Skeptic News: An Audio Spectacular

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


An Audio Spectacular

This week’s newsletter is all about those sweet, sweet sounds. There’s a story about Spotify, starring Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Joe Rogan. And one about expensive audiophile-level computer hardware. On top of this, some of you might be interested to hear that we’re going to try something new with the newsletter soon, something audio related...

Craig and I are hoping to get together online and audio record some of the things we write about in the newsletter as a fortnightly podcast. For those of you who might be interested in listening to this newsletter on the way to work instead of reading it when you get there, we’ll let you know what it’s called and where to find it once we’ve sorted everything out. We’ll talk about our stories, and probably chat a little about what we think of them. We may also at times be joined by some of our fellow committee members, including Daniel Ryan (who’s a keen activist and may want to tell us what he’s been up to) and Bronwyn Rideout (who’s written a few articles for us already, and we’re hoping will write for us more regularly)..

Speaking of Bronwyn, she’s written us a piece about why she’s a skeptic, so I’ll start with that before diving into my audio news.

Mark Honeychurch

Why I am a Skeptic

Bronwyn Rideout

What do the Brontosaurus, Harry Houdini, and a phrenology bust have in common?

Each played a part in my journey towards skepticism.

I would wager that at one point in their lives, the readers of this newsletter could unabashedly name their favourite dinosaur; mine will forever be the brontosaurus*. As a youngster in the early 90s with a penchant for intense special interests, access to cable TV stations such as the CBC and PBS more or less did a lot of the heavy-lifting in educating me about these long-deceased reptiles when the offerings of my small-town library and the patience of my beleaguered teachers were exhausted. The release of the first movie in what would become the Jurassic Park franchise provided a boon of documentaries of variable quality, but with a consistent message about the science behind the dating of fossils. While these explanations were excessively simplified in retrospect, the knowledge that fossils can be millions or even billions of years old had a seismic impact on an 8-year old who had only heard the earth described as being thousands of years old.

The next step in the devolution of my religious beliefs and the evolution of my skepticism involved seances. I have long forgotten the original context (it was likely Halloween related) but I was introduced to the exploits of Harry Houdini through a school assignment. The reading may have been about the Chinese Water Torture Cell, but I went straight to the school library once I learnt that he was not a fictional character. Luckily, it was more difficult to outpace the school librarian as there were quite a few books on Houdini-related subjects. Unfortunately, many were inclined to say that ghosts existed and presented photographic evidence in support of that thesis, instead of exposing spirit photography as the outright fraud it was. Harry Houdini and his ilk were frequently presented as killjoys, but I was impressed by the methods he applied to debunk mediums, and the simplicity of the challenge he put forth to prove if communication in the afterlife was possible. From this starting point, I was introduced to the efforts of James Randi and others in illuminating the tools of deception utilised by sheisters and scammers. More so than radiometric dating, this knowledge has been incredibly applicable in my day-to-day life when avoiding faith healers, youth groups, and multi-level marketing pitches.

When I was 11, I was in health class and bored with yet another lesson about the food pyramid. As I flipped through a text book that was well past 15 years out of date, I saw this bizarre photograph of a phrenology bust on the first page of a chapter called “Quackery”. Well, shit, I was enthralled by the different devices and treatments that were supposed to cure cancer, diabetes, and hair loss. But alongside the hilarity, there was the gravity of the deceit and greed that motivated these oftentimes literal snake oil salesmen to peddle these products, and the resulting destruction to the health and finances of their victims. This chapter was not included in the curriculum or taught to any of the students nearly 30 years ago and, in light of current events, I wonder if that was short-sighted. Thus, in the pursuit of my own career in health, I’ve expanded upon that lesson by taking on an evidence-based practice. I see it as my professional responsibility to educate the public about the realities of research informing hospital policies, the marketing of health products, and misinformation in mainstream and social media. 

* Do not come at me with Brontosaurus vs. Apatosaurus discourse. I know what I wrote.
19 Dino-mite Brontosaurus Facts That Kids Will Love

Moving away from Spotify

I’m not normally one for jumping on bandwagons, but when I saw friends posting on Facebook over the last few days that they were cancelling their Spotify subscriptions, I figured this was one cause I could get behind.

As many of you will know, a couple of years ago music streaming service Spotify bought the rights to both the back catalogue of Joe Rogan’s podcasts and new episodes going forward. Joe Rogan has promoted all kinds of nonsense on his podcast before, where he interviews people on the fringes about their ideas. This has included conspiracy theorists, known racists and UFO believers, although recently he’s had a focus on COVID, and unsurprisingly has been promoting dubious cures while casting doubt on vaccines and masks.

The Joe Rogan v Neil Young furore reveals Spotify's new priority: naked  capitalism | Eamonn Forde | The Guardian

It’s worth considering what Joe himself had to say about the misinformation on his podcast, which I featured in a previous newsletter:

“I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron, and I’m a cage-fighting commentator who’s a dirty stand-up comedian... I’m not a respected source of information - even for me.”

