Audiophiles and the Need to be Special

Dec 30 2011 Published by under Bad Physics, People, woo

I love laughing at audiophiles.

If you're not familiar with the term, audiophiles are people who are really into top-end audio equipment. In itself, that's fine. But there's a very active and vocal subset of the audiophile community that's built up their self-image around the idea that they're special. They don't just have better audio equipment than you do, but they have better appreciation of sound quality than you do. In fact, their hearing is better than yours. They can hear nuances in sound quality that you can't, because they're so very, very special. They've developed this ability, you see, because they care more about music than you do.

It's a very human thing. We all really want to be special. And when there's something that's really important to us - like music is for many people - there's a very natural desire to want to be able to appreciate it on a deep level, a special level reserved only for people who really value it. But what happens when you take that desire, and convince yourself that it's not just a desire? You wind up turning into a sucker who's easy to fleece for huge quantities of money on useless equipment that can't possibly work.

I first learned about these people from my old friend John Vlissides. John died of brain cancer about 5 years ago, which was incredibly sad. But back in the day, when we both worked at IBM Research, he and I were part of a group that ate lunch together every day. John was a reformed audiophile, and used to love talking about the crazy stuff he used to do.

Audiophiles get really nutty about things like cables. For example, John used to have the cables linking his speakers to his amp suspended from the ceiling using non-conductive cord. The idea behind that is that electrical signals are carried, primarily, on the outer surface of the wire. If the cable was sitting on the ground, it would deform slighly, and that would degrade the signal. Now, of course, there's no perceptible difference, but a dedicated audiophile can convince themselves that they can hear it. In fact, this is what convinced John that it was all craziness: he was trained as an electrical engineer, and he sat down and worked out how much the signal should change as a result of the deformation of the copper wire-core, and seeing the real numbers, realized that there was no way in hell that he was actually hearing that tiny difference. Right there, that's an example of the math aspect of this silliness: when you actually do the math, and see what's going on, even when there's a plausible explanation, the real magnitude of the supposed effect is so small that there's absolutely no way that it's perceptible. In the case of wire deformation, the magnitude of the effect on the sound produced by the signal carried by the wire is so small that it's essentially zero - we're talking about something smaller than the deformation of the sound waves caused by the motion of a mosquito's wings somewhere in the room.

John's epiphany was something like 20 years ago. But the crazy part of the audiophile community hasn't changed. I encountered two instances of it this week that reminded me of this silliness and inspired me to write this post. One was purely accidental: I just noticed it while going about my business. The other, I noticed on boing-boing because the first example was already in my mind.

First, I was looking for an HDMI video cable for my TV. At the moment, we've got both an AppleTV and a cable box hooked up to our TV set. We recently found out that under our cable contract, we could get a free upgrade of the cable box, and the new box has HDMI output - so we'd need a new cable to use it.

HDMI is a relatively new standard video cable for carrying digital signals. Instead of old-fashioned analog signals that emulate the signal recieved by a good-old TV antenna like we used to use, HDMI uses a digital stream for both audio and video. Compared to old-fashioned analog, the quality of both audio and video on a TV using HDMI is dramatically improved. Analog signals were designed way, way back in the '50s and '60s for the televisions that they were producing then - they're very low fidelity signals, which are designed to produce images on old TVs, which had exceedingly low resolution by modern standards.

The other really great thing about a digital system like HDMI is that digital signals don't degrade. A digital system takes a signal, and reduces it to a series of bits - signals that can be interpreted as 1s and 0s. That series of bits is divided into bundles called packets. Each packet is transmitted with a checksum - an additional number that allows the receiver to check that it received the packet correctly. So for a given packet of information, you've either received it correctly, or you didn't. If you didn't, you request the sender to re-send it. So you either got it, or you didn't. There's no in-between. In terms of video quality, what that means is that the cable really doesn't matter very much. It's either getting the signal there, or it isn't. If the cable is really terrible, then it just won't work - you'll get gaps in the signal where the bad packets dropped out - which will produce a gap in the audio or video.

In analog systems, you can have a lot of fuzz. The amplitude of the signal at any time is the signal - so noise effects that change the amplitude are changing the signal. There's a very real possibility that interference will create real changes in the signal, and that those changes will produce a perceptible result when the signal is turned into sound or video. For example, if you listen to AM radio during a thunderstorm, you'll hear a burst of noise whenever there's a bolt of lightning nearby.

But digital systems like HDMI don't have varying degrees of degradation. Because the signal is reduced to 1s and 0s - if you change the amplitude of a 1, it's still pretty much going to look like a one. And if the noise is severe enough to make a 1 look like a 0, the error will be detected because the checksum will be wrong. There's no gradual degradation.

