Audiophile Systems Review - #4 - October, 1995

Introduction By Geoff Armstrong


One of the characteristics that audiophiles are often accused of possessing, is the tendency to constantly fiddle and fidget with their equipment and accessories in order to "improve" the sound.

Do these guys actually listen to music?

At it's worst this puts me in mind of the road systems around here, which are constantly being "improved"; but the overall effect is not an improvement to the quality of my commute.

On the other hand, many of the accessories which are ubiquitous today, started out their lives as tweaks. Such as placing your "bookshelf" speakers on spiked stands, and putting cones under equipment.

Few people today would argue with the fact that these "tweaks" result in an overall improvement, by "mechanically grounding" the equipment and reducing the effects of resonances (and in the case of the bookshelf speakers, putting them where they belong).

The best type of tweaks have probably resulted from knowledgeable audiophiles experimenting at a "grass roots" level. The tweak may then need to be refined through manufacture in order to allow all of us to benefit, or it may be a virtual "freebie", as you will see from Brad's piece. So if you fall into this category, please tweak away, and let us know about it!

In this "confessions" piece, "when he sees the light" Brad attempts to separate out the common sense, no-nonsense type of tweak, from the "emperor's clothes" variety.


Brad's piece:

The confessions of an inveterate audio tweaker

For years, I was visited--almost nightly--by a horribly chilling, recurrent, nightmare. It was predictable to the last detail; I would find myself in front of a group of anonymous, "first name only" self-helper types. In my dream, I am aware that I am at the head of a table with a thousand eyes piercing my soul--God! I'm chairing this meeting!

I suddenly blurt out, "Hi, my name is Brad." Around the room, cold and fluorescent, harsh, a collectively calm but sterile chorus replies to me in unison, "Hi Brad!" I am not sure why I am there, but soon I find myself telling a room full of nodding heads with overly caring expressions that I need help and, well, I feel "at home" here.

Indeed, before my auto-defense mechanisms against embarrassment and humiliation can intervene, I admit to a room full of total strangers that yes! I am indeed an out of control audio-tweaker!

I had to come clean with myself and admit that it was true. I had to take a personal audio inventory, and, By George, make amends!

So how did I do it? How did I make the nightmares stop? First, I had to admit that I was powerless over my system. I had to surrender to it! Oh, but this was a deliciously difficult task, for I couldn't leave well enough alone: endless nights of adjusting furniture and wall treatments. Endless adjustment of VTA and wishing for a more precise measure of absolute azimuth alignment! Cones, pucks, green pens, green disks, arm-wraps, wooden drink coasters from the bottom of some unpronounceable stagnant lake! My God! And worst of all--the darkest secret of any Tweaker--the admission that, yes, I had become more concerned and enchanted with the ways in which I could affect the sound of the equipment rather than listening to the music!

If there were records kept of this sort of thing, well, I would hold the grand prize for repetitively listening to the same 20 seconds of a particular track ad infinitum.

And get this--I knew others who did the same thing! We would often get together and Tweak, and when we were apart, we would blather away on the phone about tweaking! And we wonder why Nietzsche went mad when he gazed at the portents of the post-industrial twentieth century!

OK, you ask, where is all this leading? Good question, and I hope I can answer it to your satisfaction. The reason I reveal my status to you as a recovering Tweaker is because it is a trap that most audiophiles succumb to in varying degrees at some point in their aural quests. No audiophile ever wants to wind up as a pathetically neurotic Tweaker but it happens.

After all, at its worst, tweaking is an exercise in frustration - a means becoming an end unto itself. But can there be a happy medium? Is there such a thing as tweaking in moderation?

Ah! Herein lies the dilemma!

So how do you know when you are obsessively tweaking rather than constructively tweaking? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Have you ever (a) gotten into a verbal altercation; (b) physical altercation; (c) arrested; or (d) divorced, over tweaking your stereo?
  2. Have you ever lost sleep over (a) the way your system sounds to you; (b) the way your system sounds to someone else; or (c) the way you wish your system sounded?
  3. Do you ever (a) buy; (b) listen to; or (c) claim to like The Weavers at Carnegie Hall or any Amanda McBroom recordings?
  4. Do you listen to the same (a) track; (b) part of a track less than its entirety but more than one minute; or (c). part of a track less than one minute, repeatedly in order to "evaluate" something/anything in the system?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are a potentially obsessive tweaker. I speak from experience. I can answer yes to all but question 3 (thank God!).

I have explored tweaks ranging from the mundane and harmless, to the extreme and irreversible and am here to report that there are indeed good--almost necessary--tweaks.

The tweaks that work, and are probably justifiable, are almost invariably, simple, straightforward, and intuitively sensible. The price is relatively minor in all cases that I will report, and they do make significant sonic differences! (note: I use the term differences rather than improvements purposely. Ultimately, you have to apply your own subjective judgmental powers to figure out what it is you like and dislike).

