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A rush of lavender to the head
Recently, I was lying on my back in savasana (corpse pose), at the end of the 75-minute sweat fest also known as my Sunday hot-yoga class. As the teacher first placed a cool stone on my forehead, and then, on my face, an ice-cold, lavender-scented towel, I found myself drifting into a state of blissful relaxation. This was healing balm after a hectic work week, and as the relaxing sounds of sitar and tabla wafted into the room, I melted into dreamland.
Tweaks are for kids, to adapt a phrase from a 1960s ad campaign for Trix breakfast cereal. In the world of audio, the phrase is true and not true. Newbies fall in love with tweaks, for which are claimed miraculous improvements at little cost. The allure of customizing a relatively humble system has an attraction similar to that of using a tighter suspension and nitrous oxide injection to soup up a stock compact car into a tuner.
In high-end audio, overnight successes are extraordinarily rare. Almost every successful audio company I can think of took years, even decades, to establish itself as a globally recognized household name. Moreover, the great majority of these firms can trace their lineage back to one or two passionate engineers working in a garage, armed with little more than ingenuity and ambition. But every once in a great while, a company still in its infancy will introduce one or more pioneering products so different in design and so advanced in performance that those responsible for their inception quickly find themselves leading the market.
After I graduated from college I spent a year in Japan, getting acquainted with the culture of my ancestry, coaching linebackers at Kyoto University (“Get low and explode into your opponent!” I’d shout), and generally having a great time being free, mighty, and 21. Once, on a warm autumn afternoon, I visited Ryoan-ji temple, on the northwestern outskirts of Kyoto, and took my time taking in the simple splendor of its famed rock garden. There were worn crags in puddles of green moss that seemed to float on a granular sea of smooth gray pebbles, those pebbles carefully raked into striations of linear constancy interrupted only by islands of rocks and mosses, around which they swirled in calming, concentric radiations. How like a lagoon dotted with islands! I remember thinking. How like frogs dallying in the pools and eddies of a stream! My mind kept proposing likenesses in this way until, eventually, it ran out of comparisons, and I thought of nothing but the sweet quiet of the composed scene before me, a trompe l’oeil of nothing but itself.
I’ve gotten the general impression that French hi-fi gear sounds sweet, with a tuneful, relaxed, enjoyable character that doesn’t impose itself on the music. So when offered an opportunity to audition YBA’s Passion PRE550A DAC-preamplifier, I eagerly accepted. YBA is a French company founded in 1981 by Yves-Bernard André, whose initials it bears.
Last month I came across a fascinating article in Brain Pickings, a weekly neuroscience newsletter: In “The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story,” writer and blogger extraordinaire Maria Popova shared insights from the eminent Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner about what makes a great story. I think Bruner’s ideas and Popova’s enriching discussion can be used to understand what makes for a great audio cable.
In high-end audio, price is always relevant -- except when it isn’t. I’ve waffled so often on this subject that sometimes I’m no longer sure where I stand. A case in point: the Soulution 560 digital-to-analog converter, which retails for $35,000 USD.
On one hand, no DAC should cost $35,000. Taking into account any reasonable ratio of manufacturing cost to retail price, I have a hard time understanding how any DAC maker can justify that sort of price. A super-high-end DAC is maybe 50 pounds’ worth of parts, including a nicely machined and finished case. For that kind of money, you can buy a couple of 200-plus-pound high-tech speakers -- 400 pounds of stuff should cost more than 50 pounds of stuff. After all, both represent high-end stuff. Besides, there are a number of terrific DACs available for less than five grand, and with much of the functionality of the Soulution 560. Wadia Digital’s di322 is a great DAC for $3500 -- precisely one-tenth the Soulution 560’s price.
Over the last 18 years, Synergistic Research has introduced five generations of its Active Shielded signal cables, interconnects, and power cords. The company claims that applying a 30V DC bias to the cables’ shield isolates the signal from the dielectric, thus reducing phase and time distortions and improving sound quality.
More recently, Synergistic has applied this active technology to other audio products, including its PowerCell power conditioners, Tranquility Base component platforms, and Atmosphere and Frequency Equalizer (FEQ) room wave generators. In fact, Synergistic is now best known for its ever-broadening implementation of its Active Shielding technology.
The NADAC ST-2 is Swiss-company Merging Technologies’ first foray into consumer electronics. However, Merging Technologies is hardly a newbie -- their reputation in professional audio is that of legend.
Merging Technologies was founded 25 years ago by Claude Cellier, who’d previously worked with electronics maker Nagra, another Swiss company with a rich history in pro audio -- namely in various types of recorders -- that then ventured into high-end home audio. Though probably best known for their Pyramix professional audio workstation, Merging has recently ventured far into networked audio interfaces with their Horus and Hapi products. It was the experience gained in designing the Horus and Hapi models that convinced Merging to launch the two-channel Networked Attached Digital-to-Analog Converter (NADAC) ST-2; an eight-channel version, the NADAC MC-8, is also available.
Last summer, I got a call from Eric Pheils, North American distributor for Zanden Audio Systems. He proposed driving up from San Francisco, where he was staying, to my place in Oregon. “Great!” I said. “What electronics are you going to bring?” He hedged. Turned out he didn’t have an amp or preamp with him this time, but was eager to show me some new sound treatments -- acoustic tubes and panels -- developed by Kazutoshi Yamada, president of Zanden.
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