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Positive Feedback ISSUE 9
october/november 2003


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Auroville 23 - On the bigger S.U.C.K.
by Srajan Ebaen

As 6moons' big enchilada, I get lots of email. Many folks want advice on how to properly roll a taco or roast green chili peppers, where to jump off the bridge into the Rio Grande to elude Uncle Sam, and what I think is the best trail towards Lobo peak in the Taos ski valley. Not! Well, sorta. People want to know how to make their systems sound better. No matter how often I stress that these things are room-dependent, the most stamina-endowed of these correspondents pop right back up like undefeatable standup dolls. They insist on throwing further money at their vexingly elusive problems. What components would I recommend? How many inches, down to the second space behind the decimal point, are my speakers apart from each other, how far away are they from the side and front walls? What degree of toe-in do I use? The answer is—it's all room-dependent. Do I speak Basque?

Here's the frustrating thing. These are often highly successful business people, clearly sharp as whips and savvy as the brightest stars in their class, but in this particular instance, they just don't get it. They behave like dilettantes who self-diagnose themselves with over-the-counter drugs. Even if they knew their real ailment, they wouldn't know the antidote. That's not their field of expertise. It's why all of us visit proper MDs when the time comes. But worse, these pseudo-audio-docs don't know the true nature of their disease, except that they suffer this terribly vague pain somewhere in their gut. Their expensive systems suck and they're bloody sick of it.

I'm here to tell you a secret. They don't suck enough. What these folks need is a higher level of S.U.C.K. altogether—Set-Up Consulting Knowledge. What they need is an expert setup man who'll come to their house, bring his room analyzer, test tone generator, and decades worth of experience, to diagnose their dilemma by its proper Latin term—audiophoolia stupendia, most likely—and present them with a prescription on how to solve their expensive mess. Why waste the long green on different cables or the latest press darling amplifier when what's really the issue is any of the following: the speakers being positioned incorrectly; the listening chair squatting in the wrong place; that only a 12dB notch filter at 48Hz and an equivalent one of 7dB at 86Hz could ever overcome the room-geometry-induced standing waves?

Examples? Three of my treasured readers visited Avantgarde-USA's Jim Smith in his Atlanta home to audition his personal reference system. Two of them owned the very same speakers he does. Both admitted afterwards that their own rigs missed his level of sound by easily 50%, if not more. In other words, though employing many of the same pieces of costly hardware, they enjoyed less than half of their likely potential than Mr. Smith.

Now, if personal validation had assured you that someone else truly knew his craft; knew how to make the kind of sound that went under your skin and which you were lusting after yourself, wouldn't the smart money hire this fella on the spot to dial in his/your personal rig? Or at the very least, wouldn't you want professional feedback on whether your situation was redeemable, and by how much? To learn what would be involved, exactly, and what sequence of steps you should take to rectify it?

Say such an expert charged $75/hour. Say he warned that it might take him all day—possibly ten hours—to cure your ills. Add $300 for a plane ticket, $100 for a hotel room and $50 for a snazzy dinner. For $1200, you'd either get better sound than you've ever allowed yourself to dream of (in a single day, no less), or a precise to-do list of practical and proven steps that would optimize your situation. Compare that to the $2500 you were ready to drop on some fancy wires, the kind your favorite reviewer called the cat's meow in his reference system. There's no way to be certain that these cables will, first of all, perform in your rig as they did in his, and secondly, that the changes they'll introduce—if indeed they are desirable—will come remotely close to being more than a weak-ass band aid that utterly fails to address the real issue.

If you were willing to consider risking $2500 on a mere cable "maybe," with the percentile delta of potential improvements at best nebulous and rather limited as a matter of fact, why would you hesitate when a professional billed you $1200 to diagnose the problem? He'd either fix it right there on the spot (or at least make it so much better that you'd have second thoughts on going any farther), or would devise a concise plan of action with the promise to oversee said project changes and guarantee satisfaction or your money back.

Today's column, like the best of advertisements, is thus a call to action. Pursue a greater degree of suck than you've ever allowed yourself to suffer. Secure the consulting services of a professional setup expert who is as good at what he does as you must be at making the kind of money you're so eager to hazard flushing down that gold-plated toilet seat. There's of course one pesky horsefly in this ointment. How to identify such a guy? Where to find these experts?

