The War Against Alternative Audio
(Fought from the well-financed trenches of the C.A.E.1)
[ 1Conservative Audio Establishment!]
I have witnessed all across the audio community and even outside of it, a stupefying and pervasive degree of violent hostility towards anything that looks, acts or smells like a “tweak” in audio. In fact, just calling them “tweaks” is a way of degrading the products, as this is how it is often used or viewed in the community. In the practice of Beltism, the devices are known as “treatments”, and not “tweaks” (which implies “gadgets” that just give a lift to your main system). Also because you are treating objects, you’re not “tweaking” them.
The hostility often found on the net towards so-called “tweaks”, and those who advocate them, is scary. Sick, even. This kind of cynicsm and extreme skepticism certainly isn’t a glowing sign of a healthy mind. Yet this hostile attitude can be seen in the words of so many professional audio journalists (who ought to know better), so many practiced audiophiles, and even so many audio dilettantes, such as ex-magicians who’ve made a career out of being a skeptic.
In professional circles, where money is concerned, the backlash against alternative audio can be felt, as well as heard. Ever get the feeling that your exposure to the world of audio is being manipulated by the whims and will of those who control the audio press, just as it is done with newspapers? One example that I might be referring to, is that they will most often report on products that have some backing. You will not necessarily find reviews on products from smaller, more obscure companies, irregardless of the type of product.There appears to be product choice (and other) biases present throughout audio magazines of all nations, so I tend to take what is written in these publications with many grains of salt.
Not trying to sound like a conspiracy nut here, but following my research and my own experiences, it has become clear that there is a determined unwillingness to discuss and report on alternative theories. The AES won’t even entertain such controversial audio devices, as produced by 1388, PWB, Shun Mook, Machina Dynamica, etc. A good reason why you won’t these products in peer-reviewed journals like the JAES. It’s the same reason you won’t find full reviews on such controversial products in major print publications like Stereophile. The concerns of the JAES, Stereophile, and the rest of the “Conservative Audio Establishment” may be egoistic, but they are very much real. They are all part of the same concerns I described elsewhere in these pages, that drove the head of the medical research team that was conducting blind tests on the PWB phenomenon, to suddenly discontinue testing right after an article in Stereophile written by J.G. Holt and damning Peter Belt (see below), was released.
They are the same concerns you find in the business community, the religious community and everywhere else. These conservative establishmentarians feel they have an “image” to uphold and they don’t want to even risk being regarded as fools by their peers, or especially their backers, by entertaining the notion of such controversial subjects as the advanced audio products have become. (Of course, they are only controversial because of the conservative minded establishmentarians that create the controversies and fallacies around them in the first place!). The CAE (of which the AES is part of) basically hold the keys to the castle, and they decide who in the audio industry gets accommodation, and who gets left out. So these days, it’s pretty much left to the smaller upstarts, ie. the web-based audio magazines, to allow for any attention whatsoever to advanced audio products, for the reasons I’ve given. One reason the audio webzines may be more inclined to allow such “controversial” products to be evaluated, is they simply have less to lose, reputation-wise and financially. Welcome to The Politics of Audio 101!
This problem of ostracizing advanced audio within the audio publication industry goes beyond the “do they work?” question. The question to ask here is if they do work, how does that help major audio publications? Companies producing alternative audio concepts are usually much smaller, and can’t “feed the machine” as well as more established audio equipment manufacturer’s. For if people are not buying new equipment all the time, and simply upgrading what they have, or buying used equipment and then improving it beyond the standards of new equipment with such alternative audio products, this threatens manufacturers of conventional equipment. The so-called “bread and butter” of the audio industry. Which scares the holy heck of most audio publications, that rely on adverising from major equipment manufacturers.
The one publication that doesn’t rely on such advertising, Consumer Reports, is to high end audio what fish are to pocket billiards. Then there is also pressure put upon the reviewers, many of whom regret having spoken out about positive differences obtained by “weirrrrd” alternative audio products, because of the backlash. A good example of this peculiar mental illness in the conservative audio establishment can be found in the newsletter report below of the GSIC-10 chip, by long-time neurotic UK audio journalist, Ken Kessler.
