22 Tips to Obtain Better Sound in a High End Audio System
Basically accepted thing in audiophile world is that it almost impossible to achieve the best sound by just combining only the best equipments. Much cheaper but properly selected and tweaked system may sound better than its expensive brothers. This is called system synergy in audiophile world. System synergy is not only about combining the best equipments but it is a kind of long and enjoyable way to maximize their performances.
The precautions and principles may be seen absurd and meaningless for someone who does not have solid understanding what the hi-end is.
Within last twenty years, I spent considerable time, money and efforts to achieve best sound (..Or what ever the best is). I wrote a couple of important points from my own perspective. Most of these points may be known by the audiophiles anyway if not implemented. More important, below points consist of my own observations merely. There are so many known different tweaks and techniques. I avoided not including here the points that I did not try and/or the points did not work well with me. I believe below mentioned points will step up someone's system to a higher level by using the same equipments.
I apologize for my level of English. I am appreciated if someone warns me about the main language mistakes anywhere in the web site.
The only certain truth I learned after twenty years is that "there is no one absolute truth in Hi-End" Most of the truths in High-End can not be proven by scientific measures. Very sensitive human ear hears a lot, interpret, evaluate and decide. In a listening session of three audiophiles, what is probably going to happen is one of the persons will find the bass insufficient, the other may find it so much and excessive, but the system owner will think it is fine, not less, not more. That phenomenon is called "brain reference". (See for more details) Brain reference is a kind of prejudice comes out of our own system's timbre and tonality. This phenomenon sometimes causes conflicts with someone who compares better equipment versus his own equipment and may not like the sound of the other in spite the other was clearly better.
Most of the points stipulated below will depend on the capabilities of the system but more important, depend on the experience of audiophile. A poor system will not differentiate the points or less experienced ears may not pick them up either. That's why some of the points below may not be regarded by everybody. I will be delightful if someone who reads that article picks up one or two points.
1- Listening at Night; Critical listening or equipment testing should be done in the night hours. This rule obviously applies to one who lives in a big city. Non noticeable city noise affects our hearing and we are basically not able to hear what our system delivers to us during the day.
Due to city noise is several times lower in the night, all hidden aspects in hi-end appear in the night and the system delivers its full potential. For more information, please check Noise (see for more details)
2- Heat and Humidity; Humidity and heat have serious influences on sound. Systems can not generate their best sound, power and dynamics in a warm and damp weather. I am not sure why this happens but it happens. There may be two reasons: The damp air is heavier in such circumstances, thus the loudspeakers are not able to pull enough air into the room. Or the loudspeaker materials may soften and behave differently in warm weather. To cool the listening environment prior to listening session eliminates that effect.
3- Darkness; Music should be listened in dark room. Particularly, the loudspeakers and the system should be kept in dark and the original recording venue should be imagined while listening.
The main objective of a good quality hi-end system is to depart from the hardware and to go into the recording environment. Listening music while watching the hardware will physiologically demolish the virtual environment that we intent to be in. The most inconvenient part of a hi-end system is inexistence of visual imaging. The reality sense is so different when participating to a live concert or listening/watching from a DVD player via a surround system.
If the listening environment is not dark, the speakers will be perceived as the sources of the original sound.
4- Finding the Correct Listening Distance; the sound is spread in waves called frequency. The volume of every frequency will be different in connection with the distance from the speakers. In terms of the volume, frequencies will be up and down when the distance is changed. Especially higher mids and treble sections will vary between 20-5 centimetres. Such frequency peaks can be easily recognized by listening.
a – Listen a test CD which contains different test frequencies. For instance start with mono 1000 Hz at the listening chair. Then stand up and walk very slowly through your system. (Preferably with your closed eyes). You will immediately realize that the signal will have ups and downs in volume while you are moving as if somebody was turning on and off the volume control.
b - The main frequency of the music and the one which is closest to human sound is 1000 Hz. 1000 Hz is your starting point. 1000 Hz will be at its peaks so many times in connection with the distance of your listening chair. Find the closest distance to your current listening chair that the 1000 Hz is at peak. The ups and downs in that band should be changed around 50-70 centimetres. This is the best location to hear the middle frequencies but it is not the best location yet to achieve the best frequency spectrum. It is just the starting point.
