Upgrades, tweaks, and room set-up: how these add up.

Heavy curtains, 2 layers, used to blackout light and help quiet the room.

A few years ago I decided to build an audio based 2 channel system I could enjoy in my home. I was not a neophyte to sound systems and the basics involved but my technical background and hands on experience was more centered on custom car stereo and home theater (HT) based set-ups, my pure musical 2 channel knowledge only came from my experiences w/ large mass retail, homogeneous, all inclusive equipment packages that were common in the 80’s and early 90’s, the more exclusive boutique audiophile world was foreign to me. Additionally my only real goal at the time was volume and window flexing bass, being able to pressurize the room with low bass notes and suck the air out of your lungs when the subs flexed their muscle.

I researched home 2 channel audio and the world I fell into had nothing to do with my expectations or initial desires, I kept falling back into the Home Theater world where multiple subwoofers and a dozen or more speakers working around the listening area are common but this was not what I was after either. I was perplexed and for a long while I had mixed feelings on the matter and was unable to focus in any specific direction. I could not understand or believe that individuals would spend tens of thousands of dollars on a system based solely on 2 speakers and not have a half dozen 18” inch subs to bring out the most important to me at the time, low end.

Well, here I am, about 7 years later and there are not multiple transmission line tubes built around 18” subs mounted underneath my living room floor suspended from my basement ceiling, feeding egregious amounts of low end to my 2 channel set-up. It would be fun to try this if money were no object but my tastes have refined and my desires lay elsewhere today having better educated myself and experienced varied music presented in a more refined manner. There is an entire world in 2 channel dedicated to low end extension but it deals with it in a much more refined manner than what my old experiences from the car stereo world were based on. So, what does all this talk of bass have to do with equipment upgrades, tweaks and room set-up? Everything, because it is all interconnected and when it comes together you too can have a pleasing audio experience and know that spending your money, time end effort wisely will add up to a positive overall experience.

I started off with the basics, a pair of HT style relatively inexpensive tower speakers, an inexpensive solid state amp and a combined DAC/Bluetooth unit to stream music from my phone/tablet to the system. This set-up grew one step at a time as my knowledge base, experience, and willingness to spend more and more money on equipment slowly increased. My desire to upgrade and touch on the “next level” based on knowledge gleamed from interactions with other enthusiasts grew over the years. The biggest hurdle has been getting over price sticker shock, and my ability to fund each purchase. I have kept my mind open to all the various sources of information both technical/science based and experience based which are both subjective to taste and sound preferences. Good equipment will serve you well for a long time, it can be had at different price points. Through research, buying used when applicable, trade up programs and patience as you grow into the hobby, in my opinion, there is product available for every price category if you are able to find the synergy between pieces and styles. As a brief example, my bedroom system is of modest cost and minimal equipment, it has served me well for years and I have no desire to change anything about it because it sounds great and serves its function. I worked on speaker placement and finding synergy between the products while sticking to a budget.

My second largest hurdle was based on social norms, I was using my living room to build a musical listening area, I refused to accept how much of a role room set-up plays in the recreation of the music. Despite ALL the facts available based on physics, science and tried and true proven techniques of which thousands are available, I refused to put proper time, money and effort needed into the room itself. For years i accommodated the music based around the furniture use and lay-out of the room rather than the other way around. Search the internet and you will find pictures of audio enthusiasts and their rooms, the ones that get really serious about the sound have rooms dedicated purely to the music, nothing much beyond treatments, equipment and a single seat for the one and only primary consumer of the material, it is not a hobby dedicated to group play unlike the rest of the music and entertainment industry which is set up for the masses to enjoy. Recreating 2 channel music at home is all about the one singular sweet spot (2 if you can accommodate it somehow), and speaker & seat placement along with the height of your head relative to the axis of the speakers , the tweeter of which is important. Being able to center my speakers, move them well into the room (1/3 +/- of the total distance) and having the ability to adjust my listening chair closer and further into the sweet spot has been the cheapest and most obvious change to the sound after upgrading equipment. You need appropriate room available to do this that not all listening spaces can accommodate.

Conventional couch and standard living room furniture replaced with easy to move chair that places my head at the appropriate height in relation to most of my speakers.