The article starts out saying that even one of the vendors selling the chip is skeptical about it, even though he hadn’t yet tried it! It doesn’t get any more ridiculous, does it?! Kessler himself openly declares that he is cynical and hostile towards so-called “tweaks”, calling himself an “anti-tweak”. And this is an audio journalist, folks, who’s job it is to inform all of us of what does and doesn’t sound good in audio. Regardless of a product’s pedigree or operational concept! He makes no secret of his prejudices against the chip, despite knowing nothing about it (he starts off calling it “caca” before even reviewing it), and despite knowing that one of the most respected names in audio engineering had advocated the device, as Kessler himself points out. He’s not the only one against the GSIC, mentioning John Atkinson attacking it in print in March, with further attacks against the GSIC by Jim Austin and Sam Tellig in May and June of the same magazine!
Furthermore, out of all three of these journalists who attacked the product, two of them never even tested it! Austin offers his pure subjective conjecture opinion on the device, but presents this to the reader as “fact”, based on a Pepsi challenge he read about. He goes on to call the chip “obvious snake oil” and that any differences heard from it, such as what Stereophile describes as the “fabled” audio engineer John Curl heard, are “imaginary”. Which is of course a completely groundless assertion, considering that he never analyzed it, admits that he knows not how it works, and has never even evaluated it under subjective review. The article is simply editorializing.
Jim Austin continues, in his article, to shower audiophiles with further pearls of wisdom by declaring that even “real devices” (having already deduced the GSIC chip is not “real”, by some sort of psychic audio reviewer powers he apparently posesses), even “real effects”, are so subtle that you can only hear them if you have “a very good ear” and “lots of listening experience”. Given that my grandma, who has no idea what an “audiophile” is, has been able to discern differences from the results of my Beltist experiments, either Jim Austin is pitifully misguided from start to finish, or granny came on the spaceship with Kal-El from the planet Krypton.
Back to Kenny. For some strange reason, despite all these prejudices, Kessler is given the task of reviewing the device. As though Stereophile could not possibly find anyone else in the world that hated these sort of things any less, and might have a chance of running an impartial test. His attitude towards reviewing the chip is “It can’t hurt”, and that he’s only “doing the chip a favour” by gracing it with a test review, because an audio engineer that he respects heard it and said it was effective. This is why I wrote elsewhere that it is an extreme challenge to sell advanced audio products today! This is such a hostile environment for a product like the GSIC-10, that it would have to get up and dance and sing “Toré Malinos!” to impress a reviewer like this. (Whereas all an amplifier has to do is not blow up….). Nevertheless, with all odds stacked against it, the chip impresses! Kessler engages a dozen seasoned pros to listen to the GSIC-10 chip and almost all of them could discern its effect.
He even goes on to say its one of the most successful listening tests he’s ever undertaken. Yet despite this, he still uses language that shows he has little regard for the device! Even going so far as to title his report: “The Intelligent Chip: Mumbo and indeed, Jumbo”. Instead of being convinced the chip works as advertized, he concludes by saying he’s “not yet ready to dismiss it as total codswallop”. Which means that after nearly a dozen audiophiles hearing its effect in one of the most successful tests he’s ever encountered, he is nevertheless still en route to dismissing the GSIC chip. Typical of such audio journalists, Kessler behaves towards “tweaks” that he deigns to review as though he’s an American soldier, the GSIC chip is Viet Cong, and this was the Viet Nam war. Instead of the high end audio hobby it’s supposed to be!
All the other listeners in the tests he conducted were said to have not heard the effects of other so-called “tweak” items; including audiophile cables, audio equipment supports, and even speaker spikes, but they heard the effect of the GSIC each time. Despite the results of this, Kessler admits his confidence was negatively affected by the negative attacks of his Stereophile cohorts on the GSIC chip. Despite the fact that most of them never heard it, let alone tested it extensively with at least a dozen test subjects! Interesting how the opinion of our peers dominates over our own experience in our society, isn’t it? Even with professional audio reviewers with over 25 years experience, who should know better!
