“Oh, you’re going to use one of those,” says Jimmy Hughes, reviewer and columnist for the hi-fi magazine Audiophile, as he eyes my little tape recorder. “Yes,” say I, prepared. “Are you worried it will affect the sound?” “Oh, it will,” says Jimmy, whose living room is a shrine to hi-fi and to music, its walls stacked, floor to ceiling, with records and CDs. “But we can treat it.”
So saying, he produces a plastic bag, full of bits of reflective foil in different colours, a blue plastic paintbrush, and a pair of scissors. Carefully, he cuts some black foil into tiny triangles. Opening up the machine, he sticks one on each of the batteries, lined up so the apexes face each other. Then he strokes the batteries, lengthwise, with the brush, which I notice has a number of small coloured rings secured by a tie about halfway along its length, and puts them back. Now he cuts a small rectangle of blue reflective foil and sticks that on the back of the tape recorder’s case. “You have to personalise it,” he says, and instructs me to lick my finger and rub it along the blue strip. “You’ll hear the difference.”
Hughes starts up his CD player again and his huge loudspeakers fill the room with music once more. But he still isn’t happy. He’s convinced that my little tape recorder, sitting there in his living room, switched off, is interfering with the sound of his system – despite the treatment. In the end, he takes the machine out of the room, and returns with a mug of liquid. “Drink this,” he says. “It’s polarised water.” As I take a sip, I wonder what I’ve stumbled into, and not for the first time.
What I’ve stumbled into is hi-fi: but not the kind of hi-fi you buy at Dixons. That’s stereo, but it isn’t hi-fi.
Once hi-fi was a simple matter of going into a shop and buying equipment. You’d read up on it, talk to your friends, and hand over your money. If you were buying loudspeakers or a pickup cartridge you might persuade the dealer to give you a brief listen first.
Now, when you go looking for real hi-fi you are expected to listen to everything, from the amplifier to the stands holding the loudspeakers off the ground and the cables connecting everything together. And the equipment is only part of it. Beyond that, there are a whole range of optional extras, all of which are claimed to improve your sound, if you just listen carefully enough. They range from pieces of high technology with a clear engineering purpose to stuff which stops just this side of black magic. Consider the following, promoted in recent years in the magazines of the hi-fi fraternity:
• Putting your CDs in the freezer over night before playing them. (You can also freeze the player, and all your other equipment, if you have a big enough freezer).
• Placing a metal brick on top of your amplifier.
• Putting your equipment on a slab of granite on top of a partly inflated inner tube (or buying a special table: £175).
• Changing the leads which come with your CD to connect it to an amplifier for a new set costing anything up to £245 (DPA Black Silk).
• Placing metal “tuning rings” or “ferrite filters” around any cables.
• Painting the outside edge of each CD green with a special felt pen.
• Using a “mains cleaner” to “clean up” the mains power to your equipment.
• Adorning your living room with 16 brass disks, about an inch in diameter and covered with suede, to “tune” its acoustic performance. Price: £245
• Buying gold-plated mains plugs.
• Disconnecting the panel lights on your equipment.
• Ripping the wadding out of your loudspeakers.
The only test normally applied to all these things is a purely subjective one: do they make things sound better to you, or not? Can you hear more emotion in the music? Do you feel more in touch with the performers? You do? Sold.
Hi-fi wasn’t always like this. In the days when British companies dominated the industry, it was about using the best electronic engineering to achieve the faithful reproduction of sound: an accurate copy of the original. Emotion was in the performance, not in the equipment.
But of all the great pre-war audio companies, only Quad remains in the same family. It makes fine electronics and a pair of very esoteric loudspeakers. Quad is run by Ross Walker, son of its founder. When I meet him at the factory he is wearing the white coat of an engineer.
New products from Quad used to be rare: one amplifier was in production for 18 years. These days, the market demands novelty. The magazines review amplifiers by lining them up alongside one another and listening to them, which sends Ross into apoplexy. His furious letters of complaint have made him the spokesman for the “objective” school.
