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Audioquest Cable "BoomBox" Demo: Legit Science or Slick Marketing?

by April 18, 2012
Audioquest Cable Demo

Audioquest Cable Demo

Possibly the most divisive topic in the realm of home theater is the effect that cables have on sound quality. Some people swear up and down that they can hear the difference between different well-constructed cables. Others claim these differences are figments of the imagination. We at Audioholics have tried to reveal the truth about cables in order to help consumers sift through the murky waters of marketing and pseudo-science. At Audioholics we have shown, through the use of legitimate science, that the vast majority (not all) of claims made by esoteric cable manufacturers are nothing more than marketing gimmicks and snake oil. So, if we have shown the fallacies that some cable companies use in marketing, and these companies have yet to respond with anything more than anecdotal evidence, how do these cable manufacturers continue to sell products based on false claims, and gain loyal followers that can “hear” the difference? We would contend that the reason individuals believe in exotic cables is a matter of concern to social scientists much more than engineers. This article seeks to shed light on some of the prevailing cable myths by looking at a recent Audioquest cable demonstration we experienced first-hand.

Vendor Demonstrations

When one is in the world of consumer electronics for very long, you become accustomed to trade shows and product demos. At first, the idea of sitting down and having the opportunity to learn about a particular brand or product sounds like a great opportunity. That is, until you realize that, oftentimes, a “vendor training” session is actually an hour long infomercial, without a Mute button. Manufacturers send their marketing reps all around the globe in an attempt to woo installers, sales people, and consultants, among other industry professionals. Marketing reps prepare elaborate pitches and demonstrations in these wooing attempts. Some of these efforts are honest, informative, and convincing. Others... not so much. On the “not so much” end of the spectrum is where this particular Audioquest demo, and others like it which we've experienced, rests.

The "Word Vomit" (I mean, "training") Begins

Inevitably, everyone gathered into the demonstration room while we waited for the training to begin. Keep in mind that everyone in the room was an AV professional. You could almost feel the room pressurize with competing egos. Audioquest started the demo by very simply explaining their brand history and the 4 elements that guide their cable design: solid conductors, insulation, geometry, and metal quality. They (apparently) guessed that cable skeptics were in the room, so they brought everything down to understandable terms, and kept falling back on their 4 principles. They stressed that there is no magic, that everything they claim and every product they sell is based on simple, straightforward science. Honestly, this was a brilliant way to start a demo! What better way to deflate the skeptics than by explaining to them the science behind their cable designs? Unfortunately, for this demo, Audioquest's science is actually pseudo-science and their 4 principles are more or less just marketing strategy rather than actual science. More on this later.

The Demo

To the surprise of many “non-believers”, the Audioquest demo was rather simple, but we still have a few qualms with their techniques. Audioquest sought to show people that their cables make a difference in any system. They used an inexpensive Sharp stereo system (aka. "Boombox") that had been modified to accept banana plugs. Otherwise, everything was supposed to be stock. By using an inexpensive system and demonstrating that upgraded cables make a difference, the idea is that they could justify expensive cables on any system. This seems sound and is a brilliant marketing idea, which we must give them credit for.

After the reps gave a brief history of Audioquest, talked about their 4 design elements, and explained why more expensive cables make a difference, they started with ABAB listening tests. They queued up a track and let it play for about 50 seconds (A). Then, they stopped the track, switched the speaker cables to a more expensive version, and replayed the same 50 seconds (B). Next, they switched back to the less expensive cables (A), then back to the more expensive cables (B). They were not messing with the volume control or secretly adjusting the EQ. They simply did an ABAB demo. After an ABAB session, they asked what people heard. In this case (and likely, in general) the people who spoke up were the ones who claimed they heard a difference. Phrases like, “The highs were better”, “the bass was tighter and louder”, “the imaging was more precise”, or “I heard things I didn’t before”, were what we heard at this particular demo.

Essentially, any difference one could possibly hear was up for grabs. The reps also talked about what they heard as well, helping along the audience. After everyone talked about the differences they heard, the reps continued the demo. This time, the previously more expensive cable “B”, now became the lesser of the two cables as they brought in an even pricier cable, “C”. The demo continued, BCBC, confirmation of the differences, CDCD, confirmation of the differences, and so on. Audioquest used the same ABAB style for demoing all of their cables. Finally, once the reps worked their way up to the most expensive cable, they played the clip one last time, using the first, and least expensive, cable they started with. The point of this was to really show how big of a difference the cables made.

