The Man in the White Suit


There’s a brilliant film from the 1950s called The Man in the White Suit. It’s a satire on capitalism, the power of the unions, and the story of how the two sides find themselves working together to oppose a new invention that threatens to make several industries redundant.

I wonder if there’s a tenuous resemblance between the film’s new wonder-fabric and the invention of digital audio? I hesitate to say that it’s exactly the same, because someone will point out that in the end, the wonder-fabric isn’t all it seems and falls apart, but I think they do have these similarities:

  1. The new invention is, for all practical purposes, ‘perfect’, and is immediately superior to everything that has gone before.
  2. It is cheap – very cheap – and can be mass-produced in large quantities.
  3. It has the properties of infinite lifespan, zero maintenance and non-obsolescence
  4. It threatens the profits not only of the industry that invented it, but other related industries.

In the film it all turns a bit dark, with mobs on the streets and violence imminent. Only the invention’s catastrophic failure saves the day.

In the smaller worlds of audio and music, things are a little different. Digital audio shows no signs of failing, and it has taken quite a few years for someone to finally come up with a comprehensive, feasible strategy for monopolising the invention while also shutting the Pandora’s box that was opened when it was initially released without restrictions.

The new strategy is this:

  1. Spread rumours that the original invention was flawed
  2. Re-package the invention as something brand new, with a vagueness that allows people to believe whatever they want about it
  3. Deviate from the rigid mathematical conditions of the original invention, opening up possibilities for future innovations in filtering and “de-blurring”. The audiophile imagination is a potent force, so this may not be the last time you can persuade them to re-purchase their record collections, after all.
  4. Offer to protect the other, affected industries – for a fee
  5. Appear to maintain compatibility with the original invention – for now – while substituting a more inconvenient version with inferior quality for unlicensed users
  6. Through positive enticements, nudge users into voluntarily phasing out the original invention over several years.
  7. Introduce stronger protection once the window has been closed.

It’s a very clever strategy, I think. Point (2) is the master stroke.


The amazing interior world of cables


Looking at one of thousands of ‘reviews’ of audio cables that are out there, I was struck by the vivid language that described what the reviewer had heard. I looked at a handful of other reviews and compiled a far from comprehensive list of the words and language on offer. Here is a small fraction of it:

…happier; melody; emotion; sunlight; fast; tired; cold; “mood of the musician”; languid; darker; zest; tempo; warmth; iciness; sweet; confidence; insinuation; gesture; informative; provocative; calm; assuredness; forthright; frantic; “trying too hard”; somnambulant; fire; tantalising; insightful; relaxed; refined; composed; uplifting; gravitas; nonchalant; sympathetic; magical; “unearthing the feeling and meaning”…

Audiophiles like to say that “the best cable is no cable at all” suggesting that a cable can only degrade a signal. In this light, the findings of the cable reviewers are remarkable. In order to get the signal into the cable, vibrations in the air have been converted into a different ‘domain’ – electricity – where, presumably, things could happen to the signal that cannot happen in the acoustic world. Yet the reviewers of cables don’t hear electrical, signal-degrading effects and nor do they hear ‘no effect’. What they perceive is an amazing, coherent, functioning interior world of laughter, tears, sunlight, butterflies, palaces and fairies. All this is going on inside that functional polyester braided jacket and those often-lumpy applications of heatshrink sleeving that cover a multitude of sins.

And it gets even more amazing. In audio we can change the audio signal into yet another domain: that of discrete numbers. A handy way of transmitting those numbers is electrically via cables, but what is being carried is only the numbers. Amazingly, the same magical interior worlds exist there too!

When I was very young, my dad told me that inside our Hacker valve radio there were tiny people singing and dancing. He never told me that inside the wires themselves there was a far more exciting and exotic world waiting to be discovered.

The Ultimate Audio System: designed by listening test

Suppose we created a black box into which we could put any form of audio processing and amplification, and fed its output into an array of loudspeakers. Audiophiles could register their preferences for the sound and, based on these preferences, the contents of the box would be modified. The idea would be that, eventually, we would home in on the most desirable audio reproduction system possible because it would be based purely on blind listening tests. As we know, blind listening tests are the gold standard when determining audio quality.

What would this give us?

I suggest that what we would get would be a box that transformed all music fed into it into Dave Brubeck’s Take Five.

It would take an awfully long time. Starting from random contents in the black box, the output would initially be white noise, or silence, perhaps. Listener feedback would be ‘statistically insignificant’. At some point, however, the random noise might begin to resemble a snatch of jazz rhythm which most middle-aged male listeners would latch onto, giving positive feedback. The highest common factor of audiophile listening is, obviously, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, so from the initial ‘seed’, this piece would eventually crystallise out of the randomness.

[see the comments for a detailed explanation of what this means!]