Tuesday, February 28, 2006

RSS everywhere

People who have gotten into blogging know a bit about RSS but most folks haven't even heard of it before.

It stands for Really Simple Syndication and all you need to know is that it's a standard form of communication on the Web that allows for the syndication of content.

And what does that mean?

Let's say you run CNN. You have a new article to publish to the Website. Putting the article up on CNN.com is a great start, but then people have to remember to visit CNN multiple times a day to keep up to date with what's happening in the world.

Wouldn't it be nice if the users could be told that there's a new article rather than make them go look for new articles?

But how annoying would it be to get an email from CNN every time they put up a new article? You'd have tens or hundreds of emails a day flooding your Inbox.

And what if you wanted updates from not just CNN but also AP, Reuters, the New York Times, and so on?

Wouldn't it be nice if you could just have a single Web page that collected all the latest stories from each site, displayed the headline and maybe a short description, and then offered a link to the full article? That way you'd know all the latest stories and could just click on the items that interested you. Pretty nice idea, huh?

"Hey," you say, "my customized My Yahoo page already does that for me."

Yeah, I know. How does it do it though? Through RSS.

Basically every time you visit your My Yahoo page, it automatically checks, through RSS, if there are any new items to display. A news outlet like CNN or AP will have new items just about every hour. Less frequent sources may have nothing and just display "no new items in the last x days".

And the nice thing is that RSS is "Really Simple" so anyone can use it, not just professional news outlets.

And with My Yahoo or any other RSS reader (aka content aggregator) you can choose to add as many different RSS "feeds" as you like.

This blog has a dedicated RSS feed. Look to the right column under "Syndicate". Those are links to the RSS feed or specialized links to automatically add this feed to your My Yahoo or Google pages.

And now my other sites - banzaifilms.com and ebanzai.com - have their own dedicated RSS feeds (and I had to write my own Java code so that my sites could offer RSS feeds so I think it's cool even if no one else does...).

The banzaifilms.com feed will keep you updated with new movie reviews as they're posted. Why visit the site if there's nothing new? Or why waste the time to visit just to find out whether or not something new is there? Just add its RSS feed to your My Yahoo page and click on new reviews as they appear (if you're interested, that is).

Same for ebanzai.com, my online photo gallery site. New galleries might appear once a month or, if there's a flurry of activity, there could be new galleries up each day. But again, why visit the site just to see if there's something new? Just add the ebanzai RSS feed and you'll be notified when a new gallery is posted.

To add either RSS feed, just visit banzaifilms.com or ebanzai.com and you'll see the new "XML", "+My Yahoo", and "+Add to Google" buttons all over the place. The "+My Yahoo" button will add that site's RSS feed to your My Yahoo page.

If you'd like to add both feeds, you'll have to visit each site and click its "+My Yahoo" button since the underlying action of each button is customized to each of the two feeds. Even though the "+My Yahoo" button looks the same on this blog, on banzaifilms, and on ebanzai, each one is specially coded just for the site that it's on.

The "+Add to Google" button allows you to add the feed to your Google page or Google reader. This is fairly new so people probably aren't too familiar with it.

Finally the "XML" button is a link to the actual RSS feed itself. If you use any other reader (i.e. not My Yahoo and not Google), you'll need that link to tell it how to find my feed. If you're advanced enough to be using a different RSS client, then you don't need my help.

Monday, February 27, 2006

It figures

My writing hero, Joss Whedon, was asked, "If you knew you were going to spend the next 10 years on a desert island and could only take 5 books with you, which books would you take?"

His answers:

Assuming they're books I've already read:
1) A Little Princess
2) Dombey and Son
3) Dune
4) Hitchcock by Truffaut
5) Pride and Prejudice

Joss Answers Questions - FIREFLYFANS.NET

It's #5 that stands out, Pride and Prejudice. In retrospect this is not surprising coming from the man who created Buffy and always has strong, confident women leading his stories.

And it shows once again how he and I are on parallel tracks - though his tracks are skyrocketing upwards with success. I suppose he's my favorite writer in part because we have similar tastes and sensibilities. But things like this still surprise me sometimes. I'm the only guy I know who'd even consider listing Pride and Prejudice as a top five favorite book.

