Please help--my ears are hurting

I had heard of the synergy phenomonem, but being a relative newbie I had always thought it an audio myth. I now know it is no myth. I had started building a system and like many, I bought some equip. before I knew what I was doing. Not that I bought anything necessarily bad, I had not bought anything necessarily good. I have 2 Polk floorstanders & center speaker, an HK 325 receiver, and a cheap JVC dvd player. I went the receiver route because of the WAF and FAF(family aproval factor). I am interested in mostly music, but the family is interested in mostly movies. Well, the sound was just OK. My first step was to add a new CD player--the highly reviewed Music Hall CD25 w/ Level 1+ Mod. At first I was amazed at all the sound I had been missing. What detail, what clarity, and finally what brightness-- especially in the upper mids/lower highs. I now cannot listen for more that an few minutes without getting a headache. At times my ears literally "prickle", especially at certain frequencies. The cd25 apparently is synergistically out of sync with the rest of the system. I have actually gone back to listening mostly to the DVD player. I contacted the seller and he thinks the problem is most likely in the HK and suggested that I buy a Jolida integrated amp w/ a tube preamp ($600) to warm things up a bit.
1. What do you guys think about this?
2. I would like something that I could incorporate into the HT system. I don't think this is possible with the Jolida.
3. Is there an ss amp that might warm this player/system up?
4. I am using Blue Jeans Cables which get high ratings as a budget ic. Opinions?????
5. Could the speakers be the culprit? I have been looking into some Spendors.
6. Could the new player somehow be defective? It has been broken in according to the recommendation.
7. Should I scrap/sell the HK and start over in the amp section of the system?
Guys, I am at an impasse here. I don't have dealers nearby to audition, so I have to go mostly on what I read. Being a high school teacher I don't have a lot of discretionary income, but I do love good music, and now that I am nearing retirement want a decent system. I was thinking of spending $8-1000 for each new upgrade---source, speakers, amp section. Where should I go from here? Thanks in advance. Ouch.
Papertrail, you're certainly at a fork in the road. Jolida and Spendors are fine recommendations, although I'm not a tube guy. Solid state equipment can be very good, especially integrated amps (receivers without tuners) from companies like Arcam, Creek, Portal, and for more money, Herron etc. I understand not having many audition choices, but you really only need one good dealer either local or on the 'net such as Galen Carol, Underwood, Audio Elation or Hollywood. You should be able to rely on quality dealers to help with system synergy. In some circles, good equipment is good equipment, and if it's doing its job correctly it should get along with other good equipment. Auditioning is very important but, sometimes, just not possible. Do some reseach, see what pieces others have put together, ask them about their sound (most of us are happy to extoll the virtues of our systems) and remember cabling and power conditioning will have effects on your sound. You have workable budget and this endeavor is not an easy homework assignment. However, it should be fun. There are more choices than you might imagine, so before you start, get a good nights' sleep and keep a bottle of aspirin nearby. Happy hunting!

One last thing: When all is said and done, this will be YOUR system and YOUR ears and YOUR enjoyment.
On the plus side, you have an excellent Music Hall MMF CD 25 CD player to build a system around. Also, the JVC DVD players ... especially if it is something like the 600BL or 602SL is actually quite a good DVD player and competent CD player.

The Music Hall MMF CD 25 (in stock form) is a pretty neutral, warmish sounding machine. I am unfamiliar with the mods and I am unsure if the mods would change the inherent nature of the Music Hall's sound that dramatically ... if anything, mods tend to further build on a unit's inherent sound.

HK receivers are known for being a bit dark sounding (emphasize the lower end of the spectrum) so the brightness is not coming from the HK. Polk speakers can be excessively sharp and brittle sounding in the upper mids to treble end of the spectrum. Polk has largely corrected this in its LSi series, but I gather this not the series that you own ... as the LSi are price wise not what you would pair with a HT receiver.