c - Stick a rope to back wall that may come through your shoulders. Now close your eyes and listen different frequencies such as 300-500-1000-2000-5000-10.000 Hz etc, move top of your body (while sitting) forward and backwards. Mark the peak points of every frequency you listened on the rope. Our aim is to find a particular point that most of the frequencies are at their peaks. If you are not successful and these points are not closer each other, move your speakers 10 cm's to front (or your listening chair to 10 cm front or rear) and repeat the same exercises till you find a certain point that most of the frequencies are at their peaks.
It is not an easy task, time consuming but free of charge. Once you have the point, you will be very surprised with the improvement of the sound of your existing system.
5- Room Acoustics; Room Acoustics is the most known but the least considered part of Hi-End. A conventional speaker may throw % 40 of the sound directly to listener; rest of the sound comes through the walls by reflections. Reflection means the timing difference of the original signal, hence an additional acoustic which does not exist in the original record. Within such a complexity of reflections, a part of the original signal will come late due to the front wall or ceiling or etc, a part of the original signal produced by the left speaker will come as if coming from the right speaker and vice versa. Such a complex listening environment will demolish the stereo imaging and channel separation.
Some audiophiles are happy with this case due to speakers are seem to be better disappeared and soundstage is wider and deeper. Some producers add additional mid/treble units to the back side of the speakers (dipoles) to emphasize such effects.
One thing should be considered that such reflections do not exist at the original sound. If something is produced by the system/room in addition to the original sound should be named coloration.
If the aim of a good hi-end system is to reproduce the original sound, such reflections should be avoided as much as possible. Especially ribbon and electrostatic speakers will suffer a lot from such reflections.
Carpet on the floor is a must to lower the reflections (standing waves) between the floor and the ceiling. Thicker curtains will help to lower the reflections of the windows. Glass covered photos and such stiff furniture should be avoided.
This article is not intended to give recommendations how to make a room tuning, lots but lots of information may be found on internet. But it is just to emphasize the importance of room acoustics.
6- Precise Focus and Loudspeaker Placement; this is also another known but the least considered part of Hi-End. It is critically important to locate both speakers at the exactly same distance to achieve precise focus. Distances should be very carefully measured and both of the speakers should be placed exactly to the same distance through listener.
OK but why such important!
Sound signals are distributed in waves as explained in section five. The people who tried the settings in section five will realize that, the peaks of frequencies vary in conjunction with the distance from the speakers. Especially the treble frequencies will vary a lot by only one centimetres of a change. In such cases, if one speaker is just one cm closer to the listener, some frequencies will be heard a lot from one speaker but will not be heard from the other speaker. If the upper harmonics of the human sound consist of such upper frequencies, (it is!) this is obvious that the sound will move from the middle to left or to right. Moreover, within that case, some frequencies will be collided in full phase and will be exaggerated, some others will be collided by inverted phase so are destroyed.
This is the exactly the same effect of loosing bass when connecting one speaker out of phase.
7- Mechanical Vibration of Electronic Units; Quite a lot of vibration absorption feet and platform kinds exist in the market. They are to be placed under the electronics/speakers. Such materials have two intentions;
a- To eliminate the external vibration coming through the unit
b- To eliminate the vibration of the unit itself (CD driver motor, speaker cone vibrations etc)
Most popular ones are the cones (spikes). I believe the proper usage of spikes is not known very well. Rather than being a vibration absorber, spike is a kind of transmission material that transmits vibration from one point through the other point. In other means, vibration is condensed to one point and mechanically carried to other platform by the spike but not eliminated. If the connection surface is stiff (for instance marble, granite, etc) such vibrations are passed to that surface. Underneath of such a stiff platforms (marble, MDF, glass, granite) must be covered by an elastically material such as cork, mouse pad, neoprene rubber or similar.
The vibration can not pass from a stiff platform to an elastically platform and will be transposed to heat between.
