Solitary confinement

May 3, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

Remember the big craze for battery operated preamps and phono stages? They were popular because they operated in solitary confinement. Unplugged from the wall, their grounds isolated, their power quiet and non-interactive, battery powered units gave us isolation advantages not shared by AC powered devices.

We care about interactions between equipment because the greater the interplay, the greater the chaos.

What do I mean by chaos?

We have certain expectations of how our equipment should perform. They are usually formed in a vacuum–without consideration of how they will be connected to the outside world. When you choose an excellent sounding power amplifier, for example, do you consider how it might interact with the preamp feeding it, or the speakers it will be driving? I would think most people simply trust its design and, if one model or another has severe issues, those might well be part of public record. In other words, the exception, rather than the rule.

How adequate is your preamp/DAC at driving cables? Your cartridge susceptible to hum? Your turntable isolated from vibration, or power fluctuations?

Mentally placing a product in solitary confinement when making a purchasing decision is only natural. We all do it.

And when we talk about synergy between equipment, how much of that dialog has to do with interactions?

Let’s look at synergy, or the lack of it, tomorrow.

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23 comments on “Solitary confinement”

  1. If I purchase a stereo power amp I should trust that it can drive any speaker within the specs the manufacturer gives for the amp.
    I also expect that the internal power supply of the amp can deliver the current needed. What would you think if the current meter or oscilloscope you bought would change it’s accuracy depending on the amount of current to be measured?
    In other words: Do you want to warn us all, Paul, to ask the manufacturer of a loudspeaker which kind of amp he used when voicing his speaker? In some way it seems you followed this idea when setting up your music room one with the IRS towers asking the help of the speaker’s manufacturer. 🙂

    1. There are lots of different pieces of gear by different manufacturers with different philosophies of design, with very different specs and needs that just happen to have the same connectors. Doesn’t mean you should connect them, or expect them to sound their best if you do.

  2. This is going to get a lot of people angry. I don’t intend it that way but it is the truth as I see it.

    What do audiophiles do? They do instinctively what most people would do. They read magazine reviews, listen to opinions of other audiophiles, sales people, shop, attend shows, read sites like this one. They shop for an amplifier here, a speaker there. In short they buy and assemble things they like individually with the expectation that when they are all put together they will produce the results they want and expect. They try to become educated consumers. As Si Sims said, “an educated consumer is our best customer.” From the postings I read, audiophiles are seldom satisfied for very long. Before you know it, they’re out shopping for or in Paul’s case trying to invent a better something or other. Why? Because once the novelty of the new wears off, they are no longer completely satisfied and they are frustrated.

    Engineers are not trained to think that way when they have to solve problems. They are trained to think in terms of systems. They think from the top down instead of the bottom up. They start with the big picture and then work down to the details. How do they do this? They start with setting specific goals, goals they can quantify and later measure to see if they have achieved them. This is why their first courses start with basic science. If you can’t understand the goal, you can’t reach it. That takes up about two years of a four year program and along with the science comes a lot of math. Then they learn to understand systems. They learn to understand overall performance of systems and how individual elements of a system affect the whole. Lots more math there too. They learn how individual elements of a system behave both independently and in combination. They learn how to assess and take into account inevitable variables systems will encounter. They learn how to engineer and adjust for them, sometimes manually, sometimes automatically. When they’ve done this in a classroom long enough and passed enough exams, they get a piece of paper called a diploma. Then they set out in the world and if they are lucky and want to pursue a career as an engineer, they get a job where they are in effect an apprentice. They get mentored, assigned increasingly complex projects, their performance monitored, take additional courses, connect what they learned in the classroom with the real world. And if they do this long enough and well enough, then after five or ten years they become engineers ready to take on complex assignments on their own. But they are never really on their own. To do their jobs they must connect with a network of other engineers, manufacturers, and others who supply them with data, and help them make decisions to design and assemble systems that will achieve their overall performance goal. Some people who call themselves engineers and have the papers to prove it never really get very good at it. It’s an art based in part on science.