As for your cables, Blue Jeans cables are fine and get the job done ... do not change them. Said differently and without any disrespect or attitude intended or implied, we are talking about basic to mid-fi components here and not the level of electronics where swapping in a cable will make jaws drop and babies weep and women swoon (you get my drift).

What has me a bit puzzled is that the Music Hall (in stock form) alone should not be upsetting the sound balance to this degree. I have an owned a Music Hall CD 25 for 2 1/2 years and originally paired it with a Harman Kardon 3370 receiver and it was really very pleasant sounding (Acoustic Research 302 speakers). My hunch is that this system has always been walking on the almost too bright side and the improvements made by the Music Hall are getting you to notice the sound more and you are finding that you do not like all that you hear.

If I were to start anywhere, I would start with the speakers. Afterall, that is what you hear and you do not own by any stretch "excessively bright" amps or sources. I would also be interested in acquiring speakers that are good all-rounders, hold up very well over time, and will pair up well with a variety of different equipment. With that said, I would look at speakers from NHT and PSB .

I suggested these 2 companies, because you get a fairly high performance/price ratio with them and because they also make matching center channel speakers, given that you want to go HT. For monitor style speakers, I would suggest the NHT SB3 ($600) or PSB B25 ($500) and for floorstanders, the NHT ST4 ($1000) or PSB 7PT ($1000).

By the way, the Spendors that you mentioned are great speakers, but think further upstream ... are you not going to be pairing them with a receiver? It may turn out that you will wind up with both a HT receiver and a separate 2 channel amp in the same system ... if you ultimately do, the NHT's and PSB's will not let you down.

When you get to receivers, look to the Denon 2805 or 3805, as well as the ARCAM AVR 2000. They will provide you with good enjoyable sound, if not necessarily hifi nirvana.

Continue to educate yourself on what's out there and try to listen, wherever you can (I have learned more from listening to bar & grill sound set-ups than from most dealers). Also, identify the type of listener & hobbyist that you are ... there is a ton of interesting and great sounding equipment out there ... what do you want your level of interaction to be?

Regards, Rich
I think I am in apparent contradiction with Rich--I would look at the electronics first.

I ran my CD-25 (Shanling CD-S100) with a 70s-vintage HK 930 2-channel receiver (and DH Labs Silver Sonic cables). The 930 is widely regarded as the best-sounding receiver HK ever made and the later HK products I have heard cannot match it. The sound was not too bright and edgy, and this was in a large room with no sound absorption--curtains, upholstered furniture--at all.

I know what you mean about detail, though. The Shanling player can sound very detailed. It was when I swapped in an upmarket power cord that I realized that detail was a tad artificial. The new power cord let me hear closer to the back of the hall. (This is not to say the CD-25 is a bad buy. In its price range I think it is the best.)

If you can swap in an amp you know to sound smooth and warm in another system, that would tell you something about the source of the edgy brightness you hear in yours. My own preference for a movie system would be for solid-state amplification. I have not heard tubes give the slam I feel is needed for special effects unless they cost a lot. SimAudio, Bryston and Audio Refinement are names that come to mind, and I have heard them all sound warm and smooth. Creek is another.

That doesn't mean your speakers are not contributing largely to your edginess, but to me it makes sense to start troubleshooting upstream. Another important factor is room acoustics. It is IMHO better to have a bright-ish rather than an overdamped room, but carpets and some absorption in the corner areas have removed excess brightness for me.
Rich, Thank you for reading my too long post and for writing such a thorough reply. What has me stood is that the brightness only appeared when I entered the MMF CD25 into the equation. The JVC dvd player was a cheapie, but I could listen for hours. That being said, I do hear so much more with the Music Hall player that I want to make it work.
Do others of you share Rich's opinion that the speakers are the probable culprit?
Tobias, Are you saying that the addition of a better power cord helped your Shanling? Also, are you suggesting that I try a 2 channel amp with the existing HK? Or would I be better off to look into a 5 channel integrated? Thanks so much.
Now for the other side of that fork in the road....

