Welcome to the July get-together for insatiable audiophiles. You may be reading this during its July publication month, but I started writing it mid-April in the middle of an unexpected Spring Nor'easter. For those of you unfamiliar with New England weather, these are storms that begin in the midwest, run across to the mid-Atlantic coast, then are pulled northward by the Jet Stream. As they are spinning counter-clockwise they pick up Canadian cold air and water from the Atlantic, and quite often drop prodigious amounts of rain or snow with gusting winds that can cause drifting. If they occur during the early Fall or Spring they can also produce nasty ice storms that lead to power wire damage and blackouts. Unhappily, these outages are usually preceded and followed by energy spikes that can destroy any and all electrical equipment that is not protected, especially solid state, even when it's off if still plugged in. I used to laugh at my grandfather back in the 1950's and 1960's when he'd make me run around the house and unplug the television and radio (that's right, one 20 inch B&W television and one Zenith Transoceanic radio) during one of these or electrical storms, but I guess the old Yankee had been burned previously.
Anyway, we had several spikes just before the power went out last night that damaged several of my neighbor's electronics, including his brand new super-duper gas stove but left all of my audio-video equipment without a scratch thanks to my APC-Torus- Environmental Potentials protective system. So I guess their cost was well worth it, not to mention their enormous benefits to my sound. Word to the Wise!
Black Mountain Pinnacle Silver Interconnects
Interconnects, speaker wire and AC cord manufacturing should be considered to be the "Black Art" of audio for two reasons. First, because nobody can explain in a scientific manner why cable that measure the same with our current knowledge can sound different. Second, many cable manufacturers take the "Dark Side" and charge exorbitant amounts for a product that costs them pennies on the dollar to make. Even the fact that different cables with similar measurements can sound different is disputed by many listeners, so-called objectivists, and these individuals consider most cable manufacturers to be snake oil selling charlatans. That said, many of us can and do hear differences in sound transmission between various cables, many of the differences being unexplainable by modern day science or measurements, and the better the system, the more discernible the differences are. (See the last part of the article).
On the other hand if anyone tells you that a cable can miraculously change the whole sound of your system for the better, get on your jogging shoes and run as fast as possible. Most differences are subtle compared to changing a cartridge or speakers, and usually more subtle than changing electronics. The changes are more on the level of tweaking equipment. These differences may be additive or subtractive, and are otherwise known as "coloration," which may be good or bad depending on how it changes both the sound of the system and what one perceives as correct. Remember, no piece of equipment or cable is perfect, all affect the sound in one way or another, and the best equipment, cable or connection is none at all. That being said, until somebody comes up with a way of transmitting electricity from place to place, without wire, undistorted, and without frying us with the radio frequency current, or come up with one piece of equipment that does everything from the pickup to the reproduction stage, we'll be stuck with the wiring.
Wire, especially speaker and interconnect, can sound completely different from system to system, and even between various electronics in a system. AC cord will also be different depending on both the piece of equipment it is connected to, and what sort of anomalies it is filtering both from what's coming through the wall and airborne RF. What may work superbly on between two pieces of equipment or in one system may negatively affect another. Until this year, my system's interconnect consisted of some excellent sounding home-made silver foil from Alan Wright, the maker of my VacuumState electronics, and it in combination with some speaker wire it worked synergistically for a very reasonable price. Then, back in AA Chapter 91, I reviewed long runs of Pinnacle Gold balanced interconnects from Black Mountain Cable, which was discovered on the net through their advertising on Audiogon and found their characteristics to be even more synergistic with my system's faults. (That's right, even my system has faults!)
Notice I said synergistic. This goes along with the concept that no wire is perfect or completely neutral passing a perfect signal, and one must choose it depending on how its characteristics blend with the other imperfections of the system. It acts as both a passive filter (and sometimes an active one if it has built-in circuits), hopefully of only bad effects, and an active producer of effects depending on its make-up. The long runs of the Pinnacle Gold were so good that I decided to get some shorter runs of the same cable in a three meter balanced configuration to run from the preamp to the main speakers and 3 pair of 1.5-meter single ended to run between the universal player and the pre-pro. While they could supply the longer balanced XLR run, the best Eichmann RCA's that they use for the Pinnacle Gold were out of stock, so they offered a set of their Pinnacle Silver, which they had available, with a no questions asked replacement with the Gold if they didn't work as well on my system. I agreed as I'm always up for an evaluation and a possible deal, as the Silver's are somewhat less expensive at $949 for the first meter compared to $999 for the Gold. Each additional meter for both is $100. While not as cheap as some interconnects out there, there are certainly others that are significantly pricier.
