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the Red and the Blue - the Reincarnation of the Intelligent Chip
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
Last night Allen Chang, proprietor of Golden Sound, came a calling. Well-mannered chap that he is, he was toting two bottles of red wine, which I knew would be choice because he has good taste… but we'll get to them later. He was also wheeling two small suitcases crammed with his tweaks from the fringe, the latest trickle down from the world of Quantum Mechanics Theory (QMT). I thought I was in for an audition of Golden Sound's new Soundstage Expander… little did I know what lurked, as he yanked magical tweaks and fairy dust prototypes from his valises.
the Red and the Blue
While we did try the Soundstage Expander, what I want to report on now are the new incarnations of the Golden Sound Intelligent Chip. Oy vey, I can hear you muttering sub vocé, "The scourge of 2005 is back?" How much fun was that the last time around? Since the pre-Y2K Richard Gray Power Station fracas, more than anything I can think of. Yes, they are back. The new chips look physically identical to their infamous, and highly controversial, forebear. Even the packaging is the same. Only the stick-on label gives it away. Where the original has a silver sticker that says "GSIC-30", or "GSIC-10", the new one simply says "JSMR." However, the application is wholly different. The original GSIC (still around and upgraded, by the way) is used on CDs and its effects are permanent. The new ones are placed on top of transformers and power cords and their effects are completely reversible. They come in two versions: the light Blue is for use on amps; the orangey-Red is for front-end gear. I can merely hope the fracas caused by the original GSIC is not to be repeated.
Allen: "Put one of those insignificant, little, weightless, blue wafers on the PC where it enters your amps' IEC plug." Me: "How's it gonna stay on? There's no glue or stickum." "Just do it and stop complaining." "OK, OK, OK, OK." So we got started. On Mozart Violin Concertos, with Fabio Biondi and Europa Galanté (Virgin Classics 94634 47062), the insignificant, little, weightless, blue wafers (1x1.5 inch rectangular pieces of plastic) made themselves known. Four of the Blues went on top of the IEC jacks of the power cords at the point where they entered the Kharma MP150 monoblocks; three Reds similarly went onto PCs of the front-end. After a couple of rounds of on and off, one hones in on their effects: the insignificant, little, weight-less, blue wafers produced noticeably sharper transient attacks and soundstage focus. What—how do they do that??? You actually get a crisper, faster, tighter, and more dynamic presentation. Image borders firmed up, and the corpus inside them became more solid and dense. In the bass, this firming was heard as a propulsive, noticeable, bouncing rhythmic line. The chips also redistributed sound energy, taking some away from the lower mids and moving it downwards into the bass region. All to the good, you would think. However, I wasn't so sure about that. I had a nicely balanced frequency distribution to start with: the chip-induced redistribution caused some lumps and unevenness—Fabio's violin lost some of its patina and acquired an unnatural and disturbing focus. The sound was evidencing a degree of hardness now.
Without the chips, the presentation was notably softer, less focused, and more spread. Stage width was more continuous across its span because instrumental borders weren't as demarcated. Dimensional cues were good, and frequency response was nice and even, if favoring the midrange. I liked it better this way, without them: I judged it more natural.
in the Land of Can-do
I could distinctly hear what was going on in terms of increased soundstage clarity, firmer body, more powerful low-end and reduced treble stridency, stuff that would have been magical elixirs at any other time. Nevertheless, right now, with the rig I had now, it wasn't making the sound better, only different, and possibly worse. This was a case of bad timing.
