Following up on yesterday’s article about expensive Ethernet cables used in audiophile audio systems, and related to a recent article about why high-resolution music is a marketing ploy, I toss out a question for audiophiles. If things such as cables make a difference, what about hard disks? Has anyone done testing on hard disks, to see which makes music sound better? Do SSDs sound better than spinning-platter hard disks?
What about system busses? They must have an effect too. They could introduce jitter, even when playing music on a computer. And RAM? Is there any audiophile-grade RAM to ensure the proper “tonal neutrality” and “strong dynamics” of the music you listen to?
The ridiculous claims made by audiophiles do more harm than good to the audio industry in general. They allow companies to produce hugely overpriced equipment, and sell it to credulous people, but they also influence the entire audio equipment market, making us low-end people think that we don’t know how to listen to music, with a fair amount of contempt at times.
Yes, there are audio elements that make a difference. No one can deny that speakers and headphones sound very different; that’s no surprise, because they actually create sound (i.e., they convert electrical signals into air waves, which we, in turn, perceive as sound). DACs can make a difference: the cheap DAC in a $30 CD player will be bested by a standalone DAC, or one in a more expensive player, because they are responsible for converting digital signals to sound signals. And there are certainly valid reasons, other than sound, for purchasing a more expensive amplifier: it may have more features, more inputs and outputs, or may be esthetically pleasing.
But what about all the other elements of an audio system? There sure are lots of them, and, according to audiophiles, altering any of them should have an effect on sound.
Assuming that you listen to music on a computer – which is the most complex audio chain – here are the elements that come into play:
- Power supply
- Power cable
- Computer (I won’t isolate all the elements inside a computer that should influence sound, if audiophile theories are accepted)
- Sound card (if using an analog output)
- Digital interconnect: USB / Toslink / Ethernet cable (if using a digital output)
- DAC (digital-analog converter, if used)
- Audio interconnects: cables from DAC to pre-amplifier to amplifier, or from computer to pre-amplifier or amplifier
- Pre-amplifier (if used)
- Speaker cables
- Headphone amplifier (if used)
- Headphones (if used)
- Listening environment (which has much more effect on sound than most people realize)
According to audiophiles, changing any one of those items should affect the resulting sound. And they claim to be able to hear the difference between, say, a power cable or an audio interconnect among that complex chain.
There are two ways of testing such things. One is a purely subjective test; you hook up a new item and decide whether it sounds better. This is clearly influenced by many factors, notably differences in volume, or simply a desire to reinforce beliefs that a new cable, for example, really does sound better. The second method is ABX testing, where listeners hear different items, but don’t know what they’re listening to. While the former method is almost entirely subjective, the latter is fairly objective. Dozens of ABX tests have shown that people simply can’t hear the difference between different components, showing that, in most cases, the difference in price does not translate to a difference in quality. There have been tests that show that coat hangers sound as good as expensive speaker cables, and that all amplifiers sound the same.
So when these ABX tests show such results, and challenge audiophiles and their expenditures, they come up with another explanation: that the concept of ABX tests is flawed. “The answer is that blind listening tests fundamentally distort the listening process and are worthless in determining the audibility of a certain phenomenon.” They have to defend their choices to spend a lot of money on audio equipment.
You would think that, if all these elements made such a difference, recording engineers would use them to ensure the best possible capture of music. But this isn’t the case. As I recently wrote, I found it interesting, when attending a classical recording session in a church, that no expensive cabling was used, just “miles of copper.”
I care about music; a lot. I care about sound; only if it is in service to the music. I don’t have cheap audio equipment, but my setups are around the high end of consumer audio pricing. Because that’s what it’s worth paying; when you pay more, the quality differences become miniscule. I have a full stereo in my office, with good speakers, and I use several different headphones. But it’s a shame to keep reading reviews of things like cables that are simply made up. If all these elements made a difference in sound, then it would be easy to tell them apart. The fact that one can’t tell the difference in blind testing shows that this is an industry built on feet of clay.
Several months ago, I went to a hi-fi store to listen to a number of headphones. I listened to several Grado headphones, and there was a clear difference in clarity across different models; the more expensive ones sounded better. But that doesn’t mean that any headphones at the same price would sound good. I also tried out Bower & Wilkins’ P5 portable headphones, which were nearly as expensive as the best Grados I tested. I disliked their sound very much; it was too bassy for me. So there’s a lot of personal taste that goes into things like speakers and headphones; it may not be the most expensive that sound “best.” ↩