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Debunking hi-fi

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


Debunking hi-fi: The sound of music, and of money changing hands
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1993, The Syracuse Newspapers

Hi-fi is full of hocus-pocus. Music lovers who are looking for that magical edge in sound quality often fall for the outlandish claims of audio's lunatic fringe.

I've written about this before, and each time I debunk the subject of esoteric audio I get the same kind of mail. Some of the letter writers tell me I must be deaf or ignorant or both. Others simply insist that if I would just listen more carefully to their favorite $4,000 CD player (or $54,000 speakers or $300 coil of wire, for heaven's sake), I'd hear the difference right away.

But the difference I hear is the sound of money changing hands.

I'll admit that any hobby can be expensive. But there's something almost pernicious about an avocation that is built around unsupported claims and unconscionable price tags.

Let me give you some examples. I'll leave out the brand names here, since there are many equally harebrained products that I won't have space to mention. But all of the following are real items: A device that "burns in" the cables that run between your CD player or tape deck and your hi-fi system. It also can tune up your speaker wires. How does it do this? By the application of money—a lot of it. It sells for $200.

(Antidote to this claptrap: Wire is wire, and can't be "burned in.")

A green pen that you use to color the edge of your CDs. This makes them sound great. It "improves clarity and definition," say the folks who sell it. It's $15, and has been around for quite a few years. So have banks.

(Antidote: Guess what color money is? Second antidote: The laser beam that plays your CDs never goes near the little green band.)

A round thingie you put on the circumference of your CDs to make them stop wobbling. Naturally, this device ($15 a dozen) covers up the little green band (see above), but the folks who compete for the audiophile dollar tend to needle each other that way.

(Antidote: When's the last time you saw your compact disc wobbling? Besides, even if a rare disc actually spins off-center, the laser beam tracks it just fine; CD players are designed to do that.)

A three-foot cable that you use for your CD player in place of the one that came with it. It's got a "sweeter" sound. And more calories in the price, too - $225.

(Antidote: Radio Shack sells a cable that does the same thing—it ferries those busy little electrons here and there—for $5.)

A speaker wire (you can order any length) that has a special "bass-control conductor" (don't ask). It's fat, and it's only $3.75 a foot. Two 20-foot lengths will make your wallet leaner by $150.

(Antidote: 50 feet of zip cord—the kind of wire you get in a hardware store for house wiring—costs $145 less. And you get 10 extra feet.)

"Anti-resonant" gizmos that you stick to the back of your speaker cabinet. They convert the bad vibrations to heat and leave the good ones alone. The price for this cleverness? A mere $170 for a pair.

(Antidote: That's one heck of a smart thingamabob, able to tell the good vibes from the bad. Maybe it will turn rock into Bach, too. Further antidote: Mounting your speakers firmly on a shelf or placing them securely on the floor will do a better job of letting the good vibrations out.)

There are more, of course. But you get the point. There's also an issue we haven't touched on—the psychology of the Insecure Audiophile, who has to keep tweaking and spending to feel important.

But we'll save that for another day. I have to get out my fireproof gloves before the mail comes in again.


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