Tweaking the Vanatoo T0s

Discussion in 'Modifications and Tweaks' started by k4rstar, Feb 20, 2022.

  1. k4rstar

    k4rstar Britney fan club president

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    This is a copy of an article I wrote on my blog about my journey with the Vanatoo Transparent Zero speakers. I post it here in case anyone finds it informative. :) This is all in good fun

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    In January of 2020 I wrote an article about my Vanatoo Transparent Zero desktop speakers. At the time, I had considered them to be my best audio investment to date. Over the past two years, a series of progressively sillier tweaks has elevated that opinion even further. This article will detail those tweaks for the readers entertainment.

    Step 1: clubwood mpingo feet (~$350)

    It has honestly been so long I don't remember where I stumbled upon the clubwood products, a South Korean firm offering wood accessories for audiophiles and espresso machine enthusiasts. Most of their products are made out of mpingo, a species of African Blackwood (in)famous in audio circles thanks to Shun Mook. Clubwood is operated by Mr. Song, who is an extremely friendly individual, and has seemingly been in the audio tweaks business for many years. His wares are sold on eBay and the clubwood website. The prices are actually reasonable, when you consider the raw material costs of real mpingo wood and the difficulties associated with working with it.

    In June of 2021 I placed a large order for mpingo discs, cone feet, volume knob and cable damper; intending to test the efficacy of these products across a variety of applications. When I received them, my first instinct was to stick the cone feet and discs under my Vanatoo speakers for fun, meaning to move them to more 'serious' components later. I put three cones and three discs under each speaker, and they have been there ever since.

    [​IMG]

    To say the effect was 'transformative' would be simultaneously hyperbolic and an understatement. By this point I had been living with the Transparent Zeros for many years, listening to them daily, and becoming very familiar with their sound. Vanatoo includes a pair of foam pads to place under the speakers for isolation and I had been using them on my desk since the beginning. I knew that they caused a decrease in clarity but the alternative was the uncontrolled transmission of vibration to and from my desk, which was unacceptable.

    Replacing these foam pads with the mpingo cones and discs, every aspect of the sound improved for the better. Tone, timbre, intelligibility, separation, dynamics, extension, etcetera. The magnitude of the effect was actually dumbfounding, until it occurred to me that the Transparent Zeros are a self-contained system with an integral DAC and amplifier, and I had just witnessed the effect of the simple wooden feet on a single component as if it were an entire system.

    I meant to write a more detailed review of the other clubwood products including the volume knob and cable damper but there is no point. They pretty much all have the same effect described above, just in varying degrees depending on the application.

    Step 2: Adding a subwoofer (after all, $0)

    This was actually a misstep. Even with the foam pads, which muddied the low frequencies quite a bit, I had never felt the bass of the Transparent Zeros was lacking. I still wondered if I was leaving something on the table and purchased a small subwoofer to place under my desk. The Vanatoos have a single sub out in the form of an RCA jack on the rear of the master speaker, and the manual states they automatically set the crossover point between the speakers and the subs when this output is utilized.

    Unfortunately, I could never get the subwoofer to blend properly with the Vanatoos and gave up. This wasn't a big loss though as the bass of the Transparent Zeros with the mpingo feet is actually hilariously satisfying, rattling loose objects on my desk when playing modern recording with deep bass. The volume and depth of the bass is actually unbelievable for a speaker this size.

    Step 3: Disabling the volume limiter and shelved DSP ($0)

    From the factory the Transparent Zeros have a digital volume limiter and 'shelved' DSP mode, intended for the most common use case of desk placement near boundaries. Many owners have reported an increase in clarity and dynamics by disabling these two features, and instructions on how to do so are provided in the user manual. For several years I was too lazy to do this until I was messing around trying to get the subwoofer to work right. Indeed the 'flat' DSP mode seems to give an additional octave of LF content, and disabling the volume limiter provides slightly better dynamics. This is a 5 minute change every owner should try to get the most out of their speakers.

