[SoundStage!]Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
May 1998

Systemizing Month

This month is systemizing month. I’m just going to ramble on until I run out of space. Some of items will be brief, without detailed explanations. Some of them CAN be explained, while others are just not explainable based on what we know and can measure today. You may find the info a little short of humor and literary aspirations, but I think you’ll find some of the suggestions, ideas, and concepts sufficiently amusing and valuable for you to plow right on through.

The rule of systemizing: Everything matters

This doesn’t mean "most things" or "some things" matter, it literally means EVERYTHING MATTERS. Humidity, barometric pressure, temperature, the room size, the materials the room is made from, every article/item in the room from pillows to coffee tables to lamps, whether your cables and cords rest on the floor or not, what material(s) are in your rack shelves, whether you wear your glasses while listening or not (better sound without), your AC power…all of this stuff matters.

Keep everything matters in mind and you’ll eventually get a handle on systemizing. One reason, possibly the only reason, that everything matters is because everything resonates differently or causes things in your system to resonate differently. In fact, you can substantially change the "sound" of individual wires, individual components and your room by changing things, adding things, or removing things.

Feet Beautiful Feet or The Audiophile Podiatrist

There is no universally perfect "foot" for any piece of audio component. They all sound different because they all have different resonant signatures and different contact patches with the component and the shelf. Cones do not isolate anything—they couple. Never believe anybody selling cones who claims their cones isolate. Cones couple the component to whatever is under it. If the shelf under a cone vibrates, vibrations travel UP the cone just fine, thank you. Vibrations from the equipment also travel down the cone to the shelf… cones "conduct" in two directions period. There is no "diode effect" from cones. You do minimize the contact patch with the shelf on the pointy end and that will change the sonic signature of the cone compared to a cylinder or cube, but nobody knows for sure whether a cylinder, cone or cube would sound best in your system. Does this mean you don’t need or want cones? No!

What you may not want is having the same cone under every component. You may be better off with five different kinds of cones or other types of feet that you can move around to different components and find which works best in each location. In fact, I encourage audiophiles to "collect" different kinds of feet—cones, pucks, soft balls, hard balls (metal bearings or marbles, etc.), squishy rubber feet, metal, wood, ceramic, etc. The more different types you accumulate, the more tuning opportunities you have. Forget the quest for the "perfect foot" that is just right for every component. What you need to do is think of different kinds of feet as colors in your artist’s palette. But instead of creating a painting, you are going to use the palette of different resonances possessed by different kinds of feet to create a pleasurable soundscape in your listening room. You do this by using different materials with different components. If you use too much red in a painting, you overpower the other colors. If you use only one kind of foot in your system, you can end up with a sonic signature that is quite overpowering without realizing just how pervasive that coloration is until you try some alternatives.

If you are on a budget, you can do all kinds of clever stuff for feet. Get some hardwood dowels or "sticks" and cut pieces to the same length; use three cylinders or blocks for feet. Each kind of wood you try will have a different sonic signature. Experiment until you find the sound you like. Cut blocks to about 2" x 1.5" x 3/4". Smaller blocks or cylinders will affect highs more; larger blocks or cylinders will affect lows more, but don’t bother going more than 4" in length or so. You should also experiment with the three different sides of the block under components since the size of the contact patch will change significantly.

There is no one "magic" wood. Some may try to convince you that ebony is the only proper wood for this purpose, but this is just not true. Ebony might be perfect for your system, but it just as easily might not. Furthermore, too much of any one kind of wood in your system could tilt the balance a little too far in one direction. Using a combination of different metal, wood, ceramic and elastomer feet under components will spread out resonances so that there are no build-ups in any one frequency range.

