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Boutique "audiophile" capacitors worth the money ?

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  • Boutique "audiophile" capacitors worth the money ?

    Like cables, capacitors can only distort the signal. They are not supposed to add anything positive. We all learned that the perfect capacitor has negligible ESR, dissipation factor and dielectric absorption. In theory, any capacitor that have similar levels of these parameters should sound the same. There is however a boutique industry catering to audiophiles that claim magical properties for their products. Paper in oil, foil made of precious metals etc. Granted, a better construction could minimise vibration (capacitors can act like microphones, and in fact condenser microphone capsules are essentially capacitors), but I am skeptical of the other claims. Teflon films have advantages over polypropylene, but probably only at frequencies much higher than those in audio equipment. A good commercial polypropylene capacitor nowadays approaches that of an ideal capacitor. Just for curiosity, I have bought for evaluation various exotic audiophile caps including PIO, beeswax, and extremely expensive film and foil types. They measured from as good as the commercial MKP or FKP types to absolutely atrocious. Ironically, the most expensive one also measured the worse. The beeswax ones almost melted in my tube amps. The less than perfect samples did add something to the sound. I guess the effect is akin to using cables as tone controls. In antique classics such as the Leak TL12.1 and the Brook 12A, the ancient Supermetal pak caps and some of the modern PIO caps gave a rounder, "warmer" presentation, probably by rounding off transients and increasing harmonic distortion. One can see that easily in the square wave response. Some people might like this kind of sound, which they associate with antique equipment, and these caps can ameliorate some of the artifacts created by negative feedback and other problems such as parasitic oscillations. But in a well designed piece of equipment that adds little distortion to the signal, one should use components that add as little as possible to the signal.
    There was at one time a popular trend of using PPS (Polyphenylene sulphide) caps. Allen Wright used them in my factory built RTP-3D preamp, whereas I used Hovland Musicaps in the RTP-3C I built myself. This weekend, I optimised the EQ in the RTP-3C, which I have modified for tape head duty, and changed the Hovlands to Wima FKP4 PP film and foil caps while I was at it. It will be interesting to see how that changes the sound when it is run in. Does anyone have any experience with the Wima FKP4 as coupling caps ?

  • #2
    I can only share my experience with a "boutique capacitor". I still own an old Adcom GFA-555 II power amp. These days it is in storage but back when I used that amp it was a steady and reliable work horse. The main problem I had with that amp is that is was getting old and needed a recap, which I did. Along the recapping job I looked at the input coupling capacitors. It used a Roderstein film cap and they were considered good caps years ago.

    IIRC the input coupling cap was a 1uF cap and I happened to have a hand full of same rated caps by Auricap. The overall recap job was very successful but the replacement of the input coupling cap with the Auricaps removed a veil on the sound that I was not even aware of.

    I finished the recapping of the GFA-555 II and tried it out before I replaced the input coupling caps. I was very satisfied with the results of the recap job but the replacement of the input coupling caps was a revelation. There was an obvious improvement of clarity with the Auricaps as compared to the original Roderstein film caps.

    In the case of the Auricaps vs the Roderstein caps there was no argument that the Auricaps were superior and worth every penny. I would think that the use of boutique caps would be best applied to coupling caps where the audio signal passes through a capacitor. Many modern components have little to no coupling caps in the circuitry so the usage of boutique caps might be wasted depending on the capabilities of the original capacitors.

    All coupling caps can be questioned as to whether they impart any effect on the audio signal. It is best to totally eliminate any capacitors from the audio signal path but where they are used, it can be beneficial to experiment and see for yourself whether a boutique capacitor can improve the sound quality of your component.

    IMO any attempt to categorically brand something as snake oil may be a mistake. Yes, there are nonsense products on the market but in the case of boutique capacitors it is best to consider the circuit where the capacitor is being used and the quality of the original cap. Replacing the cap can be beneficial but let the buyer beware.


    PS. It is also worth noting that many subsequent versions of great components are simply upgrades of passive electrical parts. Yes there are some that include re-wiring but so many are the replacement of capacitors with better quality boutique caps.
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    • EdAInWestOC
      EdAInWestOC commented
      Editing a comment
      This Auricap was just an input coupling cap. Nothing to do with large voltage supplies.

    • adrianwu
      adrianwu commented
      Editing a comment
      Yes, so noise is unlikely to be an issue when used this way. Having to insulate against the 500V anode of the driver tube leads to leakage current and noise after a short time, even if the cap is rated at 630V DC. That's why I am so frustrated by these boutique audio caps. Industrial caps though would never allow this sort of things to happen.

    • EdAInWestOC
      EdAInWestOC commented
      Editing a comment
      I doubt that the boutique caps test for this type of problem. They sell their product based on audio performance, like coupling caps, and your noise assertion makes sense. This is not something they focus on but they should test for all possible uses and issues.

  • #3
    If, you hurry, Chris at Parts Connexion is closing out one of his lines of Dueland capacitors, he is having an 80% off sale, you can now buy an $3,499 MSRP capacitor for a mere $699, you need a pair and I am not joking!


