Twilight of the Tweaks

The mass marketing of stereo equipment put truly obsessed audiophiles on the lunatic fringe

There's a devil in Eddy Mir's speakers. Well, maybe not in them. Perhaps it's underneath, slithering around in the wafer-thin gap between the chassis of the right speaker and the four-legged platform that elevates it to waist height. The demon might have wrapped its evil hands around the steel posts of the speaker stand itself, pulling them slightly askew. It could even be winding through the pile of the short, sky-blue carpet, preventing the speaker stand's three sharp spikes from penetrating the fibers and adequately anchoring the whole works.

Mir kneels beside the speaker, his face a mask of concentration. He heard the fruits of the devil's handiwork the last time he sat down to listen to his high-end stereo system. A faint, yet noticeable distortion. A dulling of the treble, a muddying of the midrange, a thudding of the bass. Changes in sound that would be imperceptible to most ears, but not to his. One or more of the so-called Five Devils was spoiling his pristine listening experience, and the only way to track them down was to take the whole system apart, piece by piece.

He thinks the most likely devil is vibration or acoustic interference, which is why he's holding a carpenter's level, with its tiny vial of lime-green liquid, next to the columns of the speaker stand. "See, I level it on the column," Mir says in his thick Cuban accent. The Canadian-built Totem Mani II speakers themselves are not large, perhaps eighteen inches tall. They are two feet from the back wall, one foot from the side wall, and toed in -- angled toward the center -- exactly fifteen degrees. Through trial and error, Mir has found that this configuration creates the least amount of acoustic interference (another of the Five Devils) in the twelve-foot-by-fourteen-foot space that used to be his bedroom, in his parents' home. He lives with his wife and college-age daughter in a house about fifteen minutes' drive away but maintains his stereo sanctuary here.

The speaker checks out as level; the devil must be inhabiting the rubber-like Sorbothane feet that absorb energy between the speaker and the stand; he always thought they were too pliant, allowing too much lateral movement to the speakers. This vibration may interfere with the normal pulsations of the speaker cones, resulting in the aural distortion Mir detected. He has experimented with thumbnail-size disks of thin cork, which he cut out himself. He didn't notice any improvement, so he's staying with the Sorbothane until he can figure out something else.

He then checks the steel rack that holds his components -- digital-to-analog converter, CD player, preamp, cassette deck, AC purifier, in descending order -- and finds that it is tilted ever so slightly backward. "See?" questions the compact 44-year old, letting out a single nervous chuckle as if to apologize for so blatant a flaw.

Pointing to the Lightspeed AC purifier, Mir explains that it smooths out the current before any power is supplied to the components -- spikes or troughs in the power flow, Mir says, are another problem, one that can introduce a noticeable distortion to a system's sound. He bends down to pick up another, similar black box, one that isn't yet hooked up to the system.

"This thing, it orientates the electrons of the current. They are in chaos," he explains, making circular gestures with his small, active hands. "This makes it coherent. What it will do to the stereo is, it will sound very ... it will give body to the music. It's very subtle. Some people say that this is baloney. But it works great."

The world of high-end stereo has a name for such enhancements: "tweaks." This term is also applied -- sometimes with affection, sometimes with derision -- to people who use these techniques. Given the number of gadgets he employs, and given that he has personified his sonic adversaries as diabolical forces, Eddy Mir would qualify as a tweak among Miami's insular community of fellow travelers.

Every piece of his $22,000 stereo system (a modest total in the high-end realm, but a lot of money for a Metrobus driver like Mir) has undergone some sort of modification to defeat the Five Devils -- vibration, electromagnetics, radio frequencies, acoustic interference, and AC current.

"This is a hobby. It has many tricks; it takes dedication," Mir cautions. "Otherwise, you're going to spend a lot of money, but if you don't know how to set it up, you won't enjoy the true potential." He folds his arms and gazes at his beloved hardware. "I can still get more out of it than what I'm getting now."

The vast majority of Americans are not aware that evil spirits are sabotaging the sound of their stereos. Most don't even realize that brand names like Mark Levinson and Pass Labs exist. But for true audiophiles, the combination of boutique-manufacturer equipment and just the right tweaks means a listening experience of a smoothness and vibrancy most stereo owners can't even imagine. But for the stereo-mad, even those not out in the tweaky realm, anything but a high-end system, perfectly adjusted, can sound like fingernails on a chalkboard.

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