How To Setup and Op­ti­mize Your Au­dio Sys­tem

Tips of Get­ting the Best Sound Out of Your 2-Chan­nel Mu­sic Sys­tem

NOVO - - AUDIO URBAN LEGENDS - Roy Gre­gory Euro­pean Ed­i­tor, TheAu­dioBeat.com

It is a re­mark­able fact of hi-fi life, that peo­ple buy­ing au­dio sys­tems put a huge amount of ef­fort into select­ing the equip­ment that will even­tu­ally con­sti­tute their sys­tem – and hav­ing done so, con­sider the job done. It’s a ten­dency that has been re­in­forced by the pre­pon­der­ance of equip­ment re­views that ap­pear in mag­a­zines, which heap ad­di­tional em­pha­sis on to spe­cific equip­ment and its virtues. The role of a dealer as an ad­viser and in­staller has been marginal­ized, and the im­por­tance of sys­tem set up and what many cus­tomers con- sider to be an­cil­lar­ies (ca­bles, racks, etc.) has been be­lit­tled. Yet, in re­al­ity, while great ca­bles or sup­ports can’t make up for bad equip­ment, poorly cho­sen ca­bles and sup­ports can ef­fec­tively de­stroy the per­for­mance of even the best elec­tron­ics and speak­ers. Select­ing the elec­tronic boxes that will build an au­dio sys­tem doesn’t de­liver guar­an­teed per­for­mance: what it does de­liver is po­ten­tial per­for­mance – po­ten­tial that has to be re­al­ized through care­ful set-up and sys­tem op­ti­miza­tion.

It’s easy to un­der­es­ti­mate just what a dramatic im­pact set-up has on sys­tem per­for­mance. It re­ally is make or break. Yet you reg­u­larly hear cus­tomers say­ing things like, “It’s only a ca­ble – how can that make much dif­fer­ence?” Sim­ply swap one ca­ble in a sys­tem and it won’t – which is what helps breed the com­pla­cency. But, fol­low a few sim­ple set-up rules and you can trans­form the per­for­mance of al­most any sys­tem, re­gard­less of price.

The prob­lem is that know­ing this and ex­plain­ing it are two dif­fer­ent things. Brought up on an un­remit­ting diet of “Box

Is Best”, most cus­tomers are un­will­ing to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that they might have made a mis­step, or that their ex­pen­sive col­lec­tion of elec­tron­ics isn’t ac­tu­ally de­liv­er­ing the per­for­mance they’ve al­ready paid for. The best way to re­ally make this point is to demon­strate it, so with that in mind we ar­ranged a se­ries of Sys­tem Set-Up sem­i­nars at the 2012 Toronto Au­dio Video En­ter­tain­ment Show (known as TAVES). Laid out be­low are the ba­sic steps that we fol­lowed in those sem­i­nars – the A, B, C of sys­tem set-up if you like. This isn’t in­tended as a de­tailed set-up guide: rather, it’s an in­di­ca­tion of broad strategy and the steps you need to take if you are go­ing to re­ally hear what your elec­tron­ics and speak­ers can do. So let’s start at the be­gin­ning…

The Sys­tem and the Ini­tial Setup

What we were set­ting out to do was lead an au­di­ence through mul­ti­ple set-up steps in a lit­tle over an hour. That takes con­sid­er­able or­ga­ni­za­tion, and more than one set of iden­ti­cal elec­tron­ics, al­low­ing com­par­isons to be made be­tween dif­fer­ent sup­ports and ca­ble topolo­gies.

The sys­tem we started off with com­prised of the Si­mau­dio Moon 360D CD player, Si­mau­dio Moon 350P Pre-amp, Si­mau­dio Moon 400M Mono-blocs and the KEF Blade Loud­speak­ers.

Ca­bles: We used a mixed se­lec­tion of power cords from Nor­dost, vdH, Kim­ber, TCI and Mu­sic Works, along with a Mu­sic Works dis­tri­bu­tion block. In­ter­con­nects came from Ref­er­ence Ca­bles and Hovland, while the speaker ca­bles were a top of the line vdH from sev­eral years ago. The spe­cific iden­tity of the ca­bles wasn’t im­por­tant, just the fact that I had as many dif­fer­ent brands as pos­si­ble within a sin­gle sys­tem – that’s what did the dam­age, not whether or not these were good or bad ca­bles per se.

