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March 2005
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Of Tweaks, Parts, And Snake Oil
Article By Steven R. Rochlin
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 Smart Chip

  It seems that part of being an audiophile means to throw caution in the wind and trust your ears. Time and time again the ABX double blind listening crowd and engineers scoff at audiophiles. To fully appreciate this situation one must also understand that many engineers depend purely on measurements while audiophiles may be more attuned to things that simply can not be measured by today's known standards. As an audiophile, one must also know the limits of their own belief system... or are there no limits at all?

Perhaps it all began with the cable industry who prodded audiophiles to try something better than 18 gauge loudspeaker wire decades ago? Was there a difference in the way music was reproduced with 'better' wire? Many people felt there was and so an industry began to flourish. We had larger 12-gauge wire, different ways to wind wire, various insulation techniques, and silver wire entered the fray. This writer feels that wire does indeed make a difference to the way his system reproduces music. The pricing of said wire can range anywhere from under $100 to well over $10,000! Meanwhile we have engineers who could easily question the sanity of it all as measuring such wire may show little electrical differences.

Audio Note CapacitorsThen we have other parts to consider such as signal capacitors. Audio Note, conrad-johnson Hovland, Kimber Kable, Sprague, V-Cap and the like are but a few examples. Virtually all DIY and equipment manufacturers (both home and pro audio) have long realized that various parts, while perhaps measuring the same, do indeed change the sound a product produces. Of note is that a more expensive parts does not necessarily equal a subjectively better sound(!). In fact certain manufacturers (Audio Note and conrad-johnson for example) use their own specially made capacitors as they felt other commercially available units did not meet their standards. Of course wire and signal capacitors are not the only parts within a product.

Black Gate Power CapacitorsUnless a circuit is 100 percent passive, one needs have power sent to active devices. Tweakers long ago discovered the improvements made by simply changing the power capacitors within their components. The King of the Hill in my humble opinion being the Rubycon Black Gate. Within many circuits a tweaker will simply swap out a stock power capacitor for one of these Kings. Results of this power capacitor change are said to be smoother sound, better resolution, and dynamic improvements. The 'sane' person (engineer) can wonder how electrically identical parts, but from different manufacturers, result in subjectively different music reproduction?

 

Measurements Matter

And so enters a brief e-mail exchange between myself and engineer only a few days ago:

Hello Steven,

I am a electronics tech for a number of years now and I am blown away to see anyone spending $18k for a audio amp. There must be some social event attach to be the fool on the block to pay such amount. Are the "parts for the amp" made by a Tibetan lama priest or are they off the shelf parts from a local supply house that also sell toilet paper, either way I could assemble a pre-amp and etch a board for far less money and sound as great. I could even send the metal work out to a local domestic house to make the metal parts. Quite frankly, who is foolhardy to spend that amount, except oil sheiks and Bill Gates.

Howard S. Bacon

 

Howard,

Thanks for your comments. Am sure you know that different quality parts cost various money and, usually, the better parts are more than those at your usual 'local supply house.' Will avoid the debate of silver wire versus copper and the costs thereof, though am sure you know the differing cost of laminates within tube output transformers. Does a Ferrari F430 offer 3x the performance of a Honda/Acura NSX? Perhaps not, though there is a law of diminishing returns. Of course you can feel free to produce and market your own high value audiophile products such as those by NAD, Adcom, etc.

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

 

Steven,

Thanks for the insight of the amp, silver wire??? Who would use silver? Like my mother told me, people have more money than common sense; let me ask you a question? You say better parts, where on this earth is there better parts? I have spent my life in electronics and I can't find better parts. The amp is a fools trap, money down a rat hole. The only difference between a Chevrolet pick up and a Mercedes is only 400 dollars in material. Like PT Barnum has always said, "a fool is born every time a amp is sold" You need to find a honest job.

Howard S. Bacon

 

Howard,

To say you can not find closer tolerance parts is something strange. Furthermore, if you have ever looked for transformer laminates you would know there are various qualities/materials. Perhaps you have never actually designed certain type of electronics so fully understand your lack of understanding in these matters.

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

 

Steven,

I have the digi key catalog and they offer 1/2% of 1% tolerance parts in military xxxx series which is the worlds most reliable hi quality parts offered... a silicon transistor is a silicon transistor and a iron transformer is a iron transformer. Noise is noise running though a resistor and a capacitor is a capacitor. Here is some common sense, if the "lama nets" of the transformer is so good, why does anyone else use it. I have design software and diagrams for transformer. now using silver is just a less resistance than copper and offers no benefits other than that.

Have a nice day...

Howard S. Bacon

 

Please allow me to agree with Howard for a moment from an electronic technician's viewpoint. If a circuit measures well it must also sound equally as well. Many of us over the age of 40 remember the 'low distortion' wars. Years ago the buzzword was low distortion and so manufacturers generally applied higher amounts of feedback, with the result being lower distortion. Before the whole single-ended tube craze i was enjoying my Audio Note Onagku. Back then i remember a certain print magazine editor lambasted single-ended tube amplifiers because of the way they measured with their high distortion and the like, though i digress. Howard's point is that a part measuring "1/2% of 1% tolerance" is better than 5% tolerance. The materials may make no real difference, as the end result is how they measure. and 0.5% is better than 5%.

