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The Audibility Of the Improbable

In my years as a studio tech, I learned to be cautious of a casual dismissal of the audibility of phenomena that seem to flaunt the common wisdom.

In my years as a studio tech, I learned to be cautious of a casual dismissal of the audibility of phenomena that seem to flaunt the common wisdom (though I still retain a healthy skepticism of many claims, particularly from the audiophile community, even if not dismissing them outright).

For instance, some of you will remember the minor fad of taking a green Sharpie and coloring the inside and outside vertical edge of a compact disc, with advocates of the treatment claiming a more accurate sound on playback of the treated discs. Intrigued, we experimented with the technique in the studio, throwing extra colors into the mix. After finding a scenario where we were hearing differences with the treatment, we arranged a blind test and dragged in several staffers who unanimously chose a black-Sharpie-treated disc as sounding closest to the source recording. While we never quantified the physical phenomenon, and did not adopt the practice of coloring discs, we learned we could negate it, the experiment, in part, affecting our attention to system clocking.

There are golden ears among us whose hearing I’ve learned not to question even when I can’t say why they hear what they hear. There was the engineer who knew a numerically identical safety tape had been substituted for a digital master. Or the artist who heard a change in his compiled master that it took us two days to substantiate and eventually attribute to the proximity of a PC to the editing system.

With that background, with a skeptical but open mind, I approached this issue’s review of a product that originated in the audiophile community—very expensive aftermarket power cords from Essential Sound Products. When I first gave a listen to a pair of powered monitors fitted with the ESP power cables, I was hard pressed to quantify a sonic difference between the monitor’s performance with and without the cables. After setting up a mono test configuration to compare identical speakers, one fitted with stock cables and the other with the ESP MusicCordPROs, and listening repeatedly to short loops of my reference material, I was able to “train” my ears to the differences, eventually feeling confident that I could identify not only the sonic character of the ESP cables, but I truly surprised myself by also discerning differences between 18- and 14-gauge standard power cords. The results were consistent to various degrees with monitors from Event, JBL, and Genelec.

I used my Prism Sound dScope and a new Phonic PAA6 handheld acoustic analyzer to try and quantify what I was hearing, to no avail. But, I have learned over time that a phenomenon can be very real, even though I can’t measure it.

The more I learn about audio, the more I learn that there’s more yet to learn. That’s no small part of what keeps it interesting.