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:
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.
Class C: Audio Jewelry
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...
Thanks to one of the members here for letting me have a look at the McGill AES 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...
Hard to imagine much more discussion needed about MQA. I think it's done.