Audioquest PWRAudioquest was adamant about performing an ABAB demo, as opposed to an AB demo. Their reasoning for this was that the B cable, in the AB comparison, will always be viewed as better because people are predisposed to notice more detail the second time they listen to a track. An ABAB demo is supposed to counteract this phenomenon (The Quest Group, 2006). Audioquest’s statement that B will always sound better in an AB comparison is curious, because it is an admission that people can be easily tricked into hearing differences that are not there.

Most recently, we have seen speaker wire, HDMI cables, power cords, and iPod cables demoed. The iPod and power cable demos were the most amusing. They hooked an iPhone into the USB input on a receiver, and started the cable comparison. The first cable was the stock iPod cable, and we slowly worked our way up to the $549 2.5' Diamond cable. I found it very interesting that in the final listening test, going from the Diamond all the way back down to the stock iPod cable, the reps cut off the clip short and said, “We’ll save your ears from that so we can end on a high note.” They openly mocked the stock iPod cable and cable skeptics in one fell swoop. It was the perfect example of the overall attitude of the reps (who happened to be from Audioquest in this case). The demos seem to be configured as a hostile place for cable skeptics, and probing questions were unwelcome.

During one demonstration, the rep severely damaged his credibility in one phrase. We were explicitly told that if we ever interact with an engineer who doesn’t believe in the Audioquest cables, we should simply "walk away". So, apparently, the individuals who are properly educated on the science that Audioquest uses to validate their cables, is the group of individuals we shouldn’t speak with. That’s like telling someone to research social work but to avoid talking to a social worker, or research physical therapy but not talk to a physical therapist! Somehow the idea is to cling to scientific principles while at the same time rejecting the actual science.

"Wow those cables sound great!"

We must give Audioquest credit for not doing anything overtly dishonest, like adjusting the volume between tracks. But, the demo is certainly setup in a way that elicits particular responses. If Audioquest actually sought to perform a scientifically valid and reliable demo, there are a number of things they would have done differently. Below is a list of some of the threats to validity, and suggestions of how the demo would be performed in a truly objective and scientific context. To be fair, obviously there goal is to convince people that the more you spend on on of their cables, the better they system will sound. That's why

Threat to Validity: Before the reps ever started to play a track, they primed (preconditioned) the audience to hear a difference. By telling the audience why the Audioquest cables were better than the competition (a fair thing to do in its own respect), individuals were led to expect an audible difference. This predisposed individuals to expect a difference and could have lead them to think they heard a difference, even when none was present. Audioquest isn’t the only company guilty of priming their audience. It is a common practice in the industry, even when a system isn't being compared to another. The reason this practice is so common is because it works to sell equipment! However, the act of influencing a participant during an experiment is a huge problem in legitimate science. Researchers go through great lengths to avoid priming, or influencing the participants.

Solution:  If Audioquest truly felt their cables showed an unmistakable difference in audio fidelity, they could have simply chosen to not prime the audience. They could have, for example, started the demo before talking about the cables. Furthermore, they should have refrained from talking while actually switching between the cables, especially when most of the talk involved telling the listeners how poor or great the last cable was.

Another way that researchers try to mitigate threats to validity is to perform a single or double blind test. Audioquest, however, rejects the validity of blind tests. As stated in the Audioquest training material, blind tests (they refer to them as ABX tests) have low credibility.

As for comparisons where there seem to be only “insignificant” differences between components, this is usually proof of a faulty context and/or methodology. This is most obvious in Audioquest's discussion of ABX testing:

In an ABX set-up, the listener does not know whether or not there has been any equipment change at all. ABX testing is not a question of how a fixed but blind “A” compares to a fixed but blind “B”. Because there are too many unknowns, the ABX test becomes primarily an opportunity for embarrassment. Context is everything, and the ABX set-up is one very distorted context, much too far removed from the purpose of an audio system. ABX fans believe that a lack of repeatable hierarchy proves there are no valid differences. Others of us believe the same evidence proves that the ABX test is an invalid methodology. (The Quest Group, 2006, p. 27)

