System Tuning

Tuning a system is absolutely essential to getting the most out of it. A cheaper but well tuned system can outperform a significantly more expensive system that has not been tuned. I have often listened to expensive systems that I expected would sound very good, but leave disappointed. The fault is often not bad equipment, but a lack of care and knowledge about how good an audio system can sound when properly installed and tuned. The magic is in the details. Nowhere is this statement truer than in the context of a high-end audio. Many fine systems perform at a level far below their potential due to a few overlooked details.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a good system fail to live up to its potential, the result of a few minor problems. Careful attention to set-up and tweaking the system will reward the listener with significantly enhanced performance.

You may be familiar with many of the items on the list to follow. If that is you, then consider this a gentle reminder to carry out the routine maintenance you may have been putting off. If you are a "newbie," then I think you’ll find below a number of ways to easily improve system performance, for little or no money.

1) Loudspeaker installation. The purpose of spikes is to tightly couple the speakers to the floor. This mechanical coupling is critical to achieving optimal performance. The spikes must fully pierce the carpet , coming into solid contact with the sub floor below. Should you have hardwood or tile floors, spikes should still be used, but with floor protectors to prevent damage. If the speaker wobbles when rocked, even a little bit, readjust the spikes so that each makes secure contact with the floor. Your speakers should feel absolutely rock solid, with no movement front to back or side-to-side.

2) Clean & tighten connections. There is likely no more forgotten tweak than this one. We need to do all we can to aid the little electrons on their circuitous path around our systems. The most treacherous part of their journey, without a doubt, are the temporary connections we make between components. Tight junctions between mating surfaces of the connectors improves conductivity by increasing termination pressure; clean contacts improve signal flow by reducing contaminants. Speaker spade connections may be more prone to coming loose due to the vibration.

3) Keep cables away from one another. Surrounding each and every cable in your system is an electromagnetic field. When two cables lay in close proximity to one another these fields interact, resulting in sonic degradation. The intensity of the field and the particular type of cable used will determine the extent of contamination and amount of performance reduction.

Typically, digital cables, power cables and speaker cables are the worst offenders, as they generate the strongest electro-magnetic fields. Interconnects create somewhat weaker fields on their own, but due to the small voltages they carry, are sensitive to the fields created by others.

To avoid contamination, we must separate cables from one another. Though I’ve heard varying suggestions on the amount of separation required, four to six inches seems to be the average. I don’t know about your system, but that is a rather lofty goal for my setup! The number of wires, and the complexity of the paths necessary to connect even a modest system makes reaching the ideal a real battle, but do the best you can, paying special attention to getting interconnects away from AC and speaker cables. Where cables must intersect, cross them at right angles. Avoid parallel runs of signal cables and power cables at all costs. The cheap tweak is use some foam or cardboard tube as spacers.

4) Cables lifters. There are a number of theories surrounding this tweak, but the most plausible focus on the areas of vibration and static electricity. Decoupling the cables from the floor reduces structure-borne vibrations that can reduce focus and cause audible “smearing.” Static charges present in carpet (and other flooring materials) couple to the cable, resulting in increased background noise and grain. This is easy to try with some foam cuttings, cardboard tube or indeed anything plastic cardboard or wooden.. Better systems will often benefit from this tweak, realizing improved detail, air and transparency. If you like what you hear, you may want to buy something a bit more permanent and better looking. There are a number of companies manufacturing specific products for the purpose. You can also build your own, but remember to use non-conductive materials, with wood and acrilic being common choices.

5) Clean your CD’s. Optimal reproduction of Compact Discs requires their surface be totally clean. While a scratched or dirty CD may play (though the help of internal error correction circuitry), better performance will most certainly be realized from a pristine disc. A number of products are available but our favorite is the Audiotop range of cleaning solutions. Even cleaning a brand new disk can often improve the sound!

6) Reduce vibrations. Start by using a stable, non-resonant rack for a solid foundation. The equipment rack you’ve chosen to support your gear directly impacts system performance. It is common for people to upgrade their components and forget that bringing the rack up to the same level is an important consideration.

If you've never upgraded your rack, it may be time to do so. There are a number of good choices, with models to fit most every budget. The best racks on the market in our opinion are finite elemente, while not cheap they make improvements akin to upgrading your equipment.

