Motorola announced in January 2001 they have developed a digital audio amplification process, dubbed Symphony, which B&K Components is using in their upcoming DA-2100 amplifier. The DA-2100 will do the Symphony processing in a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) program using Motorola's 56300 DSP family. Motorola plans to integrate Symphony processing into future DSPs, much like Dolby Digital, HDCD, AC3, and other algorithms are integrated now. A vendor need only add output power transistors and an output filter to get a high power and high efficiency digital amplifier.
WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?
The first trend to note is the proliferation of high fidelity digital audio amplification techniques and hardware fast enough to implement them. Until recently, digital amplifiers did not have enough distortion free bandwidth for use over the entire 20Hz to 20KHz spectrum and were relegated to subwoofer use only.
The second trend is the integration of these amplifiers with DSP chips to create the first end-to-end digital audio solution for consumer audio. The audio signal stays entirely in the digital domain up to the speaker inputs. These inexpensive integrated modules and chipsets will allow companies to easily implement designs that have better sound and are cheaper to produce than traditional mixed analog/digital approaches. Let's refer to this type of solution as Advanced Digital Audio (ADA).
In the next few years ADA is going to be a disruptive force in all segments of the audio industry, from portable MP3 players to high-end home stereos. Moore's law, the doubling of the number of transistors on a given chip every 18 months, will quickly push down prices and improve the sound quality available from consumer audio gear.
Digital amplifiers are a type of switching amplifier. Switching amplifiers rapidly switch the output devices on and off at 100KHz or higher, and then usually low-pass filter to recover the audio portion. Older Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) switching amplifiers, called Class-D, controlled their switching with analog circuits. These designs suffered from poor fidelity and high Radio Frequency Interference (RFI).
A digital amplifier generates its switching signal using digital logic. Purists would say that digital amplifiers must accept a digital input signal and do all processing in the digital domain. By controlling the switching signal with digital logic, advanced signal processing can be employed to compensate for the switching distortion. Most digital amplifiers avoid the Class-D moniker to distance themselves from analog switching approaches.
Switching amplifiers have been pursued with interest since they offer higher power amplifiers at a lower cost than traditional class A or A/B amplifiers. Switching amplifiers' output devices are switched entirely on or off. This means that the output transistors do not have to dissipate power that is unused at low volume levels as they do in Class A and AB amplifiers. A Class AB amplifier may be 50% efficient at maximum output power while a switching amplifier can achieve 90% efficiency. The story is better than the specs indicate since at low power levels a digital amplifier could be as much as six times more efficient than Class AB. The increased efficiency allows for amplifiers with smaller power supplies and smaller heatsinks with equivalent output power to non-switched designs. Both of these components are costly and bulky, so shrinking them reduces the size and cost of the whole amplifier.
Until recently though, they were not suitable for high fidelity applications. In the past few years companies like TacT, Spectron, Sharp, and Bel Canto have released digital amplifiers with sound quality on par with traditional analog amplifiers. In fact, some feel that their fidelity surpasses traditional audio amplifiers. While these digital amplifiers cost upwards of $2,000, they are only the vanguard of the coming revolution.
TABLE -- DIGITAL STEREO AMPLIFIERS TECHNOLOGY
ADVANCED DIGITAL AUDIO: STEREO ON A CHIP
The second trend highlighted by Motorola's Symphony announcement is the upcoming ADA phenomenon. In 2001 major semiconductor companies will start to release digital chipsets that can handle every audio processing task including amplification. Currently, only Texas Instruments has their solution available in volume. These chipsets will be inexpensive, especially when compared to the many analog and digital parts they replace. For instance, the Pulsus chips go for $7 to $10.
This phenomenon is being driven by the rapid convergence of cheap powerful DSPs, advanced digital PWM control theory, accurate psychoacoustic models, pervasive digital audio, MP3, and home theater. Market forces and recent technical advancements are making ADA audio technically possible, cost effective, and in demand.
