- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Sunday, 01 April 2012 01:00
- Written by Doug Blackburn
BSG Technologies is a startup cofounded by Larry Kay, best known in audio circles as publisher of the defunct Fi magazine; and by Barry Goldfarb, an audio designer and professional musician. The qøl Signal Completion Stage is an all-analog line-level component that is said to reveal information lost in the processes of creating and playing recordings. Kay and Goldfarb say that the qøl adds nothing new or fake -- the qøl reveals tonal, dynamic, and spatial information about the original performance that was present but previously masked -- everything “new” that you hear was there all along, but hidden. The qøl is claimed to work as well with recordings of modest quality as with those of the highest quality available. The word qøl, reportedly derived from Hebrew and ancient Aramaic, means all, everything, and sound, according to the company.
The qøl ($3995 USD) has four remote-switchable inputs; it can be used as a source switcher, but those using conventional preamps with multiple source inputs will likely use it between the preamp and amp. This requires an additional pair of interconnects, which you’ll want to be at least as good as the other interconnects you’re using -- and this could substantially increase the cost of adding a qøl to your system. Bypassing the qøl’s processing is easily done with the remote control. Each of the four inputs and two outputs has both RCAs and XLRs, which can be used in any combination. What you can’t do is simultaneously use RCAs and XLRs for any given input or output. There’s an IEC power socket, so third-party power cords can be used. There’s a master power switch on the back.
The credit-card-sized, eight-button remote is the membrane type. There are four buttons for input selection, and one each for power, bypass, mono, and turning off the front-panel LEDs (though the power LED can’t be disabled). The front panel itself is a thick plate of nicely finished satin-aluminum; on it are seven LEDs and eight buttons. The power supply is universal, but must be manually switched between 115VAC (for 100-120VAC operation) and 230VAC (for 220-240VAC). There are no volume, balance, bass, or treble controls -- nothing to alter the “flavor” of the processing. The qøl is either on or off -- that’s it. Its source-switching capabilities mean that the qøl can be used with an integrated amplifier, even if there’s no pre-out and line-in facility.
At the 2011 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, in Denver, Colorado, I was encouraged to give the qøl a listen by a manufacturer who’d heard it and found it “interesting.” I’d earlier walked past the door of the demo room without anything registering or drawing me in (apparently, a lot of others were walking by as well). I sat in the prime center seat. The system was a nice midpriced setup built around Vandersteen Audio’s Model 2 Signature II speakers ($2400/pair). I listened for a while in the qøl’s bypass mode. Then the track was restarted, still in bypass mode. After a bit, the qøl was engaged via remote control. The result was like being hit in the head from all sides with a gigantic music racket. What the hell was that? Back to bypass mode. It was like a purse snatching: over before I knew what was happening. I listened a little longer, then, wham, back to processed mode. I almost ducked, but that second exposure was a little less surprising.
And so it went, with maybe three tracks of different types of music. With each, I had the same sense of expansion and enhanced but natural detail. Note that I said “enhanced detail,” not “added detail” -- I really didn’t hear more detail, but everything about the detail in the recordings was better. After I’d calmed down a bit, I realized that the music was clearly louder with the processor engaged. I left, intrigued but skeptical. Except for some of the panel discussions and presentations, nothing else at RMAF was as interesting as that demo of the qøl.
BSG says that the increase in volume happens because the qøl retrieves hidden information from complex music signals. To test that assertion, I played a 315Hz sinewave from the XLO/Reference Recordings Test & Burn-In CD (Reference RX-1000). The processed sinewave was 2dB louder than the bypassed version. Since there’s no hidden information in a simple, single-frequency sinewave, it was clear that the qøl itself was boosting the sound-pressure level by 2dB.
