Sunday, September 24, 2017

Why "Audio Objectivists" are so wrong.

What is an Audio Objectivist.

If you've ever visited any audio forums you'll probably have noticed  a plague of "Audio Objectivists" (AO) . The percentage varies according to the forum, with some being close to 100% AO. (one famously does not allow any subjective comments at all unless they are backed up with double-blind tests!)

The basic AO philosophy goes something like this :
·    
  • Measurements are a superior (or the only) way of determining how audio gear performs (compared to listening tests)
  • Listening tests, if sighted, are worthless. Only proper 'double blind' tests are considered valid.
  • All similarly measuring devices will sound the same. This can apply to amplifiers, DACs, CD players, power cords, interconnects, etc, etc. The only thing that is universally agreed that sounds different are loudspeakers.
  • Much of what is sold in the audiophile world is useless junk and close to fraud.

This position is seemingly bolstered by the apparent numbers of scientists and engineers among the AO fraternity.  In a similar vein, the subjectivist camp often seems to be composed of untrained crackpots. I can say with some certainty that the maddest crackpot I ever knew was an extreme subjectivist audiophile. Also probably the second and third maddest as well..

So this post attempts to debunk the Objectivist position - I do this because I believe there are genuine mysteries in high-end audio. I'm not saying that audio gear implies some kind of new-physics, but any decent scientist knows that there are emergent effects that are not well understood in any field.

My journey

I was first exposed to a good audio system when I was a young teen, and I was an instant convert to the quest and have been an avid audiophile ever since ..  when I could afford to be..

But I have to admit that for many years I was an audio objectivist. It's natural I guess if you studied electronic engineering at university and spent your career as hardware and software engineer.

I thought it logical that such things as interconnects, power cords, vibration control devices and so on made no difference.  And I figured that electronics didn't have much influence either, especially digital gear.

My journey away from this position was gradual; firstly accepting that amplifiers could sound very different.  Now I am willing to believe just about anything - if the evidence supports it.

OK so let's take the points above and refute them..

Measurements

AOs love their measurements.  However, the measurements that they are able to perform are so rudimentary as to be virtually useless. In nearly all cases, the measurements turn out to be :
  •     Total Harmonic Distortion normally using sine waves, often 1kHz
  •     Signal/noise ratios of various types
  •     "Jitter spectrums" using  JTest
  •     Intermodulation Distortion using 19khz and 20khz sine waves
  •     Frequency response using sine waves

This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.

There are huge problems with this approach; sine waves are simply not music; they are the easiest thing for any gear to reproduce. So in one sense it's not surprising that all the gear they test sounds the same - playing sine waves.  This also matches with the real-world observation that many systems can reproduce simple music but fall down when presented with complex music (eg full on symphony orchestra).

Determining audio system performance using these kinds of tests is like trying to figure out the real-world performance of a race-car by measuring fuel flow, damper rates, dyno output and so on, rather than seeing how well it actually performs on a track.

AOs will claim that music is all composed of sine waves anyway. Now this is not actually true as it's a misapplication of Fourier theorem. But even if you accept that, it's like music is thousands of sine waves playing all at the same time, not one simple 1kHz wave.

The second thing that so-obviously-wrong about the AO approach to testing is down to vibration. AOs don't consider this important, so even the tests they normally do are done in silence. So the gear is not bathed in slightly-delayed vibrations of the signal they are reproducing. But for a sine wave this would likely not make a huge difference unless the gear was particularly prone to 1kHz resonance.

But for real music it makes a huge difference; as there are so many frequencies present, music will stimulate resonances across the whole audio band. And dealing with vibrations in various ways makes easily-audible improvements.

In a similar vein, AOs ignore or downplay other second-order effects like EMI (to give one example). 

The big problem with this kind of measurement regime is that the results do not always correlate well with what people find sounds good.

Listening Tests

When I first considered starting Mad Scientist Audio I have to admit that my listening skills were not that great. Although I'd been an audiophile for almost 40 years I simply had not practised analytical listening enough to be that good at it. My wife had more luck than I did at blind tests.

So I resolved to do something about this if I was serious about Mad Scientist. I started making it a habit to spend 2-3 hours every day doing analytical listening (i.e. listening tests) rather than just "playing music". This is a habit I've had for about 5 years now, 7 days a week,  365 days a year (well, almost..). This comes to over 4000 hours of listening tests.

