I’ve been pursuing good sound quality for decades. Along the journey, I learned about various elements that make up a good audio system. And one important lesson I learned is this: Sometimes, those small, seemingly less important elements turn out to be game changers.
In an audio system, we pay most of our attention to what’s visible — the speakers, the source, the rectangular boxes in the middle, including the amp and the preamp. They’re often all we notice when we visit a fellow audio enthusiast’s listening room. They’re what we take most pride in in our own system. They’re what we mostly see in the pages of audio magazines. They’re the stars. But there are also smaller, more concealed elements in the mix that are important because they too contribute to the sound quality in meaningful ways. It makes no more sense to call them less important than it does to call your feet less important than your face because they’re concealed.
When I first paid attention to sound quality, I thought there was nothing more to the game than a good pair of speakers. After all, that’s where the sound is coming from… or so went my logic. So when the opportunity came for me to set up a real hi-fi system, I bought a pair of Wharfedale bookshelf speakers that sounded great during the store demo.
Having a tiny room, I wanted to be able to listen to music while sitting or lying in bed. So I stacked up books on either side along the length of the bed and put a speaker on each pile. Excited, I started to play music through the Wharfedales, and they made my favorite songs sound… boring! I couldn’t believe I was listening to the same speakers I heard at the store. At that time, I didn’t know it was a terrible idea to place speakers on wobbly “stands”. I lived with the setup but barely listened to it. The earphones saved me.
A couple of years later, I had to move to another room and put the Wharfedales in the only space available, on my desk. There, standing on a solid platform, the Wharfedales sang. Again, I couldn’t believe I was listening to the same speakers. And that’s when I learned that what’s underneath the speakers is almost as important as the speakers themselves. Once I became really serious about sound quality, I did a lot of experimenting with speaker platforms. Not trusting speaker stands because they looked too thin and were too light, I always put bookshelf speakers on a desk, table, or the top of an actual bookcase. I learned that the heavier the platform, the better the speakers sounded, and that the material the platform is made of can make a big difference.
I continued to experiment when I switched to tower speakers. I tried a lot of things under them, all kinds of spikes and rubber feet. The craziest thing I ever did was to put each speaker on three small stainless balls. As a precaution against the balls rolling out from underneath, I put soft padding under each speaker so it wouldn’t tip over and crash to the floor. (One of the speakers still toppled, but not because of the stainless balls. A story for another time.)
My obsession with feet wasn’t limited to speakers. I also used various feet options with my electronics, especially digital components such as the CD player and the DAC. The materials for their supports not only included a selection of rubber feet and stainless balls, but also a seat cushion, tennis balls, and used batteries.
The batteries were interesting because they were the first objects that opened my eyes to the difference feet can make. I had a cheap Sony CD player at the time and, on a whim, I put a used battery under each of the player’s four rubber feet. I can’t remember if they were AA or AAA, but I do remember that I was hearing better definition with the batteries than without. The person in the room with me at the time, who happened to be delivering used speakers I was buying from him, heard the same difference and was as astonished as I was.
Since those early days, I no longer find that batteries make good feet. Each of my important audio components is now sitting on a set of three Ingress Audio Engineering roller blocks, specifically and professionally made for audio. I recently removed the roller blocks from under my Wyred 4 Sound DAC to gauge the difference in sound and realized I couldn’t live without them. There was just more life in the music with the “roller blocks” in place.
Now back to speakers…
Several years ago, I bought myself a pair of Magnepan speakers. They gave me the most natural timbre I had ever heard, but also weak bass. They’re flat panel speakers with no cabinets and each rests on two metal feet shaped like skis with straight tips. Being a feet snob and the mad scientist I am, I started putting different things under the Magnepan’s feet including the usual suspects, stainless balls and batteries.
After many years of tweaking, I stumbled on the solution. I placed the speakers directly on the hardwood floor, and put a wood board loaded with bricks on top of the feet. I put soft foam sheet between the bricks to limit vibrations between them. To picture this setup, imagine a person light enough to get blown away by wind while Superman is clamping down on his feet with his weight.
And the resulting sound quality was… let me just say that after having tried over 20 pairs of speakers, many of them much more expensive than the Magnepans, I finally had speakers that sounded flawless to me. And despite the many admirable qualities the Magnepans possess, I never could’ve said that if it weren’t for the board and the bricks.
I have other stories on feet tweaking. Some of them are about learning, some about unlearning. Others are about me imagining that I’m learning. But one thing is clear: If you want to have a fantastic sounding audio system, it would be wise to pay attention to the smaller, more concealed elements in the mix. They will help make your life as an audio enthusiast a happier one.
Like I said, it’s like with the face and feet. The face is usually visible, while the feet aren’t. But they’re equally important, aren’t they?