Podcast #20 – Snake Oil

  • SSSSSSssssss. There’s someone slithering in the grass. A forked tongued creature draws near. Not with an ointment of dubious efficacy but with an allegation: that the efficacy our hi-fi product of choice is but a fabrication of our own imagination. How could we be hearing first-hand something that the accuser’s theory-dependent thinking deems impossible? Adding insult to injury, we are asked to consider two short words as substantiation for an allegation of manufacturer fraud: snake oil.

    And yet closer scrutiny says ‘not so fast’.

    Our trigger-happy accuser might first consider that the scams of yesteryear have little bearing on the present. We no longer live in a time of back page classifieds. A manufacturer wanting to pull a fast one no longer has the jump on time. Where once he would rely on the time delay of snail mail, word of a dud would nowadays be splashed across forums and Facebook groups before the scam artist’s sales figures could become airborne.

    In 202, an accusation of fraud unsubstantiated by even a modicum of first-hand experience is not only impotent, it puts the accuser in the crosshairs of a defamation lawsuit.

    If we’re going to call a manufacturer a fraud, the very least we can do is listen for ourselves. Does the product perform as described? If the delta caused by its introduction to a price appropriate hi-fi system is small, is it still snake oil? I’d argue not. How small a delta is too small and who decides?

    For a product to qualify as snake oil, it must make zero audible difference.

    “Let the measurement bench decide!” the accuser retorts. A fair point — but where are the measurements that substantiate his accusation? And what if others continue to hear a difference that can’t be verified by the lab? For starters: how do we know with sufficient certainty that our measurement gear is sensitive enough? And is it possible that we are measuring the wrong thing? These two questions immediately separate the amateur engineer from the professional product maker. Further, they push our demand for ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ onto less stable ground.

    For a product to qualify as snake oil, we should hear no difference AND measure no difference.

    “But it’s crazy expensive!” comes the call of last resort. It’s true: as a product’s price pushes further north, its value quotient weakens. But a high asking price for a tiny (non-zero!) delta isn’t snake oil. If it was, how high a price would be too high and who decides? Value perception isn’t fixed. It rises and falls with our monthly income and how we choose to spend our money (ergo, priorities).

    Therefore, snake oil is price independent.

    Putting it more plainly: price is irrelevant – a $1 scam is still a scam. Not knowing – refusing to listen – affords the trigger-happy accuser greater financial comfort. After all, first-hand experience that contradicts his deeply held assumptions not only threatens his world view, it threatens his wallet. Any unsubstantiated accusation of snake oil then becomes financially motivated.

    Pulling these thoughts together, we arrive at the following definition for snake oil: “a product or service, irrespective of price, whose manufacturer-promoted benefits fail to stand up to listening tests AND measurement tests”. 

    I then recast this definition and the thinking behind it as food for another episode of the Darko.Audio podcast.  Listen below via the embedded Soundcloud player or use Spotify and/or Apple Podcasts to subscribe and be notified as soon as future episodes drop.


    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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