Confessions of a Setup Man Part 12: Failed Experiments

Confessions of a Setup Man Part 12: Failed Experiments

Written by Frank Doris

Many audiophiles are tinkerers. We’re constantly striving to squeeze the last iota of performance out of our audio systems, or we just like to putz with stuff, or we’re obsessive-compulsive.

Tinkering often involves experimentation. And (cue evil horror movie laugh), the experiments don’t always go right. I’ve had my share of failures, and I’ll bet it’s true for any audio manufacturer.

I’ve been fascinated with electronics since I was a kid – and never let a lack of knowledge get in my way. When I was 13 my father bought me a Kimberly electric guitar and a Bryan amp, a cheap solid-state model with a tiny speaker. It wasn’t very loud. I reasoned that if I built a bigger speaker cabinet, it would sound louder.

I had little money. I could only dream of buying even the raw speakers in the Lafayette catalog. So, I went around to the neighbors’ houses in our suburban Smithtown, New York neighborhood and asked if they had any old radios they didn’t want. I managed to collect a bunch. Then I needed an enclosure. My mother had an old laundry hamper with ugly brown vinyl covering. Since I had no woodworking skills, I decided it would do.

I set to work, pulling all the speakers out of the radios, sawing holes in the face of the hamper and wiring it up. I thought, if one speaker would play at X volume, then surely six speakers would play at XXXXXX the volume!

I plugged it in, hesitantly struck a chord, and…heard a pathetic, tinny, low-volume sound. What did I do wrong? All the connections were OK…no matter what I did all I got was this barely-audible blat, dreams of blasting away at Pete Townshend volume dissolved. Bummer!

Years later I found out that hooking up more speakers of course doesn’t necessarily give you more volume – especially when the speakers are connected in series and present a high resistive load to the amplifier. I don’t remember if I’d wired the speakers in series or parallel, which would have been equally bad, dropping the total impedance of my hamper rig to something more akin to a short circuit than anything you’d want an amplifier to drive. Also, I knew nothing about needing to keep the speakers in phase, so half of them were probably phase-cancelling each other.

Lesson learned: don’t just start futzing around with what you think will work.

Sometime later I tried the opposite – hooking up a Kustom 100 guitar amp head to a 6 x 9 car speaker and turning it to 10 to see what would happen. The voice coil went up in flames, that’s what happened!

Lesson learned: don’t put 50 watts of power into a speaker rated for a few watts.

A few years later I read an article about how double Advents were a hot thing among audiophiles. You’d stack two Large Advent loudspeakers and get sound that was way better than using a single pair. Well, I didn’t own Advents, so I just took two pairs of speakers I had around (I don’t remember which models), stacked them atop one another, connected them to my receiver’s Speaker A and Speaker B outputs, and…heard an incoherent sonic mess. No imaging or soundstaging. Where was the stacked-speaker magic?

Eventually I found out that you needed to stack the double Advents with their tweeters next to each other – in other words, with the top speakers upside down. This gave improved imaging (and other sonic benefits) and created a pseudo-D’Appolito driver configuration. I had just plopped two random speakers atop one another.

I haven’t tried stacking speakers since then.

Lesson learned: leave speaker design to the speaker designers. (Although if you do your homework and have talent, maybe you’ll come up with the next Rogers LS3/5A or Wilson Alexx.)

Through most of my twenties I had little discretionary income. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, my dreams were limited only by the size of my bank account. In an effort to save money, my great (and sadly now deceased) friend (and former TAS and Stereophile writer Bob Reina) suggested buying Monster Cable Interlink Reference raw cable and connectors and soldering them up myself. He had a source, and the savings were significant.

Well, I thought I could do a soldering job as nice as this! Monster Cable I100 interconnects.
Well, I thought I could do a soldering job as nice as this! Monster Cable I100 interconnects.

So, I bought the stuff…and soon realized that stripping the wire was nearly impossible. It took an hour just to get one end prepared. When I tried to solder up the connector, the solder just wouldn’t stay on. I tried and tried and wasted an entire afternoon. Finally, I called my friends at The Audio Den, and the guy who answered the phone laughed and responded with something like, “who told you that you could do this stuff yourself? It requires special solder, special fixtures, high-temperature equipment – you’ll never be able to do it!” Well, I wasn’t laughing after wasting all that money. I did get a good deal on some used Interlink Reference from the salesman though. Perhaps he took pity on me.

I was able to get some doubled-up 12-gauge wire though, to make homemade speaker cable that served me well for years and actually sounded pretty good.

Lessons learned: one, sometimes, good soldering skills ain’t going to get you anywhere. Two, sometimes it’s more expensive to try to “save” money.

Every tube aficionado loves tube rolling, right? For those unaware and un-obsessed, tube rolling is the practice of trying different tubes other than the stock ones supplied with an audio component, in the quest to get better sound. And I had accumulated quite a stash from going to garage sales, an avocation I started when I was 22. You could get lots of tubes back then. Being curious, I tried them in guitar amps and audio gear – and wondered why I got all kinds of hissing and sputtering noises or terrible sound or no sound at all, or why my system got a “pinging” sound whenever I touched anything. Duh, noisy and bad tubes and microphonics! I didn’t have a tube tester at the time but that didn’t stop me! To compound the mayhem, a few years later I bought an Audible Illusions Modulus 3 preamp – which is notorious for “eating” tubes that aren’t rugged enough. I’ve gone through at least a dozen 6DJ8/ECC88/6922 tubes. You’d’ think I’d learned my lesson by now but when you put a tube like a Made In Holland Amperex “Bugle Boy” in it, the sound is so heavenly you could weep. And I haven’t blown up the preamp yet.

