Part I: Wherein our intrepid explorer begins a solitary pilgrimage beyond charted territory to the fringe where, blind sages warn, there be monsters.
Let me begin with some managing of expectations. Very little of that which will be explored in the following pages has not been written about, reviewed and debated at length already and in some cases for years. However, it occurred to me that this information existed largely in piecemeal form, with often casual and occasionally even very cursory treatments scattered to the four winds of audio publishing. And if like me, you've spent more time hearing about these things than actually hearing them; if your natural human inclination to form opinions about such matters is fueled only by dusty journalism and heated message board threads; if you embrace the hobby's avantguard with an open mind or are still waiting for more convincing proof that the earth is round - then I trust you will find this series of some value; that of the entertainment sort if nothing else.
"Conviction is a luxury of those on the sidelines."
[John Nash -from "A Beautiful Mind" ©2001 Universal Studios and DreamWorks]
It started innocently enough - bearing in mind that, in this usage, innocent is a genteel synonym for naïve to the point of utter cluelessness. I wanted my maiden column for 6moons to set a high, even noble standard for this new foray into audio journalism by being the first truly in-depth and sweepingly inclusive study of tweakery since the rise of the high end.
To say I bit off more than I could chew would be like saying Custer should have counted the teepees twice: Under-statement has a time and place but not here & now. Several long nights with Google, not to mention the hours devoted to page turning within a mildewed tower of audio rags dating back to the 80s only served to remind me what I damn well knew to begin with: Tweaks represent a very big tent. "Tweaking" and "to tweak" is arguably the most general and vague use of a verb one is likely to encounter in this pastime or any other, encompassing everything from active to passive, day to night, subjective to objective, good to evil.
When my eyes started to bleed from squinting at my computer's LCD, I began printing hard copies of the product specs, archived reviews and countless message board ejaculations to the point where I finally ended the madness with a stack of paper nearly four inches thick. It did make for educational reading but ultimately served the higher purpose of focusing my intentions for this article: I would limit my investigations to totally passive tweaks. No AC conditioning, no light bulb "line sucker" tricks or cable bingo, no solder-slinging, no isolation or coupling, no wet stuff, nothing in the signal path as we understand it. Furthermore, I would avoid homegrown passives such as stacked pocket change on the speakers and so forth, preferring to stick with professionally marketed and commercially successful examples of the genre. As a result, I realized that I would limit the discussion to products and procedures that are the most controversial, most emotionally pregnant sujet scandaleux in a hobby not known for its even tempers on any subject.
Whaddyaknow? This job is turning out to be fun after all. But enough about me. Where would you like to go today? Let's start, to hang with convention just this once, at the very start.
|“You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
[Morpheus, from "The Matrix"© 2001 Warner Bros. Films]
The way I see it, any hack can call upon VPI's venerated Harry Weisfeld and ask him a relevant question. It took yours truly to scope him out on a product no longer in the line. The original VPI db-5, known in the vernacular simply as "The Brick", was in fact the inspiration for this headlong tumble down the rabbit hole.
Thinking more of adding to my collection of historical audio curios than of any perceived need in the listening room, I recently came into possession of my very first Brick. Any students of the specialty are encouraged (as if you'll need encouragement) to correct me - but at least from a mass marketing standpoint (a relative term here), the VPI Brick may well be the grand daddy of what many audiophiles would come to think of in the now famous words of Stereophile's Barry Willis as "faith-dependant ceremonial listening aids".
|Well, perhaps as one failing among many, I've never been an especially faith-driven individual. Ever the Thomas, there has yet to be a wound presented to me I have not put my fingers in. So imagine my genuine shock when, placing the Brick atop the output transformers of my little SET amp, I heard a distinct difference in the quality of the sound.
Now here things get a bit sticky. Not only is this essay not meant to be a formal review of the various products that will populate its paragraphs; not only is reviewing technically not within my purview here at 6moons; but I've felt from the outset that one man's subjective experience with hardware of this nature would do little to engender the open-minded attitude so dearly required of the reader in such a potentially explosive arena. And I said as much to the manufactures and designers who, to varying degrees, contributed to my knowledge base while researching this article. But be it planning an article, DIYing a loudspeaker or agreeing at last to mow the friggin' lawn, rarely do we know what direction we'll end up going once we get started.
