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Things I learnt this year

Each year of reviewing offers a chance to teach us something new; or reiterate long-forgotten lessons. You'd think that as the years go by, there'd be less and less to learn. Looking at my to-do list for 2020, clearly not. Perhaps I just pay poor attention? Or am I getting frightfully forgetful? You decide.

Reclockers matter especially for USB. Be it our older Audiobyte Hydra X+, this year's Denafrips Gaia, Innuous Phoenix or the again older Mutec MC-3+ USB and Soundaware D300Ref, they all clock benefits regardless of how galvanically/optically isolated a DAC's USB transceiver calls itself. In the case of the Phoenix, one looks at essentially what's already in their bigger streamers. It's simply – er, served up as an external add-on. With Gaia's or D300Ref's external clock inputs, one can even slave them to the internal master clock of the new Denafrips Terminator Plus. That too made a noticeable difference.

Wherein hid more lessons. If, like yours truly, you prefer an actual not disguised computer for your file/cloud playback, a quality external reclocker levels the playing field against costly audiophile servers. It really does. It explains why I remain loyal to our music iMac. Don't fix what hasn't broken yet.

It also had me question the appeal of external 10MHz master clocks for home use. First, their frequency doesn't correlate with actual audio sample rates so must be synthesized. Why? Second, each digital source must run its own clock cable to that external master clock. Meanwhile Mr. Zhao's solution for Denafrips cleans up on all these counts. He places his master clock inside the DAC within centimeters of circuit traces from the converter. As per Guido Grimm and other digital experts, that's where a proper master clock should go: within extreme proximity to the DAC. Mr. Denafrips then runs sample-rate-related clock frequencies to require no synthesizing; and relies on a single clock-cable connection between Gaia and Terminator Plus DAC. All our other digital sources plug into Gaia. It now acts as a reclocker hub to need no additional clock cables. It's clean and very efficient.

CDs matter. But there the year didn't end with my digital lessons. Denafrips and Métronome CD transports—yes, brand-new such models still come to market—proved that when spun by superior mechanics, silver discs continue to make sound which PCfi of all stripes struggles with unless first decrappified properly which is to say, reclocked and noise/jitter stripped.

Naturally that reminder lesson is only relevant to people who still do physical digital media. Especially among the younger born-to-stream audience, it eliminates the vast majority. Message received. Still, exotic outliers and old-timers may sleep like babies knowing that they're still with the times on raw sound quality. Anyone in denial of that really must listen to a quality current disc transport to smell the roses.

Bad vibes are real. Be it the ultimate rack or isolation footers by Hifistay, Furutech's Nano Crystal Formula² signal boosters aka cable lifts or LessLoss' firewall for speakers as mechanical in-line ultrasonic filters, all throughout the year were reminders. Mechanical resonances, invisible radio/microwave and higher freqs and their clinging to our cables, electronics and speakers must be fought. Resistance to that fact is futile if our claims to want better sound are legit and not just lip service.

None of these solutions are as sexy as 'actual' components or speakers. When new discretionary funds accrue to look at upgrading one's hifi, they rarely end up in the direction of resonance control or the decontamination of our electro smog. But just because we can't see something doesn't make it unreal. This year's call to wearing masks made that amply clear.

Really low bass matters. My ongoing experiments with integrating Zu's Submission subwoofer with the upstairs system's smaller monitors hit pay dirt. The upshot of the message I finally signed is threefold. 1/ eliminating bass from a mid/woofer just before its port kicks in opens up its dynamic range far above. Its voice coil doesn't heat up unnecessarily trying to do something it can't. A related rise in voice-coil impedance doesn't choke the output higher up. The main amp too is happier not dealing with port-induced phase angles and impedance errata.

2/ working the necessary high-pass filter in the analog/active domain is superior to doing it passively in a 3-way. It also, 3/ relocates the specialty woofer into its own cabinet—no mechanical noise pollution from bass into the midrange—then drives it with a dedicated bass-only amplifier. Active/adjustable bass that can be situated independently is better than passive/fixed bass. Also, where extreme damping from ultra-low output Ω and mega power is ideal for the low bass and easily had with affordable class D, the higher bands often prefer less damping so a different amp.

For those not interested in a fully active DSP-controlled speaker, going bipartisan looks at an active subwoofer plus precision analog lo/hi-pass to unstress the mains. It's a very attractive alternative which I'm enjoying now in already one system and plan to explore for the big system in 2021. If that amounts to only five lessons, the missing 6th reminds us. There's always more to learn. It never stops. Showing all girls was deliberate, too. It meant to suggest that lads always like to think they know it all. Reconnecting with our inner female who isn't so cocky now is key. And what's wrong with saying "I dont know" in the first place? Did learning stop when we left school? Have we been on auto pilot ever since? If so, a mayor course correction seems in order. It's not about knowing things like a bookworm, either. It's about first-hand experiences. Collecting those are the real hard-won trophies, not free but lame booby prizes. Reviews tend to be the latter unless we transform them into personal action. Whether we then agree with a review or not isn't the point. The point is that we tried the thing we read about. Now we've earned an opinion that's true for us. And in the end, that's all that matters: knowing what is true and meaningful to us.

Which is the above list. It's just stuff I found is true for me. It may not be for you. Two products which proposed active cable shielding with external power supplies didn't really work for me this year. The year prior, 'twas external grounding boxes which were just marginally effective for their ask. Meanwhile a very high-profile reviewer elsewhere now couldn't live without them. Again, nothing beats personal experience. That remains the biggest lesson of all. The year doesn't matter.