Tweaks…and Other Audio Voodoo
Improving one’s sound is an age-old struggle. Some sax players freeze their horns in liquid nitrogen to spark up the tone. Guitarists experiment with various tubes, cords and strings, and drummers do stuff like using different heads, dampening materials and stick tips to control overtones. Most of these are fairly straightforward methods of affecting mechanical vibrations or electrical impulses, but certain improvements, like cryogenic treatments for brass instruments, might seem more like voodoo than real science. But those who incorporate even these tweaks swear by them, insisting that, if you just listen, you will hear a difference.
Well, audio is the same. Just like musicians, audiophiles can tout some pretty wacky ideas and concepts. Funny thing is, some of those wacky ideas make a lot of sense.
Within the universe of high-end audio exists a subculture. Harry Pearson, editor-in-chief of The Absolute Sound, the high-end bible, calls it “tweakdom,” populated by individuals who cannot leave well-enough alone, tweaking their audio systems constantly with exotic cables, magic dots and other mysterious gadgets.
Without going too deeply into this sometimes far-out world, and without spending a lot of money, the average person can make an existing stereo system sound markedly better following a few simple tips from the experts. Pearson and Terry Menacker of Overture Audio, in Wilmington, Del., both call this “optimizing” your system. They also agree that, though some tweaks may border on alchemy, most are based on sound principles of physics and a few choice tweaks are really mandatory if you want to extract the best sound from any given system.
Ever notice that when your refrigerator goes on and off, you can hear it through your sound system or “see it” on your television screen? Or notice that a tubed guitar amp will react to vibrations, especially a thwack, to the tubes? Or remember how LP turntables thumped or skipped when you walked across the room if they were not on a solid, isolated surface? Certainly you’ve noticed that bass response gets better, or at least louder, when you put your speakers against the wall. All of these problems can be corrected with either a simple adjustment in placement or the employment of some sort of isolation device to filter out mechanical vibrations or electrical interference. So, let’s tweak your system.
The following ideas are based on steps Pearson and Menacker agreed were the most important for improving any system. Some are little or no cost and really work. The modest cost of others will be repaid by the increased enjoyment you derive from your equipment.
Make sure your speakers are placed away from rear and side walls, and equidistant from side walls. Pearson suggests following his “Rule of Thirds,” which divides the listening room into thirds along the width and the length: place the speakers at the one-third mark away from the rear wall and one each at the one-third mark into the room from the sidewall. Minor adjustments should allow you to position a properly recorded singing voice dead center between the speakers. Good tests for this might be the early recordings by Holly Cole or a Diana Krall disc, all of which are well-recorded and will offer dead-center vocals when you get your speakers in the correct position.
Most in-the-know audiophiles also promote near-field listening, which places your easy chair much closer to the speakers than you might expect—three or four feet at most—to help ensure that the sound from the speakers hits your ears before any reflected sound arrives to confuse the issue. To help tame reflected sound, minimize or dampen the reflective surfaces in front of your speakers. Make sure the floor has some sort of rug or carpet, and damping the rear and side walls will help cut down on the speakers’ interaction with the acoustics of your room, allowing for more realistic presentation. Place large plants or soft art or carpets on the wall at the site of first reflection—where a mirror placed parallel to the wall at tweeter level reflects the tweeter while you are seated in your normal listening position—you’ll need someone to help you with this. Your stereo imaging the sensation of musicians laid out in front of you in a real space—will benefit tremendously from this.
Your spring-cleaning, if expanded, can help achieve better sound also. Clean all your audio contacts (interconnect plugs, speaker connections) with anhydrous or denatured alcohol, or you can purchase a special contact cleaner called, appropriately enough, Kontak, and Radio Shack makes an inexpensive circuit-cleaning pen. Cleaning the oxidation off these connections helps guarantee maximum signal transmission from one component to another or to the speakers. This is also a good idea for musicians who use sound reinforcement of any sort: it will help with signal transmission as well as keep your cables noiseless, assuming they are well-constructed cables to begin with.
The typical free speaker wire provided by many dealers is nothing but lamp cord. Replace that with an audiophile-grade speaker wire. A reputable dealer can provide this for as little as a buck per foot—or as much as $100 or more per foot! Reliable wire can be had in a wide range of prices from companies, like AudioQuest, Tara Labs and WireWorld, and now guitar-pickup maker DiMarzio is marketing very fine cable values for audio. Make sure you keep your speakers wired in phase, that is, with positive output of the amplifier wired to the positive speaker terminal. Also, replacing cheap component interconnects with an audiophile grade wire will help. These start as low as $20 per pair and run into the thousands. Big bang for the buck interconnects are available from DiMarzio, Tara Labs, Kimber Kable, WireWorld and AudioQuest, among others. The wise retailer will let you take cables home for audition if you leave a deposit, so grab a few and see what works best in your system. Ask for the most neutral cables in your price range; some tend to be overly bright and can accentuate the often tizzy sound of some digital front ends and some modern speaker designs.
