Grinding axes

May 28, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

After reading yesterday’s post, I am reminded of my fascination with third-party endorsements.

We trust the words of disinterested parties more than the folks who actually have a deeper knowledge of a given subject.

We are suspicious of a designer’s enthusiasm because we fear he has an axe to grind.

This notion of distrust has its roots buried deep in our culture. The first mention I could find was from the early 1800s when author Charles Miner recounted an incident from his youth, where a passing stranger takes advantage of him and, by flattering him, dupes him into turning a grindstone to sharpen the stranger’s axe. Miner then uses having an axe to grind as a metaphor for having an ulterior motive:

“When I see a man holding a fat office, sounding ‘the horn on the borders’ to call the people to support the man on whom he depends for his office. Well, thinks I, no wonder the man is zealous in the cause, he evidently has an axe to grind.”

Stories of people taking advantage of other people abound, but I think we do ourselves an injustice by always taking the cynical view.

Not all people with direct knowledge are looking to wrangle freebies out of us. In fact, most aren’t.

I’ll share with you what I do to ferret out the truth. If a knowledgeable source is recommending their own solution I drill down to see how deep their knowledge base is. That tells me from where they are coming from: deep knowledge and experience or light fluff.

In today’s world of person-to-person connection, I think it’s important to readjust our barometers.

It’s easier than ever to dig deep into people’s knowledge and motivations.

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31 comments on “Grinding axes”

  1. You could go back a little further and read the story of Jacob and Esau. I think they set the gold standard.

    I do see online reviews that are so superficial I wonder if the reviewer had the product for more than a weekend. They are doing a job, often badly, and I ignore them.

    The consumer can read reviews, speak to the manufacturer or get a demonstration or home loan of the product in question. I do all three, the only times I did not was with my speaker cables, not having a home demo, but I had no doubt about their qualities (and I could have returned them), and my power cables/filter done purely on a loan basis. For everything in my stereo system, In my speaking with dealers, conversations with manufacturers and reviewers, I have never felt anyone being anything but honest and straightforward, able to explain the purpose and meet of an item in terms I understand, and I cannot recall anyone seeking to take advantage of me.

  2. I think more or less independent, non dogmatic opinions (in case the one is also experienced) are the future of (not only) audio consulting. Not rarely this will replace the dealer/distributor chain regarding this role imo or at least more than add to it.

    In case a manufacturer wants to be seen as more or less independent and objective regarding information about his own and competing products, the claims to be met for this kind of trust are much higher. I think a person like Ted is a good example for such a trust (ok, he’s no manufacturer, but developer).

    At least it’s no matter of course to have such trust…it’s earned over a long period of time with very few outliers of contradicting behaviour imo.

    1. I want to add that I think it’s very difficult to successfully combine the characteristics of a great marketing guy speaking loud for own products with being a deeply trusted neutral advisor…maybe impossible…not many who achieve the combination Paul does I’d say.

  3. I always associated the phrase ‘having an axe to grind’ as meaning revenge for some perceived wrongdoing.

    One can sort of understand people’s trepidation of relying on a manufacturer and its marketing for the ‘whole story’ on any given product.

    Gleaning knowledge from those whom you respect and trust is key.

    Filtering out the fluff, bs, and exaggerations can be an art, especially when you may not be well versed on any given subject.

  4. There’s another old story, about an emperor and his clothes and how it took a child to see that he was naked. If we placed all our trust in experts, we would still be living on a flat earth watching the sun revolve around us. From my experience in the investment world, I can report much success from doing the opposite of a consensus of experts.

    1. Ok, but you can rather compare investment business with weather forecasting than with engineering 😉 Folks might be less successful doing the opposite of experts consensus in all nature scientific/technologically based matters than they‘d be if they do so in other more esoteric fields 😉 But you never know…

      1. You are probably right, but I am very suspicious of scientific theories which depend on the manipulation of observations to support the theory (global warming) as opposed to fitting the theory to the observations.

  5. Don’t forget the neighbor over the back fence. Their opinion (n=1) is without axe grinding and can be given more credence than it deserves because of it.

  6. It’s not always about an axe to grind. Among the last projects I worked on at Bell Labs was a long term project to replace all of their 15 KV underground electrical feeder cables. There must have been hundreds of miles of them and they knew that sooner or later, possibly within the next few years they would all begin to fail due to their age and the fact that all of them had periodically been submerged in water after rains due to manholes filling up. These are the electrical links between the main distribution substation for the site and each of the buildings. But which ones were closest to the end of their lives? Which were most likely to fail first? I read half a dozen technical papers and contacted about a dozen knowledgeable sources from cable manufacturers to companies that worked for the department of energy, to testing companies, to people who manufactured the test equipment, to contractors who did the work, and every one had a different answer. Each of them dismissed the advice of the others. It was up to me to sort it out and come up with a plan of action. Nobody had an axe to grind. Fortunately Nokia who owns the site ran out of money for electrical work and my job was eliminated. Saved by the axe. (Actually I did come up with a plan that made the most sense. Was it right? Who the hell knows?)

