Listening #85 Page 2

While listening to the first four songs on the album, I worked the switch a dozen times. My wife's responses all came within three or four seconds of my moving the switch, and only twice did she fail to notice a change. She gave no false positives, which is to say she never declared that the sound had been changed when in fact the switch had not been thrown. And with 100% consistency, Janet preferred the sound with the Qx4 switched on. Asked to describe the sound without the Qx4, she spoke a few simple words—with her hands cupped around her mouth.

I literally thank God every day that I married the right woman.

For every coelacanth there are ten Loch Ness monsters
I still own a VPI brick, and I still find the occasional amplifier on which it has a positive if small effect. I still own some Ayre Myrtle Blocks, and I still use them from time to time, to isolate various components from their hatefully resonant surroundings. I still own some Shun Mook Mpingo discs, which I trot out once a year for the fun of it. Sometimes they appear to alter the sound in my room, but most of the time I think their effect is psychological—which is not quite the same as saying "They do nothing."

I no longer use Original Cable Jackets in my system. I no longer use Tweak brand contact enhancer. I no longer color the edges of my CDs. I no longer demagnetize phono cartridges—or anything else, for that matter. A long time ago I had a packet of Peter Belt foil stickers, which came for free in some English magazine, but they got lost or mixed up with the trash or something before I ever had a chance to try them.

I never bought Shakti Stones. I never bought Marigo dots. I never bought cable risers. I have virtually always rejected the idea of placing pointy metal cones under audio components, partly out of disgust with some of the people who sell them (They couple! They decouple! They do whatever you want to think they do!), and partly because common sense tells me that big, heavy things shouldn't be made to teeter precariously above their surroundings—and that any perceived sonic difference imparted by such accessories may actually be a byproduct of the listener's subconscious anxiety, as the sensible part of his brain tries to convince the delusional part of his brain that something very bad is about to happen.

Anyway, the point is this: For every Quantum Qx4 there are at least ten Tice Clocks. And even though I'm not the kind of guy who enjoys speaking on the phone for more than a few minutes at a time, I'm often tempted to call all the audio reviewers whose numbers I can get hold of and ask whether they still use all the stupid accessories they've recommended throughout the years. You can guess their answers as well as I can.

Where does that leave the Quantum Qx4? More to the point: What kind of value does this product represent?

The most common reply—the most reasonable reply, some might say—would be to apply an appropriately weighted scale of value, taking into account both price and perceived improvement. Thus, if one can spend $5000 on a loudspeaker upgrade that nets the owner an extra half-octave of deep-bass extension, a $5000 accessory that nets only a small increase in clarity must be seen as a poor value. From that point, one might even develop a mental construct of precisely how much more musical enjoyment one should expect for, say, $500. (Those of us who insist on imagining the number of records one could buy for that or any amount are, of course, banned from playing this game.)

Others might take the opposite approach: Money is the least of my concerns, while music is the greatest—and any product that enhances my enjoyment is worth the expense. Please, Mom and Dad: It isn't too late to correct that silly mixup at the maternity ward.

Then we have the middle ground: Differences between amplifiers aren't always as immediately noticeable as those between loudspeakers—but because this is my hobby, and because it gives me a great deal of pleasure, I'm willing to pay almost as much for the former as for the latter. Not only is there nothing wrong with this point of view, there's an awful lot right with it—in addition to which, one should bear in mind those household miracles in which distinctions that at first seem subtle gain disproportionate significance in the fullness of time.

According to Wikipedia, the median household income in the village where I live is $35,375, and 13.3% of the population live below the poverty line, including 18.5% of all residents under the age of 18, which is sad as hell. When someone gets sick around here—really, seriously, life-threateningly sick, I mean—the common practice is to have a spaghetti supper at the firehouse to raise money to help pay the bills. The average take is a few hundred dollars. (Ironically—pathetically—the uninsured people at the center of these events are the ones who oppose a national healthcare system, usually because some fat piece-of-shit commentator with an eight-figure income has convinced them that such a thing would amount to socialism. Both the shortest verse in the Bible and the famous John Stuart Mill quote about the relationship between intelligence and political orientation come to mind.

