Author: Karsten Hein
Category: High Fidelity
When I began my literature studies in winter ‘94, this was also the start of a long period in which I did not have the time nor means to set up and maintain a proper audio system. Two years into my studies, I had sold all components of my existing system to friends in order to shore up some much needed cash. The last item to go were two 35kg ‘Fidelity 425’ transmission lines that I had built by myself, using the parts and following the construction plan of a small German speaker manufacturer by the name of Mainhattan Akustik—now no longer in business—that was based in Hainburg, near Frankfurt. From part of the earnings gained from selling my system, I bought a Denon ‘F70’ midi system including bookshelf speakers. There was no comparison between the two systems, of course, but the Denon was much easier to place in my small student dorm.
When, many years later, I was sitting with my wife listening to music on my old F70 midi—ever so often getting up to position the speakers for them to produce better sound—I told her about my former passion and asked her if she would be interested in us setting up a proper system once again. My wife being into music herself in many ways immediately liked the idea, and a few days later, we were on the way to Bavaria to pick up a used pair of Canton Vento 890 DC floor-standing speakers. We were still on a tight budget and the Ventos seemed to have a good quality to price ratio, especially when bought used. I must confess, that during my long absence from HiFi, I had lost track of the trends and names of the industry.
The Vento 890 DCs improved the sound at our home significantly and were soon fitted with an Apart Audio ‘Champ 2’ PA amplifier and a pre-amplifier by the same manufacturer. Coming from the Denon midi system, it was not very difficult to improve the sound, and we were actually happy for a few weeks, until I invited a friend over whose father had been into HiFi and High End listening. We could see the confusion on his face, as he was pacing up and down the room, saying that he could not recognise anything relating to proper sound as he knew it. However, not being an expert himself, he did not know why. He was unsure if perhaps his ears and age were to blame, but knowing what I know today, I am feeling a little ashamed that I even asked him to come.
When I re-entered the sphere of HiFi listening, I was not only starting over, I had also forgotten much of what I had already taught myself from experience during my active years. That our friend left our house in bewilderment was due to the fact that most of steps I have described in the ‘High Fidelity’ section of this blog were still or again unknown to me. And although much of the equipment we had bought was pretty hopeless in terms of sonic integrity, we could have taken steps of improving the sound which had nothing to do with the devices themselves. Sadly, the first thing that we should have done would have been the easiest by far. In fact, it is so obvious that it is actually surprising it should have taken me until recently to find this out.
I had often read in HiFi forums that the cables connected to our systems should neither cross nor touch. And while this sounds like a pretty straight forward message, I never paid much attention to it. Partly, because I had no idea what the effect of crossing or touching wires was, and partly, because I always figured that I could do this later. Looking behind our system, preventing wires from touching or crossing always looked like an impossible task to me. What they should have written was: “Your wires may not touch or cross, because it will make your system explode.” While this is not true, of course, it would have saved me many years of getting only half the joy from our equipment.
What is meant is that cables carrying the primary source signal via separate channels must neither cross one another nor touch when running in parallel, as this will smear the soundstage, lead to signal loss—noticeable in a lack or significant shortening of transients—and to signal compression. They should also not touch or cross the power cables of the devices as this would have similar a sonic effect and additionally bear the risk of introducing network modulation into the audio path. Cables running from preamp to amp should also be prevented from coming in contact with other cables. The closer to the music source the cables are located, the more pronounced will be the effect of correct vs. incorrect placement. Finally, speaker wires should be of equal lengths per channel and not be running in parallel or touching power lines, other cables, or antennas. If your system is up to it, and if you are looking for the last bit of perfection, you might want to consider raising your speaker wires off the ground as a final measure.
I will dare to make a prediction—however, do feel free to let us know in the comments below, if you should not be able to confirm this on your own system: Following these optimisations, your system will sound at its best, based on the equipment that you have put together at this point. If there are sonic issues that still need to be resolved, you will be able to discern them more clearly than before. If the position of your cables was the most significant issue, you will be very pleased. Enjoy.
Note 31 Jan 2021: Wires carrying signal should not touch. This is most relevant closest to the signal source. On turntables this includes the wiring from the headshell to the cartridge. Since this is often overlooked, there is lots of sonic potential in getting this simple first step right. I came across this phenomenon by accident today, when I re-mounted a headshell to find that the sound had become substantially worse. I separated the wires and the sound became superior to any I had heard from this turntable. I consequently went to our other system and separated the wires on this headshell to the same effect. Considering that both cartridges had been mounted by professionals, it shows how little even professional people understand about setting up systems.