Written by 6:00 am Audiophile, Room Acoustics

How Making Things Worse Can Improve Sonics

Paul Wilson explains how making his system sound worse actually made it sound better…

AR-SoundsWorseSmallFormat.jpgRecently, a friend came by to listen to some music and catch up. We had only been in the audio room for a few minutes when he announced, “Paul, your system sounds different. What’s changed?” I had to think for a second because I heard the same thing. It was absolutely different from the accustomed sound. Then I remembered why. 

For some reason, perhaps curiosity or boredom, a week or so before, I had decided to change all the settings on my system. While the preamp has no tone controls, I can change the gain (or level) settings and also inverse the phase 180 degrees. I also pretty much had radically upset the status quo on the DAC. I turned off the filters, increased the gain from zero to plus six dB, and anything else the system allowed. I also changed each setting on the phonostage to as opposite as possible from where I usually have them set.

AR-Controls.jpgLastly, I radically altered the crossover and level on my subwoofers. So much so, I had essentially eliminated most of my midrange. My goal was to negatively alter the system sonics to the greatest degree reasonably possible. I wanted to absolutely hate what I heard. Mission accomplished. Only one problem, the day I was doing all of this, I forgot to return the settings to their original position. 

After about a week, and a week of inactivity of me with my system, my buddy came by and made his questioning declaration. Just enough time had passed that caused me to think exactly why things had changed so much, and not for the better. Whereupon changing the settings back to their original position, my friend said, “OK, now that’s a lot better.” 

AR-ChangeItBack.jpgAfter he left, I made the decision to change everything back to where they were, those same settings causing such aural distress. And one by one, I changed them back, sometimes incrementally, sometimes fully back to their original position, but only one at a time. I took my time with each setting and listened how the sonics were presented. My intent was to see how things changed, be they better or worse, or none at all. Oddly enough, the results were surprising. 

I discovered I preferred the gain on the preamp set to zero rather than the plus 2db where I normally had it set. I felt like it sounded less congested. On some songs, this setting made a profound difference for the better. On others, honestly, it was sonically a little thin. That is likely the fault of the recording. As far as the rest of the settings, most surprisingly, I found I liked them best in the original setting. I did make, however, a few minor changes mostly allied to the DAC and phonostage. Fate, it seems, was not yet finished with me. 


Again, be it curiosity or something else, I decided to change the position of my subs. Not radically mind you, but slightly alter their original position. All of the sudden, the was a sonically noticeable change. Crescendos had greater dynamic authority and seemed to sweep me right along. Imaging improved. And of course, all of these improvements caused me to go through the settings exercise once again. While I did not find the need to make further changes to the settings on any components, I decided to make one final alteration – I marginally reduced the level on both subs. 

I spent the next five hours listening to music in a way I had not in quite some time. Unlike the previous few months, I was enormously engaged with the music. I was basically speechless. Just a few minor changes made such a profound difference. Call it curiosity, call it boredom. Call it most any adjective that works. I call it a welcomed improvement. 

AR-Complacency.jpgA natural question then becomes why now? Why had I not tried all of this sooner? A simple answer is complacency. Anyone may become accustomed to a repeatable sonic presentation even if it has flaws. So much so, the flawed presentation, after a long enough time frame, will be the “acceptable norm” and everything else will sound somehow slightly wrong. For my own purposes, it took me making radical changes, changes I would never think to make for normal listening, to discover improvements were not only readily available, but unexpectedly simple. Best of all, free. 

I had fallen into that abyss of complacent expectations. I was unwilling to challenge the existing settings, or perhaps too enamored with my version of “norm.” I failed to ask one simple question – can some other way sound any better? Once done, I discovered my long held beliefs were, at least to a certain degree, not the absolute best they could be. Once I decided to change that status quo, once I decided to question my complacent way of thinking, once I had asked the question “what if,” I happily discovered a new level of listening satisfaction. I have little doubt producing equal changes through new or different components or cables on my system would have likely cost many thousands of dollars. Perhaps more than that. 

AR-GiveItATry.pngIf you find yourself one lazy afternoon happily ensconced with your audio system and the music is just not “doing it for you,” it might be an interesting exercise to try some dramatic, possibly drastic, possibly some sweeping changes to your system’s settings. Then make a judicious, determined and reasoned decision to change them back to their original position making evaluations all along the way. 

You might find some of your beliefs and sonic acceptability’s have changed or were possibly wrong to begin with. Maybe your tastes have changed and something new will be regarded as “fresh” and perhaps a welcomed approach. At the end of it all, all audiophiles are seeking better sonics. How that happens is inconsequential. All that really matters is that it does.

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