The most single important and necessary tweak, the ONE that absolutely must be done, is the one that often is not!

No secret here folks! It is relative room placement of the speakers to the listening position.

Hey, it is incredibly easy to change the way your system sounds; just start moving it around. Forget throwing hundreds or thousands of dollars into room treatments. Just start by moving closer to your speakers.

As a generalization, to improve your system, keep speakers away from room boundaries and move your listening position closer to the speakers. *

Another easy way to open up a system is to orient it along the long wall of the room. It never ceases to amaze me that when given a choice, many "audiophiles" stuff their expensive system at the end of the "bowling ally" in rectangular rooms. Then they have the audacity to claim superlative imaging (they usually gush on about the immense depth...sure, that is because there is absolutely no width). Personally, I think it is more satisfying to have speakers disappear in the room with lateral instrument placement appearing outside the physical constraints of the boxes than to hear the vocalist "on the other side of the back wall. To have both is wonderful, but you rarely achieve it on the short wall, often on the long.

Isolation. Yes, isolation is a good thing. Bottom-line: Pucks are a lot of money for what they do. Instead, go buy some racquet balls, neatly slice them in half (follow the seem with a sharp razor-blade repeatedly until it splits) and viola! You now have amazingly good isolation for components (use as many as necessary depending on weight), they look cool, and, you spent less than two bucks!)

Contact (e.g., jacks and speaker binding posts) cleaners and treatments: yes to the former, no to the latter, case closed.

Green "CD" paint: laugh all you want but it works, and it is cost-effective.

Freezing your CDs: Anyone who plays with liquid nitrogen at home is beyond the tweaking phase of their career.

CD mats: they definitely work, but many transports refuse to operate with them.

CD rings: skip them and buy some green paint instead, or a mat.

Tonearm wraps: sure, they work noticeably well, but keep in mind that they are generally ugly, difficult to apply, and they change the mass of your arm significantly.

CD lens cleaners: What are you, crazy?

CD break-in disks: Wait a minute, I am being telepathically contacted by Zoglob from the planet X.

Electronic cable break-in devices: yeah, they work, but buy some new music instead. Besides, most every stereo shop has one lying in the back somewhere and if they can find it, will usually let you burn-in your cables (if you bought them there of course).

For owners of receivers and integrated amplifiers: Improve your sound dramatically! Get rid of those horrible steel "U" jumpers that bridge the pre-out main-in jacks. There are very good alternatives from some cable manufacturers. And, if the unit is out of warranty, or, you don't care, directly bypass the jacks altogether on the circuit board. The improvement is amazing.

Also, on many of these units, there is a fused speaker output! Good God! Mind you, this is not advice; but, it wouldn't be a bad thing to forget the warranty and by-pass this abomination! Anyway, they never blow when they should and even so, you shouldn't be pushing a little integrated amp that hard!

Tap on the cover of an inexpensive CD, player then tap on the cover of an expensive one. The former probably rings and the latter does not. Damp the case with something heavy and not too hard. Can you hear the difference? Maybe yes, maybe no; but worth finding out (same applies to preamps, integrateds, etc.)

Well, that is going to wrap it up (sorry, I had to say it) for this installment. I have only scratched the surface of the world of tweaks and will go into some more do's and don'ts in my next article.

I will also be including some specific tweaks for certain popular pieces of equipment! Till next time!

Brad Jeter...I started life at an early age...spent my "formative years" living in, among other places, Alaska, North and South Carolina, Germany (twice), Maine, Massachusetts, Spain and New Hampshire...graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in the humanities, major: Medieval Studies; minors: Art History and European History...began playing guitar at 15...and, at the same time, began to be totally fascinated with studio production (via Jimmy Page's work with Led Zeppelin)...spent a good deal of time mixing sound both in the studio and live...unfortunatey, I did not become a rock star...I really only became aware of the "high-end" about eight years ago...since that time, I have been (at various stages) neurotic, psychotic, obsessive/compulsive and oblivious to it all...but I still keep comin' back for more!....but seriously, if there is one lesson I have learned it is that the most important--actually the only important thing--is the music...there should be no inordinate focus on the messenger, i.e., the equipment...alas...if this were easily the case, then there would also be world peace and two cars in every garage! My e-mail address follows. I need all the friends I can get!

Brad [email protected]

* Listening close to the speakers is known as near-field listening. The advantage is that you hear more of the direct sound from the speakers and less of the resonances caused by excited room nodes. Brad's assumption is that most audiophiles are listening at too great a distance from their speakers. So we have another debate, near-field versus far-field listening.

Brad Jeter
Marietta, Georgia

Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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