Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Olympics

The Olympics are just a few weeks away and advertisements are already appearing everywhere you look and listen.  It is something to see a finely-tuned human being run, jump, swim, and toss things and today's amazing science behind how to get more from same biological material that has been around since our species' beginning.  Undoubtedly, records will tumble in several events proving that such science has merit in this arena.  Most of this science is based on two simple things: efficiency and technique.

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:
  1. Minimalist designs (e.g., no tone controls)
  2. Toroidal power transformers
  3. Outboard power supplies
  4. Carefully designed single-point ground circuit boards
  5. Stiff well-regulated power supplies
  6. Precious metals
  7. Magnetic shielding and board layout to consider inter-magnetic coupling
  8. Application of transmission line theory to interconnects (e.g., balanced connectors and cables)
  9. Phase-linear and amplitude-linear circuit designs
  10. Mechanical and electrical resonance elimination (tiptoes, tube dampers, etc.)
  11. Same electrical-phase mains power for all equipment
  12. Lower reverse leakage capacitors
  13. Lower noise resistors
  14. Flat-wire inductors
  15. Ribbon speakers
I'm sure you have your own biases and probably disagree with at least one item on this list. But these 15 gold-medal winners keep showing up in generation after generation of only the best designs so they must be doing something right.  Even though imperfect, they consistently lead the pack in pushing the high-end forward. See if I'm right: look under the hood and find out what folks are using inside your equipment.  What consistently appears must be what should appear on this list.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.

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