Kessler explains that after Stereophile’s editor, a couple of other Stereophile staff members, and even a reader writing in all questioned his ability to discern differences or think rationally. With this affecting his reputation and shaking his confidence in himself, he insisted on asking one of the participants, who’s ears he trusts, to redo the test. Putting all his trust in the opinion of this, what he called “the most important reviewer”, Kessler was hoping, one might imagine, that the “important reviewer” would reverse his findings, and then Kessler could report to all that indeed, the opinion of the “most important reviewer” demonstrates that all the GSIC naysayers who didn’t take the test were right all along. That the GSIC chip was a hoax as everyone thought… and not to worry, all is right again in the world of high end audio. Frankly, it boggles the mind that someone this insecure and this prejudicial is being paid to review audio equipment professionally! And in one of the world’s oldest and most prominent audio magazines, at that.
Despite Ken Kessler trying as hard as he could to hate the GSIC and declare it an utter failure to one and all, unfortunately for the offices of Stereophile, the “important reviewer” aced the test, identifying the effects 100% of the time. Most notably in this typical tale of anti-tweak prejudice, the “important reviewer” did not want to believe his own results. And neither did Ken Kessler as he admits. Who forgot he was supposed to be playing the role of an impartial and professional audio journalist! He ends his anti-tweak tweak review with this brilliant conclusion:
“Make of it what you will, but I think it’s still too early to write off the Golden Sound Intelligent Chip as mere audiophile drivel.”
So instead of informing the reader that yes, the GSIC chip does appear to work, according to the most successful listening test in Kessler’s personal history as an audio reviewer, and according to multiple tests by his most “important” reviewing associate, the one who’s opinion he places all of his trust and faith in, he informs us that “it may still be too early to write off the GSIC chip as audiophile drivel”. In other words, after nearly a dozen successful ID’s of its effect and a rematch, he’s still en route to dismissing the product, and doesn’t even offer a recommendation for it.
For the manufacturers of conventional audio, if their products were treated with this much antipathy in audio reviews, particuarly those that provide heavy support for the magazines, the flak from that would start toppling careers. If there is such a thing as “bigotry” in the audio industry, well its clear which niche market of audio products consistently receives the brunt of it…… If you are or ever plan on being an audio journalist, and you can barely contain your prejudice against a product or an entire class of products (such as advanced audio devices), please, do the audiophile world a favour and do not review it!
It is unfair to companies that put a lot of research, work and money into a product to suffer this kind of discrimination by professional audio journalists that lack proper journalistic ethics, and it does no service to audiophiles who look to audio reviews for information about products. Not just “personal opinion” from reviewers who don’t bother to review them, such as the reviewers in Stereophile who in print apply the term “bullshit” to products they’ve never tested, or reviews from reviewers who refuse to believe their own test results. For whether you’re a professional reviewer or armchair audio critic, if you’ve never heard a given product, you have no opinion on it!
Being skeptical is not a bad thing in itself, as there really are things in this world that are bogus, and critical thinking shouldn’t be put aside for every situation. There’s such a thing as being too skeptical however, and that’s not a good thing for anyone. But unfortunately, the way it works is, it’s the kind of thing where you will generally never come to realize that you were wrong all along. Because perpetual cynics & skeptics, with their runaway egos, don’t give themselves a chance to be wrong. In their minds, they are always right. In the presence of attitudes like this, the music suffers, and so does the music lover. Without ever realizing it. Other music lovers may be penalized as well. Because they read articles by so-called “audio experts” like the above, and believe in what they read, instead of taking the trouble to find out for themselves what is and isn’t true for them.
Finally, the last thing penalized by this proliferation of ignorance, is dear old science. If a device really does work, and is based on little or unknown scientific principles, they never will be known if dismissed outright as being invalid, without empirical testing by the naysayer.
“L’Affaire Belt”, J.G. Holt, Stereophile, Dec. 1987 : A Critique
In “L’Affaire Belt” published in 1987, Stereophile’s then chief editor and founder,J. Gordon Holt, writes a dismissive article against Peter Belt, that is later used by all the derisive Belt-bashers on the net for the next 20 years, to justify immediate unwavering dismissals of anything Peter Belt ever put out. Of course, without feeling the slightest need or sense of responsibility in trying a single one of Belt’s products or ideas themselves before dismissing it all.
