A touch of spice

October 13, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

One of the rules of successful cooking is the addition of spices and salts. When properly applied these flavor enhancers transform ordinary ingredients into works of art.

We can say the same about the tweaks and upgrades we often lavish upon our audio equipment. Everything from aftermarket fuses, vibration controls, shelving, room acoustic enhancements…even setup.

I find the similarities to be helpful. For one thing, we know it’s typically a bad idea to overdue food enhancements. Too much of this or that overpowers the meal. Too little and we risk eating bland.

And the same can be true for our systems. Too much toe in to enhance center image fill results in a loss of soundstage width. The wrong cables accentuate what we don’t want and obfuscate what we’re hoping to magnify.

In the end, a touch of spice makes the meal.

Too much or too little is where we don’t want to be.

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34 comments on “A touch of spice”

  1. Having had my audio system in storage since May, plugging it in a few weeks ago, everything was pre-planned. The only changes “after the event” have been the removal of a vibration platform under the turntable (ugly and unnecessary) and what goes under the speaker spikes remains to be seen.

    Food preparation seems no different, in that the flavouring and spicing is integral to the preparation and cannot be left until “after the event”, because by then it’s too late. The only after-market spicing I do is salt on my fish & chips.

    1. I thought with your turntable in the corner, the platform might have been meaningful…but maybe you don’t play bass heavy stuff or not too loud 😉

      1. The hifi unit has damping feet, specified for a load of 100kg, so the whole thing is partly isolated from the floor. According to Mark Baker of Origin Live, high frequencies are as much an issue for turntables. Suspended decks like those from Vertere seem to make sense, but are very expensive. I was listening to “Passing Ships last night, which is pretty bass heavy for me, and it all sounded fine and dandy. I then moved on to Ali Farka Toure, which always puts me in a good late night mood, and isn’t going to upset anything.

        There are so many recommended tweaks and fiddling around with turntables, you could drive yourself insane. High mass, low mass, no mass – it’s a devil’s pit of competing theories. Unless there is something obviously amiss, and there clearly isn’t currently, I happily just spin discs.

        I agree entirely with Mike, but power can be difficult to do as a tweak. My power supply is completely new from the street to the socket, not just because of hifi but because it was broken, and you can’t put a mains feed under 6 inches of tiled concrete flooring as an after-market tweak.

  2. For me fuses, room treatments, power cords, line conditioning and isolation have all made differences for the good.
    Some have started with simple proof of concept home built, others with best guesses based on reviews and marketing.

    I haven’t jerked around with a plethora of interconnects yet to try and find or tune with cables. In fact the choices are so large and the prices get so exorbitant that I don’t even know where to start and am not going to take the time for the in/out, buy / resell etc routine.

    1. Just an FYI, I have numerous flavors of interconnects, some rather pricey to boot, however the best sounding unbalanced cable (overall frequency coverage) was obtained with very affordable Belden 1353A. ($0.24 per foot) The construction of this cable (it’s geometry) also provides some of the best common-mode rejection to be found with any cable at any price.

          1. Actually, yes. No matter the manufacturer, no amount of shielding can really remove common-mode (especially 60 Hz) interference. The only way to properly address it is to use star quad cable geometry. Use Canare L-4E6S.

  3. Great comparison Paul, I love cooking and listening to music just as much.
    I think sometimes it’s great to just sit back and enjoy them both without the over tweaking.

  4. Excuse me…could you pass the salt & pepper please?
    Cheers 😉

    Hopefully most of the ‘spice’ is added, mixed &
    blended in the recording process.

  5. Dear Paul,

    I think this particular folksy analogy does not work. I do not believe in adding “spice” to an audio system.

    Whatever spice you add will be a homogenizing coloration which affects every recording you play through the system. I try not to add things to my system which will make every recording sound slightly the same.

    1. I agree. I understand what Paul is trying to say, but calling it spice doesn’t work for me either. The aftermarket tweaks that I have done to my system are to get it as “neutral” ( I use this word loosely since who knows what true neutral is ) sounding as possible. I think that of all food was prepared to make it as neutral as possible, most people would find it bland.