Not convinced it's happening? Lets see what some of Motorola's competitors have been shopping for lately:
JUL 1999, Tripath licenses DPP to STMicroelectronics
Tripath nonexclusively licensed their digital amplification process for use in commodity markets. In return, the company obtained favorable wafer prices and wafer supply availability.
27 JUL 1999: Cirrus Logic Acquires AudioLogic; Gains Revolutionary PWM and Low-power Audio Technologies
AudioLogic has several patents on low power DSP and feedback techniques for digital amplifiers. It appears that AudioLogic's feedback scheme is being incorporated into Cirrus's amplifier. AudioLogic's low power DSP could be useful for portable applications but may not have much bearing on amplifier performance.
16 MAR 2000: Texas Instruments Acquires Danish Toccata Technology
Toccata developed the EquiBit PWM ampifier process as used by TacT in their $10,000 Millenium amplifier. TacT has a layman's description of the process and its benefits here.
02 OCT 2000: Cirrus Logic Expands PWM Technology Portfolio Through Purchase of Patents From B&W Loudspeakers
Cirrus will introduce 5 amplifier chips using sigma-delta techniques. Four will produce a 110-dB dynamic range, and the highest-power product will have a 120-dB range.
02 DEC 2000: TI releases 4-chip solution for digital audio.
TI is the only vendor currently making volume shipments of an ADA solution.
07 FEB 2001: STMicroelectronics gets exclusive license for Apogee's All-Digital DDX Amplifier Technology
As you can see, digital amplification techniques have become very popular purchases. Philips, MicroSemi, Linear Technologies, and National Semiconductor are not included here because they seem to be using older analog PWM control techniques and focusing on lower cost car and portable applications. STMico has Apogee's technology but has not announced any high power products yet.
It is odd that Analog Devices, who has a huge presence in audio codecs and DSP, has not made any announcements about a digital amplification strategy. Their SHARC DSPs are popular in audio products like the Sony TA-E9000 ES, Bose Lifestyle, and Denon AVR3300 home theater boxes. Their digital to analog converters and asynchronous sample rate converts are well respected. Unless they've got something in the labs, perhaps they should snap up Tripath or Korea's Pulsus. Tripath, being a mixed signal design, might prove too hard to put onto a single chip with a SHARC DSP.
TABLE -- MARKET CAPITALIZATION AS OF FEB 27, 2001
Why are large DSP and digital audio houses scrambling for digital amplification intellectual property? Maybe it's because they need it to compete for a piece of the projected $3 billion dollar market in two years time.
"PC audio applications represented the largest opportunity in 1998 with nearly half of the $1.55 billion market. According to market research firm Forward Concepts, consumer applications will represent the largest segment by 2003, with a compound annual growth rate of 24 percent and a total available market (TAM) of nearly $1.9 billion. The firm predicts that the overall market, including PC, consumer and professional applications, will represent an opportunity of more than a $3 billion by 2003."
If PC, consumer, professional, and high fidelity products can all use similar chips then the ADA vendors can target most of the audio market with a only a few chipsets. Can you say "economies of scale?" TI and Crystal already have fixed function cores specifically specifically for digital audio.
It's heartening to see that the large semiconductor companies feel that high fidelity reproduction is worth pursuing. The variety of digital amplifier techniques is also good news since it will give vendors a choice and allow market forces to weed out low fidelity approaches.
WHAT DOES ADA MEAN FOR HIGH FIDELITY AUDIO?
Some audio hobbyists will argue that ADA robs them of the chance to mix and match their favorite speakers and amplifiers. Also, some will undoubtedly prefer to use tube electronics. Perhaps the industry can accommodate these segments while still bringing the unprecedented benefits of ADA to High Fidelity's mainstream. The benefits of ADA in high fidelity include cheaper front-end electronics, higher fidelity input to speakers, and much more speaker design flexibility.
1. A penny saved....
No more sinking money into huge transformers, massive heat sinks, expensive crossover components, multiple chassis & power supplies, or exotic cables. In many high-end loudspeakers the inductors in the bass crossover alone can cost more than the digital audio chips we're talking about here.