    Step 4: USB cable (~$160)

    [​IMG]

    I use the Transparent Zeros with a desktop computer through the USB input. They sound best when used with their digital inputs as they are a fully active speaker, and USB is the most convenient option for computer connection. I was not a stranger to the sensitivity of the speakers to the USB cable used. Several years ago I purchased an Acoustic BBQ USB cable made using stranded Duelund wire and hooked it up to the Transparent Zeros to accelerate the break-in process. The cable sounded better than the generic black USB cable included with the speakers, but not so much so that I missed it when it was removed to be used in the 'big rig'. Ironically, swapping in a $20 Schiit PYST USB cable (OEM by Straightwire) resulted in a big decrease in sound quality over the generic stock USB cable. Side note: the PYST cable is one of the worst sounding USB cables I have encountered, for any price.

    Recently I tried some other audiophile cables on the Vanatoos for fun. The first was the Supra Excalibur USB cable. It initially seemed like an improvement, improving clarity and dynamics substantially, but unfortunately has too much of a 'hi-fi' characteristic, lacking body and having an overly insistent sense of timing. After two weeks of usage, I returned to the generic stock cable and felt relief at how much more relaxed the sound became.

    The most successful pairing thus far has been from Art Cables in Moscow. Their USB cable uses stranded Telefunken wire from the 1960s. It had all of the improvements of the Supra without the downsides, for about the same price. Highly recommended!

    Step 5: Power supply (~$35)

    I thought this would be the largest improvement to date but it turned out to be another misstep. The stock power supply for the Transparent Zeros comes in the form of a 24VDC @ 2.5A switch-mode brick. I decided to replace it with a cheap linear power supply as an experiment. I purchased a SOLA HD LPS off eBay for around $25. These are cheap linear supplies meant for powering lab equipment (I think), and some audiophiles have had success using them as replacements for stock SMPS of phono stages among other devices.

    [​IMG]

    I carefully wired up the SOLA with a DC barrel plug and hooked it up to the Transparent Zeros (be careful, loss of power to the speaker seems to reset the volume to 100!). The results were a mixed bag. On one hand, there was more relaxed timing and ease of dynamics, rhythm. On the other hand, the sound clearly became veiled with gray overtones. In a linear supply, the voice of every capacitor, resistor and inductor is clearly heard. It turns out that the very inexpensive passive components on the SOLA PSU were not really up to snuff for audio applications. Going back to the stock SMPS took some getting used to as the sound now appeared to be lean and insistent, but the most important attributes of liveliness and color returned.

    I considered modifying the SOLA PSU with some audio-grade parts, but decided it would ultimately be a waste of time and I would be better off building a new supply from scratch. Haven't gotten around to it yet.

    Step 6: Schumann Resonator (~$200)

    This isn't actually a modification of the Vanatoos, but I mention it here as it continues the theme of taking things too far and the funny effects of tweaks on modest desktop speakers.

    People have been talking about the effects of the so-called Schumann wave, or rather its suppression, on our auditory perception for a long time. I won't really get into it, a quick internet search will find a million such discussions. Several firms including the Japanese Acoustic Revive have been engaged in producing Schumann resonators as audiophile tweaks for many years. Out of sheer curiosity, I purchased such a resonator on eBay that seemed well built from a reputable seller for a reasonable cost.

    [​IMG]

    These devices promise a variety of effects ranging from a clearer audio message and less confused soundstage to improved mood stability and sleep. I can say that the device I purchased actually works, and all of these effects were noticed by me in the first few days of its operation. The problem is that the body seems to become accustomed to them, and through habituation the positive effects or at least the active perception of them seems to fade. Perhaps with more expensive devices this is less of an issue, but I cannot say I am curious enough to find out at this time.

    Twenty minutes after installing the resonator in my room, I noticed the soundstage of the Vanatoos became wider, low frequencies seemed to extend a full octave lower, and the overall intelligibility of music increased significantly. The same effects were later confirmed on a different system using headphones.

