|March 8, 2005
In This eNewsletter:
By John Atkinson
"Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature . . . "Michael Faraday
"When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in confederacy against him."Jonathan Swift
I quoted Faraday and Swift in an essay I wrote in March 1991 discussing how to distinguish effective audio tweaks from those that appear to be more about delusion than about any real change in performance. Back then, it was the Tice Clock (a RadioShack digital clock that George Tice claimed to have treated with a proprietary secret process) and the Belt devices (nylon cable ties, metal clips, and other household objects that Peter Belt claimed to have treated with a proprietary secret process) that were disturbing audiophiles' collective equanimity. These past few weeks it has been the "Intelligent Chip" from accessory manufacturer Golden Sound that has audiophiles at each other's figurative throats, to witness the postings on the Audio Asylum. Rather than offer my own explanation of what the GSIC does and why, I'll quote from Golden Sound's website:
"The Intelligent Chip is a 'new generation,' high-tech device that corrects a particular problem inherent in all commercial CD/DVD/SACD discs, including movies and video games. This problem is produced by slight fluctuations in the master clock(s) when pressing the disc. This 'clock fluctuation' problem (jitter) is one reason why consumer digital discs frequently 'don't sound quite right,' or have a 'high-frequency edge.'"
Well, jitter, or time-base error, in optical discs is certainly a real phenomenon. CD transport manufacturer Plextor even offers a suite of programs that, in conjunction with its Premium CD-RW drive, allows you to measure this jitter.
"The Intelligent Chip is a thin, orange 1x1.5 inch rectangular wafer that automatically upgrades the disc in the player when the Chip is placed momentarily on top of the player above the spinning disc. The upgrade itself is virtually instantaneousand permanentthe sound and picture of the upgraded disc more closely resembling the original master recording. The Intelligent Chip corrects the clock-fluctuation problem within 2 seconds, resulting in sound that is clearer/less distorted, with a deeper soundstage, more 'air' and lower background noise. This improvement is especially apparent on very good discs."
The GSIC10 costs $16 and is claimed to upgrade 10 discs; the GSIC30 costs $40 and upgrades 30 discs. (Let's hope that UPS doesn't carelessly put the package containing a GSIC next to a box of CDs in the brown van.)
Hmm. $1.50 per disc but I get sound that is "especially apparent with good discs." And while the mysterious field emitted by an active GSIC can "virtually instantaneously" affect the physical structure of the spinning disc through the player's metal chassis, it can be blocked by the polyethylene container that contains the GSIC when not in use. Well, in the words of the old sage, I may not know about "clock fluctuation problems," but I do know about bullshit, and the GSIC sounds like bullshit to me.
I can hear the screams from here. How can I even express an opinion about the GSIC when I haven't tried it? How can I willfully dis a product made by a company whose cones and other mechanical devices have long been denizens of Stereophile's "Recommended Components"? Does this outrageous behavior on my part mean that I have a closed mind, that I am [shudder] a closet objectivist, and that pretty soon I'll be forcing not just the magazine's writers but also its readers into endless double-blind testing rituals until, goddammit, all of you admit that everything sounds the same? Even when it doesn't?
No, I'll not be doing that. But if I was tired 14 years ago of tweaks that offended my experience, you can imagine that I am slightly more weary these days. As I wrote in 1991, I haven't so much closed my mind as put up a lightweight semantic curtain at its gate. Things of real worth can still easily push aside that curtain, which I have modestly dubbed "Atkinson's Law of Effective Tweaking." But when the price is high and the explanation is bullshit, why should I waste my precious time?
In a world where the listener's state of mind cannot be eliminated from how he perceives soundsee Jim Austin's "Industry Update" essay on this subject in the March Stereophile (p.24)"Atkinson's Law of Effective Tweaking" examines the relationship between how much a tweak costs and how much it runs counter to accepted knowledge. (A clue is when the manufacturer claims to have discovered a hitherto unknown form of energy or phenomenon or bandies words about with scant regard to their established meanings. Like "jitter.")
The best tweaks to try are those that seem to have good explanations for how they work and cost nothing. Changing absolute phase, moving your loudspeakers around the room to find the optimum position, cleaning your contacts by unplugging and plugging cables, or determining the correct AC plug polarity, all fall into this category. They can effect an improvement in the sound of your system varying from small to large, and the only cost is your time.
