The Cheapest Audio Upgrade of All…?
Amongst the many possible audio upgrades available to an audio system – from new components to upgraded interconnect leads, fancy speaker cable, spiked equipment racks and speaker stands – not forgetting super-accurate cartridge alignment tools and elaborate turntable mats – there is one highly effective and inexpensive tweak to your listening experience that is seemingly never mentioned in hi-fi magazines, blog pages and forums.

The single most important component in the audio chain does not actually belong to your hi-fi. It is, of course, the human ear. But how many listeners take any sort of care with their own hearing? Using earplugs/hearing protection when the volume of the surroundings is too loud (say, on building sites, in factories or at motorsport events)? Or what about keeping one’s ears clean?

It has long been a dream of mine to own an electrostatic pair of loudspeakers, ever since I heard a pair of Quad ESL 63s at a hi-fi show in 1975. Many years later, I heard a demonstration of a pair of Magneplanar panel speakers. On both occasions, I returned home, never wanting to hear my own stereo system again.  Electrostatic panel speakers were on a distant planet compared to what I was used to listening to. A huge, three dimensioned sound that one felt one could walk around.  Sound that seemed so real, I could almost taste it.  Angel trumpets and devil trombones. All of that.

After years of demonstrating, trying and buying conventional loudspeaker enclosures in search of the perfect sound, I managed to acquire a pair of Quads. But their reputation for being difficult to set up turned out to be well founded.  Nothing could get these speakers to sound anywhere near as good as they ought. Which was a shame, because one could hear that somewhere between those two dipole panels was a very high quality sound trying to get out. Goodbye Quad, back to my LSA Statement conventional cone loudspeakers.

Two years later, I acquired – for a very agreeable price - a pair of Magneplanar MSL 16 electrostatic panel speakers from a well known auction site. And once again, disappointment ensued once they were connected to my Roksan power amp. On this occasion, however, said disappointment was mine alone. Others were nothing less than thrilled with the sound of my new acquisitions.

Desperate times. Was my hearing on the way out? Certainly, I was aware of some kind of loss of sensitivity in my ears (premature deafness is rife in my mother’s side of the family). I vowed to get the ears syringed. Except that ear, nose and throat specialists no longer seem to recommend this procedure. Off then, to the pharmacy for a £3 bottle of ear wax drops.

On my return home, I applied some of the syrupy gloop into each ear canal, followed by a flushing out with warm water, using a tool with the appearance of a miniature whoopee cushion. A revolting build up of years of congealed ear deposits swirled down the sink. Next, a wait for the remaining water in my ear canal to evaporate or seep out. Not unlike climbing out of a swimming pool following some elaborate diving and underwater hijinks. And then…

The revelation that I had been waiting years for. The Magneplanars providing the audio experience that is the domain of dipole electrostatic speakers. Detail, separation, imagery, weight and depth to the sound that I had never heard from conventional cone speakers.

The Maggies remain in my living room. They are amongst the best loudspeakers that I have ever heard. I don’t envisage myself replacing them, unless an unexpected financial windfall permits the purchase of a significantly larger property and a hugely expensive and esoteric upgrade – something like a £17,000 pair of Martin  Logan Summit Xs, perhaps.

Maybe then, before you consider spending hundreds or thousands of pounds on new components, upgrades and tweaks, try some ear drops. If you can’t justify the £3 outlay, I understand that a few drops of olive oil can have a similar effect.

Memo to self: - buy up quantities of everyday ear drops and rebrand/market as a specialised audio accessory. Don’t forget to add a minimum 5000% markup (hi-fi tweaks sell best when they are stratospherically expensive).