Updated May 2009
Enjoyment of music does not confer entitlement to the finest audio gear. This reality creates resentment and anger among some audiophiles, as well as skepticism of the value of high priced equipment. The situation is further exacerbated by the rapidly escalating cost of top of the line components in recent years. A similar runaway cost scenario has occurred in the sport of bicycling over the past decade or more, yet growth of the sport continues unabated. Nonetheless, I continue to enjoy my 1975 vintage Raleigh International 10-speed, much like my friend Bill Tomkiewicz continues to enjoy listening to music with his hot-rodded vintage tube amplifiers and circa 1970's loudspeakers. I can certainly empathize with his reluctance to change, as there are many among us who strive for improved sound quality yet have other financial priorities or commitments. This Bud's for you.
Tweaking can be a way of leveling the playing field, in spite of the fact that even the wealthy can play that game. Riemyo, Marigo Labs and Walker Audio come to mind as companies that offer seemingly expensive devices that require a rather large leap of faith to purchase, yet repeatedly I have experienced their products in superior sounding rooms at shows. Still, I muse, there must be a less expensive way so more people could benefit. I think about this frequently while listening to music. Multi-tasking, if you will.
The room is the next most important component and here, too, I've been fortunate. A while back I wrote about it in my recent review of the Von Schweikert VR-4SR Mk2 loudspeakers. My loudspeakers are on the long wall with an exterior wall of windows behind them. We installed an accordion-style blind that traps air and helps keep the room warm in the winter and cooler in the summer. It is also reasonably effective in reducing the back-wave of the loudspeakers, though in the winter I love to watch the gentle falling snow while listening to music and the wall of thermo-pane glass noticeably degrades the sound when the shades are up.
While making the rounds at the Montreal Festival Son et Image last spring I encountered Ron Hedricks of Marigo Labs and after noting the interesting Omaha tube amplifiers and loudspeaker he was showcasing, we drifted into conversation about his Window Tuning 40mm VTS Dots. He offered to send me some for review, but I never followed up on the offer. My curiosity, however, had been greatly aroused. Further ruminations surfaced last summer when I was cruising through the archives of Enjoy the Music.com I tripped over an article written in 1999 in which Steven R. Rochlin was singing the virtues of Dynamat and I had one of those "Ah-hah" moments which quickly evolved into a "What if...?"
One version of Dynamat consists of a heavy aluminum foil backing on a layer of tacky elastomer and black butyl vibration absorbing material. It comes in sheets and can be used in high-end car stereo installations to dampen the vibrations of metal automotive panels such as doors, roofs and trunk lids to provide a quiet interior environment. They also sell a version for the home environment. What if I cut circles of this stuff and stuck it to the windows behind my loudspeakers? I stopped into The Stereo Shop, one of the more reputable audio & TV dealers here in Rochester, NY, who also specializes in car stereo. My friend, Dave, was not there at the time, but I managed to glean a large scrap of Dynamat Extreme from one of the guys who was sympathetic to my idea.
I aged the Dynamat in a far corner of my listening room for several months before finally getting out of my listening chair to implement the idea. Using a heavy-duty plastic cap from my bottle of daily vitamins as a template, I cut 2.5-inch circles with a utility knife. This is not an exact science project, after all. With six tall vertical panes of glass requiring a circle in each corner, it was tedious and required both physical exertion and concentration. Considered buying a copper plumbing collar to use as a cookie cutter but I wasn't sure it would slice through the black goop — even under the blow of a small sledge hammer. As an afterthought I came up with the idea of using the copper collar as a die cutter in a vice with the Dynamat sandwiched between the collar and a piece of wood, but never tried this idea. Fortunately, I completed the job with my tone-arm lifting finger intact.
Ron Hedrick suggested that I needed to treat all six windows for optimum benefit. I positioned a circle of Dynamat in each corner, about two inches from each edge as illustrated on the Marigo Labs website. I peeled the waxed paper off the black sticky side and carefully oriented the circles so the printed abstract designs that were part of the Dynamat labeling created a quasi-Zen-like artistic symbol. Hey, sometimes you have to work with what you've got. Plan B is to paint them to match the walls. The black tacky material sticks tenaciously to the glass and is hardly noticeable from the outside of the house unless you're looking for it. If necessary, the circles can be removed with a razor blade and any slight residue should come off with a solvent such as the bug and tar remover you use on your car.
