Philosophy

“It’s my site and I’ll rant if I want to…..”

…. about cables and other audiophile treatments

Spend any time reading about audio and you’ll quickly discover that it’s full of all sorts of promising claims and technobabble that all seems more than a bit suspect at times. Things appear to sell for prices tens or even hundreds of times more than seems reasonable. For example, you can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a piece of cable, you can even buy supposedly specially treated fuses for audio equipment (at horrific prices)

The big question is – does any of this make it sound any better?

Short answer: Probably not, but this is where science and philosophy part ways. Most of these enhancements wouldn’t pass a double-blind test, or register any difference on the test bench. But, looking for purely technical improvements misses the point.

These enhancements go to the philosophical question of whether the purpose of audio is just to sound good, or to make its owner feel good about their system as well.

If you feel good about your audio system, you’ll want to use it more, and you’ll get a better connection with your music as a result.

I cannot  endorse any specific type of audiophile accessory or treatment over any other, since I am a tchnically inclined person, which means I don’t look for subjective benefits, only measurable ones. However, others have different criteria, and as with all subjective benefits, it is entirely a matter of personal taste.

Where I do pride myself is on the pragmatic design of vacuum-tube amplifiers, using best-practice circuit topologies, quality components, and a robust development and test regime. I don’t subscribe to the benefits of rare and expensive cables at all, but I won’t judge anyone who does. Your money, spend it how you want.* For my own part, my goal is simple: With each project, I strive to make some improvement over the previous one. As long as I’m managing this, I am happy.

Oh and the cables I use? Glad you asked. Cheap but audiophile-looking ones from AliExpress! Look a million dollars, but with no pretensions of audiophile credentials and so cheap to buy.  Win!

* Only exception to this – please don’t claim that some expensive cable made one of my amplifiers sound much better. As an equipment designer I’d find that massively insulting. Would you go into a fine dining restaurant and demand your food on an octagonal plate, claiming that the meal the chef just put all of his/her experience and skill into preparing, tasted better if served this way?

 

…. about Single-Ended Triode (SET) amplifier design

In the past, the single-ended design for amplifiers was a low-cost alternative to the more complex and powerful push-pull design. The SET design needed no phase inverter and only one output tube. The compromises were lower power and higher distortion in the output. For the low-cost AM radios and low-end record players they were typically used in, this hardly mattered: the source signal was decidedly low-fi to begin with.

Somewhat tellingly, In the golden era of tube hi-fi, none of the high-quality designs used SET topology. They all used push-pull, which uses two output tubes working together. 

Spend any time studying how audio signals work and how tubes work, and it will be immediately apparent that the SET design is a massive compromise and by definition is very limited; while the push-pull design, apart from offering much more power, can achieve distortion figures an order of magnintude lower than the best SET designed amp could hope to.

Since the tube revival, which seems to have started in the 1990s, for some reason the SET design seems to have gained traction among some audiophiles as being the straightest path to ultimate sonic purity. Such that the highest of the high-end tube amplifiers, costing tens of thousands of dollars, are all SET now. 

Hobbyists are also building SET designs, for precisely the same reasons they were made in the old days – namely, they are easier, cheaper, simpler and with a lower component count.

Curiously these SET amplifiers used in audiophile circles are typically used to play back fairly sparse musical offerings, like acoustic jazz, or perhaps some early R&B. Most SE amplifier owners wouldn’t dream of putting anything like Rock or grunge or anything with complexity and/or a lot of bass energy, through their low-powered amplifier.

Curiously enough, when playing something suitably sparse and undemanding energy-wise, the SET amplifiers can actually sound reasonably good. “Good” being subjectively defined, perhaps “pleasing” would be a better word. The distortion is still there, but it’s a kind of distortion that on simple sources is actually somewhat pleasing to the human ear. Kind-of like a nice Instagram filter, which also adds something that wasn’t there to begin with, but is somehow agreeable.

My approach to SET amplifiers in hi-fi is unequivocal: consign them to the dustbin of history where they belong. Sure, build them to learn construction techniques, and maybe even play music through them, but don’t whatever you do delude yourself that they’re hi-fi.

Since mine is a hobby and I don’t have to cater to any particular market, I have no intention to ever design or build a SE amplifier.