Building a Firm Foundation: A Strategic Approach to System Optimization

by Roy Gregory | May 1, 2013

ast year, I wrote a pair of articles (a review of racks from Quadraspire and Atacama and a blog on the setup of a Stillpoints rack system) that together presage a series of reviews, themselves a wider discussion of system architecture and infrastructure. While the vast majority of audio writing concentrates, in one way or another, on the boxes that make up the visible mass of our systems -- sources, amplifiers and speakers -- this discussion will fasten on the subject of the AC supply, equipment supports and cabling -- all those pieces of a system so often considered accessories or, at best, ancillaries. More than that, it will suggest that in reality, far from being simple practicalities, susceptible to the odd tweak, they have a fundamental role in system performance -- as does the thing we all pay lip service to but rarely do anything about -- room acoustics. In fact, more often these things together represent the limiting factor, the glass ceiling on system performance.

It’s an almost heretical view. After all, we all know that the ultimate solution to all system ills is a new box -- be that a CD player, preamp, amplifier or speakers. When we talk in terms of upgrades, it’s a conversation that always seems to involve swapping out one item of electronics for another, a constant search for that final, warmly glowing pot of electronic gold. But the path to audio nirvana is a long and winding road. How many steps have you taken? How much closer does each step bring the ultimate goal? How many times have you changed a box in the system only to discover that once the novelty has worn off you are just as frustrated or dissatisfied as before?

Perhaps it’s time to question the directions and revise the roadmap. Instead of obsessing over your next upgrade, perhaps it’s time to question why the upgrade treadmill is quite so insistent -- and so often unrewarding. At the beginning of the movie The Social Network, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend describes dating him as being "like dating a Stairmaster!" As audiophiles I’m guessing a lot of us know how she felt -- only in our case the "significant other" in question is our system. No matter what we change or upgrade, it just seems to create a new set of questions and requirements -- more steps and more demands. But turn that equation on its head and you are confronted by a different and rather more worrying question: why is it that our systems are so unsatisfying -- and seem to remain that way no matter how much money we plough into them?

Back to basics

et me offer an alternative proposition: There’s a fundamental problem with the way we are putting our systems together. Our understanding of system architecture is flawed, our priorities skewed and the result is self-limiting. The good news is, once you actually diagnose the disease it’s not that hard to treat -- and it doesn’t have to cost that much either. Best of all, the benefits are easy to hear, even easier to demonstrate. In fact, that’s exactly what I was doing at last year's Denver and Toronto shows. The hardest part is getting your head around an alternative logic that turns accepted wisdom upside down, because the ultimate conclusion of this argument is that, whichever way you look at it, we’ve been building systems upside down for years. Our overemphasis on boxes has led us to overlook and ignore the fact that the performance of those boxes is necessarily limited by their conditions of operation -- just the same as a car, where its 0-60 speed is defined not by its engine, transmission, aerodynamics or suspension, but by the surface it’s running on. When a manufacturer quotes a sub-five-second figure, that’s the car’s performance potential. Actually realizing that potential means running slicks down a drag strip. Audio equipment is just the same. If you want to find out what your system can really do you need to provide it with the equivalent of a perfectly manicured racetrack to perform on.

We talk about isolation racks and front-end first, and most of us believe that the first place you put fancy cables is between your CD player and amp (or preamp) -- and it’s wrong, all wrong. To make a system -- any system -- work, you’ve got to sit it on something, hook it up to electrical supply and then connect it all together -- oh, and then put it into a small(ish) resonant and reflective box called your listening room. It sounds straightforward, but look a little closer and you’ll quickly realize that it’s anything but. In fact, collectively those actions define your system’s conditions of operation, the road surface you are running it on. Yet many of us pay scant attention to these issues and even fewer have spent any time really considering them. The closer you look, the more you come to realize that the single, overarching operational environment in which your system exists is both a whole and a complex patchwork of different impacts and effects. Those separate influences must be tackled individually, yet (and this is the key) they must be understood collectively.