It’s a pity Joe doesn’t heed his own words and stop promoting opinions he realises are not to be respected - but then Spotify have paid him a lot of money to make his opinions public (~US$100 million).

This week musician Neil Young gave Spotify an ultimatum - either get rid of Joe Rogan, or remove his music from their streaming service. Having invested a lot of money in Joe, Spotify chose to protect their investment, and removed Neil’s music. Apparently 30% of all online listens to Neil’s music have been through Spotify, presumably as they are the pioneering streaming service and as the incumbent have a lot of users who signed up when there were no alternatives, users who haven’t shopped around since. So this is no small loss for Neil’s pocket. Joni Mitchell has also asked for her music to be removed, and given how political musicians can be, I wonder if others will follow.

Neil Young Demands His Music Be Removed From Spotify Over “Fake Information  About Vaccines” | Pitchfork

Spotify’s share price has also dropped, with the loss so far being worth a lot more than what they paid for Joe Rogan. However, I don’t expect this to be a permanent thing, as markets are both agile and fickle these days, so it’s easy to spook investors with a piece of bad news and see a price dip, but often share prices will bounce back fairly quickly. Spotify’s share price has been slowly dropping over the last year anyway, so only time will tell whether this will have had any lasting damage beyond what was expected.

It appears that there are a lot of people changing their music streaming provider on the back of this news. There are reports that some people trying to unsubscribe from Spotify are having problems doing so, and that their support line is “unusually busy”, but many people have managed to unsubscribe and people are recommending just removing your payment details if the unsubscribe function doesn’t work for you.

Although I don’t imagine many people are moving because they want to listen to Neil Young’s music, I do think that many people have likely been spurred on by his stand. It’s not like Neil Young is a great skeptic, having previously been on the wrong side of the GMO debate, but at least on this issue he’s taken an evidence-based position, and understands that Joe has the potential to cause real harm with his “reckons”. In Neil’s ultimatum to Spotify he referenced a recent letter to Spotify from medical professionals, imploring them to ditch Joe Rogan. Spotify ignored them as well.

So, like many others, I’ve cancelled my family Spotify subscription and moved to Google - for a similar price I get their music service and YouTube premium as well - goodbye annoying YouTube ads! Obviously Google, like pretty much any large tech company, is not squeaky clean, but they seem less “evil” than Spotify does right now. I’m not sure if enough people will cancel their subscription for it to make a difference, but even if the numbers jumping ship don’t add up to anything significant for Spotify, at least the negative press is likely to give them pause.

Coincidentally, over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to watch what I would consider to be the most frustrating of Joe Rogan’s interviews - those of two other people who have a massively over-inflated sense of self, and who are well known for talking nonsense on a wide variety of topics, rapper Kanye West (or Ye, as he now calls himself) and comedian Russell Brand. Needless to say, even for me (and I’m known for liking cringeworthy nonsense) these interviews have been excruciatingly painful to watch, and I’ve not managed to finish either of them yet (to be fair, they’re each about 3 hours long). Next up might be Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens and Jordan Peterson, although maybe I’m brave enough to try the Alex Jones episodes. I’m spoilt for choice! Sadly, some of the episodes that look like they might be genuinely interesting, such as the one with skeptic Brian Dunning, are not on YouTube.

Do not click play unless, like me, you have masochistic tendencies.

A computer hard drive that makes your music sound better?

I’m sitting here writing this week’s newsletter with music playing in the background - I’ve just listened to tracks by (and I’m name-dropping here) Malcolm Middleton, the Flashbulb, Madvillain, PJ Harvey, Mogwai and 65daysofstatic. I’m enjoying this music being played from Plex on my Chromecast, through my TV, via a Sony home theatre amp, to my in-wall 7.1 surround sound speakers. The entire setup might have cost me $1,200, if we exclude the cost of the TV (another $1,500). But could I be enjoying my music more if I’d spent more money buying reference equipment from high-end specialist companies?

It seems unlikely. Like many things in life, there are likely to be diminishing returns as you pay more for something. But there’s something particular about high end audio equipment that really annoys me. The top end of the market seems ridiculously expensive - is that money really being converted to an improved listening experience?

For those not in the know about audiophiles, there are some people who choose to spend boatloads of cash on specialist audio setups that are meant to improve the sound of their music. This might be a basement setup with a bare concrete floor, with Hi Fi separates ($20,000 valve amplifier, $7,000 CD player and $56,000 record deck) each sitting on a separate marble slab for reduction of unwanted vibrations. These components will be powered by a dedicated three-phase power supply delivered to the house independently of the power for the lights, power sockets, etc, via a $55,000 power cable. The components will be cabled together with $54,000 gold plated RCA interconnect cables, and the speakers will be wired up with “Oxygen Free” cable that costs $57,000 per metre. The amplifier may even have had its volume knob replaced by a $500 wooden one.

