How To Setup and Optimize Your Audio System
Tips of Getting the Best Sound Out of Your 2-Channel Music System
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Stillpoints Ultra5, Ultra SS and Ultra Mini feet/bases.
Roy Gregory of www.TheAudioBeat.com presenting a seminar about how to setup and optimize your audio system.
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