Saturday, 9 June 2018

MUSINGS: Why Do People Equate High End Audio with Snake Oil? [And McGill MQA Study Summary]


I ran into this video post by Paul McGowan a few weeks back... "Why do people equate high end with snake oil?" (Start at 3:00 to skip past the chat on building their studio...)



Interesting discussion I guess...

If you do a search for the words "snake oil" on this blog, you'll see that I typically don't use the term much in my writings. But we do find it used in the forums and in discussions online. It's certainly not uncommon for people to express opinions that certain marketed audio devices or components belong to this understandably maligned category of product.

McGowan's answer is (of course) the usual apologetic arguing for the existence of the "high-end", which is basically that there is a sonic distinction between "high-end" products from presumably the "lower-end". The points he made I think can basically be distilled down to the following:

1. People who call "high-end" audio snake oil have their "worldview threatened". Mr. McGowan then proceeds to use analogies with restaurants, cars, expensive homes as justification that certain higher classes of goods presumably naturally exist to satisfy consumer needs - including "high end audio". "All a matter of perspective" he says.

2. Such people are "lashing out" because they feel threatened. He suggests that these are people who opine that "It can't cost that much money!" again because of worldview issues. There is presumably some kind of inherent meanness and anger; maybe an expression of projected jealousy? He at one point uses an example of him choosing to be a vegetarian many years back, preferring organic foods, etc. and then experiencing the reaction of others at times out of kindness showing concern about his at-that-time questionable choice, and also on occasion "anger and ridicule" (he could be "riddled with maggots" because he didn't consume pesticides?!). Not sure if others find this argument all that convincing or if the analogy makes sense speaking of audio products.

3. Not unexpectedly, he then suggested for the disbeliever to "take some time to find out for yourself". He suggests that there is a "huge chasm between what we listen to in high-end audio and what others listen to in home stereo that don't have 'that'" (whatever 'that' refers to is up to some interpretation). He feels that the "chasm is as large as the Grand Canyon" (~8:00).

Let's roll back the clock more than 100 years. Let's think about what "snake oil" is referring to...

For some historical background on "snake oil", it's worth reading this article from NPR. Interesting that the original "snake oil" likely came from the Chinese indentured laborers who brought with them a traditional Chinese medicine based on extract from the water-snake which may have had some anti-inflammatory properties. However, what we remember as "snake oil" in the West is the fraudulent profiteering famously demonstrated by showmen like Clark Stanley:


It's arguable whether Stanley's claims of actual "rattlesnake oil" would have had any medical benefit, but the sad fact is that his "oil" apparently did not contain any snake products at all! It was all just mineral oil, beef fat, pepper and turpentine. Pure fraud. However, this didn't stop Mr. Stanley from being "successful" as a businessman of his time. He was apparently slapped on the wrist with a symbolic $20 (~US$500 these days with inflation) fine when caught for his fraudulent practices! Furthermore, it is said that Mr. Stanley appeared in shows including the 1893 World Expo where he would dissect a live snake and boil the animal's parts to extract the oil as demonstration of the extraction process and presumably impress upon the audience of the medicinal properties.

When we speak of "snake oil" these days, we are of course referring to this combination of a product that contains no actual efficacy, yet sold with the promise of positive benefits which are often said to be far-reaching, typically attached to a level of salesmanship that suggests some level of authority as demonstrated by Mr. Stanley.

Snake oil sales is an example of a "confidence game", or more colloquially, a "con", and the individuals who partake in the sales, "con men". The idea is to take advantage of and sell to "suckers", usually those felt to be naïve enough for the manipulative fraudster to capture his/her confidence. In many cons, there are often willing accomplices involved who can either derive gain from the fraudulent claims and sales directly (ie. getting a cut of the proceeds) or indirectly (eg. secondary gains like recognition or benefits of association). These accomplices are "shills" and I've certainly seen this term used more than once in the audiophile world to describe certain individuals.

Notice that Mr. McGowan's response actually did not address the question being posed to him at all! He never actually answered the question: is there "snake oil" being sold in "high end" audio such that the public would associate the two?

McGowan's silence in addressing the presence of "snake oil" implies that these kinds of fraudulent products or sales tactics do not exist. That somehow, if we were to just "open our minds", then we would see the truth and appreciate the "chasm" in sound quality between "high end" products and I suppose whatever is below such a lofty level of performance. He seems to paint the picture that those willing to call out highly questionable if not full-on fraudulent claims as malcontent Customers who have had their worldview threatened instead of the actual dubious practices being done on the side of the Industry.

