Dominic Marsh has a bit of a revelation regarding system hierarchy and later pokes the hornets nest a bit and discusses system hierarchy and gets entangled with folk over cable wars.

Here for your delectation is my musings on subjects that have been rumbling on for more years than I can care to remember, so it covers more than one topic this month.  It is the thorny issues of whether we should build a hifi system from the speakers’ end then matching amplifiers etc to suit, or concentrate on the source first.  Then I will drag you into an insight into a recent debate I had on a hifi forum and how that ended.

This “source first” topic came to the fore quite recently for me when I decided to have a complete system change around, prompted by the purchase of a new set of speakers.  I found that the speakers weren’t sounding as good as I had hoped, so I decided to upgrade the CD player and the amplification to suit, thinking this would resolve the problem, but in actual fact something happened that was quite unexpected.

My original resident CD player was none too shabby anyway, but one thing I didn’t like about it was not having the ability to simply press a button and stop playing – how silly is that?  I could of course eject the CD or pause it as many times as I liked, but I was always nagged by the thought of the laser being live while I had a lengthy phone conversation or while I put the kettle on for a cup of coffee with the player in pause mode.  I didn’t need too much of a prompt therefore to buy another CD player and I chose one that not only had a STOP button (Hooray!), it also had a plethora of digital filters to play with to get the sound just right for reviewing purposes.  My original resident amplifier wasn’t exactly shabby either and did sterling work as a reviewing tool, but while being capable of clearly showing differences between components attached to it, it lacked the outright power and grunt that I craved for, so some more watts was high on my wish list.  What’s the point of this I hear you thinking?  I will tell all.

Having acquired the aforesaid CD player and amplifier replacements, I then eagerly connected them up in my rack, but not to my resident speakers.  As you can imagine, a reviewer may have all sorts of components on the premises so to speak and I connected up a pair of budget speakers I had recently evaluated rather than my own, not by design I hasten to add.  I was blown away by the sounds produced by the speakers and they sounded considerably better than the amplifier I reviewed them with.  Being the curious person that I am, I had to find out why there was such a big difference in sound quality, so out came the ‘new’ amplifier and in went the original amplifier I reviewed the speakers with and that wasn’t responsible, so I went back to my old CD player and there was the answer – the source made more difference that the amplification.

This took place immediately before the Bristol Show and I thought no more of it until I walked into Origin Live’s room at the show.  On demonstration was their top of the range turntable, feeding a Sugden integrated amplifier, culminating in a pair of tiny Q Acoustics speakers on stands.  If ever there was a “source first” system then this was it folks.  I stayed for a quite while listening to this sound (probably the longest I spent in any room) and apart from a couple of patches where those tiny speakers couldn’t quite fill a crowded room full of people with undistorted sound they sounded very good.  It seemed most of the visitors to the room were duly impressed too.

So I have come to the conclusion that a top class front end and amplifier can actually bully a pair of budget speakers into sounding very special, whereas a top class pair of speakers being driven by an inferior front end and amplifier will never ever sound at their best.   What say you?

I do need to expand on this some more with various combinations of CD/amp/speakers to see if it still holds true at all levels.

And now for my second go with the stick…

Are you the kind of person who festers over comments made by other people that have annoyed you?  You are reading about such a person and if someone upsets me I will churn and boil over about it for sometimes days at a time, so this next item is rather cathartic for me in letting the pressure out.

Last week I got entangled with some people on a hifi forum who were being less than kind to the subject of cables.  The usual accusations of “placebo”, “expectation bias”, “ABX testing”,“delusional” were being rolled out by the antagonists who didn’t actually stop and think about what they were actually saying, rather they were reeling out the same old irrelevant clichés as a counter to any meaningful discussions.  Irrelevant clichés?  How dare you say that Dominic!

Well yes they are and I will (attempt) to explain why.  Firstly, I can find no logical connection between “placebo” and hearing real not imagined differences between cables.  I am actually listening to cables, not having sugar pills or drugs thrust down me to cure any real or imaginary illness.  Secondly, I put it to these people how many times has it been proven scientifically that a placebo can be efficacious in many multiple instances?  I can see someone being fooled once, maybe twice, but many hundreds of times?

For example, I have read of a patient being operated on to cure a knee condition, but the surgeon made only an incision in the skin layer and made no attempt to incise the knee itself, so the patient was ‘cured’ of his knee problem.  Others are taking sugar pills for what is very likely symptom somatic illnesses rather than any genuine affliction.   Hallelujah!!  A miracle!  But, how many other patients have been similarly treated, how many times can that same procedure be repeated on that same patient with placebo continuing to be efficacious and let’s be quite candid about this, the medical trade are very quick to point out their “successes”, but oh so slow at pointing out their failures I must also add.  None of the protagonists in this debate had any answers to these questions and I wish they would do that before making any statements like that which are patently inaccurate.

Next, I will debunk the “expectation bias” accusation.   If you dragged anyone off the street, plonked them in front of a hifi system and told them they would be listening to a cable swap and one would sound better than the other, then that would be a good candidate to experience some “expectation bias” that one cable would sound better than the other because they have already been told it will happen.  The enthusiastic person who has just spent left arm and right leg kind of money on an expensive cable plugging it into their system to replace a cheap cable might, with good reason, be expected to have some form of “expectation bias” that the money they have just spent would elicit some sort of sound improvement.  The trouble with those two scenarios is that they are being looked at both in isolation and worse still, in microcosm.  They are one off events and I dare say if you cared to repeat those situations many times over with the same participants the expectation bias would very quickly evaporate into nothingness.   So anyone who levels that same accusation at ME will get short shrift I’m afraid.  This is the person who has handled  many THOUSANDS of cables over a period longer than 40 years so I probably have more chance of swimming the Atlantic than being subject to any “expectation bias” over cables.

I have participated in and read about countless ABX routines for cable tests and have yet to find any that gave a definitive answer – either way.  Why?  It is because they are all using a subjective methodology in pursuit of an objective outcome, using people with major variances in hearing acuity, which to me isn’t the correct solution to the problem.  The fact that confidence levels are then being used to attempt to define an outcome simply points to just how inadequate it is.  Just like the people being dragged off the street to test for expectation bias, the participants in these ABX tests no matter how qualified they appear to be, are all similarly pre-conditioned to fail because they are participating in a “test” which dooms it to fail from the word go, as people’s stress levels and anxieties are affected by that word and the very environment it is being used in.  I know of many intelligent people that turn to rubber in any “test” situation and it has always been of annoyance that our working life careers are dominated by how well we do in a brief test which only lasts a short while when in our youth.   I really wish an award and certification could be created for COMMON SENSE and that would be worth more than a university degree many times over.   Boy, we would be living in a different world today if that were to happen.

I will bet that some people who read this blog will be fuming at what they are reading and I am glad they are.  Not that I enjoy winding people up or provoking them into rages, but it might, just might, get people to THINK rather than accept at face value whatever is being told to them by the scientific community.  Can we really trust people that for the last 30 years have said we should all avoid butter like the plague, to then suddenly without warning say they got it utterly wrong we should now eat it regularly?  Nor me.

Dominic Marsh

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