Direction of the cone is also critically important. The direction should be in conjunction with the intention of vibration transmission.
May be the last thing about the cone is the cone should be in touch with the chassis of the component directly. If any kind of rubber, double sided band, blue tack or such an elastic material is put between cone and the unit that material will try to transpose the vibration and the cone will not work.
8- Marble Under the Loudspeakers: A marble platform under the speakers eliminate most of the unwanted resonances of the speaker. The thickness of the marble should be at least 3 cm and the size should be at least 10 centimetres bigger then the edges. Underneath of the marble has to be covered by an elastic material such as cork, mouse pad, neoprene etc.
How does it effect the sound is, you have more powerful but more clear and tight bass, relaxation at the mid and top frequencies.
The speaker has to be connected to the platform via a cone, not by an elastically feet. The sharp end of the cone has to direct the marble but not to the loudspeaker.
9- Grounding the Metals for Static Electricity; especially in wet weather and in fully carpeted listening environments, static electric become an issue. The carpet is charged with static electric which can be passed through the electronic equipments via the rack and/or via human touch. Static electricity on the carpet is such powerful that when checked in the morning before somebody walks on it, can be clearly seen by simple tools sold in Radio Shack
In order to eliminate the effect, the loudspeaker stands and the equipment racks should be connected to earth by a thin wire. Moreover, the loudspeaker cables and interconnects should be lifted away from the floor due to the same effect.
What benefits you may expect from this tweak is I don't know why but less blurry and more tide lower bass.
10- Loudspeaker Distance from the Front Wall; Loudspeaker producers generally recommend the distance of the speaker by the front wall (the wall behind the speakers). Generally speaking, the speaker should be located as far as possible from the front wall. (Side walls as well) If they are so close to the wall, bass standing waves will be reinforced (explained in article five) and mid/treble band will be compressed due to excessive bass energy.
Some audiophiles find the desired bass volume by placing them closer to front wall which is not correct. One thing should be considered that such bass increase is not due to the original sound but it is the consequence by the room response called coloration.
11- Auto former / Transformer Passive Line Stages; The new developed technologies in hi-end industry made the pre-amplifiers questionable.
Before end, the reason of a preamplifier was stipulated in four basics;
a- To connect more then one unit together
b- Recording to tape from some sources
c- Low volume output and inverted polarity signal of turntables (as the only source component)
d- Bass, treble adjustment requirements
Nowadays, CD, SACD units can provide 5-8 Volts of outputs which are more than enough for the power amplifiers. Audiophiles are not interested in tone adjustments but focused on simplicity anymore. Dedicated phono stages are in common usage, hence, the majority of the requirements are not valid anymore.
The main and the only basic job of a modern pre-amplifier is to lower the volume level, not step it up !!
Just try to imagine a pure signal from a CD, or DAC through the power amplifier, then cut this link, add four plugs, four female plugs, a pair of interconnects, lots of resistors, capacitors, tubes, transistors and all that stuff in the link. How can you keep the signal purity and can you make something better then its original !
An active line stage demolishes the neutrality and the purity of the original sound. Such a corruption may not be so evident in most of the lower resolution systems or disregarded by some people on purposely. Every active line stage has its own tonality and coloration. As a matter of fact, audiophiles generally use line stages to balance their tonality problems in systems. For instance, a tube line stage is used to calm down a firm sounding solid state power amplifier or a treble rich line stage is used to compensate the treble poor power amplifier and vice versa. If this is the case in a system, fully natural line stage and lack of coloration will not be regarded by the audiophile.
Following me, the consideration should be to change the power amplifier till finding the desired sound rather then playing with pre-amplifier. In other words, to deal with the original problem rather then trying to mask the problem.
It is almost in consensus that using a very simple volume pot adds so much neutrality and purity to sound. But in such cases, some other problems appear. A volume pot which is either a potentiometer or a stepped alternator works with the resistance principals. Every volume step adds different resistive path to signal, thus lowers the volume. Due to the complexity of the music signal ( 20 Hz-20 kHz), such a resistive load will act like a barrier for different frequencies. For instance when turning down the volume level, the treble is lowered and the bass is condensed or when you increase the volume, mids are excessive or vice versa. Not to forget to mention is the lack of dynamic range as well. A line stage eliminates these problems.