Permit me be be frank. IMO, yes, I believe there is very much "snake oil" salesmanship going on in many areas of "high end" audio. Remember though that fraudulent products and sales tactics happen in many places, not just audiophilia (for example, think of fraudulent pharmaceuticals, naturopathy, homeopathy, the local psychic, etc.). However, like most things in life, it's a bit more complicated and it would not be fair to classify everything as black or white.

If we take some time to break it down, I think there are actually 3 “classes” of devices in audiophilia that could be considered dubious, judged in the light of whether the device actually improves audio fidelity. From most dubious to perhaps more acceptable depending on one's station in life...

Class A: Audio “Snake Oil” Products
These products likely will immediately raise the objections of many audiophiles simply because they challenge common sense and audio science! These companies will either never release objective evidence of benefit, or if they do, the conclusions are of an unconvincing form (for example, release tests with no description of set-up, graphs with axes poorly labeled, inappropriate measurements in the MHz and GHz rather than audio frequencies...). Truly the “cream of the crop” when we think of “snake oil”.

It's not hard to point to examples of the exotic and bizarre. Over the years, we've seen things like  CD/DVD demagnetizationgreen pens to color the margins of CDsCD disc "mats", small room tweaks here and herecup-like "resonators""beaks", strange bags of rocks"base" devicesfuses and outletsclocks in the room, stick-on foilsEMI reducing “stones”"soundfield" optimizers, thing that combats bad RFquantum purifiers, cable risersphone calls that improve sound…

Presumably there are still faithful adherents for some of these products, and some of the concepts behind certain devices may seem more plausible to one's sensibilities than others. The time has come and gone for many of them (anyone still interested in the Tice Clock?). One rarely hears about some of these anymore, thankfully.

More reputable audiophile magazine and writer will not bother to mention these products. In fact, I hope that serious writers will get a bit more courageous in actively cautioning readers about controversial claims rather than staying quiet.

Class B: Unnecessary Audio Accessorizing
There are other devices I would consider being highly unlikely to be beneficial but often marketed as if these can or even should be used by many audiophiles. These are devices that exist in the "gray", between worthless to possibly having some marginal value. Some of the items I listed above may belong in this category for you if you think their mechanism of action holds some truth.

At least Class B products don’t purport to have bizarre or magical properties. For example, there are accessories meant to improve certain technical factors like "lower noise", "less jitter", or "better frequency extension" but really have little ability to do so. I remember attending a demo for AudioQuest’s Jitterbug where the suggestion was made that one should buy 3 or 4 of these to use even with unconnected USB ports (supposedly lower the noise of the overall USB system if you plug up a connector with one of these)! I would stick similar type of products like the UpTone Regen and iFi Purifier products in this category. Likewise, I’ve attended sales demonstrations where very expensive power filtration boxes were used with the claim that “everyone” would be able to hear a difference. I think most people left the demo less than impressed with the non-effect.

Some of these accessories may be beneficial in limited situations (like with a terrible computer / audio streamer, or maybe if one lives in a city with ridiculously poor power grid). Unless companies can prove otherwise, I think it’s wise to steer clear of these claims since there’s no point rewarding companies for making generally useless things even if the cost isn’t extremely high.

Class C: Audio Jewelry
This is where luxury, price and purported “better sound” converges. “High end” disk spinners, amplifiers, pre-amps, speakers, headphones, computer servers, streaming devices can be found in all manners of shapes, sizes, and MSRPs starting typically at four-figures with the sky being the limit. One could argue that "high end" products are by definition Class C by virtue of the price.

As many here are already aware, luxury and price do not necessarily make for a high fidelity sound. For example, check out the review of this recent boutique DAC with an asking price of US$17,000. Lots of fancy claims about how good it is, how it uses expensive parts (look ma, no chips, just precision R2R ladders and FPGAs!), how the background and theory of operation is awesome (galvanic and magnetic isolation people!), right? Then look at the severity of jitter and the noise floor in those measurements, plus the amount of distortion; these results would be embarrassing even for good DACs selling at 1/10 the price - never mind the lack of a reconstruction filter!

