“Cable television is the new arthouse…. If people have a big screen at home, great sound, and they turn the lights down and turn their phones off, they can get into the world and have an experience.” – David Lynch
This is an amazing time to be a working class person interested in high quality audio/video. Never before have truly wondrous innovations been so affordable. Technology is progressing to the point that most sufficiently-motivated persons can possess audio/video equipment in their home that meets or even surpasses many movie theaters.
Despite this, the audio/video industry is more predatory than ever, and the misleading or objectively false information promoted by the industry is astonishing. I hope that someone can benefit from this list I’ve written, as I feel when I was first getting into this hobby such a list would have been helpful to me.
- Turn your TV to “movie” (sometimes ”calibrated”) picture mode. It takes 10 seconds, but will improve your picture quality immensely. By improve I mean this will bring your picture significantly closer to what the director/cinematographer intended. At first a more accurate picture may look too dark/washed out, but give it some time. I found after did this I see TVs in a whole new critical way, and the first thing I notice when looking at a TV in “standard” or “vivid” (*shudder*) picture mode is how unnatural the colors look, like everything is neon. (Beyond this, consider buying a test disc such as Disney’s WOW or Spears and Munsil to accurately set the brightness/contrasts [black/white levels]. Especially considering that newer TVs are more accurate than ever, these two steps will take one most of the way towards an expensive calibration where the color is precisely set using expensive test equipment.)
- Speaker/TV placement is THE spousal battle worth fighting. It doesn’t matter if your speakers cost thousands of dollars. If they are placed poorly they will never sound good. Many of us are not lucky enough to have dedicated listening rooms of ideal dimensions, so of course there are other domestic considerations than sound quality. But if you are someone who cares about audio, this is the issue to press first and foremost. The way I see it, all we can do is get as close to expert recommendations as we are able given the circumstances of our lives. As with speakers, TV placement is similarly important, and TVs look better at eye level (and never above the fireplace).
- Install a dimmer. It costs $10 and takes ten minutes to install (YouTube might help). Personally, I have a hard time watching movies in total darkness (I fall asleep), but clearly darker is better from the perspective of picture quality. I find that with a dimmer I can set the light level to the lowest level that is comfortable for my wife and myself. Be sure to also turn your TV’s backlight setting down to as low as is comfortable.
- Buy a subwoofer (or three). Subwoofers are miraculously effective devices that reproduce the lowest frequencies found in film and music more accurately and with less distortion than “full-range” speakers costing many times more. There are many great Internet direct manufacturers selling excellent subwoofers at nearly every price point. Proper placement/calibration is essential. (After a subwoofer, consider a center channel even if surround speakers won’t work in your space. A center channel placed under the TV will improve sound quality of movies immensely by firmly rooting dialogue to the television and freeing the mains for music and sound effects.)
- With TVs, size matters above all other considerations. How many people regret not buying that TV with the higher refresh rate or that extra built in streaming service or those additional HDMI ports? Hardly anyone. How many people regret buying a TV that wasn’t just a little bit bigger? I would guess an overwhelming majority, certainly including myself. Resolution sells TVs, perhaps partly because people are unfortunately judging televisions inches away from screen under fluorescent lights at Best Buy (abysmal conditions for evaluating picture quality), but regular HD (1080p) is a hell of a lot of resolution and will be indistinguishable from ultra HD (4k) in the vast majority of home situations. Yes, read credible reviews of televisions before buying, and then GET THE BIGGEST TV YOU CAN AFFORD. And if the biggest TV is much bigger than 70”, then strongly consider a projector.
- Know your sound modes. Most (but not all) informed people will want to play music in stereo and movies in surround (i.e. with center and surround speakers engaged). Some movie/TV content is delivered in surround, but especially with streaming and even some DVDs many movies are delivered in 2.0 stereo. Personally I prefer to let my receiver up-mix stereo film content to surround sound as this is closer to what one would experience in a movie theater. Music, on the other hand, is almost always intended by the recording engineers to be experienced in two channel stereo, and most will want to make sure their receivers are not up-mixing music to surround. Of course there’s nothing wrong with listening to music in surround (LOVE that 5.1 mix of Dark Side of the Moon), but one should at least take the time to learn what their receiver is doing and how to make it do what they want.
- Black bars are your friend. Everyone likes seeing the picture fill up the whole screen. However, some films (particularly the more epic ones) are filmed in dimensions so long and skinny that black bars above and below are necessary to display properly even on a modern widescreen TV. On the other hand, all TV content before the early 2000s is in the more boxy 4:3 dimensions, so black bars on the sides are necessary to display properly on a widescreen TV. What you REALLY don’t want is your TV or Blu-ray player (or streaming box/computer) to stretch out the image just to fill up the TV screen. So you want to make absolutely certain all devices are not set to do this, which in my experience is sometimes different than the default settings. (However, sometimes these stretch settings on a TV are indispensible, particularly when watching an older letterboxed DVD made before HDTVs became the norm.)
- Buy an A/V receiver based on features. Walk into most any A/V store looking for a receiver and you will be hit with an array of truthiness: The more you spend on a receiver the better it will sound. More watts means better bass. Expensive integrated amplifiers or mono-blocks mysteriously improve sound quality over A/V receivers. Credible evidence indicates these sales tactics are a bunch of malarkey. Assuming you don’t live in a mansion, you don’t desire heavy metal concert volume, and your speakers are reasonably sensitive, then just about any A/V receiver will run them fine. Look at the number of channels, the room correction, the number of zones, HDMI ports, wireless features, and built in streaming options. Be happy that virtually all modern receivers have bass management features essential to effectively use subwoofers.
- Consider a Blu-ray player. Prices have dropped to $50. Unlike moving to 4k (where the content is all but non-existent), the jump from the resolution of a DVD (480p) to Blu-ray (1080p) will make a significant difference in the majority of domestic situations. While DVD technology was originally developed for older standard definition (4:3) televisions, Blu-rays are designed to work effectively with the dimension of modern televisions (16:9). Yes, most DVDs are now made to work with modern televisions as well as they can through a process of stretching out the image (anamorphic widescreen), but by stretching out the image (and creating rectangular pixels) the image quality suffers. And even when playing DVDs, Blu-ray players (unlike DVD players) can directly output 24 frames per second, which is the frame rate of nearly all movies. So even when playing DVDs picture quality will improve, assuming you have a new TV that can directly display 24 frames per second without introducing choppiness (called judder). All this means is that you will be watching a movie that is closer to the director’s vision, which for a film-lover like me is consideration number one. Oh, and most of these players contain a variety options for high-quality streaming, so you may find (like I did) that you can get rid your other streaming boxes.
- Never buy ANYTHING marketed as audiophile (even if you are an audiophile). The more I learn, the more I suspect that “audiophile” is synonymous with confirmation bias. Expensive cables are the most obvious scam, but “audiophile” amplifiers and CD players (or DACs) may be a close second. The expert opinion is somewhat divided between those who think these high end products are no more useful than run-of-the-mill electronics to those who believe in some circumstances some of these products could theoretically sound better (personally I find the former skeptical experts way more convincing). But an audible improvement in anything approaching a normal domestic situation? Forget about it. Virtually every properly designed double blind test ever run on these products indicates no difference. On the other hand, speakers are more complicated because they really do sound dramatically different, and the discerning listener will clearly want to put effort and money into find the right speakers for a space. But is NEVER wise to assume that if speakers cost more they are necessarily better for a given application, and with each passing year budget speakers improve and get cheaper. Consider acoustic treatment to measurably and audibly take sound quality to the next level. (Relatedly, never assume that cool-looking vintage gear necessarily affords any increase in sound quality over modern gear.)