If a tweak sounds unlikely but still costs very littlegreen ink on the edges of CDs, spiking speaker stands, for examplethen why not try it? The price of admission is low enough that even if the effect is small, the sonic return on the financial investment is high. You can enjoy the improvement while reserving judgment on the reasons why.
If the price is high but the explanation offered for any sonic improvement fits in with your worldview, then try it. Your intelligence is not being insulted, and you can still decide that the improvement in sound quality is not worth the number of hours you have to work to earn the money to pay for it.
But when the tweak is both expensive and comes with a ridiculous explanation, file it away in your Pending tray until someone else you trust tries it out. Either the effect will be real and the price will fall as commercial success comes the inventor's way, or the effect will turn out to be as fictitious as the explanation. In which case you haven't wasted your time and energy.
The case of the GSIC reminded me of something similar that erstwhile audio scribe Enid Lumley demonstrated to me at a hi-fi show many years ago. Except it wasn't a magic chip costing $1.50 per use, if I recall correctly, but the plastic tripod out of a pizza box. Enid (who was a very persuasive person) placed the tripod atop a CD player and convinced her audienceincluding methat the sound was better. I could never replicate the effect in my own system, but hey, the tweak was free, and that's equally important.
Of much more significance than the GSIC to the high-end audio industry is Apple's Airport Express. Wes Phillips cryptically referred to this inexpensive WiFi hub in his "As We See It" essay in the forthcoming April issue of Stereophile: "When Apple introduced its Airport Express wireless multimedia link," Wes wrote, "it even included a digital port so that an audiophilesuch as Stereophile's editorcould network his system, using the AE to feed his Mark Levinson No.30.6 outboard D/A converter. 'Sounds okay,' deadpans JA."
And yes, the AE did sound "okay." I was sufficiently impressed that I wrote a review of the piece for our May issue. I won't give the game away, but I will say that, in combination with iTunes running on a Mac or PC, an Airport Express feeding that high-end D/A processor that you never could decide sounded better than your one-box CD player is the easiest way of piping CD-quality music throughout an audiophile's home.
"CD quality"? Yes, the data appearing on the AE's digital output are identical to the data in the original file. While preparing my review, I compared a WAV music file with a duplicate that I had captured on my PC from the Airport Express's S/PDIF output. I used iTunes on my PowerBook, playing a version of the file encoded with Apple Lossless Compression, to feed data to the AE. Despite the lossless encoding, despite the 128-bit encryption I use in my home network, despite the transmission of the packetized data through the air, and despite the circuit in the AE having to reencode the data as an S/PDIF stream, the files were bit-for-bit identical.
Apple's Airport Express is most definitely not bullshit. And it costs only as much as three Golden Sound "Intelligent Chips."John Atkinson
Mark Levinson, established in 1972, is a world-renowned manufacturer of the finest stereo and multi-channel electronics. Products range from awe-inspiring monaural power amplifiers to the industry benchmark CD processor. For more information on all Mark Levinson products, please visit www.marklevinson.com.
From Wes Phillips
The Hamster-Powered MIDI sequencer (no, really): www.musicthing.blogspot.com/2005/02/hamster-powered-midi-sequencer.html.
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By Ken Kessler
Tonbridge, UK: Real Do-It-Yourself
Her partner, Micheal (yes, spelled "ea") Burnham, is a fervent audiophile and vinyl addict. As it turns out, he's also a deft hand with a lathe, and a true lateral thinker. As we discussed his tonearm, he was cagey but clearly convinced that it was a completely new type of design. We to'd and fro'd, said goodbye, and I forgot about it. I've been around enough not to underestimate boffins, but I wasn't going to pursue it if Burnham insisted on being so secretive.
A week later, though, Burnham e-mailed me some images. His tonearm looks, well, wonderful. He wrote that, "You will notice it is of a conventional appearance. The body is carried on a beam, located by purpose-formed seatings, on two upturned, hard spikes. The arm's rotation is by conventional ball races, as big as I could fit in. Small balls rattle! I am producing a second arm of differing geometry to suit a Thorens TD160 for comparison purposes. I fitted this one three months ago, not quite finished, just to try it and it performed too well to disturb."