The example of this specific $17,000 product is worth considering when it comes to the typical “high end” marketing approach. If we look at the product's web page under "Reviews and Awards", we see that the company depends on accolades from the audiophile press offered as "proof" that it deserves the esteem of the audiophile hobby. So what does it mean when something like this gets so much praise? Is it that the "golden ears" are not able to discern the limitations of this device or that maybe even if they heard the high jitter and noise, they still prefer it? If it is the former, then maybe their ears/minds as instruments of auditory acuity were never "golden", and if it's the latter, then isn't it a bit hypocritical to recommend this device with suboptimal sound? Either way, the subjective review process seems flawed when there's no input from objective analysis to confirm basic domains of performance. We can be thankful that at least Stereophile continues to publish measurements here in North America.

Is it any wonder that often the word "shill" is applied to audiophile magazines and the writers who typically seem to provide favorable opinions to very expensive equipment? Rather, these products, often coming from small, young companies need to be critically assessed especially with that kind of asking price. Instead, we see time and again, all kinds of expensive products obtaining an easy “pass” or even meaningless awards like "Greatest Bits" from the press, utilizing their low bar of subjective assessment to gather interest and sales based on nothing but weak testimony.

In the past, I have spoken of the "non-utilitarian functions" of products that give the impression of luxury and recognize that some customers will pay for that pride of ownership. As suggested above with the triad of luxury, price and sound quality, luxury in and of itself almost never seems to be acceptable. There's the inevitable claim that somehow "it sounds better" when one enters the "high end" as echoed by Paul McGowan. I see little proof that “high end” necessarily correlates with “better sound”. There is evidence that some products like the $17,000 DAC (among many others) sound worse.

In the world of fashion, the subjective notion of luxury which comes with higher prices can be appreciated independently. For example, a woman does not need a Louis Vuitton handbag. However, by owning such an item, she sends out a message that she has at her disposal certain financial resources and this would help anchor her social / financial stature and induce admiration in those who appreciate such things. This has nothing to do with the utilitarian "carrying capacity" of the bag itself, and the woman doesn't need to go around insisting that the product’s asking price showed good value because the available volume inside the "high end" bag was better than something less expensive!

Why must audiophiles then insist that a "high end" brand's 2-metre audio cable "sounds better" than a much less expensive one when at the end of the day, objective measurements, science and common sense states that it makes no meaningful difference to the sound? Is there anything wrong with the audiophile proudly stating that the hand-made, small volume, workmanship of a $3000 cable made by “artisans” in a family-run business out of Bavaria is what differentiates his product from an equivalent length of $50 cable from China using otherwise good quality wire and connectors and that "the sound" isn't what defines one from the other? Likewise, if a head-fi audiophile wants to demonstrate a splash of elegance wearing limited edition Focal gold plated headphones (only 100,000 euros), so be it. Is there anything wrong in admitting as an audiophile that many of these "high end" products are statements of prestige and social stature much like the expensive handbag or maybe some nice jewelry made with the same attention to detail, expert design, and material costs?

At a time in history when the science of the typical 2-channel audio reproduction system has reached maturity in many ways, I think there's an honesty in accepting that "high end" audiophile products are simply status symbols now (and has been for many years). By facing this honestly, it would take away the need for "snake oil" tactics to market certain products by claiming what they cannot deliver (ie. an actually better sound quality when objectively they don't). To me it is this unspoken yet plainly obvious conflict which creates such ridicule and tension not just among audiophiles with different value systems on public forums (eg. subjectivists vs. objectivists), but also in how the general public and the scientific community view the "high end" audio industry and the marketing tactics used.

As far as I can tell, McGowan is very wrong when he claims that the "chasm is as large as the Grand Canyon" between the sound of "high end" products and presumably competent, affordable high-fidelity equipment. Rather, my experience has been that once you take out the psychological effects of expectation bias, there is simply no "chasm" when it comes to the sonic difference. The biggest differences between say a good "high end" DAC and an otherwise technically competent one are presentation, fancier appearance, perhaps better materials and workmanship for these "high end" products. For some, the extra expense could be worth it and there's no shame in accepting this if one has been ogling some Nordost cables, Burmester CD player, or Magico speakers to adorn the man cave! But please… Let's not overstate actual sonic benefits.

If you look at that snake oil ad at the very top of this article, you see the claim "GUARANTEE A CURE in every instance or MONEY REFUNDED". Interesting isn't it that to this day, the "30-day money back guarantee" is so often used by purveyors of dubious gear as justification of why you should “just try it because it's safe" and you can get your money back? Of course, this is a great method to induce sales. Whether it works or not, once you get a product home, there's a resistance to go through the process of a return. Sometimes an RMA is needed from the company, then there's the packing and making sure you're not missing something, then there's driving to the local mail office, the cost of shipping... More likely than not, to try a product means one loses some money on the shipping either to one's home and/or back. Good marketing tactic back when snake oil was an actual product, just as good now :-).