ID CartoonObviously, and it is painfully obvious, the individual who wrote this training guide has no education in experimentation or quantitative research methods. They claim there are too many unknowns, what they actually mean are confounding variables. The unknown is the cable being used (independent variable, IV), which is supposed to have an effect on the sound (dependent variable, DV). Confounding variables, their “unknowns’”, are much less likely to be present in a blind study. The purpose of a single blind or a double blind test is to eliminate confounding or extraneous variables. In reference to demoing cables, a blind study would help diminish the effects of social desirability bias, experimenter bias, testing effects, placebo effects, etc… Based on this understanding, Audioquest, rather than relying on the “quality” of their cables alone, decries competing products and provides demonstrations that are predisposed to praise their product, using a type of subtle psychology on their audience. Some may simply call this good marketing, however, when a client buys a cable for $600 dollars because they “think” they heard a difference in sound, we personally find that to be a much less ethical practice.

Audioquest even goes so far as to suggest, “A lack of repeatable hierarchy proves there are no valid differences. Others of us believe the same evidence proves that the ABX test is an invalid methodology” (The Quest Group, 2006, p. 27). Basically, because a test does not provide the results they desire, the test is flawed. What if science actually worked this way?!

Researcher: The results clearly show that exposure to asbestos is positively correlated with rates of cancer.

Marketing: Hmm, that isn’t what we want to hear, you must have done something wrong. Your experiment is not valid. We will ramp up production because we don’t think it “causes” cancer.

Researcher: What! What evidence do you have?

Marketing: Oh, well we just don’t like your results.

Researcher: I knew I should have taken that job at CERN.

When a researcher does not find the results they expected, they do not simply conclude that the methodology was flawed. In some cases, when the results do not match past research (this is covered in the literature review portion of a peer reviewed journal article), then the methodology is called into question. If the method is flawed, it will be discussed in the “limitations” section of a journal article. The point here is that Audioquest has no valid reason to question the validity or reliability of the blind test method. Audioquest would be better off removing this portion of their training guide  and looking for legitimate scientific issues with the blind test methodology.

Threat to Validity: The time that it took to switch between the cables was too long. It took the reps at least 15 seconds to switch speaker cables, and much longer when switching between iPod or power cables. We know that might not seem like very long, but it is long enough for people to forget what a track actually sounds like. Now, this certainly isn’t always a problem, but it tends to be an issue when the listener is unfamiliar with the demo material, or if the pieces of equipment under review only have slight differences. If someone is familiar with a track and has had time to listen to it many times on multiple systems, then the time it takes to switch between cables is less of an issue. Unfortunately, we were not familiar with the equipment or demo material. We suspect the same was true for the rest of the audience. The time that it took to switch between cables would have been controlled in a legitimate test.

Solution: Researchers attempt to keep as many variables constant as possible, that way any change in the dependent variable can be attributed to the purposeful manipulation of the independent variable. There is no reason that Audioquest couldn’t have used some sort of switch to assist in this process. They could not have claimed that the switch, whether it was for power, HDMI, iPod, or speaker wire, would have impeded the test, even if it was poor quality. This is because Audioquest is very adamant that the old adage “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” is the “biggest lie in hi-fi” (Low, 2008, p.1). Therefore, even if the switch was the weakest link, the upgraded cables should still make a BIG difference. Another solution would be to have used demo material that the audience was intimately familiar with, on a system the audience was intimately familiar with. This may not have been possible, but it would have given more credibility to the demo.

LinesThreat to Validity:  In our opinion, research on group conformity explains much of the positive feedback that was given during the Audioquest demo. One of the more famous social scientists, Soloman Asch, performed a set of conformity experiments in the 1950’s. In one variation of experiment, students were asked to take part in a vision test. There was a panel of five to seven students, five of which were actually confederates (members of the research team, thought to be actual participants) (Asch, 1956). This was a single blind experiment because the other students, who were there for a supposed vision test, were unaware of the actual purpose of the study. Participants were shown a set of lines and told to identify which comparison line (1, 2, 3) was the same length as the standard lie. The confederates would answer correctly for the first three trials (sets of lines). On the third trial, all the confederates would answer incorrectly. For example, in the picture to the right, the correct answer is line number 2, because it is the same length as the standard line. When the confederates answered incorrectly (i.e. all of them choosing line 1), participants experienced pressure to conform. 32% of the time the participants chose the wrong answer when the confederates chose the wrong answer. Of the participants in the study, 75% of them chose the wrong answer at least once. Sometimes participants went along with the confederates even when they personally believed themselves correct. Other times they went along because they honestly believed the confederates were right, choosing not to believe their own eyes (Asch, 1956).

