Earwax?

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Many a long year ago, when people actually believed in Peter Belt and his magical HiFi dealies (two examples of which were a resistor body on a safety pin and a one centimeter purple mark to be made on ONE LP to improve the sound of your entire record library), a couple of guys came up with a product that they called EARWAX. Its purpose, they said was not to improve your System, but to improve your ability to hear it in all its glory!

EARWAX was a cream priced at fifteen dollars (a LOT of money thirty years ago) for a two-ounce bottle. What you did with it was to put some on a fingertip and rub it into the openings to your ear canals on both sides of your head. Thus emplaced, it was said to improve your hearing by lubricating the "boundary layer" going into your head and make it easier for sound waves to reach your eardrums to communicate their precious musical information.

BS? Voodoo? Solid science? Frankly, although I had my thoughts, I had no real knowledge.

Certainly some people did hear what they claimed to be a noticeable improvement. Others, though, did not, and like so many other things in High End audio, it remained a subject of open warfare between those who believed and those who did not.

There will certainly be some among those who read what I am writing now who challenge my right to comment on this (and perhaps any other issue of regarding HiFi tweaks): I am, after all, the former manufacturer of a very successful line of cables - another category over which the Enlightened and their opposite (each claiming the other to be fools or charlatans) continue to disagree. Even so, whether you believe it or not, and whether or not any other cable manufacturer can truthfully make any similar claim, I did approach cable design from a purely scientific standpoint; I even made what others agree are scientifically provable contributions to our body of provable technical knowledge; and I do also apply scientific rigor to the evaluation of ANY product, my own or not.

In my opinion, EARWAX was BS, intended not to improve anybody's listening experience, but to separate the gullible from their money. Unfortunately, there seem to be a LOT of such products that have come to market and some have actually enjoyed some degree of success.

I even have some idea of why that should happen: To many people, audio, itself, is magical. They don't understand how a squiggly groove, a rusty piece of Mylar, or a collection of digital pits and lands can record sound; they don't - even though they may hold strong opinions as to which is better - understand how vacuum tubes or solid state devices work to play it back; they certainly don't understand how a single speaker goes about making the sound of many instruments or many people singing all at the same time; and, although all claim their only desire to be to faithfully reproduce the sound of the original "live" performance, many have never heard live music and many more have no idea at all that, for multi-track "lay-up" studio recordings, there may never have been any "live" performance to reproduce.

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For people like this, to whom it's ALL magic, it's not a big step from the willful suspension of disbelief that allows them to accept that a system can sound "real" to an acceptance of wire as affecting its sound. And once they accept a concept that seemingly absurd as possible, EVERYTHING becomes possible, and the more unlikely and the more expensive, the better. If wires can work, then why not EARWAX? Or magic discs? Or magic bowls? Or magical anything else at all?

Undiscriminating acceptance of both that which works and that which has a plausible-sounding explanation but doesn't work, is just half of the Great Audio War. The other half is the belief of the other side that if whatever the subject of discussion may be isn't in the textbooks or in a citable learned paper, it can't possibly work, regardless of who or how many people declare it to make a clearly audible difference.

People who believe that are just as gullible in their own way as the others. They're like those who denied Copernicus, Galileo and Columbus, and, content in their orthodoxy or the power of hearsay or "common sense", they declare their knowledge to be complete and inviolable and roundly attack anyone who disagrees with it.

The basic issue is one of rational analysis, and here both sides seem to fall into the same trap: Both insist on taking a small sample to be indicative of a much broader and often inapplicable whole.  The believers insist that "Cables work, so EARWAX must work, too" and the others, overlooking entirely the ideas of discovery, innovation, or the combination of old information in new ways, think that by refusing to accept the evidence of their senses they are exercising their reason.

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Neither of these positions seems reasonable to me. We DO have intellectual and technological capital derived from centuries of science. Where it applies, let's accept and use it - even if it means debunking things that we have heretofore believed and spent good money to buy: Testing and quantification, where they can be successfully applied, can be of huge significance in advancing our art, and to deny them is to throw away some of our most valuable tools. Let's also recognize, though, that testing and quantification don't necessarily apply in all cases. A mountain of data on any one particular subject may not apply at all to some other.

Let's also recognize that we don't know everything, and that the thing that we don't know may be precisely the thing that makes EARWAX work when all of our logic and all of our testing and quantification indicate that it can't possibly. If the reliable experience of multiple observers indicates that something is real and works, even despite tests indicating the opposite, let's be smart enough to understand that we might be testing the wrong thing or testing the right thing in the wrong way.

 

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