Finally, you might be wondering about cables. Probably more than any other single “component” in the audio system, “high end” cables are both common and contentious. IMO, depending on what is being promoted; cables can span all 3 Classes. There are true “snake oil” Class A cables like those that claim to incorporate smoke and mirrors “technology” like “cryogenic treatment”, have “quantum” properties, treated with thousands of volts to “change molecular structure”, are "directional", etc. I personally consider all expensive digital cables Class A if claims are made about "better sound" (here's a beautiful example). Some cable manufacturers could be claiming special construction and dielectrics that improve resistance, inductance, and capacitance but not likely beneficial for typical lengths and for audio applications (ie. Class B dubious product). Finally, there are Class C cables simply aiming to be expensive and demands to be owned by high class, elite audiophiles who desire luxury.

There is of course nothing stopping a product from transcending all classes. Consider this Synergistic Atmosphere Cable Level 4 review. It's got everything from pseudoscience (?Uniform Energy Field technology? Anti-resonance for cables? Bullets presumably like what I previously examined?), to dubious benefits (monofilament silver you say?) to of course an attempt at luxury (handsome with good-sized girth, RCA starting at US$2500 for 1m, speaker cables US$5000 for 8-ft). All written of course in flowery subjective language some would describe as "shilling".

Here's a thought... If Stereophile can have fun subjectively rating devices as Class A/B/C/etc., why not rate these devices as well based on snake oil "Dubiousness Class" (DC)? Inexpensive tweak with pseudoscience claims - Class A (DC-A). Non-egregiously-priced analogue cable with monofilament silver that might have slight benefit for very long cables but the company insists "sound better" - DC-B like maybe this Crystal Cable assuming the price is OK for you or in the used market. Luxury with no clear benefits - DC-C like this Vitus Audio amplifier. Expensive luxury item with pseudoscience claims (like this Synergistic power cable) - DC-AC...

Ultimately, for me, being a rational audiophile that avoids all true “snake oil” seems reasonable. I don’t mind learning about DC-B products but I’m certainly not going to “buy to try” unless the manufacturer works hard to show me evidence of benefit in a good system. And maybe I’ll even splurge on some expensive gear if I want a DC-C product that lustfully appeals to me! As consumers, we should remain educated and I think it is the responsibility of the press to elevate understanding among hobbyists, and in the process, help with weeding out "snake oil". Sadly, it appears that much of the audiophile magazines and writings these days exist for the purpose of pushing sales.

Never mind the snake oil ("high end" or otherwise)... Enjoy the music...

----------------------

Speaking of cons... er... MQA. Here's something I wrote on the Computer Audiophile forum the other day. A summary of recent research on sonic "clarity" of the so-called MQA "format".

