Seven bucks per centimer of audio woo

One of my favourite blogs I follow is Big Picture from Bobby Owsinski, producer, audio engineer and author of several books on audio recording and engineering. Mr Owsinski from time to time posts articles that expose some frauds and hoaxes that sadly also insist in the world of audio. Gold-plated and other woo ($500 volume knob or $8500 speaker cable, but also about the 440Hz conspiracy) gets offered to a gullible yet rich audience, resulting in huge profit and no discernible audio improvement (for a good summary, see here). And yes, I’ve fallen for gold-plated connectors in the past, too…

In this post, Mr Owsinski shows that he is a real “audio skeptic” (if he has ever heard of the term skeptic anyway). He describes the latest attack on gullible people’s purses, but this one is really absurd, and laughable in his opinion. An audio website has a review of USB cables, and one of the examples is copied below.

usb cable

Yes, that is 550 bucks for a mere 75 cm of cable to connect your external hard drive (supposedly with music on it) to your pc. As Mr Owsinski points out, it is a digital cable! Signals go through this cable in a digital format, but unless you actually damage the cable physically, the signal will pass. And it will not make any difference at all as the signal transmission is digital anyway.

Read the product website for some more, although it makes me sick just reading it. The connections for instance:

Through choice of flux and metallurgy, AQ solder has 
been optimized to make a low-distortion connection. 
The difference you hear between solders is a result of 
connection quality.

The difference one hears is probably more related to whatever speaker you have attached, and to the quality of the sound files. A digital connection is a digital connection, and it will not make any difference using this cable or the cheap $1 directly imported from China. Your soldering might be any material, as long as it connects, it’s good.

Or take this for instance:

AudioQuest’s DBS creates a strong, stable electrostatic 
field which saturates and polarizes (organizes) the 
molecules of the insulation.

How’s that for a world record “most incomprehensible pseudoscience in one sentence”? Basically, they put an LED and a battery in the cable with a small light. Apart from that, creating an electrostatic field to saturate (huh? with what? quarks?) and “organize” (that’s not the meaning of polarizing) the insulation will not help in any way, except for the profits of said company. Now for analog audio it might be a good idea to check interference, and to keep power and audio signal cables away from each other or at right angles, but again, for digital it doesn’t matter. And certainly not for playing files from your USB hard disk to your computer.

My alternative USB cable. Order it in China for $1, or send me $ 2000 and I'll do it for you, including some pseudoscience. (c) Bomazi, Wikimedia

My alternative USB cable. Order it in China for $1, or send me $ 2000 and I’ll do it for you, including some pseudoscientific gobbledygook.
(c) Bomazi, Wikimedia

It’s actually sad to see that Randi’s challenge from 2007 still goes unchallenged. So a call to anyone who might be convinced by this: go straight to Randi’s JREF and take the challenge. With $ 1 million in the balance, what are you waiting for?

In the end, it’s nice to see Bobby Owsinski calling these things out to a larger and somewhat different audience. He finds it laughable, I would rather weep that such things that are obviously frauds still get created, marketed and bought. That means we as skeptics still have a lot of work to do…

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website: www.puam.be
This entry was posted in Pseudoscience, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Seven bucks per centimer of audio woo

  1. Jeff Grigg says:

    “polarizes (organizes) the molecules of the insulation”?!?!?

    I sure hope it does not do this! That would be BAD!!!

    Sure, there are quality issues with USB cables: The plugs need to actually be within the specifications from the relevant standards. Some cheap knock-offs aren’t. The solder connections *are* relevant — if they’re done badly. You want a cable and connections that will stand up to repeated use — without deforming the connections or letting wires or connections get loose. And a well-made cable sheath will look good, reduce interference (if designed well) and most importantly resist punctures and cuts and wear. There is some value to the thing just looking nice.

