[SoundStage!]Synergizing with Greg Weaver
Back Issue Article
February 1999

the audio analyst's Audio Axioms

Humble beginnings

Over the years and as one grows older, some things just come to be accepted truths. You don’t necessarily have to choose to go looking for them -- they just rear their sometimes-ugly heads repeatedly to the point where you finally catch on. At least for some of them!

Beginning about 1977, I inadvertently started a list of what were becoming, to me at least, some indisputable and common audio truths. This list evolved and took cognitive shape over the years and uncountable conversations during listening sessions, pool games and pub-crawls. The now-famous list, at least to my close friends and audio buddies, never started as something to be intentionally codified as such, but just things to be kept in mind to avoid wasting time and resources. As I trekked forward, sometimes inch by painful inch, on my ever-continuing audio journey, they just forced themselves into my sonic reality. But of late, as I have chosen to quote one or two now and then, people have written to me asking what the whole list would look like. Man, you have to be careful what you ask for! Every once and a while, when the writing isn’t flowing as desired and just flying off the tips of the fingers onto the screen, you just may get it.

Though these are not all in the order in which I stumbled upon them and accepted them as fact, the best place to start would be with the first one -- the one that started me thinking that there may be more to discover. OK Bob, Chris, Mick, and all you Southern Maryland Irregulars, how many times have you heard me say...

Cables are components

Just look back on some of my most well-received columns over the past two years and you’ll see that this "truth" has actually become a very popular sport. In fact, the first thing that I published here at SoundStage! carried the nifty little title, "Loudspeaker Cables -- Simple Passive Connection or Complex Dynamic Component?" I’ve worked this truism to the limit, but let me try a slight reprise.

Each and every different cable in your system has its own sonic signature. Some do much more to affect the result of the signal coursing through them than others, but in my experience they all offer some alteration. By listening to many, many cables over the years, you can slowly calibrate your own sonic yardstick. You become able to determine which attributes imparted by a new cable are subtractive, which are additive and which can be occasionally astonishing when you overcome one or the other with the substitution of a new and hopefully better cable. I cannot really go into it much deeper than can be gleaned by perusing the archives of my work. It is just the first indisputable truth I personally encountered.

Everyone needs a subwoofer

This maxim has been modified recently to include "or a full-range speaker system that will play the lowest octave faithfully." I can hear you now, "What? Is he some kind of bass freak or something?" While I now freely admit to really needing to feel my room pressurize to things like the second movement of the Saint-SaŽns Third Symphony [Mercury Living Presence SR 90012] or even Paula Cole’s "Tiger" from This Fire [Warner 9 46646], that is only a small impetus leading to the birth of this postulate. While my full-range ESLs play down to 42Hz and re-create enough bass to satisfy most of my needs, what they cannot do is provide the full sense of space that the addition of a well-integrated sub (or use of a true full-range speaker) can deliver. Hey, listen up. This ain’t about shaken’ the walls or loosening the plaster. Nope! It’s about soundstaging and imaging. "Say what?" No foolin!

For some reason that I am not fully able to explain (but can demonstrate beyond question) systems that cannot reproduce the lowest octaves don’t create the same sense of space and focus as those that do. The full breadth and air of the soundstage, the complete depth and width of the acoustic, just don’t develop to their full potential when the system cannot reproduce the information below 40Hz. Image freaks, I wish I could say it weren’t so, but, alas, it is an undeniable consequence of reproduced sound.

Make only one change at a time

When you think about it, this is so obvious it as to be elusive. Now, most of us wouldn’t think of changing a preamp and the interconnects at the same time -- at least not if we were trying to isolate and codify the differences each of them had to offer the system. But what about a more sublime example? Let’s say that you insert a new pair of speaker cables, but in the process, you move the speakers. Was it the placement change or the cables? You really have no way to tell. Honestly, something as seemingly innocuous as changing the tension on the binding posts can change how the system deals with staging, imaging, treble and low-level detail (but I’m getting ahead of myself). It is imperative to monitor what you modify in order to assess properly exactly what caused the variation in resultant sound.

Subtractive evaluation

What this means is even though the addition of something new to a system may effect an immediate change, it isn’t the best way to come to a decision about that change. As we listen, and the product under consideration runs in (Huh? What does that mean? Read on!), we become accustomed to the slow but continuous changes occurring as the product seasons through use. We cannot properly recall the original sound after some short period of acclimation to the evolving sound of the new component. The effects of any change to a system are most graphically and accurately noted when that change is removed, and you revert back to the old system. Then you have a very good recollection of the differences. And I’m sorry to say that even this method is tainted (see the last axiom), but the least sullied I’ve uncovered.

