This expression literally means to put things in order; a ranking, so to speak. And when it comes to audio equipment, someone should one day sort the gold from the junk - someone should sort the sheep from the goats. Just as it is easy to recognize a goat from a sheep, so should it be easy to recognize junk from gold.
The sound of one type of equipment can vary all over the board and there is little to give it away from external appearances how a pice of equipment should sound. For example, a preamp can have two chassis or one, can be made up of tubes or transistors or integrated circuits, can be dual mono or stereo, one can cost a thousand times more than another, and all of these can sound different - and in fact they do. But none of these external physical attributes tell you a thing about how they sound.
But is there a hint from the component selection that implies how something can sound without even listening to it? If you were to "pop the hood" like you can in an automobile and look at its engine, can you take the cover off of a piece of gear and tell if it is even worth your time to listen to? Yes there is!
While these hints in no way tell you exactly how it sounds, it can help you separate the sheep from the goats. When a designer creates a design, it is done under controlled conditions inside of a laboratory. The initial design looks like junk but in order to quickly change things about, it makes no sense to make it pretty - at least at first. Here is where the component selection is easily seen.
- What type of resistors are used?
- What type of capacitors are used?
- How is the circuit board made?
- What brand of tubes are used?
- What kind of wire is used internally?
- What are the contacts for the switches made from?
- What style of power transformer is used?
Sheep grade components cost more - sometimes a lot more - so they can be used sparingly in order to compete with similar products with similar features. So if there is a price point, say $3,000, and the competition has four models in that range, this model must "fit in" with the price point of those other models in order for it to sell.
Audiophiles, just like economical drivers, are frugal to a point and equipment manufacturers know this. In order to sell anything they must be careful what the designer spends on any of these components. If the pricing is close, the designer eliminates the most expensive one of the sheep so that the potential success of the product is better assured.
So what is the single most expensive element in a design? What feature in a manufacturer's product line is the first to drop out and the last to show up? What one feature tells you that you could be listening to a sheep or a goat? The transformers! There are two styles of transformers used in all equipment: the round toroid and everything else (usually called the I-E transformer, which BTW is a rectangular solid).
The toroidal transformer always appears in the most expensive high-end gear of any manufacturer's product line. It is the single most expensive component a designer can add to the design and adding two of them in a dual mono configuration drives the prices up astronomically. Using one transformer dedicated for one function and another for another function again drives the MSRP to stellar heights. These little guys are just flat expensive to use but are the best sounding of all.
Toroidal transformers have more punch, lower noise, lower stray electromagnetic radiation, and extended frequency response. They are heavy and come in multiple grades, just as do the other styles. But if one were to look under the hood of any piece of the highest end audio gear, you would find these little round babys snuggled somewhere in a chassis.
So how can you quickly sort out the high-end sheep from the low-end goats? Think round! Look for that gear using 100% toroidal transformers!