    Of course, even all of that together does not adequately justify the thing being nearly seven hundred times as expensive! 😉

    • Reg says:

      I couldn’t agreed more about the dreadful deception of gold plated cables and the rest, but there’s a far more insidious deception in the music industry and that is the damaging manipulation of their supposedly musical output, resulting in real people trying to emulate them and doing damage to their voices in the attempt.

      Kids don’t know the difference while ALL of the Broadway type audio would be nothing without electronic massaging. That’s the real audio woo.

      The cables are only the icing on the cake aimed at the already hearing-damaged victims who come to secretly believe that it’s because they don’t have gold plated speaker cables that their audio perception is not what it was. “There’s a mug born every minute.”

  2. Walter Clark says:

    It might amuse this audience to know that sometimes the hokum that is being advertised “is” the product. The clearest example is high priced perfume. Their profits are NOT much more than the more widely sold cheap perfumes. Most of the cost goes to advertising and other non-chemical ingredients to create the illusion of exclusivity. I understand it is more than the most expensive ingredient; the box it comes in. The user is buying a feeling. Another feeling you are buying is the lottery. One way the government gets away with their huge profits (much larger than Las Vegas) is to advertise that we are buying the excitement associated with the chance of winning. They sell hope. That this non-tangible product can’t be trusted to private companies is curious but beside the point.

  3. christian says:

    Walter is right. Obviously, the advertising is nonsense. But what people are paying for is conspicuous consumption and the BELIEF that something sounds ‘better’, and when you’ve paid $500 for a USB cable, it probably WILL sound ‘better’ to your ears, because you have a vested interest in believing it’s true. I agree, such things should be exposed and people encouraged to understand and think. But, the product is actually fulfilling the need it sets out to, albeit dishonestly.

    • Walter Clark says:

      Christian, thanks for your point about belief. Here’s one I’ve experienced. After 5 semesters of C++ and teaching it for 2 years, back in the 90s, I “bought into” the hype. All along I knew this language wasn’t all that much better than C, but after such a huge investment, I’ll be damned if I’m going to call it for what it is. It is easy (for me) to see how that’s the case with Democrats and Republicans, but I must therefore assume that as a libertarian, I too have a huge investment (40 years of activism) that provides the momentum to slide through every challenge no matter how tough.
      Such honesty might seem to spoil motivation; to assume there’s no truth to be had when you become the cynic from planet Skeptoid. It does, but only to move me from libertarian activist to theoretical anarchist. My ego shifted from the party to me. I now get a kick out of challenging my fellow libertarians as well.
      Walt

      • Jeff Grigg says:

        ‘After 5 semesters of C++ and teaching it for 2 years, back in the 90s, I “bought into” the hype. All along I knew this language wasn’t all that much better than C, but after such a huge investment, I’ll be damned if I’m going to call it for what it is.’

        My experience as a full time programmer out in the field was quite different: C++ adoption was slow, and there was substantial resistance to change (as usual) from leadership, even when we could have used the GNU C++ compiler for free. I endured years of frustration where my every attempt to improve my situation in C resulted in my writing a cheap partial implementation of a C++ preprocessor. For me, finally moving up to Microsoft’s 16-bit C++ was a substantial improvement that made my life better — with a number of frustrations — primarily the lack of exception handling. (Again, resistance to using a 3rd party product that would have done this.) When we were finally able to upgrade most of our development work to Microsoft’s 32-bit implementation, I immediately saw the benefits again, in terms of ease of writing and maintaining code.

        There’s a difference between teaching students toy problems in class and building complex systems with millions of lines of code.

        • christian says:

          I learned C++ in the late 90s ( although I am mostly C# today ). What’s interesting to me is the degree to which C++ was taught as C with classes, even today I am doing some work evaluating C++ code, and it does not use most of what C++ offers. There’s a lesson there about perception, too. Another is the assumption people have that C# is faster to VB.NET, because they know C++ was faster than VB. Again, the syntax ( which is immaterial ) causes people to have a perception that is easily disproven, yet people cling to it.

