Help with my University Research Project

If you are interested in helping to shape a formal research project (Miami University/Oxford) concerning the effects of wire and electronics on the reproduction of music, then please read further. If anything, you might find my research proposal interesting.

I was a Chemist for a major oil company for a few years and have since quit my job to return to school. I am an Audiophile/Jazz Guitarist and a scientist so much of the HiFi industry goes against my better judgment. However sometimes I cannot argue with my perceptions (they are all we have after all).

I have a friend who is a professor of Physics. His current area of research could be summed up with this statement:

"I am concerned with the mathematics describing the differences in human perception of sound"

While 99% of his work is done with paper and pencil, he does have some very excellent equipment. He is also a music lover (though not really into HiFi) so I have described the "state of the union" with respect to the HiFi industry (he was very intrigued). We have discussed conducting research into this topic:

1. If person (A) sings middle-C, and then person (B) sings the same exact note they will sound different. The pitch is correct but the "tone" distinguishes the two. The reason is that when someone sings middle-C for instant, they are not singing only at the middle-C frequency. Instead what we hear is a combination of many different waves. All of them partially cancelling, partially amplifying one another. In essence there is a distortion around the note. (1st,2nd,3rd harmonics blah blah, lots of math) When a machine records these voices it does not perfectly reproduce the original subtle combination of waves. This is the reason that recordings do not compete with live performances.

Some cables and electronics (tube amps in particular) are inserting a distortion (some more than others) that alters the signal (this is not debatable). Sometimes, as is the case with good tube amps/really goo SS amps, there seems to be a more "real" presence to the music. This could also explain the reasoning behind the theory of "system synergy". By that I mean the matching of components/cables so as to present a more balanced musical presentation. We are postulating that the distortion, with certain component/cable combinations, results in the,(excuse this word), recovery of lost waves. This does not mean that the resulting signal is exactly the same, or that there is not some unwanted stuff in there. We merely suggest that it is the missing waves(distortion) that give music its "real" quality.

Keep in mind that the first step into any research project is to determine what has already been done. So the next several weeks will be devoted toward the reading of countless science journals.

I would like to hear you thoughts about my project, but more specifically, I would like to get a consensus on the attributes of certain component/cable or component/component combinations. For instance, Krell model *?* and XLO model *?* cables produce a *?* sound. I hope to determine a few generally accepted extremes with which to base my experiments on.

You do not have to stop there. The same note sounds different played on a Piano, Violin, Clarinet, Oboe, Guitar, etc, etc. If it didn't sound different, then all musical instruments would sound the same and what would be the point of having different ones.

It has something to do with harmonics. Every note comprises a fundamental frequency. The harmonics embrace a much wider frequency spectrum than the fundamental, which makes different instruments and different singers sound different when producing the same note.

This also explains why all speakers do not sound alike. They all do a different job (better or worse) reproducing the frequency harmonics. Even the same instrument will sound different depending where it is played. Different concert venues have their own unique accoustics that affect the sound. I am starting to talk in circles so I better stop there. Good Luck!

You are walking into a mine field asking for what equipement is better with what cables, etc, etc. Everyone's opinion is different including those who say there is no difference and its all in your head.
My suggestion is to contact some of the cable manufacturers that are known to be friendly and accessible, i.e. Ray Kimber. Other than that, about all I can say is good luck.
You would think that there would be some way of measuring the spectrum of a recording played back through different equipment/cables and determining if the differences correlated to differences in percieved quality of sound.
Thanks for the input so far. The way I plan to do the experiment is as follows:

First I will get some musicians from the conservatory to perform a 3 or 4 minute work. I will record this at 24/192 and use it as the ref. I will then play it back through various configurations of cables/components and monitor it with what is basically a modified Spectral analyzer. I will then try to see if a pattern becomes apparent. I will not be considering speakers as that would make everything too complex (I would have to worry about placement and room acoustics etc)

I will be playing the file from the computer - out to the components/cables - and back into the same computer. After I have become aware of each componets/cables sonic characteristics (assuming there will be some...) I will then conduct a double blind study with some of the local "golden ears" as well as various students. I will use the same speakers but change the components or cables hopefully reproducing the effect I recorded in the lab.

Then we can be on the way to creating a rating system so that people can match their components properly... then the industry will quickly adopt our system and the world will be perfect...

I hope everyone picks up on the sarcasm in that last paragraph "because I was laying it on pretty thick" - David Spade
This is very interesting. May I suggest you have *TWO* control ref recordings: the other one being on analogue tape. Surely you can enlist rec studio/ rec labels' help, rather than invest your time in mastering recording techniques... Technical staff at EMI, Naim, et alia closer to home, should be happy to help in such a project.