    I’m just having fun on the internet. I am learning so much about so many things I can’t put it down. It’s like a school that will teach you anything and everything and some of it is dead wrong 🙂 From monster bug wars and animals fighting and hunting to colliding galaxies. From Q bits to dog breeds. Now here’s a dog that I think could make for a great guard dog.

    It’s a Tibetan mastiff. I think they cost about $10,000. I’d want a black ferocious looking one.

    1. I had a Tibetan mastiff 30 years ago before they became fashionable and high priced. Female, 130 pounds, very protective and very difficult to train. She died of a genetic heart disease at a young age. Paying $10,000 for such a dog is as crazy as $10,000 for a speaker cable.

      1. Yeah I know it is. That’s why we selected mixed breed female Rottweiler puppies that cost under $100 each from rescue shelters. I’ll bet I spent over $10,000 on one of them in vet bills alone. I’d rather have a great dog than expensive speaker cables which as you know if you’ve read my posts I place no value on. Training and socializing a dog is something you must do and it’s best to start with a puppy so it knows you are the alpha right away. The two most recent ones were the most affectionate playful fun loving dogs you could ever hope for. The only one who ever got bitten was me. Lesson in life learned, never wrestle with a Rottweiler. And oh how one of them loved to wrestle with me.

        1. I love Rotties; my favorite breed. They can sense and are alert to any change in their environment. Yet they are very affectionate when raised properly. I agree on proper training and socialization. Also, I share your lack of enthusiasm for vet bills. I am onto a complete raw diet for our current guy in the hopes of reducing vet bills over time.

          1. Two cruciate ligament operations alone cost $4000. They worked perfectly just like the veterinary surgeon said they would. Once the surgery healed up she was as good as new and crazy as ever. It’s fairly common in that type of dog. It was partly my own fault. The dog had so much energy I invented a game to tire her out. (I should write a book on games you can play with your dog like cookie baseball and can the dog) In this game I’d take a piece of their favorite treat, a small piece of beef jerky and throw it from the second floor to the first. She’d run down to get it and come back upstairs and get another treat from me. Then I’d throw another piece downstairs and I’d repeat it until I tired her out. The larger Rottweiler Saint Bernard Fugue who was 180 pounds tired out after about 2 or 3 trips. But Toccata who was a 100 pound Rottweiler German Shepherd went 20 times. It’s 10 feet from the first floor to the second in my house. This was like running up and down a 20 story building non stop. Then she was tired out and rested… for about 20 minutes and she was ready to go again.

            1. Yes, that is a common problem. These dogs were originally bred to work cattle, pull carts, do all sorts of farm duties, so they have lots of energy. However, they also carry a lot of weight and are prone to joint problems as they age. Again, a raw, natural diet as opposed to one based on a heavy carb load, is supposed to ameliorate these issues. Time will tell.

  7. So I read a review of a speaker cable yesterday, not one I use but the same brand, and it says:

    “The amplifier has effectively zero output impedance and the speaker load is mainly resistive with a nominal 8 ohm speaker having about 6.5 ohms resistance and the remainder reactive, comprising inductance and capacitance. Any speaker cable also has inductance, capacitance, as well as a small resistance. The value of inductance and capacitance is determined by the geometry of the cable, so the wider the spacing, the higher the inductance and the lower the capacitance and vice-versa. The optimum relationship between inductance and capacitance, as determined by computer modelling, for lowest distortion caused by reflections in the cable, is derived mathematically by making the ratio of inductance divided by capacitance equal to the resistance impedance of the speaker squared. To achieve this correct ratio the cable must have a relatively high capacitance and low inductance.”

    How do I know any of this is true or relevant. It sounds pretty convincing but how do I know?

    In a review of the cable I use it says:

    “… this construction and that’s almost total immunity to RFI, radio frequency interference, this is because the strips are so close together, 0.07mm to be precise. This limits the frequencies that can get into this gap to 60GHz and up, not an area where you get radio transmissions.”

    That’s easier to accept, not least because it is a concept subsequently copied by other cable manufacturers (my cable was first produced in 1980) and the concept is referred to in patents going back almost a century. But I don’t know for sure. All I know is it’s the cleanest sounding cable I’ve ever had.

