Tweaking the Light Fantastic - Aaron Marshall Investigates Some Effective and not so Effective Tweaks

      Date posted: February 26, 1999

Black Diamond Racing Cones

      High end audio gets away with murder. By the standards of the non-audiophile, most of the stuff we buy, and what we pay for it, can be explained only by a form of selective dementia affecting us in all areas having to do with reproduced sound. How many other industries cater to a demographic as fanatical, as restlessly compulsive, and as willing to suspend its collective disbelief? The answer may lie in another question: How many businesses are charged with selling something as slippery and unquantifiable as the aesthetics of sound?

      In high-end audio the rules which govern the realm of normal consumerdom do not often apply. While mid-fi and mass market gear tends to be sold based on common and easily quantifiable factors like price, abundance of features, and reputation, the high-end hawks its wares with an avalanche of subjectivity, with lures which are less easily grasped but far more enticing to the truly addicted audiophile. Features? Value? Ha! Wrong end of the store pal. This stuff is sold with something you can’t see on the spec sheet; the promise of soul stirring musical experiences in your very own home, of music which bears no trace of its reproduction. Once these sonic fruits are tasted, and the passion and dedication with which many audiophiles pursue them understood, the concept of loudspeakers costing more than luxury sedans begins to seem, if not sane, at least conceivable.

      Venture a little deeper into the high end’s lunatic fringe, however, into the innocuously named world of audio accessories, and things get downright perverse. By normal consumer logic when mature adults are spending substantial sums of money on cones, stones, pucks, wraps, sprays, and phosphorescent discs to be used in conjunction with their stereo systems something is terribly wrong. In high end audio it’s called tweaking, and it’s pretty popular.

      Many would dismiss tweakery outright, claiming indiscriminately that all such products (which often seem to have little or no rational explanation and little, if any, perceived value) are tantamount to snake oil, the people who use them gullible rubes, and that the whole business just contributes to the high end’s image as a hobby for insane, obsessive madmen more interested in the quest for some holy grail of sonics than in enjoying music. The Continuum of Tweakery

      While this may be true in many cases it’s unfair to most serious audiophiles. Like most things tweaks and tweakers occur in degrees; or for purposes of convenience here, on a continuum (see graphic). Starting at left, or zero, is the practical, logical, inexpensive and often home made tweak, which may not involve purchasing anything at all; like floating the ground on your amp to avoid hum or putting tennis ball halves under your equipment for a little budget isolation. Somewhere in the middle are commercially available but seemingly logical and reasonable tweaks which don’t cost a ton of money and aren’t impractical or inconvenient to use. Our own Audio Ideas Imagers are a good example: cheap, effective, easy to understand and, once installed, can be forgotten about. At the far right (from seven to ten, say) are expensive, impractical, arcane tweaks which, if their alleged effects can be explained at all, are explained in very nebulous terms dealing more with the timbral signature of a violin or the placement of the soprano in your soundstage than with any understood acoustic or electronic theory. In other words these tweaks are so mysterious and so unusual that they require serious suspension of disbelief. More often than not these are what I call audio placebos, improving the sound only in the listener’s mind. I would put products like the Bedini Clarifier in this final category (see my review in Vol. 17 #1)

      As a tweaker I would place myself somewhere on the left side of the line. I’m inherently skeptical but when faced with a weird tweak I do my best to try to decide with my ears rather than with a sense of predestined impossibility. In other words I try to refrain from muttering things like “this can’t possibly work”. My approach is more like “I don’t fully understand why this should work, and the supplied literature is pretty lame (and it usually is - see below), but let’s see how it changes the sound.” Besides, my job is to tell you how it sounds, not to delve into a deeply technical speculation of what’s its doing or not doing.

      With all this in mind, let’s look at some tweaks which have been piling up at the AIG offices over the past few months.

