Fine Tunes #21

Time magazine has chosen Albert Einstein as the Person of the Century. As the great man said, everything's relative, so in this installment of "Fine Tunes" I'll cover a few relatively inexpensive tips for homeowners, or those building their own audiophile domiciles.

Say you own your own home. Let's also imagine that you've built a pretty decent listening room. How's the bass? Does it seem to "leak" out of the room when you crank the system? Adding subwoofers won't help a room that leaks bass through flabby walls. On the other hand, a concrete bunker isn't ideal either. That kind of room reflects so much bass energy back into the listening area that your liver takes a beating each time you fire up Mahler or Morcheeba. As always, cautions Joseph Audio's Jeff Joseph---an expert at getting good sound at audio shows---try not to fight the room. "You want to work with its strengths and weaknesses and maximize that which is possible."

So before spending a fortune on acoustic room treatments, think about what you might do to strengthen the basics of your listening room. Begin by walking its perimeter, smacking the walls with your open palm as you go. If your house is like many these days, you'll be smackin' Sheetrock. Is the 'rock kinda thin? That might explain the leaky bass that's bugged you since day one. How about an investment of $2k or $3k in heavier Sheetrock? Victor Tiscareno of AudioPrism (footnote 1) told me he'd "re-rocked," and it was a big improvement. If he had it to do again, he said, he'd constrain-layer with two layers of Sheetrock sandwiching a filler of asphaltic-based paper.

While you're at it, knuckle-rap the sliding glass doors you may have behind the speakers. An excellent way to tighten up the room and keep the bass inside is to use double-glazed glass. The neighbors won't hear you scream, you'll be warmer in winter, and for sure you'll get better bass. You can also stuff Fiberglas batting in the windows of your listening room for a similar effect. Mark Levinson (the man) went so far as to line the rear doors of his new Red Rose Music store---which open into the lobby of the Whitney Museum---with lead! But if you're in a concrete bunker with glass doors leading out to a garden, for example, and you've got too much bass, then placing the speakers near the glass doors might ameliorate your booming bass. Glass "leaks."

Once you've got these basic setup issues taken care of, that's the time to spend some money and treat the remaining anomalies by fine-tuning speaker placement and using room-treatment products like ASC Studio Traps or Argent RoomLenses, among others. Or make your own traps by stacking cardboard boxes stuffed with varying amounts of newspaper in the corners behind the speakers, as described in "Fine Tunes #3," from September 1998.

And how about calling in that understanding electrician who likes music and asking him to upgrade the electrical service panel with a high-quality box and circuit breakers with good fittings and copper bus bars? As always, anything you can do to improve mechanical connections will be a plus for your system.

You also want to avoid contact resistance in the electrical line and the resultant voltage drop. Victor Tiscareno told me that his home is only three or four years old and, like many these days, uses aluminum wire for all 220V service. His electric stove created so much voltage drop from the contact resistance across its switch that it tripped the breaker every time Family Tiscareno sat down to dinner. Victor upgraded the electrical service box, the breaker now no longer trips at meal time, and it's a "significant improvement for everything!" His friend, Winston Ma of First Impressions, also upgraded his service box, and reports similar astounding results.

While you've got that obliging electrician in your clutches, ask him for estimates on rewiring separate runs from the service panel to your listening room using high-quality twisted three-wire copper in braided metal conduit (footnote 2) and for rewiring from the service box to the utility supply transformer with copper wire. Check with your local power company to see if they offer installation, or have a contractor do the work with a final inspection by the utility. Don't think your power authority would laugh off such a request. A friend told me they said, "Hey, we'll do anything for money!"

How much money am I talking about for all the rewiring work? That depends on a variety of factors, but $3k-$4k emerged as a credible average. When you consider that there are power cords on the market that cost about the same, which do you think will yield the most significant and immediate results?

But before you scoff yourself to death at the cost: I heard that Dan D'Agostino of Krell had rewired his house in this way. I called him up. Dan was very cordial and enthusiastic, and, rather than laughing off the charge, as it were, confirmed that he'd done just that. "Yep, we buried a run of three-wire twisted 500-circular-mill copper from the utility transformer to our house. It changed the color temperature and brightness of all the bulbs in our place! The video projector had a much better image, and the audio system also sounded much better! Less sibilant, for one thing. Cost me around $3500. We did it at home as well as at the factory."

Footnote 1: Now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mark Levinson's Red Rose Music in New York City.

Footnote 2: John Atkinson reports that running a dedicated line to his listening room was the best $300 he'd ever spent on his audio system.