Optimizing for gear

November 2, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

When we get a new piece of gear for evaluation it’s helpful to optimize its contribution by experimenting with different cable and speaker positioning combinations.

Consider that how your system sounds today is a cumulative effort over time to optimize what you have. Insert something new and now the game changes. Might be perfect right out of the box or perhaps it’s the opposite.

But here’s the thing. Whatever results you get, you’ll never know if they are optimized until you spend a few moments experimenting with different combinations of your tried and true setup.

Few of us actually manage to take this advice to heart—understandable because it’s a pain in the keester to swap cables or move the system around—but for those that do, it is possible to get more out of your system components than what you might currently be enjoying.

Great systems take hard work.

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48 comments on “Optimizing for gear”

  1. True!
    My brother and I listen to different combinations in our homes. Normally we use some sort of matrix to put figures on the different combinations.

    My brother had a SACD many years ago but replaced it because he did not hear any difference compared to CD. Now 15-20 years later I tell him that I am going to invest in a PS Audio SACD ( because of your convincing presentations on Youtube).
    That makes him a little bit nervous because he has got rid of player , SACD records and CDs and now he thinks that he has done a big mistake. So to verify or not we are going to do a test as soon as I get the SACD transport via Perfect Sense. I will give you feedback on the result. 🙂

  2. Optimisation and experimentation should reap benefits but it’s most important to just change one thing at a time otherwise you won’t know what brought the improvement.

    1. Good answer Richtea.

      That’s the best way to acclimate when you make changes to your system. You may quickly find out that changing a cable is a disaster, a jaw dropper or it may be more subtle. Just take your time and take notes if necessary.

    2. [Richtea: Optimisation and experimentation should reap benefits but it’s most important to just change one thing at a time otherwise you won’t know what brought the improvement.]

      Agreed…although time consuming and hard work! IMO, accurately ascertaining positive/negative sonic changes requires one-step-at-a-time activity! Listen and understand what the differences are before taking the “positive improvements” forward to the next step.

      IME, once my system/room setup baseline synergy is well established (tonality, bandwidth, soundstage, imaging, venue ambiance, divorced monitors), a new/replacement component/cabling change yields near perfect evaluative results. Unless I change my listening room decor or system arrangement, I just work with the specific component/cable change I want to make, perform through testing/evaluation, then move forward from there!

      Might not be the best method of fine tuning music playback live presentations, but works well for me!! 😉

  3. IMO speaker positioning and cable choice should not be done for tone controlling the setup in case of equipment changes.

    Everyone who experienced how a holographic imaging snapped in after just moving or toe’ing speakers a tiny bit will agree, that sacrificing this to compensate for e.g. a different treble behavior of some changed equipment is more than suboptimal. It’s the same if someone ideally found a cabling system working together, rather than different cables at each component.

    Following today’s (on the on hand understandable) recommendation, imo guarantees to never reach a certain level of quality and perfection. It mainly helps to preserve tonality by compromising everything else (in case the setup was optimized towards all things aside tonality before).

  4. Seems like today’s post is an argument for self contained systems. Fully integrated…. the more integration the better.

    Otherwise the impression is we all should have a closet full of cables, or at the very least have a stash of floating cash ready to go and then spend weeks or months or more finding and auditioning the perfect cables to get the most out of our system(s). A good rule of thumb (by example) is add up the retail cost of all your gear and spend that again on cables. Or become a cable distributor for just one brand…. 😉

    If the point of today’s post is to point out once again cables make a difference, then please excuse my tongue in cheek remarks….

    1. I would agree and you only make it as complicated as you want to, dictated by time and financial resources. In another life with gazillions of cash I wonder if I’d be bothered, or just let my dealer do it for me.

      There are many high quality audio systems in one box, even if Paul’s view is that they are jack of all trades, master of none. I don’t have a stash of cables, I get rid of anything I don’t use, if I can. As my speaker cables are flat to go under a rug, that limits me to Townshend or Nordost, I have had Townshend for years and Nordost are above my pay grade.

      In my experience the thing that has caused more issues in the last 15 years has been software for digital audio and streaming hardware. Fortunately these no longer seem to be problematic and generally work out of the box.

