Welcome to another episode of "As the Audiophile Turns" or "Days of Our Audiophile Paranoia," both titles appropriate as all of us spend inordinate amounts of time, effort, and "moolah" trying to erase those real or imagined gremlins in our audio systems. Just think of how much time and money you've put into your "most likely if you're reading this" high end system, to get that last bit of what you consider to be "The Absolute Sound" when 99.9 percent of your neighbors are ecstatic with their $500 seven-speaker home theaters in a box mated with their $10,000 high definition television. Anyway, this month's article will focus on what you can do on the cheap to actually really improve your sound, and on one of the major causes of "Audiophillia Nervosa." Finally we'll discuss a new to me audiophile recording company with the "Right Stuff."
So what can you do for very little money and a couple of hours of effort to maximize your system's potential? What I like to call the Fall Cleanup. What does this consist of?
Even with my reviewer's relatively rapid turnover of product, which keeps most of the contacts clean, I actually do the following at least twice a year to keep the system at its optimum. Unhappily, during the process, usually some mishap occurs which incites some less than optimal language to emanate from the Media Room, but my wife has become used to it and rarely intervenes with a Hail Mary for my poor lost soul.
So what should be done at least once or twice a year?
1. All electrical contacts, from AC, to interconnects to loudspeaker wires, should be cleaned, inspected for defects, and covered with a protective agent to prevent corrosion from contaminating the junctions. This is more important the more expensive the wire is as the sometimes miniscule qualities that influenced you to buy them in the first place can be easily overcome by a poor connection.
I first clean all of them, including the female AC plugs, after the circuit breaker has been disabled of course, with small brushes with Caig Deoxit Contact Cleaner, followed by a thorough wiping with distilled water and a thin application of Walker Audio Super Silver Treatment paste to enhance the electrical contact. Remember to also do the same process on any contacts inside your equipment, especially fuses and any non-soldered joints.
2. Dust off both the outside and inside of all equipment and your racks. Not only will this improve the ecology of your room and your allergies, but will keep the wife at bay with her dust mop which may not be as surgical as your hands with your delicate components. The inside of the equipment is more important than the outside as dust build-up on circuit boards causes increased heating of delicate parts which may lead to early failure. Also cleaning of any fans is especially important as otherwise they will certainly be noisier and fail sooner otherwise.
3. Adjust the positioning of the various wires. Each type of connection carries different levels of electricity, and the electric fields around them may interact. It is especially important to keep AC wires away from interconnects or if they need to be close together to try to get them to cross at right angles for the least influence on the interconnect.
4. Elevate all wiring off of the floor if possible. You don't have to buy those expensive cable lifters. I usually use paper cups with a small notch cut in the rim to hold the wiring in place.
5.See if you can get rid of any connections. The best connection is none at all as the vast majority of loss of signal integrity is at the connection point where the electrons have to jump across mostly open space as no connector makes a perfectly even contact surface. This is why it's important to use something like the Walker treatment to fill in those gaps. On the other hand, if you're not planning on selling your equipment or cords, try removing the RCA's, BNC's, etc., and tightly twisting and soldering the wiring.
6. Try demagnetizing your wiring and equipment with Nordost ECO-3 anti-static spray. Especially in dry climates, this may make a significant difference in the sound.
7. For those still into turntables, do a thorough cleaning of the cartridge needle with one of the available cleaners but be careful to always brush back to front and get as little as possible on the stylus as it could wick up into the body and damage the suspension. Demagnetize if you feel it's helpful, check the belt for wear and replace as necessary, and dress up the tonearm wires for the least hum. It is extremely important to clean and preserve the contacts between interconnect and cartridge pins and phono stage as these are the points in your system with the fewest and weakest electrons.
8. For those into digital, clean off and demagnetize the disc sled, laser sled and lens if you can reach it safely and level the cabinet.
