Setting up your hi-fi

 

Want to get the most from your hi-fi system without any major upgrades?

We’ve put together this guide to help you to tweak your current setup. Whether you’ve just bought your first hi-fi or you’ve invested in a high-spec system, we think you’ll find something here to help you enjoy your music even more. If you have a question which isn’t answered here you can ask the Cable Doctor who will give you advice for your particular setup and requirements.

Hi-fi racks

So you’ve just bought a hi-fi system. You rush home, unpack everything and look around the room for somewhere to put it. Speakers placed anywhere you can fit them. Amplifiers, turntable, CD player and whatever else you’ve just spent your hard earned money on are stacked on top of each other. Plug it all in, connect the speakers, switch on and find your favourite album. Of course it sounds wonderful, but there may be cables of all sorts draped around the room and whoever shares your space may well regard it as a no-go, trip hazard area but hey, you’re going to stay up late and play it as loud as you can get away with.

At some point though you’re going to have to find a better and more acceptable place to put it all, so welcome to the world of hi-fi racks. A rack does far more than just make your equipment look tidy.

What does a hi-fi rack do?

Put simply, hi-fi racks isolate and absorb/dissipate mechanical energy from the components. The easiest example of this is record players. They are very susceptible to vibration. Put on the wrong support and even footsteps can make the needle and arm jump from the grooves in the record, causing damage to both the needle and the record. There are wall mounted shelves built specially to isolate turntables from their surroundings and all manner of stands and supports to do the same thing. This all seems to make a lot of sense with turntables but don’t forget CD players, amplifiers and just about any piece of audio electronics will sound better if placed on a dedicated rack or isolation shelf.

Why use a hi-fi rack?

It is very easy to hear improvements in the music. Detail, image and depth get better. Bass feels controlled and defined. They aren’t always the most sexy thing to buy. There are some very reasonably priced, well built racks available and as with all things hi-fi, you can also spend a small fortune should you wish.

Silent Mounts

Silent Mounts were developed in Japan. Outwardly simple and internally very complex, they are beautifully engineered and extremely effective isolation devices. They are designed to sit beneath equipment racks and speakers and we are still surprised at the musical improvements they can make to systems.  We have two versions of the Silent Mounts, one machined from titanium to sit beneath equipment racks and one built from stainless steel to use beneath speakers.

What are the improvements?

Silent mounts can bring better definition and coherence to music and a precision to the start and stop of individual notes. Used beneath floor standing speakers (particularly big ones) they also make it incredibly easy to slide the speaker around the floor until you find the perfect position. A set of Silent Mounts beneath your speaker spikes will allow you to make micro adjustments until you find the perfect position.

We’ve used titanium Silent Mounts under various racks and the results range from good to extraordinary. Underneath a properly levelled rack, the extra sense of detail, dynamics and particularly definition is quite profound. Silent Mounts, both speaker and rack versions, can often fix big issues with bass, dynamics and definition throughout the whole frequency range.

Cleaning hi-fi equipment

A thorough cleaning session of all contacts, from mains plugs to speaker connections can make a big difference and should be a twice yearly event. Its a chore and we’d much rather be playing music. The improvements aren’t going to be a revelation (unless you haven’t touched anything for years) but they are global. Every aspect of performance gets better. Put them all together and your music will sound more involving.

How to clean your hi-fi

It’s not difficult – just time and a good contact cleaner. There are lots available: Kontak, Blue Horizon and Deoxit have all been used in our demo room/homes to good effect.

Power your system down and disconnect everything, taking care to note directions and where particular cables are routed. Start by cleaning the mains plugs (both ends), then the mains connectors on the equipment, then the interconnects and sockets and finally the speaker cable connections.

While the system is apart, there is no harm in waving a duster about. Dust builds up and this is a good chance to get rid of it and since the system’s in bits, you could also check the shelves it sits on and ensure they’re level as well. Once all this is done, put the system back together, power it up and play music.

Ethernet streaming

Our demo room is regarded as one of the best in the country and we have a huge range of equipment. We spend a lot of time experimenting with streaming USB and Ethernet-based devices and have developed a range of cables which we believe can bring profound musical improvements, particularly in terms of transparency and musical coherence.

Is there a difference?

We are aware of the argument that Ethernet cables have no effect on the sound quality of a system, but when we experimented, we could hear very clear differences – particularly in timing and coherence of music.  Could it be subjective? We’re not sure, but we do believe that for music to work properly, it must be coherent.

Coherence?

A good example would be bass and drums. By the time a track makes it on to an album, the bass player and drummer are hopefully playing in time with each other. Bass players have a difficult job. It involves both rhythm and melody. A bass player sits between the drummer and the guitarist and needs to work with both. It sounds simple, but in practice it’s an area where so many systems and their accompanying cables really fall over. It’s great to hear a distinct bass line or the attack of the drum kit, but its even better to hear them playing properly together.