Coupling/decoupling feet or platforms of various designs can help reduce the level of structure-borne vibrations reaching the component, while helping to funnel away vibrations created within the chassis (except de-coupling feet, which reduce structure-borne vibration but do not allow an exit path for internally generated vibrations). At the very least you should investigate the use of finite ceraballs these are extremely effective and much cheaper than replacing the entire rack, start with your source component cd / Turntable then preamplifier, they should kick start your system again.

7) Replace AC wall outlets. The residential outlets in your wall are a significant impediment to optimum performance. Designed for use with lamps, table radios and other mundane household appliances, residential grade outlets are simply not up to the task of serving of a high-end audio or video system. There are a number of good upgraded outlets available. Often unswitched sockets sound better than switched.

Note: be certain to replace all the outlets on a circuit. Since all are in series with one another, as a poor connection at any of the remaining outlets can add resistance, introducing noise into the system. Further, unplug everything but system components from the circuit feeding your audio or video system (appliances, lamps, computers, etc.). The system needs all the capability a typical house circuit can deliver, plus other items can induce noise.

8) Clean your ears. No, I’m not kidding! Normally, the ear drains away excess wax. Occasionally, a build-up can harden and block the ear canal, causing inflammation, irritation and even hearing loss. If your ear canal keeps getting clogged, you may need to see your doctor occasionally to have it removed. Physicians recommend against using cotton swabs for cleaning the ear canal. There are many products on the market, talk to your local pharmacist.

Believe it or not, wax build-up is a very common cause of sudden hearing loss. Though few of you are likely to have such a serious case, I’ve spoken with numerous audiophiles over the years who have reported noticeable improvement from a thorough cleaning.

9) Demagnetize CD’s. A number of years ago, Bedini began offering a hand-held demagnetizer for CDs. Controversy raged with opponents suggesting that the CD contained no ferrous (magnetic) material and therefore could not be magnetized. Bedini’s contention was that the Polycarbonate layer holds a static charge that is created during the process of play, and that dissipating this static charge improved sound. Seems to be the case, as benefits are obvious on most CD’s. If you want to try this out there is a simple test. turn on your cold water tap in the kitchen. Play any cd on your system then run the back of the cd under the running water, then dry the disk carefully and play it again

There are several products available which have been designed to deal with the problem.

10) Damp the first reflection points in your room. Reflections in the listening environment can play havoc with audio quality, especially imaging. Sound waves bounce off nearby surfaces, arriving at the listener after the direct sound from the speakers. The arrival time and the intensity of these reflections classify them as beneficial or detrimental. First reflection points are of particular interest as their proximity to the listener is close, thus the intensity of the reflected sound is high. The first time I read about the following technique was in Stereophile and it works!

It is easy to find reflection points in the room utilizing the “mirror technique.” While seated in the listening position, have someone slide a small mirror along the wall, at about ear height. At various locations along the walls you’ll see an image of the speaker in the mirror represents. Each of these spots represents an acoustical reflection site; the points closest to the speaker are the first reflection points. Mark these positions and place absorption or diffusion material there to eradicate the reflection. For a quick cheap trial try damping with a big soft cushions of a heavy blanket.

A comprehensive acoustical room treatment program will yield maximum results, treating the first reflection points will be beneficial and give you some insight to the process.

11) Loudspeaker Maintenance. Here is an easy one that I bet you never thought of. In their role of making sound, speakers generate tremendous vibration. These vibrations not only excite the air to create the sound we hear, but are transmitted into the structure of the enclosure. Over time, the screws holding the drivers in place loosen due to the cabinet and driver vibrations. Once every six months or a year, it is a good idea to re-tighten the fasteners to insure tight coupling. We recommend sequentially tightening opposing fasteners in a progression – first at 12 o’clock, then 3, 6 and 9.

Notes: Be careful not to over-tighten, as many drivers are secured to Medium Density Fiberboard (a compressed wood fiber material) that can strip if too much force is used. Further, be cautious of using pointed metal objects (screwdrivers) close to drivers due to strong magnetic fields often present there.

12) Analog. Analog is all about tuning. If you own a turntable, there are many areas to tweak in the search for better performance, the details of which require more space than we have available. At the very least, cartridge alignment, including overhang, azimuth, tracking force and vertical tracking angle should all be checked annually.