Posted on June 6, 2018:
Thanks to one of the members here for letting me have a look at the McGill article. Can't put it up in its entirety for obvious reasons, but I'll summarize... 
A good read and they certainly spent quite a bit of time getting this done. Here are the "vital stats" from the paper "A Comparison of Clarity in MQA Encoded Files vs. Their Unprocessed State" released May 2018: 
- 24/96 PCM sources. 3 pieces of music: pop "Right On Time" (Jerry Douglas & Marc Cohn), jazz "Trampolin" (Chick Corea), classical "Shostakovich 5th, 1st Movement" (Andris Nelsons & Boston SO). 24/96 PCM vs. 24/48 MQA encode by MQA themselves. 30-second segments used. Samples checked for level match of course. They didn't say if they checked that the Brooklyn DAC wasn't accidentally using MQA filters for PCM playback! 
- Hardware: ITU-R BS. 775-1 standard room, speakers B&W 802D, headphones Sennheiser HD800. Some audio switching based on MIDI control, 2 independent laptops playing either PCM or MQA to 2 Brooklyn Mytek DACs. SM Pro PM8 passive summing box --> Crookwood C10 monitor controller for switching. Alas, switching added 500ms of silence rather than more instantaneous transition. 
- Listeners: 3 sets of 10 subjects. The 3 sets: "Expert listeners" from McGill graduate music program, "Musicians" mostly with university level training, and "Casual listeners" (presumably some students and employees). Average age in all 3 groups in their late 20's (~25-29). Didn't mention what the men:women ratio was. 
- Test: A/B testing, asked to choose which sample seemed "clearer" as in "all details of a performance can be clearly perceived; the opposite of 'muddy'; the subjective impression that all details of the performance can be clearly perceived". 15 trials using the headphones, 15 trials with speakers; total ~45 minutes doing the test. 
- Results: When averaged out, the 3 groups showed nothing significant. I wish I could post Figure 5 - that's all you need to see :-). With multi-way analysis, "engineers" tended to like MQA pieces on headphones, "musicians" preferred the PCM jazz piece on speakers. Casual listeners rated MQA higher for the jazz piece on headphones and the PCM classical piece on speakers. As for individual analysis, 6 listeners tended to choose one over the other - even split of 3 preferring MQA, 3 preferring PCM (but this was before Bonferroni correction which took away the statistical significance)! 
Bottom line: The conclusion of course addressed a few of the issues like the 500ms silence introduced in the switch... Maybe other pieces of music would have been better... Maybe something other than "clarity" needs to be assessed. 
1. "The de-blurring processing in MQA encoding does not necessarily provide additional clarity over the original" 
2. "MQA is successful in providing a smaller, more easily streamable copy of the source WAV file, while maintaining a very similar level of clarity" 
No surprise, and basically my conclusions last year as well... Too bad they didn't comment if the Brooklyn DAC was stuck on the MQA filter when playing back the hi-res PCM! In fact, they didn't mention the word "filter" at all in the paper. Should have passed the paper to an audiophile familiar with all these MQA discussions to provide feedback :-). 

No evidence of "revolution", "paradigm shifts", "birth of new worlds", etc... etc...
I'd consider MQA either Dubiousness Class A (DC-A) if the company keeps insisting that the questionable "de-blur" and filters sound better on a "revolutionary" scale. DC-B if on the other hand it's just meant to be a form of partially lossy data compression that's supposed to deliver the "essence" of streamed hi-res audio. Either way, it's still a dubious product.

Hard to imagine much more discussion needed about MQA. I think it's done.

26 comments:

  1. Let me tell you what I think after watching the video. What will happen to the place he was standing, speaking and walking around? Apart from audio equipment the most important thing is probably room treatment. It is one of the things that can cost a lot of money but it can make real improvement so I won't call this "snake oil". Of course I am talking about treatments conforming to the law of physics.

    Then he talked about fast food and the like. There are documentary and experiments about examining the health condition of someone eating vs not eating fast food for some specific period and the effect can be objectively demonstrated. Relationship of vegetarian and carbon footprint can also be objectively demonstrated. Sadly there are also some dishonest practice like fake organic food certification and so on, don't know if similar things are more severe in the audio world or not. I also hope he is not and will not be a victim of low quality food which pretended to be high quality :P

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    1. Absolutely Dtmer - it's mainly about room treatment and I'm sure PS Audio will do a great job with that space. Agree - no "snake oil" when it comes to good room treatments. I'm just not so sure about tiny little things like "stick on" "resonators" and what not.

      Sounds like there's quite a bit of "snake oil" organics out there:
      https://www.foodandwine.com/news/how-36-million-pounds-fake-organic-food-ended-in-us

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    2. Having listened to a lot of equipment over the years, I can state as fact that "Any change or addition is audible -- even when it isn't. We expect changes to be audible, so we hear "something". Worse, we believe that we've heard it -- because "there's nothing wrong with my hearing". It's right to trust your hearing -- but as someone else said, "What about your perceptions?". Once listeners convince themselves of audible differences, it's like trying to shake a sturgeon with a hook set in his mouth. Critical judgment requires extended listening by multiple listeners, preferably with some randomizing element that keeps them from figuring out a change has been made. (I've never trusted ABX testing because no one has shown it reliably detects "real" differences (such as a broad change in frequency response. ABX isn't "science"; it's a testing protocol.
      Another error occurs when the listener comes up with a "plausible" explanation of why the device or treatment "works". The ability to postulate such explanations shows they're true. I saw the mind of one of the great audio writers turn to mush because of this. (I won't name him, because I've always liked him, and he once effusively complimented me in print.)
      Anyone making extreme claims should be required to demonstrate them, or remain silent.

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    3. ABX and other double-blind testing methods can involve your suggested procedures. How does it relate to the ABX protocol is scientific or not? Specifically, can you explain why the ABX protocal cannot involve extended listening by multiple listeners and randomizing things? How long is long term? Longer than the "30-day money back guarantee" period? If yes, then it's the seller's responsibility to extend the period. In this case I would suggest "lifetime gaurantee".