Some ideas regarding electronics.
Try choosing ref brands based on their purported "sonic" characteristics. Even though the higher-end one goes, the more "controlled" this "signature" is, there is *something* there.
Many (most) brands are often referred to in this way by many audiophiles: words like "clear", "resolution", "dynamics", "smooth" etc, are used to describe the "sound" of the machines. Often, the combination of different pieces from various manufacturers + the conductors linking the equip, is also explained in the same manner: a "mellow, warm" amp, partnered with a "dynamic", "hi-resolution" pre, linked together with a matching cable that is "fast and detailed, esp. in the upper register...".
You may therefore, wish to consider starting with amp combos from the *same* company, esp. in SS gear.

Enough rambling. Do post news; I for one, would be very interested in the proceedings.
Good luck!
I like the idea very much. There have been numerous posts on the lack of scientific data supporting cable differences. John Dunlavy claims he has done much of this research, but not from your perspective--merely from a measurements perspective (would be interesting to correlate the two--if indeed there is correlation). Please let us know the results.
Go to and see Mike Vansevers white papers on how dirty power affects sound. If you call him I am pretty sure he would be glad to discuss his ideas with you. He is now making interconnects also.
I will be talking to local audio shops soon. What I was thinking was starting with is the middle of the MIT line and comparing it to the middle of the Kimber line. Also, I plan to start with ConradJohnson and Rotel. All of these companies are well represented at my local shops.

I do not plan to nail down the wave characteristics associated with "proper soundstage" or any of the more
popular terms. What I hope to do is to determine that there are changes each component/cable etc makes on a signal. I just wanted some suggestions so that I could possibly have easy measurements. Those measurements will be stored in the computer. For instance, there would be a file containing all the cable info. I would then run a test on a certain amp/pre-amp combo. Based on the deviations from that test, the computer would suggest a cable that might bring the signal closer to the reference.
What a refreshing idea. One that I am sure will bring a great deal of comments from both objectivists and subjectivists alike. Great food for debate. Keep us posted.
I wonder how you intend to deal with issues that very much seem to influence our subjective perceptions of cables and electronics, but which are not related to the areas which you intend to study objectively. Two which come to mind are reproduction of soundstage and reproduction of dynamics. There may be others, such as detail reproduction, but with that one it is not quite as clear that it has nothing to do with spectral balance. I think this brings out the issues related to "objective" testing vs. subjective analysis. Even the so-called "objective" testing is subjective because, even if we had perfect instruments for measuring things objectively, what we choose to measure (and not to measure) make the test subjective. Unfortunately, in subjective analysis, such as listener evaluation, these factors, both those which are understood and those which have yet to be, all contribute to our subjective perception.
It seems that your topic has to do with the harmonic effect of cables in high-end systems (you like to use the word "distortion" as an ordinary-language stand-in for the mathematical concept of harmonics, but I prefer harmonics, despite the math). My question to you is the following: why stop at cable-component interaction? Because the relative balance of a system's harmonics are important to its sound, the frequency response of cartridges, amplifiers, speakers and all other elements in the signal path (including wires, connectors, transistors, tubes, capacitors, resistors, chips, etc. even fuses) can have an effect on the timbre or harmonic balance of the sound. Of course cables too can be used to vary the timbre of a system, thus changing the subjective effect on the listener. The significance of cables to our perception of tone quality is one of the most hotly debated topics at audiogon with numerous threads worth searching through (some are maybe worth as much as those "science journals" you plan to read). For discovering the "generallly accepted extremes" of cable/component interaction, you might do a statistical analysis of the words found in individual posts to describe the sound of specific cables with specific components (i.e. how many times does the phrase "powerful, punchy bass" appear in descriptions of Krell model "?" with XLO model "?").
Your project sounds most interesting. I do hope you can carry it off with sound research methodology. I suspect that what you intend to do will be far more difficult than what you now think likely.

So many of the effects of component changes are subtle and most difficult to describe in any rational way: hence the strange pseudo poetic language which suffuses most reviews of equipment in the high end press.

I certainly do not believe that most audiophiles can be dismissed as deluded fools, the victims of self-fulfilling prophecies. I do believe that they are hearing genuine, real differences that are consistent and which do affect the pleasure derived from the reproduction of music. However, I'm not sure that these subtleties can easily be correlated with attributes measurable by test equipment. In fact, I’m sure that they cannot.

Therefore, it is likely that your survey will have to take for its raw material the sum total of subjective opinions offered by a group of listeners. How you will be able to tabulate such subjective responses according to an objective standard is beyond me. Frankly, I'm not sure it's even possible.

