Welcome to my post CES 2010 article. Happily for me, but unhappily for you, I didn't attend this year's show. After spending three days perusing one of these annual events it takes me about three years to forget about how much I hate schmoozing with the salesmen who are trying to make me believe their product is the best thing since the Edison Diamond Disc. I know there are reviewers out there who attend every show they can and enjoy every minute of it. You can find many show reports here on Enjoy the Music.com at this link. I feel the same way about medical conventions, so it's not just high-end audio that does it. Therefore, while my compatriots will probably have lengthy columns discussing the newest and greatest, I won't.
Have just heard from Steve R. Rochlin, our illustrious editor, who has just returned today from CES 2010 event that the show was somewhat less than it was two years ago. Attendance of both exhibitors and buyers was less than expected with high-end audio is evolving to computers, something I've been preaching for several years. In addition, I really blew it last month. In order to get as much product into print as possible before the January CES, per request of the manufacturers who use the columns at the show, I reviewed all of the new product available to me in last month's article and thus left nothing for this month. In addition, there was supposed to be a follow-up on the newest Black Ravioli footers but they haven't arrived. Today's column will be a thought piece discussing the pros and cons of tweaks.
So what are tweaks? First, they are not mods, which are updates from equipment manufacturers who have found some circuit or wiring change that bring their equipment up to a new level. Neither are they interconnects or other wiring, shelving or other non-chassis equipment that are components by themselves. Wikipedia defines tweaks as "any small modifications intended to improve a system," which sounds just about right to me.
They can be anything from changing position of equipment to changing parts of the equipment's cabinets or feet, to changing internal parts, to changes in the room. Or, they can be changes in the system thought up by you or one of your compatriots. There's a multiplicity of them, with an infinite number of combinations. The majority will cause a change in the sound, either better or worse, but even the improvements may fade as one realizes that the sound was just different or the change was nonexistent and imagined. A few will cause a significant change far exceeding their cost, and those are the ones to keep. Others will immediately degrade the sound, but most will give an effect which at first is different but over a long term will be found to be non-significant.
While I've tried countless tweaks on my system over the years with results that varied from intolerable worsening to a significant improvement in the sound, few have succeeded in passing the "test of time," and are still in my system and are still felt to be worth their cost... at least to me.
Mea Culpa! There are several that I have recommended in this column that have fallen from favor and I no longer recommend. Several of those relate to disc playback, which I seldom do now as all of my discs except SACDs have been placed on hard drives. First, and most notorious, were the Golden Sound GSIC Intelligent Chip that was reviewed in AA Chapter 67, which seemed at the time to improve the sound of CD playback but to a minor extent that was completely overcome by hard drive playback. Also, while science still isn't able to explain all that occurs in the natural world, the manufacturer's explanation as to how they work is outlandish enough and the effect so modest that they are no longer used in my room.
Another product which worked but over the years has caused degradation of some discs was the Audio Desk System CD lathe, mentioned within AA Chapter 32. While the truing up of the discs by rounding off the edge did improve the sound, some of the discs have become unplayable due to disc rot from oxidation of the aluminum layer opened to the air. Then there were the various disc surface washing treatments that have come and gone over the years, too numerous to mention. With the improvement in digital playback mechanisms, their effect on playback has decreased to the point that unless there is a smudge on the disc, their action will probably be minimal.
On the other hand, many of the bought tweaks have definitely proven themselves and are still used in my system, even for as long a 20 + years. For instance, several of the products from Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio such as his Prelude Record Treatment, which is the best method that I know of for improving vinyl playback short of buying an expensive cartridge. And his High Definition Links (pictured above) are superb for cleaning up RF nasties before they reach your speakers, and are on every one of my system's 20 plus drivers.
Then there are the ER Audio Spatial Harmonizers wood platforms as obtained from Steve Klein at Sounds Of Silence. These are by far the best shelves I've had in my system and even work placed on top of Arcici's Suspense Rack a system which even Harry Pearson feels is the best rack system out there. Unhappily, the Russian manufacturers have used up all of the 100 plus year old Siberian forest wood and are no longer making them.
I am still using Shakti Stones, or, as they call them, electromagnetic stabilizers, which I obtained from Clark Johnsen way back in the early 80's, when his Listening Studio was the Boston magnet for high end tweakers, They have certainly shown their worth over the past 25 plus years, and are still available at their website.
Then there are the tweaks that are your own or someone else's bright idea. Remember, in high end audio, every change in the system will make a difference in the sound. Experimentation is what this column is all about and what makes this hobby fun. Just remember the tweaking is an end to a means, meaning increased enjoyment of the sound. Don't let it detract from your enjoyment of the music.
The first and cheapest, as it costs nothing, is learning the concept of absolute polarity and making up some system to make sure every recording is played back in the correct polarity. In nature there is only one sound polarity and that is what is produced by the instrument. Once we try to record and reproduce it the result can either be correct or 180 degrees out, which leads in a phase correct system to dulling, loose bass and loss of spatial information. On a balanced system one need only add a phase switch which reverses the pin two and three somewhere in the system. Unhappily on an unbalanced system one either must add another gain stage or reverse the speaker wires, a real drag. On the other hand the fix is easy, cheap, and works 3every time with phase correct recordings.
Then there are easy home tweaks that can be done for vibration control. Each of my pieces of equipment has some sort of control mechanism, such as sacks of lead shot weights purchased from a gun shop, or lead pucks, that will damp out both cabinet and airborne vibration that can intermodulate with the audio signal. These are used in tandem with feet, such as the Black Ravioli mentioned in last month's column, the ER Audio Spatial Harmonizers and Arcici suspense Rack as a system to block and damp out cabinet vibrations.
Every electrical connection in your system acts as resistor, and with buildup of oxides from the air can lead to sound degradation. Therefore every few months or at least once a year, one should thoroughly clean all the interconnect, speaker and AC line plugs with either Caig DeoxIT Gold or other metal cleaner, wash with distilled water, and then apply a material to fill the gap, such as Walker Audio SST Super Silver Paste to keep them free of oxides. You'll be amazed at the difference it will make to your system. Don't forget to also clean out all of the equipment connectors, fuses and tube pins with pipe cleaners and the above chemicals.
At the same time, try dressing your wires. No, I don't mean putting clothes on them, but elevating them off the floor stands and equipment, running AC lines as far as possible from interconnects and speaker cables, and when they have to cross, doing it at right angles to decrease interference.
If you have a turntable, get a jeweler's loupe and thoroughly examine your cartridge's diamond and stylus for dirt and defects. There are several cleaning solutions and brushes, but always remember to be extremely careful and wipe from back to front to prevent damage. If your turntable bearing lies in an oil bath, top it off, check the drive belt for tension and clean it with some rubbing alcohol or a dry cloth and check cartridge alignment. As the cartridge ages its suspension may sag which will change all of the alignment parameters. Clean off the cartridge and interconnect pins as they carry the smallest voltages in your system.
Finally, sit back and enjoy your system's rejuvenation and glory in its sound. Till next month... when I'll hopefully have more exciting things to discuss.