Thursday, 28 September 2017

Philosophy

A few words about my position regarding audiophile cables and the mentality behind them, since audiophiles and valve amps tend to be quite closely coupled.

First, some history: until the late 1960s, vacuum tube/valve amplifiers were not the exclusive audiophile commodity they are seen as today. This was because there was no alternative at the time, it was the only technology available. They were mass-produced, margins were slim, and they were manufactured to a price. Quality was variable and short-cuts were taken in the interests of cost-containment.

In the late 1960s the first solid-state (=transistor-based) amplifiers became available. The increased reliability, smaller size, and greater power capabilities of the new technology quickly won favour and by the late 1970s it looked like valve gear was relegated to history.

For some reason however, around the 1980s there began a resurgence of interest in valve gear by audiophiles, and as a result it began to move up-market.

Fast-forward to the current day and we now have amplifiers like the huge (both in size and cost) Kronzilla SX and the like, using hugely expensive tubes like the T1610. Try buying these, a snip at €3500 a pair.

Complementing this is the hi-fi cable industry. It's possible to spend €9000 on a 1.5 metre power cord. Interconnect cables and speaker wire runs to similar prices (and higher).

All of these excesses appear to be excellent at their primary design objective, if that objective is to relieve audiophiles of their money as quickly as possible. 

The claimed technical benefits of audiophile-grade cables are either unverifiable with current measurement technology, or more often quoted in pseudoscience terminology.

I venture that there is no human alive who could discern – in a repeatable, scientifically-administered test – the difference between a standard IEC power cord and something that costs more than most people earn in a month.

This is where science and philosophy part ways though. While it's true that most of these hyper-expensive enhancements to an audio system wouldn’t pass a double-blind test, or register any difference on the test bench, it's equally true that looking at them purely in terms of their supposed technical improvements misses the point.

These enhancements go to the philosophical question of whether the purpose of audio is just to sound good, or to make its owner feel good about their system as well.

If you feel good about your audio system, you’ll want to use it more, and you’ll get a better connection with your music as a result.

As an analogy, there are some features that don’t contribute anything to the performance, handling or economy of a car, yet they enhance the enjoyment of the driver and passengers, so they add value. (The stereo, for example...)

This is why we have hyper-expensive cables, or turntables that weigh as much as a car, DACs that cost into the five figures, and various other expensive and exclusive enhancements.

For my own part, I look at these as “audio jewellery”. It serves two purposes: to add a visual appeal, and to provide a feelgood factor. I don't kid myself they will make any kind of sonic improvement though. And, as with jewellery, it's a personal choice. Some people like lots of it, some don't care. If it helps connect you with your music collection, that's got to be good, right?

Where I am particular though, is the design of my amplifiers. I will use established best-practice circuit topologies, quality components, and test and measure at every stage of the design and build process, prototyping circuits as necessary to achieve the optimum result.

As a result, I tell people they can use one of my amps with simple sources such as mass-produced Japanese turntables, CD players, Chromecasts or other cheap digital sources… or if they have a DAC that costs into the five figures and a turntable that needs a forklift to move it… either way, it’s gonna sound great. Use an $8 power cord, or go and spend $20k on a high-end one. Just enjoy the music!

I call it the "Sheryl Crow Principle":

If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad.

Not surprisingly, I also reject the label "audiophile" for myself, preferring to call myself an "Audio Enthusiast"

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