Fine Tunes #6

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.

Here in New York, despite Kathleen's best efforts, there's a certain amount of effluvia in the air, some of it quite toxic. (Take our next-door neighbor . . . .) So in major urban areas, every three months might be better, especially if you live with a smoker. I always practice good cable hygiene and clean all component connectors as they go into the system, especially if they've sat unused for a while.

Just what is that gunk building up on your precious gold-plated connectors? Some of it is environmental schmutz, as my Aunt Sophie would say. And while it's true that gold doesn't oxidize, the brass and especially the copper found underneath the gold plating will, if given the chance. A byproduct of the plating process are microbubbles trapped in the plating material as it solidifies. These, explains XLO's Roger Skoff, can act like air channels down to the base material, causing oxidation where it's least expected. In fact, he says, that's why a treatment with his much-under-appreciated, 99-cents-a-packet TPC (The Perfect Connection) might provoke a black slime outbreak. Roger suggests that TPC displaces the junk built up in the microbubble channels and eliminates their deleterious effects on the connection. It's something like the Bioré mask Kathleen's been using lately: Wet the nose and apply the strip to it. Wait 15 minutes, rip it off, and Ouch!—aren't the pores on your nice, clean schnozzola looking fine? Whatever, connectors get dirty. Clean 'em!

What are the signs that your system can benefit from having the wax cleaned out of its ears? Listen for dullness in the upper frequencies, a loss in overall transparency and dynamics, a murky and congested midrange, or bass that's become a touch lugubrious. If your system normally exhibits a fast "rise time," you might notice a loss of leading-edge transient information that can also diminish transparency. It's something like a set of power tubes looking to retire after long and faithful service. (If they're GE 6550s, offer them an attractive early retirement package—like "Get out! NOW!")

Dropping to one's knees and applying oneself to the task requires intestinal fortitude and not a little planning. Set aside sufficient time to clean all connections in your system. The amount of time needed will, naturally, depend on your system's complexity. Around here it seems to take forever. I'd just love a butler. "Jeeves, there's a good chap, adjust the bias on the Wotans, and then be so kind as to clean all the connectors in the hi-fi. And please, old stick, this time take a bit more care with the cantilever. Cartridges don't grow on trees, you know."

On some pretext or other, get the family or your significant other out of the house. That's much easier than explaining that you're cleaning your sticky wickets! Wear old, soft, comfortable clothes, nothing too tight. A Stereophile T-shirt and old corduroys will do nicely. Shut the system down and pull all plugs and connectors. Keep a portable phone handy so you don't hurt yourself when it rings suddenly. (Probably just as you've got your nose to the ground searching for that pestilential cone that keeps rolling just out of reach. "Did I catch you at a bad time?" "Oh, no, I was just . . . ")

Your knees will bless you for cushioning them on the kneepads you were clever enough to purchase at the lawn and garden supply. I'm not that clever; Kathleen's bought me two sets. One's a single piece about 1' long and 4 or 5" wide; the other pair snap over the knees with elastic bands. Binford makes a nice set.

You'll want a clutch of Q-Tips and a brace of pipe cleaners, a few paper towels, and Essential Fluids—a cold six-pack of Dos Equis Special Lager. (The lager is in the dark green bottle, not the brown one. I'll come back to its use a bit later.)

As this column concerns what to do without spending money, I'll briefly mention that there are a number of audiophile-approved cleaners on the market. You can always try a variety of them and see which ones you like. I'm still working through a supply of SuperContact that I've had for several years, the application of which I always follow with a dab of TPC.

But because I'm that kind of guy, I'm going to give you two formulations that will cost you next to nothing. The first and least expensive is 99% anhydrous isopropyl alcohol, most likely found in pharmacies. So-called rubbing alcohol is typically 30% water, and that simply will not do. Another product Roger Skoff raves about is Energine ($4/pint in grocery stores). It's 1:1:1 trichloroethane packaged as a cleaner and spot remover. Sounds perfect.

The doing of it is fairly straightforward. Make a loop in the center of a pipe cleaner and dip it in your fluid of choice. Wrap it around the outer barrel of a female RCA connector and twirl it around a few times. You can use the straight end of the pipe cleaner to probe the female's innards. A male RCA will get the same treatment, but make a tighter loop around its protuberant connector and whirl the pipe cleaner around as you move it down the pin as deeply into the barrel as possible. Male XLRs are a snap with pipe cleaners or Q-Tips.

To clean the female receptacles of XLR or AES/EBU connectors, leave a little extra fluid on the male side and plug and unplug them a few times. Even the mechanical wiping effect of making and breaking the connection a few times without any fluid effects a cleaning action. To clean the male ends of power cords, just stroke a dipped pipe cleaner along the pins, then daub a little more fluid on them, and plug and unplug them a few times into the wall socket.

You'll be amazed at the quantity of gunk you remove, especially the first time you try it. And you may be nicely surprised at the clarity and precision your system is capable of delivering when it's not all silted up. As a last step, just as you're about to sit down to listen to the result of your labors, pop the top on that Dos Equis and give yourself a pat on the back. Just another six months to go . . .