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No. 81 February 2011
Who wants a cable?

Testing audio products, from any price level, especially for long, after some time one forgets how it was in the beginning. And in the beginning there was… chaos. I do not remember much from my first steps. I will of course remember, that is quite obvious, special milestones and “threshold” events, when in a sudden epiphany I experienced something completely new, when I got a completely new perspective, simply when I heard a sound, that moved me in such a way, that it became a new step. Because I think, that experience in listening, sensibility to sound and – probably the most important thing – the ability to verbalize that (that, what is little available except for the language), interpret and evaluate it comes in time, and resembles a long climb on a staircase leading up a pyramid. This because this type of sensibility comes not only from the genes, but also from a continuous learning curve, ongoing training of those abilities. And I think, that this second element is most important.

With all that, I assume that there is something like “absolute sound”, an ideal, to which we all strive. Like I wrote earlier, this is only an ideal, a common idea, which is implemented differently, depending on whom we ask, and what we expect from the audio gear. So when we assume, that the audio world as a whole resembles the pyramid I mentioned earlier, then we can see, that the goal can be reached in many different ways, sometimes even opposite ones, as long as they are on its surface (I mean – we climb along one of the sides). This is something I sometimes say during the tests – for example, when showing what class of equipment we deal with, and when I remind another product of the same class, as the tested one, but having a different character. Because we can reach the goal in different ways, under the condition that we know, where we are going and we do not dwell.
I think, that everything I wrote is clear. But not everything related to this shape is clear – if you remember the Pyramid of Cheops, you know, that its top looks different than the other surfaces, as if it would be placed on the rest of the pyramid from another building. In audio there is something like a “false top”, something like an undefined space, where we move with great uncertainty. Although the top should be ideally visible, because the “absolute sound” should be live sound, especially the sound of not amplified acoustic instruments and voices, but in practice this is just a mirage, something we chase, but is not really belonging to our world. Did you ever think how a symphonic orchestra can be reproduced at home? With its size and sound levels, reached during the tutti? Or how to reproduce a rock concert in a way, we can hear on a stadium? You don’t have to think long, to conclude, that this is physically impossible.
But we should not be pessimists and let’s assume, for now, that we will play only small ensembles, especially the trios. This will cover a large amount of jazz recordings. Do you have that? Now please imagine, that the drum kit stands two-three meters before us, and the vocal even closer. Maybe in a club there are such seats, but usually those are the worst places. You can listen best from a distance of five-ten meters, especially, when there is a piano. And that only when the drum player watches out for the right balance between his instrument and the voice, and the piano does not play too loud. And when they would like to improvise? I remember well the Patricia Barber concert in the Katowice club Hipnoza (reportage HERE), where I sat six, seven meters away from the drums and percussion. And the kit played sometimes very, very loud, and I know, that this cannot be repeated at home.

On the other hand, a splendid example, that even very small ensembles, when played in the right acoustics, especially playing classical music, also need large space. It turned out, that I had a very good seat during the Krakow concert of La Poème Harmonique, sitting maybe four or five meters away from the soprano singer Claire Lefilliâtre. It could seem, that this is a similar setting to what we can deal with in a large room, sitting in front of our speakers, right? Well, not right – together with the voice the acoustics of the big St. Catherina’s Church sung. In addition the musicians were placed on quite a big space. I hope you understand what I am trying to say. The top of the pyramid, we are talking about, does not exist. At home we cannot reproduce a live event, and we should better prepare for that right from the start.

So what is the reference point for a music lover and an audio reviewer? There are two sources, in which the home audio equipment is reflected. One is… a live event. Yes, in the end the sound of the voice is basic, as well as the sound of acoustic instruments. But in fact this is about a GROUP, a certain CLASS of voices, instruments, etc, and not individual voices or instruments. This live sound is a reference point, but not a hard one – as I wrote earlier. This point of view must be correlated with how the discs sound in the best systems we know. Only the combination of our “aural” and “sonic” memory from concerts and listening sessions results in that, what we can expect from a tested, or just listened to, audio system. Because we have to know the real sound – but I’ll repeat: it is here about a certain class, and not about the individual sound – but in relationship to the capabilities of the audio system.

