Should I pay more attention to the AV small stuff?

I thought I knew everything about speakers. Now it turns out I don't, and I'm wondering if my entire approach to home cinema is wrong

I have always been a fan of the phrase ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. It was coined by the late Dr Richard Carlson in his best-selling book of the same name; a tome of wisdom that highlighted the dangers of getting hung up on the little details. 

And so, my home cinema system has always focused on the big stuff: better processing, better amps, bigger loudspeakers. Small things, like speaker cables that cost more than a gold necklace per foot, fancy isolating furniture, mains cables with mystical properties and projector screen cloth made from hand-picked polar bear fur, I have sweated not.

Now I am not denying that any of these things make a difference, but the cost-to-reward ratio is often rather slight. Sometimes the reward bit is missing altogether. I once upgraded to a relatively expensive projector screen expecting visual delights and added clarity on a par with laser eye surgery. After some initial disappointment I did a side-by-side test with the old and new screens, only to find the fabric supplied by ’Discount Blinds Direct’ offered more visual punch than the pro screen. 

Last month I was contacted by a speaker manufacturer, not yet in the UK, who wanted to know if their speakers stacked up against the competition. They sent me two pairs of each model, one set in gloss black, the other pair a dark wood colour. I did initially think this was for me to proffer comment on the aesthetic merits of the various finishes, but no. It was because, according to said manufacturer, its speakers sounded different depending on the colour. Being a man of great diplomacy, I nodded sagely and stifled the guffaws until I got to the pub. 

Then, of course, they really did sound different. Switching between the wood-finished floorstanders and the gloss black proved they were a long way from sounding the same. I examined the contents of my wine glass but even Mrs S agreed. The wood-coloured ones were tighter and faster-sounding; the black ones sounded heavier with bass woolier than a field of sheep. I assumed this must be different drivers, crossovers or construction, so I got the tool kit out. They were, other than the finishes, absolutely identical. I even swapped the drivers between cabinets. The woody ones still sounded better.

It transpires that the difference is in the finishing technique. The black ones are simply painted; the wooden ones have a substantial layer of real-wood veneer glued to the MDF cabinet. The glue and veneer together stiffen the fibreboard, changing the fundamental resonant frequencies of the speaker’s panels, particularly the long and wide panels on the sides. Therefore, wood veneered speakers will sound ‘different’ to otherwise identical speakers with a paint finish.

AV panic stations

This is just the sort of small stuff I don’t want to sweat, and now I am. My same-brand, same-model speaker system is a mish-mash of finishes, so could I do better if they were all the same? If the finish of a speaker makes a noticeable difference to the sound, should I borrow some high-end speaker cables to see if there is dramatic improvement? Should I get some fancy support furniture for the equipment rack as an upgrade over IKEA's finest? And mains cables… would my 240 volts be cleaner and better buffed with something other than the supplied IEC leads?  Herein lays both madness and financial ruin, I suspect. Damn you, small stuff. Damn you.