Saturday, August 13, 2005

Stereophile and controversial cable review

Source: Stereophile August 2005

It's almost legendary. When either Stereophile reviewers Michael Fremer or Art Dudley find a particular and usually esoteric tube based component seductive sounding, John Atkinson, editor and in-house measurement guru points out the measurable problems, perverse distortions or audible idiosyncrasies that strongly contradicts subjective listening experiences of aforementioned gents.

The same phenomenon occurred when Michael Fremer reviewed in August issue the Harmonic Technology Cyberlight Wave interconnects. As he stated himself he risked and jump into hyperpole hell by saying "... Harmonic Technology's Light Analog Module Transducer is the most significant single technological breakthrough I have experienced in my career as an audio reviewer. It is immediately superior in every way." And naturally Harmonic Technology uses this very quote in their Web-site.

What Harmonic Technology "forgets" to mention is that Atkinson went on record by saying the following: "If this review were of a conventional product, I would dismiss it as being broken. Ultimately, no matter what someone might think of its sound - and Michael Fremer is one the most skilled listeners I know of - I really don´t see how the CyberLight P2A and Wave cables can be recommended. I am puzzled that Harmonic Technology, which makes good sounding, reasonably priced conventional cables, would risk their reputation with something as technically flawed as the Cyberlight."

In Manufacturers´comments Jim Wang from HT thanked MF for "his stunning subjective description of the CyperLight cables in his system", yet confessed that "JA´s measurements have put our engineers under stress; they cant´t understand how they differ so much from their own." In the same section MF stated that he knew before publication about JA's reservations, but chose not to lobby for "withdrawal in order to avoid embarrassment and possible damage to my reputation." Moreover, JA explained his usual and alternative test set-up for these cables.

Viewpoint: Kudos for Stereophile for publishing the whole story! For me this illustrates solid and unbiased editorial policy and MF should not feel embarrassed at all. Positive Feedback's Robert H. Levi equally wowed CyperLights in his review. However, this whole episode provides food for thought - and fundamentally so. Do we audiophiles experience more "natural sound" from components which basically colour the sound through distortions? As a tube advocat I'm first to confess.

All audiophiles know that how different harmonics are "presented" by an amplifier tends to affect how a listener perveices the sound. Below I have inserted an extract of unknown source which apparently concerns Parasound's JC1 monoblocks. Whether the conclusions are correct or not, they nevertheless provide some insights for harmonics and how we perceive them.

"The second harmonic adds clearness and brilliance but nothing else, it being a general principle that the addition of the octave can introduce no difference of timbre or characteristic musical quality. When the second harmonic is of equal strength with the first, it produces much of the same effect as adding the octave-coupler on an organ or harmonium or playing in octaves, instead of single notes on the piano.

The third harmonic again adds a certain amount of brilliance because of its high pitch, but it also introduces a difference of timbre, thickening the tone, and adding to it a certain hollow, throaty or nasal quality, which we may recognize as one of the main ingredients of clarinet tone.

The fourth harmonic, being two octaves above the fundamental, adds yet more brilliance, and perhaps even shrillness, but nothing more, for the reason already explained. The fifth harmonic, apart from adding yet more brilliance, adds a rich, somewhat horn-like quality to the tone, while the sixth adds a delicate shrillness of nasal quality.

As the table on p. 73 shows, all these six harmonics form parts of the common chord of the fundamental note, and so are concordant with this note and with one another. The seventh harmonic, however, introduces and element of discord; if the fundamental note is c, its pitch is approximately b , which forms a dissonance with c. The same is true of the ninth, eleventh, thirteenth, and all higher odd-numbered harmonics; these add dissonance as well as shrillness to the fundamental tone, and so introduce a roughness or harshness into the composite sound. The resultant quality of tone is often described as "metallic", since a piece of metal, when struck, emits a sound which is rich in discordant high tones.

What John Curl reads in his solitary nocturnal reflections, or private research about music, though dated, is still illuminating: it demonstrates how the acoustics of musical instruments can be exaggerated by electronic circuits unless proper steps are taken to avoid undesirable "roughness," "harshness," and "shrillness," apparently due to odd-numbered harmonics in the signal path. Apparently, Curl has taken special pains to minimize these devils. The result is that the JC-1 is "voiced" toward emphasis on even-numbered harmonics, which is characteristic of the best tubed amplifiers. Or, we might say, Curl has designed this amplifier with a design goal of approaching the sound of good tubed amplifiers, along with the authority of the best solid state amplifiers. I’d say that in large measure he has succeeded! And that’s why in certain circles, the guy is a legend.

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