Walking on water
A magician can easily walk on water. All one needs is a few inches of the wet stuff and some Plexiglas shoe-lifts. Amazing. Magical.
Knowing how the trick is performed ruins the illusion and that’s the last thing we want to do.
Better to be amazed than to think too hard about how it was done.
Our stereo systems are magical devices. They create a three-dimensional holographic image right before our ears.
We can turn low the lights and press play. Magically, the illusion of real musicians appears in that treasured space between our two loudspeakers.
It’s alright to share the magician’s secrets when it comes to helping others build their own magic machine.
Here’s to day two of a magical new year.
The Peter Principle
In 1969, a Canadian educator, Laurence J. Peter, presented to the world the Peter Principle. People and systems in a hierarchical structure are continually elevated (or upgraded) until they reach a point of incompetence, and there they stay.
This now-famous principle was based on a lot of research, personal observations, and not a little bit of satire. Smiles and guffaws aside, the reason it became so well know is its basis in truth. We’ve all known someone that’s exemplified Dr. Peter’s principle.
We can apply his principle to our stereo systems. We build, tweak, polish, update, and rearrange until audio nirvana has been attained, and then we do it all over again hoping to reach yet a higher level. Eventually, we reach a point where wheels spin without forward motion.
We’ve Petered out (to pun a phrase).
In my experience, this happens more when we’re tweaking rather than addressing basics. A better audio cable, power supply, isolator, or vibration smoother can improve sonics but only if it’s helping a deserving performer—one that has been properly vetted for the job.
Take a 50,000-foot view of the system before delving into the minutiae.
Hitting the nail with your head
I smiled when reading a recent comment. In reference to my suggestion that audio cables make a sonic difference the commenter blurted, “when done properly people can’t hear the difference.”
When we devise a test procedure like the double-blind switched A/B test that nulls the differences in devices under test, it’s the procedure we should be questioning instead of the results.
Think of it this way. Let’s imagine we have a consistent observation we’d like to test. Perhaps it’s that we somehow act differently during a full moon than a new moon. That the moon has an effect on us whether we can see it or not. We identify at random 100 people within a community who agree to be part of our test. Each month our test subjects take notes of any changes in behavior on the day of the full moon and compare them to those on the day of the new moon. At the end of a year, we compare notes and find there’s statistically no difference. Thus, we conclude there are no differences. We are unaffected by the cycles of the moon.
And yet, we know this to be false. Human sleep patterns are disrupted during the cycles of the moon—even when the moonlight is not visible.
The problem with our test has more to do with the methodology than proving the moon hasn’t any effect. Had we been more specific and recorded sleep patterns we would have found very different results.
So now imagine we start with the observation that for a large segment of the audiophile community cables sound different. We must first identify under what conditions they sound different and then see if we can duplicate those in a way that removes opinion and conjecture. For example, it’s likely we need trained listeners. Next, we need resolving stereo systems. Then, subjects must be able to spend what time they need to observe differences, selecting between two unknown variables at their leisure. Lastly, we need to choose the music and environment.
My point is simple. If we set out to prove there are no differences we devise one sort of test. If we set out to prove there are differences, we have yet another.
A good scientist seeks the truth.
Dips and bumps
Have you ever noticed how it’s the dips we tend to focus on rather than the bumps? That when things seem normal or even going great with our stereo systems, we take them as one in the same. But as soon as something goes wrong, bingo! Now we notice. Things are no longer normal.
I have for several years now attempted to mentally note the ups as well as the downs. What I’ve discovered is that they tend to come in semi-regular waves: swells and troughs, dips and bumps, ups and downs.
Which of course means that the in-betweens are what we think of as normal, though to my mind the pattern appears more reminiscent of a sine wave where “normal” is the zero crossing, the ups and downs everything else. Here, have a look.
Note that the majority of time (X-axis or left to right) is spent in some measure of either an up or down state. The zero-crossing point (denoted by the center line) is nearly non-existent. It is the point of normalized zero energy and nearly zero time: neither up nor down. Normal.
What this suggests to my nerd’s brain is simple: we spend nearly no time being normal. That normal is but an illusion: a bit of breathing space between the ups and downs that occupy the majority of our lives.
What would happen if we came to recognize that most of our time is spent negotiating life’s ups and downs in an effort to get back to a normal that pretty much doesn’t exist?
The Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, were unrelated. Their name came when a fan shouted, “That was righteous, brothers!”, and would often greet them with “Hey righteous brothers, how you doin’?”.
Their music had soul. It touched us at an emotional level—as did Mozart, Gershwin, John Lennon, Martens, Johnny Cash.
It’s hard to put your finger on what elements in music reach deep within us to elicit emotional or intellectual energy. We know it when it grabs us.
We don’t require a high-end audio system to touch the soul of music. A song played in the car can grab you as firmly as a live performance.
And yet the best stereo systems I know of have a magic to them that seems to enhance beyond words music’s emotion.
I think of high-end’s magic not as a requirement for connecting with music’s emotion but as an aid, a seasoning, a spice.
There are few pleasures better in life than connecting with music’s soul.
A high-end system gets us closer.
Exceptions to the rule
Our opinions and judgments are strongly connected to our personal biases. If we’re convinced LP’s are superior to digital we carry that belief into a listening session. If we should hear something that counters our vinyl predisposition, we typically pass the experience off as an exception to the rule.
The rules turn out to be arbitrary: self-imposed fences that help us navigate the complexities of the world.
I am predisposed to believe stereo systems will not properly image unless there’s enough room between them and the front wall to let the image breathe. I am always surprised when I encounter an exception to that rule.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to reset our accumulated biases? Like a case of amnesia.