Quad’s motto is “the closest approach to the original sound”, which means that components should introduce no sound of their own. “I will guarantee that whatever musical signal you shove up the input of one of our amplifiers comes out the other end,” says Walker. “Any changes will be below the level of audibility.” His idea of amplifier testing is that you electronically compare the input with the output: if it’s the same, the amplifier is perfect. Anything else is “bad science”.
“If you wish to investigate the performance of an amplifier it’s possible to do this in a totally controlled and scientific way. The last thing you should do is plug it in, stick music through it and listen to it,” says Walker. “It’s a bit like trying to judge wine by drinking the stuff. After you’d had three glasses you’d be so pissed you wouldn’t know what you were doing.”
To Ross Walker, true hi-fi only makes sense for people who listen to classical music, because they know what real instruments actually sound like. “People who spend a lot of money on equipment do so because they want to listen to late Beethoven string quartets or their Wagner at home.”
“I despise, loathe, detest and abhor classical music,” says Ken Kessler, a reviewer and columnist for Hi-fi News, the most upmarket and traditional of the magazines. A slightly pudgy American of 41, with his long hair tied back in a pony tail, he is the antithesis of Ross Walker. He is reviewing an Otis Redding box when I track him down in his studio, an industrial unit somewhere in Kent that at any given moment houses around £750,000 worth of equipment.
Ken is off hi-fi – he thinks the rise of the promo video and computer games means the end of both music and serious audio. Nonetheless, he cheers up when he shows me his “toys”. “Listen to this,” he says. “It’s mono, poorly recorded, the top end’ll make your ears hurt, the bottom end’ll make your stomach churn, but you’ll see what a system can do.” From a pair of rather elegant loudspeakers in polished walnut (Sonus Faber Extremas, a snip at £5,991, should you have a birthday coming up), part of a system costing about £40,000, comes, at high volume, the unmistakable kick drum introduction of the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over”. “Musically, I think that is phenomenal, I think it is one of the best pop records ever made. Sonically, it’s evil. But in terms of power and energy!”
It is safe to say that you won’t hear the Dave Clark Five at one of Quad’s demonstrations, which are based on modern digital CDs of classical music. Like many audiophiles, Kessler likes old recordings, on vinyl wherever possible. Old recordings are like an open window into the studio. “Listen to his voice here,” he says, later, when we’re listening to a jazz standard on a US-built Krell system costing £60,000 plus an extra £20,000 for the cables joining it together, “You can hear the saliva.” And I could. I felt I should have been wearing a raincoat.
Later he played me Mr Sandman by the Chordettes, a 1954 mono recording, and it was astonishing, the voices chiming in with the clarity and presence of a peal of bells. My hair stood on end. The power! The detail!
Of course, the other thing about old recordings is that the music is better. Ken has a son called Samandave and he has taught the three year old a trick. When he asks “Who’s the king of soul?” the little boy punches the air and answers “James Brown”. Mummy is not pleased.
Ken believes in the subjective approach. It’s not a matter of rejecting physics, he says. “You don’t need any of this metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. It just takes one thing which is harder than giving up smoking, and that is believing what you hear.” But both Kessler, the loud Yank, and Walker, the patrician Brit, accept the primacy of good equipment in the improvement of sound quality. A lot of people out there don’t.
In the old days, say 20 years ago, nobody believed that such essentially passive components as turntables, cables and loudspeaker stands played any part in sound quality. The turntable rotated the record at 331/3 rpm. The stand held the speaker off the floor. The cables moved electrical signals about without doing anything to them.
Then a man called Ivor Tiefenbrun came along, holding under his arm his only product, a turntable called the Linn LP12. Taking it to dealers and to trade shows in the boot of the car, he forced people to listen. “I’ll never forget the first time I heard a Linn,” says one of his dealers, Ian Armstrong of Billy Vee Sound Systems in Lewisham, South London. “No-one forgets that.”
Selling a single speed belt-drive turntable for about twice the price of an electronic direct-drive multi-speed Japanese competitor, Tiefenbrun had to prove his superior sound quality, which he did by demonstration. At the same time, he proved, to most people’s satisfaction, that everything affects sound quality. He’d play a record, then tighten the screws on the arm board or change the rubber mat supporting the record. People heard a difference. Later, he showed that other, unconnected loudspeakers in the same room would have an effect. Even having a telephone in the room appeared to make a difference.
