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Tweaking that works, well usually!
by Dave Clark


Over the years I have done a lot of system tweaking. Why, you ask? Well, I used to have both a fair amount of free time and limited resources for component upgrades (now I have the money but no time—go figure), and tweaking became the most effective means of alleviating my boredom with the status quo. I found myself trying any tweak or accessory I could afford or build on the cheap, in an attempt to maximize our system's performance and occupy my time. The results have varied, from a waste of time to improvements that negated the need for major component upgrade. What I discuss here are the ones that, for us at least, make a real difference in the quality of our system's musical reproduction and are relatively inexpensive. Have fun! My only warning is that some may involve violating a product's warranty or place you in a position of being electrocuted. We assume no responsibility for your actions, so proceed at your own risk.

  • Dedicated AC line. A dedicated line of at least 20 amps is probably the most cost effective and greatest improvement you can make to your system. Expect results that far exceed those of any line conditioner or power cord. Improvements will be realized in all areas of system's reproduction of the musical signal, pretty much eliminating hash and grain while turbo-charging your components. Have an electrician do the work. I ran a 20 and a 10 amp circuit to the system myself, only because I had the resources to do so. The 20 amp circuit feed the amplifiers and the 10 amp circuit feeds sources. I used premium Eagle plugs and 10 gauge Romex wiring, but have recently upgraded the sockets to those from Jena Labs (cryoe'd Hubbles). The two circuits are grounded to a common earth ground consisting of a 10-foot rod sunk into the soil. Total cost: less than $200.

  • Floating AC grounds on all components except the preamplifier. This tends to make the sound subtly cleaner by eliminating the addition of AC noise into the system. Since all components share the same ground, any noise generated by one component will be shared by all the other components in your system. This is especially so in areas where electrical codes allow the AC ground and neutral to be joined at the box. Use cheater plugs, or for those who want to go the distance, snip the ground prong on any three-prong plug or disconnect the ground wire inside the plug. Definitely a do-at-your-own-risk tweak, as you place yourself in a position of possible electrocution, not to mention the violation of manufacturers' warrantees.  Cost: free, assuming nothing blows up and you do not end up in the hospital.

  • Shun Mook grounding scheme for your components (24-gauge solid copper wire). While floating the AC grounds reduces contamination through isolating your components electrically, they are still linked together through the signal ground in your interconnects. We used an approach championed by the folks at Shun Mook and Original Cable Jacket, which is to only ground the preamplifier to a copper rod sunk into the earth. In this case, all compnents are "floating their grounds"–that is, none of your components are grounded via their third prong to the wall AC ground socket, including the preamp as described above. To do this involves several options. The copper rod can be hollow or solid (they suggest hollow, as do I), and the wire used to connect the preamplifier to the rod (try solid copper wire either 18, 22 or 24 gauge measuring exactly 7' 9" in length—seriously!). Here's what you do. Purchase an eight-foot copper grounding rod or hollow copper pipe (used for plumbing purposes) along with a grounding clamp. Sink the rod seven feet into the ground near a window or wall outside your listening room. Using either sprinkler wire, battery jumper cable, or 8-gauge stranded cable, attach one stripped end to the grounding clamp and run the rest into the house by whatever means you can live with. I used the sprinkler wire (constructed of eight 22-gauge insulated solid copper wires that open up into a nice "flower" arrangement) through a small hole in the wall adjacent to our system. Using 22-gauge solid copper wire with alligator clips at each end, connect your components or whatever to the stripped ends of this grounding cable. These cables are to be attached to any spot on the cabinet or case where the alligator clip can grab hold.  Start with the preamp first, take a listen. Add other components, one at a time, as need be. Play around here. I have found that some components need this and others do not. Things can be better grounding some and not others. Results are a reduction in noise and potentially troublesome ground loops. By the way, if you try mixing this idea with the one above, you may create more problems than you solve—like serious ground loops and other problems. Cost: less than $20.

