I recently had the pleasure of visiting the factory of one of the major names in hi-fi manufacturing — and I can tell you that it is a very different world from that of pro audio. A top-of-the-range amp and CD player can set you back as much as a luxury Mercedes or BMW with all the trimmings these days. In contrast, a piece of serious studio gear tends to comprise a circuit board and a power supply in a box, and, however well designed these may be, you rarely find the same obsessive attention to detail as you can in these esoteric hi-fi products. For example, how many companies have a machine, run by a computer, that picks out the best-matched pairs of capacitors (from an already high-spec batch) to more accurately match the critical areas of the left and right channels of a stereo device?
Hi-fi designers are also very concerned about mechanical vibrations being transferred to electronic circuitry, claiming that, in listening tests, a digital to analogue converter, for example, sounds much better if decoupled from the vibrations of the casework. To achieve this separation, they mount critical circuit boards on half-inch thick brass slabs, which are, in turn, mounted on resilient suspensions. They've even designed their own IEC mains leads with mechanically decoupled contacts and 'special' cable, which retail for around £400 each. And talking of cable, they are firm advocates of audio cables being tested to see 'which way round' sounds better — audio may be AC but they claim there's a significant improvement in sound quality if the cables are treated as directional. Some users even insist on suspending their speaker cables above the floor on shock-mounted pylons! Is this smoke and mirrors, or does such attention to detail really make that much of a difference?
Whether it makes a difference or not, it never fails to amuse me that while the hi-fi enthusiast will happily spend a fortune on high-end gear and recondite accessories, the records they listen to were almost all made in recording studios where the signal was routed through patchbays and hundreds of metres of off-the-shelf cable, and powered via cheap, moulded IEC mains cables. Some studio owners will invest in a few high-end mic cables and most professionals use good-quality, branded cable for critical interconnects, but I suspect few owners will be queuing around the block to buy new mains cables at £400 a pop!
That being the case, are these 'tweaky' systems really more accurate, or do they simply add a character that makes the music more pleasing to listen to? All I know is that anything you change in an audio system, from what's under the speakers to how dirty the mains supply happens to be on a particular day, makes a difference of some kind, but at the end of the day you have to be pragmatic and give more than passing respect to the known laws of physics. If great records can be made using stock cable and without shock-mounting every circuit board in the place, then that's good enough for me. I'll stick to my iPod and keep the change for a new car!
Paul White Editor In Chief