Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Three Foundational Pillars of ANY Audio System

I am the Tweek Geek. Yes, I sell those controversial items that enhance the performance of your audio system.  Tweaks are  misunderstood, misused, and the definition of what an audio tweak is can be different for every audiophile you ask.

Here is where I stand on the matter.

  • Audio cables are not tweaks - Their careful selection is as important as the components you select. Try not to use their tonal characteristics as compensation for weaknesses in other components, as that will lead you down a very expensive rabbit hole in the long run. Where to start? Interconnects from your source component to your preamp, integrated etc. will have the greatest effect, then speaker cables, then power cords. 
  • Power conditioning is not a tweak - Clean power is essential for an audio component to perform at it's best.  That being said, sometimes a component sounds best when plugged directly into the wall receptacle. Usually the circuit the component is plugged into is a dedicated line, and I have also found that some manufacturers really pay attention to their power supplies. Often times these components benefit less from power conditioning. Usually this comes with a hefty price tag, and even then a high price is not a guarantee of a well filtered, clean power generating power supply. 
  • Experimentation is key - Never stop experimenting, trying, and learning new things. When you think you know it all, you're in trouble.
  • Tweaks are finishing touches, not bandaids - Boom. Bet ya didn't see that one coming. A guy that sells tweaks telling you he can't solve all of your problems with his wares?

    Tweaks are fine tuning devices, meant to reduce the last bit of noise, or get that final bit of resolution and "realness" from your system. Tweaks for the most part work on very small, incremental, compounding improvements. Things that the average person could care less about, but things that we as audiophiles care very deeply about. An effective series of tweaks deepens our connection to the music.

    HOWEVER, before experimenting with tweaks, I highly recommend getting the following 3 "pillars" established in your system and listening room in order to properly and effectively evaluate changes or tweaks you make to your system.

If you do not have these 3 "pillars" in place, you are not ready to put finishing touches on your system. Tweaks will only be bandaids until you address the following :

1. Clean Power 

A single, dedicated AC circuit helps deliver more current, and less noisy power to your audio components. It won't eliminate all noise, not even close. But it does put a little "distance" between your audio system and the other devices in your home. A dedicated line is still vulnerable to electrical noise pollution that leaks onto the grid from the outside world, radio frequency Interference from wifi, cell phones, etc. and from the noise generated by the audio components themselves. Placing all of your audio components on a single circuit also lowers the chances of a noisy ground loop plaguing your system.

For some components, this may be enough, but for the majority of components further noise reduction by way of power conditioning will help. But before we go there, Why not try reducing the electrical noise coming in to  your house from the outside grid, and also from within the house to your breaker box?  So, in order here is what I recommend for creating clean power to your audio system.
  • A dedicated line feeding your audio system
  • Noise filtration on the power coming in to your home
  • Noise filtration on the circuits in your home going back to the main breaker box
  • Noise filtration/conditioning of the power feeding your audio components directly

2. An Acoustically Friendly Room

You need a room that is friendly to listening to music. One that is not too absorptive, and one that is not too reflective. Too much absorption and the sound is lifeless and dead. Oddly enough, loudspeakers are tested in an anechoic chamber. No reflected sound occurs in an anechoic chamber, and therefore only the sound the loudspeaker makes is measured. That's great for taking measurements, but some people take this logic to their listening room and try to make it as absorptive as possible. Not a good idea. You need a combination of absorption and diffusion. Diffusion is the controlled scattering of soundwaves. You do not want sound waves bouncing off a wall directly to your ears. It's better for the sound to be scattered in random directions. This allows for the sound radiating from your loudspeakers to reach your ears before any direct reflected sound can reach your ears. Reflected sound when it reaches a high enough amplitude can smear the timing of the original signal, leading to a blurred stereo image and a smearing of fine detail.

Acoustic Geometry has made a great series of videos on acoustics that I highly recommend you watch.

3. Speaker Placement

Not all of us have the luxury of a dedicated listening room, but here are some minimum guidelines for getting your speakers to sound as good as possible in your space.
  • Avoid placing your speakers close to walls behind or to the sides of them. Get your speakers out in to the room. This will help to create a sense of depth in the stereo image, and will help to mitigate boomy bass.
  • If your room is rectangular, try placing them along the shorter wall first. Again, this helps with bass frequencies.
  • If your room is square, try placing your speakers off-center or at an angle to the wall behind them. This will help mitigate standing waves.
  • A good ratio for speaker width to listening position is 1 (width between the centers of speaker front baffles) to 1.3 (distance from speaker baffles to your ears). So if you have your speakers 8' apart, try placing your listening position at 10' 3".
  • Speakers that are of equal distance to the listening position have proper phase and timing with one another. 
Resources for finer placement of your speakers

After You Have Your Pillars In Place

Once you have your foundational pillars in place....Relax. Get to know your system. Enjoy it for awhile. Become so familiar with it that when you do bring in a new component, accessory or tweak that you will be able to discern how it is interacting with you, your room and your system. This will help you make better decisions on what new products might get you closer to your idea of "audio nirvana". 

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