  • Specialized after-market AC power cords for all components. All cords sound different, and one is not necessarily better than another. Each cord will force a component to react to its electrical characteristics, resulting in a behavior change in the component. This change is heard as an alteration of the signal being reproduced, so you need to find a cord that causes your components to behave in a manner that is sympathetic to your tastes in musical reproduction. A higher-priced AC cord will not necessarily guarantee superior performance over one costing substantially less—there are now so many options for the consumer from cords priced well under a $100 to those well over several thousand . But design, materials, and especially component interactions are more important than price and manufacturer's hype. In examining one high-priced cord, I was shocked to discover that it was nothing more than regular stranded copper wire in a fancy jacket. Holy Belden! Buyer beware—you could do this for under $50! Cost: How much you got? Hey, get some cool wire at a surplus store—or even try some Romex—and build your own! You’ll be surprised how good (and well, sometimes not so good) these homebrewed cords sound compared to the muy-expensivos being sold out there in "audio land."

  • On the other hand, if you can find them, try the Highwire Audio AC Wraps. Developed by Don Palmer of Highwire Cables to suppress RFI while at the same time tuning stock captive power cords. This will elevate their performance to close to that of a specialty AC cord. The Power Wrap needs to be placed at the center of the stock AC cord and moved no further than 3/4" either way to tune the cord. Don has identified several fundamental ringing modes that can cause an AC cord to resonate due to current flow. The Power Wrap is designed to mitigate this to a substantial degree. Its placement will determine which main modes and harmonic modes are suppressed. The modes and frequencies that are suppressed will determine the sonic signature of the AC cord. Three sizes are available to fit almost any cord, even those of a specialty nature. I have tried these with mixed results, as have other audioMUSINGS reviewers. System and component dependent! They really work well on the Harmonic Technology AC-11 cords, turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Cost: $50.

  • Or try the Original Cable Jackets on AC cords. Helps to reduce RFI and EMI in cables. Used primarily on the AC cords for digital gear, though results are dependent on the type of after-market AC cords you are using. They also work on signal cables, especially ground wires from turntables. But here is the clincher—try them on the phone cords that connect the phone line to your phone or whatever! Or try them on the AC cord from the refrigerator—both recommended by, yes again, the Shun Mook guys. Subtle reductions in noise with an improvement in detail, clarity, and those desirable musical cues that make everything sound more real. I pretty much hear what is claimed from the manufacturer and other reviewers. They look pretty too! Cost: under a $100 each.

  • Permatex Dielectric Tune-up Grease for all AC connections, including fuse contacts. Causes a smoothing of the sound, with less noise and grain or grit. Silences are more silent, with the highs becoming more articulate and delicate. Why it works, you take a guess. I have heard that perhaps the grease reduces arcing between contacts, which can be heard as noise, masking details and placing the music on edge—though this was claimed by another to be a bunch of hooey. So you got me. But it is easy to misinterpret added noise as added detail, so be open to a smoothing or "relaxing" of the sonic tapestry. Much less expensive than other tweaks, $1.99 versus $50 for a similar product from A.R.T., so this is about as cheap as it gets! Available at most automotive parts supply houses for under $5. Easily removed from the blades on plugs, but once inside a wall socket—well, better leave well enough alone!

  • Correct or reverse AC polarity on all components, as determined by either multi-meter measurements or through listening. Subtle but telltale improvements in detail and musical cues, perceived as an increase in soundstage and localization information. Music is more real. Depending on the component, you may also notice less grain and grit as a result of a lowered noise floor. Cost: free. Read The Wood Effect by Clark Johnsen for a thorough explanation, or back issues of Positive Feedback. Cost: free.

  • Routing of all signal and electrical connections to reduce potential interactions. Common sense results in avoiding any potential interference from either high or low-level signals. At least keep interconnects and speaker cables away from each other and from AC cables. If they need to cross each other, then do so at 90 degrees. If they are to run parallel to each other than space at least 6 inches apart. Quieter and neater too! Cost: free.

