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New Year, New System

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Most audiophiles would love to start the new year with a new audio system, but few have the means or time to build a new system from scratch. For the rest of us, myself included, let’s kick off the new year right by overhauling the space and gear that we already own. In this post, I’ll describe what I’ve done to refresh my dedicated listening environment. Hard as it is to believe, the difference is like buying a new system. I hope you’ll join me.

Winter Cleaning

If you use phrases like “dedicated listening room” or “man cave” to describe your audio room, it may not be on the rotation for weekly dusting, vacuuming, etc. The New Year is a great time to perform that much needed deep clean. Unplug and pull everything out of the rack. Pull the rack away from the wall, dust each component and shelf, and the baseboards behind the rack. Dust outlet covers, power strips, cables and supports, room treatments, lighting, window treatments, speaker grills, and furniture. Wipe down physical media and storage racks. I used several microfiber cloths to get everything looking like it just arrived new from the factory.

Contact Cleaning

With everything still disconnected, pull out your favorite contact cleaner and go to work on those RCA jacks, speaker terminals, and power plugs. I started with a dry microfiber cloth to remove dust and lose contaminants before polishing and coating them with DeoxIT Gold. If you’re using bare stripped wire for speaker or subwoofer connections, cut and re-strip the wire ends so that you’re using a fresh, unoxidized bit of copper for the new year. Take your time with this process; think of it as detailing your system. If car and motorcycle enthusiasts can do it, why can’t we?


Photos and Documentation

Take updated photos of each component, including the serial number panels. Upload these to Google Docs or email them to yourself. Record the serial numbers and make, model, description, date purchased, the price paid, etc., into a Google Sheet. Hopefully, you’ll never need this for an insurance claim, but if so, you’ll be glad you took the time to gather or update the information this year.


Electrical Checks

Use a 3-Wire Receptacle Tester to check every wall outlet and power strip receptacle in your listening room…even ones you are not using. Have an electrician fix any that are found to be faulty. Next, use a digital multimeter, set to the “~mV” range, to measure potential differences in the electrical outlets’ ground pins. Pay particular attention to the outlets used for audio components. You should measure something close to 0.0 mV, although some of mine were as high as 0.3 mV. Any significant differences could indicate a grounding issue that should be investigated by an electrician.

In an audio system, each component should have exactly one path to ground. By design, signal ground and chassis ground are different for some components. Still, if signal ground is not common across all components, you’ll have non-signal current flowing between components, which is not great. To test for this, power on all of your components with interconnects and speaker cables still removed. Use the “~V” setting on your multimeter to measure potential differences in signal ground between each pair of components. To do this, touch the electrodes to the RCA collars on different components.

Again, you should see something very close to 0.000 V. I measured 31.25 V between my preamp and subwoofer. Yikes! This indicates that one of the two components is missing a path to ground. Fortunately, iFi Audio has a product called the Groundhog+, which can be used with their PowerStation or AC iPurifier to solve issues like this.

The Groundhog+ kit includes a cable with a banana plug on one end and an RCA plug on the other end. I inserted the banana plug into the port on my iFi PowerStation and connected the RCA end to an unused input on the sub, and then re-measured voltage between RCA collars on sub and preamp. Still around 30 volts. However, I measured 0.000 V (what we want) after moving the RCA end of the Groundhog+ cable from the sub to the preamp. Although the preamp has a 3-prong IEC receptacle, current from signal ground was still flowing between my preamp and other components. That explains the odd hum I heard with some gear combinations.

A word of caution, always take care when addressing electrical issues and follow all manufacturer’s instructions. Permanent damage can occur to your equipment or yourself if you make a mistake. Get help if you’re not sure.


Sweet Spot Optimization

We often assume that we don’t have the flexibility to change our listening space’s layout. But, when you first moved into this room, it was empty. Perhaps there were only a few obvious configurations, but you could put things wherever you wished. Now, look at your space with those same fresh eyes. If the speakers are firing down the short wall, how could you rearrange furnishings so that they could fire down the long wall? Or the reverse? Can you take a few hours (or days) to explore other options?

Once you’ve settled on room orientation, what about moving your couch or listening chair? We tend to think these things are fixed, but what if better sound is available just a foot or two from where you are sitting today? You won’t know until you try.

In my case, I’ve always set up my 15.5 x 10.1 ft. listening room in a symmetrical fashion…with the listening position precisely on the center-line of the room. This year, I dragged out my Dayton Audio EMM6 measurement mic and put it to work with REW to find out if where I had been sitting was really the best location. My space is a loft; the back half of the room open to the floor below on the left side. As such, the room is not at all symmetrical below the transition frequency. According to measurements from my mic, there’s no spot along the room’s center-line with similar bass response between the left and right channels.

The mic does not lie. And, because I had a more open mind this year, I learned that the spot with the most balanced response between channels is actually 18 in. left of the room’s center-line. Since my room is only about 10 ft. wide, I could not simply slide the entire system a foot and a half to the left; this would have put the left speaker only a few inches from the side wall! The only practical solution was to rotate the triangle formed by the speakers clockwise a few degrees.

Now, visually, this presents a rather asymmetrical perspective on the room, which I’ll admit was distracting at first. However, there’s no denying that the overall tone, dynamics, pitch definition, relationships among harmonics, and articulation are better from this off-center position. To make the speakers equidistant to my ears, I had to push the left speaker a bit closer to the rear wall and slide the right one forward. Right-angle lasers made this process simple and precise. With the room rotated, I’m able to achieve a frequency response that’s roughly +7/-3 dB across the audible range.

I could never get these two channels to match this closely from my traditional listening positions in the center of the room. I’m so glad that I decided to have an open mind and be flexible with placement. I’m hoping you’ll be able to do the same in your room this year.


Digital Room Correction

Some of you will stop reading here, but please stay with me. I realize that DSP is a four-letter-word among many in the audiophile community. Still, you may be surprised to learn that many mastering engineers depend on DRC DSP to get the most accurate view of their work. When I learned that Bob Katz uses digital room correction in his mastering studio, I decided it was time to give it a try. If it’s good enough for Bob, it’s good enough for me!

If you still have analog sources in your system, DRC takes a bit more work to apply, but there are solutions from miniDSP, Dirac, DEQX, NAD, and others. Since I’m all digital and use Roon for all of my sources, all that’s required is software and some technique to create Roon compatible FIR filters. If that sounds like too much work, there are services like Mitch Barnett’s Accurate Sound and Thierry’s Home Audio Fidelity that will walk you through recording the necessary sweeps and then take care of the rest. These corrections will deliver more even frequency response, but more significantly, they will improve accuracy in the time domain. The results can be quite transformative when done properly. This is the response of my room after my first correction pass with Acourate from AudioVero:

If you compare this to the previous graph, keep in mind that the scale on the vertical axis is smaller with this plot. The matching between channels is far better than anything I’ve ever achieved in this room. The effective -3 dB point is about 21.5 Hz, which is pretty impressive for 7 in. 2-ways with 8 in. subs in a space this small.

I hope this article will inspire you to detail your listening room and system, diagnose and correct leakage current issues, and take a fresh look at room tuning for the best possible sound. All it will cost you is time, but the benefits can be more significant and rewarding than buying new gear. Even if you decide to upgrade your system this year, you’ll be able to fully realize the benefits of that upgrade. Cheers and happy listening.


Copy editor: Dan Rubin


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