By Anthony Chiarella
“In the Spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of…Audio Gear!?!”
May Alfred, Lord Tennyson will forgive my blatant bastardization of his poetic masterpiece, but its true: as Winter turns to Spring, flowers begin to bloom, animals awaken from hibernation and guys start prepping their toys for the warm months. All across America, lawnmowers are gassed and lubed, boats are lowered into lakes and rivers, hot rods are tuned and detailed until they shine like mirrors; in other words, it’s time for Spring Cleaning and your Stereo System is the best place to start! Tweaking your system means being a “Do it yourselfer” and, like car guys, you should derive pleasure from maintaining, improving and hot-rodding your gear. There’s a special satisfaction that comes from Sweat Equity and this is particularly true in the case of system optimization.
Although many connoisseurs assume a Stereo System requires little or nothing in the way of maintenance, nothing could be further from the truth. Mechanical vibrations and electrical impulses loosen nuts and bolts, while dust, dirt and pollutants contaminate every connection in your system. Records, cartridges, laser pickups, etc are equally vulnerable. Since these changes occur gradually, you might not notice the degradation in performance on a day-to-day basis but trust us: once you’re given your system a serious “Spring Cleaning,” you’ll hear everything you’ve been missing. And remember: THIS IS FUN!!! Enjoy spending some “Quality Time” with your system….
Let’s start with the things that are most vulnerable to the ravages of time. First up, believe it or not, is your AC Wall Outlet. I’m still amazed at how many six-figure High End systems receive their power from an ancient AC socket that can barely grip the power plug! This is the single cheapest and most significant improvement you can accomplish. Since most of you aren’t electricians and we don’t want you to get injured, PLEASE MAKE SURE TO LOCATE THE PROPER CIRCUIT BREAKER AND TURN OFF THE POWER TO YOUR SYSTEM BEFORE YOU PROCEED!!! Once that’s done, and you’re sure there’s no power flowing to the socket, remove the wall plate, remove the AC Socket and replace it with a Hospital Grade AC Socket. (I suggest buying an inexpensive Polarity Tester to ensure you have your positive, negative and Earth connected properly.) Reinstall the wall plate and prepare to be amazed! (I just purchased a dozen Hubbell 15-amp Hospital Grade Outlets for $5.37 apiece online: absolutely THE BEST improvement, dollar-for-dollar, I’ve ever wrought in my system!)
Now that we’ve improved our power, it’s “Time to Tighten.” Your speakers, if they’re on spikes, are probably wobbly. Drop a Spirit Level (please check my “Audiophile Tool Kit” blog from last month) atop each speaker, level it, and then tighten the spikes so that the speaker is rigidly coupled to the floor, making sure that all four spikes are in contact with the floor and the speaker (or stand, for monitors) doesn’t rock to and fro. The improvements in bass punch and image specificity can be startling! As a corollary, you can check to see if the bolts that hold each driver to its baffle are properly tightened. BE CAREFUL! You’re just ensuring that there are no loose bolts. Over-tightening can be catastrophic!
While we’re at it, it can’t hurt to clean and dust everything. If you’ve got some chutzpah, disconnect all of your components, remove from your rack and clean each with a soft, damp cloth. Clean the shelves upon which your components sit, as well. Will it make a difference in sound? Maybe not, but since when was dust and dirt A Good Thing? Since your rack is now empty, consider repositioning it. Do you have sufficient access to cables? Have you considered moving your rack to a more convenient location and changing cable lengths? Have you considered adding some sort of “Footers” beneath each component? Now’s the time!
Let’s make sure your system is “On The Level.” Even if you leveled everything when you first installed your system, that might no longer be the case. Start by leveling your system rack, making sure it doesn’t wobble or rock on the floor. Next, place your turntable and/or CD Player on its support and make sure they’re level, as well. Turntables require special attention. Check that cartridge screws and clips are tight, break out your stylus force gauge and check that tracing force hasn’t drifted, use a strobe to confirm speed accuracy. (This is especially important with Belt Drive ‘tables, as belts will stretch with use.) Load up your rack and verify level: an unladen rack won’t necessarily remain level once a couple of hundred pounds of equipment have been added! If there are nuts to lock your rack’s spikes in place, gently tighten to save your work.
It’s time to check your connections. Over the course of a year, your speaker binding posts will have loosened and your contacts will have become contaminated. This is a good time to bring your cables back to a Nordost Dealer for a three day Vidar burn-in. Buy a can of Cramolin and carefully clean every cable plug and chassis socket to remove built-up contaminants. (Do NOT apply any cleaner or treatment to AC connections: the results can be disastrous!) Before you reconnect all your cables, give everything a good wipe-down with Nordost ECO 3X to eliminate both dust and static charge. Ensure that all cables are properly “Dressed” and that power and signal cables are separated to the extent possible. Verify all connections and power-up….
Chances are, you’re going to experience a host of changes, some of which might not seem positive. You’ll probably hear more prominent bass and perhaps a bit more “immediate” (read: “Forward”) sound. This is normal! It’s time to reposition your speakers. Try everything: closer together and no toe-in, farther apart with more toe-in, closer and farther from the back and side walls, asymmetrical placement, etc. Use your favorite music and perhaps a couple of setup discs (Nordost makes a great one!) to restore the balance to your system. Once you’ve found the “Magic Spot” for your speakers, re-level, ensure that the speakers/stands are free of play and wobble and tighten.
Finally, here’s the most important part of the process. Pour yourself a drink, spin (or stream) your favorite album, sit back and enjoy your handiwork. Happy Spring!