The Audio Beat's System Setup and Optimization Seminar: What We Did, What It Did, and Why It Worked

by Roy Gregory | October 24, 2012

fter posting the step-by-step outline of the TAVES seminar, I received a series of requests for some explanation as to the musical impact of these changes. Reviewers are regularly lambasted for exaggerating the differences they hear and describe, when changing equipment or implementing adjustments. One of the key drivers behind the seminars we arrange at shows is to allow the visitor to hear for himself the changes that we have described in print, gauging their importance for him or herself, while at the same time, "calibrating" the views of the reviewer. Besides, nothing quite beats standing in front of a room full of people and demonstrating for real what you’ve just written about to keep you honest. It’s a shame more reviewers and magazines don’t grasp this particular nettle.

To some extent, that rather negates the point of then describing the effects in print -- except that there are always those who cannot attend a show, or get a ticket for a seminar once there. We ran 11 seminars across the three days, each lasting between an hour and a half and two hours, which adds up to 300 people who got to sit (or stand) through the presentation. That’s a lot of people -- but it’s also a lot of people who didn’t get the chance. So here goes. I’m going to keep it short(ish) and keep it sweet, but hopefully the observations will help those who missed the show and ring true to those who didn’t.

Details on the system and tracks played are contained in the associated blog, so I won’t repeat them here, but I’ll keep the same structure for clarity. For those who attended the shorter version of the seminar at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the steps were essentially the same, although the equipment used was different. We'll add a full list later, along with the titles and pressings used in the analog seminar.

The music

I started by playing two (or sometimes three) tracks to allow the audience a sense of how the system sounded in the room. Carefully selected, not too dynamic and good basic recordings, they sounded fairly acceptable -- which was really the point. By choosing material carefully, you can make almost any system sound at least tolerable. Then I showed what the system wasn’t doing; the track used was "Las Cuevas De Mario" by the Art Pepper Quintet, its deep, evenly paced bass line and apparently simple rhythmic patterns quickly revealing the loose, disjointed bottom end, inconsistent dynamic range and lack of spatial and temporal coherence. Shorn of the rhythmic underpinning so vital to the track’s sense, it simply fell apart, sounding musically repetitive, turgid and boring.

The process

Step 1 - We moved the speakers, each by about half an inch, to show the importance of precise positioning.

As soon as we did this, the music locked together. The bass gained shape and structure, but more importantly it started to play in time with the piano, which itself became more urgent and incisive. The drums took up their proper place, spatially and musically, providing off-beat accents and fills, so that when the brass entered, it was over and in response to a firm rhythmic setting. Now, the band actually sounded like they were playing together. They knew each other and the track started to take on some musical sense and shape.

Step 2 - We lifted the speakers, each on a quartet of Stillpoints Ultra 5 feet. As well as improving coupling to the floor, these allowed us to set the vertical and rake angles for the Blades.

The purpose of this step was to open the window on system performance as wide as possible, allowing us to really hear the impact of changes made upstream. Unfortunately, opening the window wide doesn’t mean you’ll like the view! Although the sound improved in a number of ways (more shape and texture to the bass, more detail and complexity to the piano and drums), the overall coherence suffered. For the first time, we could appreciate just how disjointed the combination of rack, electronics and cables really was. The bass became totally detached, the drums lost their timing and the brass lines had no connection to the "rhythm" at all.

Step 3 - We changed to the second set of electronics, positioned on a carefully leveled Quadraspire Q4 Evo rack and wired up with a complete set of Nordost Heimdall 2 cables, from wall socket to speaker binding posts, along with a Quantum Qbase QB8 distribution block.

The top shelf of the rack, used for the CD player, was of MDF, while the other shelves were of laminated and grooved bamboo.

This brought everything back together, locking the rhythm section into step, adding shape and emphasis to the brass lines. For the first time you could separate the two brass instruments, while the bass moved from plodding to setting the tempo. The improvement in temporal, spatial and musical coherence was huge; the band might have sounded smaller and more compact, but at least they were all in the same space, playing the same tune at the same time.

Step 4 - We placed three small hardwood blocks under each of the electronics, bypassing the feet and improving their coupling to the supporting surface, allowing internally generated mechanical energy to escape from the chassis.

