Tips, Tricks & Info

Why we do what we do, and why you should care…

The Home Music System

“Our system” “my hi-fi” “the stereo.” These are terms people use to refer to the machinery used to play back recorded music in the home. Generically, a music system is an assemblage of electronic and electromagnetic component parts into a whole designed to present recordings and broadcasts of music for the pleasure of listeners.It can be as simple, I suppose, as a boom-box, although the idea that a “system” can be made up of one device is a bit of a stretch, or more like a shrink. Here the boom-box serves us better as the base line, the device easily demonstrated to be insufficient to support listening to music. At the other end of the spectrum, a music system can be as involved as a dedicated room filled with the most arcane examples of the audiophile designers’ art that appears to the newcomer as though a mad scientist has brought his lab home with him.

Let’s briefly explore what makes some people drawn toward the latter- the rarefied heights of the hierarchy- and why a healthy injection of it into the lives of all lovers of music might be a very good thing.Do you have a passion? I don’t mean for a person/people, your work or sleep. I mean, do you have something you can’t wait to do in your free time? It might be cooking, or playing tennis, or reading novels, or cycling, or wine. Anything you tend to be way more attracted to and absorbed in, not to say obsessed with, than the “average person,” whoever that is.

For me, ever since my late teens, my biggest passion has been for “listening to music.” I realize that someone looking at the primary place I do this, my “listening room,” might observe that I am an audiophile, or even a budding mad scientist. And someone looking at the spare bedroom upstairs might think I am a record collector. But I am a self-described music lover, and part of a sub-species of music listener who prefers recordings to concerts, all things considered. I  have chosen to do what I do for a living partly because it so deeply involves my love of music as a listener, and, while many who meet me express a degree of envy that my work looks like play to them, there are those who insightfully wonder if I ever burn out on music. The answer is I do not. I am still, more than thirty years into it, likely to come home from a work day and turn on my music system for more.

Why? Listening to great recordings on a well set up, high resolution music system does something to me that no other experience does. It transports me to other worlds, instantly both strongly evoking past memories and emotions while opening up new and inspiring insights into the arts and humanity. It connects me more deeply to who I am at the same time as it shows me similarities with and differences from others. And sometimes it just forces me to stand up and dance (which I do terribly and in private) or sing (which I do only reasonably and sometimes, unintentionally, in public). I love what it does to and for me, how it makes me feel. And when I am away from it, I crave it. It’s pretty much the same story with all of us here at Ultra Fidelis.

So how can our mania help you? The difference between a music playback system that fails to excite the music lover in you (here comes our boom-box) and one that does boils down to what I call “The People-In-The-Room Phenomenon.” That is, the ability of the playback system and recording to convince you that you are sharing your listening space with living, breathing performers, in other words that there are “people in the room” with you. For any given music lover, there is a line, albeit a fuzzy one, on the other side of which this phenomenon occurs, and, once it does, the music changes from background to front of mind and becomes a wholly participatory experience. When the degree of realism to the sound of the system is sufficiently great, you become almost involuntarily caught up in the music. It’s as if your brain is telling you that it would be impolite to ignore these musicians who have shown up to perform for you. You better pay attention! Of course this doesn’t mean you can never multi-task with a great system playing music, letting the music waft in and out of your primary focus. But it can be challenging!

I had a younger couple in the store recently. They drove quite a distance as he is a long standing customer who has moved away, but remains a loyal supporter. She is his wife whom he married since he moved and whom I had not met. The purpose of the visit was to audition a pair of speakers for a possible system upgrade path, and they both sat on the couch- he in the center, where the sound is most engaging, and she beside him, intent on catching up on some work on her smart phone. They brought some music on the trip, but not his usual batch of go-to familiar recordings for an audition, so we played some of their music and some of ours. For a little over an hour, we listened and talked. Initially, while the music was on, she appeared to be working away. He would listen intently, and we would discuss what we heard, and then listen some more. At the end of it, he felt sure he wanted to make the change to their system at home, but he asked her if she too had heard improvements. She immediately indicated she had. In fact, she said, it had prevented her from being able to concentrate on her work, so she had simply put it down and listened. She summed it up by saying the sound, “caught my breath and made me just want to listen to the music.”

Bear in mind that this couple has a very nice music system at home that sounds wonderful. For all practical purposes, we had replicated it in the store except for the speaker change. Their experience at the audition, hers in particular, demonstrates how important this fuzzy line between boring sound and great sound is. At this audition, it wasn’t fuzzy at all. They had both crossed back into the realm of listening to music with fresh ears and full excitement quotient, she without even intending to. There were, once again, people in the room.

