One of the well known tendencies among dedicated music listeners is the urge to upgrade components in the quest to attain better sound quality. The conventional way of going about this is to upgrade key components like source components, amplifiers, cables and speakers. However not everyone has the coin to upgrade major components on a regular basis. Fortunately, there are other more affordable ways to squeeze better sound quality from your existing system other than upgrading major components and that is by acquiring tweaks that either help your major components perform better or by improving the acoustics of your listening room.
Tweaks have come a long way since the days when claims that painting the edges of your CD with a green marker was considered by many to be a legitimate way to improve compact disc sound quality. Over the past couple of decades, tweaks have gained in popularity quite exponentially. The positive impact of this is that it has prompted many more manufacturers to enter this arena thereby offering music listeners an ever-greater range of tweaks to choose from. On the negative side it has prompted many charlatans to also enter this growing segment of the market with offerings that amount to little more than snake oil.
In fact some of the audio tweaks being sold are so brazenly fraudulent, I can’t help but be amazed at the chutzpah of the charlatans behind them. One of the more daring examples of this is an attempt to sell a jar full of pebbles of different colours, which the sellers claim, improve the sound quality by just placing the larger pebbles around your listening room and by taping the smaller pebbles to cables and other components. The claim is that the pebbles have highly symmetrical crystals that address specific resonances and which absorb RFI and EMI that pollute the audio signal.
Another equally brazen attempt to sucker consumers are small metallic cups and sculpted objects made from exotic woods that claim to improve sound quality when placed in strategic spots around the listening room. These are sold at obscenely high prices, which I assume is part of the marketing ploy to get consumers thinking that something that costs so much has to be effective.
When looking for audio tweaks, you would be well advised to compare the option of adding tweaks to the cost of upgrading the component. For example, if you plan to add tweaks worth $500 to your $1,500 amplifier, you have to compare it to the option of upgrading to a $2,000 amplifier and carefully evaluate the performance of the two options to see which one gives you bigger bang for your buck. This means that you need to deal with a retailer that allows you to try both options before pulling the trigger.
Another rule of thumb to be cognizant of is the difference that the tweak makes to the overall performance of your audio system and then factoring in the price of the tweak to gauge if it really does deliver good value for money.
Some tweaks are priced low enough to become impulse purchases where you feel that it is so cheap, you can take a chance on them and not have too much of buyer’s remorse if they underperform or prove to be duds. You usually get dinged for tweaks of this sort at audio shows where you see fancy audio gear at obscene high five-figure prices and amidst it all you find these tweaks that do not even break the three figure barrier, which in comparison looks like chump change.
Let me give you my experience with a few tweaks that I have tried in my own system, which I feel, have had a positive effect on the sound quality and are worth the price I paid for them.
The first of these are acoustic panels and bass traps. The former is to trap the early reflections from the side walls and the latter is to tune the bass response of your room acoustics. Both these tweaks are made by Inity Acoustics, a Toronto based pure Canadian operation that caters to professional recording studios and consumers.
The acoustic panels measure 2 feet by 4 feet by 3.5 inches. I used two panels on each of the side walls using a mirror to determine their position. I sat in the sweet spot while a friend moved a mirror along the side wall and marked the positions where l I could see the driver units of the speaker in the mirror. The panels were placed in those spots.
The bass traps measure approximately 2 feet by 4 feet with a 12.75-inch depth from the middle of the facing side to the corner. They can be mounted on top of each other and can be ordered in custom sizes to fit the ceiling height of your listening room. The panels have a sturdy wood construction, are filled with rock wool and covered in a dark brown fabric. I used two bass traps in each corner to provide floor to ceiling coverage.
When measuring the low frequency response of my listening room with my Pyle Sound Level meter, I had a stubborn dip at the 30 Hz and 70 Hz frequencies. I tried numerous methods to even these out with limited success, but installing the bass traps corrected those dips right away.
The combination of the acoustic panels and the bass traps made an easily discernable difference to the sound quality that I heard from my audio system. The sonic image solidified and gained in clarity. There was a significant reduction in the smearing of the sound and the bass became more tuneful and played deeper.
Many music listeners assume that since bass traps absorb a lot of low frequency signals, there will be a reduction in the intensity of the bass sounds that you hear. While this may well be the result in some rooms, in my room the bass received a boost because the bass traps, in absorbing some of the bass frequencies, actually reduced the amount of cancellation that hitherto occurred in the low frequencies resulting in more rather than less bass.