      • Jeff Grigg says:

        Hello fellow Libertarian! I’m a card-carrying Libertarian. But as a long time skeptic (and computer programmer), I make a habit of not having strong beliefs in things just because my leaders tell me to. But I have to agree that most people don’t have that perspective. When you’re “in the group” there is a strong tendency to believe and support whatever “everyone else” in your group is doing. 🙁

        • Reg says:

          Sorry Jeff, can you clarify what a Libertarian is in Aussie terms please? In Oz the Liberals are pretty extreme right-wing whom I regard as Conservatives. The true liberals are center left.

          “Blessed is he who expects nothing for he shall not be disappointed.” is what I expect from our Liberals.

          No matter how humble our car, it is always the best, otherwise we are admitting to a stupid decision same with gold plated speaker cables.

          My petrol lawnmower is the best in the world ‘cos in 13 years it has always started first pull and for that I LOVE it. There’s no standing with bated breath imagining a better transient response from my cloth eared speakers and my not so cloth eared self.

          • christian says:

            Hey Reg. You know about Google, right ? 😛 define: libertarian gives me this: ‘a person who believes in free will’. The wiki entry is more helpful: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism. The short version is fiscally conservative but socially liberal. And I agree with you on our liberals, but I expect even less of labor, so what do you do ? I suspect that a similar disillusionment has led to the rise in libertarianism in the USA

          • Jeff Grigg says:

            You too might be a Libertarian! Take “the world’s shortest polical quiz” to find out:

            http://www.theadvocates.org/quiz/quiz.php

          • christian says:

            Your PERSONAL issues Score is 80%

            Your ECONOMICS issues Score is 20%

            That makes me a leftie, apparently.

          • Reg says:

            Thanks I’m a left of center- ist making me a Centrist which is something I knew already. 40% Economic and 70% Personal. Isn’t everyone? Sorry Wiki and Google are US biased.

            I’ve just been to my cardio and now I realize that 2/3 of my consultation consisted of his righ-wing rant over how leftist our broadcast organisation was for daring to cast aspersions on cholesterol reducing statins.

            Just because I asked what he thought about statins which do dreadful things to me. He didn’t reply when I asked him which third world country he would like Oz to emulate.

        • Reg says:

          Oops, 30/70.

    • Reg says:

      Not really trying to burst your bubble Christian but people will pay big money to leave a concert with a warm fuzzy feeling and not much else. It’s no more conspicuous than anything else we do. Take football … PuLLEASE!.

      Anyhow the Hill’s Church out there past Castle Hills actually encourages conspicuous consumption as an outward display that god favors their undertakings and rewards them accordingly. I heard this with my own ears from one of the faithful.

      • christian says:

        Reg, that was half my point, people ARE actually getting what they pay for. And I pay a lot to go to concerts, AND I own about 4400 CDs, so I know all about conspicuous consumption when it comes to music 🙂

        • Reg. says:

          Woo, I wouldn’t admit to having 4400 rarely heard CDs Christian. I have to hush my MS afflicted friend when she tells people we have played 12,000 games of UNO From Hell in two years. I love to see her fall off her chair with excitement ‘cos I know the therapy is working and all it costs is coffee and exhaustion.

          I swear I’ll never buy another CD that bears the word, Re-Mastered. EVER! 🙂

          • christian says:

            My wife says it’s a sign of my aspergers. I do love new music, even if most of it is only heard once, the few that I listen to non stop, are worth the cost of discovery.

          • Reg. says:

            Sorry, I was going to leave it there Christian but your words “listen to them non-stop” stirs an inner void called MUZAK, something I’d hoped never to have rise in my esophageal sphincter again.

            If I can’t give my full attention to music I’m playing, I don’t play it. Anything less devalues the music and the artist and severely undermines the reasons for searching for technical perfection.

            Apparently the reason for this perfection has been forgotten in the excitement, it’s a humanistic chain of events, meaning we start and finish with the human person with hopefully minimum technical intrusion or degradation in between.

