Fine Tunes #38

Thanks to all the "Fine Tuners" out there who filled the room early on Sunday morning at the Home Entertainment 2001 Show in May for my "Fine Tunes Clinic." And thanks to Victor Tiscareno of Audio Prism/Red Rose Music for the "technical stiffening." I applaud all your intelligent curiosity, questions, and tales of woe and success. Let's do it again.

My e-mail bag has been fairly stuffed recently with all kinds of interesting and slightly bizarre tweaks, all which I'll eventually discuss. This month, it's lasers.

Lasers can be very useful in lining up speakers to best effect in your listening room, but they're simply a must for a reviewer's system. I take speaker-alignment requirements so much as a matter of course that I was almost jolted by a discussion on the Audio Asylum's "General" and "Tweaker" forums on the subject.

So, how do you line up those speakers for optimal listening geometry, as much discussed in "Fine Tunes"? We've gone over the math behind it all, as well as several radical speaker-placement schemes, but the fact is, no matter how you follow the positioning rules, if your speakers aren't equidistant from your audiophile nose and not perfectly mirror-imaged to each other in terms of toe-in, then faw-get about it, pilgrim—the magic just ain't gonna happen. This is where lasers come in.

Products from Checkpoint/Sound Alignment Systems have made a name for themselves with audiophiles. Check out the ultra-ultra SA-S laser alignment system, with its beautifully machined accessories. I use the Pro-770 on one of the Checkpoint Rotating Bases. The build is almost of museum quality—this is a true high-caliber measurement systems with multiple bubble levels and a huge number of accessories available. Like the Protractor Plate, which has scientific/photographic-like engraved numerals around its 360-degree surface, and slides into one of Checkpoint's double bases on little pointy feet. Leica meets Blade Runner. In fact, the Checkpoint site is worth a look—lots of graphics (a fast connection is mandatory), all very snappy, sharp, and informative.

Miller & Kreisel, which has a special arrangement with Checkpoint, now offers the C-700 Laser Alignment Tool, "Endorsed by Ken Kreisel, THX, and theater installers in both professional and home theater arenas." They go on: "The C-700 enables exact laser directional placement of any speaker relative to the desired listening position." One hopes Checkpoint's website will be updated by the time you read this to reflect this latest entry-level ($89) laser tool. In the meantime, breaststroke over to the M&K website, click to enter, and then on the C-700 link at the bottom of the page to check this baby out. (See the SA-S white paper for more info.)

But let's say you're an impecunious audiophile. First, swim or surf to All Electronics, click on Shop At Online Store, then search at the top for a laser-level product called the LL-1—as of May, alas, out of stock, but costing a mere $20. Such a bargain. It's got a built-in bubble-level too, drat. Frustrating.

Be not defeated. Backstroke to this site (or call toll-free (877) 987-2783) and check out the LL-2, which retails for $35. This unit has dual lenses and gives you a laser-generated dot or a red line, which might be more useful for setting up speakers. And they're ready to ship, it seems.

Thirty bucks for a laser, anyone? Aim your browser at Heartland America—(800) 229-2901—where you can read about the 16" Laser Level. This product lists for $99.95, has been reduced to $69.99, but your price—if you act now, I guess—is a mere $29.99 plus another 10% off. Don't forget the Ginsu knives. The Laser Level (item WW22-3559) doesn't look too bad, although it looks far more This Old House than Star Wars. It does have built-in bubble levels, which is great. If you click on "16" Laser Level," you'll find more detail on this little number. Happy to say, it's currently available.

Now you could use those really cheap novelty laser toys, but, as was pointed out on Audio Asylum, this is all about accuracy. One audio worthy warns of a problem with ultra-cheap lasers: "You must roll the laser pointer on a flat surface and see the path traced by the spot on the wall. Ideally, the spot should move in a straight line, but in most inexpensive pointers, the spot traces an arc. This is because the laser isn't aligned correctly with the body of the pointer. The solution is to tape the pointer to something flat—I used a cassette tape! That way, you have a fixed orientation of the laser, and the alignment error doesn't matter, since the same 'error' will be present in all measurements." Lifetime membership in the Fine Tunes Club, Saurav!

So, you see, it's all in the wrist. Placing the lasers on various surfaces of your speaker and pocking the adjacent walls with little removable sticky dots, not to mention various aimings at the listening position, can reveal much about your speakers' relative positions.

More gory details next month!