Making the Most of What You Have

15th January 2009 by Tim Jarman

Do you really need a new B&O audio system? This is always an expensive route to take so make sure that the one you have is giving its best first.

Has your Beosystem lost its edge? Does it not really satisfy you any more? This could be down to a changing view of life on your part of course, but it could also be that you are not making the most of it. Complex repairs and accurate adjustments go well beyond the scope of what is written here (and if you can do them then you don’t need my help) but there are a few simple things that you can try first before you resort to writing out the big cheque.

Start by looking at the loudspeakers. A good place to start is to inspect the bass drivers (woofers). In the case of some models the cone edges are made from foam and they rot away in time. If yours are looking holed or ragged get them repaired or replaced. Tweeters either work or they don’t and are easily damaged if the driving amplifier is malfunctioning or underpowered. Replacement is the only cure if they are broken, though in some cases defective tweeters are not the only cause of weak treble. The capacitors in the crossover network can deteriorate, especially if the loudspeakers are only ever used quietly. In cases where the treble level is low (rather than being completely absent) the capacitors are the main suspect, especially if the situation improves after playing the loudspeakers really loudly for a few minutes. Replacement is a practical home proposition for those with basic handiwork skills, the parts are large and sturdy. Use quality film or polypropylene capacitors instead of the cheap electrolytics that B&O fitted and you will never have to do it again.

Once you are happy that the loudspeakers are working properly make sure they are positioned appropriately. As a rule, moving a loudspeaker from free space towards a wall increases the bass, placing it in corner or alcove increases it still further. If you feel there is too much or not enough bass try moving the loudspeaker between these positions. Treble can accentuated by placing the tweeters at ear-level and pointing them towards the listener. Loudspeakers placed directly on the floor without the appropriate stands always sound dull, a situation that only gets worse if they are masked by soft furnishings. Try and make the positions of the two loudspeakers similar so that you get the same type of sound from both, this gives the best “stereo image”.

The final point on the subject of loudspeakers is to make sure that the cables that connect them to the amplifier are suitably rated and in good condition. The cables should be of stout wire, in single lengths where possible (no joins) and of the same lengths. The loudspeaker cables B&O supply are ideal in this respect. Ignore expensive “audiophile” cables, there is no technical proof that these make any measurable improvement and can be very expensive, the money is much better spent on more records or CDs.

The amplifier is the next part to check. There is not much that you can do about any serious internal defects but there are a few things you can attend to in order to ensure that a basically sound unit gives its best. First, make sure all the connections are clean and tight. Connectors that have been plugged together for years can develop a tarnish which can be removed but plugging them in and out a few times. A small amount of contact cleaner can help here, but don’t soak everything and make a mess. Pull out the plugs by their bodies only, not by pulling on the cables themselves as this can break the delicate connections inside. Don’t ignore the mains plug, the screws inside these can work loose in time and cause an erratic contact. A hard working amplifier takes short bursts of a lot of energy, you want it to be able to arrive unhindered.

Most B&O amplifiers work on the “class AB” principle that relies on a little current flowing through the amplifier all the time, even when there is no signal. This current is adjustable by a service workshop and tends to drift off from the optimum setting over time. You need accurate instruments to check it properly but a basic check can be made at home, run the amplifier for about half an hour (one side of an LP, a decent programme on Radio 4) at moderate volume and feel the heatsinks (usually at the back, sometimes underneath). They should be warm, not hot, not stone cold. Sets which have separate and distinct heatsinks for each channel should be the same temperature on both sides. If this is not the case, and you feel that the sound has a coarse, distorted nature (especially at low volumes) get the output bias current checked by a B&O workshop.

Contact cleaner can be used to reduce the erratic operation of scratchy volume controls and source selector switches. Models such as the Beomaster 3000 benefit greatly from careful applications of contact cleaner to the switches behind the pushbuttons but remember to use it sparingly, applying too much causes all sorts of problems that can be difficult to resolve.

Some Beomasters and Beocenters have outputs for multiple loudspeakers that can be switched in and out, either by specific pushbuttons (e.g. the Beolab 5000) or slide switches (e.g. Beomaster 8000), switches inside the headphone socket (e.g. Beomaster 3300) or by electronically controlled relays (e.g. Beomaster 6500). All of these contacts can become “tired”, especially if they are not used much. Symptoms include the erratic loss of one or the other channel, weaker sound from one loudspeaker than the other (even when “mono” is selected on models which allow this) and occasional spluttering and popping noises, regardless of which source is being used. If you suspect them, try plugging the loudspeakers into another connection (often labelled “speakers 2” or similar) and see if this improves the situation. If you notice an improvement then start saving up for the necessary repairs.

