Blowing the Whistle on the Great Audio Conspiracy

Blowing the Whistle on the Great Audio Conspiracy 

By: Paul Johansen

I guess the main thing that allows people to practice the gentle art of deception in all matters audio is the fact that so many aspects that involve making choices about the equipment used in the professional audio industry tend to be subjective rather than objective. People seem to hear things differently which is fairly understandable especially when you consider that they seem to see things differently as well. For example, we find people that love a certain work of art whereas others would not have the very same piece anywhere near their precious home. Some people like certain styles of music while others may well find it offensive.
This can be said of just about all things that people find the need to form opinions about, so naturally the same attitudes will be prevalent in the selection of audio hardware.
Let me make it perfectly clear at this point that I have no issue with this at all in fact I encourage people to go with what they feel is right for them. I absolutely applaud their right to do this.
The problem as I see it is that people are so often deprived of the right to have their own opinion and instead they reflect the opinions of others.  I utterly detest this situation.
For some reason, and this position has certainly not made me much money, I have always found the need to practice a stance of total honesty when talking about audio equipment to others who have an interest in it. Whether they are merely just passing comments or whether they are looking at purchasing something from me makes no difference. I refuse to tell them lies about anything and I will never deliberately deceive them in order to take money from them. This stance unfortunately has cost me considerably in the popularity stakes around Auckland but at least I can sleep at night and I have no conscience about misleading anyone.
I began my career as an assembly technician working for a company called Concord Electronics in 1967 on Aucklands North Shore. This was really a continuation of what I was already doing at home as a hobby. Building audio equipment was what I wanted to do more than anything else on earth. I took an in depth interest in what made systems work and also what made them sound different. I was also interested in what made them perform well and what may compromise that performance. This education continued to be carried through in my own endeavors at home in my workshop. My understanding of electronics gave me a huge advantage over those who had no such insight in as much as I really knew what was going on at the cliff face inside the functional intestines of the equipment in question. As I became increasingly familiar with the design tools used, such as oscilloscopes, metering equipment and audio analysers I began to get a good feel for what I was seeing with my eyes in conjunction with what I was hearing from the loudspeakers. This knowledge turned out to be invaluable when it came down to sifting through what was bullshit and what was fact, ie when it came down to making sensible unbiased judgments!
I realised fairly early in the peace that sales propaganda and me were not going to get along very well. This was most unfortunate for me as it meant that I would struggle financially if exaggerated and hyped up propaganda were going to be an important part of my becoming a successful businessman. Basically I was stuffed before I even got started but fortunately I had not realised this yet or I would have never tried to run my own business.
It all started in the late 60s when I began building guitar and PA amps for several of Aucklands top bands, so I must have been getting at least a few things right!

Psychosomatic Conditioning.