Everything has a run-in time

Everything, from that new CD player or transport down to the new digital or signal cable, must be seasoned before it can be properly evaluated. Most people have come to accept that a loudspeaker fresh from the box is stiff and unnatural-sounding. It is easy to understand that the mechanical properties of the drivers (the surround, the spider, even the cone itself) flex over and over under use. Through this run-in time, they loosen up and become more compliant. At some time, usually after some 100 hours or longer, the device under test begins to exhibit its natural colors.

Some have difficulty making the next logical step, the one that says electronic components and even cables require the same courtesy. But it is demonstrable. As capacitors form, resistors expand and contract, wires condition, the sound is bound to change. Some still scoff at such ideas, but those of us who can put the evidence of our ears before the traces on an oscilloscope can vouch for the validity of this verisimilitude.

The Six P’s

The six P’s stand for Piss Poor Power (and/or Power supplies) Prevents Proper Performance. When the power coming from your wall isn’t in shape, or the rectified power coming out of the power supply in your various components isn’t the best it can be, neither is your music.

One of the first upgrades I made in the early ‘80s to verify this postulate was to my Accuphase P300 power amp. I removed the internal power-supply filter caps (older 40,000 micro Farad electrolytics) and replaced them with computer-grade 65,000 micro Farad caps. Don’t even think about doing something like this if you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about. Since the caps didn’t fit under the hood, the modification required an outboard platform for them to rest on. But what magic they wrought -- faster and better bass-line pitch definition, more focused staging and imaging, cleaner transients and better low-level detail.

The more accessible way for most to tame this problem is to add a power conditioner to the system. If the bucks aren’t available for such a device, then just start listening to your system later in the evening. After about nine o’clock or so the power grid settles down in most areas, so much so that your system almost sounds like a different one. Typically you will find better resolution of the quiet sections of recordings. Imaging and soundstaging become more focused and stable. Timbre is rendered more truthfully, as are the harmonics of the system. Give it a try. You just might find yourself making more time to listen later in the day -- or popping for a conditioner so you can listen any ol’ time.

Rooms are components

This is one of the most ignored of all the platitudes. It is so complex, in fact, that I wrote two columns here to try to do the subject justice. You can assemble the finest equipment in the world, but if you place it all in a ten-foot cubed room, your work and money won’t matter. Room dimensions, surface materials and shape can have more effect on your sound than you could begin to imagine. Careful, thorough and deliberate decisions are required to pick the right room, then tame it.

Isolate everything

If you haven’t learned this one yet, go back and spend some time with it. I even isolate my power conditioner with an inner tube and MDF platform. Proper isolation takes room, floor and shelf excitation out of the equation. Isolation pucks, cones, spheres or inner tubes let the equipment shine through without the coloration that floor/shelf vibration induces. When these vibrations find their way back into your equipment (most notably with digital or analog sources and tube electronics), low-level detail is destroyed, timbre is skewed, space is congested, noise floors are accentuated and instruments are slurred. It is cheaper than you think to do effectively and one of the most cost-effective ways to get closer to the musical truth.

Everything makes a difference

Not to pile the sublime upon the ridiculous, but it truly does. Listen to the difference something as simple as leaving the wrench you use to tighten your speaker posts on top of your preamplifier can cause. No, I’ve not flipped my lid -- well, not entirely. Just ask our technical editor, Doug Blackburn -- he’ll back me up on this.

Moving a component on a shelf, letting the speaker cables lay on thick carpeting, placing components too close to each other, over-tightening a speaker binding post, changing the way a signal cable touches a shelf or doesn’t -- literally everything has a sonic impact. Just unplugging and re-attaching your interconnects will change the resultant sound. The better your system, the more profound the effect.

This premise has a somewhat negating effect on the "Subtractive Evaluation" postulate, but hey, what can you do? You have to have some type of system or you have no structure for evaluation.

Well, I hope these nine little aphorisms can help you save time or money on your pilgrimage toward audio nirvana. If you have found any other such self-evident truths in your quest, you have my address. I’ll be glad to add ‘em to the list. Enjoy.

...Greg Weaver
gregw@soundstage.com

 

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