There is no question that good wire will produce the intended results. But be careful where you put those wires. Don’t curl cables onto themselves or induction interference can result, and don’t run cables parallel to AC power cords; if they must cross, lay them at 90-degree angles to each other to help reduce interaction of that 60-cycle AC hummmmm. And since we are talking about electrical power, as weird as it seems, that needs work too. These fixes are not necessarily cheap, but they will keep your system from reproducing noises you don’t want to be there, like that refrigerator. Several companies, Audio Power Industries, NoiseTrapper, AudioPrism, Monster Cable and PS Audio, among others, offer power conditioners that filter your AC so only clean, noiseless juice gets to your equipment. Another way to isolate your system from such interference is to have an electrician set up two independent 20-amp circuits for you; use one for your front end, like CD players, tuners, preamps and the like, and the other for your power amplifier. If you use a plug strip, get the best you can find and most of the above named power-conditioner manufacturers offer one or two choices. Using extension cords is a no-no, but if you must, use a very heavy gauge wire (the lower the number the better), at least 14 gauge, though a 12-gauge cord is better. You might even consider replacing your detachable power cords if you can. Good electrical supply houses offer a 12-gauge shielded cord made by Belden. Don’t choke your system’s food supply!
Last but not least is the problem of vibrations transmitted through the floor, obviously, but also through the air. Ever notice how the heartbeat bass of a live reggae show makes your chest pound? Those are airborne vibes and the same thing happens when you fire up your speakers—they can really affect your CD player and other electronics, so isolation from vibration and increasing rigidity are key.
Make sure your CD player and preamp/amplifier or receiver are resting on firm, nonresonant or vibration-free surfaces away from your speakers. (And though it is to prevent electrical interference, keep digital sources as far away from other components as possible; the digital chips emit lots of radio-frequency noise.)
Vibrations from the speakers can induce distortions into the equipment—a brick placed on top of your components will create hard to vibrate mass, and good, solid metal racks do wonders (wood stores energy, metal dissipates it), especially when coupled with special isolation devices. The market is now flooded with isolation feet, bases, spikes, roller-bearing cups and the like—it can be very confusing. But generally speaking, low-mass components, i.e., electronics, should be placed on soft feet like AudioQuest’s Sorbo-Gel Big Feet, Vibrapod’s Isolators or AudioPrism’s IsoBearings, which will absorb and dis-sipate energy and not transmit it to your equipment.
High-mass gear, speakers mainly, needs to be rigid and if contact with the floor is minimal then vibrations will likewise be minimalized. Special spikes designed to go under speakers will stabilize them, improving the focus of the sound by cutting down on minute movements of the box itself and decreasing vibrations to and from the box. Good examples include Audio Selection’s Cone Isolators, Michell’s various sized Tenderfeet, Black Diamond Racing Cones and Golden Sound DH Cones.
As mentioned earlier, a good equipment stand is also a must—look for products by Target, Standesign, Sound Organisation, Spider and others. Many have tubing that can be made more inert by filling them with sand or lead shot. Smaller speakers will also benefit from a good rigid stand by one of the above suppliers, and placing inert weight on top of the cabinets will increase overall performance and focus by increasing rigidity—I use bags of lead shot on my minimonitors.
Any or all of these can make just about any stereo sound better. Obviously, it depends on how far you are willing to go to achieve what could be a more exciting experience when listening to your favorite recordings. For further guidance in implementing these and other tweaks, consult a reliable audio specialist in your area or search the Web—www.audioadvisor.com and www.musicdirect.com are two good places to begin the investigation; they each carry a wide variety of these and other system improvements.
All of this got your head spinning? Maybe it’s safer just to dip your system in that liquid nitrogen! (A few years ago someone was doing just that to audio cables.) But this is only scratching the surface of tweakdom. There are CD treatments, room tuning, resonance controlling dots and discs, cable supports, “magic bricks,” turntable mats, system demagnetizing CDs and much, much more. I haven’t seen any magical candles to ignite a better listening experience, but they can’t be far behind.
Not everyone in the world of audiophilia agrees that heavy or even minor tweaking can be a good thing, especially for the layperson. Corey Greenberg, technology editor for NBC’s Today show, a former reviewer for Stereophile and former editor of Audio, offers his more down-to-earth view of system upgrades for those who just want to play music without all the fuss.
As for tweaks for the average jazzbo, I would stay away from things like cables and isolation. Most of the breed I know personally have an old BIC turntable with the original cartridge that’s never had the stylus replaced, so first off I’d recommend either a total turntable rehaul (a Rega Planar 2 or 3—best bangs for the buck) or at the very least, a new cartridge. I tend to recommend Grado’s low and midpriced phono cartridges to most people trading up from a stock crappy cartridge, but owners of some belt-drive turntables, like the Rega, Linn and AR, will find that Grado cartridges hum too much when used with such a turntable. If that’s the case, Audio-Technica and Sumiko both make quality inexpensive cartridges that will sound great without any hum.
Trying to explain to a nonaudiophile why they should buy $200 metal stands for their bookshelf speakers and place them way out into the room is silly and self-defeating. I just recommend that people try to situate their speakers as symmetrically in the room as possible, with the speakers and the listener forming an equilateral triangle with nothing in between them to block the sound. If the speakers can be brought out into the room and away from any walls, either behind or to the sides of them, all the better. And if the speakers are set up so that the tweeters are roughly at ear-level of a seated listener, then said jazzbo will hear the recorded performance as the speaker designer (and the musicians who cut it) intended it to sound.
Finally, as a former high-end audio reviewer, I strongly recommend that music lovers don’t read hi-fi mags at all. While there was a golden age for such publications in the ’80s and early ’90s, today’s audio magazines are more a blight than a help when it comes to bringing people closer to the music they love to hear. When you start paying more attention to the gear than to the music, you’re moving away from the art, not toward it. Pretty heavy stuff for a guy sitting in his underwear eating Rice Chex.