Part II - Clean Connections And Signal Transfer
Well, you've had your dream system now for about a year and are thinking that, because it just doesn't sound as good as it used to, it's time for you to upgrade. Maybe a new source component like an outboard converter would jazz up the sound and get you back to where the old system used to take you on a regular basis. Maybe. Or maybe you just need to spend a little attention on the system you used to love.
When was the last time you unplugged any of the connections in the system? Was it when you brought home all the components and first assembled the system? If so, it is way overdue for some cleaning. Left to themselves, the connections in your system decay. Over time dirt, dust, pollutants and oxidation take their toll at the Achilles heel of your system - its non soldered connections. Dirt and dust build up and oxidation occurs at the junction of all your system's connections - at the phono cartridge, RCA jacks, speaker terminals and even power cords. These "bottlenecks" in the system, the points of interfacing the non-permanent connections, simply compound the issue when they are left alone to degrade. Think I'm kidding? Go pull off your RCA's to your CD player. See that discoloration? That's dirt and oxidation. What do you do about it?
For the last ten years or so I have used something called De-Ox-Id Contact Cleaner for surface preparation and then something you long-timers knew called Tweek as a surface enhancement. De-Ox-Id Contact Cleaner, manufactured in Rockford, Illinois by GC Electronics, is typically used by electronics technicians to clean and lubricate electronic controls, volume pots and switches like those used in TV's and audio receivers.Tweek, which came packaged in a manner strongly resembling a bottle of nail polish, was distributed by Sumiko (the guys with the greatest budget phono cartridge in the universe, the Blue Point) and has been a favorite of mine for all this time. As it is no longer available (Tweek has been discontinued for over 5 years now), I phoned the helpful gang at Audio Advisor (www.audioadvisor.com) to find out what was currently available to combat this corruption. Three days later, a package arrived on my doorstep full of goodies (thanks again Ron)!
They kindly sent me a 1/3 fluid ounce bottle of Torumat's TC-2, a 7.5 ml bottle of CAIG's ProGold (www.caig.com) and a small 15 gram aerosol spray can of CAIG's DeoxIT (it would seem that this aerosol dispenser is no longer available as it does not appear in the current catalog). DeoxIT is currently offered in 1.) a 25 ml nozzle applicator bottle, 2.) a package of 50 pre-treated wipes and 3.) an economy size 59 ml bottle. The new packaging indicates a concerted effort to be more environmentally friendly. All three products list for just $16.95 and all are said to be both cleaners and contact enhancers for electrical connections. I used the Denon receiver in my office system (which has been untouched for two years) to gauge the sonic significance of the cleaning portion of the testing and my reference system to gauge the sonic differences exhibited by the two contact enhancers. One channel of each of three different inputs on the Denon was treated, one with DeoxIT, one with ProGold and one with TC-2 while the other channel of each input was left untreated and used as the control.
The DeoxIT package, with its 10 cm long, 2 mm wide directional application tube, is very similar to what most of you may be used to seeing with the dust removing "canned air" products or WD-40. Reading the label was a bit of a challenge for a forty one year old who has worn glasses since age nine. But with the help of my AGFA 8X lupe, intended for viewing negatives and slides, I was able to read the directions and the major ingredient, petroleum naphtha. Oddly enough, this is the same ingredient listed on the can of De-Ox-Id Contact Cleaner which I had been using up to now. Looking at the $3.99 price tag on the five ounce can (141 grams) of De-Ox-Id Contact Cleaner I had been using for years made me very curious, as it offered a tad more than nine times as much cleaner as is in the DeoxIT 15 gram can which sells for $16.95. So I sprayed a blast from the De-Ox-Id Contact Cleaner 5 ounce can onto a paper towel and a blast from the DeoxIT 15 gram can on to another. They both had the same oily wet look and they smelled, to this admittedly untrained nose, virtually identical with the DeoxIT being a bit more reddish in color. Surprise audiophobes, you get to pay more for the same stuff!
They both work like magic! Spray some onto a cotton ball find the dirtiest set of female RCA inputs (those of you running balanced connections will be dealing with XLR type connectors) on the back of your pre-amp/receiver. Wipe this moistened cotton ball on and around the connection and watch it clean up bright and shinny as new with no real effort - and no abrasion to wear away the precious metal of the connection. Look at the cotton ball. See all that gray or brown residue? That was the dirt and oxidation on your connection. Now do the same to the male RCA ends of your patch cord using another moistened cotton ball and tooth picks or something similar to push the cotton ball against the inside surfaces of the shield connection and the signal pin.
Now if it isn't readily apparent why this is good, follow this. The contact surfaces of the connections, although they look quite smooth to the eye, are actually very rough at the microscopic molecular level. Those surfaces are actually pitted and full of "hills and valleys" so to speak, so electrical conduction can only take place where the molecules of the two surfaces actually touch. Even though the male RCA jack fits snugly into the female RCA receptacle, due to the irregularities of these surfaces, something on the order of about 20 percent of the surfaces are actually contacting each other. Now, factor in oxidation and pollutants over time and it may drop as low as 5 percent or less, with the other 95 percent offering a high degree of constrictive resistance to the relatively low current passing through these narrow points of contact. This resistance greatly diminishes the transfer of dynamics and low level information through these interface points. Hooking up the freshly cleaned (and as yet otherwise untreated) cable and to the freshly cleaned jack yielded a significant difference. More clarity, more dynamics and more extension to the upper registers than the untreated side, in mono and stereo!
