Saturday, September 26, 2009

You Can't Live Without It

It turns out that fancy speaker wire is a hoax. This article also contains a good use of the word "pervert" about someone named Kessler.

Even "bigger is better" isn't necessarily true of speaker wire either. It just has to be big enough that the difference with the next larger size is inaudible.

Which is long and technical but, taken with the first article, means "For lengths under 50 feet, use 12 gauge hardware store lamp cord no matter how fancy and powerful your stereo and speakers are."

Being skeptical even of other skeptics, I am going to compare 12 awg (American wire gauge) lamp cord with an absurdly fancy cable. A pair of cables came with some used speakers I recently bought. I will connect the lamp cord to the right speaker and the el fancioso cord to the left and see if I can hear any difference. Then switch them and try again. If I can't hear a difference I will sell the expensive cables on eBay to recoup part of the price of the speakers.

The cables are an inch thick and a tripping hazard. Since one of them would run directly across the top of the stairs, this is an issue. The lamp cord would go safely and inconspicuously under the rug. Not being a fool, getting some money back, and not going headfirst down the stairs, are starting to look like a good alternative.

There are a number of illusory products like speakers wires. Wine is one. There are those who can tell the difference between a 2008 merlot and a 2006 one. Who can tell Santa Barbara cabernet from Napa. Mondavi pinot from Charles Krug. Most importantly they can tell $26 wine from $8 wine. The shelves at Trader Joe's are stickered all over with little signs - "earthy", "berry flavors', "chocolate-y", "fruit', "woody", "oaky", and on and on. Unfortunately they are kidding themselves.

Famously, in a blind tasting the best wine connoisseurs in France thirty years ago, people who claimed that not only could they tell which vineyard a wine came from but which part of the vineyard it was from, could not even tell whether a wine came from France or California.

For twenty years after humiliating themselves they refused any further blind tastings. After a score of years, having fooled themselves for decades, they were able to fool themselves again. They were able to persuade themselves that there had been something wrong with the test, not with their belief that they could taste subtle differences in wine. They were wrong and a second panel of French wine columnists humiliated themselves again when they still couldn't tell which was which.

Stereo amplifiers attract a similar crowd of the tone-y and self-deluded. Their palette of adjectives is even wider and more florid than that of the oenologists. As with wine there are columns and reviews and monthly magazines devoted to touting the latest and most expensive with all sorts of erudite prose.

Nevertheless, in blind comparisons they are unable to dstinguish the fanciest and most expensive amplifiers from department store models unless the latter were so bad as to be all but broken.

It is even worse for the audiophiles than for the oenophiles. The technology of reproducing a wave signal accurately has long since been perfected. And even stupider. In between the sophisticated and standardized electronic device and the listener is the crude-by-comparison speaker. Speakers are so crude and inaccurate that even mere mortals can easily tell them apart, even blindfolded. Yet the writers and opiners continue to rhapsodize over the part that is always the same and have little to say about the part that can be quite various.

Many other products are the same. Does a Rolex tell time better than a Timex? Does a fat old man in Armani look better than a young fit one in Land's End? Are Henkel knives sharper than Ikea stainless?

One benefit of the current hard times, and the benefits are few and widely scattered, is that this kind of pointless consumerist anxiety diminishes, at least for a while. In the midst of plenty one may feel poor because one can't afford a Rolex. Once the economy has made the Rolex both out of the question and ridiculous, one discovers that one has more than enough money for a Timex and isn't so poor after all.

Being forced by hard times to go down-market is a hardship UNLESS what is 'up' about the up-market is an illusion created by capitalist marketers. When the illusion evaporates, one may actually be better off for having gone down-market to goods that are both more functional and more relevant to the need they were designed to fill.

This is relevant to me lately because I have been stressing since I discovered that Abraham Lincoln, whom I admire, wore Brooks Brothers shirts. I like Brooks Brothers shirts but can't afford them and don't need them. Unlike me, Lincoln had a job.



  1. I tell you Jack, the weakest part of any sound system owned by a 62 year old are your ears. If your are going to test out your speakers, get a 20 year old to listen. They hear a lot more sounds than you do. After fifty or so you loose a lot of the high end, among other things.

  2. Anonymous9:31 PM


    Unlike you, Lincoln didn't live long enough to get his civil service pension. Go to the salvation army and get a nice used brooks brothers shirt and quit with the bitchin

  3. boychek2:28 PM

    The term often applied to brand names like Rolex and Abercrombie is "aspiration brand". Meaning the value from the item simply comes from societies perception that it is indeed valuable. I find that so perverse and offensive that I refuse to play that parlor game. With a few exceptions the shirts made for Ralph Lauren are made in the same factory as the shirts destined for Target.