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August 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Senseless Rambling
Incredibly Wonderful Changes Bring Higher Musical Pleasures
Balanced connections and ye old RCA connector.
Article By Steven R. Rochlin

 

  It is great to see so many new innovations with the portable music player, amplification, DAC and headphone side of the high fidelity audio industry. While home audio has also been evolving, the portable audio guys are making strides forward by leaps and bounds. The same can be said for online digital music delivery as we all benefit from more high resolution music sites that are selling music downloads. Staying traditional with home audio keeps things constant and predictable, yet we should continue to focus on solutions and take our industry's products to the next level of refinement. High-end audio has always been about being true leaders and innovators as cost-no-object products meet bleeding edge technology. While this means we will all need to accept change for the better, and there are risks, yet true market-moving inventors embrace change instead of decades old status quo. So this begs the question, is the high-end audio industry ready for the 'next big thing'?

If there was ever a chance to help move along change towards high resolution music, now is as good a time as any since we have been gifted possible aid of consumer electronics organizations and the supporting major record labels. Of course the high-end industry will never group together funds and create a powerful marking message, so we rely upon other's efforts in hopes of reaching a broader, mainstream audience. It is time for us all to ask ourselves, "What can we as an industry do to help lead in changing things for the better?" Furthermore, does the high-end audio industry have the will power to lead this change without any true single voice organization and with virtually zero financial means to promote it within the mainstream media? People can indeed lead a change provided the group is powerful and strong enough to get their message out, aided by common sense and provable advances in technology, that will bring about a better product to music lovers worldwide.

One such change is the variety of RCA connectors we have today. Designed in the 1940's as a low-end, low cost connection system, the RCA jack has the inner 'hot' (signal) connection made before the 'cold' (ground) connection. What about S/PDIF and the precision 75 Ohms specification, which is not what the RCA connector was designed for impedance-wise. This is why products such as the reference-grade Gryphon Audio Kalliope (review to be published within a few days) only offers only BNC for the 75 Ohms S/PDIF connection. For analog, there are RCA and of course top-flight XLR balanced outputs. I find it very interesting that upper-end high fidelity audio companies are now only offering balanced XLR for analog output, since this is a far better solution to carry the analog signal versus the unbalanced RCA. About a week ago I sent out an e-mail to our special Manufacturers eNewsletter and here are a few of the responses concerning the RCA connector:

Jack Elliano of ElectraPrint Audio Co. said, "The RCA jacks have been a standard of the industry for longer than you have been alive!  They work, always has and always will. They achieve a reasonable workable connection from device to device as well as the latest interconnection products that have shown up in the last 20 years in this industry.  So what is so "low-fi" about them?, we measure the same bandwidth, distortion, intermodulation distortion, amplitude and DCR using them, as does the most expensive interconnects advertised do also. Steven!, the most expensive, most desirable and oldest tube audio equipment on the market, to date, used screw on terminals for interconnects! I think the problem of "Low-Fi" is the real lack of knowledge as to what, how and why, the interconnect/s are coming from, and going too!"

Bruce Richardson of VooDoo Cable LLC says, "You can make the same case for almost all the connectors used in high-end audio: RCA, IEC, binding posts, spades and bananas. They are all detrimental to the audio signal. Audio component manufacturing companies are not managed by progressive thinkers. Changes come very slowly, and with great trepidation. Highly respected manufacturers like McIntosh and Spectral are still telling their customers that their components will literally "blow up" if a certain brand or type of cable is not used. Audiophiles continue to heed the superstitions and hype that manufacturers promote to control their tiny slice of the market. And most manufacturers simply do not have the will power to change. Cable termination is the last thing they consider when designing their components. In the disparaging words of one famous component designer I overheard, "Cables are trouble. They change everything." That said, I strongly believe the high-end audio media has a responsibility to dispel the misinformation the drives the confusion and intransigence in high-end audio. The mere lack of education and understanding about how electric principles actually work is part of the problem. Many manufacturers rely on the audio enthusiast's fundamental naiveté to hype their product with specious claims about this or that proprietary 'technology' used in their products. We need intelligent persons in the high-end audio media to open the discussion about the credibility of the manufacturer's claims. But that will never happen, because we don't bite the hand that feeds, do we?"

John McDonald of Audience says, "Whereas RCA connectors are not perfect, a much more relevant and truly urgent question is "Why is the high-end audio industry still using IEC AC power connectors that were designed for computers"? In most cases they are loose and make very poor connection compared to a pro connector like the Neutrik Powercon that locks in place and has a lower contact surface DCR than any IEC connector. To me the term "high end" should be synonymous with "all out". It is boggling that any high end product still uses IEC connectors! It's like putting cheap tires on a Ferrari."

Danny Richie of GR Research says, "On a similar note, I can't believe the industry is still using binding posts. They are nothing more than a large Brass or Copper bolt inserted into the signal path. They are far more detrimental to the signal than the RCA connector on the low level signal. And coating them with Silver, Rhodium, or Gold doesn't change the high mass and insertion losses. I switched over to tube connectors from Electra Cable and have never looked back. They allow a clear audible improvement even over the best binging posts."

