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 Elliott Sound Products Cables, Interconnects & Other Stuff - Part 6 

Rod Elliott - Copyright (c) 1999/ 2000/ 2001/ 2002
Page Last Updated - 07 April 2002

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On the one hand, we have respected designers who simulate, build, measure and modify until they are satisfied that the performance is as expected. Then, and only then, the amplifier (or whatever it might be) is auditioned in a proper listening test (as opposed to a lab speaker), and perhaps only the designer listens to it in the first instance. If the sound is as expected, then others may be invited to listen as well. Comments are made, and if it is felt that they are valid (a sufficient number of listeners made the same remarks, or a double-blind test is performed), then further modifications may be made, more tests, more listening, until everyone is satisfied that the measured and audible performance are in agreement. The measurements are available on the colour glossies, and are considered a part of the equipment - this is the specification, against which others can be compared.

Compare this to the snake oil vendors. As an example, they buy perfectly ordinary cable from an established manufacturer, clad it in some fancy outer covering (extra points if it looks like carbon fibre or something highly esoteric), write their sales pitch, and sell it. They might actually bother to listen to it as well, but there isn't much point since it is the same wire used by countless others anyway. Do you see specifications, measurements, or other factual data? No! What you see on the colour glossies is a sales pitch, aimed directly at your emotional responses. There are no means for direct comparison, and not a mention of anything that will help you to make a reasonable and informed decision as to which 'thing' is (or might be) better than the other.

In some cases, there will be measurements. Things like characteristic impedance and resistance may be quoted, perhaps along with the dielectric polarising battery voltage. Yes, there are cables that expect you to connect a battery to 'polarise' the insulation - the stated reasons for doing so are complete nonsense and utterly pointless.

Non blind listening tests are flawed - and especially so when conducted by a 'manufacturer' or a dealer. Don't expect that the levels will be precisely matched, but absolutely expect the sales-thing to tell you what to hear - not exactly a fair comparison.

When only emotions are allowed to make the decision on technical equipment, we can be fairly certain that we will make the wrong choice, other than by chance. Having spent all that money, virtually no-one will be willing to admit that they were defrauded, robbed or deceived. The survival instinct takes over, and we hear exactly what we expect to - whether it exists or not.

In the long term, the subjectivist approach will cost you a lot of money, and possibly yield a system that is less hi-fi than something from a department store. A review without technical tests is without substance or meaning, and nearly all descriptions about amplifier sound should be taken with a large dose of salt (possibly epsom).

Claims that power leads and interconnects will magically transform the sound of your system are false and misleading in the extreme. The various system components may be influenced by some combinations, but a well designed system should not care.

The current impasse between the scientific and subjectivist camps is unlikely to be resolved in the near future, because as politics and religion have shown over the centuries, people will believe what they want to, despite any evidence that may be offered to show that they are misguided or just plain wrong.

There is great difficulty defining the quality of an audio experience - you can't draw a picture to show what something sounded like. In addition, our acoustical memory is far more fleeting and more readily fooled than visual memory. It is much easier to visualise what the Sydney Harbour Bridge looks like than to recall all but the basic details of a musical performance.

From Douglas Self -

It has been universally recognised for many years in experimental psychology, particularly in experiments about perception, that people tend to perceive what they want to perceive. This is often called the 'experimenter expectancy' effect; it is more subtle and insidious than it sounds, and the history of science is littered with the wrecked careers of those who failed to guard against it. Such self-deception has most often occurred in fields like biology, where although the raw data may be numerical, there is no real mathematical theory to check it against.

When the only 'results' are vague subjective impressions, the danger is clearly much greater, no matter how absolute the integrity of the experimenter. Thus in psychological work great care is necessary in the use of impartial observers, double-blind techniques, and rigorous statistical tests for significance. The vast majority of Subjectivist writings wholly ignore these precautions, with predictable results. In a few cases properly controlled listening tests been done, and at the time of writing all have resulted in different amplifiers sounding indistinguishable. I believe the conclusion is inescapable that experimenter expectancy has played a dominant role in the growth of Subjectivism.

It is notable that in Subjectivist audio the 'correct' answer is always the more expensive or inconvenient one. Electronics is rarely as simple as that. A major improvement is more likely to be linked with a new circuit topology or new type of semiconductor, than with mindlessly specifying more expensive components of the same type; cars do not go faster with platinum pistons.

All the above notwithstanding, many audio designers will still tend to accept (however reluctantly) some of the subjectivist propaganda, if only to be able to extract some of the obviously serious money that would otherwise go elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, but where this happens, you will almost invariably get what you pay for, and the equipment's performance will be (hopefully) satisfying to both camps.

Just as likely is that the subjectivists will determine that this same piece of equipment is hopelessly inadequate in all respects, despite the fact that it has zero distortion of any kind, and a frequency response from DC to daylight. (A good quality standard interconnect comes to mind!).

Further Reading

For further reading, have a look at 'Amplifier Sound', an article that tries to rationalise some of the misunderstandings and differences of opinion that abound in the audio field.

To help gain an understanding of how we form belief systems, have a read of the article 'The Belief Engine'. It is a fascinating look into the way our minds work, and helps to explain how we can perceive very obvious differences that don't actually exist. Another reference is the Cable White Paper. To see and experience first-hand just how well our brain can deceive us, you must watch the video of the McGurk Effect, in this case presented by the BBC. If you still think that your ears tell you the truth after this, you have probably crossed to the 'dark side' .

The articles listed in the References are an additional source for information on these topics.

  1. Wireless World, July 1988 - D. Self 'Science and Subjectivism in Audio' (See also The Self Site)
  2. The Audio Pages, ESP, Impedance
  3. The Audio Pages, ESP, Bi-amplification - Not Quite Magic (But Close)
  4. Stereophile, Sept 1995 - R. Harley 'Review of Cary CAD-300SEI Single-Ended Triode Amplifier'
  5. BBC Engineering Monograph No 52 - 'Stereophony & The effect of crosstalk between left and right channels'


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Copyright Notice. This article, including but not limited to all text and diagrams, is the intellectual property of Rod Elliott, and is Copyright (c) 1999/2000/2001/2002. Reproduction or re-publication by any means whatsoever, whether electronic, mechanical or electro-mechanical, is strictly prohibited under International Copyright laws. The author (Rod Elliott) grants the reader the right to use this information for personal use only, and further allows that one (1) copy may be made for reference. Commercial use is prohibited without express written authorisation from Rod Elliott.
Last Revision: 07 Apr 02 - changed layout to separate pages, and added extra comments./ 31 Mar 02 - changed layout, added additional comments./ 24 Aug 2001. Added new intro, and merged some material into the main text./ 22 Dec - Added various comments and clarifications./ 15 Aug - added speaker cable update & bipolar electrolytic info./ 09 Apr-Added a couple of minor points, and one correction./ 04 Mar-corrected errors./ 26 Feb-Corrected section on capacitors, added "Amp Sound" reference./ 28 Jan-corrected some mistakes and typos./ 22 Jan 2000-Added mains plug pin data, and cable capacitance./ 17 Dec-added Power Supply section, and a few small corrections./ Page Created-10 Dec 1999