Providing an exit path for the internal energy cleans up the signal dramatically. Separation and clarity of the instruments improves dramatically, as does their dynamic range and the crispness of the playing. It simply sounds like a better band having a lot more fun.

Step 5 - We moved the CD player (along with its three wood blocks) from the top MDF shelf down one step to a bamboo shelf, showing just how important the supporting shelf becomes, once you couple the equipment properly.

Cleaning up the signal generated by the CD player brought an even crisper quality to the sound and playing. What had originally seemed sluggish and lazy when we first played it now had an incisive, directed quality, a sense of progress and purpose that made it much more engaging and musically relevant.

Track change - Having established a good, basic foundation (mechanical and electrical) for the system, we once again changed tracks, this time to highlight differences in the next step.

Shawn Colvin: "The Facts About Jimmy," A Few Small Repairs [Columbia 454327 2] is a good studio pop recording. It is more complex, more dynamic and requires more obviously expressive qualities than the Art Pepper track.

Step 6 - We replaced the wood blocks with trios of Stillpoints Ultra Minis. These not only improved the coupling of electronics to the shelves, but increased the consistency of support, with Stillpoints technology now being used under both the electronics and the loudspeakers.

This was a big change! Having established a decent foundation (mechanical and electrical) for the system, we could start to build on and exploit that stability. The vocals were much more natural and expressive, the drummer was now clearly human (rather than a drum machine), the sheer space and variety of instruments present in the recording was far more obvious, adding scale and texture to the music. The whole was louder, closer with greater musical and emotional impact.

Step 7 - We took the last step in the support chain, raising the Quantum distribution unit onto three Stillpoints Ultra 5s, placing a mechanical drain between the mechanical energy carried on the electrical grid and the electronics themselves.

This was a bit of a cheat! The impact was even greater than the previous step, bringing a whole new level of musical and emotional expression to the track, as well as a far more organic, natural feel to the voice, instruments and playing. For the first time you started to feel the hollow sadness and loneliness that sits at the center of this song.

Why the fundamental improvement? Because, by draining the mechanical energy generated by the grid out of the distribution block, we are stopping it from reaching the whole system -- so the improvement impacts the performance of all the electronics at once. The fact that they were already supported on the Ultra Minis simply allowed us to hear the impact that much more clearly. In practice, the distribution block is actually the first element in the system you should support (after the loudspeakers).

Step 8 - Having improved the mechanical grounding of the system, we next did the same for the electrical supply. To do this we ran a ground wire from the star ground terminal on the Quantum Qbase to an Entreq Tellus ground block.

The resulting drop in the noise floor was just like using the fine-focus ring on a camera -- everything snapped into place. A gray haze or grain was removed from the soundstage, bringing clarity and increased dynamic contrast. The ability to hear far more clearly just where notes started and stopped brought an added sense of purpose and intent to the music. The musicians started to really work with the voice, adding accent and emphasis to the lyric. For the first time it became really obvious that the song is written in a minor key, the downbeat sadness and emotional desolation finally becoming fully apparent.

Track change - With the system starting to sound considerably better, it was time, once again to show what it wasn’t doing. We changed tracks to Joe Cocker: "Many Rivers To Cross," Sheffield Steel [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 631], which contains an exposed, rasping vocal, massive space and atmosphere and a deep, deep rhythm track that stresses the system at completely different points in its range. Cocker’s voice was distant, lost in the swirling aural backdrop, while the bass was overpowering, loose and wallowy -- a complete musical disaster.

Step 9 - The big one! We now moved the whole set of electronics from the Quadraspire rack to the Stillpoints ESS, fitted with Ultras and the new Grids. This not only increased the sophistication and degree of mechanical draining, it eliminated the shelf material altogether.

This was the biggest single system change that we showed. The increase in scale was dramatic. The wind noise and organ track that make up the musical backdrop were separated and independent. The voice stepped forward, losing its edgy, nasty quality. The bass went much deeper and now you could tell that its fat, rounded shape wasn’t just intentional -- it was in the right place too. Timing improved dramatically as a result, the slow, carefully spaced opening adding pathos now, rather than simply boring the listener. This really was the difference between music and noise.