As you are no doubt aware, focused concentration and repetition are the keys to learning or improving skills, and this worked great for me.  In that time I've collected a wide range of test tracks across all musical genres. Some are chosen because they sound great. Others because they don't ! (these usually are hard-to-reproduce tracks, often very complex). Each is like a tool in my audio toolbox - for example I have sets of tracks that tend to be over-sibilant on vocals, or tracks that have great bass, etc.

Before I actually started the company I needed to prove to myself that I was not imagining things, that the products I had made really did make a difference. So to this end I designed a series of blind tests, comparing real Black Discus devices against dummy ones that were same size and weight.  The tests were blinded by the devices being wrapped  in small envelopes by an assistant.

The point being that I needed the tests to be properly blind, so that I was completely unaware of the device under test. I was not going to start a company that sold useless items, despite what you AO folks think!

The results were conclusive - I could pick the real and fake Black Discus in almost 100% of trials.

Audio Objectivists like to point to numerous double-blind tests that have been performed and documented  by various audio societies, magazines, websites, etc.  Nearly always they show the desired result - that the amplifier/cable/snake oil under test cannot be determined correctly by the participants (although you will often find a few folks that could apparently tell the difference, but that is written off as statistical chance, and the results are usually given as statistics).

Also nearly always : the tests are performed using an unfamiliar system, in an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar music. Is it any surprise that they get the results they do. Bear in mind that it only takes one person who can reliably tell the difference between, say, various interconnects, to disprove the theory that "interconnects sound the same" (This is akin to the black swan argument;  it's also a case of experimental data trumping theory).

I'm not sure that I would be able to be successful in an unfamiliar setting.  Let me give an example to explain why..

Example : Wire Directionality

This is one of those hot-button topics for the AO folks.  

Suggest to them that wire can and does sound different in different directions and it's likely to set them off: " Wire can't be different as the signal is AC (you dummy) so half the time it's flowing one way, half the other" and so on.

I did not believe in wire directionality for many years - it was simply obvious to me that it could not make any difference.  But then I sat down and actually did some experiments.

For analyzing small differences like this, initially I do sighted listening; two sets of cables, two different directions.  The idea here is to figure out if I can hear a difference, and if I can, to isolate the sonic signature of the differences.  Also to find some test tracks that highlight the differences so as to make it easy to pick which is which.

Once I've done that part I can do blind tests. 

But not before. I simply wouldn't know what to listen for, and trying to figure that out in a small amount of time would not be easy, especially with a test track that did not highlight the differences very well.

A while back I performed a blind test of wire direction as a demonstration to a cynical friend. 

In the normal production of our interconnects, the wire (and carbon fiber) direction is tracked. In this case the 'destination' end was marked inside the RCA plug, so you had to unscrew the barrel to find which end was which.

So I had 10 of these cables - they were digital SPDIF cables - and I proceeded to test each cable each way and "guess" which direction was preferred, all while my friend looked on. 

(Yes, cynics - wire direction is important for digital cables as well. Quelle horreur!)

By this time I was pretty good at picking the correct direction. The "trick" was knowing the sonic signature of each direction. 

I used a test track that had two things : a solid bass-line and a centrally located singer. When the direction was correct, the bass-line had more drive and the singer's voice was more tightly focused.

During the test, I tried the first two or three cables both ways, and picked the direction after around 10 seconds of music. For the rest of the cables I could easily pick "right way" or "wrong way" on first listen, often after just 2-3 seconds. 

Needless to say I got 10 out of 10 correct. That was never in doubt.

But trying this test on a strange system with previously unheard music could likely be beyond my skills.

While on the subject of wire direction : I have to admit to being baffled by this. (One of many things that baffles me about audio).

In one sense the AOs are right - this makes no sense. But you can't deny experimental results. Where would we be if people had declared that photons simply cannot pass through both slits..(Actually quantum mechanics is a case study in things that fail common sense.)

So the 'scientific' thing to do is to look for reasons why, rather than just deny the effect exists. I believe anyone who is serious can hear wire direction differences with some practice.