    Step 7: Replacing the grills with Shamwow towels ($10)

    When I first got the Transparent Zeros, I tried them with and without their grills which are of very high quality and attached magnetically to the front panel of the speaker. The sound without the grills was clearer but also a bit rude and fatiguing at higher volumes. Conversely, the sound with the grills was more comfortable despite being more muffled. I left the grills on and didn't think anything further of it.

    Recently I came across an old post by the Russian audio engineer Anatoly Likhnitsky who described the wonderful effect of placing orange cloth towels over his computer speakers (photo below). Realizing I had very similar cleaning towels in the closet, I took them out and draped them over the speakers in place of the grills.

    [​IMG]

    I have long since learned to not doubt the influence of seemingly innocuous things on the sound of a system. I have especially learned to not doubt any ideas proposed by Likhnitsky, whom I consider to be something of a genius in the field of audio. I have to still admit I was skeptical of what I would hear by placing these orange towels over my speakers. Well, again, I was dumbfounded. If the sound without grills was too rude, and the sound with grills too comfortable, then the sound with the towels was the Goldilocks zone, that is to say just right. There was a sharp increase in the clarity and intonation of music, and yet no fatigue was experienced even at high volumes. I listened to the speakers that night for 6 hours straight with a stupid grin on my face.

    If you are curious why such silly looking grills would serve such an improvement, it is because they act as an acoustic phase randomizer. In Likhnitsky's articles, he espouses that phase randomization is a necessary thing in any audio path, and especially in a short one, as an increase in sound clarity offered by a short audio path is also accompanied by an increase in what he calls musical 'garbage' or 'debris'. This 'garbage' or 'debris' are manifested non-linear distortions which are inseparable from (or glued to) the musical signal. He claims this debris is generated mainly from the decline in sound recording equipment and techniques over the last century, and it is necessary to wash the system of this 'debris' by implementing phase randomization in the sound path. The implementation of phase randomizers can be acoustic, mechanical, electrical and even digital. Grills on a speaker act as an acoustic phase randomizer.

    I would also like to draw attention to the notice of the British loudspeaker manufacturer Harbeth, who advises their speakers must be used with the grills in place for appropriate response. They point to frequency response graphs which show a +/- 1dB change in the presence region when grills are employed versus not. Of course, they are correct that their speakers sound better with the grills (I think almost anyone who has experience with Harbeth's can attest to this), but their reasoning for why is absolutely silly. Studies have long shown that listeners will barely perceive, or rather will rapidly adapt to, a 1-3 dB change in the frequency response employed through another means, such as digital equalization; but the effects of acoustic phase randomization from the grills is undeniable and goes beyond such simple explanations.

    Conclusion

    I realize I have spent more than what the Transparent Zeros cost on miscellaneous tweaks, but it is not really a matter of linear value.

    [​IMG]

    Firstly, the enjoyment I get out of the tweaked system is massive. If I were to give away or sell all of my other audio equipment, I would be perfectly content listening to music solely through the tweaked Vanatoo system.

    Secondly, because the Vanatoos are a self-contained system consisting of speakers, amplifier and DAC, the effects of any tweak on them are amplified. They have become something of a test bed for experiments, and the amount of time I spend listening to them daily has made me extremely sensitive to any changes in their sound.

    Lastly, it is unfortunate that the term 'tweak' has become a dirty word in the audiophile lexicon. I prefer to think of it as sound tuning. If I may be honest, the tuning of any system no matter how large or small is a difficult but important task for satisfaction. It may be true that 20% of the work (stringing together a set of speakers, an amplifier, a source) gives 80% of the result. In the field of audio however, we are often chasing the final 20%, and this is what requires 80% of our time and effort. It is simple for many to scoff at this and swear off 'tweaking' as a waste of time and money.

    I don't blame anyone for doing this, we all have to draw our individual lines in the sand. However if that same individual then spends the rest of their days swapping this amplifier or that DAC for many thousands of dollars in the search of audio nirvana without being cognizant of environmental factors which can have a very real and tangible effect on the final sound, then they are simply engaging in a different but in my opinion more depraved activity. The important thing is you have fun in the process and get to enjoy the end result. Too many people in this hobby spend too much time not doing either.
     
