It is surprising how many energy transformation processes are involved in making music with a Hi-Fi system and so it is, therefore, perhaps not so surprising that there are all manner of accessories that can be bought or made which are widely accepted to improve the reproduction process overall.
Ringmat Developments in the UK produce mats for both CD and LP and I have been using both extensively over the last several weeks.
I view Hi-Fi systems as consisting of three types of components:
Tuning components are the most controversial. These items are not needed at all to produce sound from the musical storage medium. Many would argue strongly that if they have any sonic effect at all, it will be minor.
After two decades of building, modifying and tuning my own systems I have found that all three types of component affect the sound. However, whilst changing a fundamental component such as the loudspeakers can have a very large sonic affect on the music, a change of the essentials and even more so the introduction of a tuning element, may have a much more subtle affect.
But these subtle affects can make a big difference to the system's musical integrity and, more worryingly, the fundamentals need to be optimized before the benefits of cable upgrades and tuning activities can be fully appreciated.
Furthermore, the affect of tuning elements is system dependent and thus there is an inevitable paranoia when assessing these accessories. If there is no audible impact is this due to:
So what are these energy interactions at there most basic level that make tuning a Hi-Fi system worthy of consideration?
The following diagram shows the components of a hi-fi system and the potential energy fields that can act on it to distort the sound and shroud the music.
First of all, no hi-fi component can add to the sound recorded on the software purchased either in CD or vinyl format. So in my opinion the "front end" must not be the limiting factor in the system, because if you are interested in upgrades, you need as good a signal retrieval component as you can afford. Next comes the amplifier.
This component takes energy from the power station up the road and imparts it onto the low level signal to provide sufficient power to drive the transducers in the loudspeakers. A simple process to describe but there are many ways of going about it.
Too much processing in this part of the chain can destroy the very essentials of the music in question.
The loudspeakers can take many forms; there are hundreds on the market ranging from simple two-way reflex loaded boxes for the bookshelf to massive electrostatics that would dominate all but the most cavernous of listening rooms. In general the active part of the speaker converts electrical signals into acoustic waves. Again a simple energy transfer process but one susceptible to coupling with energy fields in the listening room.
So in the case of vinyl, to reproduce music the Hi-Fi system converts electrical energy into mechanical energy to rotate a disc; this mechanical energy imparts a displacement of the stylus which converts mechanical energy into small amounts of electrical energy via an electro-magnetic interaction within the cartridge (less for a MC than a MM); this small electrical signal is then amplified by the injection of more electrical energy; finally the electrical energy is converted to mechanical energy by the transducers in the loudspeakers.
In the case of a CD source we have additional energy transfer processes: Not only do we need a rotating platter, but electrical energy is converted into optical energy that is reflected by the CD onto a receiver that converts the optical energy into electrical energy to produce a digital signal.
In this process there is also a servo unit attached to the laser/detector unit which utilizes electrical to mechanical energy to focus the laser onto the CD. The digital signal is then of course converted by an electrical circuit into the analogue electrical signal that is fed to the amplifier.
Now at every instance of energy conversion the signal can be subject to the introduction of distortion and loss of information. Also, noise can be injected into the system by the various energy forms in the reproduction chain being coupled into external energy sources.
The types of energy that influence the various parts of the Hi-Fi system are indicated in the diagram. These energy sources, if coupled into the signal, will distort the resulting sound, and these sonically degrading interactions are those commonly addressed by the variety of accessories that are available to the music lover to tune their system's reproduction.
Perhaps the following might help. The title track by Tommy Smith from his "Step by Step" CD, as with so many jazz albums is really well recorded with a great atmosphere. This track is a good test vehicle because it has quite complicated rhythmic content, the bass line is particularly interesting as it slides from one note to the next; reinforcing the sax's lead from a relatively gentle introduction, to a frenzied few bars about 2 minutes into the piece, before the musicians really get into there stride and boogie away.
