Monday, December 22, 2008

Dynamic Loudspeaker Cones: What’s Best?

Often seen as the “final frontier” when it comes to the hi-fi playback chain. Can the judicious choice of the right dynamic loudspeaker cone material really do wonders for sound quality?

By: Vanessa Uy

As we headlong into the 21st Century, dynamic loudspeakers as a whole is probably the only hi-fi component that did most progress – sound quality wise. And yet the choice of the “perfect” cone material is still a contentious “political” issue when it comes to designing a loudspeaker that not only sounds excellent, but also displays good marketability and salability as well. The following are a sampler of the most widely used cone materials currently on the market.

Paper, as a loudspeaker cone material, has been around probably since the invention of the loudspeaker itself. Paper’s advantages are ease of manufacture, good cost to performance ratio. Its disadvantages are lack of stiffness - which could be a problem when the loudspeaker is forced to play louder than its intended design, generating unwanted resonance and harmonic distortions. Despite of paper’s disadvantages as a loudspeaker cone material, I’m very much in love with oil impregnated paper cones due to it’s lovely midrange tonality and excellent damping properties – provided they’re not played louder than their design intended. Though various schemes of paper composites – like aquaplas - had managed to make paper still one of the most widely used loudspeaker cone materials to date. Though potential hi-fi loudspeaker buyers with very deep pockets tend to avoid paper coned speakers due to its “old fashioned” image.

Polypropylene (later turned into mineral reinforced polypropylene or MRP cone) - commonly referred to as “plastic cones” - was developed during the start of the 1970’s to replace paper as a loudspeaker cone material. Hi-fi buffs fell in love with them because they can be played louder – in comparison to their paper counterparts - without distorting easily. The problem is that when polypropylene loudspeaker cones distort, they don’t distort in a musically consonant manner. Instead they produce a vulgar sounding “quack”. Thus the reason why you don’t see polypropylene cones being used as an electric guitar loudspeaker cone material. But in car stereos, polypropylene cones are often de rigeur.

When kevlar was first manufactured into a loudspeaker cone material, many in the hi-fi community hailed it as the perfect loudspeaker cone material given that it is stiff enough to be used in bullet-resistant body armor. But it is not cheap to manufacture and deteriorates fast when exposed to ultraviolet light, precluding its use outdoors and even in cars that frequent the beach. Though I love it’s neutrality of tone which is very useful when it comes to listening to a well-recorded jazz performance, many hi-fi buffs that I know of – who coincidentally are long-time professional musicians – tend to dislike loudspeakers with kevlar cones because they’re tonality is “too dry”.

Carbon fiber was also hailed by hi-fi buffs when it was first used as a loudspeaker cone material. It is stiff, lightweight thus very low inertia and unlike kevlar, carbon fiber is resistant to ultraviolet radiation – i.e. direct sunlight. Might carry a somewhat stiff price premium, but many seasoned “music lovers” tend to dislike loudspeakers with carbon fiber cones as having a dry tonality. But love them or hate them, carbon fiber coned loudspeakers have gained scores of accolades by respected reviewers and critics in the hi-fi industry and on loudspeaker systems that range from entry level price to the flagship models of seasoned loudspeaker manufacturers.

Thankfully for us in the Free World, aerogel technology wasn’t given to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980’s by former US President Ronald in order to “tweak” those Soviet-era Scud missiles. Known in the hi-fi community as high-definition aerogel, a speaker material with serious aerospace pedigree due to its air-like lightness and aircraft-grade aluminum-like stiffness. High-definition aerogel has been hailed throughout the 1990’s as the best – if not the best – loudspeaker cone material. Light, stiff, and tonally neutral to a fault it was supposedly the perfect loudspeaker cone material, but I still have reservations. Though I often “view” the “perspective” of paper coned loudspeakers as a “duller” version of reality, loudspeakers using high-definition aerogel to my ears sounds as if Mother Nature or God Herself were telling me “you are listening to an abomination of natural order”. I mean aerogel-coned speakers have this very, very, very, very low-level digital-esque “swoosh” / modulated white noise that is there to remind me that what I’m hearing is not the “natural sound” Mother Nature intended me to hear.

Although metal coned loudspeakers also started to become popular during the 1990’s, this technological concept was also cursed with the not-so-easily-acquired-taste syndrome. I mean metal coned loudspeakers are very, very good within their power handling / loudness envelope. But push them a tad too far and you’ll be greeted by the distortions of ringy metal. Probably due to the “oil can” resonance that they exhibit –i.e. metal domed tweeters resonate with a vengeance near 30,000 Hz. That’s why since the revival of the vinyl LP, I’ve been avoiding metal coned speakers – especially with metal dome tweeters – like the plague. Given that even low-cost LP cartridges are flat up to 40,000 Hz and I could still hear with extreme acuity sounds above 20,000 Hz, metal coned speakers are simply just not for me. Plus they also suffer high reject rate during manufacture making their retail price more expensive than their counterparts.

So there you have it, one’s choice for the “perfect” loudspeaker cone material is not just about hard science and engineering, but also of personal taste and artistic inclination. Though the progress in sound quality terms was mostly made via innovations in loudspeaker design toward the end of the 20th Century, designing an excellent sounding loudspeaker and selling enough of it to keep your company and your personnel gainfully employed is still probably the blackest of all arts.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Motor Effects of Dynamic Loudspeakers: Stifling Sound Quality?

Most can say that progress in dynamic loudspeaker technology had been moving sideways for over 30 years now. Given that dynamic speakers operate like electrical motors, does this make them flawed in sound quality terms?

By: Vanessa Uy

Probably 97% - or more – of the loudspeakers being sold on the market today have inner workings based on dynamic loudspeaker operating principles. But since dynamic loudspeakers can be thought of as an electrical motor that moves back and fourth in order to produce sound, does this make then “inherently flawed” when faced the task of converting an electrical signal from a recording (analog or digital) or a live mike feed into sound. Not only just “intelligible” sound, but a sound whose quality is indistinguishable from the “captured” real event.

To test this out for yourself, get a small motor, or better yet a very small low-powered motor that would rotate slowly when connected to the “X1” part of your analog multimeter in it’s ohmmeter mode / resistance measuring mode. If your multimeter’s batteries are fresh, the small motor is now being rotated via 150 milliamperes or milliamps or mA of current. If you look at the multimeters display, it is now probably reading between 15 to 20 (ohms) or so as the motor rotates freely. If you try to touch gently the tip of the small motors rotating shaft to slow it down slightly / loading the motor, the measured resistance across the motor’s terminals would fall to between 10 or 8 or so. If you’ll hold the shaft to make the motor completely stop rotating, the resistance reading across the motor’s terminals would now read 5 or a bit lower. Don’t worry about burning out the motor because the ohmmeter function of your multimeter / multitester produces only a miniscule level of current as noted previously. But don’t do it for too long because it unnecessarily depletes the multimeter’s battery.

You might now from our experiment the explanation on why a loudspeaker system's measured impedance across the audio band varies widely like those snazzy graphs and tables published on leading hi-fi magazines. For example, a speaker system’s impedance is rated at 8 or so, It’s measured impedance can vary widely from as low as 2.7 ohms to as high as 40 ohms across the audio band – i.e. from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Thus speakers whose impedance dips to very low levels – approaching 1 ohm – coupled with a nasty phase angle usually spell bad news for tube-based amplifier designs.

But the “motor effects” inherent in dynamic speaker operation is not the only problem plaguing our quest for hi-fidelity. Materials used in the speaker’s cone construction can have an affect on sound quality too. Paper has been a de rigeur material for cones for a very long time because it “flatters” the inherent tonal qualities of the majority of musical instruments that hi-fi enthusiasts listen to. Like Stradivarius violins for example. Or a Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall Amplifier stack in anger can really sound lifelike on a well-constructed paper cone speaker. When plastic cone – or more properly known as mineral filled polypropylene - speakers were first marketed during the 1970’s due to their “attractive” measured responses and high power handling, they have an “unintentional” benefit of flattering / beautifying a cello recording’s tonal properties.

