Placebo Effect...a good thing?

I'm just a beginner into the world of the high-end (19 year old EE student), but the more I learn about audio and the entire culture surrounding it, I get more and more confused of the goals around creating the "perfect" sound system. I'm not an idiot, and I know that no matter how close an approximation is to the original event, be it vinyl, SACD, CD, multi-channel, or whatever, it is still only going to be an approximation. So then why try to recreate the original event at all? My best guess, and belief, is to capture the "magic" of that event in your living room. I've been reading a lot of articles by various giants in the audio field, and there has been a lot of talk recently about "snake-oil" in the audio industry. That is, no one can tell the difference in a double-blind test between two similar componenets; their guesses will be no better than chance. The only real differences people hear are due to the Placebo Effect: their brains generate a response, perhaps truthful in their own minds, that two similar products have completely different sounds. My question is, is that a bad thing? My experience from this comes from a power cord dilemma. My father auditioned a power cord from JPS Labs for his CDP. After it had burned-in a little, he asked me to listen to the difference and see what I heard. At first listen, I heard less brightness in the treble, and an overall ease of presentation that was not there before. So he arranged a simple double-blind test. It stumped me. I chose the cheap power cord, although the differences to me were so slight, they were near irrelevant. We discussed it for a while, and he ended up buying the cord anyways. Why? Because HE ENJOYED the system more with it in than out. Maybe it didn't effect the sound. WHO CARES? The point of a stereo is to listen to music. If you buy a 15,000 dollar line stage and you listen to music 15 more minutes a day because of it, isn't that an improvement? That's why I laugh everytime someone makes fun of a "tubehead." "Extremely high even-order distortions" they say. If you listen to music more because of a purchase you made, then you made a good purchase. If you don't, you didn't. PERIOD. I just get a crack out of all this finger pointing. Tubes vs. solid state. Vinyl vs. CD. If you buy a turntable to break out all the LPs you have sitting in your closet, and find you prefer the sound of analogue to digital, GOOD FOR YOU. I delight in people enjoying music, be it through a $500,000 wacko system, or a $150 JVC boom box. And besides, it makes me feel good to have a nice looking set of cables tying up my system. They may not sound any better (which I think they do), but I DO listen to more music because of them. Just a thought.
Some thoughts about the double-blind argument... First of all, when you change out a component for such a test, the ground configuration is changed and can alter the sound unless the the entire system is turned off and then on again. Even the order in which components are turned on can have an effect. There is a break-in period for any new signal and power connection. The compared components must also be broken in. (I would never judge a DAC or a preamp right out of the box). Finally, the best critical listening is done ALONE over a period of time, without outside influence or pressure of any kind, or someone standing over you waiting for absolution. From the Forum, I gather that there are many audiophiles who have an excellent ear for sound, cultivated over years of dedication to true hi-end.
Ah, but the question is WHERE does the placebo effect take place? For instance, there is definitely, without doubt, better sound coming from my system than from my portable boombox. If I could just know at what level the placebo effect starts taking place, then I could buy $300 cables and say to myself, "I've got the best there is, people who pay $1000 for cables are fools." But what if $1000 cables are actually better, but $5000 cables are no better than that? What if? Ahh! Help!
Hueske, I do not know what a 19 year old EE student is, however (IMHO) you write as if you are LIGHT YEARS ahead of 19 years of age. You bring out some great questions which have more than one answer and the posts above mine shed light upon some questions, but there is no absolute answer. You are very observant and I will bet your Dads interest in Audio helped to create your wisdom and insight. If the music sounds good to the listener that’s all that matters.
Lak, you're right, it sounds as if Hueske grew up around audio and has learned from his dad. Good job, DAD!
Anyway, I was just thinking about this today and was actually thinking about starting a thread about it - that is as Hueske put it "So then why try to recreate the original event at all?"
I was wondering what live events people thought of when they were creating the "ultimate set up". I have found that it depends on the format the live event is - for example, I saw Count Basie in 1983 in a auditorium environment wired for sound.... and I have see ACDC in a coliseum environment wired for.... well, just wired.....
I would love to recreate the sound of the Count Basie event, but NEVER the echoey, rambling sound of the ACDC event...
What do people mean when they say hearing music live is the best?
You've raised several good questions about our hobby. To answer your original question, I suppose you could argue that if the listener thinks it sounds better, that's all that really matters. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. After all, what is "enjoyment" anyway? It's just a biochemical reaction in the brain. So what difference does it make how that reaction is triggered?

Why strive to recreate the original event? Presumably, the closer you get to the original event, the greater your enjoyment will be. But the "original event" is sometimes a somewhat theoretical notion when you consider the way music is recorded in studios. Sound engineers mix and tweak the various instruments and voices; and when you're talking synthesizers, it's anybody's guess what the "original event" sounded like. In the end, I think the "original event" has come to mean music the way the sound engineer intended you to hear it. Again, the closer you can get to that, the greater your listening enjoyment.