It is a constant source of amazement, and pleasure, to me, both in my own experience, and observing friends and customers, to see the effect of listening to music on a really good, properly set up system. The mind can really dig into the music when the sound is so good there is no need for the brain to figure out what’s going on. Every nuance of composition, performance and musicianship is instantly much more apparent to even the most casual music lover. The seemingly complex, abstract language of music is unveiled in all its glory and with a direct pipeline to your emotions. It is debatable whether the greater benefit of this is the joy in rediscovering familiar, well-loved music, or the thrill of the door thrown open to the whole world of new experiences in new genres, but any way you slice it, it is life-changing.

Here is where you come in. You don’t need any special talents or tools to discover what kind of music system is right for you. All you need is the desire for it in your life. You simply come in to the store, perhaps with some favorite music (but we have quite a bit on hand if you don’t), and listen. We will be your gentle tour guides on the amazing journey to find those people hiding in your room at home and bring them out to perform for you. You just decide how much of it you want, something at which we have some significant expertise in helping you determine, and then our team comes to your house and makes it happen. Simple and painless!

Our experience tells us that setting up a pre-arranged time, perhaps even when we are closed to walk-in traffic works best, but if you are more comfortable just walking in, we certainly understand. Any way you choose to do it, we look forward to joining you and providing the support on your personal musical exploration.

-Jonathan

 

How to “Hear the Difference” in The Home Audition

Just Like the Pros Do It 

It is only natural to think of the home audition as The Shootout at the Hi-Fi Corral. You borrow an audio or video component you are considering adding to your system from your friendly, accommodating dealer and bring it home for a few evenings’ A/B comparison. Something like this ensues: bang, bang, bang; back and forth you go disconnecting, reconnecting, cueing up the same five seconds of Bazzini’s “Dance of the Goblins” where Itzhak Perlman sounds like a 33 rpm record played on 78. The optimal test of transient response and inner detail. Your preamp, the one you borrowed; your preamp, the one you borrowed. Okay, now where’s that Telarc 1812 Overture for the bass test. Oh, yes, and the sound pressure level meter to make sure the volumes are dead-on matched between the two. Dang! Forgot to do that with the Bazzini so I guess that was time wasted. Wow, this is a lot like work. But you owe it to yourself if you’re considering shelling out bucks to make listening to music or watching movies more fun, right? After all, this is how the magazine guys do it, no? Compare one component to The Reference on cut after cut until they can distill a description of how the review component sounds. Heck, sometimes they have three or even four components gathered around for the Ultimate Shootout! Maybe you should go borrow some more preamps so you can blow the whole weekend with this audition thing and be done with it once and for all come Tuesday.

What am I Doing Wrong? 

Would it surprise you if I suggest that this technique leads to disappointment and disillusionment? Well, it very likely will. Observation shows that what results is usually expressed something like, “Well, gee whiz (to maintain my “G” rating). I’m more confused now than before I started this whole process.” And why would your semi-scientific approach lead to confusion? Shouldn’t it produce a decision-cinching clarity? Either a thumbs up or a thumbs down? Actually, no.

There are a few holes in the theory and the most glaring to my way of thinking is that the A/B comparison tends to put you in the wrong frame of mind, dare I take it as far as saying the wrong side of your brain, to make decisions about how you relax, recreate and enjoy audio and video arts. Think about the last time you had to take a test and how little mental space you had left before and during it for distractions. Like music. Yet you are putting yourself in much the same situation when you perform a series of quick, or even extended, A/B comparisons with your music or home theater system. To the further detriment of the process, A becomes the reference against which B is judged and B serves the same function for A. Throw a C and a D into the mix and you’ve got a Dodge City rife with the opportunity for everyoneto end up with a bullet through the heart at your Shootout. Even the judge, you. Because you are no longer testing the components. You are testing you.

And the harder you try (I call it “squinting your ears”), the farther away the answer seems to get. This is because this part of you, the test-taking you, with it’s number-crunching analytical approach, it’s performance anxiety/flop sweat and it’s deafness to the power of music can’t produce a result so you begin to shut down and lose faith that an answer even matters any more. “If my friend/my spouse/the writers for the magazines/the folks at the hi-fi shop can hear it,why can’t I? There must either be something wrong with me or this is all a bunch of nonsense. I say it’s nonsense!” No, dude. It’s you.

A Solution: Pretend It’s Too Late!

But how else can you do it? Rip up the exam, storm out of the classroom bidding a satisfying farewell to your anxious test-mates and free yourself from the chains of scrutiny. From the moment you leave the shop with the “device no longer under test,” make believe you already own it. Decision made, money spent, no looking back. You now have x amount of time to simulate the ownership experience at home in your system. No giant comparo extravaganza, no inviting friends and neighbors in to quote chapter and verse of what this reviewer said about that piece or doesn’t it clash with your furniture, and NO A/B! Your existing component sits in the closet for the duration.