See also my previous blog posts:
- Brief Guide to Audio For the Skeptical Consumer
- Brief Guide to Audio For the Skeptical Consumer: Part II
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Here is a brief alphabetical list of musicians who released seminal—or just awesome—albums in 1967:
Louis Armstrong, Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Art Blakey, Booker T., James Brown, The Byrds, Captain Beefheart, Johnny Cash, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Cream, Miles Davis, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, Merle Haggard, Lee Hazlewood, Jimi Hendrix, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Janis Joplin, The Kinks, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Thelonious Monk, Ennio Morricone, Pink Floyd, Sun Ra, Terry Riley, The Rolling Stones, Horace Silver, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Cecil Taylor, The Velvet Underground, The Who, Frank Zappa.
I get chills just reading a list like this. And the really insane thing is that this list barely scratches the surface in terms of music of an astonishing quality released in 1967 alone. Personally, I could spend a hundred lifetimes exploring the music created in the few decades before I was born.
So is music as good today? My conclusion: Of course not! Yes, this is more an opinion than a verifiable statement, but to me this seems obvious, and I am far from a hater of the music of “today,” as I spend hours every day listening to current artists.
So at least by the monumental standards of the past, it sucks being an obsessed music fan in 2015, right? Perhaps in some respects, and I particularly bemoan how much live music has declined since the the disco era. But the fact—and as I will demonstrate below I do mean fact—is that music appreciators have never had it so good as in the 21st century in one particular area I consider important: the technology that brings music to our lives every day.
Maybe it’s just the voices I’m personally attuned to, but instead of grievances about the quality of music produced today, what’s become fashionable are infantile complaints about audio quality. Neil Young, who I deeply love for his music, opines over the course of several chapters in his book that listeners today are only hearing 3% (!!!) of what they heard in the ‘70s. Strangely, the very word “audiophile” has become synonymous not with a desire for the most objectively accurate reproduction of music that technology provides, but instead with retro tube amps, vintage speakers, and vinyl. Ranting about the audio quality of online streaming is quite common, almost as if this medium wasn’t replacing AM/FM radio, a vastly inferior format with respect to sound quality. In my experience, this anti-technology mindset has risen to the level of prevailing wisdom even amongst otherwise educated and cultured people.
A few of the under-appreciated ways us music-lovers have never had it so good:
I don’t want to make my straw man too outrageous here, and I know there are a comparatively small number of nutty people who actually believe that those clunky headphones from the ‘70s compare to what is produced today, but since this is likely the number one way younger people today critically listen to music, I do think it’s worth pointing out that headphone technology has dramatically improved since the ‘70s.
With few exceptions, headphones in the ‘70s had, at least by modern standards, no bass and no treble. Simple as that. Perhaps at the high end there would be something that sounded OK by modern standards, but they would certainly require a large amplifier to get them going. So forget about that walk on the beach.
Sure, there’s overpriced crap peddled to ignorant consumers with slick advertising (Bose and Beats being prime offenders), and it goes without saying that music just isn’t going to sound great with those ear-buds one gets for free with a phone (which would actually still sound miraculous compared to most of what existed a few decades ago). But today, for far less than a Walkman cost in the ’80s one can buy excellent monitor style headphones that in terms of sound quality would absolutely destroy even high end headphones costing thousands of dollars in the ’70s or ’80s.
These maligned devices are unfortunately associated for many with “thump-thump” cars passing on the street, and in my experience, the vast majority of even the most passionate music lovers have no idea what a sub can do to increase fidelity across all genres of music. I find this sad, and personally I can think of few “come to Jesus” moments comparable to properly setting up a subwoofer in my own listening space for the first time.
A couple decades ago if one wanted to hear (or feel) the lowest frequencies of music then one would purchase “full range” floor-standing speakers. These speakers are, of course, massive, and many are basically works of art.
But you know what else? They don’t work that well, at least by modern standards. Sure, the most expensive “full range” speakers may go low enough to at least adequately represent the lowest notes in most music, and they may do this without too much distortion if one gets really lucky with one’s listening room.
Allow me to explain briefly: Low frequencies are increasingly omni-directional, and below 80 Hz (low bass) human beings are unable to determine the direction sound-waves are coming from. Subwoofers take advantage of this limitation in our nervous system, so stereo imaging is not a concern with respect to placement.
A subwoofer can then be placed where it measures best. This is enormously important since in almost all listening rooms there is massive frequency response variation in the lowest frequencies depending on speaker placement. The best position might be behind the couch, in a corner, or directly under the TV. In the majority of situations placement will be the difference between muddy bass and the kind of tight, musical bass enthusiasts lust after.
The truth is that a quality $500 self-powered subwoofer used correctly in an average sized room is likely to give one quantifiably better bass than “full range” speakers costing many thousands of dollars. The presence of a subwoofer is the defining characteristic of high fidelity in the 21st century, and there is no upgrade that is likely to be as musically satisfying as adding a sub to a system that lacks one.
But the quality of speakers working above these lowest frequencies hasn’t changed that much since the ’70s, right? Before I go on, please consider spending just an hour of your time watching this mesmerizing lecture by Floyd Toole, the most respected psycho-acoustical researcher of our time:
The takeaway, as I understand it, is that in the last few decades scientists understand way more about what makes a speaker sound great, which is remarkably similar for the majority of listeners when bias is removed through double blind tests. (Flat off-axis frequency response is a major factor here.) This kind of research combined with across the board technological advances in production means that top shelf speakers are moving significantly closer to what is attainable to the average consumer. In fact, some truly excellent speakers have moved into the level of “ridiculously cheap,” though one would never discern this from reading a high end audio magazine like Stereophile.
Amplifiers today are clearly more reliable, more efficient, and generally less expensive than those produced in the past. Few would argue with this. But what about sound quality?
If you haven’t immersed yourself in these debates it’s hard to easily explain how contentious this issue is amongst audiophiles. On one side are those who claim to hear vast sonic difference amongst various amplifier brands. On the other side are science-minded types who think these people are delusional.
It’s impossible to summarize every aspect of this debate, but I think what it comes down to is this: If you’re the kind of person who finds anecdotes more convincing than science, you will likely reach the conclusion that modern amplifiers have their own sonic signatures. If you’re the kind of person (an asshole like me) who gleefully points out to someone with a headache after eating Chinese that no double blind test has ever concluded that MSG is problematic (as a billion Chinese who consume MSG at every meal will attest), then you will likely reach the conclusion that virtually all competently designed amplifiers not driven to clipping are sonically identical.
So from this science-based perspective those beautiful amplifiers from the ‘70s sound equivalent to modern feature-laden AVRs, right? Not quite.
Most users will reach a higher level of sound quality with a modern AVR for reasons having nothing to do with the amplifier specifically. The most significant reason is something called bass management, which is important for effectively integrating a subwoofer into one’s system. The AVR sends low bass to the subwoofer and then higher frequencies to the mains. Other modern features such as digital room correction and dynamic EQ may also increase sound quality for the majority of users.
It’s difficult to succinctly debunk every myth about digital formats that gets thrown about online in this most vitriolic debate, but this is what’s true as simply as I am able to express it: Lossless formats, like compact discs, are easily able to store sound-waves with as much resolution as our ears are able to discern. So when one moves to so-called high resolution formats, which are able to represent ultra-sonic sound-waves, there is simply no inherent audible improvement.
And according to every objective measurement of sound quality, all analog formats are inferior to lossless digital formats, which also do not measurably degrade with every play like analog formats do. The math is difficult to fully comprehend (I sure don’t), but I know what this math that digital audio is based on concludes, and there simply is no music lost “between the bits.” From a sound quality perspective, CDs do actually contain “perfect sound forever,” just as the original advertising claimed.