I took a big interest in psychosomatic conditioning. This one is a real ripper and also one of the most difficult to combat because you may not even be aware it is being used on you. This comes in many guises and it generally starts with shape, colour and the sound of a brand name. Sorry about this, but these things will have a huge effect on whether you buy a particular piece of equipment or not. Now lets get truthful! So how much affect should those three things  have on you, in your efforts to make the best decision about the gear that is going to work best for you? ABSOLUTELY NONE! This of course is not at all the way things usually turn out unfortunately. Manufacturers are only to well aware about this and they are able to use it to perfection in order to lure you into buying their wares. With audio equipment the only thing that really matters is how you present your talents to your adoring audience. It doesn't matter at all what the audience thinks of your equipment, it matters only what they think of you, if you are going to progress as an artist. I often wonder how many other choices would have been made by guitarists had they been listening to all of the various amplifier makes available in a music shop in the dark!
Don't be fooled by the appearance of something when you need to focus on how the sound of the thing works for you. Remember it is going to reproduce your musical contribution so you should only care about it in terms of it becoming an extension of yourself. You are generating sound not vision! Remember all that glitters is not gold.
An even more serious connotation of psychosomatic conditioning goes rather like this. What do you mean you can't hear the difference! Of course it sounds better. Now listen carefully when I swap it this time, listen to the highs?????..OK did you hear it that time??..... surely you must have.... its so obvious. This could be by way of example, some cunning shop assistant trying to sell you monster cable. Now this stuff can cost hundreds of dollars a metre and does absolutely nothing to improve the sound of an audio system, just as gold plated connectors do absolutely nothing to improve the sound! How am I so sure about this? Well its quite simple really. Earlier in this article I described how I learned to use sophisticated equipment in my desire to become a good audio engineer. This taught me that there were actually things that I could detect clearly on an oscilloscope that I could not hear at all. It also taught me what one could get away with if one was that way inclined. I soon realised that because I could never "see" the difference that deoxygenated cable or gold plated connectors were supposed to make that there was no way I was ever going to be able to actually hear any difference either.
Deceptions of this kind go further by far. A close colleague of mine who was an expert in loudspeaker design once gave me a lesson in just how far manufacturers are prepared to go to deceive people in their drive to get sales. He showed a label on the entry plate of a pair of $15000 American loudspeakers that said: "Internally wired with monster cable". This was an unforgivable red-faced lie. Between the speaker's entry plate connectors and the edge of the crossovers printed circuit board was about four inches of the dreaded "monster" cable with a neat little bend in it to make it longer, like an inverted U. The remainder of the wiring which was several metres in length if joined together was nothing more than dirt cheap hookup wire worth about 10 cents a metre! Hilarious! We both had a really good laugh over that one. Lying bastards. But it gets even worse than this. I was surfing through Rod Elliots web site and I came across a forum entry that suggested readers check out an American web site that sold little esoteric pre-amps built in copper boxes with a fancy embossed label mounted thereupon. Now these stupid little things had wooden knobs. That be as it may, no problem so far but he was telling people that he had improved the bass response of his pre-amps since he had begun using a different varnish. Hows that for gross misrepresentation. He was selling the knobs for $75 each! You could say that if people are stupid enough to buy this stuff then good luck to him. Don't give the gullible an even break. Well OK, but he's still a lying bastard.
Does psychosomatic conditioning really work? Could it work on me? Too right it could and it did. Another colleague decided to try to convince me that the Mackie mixer he was trying to sell me actually sounded better than my Soundcraft SX Spirit. I tried to explain to him that it was almost impossible to tell mixers apart by sound if the tone controls where set at zero and both where in good working condition. Well this "colleague"  said it was easy to tell the difference so I borrowed his mixer and set up a comparator to see if I could hear it for myself. Well folks you guessed it, I could, I decided that the Mackie definitely sounded clearer and I rang him to tell him he was indeed correct. This was very embarrassing for me as you can no doubt imagine. The egg on my face was there for all to see. I was dumbfounded and went home to think about this one. The next morning I walked up to the two systems and turned the volume up on both mixers and hit play on the CD player to have another listen and sure enough the Mackie, which I thought I was listening to still sounded clearer. There was just one problem though. After I left one of my staff had done the same test but left the comparator switched to the Soundcraft so as I was flicking the switch the two mixers were actually back to front. I found this out when I went to adjust the volume level on the Mackie and then realised I was listening to the Soundcraft, which now sounded clearer to me. I had to ring him up and tell him that I had got it all wrong. This is a true story.  Maybe it is a form of self hypnosis. Now sir, look into my tweeters.
No one will ever convince me that psychosomatic conditioning does not work. I was an unsuspecting victim myself.
The lies abound in audio, deception is everywhere. It's a veritable plague, objectivity verses subjectivity and subjectivity almost always wins. It will always affect us to some extent, the question is by how much? Will we allow ourselves to be unwittingly lured into the web of deceit?

So What's Inside?

This is a big one and almost impossible for the poor old purchaser to know anything about. Inside the outer case of a piece of electronic equipment is a great collection of parts all assembled in another country by people who are under a lot of pressure to keep productivity up to a high level so the company can make good profits from them. Most of this equipment, but not all, is now made in China and this can be almost any brand you can think of.  Often the country of manufacture is not even displayed clearly on the chassis or even the packing case. The government would appear to have gone to sleep on this one.
Much of it is also machine made rather than hand assembled. This generally improves both the quality and the consistency as human error syndrome tends to be largely eliminated. China produces both good and bad products and some of it is really great value for money. The stigma is quickly disappearing now. It has been some years since I saw a badly made power amplifier from China. In fact it is quite the opposite and several lower priced products I have taken the lids off  have been very nicely made indeed. Two such examples are the Mackie Tapco Juice series, and both types of  the Chinese E and W power amplifiers. Some STK amps are well made also. I believe Phonic also make a very good and grunty power amp as well.
The same thing however cannot be said of loudspeaker enclosures, although this situation seems to be improving also. To find out about what you are purchasing you need to be able to take the components out of the enclosure and this of course is highly unlikely in a retail store and even if it were you would probably not be sure of what you were looking at. It is a good idea to purchase speaker enclosures from a specialist PA dealer. They know all about loudspeakers or at least they certainly should.
A good way of learning something about the quality of a particular item is to ask a reputable serviceman what he thinks of the brand. You are far less likely to make a silly mistake if you take this precaution. The guy is probably going to tell you the truth unless he is worried about upsetting the importer who he is getting a supply of work from. If he says "no comment" thats probably an indication he does not like the stuff very much.