    In this still relatively young science of sound, acoustics, hearing, there is still much basic science to be learned even by the best of them. Of course so called audiophile experts throw up their hands and say “duplicating” a sound heard live from a machine can’t be done. From the foregoing they haven’t got a prayer of success. Even the best of them are in kindergarten while PHDs are struggling to grapple with it. You want to design and build sound systems that duplicate live? Stop studding electronics and start studying sound, acoustics, and hearing. That’s where the real problem and solutions are to be found.

    If you take all this too seriously, you will make yourself miserable and unless you are wealthy you will keep emptying your bank account looking for that next magic silver bullet. My advice, enjoy your hobby, your equipment, your recordings. Don’t expect miracles. I know. I’ve analyzed and understood this problem a long time ago. There’s nothing on the market you can buy at the current state of the art that will get you to where no audiophile has gone before, concert hall realism in a home from a recording. Anyone who says they have is only lying or fooling himself.

    1. Paul, you probably don’t have any actual engineers working for you, hunh?

      Seriously, Mark, we’re most of us NOT miserable, NOT rich, NOT stupid, NOT lying to ourselves, etc.

      Simply enjoying our hobby, and enjoying trying to improve what we have, either with new components if we can afford it, or with tweaks if we can’t (or are mostly happy with what we have, but are curious if more performance could be obtained).

      Would you tell a “car nut” not to get a new (or NOS) carburetor for his lovingly rebuilt ’67 Mustang? We know it’s not “real” – but it goes VROOOMM real nice. : )

      1. An engine here, a transmission there, a suspension from column A, brakes from column B. Mix together and what do you get? A tossed salad.

          1. No, the goal was defined, the problem carefully analyzed and various methods to achieve the goal were considered. Nothing was haphazard. However, it did take some experimentation (sporadically) over an extended period of 4 years to optimize the results. There have been no further changes in 8 years and none are planned. It works exactly as I desired it to.

  3. My straightforward conclusions from Paul’s system views are: 1. Ask the speaker designer for giving you the data for the room conditions and stereo-setup he used for voicing his speakers – and compare this with your own listening room. 2. Prefer integrated system approaches (best: activ speakers being supplied by Wifi with the digital (!) source information) avoiding the infinite (!) number of possible combinations of separates and their interconnects! Nobody has the time and budget to test all combinations for best synergy!

  4. We can TRY, can’t we? : )

    Synergy is the word. That’s what one is looking for. And tastes change – I listen to WAY more jazz than I did when I started building my system, so I now care less about the ability of the system to club me over the head with lots of clean dB than I do about its midrange purity and overall balance.

    Many remarkable improvements in technology happening all the time. I mean, when you have somebody like Arnie Nudell trading in his tube amps (so to speak) for the BHK amps, makes you want to hear what they would do in your system. Though indeed, he could be a shill. That’s always the grain of salt with which you have to take any claims any manufacturer (or manufacturer’s pal) makes. And I can’t afford them. Hopefully they’ll come up with a BHK Jr. ; )

    One has to “conduct experiments” to see if the claims are borne out in your system. No replacement for firsthand experience.

  5. This is going to get some people angry.
    Over the years I made a lot of changes in my soundsystem. Most changes for the better.
    And besides better sound, trying out a new cable, amp or whatever now and then, is an important part of my hobby.
    If you don’t do that (trying out) that can mean a few things :
    1. you are not interested in technical progress
    2. you are interested but deny there is any progress at all (at least in the audio world that is)
    3. you are interested and you can hear there is progress but your measurements won’t allow you to admit it
    4. you are interested and you can hear there is progress and measurements won’t get in the way of what your ears tell you.
    For me 1 is fair enough, 2 is stupid, 3 is pitiful and 4 is open-minded.
    Luckily I’m in group 4. But I’m open-minded enough to see that there are people who like to be (and are) in one of the other groups.
    To each his own.

