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 they don’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 before the 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.