On Trying “Weird Tweaks”
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong” – Richard Feynman
Q. I will not try questionable tweaks! I will not have my intelligence insulted! I’m not gonna try anything that makes me look like an idiot!
A. I shake my head every time I hear this sort of thing expressed by conservative audiophiles. But I’m usually already in the swing of a head-shaking state when I come across it, because I hear that an awful lot. It does not bode well for the future good of our society, and I’m not just talking about audio, now. The conservative audiophile does not permit himself to discover new ideas, or new applications of old ones, if they don’t already conform to what he already knows and understands. Or what makes theoretical sense to him. No matter how far researchers may come in advancing progress in any domain, nothing will progress if people shut down mentally and refuse to try anything that is so far advanced to what they know, they can’t understand how it might work, and therefore, don’t think it’s worth considering that it might, and don’t want to try it to see if it does.
Well good gosh people, where’s the fun in that?! Are there any real audiophiles around, anymore? What do I mean by that? I mean that this hobby we have is now defined solely by the type of audio gear you buy. All it takes to be called an “audiophile” these days is to have a fat wallet, read audio reviews, buy the gear you are told to buy in them, then talk about the gear on internet discussion groups. Well that’s not how we started out! This great hobby was exclusively born out of the minds of tinkerers. Yes, “tweakers” you might say (a term they borrowed from the hot rodders, hobbyists of another persuasion). High end audio did not exist at that time. Just as with the personal computer industry, most all audiophiles, defined as people who strive for better quality in music reproduction, were in the beginning, hands-on hobbyists.
They built their own audio gear, or they took built audio gear apart, they found out what works and what doesn’t, the hard way. By trying things out. Not by sitting back and simply reading audio reviews and going out to buy what other people recommend. It didn’t exist at the time! The forefathers of our quality audio hobby were anything but lazy (of mind or spirit), and didn’t sit around and say “I don’t know if this will improve sound, but I don’t wanna chance it, so I think I’m gonna let someone else think for me on that, or decide whether it does”. It’s thanks to their pioneering efforts that we have the luxury to sit back, without ever needing to understand anything about the science of audio, and pick and choose qualty audio equipment.
The list of professional audio journalists who have heard The Belt Phenomenon, which means either products from PWB or products or techniques that are part of the same principle include (but is not limited to): Peter Turner, James Hughes, Jonathan Kettle, Keith Howard, Robert Harley, John Atkinson, Enid Lumley, Paul Benson, Carol Clark, Janine Elliot, Alvin Gold, Greg Weaver, Thorsten Loesch, David Clark. (Of course this doesn’t include the “shy ones” who’ve heard the actual products from PWB, but won’t go on record and acknowledge that!)
These are people who after all, make their living on being able to differentiate one thing from the next in audio. One might suppose one or two may be mistaken, but all of them?? It stretches credulity to believe they must all be fooling themselves, as Belt-deniers believe. Nevertheless, that’s what the deniers try to convince themselves and everyone else of. If that’s true, it raises an even more alarming issue: why should anyone take anything that any reviewer in an audio journal says at face value, if it’s so easy to fool yourself that so many professional audio journalists are susceptible to that? They could all be fooling themselves over anything that they write at any time (yes, even your favourite reviewer!). And even if they do level-matched ABX tests (the only test acceptable to the most extreme of audio skeptics) on every single product that the magazines review, well that doesn’t satisfy those who have conluded that double blind tests in audio introduce unusual stresses, fool the brain, and skew test results.
So what the hell is the truth??! Who’s right and if you think one side is, how do you know for certain it isn’t the other side that’s right? At the risk of sounding like a broken record (pun intended), who you should “believe” is yourself, and not third party “beliefs”. Audio reviews have their place, they’re usually okay as a general guide, especially for audiophiles who don’t yet have confidence in their listening abilities. But neither they, nor the audio zealots who believe everything sounds the same, should be used as a final arbiter. When we are talking about controversial products, which can be defined as all advanced audio devices, one’s own ears is the only meaningful judgment. And the value of any judgement based on that is limited to the listener.
In the pages of Stereophile’s talkback section, one audio enthusiast initialled “MJ” actually stopped in mid-completion of an experiment on PWB’s silver rainbow foil because of being suddenly gripped by the belief of “I’m not gonna try any new ideas for fear they may make me look like an idiot!”. An irrational fear at best, and thankfully, not one shared by our scientific pioneers. Ironically, MJ almost redeems himself in the very same paragraph, going on to make a very valid point. He talks about all the things once considered “weird tweaks”, that are now better understood by a larger audience, and considered mainstream applications in audio. He finishes with a sad but all-too-true statement, which I couldn’t have said better myself: “The logical flaw in many of last week’s responses is that just because you don’t know the physics of what’s going on doesn’t mean it’s not going on. I might also point out that saying all of physics works by “laws” is itself a faith-based statement…currently presumed, but only provisionally. What the “hard heads” are assuming is that something must sound plausible to them for it to conform to the laws of physics. Hardly.” – MJ
As I said, it was very ironic, considering what he stated about himself in his introduction. Another audio hobbyist in the same article, Gerald Clifton, trying what he described as a “weird tweak” (coins on speakers), even talks about being embarassed in his own home! He writes that it didn’t seem normal to him to use ordinary objects like coins in such a manner as to improve your sound, and that he had no idea how it could possibly work. Fighting his demons of shame and self-humiliation within the privacy of his own home(!), he found enough courage within himself to try it anyhow, because a reviewer he trusted advocated the idea repeatedly. He reports that “it didn’t work”. He goes on to say that he “sneaked it into dealer’s showrooms” and it “didn’t work every time” (Given his unrealistic expectations, he obviously did not read my “How To Listen” section! Which explains why his test methodology shouldn’t work).
