Audio components are expensive. Even used units can be pricey, so the decision to replace one piece of equipment for another i.e an “upgrade” is not to be taken lightly. Sometimes the upgrade may turn out to be not such a leap forward. Have you never replaced a unit from the system with another and then going back to the original a few months down the line.
Try following the suggestions below and you may be pleasantly surprised at the improvement in sound quality. Most involve minimal outlay although a well made support stand won’t be cheap. Individually, each action may nor produce a breathtaking change, but the cumulative effect should be significant. In any event, it’s worth a try. You never know…
1. Get all the gear off the floor.
This includes any mobile-home sized power amps. You may think a concrete floor provides sufficient dampening/isolation from vibration, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Audio components within the chassis of an amplifier can be microphonic so let’s keep those circuit boards stable. Either a very rigid, heavy mass design or one which "isolates" the equipment in some manner, usually by suspended shelves for the units will suit the bill. Both types of stand provide a solution to isolating external and internal vibrations, each using a different approach. Both will definitely provide significant improvements over a "nice teak cabinet" or even, heaven forbid, a coffee table.
Very rigid shelves screwed into a substantial brick/concrete wall may provide an effective and cheaper alternative. Which type of stand is best is always a point of contention and some look horribly industrial. Use common sense…is it going to provide isolation and dampen vibrations, however small the movement?
2. Ensure that CD players and record deck turntable platters are perfectly level.
A CD transport spins the disc between 200 and 600 rpm, so give the tracking laser a fighting chance for optimum tracking performance. In the case of record decks, use a spirit level on the platter to establish it is perfectly level - essential to aiding correct bias, tracking and channel balance. If you have one, use a Hi-Fi test-disc to check the anti-skating (bias). “Buzzing” of the pure tone recorded on the disc on one channel suggests a bias issue. If there is “buzzing” only on the left, there is too little bias. If “buzzing” on the right, there is too much. A slight buzz on both channels may indicate a general tracking issue (check the tracking weight), but in this case, strangely enough the cartridge may track real music well. However, there should never be an audible difference between channels.
Avoid running mains cables next to signal cables, especially low level signal wires from the record deck. In theory, decent signal cables should be well screened and earthed. Nonetheless, the quality of screening is often variable, and some manufacturer's insist on using strange construction profiles. Also, try and avoid having loudspeaker cabling trailing next to signal cables.
Coiled cabling is never a good idea, whatever it's being used for. It causes unwanted inductance and capacitance, and worse still, can destabilise power amplifiers (especially high-powered ones).
Overall, poor cable placement and dressing can cause hum, degrade low frequency and high frequency response as well as generally "muddying" the sound you hear.
4. Use good clean, quality connectors.
Ensure that signal connection plugs and DIN pins are clean and not oxidised. If there is in any doubt, spray a little Isopropyl alcohol onto the plugs. Proprietary solutions are available from Amazon. I recommend Servisol IPA 170. Do not use anything which is not pure Isoproyl Alcohol as it may contain switch lubricant which really isn’t what’s needed! In addition…..I know it sounds zany, but ensure the pins on mains plugs are clean too. Use a little Brasso on the pins to make them gleam. As the ad says, Just do it…..
5. Keep digits away from analogue.
To prove my point, try this if you have an FM tuner or radio to hand. Tune-in to your favourite station, place it near to a working CD player/ transport /digital word clock. When the CD player is in play mode (you don’t need to hear it), you may be shocked at the amount of interference being picked up by the radio. Some players are better screened than others, but do you really want to risk subjecting your amplifier's circuitry to this tirade? If you have a separate DAC and CD transport, I urge you to keep these apart too, and avoid stacking them. Incidentally, PC’s, mobiles and mobile phone chargers (switched-mode powers supplies) are culprits too where interference is concerned.
6. Make sure your record deck is properly earthed.
You may not experience any obvious hum, but improper earthing can allow static-build up on records. If, when lifting your cherished Half Man Half Biscuit vinyl off the platter the record has a strong static discharge, this can well be a result of a lack of correct earthing to the deck, (and/or excessive cleaning of the disc surface). Connecting an earth lead to the deck can in itself create a hum loop, but there is usually a solution to be found. I can't really proffer any further advice here about “hum-loops”, as every system/installation is different, but trial and error is as good an approach as any.
7. Avoid locating speakers too near to walls, and room corners.
Unless the speaker is specifically designed to work against a wall (very few are), you will have an exaggerated bass lift effect. Initially impressive, in time you will find that many recordings sound muddled and overblown. You may also hear a lack of a clear stereo image, caused by mid-band reflections from walls messing up the phase of the speaker. Electrostatic designs are perhaps the most vulnerable to unwanted wall reflections, but dynamic speakers are badly affected too.
Also, referring back to the first point in this article, make sure the speaker cabinets are off the floor. I would propose that even " floor- standing" speakers without stands are not placed directly on the floor! A Townshend platform which effectively isolates the speakers from the ground and allows free swaying of the cabinet in all directions is a radical move, but far from instinctively writing off this approach, I have heard some remarkable results where these interesting, if quite expensive supports have been used. And no, I don’t have any financial interest here! The most common approach is to have a very rigid stand spiked to the floor, and there are many good deigns around.
In the case of stand-mount speakers, a stand of the correct height, placing the HF unit in line with your ears when you're seated, should be employed.
8. Mains connections.
Don't use large multi-way distribution blocks for audio equipment, and in the case of high power amplifiers, avoid them altogether if at all possible. Remember that power heard from your speaker originates as power drawn from the mains - watts don’t come from thin air! The easiest you make it for your amplifier to draw the power it needs without restriction, the better.
A mains conditioner may be of benefit to source equipment, especially digital units, but be wary of utilising conditioners for power amplifiers or higher powered integrated designs. Results with conditioners however can be very variable so audition carefully before paying out hard cash for one.
It's well known that mains power is "dirtier" in the evening when domestic TV sets and computers effectively pump “noise” into the grid, messing up the nice, pure 50 Hz waveform and a clean earth. So if you think your system always sounds better during the day rather than in the evening, it may not be your imagination after all!
9. The VTA or Vertical Tracking Angle of the cartridge.
This is basically the height adjustment of the pick-up arm; whether it slopes upwards or downwards from the pivoted end, or be completely parallel when lowered onto a record.
The cartridge designer would have determined the optimum angle for the cantilever relative to the record, typically 15 or 20 degrees. The exact figure isn't important to the user and may vary from one sample to another, but achieving the “right” angle is important. Unless the cartridge manufacturer specifies otherwise, begin by ensuring the arm is parallel to the record surface when lowered. Obviously records are all a different thickness, so choose an "average' thickness disc to assess the position rather than a 180 gram one.
Depending on the stylus profile, altering the VTA will have varying degrees of impact. A typical effect of varying the VTA by straying away from the parallel position is a change in tracking ability and sibilance. One or both may improve. Likewise, HF and better stereo imagery may occur. Having said this, if you are happy with the cartridge performance when the arm is perfectly parallel, there’s no need to alter it. Generally, avoid becoming obsessed with tinkering and failing to enjoy music! In any event, it's highly unlikely that the optimum tracking angle sound-quality wise, is far off the parallel norm. A very small adjustment can make a significant change.
In some decks such as the B&O, VTA is not adjustable as these decks are designed to be used only with B&O cartridges, so the optimum VTA is guaranteed.
10. This is one of which you’re probably already aware. Give the amplifier(s)/CD player/ DAC time to warm up before listening seriously to music. My valve amps take a good hour to warm up properly before reaching the sweet spot but transistor designs I’ve owned haven’t been far off this time.