Getting the most out of your hi-fi – Part 4

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More in depth, and a few slightly more off-the-wall solutions to getting the best out of your hi-fi…

To help you get the best possible sound from your speakers we have previously looked at speaker placement and setting up your hi-fi equipment. We then got a bit more involved, with room acoustics. By now you should have a pretty nice system set up, with almost as good a sound as possible.

With hi-fi, there’s an old phrase “it takes 10% of the time to do 90% of the work… and the last 90% of the time to get the last 10% right.” That may be true, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. By picking out a few slightly more unusual tweaks, it is possible to get THE VERY BEST sound out of your system.

Firstly, when making adjustments that have a minimal affect on the sound, play a piece of music you are familiar with. If you have had the same hi-fi for a while, you may notice new and exciting things happening in the music you’ve not heard before. If, on the other hand, your system is new – listening to a piece of familiar music will help you configure the system perfectly to your taste. If the track sounds far more “boomy” than usual, then look at tweaks to minimise bass pronunciation, and vice versa.

Another tip for hearing more of the music is to listen in a dimly lit room. Try turning the lights down or off. Negating the other senses (in this case sight) enhances hearing. Again, this is only a small improvement to the sound, but add up all these small additions and you should be able to hear a big difference.

Connections and cables

Good banana plugs can minimise tarnishing caused by oxidisation.

Good banana plugs can minimise tarnishing caused by oxidisation.

Over the course of time components and interconnects can oxidise on their terminals. Cleaning these regularly will ensure the cleanest connection, resulting in the least amount of resistance and the best sound possible. This can also happen with speaker cable. Try stripping the cable back an inch or so. Banana plugs can help with this, but look at terminated plugs, such as QED’s cold-fused Airloc, for a connection that will last years without oxidising.

Cable directionality is a field that will split opinion. The traditionalist audiophile opinion is that all cables have directionality and will sound louder, clearer, more dynamic when running in one direction. The cable, acting as the conductor, passes electrons easier in one direction than the other. Without gaining a degree in electrical engineering it is difficult to understand: Even then (apparently), the whole idea runs against convention and logic. Much like all other adjustments to a hi-fi, the proof is in the listening. Some cables will be directionally marked already. This can be more hindrance than help, as you may be influenced when listening. The best method to try is to pick a piece of music with vocals (a natural sound) that could appear bright, harsh or brittle. Now pick a very short segment of the music (only a few seconds), swapping one cable around and try again. Work through all the cables one by one to find the best setup. If you can’t hear a difference, then that’s absolutely OK – all cables are different. Plus, if you don’t notice a change in the sound, rest assured, either way round is the best way your cable sounds to you!

A closer look at speakers

Adjust spikes on stands or speakers to tilt them slightly.

Adjust spikes on stands or speakers to tilt them slightly.

In the same way toeing in the speakers will give you the best sound, angling the speaker can also help. If the speaker is facing you, you hear more of the sound direct from the speaker and less from reflections. Most speakers that are either floorstanding speakers or bookshelve speakers sat on a pair of speaker stands will be lower than your ears when you are listening to the music. Adjust the spikes on the bottom of the speakers or stands so the front two spikes are higher than the back two. With some fine adjustment, in the ideal scenario, you will only be able to see the front of the speaker. If you can see the top, tilt the speaker some more. In the same way, if you can see either side, toe the speaker in.

Monitor Audio's unique rear-mounted drivers.

Monitor Audio’s unique rear-mounted drivers.

Over time the screws on your speakers can loosen. If the bass is not taut and the overall sound lacks cohesion, try tightening the mounting screws of your speaker drivers. Some speakers, such as the Monitor Audio Bronze range, have “floating” drivers mounted on the rear of the speaker. These are often shipped quite tight, to ensure the speaker to be as sturdy as possible during shipment. After a fair few hours of use, readjusting the drivers can give dramatic improvements to the authority of the bass. With the Monitor Audio Bronze range, locate the large screw on the back of the speaker and carefully loosen it. When the screw is loose enough to come away from the back of the speaker, stop here. Then tighten the screw one quarter of a turn. This should then be the ideal configuration for these speakers.

Grilles on speakers muffle the sound. Try removing them to clean the sound quality. Likewise, if the sound is bright and harsh, reattach the grilles to mute the treble response marginally.

Nasty vibrations

Unwanted vibration in equipment is the enemy. Panels in the components can also come lose over time. Simply tighten all external screws on all components. Why not go one step further to minimise vibrations, placing the heavy equipment on top of the lighter equipment with moving parts (however we wouldn’t recommend putting your power-amp on top of your turntable!) The easiest way is placing your amplifier on top of your CD player. This has a two fold improvement. Unwanted vibrations caused by the mech in the CD player will be reduced, giving a better sound, and the amplifier will have ample ventilation as it doesn’t have a bulky CD player sat on its important cooling vents (amps can get rather hot!) If you are running a one box solution, or don’t have the equipment to place amp on CD player, try using something as simple as a heavy brick to stabilise the equipment.

Another good tip for getting rid of vibration is by using squash balls. Cut in half, these make great feet for components as they cancel out external vibrations with ease. Use two at the front and one at the rear, as a triangle creates a very stable platform for any component – you will never get an unstable three legged table.

It’s the little bits that help

Disable any sound modes for a cleaner, purer, shorter signal path. Direct mode will ensure no unwanted distortion is added to the music. Also switching off the display LCD on your amplifier, CD player or other source equipment will reduce any unwanted electrical interference inside the equipment.

Lastly, leaving the hi-fi system on 24 hours a day will improve the quality, but may have a detrimental impact on the electricity bills. Hi-fi components will have an optimal temperature. When you switch a component on or take it out of standby, it will be cold and not running optimally. It will take a while to get back to its peak performance (anywhere up to a day). Plus it will improve the lifespan of your hi-fi, as switching it on put enormous surges through the circuitry. Leaving your hi-fi on all the time may be the easiest (if not cheapest) improvement you will ever make.

If you follow these guides from the start, not only will you have the best possible sound out of your hi-fi, but you will have learnt what a difference you can make with simple tweaks. Now the only thing to do is sit back and enjoy your music!