System Upgrades That Make Real Improvements

Simple Changes With Dramatic Results

You just received a wonderful new component for your audio system. Inserting it into your system you notice, after the initial excitement wears off, that you begin to hear things that sound not exactly as they did in the store you (or your loving spouse) bought it from. What gives? Was there some magic happening in the store, some trick? Unlikely, but stores tend to outfit their systems with a variety of good supportive products and accessories that can make an important improvement to the overall system’s performance.

True Improvement:

An important note to remember whenever assessing a change in one’s system; it is only when a change results in seemingly incompatible improvements that true improvement is being experienced. By that, I mean that changes resulting from elevations or reductions in specific areas of musical reproduction are usually cheap parlor tricks. For example, a cable that increases energy in the low treble region will often be experienced by those inexperienced in global system assessment as sounding “clearer” or having “more detail”. Of course it sounds this way, you’ve inserted an equalizer into your system, not a component that results in the passage of more information. Rather it is selectively altering sound you are hearing.

Listen for those components—this applies to everything you install in your system, from the smallest accessory to the biggest power amplifier­­–that produces both more detail and more liquidity and ease. When both result from one change, you are likely in the presence of something that is truly improving your system globally.

The products we list below are not the only ones that fit that bill. Often they are not the newest of their kind, because classics evolve from a position of strength having outlasted the newest, latest offerings to emerge as genuine values over the long haul.

Cable Organization:

Check out the inexpensive products from a website called Nothing looks worse, frustrates the design half of a household more, and results in more confusion (‘Hey, why are my right and left channels reversed?’) than the snarl of cables lurking behind the typical audio rack.

Great affordable speaker cables:

While there are many cables out there, really well-balanced affordable speaker cables aren’t as easy to come by as one might think. Audioquest’s long-running Type 4 and step up model GO-4 cables aren’t crazy expensive but sound better than many competitors’ pricier alternatives. Some of the best sounding and tightest fitting banana connectors and very good spades deliver the goods. Liquid, dynamic and well-balanced top-to-bottom, they lack a bit of resolution compared to multi-thousand dollar/pound cables but produce a deeply satisfying balance.

Great reasonably-priced interconnects:

Kimber Kable continues to deliver a long running classic with their Hero AG™ cables. Available single-ended and balanced, they produce a truly natural balance of virtues lacking only scale, ultimate frequency extension at the frequency extremes and the utterly liquid presentation that the best cables do, but at a fraction of their price these remain a stone cold bargain.

High Performance Racks:

There are a number of good sounding racks these days. If you’ve never “listened” to racks, there’s a huge difference between the average particle board cheapo from Tesco or Target and genuine audio racks from companies that specialize in just them.

Great looking, if not the last word in sonic revelation are BDI Furniture racks, a U.S.-based company. Check out their Mid Century modern Corridor™ range, we did and bought one. They run around $1500-2000 in the U.S. and are available in markets overseas as well.

Start your engines:

Much higher performance for the legit ultra-high end audiophile are the Grand Prix Audio racks. Auditioning these, either as a complete rack swap, or shelf-by-shelf can be eye-opening if you’ve never heard what an improvement mitigating audible breakthrough and resonance control can mean to the rack that holds your components. Bring large bags of cash, however, as cheap these are not in any sense of the word.  Still, in a system worth tens of thousands, Grand Prix racks work where many don’t. These restore warmth and body, presence, leading edge details—pretty much everything. Check out their footers, which are incredible and relatively affordable.

Digital takes flight with Dragonfly Red:

The original Dragonfly from Audioquest rocked the audio world seven years ago when it was introduced. Bill Low’s gift to affordable excellence in digital audio, Dragonfly Red, was reinvented and launched in 2017 and continues to offer almost disturbingly great sound for the money. Plugging into any computer’s USB port or mobile phone’s output connection (iPhone shown below) the sound quality improvement is enough to startle 15 year olds who don’t think about digital as anything other than music over their phone. Best thing to give a young might-be-audiophile if you ever want them to begin thinking of audio in terms of hierarchical, qualitative sound differences that are jaw-droppingly obvious.

Clean Power:

Why does cleaning up the a/c power coming into your system matter? Because, in the end, your power amplifier is simply a downstream, local power station, amplifying and releasing the power coming from your main’s receptacle. Dirt in, yields dirt out.

The two best companies to make a “municipal” investment in? PS Audio have been at this since the early ‘90’s and Audioquest with their recent offerings. They’re the closest thing to siting your components at the base of Hoover Dam’s massive impellers.

PS has been making what amount to super high current power amplifiers that clean up and output a perfect 60 Hz (50 Hz in much of the world) sine wave instead of music. Providing only this perfect wave of power means the power amplifier and other components are freed to play glorious music.

Audioquest’s Garth Powell has designed a number of the world’s best a/c conditioners. A renaissance man—serious ass avant-garde jazz drummer–he has studied so many esoteric aspects of power conditioning I have taken to calling him Garth Vader. Garth’s Niagara 5000, while expensive is legendary. Two years ago, they followed up with their much more affordable 1000 model which yielded higher current and many of the 5000’s benefits for about 1/5th the price.

This year, their all-new 1200 is being sent to us for review and we can’t wait to heat what they’ve learned in the past 2 years. During a demo of the 5000, using a reference system under pinned by a pair of REL’s 212/SE’s that proved to be crucial in producing the full range sound needed to hear ALL of what the Niagara offers, the differences, even when only changing over the conditioning to the RELs and power amplifier (low power source components are actually the most susceptible to cleaning up power so this was the Niagara fighting with one hand tied behind its back) the improvement-not difference-was instantly obvious to everyone seat in the audience with greater warmth, body, spaciousness and air in recordings even in some cases that were average or below.

Rolling Tubes:

Lastly, for those of us who own tubed gear, finding access to the best modern and vintage tubes is critical. Kevin Deal of Upscale Audio has taken what 20 years ago was the stuff of cheap detective novels—meetings with shady characters behind the Iron Curtain, being taken blind-folded to abandoned warehouses filled with crates of perfect new old stock (NOS) tubes and made it a reality. If you’ve ever wondered what your new Audio Research REF 10 preamp would sound like using vintage Telefunkens, Kevin’s your man. He guides toward gentle sculpting of the sound via tubes—if you don’t like it with modern tubes, you need a new component. But if you want the warmth and mid-bass hit of ‘80’s vintage Sylvania 6CA7’s instead of current EL34’s, visit the Upscale Audio website and ask for Evan; the current tube meister in residence.

Well Connected:

It hardly makes sense to have clean power connected to a low quality mains receptacle making only incidental contact with the mains plug. Kimber Kable’s Wattgate and Cardas Audio products appear immediately below. Both Kimber Kable and Cardas Audio make a/c duplex or European mains receptacles that are instantly, audibly superior. Twenty years ago, I spent quite a bit of time researching the sonics of power a/c products and while most offerings at the time were complete misfires, these two have gone on to build superior products that make a genuine improvement to every aspect of a system’s performance. Highly recommended for reasonable sums.

Final Thought:

Be open to the improvements that seemingly minor accessories can provide your system. Cleaning up the power, siting your components in a high quality rack, using good cabling and properly aligning your cables (don’t run a/c mains power and low level signal cables next to each other-separate them to reduce noise) are things that everyone can do to get the most out of a system. Don’t overdo it, using a $5,000 (£4,000) a/c cable on a $5,000 preamp is ridiculous. But careful use of well tested solutions can make the difference between having something closer to reference level sound; that last 5-10% is where all the magic lies.

January 9, 2019 - Posted in: News, Reconsider