Sunday, 21 June 2015

MUSINGS: Audio Cables Summary, Non-Utilitarian Functions & Scientific Falsifiability


At this point, I believe I have examined all the audio cable claims I need to for awhile (along with some related items):

Analogue:
RCA interconnects
Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Micro 1m RCA (added Nov. 2016)
Speaker cables (Canare 4S11, Kimber 8TC, zip cord, bi-wiring)

Digital:
Coaxial
TosLink
USB (generics, Belkin Gold)
USB 2 extension with ethernet adaptor
Corning optical USB 3 extension
USB Hubs and 8kHz packet noise

Local - Ethernet
Internet - Ethernet

HDMI (ION, Energy, adaptor)

Power:
Power cables (used with DAC)
Power cables (Synergistic Research with Oppo BDP-105)
Belkin PureAV PF60 power conditioner


I suppose what I'm missing on that list are analogue XLR cables (I did try a good quality XLR AES/EBU vs. TosLink here). But when standard analogue RCA cables are already tested with only minimum differences, XLR balanced cabling would be highly unlikely to be an issue. Already, the results I get from the XLR output of my DACs are consistently better than unbalanced RCA as expected in noise performance.

The bottom line is that with cables of reasonable cost, construction, and ultimately of typical electrical parameters, I have found no evidence of audible qualitative difference (objectively or in my personal subjective evaluation). Despite claims on the Internet, I have also not been able to find anyone I know (wife, kids, family, audio friends) able to differentiate cables even when they start off with strong beliefs in the matter.

My opinion is that a decent cable (conservative prices estimated based what I see around here in 2015):
~US$20 for shielded RCA 6', shielded coaxial 6', TosLink 6', shielded USB 2 6', ethernet 25' (CAT 5e+)
~US$30 high-speed HDMI 6'
~US$50 12G or better speaker cables 8' pair with good connectors

would be all that is required to achieve optimal sound quality out of typical high-fidelity systems. It is my belief that the sound quality cannot be surpassed by spending more money on cables alone unless the cables purposely added distortion (such as high frequency roll-off, which some people may prefer). Obviously, I cannot vouch for very cheap, poor quality or electrically incompatible cables (eg. impedance way off) which can degrade the sound / cause errors in data transfer such as this old freebie USB cableThe lack of objective difference between cables despite the huge price variability makes cables one of the least cost-effective options for bettering one's high-fidelity system beyond the approximate price levels above in my opinion.

If one accepts the above conclusions, are there reasons why an audiophile would still spend hundred if not thousands on a fancy set of cables? Well, there are the non-utilitarian functions. Basically, "functions" attached with luxury goods in general.

[I think it would be interesting to think about audiophiles and purchasing decisions through the eyes of marketing. For example, I suspect research into luxury products and prototypes of "Class of Consumer" can be found in the audiophile world similar to analysis in this marketing research paper.]

Luxury non-utilitarian functions are generally motivated by "hedonic" factors. It could be as simple as esthetic preference (ooohhh... I like the size, color and braiding of that cable... It goes so well with the speakers and room decor...). But also considerably more complex individual motivations like the collector who feels happy or "complete" owning or listening to every luxury cable made, or the person who needs or wants to ensure they have "the best" of everything so is willing to "experiment" with yet another cable that claims to be better despite potentially astronomical cost. Perhaps there are social motivations at play; expensive cables satisfying the pre-requisite of the "badge of honour" that one belongs to an elite club of audiophiles, or as a status symbol of dominance / superiority among the cohort... Certainly as businesses, cable companies have financial motivations to disseminate interest in their products even if the claims are of questionable veracity. (This is of course why regulation is important in advertising.)

There are those who would view my perspective (which I think mirrors the thoughts of most objectivist audiophiles) as being overly critical, cynical, utilitarian or perhaps even born of "envy" for those who spend extravagant amounts on the audio system. While one can never exclude such possibilities unless a person has absolute psychological insight (who does?), I must admit that I have never thought of cables as particularly stimulating eye-candy (compared to an impressive pair of speakers!). I also don't particularly care what cables are used in audio showrooms even though curious enough to attend some cable demos and run these tests. All I can say is that the other day, a friend showed off his new Lamborghini which certainly twinged infinitely more envy than I have ever experienced over anyone's set of audio cables :-).

BTW: For those who have not read it, I would highly recommend having a look at Perlman's Golden Ears And Meter Readers: The Contest for Epistemic Authority in Audiophilia (2004) for a wonderfully relevant review and description of the varying "worldviews" from the sociological sciences perspective.

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I. Science and Falsifiability

I've noticed over the years on audio forums that certain individuals will "pop" up to spew something about Karl Popper (1902-1994) as if his philosophical writings on science somehow contradicts the importance of objective exploration of audiophile claims. Usually, these comments are brief if not downright nebulous.

