There are many ways to dive from a diving board but only one that looks graceful for any given choice of stunt. A continuous fluid motion seemingly effortless demonstrates the difference between gold and silver, one small detail that sets silver from bronze. Although purely subjective, one knows when one sees a gold-worthy performance over a mediocre attempt. One knows when an individual pushes the envelope and creates something amazing and worthy of notice. And so it is with high-end audio.
Think of the gold-worthy Olympians in the audiophile arena, those who have set records in areas and names that broke through that mediocre barrier into breathtaking performances. Think of leaders in each event, be it speakers, electronics, interconnects, or noise filtering. Think of the beauty involved in their presentation to complete the entire subjective package. And too, think of the imitations - the knock offs or the copy cats - that once gold is achieved, others rush to copy. The science behind such gold-award achievements in audio is different, but yet the same.
While we cannot change the laws of physics, human beings still find ways to break records. It was believed once that any human being could not run one mile in less than four minutes. Experts testified to the reasons as to why this was impossible and people believed what they said, so the magic number of 4 minutes held fast for decades. But then stepped in a young Englishman named Roger Bannister who did not listen to the so-called experts and on May 6, 1954, ran one mile in 3 min 59.4 sec. It was proven that the experts were wrong and a few weeks later, Roger's record was surpassed. Today, if you cannot run a mile in under four minutes, you are just an average runner and need not apply to an Olympic team.
So what techniques and efficiencies have appeared in audiophile gold-medal winners? Innovations that work! Many attempts at designs and configurations come and go, each claiming to have the new records, to set the new standard, to push the envelope. But the truth of the matter is that few do this and as a result there are tons of entries each year showing up at various electronics shows around the planet. At these contests, gold medals are given out by subjective judges who may or may not hear actual improvements in the field, but are obligated to present these awards based solely on the relative position of all gear appearing at that show.
Does this mean that OLED technology HDTVs set new standards in video reproduction? Does it mean that transistor sound has finally trumped tubes? Are there no new speaker designs worthy of consideration? No, not even close. The problem is that few techniques and technologies consistently reappear even between the same manufacturer from eyar to year. The answer to the audio grail is elusive still and none are truly worthy of the gold medal by the definition of the prize.
Does gear sound better than before? Yes, in many cases it does. Does it sound real? Well, that's where we are all headed, right? Can you get realistic sounding music in a car? Compared to earbuds, it can sound better. Compared to a home high-end system, no way.
So here is a short list of what seems to work since their techniques appear consistantly in thoroughbred designs. Here is what I rate as gold-medal worthiness:
- Minimalist designs (e.g., no tone controls)
- Toroidal power transformers
- Outboard power supplies
- Carefully designed single-point ground circuit boards
- Stiff well-regulated power supplies
- Precious metals
- Magnetic shielding and board layout to consider inter-magnetic coupling
- Application of transmission line theory to interconnects (e.g., balanced connectors and cables)
- Phase-linear and amplitude-linear circuit designs
- Mechanical and electrical resonance elimination (tiptoes, tube dampers, etc.)
- Same electrical-phase mains power for all equipment
- Lower reverse leakage capacitors
- Lower noise resistors
- Flat-wire inductors
- Ribbon speakers