Acoustical distortion... Long decay, or reverb times = PAIN ... your ceiling/wall interface is the worst offender. Sound travels along the ceiling, and walls (lamella effect),builds up where they meet, and takes longer to disapate = long Decay times = brightness = PAIN

Echo slap is no bargin either. Face a side wall, and clap your hands, the wall will clap back at you, also first reflections will smear the sound of any good piece of equipment.

If you don't think you have these basic acoustic problems, then you are in "Denial", and I don't mean the river in Egypt.

Get thee to Rives' web site also add ASC and RPG to your reading list. All are listed in the Mfg. section here on A/gon.

Strike two... you can thank the long distance between the power company, and your house, along with your neighbors' for polluting the electricty coming into your home (line borne). Also the normal operation of your digital equipment will put noise back on the line (back/filter). This is why the analog guys won't put their Turn Tables on the same dedicated line as their CD players. The switching power supplies and crystal ossillators output a lot of RFI (air borne), any device that switches on and off will put out RFI. You need to defend against Line borne, Air borne, and Back Filter the noise that is output by your equipment's normal operation.

Strike three.... how about some vibration control... here you need to defend against (1) equipment generated (must drain)(2)air borne (must mass load) and (3) floor borne (must decouple) for each and every piece in your system.

In order for distortion to propagate you need (1) a Transmitting source (2)a Conduit to travel, along and (3) a Receiver to accept.... Eliminate any one factor in the chain, and the distortion goes away.

Ask any Turn Table guy what Foot Fall means (floor borne), have you ever sat in the front row of a friend's home theater, and had your pant's leg flap when the sub goes off (air borne) and lastly if you don't think power transformers, spinning CD drive's, and switching power supplies add deliberating vibration (must drain)that need to be drained from your equipment, please reread my above comment concerning that river in Egypt (;-)

If you continue to head in the direction you are heading, you will end up where you are going....try the other side of that fork in the road..

Please don't take my comments as an attack, I just want to try and open your eyes to some other avenues, and keep you off the equipment merry go round.

Like agent Smith said to Satish in the movie The Matrix...

"Oh I'm not such a bad guy once, you get to know me"

HTH, Dave

Before I switched out any equipment I'd first try different speaker locations and/or some room acoustic treatments. Moving speakers away from side walls or rear walls often alleviates brightness in a system. Also, play with the toe in of the main speakers. I personally know moving my speakers just 2 inches in from the side walls can change the tonal balance considerably. I too was hearing some brightness in my system, then as I said I played with speaker placement and was able to eliminate it. As a matter of fact, I think until you find the optimal speaker placement and try damping at least the first reflection point I wouldn't consider switching equipment to try and cure brightness, you could be throwing your money away. Play with speaker placement and room acoustics first, much better bang for the buck. My $.02
Paper- How many hours do you have on the CD-25? I just got a modded Denon Universal player and I had similar thoughts, but was warned to break it in for 200 hours, which I have now done, and find a substantial improvement.
Hi, The modded CD-25 can be bright with the extra detail. I had one(Usher CD-100)and sold it. I'll take a warm, involving sound anytime. I've tryed 5 cdp and always went back to my MSB Link Dac. If your JVC has a digital output, try an MSB dac used for $150. Or just stick with your JVC. Good Luck, Jerry
Papertrail: I think the problem is that you're "listening too hard" to your new CD player. I suspect that the actual differences between your CD and DVD players are less dramatic than you think. Sometimes our frame of mind can be more important than the components we are listening to. That said, if you're now happier listening to the DVD player, stick with it.

There's also nothing particularly wrong with the rest of your system. If you want a real improvement, it makes the most sense to concentrate on upgrading those speakers. To Rich's suggestions, I would add Paradigm.
I'm not sure what model of Polks you have. But some of that stuff has a tendency to be hyped up in the treble. I'm talking boom and sizzle.No amount of room treatment , tube smoothing or cd player burn-in is going to help.I hate to say it but the Music Hall needs to go as well.

Dump the Polks first. Find a pair of speakers that will allow you to hear the components upstream.From there you can decide what to dump next in the system. I have been down the tone control road several times.I figured out I just needed to find components that work together in the system instead of using wires and power cables to adjust a bad matching of components.