  • Suspension of signal wire with wood supports, or anything for the matter. My father made these from Australian redwood, and they are very similar in appearance to those being used by the man with the golden hair. Tends to be a little too tweaky for most, and I am not so sure what I hear, but what the hey, they're cheap and easy to build, and do the job of keeping the cables off the floor and apart from one another. Actually, I do hear a subtle—and I mean subtle—improvement centering on image specificity and again the musical cues leading to reality. Supposed to keep the cable away from static charges in the carpet and microphonic disturbances from vibrations in the floor. Cost: depends, build them for a few bucks, or buy some other product. The "Suspenders" from AudioNut are a real value!

  • Anti-Static foam woven in between wiring throughout a passive preamplifier (packed tightly), underside of lid on DAC and at key points throughout the transport (especially around the drawer mechanism). Improves upon the solidity and palpability of images, with an overall reduction of noise. May act as a shield and a means of damping resonances, which, depending on whose camp you belong to, could be the opposite of what we want to accomplish, a la Michael Green. Cost: $20.

  • Blu-Tac or like compound on underside transport drawer. This stuff is used to anchor items around the house so that, in the event of an earthquake, the family treasures are saved. Available at most hardware stores, at least in Southern California. Adds silence to the transport, with a greater sense of stability and blacker blacks. Also, the drawer now closes with a whump, not a clump. Also try it on circuit boards, on chips and what not in your components. Especially beneficial on the clock in your DAC or CD player. Cost: $4.

  • CD Stoplight and CD Blacklight from AudioPrism—though there are so many "preferred" colors out there right now, try one of each. CD Stoplight, the fabled green pen, is used on the inside and outside edges, and the raised rim at the center of CDs. An easy and effective way to enhance the performance of the digital medium. Increases detail and musical cues due to less laser scatter, as shown by actual tests that imply a reduction of sampling errors. Are other "colored" pens just as effective? Maybe so, let us know what you come across. I do question the use of the color green. AudioPrism states that green absorbs the stray laser light because of the relationship of the two colors. Okay, but if we are trying to absorb or eliminate stray light, why not use a black pen? Am I missing something here? Black absorbs all light—which is the pen color used by Audient and Audio Desk Systeme. Cost: depends on what you buy. CD Stoplight is $15 or a generic version for $5.

  • Tape degausser for CD treatment. Along the lines of the Bedini Clarifier, but at $30, a substantial saving for something with several times the effect. Unlike the Bedini unit, the degausser's effect lasts through the entire disc, due to the fact that the field it generates is ten times that of the Bedini. The effect of degaussing on the disc is easily demonstrated for those with an open mind and keen ears. Yes, it is subtle, and may be of little consequence in the long run, but an improvement is there to hear. A cleaner, more detailed presentation, with less tizz in the highs and an enhanced soundstage. I must admit to this being somewhat disc-dependent, and it's harder to discern after listening to CDs for an hour or so. There are times that I hear no effect whatsoever. So, I don't use this on all discs, or all listening sessions, but only when I choose to get the whole picture. Why not use it all the time? I don't know, really, maybe it's because I am not into rituals, or am too lazy to stand and wave the degausser around a disc for several seconds. Most of the time it does make a positive difference, so give it a try.  And try it on cables, too! Same method as above, but hold it about 3 inches away, moving at a steady but not slow speed down the length of your cables. Works on interconnects, speaker, and AC cables. Seems to remove a hint of grain and, get this, may even break in the cables faster!  Cost: $3

  • Placing components on some form of "foot" to decouple it from the shelf or surface it is sitting on. Okay, there are as many different feet, cones, or whatever as there are snowflakes—each being unique and special. Which one will work for what component only you can decide. They all do something, but whether you will like it or can even hear it to appreciate it, only you can decide. With so many variables coming into play, what works here may not work there. I have used to very good effect the following: Black Diamond Racing #3 and #4 cones, DH Cones (all sizes), Blue Circle Cones, Vibrapods, Aurios MIBs, Daruma 3II bearings, and just pieces of different hard woods (oak, maple, mahogany, etc.). The problem is each will impart its own "sonic signature" and as such it becomes more of an issue of "tuning" the system. Included here are other "isolation" devices like Townshend Sinks which do not have as much of a signature, but are just as, if not more so, effective in "isolating" a component from whatever. Costs run from a few bucks to well into the hundreds. Best bet is to either borrow or buy a few of each and play around.