What's pleasantly annoying is that he often trumps my "finds". I'll discover a new, off-the-beaten-path song and then see an old episode of Buffy and hear that very same song used to great effect (The Sundays' cover of "Wild Horses", to be specific).

I'll write a sci-fi story set a couple hundred years in the future where technology is run down, mankind is ravaged by civil war, and there are no aliens whatsoever and then Joss comes out with Firefly which echoes all of my same story choices for similar reasons used to similar effect.

I wrote a Buffy spec screenplay and, despite five or six years' worth of Buffy episodes, I came up with a great line that was new - so of course later that year a new episode of Buffy aired that had a variation on my line (though, for a change, my line was better).

At least this time I'd previously stated my appreciation for the novel. But damn Joss - he's like the older brother that does everything you do but does it better and gets credit for doing it first.

ps - "Dune" is an interesting choice. I don't think I'd include it on my top five list, but it is a very valid choice. It certainly would help to pass the time on that deserted island. However, like most sci-fi, it's a bit lacking in the human dimension. There are deep, complicated forces and emotions at work, but the human side isn't explored nearly as deeply as the society, religion, politics, and geography are in Dune. You are constantly inside Paul Atreides' head, but the book is not about Paul's internal world.

I guess that's why the choice surprises me. For someone like Joss who is so deeply interested in character and human struggle it seems an oddly cold choice.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Book Notes: "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood

Atwood wins the award for narrative ambition and complexity. This story is told at five different levels:

1. Iris in the present at age 82.
2. Iris' recounting of her childhood and early adult life.
3. Newspaper clippings of various events relating to Iris' life.
4. "The Blind Assassin" - a novel within the novel telling the story of two lovers.
5. "The Blind Assassin" - the lovers' complex sci-fi story of their own (making it a story within a novel within a novel).

The sheer scope of ambition and complexity make this a notable novel. Atwood successfully accomplishes the task and almost compels the reader to go through a second read to fully appreciate all of the various aspects of the novel that don't become clear until the final chapters.

Her style is warm, engaging, and flows easily. The beginning is quite choppy due to its five-layered structure and Iris' story itself is enormously ambitious as she covers not only her life in depth but that of her father, mother, grandparents, sister, and others. I was advised to take notes on the various characters that appear early on and this was good advice indeed. I pieced together a family tree as I was reading to help keep all the relationships clear. I know that doesn't sound like much fun, but Atwood assumes a high level of intellect and attention of her reader so we must rise to the task.

Atwood fully accomplishes and delivers her world-weary protagonist with gorgeous, powerful prose, infusing her with a perspective and a particular sort of wisdom that only such a character could possess. Atwood is a master of her craft and an absolutely towering humanist.

"The Blind Assassin" is a long read, but is not an arduous one. The beginning does take its time to settle into itself and establish its pace, but that initial patience will be rewarded ten or a hundred fold as the story plays out. This is a read to be absorbed and savored with the luxury of time. You don't just read "The Blind Assassin"; you spend time with Atwood, you engage in deep reflection with Iris. This isn't something you read here and there in your free time; this is a companion for a month-long stay at an Italian villa or a nightly pleasure for uninterrupted peaceful winter nights before the fireplace.

The experience is almost more real and more satisfying than if you invested your time with a new, fascinating stranger with a story to tell. Who knows if the lonely old kook in the retirement home will be worth your time? But Iris, thanks to Atwood, most surely is worth your time. And what she has to offer is incredibly well-refined and impeccably presented.

Atwood is a humanist - she glorifies the human condition with all of its flaws, unflinchingly laying bare our most pitiful and most inspired moments. Iris is savagely unapologetic for her life. At 82 she has no time for remorse or self-conscious regret. Her successes and her failures are what they are and she offers them without hesitation. Atwood doesn't expect us to pity Iris, she doesn't even necessarily expect us to like Iris, but she does wish us to see Iris. See her for what she is, exactly as she is, without glossing over the faults.

"The Blind Assassin" is an immense achievement and well worthy of its Booker Prize award.

Book Notes: "Three Junes" by Julia Glass

A bit longer than it needs to be (especially the extraneous third, bookend piece) but overall an enjoyable exploration of two generations of a Scottish family and the lives they touch along the way.