But that doesn’t fully describe what happened with music. It seemed to me that music was about 3-4dB louder when processed by the qøl. This is a bigger deal than you might think. When you increase the volume level by 3dB, you double the power the amplifier is delivering. If you’re using, say, 25W to get to 83dB at your seat, you’d be using around 50W when you switch in the qøl processing without reducing the volume level. I arrived at the difference of 3-4dB by using an SPL meter set to C-weighting and slow response to estimate average playback levels. Just to be sure, I did a few listens using the sinewave tone to set the levels 2dB lower for the processed sound, and the latter still sounded obviously louder than the unprocessed sound. As the repetitions of this process went on, I became more confident in the 3-4dB level difference for processed music. I used the range of 3-4dB not because I’m indecisive, but because some recordings seemed to get louder than others when the processing was enabled. Because of that, I couldn’t use a single “volume match” value.
I’m skeptical of products for which claims are made like those made for the qøl. Other processing products have come and gone over the years, none of them leaving a lasting legacy. Carver’s C-9 Sonic Hologram Generators are not rabidly hunted down by audiophiles willing to pay multiples of the original price. Nor have any of the other audio-processing components that have popped up over the years earned any significant following. Sure, some people think it’s cool to drop $100 or less on one of these earlier attempts, just to hear what they can do. But none has ever generated enough of a following to amount to anything more than a short-lived curiosity occasionally rediscovered by inquisitive audiophiles.
On to the review
I gave the BSG qøl over 200 hours of break-in, but didn’t attempt to listen before and after for any break-in effects -- I quickly realized that there was no way I was going to get a good handle on the qøl’s “sound,” if any, without eliminating the louder playback volume of its processing circuit. When I’d gotten the levels matched, probably 50% of the “Wow!” factor faded away, leaving the impression of expanded and enhanced detail. It just wasn’t the knock-you-off-your-chair experience I got without level matching. When I listened to a recording that lacked any sense of depth other than that the drums were clearly behind the other instruments, I still got a sense that some dimension had been added to the music, even though there was no more layering of depth, and the apparent locations of the musicians hadn’t changed. It’s a difficult thing to describe, but I think you’ll understand once you’ve accumulated some hours with a qøl processor.
Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green,” from Daboa’s From the Gekko (16/44.1 FLAC, Triple Earth), is a tour de force of studio recording with amazingly spacious sound. Everything except Maria Marquez’s lush, smoky voice, and some other vocalizations recorded on location was created by synthmeister Frank Harris. The unprocessed sound has a definite feeling of being deep in the jungle. It seems spacious, but contained under a large, Hollywood Bowl-like forest canopy. With the qøl engaged, the forest canopy seemed larger and more permeable, less of a solid cap on the spaciousness. More naturally lifelike sound lives in the more open space. The difference wasn’t in-your-face, but natural and moderate. The voices were more evocative and captivating in this more open and more sunlight-dappled space.
When I listened to “Us and Them,” from the 2007 reissue of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (16/44.1 FLAC, EMI), the qøl/no-qøl volume difference seemed to be about 4dB. With the processing enabled, the saxophone was strongly backlit with sound -- like a golden backlight radiating in all directions from the sax itself, which I could still “see” right there in the middle of the soundstage. The result was more like when I’m in the same room in which an actual saxophone is being played. That sonic expansion seemed to be missing from every recording I’ve ever heard without benefit of qøl processing. Of course, it wasn’t just the sax that got this treatment -- every instrument and voice was affected in the same way. Qøl processing was quite addictive when I listened to this and other tracks from this album, more so than with some of the other recordings I listened to.
“My Love Follows You Where You Go,” from Alison Krauss & Union Station’s Paper Airplane (16/44.1 FLAC, Rounder), benefited in similar ways, but the effect was a little more subtle, possibly because this recording seemed to increase in volume by only 3dB with qøl compared to the bypassed version. Still, the processing was attractively addictive. The sound of this recording is good but kind of dry and flat, a common problem with Rounder releases. With qøl processing, the sound quality moved several rungs up the ladder, becoming livelier and more fun to listen to. After that, the unprocessed sound was a letdown -- the qøl had actually banished most of this album’s opacity and dryness. Krauss’s unprocessed voice sounded nice; through the qøl, it sounded really nice, maybe even wow.
Though it affected each of these recordings to a different degree, the qøl processing made both considerably more satisfying and enjoyable.
