Greenwashing make Hulk mad.

OK, this doesn’t have all that much to do with audio electronics, but I just have to take a moment to vent about greenwashing.  For those that haven’t heard this term yet, greenwashing is when a company uses bogus or flimsy ecological claims to advertise and promote their goods.


—A car company that has a hybrid model, where the ads are full of trees growing, flowers and grasses sprouting everywhere, innocent deer, and the syrup-voiced announcer assuring you that buying this car will save the planet for future generations.  News flash people, buying a car does absolutely no good for the earth!

—Detergent that comes in a bottle made of 10% recycled plastic, where the detergent company wants you to know how much they are doing for the planet and the children.

—Mayonnaise made from “only real ingredients” because they care about your health.

—Oil companies that advertise they are committed to sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, nuclear… and oil of course.  Like they really give a crap about windpower.

—Garbage bags that are biodegradable, which is supposed to be so earth-friendly, except that when the bags break down they just disperse plastic particles all through the groundwater and food chain.

—A chicken company that brags their chickens are “all natural” because they don’t pump their birds full of water and salt… even though everything else about the chicken factory is horrible.

—And my favorite, where the announcer says “green isn’t just a color nowadays; green is everything from the foods we eat to the cars we buy… so we thought we’d help you save a little green, by taking 10% off our everyday low prices.”

You see and hear these sorts of advertisements every day.  Seems like every other ad on TV is crowing about some eco claim, saying they’re protecting the planet, and soothing you with pictures of trees and birds.  It pisses me off, because the large majority of their claims are badly exaggerated or outright empty.  For some people this will result in buying lots of consumer goods that don’t do diddly-squat for the environment.  For others this will annoy them into a reactionary attitude of “screw those hippies and their eco nonsense”.  Neither of those results is good for the planet, the environment, or the future.

There are legitimate eco products and businesses out there, but most of them don’t have the kind of advertising budget it takes to get on national TV or major radio shows.  So all we see all day are ads from companies that don’t really have anything good for the environment, but they DO have massive advertising budgets, and they are willing to lie to you through their smiles and computer-generated acres of trees and flowers.

I don’t really have anything constructive or original to suggest here.  I just hate the empty promises we get barraged with all the time, and it makes me especially mad when those empty promises play on people’s desire to “do the right thing”.  It turns us all into fakers, hypocrites, and reactionaries.  You want to do some real good?  Don’t buy so much stuff!

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Snake Oil! (part 2, power cables & conditioners)

In the previous post I talked about audio cables, and how there really can be audible or functional differences between them, even though you can’t believe the manufacturers’ claims.  The same is true with power conditioners, but unfortunately with “audiophile” power cables and outlets, there are no facts supporting the claims around those products at all.

The proof against audiophile power cables and outlets is easy and clear.  Nearly all powered musical equipment runs on DC power internally—the power from the wall is converted from AC into DC immediately, before the power connects to any part of the audio processing.  Sellers of special power outlets and cables rave about how their products correct the phase of the power, and smooth or filter any irregularities in the AC waves—but DC doesn’t have waves! DC doesn’t have phase!  It doesn’t matter what those outlets and cables do to the AC, because the power is converted to DC before being used, and any changes made to the AC are completely eliminated in the process.

Additionally, most electronics already include noise filtering in their power conversion circuit.  With the exception of a tube amp or preamp using AC to power the tube filaments, there is literally no way that these boutique power cables and outlets can have any impact, audible or otherwise, on the operation of your gear.  And even in the cases where AC is used internally, there are lengths of thin wire carrying the power from the external cable to the internal components, and these wires essentially undo any benefit of the thick, scientifically-braided, phase-corrected external cable.

You’ll see plenty of testimonials supporting these products because people do convince themselves they hear differences, but in every case it is just placebo effect.  The only thing you should look for in a power cable is sufficient wire gauge, and decent construction.  Inadequate wire gauge can perform worse, so if you want to upgrade from a flimsy factory-supplied IEC cable, just get one with thicker wire gauge (inside the insulation).

Power “conditioners” are tricky business, like audio cables.  They do perform a legitimate function, and there are differences between them; but again the manufacturers and sellers of these products make such outrageous claims about the supposed benefits of their devices that you really can’t believe a word of it.