In the simplest possible terms, we can break the system foundation down as follows:

  • The AC supply (and RFI)
  • Grounding
  • Mechanical interference and component supports
  • Room acoustics
  • Signal transfer (and the creation of a coherent cable loom)

Look at that list and you can further characterize its elements in terms of tendency. On the one hand you can talk about grounding integrity, the provision of superior electrical, mechanical and signal grounding. On the other you can think of a progression from outside the signal path to inside. Both are, in their own ways, useful conceptual models or guides, but before we go any further, let’s first take each of our categories in turn, examine the issues and then look at possible responses or actions arising.

The AC supply

hat’s the most important cable in your system? The one coming out of the wall socket. Why? Because in a very real sense, when you listen to your system you are actually listening to your mains supply. The AC power coming out of the wall is the raw material that your system transforms into music; but just like a sculptor, your system can only work with the material it’s given. A lovely block of Carrara marble might be expected to produce spectacular results, but even Michaelangelo will struggle to produce a masterpiece from a twisted and knotty stump of pine -- and the chances are that your domestic power supply probably isn’t even that good.

Our modern lifestyle places ever-increasing loads on the AC grid. Not only are we using ever-greater numbers of increasingly demanding appliances -- from refrigerators and AC units to portable devices (that all need charging) and even cars -- but the dramatic increase in computing power and IT demands means that the power line has never been so stressed or polluted. Add to that the amount of data and other signals that are passed down the wire and the difficulties of achieving a clean AC supply become obvious. The waveform reaching your equipment isn’t that nice, clean 50 or 60Hz sine wave you saw in all your physics textbook; it’s clipped, it often sags, and even when it approximates a clean wave, it’s carrying additional pollutants.

The problem when it comes to dealing with the AC supply is that old medical standby -- first do no harm. While there are significant issues with the content of the AC line, especially the consistency of the waveform and RFI, it’s not just its electrical characteristics but also its source impedance that is critical to your system’s performance. This is the anchor to which your system is moored, and you interfere with its footing at your peril. So the challenge becomes one of doing as much as you can without getting in the way of the power line itself.

There are various steps that you can take, but by far the most cost effective is to create a dedicated power line just for your system, isolating it from potential sources of pollution or interference within your own house. Carefully selecting the hardware, cable and configuration (spur or ring, depending on circumstances and electrical regulations) will reap further dividends. A carefully considered response to RFI contamination is then the next step.

Grounding arrangements

he quality of your electrical ground has a profound effect on the performance of your system. The simplest possible solution for improved grounding is to install a separate clean ground in parallel to the main AC ground. This is not a replacement for the main ground, but an adjunct to it. If you have any qualms about the correct execution or configuration of a clean ground arrangement, seek expert advice. Better safe than sorry -- or dead! Having said that, the good news is that, assuming you have access to your yard or garden, the hardware involved will cost next to nothing and the exercise of sinking a coated copper rod into the ground is seriously straightforward. Combine it with a star-grounded distribution block and the resulting drop in system noise floor should be impressive, as will be the increased musicality and presence -- and all for a few bits from Home Depot and a bit of elbow grease.

But that’s just the start. There is a range of products that offer separate, clean grounding arrangements for digital and analog signals within the system, as well as auxiliary grounds for the AC supply in case you can’t reach mother earth. I’ll be looking at several different products and also different grounding topologies.

Which brings us to the vexed question of RFI. One of the major mains-borne pollutants as well as an airborne issue in these days of increased mobile usage, WiFi connectivity and domestic networks, it’s also an internal issue with RF output from the equipment that makes up your system. One of the hardest problems to deal with, RFI’s impact is also one of the most insidious erosions of system performance. While the grain and muted colors are easy enough to identify, timing errors in digital replay are far less obvious but more fundamental musical failings.

Mechanical interference and component supports

n product terms, this is where the heavy lifting starts -- and also where we’ve gotten things badly wrong for years. If you look at that earlier review of the Quadraspire and Atacama bamboo racks, you’ll see the basis of the argument laid out in full, but here it is in microcosm.

