System Tuning Tips
The magic is in the details. Nowhere is this statement
truer than in the context of a high-end audio or video system.
Many fine systems perform at sub-optimal levels due to a
few overlooked details. I can’t tell you how many times
I’ve heard a collection of superb equipment fail to live
up to potential, the result of a few minor problems. Careful
attention to set-up details can pay hefty dividends, rewarding
the listener with significantly enhanced performance. Often
just an hour or so of effort can bring improvement equivalent
to replacing a component!
Those who have been around the hobby for a while are likely
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 (and substantially) improve
system performance, for little or no money.
Pay attention, class, your homework assignment follows.
1) Be certain your speakers
are precisely aligned. Without a doubt, the most
commonly overlooked and/or under appreciated issue in audio
is speaker alignment. Most everyone can realize further
sonic gains by careful attention to placement and alignment.
Millimeters matter, and it is critical that one take
the time to insure locating and set-up have been fully optimized.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance that a
small change can make here.
Though a full discourse on set-up exceeds the scope of this
paper, a more complete description of alignment procedures
can be found in our article entitled “Speaker
Placement.” I urge you to read the article and spend
some time tweaking to be sure things are spot-on, with special
attention to insuring that each speaker be located exactly
the same distance from the listener.
2) Be sure your speakers are
spiked correctly. 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 (and pad), 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 zero movement front to back or side-to-side.
3) Clean/tighten all 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.
Attention to both insures best performance.
I have written a very complete
treatise on the matter, providing you with a step-by-step
guide to walk you through the process. “How
to Improve Your System For Free. Almost.”
Read it and be clean! Repeat at least twice a year.
4) 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.
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
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.
You can use a non-contact voltage
sensor to find which cables tend to be the biggest
offenders. These devices are inexpensive, and available at
home centers. The one we use is the
Gardner Bender Livewire
GB-505A. It sells for less than $15.00 at Lowe's. Just
switch the unit on and place it on or near any cable to see
what kind of electro-magnetic field is being generated.
5) Get the cables off
the floor. 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. Try this experiment:
Cut an empty paper towel (or toilet paper) tube into 2 –
3” lengths. Use these to raise all cables off the floor,
and as spacers to separate cables from one another. Better
systems will often benefit from this tweak, realizing improved
detail, air and transparency. If you like what you hear,
you may want to replace the cardboard tubes with something
a bit more attractive! 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 paper being common choices.
6) Clean your CD’s. Optimal reproduction
of Compact Discs requires their surface be scrupulously
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 to clean and/or polish the Polycarbonate surface
of the CD and DVD. I particularly like
Optrix (by Compact
Auric Illuminator (Audience). You can learn
more about Optrix here.
7) 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. Check
out our Equipment Stand Overview
for more information.
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). A number of excellent choices are available
and we'd be happy to help with recommendations on which
may be right for your system. Experimentation is the key
to finding the solution best for your system.
8) Replace AC wall
The "cheesy" residential grade 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, but
after listening, our
strong preference is the
Music ($55). If that is more than you can comfortably
afford, commercially available
Hospital or Commercial outlets (i.e. Hubbell 5263) can be had for as little as
$15, and though not in the league of the FIM, are darn
sight better than Residential grade. 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 15 Amp circuit can deliver, plus other items can
9) Check AC Polarity.
Variations in residential AC wiring, and the internal
schemes inside our components, can cause errant currents
to flow between system components (through the interconnects).
This condition can modulate the ground reference of each
consecutive gain stage, causing audible degradation. Proper
AC polarity alignment is achieved by registering the chassis
potential to ground. Rather than delving into detail here,
I’ll refer you to my article “Determining
Proper AC Polarity.”
The technique has been around for many years, yet seems
oddly cyclical in popularity. Though more difficult to implement
on grounded components, it is nevertheless worth trying.
10) Eliminate static
on cables. Thanks to cable manufacturer, Nordost
for illuminating this problem. Their experimentation
found that static build-up on the cable jacket interferes
with the signal being carried by the conductors within,
resulting in increased background noise and grain. Simply
wiping the cables down every few weeks with a non-invasive
anti-static material (Nordost Eco-3
has been especially
formulated for use on cables is an especially good choice)
will eliminate the problem. This should also be done when
installing new cables.
I’ve found there to
be a number of variables influencing the efficacy of this
tweak. Cable jacket materials and construction, humidity,
type of floor covering and even the equipment used determines
the amount of improvement available. In any event, it is
certainly worth trying.
11) Condition AC power.
The AC line conditioner has become an essential component
in a modern audio or video system. The high-resolution performance
of modern high-end gear, and the decreasing quality of the
AC line, has made line conditioning a mandatory requirement
for achieving optimum performance. There exist a vast array
of excellent quality units to fit most every application
You may also
want to consider adding a dedicated circuit or two to feed
your system. If that is not possible, select a circuit unshared
with major appliances, then unplug everything from the circuit
except for the audio/video system.
12) 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. Most use jets of carefully
controlled water to rinse out the ear canal and remove impacted
wax. A variety of ear cleaning kits are on the market and
can be found at most pharmacies.
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
13) 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.
There are several
products available which have been designed to deal with
the problem. The aforementioned Bedini, and the
from Japan (our preference). You can read more about CD
14) 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.
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
acoustical room treatment program will yield maximum results,
treating the first reflection points will be beneficial
and give you some insight to the process.
Great products to deal with
these issues are available from Acoustic Sciences
Panels) and RPG. You can find links to both
15) Tighten driver-mounting
hardware. 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.
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.
16) 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 another article. At the very least, cartridge
alignment, including overhang, azimuth, tracking force and
vertical tracking angle should all be checked annually.
We have several articles
in our How To's section under
a separate heading, Analog Corner, that may help you.
So there you have it, a list of things sure to keep you
busy for a while! Improvements from individual tweaks may
be minor, but bear in mind that they are additive. A little
bit here, a little bit there and soon you have a very noticeable
change. Spend some time with your system attending to the
details, and you will undoubtedly realize noticeable performance
We’d love to hear from you with any tweaks that have helped
you to improve your system.
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