Listening #39 Page 2

Ohm's Law predicted as much: Current times resistance equals voltage. Because most electrical grounds exhibit some resistance—and it's interesting to note that the cheap, crappy ground connections on many household receptacle boxes create a lot more resistance than others—the flow of current through a ground lead must create a certain potential. That alone is not the problem; the real trouble comes from having different grounds within a circuit, all exhibiting different potentials. It's that differential that causes current to flow in what is known as a ground loop—and we hear that current as noise.

The simplest way to keep such a thing from happening within, say, an audio amplifier is to create a star ground system, in which the return leads of all the component parts are connected to a single ground with a single potential: Because there's no differential, there's no loop—and thus no noise.

But early in their history, the folks at Naim Audio realized that an audio system in which the preamp and amp are grounded at different points is also, as a consequence, vulnerable to ground loops—perhaps not as severe as the ones that cause gross hum, but severe enough to induce a low-level noise current that interferes with the music signal. That's why, when you upgrade a Naim preamplifier with an outboard power supply, the amplifier in the system picks up the preamp's signal at the power supply: That component has now become the center of a system-wide star-ground scheme, to which everything is referenced.

Naim's Hydra mod of the early 1990s was the same idea, taken to an extreme. It was guided by the voice that says the first step in eliminating unwanted electrical noise from a music system should be to couple every single thing in that system to the same ground point, and thus the same potential. Until such measures are taken, in fact, any other step can be seen as futile. (The same voice said that last part, too.)

Of course, not everyone is willing to perform that kind of surgery. Nor does everyone have an amp whose current draw is within the constraints imposed by such a scheme. Those folks can now enjoy the same tweak for a bit more money than it costs to make a Hydra: They can buy a CablePro Noisetrapper NANA power strip ($349.99), which is manufactured by Wavelength Audio Video in Dallas, Texas (a city that features prominently in my favorite limerick), and is sold at most Naim Audio dealers in North America.

The Noisetrapper NANA is an eight-outlet power strip devoid of such gewgaws as LEDs (which are noisy), MOVs (which tend not to work when you need them), or filters (which some high-end audio enthusiasts consider useless impediments; they also have some negative aspects). Instead, it offers a true star-ground scheme in a power junction that's built to a standard that would satisfy the most finicky audiophile: 12-gauge silver-plated OFC internal wiring, silver-soldered connections, and a hardwired, shielded power cord, all built into a nonmagnetic (aluminum) enclosure with a powder-coat finish in a Naim-friendly green.

When Ted Paisley of Wavelength Audio Video sent me a sample of the Noisetrapper NANA, it coaxed me into configuring my main system as an (almost) all-Naim thing for a couple of days: Naim Armageddon power supply (for the Linn LP12 turntable, itself fitted with a Naim Aro tonearm), Naim CD5X CD player and FlatCap 2X power supply, Naim 32.5 preamp and 110 amp, and my usual Quad ESL-989 speakers. That's a total of six plugs (my 32.5 preamp gets its power from the 110 amplifier's supply, although I know I should buy it an outboard supply some day) all going into one strip—which took a bit of fiddling. But the result was unambiguously good, if not overwhelming: My system was simply easier to listen to, and required less nervous energy on my part in order to convince myself I was hearing music and not just household electricity imitating same.

Then I put my Naim preamp and amp back in the living-room system and restored the Fi Preamplifier and Lamm ML2.1 monoblock amplifiers to my main system—but retained the Noisetrapper NANA. Now I was a bit surprised to hear a decidedly Naim-oriented tweak make an even larger difference in a system powered by non-Naim electronics. Again, the improvement was subtle and slight, but there was no mistaking the increase in realistic hall sound and natural die-away in good piano recordings. It was worth the effort.

Naim & the Nextgen RCAs
Speaking of Naim and of tweaks, I know a way for owners of the perennially recommendable Naim Aro tonearm to improve its performance for just $100 and about 30 minutes of fiddling: Chop off whatever phono plugs are presently on its interconnect cable and replace them with a pair of platinum-plated silver Nextgen Signature plugs from WBT (part WBT-0110 Ag, $49 each). Like all the phono plugs in WBT's new Nextgen series, these feature drastically reduced conductor mass compared with comparable plugs, partly out of concern for the negative effects of eddy currents, and partly in an effort to create a true 75-ohm RCA connector. They also have a two-part polymer structure that, when snapped together, holds tightly in place their nicely machined central plug and partial outer sleeve. WBT's patented locking mechanism remains, but also with significantly less metal mass than before.

