Tag Archives: cables

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Completing the circle

What would our world of high-end audio look like if there were only active wireless loudspeakers? If even the half a million dollar mega-beasts were internally amplified and connected via wireless and controlled from an iPad?

No more boxes. No more wires and cables.

Only speakers.

Would we have come full circle, back to the days when music reproduction systems were self-contained?

Would this mark the end of separates and their interconnections?
What would the next generation of sound reproduction systems look like? (Probably nothing because by then they’ll likely be invisible.)

If we look back over the past 142 years since Edison introduced the phonograph there is a clear pattern. All-in-one audio systems grow and grow until they explode into a multiverse of separates then contract back into a new version of the all-in-one.

The circle is complete.

Telling the future isn’t all that hard if you take a look at the past.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Getting what you want

When we set out to prove one thing or another we arrange tests to prove our theory.

For example, if you’re trying to prove there are no differences between cables or amplifiers there are any number of ways to prove that. One would be the difference or null test where an identical signal is passed through two samples: say an expensive audio interconnect vs. a cheap one. If there were actually a difference it would show up on the scope as such.

Since we know that changing input cables—a high-end version vs. a dimestore copy—on a power amplifier in a highly resolving system is easy to hear, the null test should show the difference. Yet, it may not. Do we then conclude there are no differences?

If our goal is to understand why we hear a difference then it’s incumbent on us to dig deeper. Our hypothesis didn’t give us the results we were looking for. Our ears detect a difference our meters and methods fail to uncover. The proper conclusion is not to stop there but to march forward until it can be satisfactorily explained.

Garth Powell of Audioquest proposed a method that just might have some answers. Since the change we hear comes out of the loudspeakers and affects the entire audio chain, it’s only logical we measure the entire chain to seek differences. This would involve using a microphone to capture the output of the system and then comparing the recorded files to find the differences. It’s essentially the same test I have done any number of times with the microphone in my iPhone which more than adequately picks up differences.

I haven’t the time nor the interest in performing these tests with any scientific rigor, but perhaps someone else wants to grab the flag and climb the mountain. It would have to be performed on a system where we actually do hear a difference.

Proving what we already know might be valuable to someone.

Just not me.

 

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Oh, the lengths we go to

I have seen some crazy stuff in the 40 plus years I have been around audiophiles and high-end systems. Exotic room conditioning, trinkets aplenty, cables the size of my leg, claims of subatomic effects, components that sound different depending on their earthly orientation, low-frequency waves said to resonate with the Earth. In fact, I could spend hours relating some of the great tricks and techniques applied in service of better sound.

What’s interesting to me is the large number of these ‘tricks of the trade’ that actually work. In fact, more often than not fellow audiophiles have taught me great things that I routinely incorporate in my own system and recommend to others.

One of those suggestions I often hear about is separating cables from each other. You’ve no doubt seen the multitude of after-market cones, lifts, and strategies for elevating cables off the floor and separating them from the pack. While I don’t currently use these add-ons to isolate and improve performance, I do pay close attention to what sits next to each other.

In my experience, higher level cables radiate more than those of lower level. For example, speaker and power cables radiate more than low-level signal cables—yet low-level signal cables are far more susceptible to radiated interference the either of these higher level cable examples. Much depends on levels of shielding and the types of signals being transferred over those cables.

My rule of thumb is simple. Do what you can to keep speaker cables off the floor and away from any other cables. (the MG Audio cables I use are easy to simply stand on edge). Power cables are ok on the floor but should be dressed in a way that keeps them from interconnects. And above all, use balanced interconnects at every opportunity. Not only do they consistently sound better, but they can reject stray EMI that does get in.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Stubbornness

My favorite audio company of all time is Audio Research, back in the day when William Zane Johnson ran it.

Bill Johnson was a passionate man—stubborn too. For many years, he had every right to be firm in his beliefs. In those days, Audio Research made the best-sounding audio equipment in the world. If you’ve never had the opportunity to hear a vintage Audio Research system on resolving speakers, you’ll have difficulty understanding the passion and reverence for that lush, rich, warm sound washing over you. It was so juicy you could just fall into the music.

Change was hard for Bill Johnson. The idea of balanced inputs or detachable power cords just chapped his buns. He and I sparred over such newfangled ideas but I was never able to sway him—particularly about power cords (though someone must have). Years later all Audio Research products sported detachable cords.

