L'Affaire Belt Page 2

Perhaps you've already noted some inconsistencies in Mr. Belt's theses. First, he attributes adverse properties to the electromagnetic radiations from the AC supply, which are alternating in polarity, then he purports to cure them by devices which are supposed to provide a countering "charge," which would have to be DC, and would, if we take him literally, be electrostatic rather than magnetic. He claims these radiations act upon our own perceptions, but applies his treatments to the equipment instead. And he claims that the effect of his charged "electret brush" can be reversed by changing the direction in which you brush it.

For a person who claims a scientific basis for all this, Mr. Belt is disconcertingly loose with his terminology. The terms "magnetic," "energy," "charge," "polarity," "electron," and "electret" all have specific and unequivocal meanings in physics, but Mr. Belt seems to use them interchangeably, as though all refer to the same kind of phenomenon. In fact, when I tried to pin him down about the exact nature of his "adverse energy," he finally admitted he didn't have the foggiest idea what is was, suggesting that it might even be some hitherto-undiscovered force for which we don't yet have a name (footnote 1).

Okay, I can buy that. A lot of now-understandable audio phenomena started out that way. But if you do not know the reason something happens, it is considered extremely unscientific—not to say ethically questionable—to fabricate an explanation for it, offer that as incontrovertible fact, and then sell devices whose supposed effect is grounded in those fabrications. This is the classic profile of charlatanism, and while I would not be so bold (or so unconcerned about libel suits) as to assert flatly that Mr. Belt is a fraud, I will not hesitate to say that I find his teachings highly redolent thereof.

So why not just dismiss the whole business out of hand? Because there is a possibility that, as unlikely as it seems, Mr. Belt might actually be on to something.

There is no question that our homes are bathed in a relentless effulgence of electromagnetic energy from the AC wiring. If you doubt this, just insert a metal nail into any unused (but switched-in) line input to your preamp and touch it with a finger. The loud hum you will hear is from AC energy that is being picked up by your body. But is that energy strong enough to have any adverse on anything, as does (apparently) the similar but much more powerful radiation from a high-voltage power line? To date, Mr. Belt is alone in suggesting that it might be. But then, if it is electromagnetic radiations we are concerned with, it is something of which science has a pretty thorough understanding. There are recognized ways of protecting against these, but Mr. Belt's palliative "solutions" are not among them.

Maybe, then, we are dealing with a completely new form of energy, unknown to science, which adversely affects our sensory perceptions. That is remotely possible. A number of times, even in audio, the so-called "healthy skepticism" of the scientific establishment about things which don't "fit the pattern" has been proven to be wrongheaded. (This has occurred much less often than some of us would like to believe. Make a list of instances you can document.) In fact, the scientific method has sometimes served high-end audio very poorly. That method of investigation demands so-called controlled conditions of testing, which means among other things that people who claim to hear certain unmeasurable things must be able to prove they hear them. Fair enough, but such proof has been extremely difficult to come by.

The perceptual psychologists' favorite research tool—the carefully controlled double-blind A/B test—just doesn't seem to work in audio, except when the perceived differences are so great that A/B comparisons aren't necessary anyway. No one seems sure why. The consistency of independent reactions to the sound of components is still the only "hard" evidence we can muster to counter accusations of mysticism or outright charlatanism in subjective audio, but no one has kept a record of such correlations, and they have certainly not been the result of "controlled" tests. ("Would we lie?" is not good enough.) It is important to bear in mind that the relatively new objective measurements, such as those for slewing-induced distortion and in-band phase shift, have gained scientific respectability only because it is obvious that they do indeed quantify objective imperfections in components, not because anyone has ever proven that what they quantify is actually audible.

It is a lot easier, though, for even a hard-nosed scientist to accept the possibility that interconnects affect sound than it will be for him to buy Mr. Belt's scenario, particularly on the sole basis of its untidy logic, its questionable assumptions, and its lack of "controlled test results." There is not even any way of objectively testing Mr. Belt's devices to see if in fact they are "charged" with anything at all, because we don't know what we are trying to measure for. (I was able to verify that the Reactive Electret Foils have none of the electrostatic charge by which we normally define an electret.) We are, thus, in a position where we must simply take Mr. Belt's word that a 39-cent plastic brush tipped with what appears to be camel hair has been somehow imbued with qualities which make it worth $86. Somehow, that makes me uncomfortable. There may indeed be something to all this, but I have a gut feeling that it's utter nonsense.

How, then, can I explain the number of normally rational people who report that, dammit, these gadgets do improve reproduced sound? I submit that the reason is because of another kind of potent although unmeasurable energy source: that of suggestion.

Differences among the best high-end components are becoming so small that it is increasingly hard for a self-professed golden ear, let alone a professional reviewer, to hear describable differences. Those who work at it can still come up with something to talk about, but we are all working these days at the very limits of human perception, where the detection of tiny differences is often more a matter of feeling—of responding to the sound at an emotional rather than analytical level—than of observation. There is a tendency to reach out toward what we are hearing, meticulously winnowing every aural cue that we can hang an adjective on. And at this point, the question of what is a real perception or an imaginary one becomes significant.

Footnote 1: Perhaps Yoda could have shed some light on this, but he died long, long ago.