I don't have a good theory of why the directional effect happens. My best guess is that it's to do with the microscopic mechanical properties of the wire interacting with the current flowing and/or the various vibrations that the wire is bathed in. I know this doesn't hold a lot of water, but the effect is beyond doubt in my mind because of the numerous blind tests I've done.

I wish wire was not directional. It a nuisance having to test each new batch of wire I receive to determine the correct direction.

Blind vs Double-Blind vs Sighted Listening Tests

One favorite tactic of the AOs is to decry any listening tests that are not strictly double-blind, which are the gold standard for medical/drug tests. It's done to prevent any conceivable source of bias in medical tests, which are frankly much more serious than listening tests, which are hardly life-or-death situations. But crucially, it's fairly easy to do in drug trials as it's easy to make placebos. 

Double-blind means that nobody involved in running the test knows the identity of the device-under-test. This can be done sometimes, but it's really difficult to do for a lot of things.  

For example, you could get an assistant to change between two types of interconnect. But he would see them and would know which was which. There are ways around this but things get cumbersome very fast. How does this work with amplifiers?

The reality is that for audio tests, the majority of the time it's almost impossible to conduct true double-blind tests outside of a research environment, and then you get all the unfamiliar-system problems.

However it's often possible to conduct single blind tests. I'd encourage people to try this as it's an instructive experience. It really is much harder to pick things blind; some is no doubt confirmation bias, but some is down to pressure to perform, etc.

The reason that AOs bang on about double-blind testing is that it gives them an excuse to reject mere single-blind tests, even though double blind would be unfeasible. I wager most of them have never performed a true double blind test in their lives.

In reality, most listening tests are performed sighted - there simply isn't enough time to set up blind tests for everything. The AOs will tell you that confirmation bias completely invalidates sighted listening. Perhaps it does for naive or untrained listeners, but for people who are well practiced, and can repeat tests multiple times, I say that they have validity.

If sighted listening was all about confirmation bias,  you'd never be surprised during sighted listening. 

And I often am surprised enough to exclaim "you've gotta be kidding me" and similar less family friendly retorts.

Confirmation bias is very real though. For instance if you believe that interconnects all sound the same then if you test them you will (usually) fail to hear any difference. But for some reason, AOs forget about their own confirmation biases.

Similar Measurements = Similar Sound

This just doesn't hold water in my opinion. A well-known blogger routinely tests various DACs and unsurprisingly they all measure pretty much the same. The differences are written off as impossible to hear. So his implication is that pretty much all DACs sound the same.

I have to wonder about such folk. The first thought is "Are they deaf or something?"

Really, it's not so hard to tell the differences between DACs. Not like picking cable direction. 

Often there are gross differences in tonality, presentation and dynamics that means you don't need to resort to figuring out micro-differences..

The same sort of thing applies to amplifiers. In fact it's fairly easy to produce an amp that measures impeccably on sine waves, in fact it may measure much better than say a tube amplifier.  But the tube amplifier might be preferred by all listeners.

What's going on here? 

The AOs will tell you that these stupid audiophiles actually like the sound of distortion, that they think it improves the sound quality!  

Right; so the extra distortion is responsible for ambient hall sounds now being audible, the two singers that were previously  blurred together now being separated,  and all the other effects that we can hear. 

Bullshit!

It's much better  to believe that the measurements were simply not measuring the right thing. Distortion and/or noise will only ever reduce the information content (see : 2nd law)

(The latest version of this I heard is that these silly audiophiles prefer the sound of upsampled DSD to normal PCM because of the differences in ultrasonic noise - DSD has more - and that this extra noise works just like tube-amp distortion. They will also tell you in the next breath that you can't hear ultrasonic noise anyway!)

Audiophile Products = Snake Oil

The logical conclusion of the AO's arguments is that many audiophile products are fraudulent (that would include just about everything I make and sell). Of course I completely reject this.

If I come across such a person in real like (as opposed to online) I normally do the following demonstration for them:

1.       play some music for them
2.       replace the power cords and interconnects with standard items
3.       remove the blackpod footers from everywhere
4.       play the same music again and defy them to say it sounds the same..


Normally it's not necessary to replace the "tweak" items again. Doing steps 2,3 and 4 so ruins the sound that even non-audiophiles are easily able to hear. 

Another thing that is strange - no seller of actual snake oil would offer trial or money-back guarantees. But we offer that, and so do many other audiophile companies.