Bill’s stubbornness about power cables came from two areas: “bullshit!” and “what we have works.”

The first is obvious if you knew Bill. I could never persuade him that power cables mattered. He was too much of a diehard engineer to swallow any of that.

But what hurt Audio Research was the last bit of reasoning: what we have works.

Sometimes it’s alright—preferable even—to acquiesce to what your customers want as long as it doesn’t violate your core principles.

Bill Johnson’s core principles were simple.

Make great music.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

A little audio marketing from Paul, but I’m fine with that.

Seesaw

I always imagine progress as a seesaw; as one side goes up the other travels down—often frustratingly so.

Take the original  PWT Memory Player as an example. For years, simple Red Book CDs sounded better than any streaming device I had experimented with. Then a combination of cables, USB regeneration, shaman-waving potions, elevated the Mac Mini a little beyond the PWT.

Seesaw. What was once on top of the heap has begrudgingly taken second place.

Then a new I²S cable lifted the PWT’s performance beyond the server and it was relegated to use as a convenient source of high-quality music, but not the ultimate.

Seesaw.

And then came Bridge II, then server “secret sauce”, followed now by DMP back on top of the heap.

Seesaw.

Woody, one of our local customers, visited Music Room One yesterday and compared the San Francisco Mahler rips to the discs on DMP and heard it for himself. And as thanks, he turned me on to the best recording/performance of Puccini’s Turandot I have ever heard. It’s a Red Book which I immediately ordered up. The depth, bass, performance!! are stunning. Sutherland knocks it out of the park and I only heard the opening. Can’t wait to spend time when the disc set arrives.

Seesaw.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Paul is talking about breaking in audio and home theater components and this is something I truly believe in.

There are two different types of breaking in. One is breaking in new components, whether it is electronics, speakers or cables. I have found, with complicated electronics, that this can take up to 500 hours of playing time.

The Parasound JC-1 monoblock amplifiers I owned 10 years ago  come to mind here. They were the most extreme example I’ve experienced with break in of audio components. They sounded great out of the box and then gradually got darker and darker sounding. Then, they started lighting back up until they got what I considered neutral.  The they kept going lighter, until I thought their final sound was tilted up in the treble. Then they started a downward trend until they got it right. Nice amps….

The other is more what I would call warm up and to me, both need to happen with music playing. I warm my system up for at least an hour, each time I plan on listening, which is pretty much every day.

Here is Paul.
Saving up

The best sounding cables I have heard were a bare set of wires. Hardly practical in the real world, cables without shielding and insulation sound better than those with them.

We insulate cables so their conductors don’t electrically touch each other. We shield them with tin foil or woven metal to protect them from noise.

None of these techniques of isolation and noise reduction improve sound quality. Air is the best insulator and a noise free environment what we hope for if we want to avoid shielding. Unfortunately, dangling conductors in the air is as impractical as hoping for a noise free environment. Insulation and shielding are necessary evils.

The problem with insulators is energy storage. When a signal is passed along the conductor they cover, small portions of the signal are stored then released in the insulation. This effect can be measured and enumerated using what’s known as the Dielectric Constant. If we’re building a capacitor we want that number high. If it’s a cable, the lower the number the better.

Of the readily available insulation materials, Teflon has one of the lowest dielectric constants—far lower than standard insulation. But Teflon’s expensive and hard to work with, which is why it’s used sparingly.

In our ongoing discussion of break-in, I suspect it is this dielectric constant that changes with signal.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Sounds to me like PS Audio used cables they didn’t know and weren’t broken in at the recent Axpona audio show. They should know better, but this is more common than most of us would think.

Charging up

I hate it when I am wrong. Or miss something. But that’s life.

I don’t play music through an amplifier or preamplifier that’s burning in. The reason’s simple. What’s going on inside the amplifier is the forming of capacitors and the settling in of parts and circuit boards. Playing music hasn’t much impact on those changes. Running current through the system does.

This flies in the face of Audiophile lore that states: music played through electronics burns in faster than just being on. Not sure I buy that and have never found evidence to support it.

That said, the same isn’t true when we’re talking about an entire system. And that’s the point I have been missing. The key is not the individual electronics, but rather the connecting cabling.

Missed that.