      1. I’m not afraid of complicated, and even with unlimited resources I would probably err on the fiscally conservative side and find something else to mess with. (Odds of unlimited resources happening would be like the climate fixing itself today). What becomes overwhelming is looking at all the cable choices and then determining how much better is one brand over another? Your dealer way is the easy way and probably the fastest way. For me the length of cables is dictated by the distance from the preamp to the amps, not the amps to the speakers.

        The local computer based ‘streaming’ I do is for one source one system, so networking isn’t an issue. Initially Configuring the playback program(s) took a little head scratching, research and persistence.

        1. I tend to trust people better qualified than me. I read with amusement Mr Fremer getting his cable manufacturer friends to sort out his electrical supply woes. I just got experienced, qualified electricians to rewire the house and they optimised it for audio and AV. I got great advice on my wifi from a company called broadbandbuyer, who seem to employ experienced network engineers on their customer service, and the system I have is absolutely fantastic. I rely on audio dealers to offer a range of selected products and install them. This is normal for AV/home cinema, I see no reason why it should not be normal for audio, and its is normal for most of the dealers I’ve used.

          The hobbyist audiophiles of course would not dream of having a dealer doing what they like best, fiddling around with wires, a handful of cable risers and a can of Deoxit.

          The overwhelming cable choices just makes me refuse to engage in the battle. I’m just not interested. I also find the cable market is the complete opposite of good design, which should be aimed at better, simpler and cheaper. Instead, it is designed as a hamster wheel of endless increasingly expensive alleged upgrades. Some people buy into it, a lot of people don’t.

          1. It’s all up to the individual. If you don’t like to learn or fiddle then having someone do things for you is fine. If you like to learn and fiddle the trick becomes knowing the limits of your abilities.

            It’s up to the individual to decide.

            I read with great interest the Fremer article. What he had were some experts in their field who are also audiophiles. They diagnosed, and then drew up the plan. Then the local qualified individuals (electricians) executed that plan. All to code as the minimum standard.

            The listening results were what surprised me….

            1. I know the limit of my own abilities, so mostly get other people to do things. I can manage wifi and ethernet, with good product advice.

              Fremer appeared to have overhead power cables coming into his house and lots of surface cables. He ended up with what he thought was good mains loop impedance (actually not that good), and got best results plugging his amplifiers into the 20A wall sockets and his digital electronics into a Niagara 7000 mains conditioner. PS Audio P20’s apparently degraded amplifier performance.

              He clearly had a major grounding problem to start with, and the new equipment fixed it. In my new installation I also had a major grounding issue, but it didn’t seem to have an impact.

              1. Thanks for the synopsis of what I read 3 times now. 🙂

                You missed the detail where one Niagara was plugged into the wall with nothing attached. Just to see…. 😉

                What Fremer has for input power is very typical of the Northeast US power grid installation.
                I had all my electrical redone a few years back after a tree pulled my incoming wires off the house.
                All new grounding rods, a new pole transformer, and special attention to all the high current connections.

                All is fairly good here now.. Just like you… 🙂

                The only difference in my situation was the electrician was a good family friend and i provided some of the bull work labor. (and a few pints afterwards)

      2. One of the my first hard lessons in audio (year 1998) was trusting a reputable local dealer’s judgment on which amp would be best for me. The dealer was considered the best in the DC/Northern Virginia area and their store had a full array of high-end products and demo rooms. After hearing my laundry list of sound qualities I want in my system, he recommended for me one of the most expensive tube amps in his store (a top of the line Audio Research, I believe). It was massive, had a dozen or so large power tubes and was like a radiant heater in my living room. Once I got over the fear of it burning up my apartment, I let it burn in a few days and finally got down to listening. It had such a harsh, screechy high frequency emphasis and weak lower midrange that I couldn’t stand it. It was the opposite of what I thought a tube amp should sound like. After a week or two I couldn’t take it anymore and took it back to the dealer and described my disappointment with its sound. After telling me I didn’t give it enough time to burn in, he begrudging took it back, shrugging his shoulders, saying, “Well, I don’t know what else I can do for you.” He essentially tried to shame me into keeping it, but I stuck to my guns and insisted he sold it to me on a trial basis and I was exercising my return option. He just could not understand how I could reject such a fine amp. Our ears simply heard things differently. On my own, reading reviews, I learned about another tube amp that seemed a much better candidate for my tastes: a BAT VK-60. I ordered it, loved it from the start and after 22 years still use that amp (re-capped and re-tubed) in one of my systems today. I may die before that amp does. The BAT amp was not offered in any local audio store and had I not researched and acquired it on my own, I would have never experienced it. Same with my other system components: my Von Schweikert speakers (rebuilt by the master himself), my Harbeth M.40 monitors, my best sounding cables, my source gear including both a PSAudio and an R2R DAC. These came from my own research, not a dealer’s recommendation. I understand why some for convenience rely on the recommendations of trusted dealers. The problem is finding a trusted dealer within your geographical area. Dealers know what they like and what makes sense for them to push from a business standpoint. They may know of better products at better price points but will never admit that to their customers, nor do they have any obligation to do so. It is up to audiophiles to discover things for themselves, which is what makes this such a fun hobby.