But other materials did become fashionable in speaker cone use during the end of the 1980’s, other exotica like aerogel – an aerospace material so light that Saddam Hussein coveted it for Scud Missile “tweaking” in the run-up to Operation Desert Storm – came into use. Followed by carbon fiber and cones made of ultra-lightweight magnesium metal composites all for the quest of better sound quality. Despite it’s inherent limitations, dynamic loudspeaker design did make significant progress since the 1970’s. It’s just that good sound don’t come cheap and your local discount bin is very unlikely to stock quality hi-fi speakers, even those entry-level value-for-money models priced under 400 US dollars or so.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Can Radioactivity Affect Your Hi - Fi?

When high-end audio manufacturers publicly profess the practice of aging the lead and silver components used in their products, is this a sign that there is truth about radioactivity – especially alpha particles – can affect sound quality?

By: Vanessa Uy

Ever since Audio Note publicly announced during the 1990’s that they practice aging the silver used in their most expensive tube-based power amplifier for 20 years, almost everyone keeping up with the trends in the hi-fi world instantly showed their skepticism. Especially when all of the silver that was mined during the previous 5,000 years or so was formed countless millions of years before – probably in the nuclear processes of the interior of our present Sun’s predecessor. But a “fortunate few” hi-fi enthusiasts who have a working knowledge of nuclear physics have also voiced their concerns whether the Weinberg - Salam Theory of Weak Interactions has an audible effect on an audio component’s sound quality in a negative way.

Given that the main purpose of aging silver and other metals is to wait out for the unstable radioisotopes present in this metals to decay into something more stable. And since these unstable radioisotopes emit alpha particles when they decay, thus causing interference with the electron flow that makes electronic devices function. Sometimes I wonder though if precious metal mining firms ever used nuclear devices to mine silver inadvertently contaminating the silver with strontium 90, which has a half-life of 29 years.

A case in point is Audio Note’s Ongaku Amplifier – famed for being one of the most expensive tube-based audio power amplifier in the world – is also famous for using silver that has been aged for 20 or more years in the critical components (audio signal processing paths) in it’s construction. Given that this particular amplifier’s price (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) has managed to stay within 250,000 US dollars for the past 13 years can be considered a “sensible” purchase compared to items of it’s ilk.

Pertaining to the silver used in the Audio Note Ongaku Amplifier, it is made up of medically pure silver. Using silver prices back in October 20, 2008 – the last time I checked – at US$ 9.50 an ounce (Troy ounce) or 9.50 dollars per 31.1035 grams in metric. The 9.3 kilograms of silver used in the amplifier costs US$ 2,850. Given that Audio Note aged the silver used in construction of the amp – probably to reduce stray alpha particles since our planet’s interior is naturally radioactive. And given this particular amplifier’s very, very excellent sound quality, the amp’s quarter of a million price tag seems that more reasonable – if you can afford it. Maybe alpha particles and other ionizing radiation can really affect the sound quality of your audio components.

But basing on what is currently known – in reality based on studies done in the 1990’s – vacuum tubes are not easily affected by ionizing radiation. This is the reason why during the Cold War that the Soviet Union seems cavalier when it comes to concerns about the electromagnetic pulse – or EMP – produced by a nuclear explosion “frying” transistorized / solid-state electronic equipment many miles away from the point of detonation. This is so since the Soviets still used vacuum tube-based technology until their collapse in 1991. Vacuum tubes are resistant to EMP onslaught and can be reset if they manage to shut down when an H – Bomb explodes near its vicinity.

So is the use of “aged” silver in vacuum tube-based amplifiers merely just “gilding the lily”? Well, it depends. Given the Audio Note Ongaku’s 250,000 dollar price tag, using 3 grand’s worth of 20 year old (or older) silver – probably sourced from the Hunt Brother’s silver hoard back in 1980 – can serve as a unique selling point for such a luxury item. But since vacuum tubes – especially ones designed during the 1920’s like the 300B – handle very robust signals compared to their transistor / solid-state counterparts, the engineering merits of such design considerations can become controversial. Since good engineering is based on the principle of doing something for a dollar when another person is doing the same thing for five.

Currently, the largest users of silver in the manufacture of “modern” electronic components are digital camera manufacturers. In practice though, audio components using silver tend to have a bright sound – i.e. boosted toward the high frequencies. Since vacuum tube-based amplifiers tend to sound warm in nature, then the use of silver – especially aged ones for consistency and just to be sure – tend to make tube amps sound more natural or balanced.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sounds Above 20,000 Hz: Are They Important to Audiophiles?

Even though a disparagingly large number of people say that only dogs or bats care about sounds about 20,000 Hertz, but is there any truth in this? Does ultrasonic sound belong in hi-fi?

By: Vanessa Uy

Dogs, bats, and those “10-year old Classical Music wünderkinder” are probably the least-explored and exploited high-end audio market on Earth. And yet nobody ever – not even the multinational consumer electronic manufacturers – admit on the mainstream press about how difficult it is to digitally record sound waves with frequencies above 20,000 Hertz. Despite of over 15 years worth of anecdotal evidence among the hi-fi community that sounds above the “supposedly 20 thousand Hertz human audibility limit” or ultrasonic frequency sounds indeed has a bearing on sound quality.

Despite of a widely publicized (or is that declassified?) during the 1990’s US Army research on psycho-acoustics that identified parts of the inner ear capable of detecting airborne sound waves at 80,000 Hertz (four times the oft accepted 20,000 Hertz limit). Many of the biggest sound-equipment manufacturers still kept assuring their customers that sounds with frequencies above our threshold of hearing is of no consequence to their product’s sound quality. But we the audiophile community soldiered on. We even experimented with piezoelectric supertweeters capable of producing airborne sound waves above 20,000 Hertz.

Technically, the problem of digitally recording sound waves with a degree of faithfulness to the original sound or fidelity is no way much easier than the analog recording systems of yore that digital recording intends to replace. Even standard compact discs whose highest frequencies reach only 22,050 Hertz and yet it requires almost 800 megabytes of storage space to save 80 minutes worth of music. SACD s and other high-resolution audio formats whose frequency bandwidth are twice to five times that of redbook CD requires four times the data space, which necessitates the use of a visible-light red laser for playback. Despite the state-of-the-art sound quality and technical tour de force most high-resolution digital music formats have been relegated to the curiosity museum; Either due to lack of promotion or fear of music piracy. Isn’t the cause of music piracy is that the non-audiophiles – i.e. 99.9999% of the population – has wholeheartedly adopted the good enough mentality when it comes to sound quality?

Another problem of the quality improvement in wide-bandwidth digital audio is that most of the sound quality improvement occurs far from the frequency of interest, like SACD s and DVD-Audio recordings of purist acoustic Classical and Jazz music are often praised by audiophiles for their grain-free midrange frequencies and tight bass. Only on music that contains strongly struck cymbals like Heavy Metal Rock Music reissues is the improvement on high-frequency reproduction is noted during listening sessions.

To me, the hi-fi industry today – especially those that are just mere subsidiaries of gigantic consumer electronic companies – will forever be reluctant to promote the concept of audio systems. Especially those capable of faithfully reproducing sounds above 20,000 Hertz because kids, teen-age girls, dogs, bats or anyone with ultrasonic hearing are not so willing to pay the seven digit telephone-number price tags these high-ticket items are likely to be priced. It is one of Mother Nature’s ultimate act of cruelty, by the time you can afford the audio system of your dreams the onset of age-related hearing loss starts to manifest itself. So say goodbye to ultrasonic hearing. Especially once you’ve reached the wrong side of thirty, and no your Veruca Salt CD s are not getting worn down or getting to sound duller.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Demystification of Peter W. Belt

He used to be frowned upon by the audio mainstream for his “left field” views during the late 1980’s, Peter Belt’s theories were later proven to be fact as the 1990’s wore on. Will his more “radical views” be proven otherwise with time?

