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The Emperor’s and the Beatnk’s New Clothes

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Editor’s Note: This Beatnik article was due to appear on July 16 but delayed because of preparations for the inaugural California Audio Show until now. Both the author and the editor wish to thank our readers for your understanding and support.

Jack Roberts Beatnik's Journey

If you’re an audiophile, I hope what I’m about to talk about isn’t going to make you feel like the Emperor did when he discovered he was stark raving naked. I have to confess, it kind of had that effect on me, but in a more gradual way. So, just in case you don’t know, here are four facts that will free you to enjoy this wonderful hobby of listening to recorded music.

Fact #1

Amps, preamps, turntables, and not even speakers have any sound at all by themselves. We can talk all we want about how a speaker sounds, but I promise you they will sound different not only with different equipment, but also in different rooms.

This first fact goes a long way in explaining why even audiophiles who knows what they want, who have developed reasonably good listening skills, and over the years has grown tired of constantly upgrading, still changes equipment more often than he would like. You see most audiophiles do not understand the concept of buying a stereo. When I was a teenager no one went out and bought an amp, or a turntable; no, we got ourselves a stereo. We didn’t care what the parts sounded like, we cared about what came out of the speakers. Now, I know that’s an oversimplification, but we do seem to forget that the sound we hear is never the sound of one piece of equipment. What we listen to is the music made by the sound of the whole system.

The big problem is that lots of things cause the sound of a system to change, not just audio stuff. If you don’t believe me, you’ve probably never had to move a system from one room to another. Then there’s all the things in your house that share the AC. You can eliminate this to a significant degree, but if your system is really dialed in then you need to know that running dedicated lines will change the sound. Yes, in most cases for the better, but not always if when dialing in your system you compensated for the AC grunge.

One of the systems I owned along my audiophile journey was a full Linn/Naim system back in the mid-seventies. This system tried to eliminate as many things as possible that could affect the sound of the system. It even made the assumption that all rooms had walls, so why not design the speakers to literally be in contact with the rear wall (the stands for the SARAs, had metal pieces that you pushed up against the wall). In some ways this was one of the best sounding systems I’ve ever owned, but I just couldn’t adjust to the sound of sand amps in the end.

The problem of anticipating how changes will affect the sound of a system is very hard to figure out. There can be lots of reasons for trying to build a system with the sound you want. I’m not suggesting that you should just buy a system from one company, neither am I talking about simply buying components that work synergistically with each other. What I’m talking about is learning to identify the sounds and parts of a live musical performance that you want most in your home system and then working hard until you establish it in your room. The hard part is listening and trusting your ears to put together this system that sounds like music to you. There are all kind of things to try when tuning a system. For instance, moving the listening chair closer or further away can make a big difference, especially in getting the bass right. Look at what and where to hang on your walls. Speaker placement is always huge, but sometimes we don’t spend enough time on toe-in or even toe-out experimentations. I could go on, but simply, you have to work hard and trust yourself. I can’t overstate the part about trusting yourself; no one else can do the final voicing of your system to meet your desires and objectives.

Fact #2

What your equipment sits on really does make a difference in how your system sounds.

From what I have observed most audiophiles fall into one of two camps in regard to what they put their equipment on. Most underestimate the impact on the sound of their system that is made by what their equipment sits on. Of course, there are also those who go to the other extreme.

Most fall into the first camp for several reasons, not the least of being how expensive most audiophile racks are. There is also the matter of ignorance or simply not appreciating the effects of structural and airborne vibrations on the sound of the system. Maybe it all goes back to the cinder blocks and boards we used in college that gives us the attitude that when it comes to racks, if it holds the equipment in place that’s good enough. Some of us have gone so far as to buy expensive spikes, ball bearings, pucks, and many other things, but we don’t deal with the thing our system sits on. Just going out and buying an expensive audiophile rack will not necessarily make your system sound better, because I’ve heard some very expensive racks that literally rob all the life out of the music; and others that make the systems sitting on them sound hard and sterile. I know you want me to name the racks, but that misses the point, because I’ve heard the same racks sound great in one system and bad in another.

The key is to be willing to work on the sound of your whole system and to know that what your equipment sits on really does affect the sound you hear. I’ve tried a lot of things, 4-inch thick maple, different woods in other thickness, slate, granite, corian, bamboo, and others. After years of trying all these things with all kind of different footers, what I’ve found that I liked best are solid wood tables made by master furniture makers.

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