It’s not that simple
An isolation transformer cleans up noise on the AC line yet often harms system performance. How can it be true that an improvement over here impacts performance over there?
The simple answer is that the problem is not that simple. The cleanest power in the world only gets you so far.
This question of influencing performance can be a real head scratcher: we know that lower distortion is a good thing yet not all low distortion audio amplifiers sound good. We know that low output impedance is preferable yet at what cost?
Here’s the thing. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about the Long Tail, as we get closer to perfection each link in our progress chain become more important. Where it used to be alright to swap a major piece of equipment in the chain without too much worry, now even the smallest bits have a great impact.
When we place an isolation transformer in the AC path we improve one area, cleanliness, by degrading another, regulation and impedance. An isolation transformer helps keep unwanted noise from the system at the cost of voltage regulation.
It turns out that voltage regulation is far more important than clean power. The greater the regulation the lower the impedance the better the sound quality.
An AC regenerator like our Power Plants provides the tightest regulation and highest current delivery of any power product on the market today. There are other technologies that might provide cleaner power, but none that focus more on what’s really important.
It’s just never quite that simple.
Violas and violins
If you take a dozen different recordings of acoustic stringed instruments and find violins sound more like violas you can safely predict your system needs work.
Or the opposite, where violas have lost their lush bodies and sound more like their smaller cousins.
It’s consistency that helps us get our systems to sing the right tune, and that tune doesn’t have to be built from violas and violins. It can be any authentic instruments you are familiar with, like voice or guitar.
Which is why we don’t adjust our systems to get one track just right at the expense of others. A wide variety of musical choices played at appropriate levels helps balance the system setup. Bass plucks needn’t all thunder nor sound like they are without body. A carefully chosen set of music displaying a decent variety of recordings and instruments is essential to getting the system properly voiced.
If your system only sounds good on small ensembles or big rock bands, you might consider venturing out into change.
Violas and violins should sound like themselves on any system worth its salt.
The long tail
Times have changed in how we view the world. In the past, changes to a small group of influencers resulted in a big swing of the long tail: tubes to transistors, records to CD, radio to television, dial phones to cell phones.
As technology advances, we see increasing evidence that the opposite is happening: relatively smaller changes to a larger group of connected influencers is now swinging the tail: gas to electric cars, physical stores to online ones, handwritten letters to electronic ones, cameras built into phones.
Back down to Earth, with respect to 2-channel audio, the same trends appear. Where once minor shifts in a small handful of influencing technologies made big changes in how we listen to music, now we see that small changes to a much larger group of connecting pieces have an equally impactful result. For example, connecting cables never made much difference on early low-resolution mono systems but have a major impact on what we listen to today. Or, phono cartridge choices of yore took massive changes to affect sound quality where today a slight variation in setup can make or break a system. My father used to tape a dime to the top of the cartridge to make its way through some difficult passages on the record.
Changes in our industry are constant and fluid. What we think are bedrocks of knowledge are really only mile markers on a long journey.
I am constantly readjusting my bellwether to keep from getting smacked by the long tail of progress.
When I was heavily involved in photography we would judge people first on the equipment they used: Hasselblad, Nikon, Canon, Leica all meant you were in the know—A pro worth talking to. Yashica, Olympus, Voigtlander, not so much.
I’ve seen the same thing in audio. When two audiophiles first meet what’s likely to be their qualifying question? “What’s your system?” We then know how to catalog each other: serious and invested, or lightly involved and on the fringe.
When I bring the subject of brand stature and bragging rights to the forefront of a conversation people either offer a nervous laugh or a disapproving “tsk, tsk”. Yet, it’s more common than you might think.
It’s human nature that causes us to want to rank people into categories. We want to know where they stand on any given subject so we can know how best to communicate. If someone’s asking for my advice on stereo setup the first thing I need to know is what kind of equipment she has—a simple integrated bookshelf system is going to get different advice from me than separates.
The only real danger I see in brand stature is dealing with preconceptions that aren’t formed as a direct result of one’s experience. If you’ve worked with a company’s products and don’t like them then your opinion has far more validity than someone who has only heard they are not worthy of their time.
I have discovered over the years that setup and knowledge almost always trump brands as a qualifier for success.
I can shoot a great picture with my iPhone, not because of its brand, but because I have developed a photographer’s eye.
Early to bed
“Early to bed
early to rise
makes a man
healthy, wealthy and wise.”
It’s a nicely written rhyme which is about all it has going for it.
As life advice, it makes no sense unless you’re prone to constant late night parties.
And that’s the thing about nicely constructed pat sayings—we tend to give them more credibility than perhaps they deserve: “perfect sound forever”, “vanishingly low distortion”, “audiophiles prefer vinyl”, “compressed music sounds that way”.
I am sure there’s plenty more where those came from, but it’s enough to make the point. Just because a saying, an idea, or a concept fits nicely into a box doesn’t mean it has any more validity than a loosely constructed jumble of thoughts.
We’ve gotten so used to marketing slogans and proverbs representing facts that we’re in danger of forgetting the underlying truth.