Harmonix RF-11 CD Tuning Sheets: $22 (CAN) for a package of 8 Harmonix Tuning Sheets

      The first of several CD-specific tweaks Harmonix RF-11 tuning sheets are thin, adhesive-backed pieces of plastic meant to be stuck on the label side of a disc. Although largely transparent (allowing you to read the label once applied) the sheets have green rings around their inside and outside circumferance and four, evenly-spaced cross shaped cut outs.

      What is sticking a sheet of plastic to the backside of my CDs going to accomplish, you may well ask? Well, according to the back of the package (the only available literature) the sheet “helps achieve the full musical potential of the compact disc format by eliminating resonances and jitter induced by the CD drive mechanism and airborne vibrations.” Upholding the grand tradition of audio accessory literature this explanation is not only confusing and vague it’s so awkwardly worded that it reads like a bad translation (which it most likely is). The cardboard flap goes on to say that with the RF-11’s stuck to a disc “the music reproduction becomes sweet and pure, free of hardness often associated with CD sound… extraordinary clarity, greater delineation of individual instruments and voices, and expanded sound-stage presentation.” Hot dog! They’ve found a way to make a CD sound like an LP!

      While the explanation of how they work might be frustratingly vague it’s easy enough to conclude that weighing down a spinning object may, if done evenly, smooth and steady its rotation, and in the case of a CD, make it easier for a laser to read information off the disc.

      Listening tests helped justify relatively central position on the continuum for the Tuning Sheets, revealing a very subtle but audible improvement in sound. Using a couple of sets of identical CDs (A Koss Classics edition of Beethoven’s Ninth [KC 1003], which I happen to have in duplicate, and our own Test & Reference CD) I placed a sheet on one disc in each set and alternated back and forth between the bare disc and the CD wearing a sheet. Drums became a little tighter, transients and dynamics a little more lively, and, true to the promise made on the package, the delineation of instruments did marginally improve. It must be kept in mind, however, that these improvements were on a very small scale, equivalent perhaps to the difference between two digital interconnects. In other words, it won’t make your CDs sound like good vinyl.

      As for practicality and ease of use, there are worse (see below) but I’d say the likelihood of yours truly spending the better part of a day applying very expensive stickers to 300 odd CDs is roughly equivalent to that of AM purchasing a Radio Shack rack system and a stack of Kraftwerk albums this weekend. As for the money, I think it would be better applied elsewhere in your audio system or your music collection. If you’re still keen to try these things consider one more thing: most car CD players will likely react negatively to CDs which are even slightly thicker than they should be. My life lesson in this involved a delightful hour with a pair of tweezers contorting myself in various ways inside AM’s car. On the continuum of tweakery these rate a 6.5

QR Design Statmat $US 40.00 ea.

      From one piece of plastic to stick on CDs we go to another. This time, however, both the goal, and the approach, are different. From the makers of the highly effective Ringmat (one of the best and easiest turntable tweaks extant) the Statmat is a very thin slice of polypropelyne film coated with a pattern of conductive inks which is meant to sit on the label side of CD while it plays. Unlike the Harmonix sheets it is almost weightless, non-adhesive, and is meant to be used and re-used with whatever disc is playing. Statmat

      The stated goal of the Statmat is easy enough to glean from its name: to discharge static electricity from the CD as it plays. The conductive inks, we are led to assume, dissipate the charge into the air. Just as it is easy to see why the Tuning Sheets might help stabilize a spinning disc, it is logical enough to assume that the Statmat may help reduce or eliminate static electricity from CDs. However, while one may be able to infer that smoothing disc rotation may reduce reading errors, and therefore digital jitter, the assumption that a static charge is harmful to CD playback strikes me as less sound, if you’ll excuse the pun. As for how static electricity could effect the reading of pits off a spinning CD, I’ll leave that question to the electrical engineers and physicists among us. Needless to say the suspension of disbelief factor on this one is higher than with the Tuning Sheets.

