[SoundStage!]Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
March 2000

Digging Digital -- Part 2

See Part 1 from last month for an intro. I’m just going to pick up where I left off in my summarization of the things that make today’s digital sound so much more pleasant than the sound I was getting even just a few years ago.

Transport, DAC, or CD-player hardware

True 24/96 playback, as true as it can be given that 24-bit resolution exceeds the performance of today’s electronic circuits, sounds better to me than hardware designed only for 16/44.1 playback. (The usual disclaimers apply, no fair comparing $10,000 16/44.1 playback hardware to $300 DVD players.) There are a number of reasons for this, from different filter architecture to smaller laser spots on the discs themselves, to who knows what else. The supposedly great-sounding HDCD decoder-filter does not sound nearly as good as a true 24/96 filter, and the HDCD filter has been praised as the best-sounding 16/44.1 filter in the past. Where are the people who said that now? Aren’t they listening to new digital hardware? Furthermore, today’s upsampling is another promising method for getting one more step further up the sonic ladder. It helps older CDs sound better and opens the door for higher-resolution formats. Many audiophiles and reviewers have been tricked into thinking that they have heard "real" 24/96 playback. In fact, what they heard was a 24/96 transport and 24/96 DAC(s) with a 16/44.1 filter/bottleneck right in the middle (HDCD or other), and that sounds nowhere near as good as the real deal. So if you’re feeling itchy about going for more up-to-date digital playback hardware, my recommendation is to go for 24/96 playback hardware, and if you can swing it, hardware that upsamples to 88.2kHz, 96kHz or even 192kHz. Select carefully and you’ll get as good or better sound that you can get from similarly priced 16/44.1 playback hardware.

Power conditioning

I’m at the stage where I just plain don’t like the sound of digital without power conditioning. Anything is better than nothing, but all PLCs are not created equal. I would recommend, at the least, AudioPrism QuietLine filters. Any good conventional PLC with "digital" specific outlets is the next step up in price and performance. But the best digital sound I’ve gotten so far has come at the hands of the PS Audio Power Plant P300. It may seem dumb to connect a $250 DVD player and a $700 24/96 DAC to a $995 power conditioner, but if you had an opportunity to hear the results, you’d understand instantly. The $995 Power Plant cost improves the sound of the $950 24/96 front-end so much that it can compete with any digital front-end without embarrassment. It won’t sound exactly like an expensive digital front-end, but when you hear the difference you’ll go "Eh! No big deal, sure not worth an extra $4000 or more." That is pretty impressive digital performance.

Interestingly, it seems that the more modest the digital hardware, the more it is improved by a device like the Power Plant. The more expensive components tend to have more elaborate power supplies -- usually more of them and with more filtering and regulation. These products are still improved, but perhaps not as much as the lower-cost digital front-end products. The hands-down winners for most-improved sound when connected to a Power Plant have been the A/V receivers I’ve been reviewing. The P300 is too wimpy to power one of these as a full receiver, so the receiver was being used as a 5.1 DAC and input switcher only -- no speakers connected to the amps. I was stunned by the degree of improvement in the Onkyo TX-DS777, which has 24/96 DACs. It completely removed traces of harsh electronic sound that high-enders find so objectionable in most receivers. Sibilants went from sssssssssPPPPPiTTTTtttttty to non-existent. The soundstage opened up to the size of a good DAC’s, and transparency, dynamics, bass power all were quite presentable when the P300 was providing the juice. Of course, if you are using the A/V receiver as a receiver, the P300 limits current to the amps enough to dull the sound significantly, but the P600 might get the job done for twice the price! It’s hard to imagine anyone connecting a $1000 A/V receiver to a $2000 PLC, but you never know.

Power cords

Here is another thing that should do nothing, but the ears say otherwise. Every power cord change alters the sound you hear. If fact, if you cut the molded ends off of stock power cords and replace them with hardware-store replacements, the power cord sounds different. There are a number of power cords I like a lot and none of them go beyond my fairly generous "sanity" limit for power cords. The Audio Power Power Link 313 is a nice-sounding unfiltered power cord for under $200. The VansEvers Pandora or Pandora Photon (under $400) have a small amount of filtering and adjustable mechanical tuning to permit fine-tuning the sound you get. The JPS Labs Digital Power Cord (also under $400) has quite a bit of internal filtering and also sounds quite good. Note that the stock VansEvers and JPS Labs power cords should not be used with the Power Plant power conditioners because of the capacitance they use for filtering. The VansEvers filter is easy to remove by any knowledgeable tweaker. I have not tried to open the JPS Labs cord ends to look. But JPS offers an unfiltered Analog cord which would be a better choice for use with the Power Plant. Power cords give you a little more sparkle and transparency when you have a good one. There is also a reduction of electronic grayness that digital critics have harped on for a long time.

Digital cable

Yet another frustrating digital detail -- all sound different, and you can never tell which one you will want to use without trying a number of them. In my big system, the Cardas Lightning seems to be the perpetual champ. But when using digital receivers, the Lightning can be too energetic and tizzy. Less expensive digital cables like Steve Rochlin’s MR-1 (DIY or built for you), Kimber Illuminations, or DH Labs D-75 often sound better with digital receivers. So don’t make any hard assumptions about the digital cable that will be best for your system. Try six or ten that are in your price range and pick the one you like best.