Put another way, wouldn't you be slightly pissed if I ducked the sound issue entirely? Leaving you high and dry at the very door of the whorehouse, expected to be happy listening to the cheap piano player? We certainly don't want that. Not any more then you want to read reflections on products by someone who hasn't tried them (I have the distinct impression that there are publications already providing that peculiar service, especially when addressing the product area we contemplate here).
Therefore I ask you to think of the product trials herein not as formal reviews but the benefit of the virtual factory tours I was privileged to enjoy. One would expect to be offered a taste of wine at the vineyard, yes? The operative difference here being that the manufacturers' showroom demos are taking place in my own listening room without the supervision (or expertise) of that manufacturer. This, as you can well imagine, is great for me. It's rather less than ideal for the other guy however, who must trust that I am both willing and capable when it comes to everything from following the most basic instructions to optimizing, within reason, the performance of their unusual and occasionally finicky products in a system and a room about which they know next to nothing. That takes guts. And for that reason every manufacturer who so kindly (and bravely) sent their precious creations into this great unknown deserves a debt of thanks and praise.
Now where were we? Oh yes. Here I stand, Brick in hand, talking to my wall"
|Like many audiorangutans, packages tend to arrive at my cage on a fairly regular basis. Odd shapes, sizes, exotic company names and unusual graphics are par for the course. But the arrival of the box containing the db-5, small and dense as a star, was the first time every member of the household stood gawking as I sliced cautiously through the packing tape, bursting with a "what is that thing" curiosity I haven't seen directed at one of my ubiquitous shipments in a very long time (Mrs. Bosh, particularly, is usually content to snag the invoice, frown in a deeply perplexed fashion and offer up her suffering to a Higher Power).
The crowd effect was only intensified when I called the new arrival by its other widespread nickname, the Magic Brick. This especially caught the imagination of the six-year old. However one look at the contents (seeming for all the world like one of those Amish toys we've tried to foist off on his plastic-loving generation over the years), it was enough to assure him there was nothing magical about it. Like six-year olds often are, he was right.
Let's get one thing straight right away: There's very little of mystery about the Brick. It's a nicely dove-tailed wooden block that frames a heart of laminated iron in a transformer-type core. In Mr. Weisfeld's own words, "The main idea was to redirect the flux lines away from the chassis and remove the many eddy currents it would produce. I think [the Brick] was doing this quite well, plus [providing the additional benefits of] the mass damping of the concentrated weight." Harry, ever the engineer, sure ain't speaking lightly of "concentrated weight". This innocuous looking, 4-7/8" x 3-7/8" x 2-5/16" block of blonde wood weighs in for the fight at an impressive 8lbs (slightly more on my imperfect household scale). That may not seem like much in the abstract but when that sort of heft is coming from an object barely bigger than an old-fashioned bar of Ivory soap, it totters on the line between mass weighting and mass hallucination.
|"In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again."
[Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland]
If you'd care to check the particulars in my bio, you'll see that I have a system that is minimal in the extreme (if there can be such an oxymoronic thing). The amp itself has well under 50 working parts in total including the elements of the tubes themselves. The speakers are crossover-less single-drivers. Whether that's a good or bad thing is anyone's shout but one of the side effects of such an almost hard-wired, Briggs & Stratton-basic approach is a system of acute sensitivity to software, to environment and yes, tweaks.
I don't tend to consider isolation and coupling devices to be tweaks insofar as they represent a no-brainer in these enlightened times. But wherever your politics fall on that issue, suffice to say that for the purpose of this ramble, feet, pods, cones, spikes and even platforms are outside the considered set. My main point in setting such things -- if you'll pardon a pun -- on the shelf for now is to share that, apart from common sense equipment care and placement, I don't consider myself much of a tweaker. I keep contacts clean and vibrations reasonably at bay and that has traditionally been the extent of it. So there was little experience in my audio career to prepare me for the outcome of adding the Brick to my humble sonic foundation.