However, in this sense the appreciation of reproduced sound differs little from other types of connoisseurship such as those involved in the evaluation of fine art, wine, automobiles, sail boats, sports equipment, architecture, computer software or virtually any product, device, or system enjoyed by us human beings. How many of these may be adequately described by a small set of objective measurements? Actually, none of them can. The top speed attainable by a car certainly does not fully describe it’s success as a racing vehicle. Also, its ability to accelerate, its handling capabilities, its braking power, its road holding ability, and many other factors greatly influence how adequate it is to its purpose. Nor can most of those factors be easily quantified.

That is why people who review and write about such things as cars, sailboats, wines, etc. necessarily resort to metaphor, analogy, and other forms of “imprecise” poetic language. Interestingly reviewers of those things are not reviled for stating opinions which they cannot back up with tests or measurements. It seems that only in the world of high end audio is there the expectation that the complexities of evaluation ought to be reducable to a few measurements.

Also it is clear that the ability to evaluate and discern subtle differences in any human endeavor is learned and that it improves with practice and experience. The choices made by naïve observers about anything are always inferior to those made by knowledgeable consumers. Just think of how a six year old would decorate a house and how a grown up with taste would do the same. Or even in our own lives, we can easily look back at the many things that impressed us as adolescents and which now embarrass us to come to the conclusion that opinions based on experience and knowledge are far superior to naïve impulse.

So I advise you to be careful in your selection of participants and to attempt as best you can, to limit it to those who have revealed an adequate level of discernment.

I’m a graduate of Miami myself (class of ’69) and wish you well in your project.

László Bencze
PLease read all this post carefully. It is a little long but I hope it clarifies some things and brings people up to speed with our currrent state.

I had thought this thread was dead... until I can complete my initial research and can post the results. But recently I have recieved a few emails (one about a month ago and another yesterday) and have noticed a few new posts as well. I think that I should restate a few things. Not because I wish to argue any points, the recent posts and emails are completely correct, but because I would like to clarify some things that we hope to accomplish.

I will not be using any sort of "human compass" test measurements initially. First I would like to establish a reference recording. Then I will play this recording from source (computer) through the cables in question and then into the measurement computer. If there is a difference then it will show up. I might not be able to say what that will correspond to if it were played through a "perfect amp" and "perfect speaker" and in a "perfect room", but I will be able to say that there is a difference.

Of course all of that is an oversimplification. However we believe that any time problems, or any frequency or harmonic anomolies will be detected. Again, what this translates into or how to really quantify the anomolies is not our initial goal. If it turns out that we can assign a set of characteristic anomolies to a certain cable (and our preliminary stuff says YES) then we will begin to set up a very controlled environment in which to go deeper. Of course there is always the possibility that a cable only acts the way it does when connected to Levinson or Rotel stuff and not with VTL or Spectral. If that is the reality of the situation... and we suspect it is, then this research will not validate it. What it will do is prove that cables can impart changes.

Our project is shaping into this:

We will use all Mark Levinson gear (No.39 CD, No 380 Pre, and a 336 Amp) going to Thiel speakers in a rectangular room. We will then use some friends as subjects. Again it is not our goal identify what cable produces the widest or most accurate soundstage but only that it does indeed change it. I think that anyone shoud be able to tell, on well recorded music, if there is big enough change.

Of course none of this will help anyone on this board when deciding on cable purchases. What we hope it will do is prove that it can be done. What we think needs to happen (and what we know never will) is that there needs to be some sort of standard test for all cables. Maybe this won't be "hey this cable gives a 2.3 whosawhatchit soundstage". But it might be something like this. "hey this gives a 2.3 whosawatchit which means it might cause timing or harmonic anomolies with equipment in this blah blah blah arbitrary catagory"

We also should mention that we in now way believe that we are doing research that has not been done before. What we do believe is that it has not been published. It is probably done once a day for the last 10 years in research labs at Madrigal or Spectral or TagMcLaren etc. etc.

So in summation, we will first look at a few cables to determine their reaction with a reference system. We will then try and document any measurable changes the cables impart on the system. The last stage will be to try and describe (in very, very basic audiophile terms) what those changes might be. If this can be done then we will have answered a question that many industry engineers already know. Will this mean that Joe Bloe with his $10,000 cables really does hear a better soundstage than Joe Schmoe does with his RatShack stuff... NO. But it will give some validity to these types of claims "I noticed a difference between cable A and Cable B"

I will continue to follow this thread with great interest. I look forward to your results no matter the outcome. I don't know if you plan on noting differences in cables depending on their use of materials or design, but no matter your findings will be interesting.

