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May 14, 2011

What's the sound of one hand clapping?

Posted by The Advanced Audiophile

(c) 2005 John Naccarato
In the Nouvelle Revue du Son No. 2, of October 1976, French hifi journalist Jean Hiraga introduced the world to the concept that cables have a "sound", in his seminal article "Can we hear audio connecting wires?". I would like to explore that concept a little further in this article.

Before Hiraga, cables were only thought to be a carrier for the electrical signal, having no influence on the signal itself. Thanks to pioneers like Jean Hiraga, today, we now know otherwise, and cables that wire up a high resolution audio system have become as important as the components themselves. All manner of speaker cables and interconnects have been developed and manufactured, and every one has its own character on the sound. Contrary to wishful thinking by certain quasi-objectivist ideologues, there really is no such thing as a "neutral" cable. The very existence of a cable will add its own influence to the sound.

Decades ago, I discovered that other materials have a "sound", when doing tests on audio equipment stands. Their feet for example, can be made of different materials and shapes. (And I think I've tested nearly all of them, in my audiophile career). Each different material and shape lending its own character to the sound. There can also be different types of shelves used in the stands. Sometimes they're made of glass, sometimes MDF, or wood, or other materials. Each material has its own "sound". Interestingly, I discovered that the "sound" of the materials, seemed to reflect what one would perceive by the nature of the material. What do you think, when you think of the term "glassy"? "Shiny"? "Hard"? Well, "shiny" and "hard" is very much the description of what glass shelves sound like. It's a bright, cold, hard sound. Metal also imparts a hard, cold characteristic to the sound, and wood, a richer, warmer characteristic.

In those years of testing and experimenting with materials in pursuit of resonance control, I always saw the material as affecting the sound in a physical way. e.g. Changing the way things vibrated, affected everything in the chain; from the miniscule signals in electronic components (aka "microphony"), to those from loudspeakers, and even the cables themselves can be affected by how they're allowed to vibrate. Things are affected (read: "coloured") by the resonant frequency of the materials the components are both made of (ie. the wood of the speaker cabinets, the material the PCB board of the amplifier), and sitting on (ie. the speaker stands, the equipment stand, the component feet). 

Those findings, as I learned, already put me out on the bleeding edge of audiophilia. Many of my audiophile brethren never explored this area in depth, and even fewer cared to or believed there was anything to it. Even so, this period was what I call my "conventional phase". I call it that to differentiate it from what came afterward. My "Beltism era", where I revisited Peter Belt's concepts and products from way back in my audiophile career.

Having been exposed to a much more advanced understanding of what affects our perception of sound under Beltism, I would naturally be asking somewhat different questions during the course of my current day research. Things I would never have considered in an earlier time. One of those things I had never considered before back in the conventional phase, is "Do materials have a sound unto themselves?". Yes, I knew then that glass, metal, ceramics, wood, etc.; all have a certain "sound" that they impart on the sound we hear when we listen to our audio system. But... that thinking was limited to their influence somewhere on the audio chain. The question I was now having to ask, is "But do they have this same sound outside of the audio chain?".

The answer I expect from those who know nothing of this phenomenon, would be "who cares?". Indeed, why even ask the question, if the material in question is not in the chain? e.g. Whatever character the glass shelves of an equipment stand or a metal speaker stands have on an audio system, they won't add any of their character to your sound, if they're not installed in the system.

....Or will they? The reason I started asking this question, started with a tweak I made to a GPS system. The automobile GPS allows you to broadcast its output to an FM transmitter. But this did not work well, as the signal was weak and cutting out. So I fashioned an antenna for the unit, by attaching a 6" piece of CAT 5 (computer network) wire to a headphone adapter, and plugging that adapter into the GPS' external headphone jack. This makeshift antenna worked to improve FM reception. But I noticed it had another effect. The sound of the unit's internal music player took on the characteristics of CAT 5 wire. (I was very familiar with those characteristics too, as I had done many tests between it and stranded audio wire). If I attached another type of wire to the headphone jack, then the music player would take on the characteristics of that wire as well! So would the car stereo, which has absolutely no physical connection to the GPS. Thus, neither the short piece of CAT 5, nor the car stereo, has any electrical connection to the GPS unit. Yet... the CAT 5 wire is having the exact same effect on the sound as though it were an interconnect in an audio system.

Without going into details, everything that I have done to confirm this phenomenon, has confirmed it. It appears Hiraga was only partly correct. Cables do have a sound, or "sonic character". But their "sonic character" is entirely a function of the object itself. And if this is so, it is so with any object of any material. Laws of Beltism operate universally, there are no "partials" in these laws. Following those laws, it implies that the glass shelf of the equipment stand, will continue to have at least some of its characteristic "hard, glassy, bright" sound, simply by existing within your living space. It doesn't have to be supporting your equipment directly, to have at least some of its effect. It also implies the same for speaker stands. Whatever they are made of or whatever material their feet are made of, they will have at least a similar sonic influence on your audio system when they are not supporting the speakers, as when they are. More so if in the same room. And those cables Jean Hiraga looked at decades ago? I predict that cables will have at least some of their characteristic influence just sitting on top of a component, as they would attached to the component and functioning. (I say "some" because direct active connections are more powerful than inactive ones). This is easy enough to test by placing different cables of about the same weight, on top of an amp or other component, and carefully listening to the differences. If you know the sound of both your system and your cables well, you'll hear that each will affect the sound on top of the component, in keeping with how they would affect the sound when attached to it.

Of course, if you change the object's energy patterns, you change its influence on your sound. Even though it is not connected in chain with the audio signal. This is what I did, when I "treated" the CAT 5 wire with a Belt-type tweak. Although it was not connected to the GPS unit's internals, and only acting as an antenna to the FM transmitter, the treatment of the antenna wire improved the sound of both the GPS unit's internal music player, as well as the car stereo. So, as many hifi enthusiasts have discovered, cables do indeed have a "sound". A sonic characteristic through which they influence the sound of the audio system. 

If we are ever to advance in our understanding of audio, sound and senses however, it is my strong belief that one important truism must be recognized: everything has a sound. All the objects around you are making music, as we speak. You just have to learn how to hear them, if you want in on the action.

"Good or bad, baby.
 You can see
 You're making your own reality
 Every day, because
 Don't know what it is."

- "Enlightenment"
: Van Morrison

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