Regarding Modifications


After tweaking and modifying amps for years I have come to understand a few things:

  • There's a fine line between a tweak, a mod and an upgrade
  • Some circuits can only be made to perform so well before it becomes a waste of time to mod any further
  • There is a level of appropriateness for a mod - price vs. value
  • Establish sonic goals and work toward them one mod at a time
  • The importance of noting subjective changes in sound
  • That mods will make something sound different - different is not always/necessarily better

There is a fine line between a modification, an upgrade, and a tweak and there are many things that one can do to electronic equipment that blur the lines between them. Strictly defining modification would mean actual circuit changes - something done so that the circuit operates differently than designed. An example of modification might be voltage regulation in a unit that was initially unregulated. Modifications generally require intimate knowledge of electronics and much thought and planning to execute properly. An upgrade is generally the replacement of the original parts with better quality equivalents. A tweak is easiest to define as an adjustment to maximize the functionality of a design. This could be anything from adjusting potentiometers to putting a sandbag on top of a piece of equipment to absorb resonances. Most tweaks can be done by anyone who wants to experiment with sound reproduction and requires little skill except for listening.

I feel this was a worthy topic to bring up because I believe the majority of "mods" people do to their equipment are really just upgrades, that is; parts replacements and not actual circuit modifications. The intent here is certainly not to belittle upgrades. Simply changing to better quality components can allow a circuit to operate at it's full potential

For the rest of this text the words modification, upgrade, and tweak will be lumped into the word "mod" or "modification" for ease of use.

There is IMO, a primary consideration in modifying a piece of equipment and that is the "appropriateness" of a mod or series of mods. Perhaps the important equation here is equipment value vs. cost of mods vs. end result. The challenge in modifying equipment is to select a "value" piece of equipment, modify it to very high levels of performance for as little money as possible and then bask in the glow of knowing that your cheap-ass piece of equipment can now hold it's own with some of the best out there. It is pretty much common audiophile knowledge that the quality or improvement in sound per dollar is based on a law of diminishing returns, i.e., the more you pay, the less improvement you get. This law, IMO, should always be factored in when modifying equipment.

Before you think a modified Adcom can be made to perform better than say, a Mark Levinson, it would be important to note that there is a fundamental difference between an expensively engineered piece of equipment and a budget performer that's been modified:The budget performer is made to a price point; certain components like capacitors and transformers are expensive so this is usually the first cost cutting decision that a manufacturer will make and is also the first thing the DIYer will improve on. The expensive piece, on the other hand, is usually a cost-no-object all out engineering effort where all aspects of performance, operation, and build quality are maximized and overbuilt; this stuff usually does not merit modification at all because there is not much to improve on. You may have heard overblown success stories on the news groups about this mod or that mod produced a sound that is better than anything out there. In my experience and realistically, no amount of money, parts or modifications will give a budget performer all of the desirable characteristics of the expensive piece of gear (and for reasons too many to list here).

Appropriateness of a mod also has a lot to do with resale value. If a $300 CD player were modified with $300 worth of components (not to mention cost of time) would it sell for $600? Of course not – the way it usually works is that the item sells for 50-60% of retail so the player is really worth $160 on the used market. Never mind the mods that were performed; for all the buyer knows, it could sound worse with the mods, hence the cost of modification usually doesn't even figure into the resale value. Granted, there are some modification houses that may have a good enough reputation to actually increase the value of your equipment, but this is relatively rare.

Part of my philosophy (if that's what it can be called) on modifications is not to change the overall characteristics of a piece of equipment. This is prudent because if the characteristics of a piece of equipment have changed too dramatically, you have no reference left for comparison - you might as well have bought a different piece to modify. Worse yet, there may already be something cheaper out there that already has the sound you've just created. Every make and model of audio equipment has it's own characteristic and it's these fundamental characteristics that cause us to want to purchase a piece of audio gear in the first place. Why try to change something into something it's not? For me, the challenge in modifications is to preserve unique characteristics and eliminate as many weaknesses as possible.

As stated in many other places, it's important to do one modification at a time. The reason for this is twofold: 1. You may not like the sound of the last mod and it will be much easier to trace the problem and undo it. 2. You can get a more precise idea of what that one mod did and understand how that may affect other pieces of equipment. This last point is an experience builder. With this knowledge you can learn to "voice" your equipment to your tastes or even someone else's taste.

Establishing a plan to modify equipment also goes a long way simply because you can save quite a bit of money if you know what aspect of performance you want to address. If you don't know what needs to be improved and begin to randomly modify you could very well end up with a handful of expensive parts that did nothing to improve the sound.

And now that that mod is done, does it sound better, or just different? As a musician, I learned a very important lesson many years ago: "Never confuse what you're playing with the sounds that are actually being produced". There are many, many musicians who do not hear what they are doing because they can't get past what they think they (or what they want to) hear. The DIYer potentially faces a situation much like this - if you expect to hear something, you may hear it whether it is the truth or not. No one wants to go through the trouble of installing those extra badass super expensive caps only to find that it didn't make much of a difference or that it didn't do what was expected. A clear and open mind is mandatory for doing mods and for determining if something was actually improved.

There are many popular mods that people do almost by default before even determining if it was needed in the first place. Chassis damping is a good example - some folks do this right off the bat and swear it will improve the sound of their component because it damps resonances - without considering the possibility that perhaps some of that resonance may contribute positively to the sound and characteristic of that component. Well there may be a noticeable change in sound, but was it simply changed or was it improved? Once again, listen, but listen as objectively as possible.

Modifying audio equipment can be a very rewarding experience, especially when a bit of thought, effort, and skill is put into it. Like assembling a great audio system, this takes time to develop. Experimentation and trial and error will eventually yield to firm understanding and successful results when approached within context of the equipment. The good thing is that as various technologies grow, we will constantly learn to utilize these technologies into our gear; enough for a lifetime!



Page created by James L Woodley © 2002 Page last updated 21 August 2005