“Another cheap shot (another was in the RIAA article itself) at the people who are ACTUALLY working at improving the listener’s enjoyment of music, I would expect something like this in Poptronics, not TCJ. I don’t care if an amplifier’s maker doesn’t know all the equations and all the fancy topologies—Stradivarius did not have a degree in physics…amplifiers without oil coupling capacitors ARE NOT worth listening to… Maybe you should think about changing the name of the journal to the MOSFET, Transistor, FET, IC, and sometimes, Tubes Journal...”
This isn’t the first time I have been accused of being anti-tweak, which I certainly do not believe I am, as I believe that tweaking by part replacement or tube rolling are fine pursuits, as long as that isn’t all you have to work with that is. If it is, then you have as much a chance of getting something worthwhile as a room full of chimps at typewriters has of producing a good sonnet. Well, actually the odds aren’t that bad, as most tweaking is imitative, aping no less, so it is more like Shakespeare sitting in a room filled with chimps, maybe one chimp could copy...
What follows is a reply I wrote to editor of Electronic Products (an excellent resource for the electronic enthusiast that I highly recommend by the way) after reading his editorial, wherein he denounced the pseudo-science mumbo jumbo of high-end audio uttered by those who, at heart, are anti-scientific. You know the stuff he decries: “Our new cables feature quark-aligned, time-space coherent, molecular-stabilized, non-diodic, macro-crystal, transimpedance-optimized, antimatter-free wire.” He concluded with:
“If audiophiles wish to adopt the language of science to justify their beliefs, they should also be willing to adopt the methodology. Yet most dismiss the idea of testing to prove (or disprove) their hypotheses-a critical part of the scientific method-as unnecessary.
And perhaps, for many audiophiles, it is. For by closing their "golden ears" to what science has to offer, they are choosing to remain adrift in a sea of subjectivity-forever in search of that "perfect" sound.”
Another issue of Electronic Products has come out and I am reminded that I haven't written in response to your last editorial. The topic was high-end audio: The sounds of science?
This is not going to be one of those letters that decries your lack of sensitivity for failing to hear subtle difference between five “9s” copper versus six “9s” copper. But then it is not going to be one of those letters that heartily slaps you on the back for trashing a group of spoiled snobs with more money than sense. No, this letter’s goal is much more difficult to achieve.
You see, I get both of those types of letter routinely, as I put a free webzine (www.tubecad.com) devoted to carefully explaining how tube-based circuits work, which requires precise terminology (remember when admittance and conductance were not synonymous) and a few long equations. Half of my critics see me as promoting a purely-objective undertaking that cannot be applied to an art, as exempt from scientific analysis as would be Picasso painting a masterpiece.
In a recent issue, I tried to disentangle the popular understanding of how the SRPP (the totem-pole) circuit works from its actual functioning. The following is from the article:
“Which view is correct? Surely, this circuit is not all that complex. Couldn’t an oscilloscope be attached to the circuit and the answer be revealed?
Yes, a scope readily reveals how the circuit works, but the oscilloscope is disdained by many audiophiles. They fear anything that smacks of the cult of measurement, holding that ear allows the only path to truth. (This viewpoint is so strongly held that some audiophiles have feared my hooking up an oscilloscope and distortion analyzer to their broken tube amplifiers, fearing that in the act of repairing the amplifier, the amplifier might become contaminated by science and conventional-engineering practice, never again sounding as pure and musical. Fortunately, the owners have never seen tubes, capacitors, or resistors being made...as they say, if you love justice and tube sound, never see how either is made.)”
The other half of my critics see me as denying progress and promoting a form of modern-day witchcraft. If it is newer, it must be better. Tubes are old, in fact, ancient, by modern standards; thus, worse than worthless. The logic is sound, but the premises are debatable.
(Many falsely believe that I hate solid-state amplifiers. In fact, I love them: I enjoy designing them, evaluating other designer’s solid-state circuits and topologies —Erno Borbely, John Curl, Nelson Pass, Douglas Self—even repairing them; I just do not like listening to them for more than a few minutes, whereas I can listen to a good tube amplifier for a few hours, before fatigue sets in. That marginal difference in sound is decisive for me.)
A few years ago, a many-degreed, highly-gifted and intelligent senior analog-electrical engineer sat on my couch, belittling the premise that I would waste my time designing and building a tube amplifier, a single-ended one at that! But as the music filled the room, he shut up. Seven minutes later, the track nowhere near ending, I killed the music and I was about to offer a rebuttal, when he plaintively cried out in an anguished tone as if I had just accidentally thrown his only picture of his mother into a fire, “Nooo, don't! Why did you turn the music off? That was the first time in decades that I actually enjoyed listening to music.” How very sad, when you consider that he might never had the luck to break the decades-long fast. Once he recovered from his emotional outburst, he challenged me to a contest: he would use solid-state devices and I would use tubes and the goal was to see who could make a better Op-Amp. “Sure,” I replied, “as long as one of the design objectives is the ability to swing 300 volts peak-to-peak at the output.”
Fifteen years ago when an audiophile friend and I went to breakfast in Davenport, California, a small sleepy coastal town 5 miles north of Santa Cruz. We were eating our omelets when a young women sat 20 feet behind my friend and began to play a large harp. After a few minutes of live music passed, I asked my friend what he thought of the sound system. He became animated.
“So that’s it. That’s why you wanted to come to this restaurant: let me guess these new-age hippies are too cheap to buy a new PA system and they are running some old Dynaco gear. And they probably are running the original tubes,” he said triumphantly to me.
He then cocked his ear and said, “Yes, definitely tube gear, notice the flabby bottom end and the rolled off highs.”
“What about the mids,” I asked.
“Sure it sounds smooth, but too smooth, artificially smooth, no bite...just too romantic don’t you think? Real music has more of an edge to it,” he replied.
“You’re right, it sounds just like tube gear to me,” was my answer as we stood to leave and my friend was horrified to see real music being performed.
Neither the senior engineer nor the audiophile was converted to tubes, but they both thereafter would change the subject when solid-state or tube stereos were mentioned. I understand their position perfectly, as we all have our limits on what we are willing give up in order to embrace its opposite. I once came upon an odd sonic effect, where no sonic effect could result. I called up a friend and had him come over to verify what I was hearing (I did not tell him what I was hearing). He heard it too and asked what I was going to do. I told him nothing; I was going to pretend that it had never happened, as I could think of no good reason how the sonic effect obtained.
If I knew less about physics and electronics, I could readily embrace the technique for creating the sonic effect. (I once worked with this no-nonsense fellow who told me one about the grueling month he had spent dealing with a haunting of his family that was only resolved by giving a hundred dollar donation to a church whose minister preformed an exorcism for him. After he finished, I asked if he believed any of the steaming BS he had just told me. He replied that he didn’t. This confused me and I asked why he had paid the money and gone through the exorcism, if he didn’t believe in it. His answer was, “I don't believe in microwaves either, but if the microwave oven breaks, I am going to pay to have it fixed.”)
Charming as these stories no doubt are, how does this justify $2,000 interconnect cables and magic rocks? First of all, I believe that anyone who sells $2,000 interconnects should not be allowed to die a natural death, failing that, horsewhipped with the cords. But at the same time, I have no quarrel with the audiophiles who tell me that those same cables transformed his system or, at the other extreme of expense, that four sheets of toilet paper in between his loudspeaker and their stands made his system sound ten times better.