ADA will replace many components of a traditional audio system and allow systems designers to shift budget to speaker drivers. Most designers will agree that using high quality drivers is money well spent. While ADA will be priced like any commodity computer chipset, good speaker drivers will remain high price items. Advanced magnetics, high precision mechanical assembly, limited markets, and hand fabrication will conspire to keep quality driver prices relatively dear.
Even if ADA only equaled the quality of our current rat's nest of preamps, amps, DAC's, cables, and crossovers, the increased expenditure on drivers alone would improve fidelity at any given system price point. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
2. Garbage In, Garbage Out
There's a school of thought that says that a speaker can only sound as good as the electronics feeding it. Replacing the speaker correction DSP, DAC, preamp, amplifer(s), and analog crossovers with a tightly integrated digital solution will provide higher signal fidelity at lower cost. With ADA there is no preamp, no analog parts variance errors, no analog parts drift, no compression in analog crossovers, less loop area for RFI problems, etc. Digital amplifiers are receiving good reviews, and they will only get better as the market focuses its resources.
Some high enders are so concerned with signal fidelity that they use outboard power supplies like the $1000 PS Audio Power Plant 300. These devices resynthesize an AC waveform from household AC to get a more constant and noise free voltage for sensitive electronics. Some digital amplifiers, like Cirrus's, monitor power supply voltage and take it into account when calculating the output. Yet another $1000 to be spent elsewhere in an ADA system since a $15 chipset will remove the need for the component.
3. Synergy is the speaker designer's friend.
Digital audio pioneer Meridian has been producing highly acclaimed active loudspeakers for years. Meridian's designs exploit the advantages of integrating DSP, DAC's, and (analog) power amps into the speakers. There are no exotic drivers or revolutionary amplifiers and yet their systems are some of the highest rated in the industry.
By performing all signal processing in the digital domain and designing each stage to work in tandem with the next, Meridian is able to extract a high level of performance from the components used. The same chips, amplifiers, and drivers used in more traditional stand-alone equipment would result in a system of lower performance at a higher cost.
ADA will allow companies without digital hardware expertise to perform similar feats but with digital amplification and at lower costs. Sony experimented with digital input audiophile speaker systems back in 1998, as did Dunlavy Audio at the 2000 Consumer Electronics Show. Dunlavy showed a modified version of their SC-IVa with S/PDIF digital inputs, digital crossovers, and a Spectron 600 Watt PWM amplifier for every driver.
There are many advantages in designing a multi-amplified system with active crossovers, some of which are listed here. There are extra perks to be gained from implementing some or all of an active system in the digital domain.
Digital amps are smaller, provide more power, produce less heat, and at a lower cost than their analog cousins. There's an inefficient driver you really like the sound of? Go ahead and use it. Want to biamplify or triamplify? Do it for the cost of a single analog amp.
Broader transducer choices for designers. DSPs can provide transparent EQ and crossover flexibility. Know of a driver with great time domain performance, but it's not completely flat? Flatten its frequency response with the DSP. Doing the same complicated EQ in the analog domain can be tricky.
expensive, and degrade sound quality. If ADA becomes pervasive, we may even see new drivers that tradeoff frequency response flatness for low non-linear distortion.
Crossovers impossible for analog designs are possible with digital crossovers. You need 4th order crossover slopes, but like the linear phase properties of 1st order designs? With digital FIR filters you can have both.
More decor friendly packaging could boost sales. ADA solutions could be designed with less boxes and cabling since there are fewer components. Speaker enclosures can be made more acceptable to consumers. Dedicated high power amplifiers can reduce bass cabinet size, and DSP delayed signals can align drivers' output without unusual baffle designs. Wireless networking such as IEEE-1394 could even remove the need for cables from the audio system to speakers with integral amplifiers.
With crossovers determined by coefficients in the DSP code, designers can test many more crossover shapes much faster than before. It's quicker to change coefficients than solder up a new board. Designers could A/B test crossover curves at the press of a button.
See Meridian's site for additional ideas on digital integration.
