The yak-butter cables are so much warmer. The subjectivist world of the audiophile, part 2.

Part 1 is the most popular ever post on this blog to date. (Hi, Reddit!) The biggest question was: so what should I do? Here’s the tl;dr:

  • Spend the bucks on decent speakers — everything else in the chain has reached the point of diminishing returns, good enough is actually good enough. (Note that many expensive speakers are also rubbish, just to keep things interesting.)
  • Acoustics of the room. Not too live, not too dead. Vaguely equilateral triangle of speakers and you, speakers pointed slightly toward you. If this isn’t physically possible, don’t worry too much.
  • Headphones: diminishing returns. Buy ones that sound good for your music when you try them. How the earbud cup fits your ear canal has more effect than the amount of neodymium in the speaker magnets.
  • If your computer’s sound hardware is cheap enough to be audibly nasty, internal or external sound cards are cheap and effective (even classical fans think so).
  • If nothing else is actively wrong (dodgy power, nearby radio station transmitter, etc.), this is about it.

And now, back to the pseudoscience. People who view the results of engineering as magical anyway are not helped by entertainment equipment becoming featureless sealed boxes. Tweakers begin to focus on little magical actions justified by pseudophysics.

  • Green markers: Colouring in the edge of a CD to make the disc sound better. In response to skeptics saying “bits is bits,” audiophiles offer the ad hoc notion that the green marker prevents stray laser reflections … or something. This actually started as an April Fool’s joke on Usenet. Though no longer as widely believed, the markers are still available and sold explicitly for that use.
  • Treating CD surfaces: A clean CD is a good thing (mild soap, water, wipe radially), but a cult developed around “treating” the playing surface of CDs with Armor All car polish to improve the sound. What it actually did was damage the aluminium coating, ruining the CD. Apparently, people used to do this to vinyl records too.
  • Skin effect: At radio frequencies, signals transmit through the outside of a conductor, increasing the effective resistance and causing signal leakages at sharp bends, requiring careful layout of antenna and patch cables. The effect is negligible at audio frequencies. But some audiophiles nevertheless place great emphasis on avoiding skin effect. (It is of slight concern in high-bandwidth video applications, but for the most part people don’t obsess nearly as much over S-Video cables.) This one is so ridiculous that James Randi offered his $1 million prize to anyone who could show it working at audio frequencies.
  • Hyperseparation of channels: Numerous audiophile systems avoid stereo power amplifiers, using so-called “monoblock” (single-channel) amplifiers to completely eliminate interchannel crosstalk. While fairly harmless in terms of function (if not price), this is generally considered overkill by sound engineers.
  • Shortening the signal chain: Have as few amplification stages as possible, to remove even the tiniest theoretical loss of signal definition. As a result, some audiophile systems eschew even a preamplifier, piping the output from the playback device directly to the power amp. Sound engineers find this to be especially hilarious in light of the vast number of op-amps in a typical mixing board.
  • Insulty, The Office Persistent

    Still a better love story than Monster Cable.

    Esoteric cabling: Manufacturers make up pretend scientific-sounding reasons for why their incredibly expensive interconnects and speaker wires are supposed to sound better. There are also those who think their speaker wires sound better if they are supported on magical insulators. One test found that audiophiles couldn’t tell the difference between fancy Monster brand speaker cables and using coat hangers as speaker wires. Super-technobabbleific woo is particularly hilarious when applied to digital cables.
  • Brand power: The first-generation PlayStation is supposedly actually a hifi-quality CD player, because, hell, it’s a Sony. When skeptical people opened one up and found fairly cheap parts not particularly similar to ones found in Sony’s top-of-the-line equipment, the audiophiles retorted, “it’s the connectors, duh”. Most remain unconvinced.

While many of the claims made by audiophiles are rightly derided, there are noteworthy cases of so-called “golden ears” being right about some things that engineers failed to get right. A few examples:

  • Early transistor amplifiers measured far better than their tube predecessors, but sounded worse. It turned out that incorrect implementations of negative feedback to reduce harmonic distortion was causing intermodulation artifacts. Of course, once the engineers realized this, they solved the problem. Early class B transistor amplifiers also produced excessive crossover distortion.
  • Early CD players were accused, in spite of their being marketed as “perfect sound forever”, of sounding nasty compared to analog equipment. The “brick wall” filters at around 20-22 kHz used to keep digital artifacts out of the reproduction chain were creating unpleasant phase effects in the audible region. Also, some early players only had 14-bit D/A converters.
  • Many early CDs were mastered poorly, since engineers were not used to the nature and requirements of the format (you don’t need to brighten them to compensate for the poor high frequency response of vinyl or tape), and this led to them sounding harsh.
  • Michael Jackson "Black or White" Loudness

    Three different versions of “Black or White” by Michael Jackson. This is why we can’t have nice things.

