Tips & Tweaks
by Art Tedeschi
(ci. 1991)

Subsequent to Mark Medrud's request to write an article for the CAS newsletter, I began giving thought to the topic on which I might expound. The last time my pen scratched out words related to audio was prior to a move from Colorado to another state; the number of audio acquaintances diminished drastically!

"YOU'RE CALLING ME WHAT?" I'll never forget a conversation I overheard between two audio salespersons in an established Denver audio store about the time 'high end' audio was just getting fired up (i.e., the lates 70's, early '80s). These salespersons were discussing a customer who had been at the store earlier and kept referring to him as a 'Tweak'. They laughed about how the 'Tweak' spent hour upon hour adjusting his phono cartridge and positioning his speakers, not to mention the fact that he believed in all sorts of strange products that claim improved sound: Things like filtered AC power lines and vibration-isolated turntable bases. I felt uncomfortable with what I heard, as I believed they could've easily been talking about me; but the indignance evaporated quickly and transformed to pity, as I truly felt sorry for these two narrow-minded individuals who would never know the joy of adjusting one's stereo to extract maximum performance (not to mention the hypocrisy involved in sucking up to audiophile notions to make a sale while ridiculing them in private). They were doomed to endlessly replace and sell and buy and trade and spend and loan and borrow. This routine might make sense if one believes that the endless procession of 'new and improved' components over the years actually deliver improved technology in the quest of the 'absolute sound'. I'm not so sure that this is always the case.

Some months later in that same store, I happened to walk by a Magneplanar/Audio Research system (they were somehow company-related back then) and I was startled at the realism of the flute being reproduced by that group of components. It was the Magneplanar Tympani (I don't recall which series) being driven by an ARC D-150 and, I believe, an SP-3 preamp. I confess that to this day I've not been affected in quite that way by an audio system, and that one experience still serves as a driving force that still motivates me to the end I believe we all seek.

So, I do believe that progress has been made over the years, but much less so than most folks think. Why do audiophiles still covet the Marantz Model 9 power amps? These things sell for big bucks, and I'm confident that some serious music-loving audio enthusiasts wouldn't give them up for anything. More examples abound, and it becomes clear that vintage technology wasn't too far off the mark -- mostly, an improvement in component quality is responsible for the differences we hear today. The point is that without proper setup and 'tweaking', audio systems will perform well below their capabilities, and even more important is the fact that one should never replace a component until they're absolutely certain that their setup is optimized. And so we move on the most important tweak of all: the listening room.

THE ROOM: My purpose here is neither to recommend mega/kilo- buck accessories to address room problems, nor expound upon the science of room acoustics, but to suggest what anyone who cares about sound quality can do to dramatically improve the tonality and soundstaging of their audio system. The optimal listening room's dimensions are proportional to 10' (tall) X 16' (wide) X 25' (long), roughly following the ratio of the famed Golden Section (1:1.618). Some may not believe in the validity of this proportion (or its application), but it seems to hold up in practice. Does this mean that a 12' X 16' room can't produce good sound? Absolutely not. My large SoundLab A-1 loudspeakers always sounded their absolute best in a 14' X 16' room with 10' ceilings. They didn't sound that way in the beginning, though. Here's a little routine that allows you to test how well your system soundstages before you begin to tweak your room (involves moving all your furniture around). Position the speakers along the wall of your preference (eventually try every wall) at about a 20-30 degree angle line from the wall behind them. Adjust the angle until virtually no wall reflections can cancel or reinforce each other (the main cause of soundstage death). The image behind the speakers will seem strange, but you should be able to achieve a noticeable purity of sound as well as a palpable (i.e., lacking diffuseness) soundstage behind the speakers. I've heard very few systems that lacked the ability to soundstage in the above manner (fortunately few of those had audiophile pretensions). I have heard, though, numerous systems with quality components (and sometimes excellent rooms) that soundstaged poorly. In most cases, the reason for this was a cavalier attitude about setting up the room and positioning the speakers. If you know, for whatever reason, that your system should soundstage well but doesn't, the first likely culprit to examine is the room itself.

Through years of system setup, the following rules have generally held true:
1. The wall behind the listening position should generally be absorptive (especially with dipoles). Reflections from the wall behind reach your ears quickly and react with the direct wave from the speakers.

2. The ceiling and floor should be of opposite reflectivity. If the ceiling is absorptive, the floor should be hard, and vice-versa. The typical drywall ceiling and carpeted floor work well together.

3. Think 'diffusely'. Arrange furniture, record racks, etc., in such a way as to break up reflections. I find that record shelves on each end of the back wall work well in this regard, and also serve to provide for #1 above.

4. Mix things up. A room should be neither too 'hard' nor too 'soft'. Utilize furniture intelligently and inventively. In an acoustically live room, you may wish to replace your stark listening chairs with an overstuffed sofa; or in a dead room, a picture on the wall may help brighten things up a bit (don't go overboard with this glass, though).

5. In small rooms, you must provide for some absorption for the first reflections off the side walls to the listener. These are potentially soundstage-killing reflections and must be dealt with as a high priority. An old trick is to sit in the listening position while an assistant moves a mirror along the side walls. When you can see the reflection of the speakers in the mirror, that's where you should provide for some absorption.

6. Many audio enthusiasts miss the importance of a high listening room ceiling. Try to avoid rooms with 7' ceilings or less, as those early reflections may seriously destroy any sense of air or space within the soundstage.

7. If you still can't get it done through 1-6 above, seriously consider the purchase of some room treatments. A good dealer will allow you to borrow some to try before you buy. For me, RoomTunes allowed me to shoehorn my SoundLabs into that 14' x 16' room and provide me with an excellent soundstage (I don't think I'd know what to do if a decent room would ever come along). A $300 - $500 investment in those devices can mean all the difference in the world (and could save thousands more on upgrades that can never improve the sound of that room).

In another installment I'll talk about positioning those speakers within that room. The above suggestions have served me well over the years. I believe they can apply to most rooms and most systems. Until next time, I'll be working on moving to another home in Denver, and searching for that elusive listening room.