By LEE GOMES
If You're Not Insane
About Sound, Maybe
You Can Just Go Crazy
January 16, 2008; Page B1
If you had to choose between two sets of speaker cables, one costing a few dollars and sounding fine, the other a few thousand dollars but perhaps sounding slightly better, and you chose the second pair, then you would have had a great time last week in Las Vegas.
The city's many goings-on included The Home Entertainment Show, an audiophile trade show held in two small motels off the Strip. Audiophiles, as you probably know, are the hi-fi zealots who think nothing of spending $50,000 on a turntable. I've learned over the years that audiophiles actually come in two varieties: the totally insane and the merely crazy.
The latter have a sense of humor and shrug that theirs is just one of many hobbies -- like wine -- for people with money, expansive vocabularies and the ability to discern differences lost on the rest of us.
By contrast, my interests involve the extent to which beliefs influence perceptions. Scientists have discovered that brain scans of wine drinkers show they physically enjoy a wine more if they think it is expensive. Can audiophiles really hear all the differences they say they can, without being influenced by the brand or price of their equipment?
To find out, Portals became an official exhibitor at T.H.E. Show last week. I set up a room with two sound systems, identical except for one component. Everything except the speakers was hidden behind screens. (A shout-out to Totem Acoustics for the Forest speakers loan and to Magnum Dynalab for the MD-308 amps. They all sounded sensational.)
With the same music playing on both, participants used a remote control to switch between the two, and then tell me which sounded better.
One of the tests compared a high-quality MP3 file from an iPod with a CD on a $3,000 player. Three-quarters of the 24 people taking this test preferred the CD.
That was no surprise. However, when I played .wav files on the iPod -- these are digital but uncompressed files; I was connecting the headphone jack to the amplifier -- 52% of the 21 who took this test preferred the iPod.
That made me smile, not because snooty audiophiles got the "wrong" answer, but because it suggests great sound can come from popular, cheap gear.
I also tested speaker cables, which are controversial even among audiophiles. Some spend tens of thousands of dollars on cabling, while others consider it an absurd waste of money.
Using two identical CD players, I tested a $2,000, eight-foot pair of Sigma Retro Gold cables from Monster Cable, which are as thick as your thumb, against 14-gauge, hardware-store speaker cable. Many audiophiles say they are equally good. I couldn't hear a difference and was a wee bit suspicious that anyone else could. But of the 39 people who took this test, 61% said they preferred the expensive cable.
That may not be much of a margin for two products with such drastically different prices, but I was struck by how the best-informed people at the show -- like John Atkinson and Michael Fremer of Stereophile Magazine -- easily picked the expensive cable.
Its sound was described as "richer," "crisper" and "more coherent." Like some wines, come to think of it.
In absolute terms, though, the differences weren't great. Mr. Atkinson guesstimated the expensive cables sounded roughly 5% better. Remember, by definition, an audiophile is one who will bear any burden, pay any price, to get even a tiny improvement in sound.
Attendance at the show was disappointing, so I didn't get the numbers of participants I wanted. Even if I had, I'm not sure I would have settled anything. These "A-B" tests have limits, including the fact that differences you might not pick up right away can become more apparent with extended listening.
Skeptics out there might think I've gone all mushy and credulous on them.
Consider the thriving audiophile product category of power-line conditioners, said to remove noise and distortions caused by your electrical supply, a problem you may not realize you have. A rep from Audience LLC accepted my invitation for an A-B test of the company's $2,800 AdeptResponse aR6 conditioner.
He picked the system using his conditioner -- the other was plugged into the wall -- two out of three times.
Note that the aforementioned "merely crazy" audiophiles say that while they might have home setups costing six figures, the rest of us can get splendid sound for under $1,000 by shopping at specialty audio shops, the sort that sell unfamiliar brands.
I can't help you with brands, but my tests suggest you might want to do your ripping as .wav files. While they take up a lot more room than MP3s, falling disk prices make this feasible even for big collections.
As for cables, good ones can cost well under $2,000. I'd still be happy at the hardware store, but you may be the golden-ear sort who can hear a difference. As in "Dirty Harry," you've got to ask yourself, "Do I feel lucky?"
Well, do you?
Write to Lee Gomes at [email protected]