      >Anyone making extreme claims should be required to demonstrate them, or remain silent.
      How about your claims?

      I'll leave the rest to you Archimago, you are extremely good at dealing with such claims :-)

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    4. "I've never trusted ABX testing because no one has shown it reliably detects "real" differences (such as a broad change in frequency response. ABX isn't "science"; it's a testing protocol."

      Nonsense. ABX has been used hundreds of times by contributors to Hydrogenaudio.org to report *real* differences between , e.g., masterings (which feature 'broad' changes in EQ and overall level ) and lossy codecs. WHat makes you think ABX *would not* reveal such differences? But hey, if you stll doubt, just try it yourself. It's not difficult to do nowadays, with playback tools like WinABX. I've personally performed dozens of ABX tests on various A's and B's, and have certainly achieved 'positive' results (significant likelihood of difference).

      As for you bizarre distinction about testing protocols , they, including DBTs (including the variety of DBT called AB) are *tools of science*. You literally can't publish listening test results in a reputable audio/psychoacoustics research journal unless a double blind protocol has been used.

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    5. (make that foobar's ABX Comparator these days...WinABX us no more. I see there's also one from 'Lacinto' but I haven't used that one)

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  2. Humans are not good judges of their perceptions...

    Last summer, on a nice warm day, I moved my headphone station out onto the deck for an afternoon of music. I sat down and started streaming an album appropriate for the situation, one of my favorites, something with very good sound quality and a high dynamic range. It wasn't long before I realized that, even though the deck was shaded it was open to the sky which had a light layer of clouds reflecting sunlight and causing a very bright and annoying visual glare. I stopped playback and went inside to get sunglasses. As I put them on, I remembered that they did not mesh well with my headphone earpads, uncomfortable for sure. So I reached for a cap, in this case a very lightweight "flat cap" or "driving cap" style, thinking the bill over the eyes would actually block the glare from the sky better than sunglasses anyway. I don't believe I had ever worn a cap with headphones before this.

    Now, this next part is going to sound like BS, or that I am making fun of the whole audiophile "snake oil" situation, but I swear it is true...

    I sat back down, put my headphones on over the cap, and restarted the music. First thing I noticed was that the cap indeed countered the glare very well. Then, after only a few seconds, I was struck by how much better the music sounded. It was smoother and more musical. Pick your favorite audiophile improvement to lows/mids/highs, or dynamic range, or PRAT, and I was noticing it. First thing I thought was that the hat was changing the headphone position on the ears. Fiddling with position made no change - still sounded better. Now remember, I had no conscious expectation of audio improvements. They were just there, and easily evident.

    The next thing I thought about was Enid Lumley. Years ago she documented that, when listening in a darkened room, shining a flashlight on the speaker cables made for a difference in sound quality. Was I becoming like Enid? (For those not familiar with Enid, this post gives some background on her, saying that she "was regarded by many as one of audio's greatest loonies" but also that "it was she who came up with a goodly number of the 'tweaks' that have become standard today" http://audiophilereview.com/audiophile/dick-tinker.html )

    Anyway, the obvious explanation was that without the hat my optic nerve was cross-stimulating my audio receptors and placing a "veil" in front of the sound. Or, maybe it was that the elastic headband of the cap was pressuring the distortion out of the sound? Or, was it that the soft cloth on top of my noggin was damping out vibrations in my skull? (OK, I admit it, now I am making fun of audiophile "snake oil" claims.)

    Being in a subjective mood, and having a cold beer and some mighty fine listening ahead of me, I did not pursue this any farther. I made no measurements and did no double blind testing. Heck, I didn't even try a different cap. I just enjoyed the music.

    All kidding aside, for me this was a stunning personal example of how poor we humans (or at lease this particular one) are at critically judging what our senses are telling us.

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    1. Great anecdote, Mark. Although I would humbly suggest your conclusion is 180 degrees out of phase. ;)

      Our senses are stunningly subjective to external confounders (for lack of a better description), but by using our critical judgement skills we can correct for those external confounders and come away with something insightful -- it was the bright sun and not squeezing by an elastic headband.

      What's annoying about the stereotypical audiophile is that they don't use critical judgement to reach logically reasonable conclusions. Instead they ignore literally the glaringly obvious -- hey, you can't get more glaringly obvious than the sun -- to justify whatever decision they've already reached.

