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Will Apple's rumoured buyout improve the bass-boosting headphones?

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Feature Reports suggest Apple is in talks to buy Beats Electronics, which was founded by hip-hopper André Young, aka Dr Dre, for an astronomical amount of money. At the same time Pono, founded by another Young, namely Neil, promises to transform music delivery. John Watkinson, aka JR Cool Dubbya, wonders what is going on.

One aspect of my postgraduate life that I treasure to this day is sitting in the front row of a lecture room in order not to miss a single gem from the lectures given by Philip Doak (1921-2011), who knew as much about acoustics as anyone alive at that time. And in that deep rumbling voice of his, he warned us that acoustics was “a Cinderella subject”.

Gromit as HMV dog Little Nipper

Pseudoscience and dogma has dogged progress in loudspeaker design

That was over 40 years ago, but his comment is still true. The sad fact is that out in the real world the overwhelming majority of places and products remain acoustically challenged and knowledge of the subject is depressingly scarce.

Even worse is that in the hi-fi world, that vacuum is filled by pseudoscience, dogma and fruitloopery to the extent that it resembles a fundamentalist religion. And when fundamentalism gains a hold, science leaves on the next boat – and progress ceases.

That’s exactly what we see in hi-fi shops, where loudspeaker performance hasn’t tangibly improved in forty years and vast sums are spent addressing the wrong problems. A fellow audio engineer, for whom I have much respect, described hi-fi as “swatting flies whilst ignoring the alligators”. In contrast the TV sets, still and video cameras and computers available to the public have progressed in leaps and bounds.

HTC Sensation XE Android smartphone

HTC added Beats tech to its Sensation XE Android smartie. Presumably nobody died as a result

One of the difficulties is that hi-fi isn’t dangerous, so a failure to perform does no harm and those who have spent a lot of money on a hi-fi accessory that makes no noticeable difference can handle it using denial. Mercifully, the logic-free tenets of hi-fi are not found in aviation, where people die if something doesn’t perform. Equally, the regulations that ensure things are genuine and functional in aviation are totally absent in hi-fi.

Audiophiles regularly present what to them appears proof that human hearing extends beyond 20kHz. Instead, as a colleague pointed out recently, what they are actually showing is that they lack knowledge of experimental design or statistics and have failed to eliminate bias or uncontrolled causes. Their expertise in porcine aerodynamics is unparalleled, even if their arguments don’t fly.

The latest crackpot proof I was presented with showed that Indonesian Gamelan music excited a different response if it was not limited to 20kHz. Gamelan music is played at ear-splitting volumes where the ear is highly non-linear. Thus all that was proved is that intermodulation took place that allowed lower sidebands to fold down into the audible range.

It was a bit of a clue that the experimenters dubbed their (re)discovery the "hypersonic effect" – not a term used by acousticians, as it relates to flight above Mach 5.5. Following Chuck Yeager’s flight, the aviation community commandeered the term "supersonic" to describe their exploits, so acousticians adopted "ultrasonic" to describe sounds above human hearing.

Beats Audio in the Fiat 500

Is Apple making a car? Beats Audio in the Fiat 500

Beats Electronics, founded by hip-hop musician-turned businessman Dr Dre, is primarily known for its headphones, and for its internet streaming service, Beats Music. The musical genre to which Dr Dre adheres is characterised by idiomatic speech punctuated by obscenities and visceral quantities of low frequencies. We could ponder on the root causes of how this music came about, but I’ll spare you. Let’s just say that for many of its proponents, it’s a form of protest.

When one hears cars go by reproducing this music with their side panels bulging like the air sac of a Mississippi bullfrog on account of the sound pressure levels(SPL) generated by the sound system, it becomes clear that audio fidelity is not the overriding concern.

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