From vacuum tubes to interconnect cables, does cryogenics prove to be the most effective audiophile / high fidelity tweak of the last 25 years?
By: Ringo Bones
Cryogenics is anything that concerns with temperatures colder than minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit and since the early 1990s, it seems that almost anything from electric bass guitar strings – i.e. Dean Markley’s cryogenically treated bass guitar strings – slide trombones, trumpets, an Olympic trap shooter’s MX8 Perazzi shotgun just to mention a few featured on a Discovery Channel program aired back in 1995 that had improved its performance after these items are cooled as close as economically possible to absolute zero (-459.7 degrees Fahrenheit). With interconnects and vacuum tubes oft marketed as having “improved sound” after they are cryogenically cooled close to absolute zero, does cryogenics proved to be the most effective audiophile tweak out there that is backed by “hard science”?
One widely advertized cryogenic treatment provider online is the “Harma Deep Cryogenic Treatment” or the “Harma Process” in which they can make ordinary vacuum tubes – i.e. modern manufacture vacuum tubes made in Mainland China or Russia that’s less than 20 years old - to sound as good as those NOS (new old stock) vacuum tubes that were manufactured back in the 1930s to the 1950s. According to the company, their “Harma Deep Cryogenic Treated” vacuum tubes offers the immense warmth and smooth distortion characteristics only normally found in very expensive NOS vacuum tubes such as 1950s era manufactured Mullard vacuum tubes. Just imagine what it could do for those already nice-sounding modern manufacture vacuum tubes from Electro-Harmonix.
The “Harma process” involves taking the vacuum tubes and gradually cooling them down during a 12-hour period to minus 312 degrees Fahrenheit and keeping them at that low temperature for a minimum of 24 hours, Then, during the course of a 12-hour period, the vacuum tubes are slowly brought up to room temperature. Metals respond very well to the deep cryogenic process such as these – i.e. brass wind instruments and electric bass guitar strings sounding more sonorous after being subjected to such treatment and even Olympic trap shooting competition shotguns will acquire a smoother action and the barrel lasts longer.
The reasons for such improvements were as follows: During the cooling or solidification phase of the initial manufacturing process, molecules are trapped in a haphazard pattern. This is down to the stress caused in the bending and welding of the anode plate material. The random placement causes obstacles for electrons and when encountered, this interference can cause noise, slow down electron flow and sound deterioration eventually affecting the sound quality of the vacuum tube. At very cold temperatures below minus 312 degrees Fahrenheit, the molecules will align in a more uniform compact structure through the removal of kinetic energy. When the material is returned to ambient temperature / room temperature, this new uniform compact pattern is maintained, thus changing the molecular structure of the nickel used in the anode and the other bits inside the enclosure of the vacuum tube permanently.
This process makes a permanent change and the benefits does not deteriorate over time upon the item’s return to the item’s optimal operating temperature, it changes the whole way the vacuum tube performs. The biggest benefit satisfied customers have noticed about the “Harma Process” has been the dramatic improvement in dynamic range. Bass response became clearer and a reduction in microphony and clearer more transparent high frequencies.
To my ears, cryogenically treated analog line-level interconnects tend to sound twice as loud as their on treated counterparts and offer richer harmonics – especially in the mid range. Back in the early 1990s, I managed to borrow a 150 US dollar cryogenically treated Esoteric Audio USA interconnect and a non-cryogenically treated 500 US dollar Monster Cable interconnect for an “informal” side-by-side comparison. The “cheaper” cryogenically treated Esoteric Audio USA cable has a richer mid range and more “acoustic sounding” low frequencies and sounded a “bit louder” than the more expensive but untreated Monster Cable but the Monster offered cleaner high frequencies and seems to produce very high frequency signals missed by the cryogenically treated Esoteric primarily due to the costlier materials used in the more expensive – but not cryogenically treated Monster Cable.