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Oct 13, 2009

Speaker Stand Filling & Set-Up: The AA Way

Posted by The Advanced Audiophile

For pretty much everyone in the audio world, techie and "golden-ear" alike, speaker stands are plug and play. The only thing you have to think about, is which stand to get. You put one stand on the left, the other on the right, and go to it. It's not like they're labelled "left and right" or anything. Just make sure you don't install them upside down. That could make a difference.

Ah.... if only life was really that simple. Alas, it isn't. Stands can have a left and a right preference, even if they are not marked as such, and are identical. I will make my determinations by just moving them to the left and right locations. Others will need to test and listen. But it doesn't end there. For another thing people never think to consider is how the stand is facing.

If you look at the pic above, you can see there are 4 different ways the stand could be facing (per side), for a total of 8 different sides to "listen" to. Naturally, I didn't listen to any of them. I just let "the Force" tell me what way the stand should be facing and voila. That resulted in what you see in the pic; a vertical arrangement, where the columns are oriented vertically. Which gave the best sound. Alternatively, if you're not conscious of "the Force", but you have good listening skills nevertheless, you can use headphones to test the speaker stand positioning. That is, once you change the stand to a location you think is better, listen to the difference on headphones. If it has been improved on headphones, it will be improved on the loudspeaker.

Filled or Empty?: Filling the stands

Test #1 - Cat Litter:

For this test, I compared one stand filled with cat litter, and the other not filled and left hollow. To reduce the differences there may already be between the two (visually equal) stands, I tried to position each stand at exactly the same spot, and position the speaker the same way on the top plate as well. To bring confidence to my conclusions, I switched stands many times until I was reasonably sure what differences I was hearing from the kitty litter, and what differences I might be hearing from other factors.

The filled stand created a sound that was more controlled. Filling a stand has the effect of damping resonances, and reducing ringing. Indeed, you could hear the reduction of ringing by listening to the notes. They were better defined. This meant mid frequency instruments registering a better tonality, and bass notes that had a sweeter, more musical pitch.  The sound that resulted from the filled stand was no different than any other form of damping I had experimented with in the past; such as weight on top of speakers or components. From past experiences, I was also not a fan of damping. 

So the sound was better controlled, but was it all too controlled?  Letting Tracy Chapman tell me what's what, I had to conclude, yes. With the filled stand, the music was less expressive. Piano notes were muted, vocals lost some space and air around them, and acoustic guitar strings were not as separated any longer, but heard almost as a single string guitar.

Test #2: Sand

n.b. This test was done about 2 years after Test #1, using a different pair of stands (Target), filled with sand. It was late at night when I did my testing, so I did my testing via iPhone. That is, I brought the speaker stands into the kitchen, placed them next to each other with my iPhone on the top plate of each, and listened to each stand that way, via headphones. It was difficult to decide, and I had to listen to many songs before doing so. As each condition had its strengths and weakneses, such that it almost seemed like if you tallied them up, there wouldn't be much of a difference in the numbers and they would cancel each other out.

But almost against all instinct, I again chose the empty stand as the winner. This doesn’t happen too often, but I could not say in technical terms, why the unfilled stand sound was superior. At least not at low volume on headphones. The sand-filled stand seemed to have everything going for it. Better timbre/tone, more detail, more distinction between instruments, more solid bass. The unfilled sound had less of the instrument’s natural character, so everything tended to be coloured by a similar shade. The sound, was in fact “lighter”, like the stand itself. It was not a sound that stirred the soul, so did not have as strong a musical connection as the filled stand. Although it did appear to have a wider soundstage and better defined, albeit weaker, bass.

And yet. There was absolutely no discounting the fact that each time I heard the unfilled stand, my thoughts did not stray as much, and I found myself listening much longer to the test track than with the filled stand. I found myself "air-drumming" to Neko Case "Hold On", whereas I did not when the stand was filled. Talk Talk's "Myrrhman" was another track that emphasized the differences. It's an unusual track with an abstract sound that repeats very little, and has very little rhythm. It can get boring plenty quick if things are not right enough to drive it along. Well it got driven along better by the unfilled stand. After a while, I could get deeper into the music with the unfilled stand than I could with the sand-filled. I’d say there were natural timing issues affected by the filling of the stand. I don't think it matters what it's filled with. There is something about the filling that confuses the senses. For even though the filled stand sounded more like real music, the unfilled stand felt more like real music. At least to the brain.

Filling the Stand: Conclusions

I don't think my conclusions on damping would be any different, were the stand filled with lead shot (as my other stands are), or anything else for that matter. Only the sound between the two would be different. I admit it is tempting to want to leave the stands filled, because as audiophiles, we are often looking at ways to move forward and improve our sound. But there are times when you have to compromise on improving your sound, so as not to upset the delicate balance of microdynamics, and other subtle characteristics. This is one of them.

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