Making Your Hi-Fi System Better
Many years ago, when I was first starting XLO, I got a phone call from a guy named Roy Harris, asking me what XLO cables sounded like. Not realizing that the Roy Harris who had been a famous American classical music composer was already long dead by that time, I was impressed (and, frankly, a little prideful that someone of his imagined prominence would be considering my cables) and tried to be as helpful as possible.
"They sound like whatever you're playing", I told him.
"No;" he said, "what do the cables sound like?"
"They sound like the recording and like the equipment that you're playing it on."
After another couple of rounds of him asking, and me trying to explain to him that XLO cables were designed to be as neutral as possible and to have as little sound of their own as possible in order to properly perform their intended function of just carrying the music from one point to another without addition, subtraction, distortion or any kind of change along the way, he finally said: "No, no, no; you don't understand. I like my music to be 'butterscotch-sounding'. Are your cables butterscotch-sounding?"
When I told him "No, they all try to have as little sound of their own as possible" he expressed disappointment; asked for the name of another cable company that might have products more to his liking; and, when I mentioned one, he thanked me for my honesty and hung up.
So, what's the moral of that story? Easy: Different strokes for different folks. Different people really do like different things, and that's where our hobby gets interesting: Everybody's always trying to achieve what Harry Pearson called (and named his audiophile publication after) "The Absolute Sound". The problem is that nobody knows what that is.
Nobody at all – not the performer(s); not the conductor; not the live audience; not even the recording engineer, knows what a live music recording is supposed to sound like. Those people are all at different positions relative to the sound source(s) – the performers or instruments – than the recording microphones are, and the microphones may all be hearing the music from multiple positions no person could ever get into – certainly not all at the same time!.
And for studio recordings, mixed from whatever number of potentially multi-mic'ed, separately recorded tracks, nobody knows what the music sounded like at the original recording session for the simple reason that there was never any single "live" recording session for anyone to hear.
What happens, though, is that each of us comes to have his idea of what music is supposed to sound like, and what, therefore, constitutes a good recording, a good component, or a good system. And that's what we tend to judge things by. Which, of course, leads directly into the subject of this article – making things better.
The first thing that has to be done before we can do that is to figure out what we mean by "better". Then we have to determine what resources are available to us for that purpose, and, finally, we must develop some way to validate that what we have achieved is, in fact, an improvement. And that leads us directly to the issue of measurements:
If there were no test equipment or no measurement standards, how could we ask – about our gear or some new thing, "What's its frequency response? Is it flat? Within how many dB? What's its distortion level? Of what kind?" Or, if it's a cable, "What's its capacitance per foot? Its resistance? Its inductance? Or even, (to get fancy); "What's its characteristic impedance?" How could we ever quantitatively evaluate anything?
Measurements have always been near and dear to the hearts of audiophiles, to the point that I doubt if any of us has never, upon encountering some new and vaunted piece of gear, neglected to hunt down and read its technical specifications. In fact, there is a whole substantial category of audiophiles who – whether as a sub-hobby in itself, or simply because no one could ever afford to buy all of the actual equipment available at any given time – maintain, and memorize mountains of audio product literature, and gleefully spend hours discussing it with their audiophile friends.
The fact, though, is that, in most cases, test bench or anechoic chamber measurements are – except, perhaps, to audio designers or manufacturers – of little consequence in the real world.
For those who design or build specific elements of the audio chain, it's certainly reasonable to want products that are as good as possible, and to want – even if only as a way to ensure consistent performance – some way to test and compare them on a quantifiable absolute basis. For that purpose, test standards and procedures can be established that will provide the means for evaluating an individual product on an individual basis and, if they are appropriate, comprehensive, and consistently applied, will give a designer or manufacturer valuable information about what his product is capable of doing under the stated test conditions.
That doesn't mean, though, that that's what it will actually do in your system. Even though a speaker, for example, is tested to be capable of 20Hz deep bass in an anechoic chamber, if your listening room is too small to propagate anything below 40Hz, 40Hz is the lowest you're going to get. Similarly, if your amplifier is rated to be "flat" out to 200 kHz, if your tweeters only go out to a tenth of that, that's all even a bat, listening to your system, is going to hear.
The reason that an audio system is called a "system" is because it's comprised of multiple parts, each necessary to, and affecting the performance of the whole. Take away any one thing, and there's no system and nothing to hear. Or, to put it another way, there is no part of a system that you can hear without all of the necessary other parts being in place and functioning. As an illustration, try listening to any one component or cable all by itself; it can't be done. A preamp, for example, can be tested by itself, but it can't be heard without a source component to feed it, an amplifier to bring its output up to where it will drive transducers (speakers or headphones), cables to hook everything together and provide a signal path; and (unless you're using headphones) a room to listen in.
EVERYTHING; from the recording you're listening to, through the decor and acoustics of your listening room affects what you hear. That includes all of your components; the settings on each of their controls; all of your cables – even your AC power cords – and even the racks or stands your equipment is resting on. Most importantly, NOTHING about your system or your room can ever make the sound you hear actually better than what's on the recording. You can improve the quality of information retrieval from the recording, but nothing can improve the recording, itself.
What that means is that the very best that anything can do to the recorded sound, other than aesthetically, is to do nothing at all, and let the music signal pass unchanged, with nothing added, nothing subtracted, and nothing changed in any way – a condition that no system that I know of has ever achieved.
What "better" equipment, or a better equipment/room combination can do is never to actually improve anything but, at each step along the way, to make it "less worse", meaning less deviant from the reality of the recording. That doesn't mean, though, that your sound can't be improved, both actually and aesthetically.
Better gear or better acoustics can, by reducing deviance from it or distortion to it, bring what you hear closer to the sound of the original recorded signal. In the frequency-response area, compensating flaws can also cancel each other out, with "too bright" in one component or cable making-up for "too dark" in another. In every other respect, though, losses, insufficiencies, additions, or distortions, once imposed by any part of the system are there to stay.
And similarly, real improvement (greater fidelity to the recorded signal) will stay, too, unless it's lost by something farther up the audio chain. The one thing that can't happen is for a component or cable to improve (except by compensating flaws) the fidelity of all of the system before it:
Losses are lost forever and distortion, once there, is there forever.
That's not to say that you can't bring the sound of your system more in line with your tastes and preferences: If, like Roy Harris, you like "butterscotch-sounding" cables, by all means use them. Use your tone controls or equalizer, too, if you've got them. Read books about how to get the best from your music system(s). In the end nobody truly knows what the music is supposed to sound like, so, in your home, for your listening, your taste rules.
Set things up however they please you. Then put on some tunes; sit back; close your eyes; and...
Note: Roger Skoff is an audio authority with many years of experience. He has more than 500 published articles within various major audiophile publications. He was also the founder and designer for XLO Electric Company, Inc. a manufacturer of premium cables for high-end audio and home theater. Roger currently heads a new company named RSX Technologies, Inc., which designs and manufactures cables and other premium products for high-end audio and custom installation.