Audio Systems Optimized System Setup

by Roy Gregory | November 19, 2015


This is not exactly your average audio review. Most reviews deal with equipment, normally a single, discrete component. Occasionally they deal with matched product pairs -- a transport and DAC, a preamp and power amp or, if they’re really enlightened, a power amp and a pair of speakers. Even more rare is the full-system review, although what most publications consider a full system and what I consider a full system is where we part company. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an audio publication review a person. Interviews, features and various other kinds of articles, sure; but this is a person review, conducted just as I’d review any piece of equipment: what is it, how much does it cost, what does it do, how well does it do it? That fact alone is significant. Reviews have a special status in the audio world -- both in terms of the reverence (or derision) with which they’re treated and their undoubted importance in the overall scheme of things. That’s all about the way they’re perceived, and if you’ll excuse the linguistic liberty, but perception is nine-tenths of reality.

While this is a review of a person just like a review of a power amp, what that amp can do, this is not just about the person, but about what he brings to the party -- the party that is your audio system. This person, one Stirling Trayle -- or ST from here on in -- offers his services as a system optimizer, and it’s that service that is under review because it is becoming increasingly apparent that what’s on offer here is just as critical as any other part of your system. No power amp means no music -- no ifs, buts or maybes, just silence. Lousy system setup? It’s the same deal. Oh, you will get noise -- but not music and definitely not the music your system is capable of producing. Am I overstating the case? Well, there’s noise and then there’s noise; more particularly, there’s the noise you want and all too often, too much noise that you don’t. What this review is going to look at is just how much of that spurious noise a system generates, how much of it you can eliminate and what steps are necessary to do just that. I’m not just talking noise floor or interference here -- although those things are critical. I’m actually talking about misplaced signal, what used to be music, but, because it appears in the wrong place or at the wrong time, just adds to all the other undesirable noise.

By now, you might be feeling a little confused. After all, every audiophile knows how to set up his system, doesn’t he? (I use the term "he" advisedly; female audiophiles do exist, but as with directions, they’re sensible enough to ask when they need advice.) Which rather raises the questions, what exactly is a system optimizer, what can he offer and why would you need one? As to the why, that’s covered in the associated blog that introduced this review. As to the what he is -- let’s take a look at that right now.

In coining the term system optimizer, it might well appear that ST is treading that well-worn path intended to separate himself and whatever he does from the herd. In a crowded market that’s an understandable motive, but let’s be clear about this: there might be many voices and companies competing to separate you from your hard-earned cash in return for the next (or final) step on the path to audio nirvana, but there are not exactly a lot of people selling what Audio Systems Optimized (ASO) is offering. In fact, I can only think of two others who are in remotely the same game, and one of those is based in the UK and specializes in Linn turntables and Naim setups to the exclusion of almost everything else. Instead, the reasoning here is slightly different. What ST is offering is something that steps outside the accepted market structures that are teetering on the brink of collapse. In doing so he is also offering a solution or way forward and that’s important enough to require its own label, a moniker that defines a different way of doing business and achieving our goals. Because, let’s face it: if the existing model is under stress, the first thing that is going to suffer is the performance experienced by the end user -- the very thing we are all fascinated by and paying seemingly ever greater amounts to achieve.

So what exactly is this special and different service that’s performed and justifies the title system optimizer? Engage Audio Systems Optimized and what you’ll be paying for is ST coming to your house to set up your system. You’ll be paying for his time and also any expenses incurred -- meaning travel and accommodation. Hang on (I hear you splutter), what’s so new and different about a "setup guy"? Doesn’t every dealer have one of those? Well, in theory. Which brings us back to the creaking business model to which this industry clings. Basically, the way this is supposed to work is that people who build products concentrate on that. They sell those products to dealers, who sell them in turn to their customers. The interesting thing to note about this is that the prices charged by the various participants in the process (bearing in mind that you can add an extra distribution step if you are talking about imported products) are calculated on a percentage basis. That means the person who actually builds the product also stands to make the least money from selling it. In turn, the retailer makes the most. In theory, that final retail margin is justified by the dealer’s overhead (premises, staff, etc.), his requirement to stock products to demonstrate and the cost of installing the products he sells. But as Internet price comparisons and direct selling by those companies who can’t or won’t sell through dealers bites, guess what’s the first corner that gets cut? Of course, end users, who insist on heavy discounts that aren’t helping the situation or themselves, often trading a cash savings against a significant drop in product performance -- because, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the installation. Selecting the product might establish a potential for performance, but it’s the (whole system) setup that actually delivers it. That’s where your system optimizer comes in.

The point here is that there’s setup and then there’s setup -- and as we will see shortly, the term seems to cover everything from sticking a new amp in a rack to ripping down a system and starting from scratch. All the time it’s an "extra" -- a cost to the dealer coming out of his margin -- so the inclination to cut corners is clear, even if it is also shortsighted, and that’s before you take the realities of the economic situation and the impact of any discount into account. Just how willing do you think the guy who just sold you an amplifier is going to be when it comes to resetting your whole system as part of the deal?

But that’s exactly the premise of the system optimizer. You are paying this guy to set up your system -- all of your system. His attention isn’t focused on a single purchase but the problem as a whole. Second, because it’s setup and only setup that he is concerned with, he will be equipped, capable and willing to take things a whole lot further. As I said, there’s setup and then there’s setup -- and then there’s a system that has been fully optimized, with every last aspect of setup addressed. Hence the moniker -- indicative of a level of expertise and execution that goes way beyond the norm.

