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Best Digital Sound on a Budget


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Hello all. My first post.

 

I’m trying to get good quality sound on a budget. My trajectory has been to start with the speakers and work backwards to where I am now, which is to maximize performance of the music source in the computer realm. Here’s my story.

Over a decade ago I purchased a pair of Dynaudio Audience 50 bookshelf speakers which I am still using today. I paired them with a cheap Yamaha receiver and the sound was okay. A few years back I started getting interested in making these speakers do what they’re capable of. This was around the time I discovered the MOG music service. What a treasure. Unlimited music by performers from around the world. A blessing, but maybe also a curse.

 

I swapped out the Yamaha for a Cambridge Audio 650A integrated and put a Music Fidelity VDAC II between it and MOG on my iphone, which delivers songs to the DAC via Airport Express.

 

Better sound, but still muddy. I tried an Audio Control vintage analog equalizer and later a Behringer digitial EQ to cut the low mids that at the time I thought were inherent to the speakers. That helped, but worries about new noise in the signal path and the quality of the Cambridge amp altogether caused me to ditch the EQ and the integrated amp both and replace them with a Parasound Halo A23. Better damping factor among other improvements for the low-mid problem I was hearing. So there’s no preamp now and I control volume at my iPhone 5 or computer. I also found Sony Music Unlimited which produces 320 kbps AAC vs. MOG/Beats/Spotify’s 320 kbps MP3. To my ears 320 AAC sounds better.

 

And now the root of the problem. When I use iTunes on my PC to send a ripped AIF disc to the system, the sound is good. Clearly better than 320 AAC and my muddiness issues are mostly gone. It's about what I can live with. I have not tried HD files as I expect they would be better still but not at the cost of limited availability of albums offered at too high of a price. For non-HD, I don’t want to have a lot of CDs around, which at 16/44.1 I can live with but not at the cost of needing to buy all the ones I would want to hear when discovering them on Sony Music Unlimited.

 

So I feel like I am stuck with streaming music and hearing it at less than acceptable sound quality. WIMP in the Netherlands apparently is streaming 16/44.1 to a few countries and Qobuz in France says it is coming to the US with true CD quality streaming this year. I understand there are major network hurdles to overcome. What do I do in the meantime?

 

My thinking recently has been to get the source delivery from Music Unlimited as clear as possible and maybe go back to EQing in the digital realm. So I now have a trial version of JRiver MC on my Windows 7 PC and am wrestling with getting the signal to the Airport Express, though I think Airfoil will help me there. But is it ridiculous to think I can tame 320 AAC in to something tolerable with JRiver MC or other media source player tweaks? Is JRiver MC's volume control better than Itunes for 16/44.1 AIF files? I'm looking at a media player to manipulate Music Unlimited and also the few CDs I have so I can compare the difference, listen to CDs when I want to hear the good sound (is there a time when I don’t?), and hopefully come to some reasonable accord with it all.

 

Any thoughts and advice appreciated.

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Think about your source files as water. The low bit rate ones have been defiled. Info has been removed from them which isn't too terribly audible. One side effect is some loss of signal purity. Unlike water, you can't run it through some filter and clean it up. The dirt in the water is due to information loss and you can't put it back after the fact.

 

So one way or another if you want quality sound you have to pay for quality files to use for listening.

 

Now 320AAC is pretty good, and some people can't tell a difference. Some can.

 

Digital EQ can fix or reduce some problems in playback, but can't clean up a dirty source file.

 

My suggestion would be to pick a CD or two you really like and purchase it. Compare it to whatever streaming versions you have and see if you can tell a difference. If not then you are good. I believe you might tell a difference though.

And always keep in mind: Cognitive biases, like seeing optical illusions are a sign of a normally functioning brain. We all have them, it’s nothing to be ashamed about, but it is something that affects our objective evaluation of reality. 

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The speakers are ceiling-mounted with one one-inch dowel screwed into each cabinet and the ceiling rafter above it. Speakers are mounted upside down (woofers on top) with a 15-degree toe-in. The dowels are about 10 inches long. The speakers are about 8 feet apart and just less than two feet from the back wall (the sound is noticeably different when mounted any closer, hard to get them out any further as it's our living room where life happens, and hard to get them any lower due to needed clearance for headroom).

