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10 ways to improve your audio without spending money

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


10 ways to improve your audio without spending money
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1993, The Syracuse Newspapers

I wrote recently about the silly gadgets that hi-fi fans sometimes buy in the hope of improving their sound systems. That column prompted questions from many readers about legitimate ways to get better sound.

There are plenty of ways to add little touches to your stereo system by spending money, but I'd like to share some ways that you can improve the sound at little or no cost.

1.Provide secure mounting places for all components.

This rule applies to everything in your audio system. Record players and loudspeakers benefit the most, but even amplifiers and receivers need to sit solidly on a table or shelf. The best mounting platform for a turnable is a large, dense slab of slate, placed either on the floor (where it is in an obviously inconvenient spot) or on a heavy iron or lead table. A welding shop can put together an iron or lead stand like this for the cost of materials and an hour's labor, and paving sections made of slate are sold at lumber yards and some hardware stores.

Loudspeakers must not wobble, with even the slightest motion. A wobbling enclosure sets up a phenomenon known as Doppler shift, in which the music is modulated by what appears to be an unsteady underlying tone. Many audiophiles place four spiked feet or sharp metal cones under each loudspeaker enclosure in the belief that this improves the sound by coupling the enclosure to the floor, but all it actually does is reduce any chance of wobbling. A better idea is to use three spikes or cones under each enclosure, creating a tripod. By their nature, tripods are always stable.

2.Provide a mix of hard and soft surfaces in your listening room.

This is one of the easiest improvements to make, and yet many audiophiles seem unaware of its importance. The reflective sound patterns in a typical listening room have a much different characteristic than the patterns in a concert hall or stage, no matter how large or small, and they will never allow the acoustics of the recording site to be heard properly if your listening room does not cooperate. This is done by preventing repeated reflections from building up.

In some situations, this can be accomplished electronically, by shaping the response of your system. But the easiest way is to make sure opposite surfaces are treated differently—and this includes the floor and ceiling. A plush carpet is a good foil for a hard ceiling, for example, and, likewise, a hard surface on the floor might work well with heavy acoustical tile on the ceiling. Walls should have unevenly spaced decorations and other objects. Bookshelves can face each other, but if they do, they should be arranged differently. All empty shelves contribute to a hollow, pinging sound and should be avoided. (Fill empty shelves with anything, even a couple of decorative pillows.) Look around at garage sales for oddly shaped objects that you can place near the corners of your listening room—a round-bezeled table radio from the '40s, for example. Use heavy drapes with caution; unless you can pull them aside easily, they may make the room too dull-sounding.

3.Place your loudspeakers at uneven distances from all surfaces.

The floor-and-wall junction can turn your speaker into a megaphone if the woofer is the same distance from each of those surfaces (or the same distance from all three surfaces if it is in a corner). Ideally, each distance should be an odd multiple of any other distance. In other words, if the center of the woofer is 14 inches from the floor, it should be something other than 28 inches or 42 inches (and so on) from any other surface. Don't guess at the distances; use a ruler, since the smallest differences in placement can change the sound.

4.Provide a listening seat that does not block the back of your head.

We normally concern ourselves only with sounds that reach our ears from the front, but our hearing is much more clever than our minds admit. If sounds from the sides and rear are blocked or muffled, loudspeakers take on a one-dimensional aspect. Use a low-backed chair or sofa so that your ears won't be deprived of this vital acoustic information.

5.Clean and polish the ends of all connecting cables and the jacks on your components.

You don't need fancy cables, but you do need clean ones. Get some fine emery cloth and rub the metal pins and collars until they gleam. Remember that it is the inside of the collar that contacts the outside of the jack, so be sure to clean that area.

6.Provide a good electrical source.

Check your electrical outlets to find which ones are on the same lines and be sure to keep all other major appliances on separate lines from your stereo system.

You can test the lines by turning everything on and then unscrewing each fuse (or flipping the switch on each circuit breaker) while noting which devices and appliances lose power. Computers, in particular, should be given their own lines.

7.Keep large amplifiers and hefty receivers away from other components.

Power amps often emit a hum field than can be picked up and amplified by sensitive devices such as turntables and tape decks. Sometimes a few inches of vertical distance is all that is needed to minimize the hum.

8.Use every control on a component periodically.

I realize this seems odd - why would you push the button marked "Loudness" if you never use the loudness control? The rationale is simple. Electrical controls that are not used become dirty. Switches and rotary controls have devices called wipers built in—or they use the slider itself as a wiper—and so they are kept clean if they are used.

Dirty controls can introduce electronic distortion. Even if you don't use certain controls, press their buttons and twist their knobs once a month to keep them clean.

9.Use a disc clamp when you play your LP records.

Clamps come in two varieties. The best is a grip-clamp device (sometimes, just a rubber cone) that snugs the disc label down against the spindle. Because this kind of clamp adds very little weight to the record, it can't upset the balance of the record player. The other variety is a round weight. It may work fine on some turntables, but. in general, you should avoid it.

Record clamps eliminate a lot of the tiny vibrations that are picked up by the phono stylus (the "needle"), and they can also flatten out LPs that are mildly warped.

10.Put discs and tapes away in their sleeves and boxes when you are not listening to them.

LPs, compact discs and cassette tapes have unprotected surfaces that pick up household grime. When you play them, the grime gets into your player.

Even mini discs and digital compact cassettes should be placed in their boxes. Even though their playing surfaces are enclosed by shutters, the outer shells can get dirty, and the dirt will be drawn into the equipment.


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