Back in the mid-80s, Judy Davidson (then a reviewer for the absolute sound) asked me to do her a favor: She had been approached by the designer of some moderately priced cables, who had asked her to listen to them and give him her opinion of their performance. The problem was that, because her system used all NAIM electronics (which took only DIN connectors, instead of the RCAs that the “test” cables were fitted with) she couldn’t do it, and needed someone to listen to them and make her report for her. Because we were (within a couple of miles) neighbors; because we were both Hi-Fi Crazies; and because she said she “trusted my ears”, I was elected.
When I agreed, she arranged to get the cables to me and, when they arrived, I listened to them with interest and high hopes. Frankly, though, although they were perfectly okay for their price point ($69/meter pair), they were hardly “world beaters” by any standard, and, having had my fun, I found myself stuck with the not-at-all pleasant task of calling the designer and telling him so.
When I called, explained who I was and why I was calling, and told him (in the most courteous and circumspect language possible) what I thought of his cables, the designer was so obviously disappointed that I felt bad and tried to jolly him out of it by turning the conversation theoretical, instead of specific. To do that, I told him that I had been listening to a LOT of cables, lately, and that, in the process, I had been exposed to a whole lot of theories on how and why cables work. No two of them had agreed on much of anything, I told him, and asked what HIS theory of cable design was. “I don’t HAVE a cable theory,” he said “I just dick around with ’em till they sound good.”
And that, my friends, was, IMHO, one of the most significant and noteworthy statements in the history, not only of our hobby and our industry but, to at least some meaningful degree, all of Western Civilization. It describes more of the reality of science and the development of technology in fewer words than most academics could ever think possible.
“Dicking with it” or, to use the more polite term, “tinkering” — the process of getting an idea for something and then actually trying any number of more or less likely ways to make it happen or make it better — has been a basic element of human achievement from the very beginning. Even Thomas Edison (among other things, the inventor of the phonograph, and thus, ultimately, the father of our hobby), was said to have tried 3000 times before he was able to construct a working electric light.
Genuine scientific or technological breakthroughs can certainly be made by guys in white lab coats following carefully defined protocols (Think of all those ads for “The Genius of Matthew Polk”), but historically, it seems that more of the truly basic knowledge from which science and technology are built has come about just by somebody observing something happening and wondering why it did that, or from someone looking at a thing or a situation and wondering “What if…?”
To those of you out there who are already limbering-up both of your typing fingers to post your disagreement, do you really think that the first person to USE (not just to run away from) fire had any knowledge of plasma physics? Or that the inventor of the wheel knew how to calculate the circumference of a circle? Isn’t it more likely that even the invention of something as basic as agriculture was no invention at all, but simply somebody’s inspired observation that seeds, when stuck in the ground, grow?
The fact of it is that, in the beginning, it’s much more likely that someone will see something and wonder “Why?”, or think of something and wonder “How?” and then dick (or tinker) with it until they have either a new understanding or a new something that works (whether understood or not) than it is that they will produce a truly new idea or technology just from the “cookbook” of established knowledge.
One of the greatest audio innovators ever was Judy Davidson’s pal and colleague, Enid Lumley, who also wrote for the absolute sound. Although she had no technical training that I know of, and was regarded by many as one of audio’s greatest loonies, it was she who came up with a goodly number of the “tweaks” that have become standard today: Simple things, like lifting cables off the floor, or taking the dust cover completely off the turntable when you play records, and many more. She may even, by hearing and writing about a sonic improvement after she carefully scraped the gold off all of her RCA connectors, have inspired Cardas, Kimber, and others to seek innovative plating materials for the connectors on their cables.
Enid’s approach was simple; 1) Try it. 2) If it sounds better or worse, use or avoid it. 3) Save worrying about an explanation for it until last. That approach worked for Enid and, although it was certainly not orthodox, people still do the same thing today; still meeting, if what they do can’t yet be explained, the same doubt and sometimes even the same open ridicule as Enid did.
Sometimes an explanation can be found; sometimes not. Sometimes whatever it is turns out REALLY to have been “placebo effect”, and never to have worked at all. Sometimes what was thought to be “voodoo”, foolish, or impossible proves to be an important new discovery: Consider what people – and possibly even Edison, himself — thought when his 2,999th light bulb attempt failed.
Consider, also, this statement of the late Ray Dolby: “To be an inventor, you have to be willing to live with a sense of uncertainty, to work in this darkness and grope towards an answer, to put up with anxiety about whether there is an answer.”
Sometimes you just have to keep on dicking and tinkering.