 

The room is 12' x 12' or so but only if you count the wall opposite the speakers, in which an 8-foot wide opening was made to create an open floor plan with two additional rooms configured railroad style, each about the same size as the living room. So the speakers project as much as 30 feet. My listening chair is at 8 feet from each one.

 

Eslude, I have done the CD to 320AAC comparison and find AAC to be much more muddy or fuzzy. Even the difference between 320 mp3 and 320AAC is significant to me. It’s a major source of my consternation. If there is any particular signal processing or other equipment or systems tweak that can help improve conditions, I would be interested to hear it.

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Ok agirard. I presume you already know that you have the speakers placed like nothing the original designer intended, particularly the vertical axis and floor bounce which now in your case is reversed. Everything you do from here will be an extreme compromise. The only logical approach I could suggest given your extreme placement limitations is add the ability to adjust the speakers vertical axis with a mount that would allow you to tilt the speakers downwards. Your speakers tweeters (typical of large domes) begin to rolloff quickly after 15 degrees off axis at around 10khz which would explain partially your imbalance timbre. The midwoofer bouncing energy off the ceiling is most likely creating a pronounced hump in the response from 100-250hz.

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Eslude, I have done the CD to 320AAC comparison and find AAC to be much more muddy or fuzzy. Even the difference between 320 mp3 and 320AAC is significant to me. It’s a major source of my consternation. If there is any particular signal processing or other equipment or systems tweak that can help improve conditions, I would be interested to hear it.

 

As was mentioned earlier, with perhaps different words; garbage in, garbage out. You are using compressed music files, which you cannot really improve the sound of. You mentioned that you can hear a noticeable difference between CD and MP3s. You are not going to be able to make the MP3s sound as good as your CDs, or CD quality files.

I work someplace that sells stuff.

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When I bought the speakers, I made some nice stands for them for listening at normal height. Those are now in the attic and my two kids under three hang out a lot where the stands would have been. Near the ceiling, the speakers are mostly out of harm's way, though it appears at some performance cost .

 

When I had the EQ in the mix, around 240hz was the peak of the bump I was trying to attenuate. Good to hear of the directional limitations of the dome tweeters too; I'm hearing the roll-off now as I walk around the room and listen for it. Or maybe I want hear it - kind of like I want to hear someone say there's a fix for what's missing from compressed lossy files. Not realistic to expect one, but when I read things like "the WASAPI Event Style driver in Jriver sounds better to me" and similar excerpts from posts in this forum, I can't help but wonder if there are tools out there that don't make the sound better but rather make it less worse.

 

Will shim the ceiling mounts this weekend and report back, and will keep an eye on this thread in the meantime.

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Good to hear.......and I'm confident you understand the starting point for any diagnostic is the most important......make sure that in your physical environment, the equipment is capable of delivering the full spectrum. Changing the source should come after.

 

I wish I could agree with the whole 'missing' data thing in this case....I really believe what your looking for is there, it's just not making it to your ears the way it should.

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Eslude, I have done the CD to 320AAC comparison and find AAC to be much more muddy or fuzzy. Even the difference between 320 mp3 and 320AAC is significant to me. It’s a major source of my consternation. If there is any particular signal processing or other equipment or systems tweak that can help improve conditions, I would be interested to hear it.

 

Hi Agirard,

 

I don't know about AAC, but 320 mp3 should not sound much more muddy or fuzzy than cd quality (and I'm pretty sure the same goes for AAC). Just by the way mp3 compression is accomplished, it wouldn't cause that kind of difference. You might hear a slight difference in 320 mp3 files, but muddy or fuzzy wouldn't be the case. Something else must be wrong in your system that is causing this, or your comparison test was faulty.

