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As seen in Details, May 1994:
The path to tweak chic is paved with broken dreams
by Mark Fleischmann
Questing audiophile that you are, you've already put your speakers on stands and attached gold-tipped premium cable. By now, you've got a programmable remote control, various cleaners for tape heads and LPs, maybe even a liquid CD cleaner for occasional emergencies. By now, your significant other has concluded this is going to be a pretty boring story and has fallen fast asleep on your shoulder.
Are we alone, audiophiles? Then let us festoon our CDs with green markers and plastic bands, smear them with optical goo, and cloak the player's jacks with iron noise absorbers. Let's clamp LPs onto our turntables like helpless butterflies -- then shoot them with antistatic guns. Let's tweak the night away. Let's talk about weird accessories.
A weird-accessory buff (note the hyphen) rejoices in the audible and remains firmly agnostic about the inaudible. If you hear a difference, congratulations. But not all tweaks work. Many simply may not mesh with your equipment. A few may be flat-out scams, though most weird-accessory makers are true believers rather than con artists.
When a tweak does work -- when it makes an audible difference that's beyond the threshold of subliminal suggestion -- your ears will hear it. But audible differences don't always bring musical transformations, and the road to tweak chic is paved with broken dreams.
CD magic tricks
Compact disc-related accessories are the ones most likely to inspire fistfights at audiophile wienie roasts. I tried several with an almost magical reference system. They worked! Now the bad news: The magic system was worth $70,000. And even when I heard a difference, I didn't always enjoy it.
The most controversial CD tweak is AudioPrism's CD Stoplight ($15). According to theory, the laser beam scatters light inside the player. Some light bounces back to the laser, fouling the data stream and producing harsher sound. Painting the outer and inner edges of the disc with CD Stoplight, um, stops the light. Unlike conventional markers, the water-based Stoplight won't chemically attack the disc, and its handy grooved tip fits the edge of the disc nicely.
A harsh, trebly, hissy recording clarified noticeably when treated with CD Stoplight. A well-balanced recording lost some of its brilliant highs but retained fine inner detail. My listening companion liked it better that way; I found it different but not better.
Expert testimony is inconclusive. Mike Piehl of Philips, corporate coinventor of the compact disc format, says greening CDs is "technically without validity" and any benefit is "mainly a psychoacoustic phenomenon." But the audiophiles at Chesky Records use the process with CD masters and are considering extending the treatment to production copies.
Another rim-of-the-disc treatment involves plastic rings, such as Discwasher's CD Sonic Circles ($5.95 for five). This time the idea is to dampen vibration from warped discs that wobble "via harmonic balancing," and by a happy coincidence, they're green. They're also easier to get onto the disc than competing products (insert condom joke of your choice here). The difference proved marginal.
The CD Greenback from Audio Directions is a thin green disc that fits over the labeled side of the CD. This one soaks up spare light and enhances stability, say its inventors, and has the advantage of being removable. On the magic system, it worked like a meat-ax, deadening everything. I hated it.
When I tried it with a lesser system, however, I enjoyed the way it toned down harsher highs and integrated them into the music. At $1.98 per disc, this may be the best CD treatment for low-budget tweakers with -- ahem -- problematic systems. (Available from Audio Directions, 3184A Waialaw Ave., Honolulu, Hawaii 96816; add $1.50 for shipping for up to five discs.)
Then there's optical goo. Compact Dynamics' CD Magic ($14.95) is intended to improve the clarity of the disc surface. The Compact Dynamics people say it works better with their liquid cleaner (CD Clean!, $9.95) and various stick-ons (CD Plus!, $14.95 and CD Upgrade, $7.95) said to reduce spilled light and vibration. With a harsh recording, the CD Magic juice noticeably smoothed out ragged highs; adding the stickers brought only marginal improvement.
A few other eccentric CD accessories might be helpful in emergencies. Discwasher's zippy motorized CD Hydrobath ($49.95), which includes wash and dry cycles, removed several giant thumbprints from a disc. If your hitherto reliable CD player is acting dazed and confused, try Memtek's CD/Laser Lens Cleaner ($11.99) or the AudioSource LLC3 3 in 1 Utility Disc ($29.95, with test signals). Both include a CD with tiny, sparse, soft bristles; it does the cleaning and talks you through the process.
Taming vibration, static, noise
My first meeting with the legendary SOTA Reflex Clamp ($150) was so pleasurable, I later bought one. SOTA (for State Of The Art) Industries, a high-end turntable maker, has endowed this gleaming LP clamp with plenty of heft and a locking mechanism that bolts the LP onto the platter. Thus the tonearm picks up fewer extraneous vibrations except from the dancing stylus. The results include less noise, more depth and coherence. You don't need a megabucks turntable or cartridge to hear the difference. Careful, though: The Clamp might not fit under your dustcover, and its weight might cause pitch problems with a lightweight belt-drive 'table.