Speaker suggestions ..maybe a used pair of Vandersteens,Green Mountain Audio Europas.. even some of the Paradigm models should put you ahead of the (boom and sizzle)Polks.

There's no doubt the reciever is thinning things out a bit.
Look at separates. Maybe a Outlaw Audio 950 digital preamp. I saw one used here on the Gon for around $550.00 ...I think.
From there you can mix and match amplifiers it's your choice. You can put the most refined amplifier on your mains and use another for the surrounds.

You can get elaborate with it as well and use your reciever to power all of the surrounds.Most digital processors have and in and out digital. Basically you can daisy chain the reciever into the system until you get another separate amplifier for your surrounds. Put what you can now into a better preamp,amplifier and speakers.It sounds a little crude but it will work.

Also some people confuse detail and clarity with a tipped up top end.There is a difference. You can have these qualities without the ear bleeding effect.

Good Luck!
Papertrail--yes, the power cord upgrade helped my player. It produced more extension, energy and definition in the bass and more detail overall. (If I'm not mistaken, this is the kind of improvement everyone notices when they upgrade power cords from stock, no matter what the unit is--source or preamp.)

About detail: my small experience leads me to distinguish real from apparent detail. The latter is a kind of artificial brightness, the sort of thing that can be exaggerated by less-than-first-class electronics into midrange opacity and high frequency aggressiveness. Real detail is additional information; perhaps micro-information is a good word. It lets me hear more of things like instrumental timbres--the rosin on the bowstring, the woodiness of a clarinet--and the dimensions of the recording space.

As for the amp suggestion, what I mean is you could swap your current HK receiver for any other unit you could get, 2 or 5-channel, just as a tryout. Not a sidegrade, though. Try something which would definitely be a step up. As an alternative, you could take your player and interconnect--or your receiver--to an audio pal's place, or a dealer's, to try it in another system. The objective would be to isolate what's causing the edge you hear.

On Dave's point, I think he is right about room and power line treatment, but most of us seem to want to get the major system components that satisfy us first, and then go into those domains. Not that you couldn't start exploring now, perhaps with an isolation transformer for the player and corner and wall junction absorbers. However this would multiply the number of variables you have to deal with, and I'm for solving a problem one step at a time. I suggest you try to eliminate the amplification as a problem source before you consider changing speakers, for example.

