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Positive Feedback ISSUE 23


From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: A Letter to Harry
by Clark Johnsen


johnsen_typewriter_web.jpg (4673 bytes)

In TAS #111 Harry Pearson, storied co-doyen of high-end audio, reviewed (and raved about) a CD cleaning fluid (Optrix). I expect this had been only a matter of time.

What once was known as vest-pocket engineering, always takes a while to become current, nowhere more so than in audio. While magazines may function as way-stations to that goal, with mainstream forces implacably opposed to perceived unorthodoxy, they also serve as fearsome gatekeepers. Hence the real action, the cutting-edge information, defaults now to the e-zines.

As a columnist for one such (one formerly in print however) it may surprise many to learn that I hardly ever read e-reports. No offense, but I ioptrixntensely dislike screens. Don't even own a computer. Hard copy, that's for me! My associates provide more than enough new stuff to keep a fellow busy.

Nor do I care to read equipment reviews, anywhere. What a freakin' waste of time! Art Dudley said it best in Listener for Winter 1997: "Audio reviewing is dead." Didn't we know that already? Of course! Many reviewers nowadays, besides being no rocket scientists—did we expect?—expatiate long-windedly and seem more often smitten with cachet than with music and sound. And most of them have a heavy jones for new gear to hear, giving innocent readers the impression that progress occurs by spending money on new components rather than from applying due diligence to the old. Nor have actual listening credentials ever constituted a reviewer's primary qualification; what matters most to his editor is, scribbling ability. Hey! That's the job description. And it passes for sound journalism.

Nor does audio practice rightly consist of those components alone. That mistaken notion results from reductionist and compartmentalized thinking. Audio be a whole system, interconnected, alive and responsive.

But I get ahead of myself. Back to Harry.

Remember when speaker cables first grabbed the spotlight? Harry wrote about them early on, to give him his due. They caught my own attention somewhere around 1980, when I wandered into Natural Sound, a Boston-area audio salon. There I saw these cables, Fulton Browns and Fulton Golds, hanging around, huge and outrageously expensive, at least to my thin wallet. But this clever salesman Mark Bethoney—he's still with the company!—sold me a new product called Monster Cable: only $1/foot. Hardware-store wire of the same gauge was only 20˘, I recall sniffing. (See? I was just like everyone, once.) He guaranteed return privileges however and when I got home—Hey! The roomies were amazed as well at the sonic improvement.

Specialty speaker wire made sense if only for its increased current capacity. A couple years later specialty interconnects, somewhat less assimilable intellectually, emerged. And they worked too, although with little or no press push. Who remembers Randall Research? Straight Wire? Livewire? Peterson? Levinson? Distech?

Blast from the past

While many of us messed around with these, not one word appeared in Harry's magazine. Meanwhile Tony Cordesman (AHC) addressed the subject in two issues of Stereophile (May 1985 and February 1986). Worth quoting: "I also use broad pricing terminology: 'expensive' for wires costing more than $30 per foot, 'moderate' for those costing between $10 and $30 per foot." Not until July 1989 did a full review occur in TAS, that of the Straight Wire Maestro, followed in March 1990 with one about the Audioquest Lapis. These too were written by AHC, who seems to have been the sole, or at any rate the designated, trailblazer for both magazines. Thus neither of the two reviews in TAS was written (or even footnoted) by Harry.

Nor at that time were interconnects specified as part of any reviewer's system. Then along one day came a totally unaffordable ($400/pr.) entry, the MIT Shotguns. OH MY GOSH! A fellow brought a pair up from Rhode Island and I begged him to leave them overnight while he visited his girlfriend in town, so he obliged. A dentist, he was able to afford them, but I could not. Still, as when test-driving a Porsche, I was appreciative of the knowledge gained.

Other entries passed across my threshold but none for the longest time compared to the Shotguns. Oddly the high-end press had taken no note whatsoever of this fascinating development. Huh! Thus was I led to remark out loud that when Harry (Harry! One name sufficed for all to identify—as with Hildegard, America's first single-name star, just recently deceased)… that when Harry discovered these he would fall, and fall hard.

And so he did, albeit way behind the curve of actual users.

Behind the curve

Most discoveries take a year or two or three to hit the market in finished products. In the galvanized environment of today's high-end audio, once they do, the information tends to circulate quickly. Not only that, but with each part subject to individual experimentation, all knowledge gains the weight of accumulated personal experience. So it goes in several other areas of science and technology as well, only without the jeering and sneering that in audio often accompany any departure from the regnant orthodoxy. Why that should happen does not concern us here, rather the remarkable results on those we call, the critics.

