Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Getting Your System (And Yourself) Tweak Ready

How to Get Your System (& Yourself) Tweak Ready

Why This? Why Now? 

My own experimentation, plus years of feedback from many customers who have implemented many different tweaks (successfully and unsuccessfully) has prompted me to write a bit on the nature of audio tweaks and getting your system to a point where you should be able to discern differences.

The Nature of Tweaks

We call them tweaks because 1) they are usually unconventional 2) the improvements may be subtle and 3) sometimes they don't work as expected. They are the finishing touches to a well put together system and listening environment. They can take your listening experience to new heights, and that is the goal.

A word of advice: If someone is selling an audio tweak and does not offer a money back guarantee, run. Even if they demonstrate it at a show, offering "show discounts", don't be tempted if there is no return policy.

Becoming Tweak Ready

I cover much this topic in a previous blog called The Three Foundational pillars of ANY Audio System. Below are excerpts from that post:

Pillar 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

Pillar 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.

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. 
In summary, Clean power, proper speaker placement, and acoustic treatment of the listening environment will set one up to more accurately evaluate changes to their audio system. I consider these three things step one in building a great audio system.

Getting Yourself Tweak Ready

Dark Matter Technology Wallflowers

Once you have your audio system in place and you are confident that the sound you have is good for the long haul. Get familiar with your system, and get a playlist/set list of songs that you can use as your reference tracks. Keep notes on what you are hearing on your reference songs. Why you chose the song, what to listen for. Every recording has different strengths. Female vocals, guitar, string bass, air and space. Really get into the nuances and subtleties of these. Commit them to your long term memory (not your auditory memory silly. That's impossible). Once you have the subtleties of your playlist songs committed to memory you are "tweak ready". You will be able to evaluate and discern changes to your audio system with much more confidence.

Bybee's Internal Quantum Signal Enhancer is a popular tweak.

Testing Tweaks

Simple right? Install, listen to test tracks, reject or accept right? Not exactly. It can take many days to determine if an audio tweak is adding to the listening experience or not. Here is how I usually go about testing a tweak in my system:
  1. Listen to system for an hour or so, going over the test tracks and letting my mind and ears get into listening mode.
  2. Insert the tweak. Listen for any immediate changes. If no immediate changes, leave the room and come back in 30 minutes, an hour, 24 hours. The thing is don't make a snap judgement. Some of my best tweaks took time to settle in and do their thing. Sometimes the change is subtle, and the difference won't be heard until step 3.
  3. Remove the tweak and listen. Again much like above. If you don't hear a change upon immediate removal, try leaving and coming back at different time intervals to see if any change is evident.
If you hear a change, wait. Sometimes the change is merely different, and not necessarily better. Discerning this again takes time. Live with the tweak in the system for several days. If it continues to improve your listening experience, it's a safe bet that the tweak is for you. Sometimes listening over several days reveals the "improvement" causes listening fatigue over time.

By following this road map, and making your system tweak ready, should have every confidence in your system's abilities to discern the effectiveness of any tweaks you may be tempted to try in the future. Not only that, your system should sound darn good just as it is. But alas, the audiophile is not just an enthusiast, but also an explorer and mad scientist. Forever pushing the boundaries of what is sonically possible. 

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