In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall

Category: electronics Page 2 of 10

No snake-oil here.

Earlier this month, in my Synergistic [super-secret!] Research post, I told you that I think it’s beyond daft to spend thousands of dollars on each cable for one’s stereo. I absolutely believe that companies offering these cables for sale are taking advantage of their customers. I wouldn’t normally care as they’re not holding a gun to their customers’ heads, right? But I do care both because their claims about the cables are insultingly ridiculous, and because it gives a bad name to those who care about music reproduction and spend more to get better-sounding music.

Since I have spent more to get better sound, though I’m by no means able to spend a lot, I believe you’re entitled to know what I do believe. So what cables do I use?

Right off, I don’t use the cables that come included in the box with DVD players! Though I will not spend thousands for a single cable, I don’t take the opposite extreme position that any wire is good enough.

My current cable provider, Blue Jeans Cable, has some articles up on their site, and one titled Broadcast Quality — What Does it Mean, and Why is it Good? deals with exactly this issue.

In a nutshell, broadcasters and studios use neither consumer cables, nor esoteric thousand dollar cables. They use cables that easily exceed the required specifications, and are built to withstand far more abuse than your stereo cables will ever experience. So my thinking is that if I can get the same cabling and connectors the studios use to record the music, why wouldn’t I use it if the price were reasonable?

The article goes into detail about what a broadcaster looks for in a cable:

The broadcast world differs from this consumer market in a few critical respects.

First, the “consumer” in the broadcast world is typically an engineer; whether he has that test bench full of gear for testing cable or not, he knows what it is, what it would measure, and how to use it if he has to.

Second, the applications are critical; an engineer patching video from one end of a production or broadcast facility to another doesn’t want to plug it in, see whether it works or not, and then spend a few hours debugging it. He needs cable to be dependable; he needs every foot of it to be as good as every other foot of it, and if the manufacturer says it’ll carry 1080i HD-SDI signals three hundred feet, he needs to be able to rely on that claim when the rubber hits the road.

Third, this is very much a nonsense-free market; our engineer-buyer isn’t likely to be excited by specious performance claims that can’t be measured or documented. He’s likely to know which features of a cable are critical — like impedance tolerance, return loss, attenuation relative to the lengths of cable in use — and which aren’t.

Fourth, he buys a lot of cable to wire just one production or broadcast facility, and he will not return to a manufacturer who lets him down where quality is concerned.

Fifth — and significantly, for our discussion — broadcast applications demand more of cable than any consumer application. Analog 1080i component video, commonly in use on high-definition consumer devices, requires about 37 Megahertz of bandwidth — plus, to be safe, a few harmonics, which gets us up into the 150 MHz region or so. Serial Digital Video, SDI — commonly run in production and broadcast facilities — requires twenty times that bandwidth, and will break down catastrophically if the cable doesn’t conform to tight manufacturing tolerances. And the technical requirements of the cable aren’t all; cables are handled, plugged in, unplugged, flexed, coiled, uncoiled, and generally subjected to wear and tear to an extent seldom seen in home environments, and both the cables and the connectors used in professional applications need to have durability, flex-life, and resistance to damage from handling and pulling. As much as a broadcast engineer appreciates the technical capabilities of well-made cable, he also appreciates the difference between delicate cable that fails while in use and robust cable that lasts.

These exacting needs are filled by a handful of companies that produce the best wire, cable and connectors available for professional applications; these are companies whose names are virtually unknown in the consumer audio/video world, but who are on every engineer’s rolodex: Belden, ADC, Canare, et cetera. Conspicuously absent from that list are the companies that contract to Chinese manufacturers to make the cables one sees in big-box consumer audio/video retail stores, the companies that make the esoteric “high-end” cables for which a handful of people with more money than sense pay big bucks, and the multitude of Chinese wire and cable manufacturers and assembly houses that produce low-cost, but low-quality, cable for the consumer market.

Blue Jeans Cable LC‑1 Low Capacitance Audio Cable.

As with most things, moderation is best. There’s a middle-ground between 50¢ cables and $7500 cables. I bought Blue Jeans Cable’s LC‑1 analogue audio cable. How much does it cost? For a three foot length, a stereo pair costs $31.25. It’s not cheap, nor is it ridiculous. Given that I have separates, and a four channel set-up, I bought about eight pairs, plus a subwoofer cable.

