Just in case you've been living under a rock, it seems that one of the biggest trends in high-end audio today is to have your gear modded. Loads of people are tired of spending their hard earned bucks on the latest and greatest piece of gear from their (soon to be) favorite audio manufacturer. Gone is the exhausting research reading the manufacturers website, reading between the lines of countless reviews, trying to interpret specs, polling (or in some cases trolling) the audio forums, and generally taking everybody's temperature about how a 'new' piece of gear sounds.
Countless audiophiles have found the 'new' way to get a significant upgrade in their sounds out of their existing systems without spending a king's ransom. There is nothing new about modding gear at all. Heck, I've been tweaking and modding stuff since the 70's. Some of the stuff I've modded have turned out great from a sonic standpoint. Others have been a dismal failure like an Adcom GFA 545 amp I modded (or tried to mod) a few years ago. Well, I can't really call this thing a failure but it sure wasn't a total success.
If you do some searching, you'll find dozens of different shops that specialize in all kinds of different mods. Some of the shops out there specialize in amp mods, some in CD and SACD player mods and one or two actually perform mods on speakers. Nearly all of the mods include some form of exotic parts as the upgrade.
I know quite a few guys that have chosen this upgrade path rather than buying new gear. One of the local guys modified his Audio Research LS-22 and CAL DAC, loading it up with tantalum resistors (at about $6 ea I might add) and Black Gate caps. His AR pre and CAL DAC no longer sonically resembles (in the least) the stock gear that he purchased. This stuff is now phenomenal sounding. His could be the best digital front end I've had the pleasure of hearing. Another one of the local guys sent his Rogue monoblocks off to have the factory do some 'authorized' mods to them. Again, the gear showed up sounding completely different than when they left.
A while back Chris VenHaus of VH Audio fame about giving a listen to his new product entry the V-Caps contacted me. The V-Caps are a Teflon and foil coupling cap rated to 600 volts. He offers them in .01uF to 1uF sizes. These caps are marketed as a replacement for your existing coupling caps in your tubed amplifier or tubed pre. Having replaced coupling caps before in tube amps, I knew how much of a sonic upgrade was likely to happen. So when Chris offered a set for review I said Sure.
Not long ago I bought a pair of Radii GS 75, EL34 monoblocks. I ran across the Radii line back at Midwest Audiofest. The Radii amp that I was listening to was driving a pair of VMPS 626's. This particular pairing sounded stunning. Stunning enough that I had a pair of mono-blocks built and bought them.
After getting the monoblocks in my system and living with them for a while I decided that they sounded a little dark when matched with the rest of my system. I felt the sound needed to be cleaned up a bit. The first thing I looked at was the coupling caps. The Radii came stock with a Chinese version of paper and oil caps. To me, the Radii's sounded too dark and veiled with my chosen Odyssey Epiphany speakers. Understand, the Epiphany's have a high crossover point (4k) and the use of an amp that has warm characteristics, doesn't make for the best match. On the other hand, if I enjoyed and used forward sounding speakers, the Radii's 'darker' sonic signature would probably sound just fine as it did with the very forward nature of the VMPS's. Remember Grasshopper, balance.
Before I received the V-Caps, I had already removed the Chinese Audible Illusion paper in oil caps and installed some AudioCap Theta's. After the installation and a bit of break in time, the tonal balance of the amps got considerably better and the veiling lessened. I was pretty happy with the result.
I've only read tidbits on the web regarding the high quality and (supposed) extreme resolution of Teflon. It's not my intention to go into excruciating detail about the design of these caps or even attempt to explain from a scientific aspect why (these) Teflon caps sound better than others. I'm not qualified and quite honestly, I could care less how they measure or how they came up with the design. I'm only interested in how they sound and the effects that they had on my amplifiers.
As you can see from the pics, the V-Caps aren't exactly small. If you were considering installing them in a vintage integrated, make sure you have room to squeeze them in. Fortunately the Radii's had plenty of room, granted I had to do some major surgery to remove the boards but it all worked out in the end.