In the end I think the AO phenomena is a lot about ego, the need to be right, and most of all, a patronizing way to feel superior to all the stupid audiophiles like us.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Heretical Digital Cable

Why Heretical?


Every digital audio coax (SPDIF) cable out there claims that it is "75 ohms" (whatever that means). The Mad Scientist Heretical Digital makes no attempt to conform to this standard. This post explains it all..



What is this "75 Ohms"


In the SPDIF standard (Sony/Phillips Digital Interface Format), the coax electrical interface is defined to have a characteristic impedance of 75 ohms.

Characteristic Impedance however is not so easy to understand or picture as regular impedance, say like a loudspeaker is 8 ohms, or an amp might have an input impedance of 50kohms. These are simple resistances, and you can measure them easily with a multimeter.

On the other hand, Characteristic Impedance is all to do with transmission lines. You also can't measure it with a multimeter. Here is the formal definition, from Wikipedia:

The characteristic impedance or surge impedance (usually written Z0) of a uniform transmission line is the ratio of the amplitudes of voltage and current of a single wave propagating along the line; that is, a wave travelling in one direction in the absence of reflections in the other direction. Characteristic impedance is determined by the geometry and materials of the transmission line and, for a uniform line, is not dependent on its length.

So why does that matter?

The crucial point is this : If you have a 75-ohm transmission line (like a digital cable) and you have some part of the system that is NOT 75-ohms, then you get signal reflections. The signal can bounce up and down the cable, in some cases dozens of times. These reflections can and do alter the original signal in hard-to-predict ways. This mechanism is the underlying cause of jitter in digital cables. And jitter is one of the chief culprits of 'digital nasties'. Not the only culprit, for sure, but a very important one.

There have been articles written about the optimum length for a digital interconnect, making it the right length so the reflections avoid the critical points where the detector is trying to detect a transition. However you need to know things like the rise time and propagation time to figure out the correct length for your system; as far as I can see there's no length that would work for everything. The effect that jitter produces is a horrible mixture of noise and distortion - not easy on the ear at all. But it accounts for the differences in sound of digital cables.

Jitter


The amount of jitter that high quality digital clocks produce is getting to be very small - measured in a few tens of picoseconds. Now that figure is meaningless to most people, me included. So how's this : Light travels about 3mm in 10 picoseconds. And as you may know, light is really really fast. This small amount of jitter can be dwarfed by other sources like cables.

Heretical Digital Cable


The Mad Scientist Heretical Digital takes a different approach. It does not attempt to conform to a 75-ohm characteristic impedance. It does however have a significant amount of resistance as the main conductor is made from treated carbon fiber.

Two things happen with a carbon fiber conductor:

  • Skin Effect is very very small compared to metal conductors. The square waves that make up the digital data are sent at a  few megahertz - fairly slow by digital standards. However, the harmonics that make up the square wave go much higher, into the tens or even hundreds of megahertz. At these frequencies, copper has a skin depth of a few micrometers. By comparison the skin depth for carbon fiber is still as few millimeters.

This is important as the correct transmission of all the component harmonics is crucial for the correct transmission of the whole wave.

  • Resistance soaks up the reflections. This is probably more important than skin effect. The resistance of the conductor, being of similar magnitude to the 75-ohm loading means that reflections are not going to be able to do much damage - they will be turned into heat.

If you imagine the digital link being like a light tube, with flashes of light being the data pulses; A normal cable has silvered parts and so you get glare and reflections. Our Heretical Digital is like filling the tube with slightly darkened glass - only the bright flashes get through, reflections are absorbed.

The Heretical Digital Cable has a resistance of about 37 ohms - half the 75 ohm characteristic impedance. But all SPDIF inputs are terminated with 75 ohms. This means that a reflection that reflects off the DAC end of the cable/plug will travel towards the source where it can interfere with the data. But the resistance will tend to turn the energy into heat, so reflections are dissipated very quickly.

What it takes to develop cables - a small selection of prototypes

What Actually Happened


This all might sound like it was planned. But that's not quite how it happened. As is often the case in science, an ad-hoc experiment showed some interesting results which lead to further research, theorizing, more experiments and so on.

After the carbon fiber interconnects were developed, I thought I'd try one as a digital cable. I wondered whether it would work at all and I wasn't expecting it to sound good.