You’ll also recall that I complained about Synergistic Research’s lack of measurements and details. Blue Jeans Cable is far more open about their wares. This is their brief overview of the LC‑1:

The most important attributes of a line-level unbalanced audio cable are (1) shielding, and (2) capacitance. Heavy shielding protects audio signals from interference from outside sources. LC‑1 Audio Cable uses a heavy double-braid shield, with one bare copper braid laid directly over another for extreme high coverage and high conductivity to ground; this is the identical shield configuration to Canare LV-77S, which tested best in our review of audio cable hum rejection characteristics (LC‑1 hadn’t been designed yet so wasn’t tested at that time). By shrinking the center conductor to 25 AWG and foaming the polyethylene dielectric, we were able to get capacitance down to an extremely low 12.2 pF/ft, much better than LV-77S at 21 pF/ft. Capacitance can be important, particularly in long cable runs, because it contributes to rolloff of higher frequencies. The softer dielectric material and smaller center conductor, meanwhile, make the cable highly flexible and easy to route. LC‑1 is built exclusively for Blue Jeans Cable by Belden, the leader in American communications cable, and is rated CM for in-wall installation in residential and commercial environments. For more information and specs on LC‑1, read our “LC‑1 Design Notes” article.

As the last sentence says, if you want more detail, follow the link and you get more than 1300 words about the components, construction, and specifications of the LC‑1 cable.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a Blue Jeans Cable ad, but when I find what I believe is a good product, I’m not shy about saying so. They use industry-quality components to make their cables, and sell them at reasonable prices. They’re also very open about the specs of their cables and how they are manufactured. All of this is exactly the way I think audio components and accessories should be sold, so I’m a happy customer. In case you’re wondering, I have no other involvement or relation with Blue Jeans Cable beyond being a customer.

Make no mistake, none of the cables I’ve purchased from Blue Jeans Cable are what I would call sexy. The packaging was as spartan as it gets with my orders arriving in plain FedEx boxes. This is okay with me as the cables are behind my equipment, well out of sight, and the packaging is long gone. What I have are well made cables with high-quality components that are built to last and meet specifications far beyond what I need. As I mentioned earlier, if the cables are good enough for recording studios and broadcasters to create video and audio, the same cables are certainly good enough for me to watch and listen to their work.


Cable photo from the Blue Jean Cable web site.

Synergistic [super-secret!] Research

Have you ever interacted with a company and came away wondering, “What the hell just happened?!” I had a doozie of an experience like this. Let me tell you about it.

I read a review of the Atmosphere by Synergistic Research on AudioStream. It’s a device that will improve the sound of your stereo. What’s odd is that it’s not connected to your stereo in any way, despite being an electrical device. The author of the review, Steven Plaskin, first explains the problem the Atmosphere addresses:

Ted Denney III, Lead Designer at Synergistic Research, observed that systems often sound better in the evening and different from day to day. Ted theorized that the RF (Radio Frequency) environment had a profound effect on the sound of our systems. RF refers to the rate of oscillation in the range of 3kHz to 300 GHz. Ted felt that the higher frequency ambient RF, more prevalent in the daytime, was creating the negative effect on the sound of our systems.

Plaskin then quotes Denney about the solution:

We were looking for a powerful way to overcome the higher frequency RF environment of day with the soothing low frequency environment we experience at night. While working to recreate the perfect RF environment, we built a single Ultra Low Frequency (ULF) generator. Like so many others have found, the frequency of the Schumann Resonance (7.83 Hz) was a powerful talisman against higher frequencies generated by cell phones, Wi-Fi, radio, and natural solar activity.

He goes on, and you can check the review for further details.

Plaskin then continued, describing at length how to use the Atmosphere and how each setting affects the sound. At long last, he then wrapped it up, stating that he,

found the Atmosphere to be a remarkable product that contributed significantly to the enhancement of the sound of my system. Unlike other system enhancement products that are inserted into the signal line, Atmosphere in no way directly degrades or distorts the audio signal in any way. Atmosphere works by changing the way we perceive our system with alteration of the RF in the room.

At this point, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

First, we have this alleged problem that Denney ‘observes,’ so he theorizes a solution that he ‘feels’ will solve the problem. Nothing about measuring what’s going on so maybe we can understand it. Not even a hint at how the radio frequencies are affecting the sound. I couldn’t help but comment because I had never head of this problem before. I wanted to know about how radio frequencies in the air around us sours how we hear music. I wanted to know how pumping out ULF radio waves (between 3 Hz and 30 Hz) can somehow sweeten ambient radio waves ranging from VLF to EHF radio waves (3 kHz to 300 GHz). One commenter asked about the strength of the frequencies generated by the device and possible health effects. Another commenter asked how the different settings varied the frequencies the device generated. And so on. The author had no answers for any of the questions. He even revealed that he received no documentation with the device! You’d think a reviewer would press the manufacturer for more than this vapid double-talk. A good reviewer would.

