May 24, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

When you're going to construct a tall building you first need to dig down to bedrock to can anchor its foundation.

The same can be said for building a high performance music system. Without firm foundations decisions we make in building materials are suspect.

Take for example cables: the nails we use to bind the building parts together. Cables are typically chosen for their synergistic contributions to the overall sound, yet often, they're used as a crutch to prop up a weak foundation.

Imagine you built your system without consideration of proper power conditioning, taking whatever the wall AC gives you. You'd be faced with weaker bass, dirty, grungy, upper harmonic structure to the music. The cables you subsequently choose would likely try to compensate for the failings of the power. You'd find cables that rolled off the upper end, thus reinforcing the lower regions and obfuscating the grunge.

Then one day you decide to fix the AC power. Now your system seems bass heavy, duller, out of whack.

If you have the luxury of starting fresh, make sure you check with your architect first.

It takes some digging to reach bedrock, but once anchored, the rest gets easy.

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17 comments on “Bedrock”

  1. Agreed, Paul. But the foundation for a HIFI-system is far more complex. The first cable discussion I am aware of was focused on speaker cables. Speaker designers checked different thicknesses and materials (copper, silver). Later different geometries and materials with higher purity were introduced. If the speaker designer believed he heard an improvement with a specific cable then he consequently re-voiced his speaker by changing the cross-over design. I barely heard that speaker manufacturers made mandatory recommendations for a specific cable or even used the best-in-class cable for internal wiring. That clearly shows the lack of a basic understanding of the the foundation problem that arises already when setting up the mic-array for the recording and mixing the recorded channels. Wouldn't it be interesting to learn how professional recording and mastering studios design the foundation? I have never heard of a mandatory basic standard for power supply or cable quality for professionals! The probability to find the best tweaking is nearly zero. Thus I see only one reasonable consequence: selecting an active speaker with integrated DAC gives the advantage that you can focus your steps of optimization on the power supply and room acoustics.

  2. Indeed, very few studios go to audiophile lengths in this regard. For most, the cost is prohibitive - most everything is needed in multiples of 24 (or 48, 72, etc.) instead of two. When you need thousands of feet of cable, $1,000 per foot isn't in the budget.

    And practicality/functionality reigns - it has to work in a variety of situations at the drop of a hat.

  3. I'm not really sure what you are talking about. In fact I'm being polite. The design and construction of a high rise building is the result of collaboration among a large number of specialists who coordinate their work. Often it begins by someone hiring an architect who develops a concept acceptable to the buyer. A feasibility study to determine if the structure can be built on the desired location is conducted. Planning boards, that is local municipalities are requested to study the concept to see if it is acceptable. A vast number of specialists begin work. The weight of the building is calculated. Soils engineers conduct test borings to determine the nature of the foundation for the particular location. How fortunate the first skyscrapers were built in Manhattan which has excellent bedrock and is not in an earthquake zone. Then teams of engineers and designers collaborate to design everything from the elevators to the air conditioning system, to the electrical system and dozens of other systems. Since the invention of the elevator by Otis, this type of building became possible. If they are incompetent, this can be the result. Welcome to China but it can happen anywhere people who don't know what they are doing are allowed to take charge and manage to get their hands on land and money.

    Well engineered projects are the result of the collaboration of a large number of subject matter experts whose efforts are coordinated by a project manager. When a project is thrown together by tyros anything can happen.

    As engineered systems go, home hi fi audio systems are not particularly complex even if they can get expensive. They are usually assembled haphazardly and anything can happen. That is why they are re-engineered over and over and over again.

    Electrical engineers have categorized electrical power anomalies into nine categories. The nature and degree of each one has to be determined to rationally justify expensive and often ineffective measures to deal with them if they really exist and are a problem. Many can be mitigated by well designed regulated power supplies. More drastic and expensive solutions are taken when that is not sufficient. Industry has dealt with this problem usually using a double static conversion UPS. It can solve all nine of them. Maximum harmonic distortion is usually under 5% which is satisfactory for any conceivably well designed equipment. Rotary UPSs and rotary hybrids offer even lower distortion but at an even higher price. Before engineers recommend expensive purchases they study the problem by measuring it over time. Sometimes there is no problem or simpler solutions are adequate such as boosting voltage with a buck-boost transformer. Simply going out and buying something without knowing why is not engineering. And advertising expensive equipment based on fear, not specific knowledge of a problem is just plain unethical.

    1. Mark, I am shocked. It was an analogy - a way of suggesting that every system needs a firm foundation.

      But you knew that.

      And UPS have problems trying to deliver low power factor loads - at least the ones most people can afford. They are based on class D technology which struggles with high current peaks and winds up distorting the actual sine wave under low PF loads that often require 70 or so amps of peak current.

      1. Paul, I've installed double static conversion UPSs for data centers that delivered 1.6 million watts. Each chain of controllers and hard drives alone were on 100 amp 3 phase circuits. Where power factor is especially low, rare for anything but large motors, power factor correction capacitors are the solution. They are inexpensive and are used in most new file servers to keep utility line losses to a minimum. Generally for home use they are snake oil being sold to people who think they will reduce their electric bill. They won't. I don't think rotary UPSs have this problem to the same degree. But for home audio systems, these devices are radical overkill. Problems with power in home audio equipment no matter how expensive, short of an outage or serious brownout is a sure sign of lousy power supply design. I've never had any such problem with some of the most advanced and sensitive scientific instruments in the world including such devices as electron microscopes and mass spectrometers. If designers cannot provide a power supply for audio equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars that deals with power problems, what else can't they get right? Small wonder they have to keep coming out with the same class of products over and over and over again to correct their prior shortcomings.

