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Positive Feedback ISSUE 11
january/february 2004


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Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, or… Is That a Tonearm In Your Pocket?
by Jonathan Scull

The door buzzer went off the other day. "UPS!" crabbed the voice on the intercom. A small, oddly wrapped box—which had come all the way from Sweden—was thrust at me by the usual pre-hominid knuckle-dragger, resplendent as always in baby shit brown. Before I could get my hands on the box, he dropped it, right in front of me. Blam! You can’t imagine the look on my face. "Oh… sorry, I’m clumsy today." I wondered if a swift kick to his genitalia would straighten him out.

I was pleased to see that nothing appeared damaged as I unwrapped the high-end Japanese fish tank pump—low-pressure, high-flow, and built like a tank. My Forsell Air Force One with Flywheel is useless without three of these specialized pumps, one on the Flywheel, one on the platter, and a third for the air-bearing arm (with a valve to fine-tune flow). You can split the outputs of two pumps, but best practice dictates using three. I mean, if you run one of these turntables, run it to the max.

The Tale of the Pump began in October. I’d been crabbing around the turntable on hands and knees fitting new air hose and cleaning filters. Everything back in order, I left the ‘table spinning while we had lunch. Then, something began to stink like hell. Where was that toxic smoke funnel coming from? We spun around just in time to see the hand-built, 220V Forsell power supply in the last throes of a Chernobyl-like meltdown that took out one of the pumps. There followed much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, many desperate calls to Jay Bertrand of Bertrand Audio Imports, who brought Forsell into the States during the 90s, and pleading calls to Dr. Forsell, a medical tycoon who, alas, has long since abandoned the audio business and retired to Switzerland. Through Jay’s intervention, I managed to get a rebuilt power supply, but there had been some delay in sourcing the pump.

Zoom to the present. Checking the voltage, I wired the new pump into the 220V supply, connected the hoses, and fired it up. Poor choice of words—I flicked the delicate switch and watched the Flywheel spin up to speed. (I don’t use dental floss any more, by the way. Stretchy thread is much better at absorbing whatever speed variations may be present, although with three surge tanks, the apparent mass of the spinning Flywheel, and the heavy Mk II platter, this is not the thread’s main purpose. Nope, I use it to smooth out the speed bump as the knot in the drive thread flicks around the ‘Wheel’s capstan. Woiks like a chawm.)

I warmed up the BAT VK-P10SE phono stage and let an old but clean LP run through several times, volume down, to loosen up vdH’s still-stunning Grasshopper IV Gold. The preamp is still the towering Lamm L2 Reference on dedicated SRA stands and Top Hats. Snaking out to the Krell 350mc monos are Tara Labs The One, used throughout the system, and our JMLab Utopias. We switch to a pair of Linn Klimax Solo 500s in the summer!

Finally the moment arrived to settle into the Ribbon Chair and hear what I’d been missing. I had high expectations—always a problem—and a few doubts. What if analog wasn’t as engaging as I recalled? What if the extraordinary high resolution of today’s digital rendered analog’s rituals démodé? Perish the thought.

I needn’t have worried. The entire day and into the evening was spent with my old shadow, Fine Music. My body and mind relaxed totally into a sound that was recognizably more luminous than that of CD. Record followed record in a spiral of anticipation and immediate gratification. I kept asking myself why this was happening. Why do some audio systems speak to us in a musical, emotionally meaningful way, no matter the source component, while others can’t? All audiophiles experience the paradox of hearing systems that produce tight bass, good midrange, extended highs, and a good soundstage, but don’t sound involving, or worse. But some systems can powerfully grab your audio mojo with fulfillment, beauty, meaning, and joy. Like a Bertolucci movie. Getting more wound up, I recalled Vladimir Lamm mentioning experiments in Russia attempting to prove humans hear with more than their ears! (I’ve always felt so. Really.)

Einstein was only half right…

With this in mind, Kathleen and I found ourselves engaged one evening enjoying a Science Channel program on the General Theory of Relativity (which works for describing large celestial bodies) and Quantum Mechanics (used to mathematically describe subatomic particles). But there’s a rub. General Relativity breaks down when describing quantum-sized objects, and quantum mechanics swerves off-road trying to mathematically describe large objects. The two theories don’t intersect well—too many loose ends. Like audio’s paradoxical subjectivist/objectivist debate, they’re both only theories, and neither can be proved for now. Kathleen and I exchanged Significant Looks. Veddy intereztink. Then the program segued into String Theory and my slats really starting buzzing.