I own a Grace tonearm and anything about wooden armtubes pushes my buttons. I pressed further, and Burnham relentedbut only a bit. "Regarding the basic components, the stainless-steel beam is seated directly on the hard points, which have a differing angle to allow for a full range of vertical movement. I have made these adjustable for height by a small amount and isolated the arm at this point. This seating in the beam allows no unwanted movement and is secured by the arm mass. The chosen point of axis uses this mass to provide damping in the vertical plane and again some adjustment, although 'very fine' is available. I hope this throws some light on the subject. I haven't got round to any proper drawings."
When asked if he'd consider producing it, he replied, "In a word: 'No.' "
So why am I bothering you with this? Because there's hope: First, the amazing Blue Angel cartridge, of equally DIY nature, turned up from South Africa, followed closely by this arm, and I've just learned of a new turntable being cobbled together in Germany (more news as it happens)all by people without backgrounds in audio manufacture. Hardcore amateurs and individuals are still out there, still waving the analog flag, still pursuing great sound despite the digital juggernaut (see below) poised to crush all before it. So I figured this tale of underground activity will serve as sustenance for those who feel we're going out without a fight.
Earth: The iPod's Relentless Sweep: The Good News
So I barely raised an eyelid when, first, the Onkyo's UK publicity arm e-mailed me a missive. But a few hours later I received similar info from the US arm. Ordinarily, I'd ignore news of yet another accessory for the Apple iPodmost have been, so far, mere tchotchkes (toys), such as solar-power rechargers, or such nonaudio attachments as clip-on cameras; few have raised the performance bar. But as these press releases came from one of the more serious major Japanese makers, I actually read rather than dragged them to the Recycle Bin.
It appears that Onkyo has produced a device for linking iPods "to Five Million Onkyo Receivers and Audio-Video Systems." Note that five million isn't far off from the total sales of the iPod since its launch. Onkyo has developed a "new remote control interactive (RI) dock for the iPod" that enables connectivity with their receivers and audio-video systems. Due in mid-2005, concurrently in the US, Japan, and Europe (hence the simultaneity of the press releases), the RI Dock works with both "specified" iPods and a number of Onkyo electronics, including models as old as 10 years. Onkyo informs us that Apple's website will list compatible iPods, while all Onkyo systems with RI remote-control integration will accept the docking station.
Like every other major electronics player, Onkyo now considers interoperability, ease of use, and multiroom capability to be mandatory elements of product design. And every salesperson will tell you that, short of investing in a costly programmable remote such as a Crestron, the best way to achieve totally fluid and seamless integration is to buy a one-brand system. On the face of it, this would seem to preclude the use of an iPod as anything other than a standalone source component, denied integration via a single remote control for such functions as auto startup and input switching. (I know: savvy Mac and/or PC users can probably get around this if they've integrated their computers with their hi-fi systems.) But Onkyo's Remote Interactive Dock fully integrates an iPod with Onkyo components, and serves as a mini-stand for recharging the portable.
At the other end of the convergence scale, Arcam has fitted its new Solo CD/receiver with a front-panel mini-jack input next to the headphone socket, the mini's presence clearly intended for accepting an iPod or other personal player. While I'm firmly of the camp that detests compression, downloads, and any spawn of Steve Jobs, I look at it this way: If you can't beat 'em, then make damned sure you get a slice of their action. And if such concessions convince even 1% of iPod owners to invest in better sound, well, that's 50,000 new customers for a beleaguered audio industry.
Somewhere in California: Neil Young's Remembrance of Things Past
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By Wes Phillips
The Evening of Truth
Live vs cannedthat ought to be the acid test of audio reproduction, right?
It's not a new idea. That master showman Thomas Edison did the same thing more than 4000 times between 1913 and 1920, to promote his Disc Phonograph and vertically cut Diamond Disc recordings. Edison would rent concert halls and hire prominent musicians, such as British soprano Maggie Teyte, to appear in a series of comparisons. Ms. Teyte and the phonograph would both be hidden behind a curtain and, after what author Roland Gelatt refers to as "appropriate commentary from an Edison representative," Ms. Teyte would sing a song, a recording of which would then be played on the phonograph.