While the Gold's use a 22-gauge Alpine Wire gold-silver-copper alloy with gold coating, which is claimed to actually decrease resistance to electron flow compared to pure silver or copper, the Silver's use Sterling Silver. Both wires use a loose fitting Teflon coating over the wire, thus leaving an air gap which should reduce capacitance, are braided for RF control, then covered with a tight fitting coating and their connectors are either Eichmann Bayonet Bullet Plug RCA's or high quality Neutrik XLR plugs for the balanced wire. Unlike many interconnects that are thicker than most speaker wire, these are about 3/8th inch in diameter, very light and reasonably malleable, although they do tend to curl up if left to their own means. The Eichmann plugs are excellent as they are made primarily of plastic with small but tight silver contact points for both the center plug and the ground.
Please go back to the previous review of the Gold to get an idea of their sound, AA Chapt 91 . While many interconnects and speaker wire need long break-in times probably due to their thick coating which acts as a capacitor, these interconnects had minimal if any change in their characteristics, usually a very good sign. I didn't have any short runs of single ended Gold to make direct comparison with the Silver, but I can say that they are very similar in qualities. Both allow the entire signal through from deep bass to the highest overtones, and both produced a wide, deep soundstage and excellent ambiance recovery. Their sound was surprisingly similar considering the wire itself was of significantly different metals. The main difference was that the Gold's sound could be classified as "burnished" like the sound in Symphony Hall or Carnegie, while the Silver is somewhat "brighter" and slightly more open like some of the newer concert halls, such as Davies in Texas or Disney in California. Other than that, they are far superior to the best interconnects from 10 years ago, and too close to call a difference with the best that have been in my system. Best of all, if you go to Audiogon and have enough patience, you can pick them up for less than their list price through an auction. Enough said.
And now a few words from Ben Laifsky, owner of Black Mountain Cable:
Thank you for your review - I really enjoyed it. Funny, I never wanted to bid on an auction with a high reserve. That's why I stay away from running any auctions that way. There has to be an element of risk for it to be fun for people... Thanks again.
The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made.
Norman Lebrecht, music editor of the London Evening Standard has written an excellent compendium of recorded music from the first Edison rolls to the digital era. Included are not only the standard history of recorded sound, but also many anecdotes from both the musicians themselves, their friends and foes, and especially the engineers, producers, etc. At the end he also list those recordings he considers to be both the highs and lows of this art in the 20th century. Unlike an audiophile, his recommendations are based more on the engineering and business side rather than the recorded sound itself.
I was going to write a full book report on this wonderful paperback, but then remembered how that used to ruin the joy of reading anything in school. Needless to say, I found the book enlightening, especially on how we got to the dismal state of classical music recording today. Well worth the $10.17 cost from Amazon.
Teac Esoteric DV-60 Universal Player
Last month's column covered this machine's brother, the SA-60 Universal music disk player, which was so good that I planned on keeping it. Then a bright idea occurred; why not get the DV-60 to see what the video side looked like and how it affected the audio. Happily, Mr. Gurvey, of Teac, obliged and sent the DV-60 by three day UPS for review. The unit arrived intact, probably not because the UPS workers didn't try their best to obliterate the packaging, but because the unit is triple rather than double boxed in double thick cardboard with double layers of Styrofoam and double layers of a foamy plastic rap protection. The only cord in the box was a nondescript IEV AC cord, as this machine is made for high enders and including cheap interconnects would be a waste. I wish they had included an HDMI cord, but because of their expense, not many manufacturers do. Other than that, the unit is complete, and the warranty card even includes the identification numbers on it so you don't have to look at the back of the unit in its cabinet after forgetting to get it before installation. The return envelope for the warranty is even postage-paid, and if you do return it, they up the warranty to three years from two.
I have been wondering why Teac would come out with several very expensive DVD players when high definition video is here and at significantly less cost. No matter how good you improve standard 480I DVD, it cannot compete with the image produced by both HD-DVD and Blu-ray at 1080I or P. The quality of the image on the best of these even with the less expensive machines, beats anything out there, including cable, satellite and the JVC high definition video cassette recorder, all of which I have available at my house. Even the difference between 1080I high definition programming from DirecTV, which is not as good as the high def discs, vs. upsampling the best of standard definition 480I off of DVD, satellite, etc. through my Calibre Vantage unit using the best chip available from Silicon Image, can be seen by anybody.
So I emailed Mr. Gurvey and asked him why Teac would spend a small fortune on engineering two new transports, which may be already outmoded. He stated that they do not want to get involved in the hi def video standards war as they do not want to produce machines that may be obsolete in the near future. Also, none of the machines presently available can decode all of the different high-end audio standards yet, especially DTS Master HD, which is the only one comparable to DVD-Audio or SACD in quality. I understand completely, Mr. Gurvey. This is why this audiophile has held off on purchasing one of the units until they meet high-end audio standards. Please see the previous article, AA Chapter 92, for a full discussion of its audio only brother's qualities. Per their suggestion and my findings, the unit requires 250 to 300 hours of warm-up to limber up the unit, as early on it does sound digital in the derogatory sense, so it was left on spinning a disc during the 10 days I was off bringing my mother and her car back from Florida.
