Article from What HI FI magazine, April 2012 edition

Not every upgrade you make to your kit has to cost the earth: try these for a quick AV fix


What: Calibrate your TV with THX
How: Use a Blu-ray of Terminator 2
Cost: £7.50 at amazon.co.uk

Having granted your nice new TV pride of place in your home, you'll notice its pictures are brighter, more colourful and altogether more overblown than you could bear for long. The reasons are simple. Bright, overdriven pictures are, superficially, very impressive (in the same way that music with the bass ramped up is superficially impressive) - manufacturers need their products to stand out on the shop floor. A brightly lit store is a terrible place to demonstrate a TV, so turning everything up to eleven is sensible move. But watching TV at home that's set up this way gets a bit like being shouted at before long. It's easy to rectify this sorry state of affairs. Go to www.thx.com - you're sure to own at least one of the hundreds of THX-certified DVDs and Blu-rays listed there. Each one includes a THX Optimizer tool - this set of tests covers every aspect of your TV's performance (below is the brightness test: adjust your TV until the THX is just visible).

It doesn't take long to bring your TV into line with THX's preferred (and industry-endorsed) settings. And if you don't happen to own a THX disc? Just buy a new movie! Amazon currently has Terminator 2 on Blu-ray for just £7.50 - a nice slice of iconic movie and THX menus too.


What: Position your speakers
How: With a laser pointer and free WHF diagram
Cost: £6.50 at amazon.co.uk/free from WHF

You can put your speakers anywhere you like, but dont imagine you're getting the best from them unless your prepered to indulge them just a little. With stereo speakers, it's worth investigating the difference that come with chenging the way the speakers are facing (dead ahead, toed in, towards the listening position etc.). Your goal is convincing stereo image. Also have a play with their position relative to the wall that's behind them; generally the closer to a back wall your speakers are, the more likely the low frequencies are to dominate.
Speakers have bass reflex ports (mosts have either forward or backward-firing ports), it's worth experimenting with the port-bungs if bass is overblown. It's more important that Low frequencies be controlled than plentiful. Multichannel needs care as well Multichannel set-ups require similar care and attention. The centre speaker is a common problem - despite its crucial role (around 70% of a soundtrack comes through the (centre channel) it's often parked beneath the TV firing directly at your knees. Elevate it at the front until its pointing at your head. As regards the positioning of the rest of the speakers in your cinema set-up, you could do a lot vorse than invest in a laser pointer (Amazon has them from £6.50) and then go to www.whathifi.com/itudiagram. This diagram shows how the engineers who mixed the soundtracks to your favourite movies had their speakers positioned, and if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us. Download it, print it. and then put it bang on your preferred seated position (you can put the sofa back later). Use the laser pointer to put your speakers in the approved position. You'll benefit from a coherent soundfield and seamless effects steering.
You'll notice your subwoofer isn't included on the ITU diagram: low frequencies are less directional, which makes the sub's position less critical - though somewhere between the front three speakers is best.


What: Set the speakers volume
How: With a sound presure level meter
Cost: £8.99 on ebay or free from smartphone app store

A lot of multichannel amplifiers come complete with a se-up microphone, and are willing to set themselves up by accounting for the characteristics of your particular listeningroom. We reckon you can do a bit better by yourself, though, so avail yourself of an SPLM (from £10 on any number of eBay shop-fronts) and make sure your speakers are all outputting the same level. Or, download an app Or, if you own a smartphone of any description, there are quite a few SPLM apps (for both iOS and android) to download for much less than a tenner. W e're particularly taken with the SPL Meter app Digital: it's free, it's accurate and digital representation of an analogue VU meter .


What: Spring Clean!
How: Clean your mains plugs, interconnects and discs
Cost: Brasso £2 at ASDA, Isopropyl alcohol £3.50 at amazon.co.uk

As far as the nuts and bolts of your system go, it doesn't get much more hands on than this. Basically, your set-up needs a bit of TLC every now and then (don't we all?). So put some time aside to make it feel truly loved. Polish the tines of your mains plugs with Brasso: your amplifier is very sensitive to mains quality - particularly in the preamp, volume-control section - and a clean contact is a happy contact. Then wipe the plugs on your interconnects with some cotton wool moistened with isopropyl alcohol; copper-based connections oxidise over time, so, making the contact as clean as possible will help with signal flow.
Then get your pliers out and have a go at your speaker cable (if you're using bare-wire connections). Speaker cable corrodes readily, and trimming back the exposed wiring keeps that signal path as coherent and uncorrupted as possible. If you're using banana plugs or something similar on your speaker cable, though, you'll need to include them in your isopropyl alcoholswabbing routine. That's the hardware taken care of. Don't neglect your software, though. We've all experienced the irritation of a CD, DVD or Blu-ray disc not loading properly. For the cost of a clean, soft cloth, you can take all those fingerprints off your software discs, giving your player a better than sporting chance of getting the information off them without error.
While you're at it, find out if any of your local record stores have a Keith Monks vinyl-cleaning machine: it shouldn't cost more than a pound per vinyl LP - and the difference between a grubby album and a clean one can be staggering.