Finally, there’s a third, crucial factor that defines the system optimizer: his independence. He does not work for a dealer, and although various manufacturers may well provide training for him (or vice versa), he doesn’t sell their products. In fact, he doesn’t sell anything except his skills -- and that makes him unique and invaluable. Later in this article I’ll be discussing reviews and the centrality and power they’ve assumed in the purchasing process. Now consider this: your system optimizer is by definition a deeply knowledgeable and experienced individual. That knowledge will also embrace personal experience of you, your system and your listening environment -- and you are paying him. He’s not just a hi-fi guy; he’s your hi-fi guy, a source of genuinely informed, specific and independent advice when it comes to changes that may (or may not) be needed in your system. He has no specific loyalties when it comes to manufacturers, no stock room full of existing products or product lines he can’t access. His sole concern, and the way that he justifies what you pay him, is improving the performance of your system. Finally, a voice you can actually trust.

Of course, this all assumes that the system optimizer is actually capable of delivering on the promise, really providing better setup skills and deeper knowledge than you already have or have access to. Who is Stirling Trayle to go setting himself up as some audio expert? Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but a quick glance at the man’s résumé is instructive. It’s not just the depth of his industry experience, it’s the nature as well. Not only has he been a principle involved in a number of companies dealing directly with both core components and system infrastructure (racks, cables, etc.), his role in those companies was often as the product trainer, the guy who worked out how to use and how to demonstrate the products being sold -- and taught retailers how to set them up. It’s a career that has created tremendous respect within the industry, even as that industry has become less and less willing or able to afford his particular skill set.

One example should suffice: when Lyra introduced the Etna to the US market at the 2013 RMAF, they loaned a cartridge to VTL and Wilson Audio. Who do you think they got to set that cartridge up? Yup, even though ST isn’t employed by Lyra or any of those other significant and highly respected companies, they were all grateful to have his input and the benefit of his experience -- on the cartridge and the system as a whole. The fact that the room was also amongst the best-sounding at the show is far from coincidental.

But there’s one other issue raised by the whole notion of the system optimizer, one that nagged at me from the first time I heard the term and had what it represents explained to me. So much audio knowledge and experience is product specific (at least according to the dogma) that it calls into question the very concept of a universal practitioner. After all, the whole point of a dealer is his familiarity with the products he stocks. Against that you can set the value of extended experience and the development of general approaches, but in the end there’s only one way to settle the debate -- hence this review. What I wanted to know was whether ASO really does offer a universal service. So that’s what I set out to discover.

For this review, ST flew from his base in San Francisco to the UK, where I’d arranged two different setup challenges. He was keen to come and work on my system, but as I pointed out, that isn’t really representative, given that it occupies a totally dedicated space (allowing unusual latitude and tolerance when it comes to placement) and is constantly changing. Still, you’ve got to give him full marks for confidence, especially given how defensive most audiophiles (and especially reviewers) get if you criticize their setup. It also underlines his willingness to travel and just how unphased he is by the prospect of different international audio environments.

Even so, I wanted to see how he worked in a real-world situation -- especially one that was likely to throw him a few curveballs. A friend of mine (and inveterate hi-fi tinkerer) has had his apartment extended, an operation that necessitated the family moving out (and moving its life into storage) for several months. Since reinstalling his system in its new environment -- one that’s shared with his wife and two daughters -- he has been far from happy with its performance, despite the addition of several recent upgrades. It’s a situation that’s all too familiar and that presents the perfect opportunity to test ASO’s metal, especially as the room is smaller than ideal and the system itself is packed with unfamiliar products. Let’s see what ST can do with that.

His second task was installing a pair of mono power amps into my own review system. It’s exactly the kind of work I have to undertake on a regular basis, and I have pretty well-developed ideas as to what is involved. Once again, most of the equipment would be unfamiliar and, just to add the icing on the cake, I had a cartridge that needed installing too. I was going to be fascinated to see just how he approached these two very different jobs and how his regimen differed from my own.

The full system-optimization package

The system in question is built around Michell electronics (a Groove Plus phono stage, Orca line stage and a pair of Alecto monoblocks) driving Impulse H3 horn speakers (with added Townshend super tweeters). Part of the process here was to install a new VPI Prime turntable (in place of an existing Linn LP12), while the CD player is a dCS Puccini with uClock. While the dCS player and VPI ‘table (as well as the Lyra Helikon cartridge it would carry) might be familiar to ST as brands, I doubted that he would have direct experience of these exact combinations. I was sure that he’d never have come across either the Michell amps or the Impulse speakers, the latter being a three-way horn design presenting quite a different set of challenges when compared to more conventional box speakers. These are supported on Townshend Seismic Sinks, in part to help prevent transmission of noise to the apartment below.

So much for the "boxes." What about the system’s infrastructure? One of the reasons that I proposed this system for the ASO treatment is that in many respects the system’s foundation elements are already way beyond what you’d generally find, both in terms of consistency across the system and completeness. There’s a dedicated AC line (including a mechanically isolated outlet), a finite elemente HD Master Reference rack along with enough Cerabase and Stillpoints Ultra 5s to support everything, and, last but not least, a complete loom of Nordost Odin cables with Quantum AC distribution. So, no easy fixes or obvious weak points. This system should be singing -- and it wasn’t.

The listening space also presents its own challenges. The system is installed to fire across one end of a long but relatively narrow open-plan living space, 13’ wide. The resulting 8’ listening distance is quite short, especially given the size and nature of the speakers. The décor is modern, with a bare wooden floor, bare walls and no curtains, making for an extremely lively space -- and one that has to be shared with the rest of the family, placing serious limitations on just where the speakers and system can be placed -- familiar issues, particularly in Europe where accommodation tends to be smaller and dedicated listening rooms, media rooms or dens are a rarity. The one saving grace is that being open-plan, the apartment’s total enclosed volume is actually quite large.

