A month of tweaks
I have a modest system—the original VAC Avatar going to Roman Audio speakers over Wireworld Eclipse cables. Except for a Magnum Dynalab XM tuner, I’ve gone completely computer audio, using an HP laptop and optimized Jriver software sourcing either ripped-to-FLAC CD’s, or hi-rez downloads, or some Internet radio stations. I’m using a Wireworld Starlight USB cable into a Benchmark DAC, then some boutique silver coated copper interconnects from Ebay that I’ve liked. I thought the Roman Centurion speakers were the best things I heard at a NYC Audio show. They are the loving creation of Dale Fontenot, and I feel lucky to own one of the few pairs produced. Yep, no one’s heard of them, but in case Dale ever Googles himself, he might find my tribute.
To set the stage, I’ve heard the VAC 160i at several shows, and found myself lusting for it. but I felt I should see how good I could make my existing system sound before such a large expense.
The first tweak was replacing the 12AX7 and 12AU7 with Gold Lions. There seemed more flow, nuance, and separation, so I splurged on their EL34’s. Everything was better, but several weeks into owning them, the system shifted in mid-tune where the sound stage became more dimensional. At this point, I thought I had a good-sounding setup and would have proudly demoed it if any guests were interested.
Then as I was helping my wife cleanup for some guests, I accidently hit a speaker cable, and I heard some distortion in the speaker as I did. I decided to finally use the Caig DetoxIT contact cleaner that I had bought, but only on the speaker connections. Wow. I was amazed. So many blurry lyrics were suddenly clearer. So I ordered the Caig Gold metal contact enhancer and did every connection with both products, including power cords. I was amazed at the new dynamics, but not sure how much the enhancer made over the cleaner. It does seem that metal-on-metal cable connections are still pretty primitive compared to other components, and were a weak link in my system.
(During my auditioning, I’m mainly using Janis Ian’s Breaking Silence and Los Lobos’ Kiko, Both are well-recorded. “Breaking” has stellar mid/low end, and Janis’s soft voice is a test for clarity. Kiko has more treble, more energy, and a larger palette of instruments.)
I became interested in further tweaks, and decide to replace the power cord that came with a Pass Pre with the Art Audio Classic with gold Furutech F11 connectors. I had once listened to different power cables with a Class'e amp, and didn't hear any difference, but this time, just wow. One odd observation—as I approached the Avatar, I noticed how much heat was coming out of it—never noticed much heat before. On some recordings, the vocal seem to retreat in the sound stage as percussive material became much more “in the room.” It wasn't more bass, but the attack of percussion that I mainly noticed. Recording after recording just seemed more “in the room” and less “wall of sound.” On some albums there is the illusion of a drummer playing a trap set sitting over by a speaker.
I’m batting three for three, so I order a Furutech FPX-G gold receptacle. I couldn’t really A/B the change, but I was immediately pleased with the sound, and noticed I could hear a loosely tensioned drum skin have a certain dip and spring back when struck. (thaaaa-ump) But this was more of a non-verbal satisfaction. I felt a little foolish before installing the receptacle, and then so pleased that I did.
Finally, I read good things about Stager solid silver interconnect, so I ordered 1 meter/RCA for $150. I was worried about a few reviews saying the upper mid-bass seemed a little attenuated, and sure enough, on the Breaking Silence album there is one track where the bass hits the note, and then slides back two frets, and this did seem attenuated with the Stager. So the initial impression was disappointment, but decided I would give it a little burn in time and A/B with my original interconnects. I start with the Stager (with an expectation of sending it back)…and after four days I’m still listening to album after album. It’s a much clearer view into the performance, and many new details are heard. Songs that fade out are rich in detail as they fade. On a Kiko track, there is a percussive instrument that is a scraping wood sound—somewhat like coarse sandpaper—and it wasn’t heard with the original interconnects. I also notice that on Phosphorescent Blues (Punch Brothers) an upright bass walks down to the depths with power and tunefulness, so I’m confused about the initial attenuation I was worried about. I finally switch back to the original interconnects, expecting to hear a more mellow sound, but what I hear is congestion in the upper bass, and the window into the music now has a fog over it. It only takes a minute to know the Stager is quite superior. Maybe it’s a certain quality of electric bass, such as sustained power, where the thin little Stager loses just a tad. Don’t know. But the overall enjoyment is much greater with the Stager's -more separation of individual instruments and the bass does go deep.
So, for a very modest investment, my modest little system was transformed to deliver so much pleasure. I didn’t get into endless comparison of buying options, but just went with quality offerings that had a pattern of being fairly priced and well-reviewed by both press and customers, I honestly did not expect the amount of improvement or resulting satisfaction, and I’m only sharing this as a possible experiment for others with similar situations. Cheers!