The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XII: Tweaks For Freaks (May 1999)
Last year I had a letter to the editor published in Stereophile magazine. Although my tongue was placed firmly in my cheek, I suggested in my correspondence that after I got home from acupuncture sessions, I found that my stereo sounded better than ever. This was true, to a certain extent, but more or less I was taking a satirical swipe at all the audio tweakaholics, those poor unsatisfied agitated souls who never seem to extract quite enough performance from their hi-fi rigs. And what bold-faced title did they place above this letter?
"Tweaks for Freaks."
They do a lot of crazy things, those tweakers. They strip the jackets off their loudspeaker cables and suspend the bare wires from dozens of j-hooks screwed into their walls. They place tiny ebony wood pucks on top of their speakers and arrange them just so, rotating the pucks like knobs until they "dial in" the right sound and they pay fifty bucks a pop for each one of these mystical pucks. They purchase hundreds of tiny little ceramic dots and put them everywhere: inside the speaker cabinets, on the printed circuit boards inside their amplifiers, on the power cords, on the faceplates of the electrical outlets. They'd put them on the inside of their eyelids if they thought it would help.
Yes, it all sounds a bit whacked. But audio tweaks, everything from green paint pens to coat the outside edges of your CD's to big fluffy pillows you velcro to your ceiling to reduce echoes, have become big business over the years. There is a lot of money to be made, and the tweakoholics are shelling out the green like never before. I have tried a few- some work, some don't. If it's cheap (or even free, in some cases), I'll give it a shot. But I'd need to go through some serious and prolonged A/B testing (not to mention a copious amount of illegal narcotics) before I'd pay for some of the crazy, expensive tweaks I've seen.
I started thinking about tweaks again earlier this month when I finally traded my Rega Planar 3 in on the extraordinary new Rega Planar 25. I know, I know. I was going to wait until the summer. But the bank did a nutty, insane thing- they raised the credit limit on my Visa by $2500! I called Gene Rubin Audio within minutes after getting that news! And besides, I wanted to be among the very first to enjoy what will probably become one of the great classic turntables of all time. Once Rega realizes they're undercharging for this glorious (and beautiful) piece of machinery, they'll jack up the price. It'll still be worth it.
Yes, it's that good. It's nearly twice the price of the Planar 3, but it runs with the big dogs- those $3000 and $4000 'tables from the likes of Linn and Roksan and Pink Triangle and Wilson-Benesch and Basis. It will probably be the last turntable I will ever own, especially since Regas have the reputation for never breaking down. I have no reservations about going into further debt over this wonderful new product.
As I started setting up the turntable, letting it settle into the rest of the system, I realized that I too indulge in some tweakage. A lot of it is common sense, simple physics, that sort of stuff. Some of it is mystical, superstitious, but for some reason it has yielded some sort of audible improvement, so I go with it. So I offer the following tweaks...er, tips, that hopefully will extract better sound for you and your turntable.
- Leave your stereo on. That's right. Only turn it off when you know you'll be away for a long period of time (like a week or more), or when there's a thunderstorm on the horizon. It usually takes an hour or more for most stereo components to warm up and sound their best, and who wants to wait? Many high- end manufacturers recommend leaving their product turned on continuously; there is more wear-and-tear when you turn the sucker on and off all the time. Many companies put the power button on the back of the unit to discourage turning it off (my Naim CD3's switch is on the back), and I know of more than one product that has no switch at all. If it's plugged in, it's on! Many other products have standby switches, so that the unit is warmed up, but not using a lot of electricity. And yes, your power bill will probably go up a little, but unless you have a monster 1000wpc power amp, the cost will be negligible.
- Pick the right time to listen. You've probably noticed that some times your stereo sounds better than other times. Is it the equipment? Is it you? It's both. You've probably noticed that late-night listening sessions are the most rewarding. This is because you're probably more relaxed, and so is the AC current in your home. Compare this with the afternoon and early-evening hours- when everyone in your neighborhood is trying to cook dinner and vacuum the carpets and mix the margaritas. The AC current in your neighborhood at this point has more hash and spikes and garbage in it than a public landfill. And that affects the sound, a lot. Some tweakers go as far as to wire in a dedicated AC outlet for their stereo than runs straight to the box outside. I'm thinking about this one, in fact. I work with many electricians and they're willing to give me a break on the price (it's usually about $400). But this is a good investment if your thinking about the reduction of wear- and-tear on your equipment, not to mention the increase in sound quality (unfortunately this is not an option for apartment-dwellers).
Now let's talk about you and your listening equipment, your ears. Think about what they've been through at five in the evening- you've just spent an hour in traffic, listening to the continual drone of your car's engine. If you listen to a specific sound for too long, this puts a "notch" in your hearing. In other words, your ears adjust and your brain actually tries to block out that frequency for a while. So if you run in your house and settle down for some serious listening, things don't sound quite right. That's because your brain is still trying to block out all noises that are at the same frequency as your sixteen-valve, dual-overhead-cammed 1988 Chevy Nova. So have some quiet time before you listen. I know plenty of people who use earplugs on an everyday basis so that their hearing is spot-on whenever they need it to be. That might be an option for you. Just watch out for that truck!