By: Vanessa Uy

Though being labeled as a mystic has its pros and cons, Peter W. Belt could would past muster being called a rock star – albeit the most unconventional one to date. If DJ s were already passing themselves off as rock stars in the 21st Century, shouldn’t people who make listening to recorded music more enjoyable be considered as rock stars too? Anyway, you can consider yourself as a hard core audiophile if you have heard of Peter W. Belt, of his company: PWB Electronics in Leeds, England or of his more “iffy” advises on audio tweaking. But if you’re like me who have found out that over 90% of his radical views have been proven true in first hand experience or have been proven in more technical electronic journals like EMC Test and Design, then consider yourself welcome to the wonderful world of Peter W. Belt. For the sake of the uninitiated, let us discuss first how Peter W. Belt became famous in the hi-fi audio world. Then dissect a number of his relatively “radical” theories and decide for yourself – either through experimentation and or firsthand experience – whether these hold water.

First and foremost, Peter W. Belt is a highly qualified electronics engineer who was able to manufacture and market well-rated electrostatic speaker of his own design and electrostatic headphones during the 1970’s and the 1980’s. But during those times, he’s neither orthodox nor a mainstream part of the hi-fi establishment. The most damning of Peter Belt’s criticism came in the form of his so-called “hi-fi tweaks” that are based on very new and cutting edge electronic theories that have not yet seeped through to the civilian populace. Most damning of all is the fact that almost all of these so-called tweaks are relatively inexpensive, and could make the subjective (i.e. perceived) sound quality of inexpensive audio kit sound magnitudes better than their more costly counterparts with no tweaks applied. And these things made Peter Belt less than welcome with both manufacturers and customers in the hi-fi world during the late 1980’s.

Then the 1990’s rolled along and came with it the first step of the long road to vindication of Peter W. Belt and his theories. As the consumer electronic manufacturing conglomerates – i.e. personal computer and audio gear makers – started to adopt electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) awareness, an aspect of one of Peter Belt’s theories can now be scientifically scrutinized. Belt used to demonstrate in the 1980’s that a small and usually overlooked ambient electromagnetic fields in a typical living / listening room could seriously affect the sound quality of audio gear. So he tried various methods of EMI / RFI (electromagnetic interference / radio-frequency interference) shielding and gasketting i.e. Faraday Cages. These methods did work with varying degrees of effectiveness the problem now is that it is very hard to objectively measure the subjective improvements in sound quality. Unlike the field strengths of EMI / RFI which can be easily measured by a field strength meter in units of V / m (volts per meter). You would need to generate EMI / RFI fields at least 1,000 times the existing ambient field readings in a typical listening room just to measure the interference effects in a typical audio gear via conventional means. This just proves the versatility of the human ear, not to mention the proverbial “golden ears” of typical audio / hi-fi enthusiasts.

The other often referred “radical theory” of Peter W. Belt is on how turning platters – of LP turntables and CD players – can have a noticeable effect on the sound quality of your audio gear. Though I’ve yet to experience first hand those “platter accessories” intended to improve your LP turntable’s sound quality, the ones intended for CD players – like the STATMAT - do improve the unit’s sound quality. The ones marketed for CD player’s works on the principle of limiting the magnitude of static electricity – i.e. triboelectric field suppression – that’s generated when a CD player’s “platter” revolves at high speed. This static suppression devices work for at least two reasons, first of all the active electronics used to process the digital signals being read of the pits and bumps of the CD disk are CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) devices. CMOS devices are very sensitive to static electricity and can even be rendered inoperable – i.e. damaged – by high levels of ESD (electrostatic discharge). We’re talking of ESD here several magnitudes higher than that a typical person generates by walking across a carpet and getting a shock as he or she tries to turn the doorknob. Second, if you are fortunate enough to use a gallium arsenide-based night vision goggles (NVG) to see a helicopter landing at night, you’ll notice that a helicopter rotor generates static electricity of magnitude that’s visible enough to be seen by NVG gear as it lands. You’re CD as it rotates at high speeds inside the player does this too. Even if the electrostatic buildup near your CD player’s laser assembly is not of magnitude that would burn-up the junctions of the CMOS devices, this electrostatic build-up can cause the signals to phase shift 45°, 90°, or even higher. This will cause the absolute phase of the signal appear inverted. These phase anomalies can affect the timing of the music, with relatively disastrous consequences on the quality of the reproduction. The phase and timing issue is probably the most contentious reason that divides the respective merits between analog and digital music, and yet there are mitigating external factors that came into being - especially when it comes to electrostatic build-up in CD replay.

These are just the few aspects of Peter W. Belt’s theories that had been proven so far to have a bearing on sound quality. His views on cryogenically treating audio components have also been proven to be effective. The interconnect I use are of the cryogenically treated variety and I swear by them. Even musical instruments are joining in the cryogenically treated bandwagon. Dan Markley marketed bass guitar strings that are cryogenically treated back in 1992, and many musicians – from heavy metal to jazz musicians – swear by their improved sound quality and consistent feel. Even firearms have joined in the fray. Looks like Peter W. Belt will get his vindication after all.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Hi – Fi ‘s Green Credentials: More Hype than Myth?

Ever sine electronic or e-waste became an environmental issue due jour, should we hi – fi enthusiast remind everyone again our green our hobby is like we supposedly did 10 or so years ago?

By: Vanessa UY

After seeing a BBC documentary about the sheer amount of plastic waste piling up on the Pacific island of Midway, especially plastic housings of pre-loved personal computers, I asked myself: “Why aren’t there hi – fi related parts out there like the synthetic wood used on good hi-fi speakers?” Another environmental group – Greenpeace – was recently (or is that perennially) vocal about the e-waste issue especially with regard to substances that are dangerous to human health like lead, cadmium, and arsenic used in a typical PC, mobile phones and other mass market PC related product. (Should Greenpeace also lecture to Iraqi insurgents not to use e-wastes as electronic triggers for their IED ‘s, since it’s dangerous to the health of US troops?) But seriously, has anyone wondered why hi-fi enthusiasts are not chucking their pre-loved gear into the garbage bin with similar frenzy as the PC crowd?

Though there are people who refurbish pre-loved PC ‘s, usually these are donated to impoverished parts of the world to promote computer literacy. The person doing the refurbishing is likely not the PC ‘s original owner. When a hi-fi gear becomes obsolete or worse yet “give up the ghost”, their owners either give them away to someone who is new to the hobby (usually a sibling or a very close friend) or cannibalized for the still functional parts if its busted beyond repair. Hi-fi enthusiasts regard their gear with such reverence that the only time you see their audio systems shattered and scattered in the middle of the street is when a 2,000-pound JDAM strays into their listening room. A friend of mine – an unabashed vacuum tube amplifier enthusiast - has his e-mail inbox filled to the brim with request for vacuum tubes, which have lived out their useful lives to be used in an art installation. To me, I even wonder if this is environmentalism or fanaticism.

Even though we never throw away our gear even after becoming obsolete (I’m even hanging on to my great grandmother’s 78 R.P.M. shellacs), our hobby can’t be considered completely green. Those “old school” audio amplifiers are very power hungry – even on standby. But given today’s high cost of grid electricity, most of us are either embracing photo voltaic – storage battery energy systems or are now too busy to listen to more than four hours a week on our audio systems. At least my pre-owned audio interconnect cables are not choking a flock of albatross in the middle of the Pacific.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Have Video Will Travel

Audiophiles are forever resentful when state-of –the-art video technology become their despotic overlords. Have we seen this coming?

