As promised, here are more details on the unscientific audiophile gear comparisons I did in Michael Fremer's audiocave. They range from the mildly crazy to the borderline batshit—and they were all fun as hell.
My objective in experiencing a full-bore audiophile's listening room was not to try to call him on whether or not he or I could hear the difference in speaker cables composed of wire hangers or braided unicorn mane—no, it was to listen to music on a $US350,000 stereo. But while I was there, how could I not try to experience a few before-and-after tests to see if I could spot the harmonic differences that are the audiophile's raison d'etre?
The differences we are talking about here are, of course, of the most incredible subtlety. But to many critics of audiophiles, a subtle change is quickly reduced to and equated with zero change, whereupon the screams of hysterics and rage against the immense stupidity and utter inanity of the audiophile life begins.
I didn't think I had to say this, but I guess I do: Anyone who spends $US20,000 on speaker cables is fucking crazy. In fact, anyone who spends $US200 on cable is crazy, in my opinion. But that's just not the point.
If I was drinking wine with a sommelier or wine critic, I wouldn't find it irrational to taste subtleties that I might have glossed over when drinking in the presence of normals. In these cases, it's not about the power of suggestion, it's about the power of context, and like it or not, there's context at the heart of all the world's manias, anything to which we attach the suffix "phile."
With audiophiles, I am an agnostic rather than an atheist. I believe that these differences, however miniscule, are, to those who have spent their life studying them, based on something real, not invented. Can I hear them? Maybe not, but that doesn't mean I write them off completely. My belief here is based not on decades of listening on high-end gear, but on a day I spent listening to a $US350,000 system with someone who's been doing this for forty-some years.
It's a fact: I was led into hearing things I might not have without guidance. While some look to this possibility as evidence that the whole thing is a sham, I don't. I would need a lot more time to build up the necessary context to even be near a place where I could pretend to listen critically for such minutiae, but I heard something different than I would hear listening to my own sound system, and that's also a fact.
With that out of the way, here are three wholly unscientific but incredibly interesting listening tests we did in Fremer's audiocave. They were a blast.
Power Cable Swap
Test Song: "Avalon" by Roxy Music
Surprisingly not the fishiest test we ran, at play here is the purity and frequency range of the raw AC power that gets fed to the speaker amps. Fremer had two cables laying around that he was reviewing—one from
Power Snakes Shunyata Research at a cost of $US4,000 and one from Wireworld, whose $US1,200 cable's selling point is that it filters out all but the 60Hz frequency of pure, unadulterated US alternating current.
Here's Wireworld's filtering claim, from their website:
An ideal audio or video cable would pass the entire frequency range without alteration. However, an ideal power cord would pass only the 50Hz or 60Hz AC power, while blocking all other frequencies, to prevent power line noise and harmonics from degrading the sound and imaging quality of the system.
Not entirely sure how those two are related, but a claim is a claim.
The result: I heard a difference here, but whether or not it was a direct result of AC filtering, who knows. The filtering cables (the cheaper ones) seemed to sound a bit more reserved, but in some ways clearer. There might have been a little less harshness in the high frequencies of cymbals, or when Bryan Ferry sang an "S" sound. The more expensive AC cable was different, but it was hard to quantify how or why. Maybe a fuller sound, but not necessary a better one.
With this one, if there's any audible change at all from one to the other, one is still not better than the other. That's an important point to make here—spending more money in the audiophile realm often just means getting something different, not better.
Speaker Cable Swap
Test Song: "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin
Let me say now that listening to "Whole Lotta Love" on this system at high volume was transcendent each and every time, no matter what gear was involved. You may want to put a knife in any audiophile you see, but if you heard that song like I did once, and realise that these guys get to listen to it that way every time, you'd be doing it out of jealousy, not contempt.
That said, speaker cable is the most sensitive area to prod on both audiophiles and audiophile reactionaries alike, because it is home to some of the most dramatic swings in price for things that, fundamentally, are doing the exact same thing: carrying an electrical current from amp to speakers. That said, as Wilson explained on Tuesday, it's the one thing in these tests that may have the most merit. Genuine differences in electrical properties (wire thickness, manufacturing process, and the materials of the wire and its coatings all contribute to differences in capacitance, inductance and resistance) mean that cables are liable to sound different, given speakers with enough resolution to show those differences.
At play in our test was a set of $US200 cables from Monster (here, playing the unfamiliar role of bargain choice) and a pair from Tara Labs that costs a deeply stupid $US22,000, which Fremer had for review purposes.
The result: I strained to hear a difference, but did. Like I said, I was pretty busy trying to keep from shitting myself during both playbacks, but I did identify a change. And again, it was detectable most for me in the high-frequency zone: With the high-end cables, cymbals, tambourines, the high frequency bits of that crazy swirling tape-effects breakdown, all sounded perfectly isolated in the 3D space of the song and came through with crazy clarity. On the Monsters, anything in the high-end tended to blend together into a single entity that was slightly less pleasing perhaps, but still amazing.
Was the difference worth $US21,800 to me—or even Fremer? Of course not. But it's there.
Test Song: "Oh! Darling" by The Beatles, and others
And if you thought the other stuff was ridiculous, maybe turn away your gaze now. This is a $US1,600 platter that, once activated, neutralises the magnetism that allegedly develops over time in the metallic impurities found in vinyl's black dye. Since the record cartridge operates with magnets, this allegedly translates to less unintended futzing with the cartridge and therefore purer sound. I say allegedly because there's nothing in the way of firm scientific evidence that such magnetic impurities are enough to tamper with the cartridge's signal in a meaningful way. (It should also be noted that the Furutech product in testing here is no longer to be found on Furutech's website.)
The result: I swear to Lucifer, when listening to "Oh! Darling," I thought I heard Paul's voice move back a good foot or two in the soundscape once that record was de-juju'd. "Back" in a way that added clarity. Beyond that, I can't say I heard much else.
We tried the trick on several other records, and I got nothing. Fremer claims he and his audio buddies can usually tell a difference, which is sometimes drastic, sometimes not.
You can even try for yourself if you want to. Here are two AIFF files of Tom Waits' "Step Right Up" (download: File 1, File 2)—both encoded directly from vinyl by Fremer on his system. (Yeah, that process alone seems enough to dispel this myth all by itself, but again, it's a shaky claim to begin with.) One is pre-demagnetising, another is post. Can you hear a difference? I can't. But if you have crazy gear at home, give it a try.
So as you can see, there was no hosanna moment in any of these tests, whereupon I drank any snake oil or took receipt of any ear honey. Far from it. My particular experience did not convince me to go out and spend tens of thousands of dollars chasing the minute gains that can be made in an audio system with ridiculously expensive gear. But I did hear something. By experiencing those differences first hand, I acknowledge their existence, and thus, acknowledge that people who have been listening to music at the highest possible level of quality for decades may know more than I do about the comparative sonics involved.
And the point remains, as clear as ever: Those who are listening to music at the highest level of fidelity and can discern the tiny differences at play here are doing a service—in both music production and music reproduction—to everyone who loves music everywhere.
Listening Test: It's music tech week at Gizmodo.