As happens on returning from a long trip, on turning on the system, the audio and video were superb from all reception modes. I'm unsure as to whether this phenomenon is secondary to the system's being disconnected from the AC, and thus allowed to get rid of any gremlins which may be stored in it, or whether my ears have become accustomed to the normal audio noise out there, and thus, the system just sounds superior compared to that. Anyway, before evaluating the unit, I waited a couple of days to let the system settle and to let my ears become accustomed again to it. Then the evaluation of the DV-60 began.
First the video: Compared to any other 480I picture I've seen upsampled to 1080I or P, it is superb. That comparison includes the best DirecTV high Definition DVR at 1080I and my Denon modified 5900 universal player outputting 1080I, and the same units upsampled to 1080P through my Vantage unit. Compared to true 1080I from satellite and the JVC high definition tape unit, the picture is softer without the clarity and vibrancy of true high definition. On the other hand, in direct comparison with a friend's Sony Blu-Ray player upsampling regular DVD's, the picture is superior in just about every way. So for those not planning on moving up to HD-DVD or Blu-ray until the war is settled or they finally get their act together with the audio side, this unit will be well worth the cost for video.
Now for the best part. Happily, the audio is of the same quality discussed for the SA-60 (i.e. some of the best for all of the standards including DVD-Audio and SACD). While there is the ability to shut off the video circuits while listening to audio discs through the remote control, unlike with other units tested, there was no difference in sound quality on my system. For instance, using my Lexicon MC12B pre-pro, when the LCD panel on the front is lit up, there is a very low level buzzing to the audio that is just loud enough to be distracting, and the Denon 5900 definitely sounds somewhat better when the video circuitry and the front panel LCD are turned off. Not so with the DV-60. Audio was great even on DVD-Audio with the video showing still pictures from the disc, with no discernible degradation. Like with the SA-60, for regular CD's I preferred the combination of the FIR-RDOT filters. While there is also the ability to change SACD to PCM before decoding, there was a definite coloration to the sound that makes it worthless, unless the SACD is two channel and you want to use your pre-pro for d/a conversion and possibly ambiance recovery. On the other hand, using the "Direct" output of SACD rather than "Normal," which runs the signal through the processor that corrects for speaker volume and distance from the listener, significantly improved SACD so that I preferred my best SACD to my best DVD-Audio recordings.
Decoding of DTS and Dolby Digital were the best I've heard here, and even superior to running the digital out to the Lexicon for decoding. DTS, even with its 1.4 mbit rate sounded almost equivalent in 5.1 to most of my DVD-Audio recordings, and in blinded comparison, several discs from AIX Records having both DVD-Audio and DTS tracks, there were times when I had to get up and see which side of the disc was playing. As I stated in my previous article, there are other single-type players that may sound slightly better than the SA or DV-60 for CD or SACD, or even DVD-A, but for the money, I don't think you'll find a machine that will do all of the functions of these as well. If you want the best of the best and willing to pay the price, have a listen to this unit's highest end brother, the P-03 and D-03 combo. While they're out of my price range, they have been praised in The Absolute Sound as the best sounding units out there.
For $1000 more at $5600, the DV-60 is the better buy in my estimation and is highly recommended. You should get many years of excellent service from the unit, even at the dawn of the high definition era as it does a much better job of decoding regular DVD discs than the present high definition units and can do both SACD and DVD-Audio decoding in six channel, which none of the Blu-ray or HD-DVD units will probably ever be able to do as its not part of their standard.
Are Strads Really Worth the Price?
This is the title of an article in the Wall Street Journal on Page D7 from Thursday, April 12, 2007 by Barrymore Laurence Scherer, the Journal's music critic that struck me as being similar to the objectivist-subjectivist battles that go on in high-end audio. His points were the following:
1."The value of Stradivarius and other prized violins have gone through the roof, this particular one cost $43,000 in 1972 and sold this year for $2,700,000. Why should a violin be prized so much? Can one really hear a difference?"
2. An April 2000 article by physicist Colin Gough states, "Science has not provided any convincing evidence for the existence of any measurable property that would set the Cremonese instruments apart from the finest violins made by skilled craftsmen today. It is extremely difficult to distinguish between a particularly fine Stradivarius instrument and an indifferent modern copy on the basis of the measured response alone. The ear is a supreme detection device and the brain is a far more sophisticated analyzer of complex sounds than any system yet developed to access musical quality. Every violin, whether a Stradivarius or the cheapest factory made copy has a distinctive voice of its own so a skilled violinist can distinguish between different qualities in the sound. In practice however, it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish between a particularly fine Stradivarius and an indifferent modern copy on the basis of measured response alone. The ear is the supreme detection device and the brain is a far more sophisticated analyzer of complex sounds than any system yet developed to assess musical quality." Sound familiar so far?
3. While some of the value of the older instrument is related to its collectible value, to the artist using it, its the quality of the tone that makes a difference whether the average person in the audience can hear it or not.
Now just change the names of the instruments to high-end audio equipment and use it next time some objectivist tells you there's no difference between electronics because they all measure the same.