Trouble with your sound system?

 

If playback from your LPs or CDs sounds far from ideal, there is a lot you can do to improve it. Here, John Rogers of QR Design, the product development arm of Ringmat Developments, helps you to identify the causes and improve the sound from your hi-fi system.


How much time and effort have you spent on building up your collection of personal, all-time greatest sounds? Saving up hard-earned pennies, browsing around fairs up and down the country, until - at last - your CD/LP cabinet resembles your idea of music heaven. That is, until you pick your favourite, play it on your hi-fi system and... it just doesn’t sound right.


Blame it on gremlins, if you must, but there is a number of reasons why sound reproduction goes awry.


For a start, the sound from any hi-fi system will only be as good as the weakest link in the signal chain. That is why many people opt for ‘separates’, rather than a packaged system from one manufacturer: it is so much easier to change the weakest component for something better. In any case, separates will sound better for a little extra outlay and, in some cases, even pound for pound. If you are in any doubt, always ask your dealer for a comparative demonstration.

 

 

Speakers and Signal Radiation
Choice of loudspeaker usually makes the biggest difference in the balance and ‘tonality’ of the sound you hear, so make sure it gives the sound you want to live with in the future. Also, be prepared to allow the speakers to breathe. Some have been designed to go up against a wall but, even so, and generally speaking, they perform best a little way away from walls, not only from behind but also from the side.

The best results in a well-tuned system are obtained with the speakers about five or six feet apart in a well-proportioned room and toed inwards 45°. In this way, on a line directly out from each of the speakers, they are aimed to cross and meet in front of the speakers. However, few systems are ready for that until major improvements have been carried out to maintain accurate signal phase. Therefore, initially start by toeing-in the speakers so they are aimed to cross and meet in front of the speakers by about one-and-a-half times the distance they are apart. As improvements are made to the phase of the signal the sound stage will open out and widen, so that you will find you need to gradually increase the degree by which the speakers are toed-in to get rid of congestion in the centre.

Now this may seem strange to some readers, and this is because too much emphasis has been given in the past to the sound coming out directly from the front of the speakers. In practice, the speaker drive units should radiate a sound into the whole listening area, which can be more accurately understood if you imagine the sound and the sound sources in an arc behind each speaker from a point source in the middle of the drive units. Looked at another way, the speakers are reflecting the sound as a mirror image of a crossed pair of microphones capturing the sound.

To fine tune, listen to the sound from one speaker only. Very gradually move it away from, and back towards, a rear wall and tilt the speaker so as to adjust the degree by which the speaker is toed-in. Listen to how the timing and transparency of the music changes. There is a point where not only the timing seems right, but it also sounds cleanest and most dynamic (i.e. the emotion of the music is at its height). Be sure you choose an appropriate disc for whatever source you are playing and, if one doesn't seem to work for you, choose another. Then set the other speaker, in a two-speaker system, in the same relative position and angle from the rear wall. If there are more than two speakers, such as in a home cinema surround sound system, the foregoing applies to the two main front speakers. After finding the best positioning for them, the same process should be followed with the other speakers. If they are in fixed positions on a wall, the best that can be achieved is to angle them out into their most effective position.

All speakers are compromises in design and have some degree of distortion. Some are more successful than others in finding the right balance, but performance is difficult to assess without removing as much distortion as possible from the start or source of the signal.

The Source
The greatest distortion comes from the two ends of the signal chain - the source, be it turntable, digital player or some other signal generator, and the speakers. We have already discussed speakers, so let us have a closer look at ‘the source’.

‘Source signal distortion’ is a result of electrical and mechanical vibration within the turntable, CD player or other source component itself and, to a lesser extent, further along the signal chain. This ‘source signal distortion’ may arise from use of the equipment’s own ‘feet’, the nature and polarity of the surfaces under those feet, the casework and structure of the equipment, the fixed and moving components (which you can often do little about) and the type of support the LPs or CDs rest on (e.g. the platter) whilst they are played.

