|Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
A guy I once knew, a lawyer by trade, had a need for speed. He owned a Porsche 911 and raced it at car-club meets. A decent driver, he ran quick laps around Moroso racetrack in West Palm Beach, Florida. But he always wanted to go faster. He became intrigued with after-market modifications to improve his cars performance. He read about special parts he could order, evaluated performance claims, equated each tweak to a numerical increase in horsepower and then toted up the anticipated gains:
Guderian cam = 12 HP
Total improvement = 85 horsepower
My friend lovingly referred to this list as the Panzer Package because Ferdinand Porsche had designed tanks for the Wehrmacht. Tanks being fearsome, they symbolized the terror he hoped to strike in the hearts of fellow Porsche owners. Over a six-month period, C.J. the lawyer purchased and installed the entire group of modifications. His attitude was: in for a penny, in for a pound. Its a shame I could never convince him to buy hi-fi. He had the right outlook.
In stock configuration, the Porsche produced 210 horsepower in a 2600-pound vehicle. C.J. figured that upping the potency by 40% would turn the car into a comet on wheels. Normally, he could flog his car on the track in a minute and 42 seconds. With 85 more horsepower on hand, C.J. hoped to bring the time down by five seconds to 1:37, truly fast running.
After the Panzer Package was installed, the Porsche turned a time of 1:40, which would normally be something to cheer about. But to C.J,. shading two seconds off the chart was a disappointment. An equally adept driver in a newer 911, rated at 28 horsepower more, was as quick around the track as he was. If he had taken his 911 and the $6200 cost of the Panzer Package to a Porsche dealer (www.us.porsche.com), he could have traded up to a newer, faster 911 with air-conditioning and a better radio.
As it turned out, the lawyers logic was in error. The arithmetic of the modifications did not add up. If he had simply substituted the Guderian cam, he might have gained 12 horsepower, increasing his lap times by a full second -- not bad for an $800 investment. Or if he had spent $1200 on the Manstein exhaust pipes, picking up a predicted 24 horsepower, he could have possibly matched his new lap record and still had $5000 left over. In practice, adding all the advertised gains together did not result in a linear power progression. At some point, the tweaks overlapped or conflicted with each other, or the add-on makers claims were bloated. No doubt the Porsche picked up speed from all the improvements, but not $6200 worth. If C.J. had measured the cars capability on a dynometer before, during and after each tweak, he might have learned the truth about the performance gains. Although the Panzer Packages potential was tantalizing, the whole proved less than the sum of the parts. As Greg Weaver (email@example.com) might say, there was no synergy.
So, Jim (firstname.lastname@example.org), does this have something to do with hi-fi? Glad you asked.
Bob Wood and my other faithful reader whos asked to remain nameless may recall a September 1997 column in which I promised to smooth the peaks and valleys of a new listening room. Boasting to save no expense or spare the horses -- to kill the dogs if need be -- I anticipated a quick victory over bad vibrations. A few days after blowing hard, I lost my nerve.
First of all, "spare no expense" translated into "spend no more than $1500." I had no idea how costly it would be to make a 28' x 14' room sound mellifluous, but my sense of proportion was satisfied at a grand and change. In a flush of bravado, I sent a drawing of the room to a top acoustical treatment firm (www.tubetrap.com) with instructions to "trap me to the hilt." Their response floored me. The companys computer calculated a confluence of flutter, echo, and standing waves that would swamp the room in dissonance. By spending $7200 on room-treatment products, I could hold back the tide.
The notion of shelling out megabucks without upgrading components was so painful that I went ahead and ordered a new amplifier to cheer myself up. As for taming the room, I began to look for shortcuts.
First, I re-installed the indomitable Z-Systems rdp-1 digital tone control (www.zsystems.com). This unit had been acquired to tweak the sound of digital recordings. However, it can also serve as a systems preamplifier. Through a series of digital filters, the rdp-1 tightens the bass or lifts the treble notes re-produced by a loudspeaker. Although it is not a room-acoustic device, the Z-Systems unit can make any loudspeaker measure better at the listening position. Since I already owned the rdp-1, I figured my problems were solved for free. Not quite.
High-end buyers in Paradise (www.paradise-audio.com) abhorred the idea of tone controls. They considered the use of the Z-Systems unit to be cheating. How did a loudspeaker really sound in my room if it was being fed a corrected signal? I tried to explain that for a mere $5000 anyone could have a Z-Systems and experience the same flexibility as I. This suggestion was greeted by hisses and boos. Rather than risk rebellion in the ranks of my loyal patrons, I had to set the rdp-1 to flat and use it as a passive volume control. Once again, the room became a quagmire of murky tonality.
From the pages of Positive Feedback magazine, I learned that Michael Greens Pressure Zone products (www.tunevilla.com) worked wonders and could be had for a song. I placed a long-distance aria to the Green people, crying for help. My plea fell on sympathetic ears. Via remote control from Ohio, Michael Green himself guided me into walking around the room talking to myself, looking for nulls and peaks. By determining where my voice sounded natural, I was able to map the sweet spots for MG. He reassured me that the room was easily correctable. The best part was that the entry fee for good sound was less than a thousand dollars. My check left the next day.
When the Pressure Zone controllers arrived I anticipated great results. The PZ controllers were small in size and looked quite handsome in dark cherry wood. The problem was where to place them. Anywhere in front of the room increased the warmth level significantly. If the sound had been thin and electronic beforehand, the Pressure Zone controllers would have worked wonders. Unfortunately, warmth was not my problem. I live in hothouse. The sound of the system needed cooling down.
