Getting Back into
Vinyl Hi-fi: Part 3
After an exhausting but educational day at NYC’s In Living Stereo setting up my new Rega RB101 tonearm with the Audio Technica AT95E phono cartridge, I hailed a taxi while balancing the turntable on one hand. Thirty minutes later, the yellow cab stopped at the doorstep of my quaint Brooklyn duplex, which I share with three other roommates, a Chartreux cat named Larry, and three friendly Pakistani families.
Upon my return home with the P1, the roommates were ecstatic. Jared analyzed, “I dig its minimalist design.” Leeor cheered, “I can’t wait to play the new Animal Collective record on this!” Darryl insisted, “Yo, you need to bring some bitties back now.” Larry the Cat ignored our excitement and cuddled with my phono preamp’s glowing tube. After listening to some records together, I kicked the roommates out for some alone time with my system. No bitties yet, but I did have a mug of green tea, some LPs, and Larry.
My current system includes gear purchased throughout my various interims at Stereophile starting with the Rega P1 routed to a fire-truck red Bellari VP129 phono preamp. Amplification comes from the Cambridge Audio 340A integrated amplifier juicing a pair of Usher S-520 loudspeakers, the original review samples from Bob Reina’s writeup. New to the family are the recently installed Audio-Technica AT95E phono cartridge and Rega RB101 tonearm. While I had enjoyed my hi-fi for the past four years, I never actually committed the necessary time to setting up my speakers and getting the best possible sound from via speaker placement. Now was the time.
While I would love to keep the hi-fi in our living room, there have just been too many clumsy roommate/cat calamities that keep me from feeling comfortable leaving all of my gear in there. Larry the Cat is constantly knocking over cups filled with water, somehow always spilling them on top of a surge protector. Darryl is constantly breaking bongs, and Leeor is just a slob. Thus, the system resides in my bedroom.
The room is approximately twice as long as it is wide with the speakers placed on the long side. There is not enough physical space for a devoted listening chair/area in my room, so my bed (opposite my speakers) is my “listening chair.” In order to get my ears level with the tweeters on my 27" Target stands, I must lay down flat on my back with my head propped up against the wall behind me. At the start, the S-520s were spread as wide as possible to form an equilateral triangle between my listening position and the speakers. On the left side of the left speaker was a wall, and on the right side of the right speaker was the door to my room, barely missing the back corner of the speaker each time it swung open. The Usher S-520s offer the choice to have the tweeters on the inside or the outside of your soundstage by switching around the left and right speakers. First, I opted for the tweeters to be lined up inside for pinpoint high-end articulation.
As an inauguration to my reconstructed system, I decided to put on some Beatles, some historically formative music to a formative moment in the life of my hi-fi. First was Yellow Submarine, a recording who’s title track’s sound is surprisingly full of depth and detail, more so than the other songs on the record. The swinging and sailorly acoustic guitar strums tickled my neck and each clanking bell struck with confidence and full-bodied sustain. Even more surprising was this album’s side two, which exhibited George Martin’s artful yet quirky compositions full of space and sonic interplay perfect for the hi-fi.
Onto Abbey Road, I started noticing something funny in my system’s bass properties. During “Something” and a few other tracks, Paul’s bass would boomy but not consistently boomy. Now, my left speaker at the moment was relatively close to the corner but my right speaker a little less close separated by the width of the door to my room. In between my two speakers were two crates of vinyl records on each inner side followed my turntable stand on the center-right and my amplifier/television stand on the center-left side. With my left speaker close to the corner and the Usher S-520’s port lying on the outside of my speaker’s soundstage firing into the corner, I guessed this may have been the cause of the sloppy bass, but I was not quite ready to tackle it. I wanted to keep listening.
As I continued, I had the strange sensation that the left and right images from each of the speakers were almost too separate. I knew my speakers were not out of phase. The image was not diffused and un-centered, but it simply was not stable or solid enough on the inside. This was my first motivation to start moving stuff around.
My first inclination was to bring the speakers a little closer together hoping that would bring some focus to the center image and by bringing the left speaker out of the corner, I could hopefully reduce that messy bass response I heard in Paul McCartney’s playing. I switched the position of the left speaker and the left egg-crate. The right speaker stayed in the same position, and the toe-in between the two speakers was gentle. The lines between my listening position and the speakers formed an isosceles triangle. In this position, I found my center image more focused, almost a bit dense, but there was very little width to the soundstage, which was even more deterring than the lack of center image. In addition, my bass was still booming. Problem unsolved.
I moved back the left speaker to the corner again. The new change this time around would be switching the left and right speakers around so that the tweeters were now on the perimeters of the soundstage. Toe-in was a bit more extreme than before with the tweeters angled directly at my listening position.
I recued Abbey Road. BINGO! At least in terms of imaging, with this position I had nailed it. The center image was much more focused and clear while the soundstage remained wide achieving both of my goals. The more aggressive toe-in helped solidify the center image while the tweeters on the perimeter kept the soundstage wide. While reporting at the 2012 NY Audio & AV Show, I learned just how good a system could sound, and though nearly all of the systems at the show cost super-mega-bucks, it allowed me to catalogue the various aspects of what is important to me while listening: high-end extension, soundstage depth and width, and controlled bass. By placing the tweeters on the outside, I sacrificed some high-end articulation compared to the level of detail I heard while my tweeters were on the inside of the soundstage, but the system now maintained a stable and focused central image as well as the wide soundstage. Yet, the bass was still boomy.
In order to see exactly in what frequency range(s) my bass was misbehaving, I pulled out Stereophile’s Editors Choice Test CD to listen to the Track 21, the Bass Decade Warble Tones. Unfortunately, I never made it to Track 21. On Track 1 “Channel Identification”, Stereophile’s copy editor Richard Lehnert’s voice tells the listener he or she we will soon be hearing a Fender Bass guitar from the left speaker. Well, it came from my right speaker! Something funky was going on, but I self-rationalized for the moment and pretended that when Richard Lehnert said “Left speaker” he meant the speaker on the left side if facing the listener aka the right speaker. I could not live with this lie much longer though. On recording’s throughout Editor’s Choice, whenever an instrument was indicated in JA’s liner notes to be in a specific position on the soundstage, it was always in the exact opposite position!
To fix this problem, I tried the impractical and reversed my speakers cables. Based on what was indicated on the back of my amplifier, my right output was now connected to my left speaker and my left output to my right speaker. After this change, the Channel Identification track on Editor’s Choice was corrected, but when adjusting the balance on my amplifier between left and right, the knob acted in reverse panning to the right when pushed to the left and panning to the left when pushed to the right.
I asked the man himself, Mr. Editor’s Choice, John Atkinson what he thought might be wrong. He, of course, guessed it immediately: “It sounds like the interconnects on your CD player are switched around.” Lo and behold when I returned home that evening to check the back of my amplifier, I saw a row of white interconnect heads at the top with one rascally red rover splitting the line. Aha! Once I switched the CD player’s interconnects on the back of my amplifier to match the white to the left channel and red to the right and re-configured my speaker connections back to the correct sides, the channel identification track on Editor’s Choice played as it should.
Once all this was resolved, I still had my issues of sloppy bass that I wanted to eradicate. By playing Track 21 “Bass Decade 1/3-octave warble tones at -20dBFS”, I hoped to identify what exact frequencies were causing my room to resonate. Unfortunately, it felt like nearly every other warble tone produced excessive boom and lack of control. How un-tight my bass was too overwhelming to comprehend so I ignored this problem. There must be something else wrong with my system.
In part 4 we eliminate those darn resonances and listen to Rush!