By: Vanessa Uy

Ever since George Lucas tackled the problem of insufficient sound quality that exists in an overwhelming majority of commercial movie theaters not doing justice of the "soundtrack" i.e. the musical score and sound effects of his masterpiece “Star Wars” back in the late 1970’s. By establishing his THX program and together with Dolby, finally made a new dimension available to the moviegoers – namely good quality sound. I do admit that most horror movie’s “scariness factor” can be dramatically increased when the desolate sonic ambiance of a quiet cemetery or a haunted house can be faithfully recreated inside a movie theater. Thus the excellent results of George Lucas’ THX program was hijacked by the consumer electronics industry to sell their “Home Theater” concept. Maybe “Home Theater” is much easier to sell because the consumer electronics industry can’t figure out how to include pimps, hookers, and cocaine peddling drug dealers when they tried to sell us “Home Disco” back in the late 1970’s.

Despite concerns over high electricity consumption and the ensuing enlargement of my personal “carbon footprint”, my personal disdain – make that cynicism – over the “Home Theater / Surround Sound” industry is largely to my very personal tastes and aesthetics. Most of the “multimedia stuff” I watch domestically are what a majority of people would consider “old”. To be watching a DVD of that old Frank Sinatra version of The Manchurian Candidate or an episode of Coronation Street just four feet in front of a 3,000 dollar 150 inch plasma screen with a THX certified surround sound system is a tad too overkill for me.

The audiophile community has since harbored resentment, not only because the home theater industry made their hobby more expensive than it actually is. But also by actively – I mean actively - perpetuating the fallacy that a good audio system must / should have a large video monitor that costs similar to a budget Japanese car and is surround-sound capable with speakers littered all around the listening room. Now, the pimps, hookers, dealers, and junkies (even Osama Bin Laden?) can now come to your home via the state-of-the-art video monitor. Ok, I’ll admit that it’s a technological “Stepping Stone” to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Holodeck” technology. But should we the consumer foot the bill for these companies R&D development? We’re not walking banks you know.

In my opinion, the consumer electronics industry has been exploiting the “video bandwagon” for one thing only – it sells. So if your selling a bona fide “Luxury Item” that most people can really do without, you should exploit the sense that they use most even if not conscientiously – their vision. Video monitors sell so easily because overwhelmingly most people use their sense of sight more than they use their sense of hearing. The “latest technology” catchphrase being used as a unique selling point describing the improved quality of the video monitors that these companies are selling are easily manifest by sight alone. The old adage of “to see is to believe” really applies when it comes to touting the improved quality of the latest models of video monitors that they are trying to sell.

The only thing that bothers me though is the way today’s consumer electronics “marketing men” use the old adage of “to see is to believe” in perpetuating the myth that sound quality is unimportant. They rely on oscilloscopes and PC compatible audio analyzers to show – or make visually manifest - how excellent their latest audio amplifiers perform. They do this even though a tube-based amplifier using technology form an era when Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower was still the president of the United States is more beautiful and real sounding than their latest model. Home Theater as a concept is really great, but it can’t quite compete yet with this thing we call “real life”.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Romancing Black Gate Capacitors

What is it about Black Gate capacitors that installing them in your audio amplifier’s power supply always result in a dramatic improvement in sound quality, or is the perceived improvement just in our heads (and ears) as the current wisdom of meter reading audio engineers attest?

By: Vanessa Uy

Anyone who practices DIY (Do it Yourself) hi-fi surely have come across with one of the audioworld’s most revered electrical components – Black Gate capacitors. Often used as power - supply filtering capacitors in many high – end power audio power amplifiers. Black Gate capacitors especially the “lower cost” Japanese versions manufactured by Rubicon had since become available - as replacement parts sold in electronic parts retail supply stores - to the DIY hi-fi hobbyist. And since their use have sparked the debate between subjective and objective ways of assessing the sound quality of an audio power amplifier. But as hi-fi enthusiasts later knew, other “sections” of the audio chain like the preamplifier / signal controller’s power supply section of a typical audio system. And even the power supply of the CD / DVD or other front - end player will benefit in improved sound quality when their "stock" power supply capacitors are replaced / augmented with Black Gates. But before we proceed further, here’s a brief primer on what are Black Gate capacitors.

Black Gate capacitors are a premium grade of electrolytic polarized capacitors specially constructed as to have a much lower effective series resistance (ESR) or impedance than cheaper electrolytic capacitors. Probably designed and marketed during the latter half of the 1970’s, Black Gate capacitors were probably built by their creators for use in high frequency switching mode power supplies due to their low ESR. But this didn’t deter audiophiles, DIY hi-fi enthusiasts and tweakers from using them on the linear power supplies that convert the ordinary 60 Hz AC household current into the DC used to power audio equipment because it made them sound good. During the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, almost all Black Gate capacitors were manufactured by a Japanese electrical and electronic manufacturing concern called Rubicon. Rubicon became explicitly linked with these capacitors because at the time – especially in the 1970’s – Japan was still a “low wage” country which was a bit later replaced by Hong Kong and later Taiwan as the low cost production capital of the world. Because Rubicon Black Gate capacitors were relatively cheap, hi-fi enthusiasts freely experimented with them without the feel of burning their wallet if they accidentally “cooked” one. Thus Rubicon Black Gates became the raison d’être of DIY hi-fi.

But by June 1995, Rubicon – the Japanese manufacturer of Black Gate capacitors, has ceased production of the famed premium grade electrolytic capacitors. The move was perceived by hi-fi enthusiasts as being similar to Porsche quitting the manufacture of the 911 because it can’t make them as expensive as Ferrari’s megabuck sports cars. Keith Parker of Rubicon, London, said: “the Black Gates were a 20 - year - old design (in 1995) unsuitable for mass production, so they had to be hand assembled. Many of our newer electrolytics such as PS2, YXB, and YXF perform every bit as well when used properly”. In my experience so far, Rubicon’s PS2, YXB, and YXF electrolytic capacitors are often used in mid-priced (US$500 – US$1,000) DACs (Digital to Analogue Converters) manufactured in 1995 and beyond. Despite of Rubicon ceasing production of Black Gate capacitors, Jelmax, who own the Black Gate design, still manufactures the capacitors albeit at prices much steeper than the Japanese Rubicon versions. These pricier version of Black Gates were often used by Audionote one of the most respected names in tube based audio amplifiers.

In practice, hooking – up Black Gates to your system really does wonders no matter what kind of music you like. I mostly listen to guitar based heavy metal music at unamplified drum kit sound levels, and believe me, they do tend to sound as if the musicians are in front of you. Poorer recordings are redeemed by making them “listenable” over prolonged periods and can even make you conclude that this particular sound is what probably the record engineer / producer (or the artist) intends it to sound. Black Gate capacitors are probably the only tweak you need that makes listening to music more pleasurable without taking psychotropic drugs or anything similar. The bad news is if you bought hundreds of dollars of audio analyzing equipment like the latest ones by Hewlett Packard which can be connected to your Windows Compatible home Personal Computer, the output waveform of your amp remains the same before or after tweaks despite what your ears tell you. Believe me, existing audio analyzing equipment like the one I just described can be “stone deaf” when it comes to sound quality – unless you’re looking for “rogue submarines”. So better spend that money on other stuff like CDs, or give it to charity if it is really burning a hole in your pocket.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

High Definition Multimedia Content Anyone?

Does the latest generation of downloadable high definition (HD) multimedia content worth viewing and hearing in our dedicated HD-ready home theater set-ups?

By: Vanessa Uy

Nowadays, HD (high definition) multimedia content (audio and video) that can be downloaded from the net via your own home PC is of such quality that most of them-if not all- deserve to be viewed and heard in your existing HD-ready home theater system. If you’re like me – as most of anyone in the audiophile community- who thinks that your PC and home theater system should not mix (i.e. share the same outlet) because the former can degrade the performance of the latter must face a somewhat insurmountable problem. How to send that high definition movie -with the attendant surround sound data- that you legally downloaded from the net, from your PC to your home theater set up?

