Audio Snake Oil
Every industry has a form of snake oil that sells big. For readers unfamiliar with snake oil, it was a product widely available in the old West from traveling salesmen who convinced suckers that the snake oil cured all sorts of ailments, prevented baldness and eliminated warts. A lot of it was sold for a long time and its variants thrive still. Whether in medicine, cosmetics, automobiles or electronics, enormous demand for cures and high performance products encourages proliferation of quack remedies and false promises for improvements. Evidently gullible people are willing to shell out big bucks for promises.
Take, for example, the cables that connect amplifiers to loudspeakers, cables that interconnect amplifiers with source components and power cords that deliver AC power from an outlet in the wall. These are items that those of us working in the audio field are all familiar with. Most of us use good quality versions of ordinary cables that have been around for 50 years, but some people use a special and expensive form of such cables that promises performance benefits over ordinary cables. That the actual merits of these special cables have never been proven seems no obstacle toward their successful marketing and sale.
By successful is meant that lots of these cables are purchased by people who aren’t complaining that they haven’t gotten what was promised. They think they have the improvements and that’s all that matters. It’s much like a placebo in drug testing. A strong enough suggestion has the power to induce a benefit in the mind, regardless whether the product actually works. Such a suggestion can be so strong that it sometimes overrides scientific test results. Double blind ABX preference tests between two power amplifiers were once voided when the results were at odds with some observers’ experience. “The test must be wrong” prevailed, even though the tests were scientifically valid, certified by experts and repeatable. With the decline of good business principles and for many the abdication of personal responsibility in favor of persuasion by others, it’s no wonder we doubt our own perceptions. “Are you going to believe me or your lyin’ eyes?” was what JR said to his wife when she caught him in bed with another woman in the TV show Dallas. So proliferation of this form of snake oil isn’t all that surprising. I sometimes wonder just how, that is in what way, such suggestions get to be so effective among people who appear intelligent. The best I can make out so far is that the suggestions are made with words. We know the power of words. “First there was the Word.” “The poets go before us.” For a long time politicians have been popularly elected after promising things that a reasonable person just knew would not be delivered.
Consider the following phrases taken from descriptions in one cable manufacturer’s website: “Musical coherence, harmonic completeness, accomplishes sonic enhancements, dynamic congestion, tonal nuance, absolute musical refinement, unusually sympathetic to a life-like reproduction, prevent interferences of the complex harmonic digital waveform.” The cost of one six foot AC power cord, described on the website that contained the above phrases is listed at just under $2,500. This cable manufacturer exhibited its products at this year’s CES show in Las Vegas, probably alongside manufacturers whose power cords sell for $2.50 and work just as well. Not reason, not facts, nor the laws of physics counteract key words that resonate with our hidden desires. That’s just the way the mind works. Nevertheless, consumers these days don’t seem to be spending as freely on audio components as they used to and it’s not the economy because they’re spending money on other things. It’s my feeling that a subconscious distrust is bothering them. They somehow suspect that the stuff being touted by audio dealers is not all it’s cracked up to be. After all, they were promised that Compact Discs were indestructible; lots better than LPs, and perfect. But their actual experience is that many CD’s sound shrill, are easily scratched so they get stuck and the new super CD’s are offered as better still.
So what happened to perfection? Having been lied to has consequences. Reluctance to whip out one’s wallet is one of them. When I first came across the outrageous promotion of these cables fifteen years ago in a trade magazine I was moved to write a letter to the editor in response to an article encouraging the use of special cables in commercial applications. The editor deemed my letter unfit to print so I calmed down and composed a technical piece on the subject, which he was willing to print. While editing it I realized that others wrote similar articles with little effect, so I scrapped the technical approach and tried non-technical logic, with the opinion piece titled “Distortion in Wire – The Emperor’s New Clothes” which was printed in Sound & Communications magazine’s July 1990 issue.
In it I warned of eventual bad consequences to workers in our field for failing to oppose the promotion and sale of snake oil. I hoped others would back me up. There was a flurry of letters to the editor, after which he said enough already. Audio trade magazines continue to print promotional stories and ads for these cables, as well as for other snake oil products. Magazines in other fields tout the cables differently. I recently came across an old piece from Forbes.com website about the success of one audio cable manufacturer who expected to sell $90 million worth of cables in 1996. Even with big marketing expenses, including all-expense-paid junkets for salespeople who sell lots of cables, this privately held company expected to make a 10% profit that year.
The company’s aggressive sales strategy provided a much higher markup on cables than on other components, so dealers could profit more by selling cables than components such as CD players and Receivers. By now that company probably sells $200 million worth of cables annually. Together with many other companies that sell similar products, their combined sales may reach $1 billion a year. Snake oil continues to sell big. What also struck me in that article was the statement “Do you really need that fancy wiring? That depends on how well you hear.”
The implication is that those who hear well can detect the benefit of the cables. Or at least that there is some benefit, however small. But fact is there is no benefit other than having pretty cables – and I don’t think that’s the benefit we’re after. In the 15 years since my opinion piece was printed, no one has ever demonstrated the performance benefit or explained it in valid technical terms. I’ve read most of the explanations and it’s a bunch of nicely worded gibberish.
Words. If their claim is valid it means engineers don’t understand how electric current flows through wire. If that’s so how did we ever manage to send a man to the moon? In the fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes the weaver con artist tells the Emperor’s minister that only those who are not stupid and fit for their job can see his magic cloth. Under such a charge which of us would admit that he can’t see the cloth? In the fairy tale a child finally sets everyone straight. “In short, it is a product where most of the value is in the mind of the buyer.”
I thought the products and services we sell should have real proven value to the client in some way other than just in his mind. Isn’t that what audio manufacturers, consultants and contractors believe and practice? Am I so out of touch with reality? How come there hasn’t been a torrent of objection by practitioners in this field who also know that these cables are snake oil?
Am I tilting at windmills? Fellow readers, now would be a good time to speak up. Or invite me to a repeatable demonstration proving the superiority of these cables over ordinary cables and I promise to passionately recant my position based on this new experience. Dare I hold my breath?
Alex Rosner is president of Rosner Custom Sound, Inc., a sound contractor in Long Island City, NY