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  2. Metro

    Metro Friend

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  3. Garns

    Garns Friend

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    These seem pretty similar in ethos to the Yamamoto ebony footers I've been eyeing up (which are about half the price). Did you try those ever?
     
  4. k4rstar

    k4rstar Britney fan club president

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    did not, probably also good. if cost is a concern, you can make your own footers out of any 'musical' wood such as spruce at home. just make sure the wood is treated with lacquer after cutting and before being put into use.

    metal feet from brass, titanium, aluminum can also be good, it depends on the component. it will increase clarity at the cost of some comfort. I would avoid steel, ceramic, granite.
     
  5. Noodlz

    Noodlz Almost "Made"

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    Chiming in on these. First off YMMV etc etc. (but honestly, TLDR; just buy these if you're looking for desktop speakers on amazon. if you somehow don't like em just return it at a whole foods, that was my plan, but these aren't going anywhere). Anyhow: please excuse the following verbal vomit:

    I gotta admit i was very skeptical and i wrote these off for the longest time since it's an AIO & USB. Until recently i had been using the iLoud micros for my computer setup, which were decent (driven from an ifi Zen Signature | Yiggy A1 > ZMF pendant OG pre-out), but off the strength of @k4rstar & the post i decided to try em.

    Even when they arrived my initial thoughts on unboxing was: man... i dunno about this. USB? and they look like... better computer speakers? those handles? i dunno.

    Then I plugged them in.

    Shit. They... sound pretty good. Ok they sound really good. better than the ilouds, by quite a large margin. No hiss, way better spatial position. better soundstage, better clarity, timbre. list goes on.

    Then i proceeded to take out the limiter & DSP. Whoa. ok these are REALLY good. got me looking at my headphone stack and wondering, wait why the hell do i have all this? of course i went back to listen and was reaffirmed. But these truly shook my faith for a bit.

    I then proceeded to do a few more tweaks, like speaker positioning, and following the article i bought the resonator thing (i got a cheap chi-fi NobSound one, didn't seem to make diff here but whatever). The mpingo feet were too rich for my blood but i remembered i had these cheapo chinese ones i had gotten from aliexpress i figured why not.

    As i set them up i realized i didn't have enough 3M double sided tape. whatever i'll just put it on.

    Another "oh shit" moment.

    These sound GREAT. it was already really nice, but the spacing and positioning improved even further. the feet really kinda lifted a bit of the mud / veil / tightness of the sound as a whole. (granted. i'm waiting for the 3M tape now b/c the bass is so much that the feet kinda shift so my speakers are like...running away when i listen to em too loud lol)

    Oh on that note. the bass is kinda crazy on these, but not just in slam, but the articulation too. The vocals / mids / timbre is on point. I just really really like these now.

    Just missing the shamwows lol. Seriously though, this thing is pretty awesome. I'm all set on my desktop speakers after these.

    ** The only thing to note tho, is USB issues apply here. Using a shit USB source / cable makes a very audible difference. I've opted to use my Supra USB cable & an ifi Purifier3 and these sound pretty great right now.

    ** Also, tried putting these in the stand orientation with the radiator down with ghetto stacks of books and cans. They sounded ok, until i realized this set up kinda killed off all the bass. so back down they went. I recommend handle/radiator up, slightly canted in towards you. an some kinda feet. Foam robs a lot of the organic ness & clarity of these

    In short. you should try these.
     
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    Last edited: Feb 28, 2022
  6. RestoredSparda

    RestoredSparda Friend

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    Appreciate the reviews all. My friend was looking for desktop speakers and I was steering him down a more expensive route. For sure recommending these to him for a simpler all-in-one solution (with or without the shamwow guy).

    I'll report back if he buys them after getting some of my own listening impressions. (I may buy a pair as well).
     
  7. Beefy

    Beefy Almost "Made"

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    What do desktop speaker manufacturers have against putting volume control on the front of their products? People generally buy these speakers for small spaces, so having to reach around the back for volume control is so silly......
     