9. Finally, and possibly most important, clean out your ears. You'd be amazed at the build-up of earwax that occurs over a year that will affect your hearing. It's best to have this done by a professional as using Q-Tips yourself quite often will just push earwax back against the eardrum causing sudden but repairable loss of hearing. What is not repairable is if you puncture the eardrum while cleaning. So beware.
Now for the paranoid among us, especially me and not only for my worry about whether my system has reached its highest potential. I have to also worry about what I've written in my articles over the years. Unlike previously with print magazines which disappear or lie moldy in some basement or library, anything on the Internet may exist forever and be pulled up by Google or some other search engine even when the publication has evaporated into the ether. Thus, I received the following email about my fifth published article from nine years ago, which can be still found at this link.
While I am happy that Mr. Shulman has caught the audiophile experimentation bug and has developed a "do it yourself" attitude, producing his own cables that "cannot be differentiated from V-38 $2700" ones, even by a listening panel of his friends, I am perplexed by his idea that I think all cables sound the same. Matter of fact, on reviewing my article I stated:
To clear the air, in my opinion, all cables do not sound the same. In actuality, there are probably no two cables that do. While the differences may be several orders of magnitude less than differences that various speakers and room changes can make, in a properly set up and revealing system, they can be obvious even to the most obtuse listener. Unhappily these differences are very difficult to perceive in so-called ABX testing. The nuances sometimes take hours or days to perceive, especially if the cables need breaking in (another topic of some dispute.)
Mr. Shulman then goes on to use a statement from very long ago from a well-respected engineer of his time stating that the only measurement of any value for cable evaluation is its impedance. I believe that, at the least, most engineers today would also look at the cable's capacitance and resistance as important value.
While zip cord can probably carry electrons at reasonable wattage as well as $2000 per meter high end speaker cable, the flow of the individual electrons, much like the flow of suspended particles in water in various streams, with their different depths, surface irregularities due to wind, bottom irregularities due to rocks, fluid irregularities due to what is suspended in them, will lead to a different outcome as to where and when the particle arrives. Unlike with a simple 60 Hz. Sine wave, complex waves have electrons flowing at different depths in the wire with some actually flowing on the surface, and their electromagnetic waves that they produce actually flowing through the insulator and surrounding air. Thus the construction and type of materials of both the wire and insulator, and even how the wire is suspended will affect the electron flow and therefore the perceived sound.
I know the above is controversial and there are experts who claim that at normal hearing frequencies, all wire should sound the same, but it has been demonstrated in multiple evaluations that I've attended that at least some individuals can pick out the sonic differences even in blind testing. Everybody is different in how they perceive sound and their acuity to sonic differences, and each system that the sound is played through will amplify or lessen the different sound qualities that each of us are attuned to.
On the other hand, I still agree that most high end wire continues to be sold at values that are exorbitant in relation to the relatively miniscule effect they can have on the sound compared to other equipment. If your system were a chocolate cake, the speakers and record cartridge would be equivalent to the cake mix, the other components to the frosting, and the wiring to the coloring used on both. While the coloring is important to the final product and how you perceive it, its effect is significantly less to your enjoyment than the rest of the ingredients, but may be the determining factor on whether you pick and enjoy that particular cake.
Then he states, "When conducting the blind tests it is important to understand that we do not have a hearing memory."
Again, I must disagree with the above statement. As with other forms of sensation, there are both short and long term types of memory, with the brain having different areas and methods of storage, and each individual has different abilities to assimilate and use them. Where some can't remember what they heard five seconds before, depending on the significance of the difference, there are others, either trained or with an innate ability to remember every nuance in a sound for significant periods of time. This has been shown time and time again.
On the other hand, sometimes we can be fooled by our senses into thinking that there are differences where none is present. This has happened to me personally, being fooled into believing that I've heard something that is actually not there, including one somewhat painful experience at a "supposed" friend's house (you know who I'm talking about Maurice) where I perceived a difference when the experimenter had only looked as though he was changing out a piece of equipment.
