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Why the hi-fi lunatic fringe hates me
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Why the hi-fi lunatic fringe hates me 


Technofile for March 16, 1997
This is an expanded version of the column that appears in print.

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

High-fidelity enthusiasts sometimes treat their hobby as if it was a religion and they were its high priests. Once you understand their attitude, you can see why anyone who disagrees with these occultists is treated with contempt.

And that's where I stand, judging from the mail I get from the lunatic-fringe hi-fi crowd. The latest letter ridiculed a statement I had made about a peculiar practice among these addicts. They seem to think that smearing the edge of a compact disc with green ink makes it sound better. I thought the notion was crazy, and I said so.

"You only need to hear the difference to know that it works," the letter writer said. "If you spent less time being cute and more time investigating this phenomenon and others that improve the sound of audio playback systems, you would discover something you obviously have never realized—that you don't know everything there is to know about high fidelity. You might even discover that you know very little. The sad part is that your readers will take what you say as authoritative, when, in fact, what you are writing is based on ignorance and simple laziness."

I need not defend myself against a charge of laziness. I write these columns and the many other things I publish on my own time, when I am not at the office. (My job involves training, program writing, debugging and general fixing.) I also spend my own time answering mail, which is now reaching 100 e-mail letters a day. But I believe readers deserve to know the facts about the subjects I present in these columns.

The facts about the Green Felt Marker Syndrome are easy to relate. No one has ever used the scientific method to show that coating the edge of a CD with green ink does anything to improve the sound. By "scientific method," I mean a standard set of comparison tests in which the so-called "double-blind" technique is used.

The double-blind method makes sure both the subjects who are auditioning the sound and the persons administering the tests cannot influence the results. There is only one way to ensure this: No one is allowed to know which CD is playing. I'll explain this more broadly: The accuracy of any comparison is compromised if the listeners or others in the room know which test recording they are listening to.

This may seem like a curious way to do a comparison test. Keeping the listeners from knowing which CDs have green edges and which don't may make perfect sense—after all, we're trying to make the comparison fair—but why keep the folks who are doing the testing ignorant?

That's where the "double" part of the term comes in. If the test administrators know which CDs are being auditioned, they may send out cues, even without realizing it. A typical cue goes something like this: "OK, you've heard the first recording. Now pay careful attention to the next one." Who wouldn't be able to guess that the second one is something special?

(I've conducted many blind and double-blind tests over the years. Many years ago, when I was cockier and less wise, I thought I could conduct blind tests without giving away the identities of the recordings I was playing. I now know that no one who administers such a test is able to stay out of it; there will always be cues, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, that can give listeners a clear idea which recordings they are listening to.)

As for the charge of being ignorant about high fidelity, I have no pretensions. As an avid hi-fi fan who built his own loudspeakers 40 years ago and mastered his own state-of-the-art recordings over the last 20 years, I've been delighted to discover that there is still much to learn about the way sound works and the way we hear. And as an audio critic with a 15-year association with Fanfare, a major publication in the hi-fi field, I know something else—rubbish is not just something you throw out with the trash.


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