Popper's claim to fame has been the concept of "falsifiability" as it applies to scientific inquiry. Here's a simple straightforward summary, and here's a more complex one from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy with references. And his book in PDF form: The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Basically, it says that a characteristic of true science is that tests can be envisioned to at least attempt to falsify predictions made by a hypothesis. For some situations, we might not have the technology to test the hypothesis yet, but at least we should be able to imagine what it would take to falsify the belief (eg. it took years to demonstrate predictions made by Einstein's Theory of General Relativity). In Popper's own words: "statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable observations”.

Now take the example of speaker cables last week. Consider the hypothesis that "speaker cables of typical electrical characteristics will create the same sonic output in typical high-fidelity systems". Since sonic output is well understood as sound waves perceivable by us humans and there are typical electrical properties in audio systems (eg. low capacitance / inductance / impedance for cables, usual 4-8ohm speaker impedance...), one can imagine all kinds of experiments to try to falsify this statement. In my tests last week, I compared the Canare with the Kimber; of different electrical characteristics but of reasonable values to see if they produced different output from my speakers. Furthermore, I put together a terrible 12G zip cord cable of poor quality to see if I can detect sonic differences as well which would render the above statement false. I did not falsify the hypothesis in my experiment but it remains falsifiable.

We could be even more specific and hypothesize: "A Kimber 8TC is different from a zip cord cable because it produces different frequency response in a high-fidelity system". This hypothesis was falsified with my results. Although it's possible that in other set-ups the Kimber would perform better than a 12G zip cord, I have yet to see evidence to argue that my findings are atypical. By extension, we could do many experiments of a similar nature to test claims in the audiophile cable world - "silver cables change frequency response compared to copper thus sound brighter" would be a good one and we can produce experiments to test this belief. The bottom line is that the belief that reasonably constructed cables "sound the same" is a falsifiable claim with many potential experiments to try, therefore well within the systematic study we call science.

Remember, at the end of my tests as part of the conclusions, I always challenge folks to put up links to evidence that my conclusions / hypotheses are untrue. I have not seen any evidence up to this point (beyond the usual uncontrolled subjective testimony). Using inductive reasoning to come to a conclusion which generalizes my findings of course brings with it the possibility that the results of my testing is limited to my own system and may not apply broadly. But until such time that a proverbial "Black Swan" shows up and can be observed to be true and of significance, I believe my conclusions in the blog posts linked above remain valid. In fact, I welcome such findings because it provides an opportunity for further study and develop understanding on the matter. As per the explorable.com link above:
The idea is that no theory is completely correct, but if not falsified, it can be accepted as truth.

II. Pseudoscience in Audio (with an example)

In contrast, let's for a moment think about pseudoscience in audio. There are many devices out there that are claimed to sonically enhance the sound system, have fancy theories, cute websites, plastered with testimonies, but provide absolutely no objective evidence that they "work" as far as I can tell. Let's take a look at this fascinating forum post off Stereophile as a contemporary example. The basic hypothesis is that "information fields interfere with the brain". Now this first claim / hypothesis could be falsifiable and therefore empirically testable to an extent. Since the poster specified barcodes as representative of the "information field", perhaps we can create a bunch of barcodes and stick them all over the place in the soundroom, test some listeners and then remove them and repeat the hearing test to show that it possibly made no difference (hence falsifying the claim). Alternatively, if in a controlled experiment doing this resulted in test subjects significantly experiencing removal of bar codes improved the sound, then we can hold on to the hypothesis until the next experiment. It would of course be nice to explain how bar codes or "information fields" work to create the change in perceptual experience but for the moment we can at least assume that the author has subjected his hypothesis to some form of logical examination and at least the claim of linkage (information field --> interfere with brain) seems testable and falsifiable.

But wait, there's more!
Let's start with the hypothesis that ALL BAR CODES ARE BAD NEWS, shall we? The reason they are bad news, you know, from an audiophile point of view, is that they hurt the sound. They cause noise and distortion and reduce the EFFECTIVE SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIO. The reason bar codes hurt the sound is because we are able to detect the bar codes in the room and in the house by what I think I can safely say is extra sensory perception. 
Like the hypothesis above about barcodes, many of the ideas in the first part of that paragraph could be explored empirically to either support or falsify. We can show / not show if the sound is "hurt" (measure changes in the sound waves in the room). Noise, distortion and SNR at least have ties with understandable reality-based phenomena even though the linkage with barcodes remains dubious. But consider that last sentence: "The reason bar codes hurt the sound is because we are able to detect the bar codes in the room and in the house by what I think I can safely say is extra sensory perception"?