Due to these facts, volume control pots or analogue volume controlled CDs can not be used stand alone as line stages
By the new technology, new auto former and transformer passive line stages are developed for volume control.
Such units do not work with resistance principals and do not add resistance to the signal path. The only resistance of such amps is approximately 200 Ohms due to the cable in windings.
Transformer passive line stages consist of two transformers, one for the left channel, and one for the right. They have one primary winding and multiple (12-24 steps) of secondary windings. Their principal is to lover the volume by changing the volts, rather then adding resistance. Up to my knowledge, there are only three producers of such line stages. I used two of them. Both of them are providing extra ordinary natural, calm and undistorted sounds.
I heavily modified the Antique Sound Lab myself which is very good product and quite cheap too, (don't underestimate its price) but Audio Consulting's Silver Rock made of pure silver is something else.
It should be also mentioned that such a passive line stages can not be suitable for every system. In such a case, input impedance of power amp should be driven directly by the output stage of DAC or CD player. Input impedance of the power amp should be as small as possible. The best way to learn this case is to write the impedance values to producer and request assistance prior to purchasing.
12- Good Tubes (or NOS Tubes); is it logical to pay 100? to and old tube while the new one costs 10 ? I believe it is. A good tube can change the characteristics of a tube electronic as if you replaced the entire unit. Nos tubes are not easy to find, quite expensive but worthwhile to use. Especially the upper frequency hiss is quite lower with Nos tubes.
13- Very Easy Polarity Finding Method; Generally speaking, European (German) standard AC plugs do not have the signal direction. US, UK, Swiss AC plugs have one way to connect to AC, so + and - phases can not. So in such cases, it is not easy to find out the correct polarity.
Electronic components can work properly regardless of the polarity. Our televisions, refrigerators, bulbs, computers everything. Why the AC polarity is quite important in Hi-Fi !
Electricity arrives from (+) passes the electronic circuit and departs from (-) Generally the mains current arrives in the power supply of the unit first then reduced to desired voltage by of the electronic circuits. At this case, mains is automatically filtered by the power supply section. The transformer of the power supply section behaves like isolation transformer, input and output currents are physically separated. If the polarity is not correct, the mains will arrive to system directly from the back door and will carry all the pollution like RFI/EMI into the unit. Due to the fact, it is important to find out the correct polarity.
Most of the electronic' polarity is similar. If the unit has detachable power cord and IEC kind of input, the right hole should be the (+) mains when do you look at the plug front the front face (as seen below)
Another simple method is to check the mains fuses. If the unit is equipped with an exterior protection fuse, release the fuse and check it by an electricity check pen while the unit was connected to mains. It should be (+) signal. If not, reverse the AC plug from the wall
14- Listening Volume Level; It is for sure nobody's business to tell you that what the correct listening volume setting is. Some audiophiles like very low listening level, some turn on the volume till the windows are broken.
If the outcome is to achieve the ambiance of the recorded venue, volume level should be adjusted accordingly but not more or not less. This case is applicable to acoustic instruments only but not to electronic music, jazz or disco etc.
What ever the listened record is, correct volume setting should be the one which does not enlarge or shrink the original instrument. Higher volumes may For instance a guitar should be played with the original volume of a guitar by correct volume setting. If volume level is increased, the body of the guitar will became bigger in obsolete terms, on the other hands, full body of a Mormon chorus will not be so realistic at low volumes
15- Warming Up the Speakers and Cables Before Critical Listening; Apart from the theory that "Solid state electronics provide their best sound for a few minutes till the transistors became warm." every single audio equipment needs a warm up time. This time is at least 1/2 hour or even 1 hour in spite the manufacturers recommend less. Up to my knowledge, the reason behind this is the specifications of the resistors, capacitors, tubes and other stuff vary if they are cold or warm. Manufacturers make final settings when the units are warm, otherwise they would play perfect for the first half an hour and worse after warmed up.