A mistruth or bad idea wrapped up with paper and a pretty bow is no more valuable than what’s inside.
Wildcards and curveballs
Sometimes everything goes according to Hoyle. But, more often than not, a wildcard gets slipped in—a fact not listed in Hoyle’s Games—but true none the less. Most people around the country can put their trash in the outdoor receptacle without a second thought but not residents of our neighborhood. Hungry bears.
When we get a new piece of stereo equipment our expectations are high for drop-in-and-work and often that’s exactly the case. But then, there’s that curveball: the need for a better audio cable, different position, realignment, or tube swap.
I used to get frustrated with wildcards and curveballs but over the years I have begun to understand their value. By introducing unexpected variables I am required to step outside my comfort zone and learn something new or look at a situation from another angle.
Learning expands horizons. The farther I can see the greater my wealth of possibilities.
I don’t go looking for unexpected circumstances but wildcards and curveballs are some of the best uninvited teachers I know of.
Who would decide?
In yesterday’s post, I proposed we craft an aggregate audio measurement system to wrangle sound quality into a numeric rating system. It is certainly not a new idea. Engineers and marketers have been trying to do the same thing since the beginnings of our industry. An ad for HiFi equipment of the 1950s would have you believe full range sound can come from a single woofer. In later years low distortion and full frequency range were all that was deemed necessary for perfect sound until we understood more.
Each attempt at quantifying sound quality into an inclusive rating system adds more to the pie. THD, once the be-all to end-all measurement was extended to include IM. Frequency flatness needed to be adjusted to include phase accuracy. And the list grows with our level of understanding.
When we feel confident enough to gather all the parameters relevant to measuring sound quality and crafting a scale people can rely upon who will decide when it works and what to include?
If we believe it would be engineering types that know more than the average listener how would that possibly work? Most listeners serve as better measurement tools than engineer’s meters do now.
Fact is we’d need a combination of measurements and listener to pull this off to anyone’s satisfaction.
In our divided culture, I wonder how much common ground is available?
I work as hard as I can to get the most out of an old pair of shoes. Moving to new ones with all the discomfort of break in is a fight I don’t look forward to. Once accustomed to the new I can’t imagine going back to the old.
It’s that disorienting period of uncomfortable demands of the new that makes me hesitate, but as an adult, I can decide when to take the plunge. My 9-month-old grandson, Leon, has no choice in his struggles to learn the world. His entire being is a constant barrage of the new. It’s tough being little, really tough.
Change magnitude can be grouped into gulp sizes. The larger the gulp the longer you are disoriented. Getting adjusted to new shoes takes days. Moving to a new city or home takes months, sometimes years. A high end audio system is the same way.
The trick with change is to expect it, but often we forget. Our move across the street seemed like it would go smoothly with only minor hiccups. After all, we just moved across the street—all our stuff, as well as our people, were unchanged. Yet, four months into the process I am just now getting used to the new digs and routine.
Sometimes it easier to adjust to wholesale change like a new system for a fresh start. But, more often than not, it’s better to take in smaller gulps of the new: Replace just the DAC, power amp, or preamp and get accustomed to the differences.
Old shoes wear out but that fact doesn’t make new ones any more comfortable.
The importance of bling
When we think of audio bling the words most commonly associated are ostentatious, unnecessary, over the top—Terms we’re not comfortable with and that have a negative connotation. Yet, bling is an essential element in successful products.
A beautiful paint job isn’t necessary to a car’s performance but it certainly is to the owner’s emotional attachment to that car. Driving around in a faded hulk or a polished beauty is a very different experience because each state of the car’s appearance has meaning.
The outer package of a product tells us a story of what’s inside. Dan D’Agastino’s gorgeous metal sculptures speak volumes of the care an attention we assume he’s lavished on the inside. When we make sure the PS Audio product you receive is blemish free and gorgeous, it’s not because it makes a difference in sound quality but because it means something in the bigger picture.
The packaging and outer shells of products should reflect the beauty of what’s inside in the same way a tasty meal goes down better with a gorgeous presentation.
Bling’s nothing to be ashamed of unless it is not telling the truth.
There are some products in the McGowan household that have earned my loyalty. They can get cranky, sputter, even break, and I will tolerate, coddle, and repair them without flinching. Others are a hair’s breadth away from replacement or outright termination.
It might seem odd to think of inanimate objects in terms of emotional attachments but I don’t think any one of us are immune: A favorite spoon, shovel, shirt, audio cable, remote, or DAC seem reasonable.
Our loyal roots no doubt run deep. Most of us had a favorite toy or game when we were children.
When we were moving the IRS V speaker system across the street I had many trusted components I made sure were tagged and included to make sure as much as possible was the same in the new room. And trusted is simply another word for loyalty. I have no educated reason to stick with any particular piece of kit (ignoring break in) other than loyalty.
I might well have been better off starting with all new gear and retiring my trusty old friends. A clean start with a fresh palette. But, for me, there’s value in loyalty to products and people. I won’t trade a trusted piece of kit for a new one without good reason.
And even then, I make sure my loyal products get good homes. If they served me well I want to return the favor.