The Absolute Sound January 2023
High-end audio never runs out of surprises. Just when you think that the industry has addressed every possible source of sonic degradation, along comes a new technology, product, or design technique that elevates musical realism to the next level. This steady stream of unexpected innovation in unlikely places is one of the enduring sources of fascination with high-performance audio.
I'm referring to products that produce an audible improvement by addressing phenomena that one would think would be settled science or that would make so little difference as to be insignificant. For example, the Shunyata Altaira system that is the subject of this issue's cover story addresses a phenomenon that I'm sure very few of you considered to be significant — noise on the chassis of your components. The Altaira is a grounding system that drains this noise away from your components. Although connecting components with a common low-impedance ground connection is basic engineering practice, who thought that a sophisticated device that implements this idea at a high level could render such a profound improvement in an audio system's sound quality? How could such an infinitesimally miniscule amount of noise be interpreted by our hearing system as lessened musical coherence, rougher textures, and a smaller soundstage?
Two other fascinating phenomena come to us from the Wadax Reference Server. The first is the astounding improvement made by Wadax's custom Akasa optical interface between the Server and the company's Reference DAC. I listened to Server / DAC pair for a few weeks via USB before installing the Akasa board in the DAC. The difference was staggering, in bass definition and weight, dynamics, and soundstage dimensionality (for starters). From an interface carrying digital ones and zeros. Even more perplexing, the Reference Server has front-panel controls that adjust the waveshape of the digital signal sent to the DAC. These controls don't change the digital ones and zeros representing the audio signal, only factors such as the signal amplitude and rise time. How could changing a digital waveform's shape introduce an analog-like variability to the sound?
Or take Wilson Audio's Acoustic Diode, a spiked footer that threads into the bottom of the company's speakers. Wilson goes to heroic lengths to build speaker enclosures that don't vibrate and thus don't produce a sound of their own. The Chronosonic XVXes, for example, weighs 685 pounds each, most of that weight attributable to making the enclosure inert. Yet replacing Wilson's stock spiked feet with their Acoustic Diodes renders an audible improvement in dynamic performance and clarity. Piano notes, for example, start faster and decay faster with the Acoustic Diodes. It begs the question: Just how much did the enclosure vibrate with the older spikes? And how is it possible that we hear that minute vibration — or more precisely, its absence?
The fundamental question behind these phenomena is not only how we can perceive such miniscule variations in the air-pressure patterns striking our eardrums, but how we find musical meaning in these differences. Going back to the Wadax Server's front-panel controls that change the waveshape of the datastream, the difference in the DAC's analog output signal, on an objective basis, must be immeasurable. Yet these infinitesimal differences are translated by our brains into musical meanings. The Akasa interface better resolves the starts and stops of bass notes and renders more textural detail in the bass. That's the sonic description. The musical description is hearing how the bass player interacts with the drummer and the ensemble or soloist, experiencing more powerful rhythmic drive, and feeling the heightened impression of contemporaneous music-making — a charged sense of occasion — that you don't experience to the same degree with the conventional interface.
These phenomena highlight just how exquisitely sensitive our hearing is, but more importantly, illustrate that the brain translates such small objective changes into sometimes profound musical perceptions. This fact is central to high-end audio's raison d' être; it is only through the high-end mindset that seemingly improbable phenomena that affect sound quality are researched and addressed. High-end audio forges a singular synthesis of engineering chops, musical sensitivity, and a mindset that is open to exploring phenomena that defy textbook orthodoxy. The most brilliant electrical engineer in the world would never develop such products without caring about music and employing critical-listening skills in the development process. It is only through the combination of technical skill and critical listening that we have the Shunyata Altaira, the Wadax Reference Server, and the Wilson Audio Acoustic Diodes — and many more innovations.
It is the high-end that is uniquely positioned to explore these uncharted waters — and we as music lovers are the beneficiaries of the designers' talents.