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No Stupid Questions… Part 4: Myths and Legends

by July 27, 2008
Its really cute how stupid you are...

It's really cute how stupid you are...

As a reviewer (much less the host of AV Rant), I am asked on a regular basis for my opinion. Everyone from the checkout guy at the supermarket to random people at parties want me to tell them which is the best display or speakers or HTiB. Family and friends are no better in that they ask for specific suggestions to the vaguest of questions. Sometimes they want specific answers to specific issues with which I am unlikely to have an answer (what are the best wireless headphones, best VHS to DVD recorder, etc.) and other times they just want to know what is the ultimate, best, "X". Invariably, their eyes glaze over as I wax poetic about the differences between LCD and Plasma, or HTiBs and banging your head on the wall, or how they measure contrast ratios by tossing little plastic Smurfs coated in bacon grease at their dog and multiply the number eaten by 1000 and putting a :1 after it.

Audioholics has put together a number of documents to help people help themselves.

This will probably not really be one of them.

Someone once said that there are no stupid questions. That person was stupid. People who repeat that idiom are either stupid or are looking for material for their blogs. You'll notice that while many of the questions I cover aren't particularly stupid, the lack of thought or the inability for any human to answer them is what puts them, and their asker, squarely in the "I eat paste" camp. This installment will deal with questions about myths and legends.

Myths, Legends, and other things of questionably validity

Debunking myths has be a cornerstone of Audioholics which pretty much came into being slaying the beast known as exotic cables. Not that there weren't doubters out there, but they never had such a rallying point as Audioholics before. If it weren't for some of these myths and fables, I'd be out of a job. But never one to miss an opportunity to do some equine dentistry, let's take a look at some of the more popular.

Electronics have a sound

If you mean that they sound like music, I agree. Now, there are two types of people in the world - people that understand what this argument is about and people that don't know why those words would be ordered such. I tend to fall squarely in camp two. It doesn't make any sense to me either.

There are people out there that believe that there are 6'3" white bunnies named Harvey, that they can dress up as a Smurf for a weekend and LARP with their friends and still have a chance at procreating with a supermodel, and that you can get good sound out of a speaker the size of a quarter. These people are all eminently sane compared to most of the crowd that believes in the mythical sound of electronics.

Maybe I should be more clear - Some electronics have a sound - bad electronics.

Back in the day, when amplifiers and DACs and all that were new, each generation or innovation got us closer to a "pure" or "clean" sound. The idea is that you hear what is one the disc, completely untainted by the CD/DVD player, receiver, or anything else. Pure to the source. But that was long ago.

Most of these technologies are completely matured. Now the "differences" are really mostly on paper and not sonic. It's like looking at cars that can drive 180mph vs 200mph. Sure, one is faster but you're probably not going over 100mph unless you REALLY want to get on TV in LA.

This doesn't stop people from making accusations about specific receivers being laid back or that when they got a new DVD player that there was a change in the sound. I know everyone wants to feel special but if you are going to lie in order to get attention, at least make something plausible up. Saying that your new $500 DVD player sounds better than your old $400 is retarded. Just like you.

Now, I did say that some electronics have a sound. Bad ones. If you are going for purity of sound, you can't get any more pure than pure right? Just nod your head. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that your audience is a bunch of old men with stacks of money building up behind the couch. Now suppose that you did a little research and found out that said men tend to lose their hearing acuity at certain frequencies. Now suppose you bumped up those frequencies just a bit on your gear. The young whippersnappers would say that your gear is "bright" (it is) but the old dudes (the ones with the money by the way) would love it.

Now this sounds a little nefarious and it might not be going on but there have been times that I have listened to gear and been sure that something like that must have happened. Nothing sounds that bad and costs that much without a good reason.

The only real exception to this is when you are operating gear at its limits. When you are pushing a receiver/amp, the minute it exceeds it specifications (which is generally earlier for cheaper gear) it will have a sound.

It usually sounds like *clang* or *pop* or "Oh my God, is the receiver on fire?" Not a good sound.

Speaker cables have a sound

No they don't. Shut up. Go away. Exception - bad cables. Funny thing, if you are paying more than 50 cent a foot, your chance of buying a bad cable goes up in proportion to the amount of money you spent. Funny how that works.

"I can't explain it but it works"

It's amazing how many people accept this as a viable explanation. People use this to justify almost any ol' crazy idea (including the two myths above). It explains cable elevators (to keep your speaker cables from generating static electricity from sitting on your carpet), magic rocks (to "tune" your room), and alarm clocks that make your system sound better just by being in the same room (though some claim as long it is in the same house it works).

No scientist on the planet would accept this. They would spend the whole of their lives figuring out if it was real (and why) or if it wasn't (much, much more likely) ignore it.

I'm going to be a little technical here for a second - when doing research there is something called the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis assumes that you are a big sack of crazy and that you are just imagining it. It is up to the researcher to show (through statistical analysis) that they are not crazy and that there is a real phenomenon going on. But even if they do that (through trials of people being able to tell a difference) it isn't enough. They then have to figure out what is going on. This is what is lacking from the "It just works" argument. They expect you to disprove them. That's not the way it works people. We're the sane ones, you have to prove that you aren't crazy.