In his wonderful book The Fabulous Phonograph, Gelatt reports that these demos apparently convinced audiences, in the words of an Edison flack, "that there was no difference between Miss Teyte's voice and the New Edison RE-CREATION of it." These so-called Tone Tests sold a lot of expensive audio products. The Edison Disc Phonograph sold for $200 for the basic model and up to $800 for the fancy onesthis at a time when a really well-paid factory worker (say, at the Ford Motor Company) made about $5 a day.
Wait a minute, I hear you saying. People couldn't tell the difference between a scratchy old record and a live singer? Apparently not. Read and Welch's From Tin Foil to Stereo quotes a critic in The London Advertiser as saying, "The most sensitive ear could not detect the slightest difference between the tone of the singer and the tone of the mechanical device."
Of course, as Conrad-Johnson's Lew Johnson, an avid collector of early audio devices, points out, the demo was a leetle bit rigged. Vocalists were favored because that's the range the phonograph reproduced bestand even then, singers whose range fell right into the device's sweet spot (Ms. Teyte, for instance) were sought out. Also, Johnson suggests, the vocalists may have been trained to play to the phonograph's strengths.
The Bösendorfer event was a lot more straightforward. There was no curtaineverything took place out in the open, in Bösendorfer's piano showroom. The recording rig was first-rate: a pair of AKG 414 1"-diaphragm mikes on a stereo bar, feeding a Metric Halo ULN-2 two-channel microphone preamp-A/D converter, which used a FireWire link to feed the digital data to a 17" Apple PowerBook. Except for the AKGs, in other words, the system was remarkably similar to one John Atkinson used to capture a couple of channels of his latest recording of the male choir Cantus, Comfort and Joy: Volume One.
Playback was provided by Art Audio: Gill Audio Design Alana preamp ($4000), Adagio T100 45Wpc SE triode monoblocks ($23,000/pair), Synergistic Research Active Shielded speaker cables (approximately $7000 for the entire system's wiring)and, of course, a pair of Bösendorfer VC-7 loudspeakers, designed by Hans Deutsch ($17,000$20,000/pair, depending on finish).
My colleague Paul Messenger describes the Bösendorfer design concept at some length in the "Industry Update" section of the April 2005 Stereophile, so I won't go into a lot of detail here. The high spots are that the VC-7 is a tall, slim, rear-ported floorstander with two forward-firing, 1" fabric-dome tweeters on the front baffle, and two 5.25" midrange/woofers on each of its side panels. These are coupled to what Deutsch calls "horn resonators," essentially tuned vibrating soundboards designed to "function as active sound-producing diaphragms with no over-resonances."
Does it work? Based on the "Evening of Truth," I'd have to quote the Magic 8 Ball: "Reply hazy, ask again."
Is it live?
Sitting down and listening to the live/playback demo, things were different. We were very close to the musicians, who were very stage left, while the speakers were centrally located and farther away. There was no matching of levels. As a result, there were issues of localization and proximity that overwhelmed any similarities between live and playback.
Also, when you record sound in a room and then play that recording back in the same room, you're overlaying the room's acoustic with its simulacrumand that's too much of a good thing. That night, the sound was blurred and hollow at the same time. And not only was I not in the sweet spot (that honor went to John Atkinson, in whose ears we trust), but I sit really tall in my seat. Unless I scrunched down considerably, my ears were well above the tweeter axis, which resulted in massive high-frequency drop-offs.
But even without making excuses for my placement, there was something off about the playback through the VC-7s. Certain frequencies were accentuated. The solo violin sounded duller, as though the string mute was now engaged. The cello sounded deeper and more resonant than it had live"like a string bass," my friend Jeff Wong muttered in my ear. The piano had no sparkle on the top end.
And yet I heard flashes of excitement, too. There was extra energy in the presence regionnot always, but here and therethat blurred the line between live and canned sound for moments at a time. And when we rose to mingle after the recital and were once more standing 30 feet to one side of the speakers, I heard it again when some CDs were played.