Here’s the deal. The piece you own has already had months if not years to ingrain its contribution into your mind, your subconscious, your music-listener self. You may not even know you know “how it sounds,” but you do. Simply take it out of your system, PUT IT AWAY, and insert the loaner. Remember, you “already own it;” there is no reason to compare it to your old one which is now “retired.” You are tricking your analytical brain into thinking it no longer has a role to play. Let the sound of your system with this new component in it wash over you and worm its way into your subconscious, just as your old one did, for however long you have it in your possession.

When it’s due back at the shop, remove it and return it without hooking up your system again with the old component first. Go to work, go to school, go on vacation. Do not rush home “while the memory is still warm” and hook up your old system! We are trying to get as far away from the A/B as we can, remember?

When you are ready to listen again, you’re going to have to reinstall your old component. Do it. Do you still enjoy the music? No squinting! As much? In different ways? Are you still happy? Heaven forbid are you happier? You’ll know, believe me.

Some of our happiest customers never have needed a home audition. I know that sounds like heresy to you and you could never live that way, but it’s true. One lucky soul has upgraded his entire system within the last three years, one piece at a time, without ever once bothering to try something at home first. But he always calls within a month to tell us all the enlightening changes which have taken place and how much more he’s enjoying listening. Now that’s an audition result anyone should want.

 

Why Everybody Needs a Good Subwoofer…

…And Why a Really Good Subwoofer is so Hard to Find

Audiophiles and music lovers are missing out on one of the most dramatic improvements they can make to their audio system: Powered Subwoofers. Most audiophiles won’t even use the word “subwoofer” in public, let alone plug one in to their precious systems. There is a kind of snobbery that exists in the world of high-end audio aimed primarily at receivers, car audio, home theater and especially subwoofers. As a matter of fact, subwoofers are responsible for many people disliking both car audio and home theater, since it is the subwoofer in both of those situations that tends to call attention to the system and cause many of the problems.

The truth of the matter is that subwoofers have fully earned their bad reputation. They usually suck. Most of them sound boomy, muddy and out of control with an obnoxious bass overhang that lingers so long as to blur most of the musical information up until the next bass note is struck. We have all had our fair share of bad subwoofer experiences, whether it’s from a nearby car thumping so loud that it appears to be bouncing up off the road, or a home theater with such overblown bass that it causes you to feel nauseous half-way through the movie. You would think that high-end audio manufacturers would be above all of that, but you would be wrong. In many cases, their subwoofers are almost as bad as the mass-market models because they too, are trying to capitalize on the home theater trend that is sweeping the land.

You see, it’s very difficult and expensive to build a good subwoofer. One reason is that a sub has to move a tremendous amount of air, which places big demands on the driver (or drivers). Moving lots of air requires a lot of power and that means an amp with a huge power supply, which can cost huge money. Finally, in trying to move all of this air, the driver (or drivers) which operate in an enclosure, create tremendous pressure inside of the box itself. The cabinet walls must be able to handle this pressure without flexing or resonating. Building such a box involves heavy damping and bracing which gets very expensive. When you consider these requirements, you quickly realize that it is virtually impossible to build a really good subwoofer (I mean good enough for a high-end music system) for under $1000. Yet most of the subwoofers out there sell for between $500 and $900. Manufacturers do this because their marketing research has shown them that that is what people want to spend on a sub, never mind the fact that what people want to spend and what it takes to get the job done right may be two different things. The result is that even most high-end manufacturers are putting out poorly constructed subwoofers that just don’t sound very good.

I don’t want to give you the impression that anyone who really wants to can build a good subwoofer so long as they are willing to throw enough money at the problem, because that really isn’t true either. There are some pretty expensive and well-constructed subwoofers out there that you would never want to plug into your music system because they would most certainly make the sound worse. Why? Because of their crossovers. A crossover is inserted into your signal path in order to remove the lowest frequencies (the deep bass) from your main speakers so that they no longer have to do all of the dirty work. The deep bass will instead be dealt with by the subwoofer. The #1 benefit of adding a high quality subwoofer to your system is not how it further extends the bass response, but how it can dramatically improve the sound of your existing power amp and main speakers from the midrange on up. That, my friends, is by far the most compelling reason to add a sub to your high-end music system. Once your main speakers are freed from the burden of making deep bass, they will sound cleaner, faster and clearer, especially in the midrange and midbass. They will also image way better because there will be far less air pressure and therefore resonance and vibration affecting their cabinet walls. And since the power required to make the deep bass is provided by the subwoofer’s built-in amplifier, your main power amp will be free from that burden and begin to sound like a much more powerful amplifier. The one big problem with all of this is that you need a crossover to roll off the deep bass in your system and achieve all of these benefits. And the crossover that comes with almost every subwoofer on the market will cause more damage to your signal than can be overcome by these benefits. That is the main reason that audiophiles refuse to consider adding subwoofers, even very expensive ones with well built cabinets.

