Sound Advice – Getting the most out of your system

So you've got the gear, now how do you get it to sing?

by Ed Selley Aug 26, 2016 at 7:27 AM

  • As our immensely successful Picture Perfect campaign has demonstrated, you can have some amazing hardware but without a little attention paid to its set up, you won't see much of a benefit from it.
    A HiFi system is a little bit different to a television in that the means by which you ensure it is set up correctly are often rather more physical than they are menu based but you can still take a collection of great electronics and make them sound poor if you don't put a little care into setting them up.

    As such, this Sound Advice column covers the basics of setting up a two channel audio system in terms of some best practise and some universally applicable hints and tips. In this instance, as we have already spent a little bit of time in the speaker section discussing placement, we'll put the lion's share of attention into the electronics before revisiting speakers.

    Step 1 – Placement
    Contrary to some of the more lurid pieces written on the subject of placing audio electronics, equipment does not live or die on what you stick it on. The vast majority of equipment that is on sale today comes in a chassis that has been designed with a view to being used in a less than best-case scenario. A small number of manufacturers and certain subsets of products are more vulnerable than others which we shall cover shortly.

    First though, the basics. While equipment has greater flexible than is sometimes credited with, there are limits. Unless a piece of equipment has been designed to work placed on its end, you shouldn't do this. In the case of amplifiers, it can affect the processes that the amp uses for cooling and in many products, the way that the boards and other internal components have been mounted are predicated around being placed flat on a surface.

    This surface is one ideally not shared with other components but separate audio components can be stacked upon one another- especially if they are made by the same company (generally, provision will be made to stack at least source and amp together in the design and strength of the casing). If you are doing this though, the amplifier must always be placed on the top of the stack to enable it to cool correctly. In some cases- if the amp is known to be hot running- it won't hurt to add some additional spacing underneath it too. If you have equipment from different brands, you will need to check the documentation for information on weight loading and the suitability of stacking.
    A more ideal solution is to give each component space to be placed on its own bit of surface area. This can be on shelves on top of one another or indeed simply side by side on a sideboard or shelf. Keeping equipment separate from one another ensures that it doesn't interfere in terms of electrical interference – the flux generated from amplifier power supplies for example is enough to affect more delicate circuitry – and that each unit is unaffected by the other.

    There are some aftermarket additions for placement that may or may not be of interest but their efficacy will largely depend on what the equipment is place on in the first place. Aftermarket feet, isolation platforms and other niceties can increase isolation where more conventional means are not available but some of the promises made in their literature seem unlikely to be achievable in real life.

    Two pieces of equipment where placement and isolation are extremely important are valve amplifiers and turntables. Both are sensitive to introduced vibration and will have their performance quickly and audibly degraded by outside interference. Valve amps should always be placed on a solid, level surface that offers the best isolation possible from the outside world. In the case of turntables specifically, the ideal solution is a wall shelf which completely decouples the deck from the outside world although isolation platforms can also prove effective in this case.

    There are considerable arguments in favour of using a dedicated equipment rack for your equipment. Not only does it provide the isolation and space required to set the equipment up but it does so in a way that assists with cabling and the results can be aesthetically pleasing at the same time. If your budget is tight in terms of getting equipment together though, don't consider this to be a 'must have.' Once you have bought one though, racks tend to be a 'sunk cost' – they don't wear out and will support different equipment if you change or upgrade your system.

    Step 2 – Connections
    Yes, we've reached that point where unavoidably, we need to briefly touch on cables. The position of AVForums with regards to digital video cabling is unequivocal. We don't believe that there should be any difference in cables under a given length regardless of their price. The position of analogue cabling is regrettably slightly less black and white but still fairly pragmatic.

    As the impedance, output voltage and other values of source equipment varies from format to format and unit to unit, it is sometimes the case that some attention will need to be paid to cabling to ensure it performs the role asked of it in the manner you expect. It is also not a particularly radical position that we also feel that shielded cables with reasonable quality terminations will make for easier setup, avoid another possible source of interference and ensure that the cables themselves last a long time. The good news is that none of these requirements are expensive to achieve.
    There are of course a number of cables where you can spend a great deal of money on them and the more subjective nature of analogue measurement does not allow for the same black and white cut off that there is with digital video cabling but our considered position is that the overwhelming level of benefit cabling can offer is achieved at sensible outlays.

    There are some other cost effective tips as well. Ideally, cables should be no longer than they need to be to comfortably connect the units in question. The actual perils of loss through resistance and the like are pretty limited (although long connection cables from turntables can adjust their output impedance and capacitance) but your installation will be much tidier and easier to troubleshoot if there isn't yards of cabling everywhere. With speaker cabling, terminated connections will have little effect on sound quality but will help you make connections swiftly and easily as well as avoiding the danger of stray wires causing shorts or other issues. Much has been written about the dangers of running an amplifier with very different lengths of cables connected to it but these are generally overstated. Unless, you have a huge imbalance in the left and right lengths, this should not be an issue.

    Step 3 – Finishing touches
    Once the system is physically connected and running, it can be tempting to assume your work is done. Before you sit back and get stuck into some tunes, there are a few things to check.

    We've already covered basic speaker setup in the speaker setup section – you can read it HERE – but there are some other minor tweaks too. If you are using standmount speakers – either ideally on stands or on another surface – you should try sticking four small blobs of Blutak under them. This makes them harder to move around but acts as a semi decoupling device to give a small but useful boost in sound quality. Experiment with position and toe-in to get the best results and you'll be amazed how different the same pair of speakers can sound.

    If you are using a mains gantry plug to power the system, what else is plugged in? If you have items like heaters, white goods, ethernet over mains and other such devices, these can have a detrimental effect on the performance of your system so if possible, should be relocated away from it. If you have valves in a system, a surge protector between them and the rest of your mains won't do any harm either. More elaborate mains treatment systems exist and on occasions, they can be very effective but they represent extra cost so are best left until absolutely required.

    With streaming and network audio systems, a moment to ensure your network is ready for the additional load will be helpful. Most audio barely registers on the rigours of a modern home network so bandwidth is not usually an issue but if you can make wired connections to your equipment, it removes it from contesting your wireless altogether. If your router came with your broadband contract and doesn't exactly scream stability at you, an aftermarket model might be a better option. If you are only listening to files you own, you may also find that a closed wireless network is most effective for you as it removes your system from competing with everything else on the network.
    Your media choices are many and varied as we've already discussed but one thing it has in common is that being able to access it quickly and easily is key to enjoying it. If your media is physical, you should be able to get to it with the minimum of effort – the Scandinavian wizards at IKEA have good CD and vinyl storage and there are plenty of cost effective options open to you. If you are streaming media, it can be beneficial to have a dedicated NAS drive (WITH BACKUP!) to make getting to your files a simple business. Making sure your files are correctly arranged and tagged is dull but makes navigating your library much easier and more appealing to do – so it is never wasted time.

    Finally, is your system located somewhere convenient and set up in such a way as to encourage you to use it? We often don't have a huge amount of choice where we place equipment but ensuring that it is easy to use in the context of our day-to-day lives is the difference between it being used and not being used. In my personal experience, I find not having a remote volume control is a detriment to day-to-day use and fiddly controls or poor set up can be a real turn off to me using something for a quick listen even when I have the time. Make sure your equipment fits in with your lifestyle and those around you.

    Unlike your TV, getting a HiFi system working well is more involved but the results are more than worth the outlay in time and effort. The difference between your equipment sounding good and sounding great is a little bit of time and effort and the results are usually well worth it.

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