In my personal development, I have found it valuable to mentally press reset when presented with new ideas or concepts—to let down the guard of my internal rule book and permit the new idea to wash over me without fear or bias. I’ve never managed to pull off this reset technique on the fly, but given a bit of prep, I find it valuable.
I think it’s good to remember that rules are like fences—self-imposed boundary walls erected to keep us safe.
If we’re brave enough, sometimes we can scale the fence and trespass on the greener grass.
I’ve been having a blast learning and working with musicians, producers, and engineers at Octave Records. It’s fast paced: quick learning steps leading up the ladder to new understandings of more than just the subject at hand, especially as it relates to how we listen.
When you and I are playing music on our stereo systems we’re constantly evaluating the work of producers and recording engineers. Up until recently, the only control we had over how their efforts sounded involved only the playback chain.
Once you’re immersed in both the playback and recording an entirely new vista of comprehension opens up. If I hear something not quite right in Music Room 2 I can go into the mixing room and change it: depth, width, tonal balance, room size, etc.
There is much to think about with this new found control—questions that we have been asking ourselves for decades. How do we voice our electronics for the greatest number of our HiFi Family members becomes how do we voice our recordings for the greatest number of HiFi Family members? What’s right and what’s wrong? How does it honor the music? The musicians?
Fortunately, there is a common thread that we’re confident in. If it sounds great on our reference system it will sound great on the vast majority of our HiFi Family’s systems. That’s a wonderfully comforting thought—one we have verified time and again over the years with efforts like our Mountaintop DAC upgrades and how our products sound and perform in the field.
But this is new. The level of control when one starts at the microphone and gets to optimize the entire chain right up to the ear is startling, to say the least. Much more will come of this. We are just beginning to scratch the surface.
I predict our future holds not only lots of great recordings but discoveries and revelations on the playback side too.
The closer one gets to the source, the easier it will be to uncover the truth.
Everything seems normal, right, until we hear something different. Then it all changes.
We don’t notice things until what we have come to accept as right is changed. We don’t notice there’s no body to a cymbal until we hear one that has it. Or we don’t notice a singer’s voice is anything but natural until we’re presented with comparative differences between stereo systems.
Our ear/brains have amazing abilities to adapt to our surroundings and allow us to comprehend sounds and their sources even if they aren’t true to those sources.
It is only when we hear something more natural that we recognize the deficiencies and then find it hard to imagine how we ever bought into the first sound as being real.
This continual mental upgrading process happens almost without notice until it comes to recorded music. With recordings, there’s no memory to massage or question. It is there for the examination. The instrument that had at one time sounded so perfect is still flawed once you have been shown its failings.
What we take for granted as normal is all relative. It can change in an instant.
Once you hear better, there’s no going back to what once was right.
RCA terminated audio interconnects aren’t going anywhere, at least not for a long time. Too many applications where they are good enough and often these cables are unshielded, so the negative conductor is not used as a shield.
Whereas I use XLR cables between my T+A DAC 8 DSD and my T+A Amp 8, as well as between the DAC 8 DSD and my Luxman Integrated amp, as well as between the DAC 8 DSD and my Rogue Audio RP-7 preamp, I do use RCA cables for my phono stage and for the plate amps for my two Daedalus BOW subwoofers. I’d prefer to use XLR cables, except I don’t have that option, as neither have balanced inputs and my Rogue Ares phono stage is definitely high end audio!
The RCA connector
I cannot imagine any reader of this blog that hasn’t heard of the RCA connector.
Designed in the 1940s by the Radio Corporation of America, its first use was to connect the internal components of console and tabletop radios manufactured by RCA. Back then consumers had never seen an RCA cable unless they dug deep into the radio’s internals. In the 1950s, as radio morphed into consumer audio equipment, RCA cables began to replace the quarter-inch jack, the standard for external interconnection of audio products. Before you knew it, the RCA cable was everywhere.
RCA cables can work in our high-end stereo systems. They are by far the most used connection scheme today. But just because something’s used a lot doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. RCAs have a number of shortcomings. When inserting the connector into its female counterpart, its extended hot tip makes contact before the ground and we hear a “blaaat” if we change cables with a live amp. And, shielding? It’s not good on an RCA as one of the two conductors is attempting to also act as a shield. I could go on.
In “pro” applications we use the XLR balanced connector which not only solves the RCA’s shortcomings but adds another layer of improvement in its balanced configuration. And in high-end audio, an increasing number of people are moving to the superior XLR cable too. Bravo.
Some technologies have run their course and need to be replaced. The RCA cable has enjoyed an 80 year-long run. It’s probably time to join the other retirees in the setting sun.
I don’t necessarily agree with this, but PS Audio is heavily invested in DSD, with their top of the line DAC, converting all PCM recordings to DSD. At its best and that means the recording and playback abilities of our stereo systems being able to pay back DSD, DSD does sound better than PCM.
However, almost all of what I have, and by a lot, is PCM and it sounds fantastic, as long as the recording allows.
Here’s a subject I am perhaps more guilty of than most. The practice of making a sweeping statement about how everything is one way or the other. This is wrong and this is right. This matters and that does not. This guy’s a liar, and this one always tells the truth.
The problem with this line of communication is two-fold: nothing is always one way or the other and we cannot know everything.
I find myself making sweeping statements in an effort to emphasize a point important to me. DSD always sounds better than PCM. And you know what? In the examples I have experienced, that happens to be true. Unequivocally true. Thus it must be universally true—only, it isn’t.
This is how divides happen. When all you have ever experienced suggests one conclusion, then it must be the same for everyone else—which is true only in the case where others have experienced exactly what you have.
If our goal is to effectively communicate then perhaps it’s best to include the caveat “in my experience”. That’s a hard one to get wrong.
I’ll do my best to be better at that.