 

I would describe the difference but I can't think of the right words. However at low bit rates I might describe the sound as slightly phasey with a hint of telephony with it getting quite bad below 100 bit rate. But, let me put it this way, at 320 mp3, I would prefer a good recording at 320 mp3, compared to a mediocre or just ok recording in hi-rez. And any recording that is either muddy or fuzzy would not even qualify as mediocre in my book.

 

Chris

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No question my comparison wasn't very "scientific." Just switching back and forth between the different formats with no "X" in this A/B test and a lag time between switches to boot. I have heard it said that while MOG/Beats/Spotify/Music Unlimited claim files to be streaming at certain bit rates, some in their library have not actually been upgraded yet. Without easy access to files with more verifiable source content, I might do some more "tests" of these streamers and keep on listening.

 

Wondering too how much images in my head of the graphs from the following article caused a bias.

 

MP3 vs AAC vs FLAC vs CD | Stereophile.com

 

The article is careful to not be explicit about whether the differences between codecs and bit rates are audible, except in the case of the 128 kbps format. I have often wondered, though, with the noise in all of these formats graphed at well below 0 dB, the bottom of the spectrum we are said to be able to hear, how can the difference be heard? Not sure the answer will help my system sound better, which is my main concern here, but I am curious.

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There's many great threads here on file format sound quality. Use the search function within the General and DAC sections to find what you're after, but as to SQ only you can really answer that question for yourself.

 

I too use the Airport Express (2) as well as 5 Apple TVs to stream music and HD video throughout my home. For me using the optical connection from the Airport to a DAC capable of handling jitter is fantastic. My main system uses an older Benchmark DAC while another is connected to a $150 ODAC. I've switched then out in both systems and can't tell them apart but I wasn't completely scientific in my approach either. That being said, my days of buying +$1k DACs are probobly over! Lol

 

If it helps, I'm not totally satisfied with streaming services sound quality either. I use them primarily for exploring and finding new artists which for me is their greatest strength. No longer do I have to rely on pop media such as radio and TV.

 

Look fwd to your feedback on the repositioning of the speakers.

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My stand-mounted bookshelf speakers survived a toddler. I put a sandbag on the base of each stand, and used museum putty to stick the speakers to the stand. A few stern words, and we were good.

The subwoofer, however, is downward firing, which was a good decision. I think a typical subwoofer would have been destroyed.

Designing systems around small children would be an interesting future thread!

Bluesound Node 2-->LFD LE Mk V-->HSU VTF-1 Subwoofer (via high-level inputs)-->Harbeth P3ESR

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Yes it would. I have Gallo Stradas, which are metal spheres with metal mesh protecting the drivers, and they're wall mounted. I dare my little ones to try to damage them (not really, I'm certain they could find a way if they put their little minds to it)

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As a dynaudio audience ht owner and father of 5 yr old twins I can confirm the issue with having kids around. Sadly all my tweeters were touched (just minor dimples) and I was able to repair some and order new ones for others. Lol but somehow they still work. So I understand your pain, but by now they learned not to touch daddy speakers. Great speakers but take your time with proper set up and you will be rewarded.

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I modified the mounting hardware to allow for infinite angle adjustment both up/down and left/right, then tilted the speakers down to about 25 degrees while keeping the earlier toe-in about the same. Wow. What a major improvement. The sound has cleared up considerably. Precisely measure the ear-to-speaker-to-speaker distances all at 8 feet and the sweet spot easily comes in to focus with stereo imaging modified by toe-in from there.

 

So with more adjusting power I have been doing a lot of adjusting. Here is where I am now:

 

11.5” Woofer to ceiling

33.5” Woofer to back wall

 

30.5” Woofer to side wall

17 O Angle in (toe in)

25 O Angle down

The side wall distance is limited due to the parallel-running ceiling stud I’m screwing the mounting bracket into. The ceiling distance is limited by the need for speaker head clearance. What’s left to vary relatively easily is the distance to the back wall and the two speaker angles.

 

I’ve found several different recommended techniques for guiding speaker positioning but am not sure that any apply for ceiling placement and the downward speaker angle that’s been introduced. I’m not clear for example how the corner of the two walls and ceiling to which the back of the speaker now presents itself might be effecting the sound.

