Fine Tunes #40

Kathleen and I went to France for a week to visit her brother.

Here's all you need to know about Pierre: He's got a Harley-Davidson Q-Ship he rides to work—it looks a bit tatty and attracts zero attention, but the suspension and motor are tweaked to the nines. He's also got a Royal Enfield (in the garage, where else?) and a Jag sedan. He's in prêt-à-porter.

Pierre's no Philistine. In fact, back in the mid-'80s, he was the first guy who ever played me an amp with 300B tubes (and efficient speakers). The Chinese tubes popped like fireworks on turnoff.

Pierre was moving, and had sublet a pad from a friend on the outskirts of Paris for a short while. His pal had a Samsung three-disc player (not working) integrated into one of those medium-power mini-shelf systems with a tuner, two cassette decks, and a pair of speakers. The speakers were sitting smack up against the electronics on a reasonably solid shelf, but the whole kit'n'kaboodle was shoved way back against the wall. Pierre, who loves classical music, was driving the system with a Sony portable CD player.

What impressed me was how bad this system didn't sound; I'd expected much worse. On the second day, as Pierre and Kathleen settled on the terrasse to have a drink and look over the Paris rooftops, I tiptoed inside to see what I could do to make it a bit more listenable during our stay.

I grabbed six red marbles from an obviously long-unused Chinese Checkers board on the shelf below. I checked that Pierre and K-10 were still outside chatting it up, then, from the shelf above, grabbed a couple of paperbacks that were just a hair less thick than the marbles' diameter (maybe half an inch). I pushed the paperbacks under the speakers, separated the speakers from the electronics package, pulled them out a bit out from the depths of the shelf, and toed them out a few degrees.

Then the pièce de résistance: I slipped two marbles under the right and left rear of each speaker, and one under the center front, under each grille, far enough back to support the speaker box and not just the grille. The books I'd slid underneath would protect anything drastic from happening if any of the marbles skittered away. If that occurred, the speaker would just plop down on the book.

I cranked it up, et voilà—instantly improved sound! After turning off the SuperBass "Loudness" control, I noticed that the system had no traditional treble and bass controls, but instead a number of preconfigured EQ contours: Rock, Jazz, and Classical. Oy vey—the less said the better. I settled on Rock for the best overall balance, and let it ride.

Then I spun This One's for Blanton, Bags Groove, and Kind of Blue—all recordings which I know intimately, and all of which I'd bought Pierre at La Fnac for his generosity during our stay. Playing these tunes, plus some classical discs I found scattered about, I rolled the speakers back'n'forth and left'n'right on the marbles until I found a spot where they sounded tout à fait bien—a not too terrible compromise between rear-wall bass reinforcement without too much boominess, but pulled out enough from the back wall to image a bit.

Then I joined my wife and her brother outside to finish that drink. (All we did was eat and drink, eat and drink. Ah, les Français!) After a while, Miles on deck, Pierre suddenly looked at me suspiciously. "The sound, eet is differ-aunt! I can 'ear it from 'ere. Deed you do somsing?"

"Oui, mon ami."

He came inside, listened intently for a while, and pronounced, "Eet is good! Definitely bet-air!"

Hey, 300Bs—remember?

I might have done more with isolating the electronics, but the unit wasn't his and the marbles made enough of an improvement that I knew when to stop. Kathleen liked the change too, but predicted disaster and mayhem when next the cleaning lady appeared.

Back in the States, I found a letter on my desk from an audio worthy by the name of Larry Marks, from Toronto. "File under 'Tweaks (Footers)—Air Shocks'," he wrote at the top of the page. His brainstorm—a good one that I could have used at Pierre's—concerned a sheet of Bubble-Wrap with, if possible, "one-centimeter bubbles in a hexagonal array." He'd even sent along a little sample of 'Wrap as an example. He suggested cutting four strips about 16" by 2½", "taking care to break no more cells than necessary."

His instructions were to roll up each strip tightly and secure the seam with 3M Magic Tape. Each roll should be about the size of four D-cell batteries laid end to end. They should be placed under a CD player (or other not-too-heavy component), near the unit's four corners, "so that the footers compress into oval shapes." His experience is that footers of this size are good for players weighing 12-18 lbs. "Adjust sizes as required to support more mass."

Thanks, Larry—that's a winner!

Et merci, Pierre—I'll never forget the fabulous terrine de cochon!