If you want a simpler explanation of the Asch Conformity Experiments, follow the YouTube link below.

The Asch conformity experiments clearly showed strong pressure to conform to the group. In the Audioquest demo, there was, in our opinion, a significant amount of pressure to conform to the answers of the rest of the audience. During the demo, few people dared to speak up and say they couldn’t hear the differences between cables - presumably for fear of being viewed as ignorant or incompetent. The attitude that the reps put forward about “non-believers”, was downright poisonous. The reps had no problem mocking non-believers. If you think that Audioholics can be harsh or vitriolic when talking about esoteric cable manufacturers, just go listen to reps talk about cable skeptics! If you questioned their claims about skin effect or their DBS system, you were instantly the black sheep in the audience. Furthermore, your credibility as an industry professional can be "destroyed" with the individuals who claimed to hear a big difference. The Asch conformity experiments clearly show strong pressure to conform to the group and provide a valid explanation of the positive responses that even the non-believers in the audience gave.

To further support group conformity as an explanation of what happened during the Audioquest demo, to my surprise and vindication, multiple people who spoke up about hearing differences between cables, later confessed that they actually didn’t hear differences! One of the individuals even gave the excuse that he couldn’t hear the difference because his ears weren’t good enough! This was an individual who, just 10 minutes prior, was claiming to hear differences. Now he was admitting there was little to no difference. And yet another sales person we spoke with since has now quit recommending more expensive Audioquest cables because he was unable to heat a difference.

Solution: If Audioquest actually wanted to mitigate the effects of group conformity, and in this case social desirability bias, they could have performed a blind study. They could have covered up any identification on the jacket of each cable that would allow participants to identify which cable was being tested. Another simple solution would have been to allow participants to give feedback anonymously. Anonymity is not as effective as blind tests in combating issues of validity, such as social desirability bias, but it would have relieved some of the pressure to conform to the group.

What about the 4 scientifically grounded design elements?

AQ ConductorsAlthough Audioquest, among other cable manufacturers, claims that they base all of their cable designs off of science.  While they may quote scientific terms, their “scientific reasoning” is often too far out in the left field to even enter the realm of believable SciFi.  Audioholics has spent considerable time testing cable myths, so they will not be covered thoroughly in this article. Below is a link to some of the Audioholics articles devoted to debunking cable myths.

Solid Conductors

Dielectric

Metals & Geometry

Conclusion

Although this article is specifically about a particular Audioquest demo, many esoteric cable manufacturers are guilty of the same faulty logic shown here. The point of this article is not to say that these manufacturers make poor quality cables, or that their demos are not successful in convincing some people their cables make a difference, but simply to show that many of these demonstrations are far from being grounded in sound experimentation techniques. We hope that this article offers cable manufacturers some ideas on how to conduct more legitimate demos. In the meantime, buyer beware, don’t get tricked by a flawed demo or pressure from a sales person or slick marketing presentation. In our opinion, the money you save on expensive cables is better served by improving the bass response in your system via adding another subwoofer or addressing potential room acoustics issues!

For more information see:  The Audioquest "Boombox" Demo 

References

  • Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous  majority. Psychological Monographs, 70.
  • Low, B. (2008). The “boombox” demo. Retrieved from:  Audioquest
  • The Quest Group. (2006). Cable theory. Retrieved from: Audioquest

 

About the author:
author portrait

Cliff, like many of us, has always loved home theater equipment. In high school he landed a job at Best Buy that started his path towards actual high quality audio. His first surround sound was a Klipsch 5.1 system. After that he was hooked, moving from Klipsch to Polk to Definitive Technology, and so on. Eventually, Cliff ended up doing custom installation work for Best Buy and then for a "Ma & Pa" shop in Mankato, MN.