Suggestions for types of wood to use, stolen shamelessly from Mike VansEvers (vans@tampa.mindspring.com) who is doing pioneering work in this arena and who will gladly sell wood blocks for $10 each to cover materials, finishing, shipping and a little profit: pernambuco, olive, zebra, teak, oak, maple, basswood, lignum vitae, ebony, poplar; bloodwood, amarillo. Mike’s publication on tuning systems with wood blocks is constantly being updated and is an excellent primer on the subject. Surface finish of the wood blocks or cylinders affects the sound of the wood significantly. No fancy surface finish is required, but you probably want to lightly sand all surfaces to a uniform finish. Varnishing or applying tung oil or wax dramatically alters the resonant properties of the wood, which in turn alters what you hear. Messing with surface finish is not required, but it could be interesting if you want to experiment further.

Fine tuning system sound—more ways to use the resonance palette

The wood blocks mentioned above—they are also about the most freak-out inducing-system fine-tuners I have ever encountered. Place a block on top of any component and you will change the sound you hear. This includes CD players, DACs, CD transports, preamps, amps, turntables, PLCs (power line conditioners—yes, really!), turntables, surround decoders, laserdisc players, etc. Using the wood blocks to raise interconnects and/or speaker cables and/or power cables off the floor is yet another system-tuning opportunity that never ceases to amaze people. That CD player you have, is it just a little too analytical in the midrange? Try a teak block on top. That preamp just a little lightweight on the top end? Try an ebony block. System sounds a little cloudy? Raise all the power cords off the floor using zebra blocks. In many cases you won’t even know colorations exist in your system until you start experimenting.

The only bad thing about this tuning capability is that there are thousands of different woods available and infinite numbers of shapes and sizes to put them in—and they will all sound a little different. Don’t worry about it; you can get close enough without sweating the millionth level of detail. Don’t assume the list of wood types above is somehow magical. If you can’t locate woods with those names in your area, try what is available to you. The only thing I’ve noticed with wood is that pine seems to not be very attractive-sounding as wood blocks go. I haven’t experimented with spruce yet, but it could be an excellent tuning tool since it is often used in the manufacture of string instruments.

Things to remember about using wood blocks or cylinders to tune a system:

  • Different types of wood sound different; some have multiple resonances, and some affect highs, mids or lows more than other frequencies.
  • Different sizes of block/cylinders sound different (smaller ones affect highs more, and larger ones affect lows more).
  • Blocks/cylinders can be used for feet or on top of components to fine-tune the sound.
  • Using only one kind of wood everywhere in your system is probably NOT the right thing to do because you will exaggerate the sonic signature of that wood. In other words, too much of a good thing can be bad.
  • You can combine multiple kinds of wood (or use different sizes of the same wood) on a single component to get the sound where you want it to be if a single type of wood isn’t quite getting there.
  • Other materials can work too. Pieces of aluminum foil, pieces of brass or aluminum sheet, etc. Perhaps pieces of copper sheet also. Steel, tin, plastics and rubber tend to not have particularly complimentary resonant signatures.
  • Is the effect of placing a tuning block on top of a component helpful, but too big of a change? Put the block on the shelf instead of on the component.
  • Think your expensive components won’t be affected sonically by things like this? Ha! Mostly they will. If the component is absolutely huge and massive the effect will be less, but it will still be audible.

Power

When it comes to the quality of the electrical audio signal in your system, power is everything. Power is the raw material for front-end component signals, for the preamp signal and for the amp signal. Power-line conditioners (PLCs) should not be considered "optional" or "add-ons." There is usually going to be some PLC that will make any system sound quite a bit better. Finding one that does this for your system is the problem. The PLC that works for the dealer or for your audiophile buddy may do nothing—or even be worse than nothing—in your system. Mistrust anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

Power cords matter too. Like with PLCs, nobody can tell you the right power cord for your components. In fact, using the same power cord on every component may not be the right thing to do. I have an amp that sounds great with a power cord that doesn’t work well on other components. If you ever find yourself with surplus power cords and are thinking about selling them off, think again. Like collecting feet, hanging on to power cords you aren’t presently using can have unanticipated benefits at some point in the future.

