Panacea or Snake Oil?

You know about them: audio products or tweaks that fall outside the standard definition of audio component. They're not source components like CD players, not amplifiers or preamplifiers, not loudspeakers, not power-line conditioners or cables—and, if aimed at modifying room acoustics, they're not the standard devices that absorb or disperse sound. Let's call them Unorthodox Audio Products (UAPs). They promise a kind of audio panacea: something that fixes whatever's wrong with the sound of your system.

The first such product to create a controversy among audiophiles was the Tice Clock, an accessory that was claimed to improve the sound of any audio system by simply being plugged into an AC outlet in the same room. (For the record, write-ups in Stereophile did not confirm this claim.) The latest products in this category include the Harmonizers, Magic Stones, and Magic Diamonds from Stein Music, discussed in "Sam's Space" in September 2011—and Sam was most enthusiastic about their effects.

Whenever such UAPs are introduced, they tend to trigger extreme responses from the audiophile community. Some claim such products illustrate that "there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Shakespeare), and deflect criticism by saying that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (Arthur C. Clarke). Others dismiss them as "snake oil," an illustration of the fact that "there's a sucker born every minute" (P.T. Barnum).

I don't suppose that anything I might say here will change the minds of those in a deeply entrenched position on either side of this debate. What I'd like to do instead is describe what the issues are in considering the purchase of any unorthodox audio component—issues that, in debates on this topic, are often confused.

Does it make a difference?
This is the first and most important question. And with due deference to my reviewer colleagues, it must be answered by you, the listener. For products of this sort, a money-back home trial is essential. Then you can do whatever you need to do to determine whether you can hear it make a consistent sonic difference in your system: A/B comparisons with various types of music, repeated as many times and for as long as you want, until you feel you have a handle on what the product does or doesn't do. Keep in mind that some of us have a tendency to exaggerate whatever differences we hear, while others tend to minimize those differences. (See my "As We See It" of February 2009, "Are You A Sharpener or a Leveler?".) If you can hear a difference, then it doesn't matter if others can't; and if you can't hear a difference, it doesn't matter if others can.

Is it an improvement?
Assuming that you can hear the product making a difference, the next thing is to decide whether that difference is an improvement. It's possible for a UAP, or any standard audio component, to make the music sound different: for example, some instruments might now sound more prominent. But if the sound of other instruments is now obscured, then it's not an overall improvement. And, again, whether or not the change is to be considered an improvement must be your decision alone. One person's "crystal clear" is another's "overbright and clinical."

Is it cost-effective?
Judging the degree of improvement is a subjective matter, but you should think about the extent to which the improvement you hear justifies the UAP's cost. If the cost is relatively low and the improvement is quite significant, then by all means go for it. But if the UAP you're considering is fairly expensive, you need to ask whether replacing one of the standard components of your system (eg, the amplifier) would provide a greater improvement. Also, keep in mind resale value. If you buy a well-regarded component of the conventional sort, you can always sell it and get most of your money back. Unorthodox components tend to be faddish, which means that the resale market for them is much more limited.

What is the ratio of manufacturing cost to retail price?
In online discussions, I often see postings that read like this: "It's a rip-off. They sell it for $60, but I made one in my workshop and the materials cost me only $20." Statements like this, whether they refer to normal or unorthodox products, show a lack of understanding of the economics of the specialty-audio business. These are not products that are sold in huge numbers, so they don't benefit from economies of scale. A rule of thumb in the high-end audio business is that the ratio of retail price to manufacturing cost (which includes much more than the cost of materials) needs to be between four and five. Much lower than that, and the manufacturer is on the path to bankruptcy.

How does it work?
Explanation of how certain UAPs accomplish their effects are often muddled, and tend to make people with training in science see red. Manufacturers may use scientific terms such as quantum mechanics in ways that indicate little or no understanding of them. As a result, the scientist-audiophile is prone to say, "If the product's designers can't provide a plausible scientific explanation of how the thing works, then they're charlatans, and I won't consider buying their product." I sympathize with this view—I have a background in experimental psychology, and cringe whenever I read about an audio product whose designer refers to "paranormal phenomena" in his explanation. But I think we have to be careful not to reject a product just because we don't like the designer's explanation of how it works. The history of science is replete with phenomena whose initial explanations were wrong, though the phenomena themselves were real. I think it's reasonable to demand that the designer of a UAP provide a clear explanation of how the product works—and if they don't know, then to admit that.

But if it's been determined that the UAP makes an audible improvement in my system, that improvement is cost-effective, and the UAP's price is within the range of normal profit margin for the manufacturer, then I would not reject a product out of hand just because there is no currently acceptable explanation—or any explanation at all—of how it works.

ralphf's picture

Without a rational basis behind the product, I vote snake oil.  That goes for cables as well.  As far as prices, there are many small scale hobbies in the world, none that I can think of charge $20,000 for something that costs $5.00 to manufacture.

rboehl's picture

I have sat in on many tests for new equipment, UAP`s (like in the article), Cables, Amplifiers, etc.
One thing that I learned in this is ,yes you can here some differences in some things but also you mind an be tricked into hearing things also. Many times people would say that the sound of a cable was shiny, bright,etc. when they thought that they were listening to a silver cable. I ran one test and pretended to switch between a copper and a silver cable and sure enough everyone hears a brighter, shimmery top end. LOL.
I am not saying that you can`t here some things because I have but you also hear what you want. That is why when someone reviews a component that costs a small fortune then it must be sounding better than the cheap one right.
I also sat in on an amplifier listening test and just the opposite was true. The absolute cheapest amp was better sounding than the one that cost 5 times more but no one believed it.

Devil Doc's picture

Notice how the writer tries not to annoy anyone, advertisers and those grounded in science alike. I was in the print ad business for 20 yrs. I'm pretty sure I know what's going on.

BarrysConspiracyWorld's picture

I find the high prices on cables to be laughable and sad, but I feel your example is a bit off, Skeptic.  I've found that it's difficult to beat the performance of the best sub-$200 IC's with DIY.  For example, the Mapleshade ribbon IC  at $120 cannot be bettered (or even come close) for $120 in DIY expenses.  This does not count time, effort, research and development or a profit margin.


For $5, you'd be lucky to get something that beats the horrible sounding throw away patchcords.  You can't even buy a crappy set of RCA's for $5. 

ralphf's picture

But, when I look at selling price of non-audiophile specialty wires and cables then extrapolate at what their manufacturing costs must be and then note some speaker/power cables sell for nearly $20,000 for two or three feet of wire, I don't think my example is that far off.

Doctor Fine's picture

I can't believe guys still don't get what makes good interconnects.   It takes low capacitance and low inductance and low voltage drop per foot.  This stuff can all be measured and when it is low you keep your signal fat, juicy, clear, with good treble and lots of power as nothing is being lost per foot.

This is not hard to achieve at a reasonable price in a shielded low-hum cable.  Go check out George L wire.

Another way to avoid signal bleed off is to NOT shield the lines but just run a pair of wires side by side.  This will hum because it is not shielded but absolutely will NOT bleed signal between the wires or cause inductance.  Think an old fashioned 300 ohm television antenna wire.  I personally would avoid hum even if it is clear sounding but hey if you like hum go ahead and buy twin pair wires.

All the rest of the stuff about interconnect single ended cables is pretty much hype for the gullible.  If you can't make your own interconnects for under fifty bucks there is something wrong with you. 

And for speaker wire the same basic guidelines apply.  Try some quad wound Mogami professional raw wire.  Get it beefy enough for the runs you are making and go spend your money on something more important like a better DAC or cartridge, for crying out loud.