        1. Joseph,

          Well, no dealer has or knows all brands. Glad it worked out for you.
          I lived in the Annapolis area for 65 years and got to know most of the industry in that area. I can totally recommend JS Audio in Bethesda. They have given me excellent advice for many years. Easy to know and deal with if you have future needs. I enjoy top line C-J tubed equipment even here in Florida. Enjoy the music.

    2. I had similar thoughts Mike and it’s how the cable manufacturers have us over a barrel or perhaps a cable drum. How many of us have loads of different (expensive) cables laying around? So are we then expected to go out and buy various (expensive) cables to try? Home auditioning of equipment is hard enough but do dealers actually oblige with cables. Then there’s the myriad of options leaving the listener to discern the differences which on occasion could be minimal. It could drive you mental. I don’t doubt there are differences in cables and applaud Paul for bringing it to our attention BUT deciding on which cables are the very best for your system is one big problem to solve. It’s a very good argument for the one box system, bring it on, but I still prefer to stick with the fun and flexibility of separates.

      1. Thanks for understanding what I was trying to say Richtea. I don’t feel like I’m over a barrel, but rather stuck under a fully loaded one with more being piled on. Like you I prefer separates. I guess all one can do is pick a brand, a price range, or a marketing spiel and stick with it. All the while ignore every advert or mention of cables from that point forward.

        I remember the exclamation made when the new AQ’s transformed the reference system. “I’m not paying that price, I’m getting a deal” (maybe paraphrased a little). Most stiff’s don’t have that option…. ✌️ 😀

      2. I am a firm believer in buying used top of the line cables at discounted prices, cables that enjoy rave reviews from multiple professional and customer reviewers. My best sounding cables (which would cost a fortune new) were bought used, on the cheap. It’s the best way to buy a variety of cables and then sell them if you don’t like them. When I find a better cable, I sell the lesser one and get all or most of my money back. Similar to Fremer, I’ve tried “enough cables to build a suspension bridge,” but I didn’t hang them on the wall next to the water heater. I had to buy them, so I sell the ones I no longer want and get my money back.

        There is one interconnect cable that I bought solely because it is Paul’s recommendation: the AudioQuest Fire. It is one of the best sounding cables I own. It is almost as good as the Tara Labs Zero Evolution in one of my systems. For those who haven’t tried it, they can sometimes be found used in “like new” condition for as low as 1/3 list price. Just go to hifishark dot com and type in whatever cable or component you are looking for. All the listings of that item on ebay, audiogon, usaudiomarket, canuckaudio etc. will show up. There are bargains on virtually any audio component you may be looking for. If you go that route, be sure to look at the seller’s ratings and other details indicating legitimacy, and pay using PayPal “goods and services” rather than “friends,” so you have a better chance of recovering if the seller does not perform. In all my used purchases over the years, both international and domestic, I have never had a transaction go bad, save one: an international purchase of some N.O.S. tubes that were not exactly what was advertised. In that case, the vendor had to refund my money because of PayPal intervention. Warning, beware of any items going through Italy’s mail system…things get lost or can take days or weeks to get delivered. And if you are selling to an EU buyer, don’t under-declare valuations. EU Customs, unlike US customs, is much more knowledgeable about the real market value of audio components, and if the documentation is not accurate, your item can get hung up in customs for days or weeks. Also, be sure in your ad to state that your buyer is responsible for any customs and import fees, not you; and that the time of customs clearance is beyond your control.

    3. Actually, the point of today’s post started out encouraging people to reposition their speakers whenever a new piece of gear or cable is introduced. I think it kind of got away from me as I was writing it.

