Moving from a condo into a house a couple of years ago had a profound impact on both the way I listen to music, and my enjoyment of the audio experience.
We moved from a two-bedroom apartment with one main living space. Our living-dining area was relatively cramped and not ideal for music. Bare plaster walls, hardwood floors and a large sliding glass balcony door were all highly reflective. Our TV and audio equipment shared the top of a five-foot long A/V cabinet, with multiple pairs of speakers jostling for position on each end. The sweet spot was non-existent and should have been a couple of feet the other side of the wall behind the sofa.
Not ideal at all. Then we moved.
In the blink of an eye, we had two living spaces. A small audio system (wireless streamer, amp and speakers) went into the large, open-plan living-dining-kitchen area. Less glass, higher ceilings and more space make this an improvement, even though little serious listening happens there; music is on for background as we browse flyers over coffee on weekend mornings, or when I do dishes in the evening, or when we cook together for holidays.
The main system went downstairs at one end of our 24’ x 14’ recreation room, with the TV set up at the other end. This was the only room in the house we didn’t remodel or renovate prior to moving in; when we first viewed the house, I knew it would be an ideal listening environment, with wood-panelled walls, acoustic ceiling tiles, and the most incredible avocado-green shag carpet, and once we moved in, I was proven right.
In my first ecoustics article back in February I talked a bit about how life stage and changing circumstances can impact our audio experience; with this move they certainly did! Last week I got into the topic of audio accessories (record and stylus cleaners), and I have to say one of the most important “accessories” is your listening room. Our editor, Ian White wrote recently about fixing your room acoustics, and this is a must if moving is not an option.
This week I’m continuing the accessory theme with some more products that have enhanced my audio experience beyond keeping needles and grooves clean. We’ll start big and get progressively smaller.
One of the conditions we added to the purchase of our house was that the console stereo cabinet (in the rec. room 45 years) stay put. The guts were dead, but I wanted it to remain as it fit the ‘70s vibe of the room and was going to make an ideal unit for my amp, turntable and universal disk player. It stayed, and there the equipment went.
What I didn’t count on was a proliferation of new amps and turntables, and even more an explosion of new records that accompanied months of pandemic lockdown.
Storage became an issue. Stacking equipment (which I despise) or rotating equipment became a necessity. I had trouble reaching the turntable to put on a record as the vinyl stacks on the floor in front of the console crept further and further into the room.
And then our neighbour’s basement flooded after a heavy period of rain, and I began to worry about my treasures being destroyed if the same happened to us.
As luck would have it, my pal Scott had begun a custom audio furniture business, Audio Acoustic Engineering. I had bought some shallow record shelves from him to display albums above my stereo and was impressed with the quality and design. I began thinking he could build me a cabinet to replace the console and scoured Instagram for design ideas. A plan formed and finalized, and late last year work began on a build.
Custom builds are funny things. You get to design exactly what you want but pay a premium. You also succumb to periods of second guessing and doubt. The night before delivery I actually had a nightmare that the wood finish was all wrong, the cabinet was a foot too short, and the whole thing was hideous.
I needn’t have worried. What I received was perfect in every way. Lots of record storage (since overflowed). Lots of component space (still adequate). Colour exactly what I envisioned. Proof that sometimes you can get what you want and what you need. Take that Mick.
The lighting in our rec. room isn’t ideal. The room is on the dark side. Okay, in some ways a darkish room is ideal as it creates more ambiance, but when it comes to aligning a cartridge or cleaning a record it can be a hindrance when you can’t see clearly.
Plus, the darkness can negatively impact Instagram photos.
To the rescue comes the UberLight Flex ($49 at Amazon) from Reliable (props to this Canadian company for a great product). I have one of their 3100TLs clamped to each end of the AAE cabinet (there’s also a more expensive 4100TL on a stand), and they make a huge difference. The lamp arm flexes and the head swivels, so placement and aim are infinitely adjustable. The LED array can be set to emit warm white, natural white or ultra bright light, each with three brightness adjustments.
I typically use the low-level warm white setting. Plenty of light from that. The high-level ultra bright is useful if you are a gangster in the habit of torturing people. This one is not a necessity, but as options go it is quite brilliant.
Turntable Isolation Pads
I don’t have (or haven’t noticed) big issues with turntable isolation in my rec. room set-up. The floors are solid (no vibration), my AAE cabinet is HEAVY (made more-so with ~400 albums, 4 amps and 2 turntables onboard), and my speakers are a foot or so in front and to the sides of my turntables.
That said, it can’t hurt to add some isolation, just in case.
If I were back in our condo, I’d be more concerned (floors were bouncy there and I could make a record skip just getting up to fetch a beer). If I were in a cramped space with turntable and bookshelf speakers sharing a surface (I see a lot of this on Instagram), I’d be looking at isolation solutions for both speakers and turntable.
Editor Ian recently reviewed some speaker isolation ISO-Pucks from IsoAcoustics, and their products (for both speakers and components) would be on my radar in these situations.
Being a cheapskate, I’ve opted for Tablemates ($22.99 at Amazon) isolation pads. These are made of a dense foam material and designed specifically for turntables (as the name implies). I’ve only had these a few weeks and haven’t had an opportunity to do a with-and-without shoot-out, but for the grand price of $23 for a set of four, they are definitely worth considering if isolation is an issue and you’re on a tight budget. My co-contributor Jeremy (@budget_audiophiler) uses them as well and he seems happy with them.
Stylus Pressure Gauge
I could easily have included this accessory in last week’s vinyl-interacting-with-stylus piece, but the theme there was cleaning. Another important part of the groove-stylus relationship is stylus pressure.
Set the stylus pressure too low (light), and you could have issues with mis-tracking and skipping, especially if records are warped or imperfectly centered. Set it too high (heavy) and your stylus will snow plow the record grooves, carving out detail and destroying your records in no time (not to mention wearing out the stylus prematurely).
If you’re setting stylus pressure by eyeballing balance and using only the markings on your tonearm weight, you could be high or low on the weight. A better weigh (see what I did there?) is an electronic stylus force scale ($20.99 at Amazon). Mine was an Amazon pickup, where choices are varied and prices reasonable at anywhere from $12 and up. No need to spend a lot of money here, but whatever you choose will be money well spent.
All Part of the Journey
An audio system and listening space have a life. They evolve over time. If you have the means, they take shape quickly. If not, they take a little longer to become what you envision. Sometimes it takes an expensive new piece of equipment to progress, and others a simple accessory, like a new lamp, can move the dial.
Enjoy it, and if it’s not happening as fast as you’d like to remember that at the end of the day, it’s the music that counts.