After installing the V-Caps, I brought my amps up slowly on my variac. I learned a long time ago, use a variac. Bring the amps up in small steps, measure voltages along the way. Otherwise, you can rest assured that one of these times you will smoke an amp (or pre). I know I've done it (more than once).
After I was sure the amps were stable, I put them back into my system and gave them a listen. As you can imagine with new parts inside, they sounded tragically ill. I wasn't too worried about it. I knew that caps usually sound this way when you first turn them on. In fact Chris states that the caps will sound pretty horrid during the first 100 hours or so. After about 200 and 400 hours of burn time, things should get significantly better……and they did. I'll skip over the sound at each of the milestones and jump straight into the mix at around 600 or so hours.
I have to say without a doubt in my mind, that I never expected this much of a change in the sound out of these amps. I thought I could expect a 'nice' change similar to when I changed the Chinese caps for the Thetas. That was a nice, audible change for the better. Installing the V-Caps was like buying new amps. That's not just a line of BS. The V-Caps (after they broke in) brought a new level of detail that would never have been achievable with the other coupling caps I've played with.
Along with the detail, definition of the soundstage became better. Not only did the performers appear as if they just came off three months at a fat farm, the depth of the soundstage took a solid one if not two steps further back. I'm damned impressed.
Now, the V-Caps aren't exactly cheap. A .1 sells for $40, a .22 sells for $72 and a .33 sells for a whopping $96. If you're an SET kinda guy, you can get off fairly cheap. If (like me) you have a big push pull amp, be prepared. I guess I shouldn't paint such a bleak picture regarding the price. Chris does offer a nice discount based on quantities. Besides, we all know that quality costs money. Especially on something that isn't mass-produced like a Teflon coupling cap.
Look at it this way, if you were looking to upgrade your interconnect to a nice electro-rhododendron dipped something or other with the latest whiz-bang, anti-plug in, resonance receptor, chances are you'd drop 400 to 600 clams on it. Something like that may be a bit painful, but you'd do it if you thought it was going to get you a step closer to audio-nirvana.
Well, I'm here to tell you, upgrading the coupling caps in your tube amp to the Teflon V-Caps will gain you far more sonic improvement than any pair of interconnects, speaker cables or power cord could ever hope to. Not to mention, any one of those upgrades could cost more than the V-Caps. Are the V-Caps the ultimate in sonic clarity? Compared to all I've tried to date, yes they are.
Of, and of course the usual disclaimer is in effect. Don't go yanking apart your electronic gizmo's if you don't know what you are doing. These things, especially tube amps run at extremely high voltages. Many, many parts within a piece of gear hold high voltage charges for a long time after the piece has been shut down. So unless you know what you are doing and you don't want 'Mister Winky' fried to a crisp or worse yet pay a permanent visit to that Great Gig In The Sky, let a qualified technician do your mods for you.
Trust me, getting drilled with close to 500 volts isn't exactly my idea of fun. In fact I now use linesman electricians gloves when I tear into my gear. I check for residual voltages and then when I bring the piece back up and check voltages, I've got my gloves on. They've saved me from my own stupidity on more than one occasion.
First, if you mod a piece of gear, you are going to change it's sound (…well duh). In most cases (with reasonably priced stock gear) there's usually going to be a significant sonic change. Typically, manufacturers of reasonably priced gear don't use the highest quality parts much less the boutique parts that everybody likes to name drop. With this use of 'standard' parts come a few compromises to the final sound. One of the first things that suffer is clarity (typically).
The second thing you need to consider is that some of these mods can throw off the delicate balance to the sound of a piece of gear. You need to realize that the changes that you are considering might bring an otherwise musical sounding piece of gear in to the realm of the hyper-detail and analytical.
Note, not all gear should be modded. If your particular piece of gear already had a good balance of warmth and detail, for G-ds sakes leave it be. As I keep harping, high end audio is all about balance. Screw up that balance with too much detail and the music dies.