I had recently entered the Land of Can-do. Let me tell you about that, as it is not commonly visited and has even fewer residents. As you, the audio consumer move up the food chain, you need suffer fewer and fewer compromises. With each upgrade more of the pieces fall into place—provided you make good choices and the whole is synergistic. The distance between you and egregious deficits or exaggerations lengthens, and then recedes in the dust of your advance. Then, at some rarified point, you cross a threshold and find yourself in a domain where you stop thinking about the system's shortcomings. It actually starts to resemble the real thing. I know, ‘cause I recently went through that portal. Ah, can you imagine what a relief it is to flip the switch and have the room filled with wonderfully satisfying sound that doesn't beckon to be repaired; to be able to finally jump off the tweak/upgrade treadmill, if only for a short while? Welcome to the Land of Can-do. The rig at the time of auditioning the Blue and Red consisted of the mbl 5011 preamp (and later mbl's big boy 6010D preamp) and two pairs of Kharma MP150 mono-blocks, bi-amping Kharma Exquisite-Midi speakers. This was without doubt the pinnacle for an all solid-state system at Nack Labs. The whole was tied together with TARA Labs power products and their marvelous .8 series of ICs and speaker cable (review next month). At this moment, the need for tweaks was greatly diminished. In fact, I was yanking them out at a ferocious pace because they were counter-productive. This rig didn't need fixing up—every time the chips went in, we went back to the untreated components. (Of course, I still had in a number of specialized footers and room treatments tweaks in, but much less than before.)
Try again with a New System
I adjusted the equation by swapping in some tube gear to observe the results. With the Lamm L2 Reference preamp (one Red on its PC), and the Art Audio Jota SET amp (three Blues, one on each input transformer and one on the PC), here is what I heard on the Mozart Violin Concertos: crisper transients and a reduction of the midrange dominance. This in turn led to more energy at the frequency extremes, especially in the mid and low bass. The chips cut back some of the warmth and moved the sound closer to neutral. Did it get more dynamic? It certainly sounds more forceful, with more punch on the bottom. Images contracted and became more sharply delineated and more focused. In this second rig, they didn't interfere with the beauty of the string tone. Sounds familiar, right? It should; it's the same effects noted in the solid-state rig, but this time I judged it a big positive. Those Blues on the Jota, with or without the Reds on the Lamm L2, were more than a subtle positive. The "kitchen test" tells me so: fire up the rig, and walk into an adjacent room. Let your mind wander and don't actively think about the sound. Does it fool you more than before? Does it come closer to live or is it Memorex? Is there life after audio?
Without the chips, I had a beautiful, midrangy sound without as much mid or low bass, and it was verging on being overly warm and maybe even colored. It had more lateral blending across the stage, but was neither as wide nor as layered front-to-back.
Most of the effects described above were achieved with three Blues on the Jota. (I had one on each input transformer and one on the PC. I would have put one on the output transformer, but it got too hot to do that.) The Reds on the front-end added marginally.
Then I brought the chips downtown to a system comprised of the big footprint Komoro 845 tube monoblocks (160 watts per side), Sonic Euphoria passive pre, TRON Seven phono-preamp, Simon Yorke turntable, and Duevel omni-directional speakers. Number 3 rig was voiced for musicality and had most everything going for it. I could hear every note played by the guitar duo of Charlie Byrd and Laurindo Almeida on TANGO (Concord CJP-290, LP)… except, for the life of me, I was not able to tell who was playing what with any degree of certainty. Different frequencies came from different locations. Vagueness in location cues, imaging, and soundstaging in general, was severely compromising an otherwise splendid reproduction. In this third rig, the chips produced a rather drastic transformation. After application of four Blues to the two transformers on each mono-block, suddenly the sounds from the guitars coalesced and localized into a semblance of individual instruments on a stage. The transient became more coherent and integrated with the sustain part of the note, and the treble component of the transient calmed down and relaxed.
Hmm… let us try an inferior source and see what happens. Blues and the Abstract Truth hit the platter. This was a late, digitally re-mastered pressing of the Oliver Nelson 1961 classic (Impulse MCA-5659). I enjoyed the sound starting out untreated, only noting the diffuse and hazy stage. Instruments were unlocatable. It was next to impossible to tell who was playing what, same as with the duo guitar recording.