The article is entirely an editorial opinion piece, and not a proper review of any of the products. It is far from conclusive, and even farther from the notion of being “scientific”. It’s basically just Holt ranting about “absurd devices” at “outrageous prices”, and he doesn’t even pretend to be objective in it. Which is ironic from a man who also rants about the lack of objectivity in the audio press. His article starts off mischaracterizing Mr. Belt as a “paranoid alarmist”, who “read some articles about the growing evidence of overhead power lines posing a health hazard for people living near by, and devised a number of “arcane gadgets” to deal with neutralizing their effects”. While the devices do purport to neutralize adverse effects, that isn’t at all how the story got started. But JG Holt isn’t a responsible journalist who cares whether his facts are true or not, so that’s the story that most critics will understand when they read about Mr. Belt. You can read the real story here: Full Letter To Greg Weaver
It shows that observation of the phenomenon did not occur after linking a possible theory to it. The implication that a problem was discovered and a solution had to be found for it, is flat out wrong. It occured before the hypothesis was ever devised. The hypothesis given at the time was simply to try to explain the phenomenon, and because an explanation is always required by the press and the consumer alike. An accurate explanation is not so easy when you have discovered a phenomenon no one else in the world has prior to you, and it can not be objectively measured or recorded. So the EMI hypothesis that Holt alludes to was the best one that fit at the time. But as Belt’s research continued and he learned more about the phenomenon, the EMI explanation no longer fit. Again, to those audio cynics who continue to read and cite the outdated Holt rant in online forums today, they believe whatever Holt told them about Mr. Belt. Because like Holt, they are already inclined to be dismissive of Mr. Belt’s products without experiencing them.
In the article, Holt mentions having tried the devices at his home, but doesn’t say what he tried, how he tried it, how many experiments he did, what controls he used, if any, and if he offered them to anyone else to try. He does however mention that he didn’t expect to hear any difference, and then goes on for two more pages describing why he believes no one is hearing any real changes from these products. Which can also be summed up as the “reverse placebo effect”. Here’s an experiment to learn a little more about that:
“Wait until a friend in work drinks a cup of tea. Say to him. “you didn’t use THAT water did you? They found a rotting pigeon in the tank. The last person to use water from THAT tap was off sick for a week” Within a short time the poor guy who drank the perfectly normal, healthy and wholesome water will be feeling unwell! You have just turned a harmless cup of tea into a negative placebo.” – Tony Jeffs
Even if he doesn’t become ill, he will at least have believed that the water was foul, and not want to continue drinking from the cup of tea, even though it was all good. He will have made presumptions that the information he has is correct, and then based his actions to not continue to try the tea, on a belief he now has. Mired in false presumptions. Sound familiar? It’s the pattern used by all audio skeptics when they believe that an advanced audio product is not good, and they do not want to try the product, but are basing their beliefs on false presumptions, or “knowledge” that is incorrect.
What is never mentioned by the audio critic whenever he levies accusations of “placbeo” or “suggestibility” against products that have somehow offended his sensibilities, is that suggestibility/placebos work both ways. They are all expectations of one sort or another (positive/negative). So it is imperative that you take a different approach than the usual one-sided one, otherwise, you will never be able to come to any decisive conclusions about any audio product at all. Ever! You’ll have to decide at some point, whether a change you think you are hearing is indeed a change you are hearing. And if you recognize it as a change you are hearing, it shouldn’t matter why you are hearing it (so long as you continue to hear it).
Back to the misguided JGH. Mr. Holt started his article by citing the fact that numerous well-regarded British audio journalists, including his own John Atkinson, heard and reported the fact that Mr. Belt’s devices do work on improving the sound. This also included Martin Colloms, Paul Crook, Jimmy Hughes (despite his skepticism), and Alvin Gold. Of course, since JG Holt alleges that he couldn’t hear any differences, he makes the claim that all these other professional audio journalists must be suffering from suggestibility. Including Jimmy Hughes, who JGH admits was skeptical about the products. So suggestibility trumps skepticism, according to Mr. Holt. Unless of course, he’s the one being skeptical.
