Here’s a question that customers ask me all the time: “What upgrades will improve my system the most?” In other words, they’re asking how to get rid of the weakest links in their system.
During such conversations, people often describe the path their audio hobby has taken and all the purchases they’ve made in search of audiophile nirvana. Often, I shake my head in disbelief as they reveal the alarming amounts of money they’ve spent. If this sounds familiar, don’t feel bad. Many audiophiles have been expertly manipulated into buying components and aftermarket audiophile products that came with impressive promises, insane prices, and disappointing performance.
So, where do you turn for solutions? Experts, amateurs, and salespeople will give conflicting advice. Moreover, the complexities of cables, components, and performance-enhancing products make it challenging to identify the problem spots in an audio system. In this blog, I’ll discuss two of the major imbalances I consistently find in most audio systems as well as a way to objectively determine the weakest links in your system.
Please keep in mind that this blog attempts to convey technical concepts in layman’s terms, and every reader might not agree with our geek-to-English translations. If you want clarification on any of the points made in this blog or more information about any of the topics covered, please feel free to contact me directly.
Focus on the Source
There are two sources in your audio system: the source of the audio signal and the source of the AC power. In the case of the audio signal, once you have distorted the time and tune of a recording, there’s no way to regain harmonic coherency by spending more money on products farther down the signal path. In the case of AC power, power conditioners often become a bottleneck, restricting effortless power flow. Basically, they eliminate one problem and cause another.
Here’s what I repeatedly say to friends and customers: “If the music doesn’t come out of the source, it can’t come out of the speakers.” Let that be your mantra.
Still, most audiophiles are advised to sink big bucks into their amplification and speakers instead of the source. Doing this may result in a larger, more extended, dynamic, and effortless sound, but it won’t produce a more refined and musical sound. That’s because an amplifier can only increase the wattage of the signal it’s given. If the signal going into the amplifier is distorted, the signal coming out of the amplifier will be more distorted. Similarly, a speaker can only transduce electrical energy into mechanical energy. If the signal going into the speakers is distorted, the signal coming out of the speakers will be more distorted.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
As a general rule, I recommend you spend a minimum of 33% of your system budget on your main source components. Source components not only include media servers, transports, DACs, CD players, DVD players, turntables, arms, cartridges, phono stages, and reel-to-reel tape players, but they also include the power and signal cables that connect to these products and the antiresonant support structures they sit on. If you want to hear more harmonic coherency, more emotional content, more organic character, and better musical flow—as opposed to more bass extension, more highs, and greater dynamics—I recommend you spend more of your system budget on source components.
If your system includes a turntable, then everything is considerably more complicated. Proper matching of the arm, cartridge, platter, and phono stage are essential, as are the mechanical isolation of the turntable and the setup and adjustment of the turntable. More often than not, people spend too much time researching and learning about the best components for their turntable but not enough time learning how to properly set up a turntable or about the tools they need to do it.
You’ll never get the most from your high-end turntable no matter how meticulously it was set up in the audio showroom. You’ll need to know how to use setup devices and rely on your own ears in your listening room at home to get anywhere near the performance your turntable is capable of giving. For now, I can only emphasize the importance of turntable setup; in the future, I’d love to offer a blog on the topic. I’m hoping to convince a customer whom I consider to be a “vinyl guru” to write a guest blog.
One of the weakest links that many audiophiles overlook is the AC power source. Oh, yes, audiophiles love their sexy high-end power cables and AC power conditioners, and salespeople love selling these products, but wouldn’t it make more sense to eliminate a problem rather than spending money to compensate for it?
Since it affects your entire system, upgrading the AC power source that feeds your system may be one of the most impactful upgrades you can make. But first, take my advice: before you spend big money to upgrade power cables or install a fancy AC power conditioner or regenerator, install dedicated AC lines and a low-resistance ground. I’ll be writing about this topic in a forthcoming blog, but for now, let me say that you can hire a licensed electrical contractor to install dedicated AC lines in your home for less money than many audiophiles spend on a single high-end power cable.
Don’t Fall for Attractive Distortions
When I consult for friends and customers who complain that their audio system is either too hard, harsh, and fatiguing, or too soft, laid back, and veiled, the solution in nearly every case is to improve the quality of their source components and to upgrade their AC power source. Most of these audiophiles had followed the advice of salespeople and bought products that either filtered, equalized, veiled, or brought a false liveliness to their systems rather than resolving the cause of their actual problems.
