[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

January 2002

Higher Resolution

Speaking of "Hell," let’s talk about New Year’s resolutions. Hey, don’t blame me; blame the Babylonians. They’re the ones who started this mess over 4000 years ago. This "oldest of all holidays" was celebrated in March to bring in the spring season. This made sense: the season of rebirth with the new planting and reappearance of life. The idea of New Year’s resolutions came from the Babylonian belief that whatever you did on the first day of the year had an effect on the rest of the year. They returned borrowed items and expressed gratitude for their blessings. "We" spend the day watching football and recovering from hangovers. Oooo, I can’t wait for the kind of year these actions would forecast.

There is one good thing about all of this, though. If we mess up on our resolutions during the first two months, we can start over in March. Hey, it was good enough for the Babylonians!

Exercise more, lose weight, eat healthy, quit smoking, save money, and get organized are all great New Year’s resolutions -- and they usually fail. Those who benefit most from these resolutions seem to be the owners of health clubs and the creators of exercise equipment, weight-loss programs, anti-smoking aids, and "how to organize your life" books.

Why do these resolutions usually fail? Because we really don’t want to do them. TV is more fun than treadmill; French fries taste better than fruit snacks; a messy desk is a sign of creativity; and, well, you really should stop smoking.

So let’s move our aim a little and look for something we really do want to do. And the first place for "we of the auditory obsessive compulsives" to begin is obvious. Here’s a list of my resolutions, not necessarily in the order of attack. I started with a list of ten, but let’s be a little realistic. Here are my top five.

Resolution #1 - Dress my cables.

There’s nothing worse than naked cables lying around the house to offend our prudish visitors. What I really mean is organizing (not that word again) and moving cables into positions to achieve the greatest sonic benefit. This costs nothing and can result in substantial improvement. The other night while I sat reading in front of the stereo, the record came to an end. As I was near the end of a chapter, I didn’t jump up to change records. What I soon noticed was, what appeared to be, rap music emanating from my speakers at a very low volume. I am not a fan, so I busta move toward my system and got jiggy with my cables. I soon found the culprit in the cables running from my turntable. After a few minutes of moving them around, the notorious RFI was gone.

A lot can be accomplished by separating your power cords from your interconnects. It’s also a good idea to make sure that your interconnects are all kept a couple of inches apart from each other. At least make sure that they cross at 90-degree angles. This will keep interaction at a minimum.

Resolution #2 - Install French doors between the living room and dining room.

What in the "Hell" does this have to do with audio? Everything. One of the greatest tweaks you can do for yourself is find the right location for listening. Location, location, location. I’m quite happy with our living room as a location. Nice 13 1/2' by 23' room with heavy Persian rugs and furniture to help soak up some of those standing waves. The problem I have is that the room opens up into the dining room, which opens up to the hallway, which opens up to a room containing the television. It’s a small room, and closing the door to this room makes it quite cave-like to the occupant. However, in a hobby where we look for silent backgrounds in our components, the sound of Emeril-Live in the background is not a good thing. The French doors will push me one step closer to a dedicated listening room.

Resolution #3 - Play with power cords.

This is the one area that I have completely neglected. I have been an avid cable-trader of both the speaker and interconnect varieties. Anyone who doubts the benefits of finding the perfect match between component and cable has either never tried, or has ears of tin and should look into a different hobby. Calm down boy and get off that soapbox.

Anyway, back to power cords. I have experienced the benefits of these second hand though other people's systems, but never in my own. They say the amplifier is usually a good place to start. A good cord can really improve bass quality and dynamics. Unfortunately, my current amplifier, my beloved Conrad-Johnson MV55, has a captive cord. Perhaps a good reason for an upgrade. However, my preamp, transport, DAC, and phono stage all are good candidates for a cord transplant. Among other things, you can expect to gain quieter backgrounds and better micro and macrodynamics. I think I’ll start with the preamp and go from there. There are lots of good options out there between $100-$300. Practically pocket change in this hobby.

Resolution #4 - Tweak my Rega.

Although I have been rolling merrily along with my Planar 25 for some time now, I am also aware of a number of tweaks that are supposed to take this turntable to another level. Companies like Incognito are offering some serious upgrades. Replacing the counterweight with an after-market upgrade lowers the tonearm’s center of gravity and is said to improve tracking as well as increase resolution and dynamics. Sleeves are available to allow VTA adjustment and open up the number of choices in cartridges which can be used. Marigo makes damping dots for controlling vibrations of your tonearm. I’ve also been procrastinating (mostly because of price) on replacing my felt mat with a cork and fiber RingMat, which has received endless praise. Where to begin?

Resolution #5 - Broaden my music collection.

Explore other genres. I am a huge fan of classical music. I would venture to say that 85% of my collection is classical. The rest, in order of volume, consists of female vocals, assorted jazz, blues, folk, world, and classic rock. Oh, and I’m also a big Johnny Cash fan. Lately, my friend Jess has introduced me to some jazz masters of the late '50s and '60s. I have always been a Miles Davis fan, but I’m now listening to the likes of Wes Montgomery, Chico Freeman, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Ahmad Jamal. There’s lots of jazz from this era readily available on vinyl, both used and in reissue. With all the buzz from the remake of Ocean's Eleven, I’ve developed an interest in seeking out some music of Sinatra and his buddies.

If you find yourself stuck listening to a narrow range of music, this is the time to break out of your rut. You’re missing so much. Good music is good music, regardless of the genre.

Make your own list

Now that you’ve heard my top five, it’s time to get started on your own list. Component upgrades don't really count because you’ll do them anyway. That’s like saying "I promise to drink more beer when I go out on the town." Look for areas that you’ve always been curious about. If I may, I’d like to suggest two areas to look in to if you haven’t already: turntables and tubes. I guess I’d like to do more than suggest; I'd like to campaign for a moment.

If the last time you had a turntable it was attached to a box with a tuner and an 8-track, then you have no idea what you are missing. Please, please, please make this your year to get back into vinyl. While you wait for the corporate goons to battle it out for the next format, you can start listening to a format that is already far superior to CD. With clean LPs, the sound is more vivid, lifelike, non-fatiguing, and just plain musical than CDs can ever be. The cost is low. You can pick up a rig complete with cartridge from the likes of Music Hall, Rega, or Sumiko for under a grand. And records are cheap. It’s easy to find clean used vinyl for under five bucks. I balk at paying $15 for a CD anymore because I can buy five records for the same price. And if you prefer new, there are more new pressings every year.

Get a tube in your system somewhere. This is another part of the industry that’s on the rise for good reason. Go to your nearest dealer and audition your favorite music on some tube equipment. In a world of sterile chips and microprocessors, tubes bring life back to the music. The difference is amazing. Voices become real and organic-sounding. The timbres are more natural. The emotion of the artist is palpable. I may sound like a sap, but all this is true. Once you try tubes you can never go back. They are reliable. They can drive real-world speakers. They are not expensive. They are not high maintenance.

So get off your exercise bike, pour yourself a high-calorie beverage, and start making your list. Shoot for January, but if you find yourself a little slow off the starting line, just remember the Babylonians and get a second chance for free.

Happy New Year!

...Bill Brooks


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