"It is better to be making the news than taking it; to be an actor rather than a critic." - Winston Churchill, 1898

Actors in audio are numerous, myriad; the critics, few, and a closed society (although two of them happen right now to be suing the dickens out of two others). Perhaps for that reason they have grown lazy and thus failed in their true assignment. Namely, to bring to readers not news about the latest toys, but about the latest discoveries that may lead to better toys.

A recent example: Last year a phenomenon called the Intelligent Chip circulated at the CES. I wrote up the reactions, which were largely positive; and twice when it did nothing, I agreed. Sometimes the damn thing just doesn't work! But when it does... well... 'tis an intriguing mystery. Yet to date only two other writers so far as I know, Bill Gaw and Ken Kessler, have dared to touch this very touchy subject [That is not quite true Clark, Carol and I mention it here, and Marshal Nack does the same here]. It has generated much heat on the boards, however, mostly from those who—without ever trying it—shout, THAT CAN'T BE! Why, even a PhD. or two weighed in on that dubious basis.

So too had it gone before, with really expensive interconnects (although there was no 'Net), until Harry spoke. Then, almost magically, they began to proliferate: the 100th monkey phenomenon. Such is the power of the press: Not to tell people what to think, but what to think about. For good or for ill, the press—by which I mean print media—largely defines the terms of discussion. Try as one may, the Intelligent Chip has not yet reached the critical mass necessary for recognition, nor has the Reality Check CD correction system about which I've written three times already, although this may be poised to change.

[ERS sheet, close up]

Consider the ERS

Or take the case of ERS, the almost magical gray matte sheets that do not shield against, rather absorb local EMI and RFI. They were treated in this location three years ago; they make for better sound; they are cheap; and hundreds testify to their efficacy. And yet... where's any mention in Stereophile? Where stands TAS? The Audiophile Voice? Sound & Vision? Sensible Sound? The Audio Critic? The JAES?

Or Mix? Pro Audio Review? Recording Engineer? Studio Sound?

How about the home theater mags?

Or for that matter, Soundstage? EnjoyThe Music? StereoTimes?

Ladies and gentlemen, one must ask how far behind the times exactly are the media and the e-zines? It is with some urgency that I have recommended numerous self-applied improvements, because someone may be about to purchase an expensive component that goes only halfway or less towards satisfactory sound. Read around! With your own wits and our gentle assistance you may find excellent solutions in sound without huge outlays.

Only one hitch: You must give up the new component habit.

Instead you shall become the wise hobbyist of old. Back in the Forties and Fifties audio was known as an engineer's hobby. Advancements then were gained by hands-on application of soldering iron and pliers. Today that is still the way to go, albeit in a more general sense. Component audio originated because some engineers offered their discoveries as packaged market products, so an affinity developed to components from identifiable individuals who are now known as designers.

What went ignored for many years, decades even, were system considerations, namely the unidentified and therefore unmeasured interactions among components. Thus specialty cables and their effects understandably generated widespread disbelief within an audio populace conditioned to component culture. But leave it to Harry, to break the mold. His ultimate write-up on Shotguns was effusive and effective, so no longer could high-quality, high-priced interconnect cables be ignored.

So it has gone, down the line. Not until a Famous Name takes up the cudgel can any new discovery in audio seem to gain a secure foothold. Such be the sorry situation, so likely it shall remain.

We are as sheep. The Bible tells us so.

You may wonder where this is going. Well, I wrote a letter to Harry after he shared his revelation about Optrix, a product made by my old friend, chemical engineer John Murphy, a lovely man who discovered the CD application of his optical cleaning fluid some, oh, nine years ago. Of course there have been other CD fluids since, as there were several before, but, while Optrix certainly remains in the running, Harry's was the first favorable mention in the high-end press, I think, of this crucial factor.

Shades of the Shotguns!

Tony again, back when

First I should say that in researching this article I relied on my third-floor audio library, but checked only the tables of contents to find wire reviews, although it was surely instructive (and amusing) to re-read the escalating accolades awarded to new components—often with highly florid language—back in the days when digital discs still sounded dreadful and few quality interconnects existed.