The novel is divided into three sections that mimic, in Glass' own words, a "triptych" where you have a main panel flanked on either side by smaller supporting panels. The main panel depicts a scene where the characters face directly towards the viewer while the side panels' figures generally face toward the center panel.

The primary character, Fenno, offers a first-person narration through the main panel of Glass' literary triptych. Fenno is an engaging enough and interesting enough figure to hold our interest, but his section is a bit elongated. Though I personally don't necessarily have that much in common with Fenno, I felt that this character in his mid- to late-twenties was a known quantity to myself and my peers. This immediately establishes believability, but also works against the novel for me. The easiest way to explain it is that I spend enough time with myself and my friends. I don't necessarily need to spend time with another late twenty-something-year-old. However for those more removed from my age and type of social circles Fenno is no doubt much more interesting.

Fenno's evolution is entirely earned and entirely believable. This is worth the read and is often quite beautifully told. Glass is not the prosaic master that Jhumpa Lahiri is, but she's quite strong in her own right. Certainly very confident and in control of her narrative.

The closing third section, though it completes the triptych pattern, is completely unnecessary. Fenno is our primary concern and his main panel concludes in excellent fashion with nothing left needed to be said. The final panel is appealing but ultimately extraneous because Fenno's primary journey has already been concluded.

"Three Junes" is a patient read. It's worth the time but it does take more endurance than other quicker reads.

Book Notes: "Waiting" by Ha Jin

There's a famous experiment where a person is told a happy story and then shown an image of a person with a completly blank expresion. The viewer is then asked to describe the emotions of the person in the photo. Generally viewers describe the face as happy.

Another group of viewers (or perhaps the same) are told a sad story. Then they are shown the exact same photo of a person with a blank expression. This group reports the person in the photo as sad.

The point of this experiment was to show that people will project emotions and interpret what they see based on those projections - as opposed to simply observing in a clinical, detached manner. Of course the subject of this projection has to be sufficiently blank if it is to support a wide range of projected emotions (as was the case with these photos of blank expressions). In other words if an emotion is clearly visible, it is much more difficult to interpret any way we like. A sad face that is actually sad and not just blank cannot easily be seen as happy.

"Waiting" is the literature equivalent of these blank expressions.

Ha Jin's "style" (the quotes indicate a bit of sarcasm on my part) attempts to evoke the restrictive environment of China during its cultural revolution. The rise of communism and the expected dedication to party philosophies create a stifling, restrained existence. Free thought, free expression, and even traditional notions of romance are all squashed (your female coworkers are your fellow comrades and should be treated as androgenous equal entities, but certainly not possible romantic companions).

Therefore the narration is restrained, sparse, and formal. Efficient and intentionally somewhat artless. As a storytelling device it succeeds in conveying the atmosphere of the time, but as a reading experience it quickly becomes dull, disengaging, and distancing.

Lin Kong, a mid-level doctor in a government hospital, is married to Shuyu, a backwoods villager who is an embarrassing symbol for old, backwards China. So Lin's attentions drift to a more modern woman of the city, Manna, whom he keeps as his woman-in-waiting for eighteen years.

In short summary Lin Kong, while married to Shuyu, desperately wants Manna instead (though his efforts to divorce Shuyu are half-hearted at best, like all things Lin Kong does). But as the story progresses, his long-sought divorce is finally granted and he marries Manna. In short order he wearies of life with her and finds himself wishing to be back with Shuyu. Thinking Manna unhealthy after a trying childbirth, he even asks Shuyu to wait for him, to wait for Manna to die to release him from his second unhappy marriage. The end.

Lin Kong is a timid, indecisive man who never progresses past the "grass is always greener on the other side" stage of maturity. His ineffectual life is infuriating and his eventual desire to return to Shuyu is, for me, the unforgiveable final straw.

Perhaps the communist society and its cultural revolution created a situation in which Lin Kong could not progress as a person, but really Lin Kong has his opportunities to discover true happiness. But he's just too blind to appreciate what's in front of his eyes. Society didn't do him any favors, but the fault is entirely his own.

This is Death of a Salesman without the death part, unfortunately.

