Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Heretical Digital Cable

Why Heretical?


Every digital audio coax (SPDIF) cable out there claims that it is "75 ohms" (whatever that means). The Mad Scientist Heretical Digital makes no attempt to conform to this standard. This post explains it all..



What is this "75 Ohms"


In the SPDIF standard (Sony/Phillips Digital Interface Format), the coax electrical interface is defined to have a characteristic impedance of 75 ohms.

Characteristic Impedance however is not so easy to understand or picture as regular impedance, say like a loudspeaker is 8 ohms, or an amp might have an input impedance of 50kohms. These are simple resistances, and you can measure them easily with a multimeter.

On the other hand, Characteristic Impedance is all to do with transmission lines. You also can't measure it with a multimeter. Here is the formal definition, from Wikipedia:

The characteristic impedance or surge impedance (usually written Z0) of a uniform transmission line is the ratio of the amplitudes of voltage and current of a single wave propagating along the line; that is, a wave travelling in one direction in the absence of reflections in the other direction. Characteristic impedance is determined by the geometry and materials of the transmission line and, for a uniform line, is not dependent on its length.

So why does that matter?

The crucial point is this : If you have a 75-ohm transmission line (like a digital cable) and you have some part of the system that is NOT 75-ohms, then you get signal reflections. The signal can bounce up and down the cable, in some cases dozens of times. These reflections can and do alter the original signal in hard-to-predict ways. This mechanism is the underlying cause of jitter in digital cables. And jitter is one of the chief culprits of 'digital nasties'. Not the only culprit, for sure, but a very important one.

There have been articles written about the optimum length for a digital interconnect, making it the right length so the reflections avoid the critical points where the detector is trying to detect a transition. However you need to know things like the rise time and propagation time to figure out the correct length for your system; as far as I can see there's no length that would work for everything. The effect that jitter produces is a horrible mixture of noise and distortion - not easy on the ear at all. But it accounts for the differences in sound of digital cables.

Jitter


The amount of jitter that high quality digital clocks produce is getting to be very small - measured in a few tens of picoseconds. Now that figure is meaningless to most people, me included. So how's this : Light travels about 3mm in 10 picoseconds. And as you may know, light is really really fast. This small amount of jitter can be dwarfed by other sources like cables.

Heretical Digital Cable


The Mad Scientist Heretical Digital takes a different approach. It does not attempt to conform to a 75-ohm characteristic impedance. It does however have a significant amount of resistance as the main conductor is made from treated carbon fiber.

Two things happen with a carbon fiber conductor:

  • Skin Effect is very very small compared to metal conductors. The square waves that make up the digital data are sent at a  few megahertz - fairly slow by digital standards. However, the harmonics that make up the square wave go much higher, into the tens or even hundreds of megahertz. At these frequencies, copper has a skin depth of a few micrometers. By comparison the skin depth for carbon fiber is still as few millimeters.

This is important as the correct transmission of all the component harmonics is crucial for the correct transmission of the whole wave.

  • Resistance soaks up the reflections. This is probably more important than skin effect. The resistance of the conductor, being of similar magnitude to the 75-ohm loading means that reflections are not going to be able to do much damage - they will be turned into heat.

If you imagine the digital link being like a light tube, with flashes of light being the data pulses; A normal cable has silvered parts and so you get glare and reflections. Our Heretical Digital is like filling the tube with slightly darkened glass - only the bright flashes get through, reflections are absorbed.

The Heretical Digital Cable has a resistance of about 37 ohms - half the 75 ohm characteristic impedance. But all SPDIF inputs are terminated with 75 ohms. This means that a reflection that reflects off the DAC end of the cable/plug will travel towards the source where it can interfere with the data. But the resistance will tend to turn the energy into heat, so reflections are dissipated very quickly.

What it takes to develop cables - a small selection of prototypes

What Actually Happened


This all might sound like it was planned. But that's not quite how it happened. As is often the case in science, an ad-hoc experiment showed some interesting results which lead to further research, theorizing, more experiments and so on.

After the carbon fiber interconnects were developed, I thought I'd try one as a digital cable. I wondered whether it would work at all and I wasn't expecting it to sound good.

But it did sound good, which surprised me. So a new project was born. I needed to figure out why this was producing such good results. Also I needed to figure out what the best sounding design was.

It turns out that a much simpler design than YANAM/TORFORB is needed. Out with the multiple bundles of carbon fiber, now just a single, thicker conductor is used. Also a cheaper plug seems to work better.