      9 times out of 10 an audiophile's take can be summed up as more money, more better.

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    2. Yes, thanks for the anecdote Mark.

      Just taking a stab at subjective experience. That story reminds me of the neuroscience concept of heteromodal areas in our cortex where multiple sensory inputs commingle. Areas where hearing, vision, somatosensory "bind" to allow us to perceive the world. Not surprising if the glaring sun as Allan noted above disturbed the overall system and how the mind perceived the auditory experience.

      Perhaps this is the same with the visual appeal of a system and how the final auditory experience "sounds". Perhaps there is something to be said about "Hearing with our eyes". Having the knowledge of how much a system costs and with the accumulated belief in "improvements" probably continuously adds to the claimed improvement...

      Add a new power cable - "Sounds awesome!" Add power conditioner - "Even better!" Add new expensive interconnect - "Veil lifted!" Add USB "regenerator" - "Holy smokes, digital sounds like analogue!" Replace with $1000 USB cable - "Unbelievably significant upgrade!" Add USB filter - "Wow, it just made the sound smoother". Upgrade that $500 power cable with $2000 one - "I couldn't believe there was even more improvement!"

      And so it goes. While physics may have hit some limits awhile back, the human psyche of someone obsessed or perhaps an Industry that needs the ongoing income by feeding the obsessed really has no limits.

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    3. Archimago,
      I have a nice cap I could sell you. What's your budget? 😁

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    4. Thanks for the offer Mark.

      Alas, because my system sounds better with each cap I upgraded to, I've now accumulated about 78 of them and my wife refuses to let me buy another one!

      While I'm sure your cap would have upgraded my system even more (surely, worth at least $1999, easily equivalent to a good power cable upgrade), I'll just have to pass. I'm currently saving up a few thousand dollars and barely containing myself as I await the arrival of the Level 5 Synergistic Research Atmosphere cables. Considering the amazing reviews of the Level 4, that next Level will surely reach new unheard levels of transparency.

      In the meantime, I hope you continue to explore and try the various caps as surely there must be even more improvements to be had!

      Happy tunes,
      Arch

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  3. Funny that I had the displeasure of YouTube recommending McGowan vid's to me lately. The first one from him didn't have anything overtly objectionable, though by the end of it, it did feel a little devoid of specifics. Second one was nothing but snake-oil red-flags. I decided I'd never waste my time on something from him ever again.

    So this one was no surprise. It was classic logical fallacies: strawman and false analogy, with a side of psychological projection. (Ahem, it's not our worldview that's threatened by facts).

    The reason people hate audiophiles is NOT because audiophiles admit they are engaging in conspicuous consumption (à al mansion and Ferrari buyers); or that the utility curve between $100 and $1000 is a lot more steep than between $1000 and $5,000, and virtually flat after $5,000. No, the reason people hate audiophiles is because they REFUSE to admit those things. Then, to make matters worse, they end up make ever more objectively ridiculous claims to defend the objectively indefensible -- like this McGowan video, in fact.

    ~~~
    RE: Oppo UDP-205, I'm on their e-mail notification list. It's June and haven't heard anything from them yet. As I recall when I signed-up they indicated if they decided to do another manufacturing run, they'd be contacting us in June. I'm trying not to get nervous, but... I'm getting nervous. :) Been looking at 105's on teh Bay. I think we need somebody to take one for the team and buy a used one from eBay. The sacrifice will appease the Consumer Electronics gods and by the next day we'll all have been contacted by Oppo to pre-purchase for their final manufacturing run.

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    1. Oh yeah, one more hopefully interesting story on Oppo. I was looking at Novatron/Cocktail Audio. They had a link to their US wholesaler, and the wholesaler listed a store here in Portland as one of their retail partners. I go to the Portland store's site and they list Oppo as one of the brands they carry. Cool. So I call the Portland store and before I get around to asking about Cocktail Audio, I ask if they stock Oppo and do they by chance have any 205's still in stock.

      Nope, just the 203's. The guy said they had 40 people call them the first day after Oppo announced they were discontinuing the 205. Just me or is that crazy? I understand FOMO and all, but still. Wow.

