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The Power of the Placebo Effect in Audio & Beyond

by November 23, 2010
Power Band

Power Band

Over the weekend I took my family to the Mall to do some shopping and eating.  On our trek between stores, people working the booths often try to stop you to solicit a product or service.  I usually do well to get away from them by pretending I am minding my children as we pass by.  This time however I happened to break off from the family to use the restroom and…. buy some of those Auntie Annes pretzels stix.  I wasn't hungry, I didn't need them, but once I saw and smelled their booth, I was salivating like Pavlov's dog. For those of you that don’t know what these are, my advice is to NOT learn.  Don't go near one of these venders if you see them in the Mall.  Hold your breath if you pass by.  I don't recommend buying or eating their product.  One taste will have you hooked, especially the soft cinnamon flavored pretzel stix.  I never thought I could inhale 84 carbs in under 60 seconds until I first got me some of their pretzel stix.  Mmm they are so soft, warm and….see what I mean.  AVOID THEM at all costs! 

So on my journey back to my family, I was stopped by an attractive young saleswoman akin to the typical tradeshow booth babe we see at CES and the CEDIA shows.  I knew I had "sucker" written all over me to her, but I was taken, hook line and sinker nonetheless.  She wanted to demonstrate a new power balance bracelet product that allegedly uses mylar holographic technology to raise the natural frequency of your body to an optimal 7.83Hz.  I couldn't help but ponder if I found a subwoofer capable of producing significant output at this frequency while a participant was wearing this bracelet, if they would explode or at the very minimum lose bowel control? Perhaps this would be a good natural cure for constipation.  Hmmm.

Why Do Audiophiles Fall for Placebo Effect?  - YouTube Discussion

She went on to explain how this power bracelet creates negative Ions around your body to restore your balance or some mumbo jumbo like that.  This reminded me of some of the claims we made about the Audioholics GLOB cable, particularly its IBS system.  Her claim about this power band bracelet was all I had to do was wear it, and I would be stronger, better balanced and have less body pain.  She had me with less body pain.  Boy I'd like to have some of that.  I warned her that I spent my career debunking snake oil products like this.  She didn't mind and was ready to prove her product to me. 

She started me off with putting my feet together and my hands together pointing out towards her.  I was told to resist her pulling down on my hands to avoid falling.  She pretty much overpowered me in a matter of seconds.  As a 200lb athletic guy, I was a bit humiliated being out muscled by a girl weighing roughly 80lbs less than me.  Next she had me install the bracelet on my left wrist.  She repeated the test and this time I kept solid balance. She ever leaned her entire body weight on my hands and was unable to tip my balance.  She went on with several more tests including flexibility tests and various balance tests.  Each time I wore the bracelet I was more balanced, and stronger.  At one point I didn’t even have to wear the bracelet to achieve better performance.  All she had to do was place the bracelet on my shoulder and presto, it worked!  I was stunned, somewhat humiliated and confused at the same time.  I suspected she was changing the direction of the downward force on my body each time, projecting outward away from my center of gravity without the bracelet and inward towards my center of gravity once the bracelet was either on my wrist or placed on me.  I wasn't able to stand as an outside observer to really gauge this however.

Snake Oil SalesmanI knew I was somehow being duped.  I knew this product was snake oil, yet there I was falling for it similar to how audiophiles fall for cable snake oil.  She even switched out the band with a generic one and repeated the tests.  I failed with the generic band but passed with her special holographic band.  I did everything I could to walk away from the sale despite her demonstration proved to me that her product worked. I was going to use the excuse that I had to get these pretzels over to my wife before they got cold but I didn’t think she would buy that looking into the now empty container.  I instead told her I had to get my wife over to try it out. 

Sure enough I was so interested to study the effect on my wife who is typically even less impressionable than me.  So I drew her into the demo.  The results for her and my 10 year old daughter were identical to my own.  I did observe the saleslady switch between two fingers and a closed hand between tests and called her on it so she continued doing the remaining tests with two fingers. 