Added control and focus were evident as soon as we re-applied four Blues on the amps' transformers and three Reds on the source. A lot of non-musical, distracting sound moved out of the way and allowed honest information about the recording to come through. It struck me that the chips major improvements lie in the realm of the portrayal of space. Without them, you are looking at a flat, 2-D sound-splatter over at the front-end of your room. With them you are privy to insight into the venue where the performance took place (whether real or fake—i.e., done in the studio). The most powerful effect was with the Blues on the amps' power cords. Next best was the Blues on the amps' transformers. The three Reds on the front-end only added slightly to the effect.
How do they work? Beats me—no clue is given. Allen Chang only said that the Golden Sound Red and Blue, like the original GSIC, employ developments from the frontiers of Quantum Mechanics Theory, trickle-down discoveries from government and private research labs worldwide.
Right now, the theories behind Quantum Mechanics has a lot of momentum: it is in vogue with high-end manufacturers, just as cryogenetic freezing was before it. Accessories with wildly varying effects credit it. The Blue and the Red, and the other Golden Sound QMT-based tweaks, do not sound like most shrapnel from the Quantum frontier. They do the opposite of Bill Steirhout's QRT (which is incorporated into several top-flight power conditioners, i.e., Reimyo/Harmonix and Walker Audio, among others), or the Bybee Quantum devices (which are incorporated in Balanced Power Technology and Sound Engineering conditioners). This group uses it to "flavor" the sound with a warm, midrangy spice, making it softer, more diffuse, more relaxed, and enhancing an acoustic filigree or patina that we interpret as bloom.
The Golden Sound Blue and Red effects go the other way towards tightening up and concentrating the sound into focused cores. It is not unlike adding room treatment at the first reflection points on your sidewalls. In an otherwise untreated room, instruments snap into focus and blurriness evaporates—suddenly, you now have a soundstage with firmly located images and expanded depth. Other tweaks in the Golden Sound camp are Audio Magic Noise Disrupters and the ERS Cloth. QMT is claimed to be behind them all. It is worth mentioning there are other, non-quantum-based tweaks that are very good at producing similar effects, like the Walker Ultimate HDLs, or the various Harmonix Enacom devices. All of these tweaks are definitely audible.
My empirical observations were unvarying: consistent results were obtained in all trial cases. I liked what they did in conjunction with the Art Audio Jota and the Komuro tube amps a lot—one could make a case for the chips being indispensable with them. I am talking about the Blue on the transformers and power cord IEC input jacks of these amps. Here, the Blues had a major impact. For a mere $150 (three Blues @ $50/each), there was a significant sonic metamorphosis in the tube-based rigs. That is not a lot of money, and this was bigger than a cable upgrade. The trouble is, there is no way of telling how the chips will interact with your amp—the same three chips caused a perceived unnaturalism with rig #1, the solid-state one. You have to get them in house and try them to gauge the interaction. That is easy: they come with a 30-day money back guarantee.
It is also worth trying the Blues on the duplex wall outlets coming into your room. One placed on the AC plug going into each of my two dedicated lines was nice. As for the Reds, I found they had only a fractional impact in the three systems. On the other hand, who knows? Allen Chang says some customers claim they are major.
Now to those two bottles of red mentioned at the start: they were participant in a ruinous experiment (at any rate, one of them did). We uncorked one bottle and poured some into two clear glasses. Allen then placed one glass on a small wooden box with a panic button—this turned out to be the new, improved version of the original Intelligent Chip. He pressed GO, a light came on for half a second, and then stood the two glasses side by side. I am sure you know where this is going: yes, there were easily discerned differences. The GSIC treated wine had become a lighter shade of red, and all four people present agreed its nose had changed. But the taste… I unhesitatingly volunteered to be the guinea pig, and can vouch that the GSIC treated red had less bite at the finish and was smoother and sweeter. Actually, it tasted more like grape juice, as if it had returned part way to a pre-fermented state. Rejuvenated, perhaps? I will tell you this: I would not try this experiment with expensive quaff from a good vintage. Marshall Nack