The system optimization process starts with a series of phone calls. These are all about establishing the nature of the system and its installation, the listener’s expectations and issues with the existing setup: what music does he listen to, how does he listen, what is he looking for and what is it that he's missing? Of course, the listener may well be happy with his system and just want more of the same. Alternatively, there may be a quite specific issue, or more likely, a sense of general malaise. The fact is, while most of us are aware if our systems really aren’t delivering (what do you think drives the constant upgrade treadmill?) very few of us can put our fingers on the root cause. Identifying symptoms is one thing; actually diagnosing the underlying problems quite another.

But there are other, entirely practical reasons for these reconnaissance calls, not least the instigation of any preparatory work. One of the first topics of conversation is the AC supply. This is crucial to system performance, yet many listeners overlook it or take it for granted. A serious system really requires a dedicated AC feed and that feed needs to have both its polarity and the quality of its ground connection checked. None of this is expensive, especially in the context of even quite a modest system, but it is work best carried out by a qualified contractor and completed before ST arrives on site -- you don’t want to be paying for his time while he watches your electrician running a new AC line or sinking a ground post. At the same time, he will also want to talk to the contractor in advance, to clarify exactly what is required and the hardware to be used. Obviously, in the case of this particular system, he was pleasantly surprised by the existing installation.

The second purpose of the call is to get specific system details as an alert up for any potential weaknesses, allowing him to either bring the necessary items to help diagnose them, or have the system owner obtain any suggested parts on a trial basis from his dealer. Again, note that ST may well make specific recommendations or suggest products for trial, but he won’t actually supply them. He will, of course, intercede with a supplier on the client’s behalf if he is having problems obtaining the necessary loan pieces, but any resulting transaction is between the client and the supplier. Once again, in this instance the system, and more particularly its infrastructure elements, was unusually complete, the comprehensive and coherent array of cables and supports obviating the need for any additional pieces, save a suitable RCA-terminated tonearm cable for the VPI Prime.

The reconnaissance also allows ST to research any unfamiliar products, if necessary contacting the manufacturer for additional technical information. Given that he’d barely even heard of most of the kit in this system, that left him with a lot of reading to do, but it also raised another point. Prior to the arrival of the VPI Prime, the system included an LP12, one turntable with which ST is reluctant to engage, because he’s never been trained by Linn and there are other people who are way more experienced than he is in this regard. Cartridge setup is another matter, but if you want your LP12 upgraded, serviced or the suspension tuned, ST will advise you to deal with an appropriate specialist. It’s refreshing (and unusual) to meet an expert who clearly acknowledges his own limitations.

The message in all of this is clear and not exactly news: forewarned is forearmed. It means that when ST arrives in your listening room, he already has a pretty good idea of what to expect. It doesn’t eliminate surprises, but it definitely reduces them. It also means that his time on site -- the bit you actually get billed for -- is spent as productively as possible, with no hanging around waiting for things to happen or parts to arrive, all of which keeps the exercise as cost-effective as possible.

Stage two: actually working on the system

With such extensive preliminaries before he even arrives, you might well think that all the preparation was complete and that ST would launch straight into system-tuning mode. You couldn’t be more wrong. He actually likens the process to home decoration, where you have to first select your materials and colors, then you clean and prepare the surfaces and finally, you get to apply the paint or paper. The more time you spend on preparation the better the end results. In this case the visit starts with listening to the existing system and more discussion about how it sounds, what it does, and more importantly what it doesn’t do. Once he has a clear idea of what the client is hearing and what he wants, that’s when he finally swings into action, instigating what is now a firmly established process.

Step one is to dismantle the system completely, reducing each element to its constituent parts. In this case that meant removing every piece of equipment and every cable and accessory, laying them out across the floor of the open-plan living space, well away from where the system was installed. It also meant removing the shelves and feet from the rack and packing the LP12 for storage, having first removed the Lyra Helikon.

Now the real work begins, starting with cleaning both the area where the system will be set up and every part of the system itself, from the equipment to the accessories, the individual shelves to the undersides of the rack’s frame. With so many cables and all the nooks and crannies on the majority of racks, the area around and behind most systems becomes layered with dust (not to mention all the bits and pieces that get dropped down the back of the rack and are more trouble than it’s worth to retrieve). The surface of the cables were all cleaned using Nordost’s Eco3 antistatic fluid, and this was wiped over the rack, shelves and equipment casework too, just to retard the inevitable return of the dust layers. The cable connectors and sockets on the equipment were also cleaned before ST started to reassemble the system.

The first order of business was to establish the preferred distribution of the equipment in the rack. Anybody familiar with the finite elemente supports will know just how big a pain it is to alter the shelf spacing, meaning that as elements in the system had changed over the years, the new pieces had been placed where they’d fit, rather than where they really needed to be put for ideal performance and convenience. The existing setup would place the CD player below the turntable, the line stage and phono stage below that and the uClock on the bottom shelf -- which was okay from the point of view of convenience, but left both the Lingo turntable PSU and the Orca power supply on the floor. To further aggravate things, the VPI SDS power supply is considerably larger, especially in terms of width, than the Lingo.

Having assessed the situation and the equipment to be accommodated, ST respaced the shelves accordingly, retensioning the rack’s frame and tightening its horizontal fixings at the same time. The Cerabase feet were reinstalled, ensuring tight contact for ideal mechanical grounding and also to allow easier (and thus more precise) leveling of the rack as a whole. The revised spacing allowed the uClock to sit on the CD player, which might seem counterintuitive until you consider just how little mechanical energy it generates. That allowed the various power supplies to operate the lowest level, thus taking advantage of the rack’s energy dissipation to better deal with these "noisy" system elements.