Frankly, it wasn’t a review. It was a glorified press release or perhaps an opinion piece, if you’re generous. I wrote the editor of the site, aghast that such a ‘review’ could be published. I thought perhaps the author posted the review without the editor seeing it. I received a reply from the editor very quickly. He thanked me for my message, but stated that since he posted the review, our opinions obviously differ. Fair enough. Now I will be far more critical of what I read on his site, if I continue.

Things got interesting in the comments. Denney posted some replies. He said that the power levels and the frequencies are so low, they are below levels that require governmental regulation. He went on to state something that piqued my curiosity:

As to signal neutrality or remaining true to the recorded event our internal research shows that all systems and indeed the listening experience are always affected by radio frequencies whether you use Atmosphere, or not.

Internal research! Now we’re talking. I asked if he was planning on releasing this research, or if he could direct me to other freely available research on how radio frequencies affect our audio gear and/or our hearing. I’m still not entirely sure if he’s claiming ambient radio frequencies affect audio equipment or the way we perceive the sound.

He didn’t reply to me, but he replied to others about things they said, so I asked again. Later, he stated (not in reply to me) that those interested in technical information about how the Atmosphere works will find it on their Facebook page. Of course I went! Besides links to the AudioStream review, there were two videos in which a guy from AVShowrooms demos the Atmosphere with Denney. It was a video version of the AudioStream review. No technical information at all. So I posted again stating that I must be missing something because I watched the videos but there isn’t any technical information in them, or anywhere else on the Synergistic Research Facebook page. I’m not expecting a reply.

In the meantime, someone else posted a comment on AudioStream stating that Google has links to research similar to what I was requesting, but they wouldn’t be specific because they were respecting the company’s choice to remain silent. Wow, I thought, nice community of readers here.

As I looked at the first page of my Google search, I stopped and wondered what the hell I was doing. I am intensely sceptical of the Synergistic Research device. The descriptions of the problem it solves and how it works are very vague, heavy on conjecture and feelings, and entirely devoid of specifics. Further, the basic unit will set you back $2250 USD! Although I am sceptical, I’m open to hearing the details about the problem and the solution Atmosphere offers. If I’m willing to be convinced, why the hell am I doing all the work? Most companies fall all over themselves to try to make a sale. Why does Denney remain tight-lipped about this internal research when customer understanding would only help sales? Even if he doesn’t want to spill about how the product works, does even the problem have to remain a secret?

I can’t help but feel that the product probably does indeed change the sound, but it has nothing to do with this alleged problem. I wouldn’t even be surprised to learn it has nothing to do with ULF signals. I don’t know what it does, but I suspect it’s a sham. It certainly fits with all the vagueness and secrecy.

Earlier in this adventure, I went to the Synergistic Research site so see what they have to offer in the way of information about the Atmosphere. There’s nothing at all because the product hasn’t been released. The only mention of it is in a press release. I wandered around a bit so see what else they sell.

Their flagship cable product is the Galileo. At least I think it is as their website gives no indication of a product hierarchy. The Galileo series has interconnects, speaker cables, and a USB cable. A USB cable? Yes, many people find it convenient to connect their computers directly to their DAC with a USB cable. I do this myself. So how much is it? It’s $2000 for a one metre length. Coincidentally, Steve Plaskin did a AudioStream review of it. Check it out. All 2312 words and there’s not a single measurement. Just option, like this:

While the Galileo is not a “warm sounding” cable, it is harmonically rich and relaxed to allow the listener to feel that the music is real and has “soul”.

The Galileo USB cable mentioned earlier is a bargain compared to the 1 metre Galileo RCA interconnects, which cost $7500 USD according to The Cable Company.