Rack: A welded steel Tar­get HF570 with glass shelves.

Mu­sic used - I used the fol­low­ing tracks to in­tro­duce the sys­tem: Ju­lia Fis­cher – Bach Par­tita No. 2 for solo vi­o­lin [Pen­ta­tone PTC 5186 074] Buddy Holly – True Love Ways [From The Orig­i­nal Master Tapes, Gef­fen UICY6045] Cat Stevens – Hard Headed Woman [Tea For The Tiller­man, DeLuxe Edi­tion] These sounded nice enough. Care­fully se­lected, not too dy­namic and good ba­sic record­ings, they sounded fairly ac­cept­able – which was re­ally the point. By choos­ing ma­te­rial care­fully, you can make al­most any sys­tem sound at least rea­son­able. Then I showed what the sys­tem wasn’t do­ing; the track used was the Las Cuevas De Mario by the Art Pep­per Quin­tet [Smack Up, Ana­logue Pro­duc­tions CAPJ 012]. Its deep, evenly paced bass line and ap­par­ently sim­ple rhyth­mic pat­terns quickly re­vealed the loose, dis­jointed bot­tom end, in­con­sis­tent dy­namic range and lack of spa­tial and tem­po­ral co­her­ence. Shorn of the rhyth­mic un­der­pin­ning so vi­tal to the track’s sense, it sim­ply fell apart – mu­si­cally repet­i­tive, turgid and bor­ing.

STEP 1

The first change we made was to move the speak­ers, each by about half an inch, to show the im­por­tance of pre­cise po­si­tion­ing.

As soon as we did this, the mu­sic locked to­gether. The bass gained shape and struc­ture, but more im­por­tantly, started to play in time with the pi­ano which it­self be­came more ur­gent and in­ci­sive. The drums took up their proper place, spa­tially and mu­si­cally, pro­vid­ing off-beat ac­cents and fills, so that when the brass en­tered, it was over and in re­sponse to, a firm rhyth­mic set­ting. Now, the band ac­tu­ally sounded like they were play­ing to­gether and the track started to take on some mu­si­cal sense and shape.

Speaker place­ment is ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal to per­for­mance, bal­anc­ing the bot­tom end of the speak­ers against the bass re­in­force­ment pro­vided by the room. Equally im­por­tant to large speak­ers (which don’t need too much re­in­force­ment) and small speak­ers (that need as much as pos­si­ble) it is cru­cial to achiev­ing con­vinc­ing weight, bal­ance and in­te­gra­tion. If your speak­ers are go­ing to sound as good as they can, you re­ally need to work on their set-up. But the re­ally im­por­tant point to re­al­ize is that un­til your speak­ers are po­si­tioned “just so”, they will hide the in­ad­e­qua­cies of the rest of the sys­tem – and the ben­e­fits of any changes you make to over­come them. Our 2013 TAVES sem­i­nars cov­ered speaker set up specif­i­cally, and you can read about it at http://www.theau­diobeat. com/blog/sys­tem_se­tup_sem­i­nars.htm.

STEP 2

We lifted the speak­ers, each on a quar­tet of Still­points Ul­tra 5 feet/bases. As well as im­prov­ing cou­pling to the floor, these al­lowed us to set the ver­ti­cal and rake an­gles for the KEF Blade speak­ers.

The pur­pose of this step was to open the win­dow on sys­tem per­for­mance as wide as pos­si­ble, al­low­ing us to re­ally hear the im­pact of changes made up­stream. Un­for­tu­nately, open­ing the win­dow wide doesn’t mean you’ll like the view. Al­though the sound im­proved in a num­ber of ways (more shape and tex­ture to the bass, more de­tail and com­plex­ity to the pi­ano and drums), the over­all co­her­ence suf­fered. For the first time, we could ap­pre­ci­ate just how dis­jointed the com­bi­na­tion of rack, elec­tron­ics and ca­bles re­ally was. The bass be­came to­tally de­tached, the drums lost their tim­ing and the brass lines had no con­nec­tion to the “rhythm” at all.