With the shelves reinserted in the correct order, it was time to place the rack -- the first significant change in the system arrangement. Domestic considerations mandate the basic siting, but whereas previously the rack had been pushed back against the wall, ST now moved it forward, away from the corner as far as possible. This offered two benefits: it reduced acoustic feedback and allowed for superior cable dressing, the extra space giving greater flexibility when it comes to positioning cables and also keeping them clear of the rear wall. It also allowed the QB8 distribution unit to be positioned behind, rather than beside, the rack, a significantly neater and more attractive solution that also allowed for a far more compact and contained AC installation. ST started by installing the power cords, carefully dressing each one (no easy task when you are dealing with the stiff and recalcitrant Odin power cords) and routing it to appropriate shelf.

The next stage was to reinstall the equipment in its revised arrangement, without the Stillpoints couplers at this point, connect and dress the interconnects and speaker cables and get everything powered up to warm through. The power amps were situated separately on a horizontal IKEA unit placed between the speakers. A good example of the kind of preliminary work that can be done is the two bamboo chopping boards on which they are placed. The unusual design of the Alecto monoblocks places the IEC socket on the underside -- not exactly convenient when you are trying to plug in an Odin power cord, with its stiff cable and massive connector. ST had already suggested the use of the IKEA chopping boards, with large-diameter holes cut in both them, and the top of the IKEA storage unit (neatly finished with DIY reflex ports from Maplin, believe it or not), allowing the power cords direct access and maintaining a healthy distance between them and the signal cabling, as well as allowing a more effective use of the Stillpoints Ultra 5s -- but more on that later.

With the electronics back in place and switched on, it was time to turn to the record player and what is really a tale within this tale. If anything demonstrates the musical benefits of extreme attention to detail, it’s turntable setup and cartridge alignment -- and it’s a responsibility that ST takes very seriously indeed, with a regime that makes my borderline-OCD approach look positively slapdash. The Prime is a new model from VPI, combining the simple plinth and separate motor housing of the Scout series with the deep aluminum platter of the Classics and the JMW 10.5" tonearm, complete with 3D armtop. Even the apparently straightforward task of setting up the ‘table involved meticulous examination of every part before the plinth was installed and exactingly leveled. The motor was placed in its initial position, although considerable time was spent on the precise spacing and orientation of the motor pod, with clearly audible results. With the platter and belt installed and the SDS power supply hooked up, the platter speed was set for both 33 and 45 -- something that really is simplicity itself with the VPI supply -- although that too would need later adjustment once the main bearing had warmed up, the motor pod position had been finalized and a record was actually in play. But the lion’s share of the attention was expended on the cartridge installation and alignment.

The first step here was to check the installation of the tonearm, using the Acoustical Systems SMARTractor (which ST brought with him) to confirm the spindle-to-pivot distance, a task made easier by the JMW’s visible unipivot spike. Next, it was time to install the cartridge, set an initial tracking force and 'arm height before establishing overhang and offset. The SMARTractor offers a choice of five different geometries, and the first decision was which to use. This is where those earlier conversations and listening came into the calculation, ST recommending the use of Lofgren B with its punchy, crisp and dynamic presentation in preference to Acoustical Systems’ own UNI DIN curve, a smoother, arguably more coherent geometry, better suited to longer record sides and classical music. It’s another example of how understanding the nuances of equipment, and in particular turntable setup, can match the performance of a system to a listener’s needs or tastes, elevating the performance another substantial notch beyond where mere dogma will reach.

With the 'arm set dead level and having spent an inordinate amount of time establishing precise settings for overhang and offset, it was time to take a listen. Getting this far had already expended considerably more time and care than most people put into cartridge setup -- but believe me this was only first base. The next round of adjustments involved VTF and SRA, both set by ear. The trouble is, cartridge adjustments are interdependent, with any change in SRA influencing overhang, any change in VTF impacting SRA, and any change in overhang altering VTF. In fact, change one parameter and you will change all of the others. So having refined both VTF and SRA, it was back to offset and overhang to correct the damage done -- and so on in a seemingly endless round of repetitive cycles, each complete lap getting the cartridge tip closer and closer to the sweet spot. And that’s all before setting azimuth and dialing in the bias adjustment -- once more all done by ear. (For more on this, you can look at the description of our RMAF 2014 seminar, which covered just this ground.)

The final adjustments are vanishingly small, yet with this degree of geometric accuracy the musical benefits are easily appreciated. Ironically, the closer you get to a solution that is correct in all three dimensions, the more obvious even small deviations become, a fact demonstrated to sobering effect by watching ST work. The reason for that is simple. Poorly set-up cartridges mask massive amounts of musical information and insight. Unless someone has taken this level of time and trouble over your setup, the chances are that you haven’t heard what your cartridge can do -- and its capabilities might well astonish you. How much time and trouble? ST allows at least half a day for a full tonearm and cartridge setup. Translate that into monetary terms and it might seem like a lot of cash -- but just wait until you hear the results. Then consider that you score the benefits every single time you play a record -- and you will be playing a lot more records, believe me. Alternatively, think about that expensive and much loved cartridge you paid all that money for, underperforming every time you try listening to it. Suddenly an ST setup doesn’t seem quite so pricey.

