Upgrades and Mods
Equipment Upgrading and Modification
When most people think about upgrading their hifi equipment, they usually think about going out and buying the latest and the greatest. Of course every year many brands bring out new models with extra features and better performance. But how is this better performance achieved? Usually it is by newer internal electronic components becoming available which supersede older ones. These are components such as capacitors, IC’s and the like. Changing the older, existing parts for newer ones with better performance is one of the most popular ways of bring more life to your current equipment. Upgrades can be done to all sorts of equipment, such as CD / SACD players, pre-amps, power amps, DAC’s (digital to analog converters) and even speakers.
Starting at the beginning of the audio chain is usually the best, so that means upgrading your source units. CD players are the most popular devices to be modified. Internal components that can be replaced include capacitors in the signal path, op-amps (simply put, these are IC’s used in the analog output stage to filter and boost the signal) and the master clock (used to keep all the digital signals in time with each other). Analog upgrades can improve the tonal qualities of a unit and improve clarity. Using a camera analogy, it is like correcting the colour balance. Units can even be tuned to suit different listening preference, such as warmer or cooler sound.
Digital upgrades are mainly centred on the master clock. Being the heart of most digital systems, installing a very high accuracy clock keeps everything tightly controlled. Many people say that digital is digital and there is nothing that can be done to improve it, but that is not true. Sure the ones and zeros are all the same but it is the timing between them that is the issue. This is commonly referred to as jitter. Poor timing will result in smearing of the signal. Again comparing to cameras, a good clock is akin to having a sharper image. More definition and more clarity is often the result. These upgrades also apply to standalone transports and DAC’s and are also relevant for all digital sound sources.
Amplifiers and pre-amps can also be upgraded but not usually to the same extent as source units. Signal input circuitry is the main area as again op-amps may be able to be upgraded along with signal capacitors. Power supply improvements can help as well, especially if the existing one is not so good. This can include faster and lower noise diodes, improved noise filtering and better capacitors. You can sometimes change existing capacitors to larger and faster ones or if this is not possible, add bypass capacitors to the existing ones for greater high frequency noise filtering. Better RCA sockets and binding posts are simple upgrades that go well with good quality cables.
Loudspeaker crossovers and connections can be upgraded. Better quality terminals or binding posts can often easily be fitted and internal wiring can be changed to something better. The internal crossovers are one prime area for modification that can result in major improvements. Often cheap capacitors are used and these can be changed over for better quality versions. Many different types are available and at various price points. Resistors are also changeable, inductive types are often used and can be detrimental to the sound. Metal oxide (MOX) varieties have extremely low inductance. Even the coils can be changed if the existing types use non-air cores; these can saturate can cause distortion to the sound. It is important however to know what you are doing. Crossover designs often use specific parts for special reasons, changing them for something else may alter the crossover points and the audio levels resulting in an unbalanced sound.
So why don’t manufacturers use the better quality parts to start with? Cost. That is the simple answer. A small increase in parts cost during manufacturing can result in a large increase at the retail sales point. So everything part is carefully costed. Since buying the parts after you have the unit means there is little mark-up and hence they can be fitted for less that it would have cost if the manufacturer had used them in the first place.
Warning: You must be qualified to make any changes to your equipment as many devices run off 240V and hence can be lethal. If in any doubt, don’t do it; seek the help of a professional. Wrong parts in the wrong spot can also cause damage, so you must be 100% sure about what you are fitting. Most manufacturers will also void their warranties once any upgrades have been done; some others will still fix the unit provided the modification hasn’t caused the problem.
Upgrade costs can vary considerably depending on what you are having done and how far you want to go. It is quite feasible to turn a reasonable quality unit into a high-end version that would normally cost many, many times more for a lot less. Low cost upgrades can also have value; new op-amps for example can be quite cheap and have a dramatic effect on the sound. Specialist upgraders can be found on the Internet along with a huge range of parts and modules suitable for upgrades.