Why the big difference? If the Quadraspire offered a firm foundation, the equivalent of a trench filled with concrete, the ESS is like sitting the system on pilings, sunk straight down to the bedrock. The really good news is that now each and every small change will deliver an improvement out of all proportion with expectations.

Step 10 - We replaced the internal, hardwired links on the KEF Blades with a set of Nordost Norse-series biwire jumpers.

By extending the Micro Mono-Filament technology a further four inches, we tied together the crossover, bringing added coherence to the music. Cocker’s voice became more natural again, with added texture and detail (making it easier to hear not just what he was singing, but how he was singing it) while the separation of bass guitar and drums was far more apparent.

Step 11 - We added a clean signal ground, by linking the outer ring of an unused RCA input on the preamp to a second Entreq grounding box -- in this case a Silver Tellus.

This caused another drop in the noise floor, resulting in more natural tonality, better timing and far more expressive playing. The backdrop becomes more effective, as does the contrast between the stark opening and the deep, powerful bass.

Step 12  - We ran two more wires, from bottom front left and top rear right corners of the rack to the Silver Tellus, thus creating a Faraday Cage around the equipment to help eliminate radio-frequency interference.

The removal of yet another layer of grunge, this time bubbling up from the bottom of the music/soundstage. Now you could finally hear the bottom of the bass guitar notes, appreciate the changes in pitch and placement and just how agile the playing really is. The complexity and solidity of the drum patterns becomes fully apparent, as does the swirling expanse of the opening section.

Step 13 - We added a pair of Quantum QRT Qx4 field generators to the system, positioning one each behind the speakers.

By acting on the linearity of the fields in the drivers’ motor assemblies, the effect of the Qx4s is to allow them to start and stop more quickly and precisely -- which is exactly what it sounds like. Every aspect of the music became crisper and more incisive, adding purpose and impact to the song, finally revealing fully that this is a great singer backed by a great band and captured on a great recording.

Each step of the way, the music had stood further and further away from the speakers; now, the speakers had completely disappeared. All you heard was the song -- rather than the system replaying it.

Step 14 - Finally, it was time to demonstrate the impact of the Leading Edge acoustic panels we’d used to treat the room -- by simply removing them!

This was the other real shocker for the audience. Having gotten the system really singing, simply walking the Leading Edge panels out of the room reduced it to a confused and disjointed mess, destroying all the good work that we’d done. The simplicity and effectiveness of these panels was possibly the most telling lesson of the whole seminar -- and certainly the one that generated the most questions.

Step 15  - With the Leading Edge panels reinstalled, it was time to revisit the original tracks we’d played, but each with a wrinkle.

The Art Pepper track really clicked now, but when we added a pair of LPI record weights to the top of the CD player and preamp, it lifted it yet another notch. Now the band was really cooking, the dirty, grinding groove of the track finally emerging. This is the Art Pepper Quartet at their finest, a reputation you could now appreciate, a performance likewise.

Step 16 - Cat Stevens, including a small demonstration of the deleterious impact of remote operation on the system.

I’m not even going to attempt to explain this one, but starting the track from the player's front panel (as opposed to using the remote control) results in a significantly more natural, more communicative and more immediate sound. If your system is working properly, you’ll hear this instantly. If you don’t, you know you have some work to do.

Step 17  - Buddy Holly, but also Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Johanos, Dallas S.O. [Analogue Productions APCD 006].

These tracks were used to show just how effectively the system now handled scale, and how independent the soundstage and presentation were from the speakers.

Step 18 - A return to the system as originally heard.

Oh, dear. ‘Nuff said!

By returning the system to its original state, and using a large-scale piece with a big, coherent soundstage, we really showed just how much performance we’d lost, the music completely collapsing spatially, rhythmically, but most importantly of all, in terms of emotional and musical engagement.

If the idea of any audio system is to bring the musicians and their performance into your home, this seminar showed just how critical setup and support really are to that goal. The vast gulf in communication, the total loss of the convincing musical presence we’d established really brought home just how significant the changes we’d made actually were -- all without replacing a single box!

The other key lesson was the primacy of the speaker within the system. If the $32,000 Blades can sound this good driven by $12,000 worth of basic Simaudio Moon electronics, imagine what happens when you up the system ante with even better source and amplification components.

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