The Art & Science of Sound

Audio Snake Oil

Since its beginning, the audio industry has been filled with hucksters selling snake oil to the unsuspecting audio-loving public who just want to hear a little more. Frankly, the industry has been damaged by these non-sense peddling charlatans. Because of them, when a conscientious company – regardless of size or history – introduces a new technology it’s always met with more skepticism than it deserves.

There’s actually a good reason for this.

In the 1980s we were told that buying a special green felt pen and drawing on the edges and centers of our CDs would make them sound better. The theory being the green (and only green) ink dampened the extraneous laser energy from bouncing around and canceling out sound data. Here's a quote:

“The scattered laser light does not simply cease to exist! Rather, it reverberates and echoes around in the medium, much the same way ambient sounds persist in any real-world space except the anechoic studio. This cumulatively produces the 'airy,' 'spacious,' 'cloying,' 'harsh,' concert-hall feeling that audio engineers try so hard to eliminate when they produce a 'dry' sounding master." – Actual Marketing blurb.

This is utter non-sense. Laser light does not exist in the audio spectrum and digital information cannot be corrupted by light energy in a way that changes the timbre of a sound. And even if this wasn’t total hogwash, your CD player has error-correcting circuits that nullify whatever extraneous…oh, just never mind.

In the 1990s we were told of the wonders of special ebony disks manufactured from trees that only grew in a small little section of forest in Gabon and how they canceled standing waves above the audio frequency, making everything sound better.

Around the same time – and presumably from the same plot of land in Gabon – for only $149.99 a company offered an ebony disk you put on the spindle of your turntable to reduce sub-sonic vibrations. They were guaranteed to eliminate things you couldn’t hear so the things you could hear sounded better. There is science behind reducing resonances and vibrations you can’t hear to increase the quality of what you can hear, but a chunk of wood from a special tree in Gabon has nothing to do with that.

After the fall of the Soviet Union we were told Russian vacuum tubes sound sweeter than US ones. Commercial studios and home audio enthusiasts scrambled to grab whatever Soviet tubes they could get their hands on. They were considerably more expensive than plain-sounding American ones and they made about the same difference as green markers and Gabonese ebony.

There are companies who insist interconnect cables are unidirectional and that your equipment may be damaged if you inadvertently hook your interconnects up backwards. While there is some debate about the directionality of cables and what end of the cable should be grounded, in the audio spectrum there is no scientific basis for cable directionality. In fact, there is still mild disagreement among physicists as to which direction electrons flow – from negative to positive or from positive to negative. This may seem like it backs up the scientific claims of the unidirectional cable manufacturer but it’s the exact opposite – electrons flow how they’re going to flow regardless of which end of a cable is where.

Some people believe that in order to fully enjoy listening to music you need to rid your speaker cables of "old electrons" and replace them with the "new electrons" from your high-end amplifier. Unfortunately for proponents of this theory, electrons don’t spray out of an amp through a cable like water through a garden hose. They also aren’t packaged with the cable at the factory – they just exist, bumping around doing what they want until we apply an electrical current to them and then they kind of do what we want.

But if that still doesn’t quench your thirst for magic, there was a company that claimed to have built a special machine that would break your cables in before sending them to you. The cost was quite steep, but seriously, can you put a value on knowing your cables have been properly broken in and that all of those naughty electrons were whipped into shape by a special machine? 

This shouldn’t be confused with the fact that speakers require a break-in because the materials used to build the surrounds and spider are extremely stiff out of the factory. That’s actual science, but because of the non-sense claims about electron taming, explaining speaker break-in is just that much more difficult.

But the ultimate gimmick? Blackout goggles that enhance your listening experience by removing visual stimulation. Presumably based on the principle of closing your eyes while grooving on some tunes, for $14.95 these goggles apparently do what your eyelids can’t.

Every time somebody markets a pair of blackout goggles or claims to have figured out how to tame electrons so they sound better, we all suffer. How can you take a hobby seriously when it's filled with gimmicks and tricks that don't work?

Although components are better and more cost-effective now than at any other time in history, there is a great deal of skepticism about what works – what is real science – and what doesn’t work. There has been an amazing amount of legitimate technological advancement in the past two decades but having to separate the legitimate science from the snake oil makes difficult for all of us to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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