Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What Is The Sound Of A Low Noise Floor?

What Is The Sound Of A Low Noise Floor?

There are many adjectives we as audiophiles use to describe our experience of listening to music through an audio system. We use these terms to describe our experience. But what is it we ultimately want? I submit that ultimately we want to be engaged, drawn in, and entertained. We also want to decompress, be transported away from our current mindset, and seek a thereapeutic catharsis. How do we get there? The path each of us take is different, and very personal. But I believe the end result, the end experience, is very similar for all of us.  

So how do we get "there"?
I think much of what we try to do to achieve great sound is commonly associated with lowering the level of noise in our audio system. By reducing noise we reveal more of the signal or music. 

What does that sound like? 
The following is my attempt to describe and put as a series of "stages" the effects of a low noise floor on an audio system. This is by no means complete, as I am still travelling down this path. There may be others out there who can describe it better than I can, and I encourage you to contribute with your comments.

My assumption is that the system creating this experience already has correct tonal balance, and better than average resolution.

Stage 1: Detail, Air, Space & Soundstage

This is the stage where the audiophile to be usually becomes hooked upon experience. Hearing a soundstage that expands to the front, behind, and outside the physical plane of  the loudspeakers' front baffles is mezmerizing and addictive.  This is the first stage of lowering a system's noise floor and can be accomplished in many ways. Usually this is discovered by the listener with their first high performance audio system. 

Stage 2: Separation

Along with the attributes of Stage 1, Stage 2 (Separation) simply means that there the listener now experiences more separation between instruments and performers. Instead of one amorphous sound there are layers of instruments and vocals. All distinct, but making beautiful harmonies and music together. 

Your System Can Still Suck At Stage 2

Your system can have Stage 1 and Stage 2 sonic attributes, and still not have satisfactory sound. This is usually where the discussion of "musicality" vs. "resolution" comes in to play. Your system can have Stage 1 & 2 sound yet be very analytical, dry and cold. This is where most audiophiles start looking for components, cables, etc that will "warm up" the sound. Usually by introducing a tonal shift that favors the midbass to low midrange frequencies. My advice is to keep trying to lower the noise floor further, unless there is a component, cable, etc. in your system with the reputation of being analytical. But don't seek "warmth", seek neutrality.

Stage 3: Musicality & Flow

This stage is where the music moves from being a layered series of individual performances (a technical experience) to becoming a harmonious cohesive sum of individual instruments and performers (an emotional experience) . It sounds like music. There is a smoothness, a flow to the performance that makes you stop, sit, and listen. You are drawn in to the performance.

Stage 4: Delicacy & Texture

At this stage, the lowered noise floor unmasks the very subtle details in the recording (provided they are there). the sound of a finger plucking or strumming an acoustic guitar, the body of the guitar resonating, the rasp in a singer's voice. Very subtle details that make the music more human and real. Even more separation is heard in the extremely high frequencies, and the sense of musical flow is preserved.

Some Final Thoughts

I will say this; Without quiet power it is more difficult to get to this level and beyond. Pay an Electrician $250 to install a dedicated line in your audio system if you live in a place where you can indeed have a dedicated line installed. Vince Galbo of MSB Technology published a great article on this.

Achieving a Low Noise Floor With Power Conditioning

Power conditioning is tricky, and frought with tradeoffs.  You can lower noise, but sometimes as the expense of loss of speed, dynamics or tonal shifts. My rule of thumb is always use high quality, audiophile grade power conditioning for the source components and preamp. Sometimes use power conditioning on power amplifiers but only after listening with and without. 

After all, your entire audio system is modulating the AC waveform coming out of the wall in order to make music. If there is garbage on that AC waveform you will hear it as veiling, edginess and a thin compressed midrange. By cleaning up your AC, your audio components have a better AC waveform from which to construct the musical signal being sent to your speakers. 

Below are a few power conditioners I recommend.

Budget: Audience aR2p "wall brick" conditioners. These filter the AC and you don't need a power cord. The "bricks" plug directly into your wall receptacle, and have a duplex AC receptacle on the bottom for plugging in your source and preamp. These will land you solidly in Stage 1 territory, and have you venturing deep into Stage 2.
Better performance: Bybee AC Adapters. 2 models fit into this price point. To get started, one can use one on a power distributor to send clean power to your whole system. Better yet, use them on individual components. These place the power conditioning elements as close as possible to the audio components, and you can hear the difference. Plunge deep into Stage 2 with the Original, and venture into Stage 3 with the SE.
The Original Bybee AC Adapter

Top performance: 
  • The Bybee Dark Matter AC adapter - For individual components you can't do better. One on the preamp and one on your digital source and you are well on the way to stages 3 & 4.
  • Bybee Stealth - 8 receptacles, and one of the best power conditioners you can own at any price. Recent additions to the Stealth for 2016 are High Fidelity magnetic wave guides, Furutech NCF AC receptacles, and a grounding lug to attach an Entreq Silver Minimus or Olympus Minimus. It just doesn't get better than this.
The Bybee Stealth Power Purifier

Entreq Olympus Minimus - Takes the performance of the Stealth to new heights

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