After you've cleaned both ends of the connection, if there were only some way to increase their contact surface, it would greatly enhance our current flow and further reduce the bottle neck effect. This is where TC-2 and ProGold come in. Although both claim to clean the pollutants and oxides from dirty old connections, neither, in my opinion, is as effective at this task as the DeoxIT. I tried both of these enhancers as cleaners and to their credit, they both were fairly effective at removing the built up crud on both sets of inputs. However, going back over these freshly cleaned surfaces with the DeoxIT, after having listening to each of them independently during the first part of the testing, revealed a further soiled cotton ball. And this wasn't just the residual treatment chemistry, it was more brown/black debris.
The real contribution of these surface treatments comes in that they both are solutions which have been formulated to chemically and physically enhance the electrical field between connections. As they are semi-viscous liquids which conduct current, applying them to the microscopically pitted surfaces allows for a greater degree of contact, thereby permitting significantly less resistance to current flow at these critical phono cartridge, patch cord, speaker wire and even AC power cord connections, yielding greatly improved signal transfer.
The ProGold bottle, again labeled and packed with an instruction sheet with absolutely tiny lettering, comes fitted with a small applicator brush attached to its cap, again much in the fashion of a fingernail polish bottle. The liquid is a rich amber/gold color, leading me to believe this had much to do with the development of its name. The instructions say to apply a small amount of ProGold, then to wipe away the excess with a lint-free applicator, claiming that optimum results are achieved with only a small amount left on the treated surfaces. This is quite easy to achieve. After brushing some ProGold on with the connections with the attached brush, a quick wipe around each connection with a trusty cotton ball removed any excess. Just for good measure I then connect, disconnect, reconnect and finally slightly rotate each connection to insure even application of the fluid under examination. Hooking the CD player to this freshly treated connection was a true pleasure. Wow! What a difference between channels.
TC-2 was applied to the second half of another input and a second identical patch cord (I've got loads, need any?). The TC-2 is a light amber in color and, rather than providing a tiny applicator brush, comes in a bottle with a tiny nozzle similar to super glue tubes, though not quite as long. With a couple of drops on a cotton ball, I was off. Unlike the ProGold, Torumat suggests you do not wipe off the excess TC-2. Once again I used my on, off, back on and rotate ritual as they were plugged in. Similar wow!
Finally to the speaker connections and the AC plugs. I was honestly quite shocked to note how badly corrupted both the AC plugs and the speaker spades and terminals had become. I had a feeling that the higher current passing through these interfaces would have a pretty notable effect on the sound. So, a cleanen' and a treaten' I went, first with the DeoxIT and then with the two surface enhancers, one on the right channel speaker connections and one on the left. Was I ever right. Major wow! The system was shining through once again.
What do I mean by Wow? There was a broad band increase in definition, top to bottom. The upper mid-range and higher frequencies smoothed out and became more extended. At the same volume settings the system sounded louder, likely due to increased dynamic capabilities of the connections. Low level detail was better resolved as was imaging and ambience. Overall there was a better degree of clarity to instruments and voices. Try it for yourself!
The DeoxIT is far and away a better cleaner than either of the two contact enhancers tested here, but both do provide a good degree of cleaning (as does anhydrous alcohol). I suggest you use this stuff before applying any enhancer as you will obviously want to start with the cleanest connection possible. At $16.95, the degree of sonic improvement more than justifies the price of admission. WAY RECOMMENDED! You may choose to seek out the cheaper, larger De-Ox-Id Contact Cleaner from an electronics supply store or a repair shop, as just one can this size will probably last you forever.
As for the two surface enhancements, Torumat's TC-2 and CAIG's ProGold, both work extremely effectively. I cannot pronounce a clear winner! They both afforded wonderful results and were indistinguishable from each other in my TC-2 left speaker/ProGold right speaker application in my reference system, in both mono and stereo playback. I will see which holds up better with time and update you as I have more data. The only item which may tip the scale in either direction is that ProGold comes with its own applicator brush making it a bit more easy to apply than just using a cotton ball. However, the instruction sheet for both the CAIG Labs chemicals are provided in such fine print that you had best be armed with some sort of magnifier to read them! Other than that, it is too close to call. Both of these products are also WAY RECOMMENDED!
Cleanliness is next to godliness so the saying goes. Well, I don't know about that, but it is certainly more musical! Even if you are unwilling to spend the extra money for these materials, just disconnecting, reconnecting and rotating the cables in their sockets will improve the sonics, but the degree of improvement is small by comparison. I recommend that you go through this little ritual every three months, thereby assuring you get all the sound you paid for. Till next time, enjoy!