Quarter Notes, Volume 1, Issue #3

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Dear Get Better Sound readers,

Welcome to the third issue of Quarter Notes!

Quarter Notes is a quarterly newsletter for Get Better Sound readers, expanding on the GBS manual, as well as introducing new and timely subjects.  From time-to-time, we may have a guest writer (or more) to contribute on special topics.  

For this issue’s guest writers, we have Jeff Dorgay, Editor and Publisher of TONEAudio, introducing some Vinyl tips that I call Vinyl 101 (“A few tips on the return to vinyl”), one GBS reader’s unique vision on implementing the tips in the manual (“How to eat an elephant”), and Charles Hansen of Ayre Acoustics, who has written an informative piece on digital audio, featuring the use of a computer as the hard drive (“Computers and Audio”).  

Quarter Notes also features expanded replies to the many comments and questions that I receive.  In fact, send me an e-mail, and I may include your question or comments in an upcoming newsletter.

Best e-mail address

Since you’re reading this, the e-mail address that I used to notify you must have worked. However, the only e-mail address I have is the one associated with your initial Get Better Sound order.

If you have an e-mail address that you’d prefer to use to receive Quarter Notes notifications, send it to jim@getbettersound.com. Be sure to list the month of purchase (if possible), and definitely include the address I used originally along with the one that you want to use to replace it.

The top 3 tips I keep hearing about from readers:


1 – Location, location, location – seat location, that is…

We’ve all heard the “location, location, location” quote.  It’s all about putting your business in the best physical place to be able to maximize profitability.

Judging from the comments that I’ve received, many audiophiles have spent countless hours tweaking their systems, moving their speakers around, etc.  Yet, very few had realized that where you sit is the first order of priority.  I cover this in Tips #75 & 76.

Whenever possible, arranging to sit in the best sounding location (where the bass is smoothest), is the audiophile equivalent to the old restaurant/retail store location maxim.

In case I still haven’t said it strongly enough, all else is secondary to this foundational requirement for extracting the best sound from your system in your room!  Getting the foundation of the music – the bass - as good as it can be is probably the greatest issue that affects your musical enjoyment..

Even if aesthetic considerations preclude permanently locating your listening seat where it should go, surely you can place an occasional chair there for those special times when you want to listen and to hear your system the way it was meant to be heard!

2 – Closer together for a bigger, richer image.  

I guess I wasn’t clear enough about the value of separation to affect harmonic density and soundstage.  Because I’ve now visited a number of GBS readers, and with just one exception, ALL had the speakers too far apart.

What happens when your speakers are too far apart?

The sound is thinner in tonal balance.  

You get a center image and a hard left and hard right image.  But the image between the center and the outside positions is entirely too weak and too vague.

The sound is much less involving musically.  In fact, all too often it’s simply BORING!

Sometimes the adjustment required is only a matter of an inch or two.  Sometimes, much more.  Of course, you don’t want near-monaural, either.  But the rewards from getting this right are simply too great to ignore.

Here’s a link to a forum where this issue was explored and adjusted: 

In order to save you some time, you can just read post #190, especially the section, “CLX Positions:”  http://www.martinloganowners.com/forum/showthread.php?t=7730&page=13

3 – Move that rack from between your speakers.

This simple “tweak” has elicited more ”WOW” comments than anything else in the entire GBS manual.  If you are able to try it and you haven’t, this might be the overall easiest way to take your system to another performance level.

There is no way that keeping your cables short will have the effect on your sound that addressing the sound’s acoustic wave-launch into your room will provide. Not even close.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the sound quality from longer, lesser quality cables with the equipment rack on the side wall will be significantly better than the sound from shorter, more exotic cables that you can use with the equipment rack between your speakers.

Hope that’s clear enough. :)

Vinyl 101 - A few tips on the return to vinyl

By Jeff Dorgay, Editor and Publisher of TONEAudio

All things being equal, I still enjoy the sound of LP’s, but all records are not created equal and a poorly setup turntable will not give you the “analog magic” everyone is raving about.  So whether you are a new vinyl enthusiast or digging out your LP collection after a hiatus, here’s a few tips that should help you on the vinyl journey.