He criticizes Belt’s hypotheses, which is fair to do, but does it in unfair ways (such as making the claim that Belt claimed it was all “incontrovertible fact”). He stops just short of suggesting Belt is a fraud (after seeing his lawyers out of the corner of his eye, shaking their heads to and fro), and then suggests there’s a possibility “he may be on to something” (where have we heard that before…). He goes back to fair again, by admitting there are times when the skepticism of the scientific establishment was wrongheaded over things which “don’t fit the pattern”, and even admits “the scientific method has sometimes served high-end audio very poorly”.
Then he makes a blatantly false statement by claiming “we must take Belt’s word that the devices work properly”, as though listening to see if they do is not an option as it is for all other audio products in Stereophile. Fully none of Belt’s devices are sold on the basis that “we must take his word that they work as claimed”. I don’t know anyone crazy enough to do that. People will only purchase them if they hear that they do. Holt goes back to fair once again when he invites the possibility that there may be something to all this, but then unfair when he says his “gut feeling” tells him it’s utter nonsense. “My gut feeling tells me its no good” is hardly a scientific approach, and from someone who is so fond of the scientific method too, tsk, tsk.
Next, to explain how so many “normally” rational people (presumably referring to his audio journalist colleagues) can hear changes wrought by Belt devices, he offers the revelatory and unique explanation of: suggestion. (Yes, its such an original thought, it even deserves to be set apart with a semi-colon). He then makes me laugh profusely by ending the piece with the commentary that in 1987, we were reaching the limits of human perception! Perhaps he simply forgot to qualify that he was referring to the limits of his perception. He talks about a level of perception so high, that you are “responding to the sound at an emotional rather than analytical level”. As any Naim owner will tell you, you don’t need a $400,000 dollar audio system to experience that. A Nait 1 will do just fine (current value: about $500).
Holt, now casting himself as an expert on all things Beltish, writes:
“Thus, when perceptions are so indistinct as to be wide open to interpretation, we will tend to perceive what we want to perceive or expect to perceive or have been told that we should perceive. This, I believe, explains the reports that Peter Belt’s devices work as claimed.”
As a true expert on Beltish things, with actual experience, I can cite many times when I first tried a Belt technique or device, and was absolutely not expecting it to work. Then it did. I can also recount many times when I explained what I was doing to another listener, have them find it incredulous, and then change their opinion on that when they hear the difference it makes (not all take the same amount of time to get that). Holt of course, doesn’t have an explanation for that in his simple placebo effect theory.
He continues to list his complaints about “L’Affaire Belt”, saying that what bothers him so much about the phenomenon, is the “alacrity with which supposedly rational, technically savvy individuals have accepted, on the basis of subjective observation alone, something which all their scientific and journalistic background should tell them warrants a great deal of skepticism”. Apparently, someone didn’t inform Mr. JG Holt that there is no objective way to measure a Belt device, since it has no relation to the signal or sound pressure waves. How else are these audio journalists supposed to observe them?!
Next Mr. Holt goes even further out there, and starts to blame the educational system in the US and (apparently) the UK, saying they’ve graduated scientific illiterates for 40 years. I could have sworn that the UK is where Stephen Hawking was educated but… what do I know. How strange though, that so many US and UK audio magazines, including Stereophile, should be hiring these scientific illiterates who have admitted hearing differences under Beltist techniques and devices, to write for them. After sharing his belief that we have already come close to the limits of human perception in audio, Holt then suggests that we may also have already reached the limits of technology in general, by writing “we are expected to pretend to be open to the possibility that today’s flight of technofantasy may prove to be tomorrow’s truth, no matter how unlikely.”, adding that he “doesn’t buy it”.
