Essential Audio Tips

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 ''Spending money on a decent hi-fi system and then wiring it with poor cables makes as much sense as buying vintage wine and drinking it from a polystyrene beaker.'' - Malcolm Steward, Hi-Fi Journalist

There is more involved in getting great sound from your system than simply buying good hi-fi components. The best gear in the world won't deliver a stunning performance if you casually lash it together with inappropriate cables, or place the speakers behind the sofa.

In this tip, we shall shed some light on the various ways that you can improve your sound, from leads and cables to stands and racks. By the time you're done, your system will sound so good, you'll feel like you have a new hi-fi.

Leads & Cables

Interconnects, the leads that connect CD players, tape decks, tuners and so on to the amplifier - and loudspeaker cables - the wires that connect the amplifier to the loudspeakers - have a significant effect on sound quality. The wrong cables can make your bass boomy, your treble scratchy, and muddle the music in between. Good cables will make your system sound properly balanced and clear, allowing you to hear precisely what the musicians are doing as well as making the system's presentation more natural and enjoyable.

There are no strict rules about which cables you should use with any particular system. As a guideline, you should spend at least 10% of the system price on cables. Manufacturers usually supply leads with equipment but you are best to regard these as no more than get-you-going items. Invest in something better as soon as you can.

You usually get what you pay for but there are exceptions to the rule! Nonetheless, every system - whether it's a top-of-the-range rig or a basic starter set-up - needs purpose-made hi-fi cables. Don't think that leads such as those supplied with your kid's abandoned game console will double as hi-fi interconnects just because they have the same sort of plugs on them. Worthwhile hi-fi cables use high quality materials and connectors, are carefully designed and manufactured for the best sonic performance, and are configured to reject interference.
 
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ANALOGUE

These come in pairs (one for the left and one for the right channel) and typically connect the source units to the amplifier. If you have invested in some quality cables, a word of advice - ensure that you have them plugged in the right way round. Many cables are directional, which means they need to be fitted with the arrows pointing towards the amplifier for best performance.
 
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Digital Optical Cables

These use light to transfer information from one unit to the other. There are two main terminators used on these cables - Toslink (used on most separates) and 3.5mm plugs (used on most portables).
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Digital Coaxial Cables

These convey the digital signal using an electrical cable. Use a dedicated digital cable, since using the wrong one can lead to a loss of data which, in turn, can affect the sound (if indeed they work at all).

SPEAKER CABLE

Whatever sort of system you have, pay particular attention to the loudspeaker cables. Don't simply hook up your speakers with the lengths of wire your electrician left behind when he finished installing your shower. Choose proper loudspeaker cable and connect it to your speakers and amplifier carefully with the recommended connectors: a short circuit caused by loose strands of wire touching each other can fry your amplifier, and the repairs won't be covered by your warranty.
Make sure you use equal lengths of cable even if one speaker is right next to your amplifier while the other is several feet away. And don't make a neat coil of any excess cable because that encourages it to act like an aerial and pick up interference. Another anti-interference measure is to keep interconnect and speaker cables away from mains cables: at the very least avoid running mains cables close and parallel to any cables carrying audio signals.
 
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Stands and Racks

  Loudspeakers, unless you're using floor-standing types, work best on rigid stands that perform two important tasks. Firstly, they place them at the correct height, which is with the tweeters at ear-level when you're seated. Secondly, they keep them solidly in place. If a loudspeaker and/or its support can wobble about, it will lose or confuse musical information. Stands are not a luxury, they're a necessity. Thankfully, they're not expensive and come in a wide variety of styles.

Both loudspeaker and equipment supports need setting-up properly if they're to work effectively. If the stands come flat-packed, you'll have to bolt them together. Make sure everything is done up tight. Fit the spikes and adjust them so that the stand is level and doesn't rock in any direction. (Don't worry about your carpet. Spikes will pass clean through the weave and leave no lasting impression, unlike a piece of heavy furniture, which leaves a permanent dent in the pile).

Attach the speakers to the stand using either Blu-Tack or upward-facing spikes if they're supplied. If you're using the spikes, push the speaker gently onto them: don't overdo it or you could split the woodwork. Once the speaker sits level and doesn't rock, leave it alone. Some speaker stands (and some equipment stands) can be filled to deaden resonance - the stand vibrating and singing along with the speaker - and add mass. The instructions will tell you when during the assembly process you need to pour in the sand, lead-shot or aggregate filling material so be sure to read them before you start work!

HI-FI RACKS & ISOLATION PLATFORMS

What applies to loudspeakers also applies to CD players, turntables, amplifiers, tuners and any other black box with knobs on. A custom support counters the music-mangling mischief caused by structure and air-borne vibrations. Think about it for a minute: you can put your ear against a wall and hear what someone is saying in the room next door, because their voice causes the wall to vibrate. Now, if a human voice can energise a few tons of bricks and mortar imagine the havoc that Guns'n'Roses cranked up to 120dB can wreak upon a poor little CD player's sensitive innards. (The technical reason for isolating components is that electrical devices' capacitors, resistors and so on often generate current when they're mechanically excited, which isn't desirable in a hi-fi.)

If your room doesn't provide enough floor space for stands you can obtain dedicated wall-mounted supports for both speakers and your hi-fi components. You can also use isolation platforms to improve the performance of hi-fi separates that have to be placed on shelving.
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