The Non-tweaker's Guide To Tweaks
And yet, it seems undeniable to me that paying attention to apparently minor aspects of system setup and the use of various low-cost accessories can produce major improvements in the sound of an audio system.
Sure, anyone with sufficient cash (or credit) can spend, say, $10,000 on a system selected from "Recommended Components," hook it all up, and, assuming that the particular components selected don't bring out the worst in each other, the sound will probably be pretty good. However, even a compatible assortment of components will not sound its best without some, well, tweaks. In fact, I would argue that a tweaked system at a given price level will sonically outperform a system consisting of nominally better (and more expensive) components that have not been subjected to tweaking.
Through the years, a variety of tweaks have been touted to produce "fantastic" improvements. Many of these turned out to be examples of wishful thinking; some have done more harm than good; others involve a degree of obsessiveness about sound that tends to interfere with the enjoyment of music. The tweaks described in this article (RL's suggested subtitle was "Tweaks for the Timid," but that's not quite correct. Cautious, perhaps; timid, no.) are based on my own experience, though they're mostly derived from suggestions made by others. They were selected according to the following criteria:
1) As far as I know, they do no harm. Nevertheless, remembering L'Affaire d'Armor All, I must issue the standard disclaimer: I'm not responsible for direct or consequent damage to equipment or persons. However, if use of these tweaks results in your being branded an audio wacko, feel free to blame me.
2) They work. That is, I have satisfied myself that they allow my system to make sounds that are more like real music. Not every one of these tweaks produces a "fantastic" improvement, and in some systems, I'm sure, the effect of a given tweak will be undetectable. I do think they all have the potential to make an audible difference for the better.
3) The cost, in most cases, is negligible.
4) They're convenient to implement.
5) One does not have to believe in mysterious forces or hitherto-undiscovered forms of energy in order to understand the reasons for their effectiveness.
Turntable, Arm, Cartridge Tweaks
The importance of turntable/arm/cartridge setup is so well known that it hardly needs to be considered a tweak. I have a Linn LP12, notorious for its finickiness, and leave the adjustment of suspension springs, etc. to people who are very experienced with this product (Sean Burt of Stereo Factory, you know who you are), doing only some final adjustment of the VTA/SRA myself after the initial setup. I increase the VTA by gradually raising the pivot end of the tonearm until the sound becomes overbright, then back up and down just a bit. It's true that records are not all cut at the same VTA, so that, for optimal playback, one should adjust the VTA for each record, but I think the "listening for sound" attitude that this sort of tweaking engenders is fundamentally anti-musical (not to say obsessive-compulsive), so I prefer setting the VTA to be appropriate for most records, and leave it at that. Of course, stylus suspensions do change during the break-in period, so some tweaking of the VTA is needed after about 20-30 hours of playing; but after that, only if you start to feel that the sound of the cartridge has deteriorated. (There may be some hardening of the stylus suspension with age.)
Stylus cleaning is usually considered normal practice; I variously use a stiff brush (back-to-front only, of course), Audio-Technica vibrating cleaner, the extra-fine emery paper Linn provides for stylus cleaning, and Stylast.
Sumiko Fluxbuster: This product has been reviewed several times in Stereophile and is listed in "Recommended Components." Although a bit on the expensive side (I have no experience with the $80 unit from AudioQuest that claims to do the same thing), it really can rejuvenate a moving-coil cartridge that appears to be over the hill, so it can quickly pay for itself. I use mine at least once a month.
Turntable stands: The British have been at the forefront here; only lately have US companies (eg, Arcici, Merrill) begun to realize the importance of the structure on which the turntable sits (sorry, stands). The exact effect depends on the particular turntable and the construction of one's abode, so try to borrow a stand from a friendly dealer. I use a Sound Organisation sub-base resting on an equipment rack, having refused to consider one of their little tables that would force me to get down on my knees (at the Altar of Analog?) to put on a record. It works quite well to clean up the Linn's midbass looseness. More compliant supports, such as Navcom Silencers (see below), provide an alternative route to controlling the turntable's intrinsic resonances; they seem to work well with turntables whose own suspensions are low in compliance (eg, VPI Jr.).