Field Notes

Start the Year Off Right With Perfect Tuning

Tuning Tips To Squeeze More From Your System

Here’s a New Year’s resolution for the audiophile in your life; dial-in—really, truly nail your set-up—in the New Year. Even the best reviewers on the planet frequently have systems that are off in some way that is significant. If the best in the biz aren’t close, how much performance are you paying for and leaving on the table? I recently polled 5 very experienced set-up artists and the common agreement was that the average system leaves more than 50% of the performance in the average set-up un-tapped. Put into dollars or pounds, that’s a $20,000 (£16,000) system that performs below what a well-constructed $10,000 (£8,000) system can.

With any system, it is the combined performance of room AND equipment and then careful placement that comprises the possible performance of a system.

Room: Most rooms have several challenges, smaller rooms tend to have upper bass peaks resulting in “Room Boom”, a big peak up in the 70Hz-90Hz region. There are plenty of relatively inexpensive ways to rid your system, I tend not to like the sonic effects of corner traps. These generally cylindrical structures placed vertically in corners tend to soak up all the dynamics as well as kill the boom.

Absorption Panels: I have found that sidewall-mounted absorptive side panels actually do a pretty good job of gently minimizing room boom as well as virtually eliminating hard upper-midrange slap echo that makes systems sound hard and aggressive. Here’ a link to one of my favorite acoustic treatment suppliers, ATS. Their products are well-made (little touches like having 3/8” plywood backing makes them stable and easily mounted), affordable and available in a wide range of fabrics. I tend to work in rooms able to work comfortably with their 4” thick panels and when used properly such that the end closest to the front wall is about 4”-6” away from the wall and then two additional stacks of panels are used each covering around 50% of the prior panel, the effect is to focus the image of the system, and eliminate the parallel sidewalls. Look carefully at videos of our set-up suggestions and you will see this treatment in one of our design studios.

Crown Moulding: Start with conventional room finishing treatments. Wall-to-ceiling joints should have—where the room’s dimensions allow–prominent crown mouldings, preferably ones that have prominent dentils placed in repeating patterns. This will break up a noticeable amount of slap echo that originates at this joint.

Diffusers: I favor diffusion for the front, rear-side and rear walls using yet another product from ATS Acoustic Diffusors are wooden 2’X4’x6” panels. Use these horizontally when placed close to the floor or ceiling and stack them vertically in on-wall locations that are anywhere close to ear height. This vertical orientations spreads critical midrange frequencies out in time and by doing this makes your brain work less hard; our brains hate it when a little echo happens almost immediately behind a musical transient so by spreading things out in time, the brain can relax and hear the great imaging you should be experiencing.

Total cost for treatment in a room that is just about ideal 10’ x 16’ x 25’3” would run around $4,000 or less. I see guys spending 2-3 times this on cables (sometimes for their second or third time around the cable corral), yet their rooms are incapable of revealing the time-based differences these cables purport to make. Stop it, grow up and get your room working properly before you waste another penny on cables. Once you hear what a properly treated room can do, you might choose to spend $10,000 on cables, but you’ll actually be able to hear whether the cables are where you need to spend your money or whether another part of your system needs more help.

Hot Tip: Turn all your equipment off. Carefully, methodically unplug and re-plug back in, every AC mains power connection. Then do the same with each low level RCA-RCA interconnect or balanced interconnect.
If you’re using computer audio, unplug and re-plug the USB connectors. The simple act of doing so will remove layers of oxidation that have built up and can restore about 20% of the missing low level detail and transparency you weren’t even aware had slipped away. If you’re using tubes within the signal path, please do the same; just remember not to handle the glass bottles with your fingers or the transfer of oils can affect the lifespan of your tubes.

Shameless Self Promotion: Except it isn’t since I have been saying this ever since I experienced my first REL, before I had anything to do with REL professionally speaking. Buy a REL or a pair of them (or a Reference Line Array if you’re operating in the upper reaches of the sport). Until you do, you haven’t heard what a system can really do. Whether you have a modest system or a system that cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds, euro, kronor, shekels, etc., until you hear the appropriate REL(s) underpinning that system, you’re missing all the spatial and tactile realities that real music playing in real venues can bring into a typical suburban living room. Twenty years on, I have yet to tire of the benefits I hear every time I listen to a REL dialed-in in a good system. And I have never heard the improvements in spatial and harmonic structure in any other subwoofer. I hear bass from others, but none of the benefits up and down the fabric of music.

Here’s a tip: Get your speakers set-up really well by a MASTERS-trained set-up artist. There are not many of them around but people are starting to wake up and realize what a profound difference a nailed-to-the-nines speaker set-up makes. The $1500/day rate being charged is well worth it on any system above $10,000. This alone can make a 50-100% improvement in system enjoyment. Then resist the temptation to touch your speakers even a teensy little
amount once that artist leaves.

Neatness Counts: I can be a slob, but my systems are immaculate; everything makes sense, I use good stands for equipment, route cables neatly (but not tightly) into place, set up my speakers within fractions of thread turns of perfection and pay attention to all the little and not-so-little things that make a HUGE difference in sound quality. One of the learning processes everyone who works for me goes through is working with me setting up for a trade or public show. Often, it’s the first time they have ever been exposed to the proper level of attention to detail necessary to get great sounding results from a show set-up. My crews and I have years—crap, decades—of experience learning these skills and so we can take a raw room we have never seen before and transform it into a 3-dimensional sonic Holodeck within about 4-6 hours from raw sheetrock walls to finished experienced suitable for the pickiest of reviewers to come through and experience whatever the point of the show in question is about.

Hopefully you have more time on your hands than we do when we’re at a trade show. Get serious this year, take the money you were about to waste on yet another gym membership and tune up your system and your room. The hours of enhanced enjoyment this will bring is hard to overstate unless you have heard what a truly dialed-in system can do for your music or theater enjoyment.

Take a look at our new How to Tune Video Series for a refresher on dialing in a REL.


January 9, 2018 - Posted in: Reconsider