Saturday January 7, 2006
My new year resolution is to have more Johnny Ball home science experiment moments. Which brings me on to reader David Stafford. “Today, I received a catalogue from a UK hi fi company called Russ Andrews,” he begins. You can find their web site at www.russandrews.com. On the front page is a power cable that costs Â£29.95. “If anyone buys this,” he says, “they will need their heads examined.”
The American philosopher George Gale identifies two types of science: “cookbook science”, which works out, perhaps by trial and error, whether something does work; and “explanatory science”, which seeks to offer explanations and mechanisms for the observed generalisations of the cookbook stuff.
The “YellO Power” is indeed a 30 quid power cable, of the type that you might colloquially identify as a kettle lead. It’s about a metre long and has a 3 pin 240v plug. This is their claim for efficacy, verbatim: “Replacing the mains cable to any of your hi-fi or home cinema components means they perform better, giving you less distortion, clearer pictures, and more musicality, so that you enjoy your music and movies even more!”
So how do they reckon it works? “The key to the success of the Russ Andrews mains cables is the unique Kimber cable weave. The woven mains cable has been proven to dramatically reduce sound-degrading radio frequency interference on the mains supply and to reject further pick up of RFI.”
Let’s think about how electricity gets from the national grid to that wall socket, where you plug in the kettle lead that powers your stereo. It zooms along huge cables between big pylons (at very high voltages, because higher voltages can get down long lines with less waste) and then gets turned into 240v at your local substation. Then it travels a fairly long distance from the substation to your house before it comes through the metering stuff. Then the power has got to go up the stairs, around the walls and under the floor to the socket next to your stereo. All of these voyages are fabulous opportunities for the cable to act as an antenna, and pick up radio frequencies that could present themselves as noise in the final sound coming out of your speakers. The cable might stop the last metre or so from picking up radio noise, but if radio noise really is a problem, it will probably be there already, from the huge length of preceding cables. I can’t imagine how this expensive kettle lead is going to filter it out.
I’m told that Russ Andrews is away but that he will show me measured proof on his return. If I’m wrong I’ll eat my hat, but I am unaware of any published evidence that an expensive power cable can make your hi-fi sound better. If I’m correct, and such evidence does not exist, then what we have here is an important gap in the research literature. More important, possibly, than both a cure for malaria and a fix for global warming. So I have a challenge: if there is somebody out there, somebody who sells power cables for Â£30 perhaps, or who works for a hi-fi magazine, and they reckon they can tell the difference, significantly more consistently than would be expected by chance, in a robust, double blind, randomised trial, head to head, of these expensive power leads, up against a normal cheap-o kettle lead which I shall provide, then let them come forward.
James Randi has a million dollars on offer for anyone who can demonstrate empirical evidence for their incredible claims under laboratory conditions. If you can spot the difference here, under sitting room conditions, I’m offering you the glory, the warm glow that comes from contributing empirical data to the sum of human knowledge, and a free bogus PhD in the subject of your choice, as long as I can find one cheap enough. I’m absolutely serious and I’m itching to be proved wrong. Please send your bad science to email@example.com
(incidentally, i’m a bit surprised by the headline the paper gave this, i’m in a position of dubious open mindedness on this one with no hat eating to be done; and sorry for delay again in posting article on the blog, still away from computers, and this article seems to have generated about a million emails already…)