Listening #84

She responds as expected to the only sound: hysterical voices!—Brian Eno

It certainly ought to be simple: Put together a music system using the finest components; acclimate yourself to its sound using only the finest recordings; replace one component in the system with something new; listen to the changes; and write about the experience in 10,000 words or more.

That's how it used be done, when audio's alternative press was green in judgment. I remember, in particular, a few seasons' worth of surveys in which kings were crowned and duds dismissed with great grandeur and bitchiness: One phono cartridge after another—or amp or preamp or whatever—stood in for the "reference," while talented writers noted the distinctions with apparently genuine care.

But what happened when the mass of the tonearm or the load impedance of the phono preamp or some other characteristic of the reference system didn't suit an otherwise excellent sample? We'll never know: The people who commissioned, wrote, and edited those reviews were often too arrogant to note such mistakes. Similarly, the readers of the day were so surprised and delighted that the job was being done differently—imagine the 12th-grader who returns to school after a short vacation, only to find that his geometry textbook has been replaced by Pauline Kael's Anthology of Good and Bad Shapes—that no one seemed to care.

But as that new alternative press evolved into the new mainstream press, and as it came to pass that the High End really is all that's left of the audio industry in the US and Europe, an increasingly savvy consumer base decided they wanted more technical accountability in what they were reading. Those same consumers also began to question the very manner in which products are reviewed. Ten years of Amanda McBroom and Jazz at the Pawnshop soured many people on the notion that we should all have the same reference recordings—10 minutes of that shit would have done the trick for some of us—and a few hardy souls even dared challenge the reference products of the day. They asked such unpleasant questions as: How can a loudspeaker with servo-driven woofers possibly tell you anything about an amplifier's deep bass performance? And: How can you review high-compliance cartridges and low-compliance cartridges using the same tonearm and still expect meaningful results?

And the big one: Given that the performance of every hi-fi component depends, to a greater or lesser extent, on the performance of the components with which it must be used, and given that all of the latter are themselves unknown quantities at some time during their existence, then how can any product's appropriateness as a reference be declared with certainty? (In terms of sheer potential for effrontery, that last one was right up there with Where did Cain get his wife?)

Yet we muddled on.

Last month's column, which was about nothing, was supposed to be about a new product called Liquid Cable. Teo Audio, the Canadian company that developed it, sent me a sample of their Liquid Cable interconnect ($1798/1m pair, single-ended; a speaker cable is also available for $11,697/2m pair), and I set about reviewing it the old-fashioned way: I installed the new cable in place of the Shindo interconnect I normally use between my preamp and amplifier, and settled in to catalogue the differences that I did and did not hear.

A few dozen LPs later, it seemed to me that the Liquid Cable interconnect was nearly indistinguishable from the cable it had replaced: I doubt I could reliably tell one from the other in a blind comparison. If anything, the Liquid Cable seemed marginally darker and a bit less open than the Shindo. But both were clearly good performers—a point driven home when I substituted yet another, much humbler interconnect pair, the use of which occasioned a lessening of explicitness and overall musical flow.

Technical differences between the two abound, of course. My Shindo cable is made with stranded silver wire and low-mass Switchcraft plugs, with a braided shield that's connected to ground at one end only, in the manner of so many other cables. On the other hand, the signal conductors within the Liquid Cable are said to be a slurry of gallium and indium and tin, to which the connectors are soldered by means of short, stiff copper barbs at the ends of each tube of slurry. A solid metal in the one cable, and a substance whose consistency calls to mind the contents of a thermometer in the other: These things really are as different as chalk and runny cheese!