In the golden olden days before the discount-whore Internet mentality, it used to be your dealer. In some instances, that may still hold true, unless, of course, you were inconsiderate enough to have harassed him one too many times with a ridiculous discount request, as though it were up to you to determine what his compensation for his expertise was worth. Did you purchase all your goods on audiogoN for pennies on the dollar? Any wonder that you're now left stranded without anyone willing to help you get the most from your acquisitions?

In many cases, your search will take you out of state. It could be the marketing director of your amplifier firm, the fellow routinely responsible for setting up their rooms at trade shows. It could be an audiophile selling a few units a year out of his house—perhaps not the best businessman there is, but friends that you trust swear he's a setup master par excellence. Heck, it could even be a reviewer who, after all, might have ten years of monthly setup sagas under his belt to make any manner of equipment sound its best?

You get the drift. As Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio is fond of reminding us, the devil's in the details. As Jim Smith's 31 Secrets to Better Sound prove, there's more to audio perfection than you may have imagined. As the Kharma/Lamm and Kharma/Tenor rooms prove at every single tradeshow, certain guys make good sound time and again, no matter where or when. Wouldn't it behoove you to benefit from their know-how? I can guarantee that you'll obtain better results, for far less money and in far less time, than you otherwise stand a chance at. This goes far beyond sophisticated predictive software programs that map your room to suggest speaker or listening seat placement. It's about the kind of know-how that only comes from experience, which knows how to correlate your lack of emotional response to your system with specific variables, and how to tune them for the better.

I can't tell you of the number of audiophiles I know—or know of—who perpetuate their misery by simply spending more and more money. They don't understand that the hardware is the smaller part of the equation, that knowing how to put it together the far greater. It's as though they were too proud to admit—what? Simply that, despite their being uncontested experts in their chosen professions, they remain far too inexperienced and naive in their hobbyist pursuit to ever be rewarded with the kind of results their considerable expense and dedication would clearly justify. How difficult is it to admit that when it comes to medical matters, we'd best let the experts diagnose both the ailment and the proper cure? Why then be so belligerently stubborn when it comes to audio?

I don't know the answer to that question. I only know that many folks prefer to make fools out of themselves. These are bright people, with true passion and commitment, yet they somehow suffer tunnel vision when it comes to audio, as though the ability to spend money on more and more expensive toys equates to a guarantee of eventual success when their track record clearly suggests that it does not. How many disappointments are you ready to book before confessing that you're in dire need of help? Mind you, I'm not talking auro-shrinks or music-psychs but setup menschen. It's about capital-letter S.U.C.K after all. So suck up to the plate and finally get that small but irritatingly persistent "suck" over with.

An old saying advises that to cure a small problem merely necessitates embracing a larger one. It's called distraction. So here's today's distraction for those whose systems perennially suck despite their very best efforts: Shoulder the challenge of finding a proper audio consultant to do an on-site inspection, then pay the man what he's asking for and let him do his job. Hell, it's what most Hollywood actors do when they need a new look. They hire professional shoppers to show them where to go and what to try. I used to know one of them. Boy, was she good. Why should audio be any different? The fact is, if you're truly as intent on owning that personal box-office smash hit as your eagerness to waste money would suggest, audio is no different.

Unless you're a mechanic, you bring your car to the specialist for a tuneup. Common sense, right? Unless you are a bona fide setup man (or woman!), bring your system to the specialist for its tuneup. No? Of course you can't do that, hence you bring the specialist to your system. Wanna bet that you had no inkling what your system was really capable of?


A day after publishing the above column, Richard Rives Bird of Rives Audio ( wrote in to advise our readers that such an organization of professional S.U.C.K already exists: HAA ( They organize calibrators' classes all over the country which all Rives Audio dealers attend—3 days ISF and 2 days of HAA. This organization performs certifications and offers listings of professional consultants by state. Added Richard: "The course this is not cheap, but I think those who take the time and effort to participate and get educated are in general very good at system setup. Thus, if I were looking for someone to do a professional setup, I would look for an HAA certified tech and feel reasonably comfortable that they would know what they are doing."

Seeing that the folks from Rives Audio offers three different levels of room acoustics consulting themselves—including complete from-the-ground design work of professional recording studios and audiophile listening rooms—such a recommendation should indeed be taken quite serious. This incinerates our horsefly in the ointment, doesn't it? Where to find a setup professional just became a heckuva lot more convenient.

Visit Srajan at his site

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