How can the shaman talk to the physicist?

I think it’s ironic when people don’t admit, or realize, they’re being religious. Or perhaps superstitious is the better word.

Audio debates around tweaks – snake oil versus life-changing sound improvements – are the paradigm case.

Skeptics often roughly dismiss an asserted tweak that isn’t accompanied by measured improvements and/or established science and engineering, and tweakers often expect everyone else to take their word that they clearly heard an improvement and that’s proof. Scientific proof versus a leap of faith. The rational mind versus the shaman.

And yet, this is a hobby. Gear is cool. Music is near our life’s blood. Why can’t we talk to each other in a more productive fashion?

AND, human rationality is just another religion. It’s mine, but the cultural relativist in me tells me it’s not inherently superior; it’s just a different way of looking at one’s relationship to the universe.

Improvements have to start as an idea, and those can come from the shaman. But it really does take science and engineering to bring an improvement from theory to reality. I believe both sides would benefit from being a little more open to the other. I’d like to propose some guidelines…

(1) Merely perceiving a sound improvement from a tweak isn’t proof and it’s not intended to be insulting when others express skepticism. This perception should merely open the question as to whether there is a meaningful discussion to be had. BUT

(2) Objectivists should be respectful and truly consider whether some difference was actually achieved. Perhaps it may not always be from the cause asserted, but keep a bit of an open mind before categorical dismissal. BUT

(3) If a meaningful discussion is going to progress, ultimately the original asserter of the tweak should expect to be asked for more evidence, more scientific basis, measurements, various things that objectivities and rationalists hold dear. If you just say that putting a red candle on your speaker made it sound like Tom Jones was in your living room, and please just believe me it did, then you are not really prepared to push the discussion forward. . BUT

(4) If you are just asking if others think it might be making a difference, and how could it, rather than dogmatically asserting it MUST be the candle, that’s a welcome invitation to explore the issue rationally

(5) Presumptively, both sides should try to be respectful of the other during the discussion; there is a lot of unfortunate energy around denigrating the other side, BUT

(6) Tweakers who present their tweaks as fact without the rational basis do represent a kind of additional risk to the community that the skeptics generally do not: audio beginners, the uninitiated, may be advised to buy a bunch of tweaks before they really know what they’re doing and may blow their whole budgets before they even have their core in place (I saw this in another thread today); and so I do understand the desire to sometimes “shout down” a proposed tweak; BUT

(7) Pointing out to newcomers that a given proposed tweak is not established audio engineering should be done as respectfully as possible;

(8) The first effort should be to explore the topic and attempt to marry the leap of faith with established science or rationality.

(9) If all else fails, just realize that neither side is going to capture the soul of audiophilia. It’s inherently splintered. Once you’ve had your say, let it go.

I’ve violated the above myself on many an occasion. But I wonder if there is a better way?


Isn’t it the ongoing search of balance between the experience of listening to music and the technical goal to achieve it? Thus the “feeling and the ratio?”

And because it is that personal it makes you vulnerable as you discuss it with others.

Therefore I believe point 5 in your statement is the most important which - to my opinion - should be the base of all discussions.

I would not discuss about it as there is only one person that can make the decisions how to achieve your own “Goal of happiness”, which is yourself.

However, if I had a question about some gear of interest I certainly would not hesitate to ask opinions about it.

Difficult, isn’t it?

One remark I feel obliged to make: rationalism isn’t a belief system, since there is no belief involved. There is explained and not explained, there is proven and not proven, and there are permutations thereof such as proven but not yet explained.

From this comes knowledge. Not only knowing the why and how of things, but also the knowledge of not knowing and the knowing of lack of knowledge.

Otherwise rational people who are believers of some sort will equate rationalism with a belief system and will put rationalism aside as “just another opinion”, completely ignoring the fact that rationalism is not about opinions. It’s about knowing and not knowing.

In between the knowing and the not knowing there is reasoning which comes in two varieties: deduction and induction, respectively also known as “getting from A to B by using knowledge” and " filling in the gaps in knowledge by using the brain". Both are subject to verification and will not be used lightly by a true rationalist.

A rationalist will also be aware of the uncomfortable fact that human beings are prone to pre-, mis- and other conceptions and suppositions and will try to suppress them in his or her reasoning. And will often fail but will hopefully realise this and will try to correct this.

Rationalists are generally denied consideration by believers who seem unable to grasp that the world view of a rationalist is the fundament of a rationalist’s being. Rationalism is not about being right, it is about constantly wondering if what you conceive is correct and about striving to correct what you misconceive. It is about trying to eliminate the “gut feeling”, the “everybody” in “everybody knows”, the “fundamental values” of one group or another that clash with said one group or another’s outward behaviour.