It is important to note: Clifton then claims his “hearing is okay”, and he knows what a real orchestra sounds like from having attended many live concerts, so he rules out his listening test as being the source of the problem (his ability to hear may be okay, but that’s not all that matters!). He then goes on to mock the reviewer who advocated the “tweak”, citing that he might require psychotherapy for advocating such a silly tweak, that doesn’t work. Going so far as to ask the reviewer, Sam Tellig, to “learn a little” about these “strange things” that he claims to hear. The presumption being that once Sam realizes they have no basis in known laws of science, he will understand that he has been fooling himself and all of his readers with this “silly weird tweak idea” of his.
After reading all of this, I couldn’t keep from crying, from laughing so hard. This is what I call a “conventional tweak”, and even then, nothing special. I experimented with it years before Tellig ever wrote about it. It is a simple resonance tuning trick, clearly following rules of physics, of which there is absolutely nothing strange, unusual or new about. You can do the same tuning trick by placing coins on your record plinth, and change the sound any number of ways. Or play around with the tightness of the screws on your speaker drivers. (Perhaps if I had explained to Gerald Clifton what the coins are doing in advance of him trying it, he’d have had different conclusions!).
Yet people still approach even these ideas well established in Newtonian physics, with the same prejudices they reserve for unconventional ideas or 21st century physics, such as found in the realm of alternative audio. That if they can’t hear it, “it doesn’t work”. By the simple fact that they don’t understand how it works, combined with the fact that they failed to hear it in whatever test they may have devised, they conclude it simply doesn’t work. Then, more than likely, go on to presume that anything resembling this, doesn’t work either. So let’s just stick to upgrading our loudspeakers, because we’re fairly certain that works! (Even though it’s been proven that not everyone can hear a change of speakers either!…)
The “coin tweak” was not invented by Sam Tellig, it has been used by audio enthusiasts for many years. Joe Lee, designer of the unusual amber beads device, claims to have invented it and written about it in 1992 in a Singaporean audio journal. Not only can I hear it’s influence, but I can hear the different effects had by moving one of the coins by a couple of millimetres. I can hear the effects of different denomination of coins, as well. While it can do some very exciting things to your sound, including making the listening experience more involving, I no longer use coins because I do not care for the sonic coloration it always gave, no matter where they were placed. (Which come to think of it, kind of makes me question Mr. Tellig’s ability to discern good sound from bad, if indeed he advocates this without reservation…).
Still, in the interest of scientific exploration, I have included a detailed description of this technique (despite it being a conventional one), in my Free Tweaks! section, if you wish to try it. You can find out if, by the standard of your abilities, whether Gerald Clifton was right, and Sam Tellig requires therapy. Or if GC was wrong, and came to wrongful conclusions about a tweak. Prematurely dismissing it simply because he didn’t observe proper rules of listening, or already had too many prejudices against it, or for whatever other reasons we can only speculate upon. Because the coin tweak? I’ll stake my first-born child on the fact that it very much does have an effect on sound! Hundreds of active audiophiles have heard its effect, Gerald Clifton notwithstanding.
Perhaps these conservative minds in the pages of Stereophile are following the leader of the magazine, who’s “Atkinson’s Law” governing what products may and may not be effective on our audio systems, boils down to the same credo: “Let some more adventurous soul decide if a new idea has merit, even if it’s free and doesn’t cost you anything but a few minutes of your time to decide yourself.” All I can say is that’s a very conservative mindset. One that does not ever permit progress in any new form in the audio industry, and let me add that if the Wright Brothers had adopted it, we might still be dreaming about sailing the clouds today.
“Scientists can be wrong — sometimes, very wrong. The history of science is replete with serious errors of judgment, bad research, faked results, and simple mistakes, made by scientists in every field. The beauty of science is that it corrects itself by its own nature and design. By this means, science provides us with increasingly clearer views of how the world works. Unfortunately, though science itself is self-correcting, sometimes the scientists involved do not correct themselves. “ – James Randi, CEO and leader of the EDSC (Eternal Dogmatic Skeptics Club).
the advanced audiophile