I see, that I wrote quite a lot. And this was only the introduction to a story, that took place a few weeks ago. Together with a good acquaintance I unrolled the cables to prepare the soundstage for a concert of a small group playing spirituals music. This acquaintance I am talking about, does not have anything in common with audio or acoustics, he was just there to help me move the things around the stage. And at one moment he said, that I am probably the best person to be asked – his friend bought an audio system for 15 000 zl. And in addition the seller prepared a set of cables for another 15 000 zl. The system sounds very well, I was informed, and this friend is very satisfied, but he grumbles about having to spend the same money on cables to have it sound well – it was OK earlier, but it was not even a fraction of what it is now. And the conversation finished with a question: “Wojtek, did they cheat him?” There can be a few possible answers, and all will have some sense. But no one will respond to the basic question, which is behind the story: do you have to pay such money for cables? Because the first response to my acquaintance’s question is – no, nobody cheated that music lover. Somebody just composed a system just like it should have been composed. In other words – cables are, in my opinion, an equal part of an audio system. Anyone, who listened to a good system, in good conditions, and changed cabling knows how things are. And when somebody does not hear the change even in favorable conditions, then – and this is again only my opinion, but supported by many years of experience and physics – he is deaf. But also happy – he can buy a small radio and will be happy with that. And I am not ironic, because one of the best buys I did during the last years, was the purchase of the Tivoli Audio Model One. But like I say – if you do not “believe” in cables, please try them out in a good system, or ask a good audio salon to make such a session for some people. Such education could be beneficial for customers and shops alike.

But still the price thorn remains. Because there is another side to this – cables are too expensive. Their price has no relation whatsoever to the materials, work spent and material research – the three things, that combine into the price of a complete product. I think, that all cables should cost less than 50% of their current prices, and if it would be 25%, then it would be even better. But the problem is, that when a cable is good, when the sound of the system connected with it is much better, then it will be expensive. We can talk about a corporative heist of our money, when we think of all the cable manufacturers as a corporation. But this is how it is, and we should get used to that. Because no one stands out and starts selling cables as good, but for half the price. I do not know any such case, except for manufacturers, who sell their merchandise without shops and distributors – they save on the margins of the middlemen (an example can be the company Vipera, I tested their cables last month). But because they do not have a sales network, they will remain a certain margin. And when they are as known as cables distributed the classic way, then this is the result of intensive promotional campaigns, because when not in the shops, they have to show themselves in audio magazines, what increases the prices, because they need to pay for the advertizing.

Because a good cable costs. It should not cost that much, but the world is not fair, and many things should be different to what they are. We can rebel and buy something cheap, especially from the “pro” world and it will be fine. But we will never reach the same level as with cabling from a good specialist. At least in my opinion.

This is why I understand the man I am writing about, because spending the same amount of money on cables as on the system does hurt. But please not the information, that is equally important in his story: the system with good cables sounded exactly as he wanted. And it was not the case without them. Is this not what things are about? For me it is – a satisfactory quality of sound.
This is why you should think about an audio set as a SYSTEM. A system is composed of elements, chosen with attention, and where each element composes well with others, and each one is of the same class as the others. This is the reason, that the classic approach of buying the electronics and loudspeakers, and later, with leftover money, buying cables is wrong. We have to think about it as an organic whole. It would be best, when each of the elements would cost the same. So the proportion 1:1 (equipment : cables) is ideal. But we can modify it a little. Having a certain amount of money, I would spend most on the amplifier, then on the source (turntable, file player or CD), then on the cables and then on the loudspeakers. You do not have the idea, how brilliant can a loudspeaker costing 1000 zl sound, powered with a split amplifier costing 250 000 zl! On the other hand, an expensive loudspeaker can sound very bad with a cheap amplifier. It is so, that the better the loudspeaker, the more flaws of the electronics it shows, losing sight of what is most important – the music. And the better the electronics, the more it can extract from the loudspeaker, without underlining its shortcomings, trying to reach music, and not hi-fi.
And finally the cables. And not because you have to spend the least on them (look above), but because they decide on the character of the sound, and it is worth to approach them last, when our set is already chosen. But not bought – only chosen. If it should b a system, then you have to hear it completed, and not piece by piece.
The cables are the final touch, that connects everything into one whole. And they can give the whole character. And now I would like to return to what I wrote in the beginning – various paths to reach the goal. Please do not care too much about the so called “neutrality”. Neutrality, in the vocabulary of the audio branch, means something different than the general definition (each branch has their own vocabulary, different to the general one). In audio this means a system, that has nothing added, meaning there are no colorings, there is low distortion, etc. And usually in such a “neutral” system misses things, there is nothing added, but at the same time there is something lost – usually it is about low saturation, dry sound and irritating treble.
Please compose your system in such a way, that it will satisfy you. You have to stick to some kind of a back bone, a spine, reading, hearing advise, listening to concerts and listening to as many systems as possible. But the paths to reach the goal are different – it can be a cooler or warmer system, more precise or euphonic, etc. When we stick to a certain margin of freedom (the cheaper the equipment, the broader the margin – hence the pyramid), then everything will be OK, and we will compose a system, which will play music just the way we want – and this is exactly what everything is about here.