Some people read this novel and see such pain and confusion hidden between the lines of the pages. They feel Lin Kong's struggle and sorrow. But this is completely unwarranted. As I said, this novel is a blank emotional slate that the reader may project his or her emotions onto, but the novel itself does not actually contain or produce these emotions. Lin Kong is so dumb to his own internal machinations that he is a blank slate. If he has a moment of stunned silence, people project deep contemplation but in fact it is merely dumb stunned silence.

Lin Kong is deeply dumb and ignorant of his own desires and needs. And his inability to grow beyond his own limitations makes this novel an infuriating waste of time. There are plenty of people - in communist societies or living in our own households - who are hemmed in by their own weaknesses yet too blind to see them for themselves. We don't need Ha Jin to provide us with another.

As a technician, Ha Jin is only a modestly talented writer. His weakest moment is the hugely disappointing epiphany at the end of the novel. The stone dumb Lin Kong has an internal dialogue with himself - a mysterious insightful part of himself starts "talking" with Lin Kong, debating with him about what really makes him happy. This storytelling device is a terrible cheat and an ineffective one. A more talented writer would convincingly develop Lin Kong to the point where he can begin asking himself these questions rather than rely on the magical voice from nowhere in Lin Kong's head.

By the way, the ending is not a happy realization of what will finally make him happy. It's just more of the same "grass is greener" thinking that has plagued him his entire life.

Not an enjoyable read nor a satisfying one. It's easy to dismiss such criticism as simplistic, that I didn't like it simply because I didn't like Lin Kong or didn't like the ending. Excercises in futility can be held in high regard (Waiting for Godot, though not the best example since I dismissed that play as well). But "Waiting" is not an artful enough rendering of that futility.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Audiophilia: Gold Banana Plugs vs Silver Crimped Spades

I initially opted to use gold-plated banana plugs to connect my surrounds. Banana plugs are very convenient if you're going to be swapping speakers in and out of your system. However the price of that convenience is a less than optimal signal transfer. Banana plugs just don't have much contact area and the strength of that contact decreases over time as the plug's insertion post loses tension.

What's worse is that these particular banana plugs have a screw-type connector to the speaker wire. You strip the insulation off the wire, feed it perpindicularly through the middle of the banana plug and then screw down the built in flat screw to press the wire and hold it against the back end of the gold-plated insertion post. Only about half of the wire actually contacts with the metal post - the contact surface is just too small.

I have since learned how to use crimp-on spade connectors. You use a crimping tool to deform a metal collar around the stripped wire, making a strong physical connection with the entire circumference of wire. An ideal crimp is so tight that it forms an airtight seal between the crimp collar and the wire.

The other advantage of spades is that they provide a lot of surface area to contact with the speaker binding posts. And they are flat, so a tightly screwed binding post should form a very solid connection that leaves little room for air and moisture to circulate and cause oxidation. As long as you don't need to swap connections in and out frequently, all should be good.

I opted for silver-plated spades over gold-plated spades (Audioquest 1014-S, $0.90/spade). Gold's only advantage is that it resists tarnishing/oxidation better than copper or silver. However silver is a better conductor with less resistance. And, as I just said, it doesn't seem like oxidation should be much of an issue with these connections.

My real motivation for re-terminating the speaker cables was so that I could use some of the Walker SST (Super Silver Treatment) in the connection. I applied a small amount to the stripped wires before crimping. In theory this will enhance the connection between the wire and the crimping collar of the spade. I also took care to clean the spade and speaker binding posts with 91% rubbing alcohol and a lint-free Pec Pad.

The Results
The spades did improve the sound. Accuracy slightly improved as did separation/soundstage. All improvements were quite minor, just barely noticeable (as expected).

I will eventually re-terminate all of my speaker cables both at the speaker end and at the amp end. I'll probably wait until my full system is up and running again so that I can hear the differences before and after with high-resolution material on my main speakers.

Audiophilia: Further Tests

After the astonishing performance of my standard CD system I was curious to hear standard CDs through my high-resolution system.

Note the differences in the configurations:

SourceCal Audio CL-15 ($250)Sony 999ES ($600)
AmpProceed AMP5 ($2,500)Yamaha RX-495 ($250)
SpeakersB&W 703 ($3,000)B&W 602s3 ($600)

If you just consider the investment, the "Standard" rig should easily crush the "High-Res" rig.

