Articles for Audiophiles by Steve Deckert
AUDIO PAPER #008
THE MAGIC HOUR
by Steve Deckert
It was the wee hours of the morning as I can recall, a hectic day had passed, and I was ready for bed. Everything was quiet, the air was still and a sense of peace encompassed the place. The magic hour was almost upon me, but as usual it meant I got to go to sleep and that was magical enough. Nevertheless it is that hour the begins to open a window that lasts usually until 3:00 am when listening takes on a new dimension.
I walked through doing the bedtime check, part of which is going to the front listening room and getting the blasted cat, Tesla, out of the subwoofer. It seems that the sub has become his new throne. He gets pissed when I try to extract him from it. We had our little confrontation, and Tesla grumbled off into the darkness in search of the next best thing... his food bowl.
On the sub was number # 22 of my SE84 little Zen amps that I had left on from a demo earlier that evening. The little guy waiting for some Sylvania NOS tubes to come in on Monday so it can ship out. I reached over to turn it off and suckered into the same old trick of seeing how long I could hold my hand on the power transformer before my finger nails start smoking, which by the way wasn't very long tonight.
Oh what the hell, I haven't looked at the time, but we're probably right in the middle of the magic listening window, and this thing sounded like it had its first bloom earlier this evening... leave it on... let it cook out another tune, I want to hear my stereo real fast before I retire for the night.
I put in an Aaron Neville CD, a recent gift from someone who appreciated the demo yesterday. I had already listened to it perhaps 6 or 7 times, enough to be familiar with it and I wanted to hear it again!
It took only the first few bars and I went into stage one - the open mouth I can't believe it look... oh yes, It was alive tonight! I was as usual only planning to listen for a few minutes if that and shut it down, but this rearranged my priorities without effort or delay.
I sat and listened to the next song and while silently losing track of where my body stops and the chair begins, and marveling at the incredible articulation, the nice wet blooming midrange and the fact that the bass was coming from inside my body and going out into the room. The progression into stage two - focused listening, where the stress of trying to hear something wrong has been replaced by complete surrender as you tease euphoria.
A few more songs had passed and the release of denial that it can't be sounding this good gives way to stage four - foreplay. This is when your body has become one with the chair and your spirit begins to flirt with the space around you. You slowly focus your senses to a heightened state where you have the hearing of a blind man and your body becomes and extension of your ears. Oh the depth at which you can hear. This is when you can start to trip on conversations in the control booth behind glass at around 60 dB down. It is when focus becomes so great that you can hear a pencil hit the floor 150 feet back, and roll in a pie shape arc along the floor. You can hear it has flat sides.
A half hour has passed and now time does not exist. The foreplay has triggered stage five - euphoria. This is when your emotional and physical senses become so acute that they overlap causing your mind to forget which sense organ is doing what. Your sense of smell becomes hearing, your hearing becomes site and you leave your physical body and become the music.
Then after you've pushed repeat 3 or 4 times your heightened state collapses and you come back. In a state of humble shock, you reverently touch the magic tube amp wondering what alien force just possessed it, and then turn it off. Safe now, and back in control you dash out of the room with the energy of a 10 year old saying holy shit at least 400 times and then collapse in your bed.
Does your stereo do this to you? Don't you wish it did?
This experience I'll admit is rather new to me, a direct result of our Casprera System, but the middle of the night blooms are something I've puzzled over for many many years. I used to get so irritated that the stereo would never sound like that in the day that I put more than enough effort in trying to discover why it is.
Although the Room Treatment is what took me to stage 5, my other work over the years would frequently take me to stage 4 but only between the hours of 1:45 AM and 3:15 AM give or take an hour for daylight savings time. During the day stage 3 was all that you could ever hope for.
Naturally I have confirmed this with enough audiophiles in different parts of the country to know it is not just a unique experience I'm having but stereos actually DO sound better in this night time window.
It all started several years ago at my first location, where I would be up late working on the computer with my stereo playing in the next room. I typically will have been sitting there working for several hours and the stereo playing unattended the entire time. Then IT WOULD HAPPEN. Suddenly the sound in the other room blooms and becomes distracting because of the profound change. Just that fast you sit there starring into the monitor with your complete undivided attention on the music coming through the doorway in the next room. You get up and walk in there because you can't believe what it's doing. Suddenly ALL grain is GONE, the sound stage goes from 12 feet to 30 feet deep, and everything becomes holographic.
3D sound, so convincing it tugs on your reasoning and spawns an uncomfortable feeling as your mind starts to short out. The eyes and the ears disagree, ...Which will win? Time and time and time again this has happened. It happens out in the shop on the old console stereo from the 60's, it happens at my bench on the crappie car stereo/monitors I have back there...
About 18 years ago I did some work with our local electric company that allowed me to go inside the nuclear bomb proof underground control center that manages the power distribution for our city and surrounding area. It looked like a scene straight from Star trek. Curved walls with floor to ceiling schematics of the entire state, LEDs blinking all over the place. I sat at the captions chair with the arc shaped control desk in front of me and saw a giant knob marked "cycles". There across the room was what looked like a large clock, no speedometer because it went from zero to 100. There was a large analogue hand melodically hanging at 57 cycles. Hmm, I thought, is that what I think it is? I asked the operator still waiting for me to get out of his seat, and he confirmed that that was in fact what controlled the frequency of ALL the AC generators in the three connecting plants around the state.
My first reaction was hey.. You can't do that! Well, it turns out that during high heat days in the summer it cost less money to manufacture the energy at lower frequencies. Then at night around 1 or 2 o'clock, he turns that big knob and the big gauge across the room crawls up to 62 sometime even 65 cycles so that they can speed up everyone's clocks to catch up for the lost time.
I thought I had found the answer to the magic hours but since then I have been using a power conditioner (a real one) and it maintains noise free 60 cycle 120 volts AC regardless of the input. And while that improved the sound during the day, well all the time really, the mystery middle of the night blooms continued.
I have since then found that it seems to be many things that align themselves on a coherent harmonic that yields the effect.
Although an unregulated power supply on a basic tube amp will perform better when you bump up the 60 cycle AC a bit, it turns out that it is the harmonics in the power lines surrounding your area that seem to be responsible. During the day with hundreds of things running off of ultimately the same power source, the AC power in your lines is full of contaminants that add grain to your sound, and collapse your sound stage.
I believe it is the reduced level of power line harmonics that make possible the middle of the night magic, triggered by the increase in Cycles on the AC power, combined with the fact that this is the time when the Sun is on the exact other side of the planet. Radiation from the sun adds it's own effect to power line harmonics in my observations. And finally, the reduced ambient noise floor you typically have at those hours of the night let you hear more dynamic range.
This is my theory, and as person who likes to invent audio products, I'm still frustrated that I don't have a concrete answer. If I knew exactly what it was, perhaps I could bottle some up and sprinkle it around the room during the day!
If you ever want to experience the 5 stages I talked about in the start of this rambling, just come over (call ahead please) and be prepared to wait until after 2:00 am to start the session.