However, despite careful placement efforts and judicious turns of the controllers brass screws, the sound remained riper than normal. I finally found a neutral setting for the Pressure Zone controllers by placing them in the rear of the room. This seemed to help. Moving the PZ boards into the L-shaped wet bar in the rooms left rear corner seemed to "square" the room somewhat. On balance, I like the Pressure Zone controllers, although Id rather not have a wet bar back there at all.
Up at the front the battle continued to rage. Then I read Doug Blackburns (email@example.com) treatise on the Argent RoomLens (www.roomlens.com). These mobile structures held great attraction. For little more than the price of the Pressure Zone controllers I could manage my destiny and decorate the room as well. Off went another check. The RoomLens turned out to be all that Blackburn claimed. By positioning the tubes alongside the speakers, I could fiddle with the imaging. Moving the RoomLens back increased the depth of image. Bringing them forward produced more presence.
I really like the RoomLens. They look nice. They work great. They leave the room alone. Maybe if they were about a two feet in diameter, the tall tubes might resonate at 80 cycles, nullifying the standing wave at that frequency. That they perform as advertised goes without question. I misread the advertisement.
Now, the situation was becoming desperate. A year had passed and the room was still under water, sonically-speaking. Enter the W.A.L.S.
At a Consumer Electronics Show, I had heard a music in room treated with Wavelength Absorbing Linear Structures. The company doing the demo had two identical Cello systems playing in adjoining rooms. The sound in the untreated room was thin and grainy. The sound in the treated room was full and clear. Although the price of the structures seemed high (the price of all good things seems high), I kept the companys literature on file. When I realized my room needed major help, I consulted the W.A.L.S. people about "doing" my room. I actually placed an order for about $2500 worth of W.A.L.S. products before learning that someone in Paradise was already selling them here. An enterprising young man had purchased the blueprints for $69 from a company called Decware (www.decware.com.) His price for the W.A.L.S. was half the export price. Without compunction I bought locally instead of from the W.A.L.S. people, saving the cost of postage as it turned out.
The Diffusor W.A.L.S. worked well at the front of the room. Even Monica the maid was impressed. The hardness was gone. The sound had better timbre, tighter focus and more detail. Only one challenge remained, ridding the room of standing waves at 63 and 80 cycles. For this job, I chose the Corner W.A.L.S. as bass suppressers. Just then, the price of the locally made W.A.L.S. increased substantially. Supply and demand? As far as I could tell there was one supplier and one demander. We met on the suppliers side of the intersecting lines. The C.W.A.L.S cost almost three times as much as the S.W.A.L.S. had a few weeks before. I should have demurred. Instead, I figured in for a penny, in for a pound and ordered them up.
Unfortunately, the C.W.A.L.S. didnt work for my purposes. I heard no change. Measurements before and after installing them showed a 1dB decrease at 80 cycles but a 1dB increase at 63 cycles. I considered the results a wash.
Now came a sudden kink in the road. A fellow phile introduced me to the Shun Mook Spatial Control kit (www.shunmook.com). The Spatial Control devices do not flatten standing waves or deflect early reflections as far as I can tell. Rather, they produce a sympathetic resonance that envelops the listener in ambiance, a virtual surround sound. This is an extremely pleasant effect, one I prefer for stereo. It doesnt reduce the rooms upper-bass muddle, however.
Finally, I turned to Jon Gale (firstname.lastname@example.org) for help. Jon is a can-do person. Besides designing web pages and writing for SoundStage!, he makes a cylinder similar to the tube traps I originally wanted to buy. In a highly favorable one-sided transaction I was able to wrest a set of bass traps from Jons grip. These I stuck in the corners where the C.W.A.L.S. had been. Bingo! The mud and murk in the midrange cleared up dramatically. The standing waves didnt disappear but their effects on other frequencies were less noticeable. The measurements showed a slight reduction in decibel levels at 63 and 80 cycles. Yet these modest decreases made a major improvement in the overall sound. I have since ordered a whole boxcar load of Gale traps. The room is about to be conquered once and for all.
Now back to the Panzer Package. Like C.J. the lawyer, I have created a non-synergistic collection of improvements the whole of which is less than the sum of the parts. Toting up the cost of all the acoustic solutions I have tried over the past two years, the list looks like this:
Michael Green Pressure Zone controllers = $700
Argent Room Lens = $1000
W.A.L.S = $2800
Shun Mook Spatial Control Sextet = $2400
Jon Gale Bass Traps = $800
Total Cost = $7700
The overall investment is $700 more than I would have spent on the original Tube Traps. This is not to say Im unhappy with my Pressure Zones, Room Lens, Wavelength Absorbing Linear Structures, and Spatial Control Sextets. Except for the amount of money invested, Im actually quite happy with them. Its just that Gales bass traps have brought me closer to the sound I was seeking all along.
Theres a good reason all the great-sounding rooms at CES use Acoustic Sciences Corporations Tube Traps. The products really work. Just as the Porsche owner would have been better off buying a new car, I would have been ahead of the game had I accepted ASCs original proposal. As my friend Bruce Wagner once observed, "It only costs a little less to go first class." Based upon my experience with Gales DIY devices, I would surmise the Tube Traps are first-class. In an ideal world, to live is to learn (www.eb.com). The next room gets trapped from the start.
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