I think blind A/B testing is a perfectly valid way of determining sonic differences in gear. And I think, if it's done properly, it works every time. So why the cases of people flunking the Pepsi challenge? I believe the problem is in the way the tests are administered. More to the point, I don't think these tests usually take into account what poor "listening memory" we have. It seems people's memories are more accurate when recalling visual objects than when recalling sounds alone. I don't believe most people can distinguish the usually subtle sonic differences between different pieces of high-end gear after only a minute or two of listening. Even an hour or two is sometimes not enough, yet that's usually the way these tests are administered. I know in my case it usually takes me at least a week or more to be able to tune into the precise differences a new piece of gear brings to my system. I've learned from experience not to expect a new revelation in sound when I bring in new gear. Occasionally, I'm surprised and can hear a difference fairly quickly. But more often than not it takes hours of listening over a number of sessions before I can start to appreciate and articulate the sonic characteristics of a piece.

Admittedly, I've not always heard a difference when "upgrading" my gear. Case in point: I replaced my stock power cords with some (I won't mention the name) highly regarded cords and sat back ready to be blown away by the improvements. I'm still waiting, and it's been over a year. But, like your dad, I still have them in my system. Why? Well, it's like a joke I once heard:

"Do you believe in God?"
"Of course."
"Really? Why?"
"Are you kidding? What if there really is one!"
Been in this a few weeks now;
For Angela; Going to an amplified event isn't the thing one would use for a comparison. You would be listening to mostly their amps, and their speakers. Even if they may have a million and 1/2 watts. Un-amplified events would be the goal.

On recreating in one's living room; It's the only choice/ ---Can't fit LSO in my living room, or ACDC's drum set. Can't afford for John Williams to come over and play the guitar.

---Where's my placebo?? Where'd I leave that sucker? Can't remember to take my Ginkoba (to help my memory)
hey, George, they say that MEMORY is the SECOND thing to go!

.....i forgot what the first thing is......
Hueske, two comments: 1) You have excellent writing skills. I enjoyed reading your post. 2) You hit the nail on the head. If your deriving pleasure from your purchase and it makes you want to listen to more music, who cares if you can prove it is "better?"

I hope my two little boys are as astute as you are when they are 19. Best of luck!

I think after some people have been into audio for a while they become fixated upon tweaking a system here and there, upgrading components, spending large sums of money in the process. Their goal might be to create what they believe is a near to perfect system (in their mind) in there home. When they have completed their mission, something else new comes along and we are into a vicious spiral that might never stop. If that’s the way one wants to spend their money and they don’t have other habits that drain the finances (tobacco,drugs, excessive alcohol, gambling, etc.) then I say no harm, no foul! (DON'T FORGET THE WIFE ACCEPTANCE FACTOR):-)
Great Post Hueske! A civil discussion on Double Blind, testing imagine that. Lak EE= Electrical Engineering something I know nothing about.

Anyway, some of the best comments on this topic I've read. I agree w/ you completely Hueske. I think Dbw1 hit the nail on the head. That "what if..." get you eveytime.

I have been very divided on this topic. The logical left brain side says if you can't pick it out in a properly run double blind test the differences can't be there. Being on the marketing/sales side of the pharmaceutical biz (no boos)where many studies are done this way biases me. However, my creative right brain says the opposite.

Macm that is the best explanation of why we may not hear the difference immediately. It even appeals to my left brain. So what if...

Is the belief in a placebo effect also a placebo?
Hueske: I enjoyed reading your post very much. No comments though (too tired to "pontunacate":-), right now. I wish you the best of times in your continuing education and suspect that (based on your post) you may end up breaking some new ground in the future. I may give this another stab, tomorrow.
Hueske, as Greg said, you write admirably and I also aplaude the widom in one still quite young! In philosophical terms your stand comes close to what Epicuros taught in ancient Greece and in the face of conflicting theories and ideologies, the battle of empiricist against theorist, the pitfalls of double blind testing arrangements, the lack of knowledge how human hearing psychophysically REALLY functions and a market abounding in snakeoil and hype it took me much longer than you to settle, comfortably though not complacent, on a point of view quite similar to your own. This from an old man, who has been victim to audiophilia nervosa easily more than twice the years you walk this earth... and yes Surgarbrie, ANY belief tends to have its placebo effect....(<;
An EE with an open mind. Imagine that! There's hope for the high-end yet. Good luck and all the best, Hueske.
Hey guys, thanks for all the great comments. As for my Dad, I got HIM into audio. Needed a CD player, went to the store, came back with a Marantz CD6000 (great player for the bux!), and plopped it into my dad's office system (he was using the computer as the CDP ). "Hmmm....this is incredibly better! I wonder what an even BETTER one would sound like." The rest is history. I think I got my philosophy on audio because I got really caught up in the whole "tweaking" game. Suspensions, couplings, contact cleaners, Aqua-net on the drivers (on my homemade Voigts, don't go nuts), etc. etc. Then one day, as I was doing a "listening test" on a new pair of cables vs. my old ones, I thought to myself "hey, I need to STOP listening to these dumb cables, and start jamming out on this Clapton!" Duh!