 

And I’ve read that Dynaudios like lots of space around them.

Thoughts on where to go from here to further refine placement?

 

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Although there are plenty of 'suggested' methods to dial in a sweet spot, when you look at it logically and consider all the variables, you'll find that the eventual end point for those that follow these methods is good old trial and error........which can be painfully time consuming.

 

I don't know your speakers radiation pattern or polar response so even if I know your room dimensions exactly, there's little help I can provide other than what I've already given. I can offer some tips to helps since placement adjustments are limited

 

While seated in you listening spot, have someone place a mirror on the side walls. While you're looking at the mirrors, have that someone slide the mirrors on the wall until the speaker becomes visible to you. Move yourself 15 degrees and move the mirror again. Repeat on both sides and mark the spots with a spot of tape. Add some damping material to those spots. Use what you have for testing purposes, some blankets, pillows, whatever. I find that the ceiling is the MOST often overlooked or untreated boundary in most rooms. You can also perform the mirror trick on the ceiling too....it's just a bit more difficult to perform,......and to treat.

 

I've built quite a few absorbing and diffusing panels in my time. For absorption, i usually built 16" by 36" tall panels 3 1/2 inches thick framed with with 1" thick pine. I fill the frame with ROXUL and cover the entire panel in speaker grill cloth. For decorative purposes, I've sent the grille cloth and artwork to a place that does digital printing such as album covers, movie posters, novelty signs, etc. Works extremely well, looks great and economical. Besides ROXUL, in the USA, there's insulation being made from recycled denim ( blue jeans!) that also works very very well.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I moved around the room a lot and listened hard to where the muffling was coming from. Much more boomy behind the speakers than I thought I should hear. Spent a week designing in my head these homemade foam (Roxel) traps to hang on the wall, then right before the weekend project on somewhat of whim unbolted the speakers from the ceiling and moved them to 55 inches out, about a third of the way into the room (I’d been reading about the 3rd/3rd/3rd rule).

 

The muffledness is about as gone as I am going to get it. It is by far the best yet, but close proximity to the ceiling is still a bit of a problem. Angling the speakers in different ways can make it worse and a 25 degree angle down (with 15 degree toe in) is still better than other angles but the bottom line is these speakers need to be placed out in the open air, as far away from walls and corners as possible. This is the only pair I’ve owned but when you hear folks say Dynaudios need to be out in the room, I would strongly concur with this advice.

 

As for the 320 / cd debate, I have to admit that even now with the speaker placement optimization I can tell the difference only about half the time. About what I’ve been reading most folks can. The tests are still not being done with the rigor they need, but with the improvement from speaker placement, I’m at a place I can live with. ACC Apple codec out of Music Unlimited through my iphone 5 to the Aipport Express and Music Fidelity VDAC II (which people seem to really like) and finally the Parasound A23 keeps the source on the Apple platform most of the way and hardware to a minimum. I can certainly hear places I would like more but for now this seems pretty good and something I plan to just listen to for a while.

 

May not have gotten here nearly as quickly were it not for the good words from folks on this site. Thanks guys.

 

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Wondering too how much images in my head of the graphs from the following article caused a bias.

 

MP3 vs AAC vs FLAC vs CD | Stereophile.com

 

The article is careful to not be explicit about whether the differences between codecs and bit rates are audible, except in the case of the 128 kbps format. I have often wondered, though, with the noise in all of these formats graphed at well below 0 dB, the bottom of the spectrum we are said to be able to hear, how can the difference be heard? Not sure the answer will help my system sound better, which is my main concern here, but I am curious.

 

As you observed, the article fails to quantify the resulting spectra in terms of audibility. Basically, they rightly imply that the compressed versions look really bad when viewed as a spectrum, and compared to the uncompressed. But we listen with our ears...I think. If you want to see something really ugly, take a look a the same stimulus run through any analog recording system. Yet mostly analog systems aren't seen as "bad". There's a severe lack of correlation of measurements to audibility, yet there was a correlation implied, if nothing else, by the last sentence. It was just sensational journalism. Also, their choice of measurement signal was frankly impossible for any bit-rate reduction system based on auditory masking to deal with, as it's comprised of a multitude of closely spaced equal amplitude tones. They used a worst-case that would of course look the worst in a spectrum graph. This signal never happens in music, yet it's upon typical music that all coding systems have been designed. No fair, test signals.