So, why would a rationalist be considerate of irrational beliefs?


Maybe just because we share the same love for music and gear.

But also, for one thing, because things ARE invented sometimes by empirical observation or gut feeling alone – even if that is just an application of the infinite monkey theory – although they cannot be put fully into effect or reproduced without rationalism.

Well, there’s the belief that the world can be explained without invoking the supernatural. Kind of central.

Indeed. It’s a bit like a priest indulging Satanists who want to paint his altar with blood.

Maybe we need some sort of moderating system like when posts are flagged for violating community rules:

“Attention: your post has been flagged as being potentially irrational. You have 24 hours to edit your post to include scientific evidence or it will be transferred to the Snake Oil subgroup…” :snake::clock5:

There is already a system to flag posts. It gets overused IMO.

1 Like

Actually, empirical observation is the basis of ratio. It is from repeated empirical observation of recurring phenomena that curiosity leads to investigation into the how and why. I think the gut feeling that leads to discoveries is subconscious induction (for want of a better term) at work. Or do you mean that the kind of magical thinking like “if I put a 10.000 dollar turd shaped rock on my amp it will sound better” will ever lead to a sound discovery?

This should be nuanced, Bill. One of the greatest disappointments in my life is that there are no supernatural phenomena that can be proven by reproduction. I for one would love to recapture the joy of childhood magic like Sint Maarten, whom you might know as Saint Nicholas (Continental Europe) or Father Christmas or Santa Claus.

But until someone can produce proof of supernatural causes as opposed to absence of rational explanation equals supernatural causes, I will reject the supernatural causes as improbable to the order of impossible for lack of proof. If there is ever proof of something supernatural, chances are I’ll be delighted. I’m not holding my breath though.

James, I can agree with your appeal for basic civility.

One problem I see with this, is a concept that Wittgenstein somewhat clumsily formulated as " The language defines the limit, beyond that limit is nonsens".

Semantics poses a problem in discussions, mainly because usually no one (myself included) clearly defines the actual meaning of the words they use. Many people do not realise that words - with very few exceptions - have contextual meaning and in many cases have cultural variances in meaning as well, even across the variants of a common language. My favourite example comes from Dutch: the word “stoel” which means chair. Now most people attach a mental picture to words that denote physical objects. So, if a Dutchman hears the word “stoel” the mental image for him will be that of a piece of furniture you can sit on. This might be a kitchen or dining room style, four legged chair or it might be what in English would be called a comfy chair. When a Fleming hears the word “stoel” the mental image will be that of a four legged kitchen or dining room type chair. In Flanders, we don’t ever use “stoel” for a comfy chair. We use “zetel”, which the Dutch very rarely use to describe a comfy chair.

A simple, everyday word nobody ever considers as anything other than unambiguous is in fact ambiguous in a language area that spreads over one and a half neigbouring countries.

So how can one expect discussions not to derail when people think they are using the same terms but they have never set out to define the meaning of the terms they use in the context of the discussion?

Now when it comes to religious beliefs I tend to open my mind in a specific sense: I keep it so wide open that the words go in one ear and out the other without the brain engaging. It’s one of the few areas of human brain activity where ratio simply cannot be applied, not even when incontroversible evidence invalidates religious conviction.

So back to the flame wars. Not only does the semantic aspect cause problems like the use of the word “noise” which I suspect is interpreted by many as actual sound instead of as interference or distortion or any of the other meanings this term can take on when it is not used in a clearly defined and very narrow context, there is also the added problem that the lingua franca on this forum is English and that many forum members are not native speakers (myself included).

James pointed out that in audioland there exist regions of firmly held quasi-religious beliefs. Whether these beliefs originate in actual conviction, personal epiphanies, misattribution of actual effects, self-delusion or something else is of little importance.

He also pointed out that the expression of these beliefs can result in catastrophy for less critical and/or inexperienced members seeking advice. This is a real phenomenon and while I doubt that believers deliberately set out to mislead these members and in many cases may not even realise they are offering misleading advice, I still find this difficult to accept.


There’s also the element of: we don’t know what we don’t know. A brain as exceptional as Einstein’s continually rejected the weirdness of quantum mechanics until experiments proved the theories. What seemed madly irrational turned out to be true (according to our current, still limited understanding).