This short video is one of the best explanations for what digital music actually is that I’ve come across:
So why do so many enthusiasts enjoy vinyl or even cassettes so much? Even in-the-know teenagers seem to be going crazy for it. There’s talk of vinyl returning the recording industry to its former glory, which is just not going to happen for many reasons. Here’s a few reasons that account for the so-called “vinyl resurgence”:
- First, some people may enjoy the increased noise/distortion inherent to vinyl. Some amount of distortion can sound good (see Jimi Hendrix and every guitar player after), and in fact digital recording has gotten so good that most engineers will inject distortion of various sorts into their mixes.
- Second, some specific mixes are clearly better on vinyl. This has nothing to do with the medium itself, and unfortunately the “loudness wars” have negatively impacted some digital recordings.
- Third, due to obvious limitations of the medium, when one experiences vinyl they are typically at home listening carefully (rather than at the gym or the pub). Of course music sounds best in this environment.
- Fourth, if we believe something sounds better then it probably will. For similar reasons a $100 bottle of wine is going to taster better to most people than a $10 bottle. Controlled experiments have indicated this is true even if it’s the exact same bottle. In my experience, psychological reasons account most significantly for vinyl’s popularity. Vinyl is beautiful in ways that CDs or hard drives just aren’t.
Every day I feel supremely fortunate to be a music lover with access to relatively affordable modern technology. As Louis CK said, “Everything’s amazing yet no one’s happy.”
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In my own small room I doubt I’ll ever achieve enviably flat frequency response. However, one area I have managed to make significant improvement in is reducing unwanted reflections using absorption panels. Aside from properly dialing in a subwoofer, I can’t think of anything else that has made the sound quality difference to my own system that these panels have.
There are many excellent DIY instructions for acoustic absorption panels online. Here, here, and here are online instructions that I looked at carefully. But when I do a project like this I like to look at as many instructions as I can before I do it in the way that makes sense to me, so I hope that others will look at what’s out there and then also benefit from my humble contribution. My cost for 6 panels was under $25 / panel.
Really easy. Personally, I doubt I’ll ever have the patience to make something truly nice out of wood, but I’m happy with how these turned out both aesthetically and functionally. Only the most basic tools are required: drill, saw, staple gun, scissors.
- 2” Owens Corning 703 rigid fiberglass boards (2’ x 4’). ~$17 / panel bought as a six pack.
These fiberglass boards are sold as insulation, but it is the most common product used to make acoustic panels (even most of the commercial products use it). As far as I am able to determine, there is no physical store in my area that sells this stuff (not at Home Depot, Lowes, or any other similar store I checked with). I bought a six pack of it on Amazon for ~$100 including shipping. (Alternatively, rockwool is a slightly cheaper product that is popular and works about as well, and if you are squeamish about fiberglass you may consider this “natural” product instead.)
Note: When I first constructed DIY panels, I made two 2” panels and two 4” panels by placing two OC 703 boards together in a deeper frame. My thinking at the time was that the 4” panels would function as bass traps and at least start to make a positive difference in the lower frequencies. As I learned more (and measured), I realized that to make a difference in the frequencies much below the Schroeder frequency (where sound becomes omnidirectional) one has to go to town with these bass traps to a degree beyond what I’m currently prepared for. Instead, I decided to turn each 4” panel into two 2” panels to concentrate only on mid and high frequency reflections. Problems with the lower frequencies, such a nasty peak around 125 Hz, I hope to address with EQ (or an Audyssey upgrade).
- 1.5 yards (per panel) of acoustically transparent fabric.
I went with broadcloth at Joann Fabric with a 60% off coupon. Came to about $5 / panel. Alternatively, I know there are always 40% off Hobby Lobby coupons online that one can use for any single item. More or less the same cloth is sold there. Any fabric that one can easily breath through should be adequate.
- 1” x 3” (~12.5’ per panel) whitewood boards. $4.
You could use poplar, common, pine, or anything similar. I chose whitewood because it was cheap and I liked the look of it. I correctly guessed that it would look pretty good after being sanded and finished.
- A box of 1.5” screws for $5.
I used gold-plated for aesthetic reasons.
- Wood finish (optional depending on design).
If one is using an exposed frame design (as opposed to pulling the fabric over the frame, see option 1 below), then some kind of finish may be desirable. I used clear semi-gloss polyurethane.
- Mounting hardware.
Just about anything one might use to mount a relatively heavy picture would be fine for this task. Some people use picture wire. I found it simple enough to just use brackets (and plastic anchors into drywall).
1. Place wood around fiberglass boards on ground. Lay wood against fiberglass boards and carefully mark cuts. Frame should fit snugly (but not too snugly) around fiberglass boards.
2. Drill pilot holes. You may want to use a counter sink to make space for screw heads and prevent splitting. (If you don’t have a counter sink, a larger drill bit 1/8” into the pilot hole should do the trick.)
3. At this point you’d probably want to sand and apply finish if desired.
4. On flat surface, insert screws using drill.
5. Cut fabric to at least 6” beyond the size of the panel.
6. Place fabric around fiberglass panels and into frame. Pull fabric tight all the way around. (See option #1 below for alternate design where frame is not exposed.)
7. I stapled fabric to frame in a few places to help keep it in place. I also put some screws into the sides of the frame as below. Since the frame is 2.5” and the panels 2”, these screws keep the panels from pushing back into the frame.
8. You may consider calling it done here, but I started thinking about the fiberglass fibers becoming airborne as I moved the panels around. (Not sure how much of a concern this actually is, but with two small children, I figure better safe than sorry.) I actually considered just stapling a large piece of cardboard to the back, which I believe would have worked fine. But since I didn’t have a piece of cardboard large enough, I actually ended up using some weed barrier fabric we had laying around.
Optional design with covered frame:
For the ceiling clouds, I pulled fabric all the way around frame. The most important thing here is to get the corners looking good, which I only did OK at. Similar idea to wrapping a present.
I want to mention that this is not our living room. My wife, who was happy to get all stereo equipment out of the living room, has been miraculously tolerant of me basically doing what I want in our small family room (aka “daddy’s listening room”).
The following measurements were taken in this small, mixed-use room. There are currently eight panels total. In my space I was able to hit the majority of first reflection points on the ceiling, back walls, and side walls.
These measurements were taken using Room EQ Wizard and an UMIK-1 USB calibration microphone. This is the ETC graph, where the x-axis is milliseconds and the y-axis can be thought of as volume. The peaks then correspond to reflections arriving at the main listening position milliseconds after bouncing off walls/ceiling/floor/furniture/etc. (Austin Jerry’s guide has been an invaluable resource when learning about this program.)
Here is my room with no acoustic treatment and the curtains open:
For reference, here is the room with the curtains closed (windows at first reflection points on side and back walls):
And here is a measurement with all eight panels in place:
According to what I understand, -20 dB reduction (or a quarter perceived volume) of reflections is considered a reasonable goal, which I am close to achieving.
But how does it sound?
Even operating in my small, much-less-than-ideal room I’m stunned at what these panels have done to improve sound quality. Rather than producing pleasant reverberations (as reflections beyond 20 milliseconds or so as might occur in a larger room might), these more immediate reflections subconsciously give our brains clues as to the location of the loudspeaker. When undesirable reflections are reduced, I’ve found that the imaging is vastly more precise. Instruments or vocals now seemed to be so precisely from the center of the room that several times I found myself getting out of my chair to make absolutely sure I hadn’t turned on some up-mixing feature that would cause music to play from my center channel. A very cost effective upgrade, in my opinion.
Please comment if these instructions have been helpful to you or if there is anything unclear!