System "de-mag" and burn-in

A "mystery treatment" that does something audible, but which has some pretty silly-sounding explanations being offered for why. I prefer to not speculate on why it does anything and merely report that it works. People selling these products claim their product eliminates tiny "micro-magnets" that form throughout your system over time. Supposedly these appear anywhere electrical signals exist. And supposedly, the right kind of electrical signal randomizes all those "micro-magnets," giving you purer sound. I know, I know, it sounds goofy. But something happens when you use these products, something good. The products run the gamut from $30 CDs to $150 CDs to $150+ hardware devices you plug into your system somewhere. I prefer using a CD since it will de-mag (sorry, I just don’t know what else to call it!) the analog stage of your player or DAC. These de-mag sweeps obviously can’t do anything in the digital domain; they are strictly an analog enhancement. The CDs in question generally have burn-in tracks too. These produce wideband noise and can break-in hardware and cables faster than music signals. However, these high-energy signals can be really hard on tubes in your preamp or amp, so you may not want to use them unless you have an all-solid-state system.

I use the (approximately) $30 XLO/Reference Test and Burn-In CD [Reference Recordings XL-1000], mostly because it is surround-sound encoded and it does its thing to all 5.1 channels, not just stereo. My usual regimen is to run the de-mag sweeps (one normal lows-to-highs, the other a slowly diminishing bass tone) every few weeks to keep the system tuned. I generally run each sweep two times. I also will run the burn-in track for a few hours if I remember to do it, and it is convenient. The burn-in track noise is pretty obnoxious, and is best done when you are not home.

Just prior to writing this article, I had been lax in my de-mag/burn-in routine. It had been about three months since the last time. I did the sweeps again this morning, comparing the before and after sound. As usual, the after sound is noticeably better; it isn’t a huge change, but it is quite nice and well worth the $30 and five minutes every few weeks to maintain this level of sound. The entire soundfield opens up and is less clumpy around the speakers. You get a more noticeable sense of space and small improvements in detail and harmonics.

AudioPrism Wave Guides

This is a product I’ve had for a while but haven’t written about before. Wave Guides clamp over power cords or digital cables. The large center hole accommodates many power cords and every digital cable I’ve seen. Adhesive-backed high density foam strips are provided to take up space around smaller cables. The retail price had been $149 each but was recently reduced to $99 each.

The Wave Guides are maybe 6" long, blunt on both ends and close to the diameter of the cardboard tube in a roll of paper towels. Two Allen screws hold the two halves together. An Allen wrench is provided with each Wave Guide. The first thing you notice is that the Wave Guide halves are magnetic. The next thing you notice is that the two halves are pinned and you can only assemble them so that the two halves are trying to repel each other. This makes assembly a tiny bit tricky, but not too tough. I find clamping them on power cords and digital cables seems to make the most difference in my system, though AudioPrism claims they work on interconnects and speaker cables too. This is another product that I refuse to speculate on why they work -- I don’t know why they work. Certainly there is an element of mechanical damping of the power cord, but there is more to the change in sound than that alone can account for. The sonic performance is there for you to hear or not. I do hear it easily, but like most tweaks, it is not a "huge" difference. It is a very desirable difference though.Victor Tiscareno of AudioPrism designed the Wave Guide. He indicates that there are other components inside the Wave Guide that are not visible because of how Wave Guides are constructed. Victor says that mild magnetism is not the only modality at work in the Wave Guide. As usual, the other components used in the Wave Guide are proprietary.

Wave Guides expand the soundstage, seem to raise the harmonic content, and improve the air and dimensionality. Overall, the effect is one of making the sound prettier and bigger. This is a big deal for digital. If you wish your digital had a prettier sound, like LPs, Wave Guides will give you a little of that without going too far. Triangles shimmer more lusciously, violins are less raspy and more musical, and horns are fuller-sounding without the electronic bite. I once heard an AudioPrism demo of Wave Guides where they had a system setup with a rather large number of Wave Guides, perhaps ten of them at various spots. They played some music a couple of times to familiarize you with the sound, then removed just one Wave Guide. You could hear a moan in the room as the sound closed down a little. Remove a second one and there was another step down. Each one made a difference. This was a very good-sounding system without Wave Guides, but with Wave Guides there was more soul, body and space in the sound.

Had enough yet?

I hope these two "Diggin’ Digital" columns have given you some things to think about. It’s easy to forget about all the outside details that contribute to really great digital sound. It’s also easy to miss the fact that more expensive hardware is not the only way to get superior digital sound. Using tweaks and accessories appropriately can give you the same results as spending multiple thousands of dollars on new hardware. A rough total for implementing all of the products and accessories mentioned in these columns is $2810 (two power cords, two sets of Pulsar Points, Power Plant P300, one LaserBase, one digital cable, two Wave Guides, one $30 de-mag CD, one mat for CDs and DVDs, etc.). You could go lower or higher depending on what you buy and how many you need to outfit your digital front-end.

This may seem like a lot of money, but think of it this way: If you spend $6000 on digital front-end hardware and zero on tweaks and accessories, in three years or so, you may want a new digital front-end. What you have may be worth $1500 in three years if you are lucky. If you spend $2000 on good-sounding digital hardware today and $3000 on tweaks and accessories, in three years, those $3000 of tweaks and accessories will still be in use and nowhere near obsolete. Your $2000 components might be worth $500, but the latest and greatest moderately priced but better-sounding hardware will cost you another $2000. You’ll be able to use all your tweak stuff again, so your net out-of-pocket expense to upgrade after three years would be only $1500 versus $4500 if you go the hardware-only route to great sound. Just a little something to think about as we have to evolve new economic strategies for what will certainly be a constantly changing digital world.

...Doug Blackburn


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