Keep up the good work!
Trthomp, there is certainly no lack of interest in your project! Thank you for sharing your findings with us as you go along (your time permitting).
I reread carefully your last post as well as the original. I am not a physicist or an engineer, but what I gleaned from your more recent post is that you will attempt to show objectively that there are differences in cables along the lines of whatever you intend to measure or observe with your computer methodology. Then you intend to observe and compile the statements of a panel of listeners regarding what the cables under test "sound" like. I am sure your listening panel will say that the cables sound different and you seem fairly sure that you will be able to show that the cables impart some changes in spectral balance or timing or harmonics which can be measured using your computers. In your original post you say:

We are postulating that the distortion, with certain component/cable combinations, results in the,(excuse this word), recovery of lost waves. This does not mean that the resulting signal is exactly the same, or that there is not some unwanted stuff in there. We merely suggest that it is the missing waves(distortion) that give music its "real" quality.

Let me assume that your computer analysis, if it demonstrates a difference between the two signals (prior to the cable and after the cable), can attribute this difference to "lost waves".

If the listeners identify any differences in cables, as I think they will since I hear them, I don't think there is anything in the way this experiment is designed that will allow you to attribute the differences which the listeners describe to the "lost waves".

My last statement, I think, is the point of your last post. But it seems to me that all scientific experimentation starts with a hypothesis or, as you described it in the paragraph which I excerpted from you, a postulation. Yours is contained in the last sentence of that which I excerpted. Hopefully you will get there, perhaps with follow-on experiments, but what we really need in audio is not simply more standardized testing as you state in your last post, but more proof that the characteristics being measured, varied or "improved" do contribute significantly to our perception of the quality of the sound. If you can demonstrate that, your contribution to audio will be quite significant and the industry will likely adopt your standards for measuring cables as well as other audio equipment.

I do wish you luck, not because I am tired of listening to cables in order to determine which I think is best. That is, after all, my hobby. I am tired however, of the pseudoscience and advertising "rhetoric" which exists in the audio industry and anyone who is seeking to establish any objective measure of what we agree sounds correct, no matter how difficult this is to accomplish, has my support.

Rayhall -

When I made the statement regarding lost waves I did not mean that literally. That was extremely simplified and ultimately a bad phrase. I wish I had a picture of what our software looks like graphically...

Try to imagine the (x) axis being the frequency band from 0 to 20,000 and the (y) axis being the amplitude. If I were to record myself saying the phrase "social science is an oxymoron" it would register my voice throughout the spectrum. The average of say the first syllable "so" would be the tone of my voice which a guitar tuner might register as "C#". However the reality of that syllable is the vibration of the air at many different frequencies. Different cables, because they have different physical properties can alter some of those frequencies. The audible result might not be a change of my voice from (C#) to (D) but it will change something.

The physics behind what makes a person perceive a "soundstage" as being wide or deep as opposed to shallow are actually known. It is a kind of mathematical physics that is best done on computers. As you probably know reverberation and or perceived reverberation is a major factor. When a signal gets altered one of things that can be lost is that sense of space or perhaps the exact placement of instruments. It is this kind of stuff that all those cheap DSP programs on A/V Receivers try to accomplish (the addition of space). The only good implementation of this technology that I have EVER heard is the LOGIC 7 stuff in Lexicon gear. In a way this is what a lot of people seek from upsampling technology. Some components do this very poorly (they add a sense of space but they alter the signal too much, obscuring other things). The really good components manage to add a sense of space without making a detrimental impact on the original signal. Of course this is ultimately a matter of taste but I think there is a general consensus that some components do accomplish it better than others.

All those references to "lifting a veil" are actually great analogies IMHO. Our goal is to find out what that veil looks like, does it have characteristic look (mathematically)? Is it merely a decrease in certain frequencies whose effects could be countered by a cable that amplifies those frequencies?

Again, all of this is really speculation since we do not have nearly enough data to say statistically whether or not our model is valid. Not to mention the fact that we have not done any listening evaluations.

I hope this was helpful and/or that I explained my project in more detail
I have read this entire thread and find the experiment most intriguing. I was pleased to learn you are using your own recording as a reference, but wonder if - and here I am assuming the postulate as absolute - the actual cable used to make that recording might in itself limit the scope of your results, in so much as it too must exert its own characteristic or signature into the final control. Just a thought.

Please continue to post here when you get a moment; I imagine there a number of individuals whose interest in the results is high. Thanks and ATB,

At last some science! Well I hope that's what you are talking about. Interesting, maybe ultimately useless, but interesting. I recall years ago Peter Walker of QUAD explaining why reproduced music can never sound like the real thing. Maybe you could start your research by checking out what he had to say. QUAD's equipment may look quaint to American audiophiles used to considerable avoirdupoids and girth in their equipment,(sort of like muscle cars, I guess; nothing wrong with cubes right? So what if I don't use the 550 bhp, it's on tap, right?) but it certainly sounds like music to me. I recall some mention of "Eigentones", I'm not even sure if this word is a figment of my imagination or some blurry flashback. No, not related to drug use... At any rate, anybody who is willing to put some science behind this madhouse of high-end audio has my vote.