The upgrade-virus can easily take over control: where to draw the line?
By upgrading, matching and tweaking you can accomplish a lot. But when is it enough? When you can hear that the sound engineer had a cold whilst mixing? You have to be careful not to end up in a continuous stream of upgrading as the system gets technically better (more and more analytical) but the emotional aspect gets left out.
This is something that all too easily happens. For example if you really like a certain brand and you start buying more and more of that brand of even more of the same tweak and apply it everywhere. This is a great way to create a system with is strong at only one aspect and mediocro at others. What also happens is that you focus too much on that one prominent problem that you forget to pay attention to the other aspects, creating a system that is good at that one aspect but terrible in others. You only start noticing this after you’ve quenched your thirst on that one aspect. After some time you start noticing that the soundbalance has shifted more than you wanted it to and finding the correct balance can then be tricky.
This is an oft-used term but what defines neutrality? People don’t seem to agree on this subject. What one person finds neutral can sound colored to the next. Whether it’s the voices or the fluidness or the dynamics that make music sound natural to you, from person to person, this will different. There are in fact many aspects of sound playback that can make the music sound more natural but it’s not possible to combine all these aspects. It’s more a matter of choosing wat “defects” you can live with. After all, it’s an electronic reproduction. An approach of reality. Not the real thing.
The purpose of this text is not to define neutrality but more to point out that this is a relative term and that you should use it with caution. Striving for the best neutrality, the most honest sound, isn’t always the best way to go either because the reproduction will likely compliment a certain style of music while being less friendly to another. Also recording-quality may prohibit you from enjoying your cd’s when the system is too tightly tuned for honesty. Systems that are fit to play all kinds of music are bound to be kinder to some styles than to others. But at the same time neutrality is a good starting point when choosing components because this gives you the most leverage. This way you can tune your sound in both directions, ie warmer or more detailed. Should you go for a warm and cuddly sound or is it frowned upon to add colour? The answer is: whatever makes you enjoy your music best. If adding colour makes you happy then that’s the way to go. If you’re enjoying your music more with your mind, probably a more strictly neutral approach would be better for you.
Whether you go for the most detailed, most honest approach or for the forgiving, perhaps coloured approach, when buying components you don’t want to lean over to either side too much because it may be impossible to correct this imbalance at a later stage should you wish to.
Also, when applying tweaks and buying better cables and such, make sure that you listen to all aspects of the sound, not just to the one aspect you’re trying to improve. This prevents you ending up with a tightly tunes system that acts as a magnifying glass for recorded defects. You may want your system to be honest, but not to be punished when playing less than perfect discs.
Lastly, listen with your head, but also with your heart. By this I mean that you not only listen for improvements in certain areas but you also let go and see if the music moves you. This is easy: just do someting else while playing music and see if you’re enjoying it. By not paying attention you can see if the music really reaches you and you’re not only using your mind to search for minute details and such.
So better not apply tweaks?
For sure, tweaks can be very useful. And they can be an affordable way of improving your sound. The trick is to apply them one by one and pay attention to the sound at every stage. Try for example not to connect new powercables, interlinks, fit new feet and move the speakers all at once. One tweak or modification can affect the other. They can compliment each other but they can also work against each other.
How to stay objective?
Of course this is immensely difficult. Maybe even impossible. But one can try. Make a habit out of inviting audiofriends, one more opinion can make for a better weighed conclusion. The friend may also be less biased and can have a fresher look on your sound. It’s also good to have non-audiophiles listen to your system. They may not have golden ears and may miss aspects that you find important but simply because they are fresh to the matter and unprejudiced, sometimes they can uncover a weakness that you may have missed because you were so busy trying to improve that one aspect of the sound.
Some important points of attantion
- Take everything step by step, take your time.
- Don’t sell your old equipment before it’s really clear that you like the new stuff better.
- When in doubt, reconnect the old component or ask friends for their opinion.
- Don’t blindly apply the same tweak everywhere. Apply them one by one.
- Listen not only on evenings but also during the day and in both weekends and weekdays.
- Try to stop listening when you feel you;re getting tired or irritated and continue the next day.
Now that you’re hopefully better prepared for what’s coming, happy tweaking!