The Blind Test.

This is an interesting and revealing practice but strangely enough one that is seldom seen or used. The main reason it is seldom done is that it disempowers the salesman, he must now rely on your judgment alone and he may not like this fact.
Why? Because he may be getting a far bigger margin on some lines than others. Ask him if they are the NZ agents for any of the lines he is selling. He will often be under instructions to push those lines ahead of the others in his store.
A blind test uses a comparator switch to change over two similar pieces of equipment that are placed behind a screen so you don't know which one you are listening to without being told. This is a very sincere and honest way of proving whether or not the difference between two items of equipment is discernable or not. It will also tell you which one you would rather live with based on the sound quality alone. If you still decide to buy something based on how it looks, at least you will know this is the case.

Brand Names.

Buying reputable brand names can be a safe way of ensuring you get very good quality but it does not guarantee you will get the sound quality you want at all. Don't listen to anyone who tries to tell you one brand sounds better than another. That person's opinion is not your opinion and that is the only one that matters. Some international manufacturers spend a fortune creating and nurturing their image in an effort to keep a high profile. You pay for this practice whether you like it or not. It is always reflected in the final price and it is never low unless the manufacturer is using China as his production factory. Not all have dropped their prices because they have made this change. International manufacturers often strike sponsorship deals to get well known musicians to use their gear. This does not make the gear good and it just means they are probably paying someone to use it.
Getting exposure is all important, whether it is television, the stage or magazine covers. This is what sells product and keeps you fooled into believing that you should own one. Forewarned is forearmed!

Ask your self these questions:

How does it feel in my hands? How does it sound to me? Does it do all the things I want it to? Is it well featured? Will it be reliable and last me a long time? Can I get spare parts if I need them? What will its resale value be like? Does it have credibility as a whole? Can I lift it by myself up a flight of stairs if I have to? Will it fit in my car?  Don't worry about what it will look like on the album cover!
A recent article in the NZ Herald would appear to substanciate what Ive been saying. Dated May 2, 2015 Weekend Herald.
Mind trick turns cheap plonk into fine wine.

Wine tastes better if it is thought to be expensive thanks to a physical change in the brain, a study says.

The researchers found that preconceived beliefs created a placebo effect so strong that it changed neural processes.

By packaging cheap wine as a fine vintage, the drinker, enjoyed it in exactly the same physical way as if it was far more expensive:

"Studies have shown that people enjoy identical products such as wine or chocolate more if they have a higher price," said Bernd Webber, coauthor of the report, from the University of Bonn in Germany.

"However, almost no research has examined the neural and psychological processes required for such marketing placebo effects to occur."

Participants in the study, published in the Journal of Marketing, were told they would consume five wines priced at €75 ($110), €38, €3C €8 and.€4 respectively, while their brains were scanned to measure their response.

The volunteers were actually given only three different wines, with two different price tags.

Another experiment used labels to generate positive or negative expectations of the taste of a milkshake. Some consumed identical. milkshakes but thought they would be either organic or regular; others consumed identical milkshakes but thought they would be either light or regular.

Participants in both demonstrated

significant prejudices, both in how,,

they rated the taste as well as in their measurable brain activity.

The brain scan readings related in part to specific areas ofthe brain that are associated with personality traits.

The volume of grey matter in those areas of the brain — the striatum, the posterior insula, and the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex was found to moderate the taste according to the expectancy.

The authors were able to further determine that people who were strong reward-seekers or who were low in physical self-awareness are more susceptible to having their experience shaped by marketing techniques.

A study in 2012 found that shoppers would pay more for a bottle of wine if it was heavier, believing them to contain higher quality wine.

Drinking wine from a heavier glass was also said to make the same wine taste, better, because of the way the brain associates weight with value.

Telegraph Group t td


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