But audiophiles... ah, audiophiles.

I was looking at these cables. A basic six-foot-long HDMI cable sells for between 15 and 25 dollars. But on the best-buy website, there's a clearance cable for just $12. Great! And right next to it, there's another cable. Also six feet long. For $240 dollars! 20-times higher, for a friggin' digital cable! I've heard, on various websites, the rants about these crazies, but I hadn't actually paid any attention. But now, I got to see it for myself, and I just about fell out of my chair laughing.

To prolong the entertainment, I went and looked at the reviews of this oh-so-amazing cable.

People who say there is NO difference between HDMI cables are just trying to justify to themselves to go cheap. Now it does depend on what you are connecting the cable between. If you put this Carbon HDMI on a Cable or Satellite box, you probably won't see that much of a difference compared to some middle grade cables.

I connected this cable from my PS3 to my Samsung to first test it, then to my receiver. It was a nice upgrade from my previous Cinnamon cable, which is already a great cable in it's own right. The picture's motion was a bit smoother with gaming and faster action. I also noticed that film grain looked a little cleaner, not sure why though.

The biggest upgrade was with my audio though. Everything sounded a little crisper with more detail. I also noticed that the sound fields were more distinct. Again not sure exactly why, but I will take the upgrade.

All and all if you want the best quality, go Audio Quest and specifically a Carbon HDMI. You never have to upgrade your HDMI again with one of these guys. Downfall though is that it is a little pricey.

What's great about it: Smooth motion and a little more definition in the picture

What's not so great: Price

It's a digital cable. The signal that it delivers to your TV and stereo is not the slightest bit different from the signal delivered by the $12 clearance cable. It's been reduced by the signal producing system to a string of 1s and 0s - the identical string of 1s and 0s on both cables - and that string of bits is getting interpreted by exactly the same equipment on the receiver, producing exactly the same audio and video. There's no difference. It has nothing to do with how good your ears are, or how perceptive you are. There is no difference.

But that's nothing. The same brand sells a $700 cable. From the reviews:

I really just bought 3 of these. So if you would like an honest review, here it is. Compared to other Audio Quest cables, like the Vodka, you do not see a difference unless you know what to look for and have the equipment that can actually show the difference. Everyone can see the difference in a standard HDMI to an HDMI with Silver in it if you compare, but the difference between higher level cables is more subtle. Audio is the night and day difference with these cables. My bluray has 2 HDMI outs and I put one directly to the TV and one to my processor. My cable box also goes directly to my TV and I use Optical out of the TV because broadcast audio is aweful. The DBS systems keeps the cable ready for anything and I can tell that my audio is clean instantly and my picture is always flawless. They are not cheap cables, they are 100% needed if you want the best quality. I am considering stepping up to Diamond cables for my theater room when I update it. Hope this helps!

And they even have a "professional quality" HDMI cable that sells for well over $1000. And the audiophiles are all going crazy, swearing that it really makes a difference.

Around the time I started writing this, I also saw a post on BoingBoing about another audiophile fraud. See, when you're dealing with this breed of twit who's so convinced of their own great superiority, you can sell them almost anything if you can cobble together a pseudoscientific explanation for why it will make things sound better.

This post talks about a very similar shtick to the superexpensive cable: it's a magic box which... well, let's let the manufacturer explain.

The Blackbody ambient field conditioner enhances audio playback quality by modifying the interaction of your gear’s circuitry with the ambient electromagnetic field. The Blackbody eliminates sonic smearing of high frequencies and lowers the noise floor, thus clarifying the stereo image.

This thing is particularly fascinating because it doesn't even pretend to hook in to your audio system. You just position it close to your system, and it magically knows what equipment it's close to and "harmonizes" everything. It's just... magic! But if you're really special, you'll be able to tell that it works!

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What happens if you don't understand math? Just replace it with solipsism, and you can get published!

Jun 21 2011 Published by under Bad Physics

About four years ago, I wrote a post about a crackpot theory by a biologist named Robert Lanza. Lanza is a biologist - a genuine, serious scientist. And his theory got published in a major journal, "The American Scholar". Nevertheless, it's total rubbish.

Anyway, the folks over at the Encyclopedia of American Loons just posted an entry about him, so I thought it was worth bringing back this oldie-but-goodie. The original post was inspired by a comment from one of my most astute commenters, Mr. Blake Stacey, where he gave me a link to Lanza'sarticle.

The article is called "A New Theory of the Universe", by Robert Lanza, and as I said, it was published in the American Scholar. Lanza's article is a rotten piece of new-age gibberish, with all of the usual hallmarks: lots of woo, all sorts of babble about how important consciousness is, random nonsensical babblings about quantum physics, and of course, bad math.

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