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    2. Looks like I might be the one taking one for the team. I've got a bead on a 105 locally. $700. Not a darbee, though. Here's the big diff btw 105 & 105D:

      from Oppo Knowledge Base
      In additional to the Darbee Visual Presence processor, the USB DAC input of the BDP-105D has been upgraded over the BDP-105 to accept DSD64 and DSD128 input from a computer connected via USB when using an application such as JRiver Media Center or Audirvana Plus. The BDP-105 does not have the ability to play these types of files via the USB DAC input.

      [Both players share the capability] of playing DSD64 files from a connected USB hard drive or USB thumb drive."


      I need to confirm the original 105 has all the streaming, Roon, and app support that the 105D & 205 have.

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    3. Hi Allan,
      Wow indeed - 40 people asking about the 205 on discontinuation day at the store!

      Actually, I put in an order online within a couple of hours of finding out so I guess if I was compelled to do so, that would not have been a unique situation at all.

      Good to know about the slight differences in terms of audio and DSD128 between the 105 and 105D. Let us know how it goes with satisfying your streaming needs. From what I've seen the 105(D) doesn't support RAAT so it's not "Roon Ready"; you'll likely have to run some endpoint software through a Raspberry Pi probably...

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  4. High-end audio snake-oil, yep, that reminds the famous phrase "there's a sucker born every minute"...let's sell him something ! And having money doesn't mean automatically that you are smart...

    I would give the Gold snake-oil award to the few thousands dollars AC cable that that 'improves instrument's timbre, the space between instruments, enlarges the sound stage..." and so on. I need to understand how the heck AC supply that runs through to say, a 30 feet of regular 14-2 electrical cable from a breaker in your electrical panel to your system's AC outlet can be so much improved by a "last mile" 6 feet passive cable, that your amplifier, DAC and speakers can now resolves tiny details they couldn't with a regular cable...

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    1. Hey Denis,
      Yeah, power cables. Truly remarkable that this stuff can be promoted year after year. Perhaps we will never hear the end of it from the snake oil salesmen. However, I do suspect that the number of audiophiles who still subscribe to the belief is dropping over the years...

      I certainly don't know many younger audiophiles or music lovers feel strongly about cables.

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    2. I think younger people generally have, by necessity, far more tech savvy due to the proliferation of devices that were unheard of until the last twenty years or so. To some extent, they all deal with gear, including cables, and probably accept digital technology without the distraction of memories of analog gear. So they are less susceptible to silly claims about wires, and understand that 1s and 0s tend to be just that: 1s and 0s, and not the result of quaint theories that are inapplicable to digital media. They probably have a lot to learn about speakers, say, but a lot to teach us about the utilitarian nature of digital systems.

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  5. If it didn’t sound like the control room during mix down, then it's snake oil. I hear "high end" audio all the time of things I've mixed and they all sound different then my intent.

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    1. Hi Terry,
      Yeah, I would agree with that I suppose to some degree. The only caveat is to make sure that the studio control room has accurate high-fidelity hardware.

      For example, if a recording were mixed and listened to with the "classic" Yamaha NS10 in the studio, the sound with high quality hardware with full bass extension would certainly sound different.

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  6. I post this here without comment;it speaks for itself.

    https://positive-feedback.com/audio-discourse/skogrand-beethoven-usb/

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    1. Love the link Kurt :-),

      Dubiousness Class AC! Easily Class A for even considering that a 1.5m $14K USB 2.0 cable can make a sonic difference, and Class C for the "jewelry" aspect right down to what looks like the designer snake skin appearance :-).

      A real gem, though the pictures look a little frightening for those suffering from ophidiophobia!

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    2. I think it's purdy, but i'd rather have a decent used car.

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  7. Here's a tear-down of a $100 wall-wart on the ComputerAudiophile forums.

    tl,dr: it's actually an older, lower spec'd version of the power-supply from the already obsolete Iomega zip drive, where they go for $10 on teh 'bay.

    I'll say this, excepting maybe diet and health supplements, I can't think of another market where manufacturers hold their customers in more disregard. OK, Wall Street.

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  8. For me, your Class B stuff is just as much as a scam as the Class A ones.

    Actually, I'm surprised it took this long for mainstream blowback to happen against the scummy "Hi-Fi" industry and their obviously-not-bribed shill "reviewers".

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  9. Main issue here is that he's conflating.
    Of course a £100 stereo is not going to sound great and a more upmarket system will sound better.
    In a way that's what the manufacturers do as well, often they will produce stuff which is good but also slap on nonsense on top. The dragonlfy black will sound considerably better than a laptop headphone output, as demonstrated it's a decent product yet they still feel the need to engage in outlandish claims.

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