  8. k4rstar

    k4rstar Britney fan club president

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    they come with a remote which allows you to control everything including volume and EQ. the knob on the back is to set the 'default' volume which they resort to on loss of power.
     
  9. Beefy

    Beefy Almost "Made"

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    Here's my hand, on my desk, sitting a comfortable distance from my current speakers. A remote control here is like using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.

    [​IMG]

    It's not just the Vanatoo I'm picking on here, virtually every small desktop speaker commits the same sin. Why is a front physical volume control on an all-in-one speaker so difficult?
     
  10. edd

    edd Almost "Made"

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    @Beefy agreed, a volume knob on the front would be handy... I opted to use this JBL Nano Patch+ knockoff for mine, which is also overkill, but in some ways, it's nicer bc I have a single USB cable going from my PC to my DAC, which feeds both my headphone amp & my JBL Nano Patch knockoff/Vanatoo's. The mute button on the Nano Patch knockoff basically serves as a power button for the Vanatoo's, and the volume knob, of course, feels a lot nicer.
     
  11. fraggler

    fraggler A Happy & Busy Life

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    So is some of the magic lost if using the analog input? I had thought about adding a DAC card to my Jot 2 to control these speakers as an office system. I will likely use headphones more in this system, but I'd like to have a good set of active speakers so I don't need an amplifier and extra cables like my current setup.
     
  12. Beefy

    Beefy Almost "Made"

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    I can't speak to 'magic' as I've never heard these speakers. But on a technical level it does seem counterproductive to buy a DAC, to feed the Vanatoo, which has an ADC on the analogue input to feed a digitally-controlled amplifier. It seems much 'cleaner' to just feed the speaker a direct digital signal.
     
  13. k4rstar

    k4rstar Britney fan club president

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    Most likely yes. Reviews point to the digital inputs sounding more convincing. I don't think they need any sort of analog pre-amp. Just use the remote and keep it simple.

    As an aside, last night I plugged my Vanatoos into an old Mac running a no longer supported version of OSX. The sound improved exponentially over my Windows 10 desktop, so much so I wanted to cry. The sound now 'catches the ear' and the rhythm has become infectious. All this is to say they are quite sensitive to changes with the digital input.
     
  14. fraggler

    fraggler A Happy & Busy Life

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    Thanks. I figured as much. I saw the discussion about volume control position as well as thinking about switching sources on the computer depending on what I wanted to listen to and thought it might be more convenient. But, I don't like the idea of taking too much away from what makes things good just for convenience.
     
  15. zonto

    zonto Friend

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    I plan on comparing the optical input to the USB input soon. I've just been using a 6' Belkin Gold USB cable from my newly-built Windows 11 PC.

    Does anyone have information about how the subwoofer "AutoSense" actually works on the T0? I have read the manual and it's still unclear to me. It states that with a subwoofer connected, either:
    1. with the Shelved DSP setting, the subwoofer output is 125 Hz, or
    2. with the Flat DSP setting, the subwoofer output is 80 Hz.
    Does that mean that the subwoofer output is a fourth-order LPF at the stated frequency as well as a fourth-order HPF at the same frequency? Or is the HPF at a different frequency? If identical, I imagine there would be a peak in the response around that frequency correct? Edit: Or is that only a HPF and all LPF still needs to be handled by the subwoofer?

    I ask because I'm struggling figuring out how to best integrate the T0 with my Rhythmik L12 subwoofer now that I've moved the equipment from my office to my home office. If I use the single RCA LFE input, all subwoofer phase and crossover controls are disabled. This seems fine potentially for crossover, as the T0 handles, but then I have no way to confirm the speakers and subwoofer are properly phase integrated as the phase knob is also disabled. If I use either of the line-in RCA inputs, I can then adjust the phase, but the sub's LPF crossover is enabled as well. Max LPF on the sub is 120 Hz, either 12 dB or 24 dB slope. The L12 response starts to dip naturally when using the line-in input around 90 Hz anyway, whereas using the LFE input extends it significantly to around 200 Hz -3 dB.