Most conditioners are just a strip of outlets, like a cheap power strip you’d buy at a hardware store, with some simple noise filtering and surge protection.  The amount and quality of the noise filtering is usually not any more or better than what is already built into the equipment you’re plugging in.  Only quite old, cheap, and home-made gear may not have any built-in noise filtering, and would benefit from the filtering in the conditioner.  And the surge protection, while useful and completely valid for all equipment, is usually not any better in a $200 Furman or Monster deluxe power conditioner than it is in a cheap office-supply outlet strip.

Note too that the surge protection components in all of these devices are self-sacrificing, they self-destruct when hit with power surges.  So a $200 conditioner becomes almost worthless after only a few surges–but you’d never know it externally.  There’s no smoke or indicator light telling you that the device is now just dead weight in your rack.

The main actual benefit of a rackmount power conditioner is that it conveniently mounts in a rack; but you can easily screw a regular power strip onto the back lid of any rack.  Some of these devices come with lights or outlet testers, and those are fine but they are also available more cheaply in other forms.  Some may have sequenced switching or isolated outlets—those are among the few features that I feel are actually worth paying for.

Many people believe a power conditioner will correct any problems with low or high voltage from the wall, but that is false.  Of course the manufacturers lead you on with those beliefs, talking about the “clean and pure” power their conditioner will deliver; but they are just weaseling around with misleading words.  A power “regulator” will provide that voltage-leveling function, but those cost at least twice as much as a power conditioner, and sometimes quite a lot more.  Additionally confusing the issue, in earlier decades the word “conditioner” was used to mean a regulator, but that hasn’t been the case in a long time.

Making matters even more difficult, power regulators and conditioners can limit the amount of current available for your equipment to draw.  For most rack gear, keyboards, and other electronics, the current available through a conditioner is entirely sufficient; but a large amp, especially a high-wattage power amp, needs to be able to draw a lot more current than a typical conditioner can provide.  So you can actually downgrade the performance of your amp by plugging it into a power conditioner.  Many amp manufacturers recommend against using conditioners for this reason.

So what do I recommend?  Run your high-wattage (high current draw) items direct from the wall, unless you get a conditioner that states it has a high current capacity.  Don’t pay too much for a conditioner, when a cheap outlet strip is just as good in most cases.  If you need lights, get a clip-on book light.  If you need an outlet tester (which is a very good idea!) get one from a hardware store–they are small and inexpensive.  Sequenced switching is useful for making sure you don’t send loud power-on surge “pops” through your speakers, but the same thing can be achieved by just switching your power amp on/off by hand separately (you just have to remember to do it).  Isolated outlets can be beneficial, because different devices are designed with different grounding (earthing) systems, so sometimes ground loops or other noise problems can show up if two devices share a common ground.  Not every device or rig will benefit from isolated outlets, but it can help sometimes, and it can’t hurt—so I do look always for that feature.  The TrippLite Iso-Bar product line has isolated banks of outlets, and they are well-designed in general, and you can find them at reasonable prices on Ebay.  No snake oil, just honest verifiable functionality.

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Snake oil! (part 1, audio cables)

OK, this post will seem obvious to some of you.  Not my most original or novel thinking.  But people do regularly email me asking my opinion about audio cables, power cords, power conditioners, and other “audiophile” concerns, so I figured I should set those opinions in one easy-to-find place.

Audio, instrument, and speaker cables: Tricky business, because on the one hand there really can be audible differences between cables, under certain circumstances; but on the other hand, most cable manufacturers tell so many lies and exaggerations about their cables that you pretty much can’t believe anything they say.

The first thing to know is that cables have a property called capacitance, which is their ability to temporarily store a charge, like a battery.  The capacitance of a cable is chiefly determined by the length and diameter of the wire.  Capacitance is a key part of any filter (a circuit that adjusts the relative levels of certain frequency ranges, like EQ).  In the simplest terms, in the filter formed by a cable connecting two pieces of gear, the higher the capacitance = the more the high frequencies will be rolled off.  This is how a passive tone pot on a guitar or bass works.  This effect is responsible for the vast majority of audible differences between cables.  For example, if you have two identically-designed cables, one of them 2 meters and the other 10 meters, the 2 meter one will sound brighter and more energetic.

