We have been in Outer Space a while, now it’s time to come down to Earth
An occasional post for the hi-fi enthusiast. Devotees of music through hand-held multi-tasking devices may wish to look away at this point. This post assumes an interest in mains electricity, custom components, cabling infrastructure, and exciting ways of spending seemingly large sums on what appear to many to be simply voodoo. However, with astonishing results.
2014 Hi-Fi Upgrades
It’s a fact of hi-fi life: no matter how much you improve things, there is always room for more improvement. After a while you take the performance new level for granted, and you hanker for more. I haven’t written much on the Hi-Fi of late, but there has been a lot of activity in the background. With the new year in prospect, it seems timely to look back on all the upgrades over the last year or so, and the huge improvement in the quality of listening they have brought.
Surprisingly, this year’s biggest improvement turned out to be the cheapest, though the most difficult to implement: the installation of an electricity spur dedicated exclusively to the hi-fi. If you haven’t already done it, you must. In order of magnitude, it resulted in the most massive audio improvement I have ever experienced, brought tears to my eyes, and just one recrimination – why didn’t I do this sooner?
Why? Because I had been avoiding it. In normal circumstances, tinkering with electricity supply could result in major domestic disruption . However my domestic circumstances were massively disrupted anyway, by months of building renovation. An extra half-day’s work in the midst of chaos is a problem? This was the ideal opportunity to give the whole hi-fi dedicated electricity supply.
How electricity gets from your domestic distribution fuseboard to your hi-fi is crucially important. If it is simply plugged into a wall socket on a ring-main circuit as mine was (right), you don’t really know what your hi-fi is capable of. Mostly we upgrade components, but it is the quality of mains electricity that most affects how your components work. Though some insist it is all just “electricity”, like “wire is just wire”, experience tells a different story.
I have no special understanding why, but there are two things this experience has taught me:
the importance of isolating your hifi from the “choir” of appliances that otherwise share and pollute the same domestic ring-main circuit
the quality of domestic earthing, particularly that of your hi-fi supply circuit
The process –
1. Installing a dedicated spur for the Hi-Fi
From the newly installed micro-switched consumer unit, one channel was assigned to a spur to power the hifi and nothing else. (You can go further and install a unique consumer unit just for the hifi, but a step too far at this time)
Getting that dedicated spur from the consumer unit, under the stairs, to the wall behind the hi-fi 15-20 metres away, was traumatic. Floorboards needed to be lifted, holes drilled below floor level through walls, to allow cables to be passed from room to room, avoiding proximity to other domestic cable infrastructure, a difficult couple of hours work for two persons versed in the black arts of fish-wires.
2. Earth enhancement
You can’t have enough earth. Previously the domestic earth was merely a domestic earth wire clamped to the plumbing. As part of this power source upgrade, the previous level of earthing was at least tripled.
A new copper earth spike was driven into the ground under the house, below floor level, and connected by heavy duty copper earth cable to a new earth block beside the consumer unit. This block was selected to allow heavy duty cables to be terminated
An additional earth connection was made to the earth of the incoming domestic mains cable from the street into the house.
A further earth cable was run to the domestic plumbing and pipes.
All the earth wires were run to a common earthing block, which was then wired into the consumer unit earth terminal.
Any competent electrician can do this work for you, if you tell them what you want. It was merely fortuitous that my electrician also happened to be a vinyl collector, and jazz fan…
3. Connection of hi-fi to the dedicated spur
Two audio-grade double sockets (high pressure terminals, anti-oxidisation treated) were sunk in the wall behind the hi-fi, making redundant the previous flimsy single skirting-mounted socket. All contacts were made to give firm tight cable connections.
Additional bonus: the additional power sockets freed up allowed several components such as purifiers to be relocated on the dedicated mains circuit itself, instead of on the distribution block with all the other components.
Additional drawback: every part of the hi-fi – component circuit-boards, interconnects, valves, everything – needs time to burn in all over again to allow it to adjust to the new quality of power source, before it blossomed. I reckon 4-500 hours continuous play under reasonable load. A complex hi-fi is “organic”, it gets upset if important parameters change.
The immediate result was a massive uplift in audio quality, by an order of magnitude x3 to x5 over your typical component upgrade, your jaw will drop, followed by further subtle refinement over the following weeks.
Soundstage was enlarged exponentially, three feet either side of the speakers, bass floor octaves lower and a metre higher to the ceiling.
Second rate records were promoted to the hallowed status of originals, whilst originals moved beyond this world.
I am seriously going to have to revaluate my opinion on the quality of some lesser pressings. The first under the cosh, the Blue Note blue label/black note/ (van Gelder stamp), which on a few trials emerged with surprising newly-discovered fluency.
The much over-used word in hi-fi tinkering is “astonishing” but in this case it describes quite accurately the impact.
OK. Now what about the toys LJC?
Yeah, we had toys too. Lots, summed up in one picture that covers all the changes (click picture to view full screen).
After the power source, the biggest improvements were yielded by the new SME tonearm, Dynavector TKR cartridge and valve-phono amp, and replacing the previous solid state Linn Akurate pre-amp with a custom-component valve pre-amp.
Three core components remain unchanged: tt (Avid Volvere Sequel), main power amp (Linn four-channel C4200), and speakers (Linn 242 five-horn floor uprights)
Telefunken new old stock ECC82, manufactured in Berlin in mid ’60s – valves made at the same time as most of the analog recordings, sympathetically matching technology. Made for jazz.
The ultimate voodoo: Clarity-8 mains enhancer, “coherence technology” which generates electromagnetic fields which deep-clean signals, increasing volume and acuity. Do I understand how it works? Absolutely not. Can I hear the difference? Unequivocally, yes. Am I under a voodoo spell? Quite possibly.
Sawyers Disc power cable upgrade. Don’t ask. They take a braided multi-wire power cable, chop it in two at one end, then join it back together again, re-terminating each wire through a disc. They do the same thing again, at the other end. Finally, the joints are each encased in a wooden pod. Entirely mad, but improves the acuity of transients and micro-detail in the sound image. Yeah, yeah, of course it does. Next time more water with it.
To sum up…
What a different experience listening to music at this level of physical intensity. In situ, not quite as neat as Linn’s matching symmetrical components, a little more busy, but an overwhelmingly superior listening experience. It’s like upgrading your entire record collection by a level, enormously satisfying.
The future? More improvements wanted!
Disclaimer: I have no financial interest nor am in receipt of any inducement related to any products mentioned here. But as Groucho famously said: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others”. Cheques should be made payable to…
Out of curiosity, what has been your most significant hi-fi upgrade in the last year? I’m interested, do tell. Or if you reckon you are a hi-fi guru, where would you go from here? (on a sensible budget of course)