Armstrong defends this with vigour. “The A/B demonstration was the key to it all. The bottom line is that I thnk that everybody can hear the difference between something that’s right and something that’s wrong.” Readers of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (or for that matter Plato) will have heard this argument before: it depends upon a belief in an innate sense of “quality”.
“Everything sounds different. If you put components from different manufacturers into the same amplifier it will sound different. If people will only give themselves credence that there’s a difference, they will be able to perceive it.”
This is, of course, food and drink to the hi-fi dealers. Go to a modern dealer and ask to hear, say, some CD players. The dealer will play you something cheap, then something a bit more expensive, then something more expensive still, accompanying each change with a chorus of encouragement. Each time the gear is changed, you hear a bit more detail. But then you will do: hearing is cumulative. Naturally if you keep listening to the same track you find more in it.
But the rise of the listening room demonstration was only the start. Once subjective assessment became the rule, many hi-fi enthusiasts moved on to “tweaking”: a mania for modifications, adjustments and experimental add-ons, assessed, again, by listening. “People just went crazy,” says Kessler. “People were advocating spending more on the accessories than they were on the primary components. It turned them into a generation of neurotics.”
Ricardo Franassovici, the laid-back Frenchman whose company, Absolute Sounds, imports most of the brands Ken Kessler has championed, calls them “the sick puppy brigade”. “They are the lovers of electronics. They probably have a very small software collection [he means records]. They are obsessives.
“A common denominator is that they will be loners, with a probably non-existent sex life and no social life.”
Jimmy Hughes has a social life. He has a girlfriend. He also has the biggest record collection I have ever seen. He is, however, the undisputed king of tweaking, ceaselessly promoting new tricks and gadgets in his columns in Hi-fi Answers and its successor, Audiophile.
In 1987, he discovered a man called Peter Belt. Once a conventional audio engineer, who had designed and manufactured headphones and loudspeakers, Belt had become perturbed that apparently well-designed gear would sound good in one room and not in another.
Ruling out conventional acoustics, he decided that there were fields, initially identified as electromagnetic, then gravitational, operating within rooms, which affected the perceptions of the listeners. He began to produce outrageously-priced materials designed to modify these perceptions, and to take them around to hi-fi dealers and journalists, demonstrating their effects in person.
Hughes received one of Belt’s first products, the blue plastic brush, which you brush over various items of equipment to “polarise” them. The brush retailed at £52, but despite that Hughes liked it. He wrote that it was “quite possibly the best upgrade you could ever make to your hi-fi system.”
When he telephoned Belt, at his home in Leeds, Belt brought him down some more bits and pieces. Hughes was impressed: he still speaks of the older man with awe. “He’s a remarkable man in many ways. He’s got a dowser’s feel for what he’s doing. I have seen him ‘sense out’ a printed circuit board and feel out the positive and negative components and how they should be treated.”
Belt brought more products, which are still in use all around Hughes’s system, indeed, all over his flat. The various reflective sticky foils are widely used on the labels of CDs and discs and on their sleeves. Coloured “magnadiscs”, less than half an inch across and made of a similar sticky plastic material, are also liberally dotted around: it’s a shock to realise they cost £8 + VAT each. There are various crocodile clips and lengths of wire, some carefully tied in a double reef-knot. The water pipes leading into the flat have been treated with some kind of device to remove an “adverse charge”. Around the room sit bottles of charged water. Outside, near the doorway, and across the street on a facing wall, are a pair of “limpets”, sealed assemblies of metal and wire.
Underneath the feet of the equipment sit a series of film discs, some inscribed with the words HUGHES O.K. and some numbers. At one point in my demonstration, Hughes took a mauve felt pen and marked four lines on the edge of a CD, at North, South, East and West. This did not surprise me, the painting of the CD edge green being a common tweak. But what came next was rather odd: each time he’d drawn the line, he tapped the disk with each end of the pen. This, apparently, was to “energise” it.
“One of the things I have often felt about Peter is that he has no idea how strange much of what he talks about is to most people. Sometimes he will come out with the most outrageous things. When I wrote about him I felt I almost had to censor some of it.”