So, should you modify your gear? The answer lies within you. If you want or need more clarity out of your system, the V-Caps might just be the answer. If your system is already well balanced between warmth and clarity, you may want to think twice. The V-Caps might bring too much clarity and destroy that delicate balance you already enjoy.
Interconnecting To Cableville
A number of years ago I was roaming through my local electronics surplus store and ran across a couple of spools of wire. At the time, I happened to be looking for silver plated, multi-strand copper wire with Teflon as a dielectric. It just so happened that I hit the jackpot. Not only did I find a couple of spools, but the wire also had braided, silver-plated copper shielding with Teflon over the top of the braiding. Best part was, these weren't normal sized spools. These spools had almost a mile of wire on them. That is enough wire to last me a lifetime of DIY cable making. Even better yet, it was cheap... dirt cheap in fact.
Over the next few months, I concocted every conceivable configuration and geometry of wire(s) that you could think of (well maybe not all, but at least the easy ones). I found out in a hurry that my cables and interconnects sounded really darned good, even when I'd compare them to some damned expensive commercial offerings.
OK, Back To Cableville
First, I got lucky finding the spools of silver plated copper wire. Things like this just don't drop out of the sky, especially in a typical big city. Second, I didn't listen to anybody when it came to how something should sound. I experimented. I had enough wire (almost two miles worth) to make cables in any configuration I chose.
Over time I found that two basic configurations sounded the best in my systems. First was the simplest, a basic parallel run of wires. I didn't do any twisting for noise rejection primarily because I don't have any major noise problems in my house. I did try draining the shields to ground but it didn't make any difference in the sound (hence the no twisting). Just lucky I guess but YMMV.
The next configuration is a tightly braided triple run of wires. I used a single wire for the hot and attached the remaining to the ground of the RCA. This is my version of a Kimber KCAG without using pure silver. This configuration sounds pretty darned good. It adds a fair amount of dynamics and slam to the bass for some reason. I don't have a clue why, but it does.
I've used several different styles of RCA's on my cables. Since I'm into single ended triodes, I've learned the hard way that 'less is best' is absolutely true. I've got tons of high mass RCA's and binding posts lying around. After I plugged in my overtly simple SET amp and Lowther's, I discovered quickly that these high mass doohickeys all have a sonic signature.
Since then I have become a true believer in sizing your connectors. For signal levels, less is best. The Eichman's and the Eichman knock offs (WBT Next Gen) will probably sound the best. When it comes to your binding posts on your gear, if you have a moderate to low wattage amp you probably won't need these big bulky, hulks of a binding post. On the other hand, if you are running a big Krell full tilt boogie, you'd better hope to have a binding post the size of a doorknob (not really but you know what I mean).
My point here is, don't get suckered in by audio jewelry. It may look cool but at the same time it might just be getting in the way of you and your music. You need the individual parts to be functional and properly sized for your application. Look at it this way, if you are Mailman on your usual route, do you need a blown 427, big block in your Jeep? Sure, looking at the blower belt, dual quads and intake scoop all sticking above your hood might look really cool but it's not going to be very functional.
Next, make sure that the parts are made of copper, not brass. More connectors than you can imagine are brass under that sparkly exterior. And don't let the thought of a simple 5-cent tinned copper spade connector scare you off. It sounds way better than most would have you believe, honest. A big part of the problem is, we have all gotten suckered by this audio jewelry and now the audio manufacturers only offer these big honkin' connectors. But I digress. Wire... that's what I was typing about.
So, here is the burning question that is no doubt on all of your fingertips. Where do I find all this spiffy wire? The answer is easy, surplus wire vendors on the web. Now, before I go giving you links and you start ordering wire, you need to realize something.