Enter the Vandersteen 2Wq 300 watt powered subwoofer. This is the only subwoofer that is specifically designed to be inserted into the highest of high-end music systems without doing any harm to the precious signal. So how does Vandersteen do it? Simply. In fact his crossover scheme is so ingeniously simple that it’s a wonder nobody else thought of doing it the same way. I’ll spare you an in-depth description and just say that the only thing you end up inserting into your system is a couple of high quality capacitors. That’s it, nothing more! No additional wires or gadgets enter your signal path. Hell, you don’t even have to disconnect the wire between your amp and speakers to add this subwoofer. The model 2Wq sub uses the same basic crossover scheme as the $15,000 flagship Model 5As. As a matter of fact, you can even run the specially designed Model 5A crossovers (M5-HP) with the 2Wq if you want the most transparent sound imaginable.

So what about the other reason to add a subwoofer to your system: for more powerful and extended bass? I don’t care how big your main speakers are, they’re no match for a good subwoofer in the bass. A really good subwoofer can run rings around the best floorstanding speakers when it comes to bass extension, power and control because it is designed to be good at that and nothing but that, whereas main speakers have to be good at higher frequencies as well. Ideally, you want two subwoofers so that you have true stereo separation down deep into the bass. Stereo subs can also help to lessen room interaction problems by providing two discrete sources of bass information. Remember, if you can’t afford to buy two subwoofers at once, you can always add the second one later. Adding a pair of 300 watt powered subwoofers is exactly like adding a pair of 300 watt monoblock amplifiers to your system and upgrading to a pair of better main speakers at the same time. The beauty is that you don’t have to replace your main power amp or speakers to do it.

But there is a problem here as well. Everything comes at a price, and the price you pay with most subwoofers is that when you add them and their built-in amplifiers to your system, they don’t tend to blend or integrate well with the sound of your power amp and speakers. This is especially true if you own a tube amp, because the character of your amp is nothing like the character of the big solid-state amp that is built into most subwoofers. The result is that your system sounds split in half. You can hear where one part of the system leaves off (namely your amp and speakers) and where the other part takes over (the sub and its amp). This is a HUGE problem for audiophiles who aren’t willing to destroy their system’s coherence for additional power and bass extension. Fortunately, Vandersteen has the perfect solution for this problem that is, again, so simple, I wonder why nobody else thought of it first. His solution is to build a very powerful 300 watt amplifier that strictly provides the huge current needed to drive the subwoofer. You can think of this amplifier as only half of an amplifier; or just the power portion of an amplifier. The release of this power is controlled by the signal that is provided by your power amp. Vandersteen’s amplifier needs a voltage to modulate its current output, and what better place to get that voltage than from your main power amp? This way, your power amplifier is directly responsible for the sonic character of the deep bass coming from the subwoofer because it provides the necessary voltage signal. This voltage signal contains the unique and characteristic sound of your main power amplifier and insures that that character is maintained in the sound of the subwoofer itself. The beauty of it is that your amplifier is only providing a voltage reference and no actual current, so it is not taxed with the burden of “driving” the subwoofer in any way. As a matter of fact, your amplifier doesn’t even know that the sub is connected to it. The 2Wq’s potential is almost unlimited given that it will ratchet up its performance as you improve your power amp. Remember that you always want your subwoofer to sound just like your power amp. No better, no worse. NO DIFFERENT!