Unfortunately that's not the case.

The High-Res rig outperformed the Standard rig because of its source. The Sony 999ES far surpassed the analog CD output of the Cal Audio player. What I thought was good instrument separation and localization in the Cal Audio player paled in comparison to the razor sharpness and accuracy of the Sony 999ES. This is not surprising. The Sony was at one point its top-of-the-line DVD player (originally retailing for $1,100). Clearly it has superior DACs (digital-to-analog converters).

I directly compared them by hooking the Cal Audio player into the High-Res rig, thereby fixing amp and speakers while only varying source.

And after hearing the impressive 999ES playback on the high-res rig, I was left with only disappointment in the Cal Audio playback. When the Cal Audio player was returned to the Standard rig, the disappointment continued.

My rave reviews of the previous post disappeared - the Sony had raised the performance bar once again (despite the vastly inferior amp and speakers of its rig). My $2k rig beat the pants off my $6k rig/Cal Audio combo.

My audiophile holy grail is, of course, to mate the Sony 999ES with the Proceed AMP5 and the bigger B&W 703s. But - curses! - that's not possible until my busted surround processor is back from the shop.

Until then, let this be a lesson to people assembling new systems. Great amps and speakers are nothing if you don't have a good source with good DACs!

Misc Notes:
The Flavor 1 cord did slightly improve the Standard rig's CD playback. But since the performance out of the Cal Audio player has been revealed to be mediocre, its maximum potential for improvement was modest to begin with.

I started off listening to the High-Res rig and was disappointed in the separation. I thought maybe I'd imagined the benefits and now the real world was settling in. Then I looked at my power setup - I had left the Yamaha receiver plugged into the wrong UPC-200. It was not getting power via a Flavor 2 cable. When I fixed the arrangement, the stunning separation returned to the music. It's not an illusion folks!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Audiophilia: DIY Power Cables - VHAudio "Flavor 2"

Holy. Crap.

This power cord stuff makes a serious, serious difference. If someone were building a new system - even a modest $2k to $3k affair - I'd now strongly recommend that they reserve some budget for their power considerations. This is not some vague audiophile tweak that eludes the ears of your average Joe; A high-end interconnect (e.g. S/PDIF cable) or exotic, expensive speaker cable could easily go unappreciated. But these power cord upgrades are a whole different matter. It's about maximizing every ounce of performance you can get out of your equipment. A $2k system can sound better than you ever thought possible.

To learn more about building these cables yourself,
see: DIY Power Cables - VHAudio "Flavor 1"

An important Flavor 2 construction tip:
The ground wire wraps around the outside of the rubber hose. This makes for an awkward connection between the end of the rubber hose and the back end of the power connector housings. You're forced to leave a bit of a gap between the housing and the hose in order to let the ground wire into the housing.

This creates a flexion point on the cable; if you have to bend the cable into a tight position, all of the strain of that bend will occur at this gap, rather than be distributed across the length of the cable.

To alleviate this, cut a 1.5" slit lengthwise at the end of the rubber hose as an inlet for the ground wire. This way the ground wire can feed properly into the housing and the hose can remain flush against the connector housing. Wrap the whole thing tightly with electrical tape and you'll have a pretty strong connection with little flexion. That takes care of the wall socket end of the cable.

At the other end, the component connector side, you have a bigger problem: it's basically impossible to wire the component end of the cable and have the rubber hose be flush with the connector housing (the housing must be slid back along the cable to expose the wiring connectors, but the hose prevents the housing from sliding back. You're forced to leave a gap at that end).

So instead I cut the hose way short - four inches too short. After the component connector is wired and complete, I then measure the exact length of hose to fit the gap. Cut that length lengthwise and slip it onto the cable. Wrap the ground wire around it as expected, but allow the ground wire to slip inside the cut - as with the other end - where it meets the connector housing. Wrap the whole thing with electrical tape and you'll have a secure, flexion-free connection at the component end of the cable.

Be sure to tighten down the strain relief screws on the connector housing itself, and you'll have a solid cable that doesn't contort itself into overly harsh bends.