Although we refer to racks and other equipment supports as "isolation" devices, this is totally misleading. It suggests that we are "isolating" the equipment from the outside world, but in practice that’s the least of our worries. Acoustic feedback does affect performance, but not in the simplistic way this model suggests. Don’t worry -- we’ll get to that later. In fact, the biggest source of mechanical interference and distortion in the system is the equipment itself. From buzzing transformers to vibrating power-supply caps, every single component in your electronics chain is shaking, rattling and rolling along to the music, and although the actual level of vibration is extremely low, it is right where the signal is, and right where it can do most damage.

Now throw in the speaker drive units. These are vibrating like crazy, again in time with the signal. They are also connected, via the crossover, straight back to the sensitive output devices of your amplifier, by strips of metal that transmit that vibrational energy remarkably efficiently -- which helps explain at least one of the physical advantages of tube amps, with their large output transformers between the speaker and the fragile output devices. That lump of metal provides a degree of electrical but also mechanical isolation.

Then, to make matters worse, we stick soft rubber feet on the bottom of the equipment, trapping all that energy inside, where it mills about, being slowly and inefficiently dissipated through the structure of the unit itself.

Our first priority is to bypass those feet, using a hard coupler or interface to offer an exit route from the chassis into whatever the equipment sits. Then, in turn, the rack or support can dissipate that energy through its structure. Which is why different couplers and different racks can have a pretty dramatic impact on not just the sound of your system, but its musical coherence. Equipment-support strategy cuts straight to the heart of the whole question of preserving signal integrity within the system -- and it sounds like it.

I’ll look at support priorities in detail in the appropriate equipment reviews, but before we get there, here are a couple of simple rules for guidance. The first place you use superior equipment supports is under your speakers. They present the highest energy levels (so the biggest potential for improvement), but more importantly they are the windows through which you perceive the rest of the system. Unless you open that window as wide as possible, you simply won’t know what’s going on in the rest of the chain -- and that means siting the speakers optimally, both in terms of support and attitude/placement.

Once you have the speakers optimally positioned, the next path is to follow the power in the system. Given a set of fancy footers, many people reach straight for their CD player or preamp. In fact, the first component you should lift is your distribution block. Why? Because it forms a barrier between the mechanical energy on the AC power line and every item of sensitive electronics in the system. Drain unwanted mechanical vibration at this point and you improve the performance of all your electronics in one go. Next up? The power amp -- because it has the biggest power supply. Then the various external power supplies feeding upstream electronics. That’s the logic: follow the power, follow the problem. Try it. If you haven’t used a systematic approach to system support, you will be amazed at just how well it works.

Room acoustics

he listening room is the great unmentionable when it comes to discussions of audio quality. Sure, it gets a brief, passing mention, or more likely the lion’s share of the blame for any shortcomings (because it can’t possibly be down to the system or setup -- not after all those hours spent agonizing over reviews), but how often do we spend time discussing real, practical solutions to the very real issues that impact our listening environment?

The reason for that is simple: Most off-the-shelf solutions are anything but practical, as well as being almost impossible to incorporate into any normal domestic environment. They are less of a problem if you have a separate or dedicated listening space, but in Europe at least that is rare indeed. The other major issue is that traditional acoustic treatments that rely on a mix of absorptive and dispersive materials are extremely difficult to get right. They affect a narrow bandwidth in operation, so you need to get the type and placement of material just right, or you risk making matters worse -- much, much worse. Add to that the problem most systems have with even approaching the dynamic range or immediacy of real life and filling your room full of material that soaks up energy is a bit like putting soggy suspension on a racecar to improve the ride. It also ignores the actual mechanism by which acoustical energy finds its way back into the system. Contrary to popular wisdom, airborne energy is not a massive problem (apart from the issue of turntables) and can actually be dealt with reasonably easily and effectively through proper placement of the system. The real issue is structureborne energy, and here again it’s not to do with the floor feeding energy into the rack and then into the equipment -- a pretty tortuous path if ever there was one -- but energy entering the cables, particularly the power cables and then reaching the signal-carrying devices. Any assessment of system performance and potential needs to address both these issues: the impact of acoustical energy on the system and the musical impact of the acoustical environment itself.