Nowhere in the reproduction chain is there more chance for error than with your turntable.  You are dealing with extremely small signals and a tiny diamond chip that glides over your records microscopic grooves.  Even though some people will tell you that a turntable is “plug and play”, even the most simple ones will benefit from careful setup.

Determine if you are a “wrench turner” or a “check writer.”  If you have basic mechanical abilities, the right tools and some patience, you should be able to setup and optimize a turntable.  If assembling anything sounds like a pain, get your wallet out and try to find a good analog setup person nearby.  Before you hand over the credit card to your dealer, make sure they can set your new turntable up properly and support you after the sale.

If you’ve owned your table for a while and your cartridge is more than five years old, throw it out and start over, especially if you live in a dry climate.  The suspension inside a phono cartridge is made up of little rubber donuts, much like the bushings that are in your car’s suspension.  They get stiff and crack with age in a similar way and even if your stylus doesn’t appear worn, chances are good that an old cartridge isn’t capable of reproducing music like it did when it was new.

Invest in at least an entry-level record cleaner.  You can get the base model Nitty Gritty for under $200 and this will greatly improve the sound of all your records, from the bargain treasures to even brand new audiophile pressings.  Check in with your favorite audio message board to find a heated/spirited discussion about what cleaning fluids to use, but keep that vinyl clean!  While you are at it, make sure that stylus stays clean too...

Buy a good level and use it!  The most common thing I’ve seen when asked to troubleshoot someone else’s turntable is that it is usually not level.  This can throw off channel balance at the minimum and severely upset tracking at its worst.  Before you even start fiddling with any of the other adjustments, make sure your table is level!

We’ve only barely scratched the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully these tips will help you down the path of your vinyl journey.  Enjoy.

How to Eat an Elephant


GBS reader Gordy writes:

A few years ago I was trained and certified in Lean, Six-Sigma, and other business improvement techniques.  Based on some of the tools described, my mind wandered to using them to improve and optimize areas of my own life, including my listening experience and room:

Improving your existing system during the current tough economy makes the Get Better Sound manual an even better investment.  This goes for those with refined equipment or those with less than refined equipment who aren’t ready to make the investment.  

In many cases, we struggle with a long list of changes that could improve the performance of our systems.  What to do first?  Why that and not this?  Which will be least expensive and provide the most impact?  Which will impress my audiophile friends more?  Consider the following a guide to help you on your journey to a better system and, ultimately, a more satisfying listening experience.

Do you know how to eat an elephant?  Don’t over think it, remember how you ate today - one-bite-at-a-time.  It’s the same with any problem, like how to improve your system.  The answer is, with a number of small improvements.  Figuring out where to start is easier once this is understood.

To quote Stephen Covey, “begin with the end in mind.”  This is where your systems improvement journey begins.  What are the things about your system that you don’t like or would like improved?  Grab the pen and pad the next time you’re listening and make notes.  Add anything to the list, even the crazy stuff.  We’ll figure how to sort through it later.

Next, with list in hand, or in mind, describe what your improved system will sound like, look like, and how it improves your listening experience.  Be as specific as you can:
  • how the music makes you feel
  • what kind of music are you listening to
  • how does the room look
  • how does your equipment perform and how do you use it
  • how does it sound

Once you do this, go back to that description and pick out the qualities that you used to describe this new magical system.  Now we’re sharpening the knife that will slice up that elephant!

With a list of things to improve and a list of qualities that can be used to rate those improvements, it’s time to put that list in order.  Evaluate each improvement by the impact it will have on each quality.  

If your list isn’t too big, start by using a -/0/+ ranking.  If you’ve got a long list, use a scale, say 1 to 5.  If you’ve got pages, try a weighted ranking.  Assign a percentage to each quality, so that the total of all qualities is 100%, then rank (1-5 or 1-10) each improvement and each category.  

Multiply each ranking by each percentage and add them up.  Whatever method you chose, you’ll end up with a prioritize list of your improvements.