 

Special Vinyl Needs
In the past, records have usually been supported by a rubber or felt mat. More recently, bare platter surfaces have been popular through the development of special textures or the use of acrylic and glass. Some designs have been based around the use of clamps. All these methods have failed to address the fundamental issue: the enormous energy generated when a stylus tracks the groove wall of a record. This energy has to go somewhere. With all the above methods, to varying degrees, this energy is reflected off the material under the record surface and not only deflects the stylus from properly tracking the record groove but works its way up the cantilever into the cartridge as distortion. From there, it is amplified and generated as massive distortion through the speakers, along with a severely damaged primary signal and the loss of a great deal of information

RINGMAT, developed by Ringmat Developments, eliminates this problem by absorbing the unwanted stylus energy. It replaces any supplied mat and rests upon the bare platter, supporting the record above. RINGMAT effectively ‘decouples’ the record from the platter by supporting it with a narrow cork ring placed under the centre of the mass of the record. This cork ring moves between two other cork rings on a special substrate. This construction allows the energy generated by the stylus to be dumped into the air between the record and the RINGMAT and into the air between the RINGMAT and the platter below. RINGMAT is now recognised as the leading record support around the world and can be used with nearly all turntables.

In the autumn of 1998, a more sophisticated method of supporting records on a platter was introduced by adding three

more components to work with RINGMAT, forming a modular system called the RINGMAT Support System. Among other benefits, the Support System enables you to match the angle at which the stylus tracks the record groove (‘stylus rake angle’) with the angle at which the master disc was cut by the cutting stylus, dramatically reducing the amount of distortion feeding into the signal chain.

 

Static Charges
Another significant factor in vinyl replay is static and other unwanted electromagnetic fields that affect tracking and the delicate signals handled by the stylus and workings of the cartridge. Again, these problems are largely removed by the introduction of another Ringmat product, the LP STATMAT, especially the LP BLUE and STATCAP, which is available either separately or as part of the RINGMAT Support System.

CDs are a similar story. The main problem here is that static builds up in the CD player while the disc is being played, spinning at great speed in a warm, dry environment. This static build-up has a dramatic effect on both the CD itself and the way in which the signal is extracted and processed. Moreover, as the CD revolves at high speed, resonance in the CD and vibration movement compounds the distortion in the signal from the player. The same problems arise with other digital formats and players such as those for DVD and SACD.

To deal with both these problems, Ringmat Developments have created a product called STATMAT. It is a thin, featherweight film which you place on the label side of the CD and which remains there while the CD is played. STATMAT is a powerful, though passive, electrical device which prevents static by way of evening out electromagnetic fields. Simultaneously, its unique design also minimises the effects of resonance and vibration that occur as the CD revolves. The latest version is the CDi BLUE, which employs two STATMATs, one each side of a BLUE substrate (hence the “Blue” in the name). The top STATMAT is a mirror image of the one below and working together the two STATMATs create a very powerful anti-static device. The CDi BLUE and the LP BLUE are essentially the same but they are of different dimensions and require a different size central hole.

SIGNAL DISTORTION
Whilst it may be true that the most important part of a hi-fi system is its source - usually the turntable and/or CD player – it is so for two reasons. Firstly, the old maxim ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’. Secondly, there is another factor at work here, in that distortion inevitably accumulates a little along the signal chain. This makes it all the more important that you achieve as good a signal as possible from your source player. Otherwise, by the time the signal reaches the speaker, there is as much distortion as there is original signal - perhaps even more.

"What sort of distortion?" you may think. "My turntable/CD player sounds all right to me!" Sadly, this is, in part, a case of not missing what you’ve never had - in this instance, a phase-linear, distortion-free signal. It is a clarity and cohesiveness of the sound and a realism that most people associate with very expensive sound systems, but which, in fact, comes simply from preventing distortion arising at source and accumulating along the signal chain. Much of this distortion arises as a result of vibration, which is of two sorts.

One is mechanical, and stems from either physical movement, even of a low order and which cannot be felt, and from resonance in the materials used. In large measure, hard objects simply touching one another cause this vibration, and this is commonly found where metal and, to a lesser degree, wood and other hard substances, are used against each other in a variety of support roles under equipment, including numerous attempts at isolation. It certainly arises where spikes are in use. And glass produces its own distinct, hard sound.

The other type of vibration is electrical. It is endemic in electronic components, and for most users there is not a great deal that can be done about this. But another principal source of electrical vibration is static and other undesirable electromagnetic fields, such as are found in and around equipment used in hi-fi and home cinema systems. To a large degree, this latter form of electrical vibration can now be eliminated with the utilisation of the variety of anti-static products that are now on the market.

Vibration occurs also within components. The more straightforward designs, with few buttons and options to change the sound usually perform best as there are fewer paths through which to accumulate distortion, provided attention to detail has been given in the design stage and during assembly.