Right now I work for a commerical audio design/installation firm as a CAD draftsman. NONE of these guys believe their ears...just what the LCD screen on their little computers tell them. BUT, I'm learning incredible amounts of info I could never, EVER get sitting in some classroom. Most EE's (in school) could solve a complex circuit diagram for you, but couldn't tell you what a capacitor is used for! Backwards teaching is the name of the game here, folks.

Lak, you have no IDEA how many concerts I've been to that I was appalled at the sound quality of. I live in Austin, TX, and have seen my fair share of great band/poor venue. But I could have cared less when I was going nuts in the mosh pit at the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. Maybe I'll design some cables that can recreate THAT!

Happy listening,


P.S. I got a "C" in philosophy. My teacher wrote on my papers that I "made up my mind too quickly" on certain subjects (especially Kant...I HATE Kant), and that "perhaps I should study both sides of the issue before passing judgement." That's what I did last night, Teach! I guess my arguments weren't "circular" enough for her taste :)
By the way...what is this Wife Acceptance Factor you're talking about. Ha!

(Try Mom Acceptance Factor.)
Hueske, regarding the "the have no IDEA", your to late, Yamaha already designed the (old technology) DSP-1 (Digital Sound Field Processor) that can recreate what ever you want while you play your CD, LP, radio or what ever! It's older but really a cool toy!

PS. Tell your Mom that your Dad said it was alright to purchase the new audio toy and vice versa. That's what my kids tried to do!:-)
If I told my Mom that Dad said it was alright, I'd just be getting my Dad in trouble. Everytime we come home with a new toy to audition, she says nothing (most of the time), but we both get a good dose of "the look." Especially with stuff that doesn't look flashy. Plinius 8150...Mom Acceptance Factor = 0.
Hueske, what about telling her that in this market's uncertain future (not to mention the uncertain present - what the hell is going on anyway?), audio gear will probably hold its value better than other investments. You can say you're planning for HER future, during which you PROMISE to take care of her and your dad, right? Right?
Dbwl, I shot any chance of THAT excuse working after giving my Dad a few stock tips last year (buy high, sell low, or vice-versa? I get the two confused :). But maybe I can cram the guts of a Wadia 830 into the chassis of my old Kenwood CDP? "No mom, I'm just fixing it." HA! That'll be my latest greatest invention! Cheap looking, mass-market chassis slip-covers for all makes and models! I'll make your Levinson look like an Onkyo when she's around! I come!
We may have recently lost some great posters at Audiogon, but if we can attract more like Hueske to contribute, we are well on our way to recovery.

I like the fact that his entire ABX and engineering ideas are peripheral to the importance of the music. Sounds like Hueske has already been severely bitten by the high end audio bug and will have a life long affair with it.

This is about the same time I was stricken, and that is a good thing. Any females that venture into your life should understand that it is part of the package they get. Saves a lot of time and fighting later on in life.
Agree with "You like the music" is the most important thing.
But I don't count on "blind test" at all. That's people try to convince others showing no bias to certain brands. But "blind test" at home make no sense to me, also an EE engineer.

We use our ears to hear and enjoy the music, it is "blind" anyway. Switching things without seeing it is sometime more a "brain game" than a real test. Then you get nervous, then you fatigue earlier, then you can't relax to tell how much you enjoy that music or not. Sometimes difference comes from not enough warming up or no difference from fatigue.

For me, I sit down for two hours for one component and go for the next one. If I am tired, will not continue and wait for next time. Why? my amp's take ~1 hour to get its
peak performance.

Since you are an engineer too, recommend you to read articles from real engineers, who really design a tube or ss amp. There are some "techinical" reasons why tube sounds different from ss. High power supply voltage, feedback, transformer output, ....
I found some good articles in old TAS, sorry don't remember which issues.
To put this in short, everything is in nonlinear. Especially when you drive your speaker loud, your amp+speaker are working in a large signal (& nonlinear) region. If you only test your amp in small signial test on spectrum analyzer, you can't get the whole picture of real situation during listening.
Unfortunately, nonlinear characterization is difficult and still needs young scientiest like you to work on it.
When you put on a dummy load to your cheap receiver and measure the spectrum, you get quite nice number out of it.
Even a low end receiver gives a better spec than lots of high end tube gear, especially analog amp turntable....
But remember, your speaker is a driver+crossover, and that is nowhere close to a dummy resistor load for tests.
A nice small sigal performance does not guarantee a nicer performance when you put it into real world, i.e. large signal and nonlinear world.
I am not saying those spec number are useless, just point out it might be misleading sometimes.
On the other end, digital equippment's spec is usually more revealing what it can do.
A 24 bit processer is better than 20 bit one with similar CKT.

Again "trust your ears"!!!
Albert, so true! I've always handled it the same way and with good success.
Good grief! If we keep getting engineers like Bluefin here, I may development a powerful new respect for the numbers guys. How nice to see someone refer to the tests as misleading and advise us to "trust your ears."

Audiogon is definitely on the rise again. I hope we may continue to see high quality posts as have been presented in the last few days. Rejoice Arnie.
Albertporter, I agree!

Hueske, better not let your Mom read this site.

Bluefin, are threr more like you around? :-)