 

The entire article may have been built to validate the opinion that compression schemes are bad, or to hyper-sensitize readers to their failings.

 

I would ignore it.

 

On making comparisons of high-rate files to CD rips: before drawing any conclusions, you'll have a lot of comparisons to make. This is because you don't know compete path each took, essentially, how it was mastered, and what the source material was. The high-rate file problem is sort of a re-hash of some of the problems with early CDs, which sounded awful compared to their vinyl counterparts. A huge reason was they were made from different masters, some being from equalized masters, some from second or third generation safety copies, etc., with the mastering work being done by comparatively unskilled people. Sure, they sounded bad.

 

It's really impossible to make an meaningful comparison of a single CD to HD file for the same reason: you don't know how each was made, so you're not just comparing 16/44.1 to 24/96 (or whatever), you're comparing the entire signal chain and subjective decisions made along the way. So, you have to listen to a lot of different releases before you can conclude anything consistent about HD files in general. And the secret is, there's no real guarantee a high-rate file will sound better. Back in the day an industry group called the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services created a SPARS code, a three-letter code that was printed on CDs for a while, and told what parts of the production were analog or digital. The three letters indicated recording, mixing and mastering. So something coded ADD was recorded analog, mixed and mastered digitally, etc. It was viewed as a qualitative indicator to the consumer, which it wasn't always, and the lack of detail confused things. We really could use something like that now, to help out with evaluating a high definition audio file. Or just release note that tells us how they got where they ended up. We mostly won't get it, of course, it's just telling way too much.

 

The other issue is, if you were going to release a version of a recording in some high resolution format that cost more money, wouldn't you kind of want the improvement to be apparent to your customer? Since the base difference in sound quality between 16/44 and 24/whatever is still under at least some dispute, and not reliably heard by listeners in the wild, what could be done to make it more obvious? Oh, don't go there. But they probably did.

 

You mentioned you're streaming to an Airport Express. Regardless of if you use an external DAC with your Airport or not, that path will be 16/44 regardless of the file. AirPlay resamples everything to 16/44, so your library at 16/44 makes good sense.

 

I'll second speaker positioning and treatment of early reflections. Great idea, worth doing. However, treating a 240Hz "reflection" takes something pretty thick and/or diaphragmatic. You may loose interest in doing that, but be aware than a 1" thick panel doesn't do a lot at 240Hz. You'll need to go 2", and thicker, or stand it off the wall, if you want to deal with lower frequencies.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Hi guys, just a quick update and yet another note of thanks for the wise words on this forum. It's got me checking out the latest chatter once in awhile, including the "Qobuz anyone?" thread earlier this month http://www.computeraudiophile.com/f8-general-forum/qobuz-anyone-20033/ which offers instructions on how to break through the US access restriction - something I've done and so now I've been spending lots of time listening to the FLAC 16/44 files there. It's hard to describe the difference I'm hearing except to say that I just don't find myself wanting something more as often as I did or even hardly at all. I still can't reliably hear the difference in a (rudimentary) A/B test but when I listen to 320 for awhile I find myself yearning for "more clear" sound.

 

All of the hardware and speaker placement problems I think compounded this issue with speaker placement being the worst offender (thank you mahem13). When I am able to put the speakers at a normal listening height maybe I'll be even more pleased.

 

As for the post above concerning file format and it's studio source, I had to laugh when I got my issue of Stereophile magazine in the mail today with a picture of Sony's new high definition player. It's got Herbie Hancock's "Headhunters" cued up on the display - a record I've listened to many times and one that even though I know it so well I purposely avoid when testing my system (despite the temptation to hear drums and bass response). Some of Herbie's later records ("River: The Joni Letters," "Round Midnight," or "Gershwin's World") I would consider among the best recordings I've heard of any genre. Headhunters however it got from the studio to us is worlds away from that. Great pioneering music of the day and Herbie's Fender Rhodes sound I just love but the overall quality of the recording is just not that great to me. Can't imagine buying Sony's $2k player and not worry about the issue of how the darn HD file was originally recorded in the first place.