Strings That Bind

Let’s face it, we are all made of stardust. (Thank you, Moby.) So what’s the glittery stuff made of? During the show and poking around the Official String Theory Website, I discovered that String Theory posits the existence of vibrating strings, either open- or closed-ended, that create the basic particles of the universe. The website uses the analogy of a taut guitar string that, depending on how it’s struck or plucked, yields different notes or "excitation modes." The constituent parts can be observed in particle accelerators. (Ben Stein voice: Wow!)

Reading the website and exploring the crevasse between Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, I learned that Strings allowed a theory wherein the excitations of the string yields particles with zero mass and two units of spin called a graviton. Reading further (it gets very Leonard Nimoy here), I discovered that particle interactions occur "at a single point of spacetime, at zero distance between the interacting particles." So there’s gravity—two units of spin—but at zero distance. Describing gravitons apparently makes mathematicians howl, the whacky numbers an offense to their sensibilities.

But the website soothes: "In string theory, the strings collide over a small but finite distance, and the answers do make sense," and "… zero distance behavior is such that we can combine quantum mechanics and gravity, and we can talk sensibly about a string excitation that carries the gravitational force." I love that—yeah, let’s "talk sensibly" about it. Audiophiles are made up of masses of special gravitons, most strangely clumping in the paunch and butt.

And Your Point Is?

Doesn’t this just blow your mind? Do you see how this point of view might relate to the process of hearing and experiencing sound and music? A string vibrates one way, it’s a neutron, another way a photon. So audiophiles are all vibrating like mad from every pore, and when we sit down in front of our audio systems and lower the stylus into the groove, it’s the groove of our life, man! If the system reaches out and resonates you, it’s a high-end system.

No joke, what if listening to music is all about finding a system that communicates by synchronizing your vibrations with its sounds? This might even explain the fascination with surround-sound systems, which appear to do just that.

Let’s say you’re at our place, in the Ribbon Chair, and I’m playing Vivaldi oboe concertos on an old Angel LP. Chatter stops as the sound pulls your audiophile head right into it. Hmmmm, you actually lean into it. You can feel it, you want it, you need the sound of the resonance in your body. There’s a total naturalness to the way the music seems to flow straight into your heart and mind. Strings? I dare say.

Makes sense to me. It might explain why some carefully-set-up systems weave the very essence of the music into your intellectual field of being. Is it, I wonder, an individual resonance, your particular heart chakra, that excites your modality alone? Or is the general effect a shared, audiophile kinda thing, like auditioning a system with real depth and soundstage that everyone can hear? How does some music, on some systems, reach you in that fundamental way you always recognize? Why do certain "excitation modes"—music, if you must—reach out and seduce the careful listener and leave him or her touched by the music?

I harken once again unto my mythical audiophile ancestor, homo erectus, who "discovered" fire. This great-grandcestor of mine has caused me a lot of grief, but he’s the reason we’re sitting around crabbing about sound quality. Sure, he had it easy! Drinkin’ fermented bongo juice, slicing and dicing a tasty leg of whatever, dancing around the fire, howling at the moon, while banging on those new, fine sounding, hollowed out tree stumps. (Cheech Marin voice: Ebony sticks, man!) But he knew that music and sound kept him alive and horny.

In some awful but endearing way, we’re all descended from that Neanderthal nebbish. Have you watched those news specials about raves? Or native dances from around the world on the Science Channel, throwing the different ways we take music into our lives into bold relief? As did the Tango in its time. Or the Twist, daddy-o.

Chubby was really plugged in. The Twist struck an ancient chord. Everyone felt the connection with the music, with the experience. We, ah, twisted the night away. Listening to a choral work by Poulenc might do it for you, Basie and Ellington for me. Music can provoke an emotional reaction in the listener as it strikes internal tuning forks, overwhelms your head, and gets into the heart. Some audio systems do tremendously well in communicating that, some are indifferent at it, and most tear the music to shreds on the way to your Bose-addled ears.

I suggest that this, in some way, may explain the workings of such products as Shun Mook, Harmonix, and other resonance control accessories, those aiming to retune the energy into more harmonically acceptable "excitation modes." Could this worldview more easily explain why certain woods are better in audio applications? Sliding further out on my creaking limb, might all this in some way explain the never-ending love affair so many of us have with vinyl? That inviting, familiar, human acoustical gestalt that seems only available via a resonating stylus in a groove?

Ah, there’s so much heaven on earth, to twist up an old adage. We just have to keep our minds open… and the vinyl spinning!