After having spent time with the amazing Vandersteen Model 5A loudspeakers with their 400-watt powered, metal cone subwoofers, we were reminded of the sound we had with the awesome Audio Research Reference 600 mono power amps. With the Ref 600s there was a sense of effortlessness, openness and unrestricted dynamic freedom that we have only otherwise heard with live unamplified music. Listening to those monstrously powerful amps made us realize that all other systems sound compressed by comparison. Only when we heard the new Vandersteen Model 5As with their hugely powerful built-in subwoofers, did we again have a strikingly similar sonic experience. The reason is that the Model 5As provide a total of 800 high-quality watts, to which you have to remember to add the power of the amp we were using, the ARC VT-100, at 200 watts. This means we were listening to about 1000 total watts of amplifier power – not far from the 1200 total watts provided by the Ref 600s. With the Vandersteen subwoofer crossover and amplifier, you are able to get those hundreds of subwoofer watts to blend seamlessly and even take on the character of the ARC VT-100. It’s amazing! What’s even better is that the price of the system with the Model 5As and the VT-100 is under half the cost of the Ref 600s alone! Since this discovery, we have achieved the same kind of unbelievable dynamics and seamless blending with ProAc loudspeakers and twin Vandersteen 2Wq 300 watt powered subs. So, if you want the sound of Ref 600s but cannot afford them, buy a pair of Model 5As or your favorite pair of ProAcs plus a couple of 2Wq subwoofers and mate them with a VT100 and you’ll get surprisingly close. You can cut the cost even further by running a pair of Vandersteen 2Wq 300-watt subwoofers with your existing speakers. Or mate a pair of 2Wqs with your favorite ProAc. In any case, it is the magic of SUBWOOFERS that allows this to happen. It is for all of the above reasons that there is only one subwoofer in existence capable of integrating seamlessly into a high-end music system, allowing you to reap all of the benefits of having a subwoofer, with none of the drawbacks. And the Vandersteen 2Wq is the one. And just in case you think I am a biased source, our correspondent Blaine Peck (who, for all you know is also a biased source) recently wrote the following, with no discussion between us about the topic prior to his sending us his comments. Whether reproducing the plucked string of an acoustic bass or the sound of an analog synthesizer, the Vandersteen 2Wq subwoofer is a seamless extension of any system. Nothing else need be added! With its internal 300-watt power amplifier, it is the perfect compliment to any sound system. Designed to take on the characteristics of your main stereo amplifier, the amp in the 2Wq will not sound foreign in your system. Also, through an extension of the Vandersteen design philosophy, a unique gradually sloping crossover system is implemented so you simply do not know where your main speakers stop and the 2Wq begins.

Now that your main speaker/amplifier combination need not concern themselves with those power demanding low frequencies, they are freed up to work in a more comfortable range. Yes, now what is coming from your main speakers will sound better than ever.

The 2Wq is not just another subwoofer. It consists of three 8″ floor-facing drivers, each with a massive motor. So why not a more typical single 12″ or 15″ design? Well frankly, the mass of a larger driver will not allow it to respond as quickly as the Vandersteen 8″ drivers to today’s demanding recordings. The 2Wq’s 8″ drivers are designed to handle the content but be “fleet of foot” at the same time. Concerned about where to put them? You need not worry. With the control of both its respective level and the “q” (how loose or tight the low end is) you have the flexibility to place them in a location that fits your living environment and not sacrifice performance. The simple beauty of this product will soon become an addition to your room.

So whether on orchestral music, hard rock or something in between, the Vandersteen 2Wq will exceed your expectations.

Cable TV Induced “Ground Loops”

Ultra Fidelis Troubleshooting Tip

Cable Television Induced “Ground Loops”

At Ultra Fidelis, we do everything we know how to do to deliver a “better audio & home theater experience” and our objective is to provide entertainment systems that consistently perform at their peak. Unfortunately, there are some elements of this experience that are largely beyond our control and this bulletin addresses one of those elements: the cable television ground loop. We hope you won’t have the misfortune of experiencing this phenomenon first hand, but forewarned is forearmed.

All cable television companies are required, by the municipalities that grant their operating franchises to properly ground their systems. In simple terms this means that any extraneous electricity must be routed away from the signal before it enters the subscriber’s home. This is not a difficult feat to accomplish, but when the subscriber connections are not properly grounded, the result can cause some very bothersome side effects in audio and theater systems. These side effects often do not appear until after a properly grounded plasma panel, LCD display, projector, or sound system has been installed in the home. The most common manifestations of a poorly grounded cable system are rolling horizontal bars on the video display and/or a constant hum from the audio system. We are finding increasing evidence that this is a fairly widespread problem and that the average cable television technician has neither the training nor the instruments to properly diagnose and correct the problem.

When the symptoms described above are observed, it is pretty easy to ascertain whether or not the cable television system is the culprit: simply disconnect the cable box(es) from the rest of the system. (This is as easy as unscrewing any and all cable TV connections in the room with the problem from the wall jacks.) If the symptoms disappear, the source of the trouble is obvious. We realize that dealing with some cable operators can be a frustrating test of patience, but unfortunately this problem is best addressed at its source and is usually easily remedied once responsibility is accepted. Ultra Fidelis can advocate on our customers’ behalf, or take measures to mitigate the problem when the cable company just won’t respond, but these additional services do involve some additional expense.

