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, and this
impact is easily measurable.* Many among us simply plug
in our cables and/or equipment and forget them - an unfortunate
circumstance that should be avoided at all costs.
Over the years 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
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
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 Ive verbally abused you for your past misdeeds,
let me help you achieve redemption. Lets examine the
process of cleaning in detail, investigating available cleaning
agents and the application techniques necessary to insure
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.
We are no longer selling or
recommending Kontak connector cleaner. While we like the
product itself, the container currently being used (aluminum
bottle) is not sealed well enough to prevent evaporation. In
the past, with their previous packaging (glass bottles), a
bottle could be left on the shelf literally for years with no
loss of product. With the new container we have experienced up
to 50% evaporation of unopened product sitting on our shelves.
For that reason it is not cost effective for us to offer
Kontak and feel it is inappropriate to recommend it to our
customers who may only get one or two uses from a bottle
before it evaporates.
We look forward to the possibility of this changing in the
future and will let you know when or if we decide to offer it
again. In the mean time we are experimenting with other
cleaning products and will post the results of our testing
In the mean time, I would recommend
using 91% alcohol and follow the procedure outlined below.
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:
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
» 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
» 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 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.
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.
on special, $38.00 (youll have to get your own Q-Tips!)
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.
* Art Ferris at Audible Illusions told me that a dirty
RCA connection can increase distortion by a factor of ten,
taking a preamp with a few tenths of a percent distortion to
well over 1%. Also, dirty or loose tube pins not only
increase distortion but can exacerbate tube microphonics.