There are a number of systems in which you can deliver/send that HD content you have downloaded from the web. One of them is a relatively new technology - which uses your mains/ac line to send your data. Consumer devices that utilize this principle of sending data only came to the market near the end of 1997. So the ones currently available in your local AV/computer store not only works better, it’s likely to be cheaper as well thanks to almost ten years of progress. This has the advantage of avoiding the clutter that can be created when installing the necessary data-transfer cables. The problem with this system is that if you own a state-of-the-art home theater system, you probably bought with it a very good dedicated mains/ac line filter to maintain the consistently good performance of your home theater system while protecting it from electrical interference and lightning strikes. The same mains/ac line conditioner blocks the digital data that you intend to send down your mains/ac lines. Another way to send your multimedia data while avoiding the clutter of additional cables is via WIFI or wireless data transfer systems. The current generation of WIFI systems can easily handle the bandwidth required in sending HD multimedia content but will be easily vulnerable to signal interference especially if you use your mobile phone while using the WIFI system. If you want to maintain signal integrity while transferring HD multimedia data, Ethernet networks are a good choice. A word of warning though because these systems involve additional wiring if you are squeamish about the clutter factor. The latest “Cat 6” or category 6 high speed Ethernet connections are a good choice and could be a very good investment because of it’s future proof status. This is due to the fact that it can handle data transfer speeds of 10 Gigabits per second and anything faster is yet in the far off future.

I just hope that the circa-2007 PC and AV convergence will bear the fruits of a better audio and video quality that doesn’t cost the earth. Unlike the divergence of 10 or 15 years ago were hi-fi manufacturers have the luxury of producing and selling obscenely expensive AV equipment with impunity. Since all of our present media formats are digital in one form or another, convergence is inevitable due to the fact that digital data is both robust and universal.

Will “We7” Save the Music Industry?

Will Peter Gabriel’s “We7” make music downloads equitable for musicians, music lovers and record label executives?

By: Vanessa Uy

Slated to be launched on June 2007, Peter Gabriel – supported “We7” not only promises to please musicians and record label executives but also provide a legal and legitimate music download service that’s free of charge for those who have acquired a taste of Napster’s “poisoned fruit.” The music downloads on “We7” are free in the sense that music lovers and/or fans don’t have to pay a single cent to the site. The site itself uses the revenue created by the adverts on the site itself to pay the musicians and record label executives according to how often their “works” are downloaded. Another “Bolshevist” feature of this site is that users are encouraged to share the music that they downloaded to other music lovers so that they will also “fall in love” with “We7”. To me this is a far better proposition than Digital Rights Management or DRM.

Sound quality issues aside, the downloadable music phenomena on the web has the advantage of worldwide accessibility that is quantum leaps ahead compared to traditional music distribution systems like record stores-even specialist ones. For example: the freak commercial success of Ed McMahon’s “Star Search” alumnus Tracey Spencer during 1989 has been a boon to music lovers everywhere who are into the politically-correct-side-of-altruism message. But a follow up of something similar has been slow in coming. The posthumous success of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to American MTV audiences in 1998 was much delayed due to the slowness of traditional music distribution systems back then. Even though a handful of adventurous music lovers has been enjoying the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the US since the mid- 1980’s. If you seek to introduce a more adventurous variety to your musical taste, its much easier today via on- line music downloads. The Turkish-German R&B sensation Muhabbet became well known via the Internet. Muhabbet means to talk to each other in Turkish, has gained enough fame for his talent to be noticed. And now, Muhabbet has become UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador. Interested parties can contact Muhabbet at

I just hope that “We7” doesn’t forget the sound quality aspect of their site because as a legal music download site, sound quality can serve as a unique selling point for a site that supports the welfare of hardworking musicians and others in the music biz. As Peter Gabriel is a humanitarian-at-heart, the extent of “We7’s” benefits could put a major dent on extreme poverty. But for now, on line music download services like “We7” provides a level playing field for musicians anywhere in the world who are very talented but still lack the recognition they rightfully deserve.

Oral Sects

Do audiophiles have a special language of their own, or is it just a symptom of the perception on how skeptical people see as the persistent delusion that everyone of us perpetuate on a daily basis?

By: Vanessa Uy

Ever since I’ve learned how to read and write, I’ve always had a closeted fascination for anthropology. It might be because there’s been a consensus in the anthropological community of late that of all the 6,000 languages documented globally, only half of them are taught or passed on to the next generation. Is this a foreboding that the audiophile community is in danger of waning away into oblivion?

The terms that are also used by those- analytical- bunch called “engineers” whether of the electronic, acoustic, or of the communications persuasion will not be discussed here to avoid duplication. Here, we concentrate on the more subjective terms that can only be assessed by first hand listening.

One of these subjective terms is called “audiophilia nervosa” which means someone is more concerned on how there favorite musical piece. For example Beethoven’s Ninth/Ode to Joy will sound on a certain brand or audio system set-up as opposed to whether the music in question is well-performed or inherently well-composed in the first place. To me, this is the root cause of some audiophile’s apparent dissatisfaction of their hi-fi equipment they already have. Thus spending ungodly amounts of money in perpetual equipment upgrade in search of that “perfect sound”. If you think you are suffering from this sort of mental illness, better take a long hard look at your record/music collection.

Musicality is also a very subjective term. It means when certain stereo equipment can replicate not only the sound of the recorded music being played but also the emotion the artist or performer is trying to convey. As opposed to sounding just like a collection of electronic equipment and speakers. A certain audiobuddy of mine has a rig with a penchant of replicating the sound of a heavy metal band drum kit, albeit a drum kit being played in an acoustically treated space. Civilians/non-audiophiles hate my audiobuddy’s system for the reason that they can’t hear the tweeter working. All they hear are various cymbals, rim shots, and drum skins. Mind you these are the same “civilians” who like their tweeter to sound like a cricket or a cicada screaming its guts out.

Imaging and soundstaging is more akin to using visual descriptions to gauge your audio system’s capability. The individual sounds comprising a sonic ensemble. And how accurately your audio system differentiates them in their respective locations in space is known as imaging. While soundstaging is about how your audio system projects the sum total of the individual sound images from left to right of the speakers or to the front to back of them. Soundstaging usually applies to traditional two-channel stereo where the performance is happening in front and this is the way we (my audiobuddies and I) preferred it. The lead guitarist never ever sneaks up behind me (carrying a 120 lb. Marshall Amplifier and speaker stacks) in real life.

To me, the one that takes the cake is the term called “British sound” or to describe a sound system as “British sounding”. To me, it might be because the Brits have been making hi-fi kit for a much longer time and in greater variety when compared to other industrialized nations. Or more likely, it’s because the typical British audiophile has a certain size and construction of listening rooms: medium sized in global terms, wood floored, and with walls made of plaster or brick. They also prefer a more upbeat sound, or they prize the sense of pace, rhythm, and timing in their audio systems.

So, there you have it. Feel free to drop us a line if there’s anything that we missed, or if you have a first hand experience about these mysterious audiophile phenomena.

Of Hi – Fi and Humanitarian Relief

In the service of informing those who ask while risking in reiterating the obvious, the article contributors of this blogspot who are audiophiles DO help the unfortunate. Do our doubters care too?

By: May Anne Uy

As one of the contributors who’s been a hi – fi enthusiasts for more than ten years, I may currently own a stereo set-up that helped CARE and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) back in August of 1998. At that time, The Third Annual Summer Against Hunger was underway. The event’s underwriters were lead by The Cable Company ( The underwriters donated up to 10% of my stereo system’s price to CARE and IRC. Looks like my pride and joy donated 300 US dollars to CARE and IRC back in 1998.

Also, each of us has around 300 US dollars each currently invested in Muhammad Yunus inspired microfinance programs in our country. Like the Sustainable Microfinance Services for the Filipino Entrepreneurial Poor which has been of great help to the small farmers living in rural areas. And also a good reason for going out to the country for the program’s biannual “stockholders” meetings.

Speaking of Burma’s / Miyanmar’s military’s bloody crackdown on dissidents, the two Burmese families presently renting in our apartment had been granted “rent amnesty” for three months. This move –to me - is like hitting two birds with one stone. Because I can help these families alleviate their suffering while exerting moral pressure (a politically correct equivalent to sticking it) to the Burmese military junta by “harboring dissidents”.