What the qøl can’t do
The qøl processor was great at what it did, but what it did was narrowly focused. It didn’t seem to add any detail, but detail was enhanced in ways that sounded more lifelike. I heard no changes in the tonality of instruments or voices, yet all sounded more like real life and less like a recording. I heard no lowering of the noise floor, no change in the balance of sound from bass to treble, no change in apparent speed of transients, no changes in timbre or pitch. I heard no sounds that I hadn’t heard before, yet every sound took on a more real-life presence. The sound wasn’t warmer or leaner, and there was no change in pace or rhythm. If the highs were mechanical, gritty, or edgy before qøl processing, they sounded that way after. Sounds didn’t seem to get closer or farther from my main listening seat. Best of all, when qøl processing was engaged, I heard nothing negative.
But here’s where I got a bit lost. When I forced myself to stop doing comparisons and, for two or three weeks at a time, just listened to the system in one mode or the other -- with or without qøl processing -- after four to seven days the system would always sound fabulous. Given time, either the qøl or the non-qøl sound became “normal” and fully enjoyable. Admittedly, when the qøl was bypassed, I always had the nagging thought that everything I was listening to could sound better -- but as long as I didn’t click the processing on, it was easy to keep on enjoying listening to my music. But when I switched in the qøl processing for the first time in a while, that first rush of processed sound was quite welcome. As the days accumulated and the “qøl sound” became the usual sound of the system, there would be fewer and fewer times when I would notice “the sound of qøl.” I might hear an album for the first time with the qøl processor and think it sounded better than the last time I’d heard it, but subsequent listens simply sounded “normal” for the system. The processing became part of the fabric of the sound. If I never hit the Bypass button, nothing about the sound reminded me of how impressive the qøl processing was. When I switched out the processing, there were always a few days of letdown as I reacclimated to the sound of my qøl-less system -- but after that, things sounded great again.
This phenomenon isn’t unusual -- it happens with just about any component you change. Put in a better amp and you think the system has been taken to a whole new level; a few days later, it’s become the new “normal” sound of your system. Thinking about this, two things repeatedly go through my head: 1) The qøl costs $3995, and 2) After a few days, it simply becomes the new “normal” sound of my system and I don’t think much about it. But if, days or weeks after I’d started using it, the qøl did constantly call attention to itself, I’d probably think something was wrong -- it couldn’t become an unspotlit part of my system. I think BSG did the right thing by getting the qøl to blend into the system without calling attention to itself over time. But if I can live without it after just a week or so, is it really worth $3995? For systems comprising +$4000 components, I can see the qøl being a welcome addition. Below that price threshold it will be a stretch, as it might end up being the single most expensive component in the system.
BSG’s qøl processing is not available from any other component in your system. If you upgrade from a $1000 amp to a $20,000 amp, you still won’t get the expanded and enhanced sound you get from the qøl. If you want this sound, there’s only one place to get it, and that’s from the qøl Signal Completion Stage. I would probably be wildly enthusiastic about the qøl processor if it were a much simpler, $1000 product without a thick aluminum faceplate, a remote control, and multiple inputs and outputs. At $3995, it had damn well better be able to deliver something special you can’t get elsewhere, and it does. But I can’t rave about it when it costs $3995.
That said, what the qøl does is very difficult to give up once you’ve heard it. I’ve never heard anything that does what the qøl Signal Completion Stage does at any price. Some will consider $3995 a bargain -- they might upgrade from $15,000 speakers to $50,000 speakers and still not hear the things the qøl does. But for many, the price of admission is high enough to put the qøl out of reach. That’s a shame, and something that might change in the future. BSG Technologies reps told me that they’d like to license the qøl technology to other manufacturers to incorporate in preamps, or even in multichannel audio products. Bring it on! Qøl processing is so good that it deserves to be in everyone’s system.