That principal is applied by every audiophile for the electronics but not always for the speakers and the cables.
Speakers are quite important since their passive components should be warmed up such as crossover resistors. Their voice coils should be warmed up as well. The cables are also important. Warm up term may not eligible for the cables but the cables should be run for sometime till their dielectrics are charged.
As a result, the warming up time should be completed by playing (may not be listening) the entire system.
16- Proper Loudspeaker Selection for Listening Room; Loudspeaker should be selected in conjunction with the listening room dimensions. Unfortunately the general tendency in audiophiles particularly in US is "the bigger is better"
It is like some new starting skiers that choose the best ski equipments prior to learning and facing with so many problems afterwards.
Big loudspeakers are difficult to position, difficult to drive, affected more from the room boundaries. If the speaker is bigger for the room, excessive bass energy will diminish rest of the sounds. The bigger speaker means bigger problems. Driving big speakers requires challenge, experience, sources, time and money.
17- PS Audio Power Plant; Principally I avoid giving specific brands in my non commercial web site. But PS Audio Power Plant is such a special product that similar components do not comparable with. It is a kind of power regenerator powered by electricity. P300 actually regenerates new AC for the audio gear. This regenerated AC is of much better quality than filtered AC because of the stabile voltage and near perfect AC waveform. It also removes 70 dB of EMI and RFI noise from the AC line!
Not all friends are agreed with me but according to me, it is very special equipment that lifts up the entire system to a higher level.
What would you expect from it is much relaxed sound, more layered deep and wide soundstage, crystalline treble and more inner details. Improvements are immediately apparent. Take care to use with power hungry amplifiers. (I am not sure about this currently Note: 2005)
18- CD Surface Treatments; There is several kinds of CD surface treatments in the market. They shine the surface of CD, thus laser picks up more information. What can be expected from a surface treatment is the high frequencies are cleaner and more extended. The easiest and the cheapest method of CD surface treatment is the one that used by pipe lovers .That is the human oil on the skin of face.
I apologize for that ugly tweak but our systems are personal and private anyway don't they. Human oil has the perfect thin viscosity and can be absorbed by CD surface very easily and effectively. Listen your CD first, smear the CD throughout your forehead and spread the oil with your finger and listen it again.
Don't forget to spread the oil by your finger every time prior to listen that CD.
19- Objective of the Third Dimension ; The objective of a stereo system is to achieve 3.rd dimension via two channels. All the hi-end or hi-fi equipments have own character, timbre and tonality. For instance a titanium tweeter will have different tonality then a silk dome tweeter. Two different brands of loudspeakers will have different tonalities as if they use the same drive units. The tonality of high end equipment mostly depends on the listening preferences of the designer. We will most probably not like if hear different tonalities from our own equipments even though the other system sounds much better. This case is so often faced; most of the audiophiles don't like the sound of somebody else’s system despite it is a better system. This case is also evident when buying or testing new equipment at homes. We sometimes test better equipment at home but feel something is still missing compared to our own equipment.
I remember very well, when Sony introduced the first 20 Bits CD player, most of the people found the sound harsh, edgy and coloured. People used to listen dark sounding CD players up to that time and hearing more inner details disturbed them.
I also remember very well that when I modified my old B&W 801 Matrix II monitor speakers and cancelled their protection units, the new sound had disturbed me a lot. I was such unhappy by the new sound and could not have listened at my system for several days. At that time, the manufacturer expressed that "the protection units were needed due to the speakers were designed mainly for recording studios". They also told to me that the new sound must be clearly better due to the crossover resistance that affects especially the lower mid and upper bass was lowered fairly. After several days of listening them, the sound became better and better. Eventually the sound was surprisingly perfect after few weeks. Actually the sound was the same but perception was changing. (My brain reference was changing)
If this is the often case, how do we distinguish the better unit by listening! There are several ways of it but for me the main method is third dimension capability. This is not the only case for sure but generally speaking, if two units are compared, the better one is the one delivers bigger soundstage, more dept and more height.