Given the very reasonable prices of the bass traps ($130 each) and the acoustic panels ($60 each), I would recommend these tweaks to anyone with a rectangular listening room that has an uneven response from 20 Hz to 120 Hz.
The bass traps from Inity Acoustics are well built and have a very utilitarian look. If you prefer to attain more accurate bass response in your room while also giving your room a more polished and sophisticated look, albeit at a higher price, I would recommend the Super Bass Extreme (SBE) model from Vicoustics. These are made in Portugal and distributed in Canada by Charisma Audio. They have a very elegant wood front and are available in five different finishes.
Unlike the bass traps from Inity that work based only on absorption, the SBEs are designed to be Helmholtz Resonators and so are tuned to absorb frequencies from 60 Hz to 125 Hz with the maximum absorption occurring between 75 Hz and 100 Hz. The front panel has non-linear sequential cavities to achieve the right proportion of absorption and diffusion. The inside of the SBE consists of a membrane, two high-density foam layers and a micro-perforated rear panel. The advantage of this sophisticated design is that you get excellent bass control without making the listening room sound dead. The SBE units retail for around $300 per piece and if you choose to stack them, you will need the Vicoustic stackers which sell for around $120 each.
Both, the Inity bass traps and the Vicoustics SBE did a great job in controlling the bass response of my audio system to deliver tight, deep, visceral and very tuneful bass in my room. The latter however had an exponentially more sophisticated and elegant look and was a tad more effective in getting closer to the ideal bass response because of its ability to tune the bass to a finer degree.
The next tweaks on the agenda are cones from Vibrapod and Black Diamond Racing (BDR). First up I tried the unbelievably affordable Vibrapod Cones. These cones can support up to 25 pounds each and can be used with their ball bearing facing up or down, though I found it performed better with the former. They help reduce the amount of room and rack vibration that reaches the audio component. The ball bearing siphons energy away from the chassis and transfers it into the cone that is made out of materials that absorb the energy. With the Vibrapod cones in place under all my audio components, I could detect a small but easily discernable increase in detail and a quieter background.
If you have a mid-fi or an entry level high-end audio system in the $2,500 to $7,000 price range and have a very limited budget for tweaks, you owe it to yourself to try out the Vibrapod cones which at $8 each, have got to be one of the best bargains in all of audio.
If you would like to achieve even better performance than the Vibrapod cones, albeit at a significantly higher price, you could consider the BDR cones. The retail price on these is $60 for a set of 3 cones. They are made from a composite of carbon fibre (which has five times the tensile strength of steel) and an aerospace grade resin and have an amazing crush point of 10,000 pounds each. These cones can be placed directly under your audio components or secured with screws which offer even better coupling to your component chassis.
BDR cones are offered in two different versions; the Mk3 cone is tailored to lend a warmer sound and stronger bottom end while the Mk4 version is designed to deliver better treble extension. The two versions can be mixed and matched to get the result that is most pleasing to you. BDR recommends that the pointed end faces the surface that has the most resonance.
My experience with these cones was that they made a bigger difference in every component that I tried them under. However, the biggest differences occurred when used under components with moving parts like CD players and turntables.
It was easy to detect a blacker background, which in turn revealed more details and greater dynamic contrast in the music. I could play the music at a much lower volume level without losing micro details and the overall sound was a lot cleaner.
Although not as cheap as the Vibrapod cones, the BDR cones are still very affordable and well worth their price. When used with components with moving parts, don’t be surprised if the result is comparable to upgrading that component to a level or two higher.
Let us now move to a tweak that has many music listeners rolling their eyes in disbelief, the wall duplex AC receptacle. Most hardware stores sell these at ‘dime a dozen’ prices or to be more precise, a dollar will probably get you two or three of these. So does it make sense to switch these out for the premium receptacles that cost 100 to 1000 times more?
I was a skeptic myself so I decided to put these to the test, fully expecting to reveal that these were just snake oil. I started out with the PS Audio Power Port Classic that retails for $50 per receptacle. Hubble builds this hospital grade receptacle to PS Audio specifications. It can handle 15 or 20 amps and has fifteen coats of polished nickel over high-purity brass to ensure more resistance to corrosion and provide a superior grip of your AC plug.
It could well be because I had such low expectations, but the difference this tweak makes, took me by surprise. The reduction of the grunge in the sound was so noticeable, at first I could not believe that it was the receptacle that made the difference so I switched my system to a generic receptacle and then back to the Power Port model and the difference was as clear as day! Colour me converted!