      1. After I read it a few times (too late since I had already posted) I caught that detail. ✌️

        But I assume like most other things it depends…. Mostly on the speaker system, it’s topology and the room of course.

      2. Having spent time planning and implementing room acoustics, once my speakers are dialled in, the last thing I would do is move them. If a new component had a detrimental effect I’d get rid of it, not move the speakers. Jazznut makes this point.

        I suppose you could increase bass by moving speakers back, but the problem is more likely to be an underpowered amplifier. Again, as Jazznut says, it is not a good idea to use placement as tone control.

      3. Ha ha. I, for one, missed your focus on the speakers. Probably because my speakers’ wide driver dispersion patterns make them less sensitive to small positional changes. I truly got the part about cables needing reevaluation when a component is added (or removed). In my system when I insert the preamp, I am adding an additional pair of interconnects. That requires reassessment of all interconnects. When I remove the preamp from the chain, a different cable from the DAC to the amps sounds best. I can’t say that when the cables are correctly chosen, the sound is better or worse with the preamp in the chain. Cables make a bigger difference than most people accredit them.

    1. Ah, the drum solo, staple of a seventies rock concert, but this one had a bit more finesse, and he was using those special acrobatic drum sticks. Brilliant. Thanks for posting. Is it available on CD?

        1. I thought you’d like his tasty playing Martin. Sonny Clarke is goddamn amazing! Going back to listen to some Earth, Wind and Fire recordings now.

          While I’m on my daily rant, I’d like to go back to the topic of cables. After 60 years of using RCA type interconnects, I finally decided to demo XLR cables and I’m really happy that I did. The biggest issue was cost. I got lucky by doing my homework and found Jonathan Valin did a full review and was also quoted in the annual Best Of issue in the Absolute Sound his enthusiasm Synergistic Research ‘Foundation’ Interconnects, a much lower priced model. JV said that the Foundations gave up very little in sonics to SR top line interconnects costing 27 times the price. I paid about $100 to get ‘lenders’ but I was floored by all of the positive changes made in my system right out of the box. The overall improvement in sound stunned me. The only issue is that lenders cost money to demo which did not make me happy. There used to be a time when I walked into one of my favorite audio salons and walked out with cables without even leaving a deposit. That ain’t gonna happen anymore. The upside….if you purchase new cables you can get a refund within a reasonable time frame.

  5. I confess, I’ve used cables as tone controls. There, I said it! (Well, I’ve already said it in print.) What’s maddening is that I have a set of speaker cables that roll off the highs a bit and “make” everything sound “better,” and I’ve tried another set that are remarkably detailed and authoritative in the bass — great recordings sound incredible, but less-than-great recordings have their flaws revealed mercilessly So, the more forgiving cables are “better” when it comes to listening to a wider variety of recordings — but don’t reach the heights of the more revealing ones.

  6. The “law of uncertainty” also applies (in a way) to audio.
    With dozens (hundreds ?) of cable manufacturers it’s impossible to try every one of them to find out what cable gives the best results.
    In real life most of us (not SntbcwS) try some and then pick the one that works best with your amp(s) and or speakers.
    Is it THE best combination with your amp (etc.)….? You’ll never know.
    Maybe, like some of us do, it’s best to let your spouse decide, based on the color he/she likes most.
    With this well thought-out “strategy” you can’t go wrong.
    Well, that is, if you’re a self-proclaimed non audiophile.

      1. “Some audiophiles are known as ‘The Cable Guy’”
        Yes, and since we have our own (non audiophile !) Pizza Man, we can read about the Adventures of this Pizza Guy almost every day.

    1. My speaker cables were recommended to me about 8 or 9 years ago by a well known audio expert. The company only makes one cable and have made it for almost 40 years, with two minor modifications over that time. I bought them about 4 years ago, previously used some relatively cheap ($150) solid core cables, very thick and inflexible.

      My wife is happy with any speaker cable, as long as it is invisible.

      I still have the cables from my old component system, a bunch of Mogami and StudioSpares XLR.

      I am presently using a usb cable from my Innuos streamer, it’s a Chord C that was free in a blister pack on a magazine from the days when you went to a shop and bought audio magazines. I am expecting a call from Innuos to do a software tweak so I can go back to using CAT6 as the output cable.