Lastly, I purchased that John Lennon inspired Darfur Crisis Relief double CD album even though I liked only three of the artists featured on that CD. I hope Amnesty International will do something about this. By the time the crisis in Darfur ends, I’ll still be very hard – to – please musically that is. I’m just a sucker when it comes to good causes.

How I Became an Audiophile

Despite of being introduced to very good sounding audio equipment and the tunes to go with it at the tender age of nine, for good or bad, it’s a journey that won’t end within a foreseeable future.

By: Vanessa Uy

Of all the “lunatic fringe” hobbies available to the relatively- peaceful-industrial-suburb-dweller since the end of World War II, high-end audio is probably one of the most misunderstood. This hobby has always been plagued by an image problem of being a very expensive and elitist pursuit, populated by music snobs who are easily offended by the opinions of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their views. Here in the Philippines, most people can’t buy at whim audio equipment whose price tags is the same as an effective military junta. Plus the supposedly “great” music scene that’s not to our tastes, pirated software of dubious quality of those musicians not to our tastes is a very good reason to go into do-it-yourself hi-fi. So the odds are stacked against us.

The good news is luck is on my side. I have a good, make that great, “audiophile mentor.” I learned from my “audiophile mentor” how to “MacGyver” my sound system from leftover components of the “U.S. Military-Industrial-Complex stationed here and they say “e-wastes” are bad. There is also the “garage sale” route in acquiring equipment and tweaking which my mentor attributes to the hours of watching “MacGyver” during the 1980’s.

Sometimes my mentor and I are fortunate enough to be able to visit “hi-fi” shows staged in neighboring Singapore or Hong Kong. This shows always bought us a sense of validation when we found out the hi-fi systems we assembled ourselves have a sound quality comparable to C.D. player, amplifier, speaker set-up worth U.S.$5,000 to U.S.$10,000. This just shows how skill and artistry can reward you. Since hi-fi is an evolving technological hobby despite “old technology” workhorses like vacuum tube amps and vinyl LPs which still manage to sound more organic than CDs, it’s best to be updated by really good hi-fi publications like Stereophile and Hi- Fi World. Looks like I’m hooked into this “noble pursuit” for life.

Sad to say that this isn’t currently possible with the mass- market audio in heavy commercial rotation on TV and the papers. Specialty Hi - Fi shops are a good bet. If your in- the- know of audio equipment, garage sales are a good source of bargains.
In my actual use a good audio system provides a deeper insight on what the musician is trying to convey. Your CDs doesn’t have to be of “audiophile persuasion”. Even contemporary rock and pop releases like Avril Lavigne or My Chemical Romance played on a good audio system can provide the illusion that they’re just a few paces in front of you. So if you have the extra cash with the skills in case of, go take the audiophile plunge. It’s a lot cheaper and way more rewarding than you think.

Is CD the New LP?

In today’s world of online music downloads, are CDs becoming the new vinyl LP for those of us who still give a damn about sound quality and album cover art?

By: Vanessa Uy

Twenty years from now, I’d be telling wild tales about the good old days to my son or daughter about how airlines back then fly at twice the speed of sound. That it used to take just three hours give or take a few minutes to cross the Atlantic. The sad part about this is that all my children will live out the rest of their lives believing that it takes more than eight hours to cross the Atlantic by air.

Does today’s trends on passenger flight / civil aviation mirror that of the audio electronic industry's faulty view on current consumer wants and needs? About the time when I was born during the mid- 1990’s, every serious audiophile was praising the superior musicality of the vinyl LP over that of CD. And thank God that I was fortunate enough to invest in a very good vinyl LP replay equipment even though my music software collection is mostly CD like a hundred times more plentiful than my LP collection.

Now that the “music industry” finally learned how to profit from on line music downloads which almost destroyed it at the end of the 20th Century this inadvertently raised the status of the humble 16-bit 44.1Khz- sampled compact disc. CD thus became the new vinyl LP to the “generation next” audiophiles who still give a damn about sound quality and cover art. Should we audiophiles be up in arms about this? Should we speak out before it’s too late? Well…

Let’s take a look back on why human beings invented/created music recording and playback technologies in the first place. Near the end of the 19th Century when Thomas Edison invented the first phonograph/sound- recording device primarily for educational purposes. But many an entrepreneur saw the money making potential as an entertainment device by selling recordings of famous singers and musicians of the day thus spawned the beginnings of the recording/music-industry. Enrico Caruso, a very famous opera singer at the time became a multi-millionaire almost overnight from the royalties of the recordings being sold. As time went on, the sound recording/reproducing-device was refined. And everyone noticed that for every improvement in sound quality, the closer it sounds to the sounds in nature. Thus making this the driving force to make “man-made” or synthetic sound indistinguishable from nature. Thus the term hi-fidelity or hi-fi which means as close as possible to the original event. Audiophiles old enough to have lived through the “golden age of audio” a period roughly between after World War II to about the early 1970’s were everyone on either side of the “consumer-electronic” fence was happy i.e. the customers and the businesspeople.

When you look at the bright side, online music downloads has recently been extremely helpful to genuinely talented but unknown musicians like Arctic Monkeys for example to break through into the music market without going through the increasingly very cynical major labels. But lets not kid ourselves on why we entered this hobby in the first place. It’s the search for the perfect sound reproduction or to be existential “the uncompromisingly highest possible quality of recorded sound. My older “audio buddies” opined that the multinational conglomerate we call today’s “music industry” has been living a charmed life of source because if MP3 technology and the internet had become as user friendly as its 1999 incarnation back in 1989 when “Heavy Metal” music ruled the charts. Who knows where the “music industry” would end up today?

The Computer and Hi-Fi Convergence

For as long as I can remember all of my audio buddies subscribe to the idea that computers are computers and hi-fis are hi-fis, and never the twain shall meet. Do recent technological progress and environmental issues conspiring to change even the staunchest audiophile’s views?

By: Vanessa Uy

Back in May 2007, BBC’s Click featured a story on the computer industry’s efforts to improve the sound quality of their offerings. To me, this is a long time coming. Even if the computer industry only focus their R n D funds on surround sound, it’s still okay with me. The good news is that the computer industry reached a consensus that any form of data compression is detrimental to sound quality. To us audiophiles, this ranks with the world community’s consensus on the realities of global warming and climate change. From a telecommunications engineer’s standpoint, our current Internet infrastructure is presently the most efficient way to send digital multimedia data. It also has the potential to better itself in all aspects of quality as time goes on. Is the computer industry’s concept of high definition (HD) sound means just acceptable sound quality to us hardened audiophiles? Look at Sony’s SBM (super bit mapping) technology, we (the audiophile community) even wholeheartedly embraced it despite a failed promise in making CD sound as good as vinyl LP. All of this could kick- start a renaissance to most of the consumer electronic industry, but first let’s take a look back.

Back in September 1996, Audio magazines Corey Greenberg wrote a somewhat controversial article titled: “Shut the Hell Up Geeks” which was deemed offensive by the Personal Computer/internet enthusiasts at that time. For better or for worse, this article is only one of the few instances when the feud between audiophiles and computer enthusiasts got journalistic coverage. This feud, to me is even bigger than that between Bon Jovi and Metallica, which started in 1989 and reverberated throughout the Rock world till this day. I read Corey Greenberg’s article about three years ago, right about the time when I became interested in the audiophile universe. At this point in time, PCs came with CD “burners” as standard. And every time I copied/cloned a consumer grade original CD to CDR, the clone always sound inferior to the original. This only serves to prove that Corey Greenberg is right in pointing out the computer industry’s ignorance about the concept of sound quality. Note: I used Lunachicks CDs as a test case for copying. Their not locally released here. As Quentin Tarantino said back in2004 on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno: “It’s not piracy when you copy/clone music or movies of mine that is not locally released in your neck of the woods.”

