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'Paranormal Audio'

Over the years, one has been impressed by the 'magical' attributes applied to equipment often ascribed by those whose knowledge of the subject is limited. Often debates arise with the introduction of newer technologies. Semiconductors, for example, were vilified by many of the valve fraternity who insisted, and sometimes still do, that the Edwardian approach remains unsurpassed.

Perhaps this explains why, to a valve-audiophile, it has no bearing whatsoever on the audible outcome whether a design is single-ended or push-pull (although some will know the difference, but cannot distinguish between them) and why then that the limitations of all known output transformers, simply by virtue of being driven by thermionic means, automatically become acoustically transparent and therefore perfect! Unfortunately, for this line of reasoning, there exists a concept known as 'the real world'.

It was surprising that even today on the internet wonder is still expressed about theremins. For the uninitiated a theremin was a 'musical instrument' consisting of two oscillators received on an AM broadcast receiver. Moving one's hands near the tank circuits changed the inductances thus changing the tone output from the receiver. A circuit diagram of one is included below.

As a professional, expected to repair, design and build to quite exacting standards, incredible twaddle has been entertained, usually from enthusiastic, but ill-educated, sales staff, but also from hi-fi magazines and the like.

Power ratings for automotive installations, for example, are often in a universe of their own. Originally we had watts rms, then peak, then peak-to-peak, PMPO and others, each vying to imply an explosive output power out of all proportion to reality.

Negative feedback is, unfortunately, not as well understood, even among electronics enginers, as one might sometimes wish, and this misunderstanding has spilled over into the more emotive, and less logical, realm of the 'Hi-Fi' fraternity, where the ill effects attendant upon the improper use of this technique have encouraged the attempt to design amplifiers believed by their authors to employ no negative feedback whatever - a case of discarding the baby along with the bath water, if there ever was one.

We had the Great Cable Debate, where speaker cables had to be fine-stranded oxygen-free copper, or even silver, creating problems where there were previously none, the capacitance of the cable adding to that of a reactive low-impedance load. Such a combination proved fatal for many cherished amplifiers that, previously, performed faultlessly. A recent discussion of the perceived effects of different AC power cords can be found here. The ultra-expensive Levinson preamp used hundreds of dollars worth of military-grade, PTFE screened cable to improve signal isolation, in the author's view, quite unnecessarily, since this is usually a function of the wiring's layout rather than it's quality.

Then there was the search for the capacitorless amplifier, although I've yet to see one. Some individuals even claimed to be able to differentiate between the makes and types of these components, audiophiles insisting, for example, that coarse film electrolytics produced more distortion than smooth film types when quite sophisticated test gear (Hewlett Packard 4284 LCR meter, 3325A synthesizer function generator and Audio Precision System One Analyser with integral FFT analyser) proved the opposite by a factor of 4-5.

CDs yielded more fantastic stories, for example, a CD taken from the freezer sounds fresher than one at room temperature (where are the deep-freeze CD racks?), a CD with belt-drive sounds better, a digital 1:1 copy 'flatter' and a sound tip of the year - a CD drive suspended by four springs! Naturally, a de-magnetiser enhances a CD's sound, as does an internally mounted blue LED which pacifies the otherwise pretty nervous laser beams! One can only wonder what dreadful implications the former have for buffer memories and the latter has for fibre-optic communications.

When televisions first became available, a number of people thought that the screen operated in two directions - not only was the image from the studio displayed in one's living room, but those in the studio could see those at home as well. For this reason a heavy cloth would be thrown over the set obscuring the screen or the set would be supplied with doors that would be shut when the set was not in use. This could be construed as a 'status symbol' as seen with the Dynatron sets which used Philips chassis' in reproduction cabinets. Conversely, audio did not appear to be thought to work in this way so no precautions were necessary to preserve privacy, take radios for example.

If hi-fi elements are compared in the quest or demonstration of non-tangible 'musical' qualities, reciprocity and other objective simple techniques are often abandoned. An 'expert' will declare that notwithstanding all the other components, opinions and ears that a signal might have passed through in the recording chain the addition of x component or y configuration brings about life-changing improvement. Obviously, the credence of such reports will be upheld by the cost of such enhancements.

Most purchases of expensive audio gear are made by individuals at an age when severe, and permanent, deterioration of their audible range has already occured. Yet, the number of zeroes in the price of an item appears to rectify this situation and imbue perfect hearing. And taste. Add to that the brain's ability to interact with the inner ear, thus subjectively reducing extraneous noise, and it can be seen that the hearing is in the brain of the listener. Oh dear.

One can only ponder the powerful magic that is involved that causes cost and poor performance to coincide despite inflation.

There is a belief that, as one writer put it, a car will go faster if it's pistons are made of platinum.

Electronic components used to come in three grades - commercial, industrial and military. Now we have a new grade - 'audio' or 'audiophile' (in some circles, 'audiophool'). As far as the author can tell, these consist of lower commercial grade components but with gold writing on the side and breath-taking prices. If money really is no object, then choose superior industrial grade components and give the money saved to charity.

Perhaps an annual competition could be held for the wild claim that has the deepest implications, or greatest displayed ignorance. An Ig-Nobel Prize perhaps.

As promised, one theremin...

... to operate, tune a standard AM receiver near the middle of the dial. Adjust VC1 until a whistling is heard. Tune VC2 until a squealing sound is heard. Retune the receiver to obtain the lowest note possible and the theremin is now ready to play. Simply move your hands near either of the inductors, and the tone changes.

Compared to the very early solid-state example above, quite sophisticated theremins are now available with pitch and volume controls using VCOs and VCAs. Here's a Google search for theremins.

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