This is also the theory of Peter Quodrup from Audio Note UK and I am hundred percent agreed with him.
The distortion of an electronic device is does not effect the tonality of the equipment but mainly effects the inner details. Soundstage dept and height are such hidden factors in inner details that they will be affected first. If the unit provide lower distortion, more precise soundstage, especially more dept will be provided.
20- The Least Powerful Ring of a Chain; Hi-Fi is a kind of chain. Strength of a chain depends on the least powerful ring. Assume a water hose consists of variety of wideness. Derived water capacity will be in accordance with the thinner part.
A system should consist of similar level of equipments. If you add the best CD transport to a standard level of system, there will be some changes but not as expected. Also a poor digital cable will compress the entire sound quality of a very good system.
A long term plan should be prepared before setting up a system and the pieces should be purchased in time. Hurried purchases may come as replacement expense within one or two years.
21- Don't Immediately Judge a Unit, Give a Chance; Every system can sound well in time. System synergy is a kind of time dependent factor that sometimes takes months, even years. Sometimes we make quick decisions and quick prejudices for good products and immediately make unfair observations. According to me, the main element of the hi-end chain is the loudspeaker. If tonality and characteristics of the speaker is generally fine, or if the overall tonality of the entire system is generally fine, the system can be carried up for several further steps by playing with cables, tweaks, locations, tubes etc.
22- Critical Adjustments Should be Done by Listening Symphonic Music or Chorus Music; Once we decided about the main components of our system, we play with cables, tubes, tweaks and other accessories till finding the desired tonality. Adjusting the tonal balance of a system by listening single instruments or jazz trios may mislead us.
Upper mid and the treble bands of a sound is easily disappeared if somebody is far away from the original signal. This is the case, if we listen at a live concert or listen at a hi-end system. If this is the case, such instruments like saxophone, guitar, violin, even a human voice are darker and distant if we listen at a very good live record. Whenever we increase mid/treble band of the system by tweaks, such instruments became more open, detailed and dynamic. But one thing should be in mind that we may add a subtle amount of coloration to sound unconsciously. If a system is trimmed by listening small trios or single instruments, singe voices, this risk is really big. Such a system may not play a classical music performed by a big orchestra. If such symphonic music is listened, the system may reveal harshness and brightness.
It is often said that somebody's system plays well in classics but sounds quite dark in jazz, or somebody else's system is quite revealing in jazz but very bright and glazing at classical music. I believe this is the main reason of those phenomena
Hi-End is such a passion that so many opportunist firms and persons are added every year in spite hi-end community is not growing enough. Prices are multiplied by 3, 5, 10s every year. Every producer pretends to be one of the best in the world or at least within particular price level. Manufacturers issue review reports prepared by some ones!
No testing equipments in today's technology can prove that their claims are correct or no testing equipments can invalidate that their claims are wrong. In no way equipment can compare two units each other and prove that one is better sounding then the other. Pretended best in the world equipments/cables often suck in blind testing. If this is the case, it is easy to claim to be the best in the world due to nobody can prove the opposite.
The price of valuable equipment can fall down to 1/3 of the purchasing price within few years by the additions of MK-II's, MK-III's, Special Editions, and Signature Versions
While the best speaker in the world was sold by 7.000 ? Twenty years ago, the best speaker nowadays is more then 200.000? A poor line stage which is used to lower the volume is sold out by 40.000.?
Hi-End technology does not grow up for years. Most of the hi-end producers are very small family entrepreneurs that targeting very rich few niche people. They don't have proper research and development laboratories. Design and esthetical properties are the priorities.
I have the strong impression that Hi-End is digging its own grave with that pricing policy. We will see what will happen to hi-end after 30 years.
It is a deep less hole. My humble recommendations for the just starters is that go with second hand market products and go by reasonable priced equipments to minimize the losses of years. Never look for the perfect sound which is not exist in any money. Keep in mind that a 300.000? Worth amplifier may be % 2-3 better then a 5.000? Worth of his small brother.
Best regards with lots of music..
January 2004 - Issued in December 2003, February 2004, April 2004 issues of Andante - Classical Music Magazine