Since the dots do not lend themselves to easy removal or re-application, the listening test was a one-shot deal. The rig was at an all-time high with the VAC Phi Beta integrated amplifier and Von Schweikert VR-4SR Mk2 loudspeakers still in place. It was hard for me to imagine the music getting much better than it already was. Coming out of the loudspeakers, the music seemed pristine, but the Dynamat circles were designed to work on the acoustics of the room, which usually offers lots of opportunity for improvement. I listened to the eighteen tracks on my black compilation CD, which I have heard hundreds of times and then installed the circles on the windows.
I replayed the CD and listened start to finish. A smile came to my face and stayed there for most of the hour. It wasn't an earth shattering or jaw-dropping experience, but to my moderately experienced ears there was a very discernable improvement in focus from top to bottom. The full-spectrum enhancement surprised me somewhat since I suspected the glass might have a specific resonant frequency where the improvement might be most obvious. But no, it was across the board. Beyond that, I was at a loss for words because the excellent quality of the rig didn't change at all, except for the small improvement in focus. Not that I say "small" in a non-pejorative sense because at this high level of accomplishment you normally have to pay big bucks and fight tooth and nail to achieve even small gains. With a more modest rig the improvement might have been even more obvious. Here, for a few dollars and a couple of hours of your time (depending on how many windows you have to treat), is a very high-value room treatment that receives my very high recommendation. Just be careful with that utility knife.
In case you are wondering, listening with the window shades up is now more focused and enjoyable than without the Dynamat and the shades down. Lowering the shades over the windows now treated with Dynamat improves the sound even further. If you're the kind of guy who doesn't change his own motor oil, give Ron Hedricks a call at Marigo Labs and order up his window tuning dots. I have never seen them, but given the cost effective improvement of the Dynamat, it wouldn't surprise me if his proprietary design is even more effective. At the very least, you will not risk getting blood on your tracks.
Addendum, April, 2009: Having lived with the Dynamat Dots for over a year, it seems like going to the effort and risking the danger of cutting round dots is a waste of time and energy. Use a metal straight edge and cut squares in stead. The audible benefit will likely be the same and the visual difference between the circles and squares is moot. In either case it will look as though your house is wired with a sophisticated security system when viewed from the street.
My idea was to plant a pillar beneath each loudspeaker that would conduct much of the vibration directly to the concrete floating slab in the basement. Luckily, the loudspeakers were not directly above the washer and dryer. I had originally thought about one of those adjustable steel pipe models that go for about $30 to $40 each at Home Depot. Being the cheapskate that I am, I went for Plan B, which was to wedge a pressure treated 4x4 into place with a sledgehammer. To put some icing on the cake, I used a proprietary vibration absorbing material between the 4x4 (inch) and the stud beneath the speaker. I measured the distance and had the post cut to length at the Big Orange. Since it was nearby, I only bought one for $8 and change in case the improvement was insignificant. With the beam hammered into place I went upstairs and compared the reinforced loudspeaker with the other one, switching the speaker cable so I would be listening to the identical channel from each loudspeaker. Keep in mind that I had recently reached a new peak with the window treatments mentioned above.
Again, I was skeptical of huge improvements, and my skepticism was affirmed.
Blue Tube Goop
With the encouraging success of the window and floor treatments, I reached for the bottle. The application instructions made it sound like a cure-all medicine. I revisited Accentus Audio and re-read the product info, industry reviews (except the ones in Chinese) and analyzed the photos. From the photos, it looked like some people had been given liters of this stuff to paint their equipment. The AVM washes off with water when still wet, but must be scraped off-like, with a razor blade - when dried. I opted for the conservative approach of painting a half-inch band around the mid-section of the small signal tubes of one of my Manley Labs Mahi monoblocks. I thought about testing it on Albert Von Schweikert's $22,000 VAC Phi Beta, but it had to be returned before I could finish the testing. Just kidding, folks!!!
As with testing the posts beneath the loudspeakers, I could switch between the Mahis to compare the monaural sound of the treated tubes with the untreated ones. (I preferred to switch the cables rather than switching the tubes from one monoblock to the other). However, listening in mono gave me only a slight hint of improvement. I scraped the blue goop off the tubes, which was not only slightly difficult but also removed the labeling on the tube. After a long listening session with my compilation CD I painted the small signal tubes of both monoblocks and waited a half hour for them to thoroughly dry. Reviewing the compilation CD in stereo revealed most of the results that were so highly lauded on the website, but the magnitude of improvement was not as great as claimed. Was this because my system was already highly tweaked and the opportunity for improvement was small?
