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Or....'upgrade outside the signal path first!'
So many times we see people who want to upgrade something which is reasonably good already, whilst other parts of their system are woefully inadequate. If you take cables for example, there is a strong desire to upgrade signal leads, but when the better leads get put in, there is often not much of an improvement, even though all the latest reviews say its great!
We suggest you look at things in a different way here. Is there another reason why you might not be hearing any improvements? You see, in our opinion, a transparent system will show up differences in every cable you put in. So if this is not happening, we must come to the conclusion that the system is not very transparent, and something else must be holding it back.
But if the electronics and speakers are okay on paper too, where's the problem? Well, what's left is the stuff outside the signal path - mains leads, mains conditioners and supports. And please be in no doubt about it, once a system gets to a certain level and these things are not of sufficient quality, they become the limiting factor, holding the system beneath a glass ceiling which just can't be broken.
Now for experienced Vertex customers, who now benefit from fantastic levels of performance, this glass ceiling situation was almost always where they started. When they discuss their situation with their Vertex dealer (and maybe give us a call too), the dealer analyses the current system as is, but also find out what has, and has not, worked for the customer in the past. And it's quite often this last line of discussion that reveals some of the key problems. As well as the failure to hear the difference in interconnects say, comments like "I tried a really expensive CD player last year and wasn't impressed" are important clues. So let's summarise the evidence here - 2 or 3 expensive products making no real difference? Glass ceiling or what!
The stuff outside the signal path, the mains leads, conditioners and supports, are the things that set the working environment for your system, and primarily, prevent the debilitating damaged caused by uncontrolled vibration and Radio Frequency Interference polluting every part of the process. Leave these things untreated and they will become the limiting factor. But if you treat the problems at their source you will break through to a whole new level of performance, even with the kit you currently own.
We are often confronted with the following comment:-
"The mains comes all the way down the National Grid, through a sub-station and then fed to my house. This is many miles of cable - how can the last couple of metres possibly make any difference?"
Let's look a bit more closely though. The mains power that we take into our components is a simple, roughly sinusoidal 50Hz signal with the ability to deliver significant current at its rated voltage. It's a single signal that can deliver power. The power supplies within the hi-fi components then 'transform' that signal into various other signals, which ultimately produce the digital or analogue signals that we require. Now, these internal signals (even if they are DC they still supply fluctuating current) can be varying very quickly, and this process will always send a small image of that back down the mains wiring and up into other pieces of equipment. Other electrical items in your house do the same of course and feed their signals into your hi-fi. So everything is connected to everything through the mains.
Here's another way of visualising it. Your amplifier can output a vast multitude of signals all at the same time, all ranging in frequency from 20Hz to maybe 20-30KHz or more. And it can produce all these with power of course. Now imagine you were playing a track with a very loud bass tone at 50Hz, but there was also lots of little delicate treble frequencies there too. Put a transformer (as per a mains supply) on the end of that and what have you got? Well, thats pretty much the same as your mains supply - a powerful 50Hz signal, but there's other stuff there as well.
In reality the spurious signals that really hurt your system are way above treble frequencies - they are in the radio frequency spectrum. But how, you ask, do they get in and out of our equipment's delicate circuits? Well, once they get up to the power supplies inside the box, not only will they travel around the power supply circuits, polluting its output, but they can literally 'jump' between the wiring. Each little part of the wiring acting like so many radio transmitters and receivers. So it can get everywhere.
Here's another little gotcha as well. The Earths also pick all this up and conveniently feed this noise to every component. And inside a hi-fi component, the negative end of just about every capacitor, resistor and chip on the board is connected to that Earth.
So what are we getting at here? Well simply your mains wiring can and will feed untold amounts of rubbish around your house and into and out of your system. We have to get that 50Hz signal in, but do something about all the other signals. So in a way, with Vertex mains components, we create a quiet zone around your hi-fi. We provide filters in the form of the Jaya and Taga components, and we provide good low impedance wiring (Roraima) to drain out the noise within the system and get that back to the filter points too. With the HiRez mains components we also use extensive passive RFI absorption techniques to really quieten things down.
Another thing of course is the prevention of vibration around the mains loom, and Vertex users will now how significant this problem is too.
But the issues and interactive nature of mains is, in reality, very complex, and there is a lot more information in the Vertex Systematic Approach Book (see here). Here though, we hope we have given you some new ideas about the mains - and shown you why thinking about those last few metres can make a world of difference.
When we make a change in a system and then have a listen to that change, we rush. We seem determined to come to quick judgements about the new piece of kit - is it better or worse than the item we just replaced. Some people insist on blind tests, A/B/A or what have you. But we know from our years of experience at Vertex, that when you substitute one item for another there is a lot more going on with that change than might first be apparent.
Every individual piece of equipment in a system effects the whole system. And actually, when you listen, you are listening to the whole system - you can't listen to an individual piece of kit on its own. So when you make a change to the system, that is what you are listening to - a change to the system!
For example, you try 2 amplifiers - and they are both regarded as pretty good performers. But one has got a linear (transformer) power supply and the other a switched mode power supply. So when you listen to them what do you really hear? Can you really just hear the true potential of the amps, or might that switched mode power supply upset other components in your system with its higher RFI output? Or, if you had a system which was protected against the worst effects of RFI with Vertex mains conditioners say, the extra power and grip of that switched mode amp might come to the fore, and end up being the amp of choice for you.
Then there's another significant issue, and this goes right back to that problem of the quick test. We as human beings habituate to the sound of our own system. Our listening processes adapt to the things we hear, modifying what is perceived, changing some things that get through to our conscious awareness, and even completely blocking others out. When you make a change to your system, your subconscious registers that the sound does not now match the profile that it has habituated to, and may not register initially the real improvements.
Sound a bit far-fetched? Take those 2 amps again. You own the more traditional linear powered amplifier, a valve amp even, and your friend down the road has a switched mode class D machine. When you go to his place, you sit there thinking 'this is ripping my ears off - how can he stand it!' He comes round to your place and sits there thinking 'this is just too soft and lifeless - I'm bored already'. Who's right? If you are both equally experienced audiophiles how can you be so divided? Without some understanding of habituation, you will both secretly believe that the other guy chooses bad gear!
So coming back to Vertex now, when you swap a non-Vertex lead for a Vertex one say, firstly remember that you are making changes to the whole system; eg. a Vertex mains lead reduces microphony in the components it's connecting, so some of the changes will be a reduction in distortion in those power supplies, which in turn will lower intermodulation distortion through the rest of the system.
But then you also have to allow for a re-adjustment of your perception, allow the habituation to re-balance. How do you do this? Simple - play lots of your favorite music. Your brain wants the pleasure of hearing those recordings, and it will re-adjust to the changes in the system in order to achieve this. Once this has happened you will then clearly determine if there are any real improvements because they will come as a surprise. You can't pretend or imagine they are happening because you have not heard them before. You hear more detail, and you know it because some of this new detail is a surprise. You know the dynamic resolution has improved because you suddenly realise there are more strikes on the toms in that drum solo than you ever thought existed. You know it's imaging better because you are startled that those whispers are actually coming from way out beyond the left loudspeaker.
Okay, so what's the tip here? Well, its only by really allowing that habituation process to re-adjust that you can correctly identify the improvements in musical performance. And only then does it start to make sense how things like the systematic reduction of RFI and microphony are opening the window wider on your music.
Oh yes, and allow yourself plenty of time!