. . . Doug Blackburn
- Speakers -- Vandersteen Treo, Hsu Research HB-1 Mk.2
- Amplifiers -- AudioControl Savoy G3, Belles/Power Modules 350A Reference
- Preamplifier -- Belles/Power Modules 28A
- Sources -- Apple Mac Mini with solid-state drive, 8GB RAM, Western Digital 1.5TB drive in FireWire 800 enclosure; Wavelength Proton DAC
- Speaker cables -- Audience Au24 e biwire
- Interconnects -- Audience Au24 e analog; AudioQuest Diamond USB
- Power cords -- Audience Au24 e (amp and preamp); AudioQuest NRG-1.5 (Mac Mini)
- Headphones -- AKG K702
BSG Technologies qøl Signal Completion Stage
Price: $3995 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
3007 Washington Blvd.
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
Phone: (310) 827-2748
BSG Technologies responds:
Thank you for the opportunity to comment and, most of all, thanks to Doug Blackburn for a review that we find very astute in its listening impressions. There’s no question that Doug accurately heard and described the sound that our qøl Signal Completion Stage brings to music reproduction systems. We also sympathize with Doug’s statement that he "got a bit lost." Our technology is a breakthrough and a paradigm shift. We believe, as Doug found, that the sound "result was more like when I’m in the same room in which an actual saxophone is being played." We always ask listeners to compare our sound to live sound, not to other stereo sound, no matter how good. Given that high-end audio has been around for decades, it isn’t always easy to adjust to something new, even when that new thing takes us closer to the goal of lifelike reproduction. We’d like to offer three comments:
1. Volume: Doug is correct in reporting a volume increase, although 3-4dB is more than our own experimentation revealed (usually +2dB) or that other reviewers have reported (+1.8dB). Since the amount of volume increase varies from recording to recording (and there is also variability in systems, rooms and even SPL meters) we have no quibble with Doug’s finding. What’s most interesting, however, is that the volume increase shows up physically but cannot be measured electrically! Two volts in equals two volts out. The answer is in the physics of recovering acoustic information, not in amplification. For more, go to www.bsgt.com and find our "Volume Explanation."
2. Processing: The review refers to our component as a processor and to the work of qøl technology as "processing." We believe those references are somewhat misleading and do our product a disservice, although this may have more to do with semantics than with audio. As the editor pointed out to us in a note, an accepted definition of "process" is a "systematic series of actions directed to some end." If so broad a definition is used, one would have to agree that every cartridge, DAC, preamp, amp, speaker, power cord, cable, etc., is a processor. In audio, we believe that "processor" and "processing" have come to have a narrower meaning. They connote devices that use mathematics to synthesize (i.e., create) something (space or frequency or amplitude) not present in the audio signal itself. Qøl does not do that. It simply enables retrieval of information that is in every audio signal but that could not be reproduced before.
3. Pricing: The review spends a lot of time on a valid, but in a sense unfair, discussion of price and value. Certainly, we understand that $3995 is a lot of money and that it would be great if our technology were available to more people. Given what Doug says about not getting as big a change from a $19,000 amp upgrade or a $35,000 speaker upgrade, we wonder if we’re being unfairly criticized. We never thought that the Signal Completion Stage (the all-analog version of qøl) would go into inexpensive systems. Nevertheless, some 15 years ago, when I was publisher of Fi: The Magazine of Music & Sound, a survey revealed that our average reader had a $15,000+ system. In systems in that range or higher, nothing anyone can buy at any price will render so profound a change for the better. And saying one can live without it doesn’t take us anywhere helpful. I have a $100,000+ system, but I can still love music on a bad car audio system or even from an iPod and cheap, lousy earbuds. Moreover, the cost of our component is in the circuitry, not in the switching capabilities or the faceplate. If that weren’t true, no one would be selling good DAC/preamps, with lots of switching and a remote control for less than $1000. In fact, we sell at far less than the usual multiple for high-end goods; if we didn’t our Signal Completion Stage would cost at least 40% more. And that doesn’t even begin a discussion of how to compensate our inventor for seven hard years of research and experimentation to come up with a true breakthrough in audio. Finally, please note that our licensing program, which will involve digital iterations of qøl, is for mass-market applications (cell phones, home-theater receivers, computers, TV sets, etc.); there are currently no plans for high-end licensing. If it ever happens it’s years away.
Thanks again and happy listening to all,
BSG Technologies, LLC