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Home > Resources > How-To's > How To Improve Your System... Checkout | My Account | Help

How-To's

HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR SYSTEM
FOR FREE (Almost!)

What is likely to be the single most neglected part in an audio or video system, is also one of the most important - the connections. The tiny junctions that allow for temporary electrical connection between components, present a considerable obstruction to the meager flow of electrons we recognize as sound or picture. A dirty connection can detract, most dramatically, from the performance of even the most carefully planned audio or video system. Many among us simply plug in our cables and/or equipment and forget them - an unfortunate circumstance that should be avoided at all costs.

During the last decade we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the importance of high quality cables for audio/video systems. Expensive cables have become commonplace, with prices approaching that of many components. Indeed, the sonic potential of the system hinges upon the quality of the interconnection. With our attention focused upon the cables, we've unfortunately overlooked the weakest link in the chain - the connection itself.

With the extremely small, fragile voltages carried by the signal cables between system components, the additional resistance and capacitance of the connection becomes an important factor. A poor quality connection will dramatically degrade the vanishingly small signals that attempt to traverse this barrier. This is especially true in the cartridge to preamp run where voltages as low as .2mV are common, or at the very high frequency range of the digital or video interface. Here, especially so, degradation caused by a poor quality connection will result in a greatly diminished listening/viewing experience.

Before we proceed with instructions on how to go about servicing the connections in your system, let us examine the junction itself, attempting to define the problems we face.

An ideal connection would be one that is absolutely clean and gas-tight. Here, air is unable to penetrate the junction, preventing the intrusion of dust, dirt and other airborne contaminants that could oxidize or otherwise foul the connection. Unfortunately, the basic design of the RCA and XLR connectors common in audio systems today, fall well short of that ideal. While a truly gas-tight connection is a virtual impossibility, the closer we can approximate this level of mechanical/electrical integrity, the less degradation there will be. We are clearly aided by efforts of modern day high end Manufacturers who have made tremendous strides in improving the lowly RCA (and to some extent, the XLR), with upgraded materials, precision construction and careful attention to detail. Their work is to be commended. However, we must do our part to insure a clean, tight connection if we expect to realize the full benefit of these improvements.

The single most important thing you can do to insure a viable connection, is simply to clean all mating surfaces. You know the old adage - cleanliness is next to Godliness - here we might modify that statement to read: cleanliness is prerequisite to good sound and/or good picture quality. Unfortunately, many obstacles stand in our way.

Your brand new cables, fresh out of the box, are not worthy of connection in your system! Why? A variety of oils and chemicals are used in the manufacture of connectors. Only a cursory attempt has been made to remove these contaminants before the connectors are affixed to your cables. In much the same way that mold release compound must be removed from LPs and CDs for best performance, we need to remove this manufacturing residue from the connectors prior to use. Have you done this?

Clean, tight connections are essential to good performance! I cannot stress this fact too strongly. I firmly believe that cleaning all the connections in a high end audio or video system is absolutely imperative if you expect anything approaching full performance potential.

Now that I’ve verbally abused you for your past misdeeds, let me help you achieve redemption. Let’s examine the process of cleaning in detail, investigating available cleaning agents and the application techniques necessary to insure optimum results.

The perfect solvent would scrupulously clean the surface, leaving zero residue. Over the years people have used a wide variety of solvents to clean their connectors, a few work well, most perform quite poorly. While there are many products available designed to clean the contact surfaces of electrical connections, few have found favor with the audiophile community. Isopropyl alcohol is an inexpensive option, but the improvements it offers are minimal at best. Octyl alcohol is a bit better, but still not great. Freon TF works quite well, but this chlorofluorocarbon has been phased out due to environmental considerations.

Out of all the products I have used, one stands as the clear winner - Kontak. This revolutionary product from England comes to us via the aerospace industry, originally developed in conjunction with the Royal Air Force to clean electrical contacts in aircraft avionics. It is simply the most effective product I have tried, and by a wide margin. I strongly recommend its use. Note: Connectors that are extremely oxidized can be first cleaned with Caig De-Oxit, which is excellent at removing this crud. However, it is absolutely IMPERATIVE that this treatment be followed by a thorough cleaning with alcohol and then at least two with Kontak as De-Oxit leaves a residue that results in a tizzy, grainy and hard sound.