 

Glad I'm not alone as evidenced by all of the Pono prognostication summarized to some degree (without specifically bringing up Pono) by the poster immediately above. It should be interesting to see if that platform actually delivers on the source transparency front. Still catching up on where folks are saying the industry is headed, but I'm having difficulty imagining the next chapter is one where we pay to "own" files. My $27/month to Qobuz even as it gets its library together is well worth the confidence of a FLAC file and the convenience of not buying and owning media - especially those offered only in limited supply like HD files at a relatively high price. How many times would I roll the dice and end up with a Headhunters-grade record that probably isn't worth the extra cost? When I have several more thousands to invest in this hobby maybe I'll go there but, as a music junkie that likes just about any genre, for now I'm hopeful the streaming service providers will continue to evolve to give us the best sound and widest variety in exchange for a reasonable charge. If we're lucky and Pono is a hit maybe we'll get high resolution and source transparency to boot (in our lifetimes).

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  • 2 years later...

Hi Folks, well over two years since the last post here and things are sounding so good that I can’t resist an update.

 

The children got used to the shock collars so I finally removed the speakers from the ceiling and placed them where they were meant to be heard. After researching all kinds of speaker stands and related do-it-yourself solutions, I stacked a few cinder blocks on top of each other to get the speaks about head height from my listening chair, each block attached (or cushioned) from the other with Permatex RTV gasket maker. This last mod a recommendation straight from Steve at Herbie’s Audio Lab from whom, after emerging from a deep dive into vibration control, I’ve purchased and installed his Big Fat Dots between the speakers and the top of the block towers, as well as below the 5-pound or so paver atop each speaker for added control. I also have his Tenderfeet under the Parasound amp, and Baby Booties under the DAC, which after somehow cooking the power supply I’ve replaced with a Schiit Bifrost. Steve also recommended rope caulk between the chassis an cover of the amp to further dampen things. And I've upgraded cables to Signal Cable speaker wire (Classic), interconnects (Silver Resolution), and MagicPower cords for both the DAC and the amp. Not much in the way of direct room control and there’s probably more to do here but I do have the kids’ bean bags in the corners behind the speakers. By the way, we’ve moved so the originally-described room is not the same. I’ve also added a Furman AC-215A power conditioner, a Hubbell 5263 hospital-grade a/c outlet, and a direct power feed between the outlet and the breaker box in the basement.

 

All this is nice but I write to share the latest breakthrough: 2 tweaks that I should have done separately to evaluate the effects independently. A few squirts of Deoxit Gold on all of the connections. And hanging the speaker wires from hooks screwed into the bottom of the couch so that they are fully off the floor rather than partially like before. These final touches have made the speakers nearly “disappear” as I’ve heard others describe sublime sound. Oh – and the transport is Tidal (what has since become of the Wimp service in the Netherlands ). So all 44.1 resolution now running from my phone to Airport Express (version 2) and on down the chain.

 

The bottom line is that things sound very, very good. And while I don’t have much doubt there are more tweaks to come, at this point I am happy.

 

The message to share is that for all of those considering this or that new piece of hardware (digital eq?!), there is simply too much to be gained from getting managing the environment and the delivery right first. Nothing new here you can’t read somewhere else to be sure, but I’ve spent tons of time coming to and believing this conclusion myself and so offer it for consideration by others on the path. How often have I wondered if the sound is noticeable, let alone better? Many times there seemed to be improvement but still a tinge of muddiness to my ears. No more.

 

Maybe the best summary of tweaks is at the following link. Research and experiment with each of them as much as you want, but before you decide to go out and buy some other amp, speakers or whatever, DO THEM. You will be rewarded.

http://www.gcaudio.com/resources/howtos/tuningtips.html

 

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