FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 30
Myth, Mirth or
The Peter Belt 'Snake Oil' Fallacy
You know the kind of thing. A new audio tweak surfaces and minutes later, the internet hums with cries of 'Snake Oil' from its detractors, often claiming deep knowledge of physics. Directional cables, fuses, equipment supports, Shakti Stones, or whatever—we've heard it many times.
No one has suffered longer than qualified audio engineer (and my dear spouse), Peter Belt of PWB Electronics in Leeds UK. For more than forty years, he has been saying simple and demonstrable things about audio improvement but still he's howled down. Year after year, day in, day out, new generations of self-styled experts demand 'proper evidence' for his claims, usually in terms of 'double-blind' testing. It's tedious of course, but it goes with the terrain.
Sometimes things get nastier however. Between 2005 and late 2006, a section in the news group in Stereophile called Why do so many buy into the "cons" in high-end Audio (link) ran an entry from 'Buddha' who actually wrote this:
The Peter Belts of this world are sly, like the serpent. They are driven off, but then always find ways to slither back into to hobby to suck the green life blood from the uninitiated…. We, as ethical audiophiles, have a duty to remember the past, so that others aren't doomed to repeat it.
Buddha’s comments are confirmation (if ever confirmation was required) of the intolerance to new ideas described by Dave Clark in his article
"Audio Ramblings - Faith and Belief in Audio" see: audioramblings
Leaving aside the thought that implying that Peter Belt 'sucks the green life blood from the uninitiated' might well be defamatory under English law, let's jog 'Buddha's' memory by recalling what Peter Belt actually says. His claims have always been these:
Contention No 1 is clearly a problem to the hi-fi industry. Its solution is to make ever more costly equipment which accounts for the ever-expanding 'high-end' market. Though contentions 2 and 3 are easily demonstrated up to a point—there are obvious physical properties of buildings and environments that make differences to audio, too many in fact to list in a short article—these aspects of audio design have never been investigated systematically or with any rigor.
We regard contention No. 3 as extremely important and I would like to expand further on what our thinking is in the area of manipulating the listening environment to improve sound. We believe, simply but firmly that doing this, demonstrates something very important indeed: that there must have been a wealth of information already in the room, which the listener had not been resolving correctly.
When someone does something to a room, and gains an improvement in the sound, this means that they are hearing additional information. Since it is only the room that has been treated, then logically this means the additional information they hear must have been not only on the disc but also that it had already been retrieved from the disc, having been 'handled' perfectly adequately by the audio equipment and presented into the room via the loudspeakers. The problem of incorrect resolution is with the listener affected by something in the room, rather than with the equipment.
We believe that the audio industry often looks in the wrong places to develop continuous improvements to audio equipment. The more that people report doing something to their rooms and gaining improvements in their sound, the more seriously the audio industry should be taking notice. Our contention is most audio equipment is (and has always been) perfectly capable of 'handling' far more information and presenting it into the room than most people realize.
This way of looking at things does not sit comfortably with ‘traditional audio magazines’, particularly those in which new equipment is advertised and reviewed. The idea is unwelcome because it means that the perpetual urge to upgrade domestic equipment is less important than the audio trade would have magazine readers believe.
What Peter Belt has shown (to his own skeptical satisfaction and that of many others in professional audio and journalism) is that apparently very unlikely aspects of both equipment design and environment do turn out to interfere with information retrieval from recorded and broadcast sources. Two elements of evidence reinforce this proposition: first we have a very extensive list of published articles saying that the improvements we claim for relatively cheap equipment can be demonstrated and secondly, all of the methods we use to clear up information retrieval problems are wholly reversible. If something we do produces an improvement in perceived sound, we can always return to the previous 'untreated' conditions.
Dave Clark’s article referred to earlier, describes his experiences beautifully.
Problems in theorising about product Development
odd years is a long time in any business and Peter Belt's
experiments have been continuous. So contention 4 (above) is also
self-evidently true for him. At PWB Electronics, we now have upwards
of a hundred 'devices' all of which are capable of improving the
perceived quality of sound from even high-end audio and video
equipment. In the past, Peter Belt has manufactured audio equipment
himself but does not do so now, simply because of commercial
viability: high production costs and intense competition make life
difficult for the small manufacturer.
At PWB Electronics we are completely sure about the following:
'Joe E' replying in the same Stereophile news group to the singularly uncompassionate 'Buddha', comments that:
We agree with 'Joe E' wholeheartedly, which is why (though our critics rarely mention this) we offer a money back guarantee to customers dissatisfied with their purchases. 'Buddha' knows us better of course and feels able to write (after I had pointed out to him that although he had the luxury of ‘freedom of speech’, with that luxury also came responsibilities!):
Quite extraordinary, some might think.
Helping PWB Develop
We are as interested as anyone else in finding a comprehensive theory to explain our discoveries and will happily respond to ideas that help us think harder about why our products work. We are equally interested in finding out more about instances where our products fail to deliver what we say they do. No cost need be involved, since many of our suggested 'treatments' are free or, alternatively, we will supply a sample of our Rainbow Foil free for anyone to experiment with.
All we ask in return, is that failing experiments are reported to us carefully, and yes, controlled conditions—'double-blind testing' and statistical data for example—would be useful in these circumstances. We have often done these ourselves (though 'Buddha' and others like him, may happily believe otherwise) and we are certainly concerned about accuracy in our reporting.
There is a list of experiments available for anyone who is "up for the challenge'!