 

Glossary of Terms

Glossary of Terms

A discussion of simple solutions to common problems ranging from bi-wiring issues to recommended warm-up tips for those idle amplifiers; issues that can cause significant degradation to the enjoyment of your system and the beneficial practices that eliminate them. Note that the problems occur exponentially more frequently in systems which you have set up for yourself than ones which we have set up for you…

  • Bi-wiring (Cables, Speakers, & Amplifiers)   Talk about counterintuitive. How does my amp know how many sets of cables I’m running from it? Or my speakers how many I’m running to them? And why would they care? The truth is theydon’t know or care. It’s the cables themselves that do. Bi-wiring is a technique to make two sets of cables sound better for the same or less total expenditure than a single-wire set-up. How does it work?By removing detrimental low frequency (bass) energy from the cables carrying the delicate voice and imaging signal to your midrange and tweeters and, to a lesser extent, providing a similar dedicated path to the woofer(s). There are three ways one band of frequencies can negatively influence another in a speaker cable: in the conductor (metal) itself, by electromagnetic infiltration, and mechanically (physical movement).True bi-wiring (running one set of cables from your amp’s output terminals to a low frequency input on your speakers and another set to a high-frequency input) eliminates all three and should significantly increase clarity, openness and definition in your sound. So much so that adding the two prices of those cables and running single-wired for the resulting total price should still sound worse. And therein lies the benefit: the price/performance ratio improves.What’s going on? A bi-wire ready speaker (one with two sets of inputs) lets you move the crossover (electronically, not physically) from inside the speaker after the speaker cable to back at the output of the amplifier beforethe speaker cable. The speaker’s separated filters will then draw only highs down the top cable and only lows down the bottom one yielding a substantial performance improvement in your cables. Let’s imagine a tweeter with its filter in Chicago, a woofer with its filter in Minneapolis and an amplifier here at Ultra Fidelis in Milwaukee. The filters would telegraph their actions back to Milwaukee and only highs would head south on the wire to Illinois. Likewise, only bass would go north to the Twin Cities.Caveats? Be careful mixing brands or philosophies of cables. A cable with “nice highs” mated with a different one noted for “great bass” all too often results in an unhappy marriage which sounds less good than either one by itself. Keep all cables the same length. Many speaker cables can be “internally bi-wired” within one cable package and this can be a nice, cost-effective improvement over standard termination. Just remember that, although you have eliminated the interaction within the conductors, you have done much less to address the other two distortions which are cured by true bi-wiring.Finally, while any amplifier can be used in a bi-wire setup (there is no such thing as a “bi-wired amp” although some kindly offer two sets of output connectors or extra long-throw binding posts), make sure your amplifier can accommodate the additional wire or we can terminate your two sets of cables into one connector.
  • Break-in/Burn-in   These terms are used to describe the initial “coming around” of a new system or component to its final state of wonderfulness. It is good to bear in mind that ALL components when new are inferior in sound and picture quality to what they will be someday so it is a mistake to evaluate new components or systems for performance.Play them as much as you can at first and cut them the slack they require until they are “matured.” Some may take one playing-month to finish the process. Remember, too, that if you don’t listen/watch for three weeks, the system will have fallen back towards this rude, new state. Don’t make us relate the somewhat embarrassing story of how we learned that SpeakerCraft speakers could go from sounding rather mediocre to become the best value in-walls we had ever encountered just by benefit of break-in. EVERYTHING needs it.See also “Warm-up”.
  • Direction of Cables   Why are there arrows on my wire? Doesn’t the music know where it’s going? This is one of those dicey ones that engineers love to argue about.Let’s just say there are things about the manufacture of a quality audio cable that enable a designer of a wire product to suggest a preferred orientation of the cable. There, everyone should be happy with that. Hard core engineers will continue to scoff and run their arrows pointing every which way and we’ll continue to follow the arrows because back last time we compared, it really was better that way. Noticeably so.As a guide for you arrow-followers, the arrows should point FROM the earliest component in the chain (usually a source component like a CD player) THROUGH all preamplification and amplification TO the speakers. And yes, if you’ve been running them backwards, please see “Break-in/Burn-in”.