One of the things he censored was Belt’s insistence that if you take one shoe off your system will sound worse. That was just one of a series of no-cost additions to the basic treatment. Memorably, Belt went on Loose Ends to adjust Robert Elms’s system, which he did by removing a stack of CDs from on top of one of the speakers and placing a sheet of blank paper between the pages of various books in Elms’s living room. Elms, naturally, chortled with delight and excitement. The point was, said Belt, that books have even numbers of pages. The extra sheet made that an odd number, and that “flips the charge the other way”.
At this stage, Belt was explaining his work in terms of electromagnetic fields. The human body was never designed to work in a world so filled with the electromagnetic energy that comes from electrical equipment and AC power. At other times, though, he talked about gravitational fields. In another radio programme he told a bemused Robin Ray that a spinning CD, for instance, cuts the gravitational field.
“One of the problems he’s had is trying to align cause and effect,” says Hughes. “The effect is there, but what’s the cause? A lot of people want to have the cause explained before they believe the effect. I ‘m not sure science should work like that.”
Throughout 1988 and 1989, the hi-fi magazines were full of people raving about polarising and charge bonding and flipping and all the other Belt stuff, while the letters columns were full of contributions from both converts and from the sceptics who had neither heard the demonstration nor bought the products. In March 1988, Hi-fi News examined all the products and found the special Sol-Electret fluid was “ordinary grade mineral oil” and that the Electret Induction Brush and Fluid (£52) was an ordinary paintbrush and a bottle in which “no other component than water was found”. Even Ross Walker joined the fray, offering £10,000 to a charity of Belt’s choice if a statistically valid experiment proved that his treatments had any audible effect. Walker kept his money. The bandwagon rolled on.
Somewhere along the line Belt discovered the idiosyncratic theories of biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake invented the term “morphic resonance” to explain the fact that if sheep in a field in Wales suddenly discover that they can cross a cattle grid by rolling, other sheep in other parts of the country will soon independently discover the same trick. He posited the existence of “morphic fields”, which link past events to current ones. As a result, it becomes easier to replicate activities if they have been carried out before. The editor of Nature suggested Sheldrake’s book should be burned.
But for Belt, it was a godsend, and in his later work “morphic fields” have replaced electro-magnetism and gravity. He says he can manipulate them by the use of morphic messages. Jimmy’s HUGHES O.K. messages were just the start.
At some point, Hughes fell off the Belt bandwagon, wondering whether his enthusiastic support for the Yorkshireman was not becoming a professional liability. He still likes tweaks, of course, but these days he invents his own. He has, for instance, disconnected the panel lights on his amplifiers and CD players. (Do not try this at home). In his own listening room, he uses a pair of £3,500 Impulse H1 loudspeakers. But he has them turned so that they are facing the wall. “Why’s that?” I asked, and his face fell. “Can’t you tell?” he asked.
Peter Belt does not encourage visitors. First he told me he had flu, then he said it was inconvenient, and then he just said he didn’t want me to come. He has, however, been extraordinarily helpful in sending me details of his products and his theories. He’s not best pleased with Jimmy Hughes. I think he’s annoyed that Hughes has not kept the faith. You see, if you think bits of sticky tape and ionised water are weird, you’re in for a shock.
The first set of stuff he sent me, more sticky reflective foil, principally, included the remarkable claim that by working on the “master” versions that he keeps in his home, he could induce effects on his products anywhere in the world. So my bits of sticky foil are linked by morphic fields to his bits of sticky foil.
Later, it became apparent that Peter Belt now believes he has moved beyond modifying hi-fi equipment. These days, he thinks he’s modifying people. “The latest thing I’m doing,” he said, conversationally, in a voice somewhere between Sir James Savile and Ian Macaskill, “is manipulating a person’s ability to perceive things by dealing with their photograph.”
“What we’re full of,” he explained, “is primitive instinctive behaviour patterns from the year dot, because we’re human. Our senses, which are quite primitive, are just there to keep us alive or to keep us away from predators or to be a good predator.
