Thursday, June 10, 2010

That Crappy Freebie Analog Interconnect Syndrome

To the casual and first-time buyer it usually came with the Styrofoam that comes free with your CD player, but are those crappy freebie interconnects unduly ruining real hi-fi’s reputation?

By: Ringo Bones

Its only saving grace is that the plastic RCA plugs – or phono plugs as they are referred to in merry old England - are already gaudily color coded to whether it goes to the left or right channel RCA jack. But are these cheap freebie interconnects that comes with your CD player’s / cassette tape deck’s / turntable’s / tuner’s packing Styrofoam really have bad sound quality?

Flatteringly, they can make your real hi-fi CD player – or any other hi-fi front-end previously mentioned – sound just like a run-off-the-mill mini system boombox. Or in short, these freebie cables’ inherent crappiness can ruin the inherently excellent sound quality – in comparison to a run-of-the-mill mini boombox - of your “proper hi-fi” or “real hi-fi” CD player or any other “proper hi-fi” or “real hi-fi” front end. This phenomenon is probably the reason why some anti-hi-fi and anti-tweaking fanatics swear by to that all equipment sounds the same mantra.

During the latter half of the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to employ a few of our local music fans as hi-fi “guinea pigs. Given that their only experience to high quality sound is the weekend recital of a pop music academy in our local mall and most – if not all - of their CD listening is via run-of-the-mill boomboxes could make them about the most unbiased hi-fi auditioning test subjects that anyone could find.

Using Veruca Salt’s Eight Arms to Hold You CD – which was newly released at the time – as an ad hoc “audiophile demonstration disc” all of them commented: “Yeah, it truly sounds that there are two girls singing just like in the Volcano Girls music video”. And “Those cables make the interplay between the Gibson Les Paul and Marshall Amplifier stacks and the drums sound as if it is happening real life.” Maybe the young lady meant “live”, but the most surprising thing to me is that they thought that CD could never sound this good. Comparing “proper hi-fi” interconnect cables – even entry-level price range ones with those crappy freebie interconnects that come free with the packing Styrofoam can be a “Road to Damascus”-like experience.

Despite of their excellent sound quality in comparison to crappy freebie interconnects, entry-level hi-fi interconnects are not exactly cheap. Ranging in price from 25 US dollars to 100 US dollars – they are easily more expensive that those ultra cheap Chinese Mainland made DVD players. You know ones that had been raved for their surprisingly good sound quality as a “30-dollar Wadia CD transport” and a “30-dollar Krell CD transport” (more on this in the future). Fortunately, me and my seasoned audio-buddies had found away to make “interim” hi-fi interconnects that are still way better sounding than those crappy freebie interconnects.

If you are handy with a soldering iron, you can easily make your own ad hoc audiophile interconnects by using 1 or 2-meter sections of RG-58 or RG-59 cables and soldering them to reasonably-priced RCA plugs – or phono plugs for those living in the UK. If you know the right people, you can even get used RG-58 and RG-59 cables at 5-meter sections for free, while entry-level gold-plated RCA plugs – reliable ones - hover around 1.50 US dollars each. With a capacitance rating hovering around 28 to 32 picofarads (or pF) per foot, they can even be experimented as an ad hoc digital interconnects which I’ll discuss in a latter topic.

Sound quality wise, RG-58 and RG-59-based DIY analog interconnects have a more natural portrayal of the Gibson Les Paul and Marshall Amplifier sound as played in the opening of that Veruca Salt song titled Loneliness is Worse when compared to those crappy freebie analog interconnects. I have an audio-buddy who is “very careful with money” is still using the RG-58-based DIY analog interconnect cables I made for him back in 1998.

But why do reputable hi-fi CD / front-end equipment manufacturers still provide crappy freebie analog interconnects? God only knows, but this syndrome is not just confined to the entry-level price strata (the very competitive100 to 500 US dollar price range) of CD players. One of my audio-buddy fortunate enough to afford Sony’s 3,000 US dollar CDP-XA7ES CD player back in 1995 was somewhat astonished to find out that this 3,000 US dollar CD player too was afflicted with the crappy freebie analog interconnect syndrome.

Though his prized possession still runs till this day although he was a bit peeved when the rest of his audio-buddies has stumbled upon the phenomena of the 30-dollar Wadia CD transport / 30-dollar Krell CD transport last year – i.e. 2009. More so when it made our trusty-but-rusty 500-dollar Audio Alchemy DAC circa 1995 sound “superficially” way better than his 3,000-dollar Sony CD player bought in 1995.


Sans Ferdinand said...

Being both a hi-fi enthusiast and a club musician / electric guitar player, I do agree that the "Crappy Freebie Interconnect Syndrome" was prevalent among major hi-fi gear makers of the 1990s and is probably the reason why most folks think there is no difference in sound quality between entry-level gear and the upmarket stuff - especially CD players - when using the free interconnects that came with the Styrofoam packaging. My Rotel RCD-955AX immediately transformed its sound for the better when I substituted its freebie analog interconnects with the pair of "freebie" RG-58 type cables that came with my Ibanez guitar via gold plated 1/4 inch phone plug to RCA plug adaptors. Do CD / DVD makers these days still suffer the crappy freebie analog interconnect syndrome? They should follow electric guitar makers who use better than decent free cables. The sound quality improvement is very noticeable on Veruca Salt and Liz Phair tracks by the way.

Sherry said...

Electric guitar makers - like Ibanez - provides better freebie interconnects than most CD / DVD makers. My 600 US dollar Ibanez came with two sets of 20 foot long George L's as standard, while my Rotel CD player of about the same price came with really crappy analog interconnects as freebies - worth less than the Styrofoam peanuts that came with it.

Ringo said...

Given your first-hand experiences, the lowly RG-58 coaxial cable is probably the "cheapest" hi-fi analog interconnect available that still sounds excellent. too bad many CD and DVD makers still find it too expensive to be used as a better sounding freebie analog interconnect.

VaneSSa said...

I think George L's are nothing more than RG-58s for the electric guitar. Both have a capacitance rating of around 28 to 30 picofarads per foot and probably the cheapest upgrade you can have from those crappy-sounding analog interconnects being thrown in with your brand new CD or DVD player.

May Anne said...

Isn't audio tweaking via analog interconnects just a form of audiophile pornography? i mean I do find it somewhat odd to find some of my older audio-buddies wanting Liz Phair to sound like some half-Uyghur, half-Ukrainian red-haired-green-eyed 14-year old girl via judicious use of audiophile interconnects. An overwhelming majority of women just don't sound like that in real life. Just because Taylor Swift looks like a bonde-haired Uyghur doesn't mean she should sound like one. Tweaking via audiophile grade analog interconnect swapping is just pornography for the ears.

VaneSSa said...

Why does it have to be about a 14-year old half-Ukrainian half-Uyghur red-haired-green-eyed girl? Anyway, the idea of analog interconnect swapping to tweak your hi-fi rig's sound to make it "sound better than reality" probably became an "ear pornography" in the 1990s when an increasing number of audiophiles want to make the dark and brooding sound of Vladimir Horowitz's sound more like the cheery and cheerful sound of Liberace's piano playing style. Unfortunately, the right Monster, Audio Quest, and Kimber cable - even entry-level ones - can more often than not work wonders. If you ask me, I'd rather be playing my Tibetan Freedom Concert CD.

Ringo said...

Ear pornography? I'll probably know it when I hear it.