The Swift Boating of Audiophiles

The "Want to make an easy $1,000,000?" e-mail wasn't a scam from Nigeria but an alert from Paul DiComo, late of Polk Audio and now of Definitive Technology, about a double-blind cable-identification challenge made by The Annoying Randi, a magician and debunker of paranormal events who goes by the name of "The Amazing Randi."

I should have hit Delete and resumed my vacation. But a few months earlier, Randi, without the slightest provocation, had attacked me on his website and the revenge fantasy of relieving him of a million of his bucks filled my head.

Aided by a goofy cover photo Tone Audio magazine had taken of me mugging (because methinks I should try not to take myself too seriously), Randi had mocked me for claiming in the October 2006 "Analog Corner" that it was possible to make plastic records "sound better" by demagnetizing them. "I mean, look at this guy," he wrote (I paraphrase); "no wonder he thinks you can actually demagnetize plastic," etc. [Randi's November 2006 comments are no longer accessible in his blog archive, but he did follow up on his comments at—Ed.] Of course I wrote no such thing, but as I came to learn, the Amazing Randi twists better than Chubby Checker.

The Back Story

A recent positive review of a 12' set of Pear Anjou speaker cables (ca $7200) by Positive Feedback's David Clark apparently so riled Randi that he was moved to add "hearing cable differences" to his long-running $1,000,000 paranormal challenge to prove the existence of ghosts, or that there are UFOs, or that you have ESP, or that you can talk to the dead, or that you can bend spoons (etc.). The challenge Randi proposed, according to his website, would be between Pear and Monster Cable, but Transparent's +$40,000 Opus speaker cable would do in a pinch, apparently because they were the most expensive he could find.

I e-mailed Randi and told him I accepted his challenge. Why not? I'm pretty sure I can hear cable differences. No, I'd better be able to—if I couldn't hear cable differences under "blind" conditions, I might just be the audiofool Randi had attacked me for being.

"But what if you can't hear differences?" friends cautioned. Better to find out now than later, I figured. I did, however, insist that the word paranormal be removed from Randi's challenge. There's nothing "paranormal" in my world about hearing differences among audio cables.

Randi suggested a number of reasons for performing a dry run before agreeing to the challenge, the most compelling of which is that the challenger pay all testing expenses. Better to be sure you can do as you claim before paying to find out you can't. Having never heard Pear's cables, I e-mailed the company and asked to borrow a set of Anjous.

I again e-mailed Randi (who had responded to one of my first communications by calling me "delusional," among other pleasantries) and offered an alternative cable choice: the TARA Labs Omegas I currently use as references, because I already have them and know what they sound like. Randi responded that he was okay with that, but that his acceptance would be subject to what his unnamed "advisors" told him.

Shortly thereafter, Pear told me they'd decided to back out of the challenge. I thought that was a bad move, but it was their choice. I insisted, however, that they inform Randi of the fact. I didn't want him hearing it from me.

The next morning, Randi's website headlined Pear's pullout, and he disgustedly announced to his acolytes that he'd known that the "blowhard" Fremer would never take the challenge, that the matter was closed, and that it was time to move on to the next challenger.

Talk about sleight of hand. Randi had used Pear's pullout as a cover for his own. Judging by the vitriolic follow-ups posted by his cultists, he'd gotten away with blaming both Pear and me.

I immediately logged in to Randi's on-line forum and laid out the timeline to his worshippers, including a copy of the last e-mail he'd sent me. I also called him a "lying sack of shit," which I thought accurate under the circumstances.

He responded, indignantly claiming that he'd never written that I'd "pulled out" (as if "end to the matter" says anything but), and that my reading comprehension was poor, adding a few other limp-noodle deflections for good measure that not even the drinkers of the Randi acid-laced Kool-Aid were buying, judging by their follow-up posts.

Sensing that he was losing the troops, the Alarmed Randi went into a full-court sympathy press, using a "medical emergency" as an excuse—he actually scanned and posted online a copy of his emergency-room wristband. I don't doubt it was a real emergency, but if he was well enough to produce his "blowhard" post, he could just as easily have written a truthful one—a point not lost on a gratifyingly large number of his readers, judging by the private e-mails I received afterward.

Why did Randi's advisors reject my offer? They told him that I might "do something" to my reference TARA cables, or put some kind of secret signal on them that only I could hear, and that would alert me to their being in the system. (I'm not making this up.) Why the advisors thought I couldn't also do that to the Pear or Transparent cables, he didn't explain.

Should have folded my tent

At this point I should have waved Randi bye-bye and rejoined the real world, but I couldn't: there were still people lurking on his site taking his side, saying I'd copped out and calling me names. Worse, the story was spreading virally on the Internet like open sewage. Every morning that week, Google Alerts e-mailed me URLs of sites picking up the story, most of which had run with the "Fremer backed out" storyline—much the way the media ran with the fake "Hillary waffled on immigrant licenses" story (read the transcript). Not a good way to start the day.

Still, I should have folded my tent, content that my online encounter with Randi had opened the eyes of many of his supporters. But no, I had to press on, posting long explanations and corrected scenarios on website after website, all day, day after day. At the end of the week, my wife said, "I don't know what's wrong with you, but you're acting weird. You're distracted and have been a nasty grump all week, and I'm sick of it." She was correct.

Toward the end of the week I received some taunting e-mails asking why I'd refused to accept Randi's original option of the Transparent Orpheus. I responded that, had I done so, Randi would have backed out again, using as an excuse that Transparent uses a network in series with its cables, and that therefore they were actually "components," not cables.

