Stocking Stuffers

December 18, 2008

Well, it IS the Season, after all, and since hair shirts are always looking for something for nearly nothing, here are some things, most of which will fit in a stocking, that could improve the sound of your system.

This was not planned to be my next post – if anything I was planning on getting a little further into the definition of the elusive Hair Shirt Audiophile and what that entails. But, honestly, explaining the whole audiophile thing has turned out to be a bigger burden to carry than I expected. So much to say – so many audiophiles to protect and honor, blah blah blah… AND, I’m still trying to figure out who my audience is, but hey, I’m working on it. So, instead, here are some simple, relatively cheap things you can buy to improve the sound of a higher end audio system.

There is a theory that nothing in the reproduction of music can sound any better than the source itself, and that each step up the chain to the actual reproduction of sound in the air can only make it a little worse. An example of this for a vinyl lover would start with the turntable itself, probably going all the way back to its power supply and how well it turns the table, then on to the platter and plinth (base) and how well it keeps unwanted vibrations out of the path before it reaches the cartridge (which is essentially a VERY SENSITIVE microphone – it will pick up not only all the information in the groove of the record but all the external vibrations that you don’t want as well. Of course, there’s how well the arm lets the cartridge ride in that groove). Next up the chain is the phono preamplifier, then the main preamplifier (if the phono preamp is not built in to the main preamp- more rare these days), then to the amplifier and finally the speakers. Whew! In the old days, and still today, there is a “myth” that ‘the speakers make the biggest difference’, and, in a very big macro way, in systems in which the individual components vary widely, I guess it’s true that a a really good pair of speakers would sound better than a really bad pair. But, in a carefully constructed system of components, the inside out rule RULES. Start with a really good source and move out from there, leaving room for improvement along the way.

Getting back to the source and the subject of this post (Remember? Stocking stuffers?), if you really want to get back to the source, you might want to go ALL THE WAY BACK. To the power itself – the stuff coming out of the wall from your local power supplier. I won’t go into the debate about whether power conditioning can not only protect your components but also help them sound better too. I’ll just say that, to a certain degree, I’m a believer. I feel good about protecting my components and if it can make them sound better, it’s icing on the cake. There are many fine companies that make “power” products. One such company is PS Audio. Founded in 1974, PS Audio was the brainchild of audio designers Paul McGowan (the P) and Stan Warren (the S). PS soon became known as a company that was passionate in designing products with better sound, higher value and lower costs to their customers. Well, I like THAT! They’re located in Boulder, Co, a bit of a hotbed for the hi end audio cottage industry that it is. Other companies nearby include Ayre Acoustics, Boulder Amplifiers, and Grace Designs and down I-25 in Colorado Springs is Jeff Rowland Design Group.

PS Audio makes products in about 4 general categories:

Power, Audio, Cables, Assessories.

In the Power category, they make products, from the $2,200 Power Plant Premier, an AC power REGNERATOR that provides regulated, low distortion sine waves from the AC wall socket that can power your entire system, with its 10 outlets on the back, to more humble power conditioning “strips”, like the Quintet and Duet to a simple, hospital grade receptacle.

Something that caught MY attention is another one of the company’s notoriously innovative products. It’s called the Soloist. The Soloist is the only in-wall full featured power conditioner made. It fits into a double gang receptacle box (A ‘double ganger’ is one that accepts four sockets, as opposed to the standard two). If you can replace a receptacle, you can probably install the Soloist. The Soloist provides surge and spike protection as well as full zero-restriction AC filtering, right at the source of power – in your wall. I have one, and I have two 10 receptacle power strips plugged into it, providing power for all my components. This provides a nice building block – something PS Audio recommends. Later, I can upgrade my power strips, or even put the big Power Plant in there. It’ll only get better. But, for me, for now, THIS is a good start. ($199 – www.psaudio.com).

I live in an apartment, and I’ve already discovered some quirks in the in-wall wiring, that cause unusual ground loops that don’t happen in correctly wired settings. For example, my power amplifier, which I purchased used through Audiogon, from a local source, produced 60 cycle (hertz) hum out of my speakers when I first hooked it up (along with a LITTLE music). I’d just heard it an hour before in the other guy’s house playing perfectly. Naturally, I called him and the manufacturer (Conrad Johnson) and they both said the same thing – ‘sounds like you got something wired backwards in your wall – you COULD just use a cheater plug’. Cheater plugs are those little 3 prong to 2 prong adapters that you can buy at Home Depot for 69 cents. That’s exactly what I did and the problem went away, but this is not the best solution – as your product may be more at risk to other unwanted side effects if you leave it like this. Happily, I discovered that PS Audio’s power cables – all of them – are built with a very useful innovation – a removable ground pin. Designed to remove the grounding in a way that has no effect on the performance of the cable at all. I bought one of their more reasonably priced cables – used, on Ebay. And it’s another great stocking stuffer. I own and recommend the cable, the PS Audio xStream Power Prelude-SC. (Recently discontinued, but still available, used for about $100. Try www.audiogon.com or Ebay)

Well, I think I’ve plugged PS Audio enough. While they DO also make speaker cables and interconnects, I went a different direction there. I upgraded my speaker cables from the standard ‘zip cord’ type to ones made by a nice family owned business from Minnesota. Paul (and Judy) Speltz’s Anti Cables, as they are known, are not your father’s speaker cables. They are made of one solid piece of highly annealed, super long drawn, Continuously Cast Oxygen Free Copper (whew!). They’re not much thicker than spaghetti, but that is because the insulation (dielectric material) is a very thin red coating instead of the typical thick plastic variety. They are actually a heavy 12 gauge wire, even though they look much smaller. They feel and handle somewhat like a coat hanger, which makes them a little awkward to set up, but there are some advantages to this design as well. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars these days on the latest and greatest speaker wire. This makes $60 for a six foot pair seem like the bargain that they really are. I’ve been quite happy. They come coiled up, so, technically they WILL fit into a stocking! Check them out at http://www.anticables.com.

Another thing that fits nicely in ANYONE’S stocking is the humble interconnect. Whether you are connecting digital components (through S/PDIF Digital Coax or Optical/Toslink) analog components or Video components, there is something for everyone, and another small business I’ve discovered is Frank Dai’s company Signal Cable (http://www.signalcable.com). He hand makes all this as well as power cables, speaker cables and Home Theater cables with alacrity and precision, delivered very promptly and without fanfare in a nice zip lock bag. I have his Magic Power Power Cord ($59) powering my Phono Preamp and his Magic Power Digital Reference Power Cord ($69) for my outboard Digital to Analog converter (DAC). And I have two of his Silver Resolution Reference Digital Interconnects (introductory priced at $69 each) connecting two of my digital sources (music servers) to my DAC. I also have my phono preamp connected to my preamp with a pair of his Analog Two interconnects ($49). I’ve been extremely happy with his service and his products. Everything comes with a 30 day in home Money Back Guarantee. Thanks Frank!

Well, next time, maybe I’ll walk you through my own system. We’ll see!

Thanks for listening.

Daina