            Speaker damping is the best reason for using gold plated cables but the return on investment would only be a figment of the imagination unless the previous installation was something less than Bunnings special Indian 28 gauge steel wire recycled from the ship wreckers.

            Hey did you know that our ears cannot detect phase delay? This is in the area of square wave testing where the harmonics are all ODD and their amplitude is inversely proportional to their number. Third harmonic is 33% of the amplitude of the fundamental. But phase is critical to retaining the wave-shape and yet far the majority of listeners cannot detect a relative phase disparity.

            Jeff’s digital concerns hinge on whether the compromised bit is most significant or least.

            Always listen to the wife and then silently continue with what you were doing. Don’t forget to watch Catalyst tonight at 8 on ABC. The Crestor lobby are ripping the ABC to pieces for even suggesting that cholesterol treatment may be doing more damage than good. My cardio was absolutely off the planet the other day about this, even to the point of being irrational. SO irrational I don’t think I can trust his judgment any more. 🙂

          • christian says:

            I listen to music in the car, and while working. I admit in the latter case, it gets less of my attention.

            Thanks for the tip. I lost 20 kg in two months by cutting out fructose, and I eat a lot more animal fats nowadays, so that sounds very interesting to me. The topic of harm done by too much medical testing is of definite interest to me.

          • Reg. says:

            Small pan, two super thin slices of Hungarian salami, handful of grated Bega Tasty, two eggs on top, some sort of chilli stuff, start by cooking on stove top and finish in the griller. A French recipe and pure Atkins for improving your transient response.

          • christian says:

            It’s my conclusion that all these diets work because they add to the one simple thing that I did. Any diet that removes fructose completely, will work.

  4. Jeff Grigg says:

    It is possible for a digital connection to lose some data, due to interference and/or flaky connections. There is automatic retry logic. So it is remotely plausible that a dodgy solder connection or a cable wrapped around a power transformer could lose data sometimes, causing retries, possibly causing delays that would impact real-time music playing. But that is pretty far-fetched. For most practical purposes, if it works at all, then it’s probably working at practically 100%.

  5. Reg says:

    Hey what’s the 440Hz conspiracy? It wouldn’t come up. The SSO tunes to 441Hz.

    A very REAL story I happen to know about is that stringed instruments made a fairly swift transition from gut to steel strings near the end of WWI, apparently because the more strident sound compensated for accumulated industrial deafness of the previous ten or twenty years.

    Imagine the amount of hearing damage that must have been caused among construction riveters and war time gunnery crews and explosives handlers of the period. No serious hearing protection A very much noisier period than prior to the introduction of riveted ship building etc.

    Of course more refined steel may have had a hand. I believe the bottom of a blast furnace holds a very valuable core of highly refined steel that finds its way to the market on the rare occasion when a blast furnace is closed for maintenance. Perhaps, just perhaps, that was the source of modern steel instrument strings of 1920. Yes 1920 is actually given as the date of the transition..

    • christian says:

      The move to steel strings was a quest for volume. They made guitars out of steel as well, for the same end ( they sound too harsh, great for blues and not much else ). Before the first amplifiers, guitars were mostly rhythm instruments that could not even be heard over the sound of a horn section. Relative volume of the ensemble was the issue, not deafness.

      • Reg. says:

        If you say so Christian. Now about that 440 Hz conspiracy?

        By the way, I was speaking of violins,viols, cellos and basses, anything goes with rhythm and blues. Like I said the move to steel strings was a quest for volume ‘cos people couldn’t hear it for some reason.

        That’s also why Blues voices are known as a vocalists, not singers.

        For your edification Christian, here’s a singer.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXXjz4L8F7w

        • christian says:

          *grin* well, taste is always in the eyes of the beholder. Here’s a singer 🙂

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeKuH114EiA

          I can’t work out, how did you edit HTML in a reply ?