CD players and transports

In systems with sufficiently high performance, I find that a specific set of "treatments" of the CD improves sonics enough to justify the modest cost and effort. After trying a lot of different "CD stuff" I find the following treatment suite to give me the most return for the least effort and lowest cost:

  • Use an optical surface treatment like Optrix, Reveal or one of the others. Re-treatment is not needed very often unless you are a careless CD handler and need to clean fingerprints, etc.
  • Treat the CD to eliminate static using Nordost ECO-3 or Static Guard (grocery-store item). Apply the anti-static material on the label side of the CD. This treatment slowly dissipates over 5 or 10 days and has to be repeated.
  • Use a good CD mat—unless your transport mechanism won’t work with one. Different transports seem to like different mats. If you tried an AudioPrism CD Blacklight and got fed up with mats because yours curls up and rubs on the transport, know that AudioPrism has solved the problem with the Gen. 2 CD Blacklight—no more curling. Mats work. The CD Blacklight glows in the dark if exposed to strong light. This slightly helps sonics but is pretty minor. I don’t bother with "charging" the CD Blacklight to make it glow; just using the mat gives the most improvement.

If you do those three things, you can pretty much forget about degaussing and spinning "clarifiers." In fact, my experience is that a CD treated as above sounds worse if you degauss or "clarify" it.

Isolating the digital front-end with an air isolation platform is a definite step forward sonically. Putting a damping device/platform under the digital component and on top of the air isolation device is another step forward. Selecting the right "foot" to couple the digital front-end component to the isolation/damping device is the final not-to-be-overlooked step.

Preamp

I’m going to describe the preamp setup that I have gravitated to over a number of years with the same preamp (and the same manufacturer’s preamps for a number of years before that). This happens to be an Audible Illusions Modulus 3A, a well-known tube preamp. However, a lot of the setup information is generic to preamps in general.

