A Free Ride on the Upgrade Train!

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Tips For Improving the Sound of Your HiFi and Home Theatre System

One of the thrills of being an audiophile is the adventurous journey of squeezing better sound quality from your audio system. The conventional route is to upgrade components or add tweaks, but if you do not have deep pockets, this is not always a viable option. Just because your pocket book slams the door on the option of upgrading components or adding tweaks, you do not have to deny yourself the thrill of experiencing improved sonic performance. There are a whole host of tips and tricks you could use to make your audio system sound better and the kicker is that many of them will cost you little to nothing to implement.

Perhaps the easiest and quickest way to boost the sound quality of your audio system is to reposition your loudspeakers. If your listening room is rectangular, then a great starting point is to use the Cardas method developed by the legendary George Cardas. All you have to do is to place the speakers so that the distance from the center of the woofer face to the side walls is 0.276 times (multiplied by) the room width. Once you have done this then without changing the distance to the side wall you will need to move the speaker forward and backward as required so that the center of the woofer face to the back wall is the room width times (multiplied by) 0.447.

In many cases, with a little bit of luck, this will turn out to be the location that will allow your speakers to perform at their best, however it does not hurt to tweak a bit more, like moving the speakers one centimeter at a time forward/back or left/right until the image locks into place at the sweet spot. This will require you to have someone move the speakers while you listen carefully seated in the sweet spot.

If your listening room is not rectangular, no worries, there are other ways to optimize your speaker placement.  Start by having just one of your speakers in the listening room and place it in the sweet spot where you do your serious listening. Now play some familiar mono music track with tight clean bass and your favourite female vocalist and stand at the spot where you had hoped to place the speaker. Listen carefully as you move forward and back and side-to-side and try to find the location where the bass sounds tight, clean and tuneful and where the vocals sound as real as possible. When you have found that location mark the spot using some masking tape. Repeat the same procedure with your other speaker. Now place your speakers on the two spots marked with your masking tape and toe-in the speakers (angle them toward the listening position) as instructed in the owners manual.

You can then sit in your sweet spot and have someone tweak the speaker placement one centimeter at a time forward & back and side to side until you get the most focused sonic image from your sweet spot.  Some speakers are very sensitive to alignment as well. For these speakers, place a spirit level on top of the speaker cabinet and adjust the feet of the speakers or the speaker stand until the speakers are in perfect alignment. You will be surprised as how well this helps lock the sonic image into place.

If you have bookshelf speakers, take a close look at the stands that they are sitting on. Ideally the stands should be tall enough to have the tweeter at your ear level when you are sitting in your sweet spot. The stands should also be as rigid and inert as possible. You definitely do not want your stands “singing along” with your speakers. If the stands are of the kind that you can fill with sand or lead shot, take advantage of this and fill them so as to reduce their resonance (mechanical vibrations). The best stands have height adjustable spikes.

If you cannot afford top-notch speaker stands, try and get your hands on four cinder blocks and place two of the blocks length-wise below each speaker. To improve the aesthetics, you could consider covering the cinder blocks with a tablecloth or bed sheet. If you visit a construction site, with a little luck you will be able to convince the site manager to let you have cosmetically imperfect cinder blocks free of charge.  I have recommended this solution to many audiophile friends and the response I usually get is that they make the speakers sound and image a lot better than even some pretty pricey, high-end stands.

The rationale behind using cinder blocks is the same as the one used by speaker manufacturers when they make the speaker cabinet as non-resonant as possible. Like the speaker cabinet, if your speaker stand resonates, it takes away some of the drive cone motion thereby blurring music details. Eliminating parasitic motion in speaker stands will allow your speakers to perform near their optimum level.

Another no-cost way to squeeze better performance from your audio system is to rearrange your components so that the ones that vibrate are not placed in a location where their vibrations can reach other components and compromise their performance. The most common way that vibrations from one component can reach another is through the structure that they are placed on. If you have one long shelf where all your components are placed, that is not a good recipe for vibration control.

For example if your turntable or CD player is placed on the same surface as your bookshelf speakers, the vibrations from your speakers will probably adversely affect the performance of your CD player or turntable. Bookshelf speakers are best placed on their own stands, which should ideally be as resonance-free as possible. The stands that are solidly built, heavy and designed so that they can be filled with sand or lead shot will help your bookshelf speakers deliver better performance.

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If you can afford vibration control cones like the ones made by Nordost, BDR or Vibrapods, that is a good investment to make. If you do not have the coin for those, try placing cork coasters under the feet of your components. While not the ideal solution, they will control some of the vibration to and from the components. Another DIY solution is to build a simple wooden box of an appropriate size, fill it with sand, place a wooden serving tray upside down on the sand in the box and place your audio component on top.

Another effective gear placement strategy is to keep your power amplifier(s) at least two feet away from your preamplifier and source components. All your audio components generate an electric field that could potentially prevent other components from delivering optimum performance. This is particularly true of power amplifiers, which have larger transformers that create a relatively strong electrical fields around them. It is therefore advisable to place your power amplifier well away from other components. A popular location is placing power amplifiers closer to your speakers. The additional advantage of this strategy is that you will require shorter speaker cables, which will not only cost less but might also perform better.