High-Res System Testing
I added the DIY Flavor 2 power cable to the my high-resolution system as follows:

- UPC-200 line conditioner plugged into wall via Flavor 2.
- Sony 999ES SACD player plugged into UPC-200 via Flavor 1.
- Yamaha RS-495 receiver plugged into UPC-200 via its built-in ungrounded cord.
- B&W 602s3 biwired.

(note, this is a $2k system: $500 UPC-200, $600 SACD player, $200 ancient receiver, $600 speakers, $120 power cords)

High-Res System Results
Additional improvements were had over just adding the Flavor 1 to the SACD player. Dynamics increased again, adding more excitement to symphonic pieces (especially that Amadeus track again). But it was the separation and definition of individual instruments that stood out this time around. The spacial quality of instruments leapt forward - you could point to a place in space where the performer was standing.

Without the Flavor 2 there was left, right, center, and somewhat indistinct locations inbetween. But with the Flavor 2 you could point to a specific location, let's say, 2/3 between left and center, and distinctly image that instrument at the precise location. The second track on the Telarc Sampler SACD 1 ("Badia") excelled at highlighting this imaging. I had no idea such spacial clarity was possible.

Perhaps imaging and separation are one in the same, but all instruments had increased detail, helping each of them sound distinct from the group rather than a collection of muddled information.

Keep in mind that the Flavor 1 cord already made a big improvement in my SACD playback. The fact that the Flavor 2 added different but also significant improvements on top of this is very, very impressive.

I suspect the improved detail and imaging were due to the receiver finally enjoying some benefits from improved power. Because its power cord is built-in it can only vicariously enjoy the Flavor 2 benefits as that cord delivers power to the UPC-200 which then powers the receiver. I should do a test where the receiver goes into the other UPC-200 (which has a standard power cord to the wall) while the SACD player enjoys the Flavor 2 > UPC-200 > Flavor 1 power route. I would guess that the Flavor 2 contribution would be more modest.

Standard CD System Testing
My "standard" system is far superior to my high-res system, except for the part where I can't play SACDs through it (again, due to some missing components right now). My best speakers and killer amp have to be satisfied with regular CD playback for the time being.

- UPC-200 connected to the wall via Flavor 2
- Cal Audio Labs CD player/DAC connected to UPC-200 via standard cord
- Proceed AMP5 connected to UPC-200 via Flavor 2
- B&W 703 biwired

Standard CD Sytem Results
I didn't even mean to run this as a real test. I was getting tired of doing lots of repetitive A/B listening and decided to just pop in a CD and make dinner. The new Flavor 2s just happened to be in the system at the time. Notice that the Flavor 1 cord wasn't even powering the CD player.

When dinner was ready I sat down to Counting Crows' "August and Everything After".

Have I said "Holy crap!" yet?

Well just in case: Holy crap!

I have a freakin' awesome amp! I never appreciated what a good amp could do until I heard it behind this pair of Flavor 2 power cords.

I never thought of that CD as being particularly well-made from an audiophile perspective. But suddenly I was hearing a surprising degree of separation and detail in each instrument. I was shocked to discover a clearly audible acoustic guitar in the left channel of "Mr. Jones" (er, make that "Rain King"). It was always there, but is generally masked over by the rest of the presentation except for during the intro.

I threw in my old speaker testing favorite, the Serenity Soundtrack's 4th track, and was reminded of why I fell in love with these B&W speakers. At any point in that track there are about four or five different elements going on, and every couple seconds the mix of instruments changes. The variety is incredible and now - with the Flavor 2s - the detail, separation, and imaging of all these instruments coming and going was just phenomenal.

So this matches my earlier guess about the improvements in the high-res system. The Flavor 2s - meant for high-powered analog equipment - really bring out the best in amps and receivers.

Suddenly I find myself eager to go through my non-audiophile CDs and see which ones are given a new life by my now-superb "standard" system. I never imagined how much potential audio goodness I was missing out on, how much potential my brilliant equipment had in it, if only it could receive pristine, clean power.

Additional Bonus Benefits
My CRT-based HDTV also benefitted from the Flavor 2 > UPC-200 power route. The TV has a built-in ungrounded cord so I couldn't use a Flavor 2 directly on the TV. But the TV showed noticeable improvement when the Flavor 2 was put between the wall and the UPC-200.

