Welcome to another monthly meeting of the Tweakaholics. It's the end of January in New Hampshire, and I've been spending more than the average four hours a day listening to my system. I didn't bother to go to the Consumer Electronics Show 2005 (CES) this year, as I tend to get severe head and foot aches walking around the miles of noise. Give me the smaller shows any day. They are less hectic, the exhibitors have more time to sit down and discuss their products, and the noise level is conducive to more serious listening. Plus this year, it actually snowed more in Las Vegas than it did here that week. On the other hand, the Porno industry was supposedly having their annual gathering on the same weekend, and with my press badge, I could have spent some time discussing the finer points of video sound with some of the actresses. Oh well, maybe next year.
Also, I've not had any new product pass through my hands this month, so I haven't had to spend the hours setting up, listening, adjusting, tweaking, etc., that is needed for a proper review. That really cuts into my quality listening time, and takes much of the joy out of the hobby. On the other hand, every once in a while I come upon a product that really advances the art, which makes it all worthwhile.
On to the meat of the column. This weekend I noticed a phenomenon that I haven't seen published that I wanted to share to see if anybody else has noticed it and maybe had a theory as to why it occurs. I'm sure each of you with high end systems have had times when your system sounds much closer to reality than average, usually at midnight when you're ready to go to bed, and other times when it can sound horrid, usually when you're demo'ing the system for friends who think you're crazy for spending the money you do on the equipment when their boom box is fine for them.
There have been many theories given as to the cause for the variation. The first and probably most important is the poor electricity your power company produces with their less than perfect generators, multiple generators out of sync with each other, and different power companies using the same grid. I've written several articles about this, had several fights with my power company, have spent thousands of dollars trying to produce the pure 60 Hz. sine wave necessary for music, and still have variances in quality of sound, although not nearly as much as previously.
Then there's the transmission factors, such as crappy aluminum power lines, cheap transformers at every level, with six or seven of your neighbors feeding off of a transformer built for 2 to 3 households with 1950's energy requirements, and noise produced by every motor, electrical appliance, computer, etc.
Finally, there's the fact that the power grid is one big antenna, receiving every radio wave produced on Earth and from the heavens. The amount of noise emanating from the Sun alone is tremendous, and may be the reason systems star to sound better a couple of hours after sunset. I think some days the sine wave must look like a square wave with all of the inherent distortions produced and difficulties of the power supply to be able to clean it up and get the direct current needed from the top of the sine wave.
Next, there are the personal problems. We are beings with feelings and a very complicated electronic network called a brain and sensory system. I'm sure the system wouldn't sound at its peak if we've just had a fight with the Misses over our latest audio purchase. But I believe this is the least important factor, as I've had several persons over for listening sessions, and all usually can agree on the level of sound quality they hear at any time.
Finally, I'm sure there's energy factors that scientist haven't discovered yet that affect the system. Here's where we could get into pseudo-science which many of the audio equipment producers use to push their products, such a Quantum Noise. Every great discovery has been preceded by the thought that everything that can be known, is, and anybody making a discovery is a quack. The problem is weeding out the truth from the snakeoil.
Enough of that, it is time to get on to my discovery. This weekend, we had a Nor'easter, which for those persons not of New England ancestry, is a giant blizzard which comes up the coast just offshore in the winter, feeds off of the warmer Atlantic Ocean water and dumps large amounts of snow with 40 plus mile an hour winds onto us. We had a whopper this time with some areas receiving up to three feet in 24 hours. Most New Hampshirites, including our Fearless Leader Steve Rochlin who lives out in the back woods of the western part of the state, just hunker down during one of these things, reading a good book next to the wood stove preparing the muscles for the snow removal job next day.
So, on went the system for warm-up, and I went into the kitchen to make some popcorn, for two reasons. First, what's a good movie without those kernels? Second, I can actually tell how good the electricity, and therefore the audio will be, by how well the popcorn pops. This may sound crazy but it works every time. Microwave ovens are extremely sensitive to the electricity. When the current is normal, it takes exactly three minutes for a batch to be popped, and less so if the electricity is better. Normally the kernels don't burn until 30 seconds to a minute later, and if the electricity is really poor, it may take four minute for complete popping.
Well, Saturday night at 2 minutes and 40 seconds, I got the distinct odor of burned popcorn. That's a first in my household. So out came my voltmeter. No, the voltage hadn't been jacked up as it was running the standard 120 from the socket. Maybe, in my haste, the timer was set improperly? So another batch cooked for 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and it was perfect. so something was going on with the electricity.
As two channel sounded so good, on went some of my SACD and DVD-Audio surround recordings. The effect was truly amazing. The most realistic recording I own is the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto with Lang Lang recorded with a live audience in London. Not only did the orchestra and piano sound as close to live as I've heard, there were audience noises apparent that I'd never heard before.
While some persons think all recordings should be silent except for the music, I prefer to hear what I do in a live concert, including those coughs from the chap in the second balcony. Not only was that chap in my room, but also several other hackers in various places in the surround field that had previously been buried in the hash. One had to be present to truly appreciate what is present on our recordings that we normally can't hear.
Luckily, we had a second snow storm last night, and the same effect occurred. The harder the snow fell, the better the system sounded. Of course, time was also passing and normally the later it becomes, the better the system sounds, so I am unsure which cause produced the greatest effect. That's the problem with multiple variables.
Anyway, I'm sure that the snowstorms did something to clean up either the electricity, or something in the atmosphere that improved the sound reproduction of the system. Please somebody come up with a valid sounding explanation for the phenomenon.
Until We Meet Again
Until next time, Auf Wiedersehen.