So, assuming you have your Kontak in hand, we can proceed. The actual cleaning process is quite simple. You will need the following: Kontak, Q-Tips (the ones with paper stems), non-shedding pipe cleaners, a small brush (optional) and, if you need to tighten any connections, a good pair of needle-nose pliers. One further note, Kontak is a cleaner, not a preservative or treatment. Use it as a cleaning agent, and along with the abrasive action of the cotton swab, it will scrupulously clean your connections.

The procedure is as follows:

RCA CONNECTIONS

Male RCA - First, check for a good, tight connection. If the male connector is loose when connected to the female, tighten the outer ground flanges of the male plug using a pair of small needle-nose pliers. Bend the edge of these flanges inward to tightly grip the female connector. Now let’s clean.

Remove most of the cotton from the end of a few Q-Tips (again, use the ones with a paper stem, rather than the plastic tube). This partially de-nuded Q-Tip fits perfectly into the space between the positive (hot) and the outer ground flange on the male RCA connector.

Apply Kontak to one of your "modified" Q-Tips. Insert the Q-Tip into the area between the ground and hot conductors of the male RCA. Rotate the Q-Tip around and around several times. Repeat this process until the Q-Tip emerges clean.

Re-clean the connector one final time. This is extremely important! It is this second, final cleaning that does the most good.

Female RCA - Check for a tight fit between the male and female connectors. Tightening the inner (hot) conductor on most female RCA's is a bit tricky, but can be done with a small jewelers screwdriver and a great deal of patience.

The external (ground) portion of the chassis-mount female RCA can be cleaned with a Q-Tip treated with cleaning solution. Again, go over the surface as many times as necessary until the Q-Tip comes away clean.

The inside (hot) conductor of the female RCA is a bit more difficult to clean. I recommend using a lint-free cotton pipe cleaner for this purpose.

Re-clean a second time. Important!

BNC and XLR - Basic process as above. Clean all mating surfaces.

SPEAKER CONNECTIONS

Speaker terminals and amplifier binding posts are much easier to clean than RCA connectors, simply because they are larger and easier to access. Use Kontak and Q-Tips to clean all conductive surfaces. A small brush may be helpful in removing stubborn debris if the connectors are heavily soiled.

Be sure to clean the female receptacles in the back of the binding posts if you plan to use banana connectors (not recommended) on your speaker cables. Clean the spade lugs in a similar manner. If you are using pure copper or tin-plated copper lugs, you may want to give them a light sanding with emery cloth if heavy oxidation is present. Be sure to follow the sanding with a thorough cleaning.

OTHER CONNECTIONS

Within most systems exist many more, sometimes hidden, connections that should be cleaned. These include: Tube pins and sockets, fuses and fuse holders, cartridge pins and headshell leads, DIN connectors on tonearms, A/C plugs on line cords, plug-in connections within the components themselves on circuit boards and internal power supply wiring connections. Note: Do not attempt to clean anything inside components unless you feel qualified! You could be dealing with potentially dangerous voltages. Be certain that you unplug all components, allowing their power supplies time to discharge overnight, before attempting any internal cleaning.

I have found that optimum performance is maintained if you repeat the cleaning process about every three months, although some listeners find two thorough cleanings per year to be adequate. The frequency will depend on environmental factors, the quality of the system and the auditory acuity of the listener. The more air pollution and dust present, the more often you will want to clean. This is especially true if there is a smoker in the home.

If you have never cleaned the connections in your system, you are in for a shock. Nearly all aspects of system performance improve - clarity, transparency soundstage, etc., etc. DO IT NOW! You will be quite amazed how much improvement is possible by performing this simple task.

Kontak on special, $38.00 (you’ll have to get your own Q-Tips!)


Customer comments:

I just wanted to let you know that I am very happy -- especially with the Kontak. I was expecting some improvement, but I was not prepared for how much! Now, everything sounds more open, more detailed ... well, cleaner. Like I changed a component. What's even more surprising is the improvement I heard after I cleaned the puppy tail and WATT binding post of my WP6 ... and my speakers are new (3 months old)! J.P.

Thanks for turning me on to Kontak through your online review.  It's an excellent product! D.O. 

 

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