|www.ethanwiner.com - since 1997|
The Trouble With Audio
"You Can't Handle The Truth!"
Music production and hi-fi enjoyment are subjective, and can't be defined. Do Steely Dan CDs sound good? Old Led Zeppelin LPs? How about a high bit-rate MP3 file of an Alison Krauss concert? Nobody can tell someone else what sounds good, though there is often broad agreement. However, audio is a science, at least the parts that address how audio devices work and how well they reproduce music passing through them. Hearing and perception are also sciences, within the field of psychoacoustics.
So why do some people who post in - and run - audio forums get their panties in a bunch when I talk about the quality of audio gear? What is it about defining fidelity that makes some people so incredibly angry that I've been banned from several audiophile forums?
I think there are several reasons. First, people don't like being told that spending $600 for a replacement power cord or speaker wire was a mistake because the audio quality didn't really improve even if they thought it did. Unless a power wire is defective, or isn't thick enough to pass the required amount of current, it will not affect sound quality for better or for worse. People who invested thousands of dollars in "wires" are insulted when you tell them they wasted their money. However, replacement wires are but one way people can waste their money. There are dozens of audio product categories where prices can vary by a factor of one hundred, yet there is no audible difference between products. Most $40 CD players sound exactly the same as $4,000 CD players. If they don't sound the same, one or both of them are defective or poorly designed. With high-end audio, some of the most expensive equipment is actually inferior to modestly priced gear.
There are also entire product categories that rely on the placebo effect: Room acoustic products the size of golf balls, magic AC power conditoners, anti-vibration isolation platforms, "demagnetisers" for LP records and CDs, and speaker wire elevators, among others. One great example of an obvious placebo is Geoff Kait's $60 "Teleportation Tweak" that claims to improve the sound of your hi-fi via special signals sent telepathically over the telephone! Most people who buy these products are convinced the sound quality really did improve. And they're glad to tell everyone in their favorite web forum how happy they are with their purchase. I'm not bothered if someone believes they got their money's worth even though they were obviously scammed. However, I do care when someone asks if products such as these are worth buying, and they're told that they are. Many people have limited funds, and want to spend wisely to get the most value from every dollar.
Another factor is ego: Many audiophiles pride themselves on their "golden ears," and believe they can hear musical qualities that most mortals cannot. If you tell them their placebo-based purchase makes no difference to the sound, they take it as a personal attack on their listening skills. I don't blame them! But it shows how little they understand about the fallibility of their own hearing. Same for recording engineers who obsess over which dither type sounds better, when in practice it rarely makes a difference if you even use dither at all. Many professional engineers understand that a recording they made might sound fabulous one day, then sound poor the next day. The correct conclusion is that hearing perception varies from day to day, and even moment to moment. An incorrect conclusion is that AC power lines have different amounts of noise at different times of day, which affects audio quality. Imagined problems with AC power are common among audiophiles who don't understand electricity.
Another reason my forum posts anger people is because they can't refute me with evidence or even a logical explanation. They are certain that I'm wrong, but they can't articulate how I'm wrong or explain what is right. Their frustration turns to anger and they insult me, insist that my hearing is defective, or claim that my own audio equipment is too mediocre to reveal the differences they hear. Since they can't refute me with facts, all that's left is insults and, eventually, censorship.
Yet another reason is because I'm outspoken about my knowledge and professional experience. I've designed audio circuits, and I've recorded many successful commercial projects over a career spanning more than 40 years. I play several musical instruments at a professional level, I've written about 200 technical articles for audio and computer magazines, and my Audio Expert book is used as the main text at several major university recording courses. Few audiophiles have any real experience with audio other than listening to music. This makes me an attractive target for immature people who believe demeaning me raises their own stature, so they try to prove me wrong. While this may seem self-serving, my intent is simply to explain the dynamics that often exist in online forums.
I'm merely trying to help!