It is possible to design a cable for lower or higher capacitance without changing the length of the cable, but this is where it gets shady.  Monster advertises some of their cables as “enhancing bass frequencies”—but what they really do is reduce the high frequencies, making the bass seem louder when you turn the amp up.  A large percentage of the “technology” and “advanced design” that cable brands advertise are just bogus, not actually providing any benefit to you.  All the fancy graphics, charts, and techie words on the package were just whipped up to get you to spend more money.  Really what it boils down to is: trust only your ears, not what is written on the package or on the brand’s website.  Of course your ears can and will mislead you too, but they do it innocently and harmlessly—your ears are not trying to take your money.

The biggest quality I look for in a cable is reliability.  How well were the plugs made?  How good is the soldering that connects the wire to the plugs?  How flexible and resilient is the outer insulation?  Is there some sort of stress relief boot where the cable joins the plugs?  How thick is the wire?  Don’t assume that the outer thickness of the cable indicates the diameter of the actual wire—cheap cables often have very skinny wire hidden in very thick insulation.

Believe it or not, gold-plated plugs are not a sign of quality!  They work well when new, but when used in a humid environment the bond between the gold plating and the cheap metal underneath can corrode, causing worse conductivity.  I like nickel plated plugs instead, as they resist that sort of breakdown.

Good brands of bulk cable include Canare, Belden, and Mogami (although Mogami’s consumer-packaged prefab cables may not be all that special).  For a guitarist, a super-low-capacitance cable like Elixir or George L may be beneficial for their extra high frequency capability, but for a bassist those extra high frequencies are not always wanted or useful.

Many people say they are willing to pay extra for Monster cables because of the replacement warranty offered by Monster—and it is a legitimate warranty—but there are two things to consider: (1) the actual quality of their goods might not be worth the high price, without the warranty; and (2) lots of other cable brands are now offering very similar warranties, so you have plenty of options.

As far as the super high end of audio cables, personally I think it’s all a bunch of nonsense.  There is not any real science to support the claims made by most of these companies, and they rely on people being willing and able to fool themselves into hearing amazing improvements in the sound.  That’s why there are so many testimonials and reviews proclaiming that these high-end cables are so incredibly great: because people will in fact hear what they want to hear.  This is just a simple, reliable, well-established fact of human psychology and physiology.  It is not an insult to anyone.  People expect to hear a difference (or they expect to hear no difference) and sure as daylight, they hear it.  This has been proven countless times.  In one study it was shown that people could not reliably hear the difference between a Monster speaker cable and a length of coat-hanger wire, if they couldn’t see which one was being used.

It works for the other senses, too: another study involved renowned wine connoisseurs, where cheap wine was secretly poured into bottles from expensive brands.  When the wine was poured for the tasters from the cheap-label bottle, they described it as bitter, crude, and unpleasant; but when the same wine was poured from the expensive-label bottle they without exception described the taste as lovely, refined, and full of subtle nuances.

Again, this should not be taken as an insult by anyone who has formed their own opinions about one cable or another.  You heard what you heard, and that’s undeniable.  Just be aware that what you heard may have only existed in your experience, and may not have an objective reality that will apply to anyone else.  And most people don’t have regular access to double-blind ABX testing environments, nor would they want to go to the trouble—especially when all that really matters is what the individual user hears.  All I’m saying here is, don’t get fooled by other people’s intentional or accidental pressure for you to believe in or expect glorious results from an expensive product; and when telling others about your experiences and opinions about any cable, don’t assume that what you heard is what anyone else will hear.  Our perceptions are so funny, in that all reality has to first go through the filters of our brains (full of expectations and patterns), before we consciously perceive anything.

Post Script: I have just learned of a boutique 1-meter-long USB cable, costing about $3000 USD, intended for audio interfaces.  It has metal mesh around the insulation, and it’s like 20 mm thick.  The person reviewing it gushed about the “amazing tone” and “lack of harshness” from this cable.  People, it only carries binary data!  It literally cannot affect the tone of your music, or add/remove harshness!  The data is the same no matter how “good” the cable is.  I mean, an actually bad cable can potentially corrupt data, but any cable that is not defective will convey the exact same data!  Which means the exact same sound.  It boggles the mind that anyone would fall for such an obvious fraud.

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