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Audiophile Snake Oil

Audiophile Snake Oil

The Audiophile Wild West

Audiophiles live in the wild west. $495 will buy an "audiophile fuse" to replace the $1 generic fuse that came in your audio amplifier. $10,000 will buy a set of "audiophile speaker cables" to replace the $20 wires you purchased at the local hardware store. We are told that these $10,000 cables can be improved if we add a set of $300 "cable elevators" to dampen vibrations. You didn't even know that you needed elevators!  And let's not forget to budget at least $200 for each of the "isolation platforms" we will need under our electronic components. Furthermore, it seems that any so-called "audiophile power cord" that costs less than $100, does not belong in a high-end system. And, if cost is no object, there are premium versions of each that can be purchased by the most discerning customers.  A top-of-the line power cord could run $5000. One magazine claims that "the majority of listeners were able to hear the difference between a $5 power cable and a $5,000 power cord". Can you hear the difference? If not, are you really an audiophile?

The Audiophile Trail

If we browse through the top audiophile magazines, or search the internet for "audiophile accessories", it seems clear that great sound requires a significant  investment in esoteric components. You will find many articles, reviews, videos and advertisements describing the remarkable improvements in sound quality that can be achieved when upgrading fuses, cables, and other passive components. The audiophile trail could be long and expensive, are you prepared? There may be gold in those hills, will you find it? What trails or maps will you follow? From whom will you take advice? Who will you trust?

The Journey that Never Ends

One audiophile fuse company releases an improved model every year or two. Obviously you will want to upgrade your fuses whenever their "latest research" delivers "new technology". Remarkably, we are being told that mundane passive components, such as fuses and cables, hold the keys to great sound.

One reviewer writes; "I’ve realized how a single cable could make or break a HiFi system … it made the difference between enjoying a system – and being annoyed with it.". This reviewer goes on to say that "blind tests are pointless" and then says that "a cable could measure the same - but sound different." The reviewer claims to "have an obsession with audiophile cables". This is demonstrated by the fact that he has "spent the past five years auditioning and experimenting with over 1,000 audiophile cables". Clearly, he believes that he hears a difference, it is hard to doubt his sincerity. Has it taken him five years to strike gold, or has he been deceived by fool's gold at the bottom of a deep money pit?

The Market Craves a Cure-All

The wild west brought us the gold rush, the railroads, snake oil, and the traveling snake oil salesman.

Look at Clark Stanley's Snake Oil claims:

  • "Instant relief"
  • "The strongest and best for pain and lameness"
  • "For rheumatism, lame back, toothache, sprains, swellings, etc."
  • "Good for man and beast"

The Clark Stanley Snake Oil Liniment Co. was a success because people wanted to believe that these cure-all claims were true. His liniment was sold throughout the USA and Canada until it was tested by the US Bureau of Chemistry in 1916. He was fined $20 for peddling mineral oil as snake oil.

Compare Clark Stanley's claims to those of an audiophile fuse company:

  • "Dramatic new levels of sonic realism"
  • "Wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling soundstaging"
  • "Unparalleled resolution, dynamics, and frequency extension"
  • "Guaranteed results"

These $595 fuses seem to be a commercial success. Audiophiles crave a quick and easy cure-all. Curiously, miracle cures seem to gain more credibility when they have very high prices.

I Have Some Questions about Audiophile Fuses:

Why are audiophile fuses directional when they are protecting AC circuits? Why do these fuses require a break-in period? Why does the break-in period exceed the length of the free trial? Are these fuses custom built from exotic materials, or are they just $1 fuses that have been painted with fancy colors and graphics? I could break one open to find out, but my money-back guarantee would be void. If these fuses are custom built, do they meet applicable safety standards? Will I get "wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling soundstaging" at the risk of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling smoke?

Search the internet and you will find plenty of positive testimonials regarding audiophile fuses. Should we believe these claims?

The Truth About Snake Oil Liniment

Here is what we know about the "snake oil" that was sold in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s:

  • Some snake oils had medicinal value.
  • The medicinal value was almost always overstated.
  • The product was almost always overpriced.
  • Some snake oil was made from the wrong kinds of snakes and it had much less medicinal value.
  • Some so-called "snake oil" did not actually contain snake oil, may not have had any medicinal value. Some may have contained harmful substances.
  • Some snake oil salesmen may have believed in their product and in some or even all of their product claims.
  • Many of their customers believed that the snake oil worked for them.
  • Other snake oil salesmen knew that they were charlatans. These salesmen often used shills in the crowd who would testify to the healing properties of the medicine.
  • Modern prescription drugs are tested for safety and effectiveness. These drugs are subjected to double-blind tests in order to eliminate placebo effects.
  • Today, many over-the-counter medicinal remedies and supplements are still sold without scientific testing. Labels and advertisements use carefully worded claims to avoid regulation.
  • Curiously, you can still buy snake oil in 2024.