Sharpness improved - not night-and-day difference, but enough that you could notice it even from a distance. I was using the Star Wars: Episode III DVD as my test material, played over the Sony 999ES, connecting via 1080i component video (the Sony outperforms the Bravo D1 DVD player, even though the Bravo offers a full digital DVI connection). The difference was about halfway between good upconverting and true HD.

Color saturation and contrast also improved, albeit at a barely perceptible level. The picture simply looked "better" so the changes were definitely subtle.

It's not clear how much, if any benefit, would be had for a digital display device (plasmas, DLPs, LCD projectors). A CRT is still analog and its horizontal resolution depends on an analog electron gun. Sometime when I'm more ambitious I'll throw in a vertical and horizontal resolution chart. I'm betting all of the resolution gain will be in the horizontal direction.

Further Tests
Now I can finally test the UPC-200 itself. I had previously been using Tripp-Lite surge protectors so I'll compare the Flavor 2 > UPC-200 > Flavor 2 > amp/receiver path vs the Tripp-Lite > Flavor 2 > amp/receiver path.

Also I'm eager to add the Flavor 1 to the CD player to see if further improvements can be had. I somewhat doubt this will be as dramatic an improvement, but if it mirrors the SACD system impact, it should bring a bit more dynamic range and harmonic goodness to the mix. Though with standard CDs the possible upper bounds are somewhat more limited when compared to the potential of SACDs.

And I have yet to install the new cryo-treated wall socket. I won't be able to do A/B tests once it's in, but I'm guessing the improvement will be minor, if noticeable at all.

Also note that these cables had only been "burned in" for less than 24 hours. In a few days they'll reach 100 hours (by powering my other two PCs 24/7). Then both the Flavor 1 and the two Flavor 2s will be, in theory, at their best.

At about $65 per cable for raw materials (plus the fun and satisfaction of building them yourself), these Flavor 1s and Flavor 2s are absolutely worth every penny.

Audiophilia: DIY Power Cables - VHAudio "Flavor 1"

I've been upgrading the power system of my high-end audio system, adding two PS Audio UPC-200 line conditioners. While thinking about power I decided to also upgrade the power cords in my system.

Surely, you say, a power cord couldn't possibly make the slightest bit of audible difference in a stereo, right?

I am inclined to wholeheartedly agree... but for the empirical evidence to the contrary.

I decided to build a Do-It-Yourself "Flavor 1" power cord based on Chris VenHaus' recipe.

His instructions are excellent and his site sells all the parts necessary to build your own cables at reasonable prices (reasonable for audiophiles, that is). The Flavor 1 includes cryo-treated 12 AWG cable with a foil shield and a braided shield, an additional cryo-treated 12 AWG cable for the ground wire, and I opted for his cheapest connectors - cryo-treated Wattgates.

What's with all this "cryo-treated" stuff? Supposedly it makes everything sound better. Does it? I dunno.

You do still have to gather some materials yourself. You'll need wirecutters/strippers, a precision blade to cut through the braided shields and the insulation that binds the two wires together, and a multimeter or continuity tester to make sure you didn't cross or short any wires. Ignore the package of silver speaker wire spades - those are for the next tweak. A thick pin or pick will also be needed to deal with the braided shield.

It also wouldn't hurt to have high-concentration rubbing alcohol (I found 91% isopropyl at CVS) to clean the wires before clamping them down. Oh yeah - also wear gloves to prevent your finger oils from getting onto the exposed wires. I used PecPads as my lint-free alcohol swab cloth (I mainly use them to clean my digital SLR's sensor). Even though they're pictured, I wouldn't recommend Q-Tips.

The hair dryer is to heat the shrink wrap tubing that helps hold your power cord together. Cool stuff.

My Expensive Deviation
I did alter the VenHaus recipe just a bit. I added Walker SST - Super Silver Treatment. It's a paste that is infused with microscopic silver particles. The idea is you use this stuff whenever two pieces of metal are going to be in electrical contact. The silver particles are highly conductive and can fill the gaps between the contact surfaces to make for a better connection.

People swear by the stuff. I didn't want to go through the hassle of making a With SST cable and a Without SST cable to compare, so if my Flavor 1 results blow away your Flavor 1 results, maybe it's the SST doing its thing.