Room acoustics, is a topic I am just now starting to explore and understand the most basic concepts. Diffusion, absorption, bass nodes, bass traps, frequency spikes & dips, reflections, time alignment, and a myriad of terms which all are conditions which play a role on how the music you put forth will interact and sound within your listening space. I do not have any real technical background in mathematics, physics, acoustics or any other profession which would give me any background reference from which to build upon. I’m a simple enthusiast with a willingness to learn and ask questions based on my research and experiences as i stumble through the process. I used to have a large 65” television in my music room, I removed it after I noticed the music sounded “better” while I had it blocked by a very large cardboard box while I was working on an unrelated matter in the room. I believe that had something to do with reflection of the sound back to my ears from that side of the room. I’m not sure, the TV is gone though and no longer part of the equation. I have also noticed a difference in sound now that all the large pieces of furniture are gone, there was a large overstuffed sectional couch and wooden oversized wooden coffee table in the room before, for lack of a better term or descriptor the sound is “bigger”, there is a grander sense of scale, I’m not sure why but it works well in this room and it makes for a pleasing aural experience. Extensively doing the “subwoofer crawl” and relocating the small subwoofer I use has made an appreciable difference in the quality of the low end and the depth of sound. Low end is a very personal preference and I’m satisfied for now. Many 2 channel enthusiasts do NOT add low end via subwoofers and this is a topic that gets discussed extensively. I often listen with no subwoofer and I understand the general perspective of both sides better now, getting beyond the need for multiple large subwoofers has been a personal area of growth but switching my primary music listening genre’s has helped me immensely. I still get into the urge to build custom 12 ft tall transmission line tubes and stuff an 18” or 2 into them but I refrain for now.

So what made the biggest differences in my 2 channel music set-up? Truthfully every little bit adds up. You have to have some idea of what your taste preferences are, I can’t help you there, mine changed over the years and I modified my purchases accordingly. In my opinion, purchasing good speakers is very important, your experience will usually only get better if you start with a good solid base. Finding the right mix between listening space and your equipment choices is important too, any space can accommodate music, having a reasonable expectation though of your space and equipment will save you frustration in the future. Smaller and smaller tweaks will affect your sound signature as you climb up the equipment price ladder. Maybe it’s cable swaps, electrical power upgrades, changing out your outlets, removing any external drain from your circuits, hanging dense materials strategically around your room to help absorb or diffract reflections off hard surfaces, etc. My own room has dedicated circuits in the electrical panel so that no other equipment in the house affects the power I draw in this room, the only things that concern me are what I plug into the outlets of this room. Power regenerators, panels with dedicated copper buss bars, quality outlets made of precious metals specifically to mate with audio equipment, power cables of every configuration possible all with the goal of allowing the maximum power transfer with minimum noise intrusion in your system are available from various sources. None of my equipment has responded in a manner that I can detect from power cables, that does not rule out the science or theories behind its use in my mind, it just means I don’t have anything sensitive enough in my chain or I have yet to train myself enough to know the difference if it happens. People scream snake oil all the time, but most shockingly to me USB cables made a difference in my main system, enough so that the concept behind swapping cables to make small changes is no longer simply a sales pitch to me. YMMV and it’s up to you to get to a level where tweaks like this can be appreciated. I use potted plants to help diffuse sound in my room, nobody specifically sells or promotes the use of potted plants for use in an audio system but the concept makes sense to me. Since I enjoy having potted plants around the house it’s a free tweak I have incorporated and will swear by it until my own ears tell me otherwise.

Outlets with better grip strength upgraded over much cheaper builder grade standard outlets.

I continue to be in learning and experimentation mode, my sole regret is that I wish I had accepted how important speaker placement relative to your seat and integration into the room were from day one. There is not a single equipment upgrade that I regret, and I continue to get value from older less capable pieces because I have re-adjusted my expectations of them. I skip from forum to forum and read about all little types of experiments and tweaks, especially those from the DIY community. If they are easy enough I try them out in my own space when applicable. I have found that most everything circles around the basics. Speaker placement, seat placement, a decently quiet room, and good clean power source. It would have been nice to walk into a high end audio shop, cut them a check and have professionals come to my home and build me a dedicated listening area, no holds barred once and done. That is not my lot in life; finances and personality dictate that I get hands on with my stuff, by making incrimental changes over the years I have found that it all adds up slowly but surely.

Main system: ROON > Innuos Zenith MK3 streamer > Exogal Comet+ DAC w/ LPS > Vinnie Rossie L2iSE > Decware 341.5 > Omega Super 6 XRS Alnico w/ REL T/9i