I thought about these results for a while then went to my file cabinet and pulled out the manual for my CAT preamp. Hmmm. I removed the ten Allen head machine screws, popped off the lid and removed the Herbies Audio Lab HAL-O tube dampers. Another trip through my CD told me the HAL-O dampers were contributing, as there was a noticeable degradation in focus. Not huge, but noticeable. As both the line stage and the phono stage of the CAT have an identical complement of tubes, I popped the lid once again and pulled just the line stage set for painting with the AVM. If necessary, I could swap the phono stage tubes to the line stage for comparison. I replaced the blue-banded tubes and screwed down the lid once again. I enjoy working with hand tools; it helps me bond with my equipment, which is much more satisfying to me, I suspect, than throwing huge sums of money into the system.
The AVM-treated tubes in the preamp made a much larger contribution than only painting the small signal tubes in the power amplifiers. Rather than reciting the audiophile equivalent of the sixteen kinds of snow in the Eskimo language, let me simply state that the focus was very noticeably improved, once again. And I remind you, these results occurred after the windows and floor were tweaked, and the system is almost entirely supported with Boston Audio Designs TunePlates and Sound Dead Steel Isofeet held in place for the most part with Boston Audio Designs carbon graphite footers. "How much better could it possibly get?" I ask myself.
I looked at the photos of heavily painted components and decided that I didn't really want to go any further as it would probably negatively affect the resale value of the gear. Add to that the prospect of scraping AVM off capacitors and connections on a circuit board was not the least bit exciting. If you want to do it with your gear, that is fine. I expect you will have excellent results.
I basically left it at that point and returned to writing, but the story continued. After a mentally and emotionally exhausting Super Bowl the next day, I retreated to the listening room to catch the last 20 minutes of Hearts of Space on NPR and lament the New England Patriots football tram loss. This particular evening the music kept pulling me away from the journal I was thumbing through. It was sounding significantly better than usual and almost as good as when I had the Phi Beta amplifier and the VR-4SR Mk2 speakers in the rig two weeks earlier. I was beginning to wonder if this was a side effect of the guacamole sauce when suddenly I remembered I had painted the tubes in the preamp. It is moments like this when my forgetfulness unwittingly creates a blind listening test that my original perceptions are unquestionably confirmed. Later that night I switched back to CDs and it seemed to sound even better than the previous day, suggesting that the effect improves as the material cures.
In the review section of the Accentus Audio site there is a link to my comments from the Montreal show where I suggest that I would use the AVM to tweak my tuner. Since this is a relatively inexpensive component that I intend to keep until the end of analog broadcasting, if not longer, I intend to press on with those plans. Furthermore, the guys at Audiyo.com, who are the distributors of AVM in Ontario and Quebec, Canada, sent me diagrams showing how best to treat certain power tubes, so that will be another direction to explore. Stay tuned for a follow-up review. In the mean time, AVM will have to suffice with my highest recommendation as one of the most cost effective tweaks available.
Addendum, April 2009: After this review was originally published, curiosity got the better of me and I tried the AVM on more pieces of equipment, as well as more extensive coverage. Two areas in particular stood out. First, painting the glass sleeve of the protective fuses in components was hugely effective. It is easy to scrape it off with your finger nail if you want to do an A-B comparison-or simply use a spare fuse. Second, the internal solder connections of the AC power input socket also benefited impressively with the AVM. I did this to several pieces of equipment-Sony CD player, Muse DAC, Sony tuner, CAT preamplifier and the Manley Mahi monoblocks.
More exciting than reviewing a high profile piece of gear is the opportunity to share my discovery of relatively inexpensive tweaks that contribute far more than their cost. Things that can put some fanfare into the rig of the common man, if you will. Reviews of the ERS paper and vibration absorbing devices such as the Boston Audio Designs Mat 1 and the Sound Dead Steel Sonphonon material are most dear to me. I was really tickled that PS Audio picked up on my suggestion to transform their Ultimate Outlet into the less expensive in-wall Soloist power conditioner.
The window, floor and AVM treatments offered in this review are real butt-kickers for me in two senses. First, the improvements they make are far in excess of their modest cost. A greater fool would go out and spend thousands of dollars on new components and likely still fall short of the improvements these tweaks bring. Secondly, I'm kicking my own butt for sitting on these tweaks for so long before actually trying them out. Heads up, gentlemen. Don't make the same mistake. Get out of your listening chair and get your act in gear.
Like I said above, this Bud's for you. Then, kick back and enjoy the music even more.