  6. A great idea. Who knows there may be gem to be acquired. Any way most manufactures produce products which are compatible with most other products. Being compatible is not the same as a perfect match. That requires trial and error on the part of consumers. They generally do not have the equipment to measure electrical characteristics of the equipment they own. Two different pre-amps. can work very well with an amp. Yet one can be a better match. Trial and error. Well worth it if one has the interest. Looking forward to tomorrows post. Keep them coming.Nothing like continuing education. Regards.

    1. Really? Think that sweet sounding 300B SET will work well with a pair of YG Sonja 1.3s? Maybe if you intend to use them as earphones.

      1. I did not get the sense from his post that oliverk was suggesting such a match.

        This is the problem, man. You continually post things that infer that everyone is clueless. Perhaps that’s the idea, though. In which case you’ve crossed over into full-on Trolldom.

        1. Call me all the names you like. I’m not the one constantly shopping for expensive equipment to replace other expensive equipment.

          1. to Soundmind: FYI Dr. AIX today indicated that Nordost is threatening to sue him for his allegations about the power cord demo at Apoxna & he has withdrawn the offending posts, which so impressed you, from his web-site. A word to the wise……

            1. [@stephenk]
              If you want to tell a story please tell the whole story and not only those things that work for you.

              Maybe you do not agree to what Dr. Mark Waldrep says about power cords – of course the people of NordOst don’t agree with it. Have you ever heard of a man who has sued the audiophile cable companies for telling bullshit and selling rubbish?

              Trust your teacher when he tells you that within the natural numbers 1+1=2 even if an “audiophile” tells you that under certain circumstances 1+1=3

              If you do not care about your money you’re welcome to buy the magic ECO 3X fluid from that specific manufacturer to get as they say easily heard effects, with a dramatic increase in the sense of life and presence, greater transparency, wider dynamics and richer colors but don’t be angry if I laugh about it as I laugh about their claims on power cords.


              1. The whole story? In deleted post #1 Waldrep relates that a guy told him that he SAW the Nordost rep increase the preamp volume during a power cord demo to make the more expensive cord sound better. In deleted post #2 Waldrep goes to investigate & discovers that this is NOT true but the more expensive cord does sound louder, he estimates 1-1.5 dB louder. He has no SPL meter & makes no measurement so we are dealing with a subjective impression…was it actually louder ? We don’t know but Waldrep believes it was & his explanation…..2 versions of a tune on the demo CD, one recorded louder than the other, implies an extreme degree of pre-meditated scurrility. A simpler explanation would be an improvement in S/N ratio, less noise in the delivered AC would make the signal sound stronger. Can a power cord actually do that? I don’t know, it was just an alternative explanation that avoids the aura of paranoia in Waldrep’s scenario.

                1. [@stephenk]
                  You gave the answer for yourself.
                  The signal “sounded stronger” what does this mean – louder? Well you know, that a power cord cannot make a signal louder. When there is an improvement in S/N ratio it can be easily measured. Why the hell does not a single manufacturer of “audiophile” power cords then publish these measurements? I’ve looked up a dozen web-pages to see if there were some, it was in vain. Perhaps they do not publish any because there is no difference in S/N ratio. Otherwise it could be a strong argument to increase sales.
                  You wildly speculate about the possible cause of this as you say “stronger sound” but you gave an answer for yourself – you do not know!
                  Those who are sceptic about this kind of power cord demos aren’t paranoid but inquisitive to find out the causes how a 1m power cord after several kilometers of powerline from the powerplant and maybe several hundreds of meters of power cord in the walls till it arrives your flat can have this effect.


                  1. My dear BERND: this is the website of PS Audio. They make power cords. Ask Paul to address your skepticism. The Cable Company will lend you some so you can experiment with your own system.

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