Here's a point I've made at least twice before in this space, but it bears repeating: If you can write a check for a four-figure accessory of less than extraordinary sonic value, you can write a two- or three-figure check that will have an immense, immediate effect on people's lives—and will, in the process, improve your enjoyment of your hi-fi beyond measure (footnote 3).

Nordost is a company of integrity—as responsible for some very real advances in audio-cable design as they are for continuing to offer products of enduringly high value. (In this profession, whose members are often allowed to keep and to use the most expensive product samples for as long as we wish, I've bought at retail a few very good cables over the years, including Nordost's cost-effective Flatline Gold.) If you have an excellent system and the means to maximize its performance, you can buy two or more Quantum Qx4s, safe in the knowledge that the company you're dealing with is unlikely to screw, abandon, or laugh at you.

Two-figure tweak: Transparent Audio Performance USB cable
Last week was the last full week of summer. Because of that, and because the screen door between our living room and our deck needs mending, our home is plagued with a few late-season houseflies, the kind that bash repeatedly into one's head and won't be shooed. Yesterday, while writing at my desk, I became so perturbed that I prayed: Dear God, please help me kill this fly. That was an unreasonable request, of course, and I could almost hear Him speak into the silence: How sinful that a creature who has lived for 55 years would take life from one whose age is measured in weeks.

I asked forgiveness and amended my prayer to a different request: May I instead have a better-sounding digital source, please? That seemed more reasonable.

Literally a day later, the UPS man left a carton on my porch: Ayre's USB-input QB-9 digital processor, which my friend Wes Phillips wrote about in the October 2009 issue. It was here to spend a few weeks in my system.

The QB-9, for which Ayre has licensed the Wavestream USB controller software I wrote about a few months ago, in my review of the Wavelength Cosecant v3 DAC, will be the subject of a Follow-Up in a future issue of Stereophile. But I couldn't wait that long to say how impressive it is—my love for my slow-to-load Sony SACD/CD player is now at an all-time low, leading to yet another acceleration in CD-ripping—and to mention that here, at last, is a computer-based digital music component of such musicality and high resolution that sonic differences among various different USB cables are apparent, if enduringly minute.

At the behest of Ayre's Steve Silberman, the folks at Transparent Audio sent me a sample of their new Performance USB: a heftier and apparently more durable USB cable than any other I've seen. As Brad O'Toole of Transparent explained, his company has sidestepped current and previous computer-spec standards established by the industry's USB Implementer's Forum, for the simple reason that their audio-specific cable so far exceeds them, with heavier-gauge conductors, more robust connectors, and higher-quality dielectrics and shielding.

Performance USB cables can also be made a good deal longer than the norm: runs of up to 50' are possible, according to the Transparent price sheet (though Transparent only guarantees performance up to 30'). That same document contains even better news: A 1m Performance USB cable sells for just $90. The same God who knows how sorry I am for damning that fly knows how much I love two-figure tweaks.

I spent a quiet afternoon comparing the 5m Belkin cable I normally use, for which I paid less than $50, with a 5m Transparent Performance USB, which sells for $190. Though the distinction was one that any sane person would consider vanishingly slight, I concluded that there was indeed less noise—and "blacker" silence, where appropriate—with the more expensive cable.

Of at least equal importance to me, seeing as how my computer is on one side of the room and my audio-equipment rack is on the other, is the fact that Transparent's USB cable seems significantly more durable, in cable and connectors alike. For once, I'm in total agreement with Ross Walker's delightfully caustic observation—paraphrased somewhat for this application—that the most important quality of any audio cable is that it absolutely must be long enough to reach from one product to another. Given that my checkbook was already open before me, I bought the Transparent Performance USB.

Footnote 3: Do please note that my own hypocrisy, sloth, and greed are also among the targets of these semiannual rants. Sadly, this is what it often takes to get my check-writing juices flowing.