  • Phase   Ah, phase. When the many requirements are properly met, all is right with your sonic world. One little thing is wrong, however, and it will eat at you to no end. The short description of correct phase is that all speakers are moving in the same direction at the same time as the original microphones. Wow, that IS short, isn’t it? Well, it suffices because, after you’ve bought your equipment, a lot of your Phase Future is already determined for you. What you CAN control is the hook-up of speakers to amplifiers which is your one big opportunity to get it wrong.Simply put, if your RED or POSITIVE or PLUS (sometimes marked as a positive number on a tube amplifier) connector on your amp is connected to your RED, etc. terminal on your speaker on ALL channels, you will (99.99% of the time) have correct relative phasein your system meaning all speakers will be working in concert. Get one or more wrong, and things go bad pretty quickly. And it’s amazing how easy it is to mess up a multi-channel hook-up if your attention lapses.By the way, the reason for the parenthetic percentage hedge above is that there is the rare amplifier which inverts what’s called absolute phase which means that in order to follow the Law of Mimicking the Microphone you must purposely hook up any speakers to it backwards (plus to minus and minus to plus)! We almost hesitate to mention this rare exception because the only time it really bears on the sound of your system is when you are using more than one amplifier in your system and they differ as to absolute phase, e.g. your front channels amp does invert and your rear channels amp doesn’t or you’re bridging an amp for your center and you don’t know which red is now positive. Be very careful in any of these situations to get it truly right.
  • Phono, Preamp   Where do I plug my turntable? The reason your amplifier or receiver doesn’t have a button labeled “phono” is that there is no phono preamp on board. Does this mean you cannot use a phonograph? Yes. And no. Although turntable and record sales are experiencing a boom in the last several years, they nearly became extinct about 1990. As manufacturers of audio electronics moved toward a new market driven by “home theater”, they had to cram a lot more stuff into the same old receiver cabinet: Dolby Pro Logic and other surround sound processing, three more channels of amplification, and video (picture) signal switching. With only a small, and at the time, shrinking portion of their customers listening to vinyl, they made the decision to bump the phono preamp from the list of “features” on your average audio preamplifier or receiver. This made for a more cost-effective unit in a marketplace no longer demanding phono, but what does it mean for you and me, the rest of us who do want to play phonograph records? Like most things in life, it is both good and bad.Unfortunately, no matter what turntable you have, you must have a phono preamp in your system in order to listen to records. The only exception to this would be an ancient (and deplorable) ceramic-cartridged turntable. If you have one of these, replace the machine with something decent. Assuming your turntable or the one you plan to purchase, has a magnetic cartridge of some sort, you need a phono preamp for two reasons: The signal cut onto the record has had its bass decreased and its treble increased and one of the functions of a phono preamp is to undo those modifications. If the sound were cut onto the record in a linear fashion, without the above mentioned “equalization”, the bass would eat up so much groove space that the LP would be an SP of about 3 minutes duration. To get truly Long Play and great sound the bass has been reduced and the treble increased to get it above the noise in the medium (vinyl) which tends to be predominantly in the treble. The phono preamp is where the “re-equalization” takes place: increase the bass and reduce the treble so the sound returns to its normal tonal balance.The second function of the phono preamp is to additionally amplify (make louder) the signal coming from the cartridge. Because phono is the only sound medium wherein the “reader” (stylus, needle) is mechanically driven by the medium (record groove), it produces relatively less output than other media such as radio tuners, tape machines, and CD players. The other function of the phono preamp, therefore, is to “preamplify” the delicate sound signal an additional step before it goes into the line preamp section it then shares with all other input types.So you may gather by now that if you plug your turntable into any of the existing inputs on your new amplifier, you’ll get a squeaky, raspy, bass-shy sound that is barely audible even with the volume almost full up. You may even have tried it. It won’t work. Are you dead in the water? No. Fortunately the boom in interest in vinyl of recent years has brought about a new component: the outboard phono preamp. As its name implies, it is a standalone device that is positioned between your turntable and any non-phono input of your amplifier in the flow of the signal. In other words, your turntable plugs into it and it plugs into your preamp. It performs the necessary equalization and gain to make the phono signal at its output electrically the same as any other signal you feed into your line preamplifier section of your system. Voila! Now anyone can play records again.How much, you say? The good ones start around $120 and stop around, well let’s just say you could spend the price of an entry-level automobile on one if you were so inclined. What you get for more money is noticeably better sound, as you’ll hear what the quality of the phono preamp contributes to your listening enjoyment. Something in the range $120 range, plus $30-$50 for a good cable to run from it to your preamplifier should be adequate to make you fall in love with records again, or for the first time. You can climb from there as your ear, turntable, system and wallet permit.