$485 Volume Knob image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog

When it comes to people justifying these high prices for audio equipment, they will talk about qualities such as the noise floor, background, signature, PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing), depth and positioning. So, are these differences in how the music sounds real, or just wishful thinking?

So much of what is sold as high end audio, when put through blind testing, turns out to be no better than reasonably priced hardware. One of my favourites is the testing of straightened coat hangers vs expensive cables, which is a test that has been repeated recently using professional measuring equipment rather than human ears, and one which shows there’s no discernible difference between the two.

Consider the Coat Hanger - The Atlantic

As far as I can tell with these blind tests of high-end audio devices, even if a difference could be measured on professional audio testing equipment (and often it can’t be), the sound quality difference from a properly configured reasonably priced setup cannot be discerned by the human ear. The difference is likely all in the listener’s head, not their ears. Many audiophiles refuse to take part in blind tests, using hand-waving excuses to avoid finding out they’ve wasted their money.

The idea that spending lots of money won’t get you a better sound is even more the case for digital equipment. With digital signals, a data stream cannot be made to be “warm”, “smooth” or “neutral”. A digital signal contains zeros and ones - there’s no room for nuance of sound there. There is the possibility of errors being introduced to the signal, such as a bit being flipped from a 0 to a 1, but most digital data transfer protocols have error correction algorithms to protect against this. This might use parity/error-correction bits to allow the detection of errors, which would trigger a request for the data to be re-sent (or even the in-place correction of a single-bit error).

So for any digital audio hardware that purports to offer an improved listening experience, I become immediately skeptical. There’s an argument to be made that ineffective shielding of digital components can cause unwanted signal leakage into analogue output audio after it’s been converted from digital. Some of you may have noticed this when using a pair of wired headphones plugged into an older PC, or one with a cheaper motherboard. It might be that noise from some of the components will induce an audible hum into your audio. But when we’re talking about even a half-decent audio setup, rather than a cheap PC, this will not be a problem. And for audiophiles with their isolated power feeds, remote DACs and optical cables, this is really not going to be an issue at all.

This brings me to a piece of hardware I found online recently - a custom-built audiophile data storage device, specifically an M.2 NVMe SSD stick. This piece of PC hardware is where digital files are stored in a computer before they’re transferred into memory, pulled into the CPU for processing, and so on.

At first I thought the idea was to store your music files on this drive, but it turns out that - because it’s only 333GB when used “properly”, and audiophiles like to use large lossless, uncompressed, high bit-rate files - the idea is to keep your copy of Windows on this drive. You are meant to store your music on another PC (e.g. a NAS), which is kept remote from the playing hardware. Your audio files will be transferred by TCP-IP over ethernet to your audio PC with this SSD in it (and I bet there’s a good chance this transfer will involve a $10,000 ethernet cable and a $2,500 network switch!).

So, given that the files placed on this storage, and their subsequent transfer through various components, is totally digital, and that this is meant for your OS files only, there’s no way that any kind of audio signature, or nuance of sound, could be applied by this storage device to any audio files. But that’s not what the audiophiles who’ve tested this hardware say in the Audiophile Style forum:

“The bass and tonal range is expansive”

“My Ears don’t lie! I can hear differences in Freq Response, PRAT and Sound stage.”

“Bass line is punchy and full but clearly delineated. Mids are not laid back but slightly forward. The highs are as clean as the PSU quality but is still sounding a bit dry”

“The Bass line was now powerful and articulate. Mids are less pronounced and blend in with the bass. The Highs have lost the "dryness' and are now well balanced with the mids and the lows.”

“Very neutral especially in the High frequencies. No digital nasties. Extended highs without any sibilance on hardness. Bass lines are clean and articulate. Impact of bass and drums is very good. The mid range is neutral, not lacking any warmth and pace. Stereo spread is now very good; you hear sounds extreme left and right just outside of the speakers and/or HPs. Depth is good. Positioning of vocals and instruments is spot on”

The forum goes on with people talking about the sound signature of different Operating Systems (Windows 10 vs Server 2016 vs Linux), whether to power the device via the added DC power jack or the motherboard’s power supply, how long to “burn in” the drive before the sound improves, and which network card to use.

Honestly, reading this kind of feedback is depressing. It’s a group delusion of people who have convinced themselves that they have super hearing, that physics bends to their will, and that black is white. At least one member of the forum spoke up, calling this “Classic snake oil”. I’ll leave you with his reply when he was told to go and complain somewhere else (just before having his account deleted):

“I call out meaningless BS whenever I see it. Too many people make money off other people's ignorance. That bothers me a great deal.

I had hoped to learn new things about audio reproduction by engaging with this site. Unfortunately I have encountered a community largely composed of adherents to a fantastical proto-religion in which logic is scorned, science is ridiculed and BS is exalted.”

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