A hi-fi component can only make the sound it transmits worse, it has everything to lose. The signal can only be degraded as it’s extracted from the source, amplified and transduced into acoustic sound by the speakers, so the best component is the one that has the least effect on the signal, the one that’s the least worst. This was brought home to me recently when I took a Music First Baby Reference V2 to the home of a music lover who had a Classic preamp from the same company, I replaced one element that does ‘nothing’ (passive transformer volume control) with another. The difference was on a night and day scale with the mid and treble becoming so much cleaner and more transparent it was uncanny and the bass developing unanticipated power and articulation. But the biggest change was to the timing, this jumped into the premier league and made everything we played sound better played and recorded than it had previously done.
This was achieved when moving from one passive device to another from the same manufacturer and the reason why one sounded so much better than the other is that the inevitably more expensive model is the least worst of the two, it lets more of the signal through without corrupting it. The MFA Classic had replaced a powered preamplifier from a very well established brand and its arrival had had a similar effect on the overall result to the one enjoyed with the change to the Baby Reference V2. The first change had calmed the mid and treble, letting more detail through and generally enhancing results across the board.
This notion of least worst was first articulated to me by Touraj Moghaddam of Vertere. Being a cable maker it’s not surprising that this idea would have struck him, all a cable can hope to do as it transmits a signal is add as little as possible and let as much through as it can. The differences you hear with cables come down to these two factors, how much colour they add and how much filtering is applied to the signal. In effect the best cable is the one with no ‘sound’ of its own, but it’s not easy to establish a method for measuring how successful a given cable is, or at least not one that more than one cable manufacturer can agree on. And for the most part cable makers do not use measurements in their R&D, or if they do they don’t talk about it in a convincing fashion.
But you can spot cables, source components, amps and speakers that are the least worst, they’re the ones that reveal the greatest differences between recordings. By their nature recordings should vary quite dramatically because there are so many variables involved in their production including but limited to: the voices and instruments, date, mics and monitors used, studio acoustics, studio electronics including compression, effects and the myriad of tools available to the recording engineer. So any audio component that reveals big differences between recordings is probably the most transparent, is adding and subtracting the least to/from the music signal. By contrast a system that makes a 1959 cut sound like one from ten years ago is not doing the music or you any favours. The drawback with this is that some recordings sound a lot better than others, and this gap is wider with a least worst system, a system that does not homogenize. So next time you sit down to figure out which piece of kit is best remember to take recordings from different eras and of different styles and try to listen to the music not the sound.