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…Or What I Wish I’d Known about What Does Make a Difference in Home Audio
A year ago I wrote a blog post detailing what I wish I’d understood about audio when first becoming obsessed with this stuff. This article has been shared vastly more times than anything else I’ve written, and while I wouldn’t exactly say it has gone “viral,” I admit it gives me satisfaction to see that on certain days there has been tens of thousands of views. On Facebook and Reddit there has been page after page of vitriolic debate concerning my article, which I generally find amusing to read.
As I’ve explained before, I’m writing this blog as an enthusiastic learner who’s still a long way from expert status. Even in the past year I’ve changed my mind on several audio issues as my perspective has deepened, and I cringe when re-reading some of what I wrote in other articles (like foolishly thinking that subwoofers don’t do much for music). However, what I’ve continued to absorb in the last year has only increased my conviction that everything I wrote in Part I of this article is categorically true based on the scientific laws that govern our universe as they are currently understood by legitimate experts. Still, I personally strive to gracefully be open to actual evidence that suggests my current understanding is wrong. Hi-fi is—or at least should be—a science based on evidence rather than a religion based on authority.
When digesting some of the online discussion of my blog, there is one criticism that does sting a little: The accusation that people like me think that nothing in audio makes a difference. They suppose that since we generally don’t believe in sonic differences in speaker wire or modern amplifiers then we must just think everything sounds the same. They presume this is because we can’t hear sufficiently or we don’t really love music or we haven’t yet spent X dollars on our stereo systems.
All I can say is that I’ve personally found the exact opposite to be true, and when I started following the advice of legitimate audio experts, I found there are many upgrades or tweaks that have brought about massive sonic improvements in my own system. What’s more, these upgrades don’t involve purchasing expensive boutique speakers or retro tube amps, and without exception they are affordable to most any sufficiently motivated working-class person. I am forever grateful to these individuals for setting me on the right path, as there are few things in my life that provide me with more pleasure than listening to music in my own home.
When I was wasting my family’s money on upgrading to “audiophile” interconnects and amplifiers, some part of me knew what I was doing was pointless. But then I thought, how could these editors of Stereophile be so wrong about everything? These guys are the experts, right? And Miles is sounding pretty freaking good tonight, maybe bi-wiring does make a difference…. If I hadn’t found another path I can only imagine that I’d have either lost interest in audio, or worse, bought something on the Class A list of Stereophile recommended components.
This list is roughly in the order of what I’ve personally found makes the most difference in sound quality. Though I believe that everything on this list is a rough reflection of best practices promoted by most legitimate experts, as they say on audio discussion forums, YMMV:
1. A subwoofer is the cornerstone of a modern stereo system. Compared to even top-of-the-line full range speakers, decent subwoofers can reproduce the lowest frequencies found in music and film more accurately, louder with less distortion, and for a whole lot less money. Since stereo imaging is not important for the lowest frequencies, the subwoofer can be placed where the bass sounds best given the acoustics of a particular room. And because a subwoofer relieves the mains from having to reproduce the most difficult lowest frequencies, the midrange can substantially improve when a subwoofer is used. For most users best results are achieved using a receiver with bass management features.
- Audioholics subwoofer articles
- Big Daddy’s Guide to Bass Management / Guide to Subwoofers
- The Schroeder Frequency: A Show and Tell
- How to Setup Your Studio / Critical Listening Room
- Bass Integration Guide
- How to Choose a Subwoofer for Surround Sound of Stereo
2. Acoustic treatments can vastly improve sound quality. For most users these treatments take the form of absorption panels. To improve stereo imaging these panels are placed at reflection points on the walls and ceiling between listener and speakers. Somewhat more difficult is to significantly improve bass response with bass traps, which are typically larger absorption panels placed in corners.
- Info: Ethan Winer, Crutchfield
- Manufacturers: GIK, Real Traps, ATS
- Easy and Cheap DIY Absorption Panels (my own DIY instruction)
3. Speaker positioning should be a prime consideration. While few enthusiasts are lucky enough to have dedicated listening rooms of ideal dimensions, substantial improvement to sound quality can be achieved by placing speakers as closely as possible to what is recommended by experts.
- How to Set up a Listening Room by Ethan Winer
- Speaker Placement for HT @ Crutchfield
- Speaker Placement Tips @ Audioholics
4. High quality speakers can be purchased from Internet direct manufacturers for substantially less than what’s found in most audio shops. While one does not have the advantage of listening to the sonic signature of these speakers before buying, most of these manufacturers have excellent return policies, and because room matters so darn much, it can be seen as a major advantage to have the opportunity to evaluate a loudspeaker in one’s own room (minus salesperson). Most users should consider a bookshelf + sub setup over floorstanding speakers. Flat frequency response both on and off axis is highly important, as is strong bass above crossover.
5. Digital room correction software found on most modern receivers can improve sound quality in less-than-perfect rooms (i.e. all non-dedicated listening rooms). This software uses a measurement microphone to gain information about a room/speaker response at multiple locations. While this digital signal processing should never be seen as substitute for room treatments, improvement to sound quality can nevertheless be had (if more on the level of fine tuning). These programs are becoming more sophisticated and affordable with each passing year.
6. Room EQ Wizard is a free program used with a < $100 calibration microphone connected via USB cable to a laptop. The enthusiast (or engineer) can then create graphs of the frequency response and bass decay amongst other sophisticated measurements. These measurements are highly useful for determining subwoofer placement as well as the effectiveness of acoustic panels.
7. Multiple subwoofers can be used to achieve flatter frequency response, especially across multiple listening positions.
8. Dynamic equalization is a feature found on most modern receivers that adjusts volume of higher and lower frequencies to account for how we perceive sound. It functions somewhat like a more sophisticated “loudness” button found on older receivers. As volume is turned down from the reference volume film/music is mixed at (usually quite loud), the highest and lowest frequencies are dynamically turned up to account for the way our ears/brains perceive sound.
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I still think a lot about my stereo. Nearly every day. And I’ll admit to experiencing a kind of upgrade mania with this stuff, though I think I’ve about gotten over this compulsion to trade in quite so rapidly (of course many addicts continually tell themselves they are just about to quit). My only defense is that this music available to us through technology provides me with a tremendous amount of pleasure. To me, it is natural to want to experience music with the highest degree of fidelity possible, which I imagine is a Platonic ideal I’ll be chasing for a long time.
I’ve now been through several configurations of bookshelf speakers, floorstanders, integrated amplifiers, A/V receivers, CD players, and subwoofers. I’ve unfortunately wasted money on upgrading speaker cables, but I’ve also experienced the wonder of owning a sophisticated—yet relatively inexpensive—A/V receiver capable of equalizing music based on the acoustics of one’s living room. I regret the money I wasted on an “audiophile” CD player, but I vividly remember the chills I felt first realizing how much better music sounded after taking some time to position my speakers properly.
Though it’s not obvious to my wife, who sees me as impulsively changing my mind willy-nilly, I see my perspective on this audio equipment as following a linear progression forward as I’ve learned more. I am writing my blog not as an expert but as an enthusiastic student, and I truly hope that if someone feels I am incorrect on some issue they will be kind enough to convince me of my wrongness. Previously, I made some ignorant statements about subwoofers, and I am grateful to the individuals who set me straight there. I strive to handle being wrong gracefully, and I never want to dig my heels in so far that I can’t be persuaded with evidence to change my mind.
Mid-fi vs. High-end
The deeper I get into the science of this stuff, the more I become convinced that the vast majority of claims used to sell expensive stereo equipment do not stand up to scrutiny. The junk science used to sell high-end amplifiers, CD players, and audio cables is comparatively easy to look up, but what about speakers? Everyone—subjectivist and objectivist alike—agrees that loudspeaker quality matters a great deal, and outside room acoustics and recording quality, this is the factor that determines the quality of music reproduced in our homes.