Over the years I've learned to be gentle, if firm, when explaining audio science in forums. Not only to audiophiles, but even recording professionals, who should know better, can fall prey to magical thinking. Just as I have no patience for climate change deniers, palm readers, or anti-vaccination proponents, I'm too old and too tired to beat around the bush when dismissing audio magic. I simply want to help people make informed decisions and avoid wasting money. I may come off as a know-it-all, but I'm never rude to people unless they're rude to me first. A typical audio forum argument goes like the exchange below, excerpted from an actual thread at the What's Best Forum. It's clear that the original poster (OP) Bill is asking honestly about isolation products, and this is exactly the type of curious person I enjoy helping:
What's the best vibration isolation solution? Where vibration isolation is used, how is the effect measured scientifically? What is the subjective effect?
I'll skip the subjective part of your question and address only the science. First, the only devices I'm aware of that benefit from isolation are turntables and, less often, loudspeakers. The scientific way to assess the benefit of isolation is to measure the response and ringing of your system using room measuring software such as Room EQ Wizard. This way you include every component in the chain, from the preamp through to the loudspeakers and even the room. If you want to know whether speaker wire elevators really have an affect, you'll put the measuring microphone where you listen and run a sweep. Then move the wires to rest on the floor and run another sweep. It is critical that the measuring microphone not move between tests, and also that you are standing well away from the microphone. The most revealing graph type is a waterfall, which shows decay time versus frequency as well as the frequency response. If you see some frequencies sustaining longer without the isolation device in place, there's your answer. And if you see no difference at all, that's an answer too.
Another scientific method that doesn't require measuring is a blind test. But it really has to be blind. You can't do this yourself, you need someone else to move the wires (or whatever) while you listen without knowing. And you need to run the test at least ten times in a row to avoid guessing correctly by chance. While literally blindfolded you listen and tell your friend whether you think the isolation device is in place or not, and your friend notes both your guess and the truth. After ten trials you can remove the blindfold and you'll have your answer. If you were correct all ten times, you'll also know what the subjective affect was.
I'll also mention that some tubes are microphonic, so tube gear can possibly benefit from isolation. Though in most cases floating tube gear on an isolation pad will have no affect. Even if the tubes are microphonic, most vibration travels through the air. Now, if you put a tube amp on top of a subwoofer, and the subwoofer's cabinet is flimsy and vibrates, maybe some of that vibration could modulate the audio. But you'd have to play the music very loudly. This is trivial to test as explained above. In lieu of buying an iso pad to try, have a friend lift your preamp or amp half an inch while you listen with your eyes closed. If you can't hear when the audio device is being lifted, there's your answer. I make this same suggestion to people who ask if their speakers will benefit from isolation. I can't stress enough that vibration travels mainly through the air, so floating audio gear on a pad is mostly futile. I also can't emphasise enough the need to listen blind.
With all due respect, the performance benefits of vibration attenuation under speakers, CDP's, preamps, and amplifiers is so obvious (and totally audible) assuming your system is reasonably transparent. To claim otherwise is silly.
Ethan I have to call you out again. You denigrate anti-vibration technology when used in audio systems, but you don't have any proof that they don't work. Perhaps its best if you keep quiet on this matter to avoid further embarrassing yourself. From your response it's pretty clear that you really have not been exposed to what high end audio is really all about.
It is also a possibility Ethan cannot hear differences between his gear and what we consider hi-fi (vs mid-fi). Lots of folks can't, so spending $$ on higher resolution gear is meaningless to them.
All components benefit from isolation/vibration control. I highly recommend stillpoints Ultra's under all equipment power supplies and speakers, turntables. Ethan, to be frank and based on the consumer level of equipment (AV receiver, cd player ect) you choose to own, I don't think isolation would be helpful for your system. The resolution and transparency is just not there, thus I understand why you wouldn't get an improvement. For the rest of us who choose to assemble a much more resolving and transparent to the source system, isolation matters a lot.
Even though my post above is calm and rational, it infuriates some of the forum regulars. They don't even try to refute my points; they just call me wrong, and imply my audio gear and hearing are suspect. After a few more rounds they get even more angry, and many complain to the forum moderators that I'm a jerk wrecking all their fun. When enough people report posts the mods get sick of dealing with it, but they're too lazy to read it all. They see my name again and again, and decide it's easier to censor me than the people who break the forum rules by insulting me. All forums have policies against personal attacks, but many moderators are themselves clueless about audio science. So some side with those who insult me, but censor me for the mildest defense. What finally angered the mods at WBF enough to ban me permanently was simply asking two people in particular for proof, and wondering if they have any real knowledge about audio equipment:
Now, can we get back to your proof that isolation products improve audio quality? Not anecdotal reports, which seem to be the lynchpin of audiophilia, but hard proof either as better measurements or positive results of blind listening tests? Do either of you have any audio experience beyond pressing Play?