The next step was to try out receptacles further up the food chain in the $100 to $200 category. Here, I could hear further improvements but they were only marginal and so my conclusion is that beyond the $50 price point you get into diminishing returns.
Is it worth the money? If you look at it from the point of view that even with a $50 receptacle, you are paying around 100 times more than a generic receptacle, it does seem like a lot of coin. However if you compare it to other tweaks in the $50 price range, you will be hard pressed to find another tweak that will give you more bang for your buck than the Power Port Classic.
Finally, I decided to check out another tweak that many music listeners scorn at, which is power distribution boxes. I have to admit that I too regarded so called premium power distribution boxes as just dressed up power bars at obscene prices. I had to admit I was wrong when I reviewed the $300 ‘Testament’ from Audio Sensibilities. This component made such a significant difference to the sound of my system, I had to admit that generic power bars were a major weak link in the audio chain and so I decided to explore what was to be had further up the price ladder for this category of components.
Numerous letters from readers pointed me to the WyWires Power Broker. This unit is a totally passive power distributor with no active conditioning of the power at all and it still carries a hefty $2,500 (with silver HC power cord) price tag, which is enough to get you a true high-end amplifier, so I wondered what so many of my readers saw in this product despite it’s sticker shock price. And if you think that this is expensive, let me lower the boom with the price of the upgraded version with the Gold HC power cord and 2 Bybee high current purifiers, which retails at a near cardiac arrest inducing price of $3,900.
The first thing that struck me about the Power Broker is its incredible solid ¾-inch hardwood/maple finish that is non conductive and non magnetic and which WyWires claims, has natural resonance damping properties. The box is handcrafted by Daedelus Audio, known for their loudspeakers with beautifully crafted cabinets. The Power Broker represents wood craftsmanship at its best but, I’m not one to judge a book by its cover and so I proceeded to investigate if the value offered by the Power Broker is only skin deep.
Embedded in the box, I found very well designed receptacles that are custom made for WyWires and designed for high tensile strength for better contact pressure on the pins of the cables that are plugged into them. The wiring inside is asymmetrical Litz wire made of pure copper and wrapped in two layers of unbleached cotton enveloped in PTFE to reduce the inductance. The geometry is asymmetrical with differing signal propagation properties between the hot and neutral poles, which corrects the phase angle of the incoming AC signal.
Partly justifying the steep price is the fact that the Power Broker comes with its own ten AWG per pole (seven AWG in total) Juice HC power cord, which is hard wired to the unit. Bought separately, this cord would set you back by around $500. Like the internal wiring, this power cord is also wrapped in unbleached cotton and housed in a PTFE tube. The receptacles are all wired independently from each other to prevent cross interference. The main unit rests on a separate wooden base that is constructed of pressure-laminated maple and which sits on brass spikes. This base adds another layer of resonance and vibration absorption.
So let’s go from brass spikes to brass tacks. Does the Power Broker contribute anything positive to the sound quality? The short answer is, well beyond what I was expecting. Through the Power Broker, the dynamic range of the music widened quite appreciably, the sonic image and soundstage snapped into sharper focus than I have hitherto heard from my reference audio system and tonally it sounded a lot closer to a live performance. Overall, the sound reproduction was significantly cleaner and more relaxed, which reduced the fatigue factor quite a bit.
The fact that it is totally passive gives the Power Broker a jump on some active power conditioners that restrict current. However it is important to note that this unit does not incorporate any form of surge protection, which is a feature that you will find even in some of the very cheap power bars. This was done intentionally because incorporating it would have restricted the delivery of AC power to your audio system.
Is the Power Broker worth $2,500? Now that is a really difficult question to answer. Is the Bentley Mulsanne automobile worth over quarter of a million dollars? For something as subjective as this, you need to listen to the Power Broker in your system and judge for yourself. Thankfully WyWires has a 5-year warranty plus a 30-day money back guarantee, so if the Power Broker does not meet your expectations you can simply return it for a refund.
The tweaks I have reviewed here are just a fraction of the tweaks that are available in the sphere of high-end audio. What I can tell you is that once you get into the world of tweaks, it is so much fun, that it can become quite addictive. So, fair warning. Step into this world with caution but do step in, because if you don’t, you are missing out on one of the great pleasures of this wonderful hobby we call high-end audio.