- Put everything in the right spot. I've seen people put their stereos in wacky spots. Speakers behind sofas. Turntables on the floor. Entire systems on wobbly tables. And then I hear those same people either complain that music doesn't mean as much to them as it used to, or they criticize me on how anal-retentive I am about my set-up. Well, dammit, I'm right, and they're wrong. Buying the right equipment is only half of what you need to do to get glorious stereo sound. You need to put it all in the right spot. You need to put the system on a decent equipment rack that is made of multi-dense fiberboard, or steel, or glass, or any combination thereof. No wood!!! Wood resonates and vibrates and mucks up the sound. And don't stack components on top of each other- talk about electro-magnetic interference! Not to mention the fact that when you see a vent on top of a piece of a equipment, that means a lot of heat needs to dissipate in order for it to operate correctly. Stick another component over that vent and you've just reduced the life expectancy of that unit by about half. Repeat after me- EVERY COMPONENT GETS ITS OWN SHELF.
And how about your speakers? Entire books have been written about that subject. Suffice it to say that you can always play around with speaker placement to find out what works best, but don't place anything in front of them, or on top of them (they're not coffee tables, fer Chrissakes!). And speaking of coffee tables, move yours out of the way when you listen. I know y'all like to prop your feet up and listen, but what you've done is put a gigantic reflective surface between you and the music. So you lose some of it...completely. And I know this sounds particularly anal, but while we're talking about reflective surfaces, remove your eyeglasses. There's a particularly reflective surface, and it's about three inches in front of your ears! Trust me, I wear eyeglasses, and it makes a big difference, more than you'd think.
Just some more miscellaneous stuff about speakers. Bookshelf speakers should not be put on bookshelfs. They should be put on stands that are coupled somehow (preferrably by metal spikes) to the floor. If you complain you don't get enough bass with your small speakers, this is why. And if you choose to put the equipment rack between the speakers (not the best option, just the easiest), make sure the front edges of the speakers are further out into the room than the rack (more reflective surface paranoia). And if you wonder just how tall of stands you should use for your small speakers, use this guideline: the tweeters should always be at ear level. There are a few exceptions to this. Speakers that have been specifically designed to be placed differently, but hopefully the owner's manual will give you a clue.
- Keep it clean. Notice how your car seems to run better on the trip back from the car wash? Well, with your stereo, this is more fact than fantasy. And this is especially critical with turntables. I still find it amazing that some of the more expensive, large, and unwieldly turntables come without dustcovers! And I've seen one manufacturer charge $1100 just for a friggin' dustcover. I hope it's jewel-encrusted for that kind of scratch. Apparently some turntable companies think we have nothing better to do than dust three or four times a day.
But you need to keep more than just the turntable itself clean for maximum performance. You need to keep the stylus clean. Duh. Don't you hate it when you're listening to an LP and it doesn't really sound that great and you go to flip the record over and there's this huge dust bunny on the end of the needle? Personally I think this is more the result of static electricity than filthy playing surfaces, but what do you do to get rid of that bunny? Do you use The Finger? You can really ruin the cantilever (the skinny little rod the needle is mounted on) that way. You need a stylus brush and/or cleaner. I recommend Last Stylus Cleaner- it even comes with a little brush. Some people have complained that the fluid migrates up the cantilever into the body of the cartridge, but just use it sparingly and you shouldn't have a problem. If you have a turntable, you should buy some of this stuff.
And you need to keep your jacks and connectors clean! I clean out all of the connections to my stereo about twice a year, and every time I pull the Q-Tip out of the jack, it's black. You think this doesn't affect the sound? There are many effective cleaners on the market. Ironically the oldest one is called Tweek, but I think it's been discontinued. I use the AudioQuest brand right now, but I've heard that Kontak is the best. Just make sure you disconnect your equipment first.
- Use a record cleaning machine. We've been over this territory before, but I thought I'd reiterate it after reading something particularly troubling: "Don't use any record cleaner that works while the record is playing or any cleaners that use water or solvents. If you keep your records stored in their sleeves, don't touch the playing surfaces, play with the lid down and keep all water and fluids away, no cleaning at all should be necessary. Don't worry about visible dust on the record surface, this is brushed aside by the stylus and any that collects on the stylus can be easily blown away. In general, record cleaning is overdone and one should not believe all the claims made by record cleaner manufacturers."
Normally I'd dismiss this as hogwash, but this was taken, word for word, from the owner's manual of my new rega Planar 25! Roy Gandy, the president of Rega Research, has long been outspoken on this issue, and almost no one agrees with him. I certainly don't. I know, from experience, that not only do record cleaning machines reduce surface noise, but they improve overall sound quality, especially in the midrange. And I think that not only is a clean record a happy record, but it lives longer also. One day we all might discover that Mr. Gandy was right (the probability that you're right about something increases with the number and fervor of people who believe you are wrong), but until then, I will use my Nitty Gritty religiously.
- Strip your cables back and hang them from the walls. Using a pair of electrician's snips, strip off the outer sheath of your loudspeaker cables. Separate all the strands of wires. Using a series of staggered j-hooks screwed into the walls behind the the speakers, hang the receiving strands at a thirty degree angle from the floor, and the transmitting strands at a thirty-five angle to the floor. The grounding wire, of course, should be pulled apart and retwisted so that the angle of the twists run perpendicular to the angles of the... just kidding.
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