As with the interconnects, I was trying to make the best digital cable that I could. It would also have been ideal if I could come up with a range to suit all pockets. But the result of the listening and design process showed that the simple one is the best. If anyone wants a "signature" version, I can sign it with a silver pen if you like ;)

How Does It Sound


Usual disclaimer about how I am biased, etc. But those that know me might want to take note..

The Heretical Digital Cable astonishes me. I've tried a good number of digital cables in my time, conventional and not-so-conventional. This one shines, being the best one I've heard. Not "best for $99" but "best for any money". The things that leap out at me are:

  • analog-like sound but with digital crispness - so a lush sound but the leading edges are still fast
  • very pure treble with lots of air and very fast top end
  • wide and fast dynamics
  • intelligibility - I'm hearing lyrics much more easily. Also makes complex passages easier to parse

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What's a Torforb?


TORFORB is our top-of-the-range interconnect. This is the story of their development.


There are actually three models of interconnect, all related by the common carbon fiber signal conductors they use. All three have identical signal conductors, but vary in their construction and earth conductors.

Why Carbon Fiber?


I first came across carbon fiber as an interconnect conductor in the 1990s when I lived in Holland. Local star Van Den Hul released the FIRST cable, a pure carbon cable. I heard some at a friend's place and went out and bought a set. They sounded very smooth and musical.  In the 90s, digital nasties were more prevalent than they are today, and the fact that the Van Den Hul FIRST rounded off the music somewhat was a good thing.

Although they are very musical, they paint a romantic picture, a bit like old-school tubed gear. But they also don't render the top end and 'air' very well. So they would not be competitive today.

I started experimenting with carbon fiber early this year. It became quickly apparent that there was a special sound to carbon fiber, but I ran into the same sort of issue - rounded off highs. But it turns out that this was quite easily solved. I won't go into exactly how. But the final signal conductor consists of two bundles of fibers, different sized. I also found that the fibers used were important and found a company that used high quality Japanese fibers as the base.


So now the job was to make a product. I had been using a simple copper-occ single strand for the earth conductor. I figured that trying to use carbon would not give good results due to the high resistance - you really want the earth conductor to have low impedance.

One interesting thing about carbon fiber as a conductor is that it's immune from high frequency skin effects. Why so? Well if you calculate the skin depth for carbon fiber you find it's several inches, mostly because it's not a metal and has high resistance.

Development continued with trials of various earth conductors, using different materials, constructions and geometries.  At some point I tried using copper foil as earth conductor and got a real performance boost. I had to try silver foil..

You should see the large pile of prototypes I have here..

After lots and lots of testing, I found that there was a number of designs that I liked, some simple, some more complex. In order of improving sound quality, I ranked the designs:
  • Copper OCC wire
  • Cross wound copper OCC and silver OCC wires
  • Copper foil with copper OCC wire
  • Copper foil with cross wound copper OCC and silver OCC wires
  • Silver foil with copper OCC wire
  • Silver foil with cross wound copper OCC and silver OCC wires
To make matters more complicated there was also a hierarchy of wire types - I found at least three types of OCC wire that I liked. The most expensive copper OCC wire is about 10x the price of the cheapest OCC wire, same with the silver.
Then there is silver/gold foil. I wouldn't say that this is better but it has a slightly different sound, a touch warmer.

This was turning into a problem. There were far too many options here. So I decided that there should be three models, with maybe some options. 

Names..


Around this time I decided that TORFORB would be a good name for the top of the range. It stands for "Too Rich For My Blood", the name of a Patricia Barber track that is a regular test track of mine. So I went searching for other Patricia Barber songs names that could be abbreviated, and came up with ATOH ( A Taste of Honey) and YANAM (You & the night & the music).

The ATOH is the entry level interconnect, and that uses the simple copper OCC earth wire, using Neotech teflon insulated wire.

YANAM uses copper foil and cross wound copper OCC and silver OCC wires, using Neotech wires.

And TORFORB uses silver foil (or optionally silver/gold foil) with cross wound VH Audio foamed dielectric occ copper and silver wires.

Around this time we were also developing our Magic Tubes. These worked well in many places including interconnects. So I had the idea to include a pair of Magic Tubes with some models.

I had been attaching the Magic Tubes using sticky tape or Blue Tak. Clearly this would not work for a product, so I came up with the idea of the wooden "Audio Block".