“What we’ve got now in the modern environment is a lot of things which evoke these instinctive primitive responses. What we’ve developed over millions of years is the ability to ignore these signals. But we do it at great cost. We occupy a great deal of the brain to suppress the signals that we can’t resolve. And what I do is to then put the right signals from various bits and pieces, electrical equipment and so on, so that it can give you reassuring messages. In other words, no longer do you think everything’s a predator.’
The photographs work like that, he tells me, and promises to send me more details. The next morning, a package arrives, with a bundle of paper headed NEW PRODUCT, “A SAFE PLACE”, THE P.W.B. PHOTOGRAPHIC WALLET. It tells us that “the energy patterns of a human being are captured on a photograph.” These are distorted by the existence of each and every photograph of a person through life, but can be eased by the use of the photographic wallet.
You have to stick various gold foil labels on the picture and on the wallet, marking them with your name, telephone number and another personal number (perhaps your passport number). And you have to sign them, this having the effect of beneficially manipulating all the personal written records that you have created throughout your life.
He promises “a profound improvement in the efficacy of the senses will take place and a worthwhile improvement to the general wellbeing of an individual will be experienced. In particular, a reduction in the feeling of anxiety should be experienced.” Another set of typed sheets, headed “Morphic Message Foil”, gives more uses for the combination of foil and message pen. We can neutralise the perceived threat from intruders (which include many inanimate objects) by the use of foil labels with benign messages. “COMPACT DISCS ARE O.K. AND PRODUCE SUPERB SOUND”, for instance. Or “ELECTROLYTIC CAPACITORS ARE O.K.” on components of that type.
Another set of messages has had “a profound effect on our ability to correctly perceive music within our home environment”. The labels come with a space for you to insert your family’s name and telephone number. They display various messages.
This is just one, and by no means the most peculiar: “THE ——— TERRITORY IS A SAFE HAVEN AND GIVES PROTECTION FROM ALL BIRDS OF PREY AND PREDATOR ANIMALS INCLUDING DRAGONS AND ALL HAIRY BEASTS.”
Clearly, we are a long way from Ohm’s Law.
You might be tempted to question Peter Belt’s sanity. That, however, would be to risk a confrontation with Dr Richard Graham, a psychiatrist, working at the respected Tavistock Clinic in London, who has taken it upon himself to be Peter Belt’s principle defender. His vicar on Earth, you might say.
Dr Graham doesn’t like people who bandy around the word mad. “I think, well, that’s not your field. It is mine, I’m registered with the Royal College [of Psychiatry] and all that stuff, so I feel I am on pretty safe ground.” He says that although he has never met him, he speaks to Peter Belt a couple of times a week and is convinced by his methodology that he is “pretty sound”.
“ I do think, one way or another, he has stumbled across something pretty new. I have said to Peter a lot of times, and I really should look into the anthropology of it, it fits into a lot of ideas about images and magic in one sense. I think voodoo and all those things have a curious link, which puts him on pretty dodgy ground if one thinks about it. He’s desperately trying to find a more acceptable scientific framework.”
He considers that Belt has been censored, probably as a result of pressure from manufacturers who have, as advertisers, an unhealthy influence over the hi-fi press. He has started a newsletter for Belt’s supporters, and is encouraging them to write and demand more coverage.
I came to investigate an amusing little debate in the world of hi-fi. So why do I feel as if I’m in at the start of a new religion? We started with one lot of men in white coats, assembling amplifiers in a factory in Huntingdon, and we’ve ended up with another.
For what it’s worth, I have developed my own tweaks and my own theories. Try this. Make sure you are at home on your own, and, if possible, that there is no one next door. The presence of other human beings makes true perception of hi-fidelity impossible. Now lubricate your larynx, releasing pressure from the Eustachian tubes which link your neck to your ears. You can try polarised water, but many will find a glass or two of decent red wine more effective. Dim the lights. Now place a CD or a vinyl disc on your equipment and listen carefully to a favourite track. Concentrate. Now take it off, hold it up to the light, and put it back on, this time raising the volume a couple of notches. Concentrate again. Do you hear more? More instruments, different lines, clearer vocals, more presence, more life? Can you hear the bass line? Can you hear the words more clearly? Do you feel more in touch with the music?
Of course you do. Trust me.