Signal transfer

he notion of coherent cable solutions (cabling a system from wall socket to speaker sockets with the same cables/technology) was perhaps the first brick in the infrastructure wall. The fact that cable coherence crossed functional barriers (tonearm or digital cables, interconnect or speaker cables all need to share the same materials, construction and technology) but also crossed domains, from signal to AC transfer, was the first indicator of just how integrated system infrastructure really is. This is not a new story, and contrary to the cynics’ suggestion, it’s not a convenient maxim proposed by cable companies to maximize the importance of their products, justify high prices or maximize their profits. The rule is simple: Whatever cable you use, in whatever system you run, irrespective of the price of that cable or the equipment, a matching set of cables that embrace the entire system will always deliver better results. Indeed, as I’ve demonstrated at shows many times, a coherent loom of surprisingly affordable wires will easily outperform a mixed bag of seriously expensive audiophile leads -- not because the expensive leads aren’t worth the money, but because the coherence across the system is fundamentally more critical than the leads you use. Better leads equal better sound -- but only if you use them correctly.

Foundation thinking

ow that we have the basic issues laid out, we can examine each in turn, which I’ll be doing through a series of reviews and articles. Those started with the rack review mentioned above, and next up will be reviews on the Stillpoints and Leading Edge support systems, leading in turn to a host of other products that each tackle one or more of our core concerns. Anybody who sat through one of the System Set Up Seminars at TAVES or RMAF will know pretty much where I’m going with this, but I’m not setting out alone. I’ll be enlisting the aid of Chris Thomas and others along the way, his Crystal Cable Absolute Dream review assessing several of these key issues. If you want a trailer for what’s in store, you can read about the TAVES and RMAF seminars, but there’s one point still to make. Although I’ve broken down the whole question of system infrastructure into a series of individual problems, together they represent a single coherent whole, constructed from interlocking and indivisible elements. You need to think of each step, each area, as just a part of that whole, the same as the offense, defense and special teams are all just a part of the team as a whole. Each element can then be further broken down: the offensive line, quarterback, running backs and receivers are each a separate category. But the best quarterback in the league can’t win games without the rest of the team doing their bit, the same as the best wide receivers are useless if they never get the ball.

When you think about system infrastructure, you need to think about it as a single structure, the elements interlocking to create the whole, often in surprising or unsuspected ways if you only ever consider their operation in isolation. The key to maximizing your system’s potential lies in understanding how that infrastructure can impede its performance -- and understanding only comes with appreciating its nature as a whole.

Why am I going to such lengths to emphasize the holistic nature of your system’s infrastructure? Because once you appreciate the fact that all these elements act in concert, the importance of coherent solutions that tackle the system as a whole becomes clear. I’ve been banging on about coherent approaches to cabling for years -- and it’s really easy to demonstrate just how effective the strategy is. But it’s not until you start thinking of the system as a single totality bound together by that infrastructure that you realize why coherent cable looms work. That same central principle applies right across all of these issues, be that support, grounding, acoustical treatment or the AC supply: Coherence is king. Once you discover what works, the more widely and consistently you can apply it the better the results will be. The notion of "tuning" a system with different cables or supports for each and every element is complete bunkum. All you are doing is papering over the cracks. Go back to basics, rigorously apply coherent solutions -- even if that means reverting to a basic set of cables and nothing more than hardwood blocks for supports -- and you’ll discover a system you never dreamed you owned. It’s a strategy we’ll be examining in a number of ways and in considerable detail, but at its heart lies that single, simple proposition, an elegant and easily applied idea, yet one that seems so alien to so much current audio thinking.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve started this journey with a look at that hi-fi essential, the rack. The conclusions drawn lead inevitably into other areas of support, an illumination of the environmental problem as a whole -- the rack as a central element in that wider solution, a coherent strategy for system infrastructure. This is where it starts, but the implications run out into all those other areas I’ve outlined. So I’ll be looking at equipment support on a system-wide basis -- not just racks. I’ll be looking at grounding -- again, right across the system. I’ll be looking at placement and treatment solutions to counter the impact of acoustical energy on the system, but also how we can maximize the performance of the system in the acoustic environment we have, and what practical, effective acoustic treatments can be applied to the problem.

In short, I’ll be looking at a strategy that, in toto, actually goes some considerable way towards delivering the performance of the system you already have. You might well be amazed just how good those boxes really can sound -- once you give them half a chance.

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