Balance: Benefit or Bluff? Page 4

Seeking guidance, I was advised that, in addition to the centralized, focused grounding so carefully designed for this system's signal paths, the AC connections must also be similarly centralized. Although I was using a pair of high-quality, dedicated AC lines, the multiplicity of system power cables necessitated the use of multi-way socket strips. Accordingly, I detached all the AC plugs and compression-bonded all the 10A-rated IEC power cords to a 30A terminal block, this in turn plugged-in to one high-current spur on the AC mains supply.

The sonic transformation was little short of amazing. A whole spectrum of audible changes occurred. For example, a previously heard degree of midrange glare and harshness was sufficiently reduced that it could now be accepted as a normal part of the tonal balance. Stereo focus and depth were improved. Treble grain and roughness were smoothed out, while bass took on a new dimension of depth, solidity, and dynamic slam. Previously, this system had conspicuously fallen short in rhythm and dynamics. Now these were of reference standard.

A question of balance
At the leading edge of today's high-end audio, overall quality is known to show a strong sensitivity to overall system design and organization: in particular, interconnect choice, grounding, and power supplies. In theory, balanced operation should free audio systems from such dependencies.

In practice, however, the consequences of such freedom appear to be losses in absolute sound quality, particularly in the areas of "foot-tapping" involvement and dynamics. Perhaps there's a lack of rigor and critical assessment in the design of balanced components. Maybe good performance is taken for granted. The adaptation to balanced working is unwittingly used as a problem-solving crutch; the technological benefit obviously lies in easily produced, impressive specifications for signal/noise. But what about sound quality? We still cannot adequately measure that.

The industry should take a critical look at this headlong rush to balanced systems, weigh the costs, and be honest about the advantages, if any. Most importantly, audiophiles must be objective about changes in sound quality. Balanced mode may turn out to be a fashionable whim—a device to promote sales—and may not add any musical value to home-audio systems, even at the highest quality level.