You Gotta LISTEN to It!
Back in the days when Tony DiChiro was President of Kinergetics Research and I was writing for another publication, Tony and I used to spend hours at each other's house listening to things: Not just the normal sorts of things that you'd expect audiophiles to listen to (speakers, the latest electronics, cables, etc.), but parts and connectors—the stuff that stuff was made out of or hooked-up with.
One night, when Tony was in the process of designing some new product for Kinergetics and needed to make a specific choice for production, we spent hours listening to a special by-pass box that Tony had made that allowed us to directly compare five different brands of chassis-mount RCA jacks.
Yeah, that's right, RCA jacks, and the five that we listened to included one very popular U.S. brand, an expensive European brand, a pro-audio favorite from Japan, an extremely expensive one from Hong Kong, and a budget model (just 19 cents each, in production quantities) from Taiwan.
What do you think? Did they sound different? And, if so, ranging from best-to-worst, how would you expect them to rank?
Well, of course they sounded different. The surprise was how they ranked, performance-wise: The very best-sounding was the one made in America; next was… (wait for it)… the 19 cent Taiwanese one (!); followed by the one from Japan (which was quite good, incidentally, but not quite up to the standard set by the first two). Bringing up the rear, with clearly audible drops in performance, were the very expensive Hong Kong unit and, finally, the well-known and also expensive (but not nearly as pricey) European brand.
Frankly, we weren't expecting what we heard: Like most people, we had expected that the more expensive products would be the better sounding ones, and when they turned out to be noticeably worse than the others, we found ourselves having to reconsider some of the things that we had, until then, taken for granted.
Over the course of time, we listened to capacitors (BIG differences), resistors (less difference, but still worth comparing), internal hook-up wire (different metals; different gauges; different insulation, all of which made clearly audible differences), other internal components, and even some things that—even after our experience with the RCA jacks, we really expected not to make any kind of sonic difference.
One of those things was digital buffer chips. The way Tony explained their function to me, they really shouldn't have had any influence on the sound at all, but when Tony showed up at my house with a special prototype Kinergetics CD player and a box of nearly a dozen different buffer chips (all the same model number, but from different manufacturers) and we plugged them all in, one at a time, and listened to them, the audible differences were both obvious and consistently repeatable.
Another listening session that took me totally by surprise was when we listened to covers—that's right, covers—the things closing the tops of your equipment. In the course of prototyping some of his designs, Tony had noticed that whatever he was working on seemed to sound different depending on whether it was open, for him to test or make changes to, or all buttoned-up, with the sheet metal cover in place to protect the chassis between modifications.
To see if that was really the case, we got together and set up and listened to one of Tony's Kinergetics preamps with its regular cover on; with replacement covers of various non-metallic materials; and with no cover at all. Again, there were clearly audible differences, and it was decided that an accessory non-metallic cover would be offered as an option. For those of you who are curious, the standard sheet metal cover sounded "closed-in", or "restricted"; wood was better; plexiglass was better than that; and, other than no cover at all, plain old corrugated cardboard was the best of the bunch! For obvious reasons of salability and ease of demonstration, though, plexiglass was chosen as the "go to" cover. Perhaps other people also made the same comparisons and came to the same conclusions, because a number of other manufacturers, including Jeff Rowland Design Group offered optional plexiglass covers for their equipment soon thereafter.
The listening comparison that I found to be the most outright shocking was not one that I did with Tony DiChiro. When I was writing for Sounds Like…, I was assigned to review the latest preamp from Counterpoint. One was sent to me, and, after setting it up and letting it "cook" for a little while, I listened to it and it was… awful—dark, gluey, virtually unlistenable. It was so bad that I called Mike Elliott, the designer, and told him about it and what it sounded like in my system, saying that perhaps it had been damaged in shipping or, if that was really the way it was supposed to sound, perhaps he would prefer that I just send it back to him and not review it at all.
His surprising response was "Oh, don't worry about it. I guessed wrong and thought you'd like the Chinese tubes, so that's what that one has in it. I'll just send you some Russian tubes; you'll like those a lot better."
He did and I did, and the preamp changed character, entirely, becoming, finally, just exactly as great as Counterpoint's reputation promised it to be. The whole affair left me with a serious question, though: If a single design can range from awful to terrific with nothing more than changing the brand of its tubes, how could a designer of tube electronics possibly function? Did he not only have to design a circuit, but then to test every single tube in every one of its stages by substitution with every brand of that tube ever made? What about—as I had learned from the DiChiro sessions—the capacitors, the resistors, the internal wiring, or the so-called "passive" parts, like the connectors and the cover? What about everything? Does it ALL have to be listened to and re-listened to, individually and in combination, and does all of that apply to solid-state electronics, too?
I think the answer is "Yes".
Even more, I have come to a conclusion that is amazing, even to me: I think that the difference between "mid-fi"—popularly-priced mainstream consumer electronics—and the highest of High-End may stem from nothing more than people listening or not listening to what they have designed as a part the process of getting it ready for production.
If you stop to think about it, you'll see that the big consumer electronics companies do have the ability to produce good stuff, and that virtually all of the basic technical innovation in our industry comes from them. Perhaps that's because they have the big R&D budgets and the big teams of engineers to effectively use them. R&D, though, means "Research and Development", and Development may be where the big companies fall short.
What big companies have to do in order to stay big is to sell their products by the tens of thousands and, because of competitive pressures, to sell them at lower prices than any smaller (read High-End) company could ever afford. To do that requires producing goods in high volume and at low cost. And doing that may very well mean designing a good—or even a brilliant—circuit and then, instead of perfecting it by painstakingly listening to every possible component in every possible combination or configuration to ensure that it will achieve its full performance potential, going straight to production, using whatever is cheapest, fits the space available, and can be machine-assembled.
The performance difference between mid-fi and the best High-End may be nothing more than that the finest High-End manufacturers excel at listening to what's going into their products and can afford the luxury of using whatever sounds best, regardless of cost, size, or ease of production. If that's true, maybe the "Tweakers", "Do-It-Yourselfers", and "Tube-Rollers" have the right idea when they locate potentially low performance parts in their gear and replace them with better-sounding ones. Whether at the manufacturer or the audiophile level, listening can make the determining difference!