Grinding your own gears

  • Barry: Hey John. Let’s dispense with the small talk today. My gears are grinding.

    Me: OK, Barry. Nice to hear from you. What’s got you all bent out of shape?

    Barry: You!

    John: Me?!

    Barry: Yes. YOU.

    John: How so?

    Barry: You claim that you can discern small audible differences between USB cables. Everyone knows it’s only ones and zeroes.

    John: Hmmmm. Everyone? Do you know ‘everyone’ to speak on their behalf? Let’s put the theory to one side for a moment and focus on reality. Or rather, my reality! Yes, I hear differences between certain USB cables in certain high-end audio systems.

    Barry: I’m calling bullshit on this.

    John: On what basis? Have you taken, say, a Curious USB cable or an AudioQuest Carbon and compared either to the USB cable that comes with your printer?

    Barry: No, of course, I haven’t. I don’t need to.

    John: You don’t need to? Would you pass comment on the food in Spain without ever setting foot in the country?

    Barry: What’s food and Spain got to do with it?

    John: OK. Let’s bring it back to hi-fi. Tell me, Barry: do you ever sit down and compare amplifiers?

    Barry: Of course I do!

    John: What about loudspeakers — do you ever compare them at a hi-fi store or at an audiophile friend’s house?

    Barry: Dude, I’m not an idiot! But USB cables are different. Any differences you hear between them are the result of psychoacoustics.

    John: OK. Go on…

    Barry: Yup: the placebo effect. You’re imagining things.

    John: Let me make sure I understand you correctly: when I compare two different USB cables, hear a difference between those two USB cables and then report on that difference, my findings are, in fact, all in my head?

    Barry: You got it.

    John: Right. What about when I compare two DACs, hear differences between them and then report on those differences? Are those differences also all in my head?

    Barry: No, that’s different.

    John: And what about when I hear differences between two amplifiers and report on the same? Am I once again the victim of the placebo effect?

    Barry: Of course not!

    John: And loudspeaker differences?

    Barry: Come on. Even my Mrs can hear the difference between loudspeakers!

    John: To confirm: when I assess loudspeakers, amplifiers and DACs and report on their differences, that’s OK with you. But when I apply that same review process to USB cables and report on their differences, that’s not OK with you.

    Barry: BINGO!

    John: But Barry, my dear chap, I apply the same review process to all gear: up to 12 weeks of listening. One week with product A, then a week with product B, then A, then B…and so it goes on.

    Barry: Doesn’t matter. USB cables are pure placebo. When you listen to a new cable, you imagine the difference because it’s a sighted test. That’s what the psychoacoustics experts tell us. You can’t ignore the science!

    John: OK. I agree with you. The science of psychoacoustics is very real. As is the placebo effect. Floyd Toole explains in this video how sighted listening can distort loudspeaker tests. To get around it, he had a machine built at the HARMAN research facility that automatically moves loudspeakers in and out position as the listener sits behind a curtain. The test subjects listen to only one loudspeaker (not a pair) at a time. Anyway, I digress. Per Toole’s findings and following your logic, if sighted tests are flawed for USB cables and loudspeakers then, assuming the same conditions, sighted tests are similarly flawed for amplifiers and DACs.

    Barry: Huh? Come again, mate.

    John: If you claim that all USB cables sound the same and that any sighted test saying otherwise is wholly unreliable due to psychoacoustics, then it follows that all sighted tests executed under the same conditions are psychoacoustically flawed. In other words, if we are to acknowledge the placebo effect as real for subjective reviews of USB cables, then, assuming the same test conditions, we should acknowledge the placebo effect for all product types: DACs, turntables, cartridges, amplifiers etc.

    Barry: Errrrr…

    John: Why didn’t you (or anyone else) message me about the fallibility of sighted tests in the wake of my reviews of the Rupert Neve Precision DAC, the Bluesound Powernode 2i and the Meze Rai Penta?

    Barry: Because those sighted tests are OK. It’s just the USB cable tests that are not.

    John: So, according to you, the differences that I hear between two amplifiers are real but the differences that I hear between USB cables are imagined?

    Barry: That’s because the delta between any two loudspeakers models is relatively large and between two USB cables relatively small.

    John: I agree but I thought you said USB cable differences didn’t exist? 😉 But seriously, if the subjective listener is to take into account the possibility of the placebo effect and that possibility varies according to product type, I have three questions: 1) To what degree does the placebo effect consideration vary?; 2) For which products?: and 3) According to whom?

    Barry: Didn’t we cover this already?

    John: I’m just making sure that I don’t misunderstand you. So you’re saying that despite the very real possibility of placebo effect affecting all product reviews, you know with certainty when I am imagining things and when I am not? Because I don’t!

    Barry: Errrrrrrm. Yeah, that’s what I am saying.

    John: Dearest Barry. You are perfectly entitled to see some of my reviews as valid and others not but in exercising that prerogative you take matters into your own hands (and out of mine). An inconsistent outlook on my (or any other reviewer’s) work that induces a feeling of internal aggravation, coupled with an ongoing refusal to engage first-hand with the very product types whose reviews you call into question, means the only person grinding your gears is you.

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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