This is still a long list, so the next step is to use the knife.  Even notice how 20% of the people get 80% of the pay?  And how 20% of the people get 80% of the work?  This is a universally accepted statistic and the foundation of the Pareto Principle.  You’ll begin your audio improvement journey with the top 20% of your prioritized list.  If you have 20 items, start with those top 4.

As the Get Better Sound manual encourages, make one change at time and note its effect.  Did it have the intended result, or better?  Keep a log of the results of the first 20% improvements.

With the first set of improvements behind your, it’s time to reevaluate.  Check off those items completed and see what’s next.  Think about how the system has improved and if you’d still rank the remaining items the same way.  Has the recent experience provided any new ideas?  Add them, rank them, and pick the next 20%.

The process of continual improvement, whether in life or business, is a structured process of imagination and application.  Achieving meaningful improvements begins with some understand of what’s wanted or needed.  A little organization and sweat.

Computers and Audio

Charles Hansen, Ayre Acoustics

A revolution is brewing in the world of audio. Led by the astonishing success of Apple’s iTunes Store, downloads are becoming an important source of music. The rumor mill has it that by year’s end, the iTunes Store will be offering downloads in full 44/16 CD-quality resolution. And websites like HDTracks.com are already offering not only CD-quality downloads, but even high-resolution files. They are planning to have over a thousand high-res titles available by the end of 2009!

No less important than your computer becoming a new way to purchase music is that it also provides you with a new way to listen to your music. Once the music is on your computer (a prerequisite to putting it on your portable music player), you now have incredibly easy access to your entire digital music collection. Transferring your CD collection is a simple, if somewhat time-consuming task. Once accomplished, every single disc, and even every track on every disc, can be easily accessed.

You can sort by title, artist, composer, genre — just about anything you choose. What’s more, you can create custom playlists, similar to the old practice of making “mix tapes” with a cassette recorder but with without any length limitations. You can select “random” play to create what is, in effect, your own personal radio station. Or you can restrict the “random” play to specific artists, genres, or just about anything you desire. The possibilities are truly endless.

There are two questions most people have about computer-based audio:

1) How do I start?

2) How can I achieve true high-end playback quality?

First of all, plan on storing your music on an external hard drive that is separate from the computer. Second, know that sooner or later all hard drives will fail. So don’t buy one hard drive, buy two and use the second one to back up the first. I have my computer setup at my desktop where I work all day long. Therefore the entire setup has to run extremely quietly. The best bet in this situation is a external hard drive that uses a 2-1/2" notebook drive inside of it. Not only will this run quietly, but they can use the power supplied by the connecting cable, eliminating the need for extra wires and “wall warts”. If you are in a situation where the drives are far from your listening position, you can easily get double the capacity for the same price with a 3-1/2" desktop drive. The penalty is increased noise and a mandatory external power supply.

Notebook drives currently top out at 500 GB. This is enough to store about 800 uncompressed CD’s and will cost around $100 in an external enclosure. You can use lossless compression (FLAC for the Windows or ALAC for Mac) to bump this up to around 1300 CD’s, but most people notice a slight reduction in sound quality. But this is a column on how to Get Better Sound!  Presumably it’s because the computer’s processor is working harder when decompressing files on the fly instead of just loafing along playing the music.

Without a doubt, the easiest way to start is with a Mac computer running the iTunes music player. A Mac Mini will do the job quite nicely and the base model is $600. It is very compact and very quiet. Just about any keyboard and mouse will do the job, provided they are equipped with USB connectors. You will also need a display equipped with a digital DVI (or the much newer Display Port) input.

Since this column is about getting the best sound, adding memory will improve the sound quality. (Don’t ask me why!) The same is true for using a Solid-State Drive for the computer’s main drive, but these are still somewhat pricey. Currently the best ones are the new models from Intel. They have an 80 GB model for around $230 and a 160 GB model for around $450. The 80 GB is plenty to run the applications you will need for a music server. The side benefits of an SSD are dead-quiet operation and incredibly fast boot-up times.

