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Audio tweaks that pinch your wallet, and maybe your pride

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Audio tweaks that pinch your wallet, and maybe your pride

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

The lunatics of audio are getting uncomfortably close to the mainstream. A recent article in the otherwise stodgy periodical Business Week gave these loonies a boost by listing gadgets and gizmos that "improve" the sound of compact discs.

None of the items mentioned in the Business Week article do any such thing. The magazine did a disservice to intelligent music lovers by failing to check the accuracy of its claims.

But it also did appreciable damage to long-standing efforts here and elsewhere to debunk the outrageous assertions of the goofballs of audio known as "tweaks"—audiophiles who are never satisfied with the sound of anything, and who are always certain that one more gadget will finally bring them into audio heaven.

Among the claims in the Business Week story are these:

  • $50 cables will improve the sound of your CD player.
  • Rubbery discs that fit under your CD player "absorb excess electrical energy."
  • A $15 green spray that you squirt onto your CD helps the laser beam read the music.
  • A $100 clamp holds the disc tight, so it sounds better.


The facts are otherwise.

Cables are usually just fine the way they come with the player (manufacturers are not about to ship bad cables with good hardware), and the ones that you can buy at Radio Shack for $1.29 are likely to work just as well as the ones that cost $50.

No discs of rubber or anything else placed beneath your CD player will absorb "excess electrical energy," whatever that is. The entire statement is nonsense.

Green felt markers don't make CDs sound better, and green sprays don't either.

This incredible hoax has been spreading for a year or two, yet no scientific tests or listening comparisons have ever shown any difference. (Indeed, there is no reason a green mark on a CD would make any difference at all.)

CDs do not need to be clamped inside the player. The laser beam tracks them just fine unless the player is not working right—and the only thing that will help then is a trip to the repair shop.

The current mania of tweak-speak started about 10 years ago, when the first CD players were introduced. Many of the initial compact discs were poorly recorded, and some of the first CD players did not sound good. It was a bad combination, and it made many reviewers appreciate the good old days of needles and records.

But CDs and their players improved rapidly, and today there is practically no difference in sound quality between cheap players and expensive ones. (The top-dollar models usually have more features, however.) The best CDs of 1991 have a breathtaking sound quality, far better than most LP records of a decade ago.

Yet the crazies on the fringe keep cooking up ways to "improve" the sound of CDs. They have even come up with special compact-disc cleaners—liquids that you spray or wipe onto a CD—when in reality CDs don't even need to be cleaned; the laser beam focuses right through any dust or dirt on the surface.

One company even makes gold-plated CDs. The extra-shiny coating is supposed to reflect the laser beam with greater accuracy. The truth, however, is that the player's laser pickup already detects more of the signal than it needs, and thus the gold serves only one purpose—to empty your wallet as quickly as possible.

The tweaks also have insisted that CD players costing $2,000 and more—about 10 times the price of typical players—sound far better than normal players do.

Although this may be true, it has never been proven in actual use. CD players are like digital watches. The cheapest watches are just as accurate as the most expensive ones, and the cheapest CD players work just like the ones that break the bank. Their digital circuits do the same thing, no matter what the advertisements say.

If you are in the market for a CD player, trust your ears when you shop around. If you can detect a difference, buy the player that sounds best. If you can't, go for the cheapest one you can find. They usually start at $100.

You can use the money you save to buy more CDs—and to laugh at the tweakers, all the way to the bank.

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