The last time I had my Naimified LP12 in the setup jig, I decided to try a pair of these new WBTs at the end of the finicky, difficult-to-dress Aro tonearm cable—in for a penny, in for a pound—and was pleasantly surprised even before I took a single LP out of its sleeve: The Nextgens were a breeze to install. Clearly, whoever designed these plugs has spent more than a little time installing, and doubtless cursing, its ancestors.

They also sounded quite good—and while my high level of audio enthusiasm isn't quite high enough to make a comparison of phono plugs seem anything but drudgery, I suspect that the WBTs would fare quite well in a direct comparison with my other favorites, the Eichmann Silver Bullet Plugs (see my column in the December 2004 Stereophile, Vol.27 No.12). As it stands, replacing the funky RadioShack RCAs on my tonearm cable with the WBT Nextgen Signatures had a nice effect on my system's high-frequency performance in particular, with cymbalwork on well-recorded jazz music sounding a bit less hashy and vocal sibilants seeming more natural—not less sibilant, just more believable.

Mental blocks
Back to Uma Thurman's navel: In my "Follow-Up" on Ayre Acoustics' AX-7e integrated amplifier in the January 2006 issue, I mentioned my fondness for Ayre's Myrtle Block isolation devices. The Myrtle Blocks happen to be designed and made by Cardas Audio, also in accordance with the aforementioned golden-section ratio (each block measures 0.618" by 1" by 1.61"). Unlike other things that come and go in less than a season's time, I'm still using the Ayre Myrtle Blocks; they remain my favorite and most heartily recommended cheap tweak.

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There isn't much of a trick to using these tiny isolation blocks, the only hurdle being the way certain audio products are shaped: Ayre Myrtle Blocks are meant to be used in groups of three, and they want to go underneath the actual structure of a given component, not its feet—yet the columnar legs of products such as the Yamamoto A-08 amplifier are too tall to allow that. Other products are just too oddly configured—a Linn LP12 with its bottom cover discarded (the way I like to run them), for example, or those large, open-design turntables whose pointed feet are themselves too tall.

Beyond that, it's a free-for-all. I've got Myrtle Blocks under things as small and light as a Naim 110 preamplifier and as massive as my Lamm ML2.1 monoblocks (which weigh 70 lbs each), and they do nice things for my music—subtle but unambiguously nice things—in both instances. The biggest surprise was the distinct improvement I heard when I tried Myrtle Blocks under my Naim Armageddon turntable's power supply, which is, after all, a transformer in a metal box. They're still there.

Yet they give strangely little aid under certain other things. Though they've made an audible difference for the better most of the times I've tried them, I've heard the Myrtle Blocks make no difference at all under some preamps and CD players. The only time I've heard the Myrtles make a product sound worse was when I ignored everyone's advice and tried them under loudspeakers. In one instance, when I used them between an enclosure and a stand instead of Blu-Tak, they made no difference in the sound per se, but robbed the music of so much of its emotional wallop that it was downright creepy. But I had been warned.

Then again, the Ayre Myrtle Blocks work most of the time. For $5 apiece—$15 to do a single component—they're cheap enough that minor disappointments don't become major, and playing around can be safely encouraged. The Myrtles also require nothing in the way of rites, rituals, or other abject foolishness.

Which is also why I don't practice Transcendental Meditation. In 1971, when I was 17 [cue music], I went to a TM meeting at the local Unitarian church, where earnest young people who learned how to meditate from people who learned how to meditate from people who learned how to meditate from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi tried to convert newbies for a fee (which, we were assured, definitely did not go to the already mind-bogglingly wealthy Maharishi himself). I was sold on the idea, and I was even ready to part with the savings I'd accrued from my summer job at the A&P. But I balked when I was told that, before they would give me my own personal mantra—sort of like paying an ISP to give you a username before you can get on the Internet—I had to participate in a ceremony in which I would be asked to incant several lines in Sanskrit. I asked them to tell me what I'd actually be saying and they flatly refused. Because I would also be required to bring to this ceremony "gifts" for a dead guru (he likes oranges, apparently), and because I happen to take the whole "have no other Gods before me" thing very seriously, I said No thanks.

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