If you do come to speakers, though, after you eliminate both the receiver and speaker placement as the issue, then I second Paradigm (Pabelson's point). Their tonal balance seems less forward to me than PSB or NHT.
Paper, I think Swampwalker might have something there. New cables, new cd player. I'd give it a few hundred hours burn in before you make any decisions.
Excuse me but is the cd player the only change you've made? Are you the only person who hears the nastiness or is it identifiable by someone who isn't an audio enthusiast? If so, that is where I would suspect the problem lies. If you are dissatisfied with the cdp you should return it for another, and don't let the dealer sell you an integrated amp you don't want.
If I make a change to my system and things get worse instead of better I look elswhere. The suggestions on room treatment are good advice only if the room permits. I also understand this particular cdp is popular amongst Audiogoners but if it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work. If your intention is to get better sound from cds and you intend to build you entire system around this cdp, keep it. If not, look for something more suitable to your ears.
What is the configuration of your room? What are the surfaces? A lot of windows? Floor-coverings, or bare floor?
Once upon a time when ignorance was bliss---or the story of the man who thought he knew a thing or two but has now learned enough to know he knows little.
1. Room is 14x24 w/8 ft ceilings, carpeted floor, large wrap around fabric(of some sort) couch, one long wall has large curtained window, opposite wall is 15 ft. as there is a 10 ft. opening into the adjoining room. Short wall opposite the speakers is a corner closet with louvred doors and another door opening into a hallway
2. When I do the clap test, the room seems to be sufficiently damped.
3. Player was run for 8 straight days upon delivery, mostly with sound muted. However, I did do a good deal of real listening. It has been used 50-75 hours since then.
4. The cd player is the only change in the system.
5. As soon as I get the chance I'll get my son or wife to listen to see if they notice the same things I do.
6. I know the polks tend to the bright side. That's why I was considering the Spendor's. One particular spendor is touted to be less sensitive to room placement, especially the back wall, than most speakers. I also understand that Spendors and NHT are warm sounding. What about the Paradigms?
7. Thanks alot ya'll. I was away for a half day and I came back to several esoteric chapter length responses. I assure you that each will be considered.
8. Tomorrow, I think I'll talk with Walter at Underwood to see if he has further thoughts.
9. Other suggestions/opinions will be much appreciated.
10. And all I wanted to do was enjoy my music a little more.
Cardas cables usually help alleviate the type of problem that you are describing.
There are lots of things to at least consider. The new CD player may be
giving you more detail, but your ears might be sensitive to the added
response and detail you're getting. Everyone likes their detail different, so a
lot of people may enjoy this particular player, but it may not right for you. I
would also consider the possible emotional explanation. Though we like to
think we're immune to such things, our hearing *is* affected by our emotions.
We listen "extra carefully" when we get new gear. We can also
listen "selectively." You may have "locked on" to
something in the audio band. I've actually done this before -- and it is hard
to shake. It can definitely give you a headache. You might try taking a break
from the system, giving your ears a rest, see if coming back fresh helps. I
would also try moving your speakers, try different angles, etc. The same
placement doesn't always work when you change gear. Try moving and
separating your various power and audio cables, sometimes you can get a
bad interaction between cables. Another possibility; maybe with better gear,
you're actually listening at higher volumes than before, but don't realize it
because of the increased resolution. If so, room problems that didn't crop up
at lower volumes may be rearing their heads now -- or, maybe the increased
volume is affecting your ears. Just throwing out possibilities. If all else fails,
move new gear in, but try everything else first.


I went back and read most of your previous postings and it seems that this issue has been with you for a while and you have been doing your research. I read with interest a post of yours from June 24th of last year and one question that has not been raised (at least from what I can tell) ... do you have the space, or even the inclination, to set up a second system and do your music listening in a separate room?

If that is a viable option, you could then focus on building a system around the Music Hall CD 25 as your source (it really is a good CD player) and with a budget of $1600 to $2000, you could pick up a really decent amp; set of speakers; and some cables. In this way, you can get closer to a music system, without having to build around what is, at its core, a HT system.

I can empathize somewhat with your situation ... my wife can retire in a few years and issues like relocation to a warmer climate and what our lifestyle will look like are on the table. I also think about how much audiophile related stuff I have acquired over the years (a roomful of CD's and electronics) and quite frankly, do I really want to lug this stuff down South or out West? Oh well.

Rehards, Rich
Rich, that's a very interesting post if I may say so.

Papertrail may well be faced with either going to a dual-purpose system which can really play music, or having two systems dedicated to different purposes. Both routes involve extra expense, unfortunately. The two-system route would be as you say. The single-system, dual-purpose approach would really require better downstream equipment to satisfy Papertrail's audiophile-grade ears.

I am embarrassed that I didn't research Papertrail's earlier posts myself. Hats off to you, Rich.
First, scrap the Polks and get a decent pair of speakers that you are comforable with. Paradigm, PSB, NHT and many others make some moderately priced speakers that you'll be much happier with. Then work backwards from there.
I wouldn't try to put a band-aid on the system to try to "cover up" the poor sound of one of your components.

While I'm not an expert on the sound of various models of moderately-priced CD players, I suggest you go out and listen to same and consider making a replacement of that part of your system.

Certainly nothing wrong with tubed electronics in their own right. I've got some myself. But I've also been guilty of trying to use gear and cable as a "tone control," which can get very risky and expensive. Sometimes it works (it did for me), but when it doesn't, you can get involved in the endless cycle of buying and selling equipment.

I'd go directly to the source of the problem and deal with the CD player.