Good Vibrations
Support surfaces under equipment and speakers are crucial in achieving the sound you want. The vibration problems they can cause are easily sorted with a little help from certain products now on the market. Ringmat Developments have developed their own offerings to deal with all these problems in the form of RINGMAT FEET, RINGMAT DOMES and STATFEET and further products will be released during 2005. As mentioned above, there are enormous problems also with the use of spikes, however much they are tightened, though many of these problems can be ameliorated by the use of RINGMAT SPIKE STOPPERS. These are placed underneath the spikes, and when they are used on top of STATFEET and, better still, on top of RINGMAT FEET, there is a noticeable improvement in sound reproduction.

Amplifier Dynamics
So what about the amplifier? The most important thing is that, when combined with the speaker cable, the amplifier can comfortably handle the load presented by the speakers. More than that, it can drive the speakers so well that their full dynamic potential is exploited. We’re not talking about loudness - although this is obviously a factor - but the dynamics associated with accurately reproducing exactly how much force, sustained pressure or delicacy is used for each note when, for instance, a keyboard is being played, allowing you to recognise one musician from another. After all, what interest is there in music if it all sounds the same?

If you play LP records using moving coil cartridges, another aspect to bear in mind with amplifiers is to ensure that the output loading of the cartridge, which usually falls into one of three categories (100 Ohms, 40-47 Ohms and 10-20 Ohms), matches the impedance of the amplifier's moving coil input. Some amplifier manufacturers say their single moving coil input impedance will handle any moving coil cartridge - don't believe it. There is the further complication that some manufacturers use loading specifications that do not seem to relate to the real world when trying to match them with those of the cartridge. Otherwise, your choice of amps is down to things like transparency and control and how well images, the sound stage and overall clarity are retained when the volume is increased. Besides cost, of course.

Budgeting
When you buy or upgrade a system, have in mind a budget and allocate at least a third of the cost for good equipment supports and cable links, such as interconnect, speaker and mains cables. Yes, quality mains cables do make a difference. If, however, you’re on a really tight budget, leave supports and cables until you have the money to upgrade the system. In the past, I would have suggested allocating 40 to 50 per cent for the front end - turntable or CD player, using the balance of the budget towards the amplifier and speakers, including support stands if the speakers are not floor standing.

As soon as you can afford to, upgrade with products directly linked to the performance of the front end like RINGMAT and STATMAT. Then improve the mains cables and introduce anti-vibration, anti-resonance and anti-static products. Then seek to improve the speaker and interconnect cables.

A Tip with an Eye for Future Developments
However, in view of recent research we have carried out, I would add the following rider. If you are really interested in getting the very best sound, and you are thinking of buying a new amplifier, I personally would recommend that you wait until later this year, when the report on our research work is published and more can be revealed. Or, if funds can stretch that far, a pre-power combination be sought. More importantly, that instead of a stereo power amp, a pair of mono power amps is acquired instead of a single stereo one. However you eventually view the report, a pre-power combination will stand you in good stead in the future.

Choosing Your Hi-fi System
This subject is complicated because there are so many variables and it requires a good ear and experience to get it right. At the end of the day, it is down to you, with the help of a competent dealer, to listen and judge for yourself. Trust your own ears and you should not be disappointed.

If you’re not sure where to start and you do not have your mind fixed on a particular make or model of this or that (a fairly healthy approach, so as not to be too disappointed when it comes to judging with your own ears!), start by choosing your speakers. Then find the best amp and speaker cables to drive the speakers and, finally, decide on the front end - turntable and/or CD player. Any turntable can be fitted into any system, provided you match the loading of the cartridge and the tonearm cables with the rest of the system. You will find that some CD and other digital players have a better loading match than others with the chosen amp and speakers, quite apart from their own intrinsic values. This helps to determine the right synergy, as well as making life a great deal easier for those who are otherwise bewildered by the choice.

Wired Up
When you buy a system, or are making changes, bear in mind that the system has to work together as a whole. Find out whether the components work best with solid core or multi-strand cable - keep to one or the other and don't mix them, even down to the mains cable. There are further aspects to this.

Amps can be fussy about which cables to drive. So, when matching amps to speakers, use this opportunity to decide which cables to get – having already decided between solid core and multi-strand, you then need to decide on particular cables. Thicker or relatively thinner speaker cables each provide different loading factors for the amp to drive and have a major impact on the sound.

There is a wide choice of cables on the market. Despite this, Ringmat Developments have started to market their own simply because they could find no others that met the exacting requirements demanded for their own sound reproduction test bed.

The Complicated Bit
If complex situations are not your scene, pass on to the next section.