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Recent Forum Posts:

mtrycrafts posts on April 29, 2012 19:19
panzeroceania, post: 881626
I know you explicitly stated that you weren't saying the cables had poor build quality and were merely exposing the marketing technique for a broader discussion.

I agree with you as far as the marketing techniques. You've also linked to articles on how many features or fundamentals of cables by said companies are exaggerated or do not have measurable differences. All that said, other than costing more for little to no difference, are these cables bad? (as far as analog audio, and speaker cables)

I was under the impression that a large gauge solid cable with good dialectic/insulator was a good thing.

I guess what I'm asking is this:

1.) is this a case where a company spends a lot of money to make a high quality, solid cable, that is expensive because of the materials with minimal to no difference in audio

or…

2.) are they not spending more on making high quality cables but instead providing regular or low quality cables and pocketing the difference.

The difference to me is that in the first scenario, no intelligent person is being “fooled” or “duped” you are being sold costly cables for a costly price. In the second scenario there is fraud.

Case one would depend on what the claims are. That is the issue.
One would have to slice cables apart to see how well they are made and what is in them to compare quality. Many are made by the same cable maker but only the jackets are modified with the customer's name, etc. That is not of importance to me and perhaps a lot of other folks out there.
Now, if I was the type to have a curio cabinet with audio stuff in it, then, i may contain some based on artistic values

John Dunlavy had expensive cables that were only claimed to be 8 Ohm Impedance, nothing more, nothing less.
panzeroceania posts on April 28, 2012 17:29
I know you explicitly stated that you weren't saying the cables had poor build quality and were merely exposing the marketing technique for a broader discussion.

I agree with you as far as the marketing techniques. You've also linked to articles on how many features or fundamentals of cables by said companies are exaggerated or do not have measurable differences. All that said, other than costing more for little to no difference, are these cables bad? (as far as analog audio, and speaker cables)

I was under the impression that a large gauge solid cable with good dialectic/insulator was a good thing.

I guess what I'm asking is this:

1.) is this a case where a company spends a lot of money to make a high quality, solid cable, that is expensive because of the materials with minimal to no difference in audio

or…

2.) are they not spending more on making high quality cables but instead providing regular or low quality cables and pocketing the difference.

The difference to me is that in the first scenario, no intelligent person is being “fooled” or “duped” you are being sold costly cables for a costly price. In the second scenario there is fraud.
mlibbey posts on April 25, 2012 21:03
They admit double blind is better

Because there are too many unknowns, the ABX test becomes primarily an opportunity for embarrassment
Translation: we know that our cables aren't any better, and we know that double blind will prove that, so we need to avoid it.
mtrycrafts posts on April 19, 2012 00:14
admin, post: 879578
We've recently had the opportunity to sit in on the Audioquest “Boombox” dealer demo where they attempted to convince the participants of the sonic superiority of their cables even when using simple and low fidelity audio gear. The reason individuals believe in exotic cables is a matter of concern to social scientists much more than engineers. This article seeks to shed light on some of the prevailing cable myths by looking at a typical Audioquest cable demonstration. Although this article refers to an Audioquest demo, many esoteric cable manufacturers are guilty of the same faulty logic shown here. The point of this article is not to say that these manufacturers make poor quality cables, but simply to show that much of the science and logic surrounding high-end cables is fallacious and not even becoming of poor Sci-fi material. So, buyer beware. Don't get tricked by a flawed demo or pressure from a sales person. In our opinion, the money you save on expensive cables is better served by improving the bass response in your system via adding another subwoofer or addressing potential room acoustics issues!


Discuss “Audioquest ”BoomBox“ Vendor Demo: Legit or Slick Marketing?” here. Read the article.


I like this part
The reason individuals believe in exotic cables is a matter of concern to social scientists
but, this applies to humans beyond cables and audio in much of our lives.
Too many out there are just gullible and deeply set in many beliefs no matter what the facts and evidence is.
We need an evolutionary paradigm shift.
Hi Ho posts on April 18, 2012 23:32
I have sat through that exact boombox demo. I have also sat through several others. The latest was a comparison of USB cables. Seriously? I went into each of these demos with an open mind but was really put off by all the B.S. that was spouted and I honesty don't recall ever hearing any differences between any of the cables tested. Great article!
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