    It is unusual for a cable manufacturer to provide any scientific basis for their design. Even if they do, the typical consumer is highly unlikely to be able to understand it, accept it, or determine its relevance. From my perspective, the same goes for pretty much anything Paul says. It also applies to my most recent purchase, a fridge, as I don’t know how that works either, but at least the manufacturer publishes the relevant facts, including capacity, power consumption and noise level. All I know is if the fridge salesman had told me it is the best fridge ever invented, better than other fridges that cost 10 times the price, I would not have believed him.

    1. After years of purchasing different cables from a variety of manufacturers and at different price points, I’ve settled on Blue Jeans Cables, mainly because they have a good database of engineering-oriented papers on cable design, their prices are reasonable, and they sound good to me.

      Generally, when buying appliances, I read reviews in Consumer Reports, although truthfully, whenever I read their reviews on products I know a good deal about, such as bicycles or cameras, I find their reviews worthless, which makes me wonder why I bother at all.

      For some reason, every fridge I’ve ever owned has done a lousy job making ice, either not enough or, more likely, too much and never stopping.

      1. So Belden say:

        “Speaker cable is a bit different from a lot of the interconnect cables we handle, in several respects. Because speakers are driven at low impedance (typically 4 or 8 ohms) and high current, speaker cables are, for all practical purposes, immune from interference from EMI or RFI, so shielding isn’t required. The low impedance of the circuit, meanwhile, makes capacitance, which can be an issue in high-impedance line or microphone-level connections practically irrelevant. The biggest issue in speaker cables, from the point of view of sound quality, is simply conductivity; the lower the resistance of the cable, the lower the contribution of the speaker cable’s resistance to the damping factor, and the flatter the frequency response will be. While one can spend thousands of dollars on exotic speaker cable, in the end analysis, it’s the sheer conductivity of the cable, and (barring a really odd design, which may introduce various undesirable effects) little else that matters. The answer to keeping conductivity high is simple: the larger the wire, the lower the resistance, and the higher the conductivity.”

        In other words, geometry is irrelevant, all that really matters is conductivity and hence thickness. Hence their opinion is in complete conflict with the maker of my cables.

        1. Fascinating. Apparently Belden is saying, yes, geometry matters for certain applications, but not for speaker cables, while your cable guy is saying it does matter for speaker cables. There is a quote, attributable of course to Yogi Berra, to the effect that, in theory, practice and theory are the same, but in practice, they’re not.

          So, I propose, as in all things audio, that the ears be the final arbiter. Who makes your cable?

          1. I was using a solid core cable that I’d taken in part exchange some years ago to facilitate a sale. It was solid core and costs more than the much clear sounding cable I replaced it with. I went with my ears. Valve amp designers will recommend solid core, I never found out why.

            So the claimed science on this issue is conflicting, and it may be that Belden are ignoring or ignorant of the geometry my cable uses because it is expensive to manufacture and does not fit in with their affordability policy. I doubt they would disagree that geometries like Nordost flatline does sound better than their cables, but at a price. It reminds me of Genesis’s website that claims why servo drivers can compensate for the weakness of big bass drivers, ignoring that bass driver designs have improved significantly, much reducing the claimed problem, and at least two manufacturers now emulate the effect of servos in the digital domain. So add to my list people promoting solutions for problems that don’t exist, and Belden for dismissing RFI as a problem for speaker cables when it clearly does exist.

          2. Belden doesn’t get a say in what makes better cables for audio, the measurements and physics do. That is what we’ve used, always. We don’t do opinions.

            You can show what it costs to get those better measures, and in use with speakers decides if the reduced cable interaction with you speaker helps. The cables measured superiority remains.

        2. Electrical engineers like myself look to Belden as the world’s leading authority on cables. They probably manufacture and sell more cable than all of the audiophile cable companies in the world combined. Their users are mostly industrial so they can’t play any games. The market wouldn’t tolerate it. Industrial sales are their bread and butter. They will for a price manufacture any cable of any type you specify if it isn’t in their extensive catalog of different cable types. They are predominantly in the signal cable business not in power cables (speaker cables and power cords are in their realm, I’m talking about much higher power levels) although they are offering VFD wire for powering industrial motors. You might try it for speaker cable. It’s tinned along its entire length among other differences to reduce skin effect resistance that has an effect on harmonics generated by VFDs. Other manufacturers make VFD cable too. I will often specify a cable as a Belden catalog number or approved equal. There are now many other fine cable manufacturers as well for the mainstream industrial market.

          1. Once the cable resistivity is low enough, you’re done. More won’t, help and hurts optimize other variables. At a 11 AWG the benefits are gone into 4 to 16 ohm loads.

        3. “Because speakers are driven at low impedance (typically 4 or 8 ohms) and high current, speaker cables are, for all practical purposes, immune from interference from EMI or RFI, so shielding isn’t required.”