But it did sound good, which surprised me. So a new project was born. I needed to figure out why this was producing such good results. Also I needed to figure out what the best sounding design was.

It turns out that a much simpler design than YANAM/TORFORB is needed. Out with the multiple bundles of carbon fiber, now just a single, thicker conductor is used. Also a cheaper plug seems to work better.

As with the interconnects, I was trying to make the best digital cable that I could. It would also have been ideal if I could come up with a range to suit all pockets. But the result of the listening and design process showed that the simple one is the best. If anyone wants a "signature" version, I can sign it with a silver pen if you like ;)

How Does It Sound


Usual disclaimer about how I am biased, etc. But those that know me might want to take note..

The Heretical Digital Cable astonishes me. I've tried a good number of digital cables in my time, conventional and not-so-conventional. This one shines, being the best one I've heard. Not "best for $99" but "best for any money". The things that leap out at me are:

  • analog-like sound but with digital crispness - so a lush sound but the leading edges are still fast
  • very pure treble with lots of air and very fast top end
  • wide and fast dynamics
  • intelligibility - I'm hearing lyrics much more easily. Also makes complex passages easier to parse

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What's a Torforb?


TORFORB is our top-of-the-range interconnect. This is the story of their development.


There are actually three models of interconnect, all related by the common carbon fiber signal conductors they use. All three have identical signal conductors, but vary in their construction and earth conductors.

Why Carbon Fiber?


I first came across carbon fiber as an interconnect conductor in the 1990s when I lived in Holland. Local star Van Den Hul released the FIRST cable, a pure carbon cable. I heard some at a friend's place and went out and bought a set. They sounded very smooth and musical.  In the 90s, digital nasties were more prevalent than they are today, and the fact that the Van Den Hul FIRST rounded off the music somewhat was a good thing.

Although they are very musical, they paint a romantic picture, a bit like old-school tubed gear. But they also don't render the top end and 'air' very well. So they would not be competitive today.

I started experimenting with carbon fiber early this year. It became quickly apparent that there was a special sound to carbon fiber, but I ran into the same sort of issue - rounded off highs. But it turns out that this was quite easily solved. I won't go into exactly how. But the final signal conductor consists of two bundles of fibers, different sized. I also found that the fibers used were important and found a company that used high quality Japanese fibers as the base.


So now the job was to make a product. I had been using a simple copper-occ single strand for the earth conductor. I figured that trying to use carbon would not give good results due to the high resistance - you really want the earth conductor to have low impedance.

One interesting thing about carbon fiber as a conductor is that it's immune from high frequency skin effects. Why so? Well if you calculate the skin depth for carbon fiber you find it's several inches, mostly because it's not a metal and has high resistance.

Development continued with trials of various earth conductors, using different materials, constructions and geometries.  At some point I tried using copper foil as earth conductor and got a real performance boost. I had to try silver foil..

You should see the large pile of prototypes I have here..

After lots and lots of testing, I found that there was a number of designs that I liked, some simple, some more complex. In order of improving sound quality, I ranked the designs:
  • Copper OCC wire
  • Cross wound copper OCC and silver OCC wires
  • Copper foil with copper OCC wire
  • Copper foil with cross wound copper OCC and silver OCC wires
  • Silver foil with copper OCC wire
  • Silver foil with cross wound copper OCC and silver OCC wires
To make matters more complicated there was also a hierarchy of wire types - I found at least three types of OCC wire that I liked. The most expensive copper OCC wire is about 10x the price of the cheapest OCC wire, same with the silver.
Then there is silver/gold foil. I wouldn't say that this is better but it has a slightly different sound, a touch warmer.

This was turning into a problem. There were far too many options here. So I decided that there should be three models, with maybe some options. 

Names..


Around this time I decided that TORFORB would be a good name for the top of the range. It stands for "Too Rich For My Blood", the name of a Patricia Barber track that is a regular test track of mine. So I went searching for other Patricia Barber songs names that could be abbreviated, and came up with ATOH ( A Taste of Honey) and YANAM (You & the night & the music).

The ATOH is the entry level interconnect, and that uses the simple copper OCC earth wire, using Neotech teflon insulated wire.

YANAM uses copper foil and cross wound copper OCC and silver OCC wires, using Neotech wires.