In a few years since then, the computer industry has started to see the light – albeit slowly- on the merits of good sound quality. Creative, the company who brought PC audio recording to the masses with their “Soundblaster” has started a concept called Xfi or extreme fidelity. If this succeeds, the audiophile community can now buy the latest PC audio recording/playback systems in confidence knowing that ills like listening fatigue will be a thing of the past. Creative’s audio guru Darragh O’Toole, speaks out against the practice of data compression and its detrimental effects on digital audio sound quality. Data compression’s most obvious manifestation is the muted transients on recordings full of percussive sounds like cymbals and drums. I’m just glad that Creative: which is primarily a computer company supported Darragh O’Toole’s ideas instead of censuring. I wonder if Creative’s senior staff: are now composed of people who lived through the vinyl LP heyday and are nostalgic for the good sound quality for a consumer medium that it represents.

The 64,000dollar question is: “Why should we audiophiles – as a whole – give a damn?” If you live in a country like the Philippines, where the Estrada administration single-handedly bankrupted every specialist shops like mail order music stores with very good insurance coverage during the late 1990’s. Then the answer is a big resounding “yes.” Our local audiophile community is now feeling the guilt to that “preaching-to-the-choir movie” An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore. To us its very over indulgent to hop to a plane to Hong Kong, just to buy locally unreleased albums/CDs by Lunachicks. Even though in the last three years I’ve planted about a thousand trees, I still choose to keep my carbon footprint as low as humanly possible. If this audio renaissance/convergence or whatever between the computer industry and the audiophile community is for real and not just a public relations stunt to patronize audiophiles and musicians. Then I may yet buy my first Internet downloaded album (I’m a Luddite-by-choice due to its present unacceptable sound quality). And in energy terms, this might only cost me a few watts from my photovoltaically charged batteries.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Remembering Elcaset

Here’s to Elcaset, to further remind us that new doesn’t necessarily mean better.

By: Vanessa Uy

Since I’ve found a Sony EL5 model stereo Elcaset deck and a bunch of Elcaset blank tapes in a garage sale, it started my own “road to Damascus” experience. Upon seeing the goods (the EL5 deck plus 4 user-recorded tapes and 6 unused Elcaset tapes) almost giveaway price that’s equivalent to US$5.50 in our local currency, my lips just flapped “I want one.” Yep, that’s less than half the price of a Full-Priced CD and I know that the items in question are worth way more than that during the product’s heyday in 1976. Also, I’ve been longing to find out first hand the pros and cons about Elcaset which I’ve only read about in old hi-fi magazines.

The EL5 Elcaset deck is one over-engineered (the kind of engineering I like) monster. Out of curiosity, I weighed it on our kitchen scale with a 12kg capacity. It went off the scale. Maybe this deck weighs 13kg. Yes that’s over 12kilograms of brushed aluminum fascia that made it look like a prop from a Sean Connery - era Bond movie and the diecast tape transport with it’s jumbo ferrite tape heads. The sample I bought may had been tweaked and upgraded by the previous owner since the solid state electronics that comprise the input and output amplifiers had been replaced by 12AX7A vacuum tubes. After visually checking the “soundness” of the upgrades, I replaced the tubes that came with the Elcaset deck with the spares for my guitar amplifier for safety reasons and for the “old” tubes to be tested later for faults. My spare tubes are Sovtek 12AX7A with Cyrillic (Russian) markings reputed for their excellent sound quality and reliability. They’re also relatively inexpensive as vacuum tube prices go these days.

For those who are too young or too hateful to remember, Elcaset was designed at the beginning of the 1970’s by an engineering team working for Sony as a possible replacement for Philips compact cassette. Or maybe, just to cash in on the cassette’s popularity at the time. Back in 1963, Philips originally intended the compact cassette as a recording media for speech/dictation. The compact cassette was never intended as a high quality music recording media. But this didn’t stop anyone and their dogs from adapting cassettes for music use. But as time went on, Elcaset proved to be a marketing disaster. Not in the same league as the miserable failure of US President George W. Bush’s administration, but quite close. To me, all the recording media formats that failed commercially through the years show quite an alarming pattern. They have been brilliant, even excellent solutions to a technological problem, but are simply ill - conceived for commercial success. They are quite good but the buying public simply didn’t want them yet. The “yet” part was never been and is never was good for the consumer electronic business.

Not necessarily apparent but quite plausible is that the Japanese Home Base of Sony has a blindness born from insularity (Does this mean that living in an island is bad for you?). They overlook the rising global demand for prerecorded tapes. That was in the 1970’s by the way, the decade that bought us those extremely cool bands like Kiss, Cheap Trick, and The Sex Pistols to name just a few. How they overlooked this is beyond me. And by the way, audiophiles since time immemorial always wanted “reference” samples to find out how their do-it-yourself recordings compare to major label offerings thus the raison d’être of prerecorded tapes. Elcaset was offered only as a high- quality- recording medium. In comparison, an almost similar American tape-based medium that’s invented much earlier-the 8 track- managed to exist for much longer because of the availability of prerecorded 8 track tapes. This was also the obvious cause of Digital- Audio- Tape’s (DAT) ignominious demise at the start of the 21st Century despite being a de rigueur format for digital studio recording since 1983. The music industry was much powerful then and very fearful of the concepts of copyright infringement, home recording and music piracy. The music pirates got their revenge though by hijacking an infrastructure that was primarily the sole domain of American and European particle physicists in the 1980’s called “file sharing.” It didn’t take forever for the pirates to become tech savvy enough to utilize the MP3 file compression format that gave birth to “Napster” and other music file sharing sites that bought us the current internet music download culture that’s devoid of both copyright laws and sound quality.

Back in 1976, Elcaset’s specifications can only be described as incredible for a product intended for domestic use. Its tape was designed to run at 3 ¾ inches per second- twice that of cassette’s standard speed. Elcaset’s tape width is 6.3 mm which was the same width as a “standard quarter track open- reel tape” (the domestic kind). As the physics goes in the tape recording universe, running more (thicker) tape at a higher speed past the head gave Elcaset an unfair advantage over their cassette tape contemporaries. The magnetic strength of the signals recorded on an Elcasete is probably more than 10 times stronger than the same signals recorded on cassette. Recently, I’ve experimented on this by way of running my Technics cassette tape deck at twice its standard speed. I could record signals at +10dB on the VU meters without distortion compared to 0dB to +3dB while using the cassette’s standard speed. Therefore, the faster the tape moves- the more signal or louder you can record which was good if you want your music to be much louder than the tape “hiss” or noise. The only disadvantage of this “upgrade” is that cassette players that run twice its 1 7/8 inches per second standard speed are as common as hen’s teeth.

In my hands on experience, Elcasets are very user friendly with a smooth and quiet running. For a product marketed during the time where The Sex Pistols were still tied to their day jobs, the ergonomics (that’s Greek for the working switches and buttons) are excellent. This has always been Sony’s forté. As I evaluated the sound quality of my tube upgraded EL5, it avoided the dull and muddy sound of cassette decks marketed during the mid 1970’s. Connected to my sound system set-up optimized for a Linn Sondek turntable, I inserted one of the Elcaset tapes, which was recorded with songs probably from LP records by the previous owner. The first track on one of the tapes was “Lady D’Arbanville by Cat Sevens (He latter became a Muslim, goes by the name of Yusuf Islam and declared a fatwah on Salman “Satanic Verses” Rushdie). This late 1960’s recording is known for it’s deep and loose sounding bass. The EL5 displayed a trait that surprised this audio greenhorn. I didn’t know that HDCD like bass quality existed back then on a domestic gear no less. This is 1inch two track master tape kind of bass. And that hard to define imaging out of the speakers sound quality that made my quality DIY dynamic speakers sound like their electrostatic speakers that cost as much as a Honda Jazz. Compared to the 8 track I borrowed from an audiobuddy of mine, the EL5 Elcaset deck has a clearer tonally brighter sound with much better soundstage. Compared to the Sondek with a speed regulator, the Elcaset was less focused especially on flute recordings. Noting the lack of focus anomaly of the EL5 deck, I’ve replaced the belts/capstan or anything that might had worn out after all these years. The belts and capstans in use in the EL5 are still available in our local Sony Service Center because all of Sony’s cassette decks supposedly use the same parts. Compared to my Pioneer CD DVD Audio SACD player was slightly less focused when compared to CD even though it has this tonal warmth that’s very attractive. I have recently acquired a SACD copy of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album and I immediately fell in love with it even the tape hiss between the songs believe it or not. A note of warning though, the tape hiss on the SACD version of “Kind of Blue” is not the same as that found on standard 16 Bit CD even super bit mapped ones. I call the hiss found on the CD versions of “Kind of Blue” Ugly Betty. The same hiss that lives in Elcaset reminds me of the much gorgeous sounding tape hiss found on the open reel master tape of “Kind of Blue.” Is it insanity when one loves tape hiss? This is where an analog medium like Elcaset has better sound quality than the standard 16 Bit CD.

