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At The Edge Of Science
Audio experimenters have uncovered many gaps in the models textbook science brings to bear on electro-acoustical phenomena. This can be a source of bafflement and embarrassment to authorities in the field, but our ears have proven their value as a most subtle evaluation device - one which hears things that can't be there. Many scientists take the comfortable and logical way out and deny the possibility of unmeasurable "new" audio phenomena.
For example, in the Spring 1991 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer, Fred E. Davis gave us "Hi-Fi Audio Pseudoscience," an article committing cables, AC cords and conditioners, CD treatments, and novel uses for digital clocks to the shady realms of mysticism and the powers of suggestion. He doesn't claim to have done much listening. Surely not worth the trouble based on mathematical models. Yet most of this study was based on "skimming through three or four audio magazines." Very rigorous method indeed!
As audio experimenters realize, there are other ways we can "know" aside from formal scientific research. There is a distinction between "knowing how" and "knowing that." Both ways of knowing are achieved through an empirically based trial and error process. The difference is that knowing that doesn't have the same dependence on an explanatory model. We can recognize what happens and even learn to predict what is going to happen without understanding the "mechanics" of the process. "Discoveries" can often be put to good use without understanding how they work.
Before science was appropriated by large institutions like universities, government research facilities, and industry "think tanks", the independent inventor was the main agent of scientific discovery, often relying on inspiration and trial rather than theory to guide their experiments. Much of the interesting work in audio is still done this way.
Informal exploration in audio is not governed by the strict etiquette of white lab coat science. Nowadays there's no grant money available to research exotic claims in high end audio so don't expect much alienation from BIG science. Progress in audio is a challenge for underfunded, imaginative, and independent experimenters to address on their own terms, often in their own basement or listening rooms.
The range of experimental strategies that have been applied in high end audio defies summation, Investigators span the range from "new physicists" like Peter Belt and George Tice to material hackers who spend weeks listening to interconnects made from different kinds of solder. Iron bricks, demagnetizers, tuning dots, lead bars, wires, air bearings, precious metals, contact enhancers, spikes, green pens, carbon fibers: the conceptual variety of tweak experimentation is staggering. You really have to stop and wonder where the inspiration for some of these experiments arose.
All hype, politics, and mysticism aside, if you've been experimenting you know that some very 'unlikely" treatments can change the sound you hear. Usually you get different rather than distinctly better. But there is often a real effect, sometimes subtle and sometimes profound. In time, products we all laughed about at first, like "special wire," show up on the shelves at Radio Shack.
All over the world, the appreciation of classic audio gear for its historical, sonic, and fetish value is growing. At the same time, designers are reevaluating long abandoned technologies like triode output stages, single ended amplifiers, and horn loaded speakers with well trained modern ears. Even though it has been done before, new realizations are emerging this time around. Turns out that some things we all thought was junk can sound great and vice versa. Concepts of progress are being reevaluated and the textbooks haven't caught up yet.
As long as theory lags behind practice, audio artists will constitute the leading edge. Some of the best students are trained scientists and real engineers. But the most vital arena of investigation lies a bit behind the edge of science.
The Question Of Style
The extensive use of silver is one hallmark of an Audio Note creation but there are other stylistic features which point back to the hand of Kondo. For example, he uses certain tube types across the entire line and they reappear like signature riffs in a blues tune. The 6072A is usually the low level tube, the driver is typically a 5687. Output tubes are drawn from the directly heated triode family -- 211, 2A3, and 300B. Most of the tubes Kondo employs are audio classics or highly specified military/industrial bottles well qualified for the task. The 607 2A, for example, is listed in the RCA manual under "Premium Tubes - designed to meet military specifications and critical industrial applications." What more critical application exists than a $60,000 amplifier? Kondo's preferred tube lineup appears not only in the Audio Note amplifiers. The M7 tube preamplifier also relies on, you guessed it, 6072A s and 5687s throughout.
Kondo uses different tubes in each stage in different configurations to avoid additive distortion and to cancel the kinds of distortion each stage introduces. This is said to be a Japanese high end group style technique. Kondo-san's personal style seems to be an SRPP (series regulated push pull) 6072A input stage direct coupled to a 5687 voltage amp, then cap coupled to a 5687 cathode follower driver for directly heated triodes.
Every component of Kondo's products gets special consideration. He hand rolls silver foil oil caps and prefers custom tantalum film resistors -- said to offer a degree of grainlessness that no other resistor can match. Audio Note specifies special order units with silver leads and end caps! His circuits are built around luxurious silver wound output transformers and solid copper chassis. Konda-san's sonic artistry is in the realization as much as design.
The best answer I got on why silver might sound so good came from Randy Bradley at Bear Labs, a maker of well-regarded silver cables, who offered "Nobody knows why, but when properly applied, it does." Kondo is said to be carrying out experiments in hopes of determining why silver sounds the way it does. In a way, this study is purely academic. Whether he finds out or not, the cables will still sound the way they do. The sound is what matters.
As with all wire, success with silver has to do with cable topology and system matching. It's not something to be used randomly. Audio Note promotes a well reasoned systems approach to the use of silver: the best thing to do is to use silver everywhere. Disjunctions between metals should be minimized for best sonic results. If only partially cabling up with silver, it is best used up front, they argue, since 'copper distortions' will be rendered more obvious by silver downstream. Systems with problems like poor contacts and inferior wire elsewhere, should avoid AN silver since it will disclose any prevailing weakness in the system.
Audio Note claims that some combinations of copper wire with AN silver can result in a substantial increase in high frequency response and occasionally loss of lows, causing the system to sound too bright. This is the classic critique of silver wire. Maybe the sin of silver is disclosure not commission.
All silver is not equal, most audio silversmiths would claim. Audio Note silver is not your usual off the shelf silver. It is high purity (99.99%) although other silver cables are more pure (e.g. Kimber @ 0.99999). AN silver is imported from Italy and specially processed from ingots at the Tokyo plant. It is cold drawn through a diamond die and immediately coated with several layers of polyurethane to forestall oxidation and mechanically dampen the surface of the wire to prevent "wire crying". Audio note argues that even tiny amounts of surface oxidation cause sonically detrimental rectifying effects which negate the advantages of AN silver.
In the Audio Note UK literature, AN silver cables are claimed to be their most "important product." In Kondo's article which follows, he seems very impressed with the aural qualities of silver wire and enchanted with the sound of his hand rolled silver foil oil caps and his custom silver wound output transformers. Silver is the heart of Audio Note. Unfortunately, as Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK observes, "Using the purest available silver as a conductor, naturally has the same effect on price as it has on sound quality: it is automatically high."