  • Here again, an isolation and damping setup under the preamp is invaluable. You can purchase commercial products or use some of the DIY ideas that have appeared here in SoundStage! from me, Greg Smith, Greg Weaver, and possibly others.
  • Isolation and damping under the external power supply is also quite helpful. If you really are adventurous and capable, open the external power supply (or the preamp if it is all in one box) and remove the screws holding the transformer. Now do something to isolate the transformer from the chassis. This could be a small sand-filled baggie (watch the headroom, you still have to get the lid back on), a piece of bubble wrap, two or three layers of felt. Be creative. And remember not to transport the preamp after doing this unless you have re-secured the transformer.
  • Experiment with different feet under the preamp and under the power supply. Do not treat the power supply like a second-class citizen. The power supply should not be left sitting on the carpet—this is probably the worst possible location sonically.
  • In the AI M3A there are four capacitors in the line stage which can be switched "in" or "out" of the circuit with small switches inside the preamp. If you think your system sounds a little dark or a little slow, perhaps a little reigned in, you probably need to switch these four capacitors "out" of the circuit. The factory ships the switches set to the "in" position so the preamp is compatible with a wide range of components which may not be among the best available. However, if your speakers, amp and wires are sufficiently good, you’ll be a lot happier with these capacitors removed from the circuit. If you think this is too much for you to do on your own, take the M3A to the dealer. Beware that there are potentially fatal voltages inside the AI M3A; don’t open it if you don’t know what you are doing. If you do open it, give the power supply five minutes to discharge completely after unplugging the preamp from the wall. The M3A is not "off" when the power switch is "off"; you must unplug it from the wall to remove power source.
  • It is possible to fine tune the feet. I liked brass cones except for a small upper-midrange emphasis. Putting some electrical tape on the top surface of the cone decoupled the brass-to-chassis interface and resulted in a nice little sonic improvement for almost no cost. I’m not saying you need to do the same thing to your brass cones—you might or might not. What is more important here is the concept of not having to accept what the foot or other device does right out of the box if it doesn’t suit your sonic preference. One component I own sounds fantastic with double-sided foam tape on top of the cone. This has a side-benefit of keeping the feet stuck to the component. I never have to re-set the component on the cones as you occasionally must when using the cones "loose."
  • The M3A has 100K resistors in series with the CD and DAT inputs. If you can adjust the output level of your digital front end to something close to 1 volt (2 volts to 3 volts is common as shipped), do it then move the CD or DAT connection to the AUX or VIDEO inputs to the M3A. AUX and VIDEO on the M3A do not have 100K resistors. You should get a nice improvement in dynamics and clarity.
  • Loosen all the screws on the chassis you can get to and re-tighten them so that they are snug, but not tight. For some reason, over-tightened screws harm the sound. Loose screws are also not good sounding. There is a point in between too tight and too loose where the component will sound noticeably better. I’ve learned where that point is from experimenting for many years, so I don’t even think about it anymore, I just set screws to that mid-point and don’t worry too much. Some components are delivered with screws quite tight—and I suppose if I were a manufacturer, I’d do the same thing to insure shipping didn’t loosen things up. But after shipping is over with, we have a shot at getting better sound if we manage this little detail correctly.
  • If you are using old tubes (those made in the ‘70s or earlier), clean the pins with liquid silver or brass polish before use. Be certain to remove all polish residue with multiple wet cleanings of the pins after use of the polish. Pipe cleaners are an invaluable tool for cleaning tube pins. All tube pins (new tubes or old tubes) should be treated with a contact preserver before use. I like Caig Labs ProGold (www.caig.com; Caig’s site includes a "dealer finder," and ProGold is available from several high-end mail-order houses too). ProGold costs about $17 for a 5.5-ounce spray can that will treat tube pins, RCA jacks and spade connectors literally for years. ProGold is a contact preserver, unlike audiophile cleaners which only clean and do nothing to preserve the contact. ProGold stays on the contact for years so there is no need to re-clean contacts every six months. Put some ProGold on the contacts in the tube socket the first time. After that, replacing tubes should keep the contacts in the socket coated with ProGold as long as you are treating the replacement tubes.
  • Experiment with tube dampers. 3M tube dampers work well in the AI M3A if placed right at the bottom edge of the silver plating at the top of the tube. However, if placed lower on the tube or on hotter-running tubes, the 3M dampers physically harden over time and sound worse. There are other tube dampers out there too. I would avoid devices that cover the sides of the tube that are not heat sink devices since these sleeve-like devices make the tube run hotter. For budget-conscious audiophiles, make "tube hats" from Fun-Tak or Blue-Tak flexible adhesive. If the tube doesn’t run scalding hot, a little Tak dunce cap on the top of the tube makes an effective damper. Don’t let the Tak get on the sides of the tubes, keep it on top. Don’t use Tak on hot-running tubes like the big output tubes in amplifiers. If the input tubes are hot but not burning hot to the touch on the top surface, those surfaces are candidates for tube Tak-hats.

Amplifier

Here we have one of the more misunderstood system components. I’ve grown addicted to isolation/damping platforms for amplifiers. I’ve had perhaps seven different amps here in the last 18 months. Isolation and damping bases were tried under all of them and every one of them was improved significantly. Specifically, I’m using the Bright Star Air Mass and Big Rock. If the amp has a top cover, I also use the Bright Star Little Rock on top. From a $300 Adcom amp to $10,000 triode monoblocks, every single amp has sounded noticeably better when supported with an isolation and damping setup. I use a spiked Michael Green amp tuning board (platform) as a stable starting point because setting the Big Rock/Air Mass on the floor does not sound as good.

The power cord for the amp is a critical thing. The amp power cord is the one most likely to be different than the cords for your other components. The amp does some nasty things in the current domain and the cord that keeps up with that best is likely to be the one that sounds the best.