Speaker cables, interconnects, and power cords need music playing through them to burn in. Of the many cables in a system, the most important seem to be the speaker cables. We know different types of insulation materials impact sound quality: Teflon, Polypropylene, Polystyrene, Mylar all sound different. And we also know that as AC signals pass through cables dielectrics change state.

Why would this matter? We know different types of insulation materials impact sound quality: Teflon, Polypropylene, Polystyrene, Mylar all sound different. And we also know that as AC signals passing through cable dielectrics change state—and sound different.

Many will say this is all BS. And that’s fine.

But there won’t be another show we attend without first burning in the cables with music.
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Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

There is more that I disagree with here, especially the cable part.

I think interconnects are the most important cables in a system, followed by digital (USB cables), speaker cables and then power cables.

Low level signals are the most sensitive. This includes interconnects,  as well as digital cables. I do  agree with Paul that balanced cables are best, especially with longer runs.

As long as a speaker cables have low inductance, or are short, or there is a speaker compensation circuit in an amplifier, such as what I have, the importance of speaker cables are less.

My opinion, but I’ve got a lot of experience, listen a lot and have a big box of all sorts of cables just sitting around. Anybody need any cables?

Tying it together

I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a few words on tying our system together with cables: power, interconnect, speaker.

I remember when cables were an afterthought. Zip cord and cheezy RCA drek did the trick until we realized they mattered.

My first encounter with cables came from one of the founders of Schiit Audio, Mike Moffat. Mike worked as a tech at a California stereo shop called Absolute Audio and Stan and I showed up to pitch our first product, the phono stage. I think this must have been around 1974. Mike gave it a listen and was impressed but before we left he turned our world upside down with an A/B between zip cord and Polk Sound wire (then called Cobra Cable – Litz wire) on a pair of Quad electrostats.

Mike wouldn’t tell us what he was doing. It was simple. Listen to this—now listen to the same thing after I make a change. Hear any difference? Holy crap! As I said, it was life changing. Literally.

Cables matter and how much you spend on them really depends on your budget.

During this series, I have emphasized putting limited funds where they matter most. The fundamentals are critical: speakers, source, AC power, amplification.

Somewhere in the mix, you’re going to need to get good cables—and they don’t have to cost a fortune. But, they matter. A lot.

If I had to make a recommendation of the order of importance, it would look something like this:

  • Speaker cables
  • Audio interconnects (and always go balanced when the equipment permits it)
  • Digital
  • Power

Get those right and you’ll build a strong foundation supporting the time, effort, and expense you’ve gone through building your system.

It all matters.

 

 

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

What we don’t know hurts us

Counter to the old chestnut, ignorance is bliss, I would suggest the opposite is true when building and enjoying great audio systems.

If you don’t know that cables matter, electronics sound different, compression formats are not the same—that it all matters—then you are missing what others enjoy.

Every low-end audio consumer exposed to high-end audio comes away enriched.

And the opposite is true.

Those never exposed to properly reproduced music are deprived of one of life’s great sensual pleasures.

Let us all strive to be ambassadors, sharing generously that which we love with our friends and family.

Living in the dark is no fun at all.

Asheville, Walnut Cove, Biltmore Forrest and Western North Carolina’s Audio and Home Theater specialists present Cane Creek AV and Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

From Paul and pretty much my history. I’ve now reverted to homemade loudspeakers and old pro audio components for amplification and I even use EQ in my system and it works great. Of course, its vintage EQ. I mix that in with a modern day turntable, cartridge, phono stage , DAC and tube preamplifier, so I run a system that is a combination of technologies and it pleases me greatly.

Oh…and I do have custom cables, but except for one I’m probably about to buy, I don’t use anything particularly fancy here either.

If we ever move from this house, I’m going t hate moving the speakers….Amp too….
When we didn’t care

In the late seventies and early eighties, we didn’t care about cables. There were none to care about.

And, we had great systems. Jaw droppers that opened new vistas for those upgrading from the ordinary to something extraordinary.

We managed just fine without expensive cables. Yet, when they were first introduced, our great systems got even better. Our horizons had been extended, like climbing a hill for the first time.

I am not picking on cables.

I just wanted to point out how great systems can be assembled even when you have less than perfect components.

Your setup may be humble. That doesn’t mean it cannot be great.