No. 82, February 2011

Mikołaj Bugajak (aka Noon) – interview Aspara Acoustics HL1 – tube floorstanding loudspeakers KingRex UD-01 PRO + HQ-1 – USB DAC + headphone amplifier, Polish premiere, no distributor Live Cables – top power cables from the Netherlands, Polish premiere, no distributor Viva Audio 300B –300B amplifier, Polish premiere Ascendo System ZF3 S.E. – floorstanding loudspeakers, world premiere Scheu Analog Premier Mk II – turntable Krakow Sonic Society, meeting #75 – Sampling frequency – does higher mean better?

No. 83, March 2011

Like I mentioned lately, your interest in my test of DACs in “Audio” surpasses my expectations, so in March we will prepare a special issue, devoted to networked devices – file players, DACs, mostly USB, USB cables, USB-SPDIF converters.
A second source of inspiration was for me the first edition of the Japanese magazine “Net Audio”, which entered sales recently (edit.: PhileWeb,Vol.01, 2010 Winter). The Japanese know what’s good!

Planned tests:

  • HIFIDIY Mini APE/Mini USB DAC SE - file player and DAC
    We will get this set directly from China, the company has direct sales. This is an example, how cheaply buy a nice audio system

  • HiFiMan HM-602 + EF5 + HE-5LE - portable file player + headphone amplifier + headphones
    HM-602 is the newest portable player from HiFiMan with a slot for SD cards. It is built around high class converters and handles FLAC files up to 24 bits 96 kHz.

  • Alpha Design Labs (by Furutech) GT40 + GT2-B + Dynaudio Focus 110A 110A – DAC + USB cable + active bookshelf speakers
    A very nice system, based on a computer as the sound source. This is a ready set. Just attach to a computer and we get a sound, which will be better, than from some “fully fledged” audio systems.

  • Blacknote USB DAC 30 TUBE - file player
    This is the best version of the DAC. We tested some time ago the player DSS 30 Tube (HERE).

  • Luxman DA-200 – DAC
    This is the newest Luxman product, and we hope it will be there in time – it is not even listed yet on Luxman web page. This is a DAC with USB input, preamplifier and headphone amplifier in one.

  • Acoustic Revive USB-1.0 OSP/USB-5.0 OPL– USB cable
    I mentioned them earlier – those are incredible USB cables from the Japanese company Acoustic Revive, where the power is supplied with a different cable than the signal.

  • Olive O6HD – audio file player
    The new, top version, based on the popular model.

  • High Resolution Technologies Music Streamer Pro– DAC
    I do not know what model it would be, most probably the Pro.

  • Dune MAX – audio and video file player
    A brilliant, cheap device, I am using since half a year.

    We tried to chose products not so obvious, as usual liking at their prices. Players from Linn and Naim we can test anytime.

    Wojciech Pacuła
    Editor in Chief

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