The reason I call them Audio Blocks : They are made by a local company, Woodzone,  who make things from NZ Native timbers. When I went to pick up the first batch, the girl in the office was making an invoice for me, and says to me "What are they called?" - I gave her a blank look and said that was a very good question, no idea.  We stood around for some time pondering this, and someone suggested Audio Blocks, so the name stuck.

They are made from NZ native Rimu wood, and laser etched. The YANAM and TORFORB models come with audio blocks and magic tubes; they are an option on ATOH


How They Sound


Of course I am biased, but my take on them is that they all sound somewhat different to normal wire interconnects. Hard to put into words, but there's a rightness to them that makes many other interconnects seem wiry, distant or colored. They also do dynamics very well - interconnects that can make you jump at the loud parts.

Although there is a distinct improvement as you go up the range, there is also an undeniable family sound. They share much more in terms of sound than they differ. 

The best way to hear how they sound is to try a set. We do 30-day money back returns, but I can't see anyone returning them.








Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mad Scientist Magic Tubes

Well these really do look like they come from a Mad Scientist. I mean, small glass tubes with some dubious looking powder inside (nothing illegal, honestly officer). Even I find it hard to believe.

But the darned things work. Everyone so far who's tried them has said good things. Just today I got this in an email from someone who reviews audio gear for several websites:

Wow, they WORK!!!   Strange but true  ;=)

I could even hear that something happened while mounting them on my speakers binding posts while the music was playing, and I was behind the speakers. Thought it was my mind playing games, so I let them “settle” a few days, and removed them yesterday. You know, though I often can hear results within seconds, I always use the Long Term Listening Test. Have your system play tons of songs for days or better weeks, and not only 5 seconds of 3 songs.   Only that way I can be sure that my test item is working with all kinds of music! 

They are GOOD!

I'm not going to reveal exactly how they work, because I don't really know myself. I have some clues that I am following. (And of course, I know how to make them.)  Here are some of my thoughts:

One clue is their settling time. They seem to need to settle every time they are moved. I have reason to think that this is the material settling, relaxing, aligning with the earth's magnetic field, and any local fields. The effect that they have seems to have something to do with magnetic fields.

But quite why this should produce the effect that it does is a mystery. I could do the standard audio thing and give you some spiel about quantum mechanics and so on. But the problem here is that I do understand QM to a reasonable degree, having studied it at university, and subsequently kept up to date on important developments. (I'm a many worlds kind of guy, incidentally.)

In fact, there is an important QM feature at play here, spin,  but it's a stretch to call the effect quantum mechanical (any more than it is reasonable to claim any effect is quantum because we live in a quantum world). I think the effect here can be understood using classical physics. Just that I don't understand it. Yet.

OK so what is the effect that you get? Usually you hear a difference right away, and if you listen you can often hear some quite sudden changes after 10 to 15 minutes. I thought something was broken first time I heard this. After 30-40 minutes the treble should become clearer and more spacious. After another half hour, the bass fills in. Removing the tubes collapses the sound - that's the best way to describe it - the soundstage shrinks, the frequency extremes close in, dynamics close in. It's shocking, at least on my system.

You might find that initially you lose some top end or 'air', but this should return after settling. If not, put the tubes somewhere else - some locations are just too sensitive to them and need less effect than the tubes provide.

You really need to try these yourself, or you simply won't believe it.

Now I'm no marketing genius - I wish I was - but looking around I decided to use what is known as the "Heroin Dealer Approach" - in other words, Your First Hit Is Free.



We already give away Black Discus samples, but these are a little larger, so all we ask is $5 for shipping, and we'll send you a free pair of Magic Tubes. To get your Free Magic Tubes:

  1. Visit our online store - click here
  2. Add a 2-pack of Magic Tubes to the shopping cart
  3. When you get to the Cart page, enter the code MAGICME into the Voucher box
  4. You will only be charged $5 for shipping.

As well as this, any order during August will receive a free pair of Magic Tubes. Normal price is $49 per pair.

Here they are in use, on the back of my speakers.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ceramic Blackpods

I wanted to see if I could find a better ball material than the rubber-coated lead of the regular Blackpods. So I spent some time acquiring balls of various materials, from titanium and exotic steels to ceramics.

Titanium and Steel balls sounded a bit too 'zingy'. The ceramics sounded superior to me. 

There are three hi-tech ceramics that were used : Alumina, Silicon Nitride and Zirconia. The Silicon Nitride balls are surprisingly light, whereas the Zirconia balls are around twice as heavy. Alumina sits in the middle for density. All are very hard, harder than tool steels and titanium.