Amplifiers are designed to provide the best dynamics with a given ‘load’ from the front end on input and from the loudspeakers and the speaker cable on output. As a buyer, your aim should be to match front-end, speakers and cables to the loading requirements of the amplifier, both in and out. At the same time, loudspeakers are designed to provide the best frequency response and greatest clarity when provided with a certain loading along with the signal. Eventually, therefore, what one needs to find is a ‘loading’ that is similar to that which was used for the loudspeaker design and in its fine tuning, where the cables used in that design process are always an important factor. This is not easy, because speaker manufacturers are unable to measure this ‘loading’ and so it is down to the black art of the dealer, or yourself, to find three sorts of unspecified ‘loading’:

One for matching the input loading requirements of the amplifier;

One to achieve the best dynamics from the power output of the amplifier (an extension of the usual need for 8 Ohm, 4 Ohm, 2 Ohm etc., matching); and

A third as representing a replica of the loading used by the loudspeaker manufacturer in testing and evaluating the design and choice of components.

With luck, this may all fall into place first time, especially if the dealer is using components known to work well together.

In other situations, at least you are aware of the pitfalls.

This is where different cables come in, because you can, to an extent, ‘tweak’ the loading of the system by the use of different cables, though this is also where hands-on experience in the past is so helpful.

Phase Out
Even with the speakers, amps and cables sorted out, why do some recordings still sound better than others? In the case of LPs, this is partly due to differences in thickness of the vinyl and the angle at which the records were cut, which can be easily sorted out using the Ringmat Spacers marketed by Ringmat Developments. Apart from this, the main reason is the incorrect absolute phase of the signal on playback in relation to that embedded in the software, but this in itself is only part of a much larger and more complex problem. Whatever the source - records, CDs, tapes, even radio and TV broadcasts – there are significant endemic phase and corruption problems that affect the sound you hear. QR Design has carried out extensive research into these matters and most of the important issues are now understood and most problems are capable of being addressed and corrected. A report is planned for publication later in 2005.

Roll Out
So now you’re ready to roll! With a few simple tests and tweaks, aided by one or two distortion- or vibration-busting components, it doesn’t take much to get the best out of your beloved collection.

Get rid of all those ‘gremlins’ in your hi-fi system using the handy hints below. Do make sure you follow them step-by-step though!

 

 

What's sounding wrong?

 

It's those Gremlins again...

How to ZAP them!

Sound from turntable not as detailed as from CD

Static and mechanical vibrations are affecting stylus tracking


Alignment of cartridge and tonearm needs adjustment

 

Use RINGMAT or, better still, the RINGMAT Support System & RINGMAT FEET


Follow the instructions in the Ringmat Booklet “How to set up and fine tune a turntable”

 

 

Sound from CD player lacks the warmth and involvement of vinyl

 

Static and mechanical vibrations of CD transport are affecting phase of the signal

Use CD STATMAT & RINGMAT Feet

 

Music sounds flat; doesn’t hold your attention. Imaging not precise

 

With vinyl, stylus rake angle is incorrect with that LP


Phase of the signal corrupted & time delay problems. Absolute phase of your system may be inverted to that of the recording. At best, the odds are that it is right only 50% of the time

Adjust height of tonearm or the LP via spacers under the record

Invert absolute phase. But this is only part of the problem. The rest will be explained when this whole issue is covered in the forthcoming report mentioned above

 

Absolute phase keeps changing between tracks and at edits

 

You haven’t complained enough in the past

Everyone complains to the record companies

 

Sound from speakers not crisp and clean. Bass not right. Insufficient emotion present in sound

 

Time delay problems caused by static, vibration under equipment and incorrect speaker positioning

Use better anti-static and isolation products

Adjust position of speakers in relation to rear wall

More will be revealed in forthcoming report

 

Imaging from speakers is poor

 

Speakers incorrectly aligned

Adjust distance between speakers and toe inwards. There is likely to be an alignment problem with the drive units in the speakers – await forthcoming report

Sound unbalanced:

Treble and bass too prominent; mid-range recessed

OR

Mid-range too prominent, lacking extension in treble and bass

First, have problems above been solved?

Try suggested solutions above

Loading of a moving coil cartridge not matching impedance of amplifier input

Change impedance of m/c input on amp or step-up device or phono stage or change to better matching cartridge

Wrong cables being used

Ensure that type of cable used is consistent (solid core or multi-strand) try thicker/thinner speaker cable. Try interconnecting cables with a lower capacitance

Output loading of CD player not suitable to rest of system

Try other makes of CD player

Loading of speakers and cable not matching load sought by amplifier

OR

Loading of system not matching that of speaker design

Some amps have an optional output loading (8 Ohms, 4 Ohms, 2 Ohms). Try different settings. As a last resort, try different amps or speakers

 

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