I don't mean to imply that the Bösendorfer VC-7s didn't sound good. It seemed to me that the demo made the case that they did. But I have a hard time comprehending how adding resonances is a good thing, especially after all the years I've spent convinced that speaker designers should go the other way.
I wonder, though, whether there aren't tons of people out there who don't like most speakers precisely because they do sound more like one another than like live music. We audiophiles think that sitting down and listening attentively is a normal activity, whereas most people put music on and do other thingstalk, surf the Net, do crossword puzzles, cook dinner. Maybe those people would rather have a speaker that they notice from across the room, one that makes them lift up their heads and say, "Did you hear that?"
Just a thought.
Later that evening, I was having a burger at Skinflints (best burgers in Brooklyn) and talking with Jeff about the demo. "Since they recorded all of those performances onto the PowerBook, maybe you could get them to send you a CD-R of them so you could hear them on a system you know. That might make an interesting comparison."
D'oh! I really should have thought of that.
Lisa Feldman, Bösendorfer's PR rep, sent me a disc with the evening's music, which FedEx delivered as I was packing up the Coda amplifier I had been reviewing for the May issue for John Atkinson to test. I wanted to hear the CD immediately, so I listened to it on my "late-night" system: a Musical Fidelity X-RayV3 CD player ($999) and the Channel Island Audio VHP-1 headphone amplifier ($349).
The CD knocked my socks off. Removed from the Bösendorfer atelier's acoustic, the performances sound warm and intimate. The AKGs were set up fairly close to the instruments, so the direct sound is emphasized, but the room is audible, too. It causes me to suspect that the VC-7s almost certainly sound better than they did in the large showroom, so I won't pass judgment until I've heard them in a normal-sized living room. Maybe the speakers need sidewalls.
[Listening in the sweet spot, I was very disappointed with the Bösendorfers. The highs were very beamy in the vertical plane, and the speaker suffered from a colored, resonant lower midrange. Then I went to the bar to get a glass of wine; listening from way off-axis, a long way away, the speakers sounded more realistic on a piano recording than I think I have ever heard. A conundrum!John Atkinson]
Feed Your Head
You may not have heard of Channel Island Audio, but it's essentially Dusty Vawter, formerly of Audio Alchemy (and a good guy to contact if you need Audio Alchemy or Perpetual Technologies power supplies). CIA offers a lot of fascinating products, including a beefier $149 power supply for the VHP-1, which I haven't heard yetbut I will, I will.
That's because I love the VHP-1 and have been listening to it day and nightlong after I'm supposed to have gone to bed. Last night, for instance, I got home late from a dinner with a manufacturer and thought I'd listen to just one song from the Dutch reissue of Gong's You (CD, EMI 66552 2), which was so charmingly strange and immersive that I fished out the DSD-remastered version of Brian Eno's Before and After Science (CD, Virgin 77292-2). Jaki Liebezeit's propulsive drumming on "Backwater" on that disc had me fishing out the SACD/CD of Can's Ege Bamyasi (Spoons A8). Floating along in a sonic universe that still sounds new 30 years after it was created, I completely forgot about the time (or planet Earth, for that matter) and wound up grooving all the way through.
What was so compelling? There was lots of detail, which you expect from good headphone listening. At the same time, the sound was warm and tonally spot-on. But what really impressed me was the jive and bounce of the music's rhythmic flow through the CIA component and my Sennheiser HD-650s.
Have you ever picked a ripe tomato right off the vine on an August afternoon and bitten into it right there in the garden? It's as if the skin offers only token resistance as the warm pulp and juice explode into your mouth with an intense burst of tomato essence. Listening to a good recording through the VHP-1 was like thatwell, kind of, only in my ears, and not as messy.
After that kind of late-night listening session, there was no chance I was going to wake up early this morning and spot my workout buddy's massive bench presses (or have him spot my puny ones). Curse you, Dusty Vawter!
You can call Vawter at (805) 984-8282 or visit the Channel Island Audio website and get a VHP-1 of your ownthere's no chance I'm letting go of mine.
Simaudio Ltd., celebrating 25 years of excellence, manufactures state-of-the-art components for both 2-channel and home-theater systems. Maintaining a world-class reputation, we continually push the performance envelope to the next level with each new product. Visit us at www.simaudio.com.
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