    • #4
      Here is a loose ranking by QRX Restore (Sansui experts) of what most audiophiles consider the best cap types, best to worst.

      Hand wrapped foil/paper/oil caps, can be very expensive.

      Esoteric paper in oil caps made in Russia 25 years ago (I’m not kidding)

      Film caps like polypropylene and mylar.

      Various audio grade electrolytics

      Standard electrolytics

      Bi-polar electrolytics

      Ceramics like Z5U and others

      Tantalum electrolytics

      While my Sansui AU-7700 is being refurbished and recapped, it's only a $64 option to have only Mylar caps in your signal path.


      • #5
        Interesting post. Would like to add some observations based on my experience with tape/phono preampifiers.

        As you may know, I "resurrected" a Cello Audio Tape preamplifier and began selling my version of it 10 years (or so) ago. Holy cow; where does the time go? . Certainly no change to the circuit design (I am NOT a designer) but the implementation was interesting - not the least of this was that all the original semiconductors had been obsoleted, along with a number if the other passive components.

        The original design (used in both their phono and tape Audio Suite modules) used one coupling capacitor in the signal path - in the output (Evox polypropylene?). Colangelo later added an input cap (electrolytic) to (I'm guessing here) decouple any turn-on voltage transients from affecting (perhaps magnetizing) the cartridge or tape head. During my experimentation with the pre, I noticed that the output offset was negligible, so adhering to the maxim that NO capacitor was the BEST capacitor, I eliminated it in the later units. No bad reports so I kept it out.

        Didn't like the large value input electrolytic so started experimenting on a replacement. Happened to have a quantity of Sideral Caps (later resurrected by Auricaps) so supplied them with the "stock" unit. Of course, some customers started asking about "upgrades" so I investigated both Mundorf's best and Duelands. The best Mundorf was their Gold Oil Silver Foil units, and Dueland had a few possibilities. HOWEVER, a new problem then raised its head. These caps were physically HUGE and I had a problem fitting them in the space available.

        Some background info here. Most transistor circuits operate in the low 10’s of volts range – Cello settled upon 50 VDC swing. From a sales perspective, most boutique capacitors today are used in either speaker crossovers, where space is not a problem, or tube amplifiers – again where mounting space is not the problem - as in solid (state) real estate. Tubed equipment operates in the mid hundreds of volts, the extra spacing between plates of the capacitor demanded by this higher voltage means that the finished size of most of these caps is MANY times larger than that required by the transistor world. Most of the Mundorfs I investigated were rated at 1KV!

        Cut to the quick. I found both a Mundorf and Dueland that would fit in the pre; bought both (samples not available) and had a bit of a listening panel evaluate them – reel to reel tape as the source – Quad 63’s as the speakers. Did find that the Mundorfs passed more information and better imaging while the Duelands did exhibit slightly better imaging on SOME material. SO I began offering the Mundorfs as an upgrade (~$150more) and the Duelands if demanded (upcharge depended on the phase of the moon).

        Where I want to go with this is to reiterate a statement I (and others) make regularly about this hobby/industry. Once you get your system to a certain level of “accuracy”; EVERYTHING MATTERS. It now becomes a situation of how much your listening education/experience (and mood) means to you and the amount of dollars you have available to spend to make it "better"!.

        Will end by reinforcing a thread that Myles started (and I've yet to respond), that my experience with reel to reel tape has enabled me to listen to a number of VERY GOOD systems and that; when you are in the presence of this “upper strata”, a judgement that some component or combination is “BETTER” does not apply; the word "DIFFERENT" more aptly describes the INTENT and SITUATION.

        Thank You



        • #6
          Once again, and I hate to repeat myself, but I will anyway...
          "Worth it" can only be decided on by the person who has to write the check or give the credit card number. No one else. There are a lot of people who are members here who have already, based on their systems, let us know that they would consider them "worth it." There are others here who won't. Asking "are they worth it?" probably should be considered a rhetorical question, as no one can answer for anyone other than themselves.
          Steve Lefkowicz
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          • kcin
            kcin commented
            Editing a comment
            I take your point- however, I don't have to take the OP question as literal. I understand that the question is more around the position of caps sounding different. As someone who went to school to learn that, theoretically a cap is a cap in a given application and modern materials were well established by the time I got out in the late '80s -- I've got to say that caps make a difference.

            Roger Modjeski used to chastise me in emails when I told him what I was doing with my cap experiments.. Whether the difference is tasteful to you and affordable is of course your decision. Even within a certain material type- like MKP types they sound different- to me.

            Caps are evil , but are necessary to build a cost effective piece of equipment. Other alternatives are far too complex or costly even if they were possible.

            What sucks is that small boutique companies contract out small runs of audiophile caps to play with our senses at a big price- good for them they found another way to capitalize on audiophile insecurities and make a good living- I wish I would of thought of it!

          • Steve Lefkowicz
            Steve Lefkowicz commented
            Editing a comment
            I'm sure you've read the work of Jung and Marsh on the sound of capacitors?

        • #7
          when I populafed the phono section of the motherboard of my preamp, I used polyropelene caps throughout. Sounds great;
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