    Most contemporary CDs are mastered very aggressively, so as to sound louder than everything else: the loudness wars. This cannot be done on vinyl records. So an LP version of the same music can sound much better than its CD equivalent, because of marketing decisions by record companies.
  • Some high end headphones have a very low impedance (thus high power draw), meaning that when hooked to a standard PC or CD/MP3 player jack, they cannot draw enough power, leading to distortion.
  • Over very long lengths (15 metres or more), cables can affect audio quality. This is a consideration if you’re wiring up a stadium. Otherwise, it’s a grain of truth that is heavily manipulated to sell very expensive cable to the financially overburdened.
  • S/PDIF digital cables transmit clock signals through a special format called biphase mark code in order to support a wide range of signal rates. If insufficient care is taken in designing or implementing the clock reconstruction process, this can result in jitter as the bits are sliced up wrong on the receiving end. Early CD players suffered a similar problem.

Unfortunately, these truths tend to encourage careless audiophiles to set greater store than appropriate to every wacky claim put forward, both by manufacturers and reviewers (“science was wrong before“).

There are people who work with recorded music for a living, and if they don’t get it right they lose their jobs. Studio recording relies on all-transistor analogue stages and digitizing the signal in the highest quality possible. It is uncommon to still record or mix to tape. In higher end studios most processing is done in the digital domain or “in the box.” Studio monitor systems use solid state amplifiers and speakers with predictable characteristics so they can hear precisely what they are recording or mixing. (Although low quality speakers are used to make sure the mix will sound good in a low-fidelity playback environment.) The only tubes in evidence are used in some microphone preamplifiers, vintage compressors, and of course in instrument amplifiers where they are prized for either their sweet sound or for their pleasing characteristics when overloaded.

A notable thing about the world of professional sound recording and reproduction: professional sound engineers ignore virtually every bit of audio woo promoted by charlatans and worshiped by sufferers of audiophilia nervosa, since it is wasteful to spend the customers’ money on hardware that does nothing.

Next episode: Machina Dynamica!

Adapted from Audio woo on RationalWiki.org. Reproducible under Creative Commons by-sa 3.0.

One thought on “The yak-butter cables are so much warmer. The subjectivist world of the audiophile, part 2.

  1. Me again :-)

    Thanks for responding to my last comment! I enjoyed reading this second article, especially the section about the problems of the early CD age. I think these issues still account for a lot of the vinyl fetishism which continues today. It’s important to remember that listeners of the time were told they were imagining these issues!

    I still think that you talk too interchangeably about things which are blatant scams or hoaxes and things which definitely can affect fidelity, even if the effect is very slight. Channel separation might be “considered overkill by sound engineers”, but there’s no doubt that it *does* effect the signal. The same applies to shortening the signal chain. Now, you’re right to say that in many cases a specific human will not be able to discern the difference, but there is certainly a scientific basis for the signal being different. So these things are fundamentally different to premium digital cable or the green marker pen nonsense, which cannot possibly effect sound quality. There’s definitely a distinction to be made here, and I think by including these things in the same list you’re sometimes not making that clear.

    I wasn’t 100% convinced by the forum post you linked to debunking speaker cable. It hardly seemed like a scientific test! Again, speaker cable quality and length can obviously affect sound quality; it’s an analogue signal. That doesn’t mean you have to spend thousands of pounds on speaker cable, but making sure this part of the signal chain is good enough for your particular ears is hardly unscientific.

    It’s also worth pointing out that what professional sound engineers and professional studios do is not necessarily to be taken as a gold standard. Studio monitors are great for mixing a record, but they’re boring to listen to. You correctly point out that any decent studio is now 100% digital, and it’s no coincidence that this shortens the analogue signal chain! You also mention that they use the highest bit depths and sample rates (something you deemed unnecessary in your last piece) – again, this *will* affect the sound, even if some humans might not be able to tell the difference in some circumstances.

    As you rightly say, a lot of the stuff which actually makes the music in a studio uses valves and all sorts of weird tech. This is because music as enjoyed by humans is fundamentally an analogue, subjective thing. All science can state for certain is:

    a) Digital signals cannot be enhanced by cabling.
    b) At a certain point what you do with an analogue signal *might* be beyond the point where a *specific* human can hear the difference.

    As you extend your point beyond that I think it becomes less convincing.

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