With COVID and social distancing restrictions, we’re more reliant on feedback from our beta testers, other trusted individuals, and of course our customers through our 30-day approval program for our cable designs.
The results have been encouraging, and there have been a few “anticipated surprises” along the way. Is there such a thing as an anticipated surprise? Is that a known, unknown?
We got to thinking about whether a Goldilocks cable is possible.
All things to all people
As the story goes, Mark Levinson took away our tone controls before he subsequently “returned” them to us when he founded the Cello company.
What was an audiophile to do in order to fine-tune his system? Nature abhors a vacuum and the cable industry was born. Audiophiles required some form of tone control and who could blame them?
So, in this context, a cable with theoretically perfect tonal balance is unlikely to be ideal in a majority of hi-fi systems. No system installed in a room is perfect, and all of our tastes differ.
The best a designer can do is to eliminate distortions, and other artifacts that never belong in any system and to try to thread the “tonal needle” as best as one can.
Center of Gravity and Voicing a System
By center of gravity, I mean the frequencies where your attention is drawn to. Let’s assume we have two systems with “ruler flat” frequency response – systems which are identical in all respects except for the speakers’ bandwidth:
- One speaker has a bandwidth of 100 Hz to 18 kHz (typical mini-monitor)
- One speaker has a bandwidth of 50Hz to 18 kHz (more or less full range)
A listener’s response to the first system will likely be one of two things depending on their listening bias: that it either has remarkable detail, or alternatively, too much treble. Most peoples’ assessment of the second system would likely be that it is well balanced. The difference between the two lies only in the bass extension.
Most audiophiles (correctly) approach their system tuning by first addressing its weaknesses before building on its strengths, but the question remains … what is my system’s biggest weakness?
Let’s look back at the mini-monitor example above. Is that treble response that’s annoying you a result of upper frequency distortion, or is it due to a deficient bass response? Perhaps it’s both.
In the foundation building steps outlined below, we progressively extend your system’s bandwidth, and then fine tune the upper octaves.
We’ve observed that tonal “improvement” is accomplished as follows:
- Upper frequencies – interconnects (and to some extent, power and speaker cables)
- Bass extension – power cables and speaker cables
We’ve heard very few interconnects that were deficient in the lower octaves.
A good power cable (and good power in general) can lower a system’s noise floor and protect the fragile upper octaves, so it tends to affect both extremes of the spectrum.
Step #1 – Build the Foundation
Rules are meant to be broken, and there’s no “one size fits all solution”, but in general, we have had the most success by building a solid foundation with speaker cables before tackling the top end with interconnects.
Depending on your current cabling, an argument could be made for addressing power cables first. As long as you’re taking this foundational (bandwidth expanding) approach, you won’t make a bad decision.
Step #2 – Extend the Bandwidth
This is where it gets system dependent. Since a good power cable can extend your system’s bandwidth at both extremes, we tend to address power cabling next, but this depends on how weak you feel your interconnects are.
Step #3 – Fine Tune
Interconnects come last, and we think of our two cable lines (Wind River and Headwaters) as being slightly different sonic flavors, rather than levels of quality.
Truth be told, the Wind Rivers extract the last bit of detail and nuance from the musical signal, but this might not work for you.
The key point is to not judge the Headwaters by its relatively modest price but rather by compatibility with your system.
Here are a few musically relevant examples we use to describe the differences between the Wind Rivers and the Headwaters. The first one in each example has a more extended treble (Wind River), and the second one is slightly more rolled off (Headwaters). Neither one is wrong:
- Mercury Living Presence records vs. an RCA Living Stereo.
- Avery Fischer Hall (Lincoln Center, NYC) vs. Carnegie Hall, NYC
- Fender Stratocaster (single coil) vs. Les Paul (humbucker)
I selected these examples specifically because they’re in our musical lexicon: examples of fine recordings, concert halls and iconic electric guitars.
There’s no right or wrong, but you’ll certainly prefer one over the other in the context of your taste and your system.
If pressed to characterize the Headwaters, I’d call it the cable equivalent of an EMT phono cartridge – a cartridge I’d ascribe a “vintage modern” design philosophy to. The Wind River is analogous to a Lyra.
The general response to our cables is that they have a “relaxed sense of detail”, so we think we’re doing a good job of threading the proverbial “tonal needle”.
The typical first reaction is of a slightly restrained presentation – lacking a bit of excitement. After the customer returns to their old cables, the common response is that they sound harsh and distorted in comparison. In an A/B/A comparison, it’s the return to “A” that usually tells the story.
Distortion can be initially exciting, but fatiguing in the long term.
Of course we receive varied responses, and the interesting thing is that the extremes are fairly evenly represented: ranging from the occasional “it’s a bit bass heavy” to “it’s a bit too treble biased”.
It’s our experience with these “fringe” responses that has guided us toward this foundational approach of addressing speaker and power cables first.
Lastly, this topic inspired a follow-up post on errors we make when debugging problems with your system.