Opening the Proverbial Can of Worms...November 18th, 2007 -- by Roy Gregory
In Issue 54 we reviewed a system with no electronics. Or to put it another way, we reversed the normal state of affairs or priorities, relegating the boxes and bits that get power to the level of barely relevant ancillaries, instead concentrating on the stuff that holds them up, feeds them juice and connects them together. It’s a project I’ve been planning for a while, but it’s not as easy to achieve as you might think. Simply writing about the cables instead of the equipment isn’t the point. What I wanted was to look at a coherent approach to these issues, one that enabled us to assess their importance in the great scheme of things. The problem is that few companies embrace all the required components – cabling and supports. The one I settled on was Vertex AQ and I wasn’t disappointed. Their unique approach to handling mechanical and electrical interference generated from both outside and within the system produced what can only be described as astonishing results, confirming my long held suspicion that we were seriously underestimating the importance of these issues in the system performance equation.
Nor was this snake oil. These were clearly demonstrable and repeatable benefits, as seen from the fact that Vertex run extremely successful active demonstrations at shows. We are not talking subtle changes here. These are so big they’re obvious, smack you in the face, jaw dropping, “how could I not have noticed that?” type differences. The type of differences that demand a fundamental reassessment of what we do and how we do it. No less a light or more sceptical a luminary than PM said much the same thing when he first discussed the Vertex kit. Well, it’s come a long way since then and the results are even more compelling now. The response has to be a complete revision of priorities within the system – frankly, something that’s long overdue. The old “Front-end first” approach was a product of its time and the specific equipment that produced it. But the advent of CD and multi-channel, re-emergence of valves and easier to drive loudspeakers, better cable systems and an appreciation of the importance of the mains have all seriously rearranged the hi-fi landscape and the disposition of and demands on budget as a result. If the equation of cost and quality was the great fallacy of the “Frontend first” philosophy, its complete relegation of cabling and support to inconvenient ancillaries has undermined and hog-tied the advance of both its advocates and its adherents.
What is required is a more realistic and all embracing approach to system set-up; a more coherent overall strategy. So, whilst the Vertex AQ components are mightily impressive, not everybody will want or be able to afford them. Instead of ignoring them, let’s take the lessons learnt and see if they can be applied with other product ranges to develop our general understanding and approach. In thinking about this I developed a visual model or diagram that was used to illustrate the Vertex piece. In it I depicted a system as a pyramid, connected to the ground by its cables and supports. The width of the pyramid’s base was defined by the expenditure on and quality of those components. The broader the base the more stable the system, the more musically coherent its performance. Now, apply that model to the “Frontend first” philosophy and you actually end up with the pyramid inverted, balanced on its point! Which goes quite a long way to explaining why such systems have limited overall performance and extremely uneven attributes. You can make them do one thing quite well; it’s hard to make them do everything, almost impossible to have them do everything well.
Since then I’ve developed the model a little. Rather than a pyramid, think of a stack of wooden blocks, each representing an element within the system: the width of each block represents its quality, its height the cost. The taller the stack, the better the system: the broader the base the greater the musical coherence and stability. In fact, systems which offer a square (or even oblong) profile will function perfectly well, although I guess our object should be the widest, lowest block possible. Unfortunately, the vagaries of different technologies and the costs involved in different components mean that some things will always cost more than others for a given quality.* But the simple geometrical law is that stability will suffer as soon as the equipment quality over-reaches the quality of the supporting elements: The narrower the footprint of your base block, the more precarious the stack that results. Likewise, move one element in the stack left or right of centre, have one element that is of much “narrower” quality than the others and stability again becomes critical. It’s a useful model, helping us visualise system structure and construction, initial make up and future upgrades. Like all such things it probably needs a name so let’s call it “foundations first” because, building a system is pretty much like building a house. What you can build and how high you can build it depends completely on the foundations you’ve set in place. What’s more, adding to or revising those foundations at a later date tends to be disproportionately expensive, so it’s worth getting it right the first time around, as well as building in a little spare capability!
Of course, the notion of such a foundation is suggestive of a single, unified entity. In practice, when it comes to hi-fi we need to assemble it out of different parts. The great divide in this case comes between signal and support, cables that pass signals or power and the racks or platforms that isolate equipment. Fortunately, we are some way down this road, having already done some considerable work in the area of supports back in Issues 41 and 46 (in part the results of which motivated the “full Vertex” review). Now, as I’ve already said, companies that embrace both camps are few and far between: beyond Vertex I can only think of Russ Andrews (Kimber and Torlyte) and Music Works (with their own mains loom and association with Quadraspire). We’ll return to these later, but in the meantime let’s examine a range of offerings from different cable companies to see if it’s possible to establish a generalised set of priorities or hierarchy when it comes to wiring a system. The cable systems chosen differ enormously, at least from the outside, with contrasting conductor materials, dielectrics, terminations, geometries and physical characteristics. But conceptually at least, in the coherent way in which they approach the problem, they have a surprising amount in common. The most complete (in terms of coverage) comes from Nordost, combining their Tyr cabling, Brahma mains leads and Thor distribution block with its RF filtering and Quantum technology. In contrast comes the stark simplicity of the Crystal Ultra, similarly expansive in range but with a conceptually far simpler (but beautifully elegant) distribution block. The question is, given the range of materials and technologies on offer, how consistent will results be and how clear a hierarchy of application exists? More to the point, can lessons learnt here be applied to other cable systems? We’ll find that out in the next issue, with offerings as varied as Chord, Magnan and a few in between…