We’re constantly told to buy bigger, better and more expensive to improve the sound of our hi-fi systems. But, what if removing things could do the same thing? What if taking things away from our hi-fi could improve sound quality? Paul Rigby offers a few hints and tips that won’t cost you a bean
Before I begin, I want you to look at the images above and below and remember them. They were created by Luis Hernan, a doctoral researcher at ArchaID, Newcastle University. Hernan has created what he calls a Kirlian device: which senses the signal strength of Wi-Fi networks, turning the signals into colour using LEDs. In this way, Hernan can ‘paint’ physical spaces, showing how the Wi-Fi network moves around the space. The red parts are a strong signal. The blue areas are quite weak. You can see more on the site Digital Ethereal
Back to the plot. When I recently moved house, I spent a lot of time damping my listening room to remove excess echoes and reverb. That meant buying lots of rugs and curtains, constructing and filling IKEA furniture and putting up canvas pictures and more to create a room that was sonically neutral.
There were two things of note in this new place. Firstly, it’s a new build so all of the cabling is new. My last place was old, old, old. That proved to have an effect on the hi-fi sound. A extra clarity could be heard based on this factor alone.
Secondly, the house is isolated. And that means? Well it means no neighbours. An isolated house means no-one else’s mobile signals invading your house. It also means that the mains is cleaner. Mains electricity doesn’t move in one direction only, which means that the noise from next door’s washing machine can re-enter the local mains system and influence the mains signal careering towards your hi-fi (which is why hi-fi mains conditioners are popular in urban areas and why a hi-fi based in an urban area sounds better late and night when most people are in bed and most gadgets – not just your own, the neighbour’s too – have been switched off). Again, I had none of that. The resultant clarity from that area was startling.
I noticed something when playing my first piece of music after fully damping the room. During play, I could hear – well sense – a very upper frequency ringing noise. Something that the ear felt almost rather than really heard. It was the sort of noise that would cause listening fatigue and, if not removed, even a headache over time. I do know that it was quickly becoming irritating. I hadn’t a clue where it was coming from because my room was now fully damped. The music finally finished, I sat in silence for a bit and then looked at the laptop in front on me. I was taking notes at the time. I also noted an odd scratchy static noise emanating from the speakers. I had a thought and turned off my laptop. The noise reduced a bit but most of the noise remained. Onto something, I switched off my phone. Down went a different type of noise, probably from the phone network itself. But lots of noise remained. From…somewhere.
My listening room is away from my router so I have to use a Wi-Fi extender to get a broadband signal. There it was, with a green glowing light. It was one of those things pictured below, incidentally. So, I turned off the Wi-Fi Extender. All of the noise left, all at once. Silence reigned.
I played that same piece of music again. My jaw dropped. The enhanced sound quality was just incredible. I was hearing new things in familiar music with instruments sounding much more mature, organic and characterful with a tonal realism that was exquisite.
What occurred to me was that, although I’ve been quite meticulous in removing noise from my hi-fi, even back in the old house, I had neglected the potential Wi-Fi signals issue. Possibly because there was so much mains-derived noise knocking about, I thought that any residual noise that I was hearing was coming from that. Now, with the newly discovered clarity from the low noise mains in the new property, Wi-Fi noise just screamed to be removed.
So, what’s the bottom line here? Am I saying that you all need to move to an isolated domain in the country? Of course not. Besides, my spare sofa isn’t big enough to take you all. What I am saying is to address mains, Wi-Fi, mobile, vibration and other noise and treat it as a serious condition. Look at the Wi-Fi images above once more. That lot is quite probably in your room right now. I know that I can actually hear that scratchy static stuff plus the other masking frequencies they also generate. It’s certainly not helping the sound quality of your hi-fi because it’s infesting the electronics within it.
Keep a check on my site in terms of news, reviews and features on how to go about that. Secondly, turn off any laptops and phones before you play music and, if you can and it doesn’t cause a riot in the family, the router too. The less noise entering the hi-fi system, the fewer gadgets that are talking to each other over networks, the more music that you hear. Remember, noise masks music and you didn’t spend all that cash on a hi-fi to listen to noise.