I feel compelled to repeat, for those who haven’t heard it, what Wilma Cozart Fine, the guiding musical light behind the Mercury Living Presence classics, oft bespoke: Trust Your Ears!
Why? Because it isn’t the hotshot experts (including this one) who can tell how close you are coming to creating a realistic illusion of the music itself at home (unamplified, occurring in a real space), it’s up to you.
Keep in mind, it isn’t the components that are important; it’s the music, and getting the illusion of that music through your components.
I have come to this: If you can “hear” or “identify” a sound, the character (or overall coloration) of a component, then the equipment is wrong. Period.
What we must be looking for here is not “transparency” but rather a quality I call translucency – your ability to hear into the music and the placement of the musicians on the recorded soundstage and hear this both in a kind of three dimensional space.
Obviously, we must start with the source material itself, that is:
The Long Playing Record, prematurely pronounced dead in the wake of the compact disc’s arrival little more than a generation ago, has made a comeback, thanks to at least two things: (1) A belated recognition of the superior amount of musical information that could be encoded in its grooves. (2) Our present-day ability to extract more of that information, thanks to improved groove and disc cutting procedures. (And I haven’t begun to address the newfound status of the “LP Sound” as a super status symbol among musicians and those belatedly rebelling against the “clinical” somewhat bleached sound to many, too many CDs.) For those of golden ear persuasions, the resuscitation of the LP means that much more attention has to be paid to setup.
The new LPs are often of increased thickness, as compared to the flatter-than-epidermal discs of the early 70s. *[Ftn1. I strongly recommend the use of a heavy clamp around the spindle of your turntable, and a ring clamp around the edges of the disc for the least colored sound.] In a word, now to get what’s in the grooves with the maximum fidelity, today’s user must raise and lower the pickup arm (that is change the angle of the stylus itself to duplicate that of the disc cutting stylus) and thus get a right cartridge-to-groove alignment, otherwise the sound will either be too shrill and lacking bass (if too high), or too bass heavy, lacking top-end airiness and openness (if too low).
Remember: Listen after each and any adjustment you make, preferably using the same material. Always. Trust your ears to get it right. There will also be perspective distortions – you should, with a properly setup speaker system – feel as if you are looking slightly down on the soundstage, as do the best microphone setups. Too much or too little VTA will send the entire stage either upward or downward, and actually curtain the width of the soundstage itself.
All of this assumes (presumes?) you are keeping the discs as near to spotlessly clean as you can (which also will extend their useable life). It will surprise no one to learn that I think a rotating record cleaning machine is necessary (and the best of these, including the VPIs, keep evolving in their ability to keep clean the record). You have to – another catch – use the best fluid on the LPs themselves. And improvements in the effectiveness of these fluids keep on coming. None of them have quite the same sound. Some seem to get deeper into the finest LP grooves.
The difference a clean disc can make will take your breath away. I have found it to be necessary to clean each LP before each session. Argh!!
It is no less important to apply the same punctiliousness to the surfaces of a CD. The playing side should never be touched. Fingerprints there leave a coating of grease, which diffracts the light from the laser beam and mucks up the sound. There are endless arguments about which cleaner is best, and for updates on these, I refer you to the pages of the magazine itself. But in general, the CD cleaners vary in how they reproduce the top octaves. And, to be sure (and cynical) vary widely in price. You should leave a small sticker on the CD box to remind you when the disc was cleaned; one cleaning will last quite some time, unless you play the thing to death. As for multi-layered SACDs, I clean them as well, despite the advice of some “authorities” otherwise. (If you have one of the newer and better players, there is no longer a need for clamps, stick-on devices, and those bandages of early day CDs thought to improve their sound.)
The stylus tips of all cartridges must be kept absolutely clean. There are any numbers of soft brushes (and the like) to remove dust from the tip (obviously, this must be down with the volume turned down and with your newly acquired feathery touch). I’d be careful about using any fluid on the tip (I don’t)– it has propensity for migrating up the cantilever and into the moving parts of the cartridge itself. There are test discs widely available that you can use to set the ideal tracking weight for your cartridge. As a general rule, go toward the heaviest recommended weight. And remember, do remember, that overly warm (or the opposite) temperatures can play havoc with the sound of the cartridge. In summer, things get brighter. Lowering the pickup arm for a different vertical tracking angle (or slightly increasing the downward force of the pickup arm, the same thing) works.
The theoretical ideal, as with the relation to the stylus tip to the groove (the so-called vertical tracking angle), is to duplicate the straight line that the record cutter traverses as it engrooves the LP. But, I, for one, find the straight-line tracking arms mostly a headache and not audibly superior to the best pivoted arms in tracing the record. I know this will strike some as heresy. Obviously, no pivoted arm will be able to cut a straight-line across the disc, but the very best of these come so close that (to these ears) the differences are inconsequential, perhaps not even detectable. There is much more to worry about, including the pickup arm’s mass and balance. (Just a word, the longer arms have smaller amounts of tracing error, but that mass adds more audible problems with a shorter (say, nine inches) arm, brilliantly executed by an artist of such things.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when considering the connectors among the different components in your system is keeping all contact points clean. If they are not pristine, the transmission of the electrons will be compromised (read, diluted). If you live near the water, as I do, such cleanings have to be a regular thing. I regularly use and have for years, the products from Caig’s. (If you can find better, let me know and I will try it.) And in the world of High End fix-its, their pricings border on the eleemosynary.. And when I say all contacts. I mean just that, even down to those on tubes if a tubed unit you use. Or so they say. (You might want to try something simple, like steel-wool. And do turn off the gear, unless you want a short to heaven, or wherever.)
The difference in sonics is akin to that of substituting new and better electronics, say, like putting in a new preamp.