The Discwasher Zero Stat gun ($59.95) is one of those rare instances when you can solve your problems by firing a gun at something. Aim this antistatic gun at an LP and four two-second bursts will loosen dirt for whisking away with say, oh, the original Discwasher system ($19.95 for brush and D4 cleaning fluid) or a dry system like the dual-bristled Hunt E.D.A. Mark 6 ($25).
TDK NF-C09 Digital Noise Absorbers ($15 for two) clamp onto interconnect lines, especially those going from a CD player to a preamp or receiver. The ferrite rings tame distorted highs by absorbing the electromagnetic muck cables pick up when they act as antennas. With cheap cables, I heard a minimal but not unpleasant clarifying effect; the effect disappeared when I switched to Straight Wire's heavily insulated Maestro cables.
Manipulating physical energy
Electricity makes things vibrate, even things without moving parts. Killing that false mechanical resonance has become an audiophile obsession, inspiring a whole genre of weird accessories. There are two basic kinds: those that dampen mechanical energy, and those that move it somewhere else.
Energy dampers such as the puck-like NAVCOM Silencers from Sims Vibration Dynamics ($74.95 for four) and AudioPrism's sphere-in-a-cup-shaped Iso-Bearings ($50 for three) are generally made from soft high-tech materials. Placed under components, they prevent vibration from polluting delicate circuits. The flat NAVCOMs can also get speaker cable off the rug, where static electricity attacks twee signals.
Energy couplers, the other kind, work on a different principle. Sold as Apex Couplers by speaker maker Avalon ($69 for six) and as Audio Points by RoomTunes ($50 for three), these steel cones soak up energy through their broad bases and transmit it through their sharp tips. Often used under power amps, they exile bad vibrations to any stable, unmoving surface. They're also great for coupling big speakers to the floor, transmitting bass you can feel (many speakers and stands come with spikes that do the same).
Both types produced marginal effects when placed under the magic system's preamp, reducing noise and shifting the overall tonal balance lower. The difference was more pronounced with the hard energy-moving couplers, though I preferred the soft energy-absorbing dampers because they slightly lengthened the decay times in piano music. Bigger changes, even when you can achieve them, are not necessarily better.
RoomTunes offers the ultimate extension of the energy-coupling strategy in the ClampRack ($295-495), which holds components like a vise. This is not so much vibration killing as vibration tuning. RoomTunes' Michael Green can actually bend a note by adjusting one nut in a ClampRack (the one under the front left corner of a CD transport). Had I not witnessed this myself, I would be laughing as hard as any technophobic rabble. Well, screw 'em if they can't take a tweak.
Tuning the listener
It's all part of "the tuning process," says the charismatic Green, auteur of the original RoomTunes. These resemble pillows and obelisks, and they tune room acoustics in often striking ways. Some go in acoustically potent corners; others go on walls to stop "slap echoes" and "standing waves"; some stand on the floor, clarifying and manipulating the "soundstage" (perception of width and depth). The Tune Pack ($295) contains an affordable selection (professional versions cost way more). Using these things takes expertise; Green and his RoomTuners are constantly running around, tuning people's rooms.
If you can't afford a human RoomTuner, a computer program might be the next best thing. The Listening Room from Sitting Duck Software optimizes bass response by manipulating speaker and listening positions onscreen. (It's available by mail, $47.50/IBM, $67.50/Mac; write to PO Box 130, Veneta, Oregon 97487.)
Perhaps the most radical weird accessory of all seeks to tune the system, the room, and -- the final frontier -- the listener. For just $395, the Electraclear EAU-1 will turn all the riotous magnetic fields coming from your audio system and other equipment into positive energy flows, or so I'm told. Coherent Systems, which also makes bigger variations for recording studios and smaller ones for cars, claims this reordering of ambient energy relieves stress on equipment and listener alike, enhancing the latter's mood and ability to hear. Cool, I thought. Electronic drugs.
Trying a larger version of the box with the magic system, I fell into a reverie during an Allman Brothers jam and started fantasizing about doing things I've never done: stealing, siring a family. But I've always been a dreamer. I also tried the Electraclear at home, heard nothing, and felt no different. Though the urge to tweak remains: What if I damp it? Or clamp it? Or even paint it green?
My friend and guru Mike Hobson, of New York's Hobson Ultimate Sound, has tried every tweak in the book. He uses energy dampers and couplers in the magic system but likes to keep things in perspective:
"People fall in two groups, the ones who listen to music and the ones who listen to sounds. Once they get into sounds, it's difficult for them to come back to music. And music is what's most important, of course.
"These nutballs, these tweakheads, they can't always afford to upgrade major components like amps or speakers. So they do tweaks. It's like going for crack because you can't afford the good stuff."