  • Room Acoustics   Rooms tend to sound the way they look. Small rooms have smaller, more intimate soundstages while large rooms can support bigger images that are life-sized. If a room has mostly hard surfaces (i.e. wood floors, glass, marble, drywall, etc…) the sound will usually be harder, brighter and more lively but with less image focus. By the same token, a room that is dominated by softer materials (i.e. carpet, pillows, drapes, fabric covered couches, acoustic ceiling tiles, etc…) will sound more quiet and soft with less dynamics but more focus and clarity. The best rooms tend to be somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, with a mix of hard and soft materials.There are also ways to improve the sound of any room by strategically positioning the hard and soft materials so that they help rather than hurt. A good way to start is with the “live end – dead end” approach in which you want the listener end of your room to be more live while the speaker end should be more dead. Just remember that surfaces close to the speakers should be absorptive or at least diffusive so as to prevent strong reflections from interfering with the direct sound of the speakers. The areas at the back end of the room can be more reflective in order to balance out the room sound. If you follow these guidelines, your system will sound lively and dynamic while maintaining good image focus and a natural tonal balance.
  • Speaker Positioning   Chapters of books, sections of owner’s manuals (see Vandersteen’s for a good one) and computer programs have been written to aid in this black art of system optimizing. If your speakers are already attached to or mounted into the wall, you can go on to the next topic. If you have any range of placement options at all, well, there’s no easy way to describe the lengths to which you can go to tweak speaker placement. First, refer to your owner’s manuals and follow any general placement instructions as closely as you can. Absent any, most designs will prefer a reasonable distance, say a foot minimum, between the back of the speaker and the wall behind it. The included angle of you to the two speakers should be roughly 60 degrees.Now experiment by moving one speaker at a time, with the other one off, and going back to the listening position to check for a warm, extended, linear bass region handing seamlessly over to a coherent, open midrange. Don’t worry too much about the treble at this point. With your eyes closed, listen for where the one speaker “disappears” most convincingly. Now shut this one off and do the other one. Generally, you will want to start with it the same distance from the wall behind as the other speaker and move it mostly laterally.Finally, follow any instructions in the owner’s manual as to tilt, toe-in and the like or experiment with these as well. You might have a (hired) friend rotate one speaker at a time (with the other one off) slowly until you like what you hear and then slowly tilt it back or maybe even forward, although back is more likely.Here’s where you can start paying attention to the treble; listen for a sound that is neither bright nor dull and makes you relax, makes you like what you hear and informs you most about the recording. If you get each speaker doing this independently, you will have guaranteed magic when you have them both on. Plus, when you get one really right, you can typically just match the other one to it with your eyes for rotation and a plumb line for tilt. Trust your gut reactions during this process. I’m sure I have customers from the late ‘70s who are still moving the same pair of speakers around the same room looking for Nirvana (I know Vincenzo is) and have yet to enjoy any music.
  • Spikes    Yes, they will look to the disinterested friends and relatives in your life as if they were designed specifically to eat up floors and carpets, but with the proper treatment, they don’t and the good they do for your sound and picture would far outweigh any such damage anyway.If you are on carpeting, they are a must for speakers and strongly suggested for equipment racks, but they are almost equally beneficial on hard surface floors. In both cases they act to usher signal-degrading vibration away from the equipment and into the floor where it can harmlessly dissipate. For non-carpeted applications, we sell Spike Shoes which interface between spike and Valuable, Imported, Exotic Floor Surface without corrupting the performance of the spike.
  • Warm-up   See “Break-in/Burn-in”.Warm-up is the “coming around” of a system to its daily state of wonderfulness after not being used for a day or two. There is no known cure for this need other than playing time, so if you feel picky today, play something for an hour or so before you really want to pay attention.

Glossary of Product Categories

am·pli·fi·er

An electronic device used to increase an electrical signal. Power amplifier is the name applied to the last amplifier in the audio chain, used to increase the line-level signals to whatever is necessary to drive the loudspeakers to the loudness required.

pre·am·pli·fi·er

Preamplifier is the name applied to the first amplifier in the audio chain, accepting inputs from low output sources such as CD players, tape recorders, turntables, etc. The preamplifier increases the input signals from tape-level, for instance, to line-level.

line stage

A line stage is a preamplifier without a phono section.

phono pre·am·pli·fi·er

Turntable pick-up cartridges output signals at much lower levels than other sources. The phono preamplifier increases the phono signal to a higher level. Records are encoded and need to be decoded. This pre and de-alteration of the signal is done according to a standard called the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) curve.

dig·i·tal com·po·nent

A device used for reproduction of sound stored in a digital format.

cross·o·ver

A component that divides an audio signal into two or more ranges by frequency, sending, for example, low frequencies to one output and high frequencies to another. An active crossover is powered and divides the line-level audio signal prior to amplification. A passive crossover uses no external power supply and may be used either at line level or, more commonly, at speaker level to divide the signal after amplification and send the low frequencies to the woofer and the high frequencies to the tweeter.