One more thing: Try to keep all the connecting wires, from speakers to components, among the components, as short as possible. If you have to have longer lengths (say, to reach the speakers) this is where you might consider investing in the deluxe products. Do not let the connectors, snake-like, coil around each other: keep them separated or suffer the interference effects.. If cross the wires you must, cross them at a 90-degree angle to each other, this will minimize breakthrough effects.
More? One of the basic, and little discussed truths about interconnects is that most are anything but neutral in passing a signal. They add multiple colorations, usually euphonic (of course, to justify the outrageous prices the manufacturers charge) to the systems into which they are placed, thus making them, in effect, tone controls. The role of an interconnect is to pass the electrical signal with as little change as possible; ideally, of course, with absolutely no change to the audio signal whatsoever. One way to tell just how good a set of cables is to see if they sound the same in all the systems you put them in. The cables I have opted for do just that, i.e., sound the same in every system I put them in. Trust your ears.
Electronics and Electronic Signals
The first golden rule here is isolation, isolation, and isolation. The same rule that applies to turntable setup. Ideally, you want to keep the tiny electrical signals being transmitted free from any outside interference. There are any numbers of ways to accomplish this, and one of the most important to grow as an audiophile to master is to learn about and from these isolation technologies. There is no such thing as too much isolation from unwanted, outside sounds.
Many of the newest refinements have not yet achieved widespread commercial availability. Consider the magnetic drive system for turntables and the playback of the LP. I think such will become inevitable in the best systems. What they do is isolate the vinyl from turntable motor noise. Once done, the omnipresent low-frequency noise, rather like that tires make when contacting the surface of the road, is gone. Not only is the resulting sound clearer, cleaner and harmonically more natural, but also you can and will hear the lowest frequencies of which the LP is capable. Those being as good as they are on CDs.
Or you may consider the power conditioners now coming into wider use. The best ones of these, like the best AC-connecting cables, can clean up the mostly messy intrusions from the outside, from air-conditioners, home appliances, buzz saws, and other great and small random noise generators. The absence of these at night is why all systems sound better in the darkest hours.
Or, better yet, you may opt for electronics that are battery-powered, which isolates the outside power source altogether. The latest units for both line and phono stages have wide dynamic and frequency response, which the earlier more experimental battery driven units did not. The differences today are electrifying, so much greater is the purity and the translucency of the sound.
You will find yourself quickly able to hear colorations elsewhere in the system and go about their reduction or elimination. Think about the future, the uses of power will go up.
Line Stages, Phono Stages, and Amplifiers
Here we could (but I won’t) get into an involved discussion of the merits of tube-based units vs. their solid-state brethren. Transistorized devices, like present-day high end CD gear, have come of age and the best units of both simply do not have the whitewashed character nor the gross distortions and colorations of their earliest ancestors. And has there been cross-fertilization between solid-state and tube technologies. There is virtually no such thing as a pure tube unit these days, given the prevalence of transistorized parts in a tubed unit. The new definition of a true tubed unit is whether or not there are solid-state devices in the audio signal path. If I do find my own personal scale of values tilting toward the tubed (in the signal path) units, it is because of the superior decoding of harmonic subtleties and ambient information.
The first thing I’d like to note is the Pearson Rule of Thirds, which is a quite reliable guide to setting up virtually any speaker system. It goes like this: The speakers should be placed one-third of the way down the room’s long wall (preferably a rectangularly shaped room), with the listener situated another of the way down that room. And each speaker a third of the way from the sidewalls and each other.
There is, whether I like the idea or not, a limited “sweet” space for listening, a situation much more critical if you are using an electrostatic system. [Ftn.2 And do remember that only amps with very low impedance outputs, lower than that of virtually any tubed unit, will sound right with a ‘stat speaker, which is actually a capacitive device.] To determine whether this is so or not, all you have to do is place your listening seat at the apex of an equilateral triangle, with the speakers at the bases of the pyramid. The tweeters should be aimed at your ears. A slight canting of the speakers toward your ear gives the best results (even with speaker systems of wide dispersion).
Selecting a speaker system can be a tricky, even exasperating chore. Generally speaking, and usually true with the smaller, bookshelf speakers, the fewer drivers the better. Indeed a two-way system is widely deemed to be the best, given the merits of a simple crossover design. Fewer drivers; few crossovers – ergo, more continuity and coherency to the sound (one hopes and trusts). Since there is more than a bit of black magic in speaker design, almost nothing I can say about the subject will be absolutely true. In the case of a two-way, you will sacrifice wide-band frequency and dynamic response. Of necessity, the soundfield you’ll be able to re-create is going to be small and the size of images in that field diminished. Within those limitations, you can achieve great purity, with amazingly little coloration and character. When at a dealer’s, remember one of the oldie HP tricks: Knock on the wood of the speaker cabinet. That sound will be the basic coloration you’ll hear from the speaker.
In the larger system, you will be able to achieve results that can (and often do) approximate an illusion of a real orchestra (or rock band or whatnot) there in the room. The line array units seem to have the edge. Also when shopping, do take along your own choice of discs, preferably some with vocals, and some orchestral recordings made with minimal miking. And do not let a dealer bully or intimidate you. No dealer carries all the lines you might want to hear, and, consequently, those he does not carry, he may well (and will) badmouth. And unless you read a plethora of reviews about a product, I’d suggest you trust no reviewer, not even this Sweet Ole Boy. As Wilma sayeth: Trust your ears.
Ironically as we were finishing the research for this article, my assistant had cause to disconnect the components in the main reference system here in Sea Cliff, and with a touch of a tweak here and there, when he put the system back together, it sounded much better. Lesson: If all else fails, disconnect everything and then put it back together. More black magic.