    2. Fair enough but in the spirit of poetic license could we suggest that neutrality is the main taste sensation we’re after and our efforts at taming this or enhancing that are all in the spirit of reaching maximum neutrality?

      1. I think that was the correct answer Paul. When you talk about cooking you left out herbs. Cooking an exceptional dish requires using past culinary knowledge to imagine from experience what the final recipe will taste like and that is the time to make adjustments that the recipe requires. Synergy in your music system and balance in your recipe are very much the same.

  6. To me the music on the CDs, SACDs, LPs, etc is the food. The system is the kitchen and skillful technique in using the proper utensils and appliances is what separates a cook from a master chef. I may be just a hash slinger in the audiophile/culinary hierarchy and the sonic equivalent of chateaubriand et sauce bearnaise is way above my pay grade, but don’t ever deny the virtue of a good grilled cheese sandwich.

    And so to bed.

    1. Chateaubriand is unseasoned and should not be too expensive. Named after the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, a rather short and fat provincial aristocrat who had a fascinating and colourful life. His family pad was in Combourg, off in nowhere Brittany, famous only for a restaurant serving said dish with his statue out front. Famous in my life as the only time I had to pick my wife out of the gutter, she rather over-imbibed. The Vicomte also lived in nearby Dinan for a time, where there was a wonderful and rather spicy restaurant called Chez la Mere Pourcel, so good we went twice, it stood for 600 years until recently burning to the ground. There is a fine annual music festival in nearby Dinard and a slightly mad lady called Marie-Françoise who owns a wonderful place called La Ballue in Bazouges-la-Pérouse, which has 5 guest rooms, arranges a concert festival in her gardens, which are a French national treasure. Chateaubriand was also resident in St Malo, where all the tourists go to see Mont St Michel, and never get to meet Marie-Françoise.

      1. Quite true, but still it takes skill to pull off well and here in the haute cuisine backwaters, it is an exotic dish. I don’t even know off hand where one could order Chateaubriand, Chicago maybe. No Michelin starred restaurants at all in Nebraska. However, even hash can be elevated to a high level. We have a local bistro, Green Gateau, that serves a hash for weekend brunch made with simply but nicely seasoned shredded house prepared angus corned beef, red potatoes, peppers, and onions with 2 eggs on the side.

  7. As I sit on another plane I started thinking about the differences of spices and food taste enhancement as todays analogy. At first I was all in with the analogy. Now not so much…,
    What was mentioned as ‘enhancements’ to the audio part of today’s discussion I now think of as a necessary ‘Uncovering’ (not enhancing).

    That said, all the ‘spices’ may enhance the listening experience for some.

    1. Here’s your in-flight playlist Mike:

      Come Fly With Me
      Fly Me To The Moon
      Learning To Fly
      Flying Sorcery
      The Flight Of The Bumblebee
      Jet Airliner
      I Believe I Can Fly
      Eight Miles High
      Flying High Again
      Magic Carpet Ride
      Fly As The Sky
      Drunk On A Plane
      Heaving On A Jet Plane
      I’ll Fly Away
      Flying Without Wings
      Punch A Hole In The Sky
      Rocket Man

  8. I have tried to keep my tweaks to a minimum lately. “Keep it Simple, Stupid” as the saying goes. I bought some isolating feet from SVS for my two subwoofers (not SVS brand but the feet work on any subwoofer), cost $100US for eight of them, and also bought some nicely milled feet for my Thorens TD145 turntable (cost $120US), with sorbothane isolation material (and height adjustable). I hand terminated some Rocket 11 speaker wire from AQ for the new Focals (about half the cost of buying the same cable pre-made). That’s enough for now, the rest of any money I had set aside is going toward buying some music (or upgrading my camera lenses to all 2.8’s which I have now done that was not cheap) ha ha.

    Speaking of buying music, I do not subscribe to Qobuz for streaming, but registered a month ago with the intent of purchasing some music (first purchase was the Ambrosia catalog which I never had digitally although have all the LP’s). I am quite impressed with the selection and the cost compared to other services such as HDTracks. Happy listening and happy fall to everyone.

