August 1, 2009
Trick or Treat or Tweak?
I was in India from November 1975 to April 1976, courtesy
the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards (TTBS). The program included an intensive
course on standardization with the Indian Standards Institution (ISI) and, more important,
a six-week stint at the National Physical Laboratories (NPL) in New Delhi. This was, by
far, my most fascinating professional experience.
One morning I was invited to have tea with Dr. M. Pancholy,
Director of Acoustic Research at NPL. I had already been in and out of his anechoic
chamber many times, as TTBS was interested in establishing similar facilities at home. Dr.
Pancholy poured boiling water over the tea bags nestled at the bottom of two cups, then
covered the cups with their saucers. Two minutes later he removed the bags, then added
milk, sugar, and cloves.
"Why did you cover the teacups?"
"To retain the aroma," he replied.
I have followed his procedure ever since. It does
make a difference to the taste of the finished product. Is this trick a treat,
a tweak, or is it both?
Let us define a tweak as a subtle addition to or
subtraction from an audio system that allows us to hear more of the music. Let us
then assume that we own a basic stereo system consisting of a CD player, a preamplifier, a
power amplifier, a pair of loudspeakers, and all associated cables and interconnects. How
do we tweak this system?
XLO/Reference Recordings Test & Burn-in CD
Its amazing how many of us fail to
connect equipment properly. How many more do not read manufacturers instructions
until a problem is encountered? For these and many other very sound technical reasons, the
XLO/Reference Recordings Test & Burn-in CD (Reference RX-1000) should be
an integral part of every audiophiles gear.
There are many similar CDs in the marketplace, but I guarantee
that anyone using this disc competently will achieve satisfactory results. I religiously
play it at moderate levels in repeat mode every six months or thereabouts, when Im
away from home. After a few hours, the sonic results are always remarkable -- somewhat
analogous to polishing and buffing a car after washing it.
The disc helps you do the following:
- Verify that your systems left and right channels are
properly wired for all input sources
- Ensure that your stereo system is properly balanced
- Ensure that your loudspeakers are wired in phase
- Tweak the placement of loudspeakers relative to your sweet
- Improve the acoustics of your listening environment, where
- Demagnetize your entire system
- Burn in new components
- Enjoy nine music tracks from the Reference Recordings
catalog recorded in HDCD format by engineering wizard Keith O. Johnson
Cables and Tiptoes
The subject of high-resolution loudspeaker cables and
interconnects has been on the front burner of the high-end audio industry since the early
1980s. These components do not carry direct current, but complex signals of varying
amplitudes and phase differences within the audioband, which ranges from 20Hz to 20kHz
(and sometimes higher).
Simaudios Moon W-8 amplifier comes fitted with
In the physical phenomenon called the
skin effect, higher-frequency components of an audio signal tend to travel on the
surface or skin of these conductors, resulting in the loss of important spatial
information critical to enhancing and optimizing the sound of a high-end system. Engineers
have researched, defined, and refined new manufacturing technologies to overcome this and
other problems. High-resolution cables and interconnects now easily pass critical
information contained in the audioband with minimum loss or distortion. Since the
80s, an entire lucrative industry of cable manufacturers has mushroomed. In the
ever-expanding world of high-resolution audio, other ancillary accessories, such as
connectors, plugs, and sockets, have been similarly tweaked to enhance their sonic
In many systems, cables, interconnects, and their attendant
connectors cost as much as or even more than the main components. In the quest to hear
more, no holds are barred! For me, once a tweak makes sonic or scientific sense, I will
implement it. A very good example is those sharply spiked conical feet commonly
These have definitely improved the performance of my Oracle
Premier turntable. Some manufacturers, notably Simaudio of Canada, use similar feet to
isolate all their components from external vibrations. The obvious inconvenience of
installing equipment loaded with these devices is outweighed by the sonic benefits
derived. Apart from which, Tiptoes enhance the overall aesthetic of electronic components.
In the tropics, there is a perpetual battle with heat,
moisture, insects, fungus, and mold. Humid conditions can have very adverse effects on
certain types of materials used for making loudspeaker surrounds, which can disintegrate;
the driver cones themselves can thus become detached.