Amazingly, some hi-fi forums specifically prohibit discussing blind tests! If you even mention that as a way to test audio gear, you'll be warned once and then banned permanently.
Wait, it gets worse
Much worse. At Gearslutz someone posted a link to my AES Damn Lies video, which garnered many "thanks for posting that" comments. But then the (mostly anonymous) Ethan-haters chimed in with insults and accusations of fraud and ulterior motives. The worst of the comments were deleted, but these comments remain to this day:
I'll stop bitching about him [Ethan] when he starts sticking to what he actually knows and stops speading nonsense and misinformation about areas he doesn't belong in.
The Ethan's of this world who - and I'll say it out loud - in my humble opinion are nothing but a joke and if one thing, an absolute disgrace for the reputation of the word 'audio engineer' are apparently more and more setting the standard in places like these.
I am sorry, but this dude is a CRACKPOT. I knew he was a crackpot since the first day I ever navigated to gearslutz.
As is typical, they call me wrong, but are unable to explain why I'm wrong. So all that's left is insults.
At the Womb Forum run by Mixerman (worthy of this separate article), they'd argue with me, then delete my replies making it look like I had no response! Soon after my Hearing Perception article appeared in Tape Op magazine, one of the Womb regulars started a thread to say how disappointed he was at Tape Op for publishing it. That discussion continued for 25 pages! One topic of constant ridicule at the Womb is my contention that most sound cards are clean enough to not change the sound by an audible amount. I've even posted example files so people can listen on their own systems and decide for themselves rather than believe me. If two sound cards don't harm the sound quality enough to hear a change, then by definition they both sound the same - that is, they have no sound at all. I asked the "professional" recording engineers at the Womb half a dozen times to listen to my Converter Comparison files and email me their choices, but they all refused. A few years earlier an anonymous Womb regular who calls himself "Slipperman" claimed he can hear when content higher than 20 KHz is filtered out. I offered to drive 1-1/2 hours to New York City to do a test with him in person. He agreed in the public forum, but when I emailed him to set a date he reneged. It's easy to insist you can hear subtle audio quality differences, but it's quite another to prove it.
Jules Standen who runs Gearslutz banned me several times for short periods. The last time he banned me, every single acoustics heavyweight there threatened to leave unless I was reinstated. Jules relented, but he continues to ban me from posting anywhere other than the Acoustics sections. He emailed me at the time saying "Your ideas about all equipment being the same regardless of cost and design are just to wacky for me to stomach and I feel a responsibility to protect the forum members [from] that BS hence the confinement to these areas. If this becomes not enough for you or you start to protest it or rally members to change it - you will be out for good. If you write a long rambling response to this I will punt it to the trash unread." Nice guy. Of course, I never claimed that all audio gear is the same. Especially telling is his need to "protect" Gearslutz members from my opinions. Anyone is allowed to post pretty much anything in that forum, no matter how ignorant and misguided, but the community must be shielded from Ethan.
For some forum owners the problem is stupidity, or maybe mental illness. Recording.org has been around since the beginning of online web forums. Years ago it attracted knowledgeable moderators and contributors, but all the good mods have since left and now hardly anyone posts there. Recently forum owner Chris Bialuski emailed me, begging me to contribute to his failing forum. I've had problems with Chris in the past, but I took him at his word and chimed in on a few threads I thought would benefit from my expertise. As often happens, someone else took exception to my advice and chose to insult me:
While you are just learning this stuff, I'm 38 years on this and sailing. I don't care if you brought the world here all thinking you were a star Ethan. You are years back and uninformed. You should have humbled yourself rather than the arrogant direction you turned that thread towards.
Another person objected when I posted a link to an article on my web site. When I explained that this article directly answers the exact question being asked by the thread starter, I was told I should have copied all of the content and demo files from my web site to the forum! So I emailed Chris to say "at least I tried" and - amazingly - he replied by insulting me too. What the hell?!