      Listening tests did not dilute my skepticism. Spinning various discs with the Statmat alternately on and off the CD in question produced mixed results. After several runs with both Chris Isacc’s Wicked Game (Reprise CD25837) and Casandra Wilson’s New Moon Daughter (Blue Note CDP 532861) I actually thought that the CDs sounded better without the Statmat, giving up more detail and a smoother more neutral sound in their naked form. Moving on to other types of music I could hear no discernable difference using our own T&R CD (the Bach cello suite at the very end) and Dick Hyman’s From the Age of Swing (Ref. Recordings RR-59CD).

      Not only did the Statmat not improve the sound of CDs it was a serious pain in the butt to use. Try getting something this light and flimsy (to say nothing of its propensity to become airborne with the slightest hint of a breeze) to remain centered on a disc as you try to put it in a player. With only mild suction keeping it on the disc I was always relieved to see it emerge from the player still attached to the CD, visions of trying to remove shredded bits of polypropylene from my drawer mechanism dancing through my head.

      Combine the sketchy science with the lackluster sonic effects, the outrageous price (especially considering the materials!), and the inconvenience of using the thing and you’ve got a tweak which sinks deep into serious voodoo/placebo/mysterioso territory. I’d give it a ten but that would be unfair to all the insane tweaks which cost so much more money, so I’ll give it a nine.

Audio Prism CD Blacklight: $65 (CAN) ea. Audioprism CD Blacklight

      Yet another product designed to sit on top of CD comes from AudioPrism, the folks who brought you CD Stoplight (a green paint meant to be applied to the edges of CDs). With the CD Blacklight Audioprism has basically combined the goals of the Statmat and the Harmonix Tuning Sheets into one product, while adding one other dimension to the CD tweaking equation. Like the Harmonix sheets the Blacklight is fairly heavy, one of its stated goals to act as “an effective vibrational short circuit and rotational mass for dynamic stability.” Like the Statmat it also uses a series of conductive lines to “effectively lower [the] electrostatic potential of the compact disc itself.” The Blacklight, however, goes one step further by adding “a proprietary, frequency specific, highly emissive, phosphorescent surface layer” which “optically saturates the compact disc as well as the disc compartment.” This last feature requires the user to “charge” the CD Blacklight by placing it under a light source for about a minute (fluorescent and natural light sources are said to work best), after which it will take on an eerie green glow, signaling that you’re ready to apply the glowing side of the mat to the CD and play away.

      As with the other CD tweaks, explanations or inferences about what’s its doing are fairly easy to come by, the literature being slightly better than with the others. As usual it’s when asking “why” that we have to suspend our disbelief. On the Blacklight box, for instance, Audioprism explains that stabilizing the disc through the addition of mass will increase “bass definition and slam”; that reducing the electrostatic potential of the disc will result in “less read interference with the laser sub-system, improving imaging and soundstage”; and that saturation of the disc compartment with black light will reduce “jitter resulting in a more open and smoother presentation.” As for WHY these approaches should improve the sound in these ways we are, despite the eerie green glow, left in the dark ( This is not to say that all companies should have to explain exactly how all their products work. I think, however, that in a case such as this, where both the approach and the intended effects are quite unorthodox and unclear that a more rigorous explanation is required. In other words, if tweak makers expect people to buy these things they should do a better job convincing us that their products can be beneficial).

      As far as listening results go the Blacklight fared similarly to the Harmonix Tuning Sheets, producing very subtle but audible sonic improvements. On the Dick Hyman Disc there was a slight improvement in resolution and transient attack, a phenomenon I also noticed on Patricia Barber’s Cafe Blue (Prem-737-2). The Barber disc also demonstrated slightly better bass articulation with the Blacklight in place, giving some credence perhaps to the claim that mass loading the disc would firm up the bottom end. Listening to Frente’s Marvin the Album (Attic MR 0083-2) and the Barber disc again the Blacklight seemed to open up the vocals a bit, the non tweaked discs sounding a little overly warm by comparison.