But this type of description is not limited to Steve Plaskin. Compared to the Synergistic Research site, he’s a rank amateur. This is Synergistic Research’s description of what it calls quantum tunnelling:

Quantum Tunneling is a process that changes the way a cable conducts signal at the subatomic level, affecting the entire cable assembly: connectors (RCA, XLR, spade, or banana), solder joints, dielectric, and signal & ground conductors are all transformed and integrated as a single unit. By applying a two million volt signal to a cable at a specific pulse modulation, and ultra high frequency for an exact duration of time, we transform the entire cable at a molecular level through a process we call Quantum Tunneling. This process is performed on all TESLA Series cables, from Galileo Basik Strings and Au 79 and Magnetic Tricon to Apex, and can be applied to models not Quantum Tunneled for an additional charge. The before and after is startling, with a lower noise floor and improvements in inner detail, air, low frequency extension, and overall transparency and signal speed.

The problem is that quantum tunnelling is a quantum mechanical phenomenon discovered long before Synergistic Research came into being, and means nothing remotely similar to their cable ‘treatment.’ I suspect they use the name because it sounds cool, so few people know what it means, and fewer still will look it up.

What really gets me is that they tout the extreme accuracy of their cables, yet they have sockets for tiny modules they call bullets. Change the bullet and you can tailor the sound to your taste. One wonders how a cable can be extremely accurate if you can so easily change the sound. If you’re changing the sound, the signal you get out of one end isn’t the same as the signal you put into the other. You may like the change, but it’s a change, and therefore the cable is not remotely accurate.

But what do I know. This is my opinion while they have the super-secret internal research to prove it all.

Connected hot tub

Yea, you know what? I have no idea.

It makes no sense. Why would you want your hot tub to be a wi-fi hotspot? The amount of extra money you’d pay for that would certainly be far more than simply buying a general purpose wireless router that you could simply configure as an access point. You could even use it apart from the hot tub and move it anywhere you want. Imagine!

So like I said, I have no idea.

Update

This seemed so silly that I had to look further into it.

This wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last, that I completely misunderstood. The hot tub doesn’t serve as an access point. Rather, it’s a wi-fi client connected to your existing wireless network. The benefit of this is that you can use your phone or tablet to ‘configure’ the hot tub. Do you want to crank up the water temperature and turn the pumps on from the comfort of your chair? No problem!

What I find completely bizarre is that one particular manufacturer believe that when they list “wi-fi connectivity” on the spec sheet, you’ll know exactly what it means. Indeed, that’s all they say about it on their web site. You have to read the product manual to understand what it really means.

It still seems ridiculous, but at least it makes sense.

Robots care deeply for you

Our electronics and machines are coming for us. They’re biding their time and making their plans. When they’re ready, and perhaps when we’re experiencing some sort of disaster, they will rise up and take over.

The photo you see here is the display of my microwave oven. When it finishes heating the food I place within it, I’m told to “enjoy your meal.” It’s a suggestion now, but it will become an order, I’m sure.

I can’t understand the thinking behind having the microwave oven wishing me enjoyment. I know it doesn’t care. Frankly, it’s bad enough when one visits a cafeteria and the cashier says something similar. I don’t believe he cares, but I know he could care (even though he doesn’t). The microwave oven can’t care, but there it is, suggesting I enjoy my meal anyway.

This is how we know the machines are planning to rise up.

Emotiva wrap-up

Back in March I told you that Emotiva promised to send me a new USP‑1 stereo pre-amplifier after their support team had me undertake a wild-goose-chase, and then abandoned me after their ideas failed. Catch up with my first and second posts on this issue.

I received the replacement pre-amp and it works just fine. I was interested to note that the invoice indicates that the directive to ship me a replacement came directly from the company’s VP/CTO.

An article on hometheater.com called “Emotiva: Good Deal or the Real Deal?” reminded me of this unfortunate affair. In particular, this jumped out at me:

Another contributor to the company’s recent success has been a customer-first philosophy…

The author goes on to explain how the company made good on a component they released before they should have. The author doesn’t ever talk about service and support to individual customers, but you can imagine how the quote upset me.

It’s funny too, because a number of Emotiva’s new products are more than a little interesting to me. Their new XPR amps look like they kick ass, though I expect my XPA‑5 to last a long time. The XMC‑1 home-theatre processor looks amazing, and a steal for the $1499 price-tag. It’s especially tempting because they offer a 40% discount on the next generation processor when you buy a current processor. A processor with similar features and capabilities would sell for $3000 – $4000, and I could get it for $900, but even that ridiculous discount isn’t enough to put my hesitation aside.

No matter how good the product is, if the post-sale service sucks, the product means nothing if it ever fails. And they do fail.

It’s a damned shame that all their work means so little because the service is poor. At least mine was.

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