With the final adjustments to speed and motor orientation made, the system was ready to offer up both sources in earnest. But before that could happen, the speakers needed to be positioned and connected. With the speakers previously standing on the Seismic Sink bases, ST was keen to get the Impulse H3s firmly on the floor, not least because it would give him much greater control over precise attitude adjustments. With Stillpoints Ultra 5s available to couple the cabinets to the floor it would have been foolhardy to ignore them, despite the fact that leveling has never been an Ultra 5 strength. Time for a little ingenuity. Using M8-threaded adapters, a set of Stillpoints Ultra Bases were screwed up firmly against the underside of the speaker plinths, leaving enough thread to add an additional, rigidly fixed and extra long 1/4-20 stud protruding from the underside onto which the Ultra 5s could be threaded. The result isn’t exactly out of the Stillpoints playbook, but it works and even looks rather cool.

With the speakers on their now much firmer footings, it was time to get them up and running. The first step was to set an initial distance to the front wall and settle on lateral spacing and basic toe-in. This initial placement is fairly crude and accomplished with an intuitive, symmetrical starting point (established using tape measures) followed by swift changes to position to get a feel for the speakers and the way they drive the room. Once that initial position has been refined and marked, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty, with progressively smaller incremental changes to fore-and-aft and side-to-side location, balancing the sense of space and coherence against the bass weight, speed and definition. The second step was to "correct" the height and attitude of the speakers, getting the cabinets vertical and exactly the same height off of the floor -- with compensatory movement to rebalance the sound.

It hasn’t taken long to describe this process, but in reality it can easily take a couple of hours. Each time you adjust a speaker’s attitude you also alter the relative position of the drivers and boundaries, so once again you are into a round robin of two steps forward and one step back, until you have the speakers ideally placed for staging and low-frequency extension, vertical and equal in height. At this point -- a point at which the speakers are now far more precisely placed than most of those you’ll have come across -- they may or may not be symmetrically placed. But don’t worry -- things are about to get a whole lot less symmetrical than they are now.

The next stage in the setup process is what ST describes as "lobing," and it involves trial-and-error adjustment of the speakers laterally and in terms of rake, a process that seems to focus the musical energy, locking the images into place and the rhythms in time. He describes this as compensating for variations in the drivers themselves, their output, frequency response and dispersion, harmonizing or synchronizing the output patterns from the two speakers so that they mesh more precisely across a wider bandwidth. Whether that’s the case or not (and I’m not qualified to judge), there’s no doubting the effectiveness of this technique. The music becomes more concentrated, focused, dynamic and fluid, better defined, more communicative and far, far more engaging. If the object of an audio system is to bring the musicians and their performance into your room, then this step brings that goal a whole lot closer -- almost reach-out-and-touch close. What’s more, it was no fluke, and I’ve now witnessed this procedure on multiple occasions, each time with equally impressive results. I might not really understand what’s happening here, but ST clearly does, at least to the extent of achieving the desired ends -- and I’m getting there, although I’m also getting ahead of myself.

Once again, this is a lot easier to describe than to carry out. It’s a painstaking procedure where experience counts for a lot, cutting the time required considerably, but even so you can add another couple of hours to the meter. But by the time it was completed, the system was really starting to sing. Reinserting the Townshend super tweeters was, almost literally, the icing on the cake.

The final stage, at least in terms of reconstituting the system, and now that we could hear what was happening, was to reinsert the Stillpoints Ultra 5s. Special attention was paid to the power supplies, both the external ones and the ones inside equipment chassis. In particular, the ones beneath the power amps were repositioned so that they engaged directly with the heatsink and the circuit boards attached to it (rather than the acrylic cover) to pretty dramatic effect. This in turn required further adjustment of the speakers to rebalance the bass, but this was achieved simply by raising them slightly on their Stillpoints feet, maintaining all the other parameters intact.

It was finally time to sit down and see what ST’s (extremely long) day of labor had produced. although not before one final tweak. The bare-walls/bare-floor décor of the apartment is lively to say the least. In another example of forewarned being forearmed, ST had brought a spare rug (robbed from my storage room while I wasn’t looking) and at this point he whipped it out and positioned it in front of the sofa to provide some control of the floor reflection. The result was, once again, far from subtle, adding focus, body, dimensionality and presence to the soundstage, warmth and intimacy to vocals. The rug in question was a hangover from a hi-fi show where it had been used to dress a room. IKEA strikes again!

Enjoying the fruits

To say that the performance of the system had been transformed is a serious understatement. Tot up the total invested and it comes to a considerable total. Now it sounded like it was delivering on every last penny. But you don’t need to take my word for it. Let’s see what the owner thought.

"The electronics and speakers in this system have been the same for what must be twenty years and I can honestly say that they’ve never sounded anywhere near as good as they do now. Before we remodeled the apartment, the system was halfway down the living space and facing the other way, a position where it always sounded satisfyingly punchy, with plenty of presence. Reinstalling it after the building work was a shock. Musically it was all over the place, disjointed and incoherent -- but worst of all, it was really uneven, particularly at the bottom end. Some discs sounded great, while the bass on others sounded really thin and gutless or totally overblown and detached.

"Along the way, I’ve made some big changes to the rest of the system. The old setup used the finite elemente rack, but I’ve added a dedicated AC supply, the Stillpoints and upgraded my old Nordost Valhalla to Odin. The CD player was replaced with the dCS and the final change saw the back of my elderly LP12, which had almost fallen out of use. Each time I made one of these changes I could hear benefits -- some of them really impressive -- but they never solved the problems of the system as a whole. It was almost as if the better one aspect of the setup got, the more it attracted attention to the weaknesses elsewhere.