      These minor benefits, however, do not outweigh the inconvenience of using the CD Blacklight. Not only do you have to spend a minute or so charging the thing before each use, it behaves much like the Statmat in that it does not like to remain centered on the disc during loading. What’s worse, the CD player in question (a Pioneer Laserdisc transport) would often reject the disc if the blacklight was not perfectly placed; not to mention the fact that if the thing’s not perfectly centered, rotational stability will actually suffer. In other words, this is not a “set it and forget it” kind of tweak, but a fiddly and irritating one. Combine this with the hefty price and the suspension of disbelief required to buy into why its changing the sound and you’ve got a tweak which ends up just slightly left of the Statmat on the ol’ tweak line. Peg this one up at about eight.

Black Diamond Racing Pyramid Cones $85 (CAN) for three Black Diamond Racing Cones

      I suppose once you’ve treated your CDs so extensively that they are impervious to instability, static electricity, jitter, bad miking, poor mixing, and bad music the next step is to attack the player itself; not to mention components further down the chain. A increasingly popular weapon in this attack is a trio of cones placed under a given component, de-coupling it from its shelf. Much of the popularity of “coning” can be attributed to the buzz surrounding Black Diamond Racing’s Pyramid Cones, which have received an awful lot of attention of late (In case you’re wondering (and I certainly was), the company got its start, and much of its experience with carbon fiber, in yacht racing).

      About an inch in height the cones look exactly like what they are, little triangles of carbon fiber with smooth, rounded points. Subtle and nondescript in their matte black finish they feature a small 1/ 4-20 thread on the flat end which is compatible with bolts on certain equipment (i.e. B.A.T.) meant to hold the original feet.

      As for the why and how of this tweak, the trend of the CD tweaks continues. While the Black Diamond product literature asserts that “vibration is having a far more significant effect on audio than most people had realized” it does not shed any light on why vibration is our enemy. Aside from pointing out that the cones use a “combination of high rigidity along with high damping rates” they don’t say much about how their cones deal with this alleged problem either. At the same time, however, it’s easier to conceptualize (even for a physics-challenged film major like myself) how a set of cones, especially ones which purport to have significant damping properties, could attenuate vibration by acting as a buffer between a component and shelf (while the rigidity of the cones keeps it solidly in place, avoiding added vibrations), than it is to understand how reducing a CD’s static charge could change the way a laser reads its pits. Assuming that this damping could reduce effects like microphonics in “coned” equipment, the causal chain leading to the justification of such a product is a little more solid than for most of the other tweaks reviewed here. In other words, the suspension of disbelief factor is lower, giving the BDR cones a fair chance of a better placing on the continuum.

      That fair chance becomes a sure bet once you hear what the BDR cones can do to the sound of a component. Of all the tweaks I messed with this was surely the most effective. The improvements were surprising to say the least, especially under my digital gear. Using the Pioneer transport and the Sentec DiAna DAC I listened to both the LD/CD player alone, and as a transport with the DAC (both alternately with and without cones). With the cones each component gave up more resolution and more low level detail creating a deeper, more seamless soundstage in which microdynamics were better preserved. In general the sound benefited from increased smoothness, delicacy, and three dimensionality making for more involving listening. In addition, these improvements were as audible and as substantial as upgrading a DAC or adding a good jitter reduction box, making the effects of the previous tweaks seem far less significant in comparison.

      Using the BDR cones under other gear had similar results. Under the lovely Rega Mira integrated amp (see my review elsewhere in this issue) the cones opened up the sound a little and tightened up the bass a smidge but these improvements were not nearly of the same magnitude as those wrought with the digital gear. Under my Rega Planar 2 turntable, however, the effects were very positive. When I removed the original rubber feet and plopped three cones between it and the Ikea Lack table it sits on the sound took on a character best described as rock solid. Bass, image focus, and delicate low level transients all improved substantially making for much more palpable and involving sound. I’m so happy with how it sounds, in fact, that I’m going to leave it that way indefinitely. One note however, the Rega is an unsuspended table which reacts very well to being supported on light, rigid platforms. (the very light Lack end table and the BDR cones proved to be a synergistic combination - the Lack table is also spiked to the floor using a Target speaker spiking kit. This setup, by the way, makes for an ultra rigid stand, a great, and very cheap way, to support equipment). Suspended tables may react very differently to cones so try before you buy.