Initially I used 18mm balls, the same size as the lead balls that I found worked best. Alumina gave the best results at this size. So we tried other sizes, down to 10mm. Turns out that the 12mm balls gave the most balanced sound.



So I was just about to go into production with 12mm Alumina balls when I discovered that using one Zirconia ball and two Alumina gave a distinct boost in performance. This came about because Richard, (who runs Krebs Upgrades),  showed me the same soft of effect on his footers. He says it's down to there being a preferential path to ground and faster transmission speed. That sounds plausible but it's still surprising that it's such a large effect. 

So I decided to go with the mixture of Alumina and Zirconia ceramic balls.

How They Sound

Compared to regular Blackpods, they seem 'faster' and convey a little more information, especially at the top end (treble). But at the same time they are relaxed and musical.
The extra jump in performance that you get with the Z-ball/2xAlumina is larger than any difference between ball materials.



How to Use
To get the best results from Ceramic BlackPods, you should be prepared to do a little experimenting. On some components you get best results with the balls pointing up, while on others you need the ball downwards. Also there are the locations to trial - the sound can vary considerably with different positioning. Also be sure that the flat side of the Blackpods makes good contact - don't put it against a bolt for instance - it should be flush with the component or base.

Finally there is the position of the Z-ball. The Zirconia ball is marked with a Z sticker, but it's quite easy to see the color difference in daylight - Alumina is slightly ivory-colored, with Zirconia blue-white.

I usually start with the Z-ball carrying the most weight - normally with components you find that the weight in unevenly distributed and this results in each Blackpod taking a different load.

You may even find that you get the best performance with one of the Blackpods upside down compared to the others. Just don't despair if they don't sound great to start with - try turning them over..


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Stillpoints vs Blackpods

Stillpoint Ultra SS and BlackPods
In the audio land of exotic footers, Stillpoints reign supreme. The most common question I get about BlackPods is "How do they compare to Stillpoints". Well, until a week ago I'd never even seen a Stillpoint, let alone heard one. But this last week I've got my hands on some Ultra SS Stillpoints and I've been testing them extensively. Also I've had several audiophile friends come  over for a listen, and all say the same sort of things.

I realize of course that a comparative review written by the designer and maker of one of the products is likely to be viewed with suspicion (or worse). But I trust that my evaluation will be borne out by other's experiences in time.

This story starts with a visit to Audio Reference in Auckland - our local high-end shop. I'd gone to meet Terry and listen to a variety of footers. We used the system shown below:



This was a decent system, but was sufficiently different to make subtle comparisons difficult for me. We started out without any footers on the DAC. Then added the smallest Stillpoints, the Ultra Mini (us$375 for 3). That made an obvious difference. Then we tried BlackPods. Different again. Notably more bass. Then it was the turn of the Stillpoint Ultra SS (us$747 for 3). Better bass than the Minis. Lastly we listened to some Finite Elemente Cerapuc (around us$550 for 3). These had great bass, but notably less information coming through than the Stillpoints or Blackpods (currently $99 for 3, normal price $139 for 3).

Terry very kindly lent me a set of Stillpoint Ultra SS so I could do a proper evaluation. I did not think it worth borrowing the Ultra Minis, as they seemed to be some distance behind the Ultra SS in performance. At this stage I didn't really have a handle on how they sounded, as the system was unfamiliar and lower resolution than my normal system.

Test Setup


After some initial playing around and casual listening, I set about finding the best place for the Ultra SS footers. I used my DAC/Preamp as the mule, as this is most sensitive to footer changes. It's a Twisted Pear Buffalo III board, using the ESS9018 Sabre chip, running into a Broskie Unbalancer tube back-end.

I found with BlackPods that placement is important. You can alter the effect of footers somewhat by moving them around. So I wanted to find a good location for the Stillpoints. Turns out that they like the same sort of place that the Blackpods like, so that made testing easier. Also I found they sounded best with the 'hard hat' side up, slightly unscrewed (as recommended).

The rest of the test system, for those interested : Speakers Magnepan 3.6, Amp Goldmund clone that I breathed on a little, Front end, Squeezebox touch with Remedy Recloker.

Some of the CDs used: Patricia Barber: Modern Cool, Cafe Blue. Dave Matthews: Some Devil. Fat Freddy's Drop : Based on a true story. Keb Mo: Slowdown. Little Axe : Hard Grind.

Listening


I have to say that I was expecting Stillpoints to be better than my BlackPods. And on initial listening they sounded very impressive, making it easy to pick out detail that you hadn't heard before. They were clearly a cut above your average cones, or even 'good' cones like Black Carbon Racing Cones.