Almost all B&O audio systems include a radio. FM radio is an excellent high fidelity medium, so it is wise to make the best of it. Unless you live in an area of very high signal strength an outdoor FM antenna is a desirable addition to any system. The clean stereo reception that can result is a joy to listen to, a decent antenna is one of the most cost effective upgrades that it is possible to make. Occasionally one sees indoor FM antennas advertised that claim to provide incredible reception despite their small size. These should be ignored, they are seldom any better that a piece of wire poked into the aerial socket.

All B&O receivers equipped with AM bands require an external antenna (with the exception of Beolit portables, the Beosystem 10 and the Beomaster 900 range). B&O’s own Active AM Antenna 10 works well but is expensive and difficult to obtain. Instead of this, a few metres of wire can give good results, try it in different positions to see where it works best. Modern “energy saving” lamps can interfere with AM reception, try to position both the set and the antenna away from them for best results.

Don’t be afraid to switch an FM receiver to mono if the reception is poor, this considerably cuts down the background noise and one looses little in the way of stereo imaging if the signal is poor anyway.

There is little that one can do with an under-performing compact disc player. However, before giving up make sure that the lens and the discs are clean. Discs can be cleaned using a mid solution of detergent and warm water, wiping outwards from the centre hole. Scratches can be removed with fine metal polish, though this should be a last resort, try to keep the discs clean and scratch-free to start with. It is also a good idea to keep the CD player’s objective lens and turntable clean too. The lens can be stroked clean with a cotton bud, treat it as you would your own eye, it’s fragile so don’t poke at it or allow grit and dirt onto the surface. The turntable should be kept clean so that the disc runs true, this gives the focus servo far less work to do. Fortunately, most B&O CD players have easily accessible mechanisms, the Beogram CD X and similar types, Beocenter 9000 range, BeoSound Century and Ouverture are all good examples of machines with mechanisms that are easy to keep clean. The Beogram CD 50 has a mechanism that is upside down, so this does not tend to get too dirty.

Record players offer far greater possibilities for home maintenance. If you are serious about turntable performance then a speed checking strobe disc, stylus force gauge and test record are all wise purchases, though study the instructions for each before trying to use them. As a rule, B&O pickups work best when kept slightly warm so try and site the player where it won’t get too cold. B&O catalogues make a lot of fuss about how little downforce their pickups require but treat these figures as a guide only, often a little more force is required for correct reproduction. Contrary to what you may think, increasing the downforce to remove distortion that results from mis-tracking results in less record wear, not more.

Most Beogram and Beocenter models have a facility for the user to adjust the speed. Once you have a strobe disc you can do this at home accurately. Later models with electronically governed motors often have two little holes labelled “33” and “45”, sometimes under the platter, sometimes on the baseplate. If you decide to adjust these be careful as the screwdriver slots are very delicate. Use an insulated tool and adjust the “33” one before the “45” one.

B&O record players are generally well isolated from external vibrations but even so they benefit from careful positioning. Try to put it on something solid, as far from the loudspeakers as is practical.

The tape recorder is one part of an audio system that really benefits from regular care. Ideally you should have head cleaning solvent and lint free rags on hand to clean the head and capstan(s) whenever a recording is to be made. If you have not cleaned your tape heads for a while you may be surprised how much difference it makes. Demagnetisation of the heads is not so important, most Beocords made after 1980 do it automatically and earlier designs tend to use ferrite heads that cannot become magnetised anyway. It you are serious about building up a music archive on tape then do make sure that the heads are aligned properly before you start. Alignment tapes can be bought and are quite simple to use. Checking the tape speed is not so easy as it is with records so this is best left to a properly equipped workshop. Some Beosystems are quite “fussy” about where the tape recorder is placed, the 1900/2400 spring to mind, the Beocord must be to the right of the Beomaster if the units are to be pushed together otherwise playback will be marred by a mains hum picked up from the Beomaster mains transformer by the sensitive amplifiers in the Beocord.

You may be growing tired of the appearance of the equipment you own. If this is the case, try positioning it differently. The long, sleek shapes of B&O’s designs are to allow flexible positioning on shelves (a favoured furnishing format in northern Europe), spreading the system out on different levels, mixed in with other interesting objects can look very attractive. B&O equipment also tends to look nicer in a row than in a stack, the “stack system” format so beloved by the rest of the industry does not suit B&O well. Even the 5000/5500/6500/7000 ranges can be presented in better ways than simply piling them all on top of each other, period catalogues can be a source of ideas if you can find them.

All the money you save through not having to replace your equipment can be used to make the best upgrade of all, buying more music to play on it.