      Throughout my listening I used the cones with their points down, BDR recommending that the point touch the more resonant surface, which in the case of a component on an MDF shelf, is the shelf. When using BDR’s carbon fiber shelf (cheekily called The Shelf) it becomes the less resonant surface and the cones should point up.

      The only negative experience with the BDR cones occurred in conjunction with yet another Rega product, the justifiably praised Planet CD player. The Planet, which comes with its own very soft, sorbothane type feet, did not benefit from the cones, sounding leaner, cleaner and doing a better job of rendering vocals on its own feet, thank you very much. One might thus assume that if the component you want to cone has been designed around a soft, compliant suspension then putting something as rigid as the BDR cones under it is going to fly in the face of that design and very possibly comprimise it.

      Combine these unusually positive sonic results with the fact that the BDR cones are easy and practical to use, a “set it and forget it” type of tweak, and you’ve got a product which ends up damn near the coveted middle of the continuum. I would place them further to the left but, after all, it’s still a lot to pay for three little carbon fiber triangles. I give em’ a five and a half.

Golden Sound DH Cones: $70 US (set of three) DH Cones

      Although less popular than the BDR cones, Golden Sound’s DH Cones have been making inroads in the tweak world as well. Unlike BDR Golden Sound makes four sizes of its DH Cones, small (5/8″/$20), medium (7/8″/$40), large (1″/$50), and jumbo (1 3/8″/$70), supplying me with the latter. Much heavier than the BDR triangles the DH Cones are ceramic, finished in a glossy black on the sides and in natural white ceramic on the flat top. They also feature a sharper point than the BDR cones.

      It is unclear whether the larger cones are supposed to sound better or just increase the distance between shelf and equipment. In fact, plenty more about these things is unclear, the Golden Sound product literature consisting exclusively of enthusiastic recommendations from happy customers. It neglects to offer anything in the way of technical or setup information. Having discussed some general thoughts on cones above I’ll jump straight into listening results.

      Listening to the DH Cones during the same sessions as the BDR cones I was able to put together a pretty good impression of what each was doing and how they compared. Under the digital gear the DH cones produced similar effects to the BDR’s, yet to a lesser degree. As with the carbon fiber triangles the DH Cones helped bring out more ambient detail, a greater sense of delicacy and improved microdynamics, contributing to a more involving sound. Although they took on a slightly different tonal character than with the BDR cones, vocals also improved, sounding a little more open and natural. With the Planar 2 it was a similar story, the DH Cones producing a sound that was even closer to that achieved with the BDR cones. Performers became locked in the soundstage and the delicacy and involvement quotient rose substantially. With the Rega Planet CD Player the DH Cones, like the BDRs, could not improve upon the Rega’s original soft rubber feet, bloating the bass and masking clarity in a similar way. Under the Mira integrated, however, the pattern reversed, the DH Cones sounding slightly more open than the BDRs; proving once again that such tweaks should be rigorously tested under various pieces of gear before buying. Not only are they likely to work very differently under various components in the chain, different brands and models will no doubt react differently to coning as well. From my experience with this kind of tweak the only constant seems to be that digital gear seems to benefit the most dramatically.

      As far as our trusty continuum goes, I would place the DH cones just slightly right of the BDR pyramid cones, at about six. They’re slightly less effective, and, due to very poor product literature, require greater suspension of disbelief to try.