STEP 3

We changed to the se­cond set of elec­tron­ics, po­si­tioned on a care­fully lev­eled Quadraspire Q4 Evo rack and wired up with a com­plete set of Nor­dost Heim­dall 2 ca­bles, from wall socket to speaker bind­ing posts, along with a Qbase QB8 dis­tri­bu­tion block. The top shelf of the rack, used for the CD player was made of MDF, while the other shelves were made of lam­i­nated and grooved bam­boo.

This brought ev­ery­thing back to­gether,

lock­ing the rhythm sec­tion into step, adding shape and em­pha­sis to the brass lines. For the first time you could sep­a­rate the two brass in­stru­ments, while the bass moved from plod­ding to set­ting the tempo. The im­prove­ment in tem­po­ral, spa­tial and mu­si­cal co­her­ence was huge; the band might have sounded smaller and more com­pact, but at least they were all in the same space, play­ing the same tune at the same time.

STEP 4

We placed three small hard­wood blocks un­der each of the elec­tron­ics, by-pass­ing the feet and im­prov­ing their cou­pling to the sup­port­ing sur­face, al­low­ing in­ter­nally gen­er­ated me­chan­i­cal en­ergy to es­cape from the chas­sis.

Pro­vid­ing an exit path for the in­ter­nal en­ergy cleaned up the sig­nal dra­mat­i­cally. Sep­a­ra­tion and clar­ity of the in­stru­ments im­proved dra­mat­i­cally, as did their dy­namic range and the crisp­ness of the play­ing. It sim­ply sounded like a bet­ter band hav­ing a lot more fun.

STEP 5

We moved the CD player (along with its three wood blocks) from the top, MDF shelf, down one step to a bam­boo shelf, show­ing just how im­por­tant the sup­port­ing shelf be­comes, once you cou­ple the equip­ment prop­erly.

Clean­ing up the sig­nal gen­er­ated by the CD player brought an even crisper qual­ity to the sound and play­ing. What had orig­i­nally seemed slug­gish and lazy when we first played it now had an in­ci­sive, di­rected qual­ity, a sense of progress and pur­pose that made it much more en­gag­ing and mu­si­cally rel­e­vant.

TRACK CHANGE

Hav­ing es­tab­lished a good, ba­sic foun­da­tion (me­chan­i­cal and elec­tri­cal) for the sys­tem, we once again changed tracks, this time to high­light dif­fer­ences in the next step –

Shawn Colvin – The Facts About Jimmy [A Few Small Re­pairs, Columbia 454327 2] is a good, stu­dio pop record­ing. It is more com­plex, more dy­namic and re­quires more ob­vi­ously ex­pres­sive qual­i­ties than the Art Pep­per track.

STEP 6

We re­placed the wood blocks with trios of Still­points Mini Ul­tras. These not only im­proved the cou­pling of elec­tron­ics to shelves, but in­creased the con­sis­tency of sup­port, with Still­points tech­nol­ogy now be­ing used un­der both the elec­tron­ics AND the loud­speak­ers.

This was a big change! Hav­ing es­tab­lished a de­cent foun­da­tion (me­chan­i­cal and elec­tri­cal) for the sys­tem, we could start to build on and ex­ploit that sta­bil­ity. The vo­cals were much more nat­u­ral and ex­pres­sive, the drum­mer was now clearly hu­man (rather than a drum ma­chine) and the sheer space and va­ri­ety of in­stru­ments

Roy Gre­gory of www.TheAu­dioBeat.com pre­sent­ing a sem­i­nar about how to setup and op­ti­mize your au­dio sys­tem.

Still­points Ul­tra5, Ul­tra SS and Ul­tra Mini feet/bases.

Dur­ing the sem­i­nars, Roy used two sets of iden­ti­cal elec­tron­ics, al­low­ing com­par­isons to be made be­tween dif­fer­ent sup­ports and ca­ble topolo­gies.

Left: The Qbase QB8 dis­tri­bu­tion block. Right: A Nor­dost Heim­dall 2 power ca­ble.

Quadraspire Q4 Evo Au­dio Rack

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