Not only are we putting the "cart in front of the horse" about bar codes, sounds being "hurt", and unclear claims of noise, distortion and SNR, but the author now throws in ESP. We are now clearly being lead down the path of what Popper would classify as pseudoscience. Even if we can empirically show correlation with perceived sound quality in a controlled test, how does one either falsify or support claims of ESP? What makes this man "safely say" that ESP is involved? Using what foundation of natural laws would we use to create experiments that could falsify this link with ESP which has no clear empirical basis in physics, chemistry, physiology or neurobiology? In fact, why stop with perceived sound quality? Perhaps movies will look sharper in a room with fewer barcodes... Maybe stock traders should work in barcode-free rooms so they can hone their precognition skills... The mind boggles at the possibilities if we accept the mystical ESP link!

If you read the rest of that thread, things clearly get worse with all sorts of bizarre testimonies, posturing, name calling, inappropriate jokes, Peter Belt analogies, quantum this and that... Cognitively dissonant and overall illogical arguments built upon unsubstantiated claims which are at best subjective and at worse thought disordered. To put credence into this hodge-podge of pseudoscience and parapsychology is to leave reality far behind and enter the realm of the psychotic.

Even though what is being sold (address labels with messages on them; $20 for 60 labels) isn't terribly expensive, so what? Are consumers supposed to buy the claim because it's "cheap"?

Although I'm specifically referencing this post as an obvious example of pseudoscientific bovine excrement, obviously we see these kinds of disturbing claims all over the place in the world of pure subjective audiophilia. They come in various forms and severity. From naïve apologetics on the limitations of pure subjective assessment to the mind-numbing and horrifying. I think it behooves the audiophile to remain educated, and as usual in consumer matters - caveat emptor.



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It's going to be a busy week for me coming up! And let's not forget, these are the final days of the "Digital Filters Test". Last day to get your results in - June 25...

Happy Father's Day to all the dads.
Enjoy the summer.
Enjoy the music!

Something fun:

10 comments:

  1. I think audiophoolery exploits the irrational fear in some people that they might miss out on some improvement. Once a claim catches on by people deluding themselves the circle jerk starts and who wouldn't want to be part of that.

    Reality and "truth" is completely irrelevant.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And hence the comment on "hedonic motivations". This permeates through all types of luxury items of course, not just audio... Women buy very expensive LV bags for example but they know that money doesn't necessarily correlate with larger size or more durability (the utilitarian functions). Owning the "elite" goods feels good and they are status symbols as well.

      From my perspective, there's actually *nothing wrong* with this and I hope in my writing this doesn't offend anyone. Splurging on luxury goods is normal. Fancy cars, fancy clothes, fancy house, expensive audio... No problem. It's one's money and one has the right.

      My issue is about the belief that expensive cables mean "better sound". That what is luxury actually has an impact on the basic utilitarian goal of the cable itself (efficient transmission of electrical signal). That IMO is the lie when perpetuated.

      Delete
    2. I agree. It's like saying some luxury hand bag can store junk better, even though it may actually be smaller, have a less practical shape, or may be completely identical except for a different label ...

      I also don't care if someone spends $1k on a piece of cable that costs a few bucks to make, I just feel sorry for those who save their hard-earned money to buy such a product not to miss out on the promised audible improvements that are a lie.

      Delete
  2. Hi Archimago,

    "It's a wrap". Perhaps you've just nailed it, the myths about cables, I mean.

    But maybe they're not myths after all; maybe the affects you describe as pseudoscience in your article are real, and tangible in some way.

    Consider the analogy of the expensive handbag. Let's agree that the utility offered by that bag is no more than that offered by a cheap bag; they store and secure content exactly the same. But let's also allow for the possibility that, for some people, the carrying of that bag makes them feel good. What is the effect? They carry their stuff around just the same, but they feel better, they walk more confidently and assuredly, and therefore they look better. (The transformed girl walking confidently in her new found beauty whilst all eyes are askew is one of the oldest clichés in Hollywood). That is a direct, tangible effect of a luxury item. Therefore, for some people (only some I suggest) there is a utility in that item, that others don't get, or can’t carry off. On the other side of that coin, I live in Western Australia, where dress code is casual. I mean so casual and laid back, that it is very common to see guys walking about in bare feet and in their ‘boardies’ – surfing board shorts. Putting many of those guys in an expensive Italian suit would be a complete waste of time and money. Even if they could be arsed putting shoes on, they’d still plod around like Farmer Jones in gum boots checking his livestock. Never, in a month of Sundays would expensive clothes work for them.

