Saturday, September 29, 2012

Those Little Tiny Wires

In the mid 1980s, I purchased a brand new Yamaha YP-D8 turntable and fell in love with it. Stylish, dark hardwood base, and sexy, this S-arm direct drive turntable served me well for about 15 years never failing and providing endless hours of magical entertainment. Two things I really enjoyed about this analog input device was its ease of vertical tracking adjustment and its quiet motor.

In the rural high-altitude mountains of Colorado, 7 miles from the nearest highway and 9,800 feet in the air, my listening room was pretty gosh darned quiet. The only noises came from the upstairs refrigerator and the downstairs hot-water-heat circulation pump, both of which were also pretty quiet and intermittent. As a result, I was able to hear nuances in things that in most listening environments was just not possible.

Once you remove the grunge of everyday background noise and settle into the stillness, you begin to notice things like the blood pulsing in your ears, faint rustling of the trees in the slightest breeze from within closed doors and windows, and of course details deep within the noise floor of your stereo.  It was a wishful-sinful push-pull listening room where any decent audiophile becomes restless once an anomaly in the playback chain is noticed.

There was nothing worse than listening to a crescendo in such a quiet place and having the sound stage collapse into the center of the room so the search was on for a reasonable replacement phono cartridge. Not having the funds to toss at the best of the best, I purchased a Monster Alpha One cartridge, my first moving coil.

It was a remarkable step up in inner detailing, especially at the low level down into the noise floor, but it too had its issues. Checking the alignment dozens of times and trying different weight headshells, tonearm modifications, and the like, the only ting left were the headshell wires.  Not to overlook anything, I decided to take the plunge and invest in the newly touted linear crystal oxygen free high conductivity version thinking to myself that spending about half as much on four one-inch long pieces of tiny wire as I did on my phono cartridge was about as much of absurd lunacy as one could expect from any audio purist.

I remember the day i changed these wires quite clearly since I immediately noticed a massive improvement in the system's sound.  It was as if a veil had been lifted, as if I had taken off my ear muffs after coming in from the cold, and the resolution of inner detailing once laid back and subtle stood out and beat your ears over your head subliminally saying "Pay Attention - This is Important!" I was impressed and it takes a lot for me to be impressed.

What impressed me is that once the level of a playback system is sufficiently refined, even changes in wires as short as one inch long can make an audible difference in the level of performance.  Much like formula one race cars pay attention to aerodynamic drag, weight-to-horsepower ratios, centers of gravity, moments of mass, and the like taking excruciating pains to identify and correct issues to provide optimum performance characteristics, so does attention to this level of  minute detail in audio playback systems provide similar positive results.  When you rise to the level of a lunatic fringe audiophile, you graduate to that level of attention to detail searching for and eliminating whatever you can in the pursuit of realism.

This morning, I changed out the headshell wires in my Pioneer PL-L1000a to some hand-made versions cobbled together from some small wire-wrap wire I had lying around. The stock wires that came with the Audio Technica headshell, although very nice, were lacking in that same low-level detail I remembered the ones I used with the Yamaha.  I installed the little buggers and flipped on the switch.  Putting on a familiar piece, I sat back ready to evaluate if I had just trashed a nice set of wires or found a suitable substitute for the L-C OFHC wires of my distant memory.

The cartridge is a Sumiko LMS and I patiently waited about 20 minutes for the system to thermally stabilize by cobbling together this blog. After the warmup period, I spun one of my newer disks and - although not as "hit me over the head" difference - there were more subtle background and inner details that before had not been present. Relieved to find that I had not trashed my system (sometimes this happens when I tweak my system as I am certain with which many of you can relate), I continued to enjoy the Reiner performance of Shubert's Unfinished Symphony No. 5. I have grown to appreciate the Reiner sound for its execution and dynamics and enjoy listening to any of the performances in this fluid-sounding series.

After turning over the album and playing the second side, I began to hear more from the timbre of the instruments that previously perceived and I am now grateful for a nicely tweaked system. There is something in an analog system despite its pops, ticks, and clicks that draws you into the recording and makes you feel like you are there rather than recreating the notes of an orchestra. I still cling to this sound comparing it regularly to the digital world I have grown used to over the years and have hope that it too will one day provide the realism that antiquated but well groomed technology is still capable of trouncing. Without going "digitally deaf," the ambiance and reverberations of the concert hall are all well preserved.

So when you think for a moment that the subtle details to which you pay attention as an audiophile do not make a difference in your musical appreciation, when you feel criticized by intellects who listen to music with their eyes and not their ears, remember that there are those of us who do and truly enjoy the music for all of its essence, not just figures, charts, and numbers.  Give everything a try but remember that not everything works. Keep an open mind and by all means trust your ears as the final test.

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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