The limitations of the Mac are that FLAC files (the most common format for high-res downloads) require conversion before they will play, the playback sample rate must be changed manually, and the music sorting options for classical music are not as flexible as some programs. Expect that in the coming years that third-party software will solve these problems.

If you don’t want to wait for these problems to be solved, you can start right away with a Windows computer. The Mac Mini is still a great choice, as for several years they have been using Intel processors that allow for dual booting. You can partition the hard drive on the Mac Mini and install a fresh copy of either XP or Vista and have a machine that will run either platform. Or just about any notebook computer will also run quietly and work well as an all-in-one solution.

Another nice thing about the Mac Mini is that it has a FireWire port. This gives more flexibility when choosing an interface for your DAC and/or external hard drive. The sound quality will be slightly improved if the DAC and the external hard drive are on different interfaces. So if you have a FIreWire DAC, then use a USB hard drive and vice-versa. (Again, I have no idea why, but this column is about getting better sound!) If you have an Ethernet DAC, then either type of hard drive will work great. If you don't have a FireWire port, adapters are available for both notebooks (PC-Card) and desktops (PCI). Finally, there is a new type of external hard drive interface called eSATA that runs separately from any DAC.

For the PC, the best two options for most people for music playing software are either J.River’s Music Jukebox or Foobar 2000. The first one is a slick all-in-one package, while the second is more of a do-it-yourself kit, with many plug-ins available. You probably already know which program is right for you.

Finally, the question is how to get the music out of your computer and into your stereo system. There are dozens of different options, but the great thing is that a computer offers another type of flexibility that virtually no other disc transport offers. Instead of sending out a steady stream of jittery audio, hoping that the D/A converter can reduce the jitter, the D/A converter can send commands to the computer telling it when it needs more audio data.

This allows for an essentially jitter-free audio interface, unlike the common S/PDIF connection found in conventional audio gear. This type of interface is called “asynchronous” because the master audio clock in the DAC is completely separate from any of the clocks in the computer. These types of DACs are available in all different price ranges and with many different interfaces. Examples include Ethernet DAC;s from Squeezebox and Linn (each requiring their own specific music player software), FireWire DAC’s from Apogee, and USB DAC’s from dCS, Wavelength, and Ayre. Each of these are capable of reaching the same low jitter levels as a one-box CD player.

Finally, don’t forget that your computer is a huge source of RFI. Spend some money on a dedicated power line filter that you can plug all of your computer equipment into. This will help keep the noise generated by the computer out of the rest of your audio system. And along the same lines, be sure to always use wired network connections. Wireless systems are miniature radio transmitting stations that broadcast RFI and make it harder to get good sound from your system.

More information can be found from a variety of sources. Here is a link to a page of links:

http://www.ayre.com/usb-links.htm

Enjoy!

(note from Jim – these links on the Ayre site are informational and do not espouse buying anything from Ayre Acoustics.  So I wanted Charles to include them.  

FWIW – around here I have several CD playing systems, including the top Zanden rig.  But what I listen to primarily is my Ayre CD-5xe – which is back at the factory as I write this – it’s receiving the new MP (minimum phase) update.  So I obviously think that Charles has something to say in the digital realm, and hope this article was informative and interesting to you.)


Thanks to Jeff, Gordy, and Charles for their contributions!


Next issue

  • Audibility of reversed polarity effects and George Louis’s list of recordings.
  • Speaker wire lengths
  • More guest articles – controversial?
  • One man’s epiphany, while at the very top of the audiophile game.
  • And more…

 

Sign off

That’s about all I can fit in this Quarter Notes. Hope you found it helpful, or at least interesting.

Please write with any questions, comments, or suggestions. See you next time!

Best regards,

Jim Smith

Go to Get Better Sound

    
All contents copyright © Quarter Note Press, Inc.; all rights reserved. Any reproduction, without permission, is prohibited.
 
     
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All contents copyright © Quarter Note Press, Inc.; all rights reserved. Any reproduction, without permission, is prohibited.