Time for Men's fantasies to turn to outdoor activities, the weaker sex, etc. Audiophiles are the exception to this rule, and will probably still fritter our time away evaluating different tubes, wires etc. That is, except for our Fearless Leader, Steven R. Rochlin, who's probably out right now tearing along the New Hampshire roads in his Ferrari trying to outrun the local constabulary. Any more tickets, Steven? (Editor Steven says: Funny you should mention that. During the most recent back road drive through some very small towns i passed a normal police car. Strange, where there usually are no officers was yet another police car only two miles down the road. Adding to the intrigue, three miles later an undercover police car followed me for about five miles. Coincidence? i think not! No tickets in 2005 because, as you know Bill, i always adhere to posted speed limits and obey all traffic laws)
I'm a little surprised (Steven sez: about my last sentence?) that I've only received three letters about my last month's column on the "CHIP." (Steven sez: Oh, that thing again?) I thought for sure I'd attract some of the vitriol Clark Johnsen has been suffering on a discussion board. There was one comment from somebody over there on my article asking how one could tell differences in sound after one hour. The answer is, that for some reason, differences are easier to tell after a period of time than in direct immediate A-B-X comparisons. I can still remember sounds from concerts or listening sessions from 20 years ago, but have difficulty on instantaneous sound changes. Being in listening groups with A-B-X comparisons always gives me a headache and takes the pleasure away from listening. On the other hand, when an improvement occurs, it almost instantaneously gives great pleasure at the discovery. For an audiophile, problem is we become adjusted to the improvement very quickly and want to discover the next one: thus our incessant experimentation and frustration.
Another person thought that the improvement heard was secondary to having listened to crappy satellite audio for an hour, which had somehow skewed my perception. That would be a possibility if I had only heard the effect that particular time, and not consistently. Obviously that individual tries something once, and if the difference isn't immediate, goes on to something else. Observations, especially in audio, must be repeatable at different times of day, under differing circumstances.
Then I received the following letter:
While I enjoy watching Mr. Randi, I really would prefer to have Penn & Teller evaluate my hearing abilities on their Showtime program BULLSHIT. I hope Mr. Little was just joshing me, as a fellow audiophile. Reviewers, including me, don't try to mislead their readers, and are certainly not going to push a product that would produce ridicule or decreased reputation, especially if they have no financial incentive in the product.
I hear the difference on my system. Whether you will or not on yours, I cannot say, but hope you have the curiosity to at least try it. I have no financial interest in the product, am receiving nothing in return from the manufacturer or distributor, and may be Looney, but I am being honest in what I hear.
This month's greatest change in the system is due to an improvement in my old nemesis, electricity. I have had problems for years, as mentioned in myriad previous articles, but have done two things which have quite possibly eliminated both AC and airborne RFI, the first of which will be discussed at the end of the article.
Last year, we had a new variable speed well pump put in for our new ground water heat pump system. While the heat pump has worked superbly, costing significantly less for my heating and cooling bill than the old oil heater and window air conditioners, the pump drove me crazy. It converted the AC into a digital pulse modulated system, (similar to D type amplifiers), to allow the pump to have a continuously variable flow, much like an amplifier producing varying volume. Unhappily, like a poorly designed digital amplifier, it spewed large amounts of RFI into both the air and the house's ground. I'm surprised the FCC didn't pay a visit to our house, as every AM radio within 200 feet had a whirring sound when the pump was running. There was actually so much noise, that the current was strong enough to have burned through the well's wiring, which had to be replaced twice. Unhappily, Franklin Electric, the maker, refused to believe there was a problem.
By isolating the audio and video system from the house ground, by removing the ground pin from the wall plug, and through very judicious placement of the equipment, I thought I had completely beaten the noise. Then three nights ago, the well wiring burned out again, there was a sudden increase in RFI noise into the system, which sounded like the shrieks of a dying pig, after which the wire to the pump burned out again.
Amazingly, there was an instant improvement in the noise floor of the audio system, with the only noise coming from it now being a little 60 cycle from the center channel that I couldn't hear before, secondary to the output tube AC filament current needing balancing, which had been masked below the low level noise from the pump. So remember, no matter how great your system sounds, there's probably something electrical in your or your neighbor's house that may need to be filtered out.
Finally fed up, I demanded that the pump be replaced. Happily, the well guy decided he'd also had it with having to replace 500 feet of wire three times, and installed an old fashioned continuous cycling pump, which is dead silent when running.
London Symphony Live Recordings
Several of the latest live performances have been recorded in DSD 5.1 channel surround and are being sold as SACDs, which wetted my appetite. Happily they aren't charging a fortune, just 5 pounds for a CD and 9 for a SACD, plus shipping, which wasn't much higher than what the American mail-order record stores charge. So, the following were ordered:
While the discs are only 41 to 53 minutes long, they have both DSD multi track and two track and also have a CD layer. Happily, each performance is excellent and the sound space created is very believable, even though I have never been to the Barbican, so can say nothing about its acoustics. The Sibelius Sym. # 3 & 7 with Sir Colin Davis is one of the most realistic recording I've heard. The Haitink Brahm's Sym # 4, while less realistic, has the best orchestral playing, and the Shostakovich # 5 with Rostrapovich conducting, while the least realistic, has one of the best performances I've heard of the piece. While there is some audience noise, this only adds to the realism of the reproduction. All in all, the four recordings were well worth their price of $17 per disc.