But how does one judge the quality of a loudspeaker? And more importantly for the consumer on a budget, how much does it cost for one of sufficient quality?
My life is enhanced by beer just about every day, so when thinking price-performance ratio, it’s one thing I come back to. Obviously beer is way more subjective than audio, but I think the vast majority of beer enthusiasts would agree that the stuff costing much less than $6/six pack should hardly be considered beer. Then again, moving to an $8-$10 price point for a six pack, we get into a large variety of seriously good stuff, especially those produced around here in the Northwest. I’ve experienced many great beers at prices beyond this, but here we’re getting into what I think of as “fancy” beers. Most of them are great, but I’m don’t necessarily view them as higher quality than more reasonably priced beers, and for the most part I wouldn’t want to drink them every day even if I could. So, where does this $8-$10 price point lie for loudspeakers?
I’m not even close to any kind of engineer, but I have developed some appreciation for how complicated this question about price and loudspeaker quality is. I don’t think it can be easily answered, and certainly not by me. However, I have digested a bit about what individuals who do know what they’re talking about on a very deep level think about this stuff, and time and time again I find that they don’t even own particularly expensive equipment, at least by high-end standards. From what I’ve been able to glean, it’s fairly common for individuals obsessed enough with quality sound to have spent thousands of dollars on acoustical treatments to own loudspeakers that are actually fairly affordable. Of course it doesn’t mean these cheaper speakers are not thoroughly well-engineered—many of them I’m convinced are.
Personally I’ve stopped lusting after high-end speakers, which is a little different than where my mind was even a year ago. This doesn’t mean I might one day like to move to a higher price point from what I currently own, but I would like to have a specific and technical reason for it. Either that or admit to myself that I’m putting money into audio jewelry, which of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with, and personally I love the way some of this high end stuff looks as much as anyone.
Another reason I’m increasingly drawn toward the “mid-fi” is that I’ve become convinced that many of these products are counter-intuitively more accurate. High-end speakers marketed to audiophiles often have signature sounds, which many people do seem to prefer. Looking through the measurements taken by SoundStage! at Canada’s National Research Council, one may find that many of the multi-thousand dollar “boutique” speakers don’t seem to measure that well at all, at least when judged with accuracy as a criteria.
Accuracy is what makes sense to me intellectually, and I’m increasingly convinced it’s what sounds best, again to me. I would never fault someone for enjoying a specific sound that some high-end speaker might provide, but personally I want to hear in my living room as closely as possible what the recording engineer hears—more often than not on relatively modest speakers—in the mixing room.
What we are talking about reproducing in our living rooms is in my way of thinking basically sacred: John Coltrane’s saxophone, Hendrix’s guitar, and Hank Williams’ voice. Is a high-end artistic rendering of these sounds really more fascinating than the most accurate reproduction that technology can provide?
Internet Direct vs. Brick and Mortar
“Listen to as many speakers as you can.” This seemingly prudent advice is commonly given above all else, and I wouldn’t disagree that listening to a speaker before you buy it is generally preferable. But what took me a while to get my mind around is that when you hear a given speaker you aren’t just listening to the speaker, you are listening to the room. Depending on whom you ask, the room may matter more, especially at lower frequencies.
What follows is the SoundStage! frequency response graph for the Ascend CBM-170 bookshelf speakers taken in an anechoic chamber:
At $350/pair these speakers are a long way from high-end, but they are advertised as being “suitable for professional studio monitoring,” and they are, even if they possess other deficiencies, quite flat (at least above 100 Hz or so). Here are the those same speakers measured in my living room paired with a subwoofer crossed over at 100 Hz:
Not that frequency response is all the matters by a long shot, but I think it’s obvious by looking at some of these dips that these speakers are going to sound significantly different in an anechoic chamber and my living room, where aesthetics dominate over acoustic considerations (someday I’ll have my own man cave). Moving to another room, I’d expect these speakers to measure quite differently. This begs the question, by listening to a loudspeaker at a hi-fi shop, how much information is one even getting about how these speakers sounds in one’s own home?
Something else to consider about listening to speakers in a shop is that one may actually come away more confused about what a given speaker actually sounds like due to psychological factors no one is fully immune to. If one has been fortunate to experience wine described as “oaky,” “full-bodied” “earthy,” or any of the hundreds of descriptions used to describe this drink, then I’d expect that the vast majority of time the taster’s perception will match whatever adjective has been put forward. Our nervous systems are imperfect this way, and my experience is that audio salesmen are skilled at implanting these kinds of conclusions in our minds.
Another strike against physical stores is that—again in my experience—audio products are sold using a wide array of junk science. I’ve spent a good chunk of time now talking to audio salesmen, and I still find it mind-boggling the amount of objectively inaccurate information used to sell audio products. Not that these people are dishonest exactly. As a lover-of-humanity who prefers to view people positively, I believe most of the salesmen I’ve come in contact with are honestly deluded. Personally, I’ve never met an audio salesmen I wouldn’t happily have a beer with, which could lead to an lively conversation, especially since most of them seem to even lack awareness that the vaguely scientific jargon they’re using is at all controversial let alone goes against what the vast majority of credible experts believe.
As I see it, internet direct is the clear winner due to these factors taken with the obvious bang-for-your-buck price difference that one experiences when taking out physical stores. Plus, if you’re not happy with your purchase, I’ve found it relatively easy to box it up and send it back. More and more reputable loudspeaker producers are moving solely to an internet-direct model, and I’m convinced there is a huge array of loudspeaker manufacturers producing well-engineered but relatively inexpensive products online. These manufacturers include—but are certainly not limited to—NHT, Ascend, HSU, Infinity, Polk, Aperion, BIC, Axiom, EMP, and SVS.
Bookshelf vs. Floorstanding
In the last few decades floorstanding speakers have become more of a niche market as the bookshelf/sub thing has become the mainstream standard. Most Stereophile-reading audiophiles view this in the context of people caring less about audio quality and more about lifestyle-friendly products. As I previously begun to be swayed by the “audiophile” way of thinking, it seemed obvious that floorstanding speakers were the better choice as they offered superior sound to puny bookshelf speakers.
However, over time I begun to digest another perspective:
Bookshelf speakers are only inherently undesirable if you actually put them on your bookshelf, and in this sense they are unfortunately named. I’m convinced that if anyone gives a damn about sound quality then the absolute first thing they should do is experiment with speaker positioning. Obviously most individuals are constrained by where to put their speakers since they aren’t planning their living rooms around the optimal place to put their speakers (as one might in a dedicated home theater situation). I certainly understand these constraints since boy do I ever feel them too. But putting your speakers against your wall on top of wherever your bookshelf happens to be? Almost always a terrible idea in my way of thinking. In this sense it would perhaps be better to refer to bookshelf speakers as “stand-mounted” speakers, but that perhaps sounds pretentious.
Rather than thinking of bookshelf speakers as being designed to be placed on bookshelves one could think of them as speakers optimized to produce sound waves above 100 Hz or so. Bass sound waves are by far the most difficult for speakers to accurately reproduce, which is not surprising when one gets even a little into the physics of this stuff. At 20 Hz, roughly the lowest frequency humans hear, the sound waves are 56 feet, while at 100 Hz, still a lower bass frequency, the sound waves are already down to 11 feet (and then quickly grow smaller for midrange and treble frequencies). From this perspective one can imagine that the impetus behind bigger floorstanding speakers is the necessity of producing these lowest and largest frequencies.
