent article on system tweaks (May 1995, p.69). But why the anger? That tweaks in general can have an effect is a given. It also seems to be a given that any explanation offered for the effect of a tweak is most probably wrong. It is also true that you only know which crazy-sounding tweaks are valid and which aren't with 20/20 hindsight. But, as Harry Pearson of The Abso!ute Sound once said to me in a slightly different context, "You have to know when to listen to the crazies!"

Those driven crazy by crazy-sounding tweaks seem to assume that magazines have a priori knowledge about what is valid. But we don't have any more access to such knowledge than you do. All we can do is inform our readers of the sonic differences we have found tweaks to make, and how much readers would have to pay for those differences. Readers must listen for themselves. Jonathan Scull, for example, may enthusiastically endorse Mpingo discs and Combak Harmonix Room-Tuning dots in my pages, but what is important to those who read him is whether or not they hear any improvement. If they don't, fine. But if they do, it is up to those individuals to decide whether the price of admission is too high, or if the explanation is offensive BS...or not.

Perhaps most tweaks simply aren't crazy enough to be true. A recent issue of Science News discussed the phenomenon of sonoluminescence (footnote 1). It has been known for decades that if you blast a beaker of water with high-frequency sound, under some conditions gas bubbles in the liquid emit flashes of light. Only recently, however, has someone wondered how hot those gas bubbles get.

It turns out that the more conservative scientists think the bubbles are as hot as the surface of the Sun. Some scientists estimate the temperature as being as high as 100,000°C. And some even calculate that the acoustic pressure transforms the gas into a plasma and fusion occurs!!! Fusion!?! From a setup which fundamentally consists of a loudspeaker and a jar of water?

It's dangerous to be dismissive, therefore, of observations and explanations which offend what we would regard as common sense. In the late Richard Heyser's words, "I no longer regard as fruitcakes people who say they can hear something and I can't measure it—there may be something there!" I take seriously all tweaks that someone, somewhere has found to result in a sonic improvement. Some will turn out to be bogus, but there are those magic few whose effects are real. The absence of rational explanations for these effects shouldn't prevent audiophiles from appreciating their sonic benefits.

Setting Standards

This month's Stereophile carries much discussion about the potential for the new "Digital Video Discs" (Toshiba/Time-Warner) or "Multimedia CDs" (Sony/Philips) to be used as carriers for higher-quality digital audio. As much as I welcome this, I am alarmed by the pace at which the hardware standards are being set in stone.

The current corporate thinking about DVD is to regard it as inseparably tied to the format of the software it carries: MPEG-2 video plus some kind of data-reduced digital audio. Even to refer to the new disc as a "video" disc reveals a mindset governed by the past. The paradigm at work should not be the laserdisc or the CD, but the humble floppy diskette. To develop competing but incompatible DVD standards is to echo a computer industry that might have required users to buy one kind of diskette to store Microsoft Word files, another for WordPerfect files, and even another for Lotus 1-2-3 files.

The genius of the floppy-disk paradigm is that the medium is in no way connected to the messages it carries. The ASCII text file representing this "As We See It," for example, currently shares diskette space with a couple of short WAV music data files, binary Audio Precision TST files for the measurements accompanying my Krell review in this issue, and a compressed GIF image file. Whether I want to read words, test an amplifier, listen to music, or look at a picture depends only on the programs and hardware options resident on my PC (or my Macintosh, now that it, too, can read PC disks).

As I proposed in May's "As We See It," the same paradigm should hold for the DVD. Instead of competing groups arguing about how much data space should be allocated to a movie soundtrack, or whether a fixed higher-quality audio standard should be two-channel, five-channel, or Ambisonics-encoded, the debate should be about byte- and data-block size, data addresses, and—most important—the equivalent of a File Allocation Table or header so that, whatever is stored on the disc, users will be able to extract the data and correctly play it back it without having to be concerned about the format of the disc itself.

The alternative to such an open-ended philosophy is to have a marketplace bombarded with competing, incompatible higher-density video and audio media. In the same way that the half-century–old, 1950s-quality NTSC TV standard is still what we are watching today, this will undoubtedly mean that the quality-limited Compact Disc will remain the dominant commercial music carrier well into the next century. That is something I regard as crazy!—John Atkinson

Footnote 1: Science News, April 19, 1995, Vol.147 No.17, p.266.