Don’t over-tighten connections at the binding posts. Tight is OK; over-tight makes the sound seem pinched. (I know, I know. This sounds stupid/impossible.) If you use a socket wrench to tighten the posts, you might be getting them too tight. My comments about the chassis screws being over-tight in preamps applies to amps also. Snug is good; over-tight is not good. Because amps often run a bit warm, screws can loosen over time from warm up and cool down cycles. Recheck screws every six months or so to ensure they are snug but not too tight.

Isolating the power transformer from the chassis of the amp is also a sure-fire sonic improvement. A few amps incorporate good isolation of the transformer, but most do not. Torroidal transformers are most often mounted to the chassis with a rubber mat under the torroid and another rubber mat on top of it. The torroid sandwich is squeezed down onto the chassis with a bolt through the center of the torroid and a plate on top. Isolating the transformer raises sound quality another notch. Use care if you undertake this, amp transformers are often quite large and heavy. Amp power supplies can store large amounts of energy also. Be certain to run down (discharge) the power supply by unplugging the amp while music is playing, then wait for another 5 minutes or so. Suitable isolation materials are: small inner tube (requires a lot of internal headroom in the amp and it will have to be pumped up every four to six months or it will go flat); zip lock baggie with sand inside (taped up to prevent sand leakage); bubble wrap (will have to be replaced every three to six months because air will be squeezed out of the bubbles by the weight of the transformer); two or three layers of felt from a fabric store. There may be other ways to do it too.

Speakers

Those spikes on your speakers—you think the ones that came with the speakers are the best or that no other spike will make a difference? Ha again! I thought the same thing until I changed from aluminum Tip Toes to brass AudioPoints. I’m tempted to say night-and-day difference, but some of you would think I was exaggerating. The spikes under your speakers do affect sonics in a big way. In my system, the brass AudioPoints simply killed the sound of the Tip Toes, so the AudioPoints remain on the speakers and the Tip Toes sit in the cabinet waiting for some future use.

Screws loosen up in speakers to alarming degree. If your speaker includes some kind of brace, base or stand you should check the tightness of the screws regularly when the product is new, perhaps weekly. As you gain confidence that the screws are staying tight, you can spread out the inspections.

Screws that hold drivers to the speaker enclosure should generally be snug. Over-tightening can strip screw holes into the MDF enclosure so use care when tightening driver screws. Driver screws should also all be tightened equally. Having some screws tighter than others can cause problems. This is where a torque wrench comes in handy, even if it is a DIY jury-rig job like a fish scale attached to the handle of a socket wrench. You may find that the screws holding the drivers into the speaker enclosure loosen up on a weekly basis when the speaker is new. Regular snugging of these screws will eventually result in them staying snug over long periods of time. Over-tightening the driver screws should be avoided at all costs.

Light

Light can be an unrecognized enemy. Tubes are light sensitive. Preamp tubes, phono stage tubes and the input tubes in amplifiers should be protected from external light. Sunlight is the most-likely-to-be-audible source because it is so bright compared to artificial sources. But even bright room lights in a darkened room can produce enough light to raise the noise floor of the tubed component a few decibels. Low levels of room lighting are unlikely to cause problems.

There are CD players and transports which have clear "lids" on them. This may look cool, but it’s unfortunate design choice since full spectrum external light sonically degrades the sound of CDs being played. This is easy to illustrate. Find something that blocks light completely that can be placed over the transparent lid easily without touching the CD player or transport (remember anything coming in contact with the CD player or transport will change the sound due to resonance changes alone). Listen to music while someone covers and uncovers the transparent lid. With light coming through the lid, the sound is thinner, grayer, cloudier. With the light removed, the sound is more transparent with quieter backgrounds. The oddest thing of all is that if you put green or blue light through the transparent lid, the sound seems to be better than when no light gets through. I can’t even begin to explain why this might be true.

OK, that’s about all the space I’m allowed for this month. I’ll be happy to discuss the finer points of everything matters in the SoundStage! Talk Online area. If you have questions, leave them in Talk Online and I’ll check in regularly and post replies that hopefully will help you get a better handle on just how much everything matters.

...Doug Blackburn
db@soundstage.com

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