The Truth About "Snake Oil" Cables

  • Some "snake oil" cables may produce very small but measurable effects. In some cases, these measurable effects may reach the threshold of audibility. But in most cases, the measurable differences are too small to be audible.
  • Some measurable differences, such as velocity factor, have no impact on the analog cables used in a hi-fi system.
  • When audible differences do exist, they are almost always overstated.
  • The cables are almost always overpriced.
  • Some "snake oil" cables produce no measurable change in the audio.
  • Some audiophile cables are built from the wrong type of wire or are optimized for the wrong electrical parameters. These can actually degrade the measured quality of the audio. In some cases, these may audibly harm the sound quality.
  • Some cable salesmen believe in their product and in some or all of their product claims.
  • Many customers believe that they hear a difference.
  • Other cable salesmen know that they are charlatans. These often use shills to produce reviews that testify to the amazing improvements in sound quality.
  • "Snake oil" cable manufacturers frown on measurements and double-blind tests. Intentionally, or unintentionally, they exploit placebo effects to get sales. Power cables may not be properly tested for safety.
  • Today, many audiophile remedies are still sold without scientific testing. Labels and advertisements use carefully worded claims to avoid regulation.
  • There is no law against selling a power cord for $5000. You can buy one if you wish.

 Will you hear a difference? Are you really an Audiophile?

  • If you buy "snake oil" cables, there is a good chance you will hear a remarkable improvement in your hi-fi system. From a scientific perspective, there may not be a measurable difference in the cable, or in the audio output of your system, but there will be one more data point indicating that the placebo effect is real. You paid good money for the cables because you expected them to sound great. Expectations drive the placebo effect.
  • The placebo effect is a well-established scientific fact. It is unreasonable to assume that it does not apply to audio cables and components. Objective measurements and double blind subjective tests can each be used to determine if audible differences exist.
  • You can be an Audiophile without rejecting scientific tests, measurements, and procedures.
  • If you are truly an Audiophile, you will be willing to admit that you do not hear a difference, even when others claim that they do.
  • If you are truly an Audiophile, you may want to spend more time listening to music and less time listening to cables.

But ... I am willing to spend the money if there is a chance that it will work.

Some of Clark Stanley's customers bought his snake oil because they thought that there might be a chance that it would work. The chance of a cure justified the expense. Many continued to buy the product even when they were not entirely sure that it was working. After all, things could have been worse if I didn't start taking the snake oil.

It is not unreasonable to risk some money in hopes that there will be a good outcome. You might say; "How will I know if I don't try it?" Rest assured, there are plenty of "snake oil" salesmen that are eager to escort you down this road.

Spend Money on the Known before the Unknown

Cables, fuses, power conditioners, isolation stands and other Audiophile gadgets may make small audible and measurable differences in rare cases. Your system may even be one of these rare cases. Nevertheless, these items are high risk investments because there is little or no scientific evidence that they can produce any change in your system. At best, the differences seem to be difficult to measure.

Why not invest in audio accessories that can produce differences that are clearly audible and easily measured?

Think about the vast differences between speakers. Each set of speakers has its own voicing, even when we attempt to create speakers that are sonically neutral. Which will have a more profound impact on your system, a speaker upgrade or a new power cord? The answer should be obvious.

Likewise, room acoustical treatments can make a huge difference in the bass response of your system. They can also eliminate early reflections that can disrupt the stereo image. Are some bass notes much louder than others? Is the stereo image obscured by room reflections? Which will produce more results, acoustic panels, or an isolation platform under your power amplifier? Again the answer should be obvious.

Walk up to your speakers. Do you hear a hiss, hum, or buzz. Your system should be dead quiet. With the current state of the art, the electronics should not be producing audible noise. If you hear noise, then you need to consider replacing some of your electronics. You are never going to cure this noise problem with a new fuse, or a new power cord. It is unlikely that you will even reduce it with a power conditioner. Instead, you will need to identify the offending component or components and make plans to replace them. Start by replacing components that only support unbalanced (RCA) analog interconnects. Replace any component that cannot deliver at least a 115 dB SNR.

If possible, reduce any distracting acoustic noises in your listening room. Do you have a noisy air conditioner or a noisy heating system? Do you have a computer with a noisy fan in your listening room? Do any of your audio components have fans? If so, can you hear these noises from your listening position? Many of these problems can be solved for less than the cost of a "snake oil" power cable.

Don't be That Guy

Don't be that guy that calls up and asks us about power cords. Don't be that guy that asks us which direction to install his after-market fuses. Don't be that guy that calls us up to describe the "floor-to-ceiling" soundstage that was miraculously achieved when adding a power conditioner. Don't be that guy that spends 5 years listening to power cords. Don't be the guy that believes everything he reads in the audiophile magazines. Don't be the guy who listens to shills. Don't be an "audiofool".

Be This Guy

Be the guy that invests in great music. Be the guy who invests in great speakers. Be the guy that purchases room acoustic treatments. Be the guy who purchases noise-free distortion-free electronic components. Be the guy who listens to music. Be a true audiophile.

Audiophile Checklist*

  1. Music
  2. Speakers
  3. Room Treatments
  4. Power Amplifier
  5. Preamplifier & DAC
  6. Cables

* Sorted by importance (1 is highest priority)

- John Siau

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