August 1, 2006
A Tweak Too Far
System tweaking is like binge drinking: You dont stop till its too late. For instance, I recently undid five months of fine-tuning by going a tweak too far. The worst part was that I nearly gave up on a wonderful system altogether, instead of undoing one simple mistake that Id forgotten Id even made. Perhaps my cautionary tale of casual excess will be instructive. The danger is in trying to mitigate a misstep instead of undo it. Compensatory fiddling is both a formula for financial disaster and a source of nagging doubt.
The story begins when I returned home from the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show to find a stack of Opera Audio cartons on my doorstep. Despite knowing better than to trust the ears of others, I remain a sucker for enthusiastic reviews. The glowing reports published online and in print about Operas Consonance line of amplifiers, preamps, and CD players had encouraged me to place a sample order with the boys from Beijing. Although the packing materials were a bit primitive (no bubble wrap, and one box was reinforced with scrap steel), I was soon taken with the competence of the various designs. My 12-item order ranged from entry-level to high-end, with not a clinker among them. In fact, an argument can be made that, over its full range of products, Opera Consonance provides the best value for money on the market.
The sound of the Consonance Reference CD-2.2 Linear CD player ($2000 USD) was exactly as described in a recent review: tuneful, well-textured, and devoid of deep bass. I complained of the last to the good folks at Opera, and a few weeks later they suggested I double up on a couple of key capacitors for better bass. Voilą! The now-full-bodied Reference CD-2.2 held its own against Operas mighty Droplet CDP5.0 CD player, which has swept honors from Moscow to London.
The Reference CD-2.2 Linear perfectly complemented the Reference 150 hybrid integrated amplifier ($1800), a 120-watter with a damping factor of 800 and a signal/noise ratio of >100dB. To me, these numbers translate into great balls of bass and scads of inner detail. Together, these two Reference models comprise a $3800 system I could live with -- high praise, given my predilection for pricey goods.
Nevertheless, within a few weeks I was itching to move on to Consonances top-line Cyber-222 line stage ($2000), Cyber-800 75W monoblock amplifier ($4500/pair), and Droplet CDP5.0 CD player ($3200). Even though Id already read all the rave reviews of these products, this just-under-$10k system defied my expectations. Driving Usher Audio Dancer BE10 loudspeakers ($14,000/pair), these tubed components produced a wide, deep soundstage rivaling that of a Wilson-Halcro-Levinson system of a few years back. The inner detail was not quite as sharp as the pairing of the Usher CP-8871 Mk.II and NuForce Reference 9 SE, but the harmonic content was richer. I was a six-year-old on Christmas day.
Then the tweaking began. First chore was to replace the stock power cords on all the electronics. I own a dozen different brands of power cords but consistently prefer the ones from Xsymphony and Neotech. The Xsymphony Majestic (no longer available at any price) gave the Cyber-800 monoblocks a dose of high energy but was a bit boisterous for the Cyber-222 line stage. Fortunately, I had on hand three of Neotechs NEP-1001 AC cords (available in OCC silver at $1500 each!), which produced even more fine detail from Operas Cyber amplification. For the Droplet CDP5.0 I used Neotechs OCC copper NEP-3001, a helical-braided cord that does an excellent job of filtering out line noise from CD players and digital transports, and is a bargain at $350. In combination, the four power cords improved the focus and dimensionality. Imagine that -- power cords! While spending huge sums of money on AC cables may not make sense to six nines of the worlds population, it does to me -- as long as they work. The shame is that I have $4000 worth of cords in my closet that dont work well enough. Such is the lot of a stereo addict. In rare moments of lucidity, I despise my weakness.
After the cords came the clock. While basking in an AC-cable-induced state of bliss, I received Geoff Kaits announcement of a new magic accessory. As one who has purchased and been moderately impressed with Kaits Nimbus Isolation Platform and Intelligent Chip, I was predisposed to like the hype hes lavished on his Clever Little Clock ($200). My first Clock arrived a week later.
After unwrapping the nondescript plastic timepiece and placing it on a side table, I noticed that the systems midrange performance had become more emphatic. It was as if the Cyber-800 had sprouted a brace of 845 triode tubes in place of its little 6CA7 power tubes. I was so impressed with the Clever Little Clock (CLC) that I ordered another one, which yielded additional midrange power and realism. (Recent photos of my room reveal a third clock, but its there for overkill purposes only.)
Around this time, I learned of a gentleman in Singapore who offers heavy-duty ebony devices at swell prices. After ordering a number of large footers, I was told to try them on top of, rather than under, certain components, especially those with heavy transformers. Now my amplifier, preamp, CD player, power-line conditioner, TG filter, and any other surface in my listening room through which electrons might possibly flow, all wear large round hats originally designed as feet. Combined with the dozens of Shun Mook devices lining my room, the toppers reveal the signature sound of ebony as never before. This exotic wood provides a most pleasurable enhancement.
The cords, CLC, and ebony gave me confidence. When I found out that Stephen Monte, US distributor of Opera Consonance, uses a footer of cork and rubber under his components, I ordered a box of ISOL-pads ($10 each). At first, I thought the sound of the system with ISOL-pads under the monoblocks was simultaneously bass-heavy and a bit shrill. Still, given that the listening rooms tile-on-cement floor vibrates in sympathy with footfalls and earth tremors, I was determined to give the pads a chance. Perhaps my ears have grown used to their contributions, but three months later, the ISOL-pads have nestled into place and are now fixtures in my system.
