I had an epiphany the other night. (Hope Rabbi Lichtenstein won't be too upset.) Kathleen and I were watching the Antiques Road Show on PBS, and, during a break, I started channel-surfing. I know, it's obnoxious—but I feel compelled to hop around and keep up the sense- and info-pounding barrage we've come to take for granted and, in fact, rely on. In a way, channel-surfing is a perfect symptom of our information-overload society: click Geraldo, click Robin Byrd, click Jazz Channel, click Weather Channel. We're bombarded, we're inundated, we're . . . let's face it, we're overwhelmed. The Internet, e-mail, phone calls—lots of information, and little time to process it.
So here I am expounding on the tendency of audio components---especially tubes, capacitors, and resistors---to become microphonic, and you're wondering how you can find out if there's any of that shakin' goin' on in your system. And you want to do it easily and for next to nothing. The first thing you do, then, is listen carefully to Victor Tiscareno of AudoPrism. The following is his big idea, and a damn good one it is.
Now that we've gained a basic understanding of speaker setup, cable dressing and hygiene, and electrical theory, it's time to consider where and how to site your equipment. I've seen all sorts of weird, jerry-rigged shelves and poor component placement, some of the worst in pricey systems whose owners really should have known better. But you can achieve a stunning level of improvement from a haphazardly set-up system---even an entry-level one---when it's rearranged so as to let the components breathe.
Sometimes you have to sweat the details, sometimes they just fall in your lap. Take Victor Tiscareno. Victor's company, AudioPrism, has been making electronics, accessories, and power-conditioning products for quite some time. While he was visiting and installing a pair of his Mana Reference tube amplifiers for an upcoming review, Victor and I got to talking about power---the kind that comes out of the wall. Victor studied electrical engineering and is very au courant in such matters. During these ruminations he shared with me a recipe for what he calls The Poor Man's Dedicated Line.
Last month (click here for previous Fine Tunes) I tipped you on how to check the AC plug orientation for transformer current leakage—the best sound is often found at the lowest voltmeter reading. Roger Skoff of XLO suggests another technique that's worth passing on to you, if only because the imagery is so . . . piquant: Leave the speaker cables hooked up and pull the interconnects from the power amplifier. Turn it on and "stick your head in the speaker," as Roger puts it, checking for the level of hum. (Imagine a pair of bony audiophile legs waving crazily out of the bell of an Avantgarde Acoustics horn speaker.)
Okay, let's return to the power grid. In the February installment of "Fine Tunes", we learned that typical domestic 110V AC supplies are derived from that 220V transformer out on the pole. The center-tap 110V supply is unbalanced, but if you take 220V service, you're getting balanced power. One thing you can do is take 220V down to 110V with a step-down transformer. George Cardas swears by it. He's also experimenting with a Statpower Technologies Prosine 1000 Full Square Wave Converter hooked to a big mutha battery to power his front-end components.
Bill Gates would have you believe we live in a plug'n'play world. Apple has proselytized same since day one. But I'm here to tell you it just isn't so for high-end audio. The orientation of a component's AC plug—even the quality of the wall receptacle itself—affects the sound! Oh no, Mr. Bill, not something else to futz with! Will it never end?
Let's talk cable dressing. Make mine vinaigrette! (And you thought I'd go for French . . . ) Cable dressing is actually a rather delicate issue that requires a certain leap of faith. The concept is so simple that even I can explain the science to you. But the leap occurs when you realize how the positioning of cables and interconnect can make a real difference in the sound of your system. In spite of this, I've seen power cords and interconnects tangled up in a hopeless mess at the back of some pretty serious components.
One audio maintenance chore I dislike is getting down on all fours and cleaning the system's connectors—interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords. It's tedious, but the results can be spectacular. If you live in a relatively clean, dry environment, you might consider doing it every six months or so.
I've touched on loudspeaker placement in irregularly shaped rooms several times in the last few "Fine Tunes," but reader Peter Machare (Peter.MACHARE@usda.gov) wants more information about setting up L-shaped and other nonstandard listening areas. Here's how he describes his layout: "I have an L-shaped room. The speakers are at the bottom of the L and point up the long part of the L. Not all of us are perfect rectangles, you know."
In the September 1998 installment of "Fine Tunes," I wrote about the benefits of using nearfield listening to minimize your room's effect on the sound of your system. What you hear at the listening position should be first-arrival sounds from the speakers rather than chaotic reflections—in-phase and out—from the room. Allen Perkins of Immedia, importer of Audio Physic speakers, has written a white paper entitled "Principles and Techniques of Speaker Placement." It's provided to all purchasers of Audio Physic speakers. Essentially, it's a primer on nearfield loudspeaker placement (footnote 1).