But what is the optimal method for producing these lower bass frequencies that are so essential to music? What should be obvious if one hasn’t been indoctrinated into an “audiophile” mindset is that subwoofers are the solution. Only pricey “full-range” loudspeakers actually go as low as even moderately priced subwoofers, and even then these beastly floorstanders are rarely as accurate. Furthermore, science tells us that lower bass frequencies are non-directional, which means that they aren’t a factor in stereo imaging, so with the lower bass being produced by a separate unit, one can move the subwoofer to the place in the room where the bass measures flattest in the main listening position. This optimal subwoofer placement might be in the corner or even behind the couch depending on the acoustics of one’s room.
My experience is that once I became accustomed to hearing music with a properly-integrated subwoofer, it suddenly seemed that music without a subwoofer sounds flaccid, almost like background music regardless of the volume. Sometimes the cheapest solution is also the most effective, and I’m convinced that a properly integrated subwoofer—which usually means paired with an A/V receiver with bass management capabilities—is almost always the preferable method for faithfully representing these sound waves in a living room.
However, I’m certainly not saying that there aren’t many excellent floorstanding speakers. I do still love the way floorstanding speakers look, and if I was less constrained by price, I might still consider going the floorstander + subwoofer route, especially if I had a large living room and desired rock concert volumes.
Modern vs. Vintage
In the last few decades virtually all electronic products have been made vastly better through technological innovations. TVs, phones, and computers are obviously on another planet, but even vacuum cleaners seem to have improved immensely. We recently moved from something from the ‘80s to a bagless Kenmore, and I’m amazed to find that I actually like vacuuming now.
Why do so many feel that audio products are somehow different? Just yesterday I was filling in at the record store and I found myself nodding politely as a customer enthusiastically spoke about how much better his vintage audio equipment from the ‘70s was than the new stuff. Even vintage car enthusiasts will readily admit that their beloved cars almost never measure better than newer models and that their love for these cars is based on something like aesthetics or nostalgia. My experience, however, is that vintage stereo enthusiasts are different in that they actually believe that with vintage speakers, often paired with tube amplifiers and record players, they are hearing a greater degree of nuance in music.
The reality is that modern speakers are cheaper and more accurate than they’ve ever been, and there is not a single meaningful specification that has not improved in the last few decades. Modern computer technology has positively influenced the way speakers are measured, designed, and manufactured. In addition, my understanding is that there have been various advances in the field of psychoacoustics that positively influenced speaker development.
Neil Young spent a large portion of his autobiography going on and on about how kids today are only hearing 5% of music, though it’s never clear how he arrives as this stunning figure. Reality is quite different, and as a lover of music I feel supremely optimistic about the changes that have taken place in home audio since Neil Young was churning out his ‘70s masterpieces. In addition to speakers with greater accuracy, dispersion, and power handling, these technological advances include: subwoofers; digital recording/playback; A/V receivers with digital room correction, dynamic equalization, and bass management; and software like Room EQ Wizard that allows the enthusiastic user to take sophisticated measurements in one’s own home. I would think audiophiles would have a lot to be happy about, even in this age of ear buds and lifestyle products.
The more I’ve gotten into this stuff, the more I’ve gotten away from this idea that quality in audio lies in what’s old, expensive, or esoteric. I understand that many audiophiles are frightened to think that their precious audio jewelry might not actually sound any better and in many cases is basically useless (e.g. power conditioners), but I want my fellow music lovers to understand that quality sound is within most people’s budget.
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A while back I wrote a long-winded description of my then-current thoughts on audio. While I still agree with much of what I wrote, my thinking on subwoofers has evolved from when I labeled myself a “two-channel purist.” Now, I hate to think of listening to music at home without a sub, and I find bass that you feel a little in the floor to be an essential part of my hi-fi experience.
The me of a year ago:
“After purchasing those first bookshelf speakers I fell in love with, my initial research seemed to conclusively point to the next step: a subwoofer. While I was deeply satisfied with the midrange and treble, I found myself lusting after the kind of bass I hear live with a good PA, the kind of bass that hits you just a little in the chest. I ordered a sub online based on some positive reviews, and I did skimp on this since I was a little freaked out about how much I’d already spent. The only thing I felt in my chest after hooking this thing up was complete disappointment. When I turned the crossover point up high enough it gurgled a bit in a way that seemed unrelated to the music, and when I turned the crossover down it just did nothing, which was actually preferable. Initially I was convinced it was defective, but after learning more about what subwoofers are supposed to sound like, I realized that it was probably functioning properly. I still returned it and ordered a mid-priced one I found equally unsatisfying, and then eventually I found one on Craigslist that was maybe a little more musical.”
- I now understand that some part of my dissatisfaction with the subwoofers was based on volume. Turning up the subwoofer’s gain resulted in distracting bass, whereas turning it lower seemed to make the deep bass all but disappear. At the time I had a limited understanding of what a well-integrated subwoofer sounds like.
- Why was I lusting after the “bass that hits you a little in the chest”? Two reasons come to mind: First, even large floorstanding speakers typically don’t do great with the lowest frequencies found in music. Second, due to the equal loudness contour, we perceive the lowest frequencies less distinctly at the lower volumes at which most people listen to music.
- I now see a simple solution to these problems: The modern A/V receiver with bass management. Unlike the more expensive “audiophile” integrated amplifier I was previously using, the A/V receiver sets the volume of the subwoofer automatically. Also, using the dynamic equalization found in the Audyssey software, the receiver adjusts for limitations in our perception by progressively raising the relative volume of the lowest frequencies as the overall volume is lowered. I’m now experiencing musical deep bass even at volumes considerably lower than the volume music is mixed at (which is much louder than what I typically enjoy).
“During this time I also read everything I could about subwoofer placement. Unfortunately, I don’t have a “man cave,” and I’m doing this all in our living room under the supervision of my wife, who hated the subwoofers from the beginning. It was a struggle to keep her from putting a tablecloth over it, and one point she suggested rearranging the living room so that it would go behind the couch. I would have liked to experiment more with putting it in the corner or out from the wall more, but moving around furniture wasn’t an option. Eventually I found that if I faced it away from me towards the wall it added a vaguely musical rumble that did not significantly detract from the music. While I did convince myself for a bit that I needed this, there was another side of me I was suppressing: Deep down I hated that thing more than my wife did.”
- To my Dwell-reading wife a subwoofer is still the embodiment of ugliness, and no viable solution is currently known for that problem.
- Unfortunately, in our relatively small living room, I don’t have too many options about where to put my subwoofer. An advantage to subwoofers is that one is free to place them where the bass sounds best, which I’m told is often not the same place the mains are. I’ve experimented with the few options I have available, but luckily I’ve found that it sounds fairly good no matter where I put it. So for now I’ve left it in what I consider to be the most logical place visually, to the center side of one of the mains.
- A rationale for why my new sub sounds so much more satisfying might be simply because it’s a little better quality than the subs I was experimenting with before. Nothing too fancy, a $500 SVS 12” sealed sub, but it nicely fills in the bottom octave or two of music.
- Another reason I’ve found this sub so easy to place may have to do with the receiver’s Audyssey program, which equalizes the sub based on the acoustics of a given room. For this reason, my current thought is that if you don’t have an A/V receiver with bass management, one might consider not using a subwoofer, at least if you’re an average listener (which I consider myself to be). Of course if you possess an SLP meter, graphing software like Room EQ Wizard, bass traps, and room to move your sub around freely, then I suspect digital room correction would be somewhat less useful.
“Obviously subwoofers are essential for home theater enthusiasts wanting realistic earthquakes and action sequences in their living rooms, but I began to wonder what actually goes on down there in music. Most decent bookshelf speakers reliably go down to something like 60 Hz, whereas floor-standers go down to 40 Hz or even lower. Subwoofers were invented a few decades ago to take the sound down to 20 Hz or lower, so it gets into the range that we feel rather than hear. So what goes on in music around the 20 to 40 Hz range that one might need a sub to hear? The easy answer is the lowest octave or so on a piano, which definitely sounds important, though the lowest note on a bass is around 41 Hz, so within the range of most floorstanders.”