    When running a few bass sweeps on YouTube, I've confirmed:
    1. a massive room mode at 70 Hz, which I've cut using the Rhythmik's PEQ; and
    2. what sounds like a pretty large null from around 90 Hz to 120ish Hz or so. This is the one that I'm wondering if it's phase/integration related. However, even when I unplug the speakers and unhook the sub, the speaker response by themselves is also very quiet in those frequencies. Wondering if it's some sort of boundary issue or something with the desk? Speakers are on IsoAcoustics ISO-130 stands.
    Any initial guidance would be appreciated.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2022
  16. yotacowboy

    yotacowboy McRibs Kind of Guy

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    90-120Hz suckout sounds like a ceiling height boundary interaction, assuming you have 8-10ft ceiling height. Don't forget about that 3rd axis!
     
  17. Armaegis

    Armaegis Friend

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    My controls are at the top of my ART RM5: power, volume, room presets, and bluetooth. All my analog inputs are on the bottom. They also have VESA mounts so it's a nifty little package that doesn't even take up space on my desk.
     
  18. zonto

    zonto Friend

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    Wanted to post an update after my post above. @yotacowboy is correct about the suckout; it's a room null that gets marginally better when my adjustable desk is in the standing position vs. sitting position. Nothing I can really do about this room null while I'm renting, unfortunately.

    However, I've also tweaked some of the settings on the system since then too.
    • Turned off the limiter.
    • Put the Vanatoo speakers and Rhythmik L12 subwoofer on IsoAcoustics stands (ISO-130 for the speakers; ISO-200 SUB for the sub). The speaker stands made the most difference. I'd recommend doing this even just to reduce vibrations on the desk while working, etc., any sound quality improvements aside.
    • Moved the subwoofer RCA cable to the Rhythmik LFE input instead of one of the two line-in inputs. This eliminates the subwoofer's phase control, but also avoids the natural roll-off of the sub from kicking in. When using the LFE in, the sub's response extends to 200 Hz (source), but is also of course handled by the Vanatoo's low-pass filter. I think this helps a bit with the room null issue as I don't have the natural roll-off, but am also avoiding two LPFs being engaged.
    In any event, the sound is marvelous coming from my Windows 11 PC USB 2.0 output. I have a Pi2 Designs Mercury streamer on order, and plan to use that with a Lifatec optical cable into the Vanatoos when it arrives.

    I've been on a classical music binge again recently, and am simply amazed at the tonality of these little speakers together with the Rhythmik. Well-recorded cello sounds amazing. I can't speak highly enough of the synergy between the Vanatoo and Rhythmik subwoofer.

    Also a note comparing performance at home vs. performance in my office. Originally, I had the Vanatoos set up in my office at work. Maybe 4-5 feet behind me was solid glass windows (high rise building) with a thin shade drawn. The sound was harsh and unpleasant at higher volumes and I blamed it on the speakers. I don't have any of that at home now, so just goes to show how important room acoustics are. The stock grills also help a bit with this.

    For what it's worth, I've read on Reddit that Vanatoo has demoed their speakers with an RSL Speedwoofer subwoofer. I was curious so looked into them a while ago. They've been sold out for a long time, but ironically are available again for preorder today starting at 12pm PT / 3pm ET. See: https://rslspeakers.com/speedwoofer10s-mkii/. I'm curious how they sound at $450 vs. the Rhythmik L12 (now $629), but not enough to order one. I got my sub b-stock for $519 a couple years ago, but looks like prices have gone up like everything else.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2022
  19. penguins

    penguins Friend, formerly known as fp627

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    At first I thought the original post was sarcasm... but upon reading again and all of the subsequent posts, not so sure anymore.

    On a different note, the volume knob on my T0 has gotten really inconsistent. Near the lower ranges, it will go from no volume to loud for the setting to silent to expected to silent to loud to soft, etc. all before hitting 3 oclock (as viewed from the front, not from behind where that would be near max volume).

    Lastly, has anyone found a way to get rid of the "hsssssssss" it makes when it's on standby for 10 minutes aside from unplugging it?
     
  20. philipmorgan

    philipmorgan Member of the month

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