What: Load your speaker stands
How: With nice dry sand
Cost: £4.30 at wickes.co.uk

You haven't taken the description 'bookshelf speaker' at face value, have you? Many speaker stands have voids designed to be loaded with dense material. You can pick up more than enough block-paving sand from www.wickes.co.uk for under a fiver. Before you use it, bake it for a while to make sure it's bone-dry; then fill your stands: this helps stability and improves damping -which in turn means optimum performance.


What: Make your speakers completely secure on their stands
How: With some Blu-Tack
Cost: £1.50 at ryman.co.uk

So, we've established you're using proper stands to put your speakers on. And, what's more, you've loaded them with sand to make the best of their abilities. Now it's time to think about the way the speakers sit on the stands' top-plates.
Pretty much every home has some Blu-Tack (if not, any stationers will sell you a pack for a couple of quid). Put a nice big blob on each corner of your stands' top-plates and then sit your speakers on top. You've just made your speakers much more secure - good for lots of reasons - and you've considerably reduced the size of the contact area between the speakers and the stands. Both of these are emphatically Good Things.


What: Improve your biwire speaker connections
How: short lengths of speaker cable
Cost: £6/m at audiovisualonline.co.uk or ebay

Are your speakers are biwirable? You can tell by the speaker binding posts: if there are two positive (red) and two negative (black) terminals per speaker then they're biwirable.
If you're not biwiringthem, each pair of terminals will be joined together with a metal bar. For the cost of a metre of speaker cable (and we're thinking about something goodbut- not-extortionate. like QED's XT Evolution at £6 per metre), you can ditch those-bars and replace them with a product that's custommade for the job. Believe it or not, your speakers will sound slightly better.


What: Level your kit-rack
How: With a spirit level
Cost: £7 at tooled-up.com or free from smartphone app store

Another fix that involves either a trip to the nearest DIY emporium or a visit to the app store - both excellent ways to pass an hour. You'll need a spirit level - www.tooled-up.
com will sell you one for £7. An app for your smartphone will be far cheaper; we like SkyPaw's free Spirit Level. You need to make sure your kit rack is level. That way, the kit on it has the best chance of performing at its best.
Disc players, for example, have an extraordinary amount of information to extract from the discs they play. The less effort they have to put into correcting perceived errors the better. A level disc player is a less-stressed disc player - so it will perform better. Adjust your rack's spikes if necessary.


What: Elevate your electronics
How: using squash-balls
Cost: £3 at amazon

Your precious electronics have to sit somewhere, of course - but they will thrive if they're decoupled (as much as possible) from the shelf upon which they are placed. Which is where your ruined squash balls come in. Find your sharpest blade Amazon will sell you a three-pack of Dunlop competition-standard squash balls for £3, so less than a tenner will buy you as many as you are likely to need. Cut them in half (a sharp craft-knife will do the trick nicely), then put one half under each corner of each box of electronics.
We're the first to admit that this isn't the most elegant-looking upgrade you'll ever have made to your system, and it won't be for everyone, but we would urge you to give it a go. We reckon the sonic benefits will be enough to sway all but the most Underground before ending up with John militant interior designer.


What: Expand your knowledge of the entirety of 20th century music.
How: Reat the Rest is Noise
Cost: £9.75 at amazon

Alex Ross is the music critic at The New Yorker magazine. His first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, was published in the UK in 2008, and it's an exhaustive, energetic pelt through the music of the past century.
The emphasis is firmly on the classical, beginning with the 'golden age' of Mahler and Strauss, passing through 'the seething landscape of Schoenberg, Berg and Weber', offering nods in the direction of Ornette Coleman and The Velvet Underground Adams' opera Nixon in China.
For all the book's enthusiasm for the deep theory of classical composition and its willingness to explore the murky hinterland of minimalism and atonality, The Rest is Noise is never less than a brisk and engaging read. The reach and range of Ross's scholarship is obvious, as is his simple love of the subject.
Whether you come to the subject as a novice or knowledgeable, there's plenty to be learned here - and each time you put this book down, you'll want to investigate new music. In terms of getting the most out of your listening, this could well be the best £10 you ever spend.

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