With the original Statmat the sound is more open with a greater depth of image than without it, there is a swish of the cymbals and the drums have an aural environment, but for me what the original Statmat did was make better sense of the timing and particularly the interplay between the bass lines and the drums.
With the CDi mat in place, the air in the recording is more evident resulting in my being able to hear more convincing breath on the sax playing and the keyboard passage, set well back in the mix, makes a more audible contribution to the spirit of the music. But it is definition of the bass and drums parts that really seems to snap into place.
In the passage when the sax goes into a frenzy the drum rolls are more audible and this leads the passage along, despite the feeling of anarchy conveyed by the sax. This passage moves more naturally into the boogie phase of the composition and the musicians really get into their stride.
I can do no more than this to describe to you my perceived benefits of the CDi Statmat in my system. At 28 Euros (16 Euros for an upgrade), little more than the cost of a CD, the latest Statmat incarnation imparts an extra degree of involvement to the reproduction.
In Geoff's review he found little benefit from the LP Statmat and Ringcap that form part of the package. I have convinced myself that they both add to the sound improvement in my system.
I came across the killer example only recently as a result of obtaining a vinyl copy of What's the Story by Oasis. I have had the CD version of this work for years and I have tried various methods of taming the harshness of the high frequency energy on this recording.
Both the Aurex and Statmat I have found effective. However, I have found that reproduction via the vinyl format really sorts out this problem and I listened with great satisfaction to my new addition to the record collection. The high frequency information (and the bass and drum rhythm lines buried beneath) became clearer with the Statmat and Ringcap in place.
However, I have noticed that at the end of some records the cartridge touches the edge of the Ringcap which causes me to leap to lift the arm to prevent this happening. I understand that geometric considerations dictate the diameter of the device which can not be made a little smaller without affecting its performance.
I am using an AT33e which has quite a wide body an only just snags the Ringcap on some records but this is something to watch out for if you try one.
A tuning element targeted at addressing one energy interaction, by its presence will almost certainly set up other interactions. All elements have mass or can carry electrical fields, absorb light and so on, so their effect on the sound (if any) will be as a result of a complex interaction with the system and its surroundings. It is this complexity that leads to system dependency and, I suggest, scepticism.
I am now playing with various support ideas utilizing absorbing materials costing from a few to a few tens of euros.
Of course when experimenting with tuning elements there is a risk that there will be no audible effect, but the expenditure is relatively small and it might just result in an upgraded sonic performance at least as significant as changing a cable or even trying a different fundamental component.
The sceptical and risk averse will never know what they might be missing. And here's a final thought: Who would think of buying a car with no shock absorbers ;-)?
PS. Some readers who already own a Ringmat system may be wondering if their yellow spacers are similarly flawed. Ringmat Developments have offered the following advice:
If there are any yellow or clear spacers the wrong way round which are still in circulation, they would have been amongst the very few that were shipped in February or March this year (1999).
It should be easy enough to check them - compare the sound when using two slate spacers (0.125mm x 2 = 0.250mm thick) with that when using one clear (0.250mm) spacer, then similarly check the sound when using each yellow spacer (0.500mm thick) with that obtained using one clear and two slate spacers (0.250mm + 0.125mm x 2 = 0.500mm).
In carrying out this test, the overall thickness of the spacers should be approximately correct so as to achieve an accurate stylus rake angle, and the absolute phase of the signal from the record (LP) should be the same as that of the reproduction (hi-fi) system; if in doubt, play the record twice, once with absolute phase set at 0 degrees and once at 180 degrees (by switching the speaker cable connections at the back of the speaker from red to red and black to black so that they are red to black and black to red - muting or switching off the (power) amp whilst making any change, of course!).
Because the yellow and clear spacers are made from materials which are different from those used to make the slate spacers, very sensitive systems may detect a small difference in sound anyway, but it should be obvious from the "flatness" of the music and the shape of the notes if any of the yellow or clear spacers are suspect. If any problems are suspected, users should contact us.
Copyright 2000 Steve Davey - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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