As far as the long term component goes, sounds that make a significant impression on us can be remembered for decades. With Alzheimer's patients, while their short term memories may be completely gone, quite often they can remember every nuance of a conversation from their childhood including quite often extraneous sounds that normally our minds disregard at the time. Also I'm sure that each of you can remember a concert experience or possibly some listening period in your audio room that struck you as out of the ordinary and can play it back note for note in your mind and compare it to what's playing at present.
Finally, this writer does not receive compensation from any company for his reviews except this magazine, and that compensation over the year doesn't pay for my costs in doing the reviews. For most audio writers, especially on the low or no pay web, this is a labor of love and a method of being able to evaluate much equipment that we would otherwise not be able to listen to. So please don't suggest that we do this to please the manufacturers for some gain on our part.
There are two caveats related to playback. Unhappily the majority of the Blu-ray players out there will not decode or transmit through HDMI 24/192 multi-channel recordings to pre-pro's. Instead of downsampling them to 24-bit/96kHz multi-channel, they transmit the 24-bit/192kHz stereo tracks which are also on the discs. Interestingly one that may do it is Sony's PS3 game player through HDMI while their regular Blu-ray players will not.
Second, the only program I have found that will play back the 24/192 files on my computer is PowerDVD 8 Ultra, a DVD playback program which also will do Blu-Ray, DVD-A and 24/192 multi-channel if your computer soundcard will handle it. So how do they sound? In a word, spectacular. I asked them to send a sampling of their various disc and download types, and they obliged, with the following:
Also, I thought that the Blu-ray might possibly have some video of the performances, but it was audio only, but in both cases, superb recordings, with the multi-channel SACD being one of the best live sounding recordings that I have. In addition, the orchestra did a superb job of playing and interpretation, and I especially enjoyed the piece called Carmina by Bjorklund, which really drew out some emotions on my first listen. Thus, I foresee the demise of SACD and DVD-A in the near future. Why keep an audio-only multi-channel playback system that is bound to a 24-bit/96kHz or DSD standard when you can get a disc of equal playback quality that will give either a 24-bit/192kHz standard or 1080P high definition video of the performance. Think about it.
On the other hand, unless one has significant time and a very good computer and high speed internet line, the downloading of the recordings is a non-starter for now. One movement of the 24-bit/192kHz multi-channel recording took almost 8 hours on a FIOS 5 mbit line. For some reason it would only come through at about 40 KBit/sec. On the other hand, using the HDMI output of my computer into the same Integra 9.8 pre-pro that was used for the playback of the disc, again I could not discern a significant difference to the disc. As the download is almost the same price as the disc, takes a significant amount of time and needs to be either transcribed as a DVD-Audio or Blu-ray or played back through the computer, and the discs ordered only took about a week to arrive, I would suggest sticking to the discs for now.
Mirror Cano Tor Aspen Espaas
Marianne Thorsen Motzart Violin Concertos
Now that I've said that, I must interject that I have found one problem with this set: their middle of the orchestra sound. I am uncertain how the microphones were set up but in my system it sounds as though they were placed directly over the orchestra to give an effect like one is sitting in the middle of the players. While the effect certainly surrounds one with sound, for a previous horn player, it is somewhat upsetting. You'd think I'd like the position of being where I was in my orchestra days, but the effect is actually backwards, as violins are on the left and cellos on the right, while if one is sitting in an orchestra, the opposite actually is the norm. In addition, concertgoers will be sitting in the audience with the orchestra either in front of you with hall ambiance surrounding, or, rarely, sitting behind the orchestra. The effect is as unnatural as multi-mic'ing every player and I don't understand why a superb recording engineer using the best of equipment and the best possible storage medium would do this. Perhaps we'll get an answer from the company owner. They also sent two other discs for review and I'll get to them hopefully in my next article. Please support this company so they can continue to give such value for the audiophile.