The tests provided proof that the band was having an affect on us.  We all fell for it, though despite the results, my wife and I had little desire to buy one.  The saleslady even offered us a deal to buy two of them for $40 which was a $20 savings off retail.  I simply couldn’t make the purchase knowing this product at best carried a dealer cost of about $2.  I also couldn’t buy into something I knew was snake oil despite my body proved me wrong in the testing.  I told the saleslady I wanted to go home and do my research before making a purchase and she let me off the hook.

Double Blind Testing to the Rescue

I went to youtube and did some searching on "Power Band Bracelet" and found this enlightening video which really exemplifies the importance of controlled testing to verify product claims:

Power Band Tested & Debunked using DBT Methodology

As you can see from the video once the test subjects were subjected to a true Double Blind Test (DBT) (meaning the panel of subjects and the tester didn’t know who had the actual power band product), the product magic disappeared.  It just goes to show you that even someone like me that is a critic in nature can get duped despite doubting the validity of the product coming into the test.  Our subconscious often plays a more powerful role in influencing our perception than we think.  This is why audio tweaks and exotic cable companies thrive, despite the irrefutable evidence that most of the stuff these vendors peddle at best doesn't make an audible difference, or in worst cases, can reduce accuracy and fidelity. 

A lot of folks on the forums love to throw around the DBT acronym but few people or audio companies actually adhere to and follow a DBT protocol.  A true DBT ensures both the subjects under test and the people testing the equipment are unaware of what they are testing.  At Audioholics, we follow a Single Blind Protocol (SBT) where the listeners under test cannot see the products and are unfamiliar with the brands under test, but the reviewer conducting the experiment is fully aware of the products under test at all times.  There are certainly biases in this methodology which we notate in our shootout reviews and shall continue to discuss here.

It would be intellectually dishonest for a loudspeaker manufacturer to participate in their own DBT comparing their speaker to another brand since they are intimately familiar with the sonic signature of their own product which will bias their preferences despite the fact they can't see the speakers under test.  We've run our own blind tests in the past and both myself and Clint were able to determine which speaker was being tested without seeing the speakers under test just by identifying the sonic signature of each brand that we've had a lot of previous experience with listening too.  Such a test should NEVER be called a DBT since the person(s) controlling and/or participating are aware of the products under test and also have a vested interest in its outcome. 

It is always good measure for a reader attempting to interpret comparative test results to know the test biases and limitations.  This is as true in the medical field as it is in the audio field.  No test is perfect and truly free from bias, whether unintentional or deliberate.  Knowing these biases will help make a more educated assessment of the test results. 

I did some more searching on this power band stuff because it really fascinated me.  I found that a well trained salesperson can dupe a participant using any widget if they conduct the test in a very sneaky and conniving way.  I suspected this was the case and feel at least partly vindicated that it wasn't just my subconscious and the placebo effect getting the best of me.

The following youtube video confirms this:

How to Fool People with a Balance Test

PretzelsThis type of test deception reminds me of some of the Monster Cable tests conducted at previous CES shows where Monster cable was comparing their 12 AWG speaker cable to a generic cable using lightbulbs to show how their cable caused the lightbulb to shine more brightly.  What Monster Cable didn't reveal was that the generic cable had much higher resistance since it was rated at 18AWG (over 4X the resistance of 12AWG cable).  Monster wasn't proving their cable was better as much as the fact that they were demonstrating the benefits of less resistive losses of lower gauge cable.  An astute consumer would never know this and would be convinced to buy the Monster Cable product based on a less than truthful demo. 

So What Have We Learned?

Stay away from Auntie Anne's pretzels and avoid being a target for pretty booth babes trying to sell you snake oil using the placebo effect, questionable testing methodologies and their charm to win you over.  Never let a salesman demonstrating a new audio product tell you what you are going to here before sitting down to actually listen for yourself.  If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.  I found it quite humorous seeing all of the folks walking around the Mall proudly wearing their power bracelets.   I wonder how long it will be before some exotic cable vendor starts slapping these power bands onto their speaker cables, or a company manufacturing sexual enhancement products adopts them for the bedroom touting it as safe and natural alternative to Viagra.  Trust me it's coming (no pun intended).  As long as Auntie Anne doesn't find a way to implement power band technology and marketing trickery into their pretzels to make them even more desirable, I should be safe from such temptations.     


About the author:
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Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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