      1. 10 stories, that's funny.

        Everything's up to day in Kansas City.
        They've gone about as far as they can go
        They've gone and built a sky scraper 7 stories high
        About as high as a building ought to grow.

        Once the tallest building in the world, the Woolworth Building in NYC was overshadowed by the Empire State Building, then the World Trade Center and the Sears tower. Today the tallest in the US is the new World Trade Center, just a hair shorter than the Sears tower because of its broadcast antenna.

        The tallest buildings in the world are in other countries. In the US these building were created because real estate was at a premium. One of the necessary components was steel which actually holds the building up. In other countries out in the middle of nowhere where real estate is cheap, they are built for ego alone.

        Personally, I do not like tall buildings anymore, I don't like cities, I don't even like suburbs. Living out in the country is quiet, peaceful, uncrowded, and in a nation like the US where there is so much unused land, the best place to live.

    2. Thanks, Soundmind. Interesting perspective on construction and large scale electrical engineering. You made an excellent restatement of Paul's point in your first paragraph, "How fortunate the first skyscrapers were built in Manhattan which has excellent bedrock..." Couldn't have said it better myself.

      1. I'm going to go not very far out on a really solid limb and bet you could have said it in a whole lot less space. And gotten the point to boot.

  4. I totally agree with this one. Power is something common to every component in your system. I have the following dedicated circuits: 15 amp for my digital, 15 amp for my analog, 20 amp for my amplifiers and finally a 20 amp for my sub(s). At first I couldn't afford the conditioning for all of this, but it provided a great foundation. I tackled the conditioning one at a time, starting with the "upfront" components then the amps. I have yet to tackle the sub. As I tackled the power conditioning, I noticed certain methods of conditioning worked better for digital components vs. analog & the amps. The separate circuits made the varying power conditioning needs easy to isolate.

    I have experimented with putting digital, analog and amps on one 20 amp circuit to see the effect. There is a noticable drop in dynamics.

    I had my basement built out, so the cost of an additional line was minimal. The other thing I did in the buildout is position my equipment on a wall where there is open storage behind it. It makes it much easier to make foundational changed like power. As an example, I'm thinking about an additional line for my projector. The listening room doubles as a home theater. I had the line to the projector connect into the "digital" circuit in the storage area. This makes a dedicated line change very easy.

    Like Paul is saying. Think and plan....

    1. You must have a huge power draw in a large room if one 20 amp circuit can't supply all your needs. In my 12' X18' X9' room for 2-channel, with everything including my sub plugged into my P5, the maximum power draw with painfully loud orchestral/organ passages is 420 watts. With a 1200 watt headroom, I'm nowhere near the 20-amp capacity dedicated line.

  5. I can bring in my case, I tried to buy cables whit percentage of silver because the walls and ceiling of the listening room is sheetrock, not concrete, which absorbs certain frequencies, principalmnete high. The silver wire enhances these frequencies making them more present. The next question would be, if my walls and ceiling are a weakness of the system ?. If so, what would be the perfect material? It will concrete as the main concert halls have that constructive element ?. For me, it has been an adaptive theme, rather than be "the answer" or ideal solution.

  6. The recent addition of a P10 Power Plant was the single biggest improvement in sound quality I have ever made to any sound system I've ever owned. And not by a small margin. It will take me quite some time to get my overall setup re-optimized to reap the full benefit. I wouldn't say things were thrown out of whack, though. Its more of a realization that the compromises you made previously are no longer optimal. System setup is always about compromises.

      1. I had tried various power conditioners, ranging from audiophile devices to a professional-grade UPS. While those things did make a difference, it was generally too small for me consider it worth the hefty cost of the devices. I live in the country, and had concluded that the reason was because I have good, clean power. So when I plugged in the P10, which costs more than three times as much as any of the other devices I had tried, my expectations were not high 🙂

  7. A recent incidence reminds me of the importance of clean AC. The cable going to my TV in the kitchen lost it's outer plastic and silver coloured covering in an area of about six inches. The picture was full of snow and lines but still watchable. I could not figure out the reason. All connections were intact. Then one day I turned the microwave on as the TV was playing. Suddenly the picture disappeared, the screen was full of horizontal and wavy lines and the sound was terribly crackling. I turned the microwave off and the picture and the sound improved but was distorted like it was without the microwave. I took a piece of aluminium foil and wrapped it around the exposed part of the cable and the picture became almost normal. Lessen learned- clean AC is absolutely essential for proper functioning of electronic equipment with higher resolution. Another example is my audio system.After about seven thirty or eight in the evening the sound would suddenly become very clean and sweet. I added a power conditioner and the sound became almost the same as after eight PM.I replaced the power conditioner with an AC regenerator and now the sound is clean and sweet all the time. Regards.

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