Over the 45 or so years I’ve been interested in audio, I’ve seen a number of things move from the realm of crazy to being more or less universally accepted (simple circuit paths, the audibility of phase, the importance of power supplies, speaker spikes, etc).

Most of us are probably saying ‘bah!’ to things that will be baseline assumptions twenty years from now. Or not!

Rational hasn’t quite been the same since virtual particles and ‘Lite’ beers.

I feel I have a foot in both camps.

A friend of mine earns his living building acoustic guitars that often out perform factory built guitars like Martins and Taylors. He said of his craft “it’s an art, but there’s some science in it.” There’s a parallel here with putting together and getting the best out of a hifi system.

I feel fairly comfortable with the science bit because I have a couple of degrees in Physics. This has enabled me to understand books on acoustics, etc. It’s all jolly interesting, but is of little help in getting a better sound out of either my guitars or my hifi system.

Now, I am only happy with one particular brand of bronze light guitar strings. I am told that the same generic strings are put into different branded packaging at the factory. It is unlikely I’d be able to pick out my favourite strings in a double blind test. However, if I have confidence in my strings, I get better results. That’s all that matters to me.

I am sceptical about much that goes on in the hifi world. Nevertheless, I do get irritated by the digital zealots who claim to have all the answers. This is not a science and they are sucking all the fun out of it.


The best control is the ability to mute threads…

1 Like

Well… It is science as far as I’m concerned.

That is what makes it fun for me. Notice that I am stressing the personal component here.

I exhibit irrational behaviour too from time to time. In audio I have a preference for certain brands and a dislike for others. There is no ratio here, except maybe that my preferences go back to my teens when I dreamt of the perfect hifi system I couldn’t afford.

Being who I am though, I am well aware of my prejudices and will not force them on anyone.


Essentially the TOS #8 requirement at

This I agree with. It can only go so far – I know that killing a goat isn’t going to stop a volcano from erupting – and some audio tweaks seem to go to that level. But I think it is at least worth considering whether a difference was heard, before dismissing.

The goat must be sacrificed by strangulation with multi-gauge wire in a golden-ratio array.

Or better yet, just let the poor goat go. It cares little for soundstaging precision.

That’s what those threads are for, isn’t it? To try and find out IF there was a difference (can the effect objectively be reproduced?) and if so, can the effect be confidently attributed to the supposed cause (will it work in every configuration).

Take the 10.000 euro turd shaped rock. Say it does produce an audible difference when put atop an amplifier. Say the effect is reproduced in other people’s systems but only with the same type of amplifier.

Now what will be the most obvious path of inquiry to follow? Is it that the rock has magical properties or could it be that this type of amplifier has a production flaw in which the pressure applied by the rock pushes a component more firmly in it’s place?

I know which line of enquiry I would follow first.

Saves a lot of goats and virgins.

1 Like

No, not really. Not without some hard evidence, something more than, “I heard…”. Otherwise it’s just a waste of time, like discussing how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

I like your 9 point list and think that it is a good starting for keeping some of these discussions from going off the rails.

That said there are few very important points that have not yet to mentioned.

The first and most important point being MONEY. Individuals make lots and lots and lots of money by selling audio equipment and accessories that have little or no scientific justification. These individuals are in turn supported by a network of journalists who “spread the gospel” about these fantastic improvements to one’s audio system. As a little experiment just go back over the years of audio journalism and read about how many windows have been opened and veils lifted, so many in fact that by any real measure we would reached audio perfection somewhere back in the 1980s. Or stated another way, back in the 1980s we were listening to the sound of two coarse rocks being rubbed together. Obviously the truth lies elsewhere.

Add to the above the fact that someone who just spend a fair amount of money on a piece of audio equipment or accessory, often by following the advise of less than trustworthy individuals, does not want to hear that it’s quite possible that they have been duped.

Okay so by reading the above one could reasonably assume that I am totally anti-audiophile, however this is not the case since that would be akin to throwing out the baby with bath water.

My approach is to try, to the bast of my ability, to understand the science behind the various audio designs and tweaks.

Well made cables and wires which meet the minimum electrical requirements seem like a good idea. Megabuck cabling marketed with fancy “white papers” should raise an alarm.

Claims of slight but perceptible improvements in sound might warrant some attention. Claims of game changing and clearly audible improvements should, like megabuck cables, raise an alarm.

Plus, like any other type of consumer, audiophiles need to educate themselves on at least some the science of audio. All too often audiophiles are fooled by measurements - testing equipment can show things that cannot be heard by the human ear, even golden ears.

And always remember that, at least on the industry side of the audio hobby, making money is one of the important factors.