    Let’s now think about sound and hearing. Sound doesn’t change; I mean at any given time, in any one place, it’s the same for you and me. But what we hear does change. Depending on time and place and context, we listen more intently, or ‘tune out’ to get only the signals we think we need. Is it too much to extrapolate the ‘extra utility of luxury items’ to that of cables and tweaks? The head turning girl walking down the street carrying a very fine hand bag, then becomes analogous to the joy that someone gets having just laid out $1000 on an Ethernet cable. Sure, for the audiophile, it’s a personal joy, but can’t it be just as real? Couldn’t it be that for that person, in their anticipation, their hearing gets enhanced, much like the gait of the beautiful girl?

    That’s my Popper contribution.

    For what it’s worth, I’m convinced that much of what is written about audiophile gear needs to be offloaded to the aforementioned farmer so he can spread it across his fields, but I’m open to some ‘utility’ in more expensive cables beyond their measured electrical characteristics.

    A-BX testing could help address much of the confusion, and the failure to try and understand the objective, verifiable reasons for sonic improvement is shameful exploitation by the industry and a curse that will condemn many of those those who enjoy hi-fi to carry the label ‘audiophool’. Unfortunately, too many times, it’s a tag that is justified.

    On the bright side, much of the expensive stuff that offers no extra utility gets recycled. The classifieds offers one such outlet (I’m sure much more languishes unused in cupboards, and how much gets returned within 30 days?). Perhaps this is where ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘Farmer Jones’ meet: imagine if we could make biodegradable USB cables, …….

    Bob

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's how I feel about it myself as well.

      Those that are on the objective side of things, and usually more careful with their money, it is good to know you can safe a fortune on cables (I do) by NOT buying the expensive stuff.

      On the other hand ... I worked in a high-end store for many years and they also sold expensive cables.
      The deal the customers got was that if they did NOT hear an improvement the customers could return the cable... even if it was cut to a certain length or the box it came in wasn't present any more.
      In ALL the years I worked there, MANY cables were sold and not ONCE was a cable returned.

      What does that tell us ? Are they all deaf ? Are they all suffering from the 'new toy syndrome', did they truly 'hear' a worthwhile improvement ?
      Perhaps they were afraid to bring it back or did they forget they could bring it back ?
      Maybe they expected to be riduculed for not 'hearing' the obvious improvements when they returned the item and thought ... well it must be better ?

      We will never know.

      Indeed I think pride of ownership and 'the new toy syndrome' helps people hear worthwhile improvements.
      Also when you have bought a new cable you may listen more closely to 'familiar usic' to detect 'improvements' and may hear things you never heard before anyway.
      Like watching a movie you saw before and seeing new things in it or even forgot some scenes were there ?

      For those who WANT to spend their money on these things, it IS money well spent because they 'know this is the best there is' and feel happier 'knowing' this .... until the next 'best thing' or guru recommended cable comes along and they can 'upgrade' yet again... and enjoy even better sound yet again.
      It never ends, sound keeps getting better every year !
      Who are we to say they do something 'wrong' when they clearly hear a worthwhile and sometimes obvious improvement.
      Folks who 'use their' ears are not interested in measurements and what the 'skeptics' think/say anyway.
      They KNOW they are right because they clearly heard it ... end of.

      For the skeptics this blog is a good thing and the tests are interesting.
      For the better hearing elite 'we' are just poor untrained misguided souls with poor ears and gears who haven't really heard 'the good stuff' anyway and wouldn't even know when it bit us in the ... Such is life.

      Delete
    2. Well summarized, gentlemen.

      At the end of the day, whatever float one's boat - go and have fun with it!

      Science will tell us objectively WHAT is going on with the electricity and sound waves.It might even explain to some extent what's going on in the head of folks as they experience and concentrate on the music with functional neuroimaging or sophisticated psychological experiments...

      But the WHY of folks believing the things they do or how they put value in certain criteria like which cables to buy, whose testimony they take to heart, etc... would not be something we can measure and objectify (nor necessarily care to do even if it could be done easily!). Idiosyncratic preferences make life interesting and add to the emotional tapestry of life even if not objectively representative of the physical nature of sound and gear.

      Delete
  3. C'mon guys,
    this guy Geoff Kait is genius!!!! I almost died laughing. I am pretty sure he is on the objective side.

    Have you checked his site - http://www.machinadynamica.com

    Names of products, customer commentaries, testimonials…. :-))))) I bet he is laughing crazy reading comments on his quote: "Advanced Audio Concepts" an to make things worse (or better) I am sure he make a good living. Ill name jus a few of his "products":

    Particle Accelerator Ion Gun
    Ultra Signature Version of the Clever Little Clock.
    Dark Matter CD Optical Coating
    Super Intelligent Chip
    Anniversary Version of Brilliant Pebbles
    Quantum Temple Bell room treatment
    Flying Saucers for Wall Outlets

    ….and so on…PRICELESS :-))))))

    ReplyDelete
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