And TORFORB uses silver foil (or optionally silver/gold foil) with cross wound VH Audio foamed dielectric occ copper and silver wires.

Around this time we were also developing our Magic Tubes. These worked well in many places including interconnects. So I had the idea to include a pair of Magic Tubes with some models.

I had been attaching the Magic Tubes using sticky tape or Blue Tak. Clearly this would not work for a product, so I came up with the idea of the wooden "Audio Block".


The reason I call them Audio Blocks : They are made by a local company, Woodzone,  who make things from NZ Native timbers. When I went to pick up the first batch, the girl in the office was making an invoice for me, and says to me "What are they called?" - I gave her a blank look and said that was a very good question, no idea.  We stood around for some time pondering this, and someone suggested Audio Blocks, so the name stuck.

They are made from NZ native Rimu wood, and laser etched. The YANAM and TORFORB models come with audio blocks and magic tubes; they are an option on ATOH


How They Sound


Of course I am biased, but my take on them is that they all sound somewhat different to normal wire interconnects. Hard to put into words, but there's a rightness to them that makes many other interconnects seem wiry, distant or colored. They also do dynamics very well - interconnects that can make you jump at the loud parts.

Although there is a distinct improvement as you go up the range, there is also an undeniable family sound. They share much more in terms of sound than they differ. 

The best way to hear how they sound is to try a set. We do 30-day money back returns, but I can't see anyone returning them.








Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mad Scientist Magic Tubes

Well these really do look like they come from a Mad Scientist. I mean, small glass tubes with some dubious looking powder inside (nothing illegal, honestly officer). Even I find it hard to believe.

But the darned things work. Everyone so far who's tried them has said good things. Just today I got this in an email from someone who reviews audio gear for several websites:

Wow, they WORK!!!   Strange but true  ;=)

I could even hear that something happened while mounting them on my speakers binding posts while the music was playing, and I was behind the speakers. Thought it was my mind playing games, so I let them “settle” a few days, and removed them yesterday. You know, though I often can hear results within seconds, I always use the Long Term Listening Test. Have your system play tons of songs for days or better weeks, and not only 5 seconds of 3 songs.   Only that way I can be sure that my test item is working with all kinds of music! 

They are GOOD!

I'm not going to reveal exactly how they work, because I don't really know myself. I have some clues that I am following. (And of course, I know how to make them.)  Here are some of my thoughts:

One clue is their settling time. They seem to need to settle every time they are moved. I have reason to think that this is the material settling, relaxing, aligning with the earth's magnetic field, and any local fields. The effect that they have seems to have something to do with magnetic fields.

But quite why this should produce the effect that it does is a mystery. I could do the standard audio thing and give you some spiel about quantum mechanics and so on. But the problem here is that I do understand QM to a reasonable degree, having studied it at university, and subsequently kept up to date on important developments. (I'm a many worlds kind of guy, incidentally.)

In fact, there is an important QM feature at play here, spin,  but it's a stretch to call the effect quantum mechanical (any more than it is reasonable to claim any effect is quantum because we live in a quantum world). I think the effect here can be understood using classical physics. Just that I don't understand it. Yet.

OK so what is the effect that you get? Usually you hear a difference right away, and if you listen you can often hear some quite sudden changes after 10 to 15 minutes. I thought something was broken first time I heard this. After 30-40 minutes the treble should become clearer and more spacious. After another half hour, the bass fills in. Removing the tubes collapses the sound - that's the best way to describe it - the soundstage shrinks, the frequency extremes close in, dynamics close in. It's shocking, at least on my system.

You might find that initially you lose some top end or 'air', but this should return after settling. If not, put the tubes somewhere else - some locations are just too sensitive to them and need less effect than the tubes provide.

You really need to try these yourself, or you simply won't believe it.

Now I'm no marketing genius - I wish I was - but looking around I decided to use what is known as the "Heroin Dealer Approach" - in other words, Your First Hit Is Free.



We already give away Black Discus samples, but these are a little larger, so all we ask is $5 for shipping, and we'll send you a free pair of Magic Tubes. To get your Free Magic Tubes:

  1. Visit our online store - click here
  2. Add a 2-pack of Magic Tubes to the shopping cart
  3. When you get to the Cart page, enter the code MAGICME into the Voucher box
  4. You will only be charged $5 for shipping.