This is a portrait of John Gordon Holt being oblivious to the fact that many of histories unlikely technofantasies did prove to be tomorrow’s truth. I don’t think that at the time he wrote this article, Holt was open to the possibility of programmable matter. The idea that we may one day see products who’s physical or chemical makeup can be changed at the touch of a switch. To the backward-thinking J.G. Holt’s of the world, that’s an “unlikely flight of technofantasy” and we shouldn’t even be open to the possibility that it may at some time prove to be true. However, this idea may in fact prove to be tomorrow’s truth, due to those who don’t share J.G. Holt’s limited view of our world, and proposed the idea of artificial atoms (only a year or so before this Belt article was published).
In yet another hard blow to truth and decency in journalism, Holt goes on to say that while he doesn’t have a degreee in physics or EE, he has a “conceptual grasp of these that exceeds many of the designers of audio equipment” (and this is him being modest, we’re told). He explains that it is this grasp he has that has been “defaced” by Peter Belt. Really? Did I miss the introduction of the legendary “J. Gordon Holt amplifier”? Why hasn’t he designed audio equipment that rivals the other fine equipment out there? One would have to imagine that PWB has a good conceptual grasp of physics and EE, since he designed one of the world’s only orthodynamic speaker systems and head phones.
Peter Belt actually designed leading edge technology at the time of his conventional audio engineering phase, which was very well reviewed by the audio press, and Holt? Well, he may have designed the cover of Stereophile once, but despite his professed “conceptual grasp of physics/EE” that all other engineers must stand in awe of, I have not heard of J.G. Holt even meeting, let alone exceeding the accomplishments in conventional audio engineering that Peter Belt, the audio engineer that he claims has ‘defaced’ EE and physics, has made.
In the next paragraph, Holt talks about how mental processes have been proven to affect physical health, and on this note, Pope Holt gives us his official blessing that we can buy Belt’s products and enjoy them despite our naive suggestibility (a theory he’s never proven). Adding that “preserving an image of rationality among colleagues” is important, so you shouldn’t admit to anyone what they cost. Finally, Father Holt who is only looking out for us naive and gullible audiophiles, is fraught with worry that we “suggestibles” may kill ourselves with Belt products. Because we who live under high power voltage lines will assume we are safe under intense magnetic fields. Hmmm… I wonder if there’s been a higher mortality rate among Beltists vs. conventionalists, since 1987? Naturally, I had to research this, and my findings have shown that the total number of Beltists killed by using PWB products is officially…. zero. Here’s how that breaks down:
TOTAL NUMBER OF PEOPLE KILLED BY BELT PRODUCTS: 0
TOTAL NUMBER OF PEOPLE KILLED BY CONVENTIONAL ELECTRONICS: PLENTY
The discrepancy in the statistics above may be accounted for by the fact that conventional audio products run on electricity. This has all kinds of unexpected consequences. For example, some people have a nasty habit of listening to the radio in the bathroom, and then it falls into the tub and…. well, what you end up with is a fried conventionalist, who was not saved by Holt’s rant against buying Belt’s products. The reason no Beltists have been killed by PWB’s products, is because none of their products are electrical (yes, despite the name “PWB Electronics Inc”). I suppose that doesn’t preclude any of us naive, gullible and suggestible Beltists swallowing a Red X Pen upon believing it might be licorice, after someone suggests to us that it is both edible, and delicious. But at least Mr. Holt has nothing to worry about us killing ourselves from “intense magnetic fields”, because the EMI theory was long since dropped.
Holt is kind enough to tell us in the final line of his three page anti-Belt rant:
“If, despite all this, you want further details about these audio placebos….”
Apparently, Holt did all the necessary scientific studies to prove the products were “placebos”, but forgot to include them in his article. Or, if not, then Holt is simply being shockingly irresponsible in calling those products “placebos”, having done no formal review on any of them, having offered them to none of his reviewers, and simply citing one vague allusion to his personal experiences with them as evidence. Okay. So in the end, J.G. Holt provides a charming lesson in how not to write an audio review. Ken Kessler, above, must have studied it intensely.
“I appreciate science, but also believe that it has it’s limits. The fact remains that those who rely solely upon a scientific prism to peek out at reality, exhibit more head-in-the-sand neuroticism than cognitive sobriety. “
— Mark Bucksath
the advanced audiophile