Have you heard the children’s song about the old lady who swallowed a fly? She swallowed a spider to catch the fly, a bird to catch the spider, and a cat to catch the bird. Much in the same way, many audiophiles buy one product after another in hopes that the next one will eradicate the source(s) of trouble and finally make their system sound musical and balanced.
Some salespeople love when audiophiles purchase aftermarket products to fix flaws in their systems because they know they’ve found customers they can manipulate into spending more and more money. A whole genre of products in the audiophile industry is engineered for just this purpose. I’ll make my point as simply as possible by dividing these purposely colored products into two categories: “more than” or “less than.” I use these terms because these products either have more or less bass, treble, and midrange so they can be used like an equalizer. Or they’re veiled to mask fatiguing sounds, pumped up to give more life to a system that’s too laid back, or have some other form of “attractive distortion” that enhances the audio illusion, such as an unnaturally spacious image.
The problem with any cable or component that is more or less than neutral is that most of the time the engineer that designed it had to sacrifice time, tune, and/or harmonic coherency to get the attractive distortion. When any one of these is sacrificed, it can never be regained later in the system.
But don’t despair if your system doesn’t perform up to your expectations or has some disturbing distortion. The rest of this blog will take you back to basics by outlining some of the more common upgrade paths as well as a way to objectively identify the weakest link(s) in your audio system.
Find Your Next Most Significant Upgrade
Later in this blog I’ll describe a method for identifying which component(s) in your system are neutral and which are highly colored or distorted. By identifying these weak links, you can determine which upgrades will make the most difference in your system. The effect of any upgrade will differ from system to system and from room to room, leaving a variety of options to try. In addition to the source and AC power upgrades described above, your next most significant upgrade(s) could be any one of the following:
- changing your AC power filter, distribution center, or the cable that feeds them
- changing the next component in your signal path, such as your preamplifier
- changing the furniture or decoupling system that supports your components
- changing a cable, component, or noise reduction device to your system
- adding (more) acoustic room treatments
Of course, this list of upgrades is quite generalized. The upgrades that will be most significant for your specific system will always depend on the performance and compatibility of your existing components. One way to objectively evaluate the performance of the cables and components in your system is to do what I call “baseline testing.”
Identify Weak Links with Baseline Testing
Baseline testing involves removing all audiophile products from your system and reintroducing them one at a time to observe the specific effect each one has on the sound. Here’s how you do it:
- Remove all audiophile power and signal cables and replace them with basic copper zip cord and inexpensive pro audio cables. As a rule, most pro audio products, such as the ones sold at music stores and guitar centers, are more neutral and have a higher cost-performance ratio than audiophile products.
- Take all of your components off of audio racks and remove any aftermarket decoupling devices. Put each component on a separate heavy slab that is placed directly on the floor. Home improvement stores sell masonry “walkway” slabs that are heavy, inexpensive, and just about the right size for this task. Hardwood slabs, such as heavy butcher block cutting boards, cost a bit more and work a bit better than masonry.
- Replace any rare vintage or expensive modern tubes with modern economy tubes like the ones that come with modern tube amplification. If you have the tubes that came with your components, use those.
- Remove any AC power conditioners, power regenerators, or power distribution centers and replace them with an unfiltered industrial-grade power strip or one you made with commercial-grade parts purchased from a contractor supplier or home improvement store.
- Use a neutral contact cleaner and enhancer, such as MG Chemicals or Caig, on all signal connectors, AC power connectors, tube sockets, fuse holders, and accessible switches. If you’ve used any type of audiophile contact enhancement product, remove it completely. Some of these so-called audiophile contact enhancers work well initially but then degrade in performance over time, leaving a residue that may require stronger solvents than contact cleaner to remove them. Remove any audiophile room treatments from the walls and room. Carpets, furniture, aesthetic wall hangings, and other normal room furnishings should be left in place.
You can probably do all of the above for under $250. Considering how much money I’ve seen audiophiles lose buying and reselling unsatisfactory components, this expenditure seems relatively small to me.