Many customers are none the wiser and continue playing
their systems just as before. I often wonder what they hear. Clearly they do not have
golden ears. Borrowing a term from the game of bridge, I would say that every audiophile
needs to develop and retain a keen sense of what we may call table presence.
For our purposes, table presence can be defined as
the art of knowing instinctively when something is wrong with a system. We have to know
when to buy, when to tweak, and when to sell. Every audiophile should
be duty bound to remove loudspeaker grilles, clean baffles, and inspect drive-units every
six months or so. This is not a tweak so much as preventive maintenance.
Tweaking your sweet spot
A sweet spot is the apex of the two equal sides of
an isosceles triangle, these sides formed by two imaginary lines drawn from the center of
each speaker. Before auditioning music, sit at the sweet spot and open your eyes.
Everything in front of you should be a pattern of symmetry. Use a tape measure to adjust
the positions of your loudspeakers relative to the front and side walls until you are
satisfied that symmetry has been achieved.
Play track 2 of the XLO/Reference Recordings Test
& Burn-in CD. The narrator will say "Balance test: My voice should be
centered between your two loudspeakers, tightly in focus." If this is not the case,
then adjust the balance control of your preamplifier until you get a satisfactory balance.
Note this setting. This is a very simple, yet effective way of defining and tweaking your
Some loudspeakers are designed to be fired straight ahead,
others are designed to be toed in. You can form the hypothetical isosceles triangle
either way, and the test CD will work just as well to help you to locate and tweak
that sweet spot. In both instances, you should audition one of your favorite
recordings immediately after the tweak. When you have it right, your speakers will seem to
disappear. If you then close your eyes, youll "see" a breathtaking array
of palpable sonic images. Youll feel as if youre part of the experience,
especially with live recordings.
High-resolution line conditioners
Often, audiophiles become engrossed in tweaks to improve
the quality of what they hear, and forget that the removal of unwanted artifacts is just
as important, sometimes even more so. This ensures that the resulting sonic canvas can be
painted on a black background.
The sonic effects gained from the use of high-resolution
line conditioners can be spectacular. Most of us arent aware that some undesired
sonic artifact is having a deleterious effect on a systems sound until its
been demonstrated. Imagine that, after breathing polluted air all your life, you take a
trip to the mountains or the seaside, where the air is fresh. Thats the sort of
difference a line conditioner can make.
A line conditioner is a device installed between the AC
mains supply and your components. As far as Im concerned, it is not a voltage
regulator or stabilizer; those devices are designed to provide as steady an output as is
economically possible from wildly fluctuating mains voltages. Line conditioners are
specifically designed to remove or significantly reduce spurious mains-borne noise
superimposed on your supply. They also attenuate radio-frequency interference that can be
easily picked up by your audio equipment. Line conditioning can be considered analogous to
filtering the gasoline before it enters a cars carburetor.
The Audience adeptResponse aR6-T power conditioner.
With the filtering out of spurious,
undesired grunge from the mains, youre apt to discover a whole new world of
sound. You begin to appreciate the subtleties, dynamic contrasts, and nuances that exist
in some recordings. The resolving power of your system seems to have suddenly increased
dramatically. A high-resolution line conditioner is no mere tweak but an absolutely
Sometimes the results of a particular tweak arent
immediately evident. For example, components may need to be burned in for several hours,
days, or even months. Remember that, at the highest level, most improvements are subtle.
You have to be patient; only then will you hear more. I believe that the greater
the resolution of your system, the easier it will be to hear incremental changes.
In my opinion, a high-resolution line conditioner
effectively extends a systems dynamic range by lowering its noise floor. If you
dont already own such a device, do your homework, prepare a budget, and acquire one
at your earliest convenience.
The final treat
Finally, treat yourself to Carol Rosenberger performing Water
Music of the Impressionists on a Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand (CD, Delos
DE 3006). Start the disc, sit in your sweet spot, and close your eyes. Relax, and listen
Twenty-six years ago, the New York Times described
Rosenbergers artistry as "ravishing, elegant pianism." I would like you to
conjure up your own phrase to portray the sound of what you hear. May I remind you that
this sublime instrument carries nine extra keys in its bass register?
. . . Simeon Louis Sandiford