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Nov 25, 2009

The No Spikes Club

Posted by The Advanced Audiophile

For years, I rallied against the use of spikes. Spikes, cones, rusty nails.... anything that looks or smells like a spike. Whether it's under a speaker, a speaker stand, an equipment stand or a component, I don't care. I'd rather go bare, than go spiked. Ok, now that's the controversial part. Among actual audiophiles (as opposed to techno-dweebs who are more interested in the science than the sound), I'm the only one I know advocating that. Gosh it's lonely being the most advanced audiophile in the world.....

At one point, spikes themselves were controversial. As is almost every new innovation that occurs in the audio community. Now, all but the most tin eared galoots (who listen to music with their Radio Shack sound meters on "peak"), have come around to understanding both the impact and the science behind resonance control, that spikes help provide. The idea here is to drain vibrations away from the component, using a very narrow point of contact, to dissipate energy. Which might be nice for something to explain to your house guests, but frankly, in audio I don't much care what something does or how it does it, so much as I do about how it sounds while doing it.

Mind, I started out as a member of the "Spike Me Club". In the early days, I bought into the "science" of spikes, for much of my audiophile career. Not really paying much attention to what it was actually doing to my sound. When I finally got around to expanding my mind a bit to consider what effect they were actually having... I was kind of disappointed. Because no matter how I configured the spikes or cones, they were having a degrading effect. Which means I could have been enjoying a much higher level of music reproduction for the years that I didn't consider this. (That's what usually happens when you listen to conventional wisdom!). As it most often is in audio, the improvement spikes brought wasn't all that. While they did improve quickness and soundstaging, they hit the system's ability to resolve timbre. Causing every instrument and voice to have a distinctly etched coloration, instead of its own sound.

You can not even hope to recreate the true sound of a piano for example, if you plan to use metal spikes. This effect was no different with Tenderfeet (large metal cones, much like fatter, squatter version of spikes). Much of the problems are due to the characteristic coloration of metal material. It's the same coloration I hear from the use of metal stands (or equipment racks) themselves. It will shift the tonal character of an instrument upward a few ranges. They cause other problems too. Such as their fixed location in the extreme corners, the fact that there is usually 4 of them, and I could go on to mention other things, like the fact that any pressure put upon them raises tension levels within the listener, but uh.... yeah, I guess I'd better not. So, scratch that last one.

Of course, removing the spikes is not without its share of problems. On my Target stand, the stand is not designed to go without spikes. There are bolts in the center, and the stand will dance around and easily spin, moving your carefully determined location with the slightest touch. I did not like that. I was determined to make this work with spikes! I tried every combination. And yes, there are certain combinations, even with 4-point systems, that can be superior to standard. But no matter what I did, the results were depressing, compared to no spikes. It would be impossible to make up for it elsewhere. I concluded that even accounting for the fact that both the stand and the speakers would be knocked off their axis on a regular basis because of how easily they can be moved, the maladjusted location would still be better than the damage that spikes do to the sound.

The Three-Legged Stool Effect: How many spikes are enough?

During those early tests on spikes and cones many years ago, I also determined that three of them were better than four. But most stands use four, how about that. (I swear, most audio design seems to be done by bean counters, who don't even know how to listen to their own products, and don't have a clue as to how to design for sound!) I also discovered that extending the spikes outward (whether placement on the stand or speaker) increased soundstage at the expense of body. While moving them inward increased body at the expense of soundstage. (I'm oversimplifying things a bit, but that's basically it). I preferred more inward than out, for its improved coherence, but really, there was no magic spot. It was all just another set of compromises.

Flash to today, years after my last tests with spikes. Today, I'm playing with a new stand, and a new set of speakers. The stand is drilled for 4 spikes, alas. The corners are folded under, in keeping with the popular engineering philosophy of "looks and/or blind adherence to bad theories are more important than sound".  So here we go again, I end up listening to the new stand with and without spikes. Sure enough, just as I concluded years ago, on a completely different system at a completely different location, the natural timbre of instruments is destroyed by the addition of the spikes. Easily heard, by my reckoning.

To see if I can come up with anything better, I adjust the spikes for levelling. The back right one needs to come way out to hit the floor, so I do that. Wow. This time, timbral colors are better than without the spikes, and as always, the music becomes much more engaging when this is right. The sound overall is less open, but that's fine! So at this point, it appeared it wasn't the spikes per se that was the problem, but levelling the speaker! ....But wait, the speaker wasn't level! Nor is the floor (it's very uneven where I've placed the stand). Though I adjusted the level of the spikes so that the stand was sitting tight to the floor, the end result caused the speaker to tilt heavily to one side.

No problem, I can fix that! This time, I return the three other spikes to their minimum (shortest) setting, and instead of pulling out the rear right, I pull out the front left spike to balance the stand. Uh-oh, timbre has now degraded again, and the sound is no longer musical! But bass and body has much increased. Not that I care, because I much prefer the previous version, where the tonal colours were more correct! Conclusion? Setting the spikes so the speaker or stand are level here, is not the best setup! Instead, three of the spikes should be set at minimum length, while the fourth rear right spike is turned out until the stand is stable!

Thereafter, things got interesting. For when I went back to my position on the couch, and before playing any music to test the new setting, I could feel a better energy after having raised only the rear right spike.Now we're getting somewhere! This illustrates that the line between conventional tweaking and Beltism, is an artificial one. One is always related to the other, and vice versa. To the great unwashed, speaker and stand setup may seem like a "conventional" problem, and this is the way it is always approached. When in fact, in setting up both speakers and stands, has as much to do with quantum physics (or arguably, whatever energy fields are behind "Beltian physics"), than it does with Newtonian physics. Simply put, changing the level of the stand changes its energy. Which is always reflected back to us (even if most have not learned to become conscious of this type of change). If you could become conscious of these changes in energy, this would be both the easiest and best way to set up speakers. You could almost guarantee the sound would be fantastic, before ever playing music. Indeed, this is exactly what I was able to do. Moreover, every conventional attempt to hit the right spot is pretty much a shot in the dark. As it always was in audio, conventional measurements do not tell the full story.

Following traditional routes, if you set up a speaker stand just by making sure it's level, or simply ensuring it's stable on the ground, you will be making sure it will not perform its best. My tests showed that slanting the stand forward, created the best energy. Which translated into the best sound, in terms of tonal resolution and subsequent musicality. But you can go too far this way, and end up dulling or squashing the sound too much. (Slanting the speaker on top of the stand forward, for example, was an example of too much of a good thing).

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