This applies to all genres. If jazz is really to work properly it has to sound coherent – and when it does the experience is extraordinary. Listen to John Coltrane playing with bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones – a quartet capable of producing incredible music. For the full experience you need a properly set up and coherent system.

That difference again.

In repeated testing and listening, we could hear clear differences between Ethernet cables and when we ‘blind’ tested these, the people taking part showed clear preferences for particular cables. Not only that, through ‘blind’ testing we came to the conclusion that Ethernet cables exhibited the same sort of directional characteristics as both analogue and digital cables.

We think that the most important connection to try first (if you’re going to experiment with Ethernet cables) is the one between the streaming device and the router. In repeated tests, this was the one that made the biggest difference. Chord dealers are happy to let customers try cables out at home. It’s your system and it’s your music and if you value your music, its worth a listen.

USB streaming

We’ve spent years experimenting with ethernet and USB cables and have come to the conclusion that digital cables, like their analogue counterparts, can have a profound effect on the tonal, rhythmic and dynamic properties of a system.

Streaming from a computer is a practical and increasingly popular approach. A music collection is a hugely valuable thing. Once ripped to a hard disc, it may no longer have a physical presence within your house but it is still a big part of your life. It’s a store of memories and emotions. Convenience is great, but make sure you hear it the way it’s meant to be heard.

What to listen out for

We believe that the quality of digital cables such as ethernet or USB has an impact on overall sound quality and therefore the listening experience. If you’re using entry-level digital cables, you’ll probably find that by upgrading to superior quality cables you’ll be able to appreciate your music collection even more.

Our digital cables are made with high quality materials and an obsessive attention to detail. Each cable is the result of multiple tests and measurements. We believe that our cables will allow you to hear a greater level of detail with improvements in tone, dynamics and rhythmic characteristics. Your favourite music should sound clearer and more engaging.

Running-in speakers

Every hi-fi component will get better as it is used and perhaps the most obvious (and easy to understand) are speakers. Speakers have moving parts and when new, the surrounds of the speaker can be stiff, so the speaker can’t move as freely as it should. This is true regardless of size.  Bass, mid-range and treble units will all sound better with use.  Some new speakers can sound bright and almost fierce. Bass can sound stiff and slightly mechanical, rhythm and timing can also be affected. You might even think “oh no, what have I bought !”

Running-in can transform new speakers from a pair of un-musical and unloved boxes into something really special that you want to spend all your time listening to.

How to run-in speakers

Running in speakers takes time – around 100 hours for most, with some of the more exotic examples taking a fair bit longer. There are different ways to approach this.

The first is simply patience. Play music when you want and accept that gradually the things you listen to are going to start to sound better. You can help this process on its way by connecting the TV to the hi-fi, so the speakers are still being used while the family watch television. If you haven’t tried this before, then your television is also going to sound an awful lot better.

If you can get away with it (and most people can’t) turn the amplifier up to a reasonable volume, put a CD with plenty of bass and treble and leave it on repeat. This is fine if you go to work, but is unlikely to endear you to your family or neighbours.

There is a third way which works rather well, although it does rather depend (again) on whether you can get away with it. Turn the speakers so that the drive units face each other and are as close as you can get without actually touching. Cover them with blankets, duvets etc. making sure that the gap between the speakers is well covered – the more covering the better. Then connect them to your amplifier, and this is where it gets clever. Connect one as normal: positive to positive and negative to negative (red to red and black to black). Connect the other speaker cable as normal at the amplifier (red to red, black to black). At the speaker end however, connect the red to the negative (black) input and connect the black to the positive (red) input. Set the volume to what you can get away with and leave a CD on repeat.

This means the speakers are wired out of phase, so while one is moving out, the other is moving in. This action can speed up the running-in process and depending on the number of blankets/duvets etc, will keep the sound to a minimum.

Check speaker position

It’s worth spending time finding the right position for your speakers, but if you do this when they are brand new, just bear in mind that once they’re run in you may well need to reposition them. It won’t be by much, but play with the angle of toe-in and try a couple of inches forward or backwards, it might just make all the difference.

Do power cables make a difference?

We don’t doubt that power cables can make a system sound better. We’ve been listening, researching and experimenting for too long. The argument against is perfectly logical. How on earth can a metre of expensive cable make a difference when the current that it carries is running through your house from the fuse box and from the fuse box back to a substation? It’s an outrageous concept until you consider what high frequency effective shielding can do with interconnects and speaker cable.

We didn’t produce a power cable until we’d first produced the Signature interconnect and then Signature speaker cable. Up until then, we’d experimented but never managed to produce consistently good results. What worked in one system made another system worse. After discovering what high frequency effective shielding configured correctly could do to interconnects and speaker cables, the obvious thing to do was to try the same design principles with power cables.