The most difficult part of the Flavor 1 is dealing with the shielding. The braided shield is supposed to be "combed out" and twisted into a drain/ground wire (which is then twisted in with the external ground wire).

And that final mega-ground wire is too large to fit into the socket, so you'll have to cut off about half the thickness of that shield wire to make it all work.

The connectors are pretty easy to attach. The wires are stiff enough that they hold together very well as you feed them into their respective slots (labelled black/hot, white/neutral, green/ground). Then a screw tightens down two clamping plates inside the housing. Easy as pie. (note: this picture is of my Flavor 2 construction, thus the absence of the braided shield drain wire).

The Walker SST makes things a little messy if you're not very careful. It's so conductive that there are endless warnings about using it sparingly and not to get it all over the place.

The TechFlex nylon sleeve finishes off the cable very nicely. The cable is pretty flexible, though less so than a standard power cable.

Update: New construction tip
I contacted Chris VenHaus and asked him if there was any particular reason to use the heatshrink to hold the ground wire in place (you heatshrink it in place every six inches or so along the length of the cable). The heatshrink is cool and gets the job done, but it's a bit cumbersome. He said using normal electrical tape would be just as good and I've found it to be much faster and simpler.

Because my main preamp/processor is still in the shop (until end of Feb!), I can only run high-resolution SACDs over a lesser system. I've literally reversed the room 180-degrees for SACDs, using my surrounds as my new main left/rights. More on this in a subsequent post.

Initial Setup:
- UPC-200 plugged into wall via standard power cord.
- Sony 999ES SACD player plugged into UPC-200 via standard power cord. Analog 2-channel SACD output to:
- Yamaha RX-495 receiver (!!) plugged into UPC-200 via built-in ungrounded cord.
- B&W 602s3 biwired.

The only change I made in my A/B tests was to swap in and out the Flavor 1 cord on the SACD player.

The results:
The Flavor 1 was indeed better! The most revealing recording was the first track of the Amadeus Soundtrack SACD. The Flavor 1 added noticeable, obvious improvements in dynamic range and overall excitement to the symphony. There were sweeter harmonic resonances and sustains, though this, as expected, was more subtle.

When we switched back to the standard power cord the sound contracted, felt more contained and restrained. Dynamic range dropped to an unimpressive, duller range.

My roommate, Andrew (an ex-violinist), was entirely disgusted by the sound of the violins with the standard power cord. He described them as "harsh" and sounding like mediocre instruments, whereas the Flavor 1 made the violins sound natural. He says that in the world of violins there's an obvious difference between the sound of a $1000 violin and a $30,000 violin. The standard power cord sounded more like $1000 violins; the Flavor 1 got the violins closer to sounding like their true value.

Neither of us noted any negative qualities to the Flavor 1 cord when compared to the standard power cord.

Also this improvement was noted upon immediately adding the brand new cable to the system. Cable builders stress the importance of burning a new cable in for 100 hours or so. Currently the cable has been moved to one of my PCs that stays on 24/7 to start working on that burn-in time. It's a little mind-boggling to think that further improvements are on the horizon from this one cable.

It's also modestly possible that the cable will get worse as the Walker SST settles in. It too requires burn-in time, but what that stuff does over time leaves more room for degradation. It will dry out and the exposed areas will oxidize. But the stuff is designed to continue working - for years, in theory - without any need for constant reapplication.

Next Steps
You'll notice a lot of additional raw wire in the pictures. I also built two Flavor 2 cords. One will be for one of the UPC-200s. It will be my "good" UPC-200 and will power the SACD player, the crappy Yamaha receiver, Andrew's CD player, and my Proceed AMP5. I'll repeat my tests with and without the Flavor 2 in the system. If I've got time I'll also try it with the Flavor 2 but not the Flavor 1. And if I've got a lotta lotta time, I'll test the Flavor 1 vs the Flavor 2 when connected to the SACD player. Whew.

The other Flavor 2 cord will go to the AMP5. I can't run SACDs through the AMP5 right now but we'll see if the cord makes any noticeable difference when a high-quality CD is running through it to my "real" speakers.

I also got a cryo-treated replacement AC wall socket (yes, I've gone power-system crazy), but that'll be a little too difficult to do A/B comparisons against.

Anyway, I'll report my results as they come in.