And don't give me that "we don't have the technology to measure what I can hear" crap. If your ears were that sensitive you'd hear bees sigh and microscopic bugs feasting on dead skin cells all over your body. Take your super hearing and save the world if you are so cool.

Getting big sound out of small speakers

We've all seen the commercials that compress the old Kenwood rack system (the ones I used to drool over in the Sears catalog) into a clock radio implying that they are of the same quality. Invariably they will have some satisfied "customer" that will say that they couldn't believe they got so much sound out of such a little box.

Guess what? I can't believe it either.

Physics is a harsh mistress and some things just can't be true. You can't getting big sound out of small speaker is one of them. Now, with something like headphones, you get pretty big sound out of a small driver but think of how close to your ear they are. Small speakers may be able to give the illusion of big sound, but when they hit their limits, they hit it like a Mac Truck full of eggs running into a train - it's a Smurfin' mess.

Cube speaker are good for a couple of things - getting people into surround sound fairly cheaply and painlessly is one of them. This is one case when spending more on something doesn't significantly increase the quality. Expensive cube speakers have all the same limitations as the cheap ones (though within their operating limits - which is about 3 feet from your head - they probably sound better). They also introduce people to BAD sound. The bass module spends more time reproducing male vocals than actually playing anything resembling bass. Sub frequencies are a thing of myth and legend. Holes in the frequency response of these systems are so large that I'm surprised you don't occasionally have a character in the movie whose voice is completely inaudible from time to time.

They are also good as coasters or for target practice. But that's just me.

As good as gear that costs 5x's… My wife could tell the difference…

If you read either of these two sentences in a "review," you've either stumbled upon an esoteric site (look for the multiple thousand dollar price tag) or a wannabe reviewer on a forum. No serious reviewer uses these phrases. The first because it is stupid and most likely wrong and the second because it implies that your wife is so stone deaf that EVEN SHE could hear the difference. Wow, you're not planning on staying married for long, are you?

Audioholics is free from bias

Nope - not even close. We've never said we were and I, in particular, would never make that claim. Gene loves his high-end RBH's and Denons. Clint's all about the projectors. I love to bash gear no matter how spectacular it is. These are really more proclivities than biases. We are biased by what gear we've reviewed recently, how aggravating our children have been, and by the weather. You could argue (successfully) that bias can creep in from almost any source. There isn't a reviewer or review publication that can honestly claim to be free from bias. Every move from picking which gear to review (no one can review everything) to assigning ratings (and everything in between) is a potential source of bias. We know it. You know it. Let's not forget it.

What's important is that you and I and everyone else remember that an opinion IS an expression of bias. It is your bias. When I say I like a piece of gear, I'm expressing a bias. You want to read my biases. You ask me to express my biases about any number of different pieces of home theater equipment.

When you read a review, if you are like most thinking humans, you recognize which biases apply to you and which don't. If the reviewer hates the color but you don't, you disregard their bias. If they love the size but you think it is too big, you adjust their ratings accordingly. This is natural and absolutely necessary.

So when you hear someone complaining about how biased some publication (ours or another) is, just remember that they are expressing their biases. It is up to you to come to your own conclusion about yours.

Dirty power

I LOVE this one. The idea is that somehow the power from your local utility is substandard and that it needs to be "cleaned up" lest it degrade your listening experience. OK, sounds a little hokey so far right? But here's the kicker - you need to buy a super thick, super expensive power cord to fix the problem.

Um… what?

If you were pimping a device… maybe. But how is a few feet of copper with a bunch of insulation going to fix what miles of cabling from the station to my home couldn't? Every time I see one of these power cables I want to rip it from its military-grade outlet (yeah, those are supposed to help too) and go all Indiana Jones with it.

The only time you really need to worry about power, dirty or otherwise, is if you have a lot of fluctuations or if you have a projector of some kind. If your power fluctuates so badly that it is affecting your system, it isn't going to be some sort of ethereal sort of thing - you're going to know. You may need to look into a power conditioner (a good one - not the esoteric crap). That covers about 1% of you. The rest, invest in a surge protector or two and spend that money on a nice dinner with your wife… for a year.

For those of you that have a projector (front or rear) with a bulb, you need to worry about power outages. If the power goes out when you've been using your projector, it isn't going to have a chance to cool. This will SERIOUSLY decrease the life of your bulb. As you know, those things ain't cheap. You need a UPS - Uninterruptible Power Supply. This will provide power enough for your display to cool down the bulb. You don't need a super expensive one either. I'd be worried more about volume (they sometimes have fans which are irritating) than anything else.

In closing…

When you do anything in this life, you must ask yourself if it makes sense. When you are watching a horror movie and the guy hears the sound of something noisily chewing the head off his wife and yet he opens the door… slowly… you are thinking that it doesn't make sense. There is a thing in psychology (which isn't talked about very much any more unfortunately) called Face Validity. If something has Face Validity, it makes sense "on its face." Do wires have a sound? Do well designed electronics have a sound? Is it possible to get a big sound out of a small speaker? If you are dubious at first, that should be a warning.

Many of these myths and legends have been around for a long time and probably will be. As new technology emerges, more will come. Good. That just means there will be a "Myths and Legends" part II.


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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