As well as this, any order during August will receive a free pair of Magic Tubes. Normal price is $49 per pair.

Here they are in use, on the back of my speakers.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ceramic Blackpods

I wanted to see if I could find a better ball material than the rubber-coated lead of the regular Blackpods. So I spent some time acquiring balls of various materials, from titanium and exotic steels to ceramics.

Titanium and Steel balls sounded a bit too 'zingy'. The ceramics sounded superior to me. 

There are three hi-tech ceramics that were used : Alumina, Silicon Nitride and Zirconia. The Silicon Nitride balls are surprisingly light, whereas the Zirconia balls are around twice as heavy. Alumina sits in the middle for density. All are very hard, harder than tool steels and titanium.

Initially I used 18mm balls, the same size as the lead balls that I found worked best. Alumina gave the best results at this size. So we tried other sizes, down to 10mm. Turns out that the 12mm balls gave the most balanced sound.



So I was just about to go into production with 12mm Alumina balls when I discovered that using one Zirconia ball and two Alumina gave a distinct boost in performance. This came about because Richard, (who runs Krebs Upgrades),  showed me the same soft of effect on his footers. He says it's down to there being a preferential path to ground and faster transmission speed. That sounds plausible but it's still surprising that it's such a large effect. 

So I decided to go with the mixture of Alumina and Zirconia ceramic balls.

How They Sound

Compared to regular Blackpods, they seem 'faster' and convey a little more information, especially at the top end (treble). But at the same time they are relaxed and musical.
The extra jump in performance that you get with the Z-ball/2xAlumina is larger than any difference between ball materials.



How to Use
To get the best results from Ceramic BlackPods, you should be prepared to do a little experimenting. On some components you get best results with the balls pointing up, while on others you need the ball downwards. Also there are the locations to trial - the sound can vary considerably with different positioning. Also be sure that the flat side of the Blackpods makes good contact - don't put it against a bolt for instance - it should be flush with the component or base.

Finally there is the position of the Z-ball. The Zirconia ball is marked with a Z sticker, but it's quite easy to see the color difference in daylight - Alumina is slightly ivory-colored, with Zirconia blue-white.

I usually start with the Z-ball carrying the most weight - normally with components you find that the weight in unevenly distributed and this results in each Blackpod taking a different load.

You may even find that you get the best performance with one of the Blackpods upside down compared to the others. Just don't despair if they don't sound great to start with - try turning them over..


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Stillpoints vs Blackpods

Stillpoint Ultra SS and BlackPods
In the audio land of exotic footers, Stillpoints reign supreme. The most common question I get about BlackPods is "How do they compare to Stillpoints". Well, until a week ago I'd never even seen a Stillpoint, let alone heard one. But this last week I've got my hands on some Ultra SS Stillpoints and I've been testing them extensively. Also I've had several audiophile friends come  over for a listen, and all say the same sort of things.

I realize of course that a comparative review written by the designer and maker of one of the products is likely to be viewed with suspicion (or worse). But I trust that my evaluation will be borne out by other's experiences in time.

This story starts with a visit to Audio Reference in Auckland - our local high-end shop. I'd gone to meet Terry and listen to a variety of footers. We used the system shown below:



This was a decent system, but was sufficiently different to make subtle comparisons difficult for me. We started out without any footers on the DAC. Then added the smallest Stillpoints, the Ultra Mini (us$375 for 3). That made an obvious difference. Then we tried BlackPods. Different again. Notably more bass. Then it was the turn of the Stillpoint Ultra SS (us$747 for 3). Better bass than the Minis. Lastly we listened to some Finite Elemente Cerapuc (around us$550 for 3). These had great bass, but notably less information coming through than the Stillpoints or Blackpods (currently $99 for 3, normal price $139 for 3).

Terry very kindly lent me a set of Stillpoint Ultra SS so I could do a proper evaluation. I did not think it worth borrowing the Ultra Minis, as they seemed to be some distance behind the Ultra SS in performance. At this stage I didn't really have a handle on how they sounded, as the system was unfamiliar and lower resolution than my normal system.