All was still not roses for tweakery in TAS in 1990 (nor is it today). (And yes, cables were considered tweaks, not yet having made the transition to component.) In March/April 1991 AHC, an evident powerhouse in those days, wrote "A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Illusory and the Real; or, CD Accessories: Fact, Fantasy and Fetish". In this article we were told, "Accessories are passive devices or substances. They can't change the fundamental character of the sound without filtering out information. Believing that an accessory can perform miracles is like believing that buying different wine glasses produces better wine. (This was an unfortuitous choice of analogy, as it is now known that glass shape can vastly change the character of a wine.) Unless accessories replace something that is truly lousy, all the crap about some tweak removing a thousand veils has only three explanations: (a) a manufacturer or a salesman who is a liar and/or a fruitcake; (b) a reviewer who is incompetent or off the deep end; and (c) an audiophile who is highly suggestible or a fool."

Well! That puts us in our place, eh?

But there was more, much more, and along similar lines: "There is no reason, however, to get fanatic about cleaning your CDs. Unlike records, CD cleanliness is not close to godliness. Unless you have badly mishandled a CD so it is really dirty, cleaning produces only very low-level improvements... In contrast to cleaners, most CD polishes and treatments scare me... For all the claims I read or hear about dramatic changes in sound quality, my experiments to date indicate that they fail to produce significant increases in musical realism in even the cheapest players."

Harry did not demur, and a quick perusal reveals that Tony's views stood as dogma until Harry discovered Optrix. Yet now we have all sorts of things one can do with CDs to make them sound better, while the newsstand press blathers about this new player or that new DAC. Whether $750 or $23,000, with a few simple steps applied to the disc itself—tedious, sometimes, yes—the sound becomes ever so much better, for any price point.

The question arises:

Why don't those vaunted designers cover their own damn asses?

At some point I began to evaluate digital gear on the unique basis of how it responds to CD tweaks. I reasoned that the less susceptible a unit be to tweaking, the better it's doing its job. Over the years I have found not one—not one!—piece of equipment that even approaches my ideal. Nor does any prominent writer demand that of them. In fact, this lowly columnist (not a reviewer, please) seems to be all by his lonesome.

So what about those designers? Why don't they?

Easy answer: They have no idea how. So they continue to indulge the paradigm of a perfect audio component while we, the hobbyist (and non-engineer) listeners are forced ourselves to apply the solutions that we know are effective. And the magazines play along. Why? Because mere listeners never advertise and because the media are themselves selling not specific brands of gear but a concept—the concept that audio be a latchkey technology. Just plug 'em in and voila! a "system"!

Is this not odd? And should it not occasion a complimentary letter to King Harry, upon his (however belated) realization that CD treatments actually work? And not only work, but confound all his earlier findings about CD players (a conclusion only reluctantly arrived at)?

So here goes at last with the Letter to Harry; no reply was forthcoming, but perhaps one oughtn't ever trust the mails.


Remember me?

I just read your column on CD Nurturing. Thanks for putting that up. Well said! And about time too.

Although... Well, I expect you know by now that I'm a columnist myself... Here are some treats for you from Positive Feedback V.7 #1 and #2:

In "Towards a Level Playing Field" I presented the Nine Precepts for Correct Audio Practice, "absence of attention to any of which should cause one to question the outcome." Of course CD "nurturing" (your word, and a good one) was among their number. That volume appeared in print only, and I'm revising it for on-line; I'll send you a copy when.

In "Sound Matters" I got brand-specific, among them Optrix CD Cleaner: "Optrix be in fact an astonishing thing, utterly wonderful, ear-opening and easy to use. (It) creates in the 16/44.1 digital domain, an entry to music hithertofore unsuspected by myself or, I think, anyone else... Optrix increases the focus and resolution...

Let Ken Pohlmann and other lackies of orthodoxy fume and try to deny itthey are hopeless creatures still enthralled by those wily salesmen who assured us that all was perfect from the get-go…

Interestingly, Optrix also benefits eyeglass users."

Harry, we agree!

Oh, did I mention? Positive Feedback Volume 7 containing those laudatory remarks came out back in 1997.

Stick around kid, I'll send you the 2002 update to Optrix, then last year's top cleansing agent. You'll be way ahead of the media crowd. Then I'll send you the very latest stuff. Ha!

But seriously... I've been saying all along, it was only a matter of time until you discovered these amelioratives. That you are able to convey them to a far wider audience than myself, certainly is a plus—just ask my buddy John Murphy!


PS Since perhaps you haven't seen them, here's a selection of my on-line columns:

"In a way really it was a blessing..."

The Forbidden City

"On the road again. Destination: Partial oblivion."

And for my favorite, scroll down to "A GRAMOPHONE EVENING IN THE RITZ"