The ultimate improvement came when I upgraded to the Audio Research Reference CD7 CD player. While I admire the Droplet CDP5.0s high resolution, nothing can touch the CD7 for tone, timbre, and timing. I have owned excellent components over the years, but the only piece of electronic gear that made my head roll off my shoulders and fall on the floor is the CD7. So in anticipation of a visit by Otto, my CES cohort, the Droplet ceded pride of place to ARCs regal player.
Otto, my old Wall Street pal, had proved himself a picky listener at CES 2006. He likes tube amps and planar speakers: rich harmonics launched at warp speed. His musical tastes run to classical music and acoustic jazz. Although he does like Bob Dylan, he would hate at least 70% of my music collection. Honoring age before beauty, in all music choices I deferred to my old friends desires.
During too brief a week, Otto and I listened to many hours of great music and paid almost no attention to the equipment. Our unobstructed focus was the music -- the electronics and speakers virtually disappeared. Solo pianos sounded as if they were in the room. Chamber music had the realism of a recital in a college hall. Symphonies were scaled to acceptable semblances of the real McCoy. Even Dylans lazy nasality provided fresh enjoyment.
For me, the high spot was the hour I spent transfixed by Prokofievs and Tchaikovskys music based on Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet, with Aram Gharabekian conducting the Ukrainian Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra [CD, Russian Disc CD 10 090]. The mastering engineer, Russell Dawkins, had sent me a copy of these breathtaking excerpts. The recordings majestic range, captured via the Blumlein microphone configuration, is unprecedented in my experience. After hearing this disc, Otto noted that all other symphonic CDs need to be re-recorded.
That joyful episode might have been the happy ending to a different story. Instead, within a few weeks of Ottos departure, the sound of the system began to deteriorate. I was unaware that anything was wrong, mainly because, as soon as Otto left, I dug out a bunch of rock and salsa recordings for comic relief. I just assumed the sound of fingernails on blackboard was the result of bad pop-music recording. Then, one day I played Romeo and Juliet for a friend, who was less than sufficiently impressed. This same pal had earlier commented that the Opera-Usher-ARC system was the best hed ever heard in my home.
I was puzzled. A few days later, I was alarmed when Luis Carlos, a frequent visitor, blithely asked me what was wrong with the system. Oh, a blow to the solar plexus. I parried that gremlins must have invaded and reversed all the cables. But afterward, the question ate at me. The acid bath recurred when my exotic-dancer girlfriend asked me why her Aerosmith CD sounded "different." My rebuttal -- that the disc was scratched and worn from too many pole dances -- failed to convince.
The next day, I listened to the usual test CDs and noticed anomalies. First, the center image was hard to locate, as in a mild case of phase reversal. Second, the warmth region (200-500Hz) was cold and metallic. Third, the high frequencies were up near the ceiling, totally disconnected from the rest of the soundfield. What a revoltin development.
I checked the cables, re-seated the tubes, changed the speakers toe-in angle, and tried to remember if Id added or removed something from the system. My memory was a blank screen. I wondered if the equipment had broken-in to a point where nothing now matched. That would be a first, but strange things happen. I pondered the situation with growing insecurity. Would I have to change components? Where to start? Should I replace the magnificent ARC CD7? Heresy!
Then, one day, I pictured myself sitting in a corner reading a police manifest. Suddenly, I realized that the Lincoln Continental weighed more than the factory specification. Wait, Im confusing my plight with The French Connection. But my reaction was like Roy Scheiders cop: "Hey, Jim, what about the fuses? Cmon, man, get with it."
I had completely forgotten that, a few days after Ottos departure, I had replaced the fuses in the Cyber-800 monoblocks with gold-plated, silver-wired, ceramic devices newly minted in Germany. Although my initial impression was that the midrange was sharper than before, I figured this was evidence of increased precision. The highs seemed more extended -- airier, perhaps? If the new edginess rounded off after the fuses had a few hundred hours on them, the additional "air" could be quite an improvement. Assuming the best, I forgot about the fuses -- until I remembered that drug-laden Continentals weigh more than stock.
In the fading afternoon light, I popped out 50 bucks worth of hi-fi jewel fuses and replaced them with the original ones of glass and tin-plated brass. It was a tingling moment. When I fired up the amps and heard the first notes of Paul Catelons piano on Point No Point [CD, Great Big Island GBI-PC01], my pain ceased. Someone had stopped sticking pins in my arm. The keyboards tone was robust, the image well-centered. As they do in life and on great recordings such as this one -- another masterpiece from Russell Dawkins -- chords swelled, then decayed into sepulchral darkness. I took a breath at how close Id come to compounding an error by blaming the system instead of my own carelessness. Fortunately, reversing the fuse tweak was easy to do, however embarrassing. I now own $200 worth of fuses I cant use. Ones dodo-bird side occasionally comes to the fore. At least I didnt buy a new amplifier.
This is not to criticize the German fuses, which were strong medicine -- but my system had not been sick. I merely wish to point out that not all tweaks advance the cause. Sometimes, good intentions are not enough. A person can go too far. In addition, its not easy to remember every small change one has made to ones system. Short-term memory loss is not to be taken lightly, and for the aging audiophile, including us baby boomers, this could become a growing problem. Ive invested in a notebook for this very reason. Now, if I can only find the darn thing. Say, where are my glasses?