          That statement is not necessarily true, speaker cables are constructed with wire which acts as an antenna receiving both EMI & RFI high frequency noise. Because speakers are essentially a low pass filter, few speakers reproduce sound above 50 kHz, therefore shielding a speaker cable is unnecessary in some cable designers mind.

          Granted, twisting cable can reduce high frequency noise, but as EMI & RFI enters the cable it reveals itself as phase noise or phase distortion which is both audible and measurable.

    2. Steven, I am thinking at least a year ago, could be more. Copper had a series of articles written by the designer of the Iconoclastic cables, speaker, RCA and balanced interconnects.
      It was written to explain the science of the various cables. There was no talk of sound or comparisons to other brands.
      For listening tests you can find topics on the forums from those who tried, and then purchased.
      There biggest problem was that they are expensive to make, are a very small percentage of the company’s business.
      Recently I saw that you can now get them through, I think it was Blue Jean Cables. Before them, you could not get an IC of less than 5 feet, and speaker cables at a minimum of 12 feet.
      If I could afford their cables, I already would have bought monoblocks, so I would only want 3-4 feet of speaker cables.
      The articles were not a sales pitch and at times overly technical. But for you they would help you understand what matters in the various types of cables. It even may help explain how the components that the cables are between may determine how a cable sounds.

      1. Issues 55 and 56. The divergence starts at line 1:
        “1) Conductors: The first decision is how much CMA (circular wire area) you need based on the application.”
        The cable I use is not circular, it’s flat. There is agreement on low inductance, but not on capacitance.
        My cable was the single speaker cable the designer made for over 30 years. It has been very popular and used as a reference cable by leading reviewers for almost as long, until a new cable using similar principles was issued in 2017. So even the business approach is different. Find a problem, make a product to solve it, move on the to the next problem.

        1. The idea of the Iconoclast is to get very low inductance and capacitance and nominal resistance. The cable I use appreciates the same aims and has inductance and resistance 90% lower than the Iconoclast, but over 20 times as much capacitance. Apparently that is bad for some amplifiers, so a circuit is attached at the amplifier end to fix the problem.
          This designer describes what makes a good cable and it is almost exactly the Iconoclast.

          My cable gets much lower inductance and resistance (the main factors) and manages capacitance separately.

          All this shows is that someone like me with reality little knowledge can read up a bit, find common explanations, common solutions and some innovative approaches to the same problem.

        2. CMA is wire area, not the shape. To get the area of a sound wire, take the diameter in mils and square it. For other shapes, use the proper area equation and match those up to the wire tables.

      2. Changes in design make measurable differences in the Rs, swept resistive properties of cable. All cables.

        Resistivity is indeed important for voltage divider signal drop across the cable (less) verses the speaker (more) but it isn’t as simple as that to address other concerns.

        SM is closer to right than he gives himself credit for. Cable reacts to the speaker load, and the lower a cables reactance, and the wider the swept linearity the less the cable is visible to the load. Improving that isn’t easy, but can measurably be done.

    3. Look at a series of speaker impedance. What do you see? Very significant variation, and far, far more than a cabke can EVER match.

      The spectral energy of music is exactly where cabe impedance rises, and is most unstable.

      The concept of mtching cable impedance to an 8 ohm speaker can’t happen without gigantic increases in capacitance based on how dielectric behave.

      Cable, like SM said will interact with the load. Some real this is enough to use anything and give up, some fully optimize the cable electricals to mitigate the resistances.

      The test is to see if a fully optimized cable into your speaker load is a benefit? Properly optimized cables have to exist to try. The cable optimization remains regardless of the load.

  8. Oh my, what a fascinating topic.

    To continue the journey of quality ongoing learning I’ve come to appreciate a few “trusted advisors” when it comes to the science of sound. These individuals have “done their time” in the industry and demonstrate what most would perceive as good engineering science to get to good sound. They also have some excellent suggestions for best practices when it comes to putting a system together. Paul McGowan is one of those folks. (Thank-you Paul for passing along what you’ve learned on your journey)

    Finding “trusted advisors” really is IMHO the secret sauce to acquiring high quality knowledge.

  9. People no matter how knowledgeable are human too and have their own biases. Deep knowledge itself does not make a person infallible. Audio is full of such examples. That is why one must listen seriously to any opinion which sounds credible irrespective of how deeply knowledgeable or otherwise the source may be or how contrary to one’s opinion the point of view may be. Audio has it’s share of people sticking to their beliefs with enough evidence to the contrary. For example a source with a lot of experience in a technology which is inferior cannot be considered believable. Final choice is always for the consumer to make based on his preference. As far as an ax to grind, audio has it’s share of it. In the final analysis there are no hard and fast rules. The final arbiter is one’s ear. Regards.

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