Listening tests

In listening tests, the results were very similar to both the Signature interconnect and speaker cable. Better dynamics, better detail, better definition. There were some extraordinary differences depending on how the plugs were wired internally – and fuses made a difference too.  All these things were easy to hear and so our first power cable, the Chord Power Chord, came into existence. It was the first we’d produced where we felt the results were consistent from system to system. Now we have the Chord C-power, a very plain looking mains cable with moulded plugs (and there’s a very good argument for using moulded plugs on mains cables) but with a very effective dual layer shield.

There is also the Chord Signature and Sarum Tuned ARAY power cables, capable of transforming systems in the same way that Tuned ARAY interconnects can. If you want to experiment with power cables, the rules are the same as they are for interconnects and speaker cable.

Try for yourself

Find a dealer who will let you take one home to listen to. We think that the biggest improvement happens when the cable is connected to the source component. That said, if you’re using a transport and DAC then you may find the best result will be had by connecting the cable to the DAC. The rule is to experiment. The second rule is to make sure it’s not just different but that it’s actually better. Does your music sound better? That seems obvious but it’s so easy to mistake a difference for an improvement. So spend some time with the music you know best. Another thing. If you are going to experiment with power cables, do so one at a time. Understand what each one does before adding another.

There is much discussion about what the most important cable in a system is. With the work we’ve done on our range of analogue and digital interconnects, all inspired by Tuned ARAY, we think that interconnects might just be the best place to start. But if you haven’t tried changing power cables, approach them with an open mind. It’s very easy to hear the difference. Just remember, you’re listening for better not different.

Not all hi-fi is created equal

It used to be so simple – record player, amplifier and speakers and you were there. If you wanted to make recordings it was probably a cassette deck and you might just add a tuner if you listened to a lot of radio.

These days it’s a bit more complicated. First of all, you need to decide how you’re going to listen to the music you like. The choices are:

Turntable

The pros – it’s a wonderful and very tactile way of listening to music and album sleeves can be really quite wonderful works of art as well. Owning a turntable means never being able to walk past a charity shop without going in and rummaging the second hand vinyl. It’s a great way of discovering older music.

The cons – although new albums are routinely released on this format and despite the resurgence of all things vinyl (eg. Record Store Day), not every release may be available. Vinyl is also a fragile medium and easily damaged, in fact the whole process demands your care, love and attention, although that’s probably a good thing.

CD player

The pros – there’s a good chance you may already have a collection of compact discs. For twenty years or so it was really the only way you could buy albums. Also, pretty much every album released is available on CD. We think rumours of the impending death of CD are greatly exaggerated. As a format, it’s going to be around for some time yet and there are some very good, musical CD players available for not a lot of money.

A lot of modern CD players are equipped with a USB input. This means that if you have music on a computer or laptop, you can connect it via USB cable to the CD player and get the benefit of its superior digital to analogue converter.

The cons – well, it’s not as much fun as vinyl, the sleeve notes are really difficult to read (if you’re of a certain age) and it’s not quite as convenient as streaming.

Streaming

The pros – you can store a huge collection of music on one storage device, so no more walls of CDs to spoil the living room. You can download music directly from the web, a lot of which is now available at a much higher resolution than CD. A lot of streamers come with an app, which once downloaded onto a phone or tablet, lets you sit in the comfort of your chair and scroll through albums and tracks without the need to get up.

The cons – If you’ve got a big CD collection you’re going to have to rip them via your computer to a NAS drive. This is time consuming and needs to be done properly. If you value the quality of your music, do a bit of research. There are many cheap CD-ripping programs that will make far more accurate copies than the software bundled on your computer. This is really important. The best streamer in the world can only play the signal it’s given and our experience of using existing software to rip CDs was shocking.

Don’t forget to make a backup of your collection. It’s not a case of if a NAS drive fails, more when it fails.

All in one

The pros – Do a bit of looking round and it’s pretty easy to pick up a one box solution. It will play and rip CDs, it will stream either internet radio or your music from an external hard drive. It may also have an internal hard drive and probably built in amplifiers as well. All you need is a pair of speakers.

The cons –  Listen to it first. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

A personal choice

Whatever equipment you decide upon, the best place to buy from is a specialist hi-fi shop. Don’t be intimidated. In our experience, they are run and staffed by people who love music just as much as you do – and while you can spend huge amounts of money on a hi-fi system, there are also many that will give you years of pleasure without costing a fortune.

Whatever system you decide is best for you, don’t be blinded by numbers or specifications. Take some of your favourite music along and have a listen. Choosing hi-fi is about finding a system that makes your music sound better and hopefully makes you feel better too.