One factor that influences what you ultimately hear from your audio system, is your listening room acoustics.  Most of the sound waves that reach your ears, bounce off one or more surfaces of your listening room and the furniture, fixtures, carpet and curtains within the space. When this happens, the sound waves are subjected to varying degrees of reflection, absorption or diffusion.
If most of the surfaces are reflective, the music sounds overly bright. Conversely, if most of the surfaces are absorptive, your tunes sound overly damped and lifeless.  If you do not have a budget for formal room acoustic correction devices, you can still improve your room acoustics by using what you already have in your home. A few rugs strategically placed on the walls and on the floor in front of your speakers to catch early reflections and curtains behind your speakers can make a significant improvement in the sound quality you hear from your audio system. If you have a lot of windows in your listening room, drawing the blinds or curtains on them could also improve your room acoustics.

Another area which you can address to improve your system’s sound quality without incurring any additional cost is to rearrange your power and speaker cables as well as your interconnects. The signals that travel through these cables can interfere with each other and deteriorate sound quality. In extreme conditions, leaving your cables in a messy heap may also result in very audible hum and buzz.

Take a good look at the path of each of your cables and try to keep them as far as possible from each other.  In situations where your cables need to cross one another, the best configuration is to make sure they cross at a right angle to each other. Another very effective strategy is to keep the power cables as far away as possible from the signal cables and to plot different paths for the cables carrying digital signals and their counterparts carrying analog signals.

You can use nylon zip ties to keep cables away from each other.  If possible, place all the power cable runs on one side of your equipment rack and the signal carrying cables on the other side. These tactics will reduce and perhaps even eliminate altogether, any hum in your system thus lowering the noise floor and enhancing the dynamic range to an astounding degree.  In some situations, just rearranging your cables and interconnects could result in an improvement in sound quality that can, in some cases, be equal to a major component upgrade.

If your audio system is more than a few years old and you have not made any changes to the wiring or cabling for quite some time, there is a good chance that all the junctions where the signal is being transferred from a cable to a component or vice versa, the contact points are tarnished. If these contacts are gold plated, this is less of a problem, as gold does not tarnish like most other metals.  Even a little bit of tarnishing on the contacts can impede the flow of the signal resulting in deteriorated sound quality.

You can use a contact cleaning liquid in tandem with a non-abrasive cleaning cloth, the kind that is usually used to clean jewelry, to polish all the contact points between your cables/interconnects and your components. If the contacts are gold plated, chances are that it has just a few microns of gold cladding on the contact points so be extra careful when doing those, as very abrasive contact cleaning liquid or overly aggressive polishing with the cleaning cloth could remove the very thin gold plating, especially since gold is a relatively soft, malleable metal.

The procedure to follow for best results is to disconnect all your cables and interconnects including the power cords from your wall outlets. Use the contact cleaner and cloth to clean every RCA, AES/EBU and BNC plug and jack, speaker binding post and if you can, the contact points inside the wall receptacles as well.  Make sure all the contact points are completely dry before you reconnect them. This simple procedure should take just an hour or two but the difference in sound quality that you will hear will totally astound you.

If possible, try to have a dedicated wall receptacle for your audio system. If you plug in home appliances, especially the ones that contain motors or compressors, into the same receptacle as your audio system, that is a recipe for disaster in terms of audible noise in the sound that you hear from your system. The best-case scenario calls for a totally dedicated power line from your home’s electrical panel to your audio system via hospital grade receptacles. If this is beyond your reach because of the high cost, you could go down the route of a dedicated receptacle. This will give you some of the benefits of a dedicated line and I can assure you that the difference will not be subtle.

If you do implement a dedicated power line for your audio system make sure that you utilize a 20 amp circuit with one run for your power amplifier and one for the rest of your gear. Definitely use hospital grade receptacles and use 10 gauge wires to link the receptacles to your home’s electrical panel. If you are not an experienced DIYer, the wiring for this project is best handled by a professional electrician.

If your two-channel system is part of a home theatre system, it would behoove you to feed the video components with power from a different receptacle. This is because video devices like Blu-ray players, surround processors, television sets and cable boxes can sometimes add a very audible buzz to your audio system output. If this happens, you have to check the earth of each video component and if they all seem to be in order, then you may need to install an isolation transformer to physically separate the power supply to your video components. Installing a balun filter to your antenna wire could also help control the buzz.

Finally, if you hear any mechanical noise from your system, the culprit is probably one or more of the components that contain transformers. You need to switch on all your components that contain transformers and place your ear very close to the chassis and listen carefully. If you hear a hum or buzz emanating from inside the component it is probably a lamination rattle that occurs in some of the sub-par transformers.

It is quite possible that the intensity of this mechanical noise will vary at different times of the day. This is because the noise level depends on the noise content and quality of the power supply and voltage variation in your area. This is determined by your energy provider. A good power conditioner can rectify this problem but if you cannot afford one, try to do your dedicated two-channel listening during the non peak hours of the day when the load on the grid is a lot lower and the quality of the power you receive from your provider is a lot better.

Most audiophiles are always striving to squeeze better performance from their audio systems. However, not everyone can afford to continually invest in upgrades and expensive tweaks to boost the system’s sound quality. If you belong to this cohort, you can take solace in the fact that all it takes is some of your time and a little elbow grease to achieve significant sound quality improvements without spending a dime.