In response, here is a chart laying down the frequencies found in acoustic music:
“My own experience with the subwoofers is that there’s hardly anything meaningful going on down there on the recordings I listen to, and I should add I generally don’t listen to much music that may be the most bass heavy like hip-hop or electronic dance music. 90% of the time the subwoofers seemed to be doing little even when I set the crossover as high as 60 Hz, and then much of the other 10% I found the subwoofer’s gurgles distracting. I have heard that some people insist that the subwoofer helps them to experience something esoteric like “the illusion of hall space,” but my understanding is that most of the frequencies in even chest thumping bass are in the 50 – 80 Hz range, which should be achievable with decent floorstanders.”
- Reading the above statement, it now seems so obvious to me that there are frequencies in music even below 40 Hz that I’m having a hard time understanding what I was thinking. Yes, these frequencies are typically subtle, and certainly the bass found in the 40 -140 Hz low bass range is way more prominent in even bass heavy music. Still, there’s plenty going on below 40 Hz, and not just for Baroque organ music. While the lowest note on a typical bass guitar is 41 Hz, what about a drop-D tuning? And what about a 5-string bass where the lowest note is then 30 Hz? And personally, when I’m listening to Cecil Taylor attack the lowest octave of the piano, I’d greatly prefer that those notes come in loud and clear.
- Another argument for subwoofers I’ve come to find equally compelling concerns the quality of the bass. As I understand the specifications of my current speakers, they begin struggling in the highly important 40–50 Hz range, as is common for even large floorstanders. They do hit bass as low as 30 Hz, but not with any accuracy (around -6db). I think it’s fairly unambiguous that they could use serious help below around 50 Hz.
- I’ve read convincing analyses of graphs comparing the bass performance of budget subwoofers to high end speakers that reach the conclusion that even in the 50–100 Hz range these inexpensive subs do significantly better. Most floorstanders contain one or more woofers in the 5” – 7” range, whereas a typical subwoofer might have a 10” or 12” woofer. So with a cone that’s roughly three times the surface area, it’s no surprise a sub will perform better in this difficult range. Small woofers simply can’t reproduce these deeper frequencies with the same accuracy.
- Past this, using a subwoofer to take over the low bass can actually improve the mid bass performance of floorstanders by relieving the speakers (and the amplifier) of having to produce the largest sound waves. It could be expectation bias, but I believe I hear significant improvement in the clarity in the mid bass and even mid-range frequencies produced by my floorstanders after I added a sub.
“On the other hand, there is the online cacophony: You need to spend $1,000 minimum to get a decent subwoofer for music. A sealed (unported) sub is the only way to go for music (and then others say ported). You need complete freedom to move the sub around the room to find the sweet spot. Low bass will never really work in a small or even medium-sized room. The idea that bass is non-directional is a myth, and you need at least two subwoofers to get musical deep bass. You need room treatments like bass traps in the room to get good deep bass.”
I’d say I’ve moved on from my initial confusion on these issues, at least to some degree:
- The relative quality of subwoofers at any given price point is something that’s hotly debated, but I’d suggest that $1,000 is an awful lot to spend on a sub just to fill in the lowest octaves of music in a moderately sized living room.
- The popular idea is that sealed subs are better for music, but I’ve been convinced that the truth of this statement is somewhere in the range of exaggeration to outright myth. On the other hand, I do believe ported subs often have advantages and can typically play both louder and lower at a given price point. Personally, I still went with a sealed sub since my sole interest is music, so the house-shaking ultra-low bass isn’t as important as it might be for home theater. Past this, the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) of the significantly smaller sealed subs made them a logical choice for me.
- I now understand that the idea behind two subwoofers has less to do with directionality and more to do with counteracting nulls, which are areas in the room where the bass might be disproportionally weak. And about directionality, my current understanding is that numerous studies indicate that below around 80 Hz we are not able to perceive what direction sound is coming from, which is why one subwoofer is at least adequate for most situations (since stereo imaging is not important for these frequencies).
“Perhaps there’s some truth to all of these statements, but all I know is that I find the bass in my three-way B&W floor-standers much more satisfying and realistic. I never felt the subwoofers were integrating with my other speakers properly, but I’m certainly not saying it’s not possible for subs to do so. For now I describe myself as a “two-channel purist,” but it is possible I might revisit subwoofers one day with much different expectations.”
Again, I’ve come to believe that—at least for where I’m at— the key for a more satisfying subwoofer experience is the A/V receiver with bass management. As I documented in my last blog entry written right before I’d purchased my latest subwoofer, moving to an A/V receiver with digital room correction was a revelation for me. A desire to try out my new receiver’s bass management features led me to the subwoofer again, and I’m darn happy I went down that road. I do feel, however, that it is possible to exaggerate the importance of subwoofers for music. We are—I still believe—dealing with a relatively small part of the musical experience. Whether that number is 2%, 5%, or 10% depends on many factors, personal preference being a major one.
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A few years ago I began spending some part of every day obsessing over audio equipment. Since then I’ve spent what might seem like a lot of money, but even the purchases I regret have been learning experiences, and at least by audiophile standards, I haven’t spent that much money. (Though funny how perceptions can change. I remember first walking into a hi-fi store being floored that someone would spend $1,000 on speakers, which I perceived as ultra high end.)
In the beginning, everything I read seemed to confirm one view: The amplifier and source are as important as the speakers, and it is often recommended to spend about a third on speakers, a third on source, and a third on amplification (and don’t forget 10% on cable/interconnect). I remember neurotically going over my system with a salesman and asking him what upgrade he thought would be most likely to offer improvement. His response was that the $700 CD player I had purchased was not up to the quality of my other components and I would hear a significant improvement with a better player. Yes, he was trying to sell me something, but I actually think he was a decent guy expressing what he honestly believes. It may seem laughable to those not immersed in this way of thinking, but many mostly rational people believe things about audio components more outrageous than this.
Around this time I began to be fetishize audio equipment, wistfully looking at $10k monoblocks like the ones below and thinking, “Someday….” Audio/video receivers weren’t even on my radar as something to consider as I’d quickly learned that those in the know prefer monoblocks, power amplifiers, or at very least, integrated amplifiers, a cheaper compromise I felt I could live with temporarily. Every day I’d carefully consider online testimonials opining, for example, that one should never pair B&W speakers with Arcam amplifiers (too “fatiguing”) but that Rotel amps matched with B&W speakers equals sonic nirvana.
I also began to digest the opinions of audio writers who actually know what they’re talking about, and slowly I begun to be swayed by a more rational perspective. Products like monoblocks began to lose their luster for me, as most from this perspective consider monoblocks to be an irrational waste of money on the level of exotic speaker cable. I started to understand that most of the high-end audio industry is based on the delusion known as expectation bias, a fact I find both frustrating and incredible. (In my previous article on audio skepticism, I humbly summarize my interpretation of what knowledgeable audio professionals believe about the most basic issues related to audio equipment.)
I’m again thinking of myself a couple years ago as my target audience. By no stretch of the imagination am I an audio expert, but I have learned a bit about a few issues I wish I’d considered previously, and I hope that there’s someone out there who can benefit from my current perspective.
I love movies, but for audio, my passion is foremost enjoying the music I love in stereo. So when I first began thinking of upgrading my components I quickly ruled out the A/V receiver. However, a couple years later when my “audiophile” integrated amplifier began to (again) malfunction, I considered my options. By this time I’d been sold on the idea that amplifiers don’t influence sound quality, so I began to wonder why I even had this thing, which wasn’t even proving that reliable.