"Those days are done and I actually find it hard to believe that I’m listening to the same system, the same collection of electronics cables and ancillaries that I was before. What Stirling has done is take all of the strengths in the system and bind them together into a single, musically powerful whole. Whereas before I used to pick my way through my collection, looking for discs that wouldn’t cause problems, now I can play anything. Each disc, each record is a whole new musical experience. Now I spend my time enjoying the music rather than worrying about the system, and for the first time in years I’m actively making time to listen to my music. I’ve never played so many records and can’t remember the last time I enjoyed them so much, while CD has never sounded so good.

"It’s hard to really understand how apparently tiny changes can have such a huge effect. The only way I can describe what has happened is to think of the system as a stack of ingredients on the kitchen table: I could make a meal out of them. A better cook than I could make a better meal, but Stirling is like a chef with three Michelin stars -- just without the attitude! The kids even love the rug, although the missus isn’t so keen. What did this minor musical miracle cost? Around the same as a single set of three Stillpoints Ultra 5s -- or considerably less than one of my power cables. Bargain -- this is the most cost-effective audio upgrade I’ve ever made. It hasn’t just allowed the system to deliver everything that I always wanted it to, it has taken it way beyond what I thought was possible."

Those comments occurred around a month after the system had been optimized, giving it chance to settle in and the first flush of the new to dissipate. As I was writing them up, the phone rang again. It was the system’s owner. "I just wanted to say that since we spoke I sat down for another listen and I think I’ve undersold what Stirling did. I can’t believe how absolutely brilliant the system is sounding!" That pretty much tells the story -- well, that and the fact that not a single item has been added to or changed within the system since ST’s visit. That’s actually three months and counting at this point in time -- and for this system it’s pretty much a record.

I think it’s also worth making another point. Transformed really isn’t too strong a term to describe what happened here. You can tell that from the owner’s reaction. Yet those results were achieved without recourse to any acoustic treatment -- one IKEA rug aside. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m not saying that acoustics aren’t important. What I’m saying is that it’s remarkable how far you can take a system without resorting to acoustic treatments, just as long as you do it right. But more than that, you should always take the system as far as you can before applying acoustic solutions, because it will minimize the cost and complexity of any acoustic solution -- as well as minimizing the chances of getting it wrong. Often, we’re way too quick to blame the room for the poor sound of a system when attention to detail and proper setup could easily improve things immeasurably.

Work-in-progress: installing the CH Precision monoblocks

After the full system rip-down already described, you would probably assume that the second task I’d set ST would be rather more straightforward. After all, how difficult could swapping out one pair of power amps for another actually be? In this instance I’d been driving the Wilson Benesch Endeavour loudspeakers with my Berning Quadrature Z OTL monoblocks and it was time to replace them with a pair of Wilson Benesch’s preferred CH Precision A1 amplifiers, clever beasts that are user configurable for stereo, biamplification or bridged mono operation, all via the front-panel controls and display. Once again, not just the amps and speakers but the rest of the system was going to be a whole new experience for ST, including the Kuzma Stabi M turntable and 4Point toneamr, with which he’d be installing the Allnic Puritas cartridge.

I’m not going to run through the step-by-step procedures in detail again -- because a lot of them are basically the same. One of the biggest mistakes this industry makes is the "change one thing and one thing only " mentality it adopts towards product comparisons. If you want to hear what two different power amps sound like, then that is going to mean checking and almost certainly adjusting the speaker position for each amplifier. Change the amplifier and you will almost certainly change both the damping factor and bottom-end character of the system -- factors that will impact directly on the speakers’ interaction with (and thus placement in) the room. So speaker positioning varies with amplifier and, assuming that your speakers are positioned optimally for your existing amp, changing the driving unit mandates repositioning the speakers -- at least if you want to hear what is going on. The scary thing is just how few dealers or end users appear to be aware of this. Arguably even scarier is that exactly the same logic applies, albeit to a lesser degree, to changes elsewhere in the system.

I needn’t have worried. ST immediately pointed out that swapping the amps would necessitate repositioning the speakers as well as redressing/reassessing the cabling arrangements due to the changed layout of the sockets. Throw in the cartridge setup (which in turn necessitates checking, cleaning and leveling the ‘table) and in his view it was worth releveling the rack from scratch and working through the cables from front to back -- or, in other words, pretty much reinstalling the whole system -- just to get some new power amps and a new cartridge up and running. That might seem like an extreme proposition, but it was music to my ears. Here was somebody who finally takes system setup and optimization even more seriously than I do.

The system was duly dismantled, the elements and environment cleaned, along with all the connections and then the whole lot was reinstalled, including the new power amps. In turn, that meant working through the different wiring options before settling on the biamped topology. Having gotten the system up and running, it was then left to warm through while the cartridge was installed and initially aligned. With that task painstakingly completed -- you don’t want to know how long was spent just leveling the turntable -- it was time to work on the speaker positioning and to witness once again the full ST placement procedure, an exercise that extracted previously unsuspected levels of musical expression and vitality from the CH Precision amps.

Both the Allnic cartridge and the Kuzma tonearm were new to ST, but having spent time working with it, I think it’s safe to say that he is now besotted by both the sound and the engineering of the tonearm, while I have discovered a level of resolution and dynamic expression in the Puritas that I never thought was there. I’d always had it down as delivering a big, broad and deep soundstage coupled to slightly soft dynamics and warmth that reminded me of RCA Living Stereo recordings. ST’s exacting approach to setup extracted a level of precision, insight and authority from the cartridge that moved it several steps up the performance ladder by bringing a greater sense of spatial coherence and dynamic integrity to the picture, an anchored sense of musical purpose that was previously lacking. It hadn’t changed its character or gained the sort of sure-footed agility and articulation that typifies a Lyra, but it was definitely doing what it does a whole lot better -- as if previous setups (and turntable/'arm combinations) had musically diluted its performance.