These guys don't have a clue how this wire 'sounds'. These guys aren't audiophiles, they are bulk wire dealers, so asking them how a particular wire 'sounds' will probably get you a good belly laugh from the other end of the line, then they'll guide you to the most expensive product they have. Just pick what you think will work best from their listed offerings, order it, play with it and make your own judgments about how it sounds. Don't worry; this stuff is dirt cheap (starting at about $.15 per foot) so mistakes won't cost you a fortune. Remember this above all else, nothing brings clarity like action.
There are two main guys that I know of on the web. The first is WorldWideWire.com. I've spoken to this guy a few times in recent few years. You'd be amazed at how many small cable and interconnect manufacturers buy from him. He offers a nice inventory of wire in every configuration you could imagine. Surplus Sales of Nebraska also carries a nice selection. If you do a Google search, no doubt you'll come up with even more sources.
As I mentioned before, silver plated copper with Teflon insulation happens to be my favorite. I've played with several different wire gauges and found that for interconnects, I (personally) like 20 gauge. I find that it has just the right balance of silver to copper but that's just me. You may like a shade warmer presentation in your system and you might go for say 18 gauge.
When you make your choices on voltage rating, remember, the higher the voltage rating, the thicker the insulation. The 600 volt 12 gauge, silver plated copper is what I use for speaker wire (multiple parallel runs of course). I also have concocted parallel runs of the 20 gauge also. It sounds pretty good too though it has a leaner presentation. It's a good match to fluffier sounding loudspeaker.
As you look around the WorldWideWire.com site you'll see that you have tons of choices. From 30 gauge Teflon Hookup Wire to 1-0 Aircraft Wire, this guy has tons to choose from.
Don't freak out by all the choices. Keep a couple of basics in mind. If your system needs a little brightening or you want a smidge more detail, try some silver plated copper. If your system is a little strident and forward, try a stranded copper. That should tame things down a bit. Generally speaking (and I do mean generally), the heavier the wire gauge, the warmer the presentation (at least with silver plated copper). The smaller gauges typically use a smaller strand in a multi-strand wire. In turn the silver to copper content is higher. The more silver, the brighter the sound. Oh, and don't get wrapped up in what you read about solid wire versus stranded. This stuff is cheap enough that you can buy both and listen and decide for yourself. You'll be glad you did.
An example. My speaker cables using the 12 gauge silver/copper wire are about 5 to 10 percent silver where my interconnects using the 20 gauge silver/copper are about 30 percent silver content (I'm just guessing here so no email bombs). In other words, the heavier the wire gauge, the thinker the individual strands (making up the multi-strand) of wire. The thicker the individual strands are, the higher the copper content. The higher the copper content, the warmer the sound. Confused? Thought so. Don't worry, you'll figure it out, as you start building your own. Oh, and please, don't over analyze this. Just buy some wire of different gauges and try it yourself.
Start off with some cheap RCA's and give your wallet a break (think Mouser, Parts Express and even... gulp... Radio Shack). This way you can get a feel for how the different wires and configurations sound side by side before you make the high dollar commitment to something like an Eichmann bullet plug. Oh, and just as I mentioned before, don't be afraid of those super cheap, tinned copper RCA's that Mouser sells (pn 17pp050). You will be pleasantly surprised when you compare them to the much more expensive RCA's.
OK, now that you know a couple of great sources for high quality wire, go forth bothers and sisters. Heat up your soldering irons. Make cables and interconnects. Save your shillings and invest in some fine tube gear or better yet a turntable and some vinyl. (Bet I won't be getting any cable or interconnect guys calling anytime soon.)
Music is the Drug...
High-end audio gear can only go so far in conveying the music. It's simply impossible to capture on a recording or playback on any audiophile system the essence of a live performance. A live performance engages nearly all of your senses, sight, sound, touch (the visceral sensation), and smell. An audio system at best can only engage at best three of our five senses, sound, touch and smell (assuming you just spilt a beer on yourself). And yes, I am discounting DVD-V and all of its surroundness. High resolution video is just like high resolution audio, it is at best a feeble substitute for the real thing.