          I still think the move to steel strings was to do with people not being able to hear it, relative to other instruments. Placing the instruments in an orchestral setting, only further makes that case. Of course, in general, I wonder if the move to steel was possible well before, but suddenly it was decided people could not hear, or if it was just that someone said ‘hey, these are louder’.

          • Reg. says:

            I must be gettin’ old or sumpin’ but last time I checked, taste was in the mouth? Don’t ask me about editing things mate, I’m old. Besides I just stuffed up my precious emails through using some crazy clean up.

            Anyway, it’s like I was hinting at before, Italians and Americans (pardon) like their singers loud (brash) first and artistic second. Still great singers but art is one thing, screaming another.

            Hey!! I agreed with you, steel strings were introduced
            so they could pack more people into a bigger hall so people could still hear even if they were deaf.

            Have you ever sat in the back row in the Sydney Opera House? You might as well be down the pub, and my hearing is perfect. NOT to mention the #@# time delay. You know they’ll sell those useless seats way up the back but not the front few rows because you can’t see so well and yet from those same front rows the sound and slightly limited visual detail is magnificent.

            Obviously steel strings were introduced for commercial reasons as well.

            And if I may, I suggest this fits perfectly within the umbrella of this topic.

          • christian says:

            Well, you managed to embed a HTML video and me, a computer programmer who writes websites, could not. So you’re doing something right 🙂

            And yes, I always make sure I am at the front for concerts. And steel strings were made for profit and marketed with the same goal in mind.

          • Reg. says:

            Christian mate, have you noticed that the reference you sent me relies on visual distraction to support the short-comings of the singer? Not to mention the sound system and god knows … flange effects and flashing lights and video cuts. It’s a visual display, not a song.

            Not to stretch the simile too far but It’s the modern equivalent of paying to see the fat lady in a side-show.

          • christian says:

            You are right. I should have sent this, where you can hear the song in ideal conditions. A live show always suffers compared to work in the studio, and it’s a show, so it’s more than just music, while being less than what the recorded version is.

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y60Mo_Nmydg

            But I wasn’t trying to start a ‘my music vs your music’ discussion. I chose that band and that song because that guy can REALLY sing, and my point was, every style of music will have great musicians and great singers in it. Why would it not ?

            As a guitarist, i don’t regard ‘flange effects’ as a distraction, they are part of the arsenal of a musician, in the same way that vibrato is for any stringed instrument, for example. And for singers. I prefer minimal effects, when I play, but they are all artistically valid IMO.

          • Reg. says:

            Yeah that’s a lot better and now let’s get back to SNR or Signal to Noise Ratio, Transient Response and Damping Factor which is the core of this topic.

            If your ears or the sound system are overwhelmed by noise or loud sound, why bother with the perfection so many seek from super conductive leads? MP3s etc, rely on eliminating sound that murmurs away under the rest of the louder noise, and here I’m applying MY own value to what is NOISE, just as everyone does.
            I don’t like that because with my LEFT ear I can layer and orchestra but my right ear offers only a blend.

            The whole business is a con and it is accepted in some circles that recordings originated after about 1975 cannot be trusted to reflect with any accuracy, the performance of the artist.

            Technology is in the process of displacing art and skill, and that’s a bad thing.

            One more point, Re-Mastering is an abomination, I have too many quality LPs to compare with this dreadful manipulation so grandly called Re-Mastering..

          • christian says:

            Agreed – and that’s one thing about the music I like, if you can’t make it happen live, then it does not exist. The real thing with remastering is that record companies are fighting to exist, and young people steal music, they do not buy it. People in my age bracket ( 44 ) are still buying CDs, but mostly don’t like new music, so the industry is looking for ways to sell us music we already own. Hence ‘remastering’, which often gives worse results, tied to obscure live recordings or demos, anything to get a sale to their existing and shrinking market.

            I tend to buy them anyway 🙂 One exception is that the first wave of CDs of older music ( for example, Deep Purple ) was an abomination at the time. The Deep Purple remasters were uniformly an improvement on the first CD releases.

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