  9. I must say, everybody on here, braught up some very excelent points about spicing up your audio rigs.
    I don’t know how many people are aware of this device.
    But a little more then 20 years ago, Peavey Electronics, came up with this little preamp, that they called, “the Tube Sweetener.”
    It used 4 12AX7 tubes, and a pare of 12AT7 tubes.
    Around the rear of the unit, it had a quod of 1-4th unbalanced outputs, a quod of balanced XLR outputs, and a pare of unbalanced 1-4th inputs, and a pare of balanced XLR inputs.
    On the face of the unit, there were two swiches, and 6 knobs.
    The control pannel looked something like this.
    From right to left.
    Power, standby/operation, left gain, sugar, spice.
    Right gain, sugar, spice.
    But if you ask me, it was a stand alone, tone control bank.
    I say this because, the sugar and spice knobs, acted like bass and treble control knobs.
    But what I was told about it was, “it’s suppose to add some tube warmth to the sound of any system.
    I had it in my DJ rig for awhile.
    But one day, I decided to hook it up to one of my stereo systems just to see or hear what the unit would do for it.
    But the only thing it done, according to however I had the knobs sat, it added either more bass, or more treble, but in some cases, it added more gain to my system.
    The bad news is, Peavey is no longer making that little Tube Sweetener
    I guess that has something to do with them out sourcing a quite a bit of production work to China.
    But I thaught I would share this with the hifi family.

    1. Good afternoon, John Price,

      Currently available, the Schiit Freya+ preamp: your choice of passive, differential JFET buffer, or differential tube (four 6SN7s) stages to choose from at the touch of a button.

      1. Good afternoon Confused Steven!
        Is that Schiit preamp a piece of equipment you already own?
        Or, is this a promotional add you saw somewhere?
        I’m asking because, Schiit does not have a contacting phone number on their website.
        I won’t do business with anyone that I can’t call.
        This is the reason why I veer away from sites like Audio Gone eBay and amazon.

        1. Unfortunately, I have no direct experience with the Freya+, or any Schiit Audio kit for that matter; I live a deprived existence (ha … ha … ha … ha …). It was just something that came to my alleged mind when reading your comment about the no longer in production Peavey Tube Sweetener (which sounds like a fascinating device; I like tone controls, even with nonstandard control labels). Schiit seems to enjoy a good reputation and I’ve read/seen several positive reviews of the Freya+, though; for what that may or may not be worth. John Darko covered it at length on YouTube a couple of years ago, as an example.

          ‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’ — J. R. R. Tolkien (1954)

        2. That is interesting about Schiit Audio not listing a telephone number for verbal communication (“How quaint.” — ‘Professor’ Montgomery Scott (1986)). I recall reading an anecdote in a review of some piece of their kit that is now lost to me in the depths of time and increasingly glitchy memory. The reviewer (ditto) apparently placed a call to Schiit after regular business hours and was greeted by a message from their answering machine: ‘You have reached the office of the audio company that must not be named. Please . . .’ Or words to that effect. So once upon a time they did use telephones.

          My aging slushware may not recall all the specifics, but there are particularly robust long term functions that I politely refer to as ‘the weird stuff files’ where such things as the above reside in with a relatively high degree of stability.

  10. Not to offend Paul but give me a Porterhouse Steak dinner from Peter Lugar’s any day of the week with their unbelievable German Hash Brown Potatoes and incredible Creamed Spinach. Even the greatest chef in the world, Massimo Bottura had to hold his hands over his ears to keep his brains from falling out after eating at Peter Luger’s. I wonder if he enjoys music, I think he does as he is a true Renaissance Man.

  11. Right on Paul…

    Add condiments to taste and flavor away as you wish…
    And as you pointed out to find the perfect blend….and
    not overdo in certain aspects or under ..

    Sadly some folks don’t seem to grasp this…

    Thanks sir!

  12. Paul,

    If you want to use a cooking metaphor, I suggest a different one.

    All the cooking, braising, baking, spicing occurs in the kitchen. The “reproduction” system or audio equipment we have at home is like the waiter in the restaurant. You don’t want the waiter to stick the finger in your food. Or add anything on the way to your table. The chef decides, the waiter brings it to you. With no interruptions or modifications.

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