6DJ8/ECC88 and 6922 tubes. Will they work? 6DJ8/ECC88 and 6922 tubes. Will they work?


Lesson learned: if you’re going to try tube rolling, do it with good tubes from a reliable source!

If you ever blow a fuse in an audio component or guitar or bass amp, don’t ever try to get through the gig by putting aluminum foil in the fuse holder. Just don’t.

Lesson learned: see above. The evidence, an old Fender Twin Reverb, is no longer in my possession.

Toilet paper can be a useful audio mod! It can be used to tame a tweeter’s brightness. Before you think I’ve gone totally off the deep end, this was actually a thing in the pro audio world with Yamaha NS-10 studio monitors. I once was testing a pair of Snell Type C loudspeakers that had a tweeter in the back, with a switch to tailor its response. I didn’t like the sound in either position so I thought, let’s try covering it with toilet paper! But my OCD came to the fore, and you know where this is going – I had to try different thicknesses, even going so far as to peel the paper apart to get a thinner layer. I was never happy with the sound. Failed experiment – although I could have been more thorough, but I was too embarrassed to go to the supermarket checkout counter with a cart full of different brands.

Lesson learned: maybe Charmin would have been worth a try.

Every audiophile has experienced The Upgrade That Wasn’t. The first was when I was in my early twenties, and was ready to move up from my Marantz 2216b receiver that “only” had 16 watts per channel. I saw an ad for The Wiz (Noo Yawkers will remember the chain) with a great deal on a Kenwood KR-710 with almost twice the power! I bought it, expecting a huge sonic improvement, and…as the doc in The Twilight Zone “Eye of the Beholder” episode says, “No change! No change at all!” I was crushed. But I had already sold the 2216b.

Well, one of these is vintage gold. Kenwood KR-710 and Marantz 2216b, author’s collection. Well, one of these is vintage gold. Kenwood KR-710 and Marantz 2216b, author’s collection.

A few years later, history repeated itself, this time in upgrading my Linn LP12/Syrinx/Grado turntable setup to a Goldmund Studio (with the same Syrinx arm and cartridge). I thought the Goldmund would annihilate the Linn – and it didn’t. I tried lying to myself, especially after spending – you don’t want to know. Was it worth it? For decades I’ve been lying to myself…

Lessons learned: one, sometimes what you think will be an upgrade, won’t be. Two: If you can, try before you buy.

When I worked at The Absolute Sound I curtailed my experimenting predilections, since our mandate was to test the equipment under real-world conditions, not do stuff like run the tape outputs of an Audio-Research SP-11 preamp directly into the amplifier in order to bypass some circuitry and get a purer sound. According to my predecessor at TAS, it could work – but you were playing Russian Roulette with the gain-matching to the amp and the efficiency of the speakers, risking dropping the needle onto the record and getting ungodly loud speaker-shredding volume. Would you want to try it with an Infinity IRS V speaker system?

Although, I did have to sometimes try crazy things just to get through a listening session or review. We once got in a Mark Levinson No.25 phono stage for review. The system had poorly-shielded interconnects and a low-gain moving coil cartridge in it – but that’s what editor Harry Pearson wanted! – and I spent hours trying to place the No.25 in a spot where it wouldn’t hum. The only thing that worked was placing the phono stage sticking out into the room, away from the equipment rack – and the only thing handy to put it on was a small metal wastebasket. When Harry saw that, he freaked. “You can’t put it on a garbage can!” And reminded me that the Madrigal Audio Laboratories guys (the Mark Levinson distributors at the time) were coming to visit. “OK,” I said; “I’ll put it in the position where it hums the least and let them figure it out.” Which is exactly what I did. They couldn’t solve it either and when they left, it went right back on the wastebasket.

Lesson learned: sometimes, no matter what you do, it just ain’t going to work.

Oh, how much time I’ve spent on tweaks that didn’t work! To be fair, some did, like putting vibration-isolation cones under components or positioning speakers symmetrically to within a 32nd of an inch. But, especially during my No-Budget Audiophile Era, I tried a lot of things that didn’t work. Don’t have the money for isolation cones or pucks or turntable bases? Try what’s around the house! Nuts and bolts as speaker spikes or isolation feet; rubber placemats, wood or cardboard as isolation platforms (painted black to look “finished,” and yes, I tried cardboard), blankets as sound absorbers (these can actually work pretty well), aluminum foil shielding, weights taped to the tonearm, the aforementioned tube rolling and more.

My audiophile friends and I would try anything, to the point where Bob Reina nailed us one time. He brought over a mysterious-looking circular white three-legged object and said, “put it on top of the record over the spindle and it’ll improve the sound.” Like eager puppies, we tried it. “I think I hear an improvement!” “The sound opened up more!” “What is this thing?”

It was a pizza saver, the spacer in a pizza box that keeps the top of the box from touching the pizza.

Lesson learned: naahh, I’ll just leave that there.

It won't make your system sound better, but you won't have to listen over the sound of your rumbling stomach. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/4028mdk09. It won't make your system sound better, but you won't have to listen over the sound of your rumbling stomach. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/4028mdk09.
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