Steve Nugent of Empirical Audio says, "Empirical Audio has eliminated all RCA connectors for digital, except in our least expensive product, the Synchro-Mesh reclocker, which has both RCA and 75 Ohm BNC jacks. We find that when combined with our excellent BNC-BNC cable, the sound quality benefits greatly. However, I firmly believe that it is mostly the cable and true 75 ohm BNC terminations on the cable that improve the sound quality, not so much the 75 ohm BNC jack. BTW, most manufacturers put 50 Ohm BNC jacks on their products, but we use only 75 Ohm.  I think they either don't know or don't care if its 75 Ohms or not since 50 is close enough and they are more available.  When I asked one manufacturer about his, their reply was "the 50 Ohm BNC connector is more durable". This is of course nonsense."

Rob Robinson of Channel D had some great comments, yet to sum up he said, "RCA input connectors also are provided on our phono stages for single ended setups, but by far the preferred input connector is XLR, in conjunction with balanced input cables. (The RCA outputs on the RIAA versions of our phono stages are true single ended versions of the balanced input signals, generated by using a differential amplifier circuit for the ground referenced signal rather than taking the inadvisable short cut of merely using the "positive" leg of the balanced signal, which would make having balanced circuitry pointless because common mode noise rejection is only achieved by amplifying the difference between the positive and negative polarity signals.)"

Rich Maez of Boulder Amplifiers says, "We haven't used an RCA connector to carry audio on one of our products for almost 20 years! The only RCA connectors we've included on a product were to connect a demagnetizer to one of our phono stages. Other than that, all audio has been handled in the balanced domain via XLR connectors. Digital has been handled via XLR (AES3), optical TosLink (S/PDIF), HDMI (PCM), USB or Ethernet."

And lastly we have an authority on connectors as Mr. Wolfgang B Thoerner of WBT fame says, "Why is the high-end audio industry still using low-fi RCA connectors? This is a legitimate question. 90% or even more of all RCA connectors come from low-wage countries and are first of all low-priced. This corresponds also to their equivalent value. Over the decades, not much or nothing at all has changed with the original construction of RCA type connectors which as a matter of fact originates from the 1940s. Only the external appearance has been "prettified" through a shiny gold-plating surface. I am saying this in full awareness in a rather disrespectful manner since it is merely an optical illusion which implies a higher quality which does not exist in real. It is true that a gold-plated surface or any different kind of surface treatment helps to protect the contact elements from harmful oxidation and corrosion. But the qualification of all connectors lies very essentially in the precision mechanics with an effective clamping and spring mechanism and of course in a reasonable signal conductor material like for example pure copper. WBT has achieved both requirements with its nextgen product series perfectly. The attached exploded view drawings demonstrate this very impressively. One can easily see that this construction does not have anything in common with the RCA sockets and plugs from the 1940s, apart from their compatibility. WBT nextgen connectors do absolutely meet the quality standards of the most modern high-end equipment, and they are with 75 Ohm characteristic impedance making them even digital capable. Of course, we could tell you much more about quality criteria of connectors. For those who are interested in this subject, please visit WBT's website where you will find in the 'glossary' technical-scientific facts and their explanation. Please bear in mind: high-end equipment/audio chain is, in the long run, always as strong as its weakest link in the entire chain. This is why good connectors are important interfaces/chain links."

During the High End Show 2014 in Munich WBT was showing a mightily impressive WBT nanoGen product series which are the very first organic audio connectors in the world. These connectors feature a low mass structured carbon based conductor (graphene effect) that is said to have no eddy current, no skin effect, no mass storage effect and high phase purity with overall high speed. Of note, too is that the new nanoGen is free from internal material tensions, direct contacting so there are no surface coating problems and while they are not solderable, they are perfectly suited for crimping.

So....

Judging by the replies, it seems to me many manufacturers within the high-end audio industry are not happy with the current status quo of connectors. Sure the lowly RCA has evolved over the past 60+ years, yet perhaps a nice change is in order to something that is designed from the ground up for high fidelity audio signal transmission. WBT is employing graphene to replace common, mainstream materials used in the past. In fact many engineers fully agree with me and are willing to take steps to move the high fidelity audio industry forward. Videophiles long ago migrated from using a single RCA coax for video and two more for stereo audio, let alone composite video with three RCA connectors for video, and then S-Video... to HDMI. Just as the portable audio guys have been using a variety of modern connection systems to ensure high fidelity audio performance, the home side should follow their lead. The balanced XLR, which has served the professional recording studio and engineering industry quite well, could become the leading player as we migrate away from lesser connection types that were not designed to deliver true high fidelity audio in either the analog or digital domain. Perhaps RCA pundits will find the new WBT RCA nanoGen to their liking? Whatever the case, it is always good to get a discussion going as this may bring about progress instead of the usual "We'll, that's just how we have always done it." We're high-end audio, and you deserve better.

As always, in the end what really matters is that you...

Enjoy the Music,


Editor and Creative Director, Enjoy the Music.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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