Test Setup


After some initial playing around and casual listening, I set about finding the best place for the Ultra SS footers. I used my DAC/Preamp as the mule, as this is most sensitive to footer changes. It's a Twisted Pear Buffalo III board, using the ESS9018 Sabre chip, running into a Broskie Unbalancer tube back-end.

I found with BlackPods that placement is important. You can alter the effect of footers somewhat by moving them around. So I wanted to find a good location for the Stillpoints. Turns out that they like the same sort of place that the Blackpods like, so that made testing easier. Also I found they sounded best with the 'hard hat' side up, slightly unscrewed (as recommended).

The rest of the test system, for those interested : Speakers Magnepan 3.6, Amp Goldmund clone that I breathed on a little, Front end, Squeezebox touch with Remedy Recloker.

Some of the CDs used: Patricia Barber: Modern Cool, Cafe Blue. Dave Matthews: Some Devil. Fat Freddy's Drop : Based on a true story. Keb Mo: Slowdown. Little Axe : Hard Grind.

Listening


I have to say that I was expecting Stillpoints to be better than my BlackPods. And on initial listening they sounded very impressive, making it easy to pick out detail that you hadn't heard before. They were clearly a cut above your average cones, or even 'good' cones like Black Carbon Racing Cones.

The most immediately apparent thing was that the Stillpoints had more treble, and the BlackPods had more bass. 

As I went back and forth between the two footers, I started having this heretical thought :

Wow...Blackpods are better than Stillpoints.


The extra treble that the Stillpoints had, while exposing extra detail, also seemed too much. Some vocals that work fine on Blackpods became sibilant with the Ultra SS (eg Too Rich For My Blood, Cafe Blue). This gave the effect of a top-heavy presentation. This was also compounded by the bass, which was richer, deeper and more controlled on the BlackPods. You could hear the bass lines with the Stillpoints, but BlackPods let you feel them as well.

So once I'd broken that mental barrier, I started noticing all sort of other things:
  • Soundstage depth. One thing I've noticed with all the very best systems that I've heard - they all have a fabulous way of presenting soundstage depth. (and even height). I put this down to the fact that depth cues are very low level, often buried in other music and distortion. Only systems with truly high resolution can present depth convincingly.

    I noticed on several tracks that BlackPods portray a much more 3D soundstage than Stillpoints. For instance, one Fat Freddy's Drop track has this sound effect that appears to leap out of one speaker, come towards you in an arc, then go back to the other speaker. Artificial, for sure, but a cool effect. The BlackPods make you move out of the way. On the Stillpoints there's hardly any depth, the sound appearing to simply move between the speakers, not leap out at you.

    With Stillpoints, a track like Gravedigger (Some Devil) has a strange effect on the lead vocal, appearing phasey. With BlackPods you can hear that it's set well back on the soundstage.
  • Musicality : the BlackPods are just more musical. They sound  more like music. The Ultra SS are more electronic sounding.
  • Toe-Tapability. This highly scientific test measures how easily you tap your toes to some toe-tapping music. Some call it PRAT. Anyway, time and time again I found it much easier to for my toes to tap with BlackPods.
  • Dynamics : I noticed that music seemed to have more sense of ebb and flow with BlackPods. More 'surprise factor' - the effect you get when an instrument comes in loudly and unexpectedly.
After a couple of days of this, I got pretty tired of the Stillpoints sound. My ears/brain dialled into their signature sound, so it became very easy to hear. Normally when I borrow gear I listen as much as I can, but with Stillpoints I only now use them when I want to do a test, or demonstration. I just don't find them as musical, as as enjoyable to listen to as BlackPods.


Conclusion


Given that BlackPods cost a small fraction of Stillpoints, they are a complete bargain. They are still $99 (for a set of 3) for the next few days. After that they will be $139 - and you can return in 30 days for a refund. But I can't seen anyone returning these..

I have to admit that I am quite surprised the way it's turned out. I really thought they would be better than this..



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Christmas Shipping

According to New Zealand Post: 

If you want your parcel delivered before Christmas, kindly conclude your purchase a few days before the following dates:

International sending cut off dates:

                                       Australia              South Pacific, Asia,                  Rest of the world
                                                        North America, UK & Europe

International Air            10 December                       5 December                 3 December

International 
Courier                       15 December                       12 December                10 December

International 
Express 
Courier                       17 December                       15 December                12 December