A few days later, that's precisely what Randi did. Finally, I logged on to Randi's site and said "bye-bye" to the whole stupid scene, whereupon I received a particularly understanding and sympathetic e-mail from one of Randi's minions, whose eyes had been opened. Here's part of my response to that reader:

"Randi's name calling is repellent. But people who enjoy high-performance audio are used to it. For some reason, gourmets, exotic car owners, oenophiles, etc. are respected as are the producers of fine wine, food and cars, but for some reason, producers of high performance audio and the people who own their products are singled out for derision (audiofools, etc.). There's a stereotype out there, one that angry guys like Randi are happy to exploit in the name of 'consumer protection,' but really it's for their own self-aggrandizement.

"What's funny about it is that on one side are the derisive cynics who think the industry is run by charlatans who fool the gullible and on other side are the consumers and readers with whom I communicate on a regular basis. Who are they? Chiefs of Radiology at major hospitals, doctors, money managers, CEOs, successful lawyers, writers and journalists in other fields, and other powerful people who have accomplished much in their lives and are smart and not easily fooled. Having a high performance audio system is a terrific stress reliever and brings these people tremendous joy. I also communicate with cops and firefighters and postmen who share the enjoyment, some of whom manage to buy the really expensive high performance gear by sacrificing in other areas. That's how important an immersive music experience is for them.

"Why should these people, or any of us be subjected to the snarling, name calling, lie-filled abuse of people like Mr. Randi? Why doesn't he and the others snarl at people who spend $500 on a bottle of wine and then drink it, and it's gone? I don't get why they single out audiophiles. If a guy or gal wants to spend $20,000 on a watch that tells time with no greater accuracy than a Swatch, so what if they've got the money? Same with audio. Meanwhile, look where all of the attacks on 'audiofools' have led: MP3s, plastic computer speakers, and the marginalization of music in people's lives. People don't listen to music anymore for the most part. They hear it while cooking or cleaning or driving or working out but do they sit and really pay full, undivided attention to it anymore? Few do. Audiophiles do. They sit down, turn off the lights, and pay attention. What is wrong with that? Why should they be singled out for abuse? In Europe, where I attend hi-fi shows, the crowds are big and the demographic young. Owning a good audio system is an aspirational goal for kids there. They appreciate good music. America's been poisoned in that regard. Guys like Randi are part of the problem.

"As for the audio arguments, look, there are people who prefer CDs to LPs and vice-versa, though understand there is a vinyl resurgence right now worldwide that's amazing and it's engaging a young generation of kids who grew up listening to files. I talk to these kids all the time. Some people like tube gear, some don't. Whatever. None of these preferences should cause anyone to be subject to attacks. It's ludicrous. I know engineers and mastering guys on both sides of all of these arguments and we're all friends. We're all on the same page trying to improve the sound of recorded music . . . and that's all I have to say . . . "


bashprompt's picture

You do realize you don't need Randi to run a double blind test, in fact, it costs very little to go down your local university, talk to the dean of a school of science, and ask if any of their students would be interested in performing a double blind test on your cable belief.

In the time it took you to write this long winded article you could have done a double blind and proven once and for all that you have magical ears and can tell the difference between audio cables. Use the ones agreed upon, or borrow the overpriced ones you mentioned and do the test. Ideally use as many as you can, expensive versus cheap and control.

Even after listening to your entire argument the only thing I'm left thinking is, "If you didn't back out, why not do the test and get front page news all over the world for proving the difference can be heard?" You might not make a million bucks but I guarantee you'd make hundreds of thousands in sponsorship.

So time to shit or get off the pot. Do the test.

stella's picture

Well said.

Thomas Collins's picture

Your reply was only 8 years after he wrote the article.

stereodesk's picture

Dear Michael,

I enjoyed your prose and several of the points that you made. Obviously, I am in the business, and would not be, if I didn't think that the sound from most systems is subject to many things, not the least of which is being improved.

I began in the hobby, (decades before being in the business) because my Father was a pianist, and my Mom a singer. I heard them, and their colleagues, playing live just about every day they weren't on the road. When they were gone, the sound wasn't nearly the same, at first. It wasn't so much that I had to have the best sound for me...I saw what it took for my folks to develop their skills. My Dad practiced tirelessly most of his life. The least I could do was to try and get the sound right...and so you make a change and listen, and repeat, hundreds of times until you get something that respects the music.

Why this backlash against the betterment of sound? Well, to some degree I think you touched on it. Fancy watches and fine wine were always the domain of the 'upper set'. When I grew up, they weren't on my radar much at all initially. Music most certainly was on my radar, and people around where I grew up were passionate about it. If opinions were differing, you could toss it right in with religion and politics as subjects to be careful of when parleying. You see, music has always lived under public domain, and passionately so. No matter what you may have or may not have, you have music. To suggest that a portion of it, even a sliver, can only be perceived if you're using this or that playback device, or that it's better with this pure silver wire...well we're playing with something that is under passionate ownership already. I think that's why some like to take shots at what you're saying and what I'm doing. Of course people shouldn't worry. Love of music is as pure as breathing and cannot be corrupted nor taken. The first Walkman is as old as man. Musicians I knew growing up always had music with them. Their brains were the first portable music devices, and are still in use today. I know music is never far from my mind.

Regardless, keep on keeping on. Your work has been a help, a great time savor, and an inspiration for many many years. In fact, I think I'll put on a record right now in tribute...never been played Mono Relaxin with the Miles Davis Quintet.

Thanks for your work,

Fred Crane
Stereodesk/Audio Prana LLC

makarisma's picture

Cannot really fault those that believe audiophile stuff is overrated. Many manufacturers have narrowed the gap between good sound and audiophile sound over the years and for the commoner, the former is good enough.