Maybe, it’s the tube upgrades, maybe it’s the Elcaset. Next time, I’ll borrow one of my audiobuddies two-channel tube based mike pre-amp and a pair of US$1,000 condenser microphones to record my own cello performances. I wonder how does Elcaset sound when recording live performances compared to my Ampex open-reel tape recorder. And by the way, the Sylvania 12AX7A that came with the EL5 deck are still functional after I tested them on an experimental circuit lay out. They just didn’t sound as good as the Sovtek ones.

Perfect Sound Forever?

Electronics giants Sony and Philips introduced the compact disc or C.D. to an unsuspecting consumer electronic market back in 1983 to supposedly replace the vinyl LP with claims of “perfect sound forever.” Does this claim still hold true in 2007, or is this just a triumph of marketing?

By: Vanessa Uy

Perfect sound? As like a bunch of musicians playing in front of me or with me…Well? As a bunch, we audiophiles are no fools. This is evident on why we are always mindful of our “investment” after parting with our hard-earned cash. Even though I’m still a novice in this hobby, my experiences so far, both good and bad haven’t yet disappointed me. As the last three years of being seriously involved in hi-fi, I’ve taken it upon myself to become an audio tourist of sorts. Visiting various camps and schools-of-thought of varying degrees of disparity and of hospitality always interests me. The vinyl LP community was a fascinating revelation since I only own seven LPs. The major bulk of the music software I own are the 500+ CDs and MP3 downloads. In the audiophile universe, LP lovers are extremely influential. I’ve tweaked and set up my CD player to sound as close to a US$1,000 LP turntable as possible to achieve “investment satisfaction” i.e. musicality. Today (to audiophiles it’s synonymous to the phrase: from1989 onwards), we judge a CD player’s performance by how it mimics vinyl LP’s musicality. Isn’t this the most ironic of anachronisms?

Since the release of CD in 1983, experienced audiophiles armed with their golden ears have always doubted on CD’s claims of “the perfect sound” after an extended audition. At the risk of sounding “philosophical”, CD’s shortcomings can be blamed on how Sony and Philips, the two corporate giants who developed CD. To me it’s because first and foremost these corporations are run, by: bureaucrats, as opposed to musicians, who are by- and- large artists. In my experience bureaucrats doesn’t acknowledge that a problem exists unless there is already a solution- at- hand. So that is why during the late 1980’s to the mid 1990’s, Sony and Philips made a concerted effort to explore the shortcomings of the digital “code” that runs CD or any other digital audio processing system then in existence since these are more or less the same. The race is on to better the “perfect” sound.

Toward the end of the 1980’s, audio engineers discovered the root cause of CD’s shortcomings namely jitter. Audio engineers who worked the development of digital audio processing at the end of the 1970’s thought that the effects of jitter cannot be heard by the human ear, so this phenomenon is only of academic interest. Anomalies that then were discovered that affected CD sound quality can only be objectively analyzed by expensive (new ones start at US$1,000) and “specialized” (they don’t play DVDs or make your stereo sound better) equipment like jitter analyzers and harmonic distortion meters. But this does not mean that we can’t hear these problems on a good audio system. Using one’s own pair of ears, a CD player with high levels of jitter manifests itself when a recorded snare drum doesn’t sound quite right. I’ve done this using LP and CD versions of Eric Clapton albums. If the drum/percussion parts sound as if they don’t have the right impact or rhythm or “groove”, then jitter is to blame. The often quoted almost zero percent harmonic distortion of CD only holds true for audio signals near the maximum level allowable i.e. loudest part of the music. I’ve heard this mostly on classical piano recordings. When the music piece are filled with parts that indicate “piano” (small p) on the sheet music or “play this note at 40 decibels sound pressure level" (as loud as someone speaking in a normal voice 50 meters away from you), these notes invariably end up sounding glassy on CD. Compared to Glenn Gould playing Bach on my old CBS LP. The near silent notes, even though almost swamped by LP surface noise, still sound natural compared to CD.

That’s why during the early 1990’s, CD sound quality was “improved” by Sony’s Super Bit Mapping. A digital processing scheme that alleviates the distortion of the low- level signals i.e. quiet parts of the music. Generally this made CD sound less “hard” and “glassy.” Other techniques introduced around this time to improve the “perfect sound” of CD were Pacific Microsonic Incorporated of California’s HDCD. This process makes CD sound as if it has more bandwidth .The 44.1kHz.sampling rate specification of CD means it can’t record sounds whose frequencies are above 22.05kHz. HDCD also has lesser distortion on low level signals (fault of CD’s16 bit data width that makes it unable to reliably record sounds below 40 dB. S.P.L.). Philips also developed their own signal processing technique like dither and noise shaping to make “16bit CDs” sound smoother and more ”analog.” The latest generation of CD players, are designed to have an inherently low measured jitter for better sound.

In my own experience, I swear that these techniques used to improve the sound of standard 16bit CDs does work. I'm fortunate enough to acquire music CDs in both standard (these are likely released during the 1980’s) and “improved” versions whether SBM or HDCD versions (usually mid to late 1990’s re-issues). HDCD have a smoother sound and more realistic bass compared to their standard CD counterparts while SBM versions are more widely available despite of HDCD’s more analog and LP like sound quality. The good thing is that all of them makes CDs sound more focused, more “rhythmically correct” and louder than their unimproved counterparts. The bad thing is they require serious money to acquire.

If I can make a wish, the consumer electronic powers-that-be should improve digital audio by using a specification that is vastly superior to the standard CD’s 16 bit 44.1 kHz. sampling rate like DVD audio’s 24 bit 96 kHz. sampling. What good does it do if I can hear sounds up to 80 kHz. and not enjoy the pleasure of having this ability? What about SACD? Why don’t the consumer electronic powers-that-be use their massive marketing campaign like they did on 16 bit CDs back in 1983? Are these companies too busy being involved with the United States’ Department of Defense on their “War on Terror”?

Even today majority of the public don’t know that better than CD sound quality exists, or that there are still people who enjoy listening to their vinyl LPs on a daily basis. Since high- resolution digital audio was released to the market back in 1998, the consumer electronic powers-that be should have exerted more effort in marketing it because in the end, they would be giving their customers the privilege of what is technologically possible. In short most of us don’t live in a recording studio or are close to musicians that we really like.

Downloadable music and recording your own CDs on your personal computer may be de rigueur to a majority of today’s music loving teens. I’ve experienced first hand the sound quality of these “clones” and I can safely say I’d rather go to fishing. The Music Industry are bemoaning about the incidents of on-line music piracy for almost ten years now. Could this incident be avoided in the first place by campaigning on “good sound quality” or releasing “good to excellent quality reasonably priced music software” to the public and making these widely available? As I witnessed on the ease of “burning” or “cloning” music CDs on your PC, maybe Sony and Philips should change their slogan on CD from “Perfect Sound Forever.” To “Consistent Sound Forever.”