Fine Tunes #17

"Hey! Make sure you mention my name in your article! I don't want you taking all the credit."

No problem! Some of the best and least expensive setup tweaks come from Stereophile's readers. Lonnie Ragin ( came up with two beauties that deserve their day in the sun:

"I posted this online at Audio Review after a listener posted a message regarding cinder blocks used as speaker bases. Instead of using black spray paint, try wrapping them in heavy black trash bags. I tried them with spray paint and the rough surface of the cinder blocks still snagged my carpet. And when you want to make changes in speaker positioning, you have to pick the whole speaker up. But with the cinder blocks wrapped in trash bags, they slide. Plus, they look nicer too. Wrap them like you would a Christmas gift. They'll look much more 'exotic,' and people will wonder what they are." (Yes, Lonnie is a bachelor. Why do you ask?)

But not content with that cherry-pick, Lonnie came through with another:

"An archery field point is a threaded steel rod about an inch long with a pointed solid-steel end. The tips come in different weights and sizes and sorta look like shrunken-down arrowheads. The threaded end is a standard diameter, but the tips vary in size from large to small, with different levels of sharpness. I screwed them into my components where the rubber feet were, and voilà! Talk about tighter bass and better soundstage definition! Cheap, too---about $3/dozen, any size and weight. Give Ray's Sports Shop in North Plainfield, New Jersey a good plug if you can."

Just after this exchange, Kathleen and I were watching one of our favorite French cable TV shows, Boullion de Culture, hosted by the inimitable Bernard Pivot. Books, books, and more books, and quite lively about it too. During the course of this particular broadcast, which revolved around music, M. Pivot quoted Beethoven (loosely translated): "Music, what does it do? It exalts!" A musician on the panel, Dibango, from the Sarthe region in the northwest of France, uttered another beauty: "Music is a gift from God to be shared with pleasure." This got me thinking about arrowheads, bubble wrap, cable dressing, and why audiophiles go to the lengths we do to achieve better sound.

Mulling it over, I jumped on the Web to nail down the Beethoven quote. Couldn't find it, but I did come up with an interesting link I urge you to visit: "The Value of Music Education," a "briefing" by the American Music Conference. This cogent rationale for music education in the schools contained the following points: "Music is worth knowing. Music is one of the most important manifestations of our cultural heritage. Music is a potential in every individual that, like all potential, should be developed to its fullest. Music provides an outlet for creativity, self-expression, and individual uniqueness. It enables us to express our noblest thoughts and feelings. Music is one of the most powerful and profound symbol systems that exist. Music exalts the human spirit."

In a section entitled "Window into the Brain," I found the following intriguing tidbit: "Scientists studying the brain report . . . that the nature of music may have its roots in Nature itself. Richard Voss at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Center has found that nearly all music shares a simple mathematical formulation that expresses how notes change in pitch over the course of a musical work. This same mathematical relationship is found in a wide variety of other natural patterns, including the changes in the electrical patterns of brain cells, the fluctuations of sunspots, and the growth of tree rings. The same mathematical formula that characterizes the ebb and flow of music exists widely in Nature, from the flow of the Nile to the beating of the human heart, to the wobbling of the earth on its axis."

Given the overwhelming importance of music to most audiophiles, what is it that we're trying to get out of all this tweaking? I took another look at some of the notes I'd taken while listening to Kavi Alexander's recording of Jon Hassell's Fascinoma (Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-70-CD) during my auditioning of Sony's SCD-1 SACD player: "Listening to the heavy analog tape hiss---interestingly, much more noticeable on the upsampled PCM version than on the SACD pressing---forces me to consider the sound of the master tape. And the importance of getting back to the tape, as it were."

One of the perks of my job is the privilege of hearing some of the best of the best, and I can say without blushing that the sound Kathleen and I get is usually fairly incredible. Setup, setup, setup. But over the years I've given up on the notion of exactly re-creating the sound of real instruments in a real space. In the end, whatever "magic" happens is a kind of Hollywood version of reality, and at times is perhaps even a bit larger than life. But it isn't---and never, in my humble opinion, will be---identical to the real thing.

But after agonizing at length over footers, components, cables (oy vey, never ending), and then, late one Saturday night, having temporarily ceased obsessing over the minutiae, you're listening and something grabs you and speaks to your very soul and mind---that's what it's all about. Contact of the audiophile kind. That's why audiophiles make the efforts we do.

Whatever it takes to make audio playback more meaningful---even arrowheads---is fine with me. It's not just "being there" that counts, it's finding the musical and emotional connection with the music and the intent of the composer and performers. That message seems to shine through with more intensity when music is played on a carefully set-up and tweaked audio system of whatever pedigree.

Yes, I admit, it's all rather mystical---a charge some Netizens level at Stereophile so accusingly. But it seems to me to have to do with how our individual minds work. When Kathleen and I plant visitors in the Ribbon Chair, some of them are experiencing music the high-end way for the very first time, and are pole-axed into silence. (I love when that happens.) And some of those visitors, having now experienced music so vividly, may become audiophiles.

So get out there and tweak, tune, 'n' prune your system, then invite friends and family to hear the results. Let us exalt.