Enacom Audio Noise Eliminators: Speaker ($220/pair) and AC ($95) Enacom Audio Noise Eliminators

      Finally we have these odd little products from Combak Corporation of Japan. Looking like electric shotgun shells they consist of a small metal barrel with two bare copper cables emerging out one end (or in the case of the AC Enacom a standard 2 prong mains plug). Exactly what’s in that little barrel is not entirely clear, the characteristically vague info sheet avoiding any detailed descriptions of what these things are doing. What is fairly clear is that there is a capacitor in there. One of the stated intentions of the noise eliminators, in fact, and the only possible function of the AC version, is to filter out RF noise making its way into both AC lines and speaker cables. Like the Audioprism Quietline wall wart filters they sit in series on your home AC circuit, filtering out anything above a given frequency (200Khz according to the manual). Apparently the speaker model works the same way but is also supposed to eliminate what they call “ringing distortion” caused by load resistance in the speaker/amplifier interface. How this happens is as elusive as a good explanation of exactly what constitutes “ringing distortion”, and so some suspension of disbelief is, as usual, involved. As far as I’m concerned ringing distortion is a lot more likely to come from your phone than from your speakers.

      I first did a little messing around with the AC version, cycling it in and out of an outlet near my audio system during a listening session. Having played with a few AC treatments before I’m familiar with the positive effects good RF suppression can have (see my review of the Innoye Synergistic Powerline Conditioner). Benefits can include darker sonic backgrounds, crisper microdynamics, and much more lively and involving low level performance in general. These, unfortunately, were not to be had with the Enacom AC filter, which caused no audible improvement once plugged in. It is possible that in greater number, used in several outlets around the room or house (like the much less expensive Quietline filters) that they would have a more noticeable, cumulative effect. However, I would much sooner put that money into a decent power conditioner like the Inouye, which will also protect your gear from surges and spikes.

      Not expecting much from the speaker version of the Enacom I threaded them in parallel across the high frequency binding posts on my Newform Research R630 Ribbons (this the recommended configuration when dealing with bi-wired speakers) after having listened carefully to several selections of music. The Newforms are fed by about ten feet of Wireworld Atlantis speaker cable and were being driven on this occasion by the wonderful Rega Mira integrated.

      Revisiting the amazing Ritmicas disc from Dorian Recordings (DOR-90245) it became slightly easier to decode the immensely wide and cavernously deep soundstage captured on this recording, the location of players coming into even greater focus. On Arvo Paart’s Litany (ECM 78118-21592-2) I noticed a slight increase in low level detail and a more thorough rendering of subtle and delicate ambient decay; both common indicators of reduced RF interference. As for the mysterious “ringing distortion” it may very well be a factor in these improvements, but I’m holding out for a better explanation of what it is and what it sounds like.

      Having lived with the Enacoms on the speaker for a few weeks now, however, I’d add that the system sounds smoother and more transparent than ever, the little caps having perhaps warmed up and broken in to a certain extent. So, despite this sketchy ringing distortion business the speaker Enacom turns out to be a pretty reasonable tweak, sitting in about at about six and a half on the continuum (they would have fared much better if not for the high price). Like the cones, a fair bit to pay for what they are, but they do work and are not a bad investment considering what they can do for a high resolution system, especially in RF rich urban centers. As for the AC Enacom, spend that cash elsewhere.

      So, after all this tweak talk you may well be asking, if you had to pick just one of these things, which would it be? Well, as it turns out, the best system tweak I’ve come across lately isn’t meant to be an audio accessory at all. It’s the Ikea Lack table I mentioned earlier (special thanks must go to Ron Sanders for the hot tip on this one). If you want the maximum sonic benefit for the dollar spend twenty bucks on the table (the much nicer beech version is $40) and then another thirty on a Target speaker spiking kit (which even includes a drill bit and will leave enough spikes to do another table) and you’ve got an effective and attractive source stand for a song. If you’re turntable or CD player is riding high on some wobbly, swaying, overloaded monstrosity than this is definitely worth a try. Combine this great homemade tweak with the runner up for value and effectiveness, the BDR pyramid cones, and you’ve got a killer source table for a fraction of what a good rack costs. If you still feel that, as an audiophile, it behooves you to be spending more money, I’ve got some little wooden pucks you might be interested in….

Aaron Marshall

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