Brand and pedigree set expectations. A Mundorf or REL capacitor has more good feelings associated with them than an XYZ capacitor. Yet, that XYZ capacitor might just blow the socks off either brand.
The trick, then, is to avoid the manufacturer’s easy way out: choosing a recognizable brand to delight the eye of the customer without benefit of auditioning the results. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve peered into a high-end audio product and grimaced at the sight of row upon row of the same red Wima caps, or black Mundorfs lined up like orderly soldiers. In almost every case these were chosen because some marketing-oriented designer added them as proof of pedigree, not as a performance-oriented design choice.
When we design product we start with brand name components we know and trust because of our past work. But there the path comes to a quick end. Not all parts sound best in a particular area. The Mundorf might outperform the Wima as a coupling cap but then the opposite could be true as power supply bypasses.
You know where this is going. Audio designers have to listen to their components and make choices based not on eye candy for the customer but performance first.
A pedigree isn’t enough to salvage an ugly dog.
The art of learning
We all like to learn new things as long as those new ideas and concepts don’t contradict our worldview. Cross that threshold and we typically recoil at the perceived threat challenging our core beliefs. We might (gasp) have been wrong!
We hope that with age comes wisdom and I flatter myself in the belief I have attained at least a modicum of that sought-after virtue. To that end, I seek out new knowledge that specifically contradicts my core beliefs—secure in the knowledge I can choose to absorb and change, or reject and move on. In my youth I felt far more threatened that once exposed to change I could never recover—like opening Pandora’s Box, unable to put back all that waited to escape.
It was then with eager anticipation I awaited the arrival of REL’s John Hunter to demonstrate a radical new way of loudspeakers setup at RMAF.
My long-time readers know of my affinity—demand, actually—that no system is complete without a subwoofer. No, it isn’t that I must have head-thumping, chest-pounding bass whacks to make my day. Rather it is the firm belief that the missing element of realism in any system can be found in the lowest frequencies supplied by a properly integrated subwoofer. And, for my money, REL is the best.
We hadn’t yet figured out the main speakers and Hunter recommended the Focal Sopra No. 3 (combine Sopra and No. to get soprano) which we readily agreed to.
Set up day arrived along with John and two assistants. He asked for the room to be cleared except for engineer Darren Meyer and myself to watch the four-hour process of getting everything to snap into place. It was different than anything I had ever seen and I still don’t know enough to explain it to you. What I can relay is the end-product was extraordinary.
The system I use to set up speakers is rather conventional: place them 1/3 in from the front wall, not too far apart, no toe-in, and massage until tonality and soundstage are as good as possible. John’s system wasn’t even remotely close. With the subwoofers off and the right speaker shoved out of the way (but still active) he spent nearly an hour wrangling the left into position based solely on the pluck of a bass note from a track by Jennifer Warnes. Millimeters mattered on this single speaker. Once anchored, the right speaker was moved into position and another hour passed before he was happy with the bass plucks! Subs were the last to be integrated (as is proper) and magic happened right in front of my eyes and ears.
I don’t know that we’ve ever had a system sound that good at a trade show.