Audioholics is another hi-fi type forum, and they're mostly science based. But they banned me after the site owner posted a response graph showing how effectively an equalizer solved his acoustic problems. All I did was ask if the graph was third-octave averaged, because such averaging hides important detail. Boom, I'm out, banned for life. And Yes, the graphs were obviously averaged to appear better than reality. Update, November 2015: After a few friendly emails with the site's owner Gene DellaSala, he reinstated me. Great! But then he got very angry when he couldn't convince me that bass traps are rarely needed, and when you do use them they remove too much "good energy" from the room. I even prepared and sent him this graph showing that bass traps restore more good energy from nulls than bad energy removed from peaks, but that proof was ignored. The next time I went to his forum I was greeted with this charming message: "You have been banned for the following reason: Being a douche."
Stereophile magazine straddles the line between science and pseudo-science, preaching nonsense while pretending to back it up with science as graphs and data. Their forum is similar, and the moderator is inept at moderating and clueless about audio. Like other forums, Stereophile prohibits personal attacks, but they tolerated many people insulting me. After a number of highly contentious threads where one particular jackass harassed me mercilessly, they banned us both even though I was clearly the victim.
In some forums I wasn't banned, but heavily censored. Steve Hoffman is a mastering engineer, and when I've posted in his hi-fi forum the moderator has deleted my posts and even deleted entire discussions. This inevitably happens after a checkmate moment, where I (or someone else who thinks like me) asks someone a direct question they can't answer. So a sympathetic moderator just deletes it all and pretends it never happened. I've also been censored at the appropriately named Audio Asylum, and at Home Theater Shack where I was initially invited to be a moderator.
I don't think I'm always right! I've said many times in forums, "As soon as you prove me wrong I'll change my opinion immediately." And I will. I also have a list of things I was wrong about in forums over the years, and one of these days I'll write them up and post it as an article.
It's not just me
To be clear, not everyone disagrees with my views. The hostility against me became so severe at Gearslutz, a fellow started THIS thread telling people to stop attacking me all the time.
Most people who agree with my views on audio don't get banned because they're careful to precede every statement with "I might be wrong, but" or "it seems to me" and so forth. Then again, my friend Carl Engebretsen (DUP in the forums, known for misspelling "the" as "teh") is banned from even more forums than me. And not all audio forum moderators are anti-science audiophiles. Amir Majidimehr is an industry professional who co-owns the What's Best Forum (WBF), and together we authored several productive and educational threads. Ron Party, another mod at WBF, pretty much agrees with all of my posts, and has backed me up many times. But the forum's other co-owner, Steve Williams, believes in the most nonsensical "audiophoolery." Steve finally banned me when I asked for proof, in the thread quoted above, that putting isolation pads under CD players and wires improves the sound. Amazingly, Steve is a retired doctor, so his hostility to the scientific viewpoint is surprising.
There are also audio forums where the prevailing opinions are rooted in science. Where some forums prohibit mentions of blind testing, the Terms of Service at Hydrogen Audio rejects non-blind subjective impressions as proof of anything:
8. All members that put forth a statement concerning subjective sound quality, must - to the best of their ability - provide objective support for their claims. Acceptable means of support are double blind listening tests (ABX or ABC/HR) demonstrating that the member can discern a difference perceptually, together with a test sample to allow others to reproduce their findings. Graphs, non-blind listening tests, waveform difference comparisons, and so on, are not acceptable means of providing support.
Other forums where science-based opinions are welcome include Brandon Drury's Recording Review, the AV Science forum, Lynn Fuston's 3D Audio forum, and Head-fi.org which focuses mainly on headphones but has an Audio Theory area where audio science is discussed and promoted. Also, some forums require users to show their real names, rather than let people hide behind anonymity. That alone is a highly effective way to discourage abuse, and I wish all forums would do that.
Ethan Winer has been an audio engineer and professional musician for more than 45 years, and is co-owner of RealTraps where he designs acoustic treatment products for recording studios and home listening rooms. Ethan's Cello Rondo music video has received more than 1.5 Million views on YouTube and other sites, and his new book The Audio Expert published by Focal Press is available at amazon.com and his own web site.
Entire contents of this web site Copyright © 1997- by Ethan Winer. All rights reserved.