Keep in mind that any new power and signal cables need to be broken in for at least 100 hours before they’ll perform as intended. See my blog on breaking in for more details.
Now you’re ready to do baseline testing on your system. It doesn’t matter what category of products you test first, as long as you remove and replace only one item at time, listen, and then replace all the baseline products before testing another item. This is the only way to be totally objective and avoid hearing the combined flaws of two products that balance or cancel each other out.
With all of the audiophile products removed, you’ll be hearing the true character of your components. They should sound a bit dirty, cloudy, and compressed from the modest cables and unsophisticated structural support, but they should still sound good, tonally balanced, and quite listenable. If they sound overly fatiguing, too forward, too laid back, or unbalanced in any way, it’s quite likely you have one or more highly colored or mismatched components in your system. No doubt, this is what’s making your system sound unsatisfactory.
Components that don’t sound good in a baseline setup often can significantly improve in performance if you use them in combination with antiresonance decoupling and/or cleaner AC or DC power. Though it would be safe to assume that any component that needs these aftermarket enhancements has other shortcomings, there’s much to be said for upgrading modest-priced components so they outperform more expensive ones. As a matter of fact, Mojo Audio originally offered component upgrades as a major part of our business. Today, we offer power supplies, filter modules, and upgrade kits.
What can be a lot of fun and very educational is to have an “audiophile baseline testing party.” During this get-together, have your friends bring over some of their gear and do baseline comparisons using different combinations of cables and components. This is one of the fastest ways to identify highly colored and mismatched products.
Do the following baseline tests in any order:
- Individually compare stock power and signal cables with inexpensive pro audio cables. The sound should be a bit smoother, cleaner, more open, more refined, more dynamic, and more extended with a neutral audiophile cable, but it should have the same basic character as the inexpensive pro audio baseline cables. If an expensive audiophile cable sounds significantly different in character than a modest-priced pro audio cable, it’s quite likely the cable is highly colored. Once you’ve weeded out the more colored cables by comparing them individually, you can swap multiple cables in and out and begin to compare different cables on different components.
- Take individual components off the slabs on the floor and put them on the audio rack. One at a time, add antiresonant feet and devices to the components while they’re on both the baseline slab and on your audio rack. Once you’ve done individual comparisons and weeded out the mechanical support items that do more harm than good, you can try combinations of multiple mechanical support items with multiple components.
- Individually swap basic tubes for audiophile and rare vintage tubes. Just like in the above categories, start with one at a time until you weed out the more colored tubes. Then swap in and out combinations of multiple tubes.
- Compare your audiophile power distribution center, AC power conditioner, or AC power regenerator to the unfiltered commercial power distribution center. If you have more than one of these AC products, start by comparing one at a time and then compare multiple items as you did with the above categories.
- Individually add and remove acoustic room treatments. As with the above categories, start with one at a time and then combine multiple items.
Now would be a great time to install dedicated AC power lines and low-resistance grounding for your audio room. Often, there’s a way to compare the new dedicated lines with other receptacles from original shared AC lines that were in your room. You can also take this opportunity to compare your AC power distribution and AC conditioning products all over again. I’ve known many people who have installed dedicated lines and low-resistance grounding who found their system sounded much better plugged directly into the wall rather than into an expensive AC power conditioner.
Doing baseline comparisons takes time and patience. For many people, it’s impractical or impossible. Doing similar comparisons by removing and replacing one category of items at a time is still quite valid, though not ideal. To simplify, the most common and more valid limited baseline tests could be done on power and signal cables or on anti-resonant support structures. The more you’re able to do these baseline comparisons, the more you’ll learn about your components, your AC power, and your room.
Once you’ve tested each category of items individually, it would be a good idea to put the neutral items back in the system in some or all categories and then redo some of the more critical comparisons in other categories all over again.
If you’re willing to take the time to remove all the audiophile products from your system and do a baseline comparison similar to the one described above, I guarantee you’ll save yourself time, money, and frustration.
Once you’re certain you have all the highly colored components out of your system and you want to find out what upgrading your source can do for your system, you may want to audition Mojo Audio’s media server and DAC. Also, why not audition some of Mojo Audio’s power, signal, and digital cables? With our 45-day no-risk audition, you’ll have an opportunity to significantly improve your system’s performance without risking wasting any money.
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