With the Allnic cartridge reveling in its new home and encouraged by all the care and attention lavished on it, the CH Precision amps displaying an enthusiasm that seems almost at odds with their severe exterior and Swiss DNA, the system was really singing. It was a salutary lesson in the realities of audio reviewing and setup, demonstrating just how far a reviewer can shortchange a product’s performance if he (or she) doesn’t take the requisite care to give it every chance to perform. Whether it’s a product that’s new to you or one that you’ve become familiar with, the corrosive effect of complacency is frighteningly audible. Having briefly auditioned the CH amps simply dropped into the slots previously occupied by the Quadrature Zs, the gulf in sound quality between that initial listen and the end result of ST’s exhaustive approach underlines the stark fact that any review is only as good as the care that goes into its preparation and setup. If you want to judge a product’s performance, then you’d better make sure that you are hearing all the performance it can deliver.

As a reviewer, I find there’s always more to learn and most of it is learnt from the manufacturers who install their products in your system. Which raises an interesting point: as valuable as ST’s ministrations are to end users and audiophiles who just want to get the best from the systems they already own, his skills are just as applicable to reviewers. There isn’t an audio commentator writing who wouldn’t benefit from brushing up his technique, honing his setup skills or just having his thinking challenged by a close encounter of the Trayle kind. Come on, guys -- it’s not just a responsibility; it’s an investment in your qualifications and professional standards.

Surprise package -- just how low can you go?

As a review project, the logistics of getting ST to the UK and presenting him with two such different contextual challenges was a challenge in itself. But having witnessed the results firsthand and in known system situations the experience forced me to confront an additional and in some ways far more fundamental question: how expensive does a system have to be before it becomes worth investing in professional system optimization?

A third system visit was duly arranged at short notice, a setup of quite a different character -- and cost. The owner, a DJ and one-time record-store proprietor, is a music lover first and an audiophile not at all. He has a respectable system, assembled over the years and featuring a range of high-value budget esoterica. Front-ends are a VPI Traveler with a Grado-based Cartridge Man Music Maker cartridge, a Sinaudio Moon 260D CD player and a Denon TU-260 tuner, the latter vital for discovering (or rediscovering) "new" music. Amps are Chinese-built tube units. My influence can be seen in the presence of a basic Quadraspire Q4 rack, a set of entry-level Nordost cables that are at least consistent right through the system, and a pair of loaned Ars Acoustic Diva stand-mounted two-way speakers -- oldies but goodies that pair basic drivers and a simple crossover with one-piece, molded, mineral-loaded polymer cabinets. All told, it represents a healthy step up from starter systems, a mix of old and new components with a heavy emphasis on performance over price and typical of many of the real-world systems in real-world audiophile homes.

With time pressing on an unscheduled visit, ST devoted a little over half a day to optimizing cartridge setup, leveling and restacking the rack, cleaning the connections and above all, repositioning the speakers -- all within the confines of a domestic setup that severely limited his freedom of action, especially when it came to giving the speakers room to breath. But once again, the musical results proved remarkable. I could run through the benefits again, but it’s so much easier to simply quote a few of the text messages that flooded in from the ecstatic owner over the next few weeks.

"Just played the Rave Ups -- ‘Radio’. Sensational! Chico Hamilton Quartet now. Crisp!"

"Looking forward to another night in -- MUSIC."

"Got home at four-ish today and pleased to knock off. Fixed a large bourbon and sat back to enjoy Mario Biondi. Bloody ‘eck, what a sound. How did they do that?"

"Not sure how I can improve on this -- please thank Stirling again!"

I could go on, but the message is simple and clear: after the ST treatment the musical performance of even this modest system was transformed -- as was the owner’s musical enjoyment. That’s what this is all about: music and extracting as much of it as possible from even relatively modest components. Like many systems this one is a bit of a mixed bag, assembled over time from various sources. The total price, even factoring in the recently acquired VPI ‘table and Simaudio Moon CD player, is well the right side of £10,000 and as a single-source setup, you could probably get close for around £5000 if you shopped around and bought a few parts secondhand -- as many audiophiles do. Yet even in this modest context, professional system optimization isn’t just effective, it’s cost effective too. Could I have recommended a thousand-pound upgrade that would have achieved the same musical results as ST managed in an afternoon? Not even close.

High-end audio’s dirty little secret

Experiencing Stirling Trayle at work is exciting, enlightening and worrying in almost equal parts: exciting because of the extraordinary results he achieves; enlightening because those results are the result of an utterly systematic and repeatable process; worrying because of the spotlight they throw on how this industry and its customers conduct business and make buying decisions. We have arrived at a point where individual boxes have become preeminent and their combination into effective systems (and the techniques and knowledge that allow it) has become a lost or forgotten skill. If high-end audio is all about the pursuit of performance, we have collectively taken a major wrong turn and now are rushing Lemming-like towards the cliff of irrelevance while a chorus of panicked voices scream a warning -- but no one can find the brake pedal. If the musical results that I’ve described seem unlikely, perhaps it’s time to examine just how we have arrived at a situation in which poor setup crippling system performance is so widespread that it has created the opportunity for independent system optimization in the first place.