My very first 'day job' decades ago was working for Heathkit Electronics where i was fortunate to work with some very talented individuals. At the same time my education of how things truly worked began. Our shop was very well equipped with the then state-of-the-art measuring gear  including triple trace oscilloscopes, 3D CAD software, audio frequency response analysis including white/pink noise generators, etc. It was relatively easy to measure circuits to insure they work, though as the years passed i realized that having a working circuit and one that reproduced music well were not necessarily one in the same.

 

Do Measurements Tell  The Whole Story?

So we have wire and we have parts, so now it is time to discuss the realm of tweaks. What about contact enhancers? Caig Laboratories offers a product called Pro Gold that said to clean and enhance electrical connections. Unlike certain audiophile tweaks, Pro Gold's benefits can be measured. One can use a meter to measure the resistance between contacts plus the lowering of insertion loss.

Insertion Loss

1. The loss resulting from the insertion of a device in a transmission line, expressed as the reciprocal of the ratio of the signal power delivered to that part of the line following the device to the signal power delivered to that same part before insertion.

2. A measure of the attenuation of a device by determining the output of a system before and after the device is inserted into the system. For example, a connector causes insertion loss across the interconnection (in comparison to a continuous cable with no interconnection). 

3. The loss in signal strength due to the insertion of a device in series with a signal path. Typically measured over the intended operating frequency range of the device.


Equations From Astrolab

 

The above shows ways an engineer can measure differences, and this is something Caig Laboratories' Pro Gold product can prove. But quite a few audiophile consider single-ended tube amplifiers superior to their solid-state counterpart... even though a single-ended tube amplifiers may measure less perfect than its solid-state counterpart. How can this be? Some may claim it is the even order harmonic distortion of tubes versus the odd order distortion produced from solid-state devices. My apologies for these generalities as there are exceptions to the 'rule.' But what about tweaks that defy known science or claim to be new scientific discoveries yet offer no solid proof, usually not disclosed under the premise of protecting intellectual property.  

 

Then We Have Mysteries

Golden Sound Intelligent ChipGreen pens for digital discs, various digital disc 'optical enhancers,' demagnetizers, and on and on. Naturally longtime audiophiles are familiar with many of these tweaks. It never ceases to amaze me how much effort is involved with improving digital discs, though vinyl lovers have their own set of tweaks. And this brings us to the recent outcry both for and against Golden Sound's Intelligent Chip.

This chip, about the size of a digital camera's memory card, is said to improve the way a digital disc transport reproduces music when the user momentarily places it on the top surface of a transport while the disc is playing. According to one retailer's website:

The Intelligent Chip corrects an obscure but important problem inherent in all commercial discs; this problem is one reason commercial discs frequently "don't sound quite right," sounding anemic, overly bright or tinny. The disc upgrade is permanent and the upgraded disc will sound better even when played on other machines... If you attempt to upgrade a disc that has already been upgraded, the Chip will "sense" that the disc is already upgraded and spend no energy on it, thus avoiding using the Chip unnecessarily. 

This chip is sold in two forms, the Golden Sound GSIC-10 (upgrades 10 discs) for $16 and GSIC-30 (upgrades 30 discs) for $40. One controversial online forum has been abuzz concerning this device. It matters not if you believe in this product or not, what matters is if there is indeed any real change in music reproduction from using Golden Sound's Intelligent Chip. Notice i said change, not improvement or deterioration. And exactly how does said chip "sense" a disc has already been "upgraded?" No real explanation is offered on their website.

 

Summing It Up

The Intelligent Chip is only one of many ways audiophiles have taken as a leap of faith, as it were, to achieve musical bliss. While some tweaks can be measured and verified, others defy known laws of science and engineering. The scientific community, and perhaps the public at large, might feel that audiophiles are a strange bunch. Surely modern technology's solid-state amplification and digital discs are better than their tube and vinyl disc counterparts. And all this talk about silver wire?

If the public delves deeper, the comments about various types of capacitors may be seen as either the upper echelon of exotica or dismissed as quackery. For it is only you who can decide how for down Alice's proverbial rabbit hole you will travel. At what point do you stop believing the apparent hype? Worse still, if you go all the way down the rabbit hole yet hear no difference, do you begin to question your hearing ability or the resolution of your music reproduction system. So ask yourself, is there a limit to your belief system? Or in the words of Howard S. Bacon, "The amp is a fools trap, money down a rat hole." Of course in the end what really matters is that we all....

Enjoy the Music (Pink Floyd "Wish You Were Here" right now),

Steven R. Rochlin

 

"So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell
Blue skys from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
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Did they get you to trade
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And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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