The first issue that made me consider an A/V receiver was price/performance considerations. Though it might seem that buying an integrated amplifier would be a better deal for someone in my position—why pay for features I don’t need?—I now counter-intuitively suspect that receivers almost always cost less than equivalent integrated amplifiers. First, integrated amplifiers are primarily sold to a niche market of audiophiles who pride themselves on spending more to buy the best stuff (and are oftentimes highly-susceptible to junk science to justify these purchases). Second, because the demand for receivers vastly outpaces the demand for other varieties of amplifiers, the price of receivers is driven down due to competition/demand.
In many reviews, it’s considered a matter of faith that even integrated amplifiers offer improved sound quality over mass-market receivers for an array of technical reasons (and presumably power amplifiers and mono-blocks are even better). I think you’d have to be an engineer to begin to properly assess these claims, but I’ve digested enough information on this from credible sources to seriously question the idea that the consumer is legitimately getting anything more by spending $1500 on a 50w integrated amplifier by an Arcam or Naim versus a much cheaper 100w receiver by a Denon or Onkyo. Sure, it’s not advisable to directly compare amplifiers based on their wattages, which can be exaggerated in a variety of ways. (According to some, the weight of an amplifier is actually suggested as a more reliable method of comparison for the consumer.) Anyway, the view I’ve come to accept is that the vast majority of individuals have significantly more watts than they need, and modern amplifiers simply don’t sound audibly different under normal circumstances. It may be that the higher end amplifiers are inherently more powerful and accurate than receivers for reasons not easily apparent in their specifications—I’m skeptical, but this is certainly believed by many—but it’s not at this time clear to me why this matters much even if it is the case, especially considering how much more distortion is produced by even the best speakers compared to even the worst amplifiers.
Even given these price/performance considerations—and even after coming to believe that receivers are more powerful, more reliable, and cheaper than they’ve ever been—I would still consider paying more for an integrated amplifier for reasons that aren’t strictly rational. I love bicycles made of steel for reasons that have nothing to do with specifications, and I just can’t get excited about an aluminum frame. With stereo equipment, I don’t like a lot of buttons or the latest features. So I still greatly prefer the minimalist “old school” aesthetics of integrated amplifiers like the one pictured here, and I probably would pull the trigger on another integrated amp if it weren’t for the technologies I get into below.
Considering Room Acoustics
Looking at Internet reviews of my current speakers I read them described as “punchy,” “boomy,” “detailed,” “dull,” “refined,” “muddy,” “airy,” “neutral,” “colored,” and on and on. Some of this variation in opinion comes down to personal preference and the fuzziness of these adjectives. Another explanation is that these same speakers are legitimately heard in all these ways based on the characteristics of the room they are heard in.
The room drastically (and objectively) affects the way that sound waves are perceived, and credible audio professionals unanimously agree that room acoustics matter a great deal. Some say that the room is almost always the weakest link in a speaker/room pairing. I’ve personally experienced very modest speakers sounding excellent in the right room, and I’ve read that even $100,000 speakers will sound terrible in a mismatched room. Again and again these credible audio professionals come back to the importance of relatively-inexpensive acoustic treatments above all other considerations in the quest for improved fidelity, which I’m certain is sage advice.
I also consider this advice rather depressing. I’ve brought up to my wife that I would like to experiment with bass traps and absorption panels in our living room. These conversations went nowhere. For me—and I’m sure many others are in the same boat—it’s simply not happening. While our living room is perhaps not acoustically terrible, based on my limited knowledge I’d describe it as average at best. In light of this view, I was hesitant to spend a few grand I don’t really have on yet another speaker upgrade that might possibly give me a slight improvement. In retrospect, the way forward seems so obvious I can’t believe I’d been doing all this research and hadn’t once considered what is obvious to most consumers walking into Best Buy having done even a minimal amount of research.
Many of the higher-end audiophile amplifiers don’t have basic treble/bass equalization controls, and I’d bought into the idea that whenever you mess with the EQ you are second-guessing a decision made by the recording engineer and thus moving away from the “pure” sound desirable to audiophiles. I was vaguely aware that most modern receivers have digital equalization software, but I dismissed this as something the home theater guys worry about. Stupid me.
Audyssey is a program that provides digital room correction. One can think of it like a conventional equalizer but vastly more sophisticated and able to specifically respond to the deficiencies of a given room/speaker combination. Audyssey is the program currently used in receivers by Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, and NAD. Other receivers have their own room equalization software, but from what I’ve read, most informed individuals believe Audyssey is a couple steps ahead of these programs. The models starting out as low as $500 typically have some version of Audyssey, but I believe this technology is rapidly becoming more affordable (and more sophisticated).
After attaching the included microphone to a borrowed tripod and spending 20 minutes running the Audyssey set up program, I experienced the feeling that every audiophile lusts after. I wanted to again experience every album in my collection. The bass was dramatically cleaner, and I was especially impressed with the difference in vocals, which sound more like an actual person singing. Considering all the upgrades I’ve been through in the last few years, some haven’t made a lick of difference (CD players, amplifiers, speaker cable) and some have made a difference but not necessarily for the better (I’ve struggled with subwoofers). All the speaker upgrades have made a difference, but perhaps only one or two have provoked the kind of ecstasy that using the Audyssey program has.
As important as room correction is a feature of Audyssey called dynamic equalization. Most audiophiles strive to experience at home what the recording engineer hears in the studio/mixing room, and while digital room correction brings one closer to that ideal, another significant way that the home listener’s experience will differ is volume level. As the volume is lowered, our ability to hear the lowest and highest frequencies is objectively diminished. Like the comparatively primitive “loudness” buttons on older receivers, dynamic equalization attempts to account for our auditory perception by raising the highest and lowest frequencies as the volume is turned down from the level that music is mixed at, called the reference volume. Conversely, dynamic equalization disappears as the volume is raised to reference level, which is much louder than what most people like at home. I do a lot of my listening after the kids go to bed, and so I’m more often than not a long ways from reference volume. I’ve found that dynamic equalization results in a vastly more satisfying sound at lower volumes, especially in the bass.
Are there any legitimate reasons to be wary of room correction or dynamic equalization? None that I am aware of. First, any signal degradation that occurs is purely theoretical. Second, millions of dollars were spent by insanely smart university researchers to develop this technology. Yes, this doesn’t mean these scientists are right about everything, but I believe they’ve meticulously engineered a supremely useful product based on verifiable science. Aside from the purists who recoil from this technology on principle, there’s a minority of users who simply don’t like the results, and I suppose it could be argued that using this program might take away some of the individual character of speakers. But from everything I’ve read, the vast majority find that running this program enhances their system dramatically, with the possible exception of those with superb rooms who’ve also employed sophisticated room treatments. (Even ardent Audyssey advocates are careful to point out that the algorithms employed are no substitute for good acoustics and room treatments, though Audyssey can fine-tune the sound in even good-to-great rooms.)
So I’m now what’s called an “Audyssey fan boy” who’s ready to go stand on a street corner handing out literature about digital room correction. But of course there’s always a next step: I have the version of Audyssey called Multi XT, which is a big step up from previous versions of Audyssey. However, this version is a step down from Multi XT32, which is the highest level of Audyssey other than XT Pro (which requires professional installation). I’m so happy with the results of Multi XT that I’m kicking myself for not having spent an extra few hundred for a receiver with XT32.
Funny how this stuff works, at least for me and many other audiophiles. If we’re not happy, we want something better, and then if we are happy, we still want something better. Personally, what fuels this longing is live music when it’s awesome—sitting in front of an orchestra or in a jazz club with a good PA—which brings home that the fidelity I enjoy in my living room is comparatively primitive.
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