There are lots of reasons for it, not least the financial pressure on manufacturers and retailers to make any sale -- not necessarily the right sale. But those who stand as opinion makers and thought leaders are also responsible. The peculiar significance of reviews (and you only have to look at the attention they attract to understand that, like them or not, trust them or not, they loom large in the collective audio consciousness) in turn reflects the structural peculiarities of the audio industry itself. A hobby that’s become a business, myriad small manufacturers have relied on the specialist audio press to carry (and carry out) their marketing. It’s a world where sales strategy seems to extend as far as build it, get it reviewed and wait for the orders to roll in, so it’s not surprising that reviews dominate the thinking of manufacturers and the magazines that survive on their advertising. That emphasis has in turn created a readership that craves reviews to guide or endorse their purchasing decisions and dealers who demand them as sales aids.

But what it has also done is shape the discussion and create a situation in which the review has become the gold standard when it comes to audio commentary, the individual product has become the focus of attention and the solution to virtually all system issues is perceived or expressed in terms of replacing one or more of the individual components that comprise that system. We’ve all become increasingly product focused (obsessed is such an ugly term) and reviews have been a big part of that process -- yet it’s a perspective and attitude that makes less and less sense the more you look at it. The simple fact is that you can’t listen to an individual component and it’s almost impossible to define its specific behavior or nail down its contribution in anything other than a clearly defined system context. We own and listen to systems and systems are what we build -- but we obsess over individual components. Yes, those individual products are the building blocks that we use to construct a system, but they don’t define it -- in the same way that the types and tonnage of concrete blocks and the steel reinforcement used doesn’t define a building. That’s the product of how those ingredients are combined -- and in exactly the same way, the sound of your system actually depends less on what’s in it and more on how it’s put together.

The very fact that a statement like that is so contentious, likely to extract a fulminating explosion of indignation from many a reader, tells you just how far down the individual product/review dependency path we’ve traveled. But before you dismiss it, let me ask you this: how much time and effort goes into setting up a Formula 1 car? The engine is always the same and so is the suspension and bodywork. The kit of parts stays virtually unchanged from drawing board to track, yet it’s the tuning of all the different elements, the way that they are balanced and combined, that produces the incremental increases in performance that get a car to the front of the grid -- and make the difference between being the winner and being nowhere. Audio systems are complex, performance-orientated, electro-mechanical constructs. A high-end system is just as intricate and critically balanced as any racing car -- and it takes just as much expertise and experience to extract its maximum performance. The problem is, you can’t measure an audio system’s progress with a stopwatch.

You can read the reviews, select the various components and assemble the whole in your listening room. That’s the equivalent of getting the parts off the drawing board and bolting them together for the first time. If it were a car, then it would start, stop and turn corners. That’s about as far as you’ve taken your hi-fi system at this point. Now is where the work starts -- the work that makes a car go fast and a system makes music. Making that car go really, really fast -- faster than anything else on the track -- takes more than just genius design and engineering. It takes an awful lot of work, expertise and experience. Extracting every last ounce of performance from your audio system is just the same: making a noise is easy, making it better than that isn’t too hard -- but making it sing, really sing, sing like a choir of angels, that’s really, really hard. That work, that expertise is the hidden element in system performance, the invisible factor that we all ignore, the inconvenient truth that undermines the notion that huge price tags guarantee results -- and it’s unavoidable! You can’t get over it, around it or pretend it doesn’t exist. DSP doesn’t eliminate it and close enough isn’t even close to good enough. Time to suck it up and look reality in the eye.

But it’s not all bad. The good news is, the system you have is probably capable of sounding way better than you ever thought possible; it just needs to be treated to a little TLC. When it comes to pampering your expensive (or not so expensive) audio system, I can’t offer a better or more cost-effective solution than Stirling Trayle and Audio Systems Optimized -- the musical results quite literally speak for themselves. Once upon a time we all relied on audio dealers to perform the setup and tuning of our systems. Indeed, and as I’ve already explained, that (and the opportunity to hear components before buying them) is exactly what we paid them for. But in these days, when every sale seems to be sealed by a discount, it’s hardly surprising that so few dealers are willing to or capable of performing this vital task. The sales model talks in terms of adding value to the purchase. I’d go further than that; it’s the setup that defines and delivers the actual value in the purchase. The sad truth is that the vast majority of audio systems can and should sound better than they do. It’s people like Stirling Trayle and the service he provides that are the proof of that proposition. He’s not alone and as time passes we’re going to see the role and value of the system optimizer becoming more widely recognized. At the moment system optimization is still flying under the audiophile radar, but the more people who benefit from the results, the more audiophiles who finely have their expectations realized, the greater the demand is going to become.

But why wait? You have an expensive investment sitting there and I’d be astonished if it isn’t underperforming. You may think that your system is the exception to the rule, but even if it is, wouldn’t you like to be sure? The sooner you hear just what your system is really capable of, the sooner you start to realize the true value of your investment.

As the importance of setup and system optimization slowly regains the center of the audio stage, those dealers who still provide the service required will profit -- and those that don’t won’t. For audio retailers, it’s time to shape or ship out -- but don’t worry, ASO can offer dealer training too. Even so, the world has changed and an increasing number of audiophiles rely on unsupported sales, secondhand or from the Internet. Combined with the installed base of existing systems crying out for attention, that means that professional, independent system optimization is here to stay -- and as any spaghetti western will tell you, if you are going to hire a gun, you’d better hire Clint. The best available setup is the best and most cost-effective audio investment you can make -- and the best setup I have heard comes from Stirling Trayle of Audio Systems Optimized. If you’ve spent more than $5000 on the equipment in your system, it deserves his attention. He doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t wear a poncho, but he is quiet, unassuming and he definitely gets the job done. In a world where there are no silver-bullet solutions, Stirling Trayle’s setup and optimization skills are the nearest thing I’ve experienced to a product worthy of universal recommendation.

Price: From $1500 plus expenses.

Audio Systems Optimized
(707) 494-5482