A few years ago I happened to be doing a concert search for one of my wife's favorite live bands Poco (you remember those guys). It just so happened that they were playing just outside St Louis at a place called Wildwood Springs Resort. As often as my wife and I go to concerts, I'd never heard of this venue before. After I tracked it down, I found out that it was an extremely small venue. It's even smaller than many of our local bars that feature national acts.
Wildwood Springs Resort is a vintage 1920's resort hotel, built in the European style. Small rooms off narrow hallways nestled in shotgun wings with a two story lobby centered in the structure. One of the things that makes Wildwood so unique is that it's located in rural Missouri. It's built on the bluffs overlooking the Meramec River Valley about 90 miles southwest of St Louis. Basically, it's in the middle of nowhere.
Bob Bell and his wife Kathy, the proprietors of Wildwood, are friends with the 1970's country rock group Brewer and Shipley. One evening a few years ago they decided to hold a "Living Room Concert" with the guys in the lobby of Wildwood. One thing lead to another and the concert ended up being a huge success.
Word got out. Next thing you know, musicians and fans alike are signing up to perform and buy tickets at this gloriously intimate setting. The Living Room where all of the performances take place is actually the lobby of the hotel. It seats about 200 people. The backdrop is a big fireplace with a stone hearth. When the chairs are set up, the venue is only about ten rows deep. It's one of the best settings for a concert we've ever experienced. The lobby is open to the second story of the hotel where the overflow of people from the main floor hangs out.
Since Wildwood is a first and foremost a hotel, Bob came up with the idea to offer his Living Room Concerts as a package. You can attend just the concert, you can have dinner and the concert, or you can have lodging, dinner and the concert. The dinners are served buffet style. The food is always very good and always piled high complete with some very tasty deserts.
Anyway back to the live music experience.
Probably the single coolest part of this concert experience is the fact that everybody is approachable, artists included. It's not uncommon to see the band and headliner tooling around the lobby or eating dinner in the dining room with the rest of us schlubs before their performance. Afterwards, the band usually goes over to the front desk where they meet and great the diehard fans, sign autographs and hook people up with T-shirts and CD's. Just to give you an idea of how much the performers enjoy this venue, Rusty Young of Poco met and just recently married his wife at Wildwood Springs Resort. It's truly an awesome venue and experience.
My point to all this is, as good as you may feel your gear is, it is a poor substitute for the live concert experience. I know some of you may think that live sound can be horrible, and it can be at times. Lord knows we've all experienced some hideously deaf guy running the sound board. But for the most part, the sound can be very good. It may not be perfect or what your perception of perfect is but it still is quite good. Honestly, my wife and always take ear plugs just in case. Many of the artists like to crank it. After attending enough concerts, we've learned to dampen the sound a bit. Although you loose a little of 'magic' of the evening, earplugs make the total experience much more enjoyable.
Live music engages almost all of your senses unlike your hi-end gear. Plus you get to meet nice people that have the same interests we all have... music. The other thing about attending live shows is that you directly support your favorite artists, new and old. This is where the bands make the majority of their money.
Going to concerts does a few things. First, if it happens to be an acoustic (un-amplified) event, it resets your frame of reference of what instruments and vocals should sound like. Second, it ensures that your favorite artists remain (monetarily) healthy, happy, and stay in the business of creating our much treasured music, the common thread that bonds us all. If we don't buy their music, go to their concerts or pick up their T-shirts and hats, they go off and find something else to do. It's simple economics. Finally, even if the concerts are amplified with so-so sound, you get to experience the total involvement of your favorite music. Third, you get to experience a totally unique performance. What the band does that evening won't ever be repeated exactly as it was that night. Let us not forget, it helps support your local venues that stick their neck out and book the acts. The sights and sounds of a live event are like nothing you can experience on your hi-end gear.
Ok, I'll step off my bully pulpit now.
'til next time...