Placebo-philes

Audiophiles have gotten a lot of bad press recently, what with the apparently silly Pono music player (which plays much higher quality audio files despite almost no one being able to hear the difference) and the news from Wired magazine that "burning in" your headphones has no discernible effect on sound quality. Reading about the truly insane things audiophiles will do in pursuit of the perfect sound, I can't help reflecting back on that unfortunate period in my life when I almost fell down the same rabbit hole.

For me it started with a simple search for better headphones. I think I typed "best headphones under $50" into Google, and what came back was a series of lists, like this one or this one, ranking the best headphones at a series of price ranges. I settled on a pair pretty quickly, and when they arrived I loved them, but those lists had planted their hooks in my brain. How much better would my music sound if I were willing to spend just a little bit more?

I decided to research what headphones I would buy the next time I had saved up a decent amount of money, and my research led me to my first (and really only) foray into Internet forums: a website called Head-Fi, where enthusiasts gather to discuss, argue, and bond over their love of headphones and headphone-related accessories. It was a remarkably friendly place for people who enjoyed tuning out the world, but darkness lurked at the edges. People would post glowing reviews of the headphones they just bought, and others would weigh in about how much they loved those headphones too, but inevitably someone would say how those headphones would sound even better if connected to a decent headphone amplifier. Or a decent digital audio converter. Or how those headphones didn't even compare to these other headphones that just cost a little more.

The perfect headphone set up always cost just a little bit more. Audio nirvana was always just out of reach.

Over the course of three years, I wound up buying one pair of headphones that cost about $100, then another that cost about $150, then a headphone amplifier that cost about $100, then another headphone amplifier that cost several hundred, then a special iPod that had been rewired for better sound, then several more pairs of headphones, each more expensive than the last. It helped that the internet made it easy to resell my previous purchases in order to fund my new purchases. At the height of my sickness, my portable sound system looked like this:

portable rig

But that was nothing compared to the equipment (and prices paid) by many. The most money I ever paid for headphones was about $300. But the best headphones were going for more than $1000, and the best amplifiers and related devices were many times that. People would post pictures like this:

high end rig

and I'd wonder what in God's name that would sound like.

I don't think it's an accident that this period in my life was the same period in which I had two children in diapers and an extremely stressful job. After putting the kids to bed, if I didn't have any more work to do, and if my wife wanted to watch TV, I would find a quiet spot in the house and get lost in the increasingly detailed soundstage my gear supplied.

But the specter that loomed over everything was the idea that this was all some big placebo effect. I would occasionally spend an evening listening to a song on my new set of headphones and then on my old set, or with my new amplifier and then my old amplifier. I would make my wife listen to see if she heard a difference. Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn't. Sometimes I didn't. Every once in a while, I'd read a post on Head-fi about someone who was selling everything he'd bought because he realized he was listening to his equipment rather than music. I finally had the same realization and made the same decision. At the time, I felt like a recovering addict, or a victim of a con artist, reformed but slightly ashamed.

I got a new percpective on that period, however, when I this recent piece by Felix Salmon (via Kottke) about converting money into happiness. Salmon is also interested in placebo effects, specifically in the world of wine tasting, where experiments have frequently shown that very few people call tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine, or even the difference between red and white wine. When I first read about those studies, they reminded me of the scene in Brideshead Revisited when a couple guys get drunk and describe the wine they're tasting with increasingly absurd metaphors:

"….It is a little shy wine like a gazelle." "Like a leprechaun." "Dappled in a tapestry window." "and this is a wise old wine." "A prophet in a cave." "and this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck." "Like a swan." "Like the last unicorn."

I had moments almost as absurd with my headphones, when I heard things inside songs I swore I'd never heard before, when I felt as if parts of the music were two dimensional backdrops and then three dimensional shapes would leap out of the picture towards me, or the music would drizzle over my head, or crackle like lightning, or I'd swear I could smell the studio where the song had been recorded, or something.

In other words, I was an idiot. Because on other nights, usually after I'd owned that same set of gear for a little while, I wouldn't hear those things any more, and I'd start thinking that I needed better gear. I needed a new placebo affect.

It's easy to sneer at the placebo effect, or to feel ashamed of it when you're its victim. And that's precisely why I found Felix Salmon's piece revelatory, because instead of sneering at the placebo effect of fancy wine, its marketing, and its slightly higher prices, he thinks we should take advantage of it. If the placebo effect makes us happy, why not take advantage of that happiness?

The more you spend on a wine, the more you like it. It really doesn’t matter what the wine is at all. But when you’re primed to taste a wine which you know a bit about, including the fact that you spent a significant amount of money on, then you’ll find things in that bottle which you love ... After all, what you see on the label, including what you see on the price tag, is important information which can tell you a lot about what you’re drinking. And the key to any kind of connoisseurship is informed appreciation of something beautiful.

This idea of "informed appreciation" reminds me of another area of modern life beset by placebo effects: the world of alternative medicine. In a recent article for the Atlantic, David H. Freedman argues that there's virtually no scientific evidence that alternative medicine (anything from chiropractic care to acupuncture) has any curative benefit beyond a placebo effect. And so many scientists are outraged that anyone takes alternative medicine seriously. However, there is one area where alternative medicine often trumps traditional medicine: stress reduction. And stress reduction can, of course, make a huge impact on people's health. The Atlantic article quotes Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California at San Francisco and a Nobel laureate.

“We tend to forget how powerful an organ the brain is in our biology,” Blackburn told me. “It’s the big controller. We’re seeing that the brain pokes its nose into a lot of the processes involved in these chronic diseases. It’s not that you can wish these diseases away, but it seems we can prevent and slow their onset with stress management.” Numerous studies have found that stress impairs the immune system, and a recent study found that relieving stress even seems to be linked to slowing the progression of cancer in some patients.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a trip to the chiropractor or the acupuncturist is much more likely to reduce your stress than a trip to the doctor. If anything, a trip to the doctor makes you more anxious.

Maybe each of these activities (listening to high end audio gear, drinking high end wine, having needles inserted into your chakras) is really about ritualizing a sensory experience. By putting on headphones you know are high quality, or drinking expensive wine, or entering the chiropractor's office, you are telling yourself, "I am going to focus on this moment. I am going to savor this." It's the act of savoring, rather than the savoring tool, that results in both happiness and a longer life.

Of course, you don't need ultra high end gear to enjoy your music, or ultra high end wine to enjoy your evening, just as you shouldn't solely use acupuncture to treat your cancer. It might be as effective to learn how to meditate. But maybe we all just need to meditate in different ways.