Discovery HD Channel BBC Recordings
The best performance so far was of the Shostakovich Symphony #5. The performance was thrilling; to say the least, one of the best I've heard! Especially the last 2 minutes of the fourth movement. It came very close to Bernstein's interpretation on his first recording, and had me air conducting. The Eroica was played in its entirety during the movie by the Orchestra Revolutionaire et Romantique with Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting, and is an excellent performance on original instruments. Except for about two minutes of the last movement, it is played without any voice-overs. Truly an interesting performance if you can find a DVD of it anywhere.
Hopefully, the BBC is planning on releasing them on HD DVD using a non-lossy audio encoding. Think I'll write them and suggest it. Anyway, if you can tune in on Friday evenings, I would definitely recommend the performances, and do please write the Discovery Channel with your Huzzahs!!
Behringer Super X-Pro CX3400 Crossover
Doing a quick web search made me realize that audiophile crossovers were out of my price range, thus I decided to go with a musician level unit since the rear channels were the least important to the sound. After a web search, I found several possibilities, including this unit from Behringer Spezielle Studiotechnik. Happily, on doing an eBay search, I found one, normally listing for $160, up for auction, for which I finally paid the princely sum of $89 plus postage.
The CX3400 is an active frequency crossover enabling 2- or 3-way stereo or even 4-way mono operation. Each band features two 24dB Linkwitz-Riley filters, while the integrated delay enables flexible time alignment. Polarity switches for each output allow one to adjust absolute polarity not only for the speaker, but each individual driver. Thus one can do any slope from 6dB to 24dB for each driver, adjust delay to compensate for each drivers position in the speaker or for subwoofer placement, and there is even a slope adjustment to give a gradual rise to the high frequency output of the tweeter in horns that have a dropoff.
The unit, being made for professional applications, is built to brick shit house specifications, with gold XLR in and outputs, and an IEC AC plug, although the power cord leaves much to be desired. The instruction book is well written and very informative, with better English than most American texts. Setup is simple if one opens the book and follows the directions. One unit controlled both rear speakers in a three way crossover configuration using 24dB slopes with 90, and 440Hz points.
Unlike most audiophile units, the crossover points are continuously variable, which made speaker adjustments a snap. The points were first set at the same frequencies as my other active crossovers, and adjusted using a signal from several familiar CD's. The built in limiters and time delay were turned off, as the speakers were already time aligned. Interestingly, the crossover points which had been correct for the left and right front horns, which were being used for the remainder of the speakers, were not correct for the rear horns, and an adjustment of only small amounts in the frequency and volume of each driver made a significant improvement in the sound.
Surprisingly to an audiophile, when done, the Behringer-speaker duo sounded much more natural, clean and open than the other surround speakers using the audiophile crossovers; so much so, that I went back up on the web and ordered two more new units at $139 each for all of the side and center and overhead channel speakers, bringing the system back to 8.1 configuration. Thus, only my main speakers still used my Allen Wright built preamp-active crossovers, which still sound better than the Behringer units. After all, one piece of equipment well constructed beat two plus interconnects just about any time.
This obviously broke my resolve to not spend more money on my system, but I was able to sneak the units past my wife, who is watching the budget. Happily, I didn't need to fib about the price of each, since they were extremely reasonable for the improvement they produced. Also, the sale of my previous two-audiophile crossovers made up for significantly more than the cost of the three Behringer units.
All in all, the Behringer crossovers allow for balanced configuration, are dead silent, allow for every imaginable variable for optimizing your loudspeakers and, while maybe not the proverbial straight wire with gain, considering the complexity of a 24dB crossover, are excellent sounding. A fellow audiophile, whose name I have forgotten, emailed me several years ago suggesting I try their DAC's, but I couldn't believe a pro unit could come close to audiophile standards. This crossover has changed my mind. Behringer is a world-class name in the pro audio field and should be more evaluated by the audiophile community if their other products are as good and reasonably priced.
So the entire audio system is now in balanced configuration right up to and including my Wright amplifiers on my main speakers and up to but not including the single ended amplifiers on all the other speakers, which are on only 1 foot interconnects from the Behringer's to the amplifiers. The quietness of the system when on but not playing music is deafening. The room is dead silent as it is isolated from the rest of the house, and has double thick walls and insulation, so now even the sound of the fan on my projector and Crown Macro Reference amplifier is distracting.
If my findings are repeatable, it just may be that any system with long interconnects would be better off balanced. This does double the parts, complexity and cost, and simple should always be better, but in today's electronically noisy world, Silence is Golden, especially with high-end audio systems.