The most immediately apparent thing was that the Stillpoints had more treble, and the BlackPods had more bass. 

As I went back and forth between the two footers, I started having this heretical thought :

Wow...Blackpods are better than Stillpoints.


The extra treble that the Stillpoints had, while exposing extra detail, also seemed too much. Some vocals that work fine on Blackpods became sibilant with the Ultra SS (eg Too Rich For My Blood, Cafe Blue). This gave the effect of a top-heavy presentation. This was also compounded by the bass, which was richer, deeper and more controlled on the BlackPods. You could hear the bass lines with the Stillpoints, but BlackPods let you feel them as well.

So once I'd broken that mental barrier, I started noticing all sort of other things:
  • Soundstage depth. One thing I've noticed with all the very best systems that I've heard - they all have a fabulous way of presenting soundstage depth. (and even height). I put this down to the fact that depth cues are very low level, often buried in other music and distortion. Only systems with truly high resolution can present depth convincingly.

    I noticed on several tracks that BlackPods portray a much more 3D soundstage than Stillpoints. For instance, one Fat Freddy's Drop track has this sound effect that appears to leap out of one speaker, come towards you in an arc, then go back to the other speaker. Artificial, for sure, but a cool effect. The BlackPods make you move out of the way. On the Stillpoints there's hardly any depth, the sound appearing to simply move between the speakers, not leap out at you.

    With Stillpoints, a track like Gravedigger (Some Devil) has a strange effect on the lead vocal, appearing phasey. With BlackPods you can hear that it's set well back on the soundstage.
  • Musicality : the BlackPods are just more musical. They sound  more like music. The Ultra SS are more electronic sounding.
  • Toe-Tapability. This highly scientific test measures how easily you tap your toes to some toe-tapping music. Some call it PRAT. Anyway, time and time again I found it much easier to for my toes to tap with BlackPods.
  • Dynamics : I noticed that music seemed to have more sense of ebb and flow with BlackPods. More 'surprise factor' - the effect you get when an instrument comes in loudly and unexpectedly.
After a couple of days of this, I got pretty tired of the Stillpoints sound. My ears/brain dialled into their signature sound, so it became very easy to hear. Normally when I borrow gear I listen as much as I can, but with Stillpoints I only now use them when I want to do a test, or demonstration. I just don't find them as musical, as as enjoyable to listen to as BlackPods.


Conclusion


Given that BlackPods cost a small fraction of Stillpoints, they are a complete bargain. They are still $99 (for a set of 3) for the next few days. After that they will be $139 - and you can return in 30 days for a refund. But I can't seen anyone returning these..

I have to admit that I am quite surprised the way it's turned out. I really thought they would be better than this..



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Christmas Shipping

According to New Zealand Post: 

If you want your parcel delivered before Christmas, kindly conclude your purchase a few days before the following dates:

International sending cut off dates:

                                       Australia              South Pacific, Asia,                  Rest of the world
                                                        North America, UK & Europe

International Air            10 December                       5 December                 3 December

International 
Courier                       15 December                       12 December                10 December

International 
Express 
Courier                       17 December                       15 December                12 December

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

SonarQuest Rhodium/Carbon Power and IEC plugs

I've been trying various power and IEC plugs when I get the chance. Sometimes customers request a particular set of plugs, for example Oyaide or Furutech, to be put onto their power cords.

Our 'normal' plugs are Chinese "OEM" plugs, which are very good value for the performance. However I was expecting great things from some of the more expensive plugs, ones costing $150 each or more. 

But although there was a difference, I did not think it to be a very large difference. Also it was hard to say which one I preferred. Some of this was due to an 'oranges to apples' comparison, for instance, out normal plugs are copper or brass. And I was testing against plugs made from bronze with exotic coatings (beryllium, etc..). And often I prefer the more musical sound of plain copper over plated conductors.

However, just recently a customer ordered a power cord with a SonarQuest Rhodium/Carbon plug set (actually a European Schuko and IEC). This very fancy looking combo is very nicely made with a solid metal body and Rhodium plated conductors. I don't know if the carbon helps the sound or is just for show. But they look very cool.

And to my surprise, these things sound very good - sit up and pay attention good. About the first time I've heard our standard plugs be humiliated like this. I was impressed enough to order some for myself. And I've added it as an option on our NEO and NEO-OCC power cords - it costs an extra $160 for SonarQuest Carbon Rhodium power plug and IEC plug. Highly recommended if you want to push the envelope.