Op-Ed: Why High-End Audio is Riddled with Snake Oil

Assuredly, high-end audio is not the only niche luxury pursuit that attracts charlatans who peddle snake oil. However, it practically stands alone in the extent of the shenanigans and tall tales that imply there is some scientific credibility behind the outlandish claims often heard at high-end audio shows. From power cords and Ethernet cables that cost as much as cars (and are said to possess audiophile qualities) to trinkets such as cable lifters and energy harmonizers, there’s plenty of quackery to go around.

In searching for the root cause of the situation, pointing fingers at spokespeople and salespeople from high-end audio manufacturers doesn’t do all that much good. At the end of the day, it is not a salesperson’s job to tell a deluded audiophile what they can or cannot hear. Anyone who has ventured into a discussion on that topic in an audio forum knows it’s a losing battle.

Moreover, you can’t blame manufacturers for supplying products that retailers ask for, even if the merchandise relies heavily on the placebo effect. The world is full of products that cost a lot and don’t do what the manufacturer claims, aside from fulfilling the expectation bias of the customer.

Therefore, in my opinion, all you can do is blame the consumer. Why? Because a consumer is a customer, and the customer is always right. Well, obviously not actually always right, but you know how it works. Money talks.

When people ask why a false claim needs to be challenged, why anybody cares if people get suckered into buying $1000-per-foot speaker cables (or USB cables, or Ethernet cables, or HDMI cables) because they believe they will hear audible improvements, the answer is simple: the financial reward of perpetuating the status quo is so appealing, it breeds complicity. You wind up with a feedback loop that does not push the scientific envelope when it comes to what’s possible, but rather rewards eccentricity and anachronistic approaches to achieving audiophile nirvana.

Now, if informed consumers walked into high-end audio stores with a healthy dose of skepticism about add-on accessories, the focus could return to the gear itself instead of snake-oil solutions to non-problems. That would be the single best thing that could happen to the high-end audio industry, and I firmly believe that the community here at AVS Forum has done a tremendous job of advancing that goal. In a very real sense, this opinion piece is also a thank you to the community for the enlightenment I’ve received about my favorite hobby—listening to music on a great sound system.