      I don’t think I’ve ever tried to compare two cables and I doubt I ever will.

      I deal with colour options by getting nylon braid off eBay and slipping it over the cable.

    1. After searching for the Holy Grail for so long, there are periods of time that I am very happy with the sound of my system and then a topic like XLR comes up and after many years of thinking about the possibility that they could add Real sonic differences, I’ll break my promise and carefully spend a little bit more money on my system. In this case it was well worth it and I can go back to listening without being critical again at least for a while.

  7. When we talk about cables are we referring to interconnects, speaker power cables, or both?

    When I get the speakers I want in a few months, I imagine I will send an email to PS Audio asking what cable (in my price range) they would recomend for my M700 amplifier/speaker combo and also send an email to the speaker manufacturer with the same question. Fingers crossed that they would recommend the same power cable.

    1. AZ,
      All three actually:
      1 – Interconnects
      2 – Loudspeaker wires &
      3 – Power cables.

      Loudspeaker manufacturers & amplifier manufacturers can’t tell you, with any certainty,
      what wires & cables you should get.
      At best they can suggest a very basic starting point, but ultimately you will have to do your own listening & investigations within your own personal financial constraints (audio budget)
      Have fun.

      ps. If in doubt ask Frank Doris 😉

      1. The instruction manual for Quad ESL63 says get low impedance (under 1uH) copper cables of basic construction, nothing esoteric. Many people use Atlas Hyper 2.0. A 3m terminated pair will cost you about US$150. Then sit back and enjoy the music.

      2. Good Morning Mr Rat

        What, no Home Depot? Oh man, Australia would be the perfect market, just a stones throw away from Chinese shipping lanes.

        Electrical wire or any single 16 ga solid core conductor as a speaker cable? That’s just plain wrong! I don’t know of any music loving audio enthusiast who would recommend this stuff to a friend.

        First, when you transfer an alternating current from your amplifier through solid core wire it rings like a guitar string. Cheap, impure solid core is punchy and folks mistake this for musicality. Second, the unshielded wire acts as an antenna and picks up high frequency noise. Granted, your loudspeaker is a filter, but when rf & emi enter the wire it gets chopped up and processed as phase noise.

        Properly engineered speaker cables are designed to minimize this effect. The key to multi-stranded cable lies within the materials, conductor configuration, geometry and winding technique.

        Further, even if you twist the two 16 ga conductors together and wrap it in loom, its inflexible and difficult to dress in a professional system set-up.

        If folks are gifting $400 headphones around these here parts, perhaps we should start a Go-Fund-Me page for ya and get you some reasonable performance speaker cables. (enter smiley face)

        You knew this was headed somewhere, thanks for being a good sport about it!

        1. dr g,
          All good points.
          What can I say?
          I love punchy 😀
          More importantly I know what I hear & solid core works for me.
          Also my runs are less than 1.8m…short little antennae.
          My observations about solid core hinge mainly on ‘bang for your buck’
          A ribbing from you is a badge of honour 😉

  8. I am late to today’s post. If you have done a proper job of setting up your speakers ( and sub woofer if you have one or two ) then I cannot imagine why you would wan to tweak you speaker position when you changed any gear in your system that is upstream of the speakers. Why would a new CD player with less jitter require you to change your speaker position? If have a more powerful amp causes you to change the position of your speakers then I would argue they were not setup properly to begin with.

    When it comes to speaker’s I subscribe to Bill Low’s philosophy. The best cables are the ones that do the least harm. Cables should never be tone controls.

  9. A good comment Tony,

    A couple things I learned….

    I think speaker movement is based on many things and is a generality. I went thru the phone / e-mail thing early on in my days of purchasing from PSA. I spent a large amount of time with speaker placement and toe in (1/4 in at a time) Only to find out in the end that the type of speaker I have (large hybrid ribbon dipoles) likes very little toe in, and once it’s optimized for the room (distance from walls) very little will change. So for me I now know (within a 1/16th of an in) exactly where things should be placed. I deviate from that when something new is added or changed just to ensure things are optimal. Yet every time so far I return back.

    I also don’t imagine the MR2 setup is moved every time a new piece is tried in there.

    So I think you’re correct in many cases. I also think that there are many cases where the advise is very practical. To paraphrase an old saying…. You never know where a peak is until you go by it

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