More Good Isn't Necessarily Better
When I was a kid in my 'teens, the JC Whitney catalog was the ultimate wishbook for young men: Whether or not we owned a car (At sixteen, we could get a license, but only a very few of us – usually just rich kids from Encino or thereabouts – actually owned one) we would all pore over the JC Whitney catalog, dreaming of all the things that we could do to our cars (when we actually got one) to make it faster, "cooler", or cheaper to operate.
And the JC Whitney catalog (which is still around today, though in a much tamer form) was chock full of toys and goodies to do just that. Badly-printed, on the cheapest possible paper, and with literally hundreds of items all jumbled together, it was a treasure trove for Car Crazies of every kind. In addition to the expected auto parts and repair items, it featured customizer's necessities like "add-'em-yourself" spot lights, hood ornaments, mud flaps, fog lamps, and, of course, the never-to-be-forgotten Hudson-style windshield sun visors.
More importantly, though, at least to us, it was also jam-packed with such wonders as "Thundervolt" spark plugs, "Vortex" fuel atomizers, "high performance" distributor caps, a device (I don't remember what it was actually called), for injecting water spray into the fuel-air mix (for more power and better gas mileage), and a vast array of other automotive "tweaks", each of which was claimed to make cars run better, run faster, and to add either more horsepower, more miles per gallon, or both.
As kids, we believed all those claims, and lusted after every item, even when – as was often the case – we didn't have a car to put them on. Aah, though, we could certainly, even then, dream of the great thundering, ferocious-fast – but fuel-sipping – brutes of machines we could have had if only we had owned a car and had bought and installed all of JC Whitney's performance parts for it.
The thing was that all of those parts – like so many of the audio tweaks of today – actually seemed reasonable:
If Thundervolt spark plugs or high performance distributor caps actually did deliver a better, hotter, or more consistent spark to the mixture in the firing chambers, they certainly could have delivered more horsepower and better mileage. So could properly designed and implemented "Vortex fuel atomizers" or water sprays or any number of other JC Whitney toys and goodies – but only if they actually worked, and only if the thing they were supposed to correct or improve actually needed correction or improvement.
And even so, in no case could using all of them ever – even despite our most fervent hopes and imaginings – turn a 1952 Plymouth (four-door, blue, used, hideous – my actual first car) into an Indy car or really create an engine that would run almost forever on a single tank of gas.
It's the same thing with hi-fi gear: Attending to details and adding accessories, toys, and goodies can make an improvement, but there's a limit to what they can do.
One famous example of what can happen when you take something equivalent to a 1952 Plymouth and use an add-on improvement to make it better happened at CES – the Consumer Electronics Show – some years ago:
As usual for CES, all of the High-End manufacturers were there, showing-off their finest products with the very best sounding recordings and the best possible ancillary gear in hopes of getting dealer and reviewer interest. All except Audioquest, which, as part of their exhibit used an ordinary, not very expensive, three-piece "boombox" (an electronics unit plus two detachable speakers) as a major part of their demonstration. The boombox had been modified to accept banana plugs for quick speaker cable changes, but other than that, it did remain perfectly "stock."
If I remember correctly, it was Bill Lowe, himself (Audioquest's owner) who conducted the demonstration, and it was so successful that it became the "Talk of the Show" and has apparently remained a part of Audioquest's demonstration arsenal, years later. The demo, itself, was very simple – just play the boombox with the cables it came with, then play the same part of the same music with Audioquest speaker cables, then play it again with the original cables back in place; an "open" ABA test. And the result was simple, too: For those who had the ears to hear and the willingness to listen, changing cables made a clearly audible improvement.
Was it because the replacement cables were better? Or because the original ones were worse? I don't know, but it really doesn't matter. The important thing was that there was an audible improvement. Here's a question, though: What would happen if you were to take that same boombox and fit it with those fancy cables and then put it on the very best available anti-vibration feet? Would that make an additional improvement? And what if, then, you were to add more tweaks – the little sticky things or the bowls or the discs that you place around your room, supposedly to fix your acoustics. Would it just keep on getting better and better?
I don't know, but I do know of a similar incident that might help prove a point: Many years ago, when I still owned XLO Electric (the cable company). My girlfriend of the time decided that she wanted one of the small "personal" hi-fi systems (sort of the non-portable equivalent of a better boombox) from one of the major "mass market" consumer electronics manufacturers and wanted me to use my industry connections to get it for her wholesale.
When it arrived at the XLO factory, a week or so later, I called her up and told her that it was there and that she should come and pick it up. Her response was to ask "What does it sound like?" When I told her that I didn't know; it was still in the box, she said "Well, set it up and make sure it works – I don't want to have to come down there and get something that been damaged in shipping. (She was charming that way.)
When I set it up and she came and listened to it, her first words were: "What would it sound like with XLO cables?" I responded that it would probably be "...pretty much the same; it's not that great a system, and it may not have the resolution to show any difference."
To prove my point, I went back into the stock room and pulled out $1500 worth of high-end cables ("the good stuff") and used them to hook-up her system. It did, indeed, sound quite noticeably better and she got one of my staff to pack it all up for her and took the system and my XLO cables home with her, paying me for neither.
For free, it was a great bargain, but even with the improvement, it was just a now-expensive cheap system, with minimal electronics, four or five inch "woofers" in flimsy wood-grained plastic enclosures – a "hot rod" 1952 Plymouth, when, for all of its actual cost, she could have gotten something better.
Oh, well. At least she got to...