4. Upgradeable & Customizable speakers.
This could actually create a new trend in the industry. Currently designers spend (we hope) a lot of time measuring and listening to the crossovers before going into production. How many times have we seen a manufacturer release a Mk II, or a factory upgrade to change crossovers in production systems?
With DSP based crossovers, if a revision is warranted it could be published online and downloaded instantly at no cost to consumer or manufacturer. Perpetual Technologies has already started down this path with downloadable codes for their P-1A speaker correction DSP box. A company could treat the initial release of their speakers as a "beta" release. Hundreds of listeners in the field could then provide their input for the next crossover release.
RETHINKING POWER SUPPLIES
Say we go from the 50% efficiency of class AB amplifiers to 90% for our fancy digital PWM amps. We want 500 Watts RMS per channel so we have plenty of headroom. We still need fairly expensive transformers and capacitors for a 550+ Watt linear power supply.
Can't we use a switch mode power supply (SMPS) for its cheaper, smaller transformer and better regulation under load? Accepted in the mass market and pro audio worlds, switching supplies do not have much presence in the high fidelity segment. It's difficult to suppress switching noise, and switching RFI plays havoc with nearby circuits and wires. Implementing a low noise SMPS requires much more engineering expertise than a quiet linear supply. However, some recent integrated SMPS controller chips have made high quality designs much easier to implement.
Power semiconductor companies like International Rectifier are producing integrated solutions that incorporate "soft switching" logic such as Zero Voltage Switching (ZVS) and Zero Current Switching (ZCS). Both techniques have better power density, lower RFI, and reduce stress on the switching transistors improving reliability and product lifetimes. Integrated controllers can also provide Power Factor Correction (PFC), reducing AC current demand by 40%. The semiconductor companies are already developing versions of these components tailored for digital audio.
In September 2000, Cirrus logic and International Rectifier announced they are working together to optimize power supply design, and high power MOSFETS optimized for the PWM output stages of digital amplifiers. Crystal's digital amplifier chipset has a sync-lock to easily integrate with a switching power supply.
Clearly, the time for switching power supplies in high fidelity amplifiers has come. They have many sound quality advantages over linear supplies if implemented correctly, and can be cheaper. QSC Audio has been using a low EMI resonant switching supply they designed in-house for their acclaimed PowerLight and PLX professional amplifiers for years now. High-fidelity companies will start finding it possible and profitable to move to switching supplies since the new integrated SMPS controllers will lower costs and reduce required design expertise.
It may already be happening. TacT's high fidelity PWM amp uses a switching supply. The highly regarded model 10 & 12 analog amplifiers from Jeff Rowland use a ZVS/ZCS switching power supply. California Audio Lab's CL-2500 MCA also uses a ZVS design to squeeze 5 x 500 Watt channels into a single chassis. These are all expensive products, but there is no barrier to prevent the technology to trickle down to mid priced units.
Some advanced SMPS controllers use digital domain PWM control as do the audio amplifiers discussed in this article. After all, a regulated power supply is really just a type of amplifier. Digital amplifier designs may eventually integrate the PWM audio signal generation directly into the SMPS control logic, lowering the component count even further. Such designs would process the incoming AC power directly into the desired output signal without any conversion to DC. With this level of integration, it wouldn't be surprising to see a 300-Watt consumer ADA box for $ 300 or less in the next 5 years.
The increased demand for advanced SMPS designs is due to demand for higher efficiencies and lower EMI/RFI. New European RFI regulations, longer battery life, efficient motor controllers, and computer & networking equipment are just a few of the driving factors. The worldwide market for integrated SMPS controllers and power semiconductors will grow rapidly in the next few years, and will result in lower costs, better specs, and tighter integration. All consumer audio has to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
HIGH FIDELITY: THE ROAD TO ACTIVE DIGITAL LOUDSPEAKERS
Moore's Law and rapid commoditization will drop the prices of ADA solutions to a point where they will be far cheaper to implement than the traditional DAC, amplifier, and crossover combination. The high-end industry will have an inexpensive solution to every part of the reproduction chain but the speaker drivers and cabinetry.
So far it looks like Texas Instruments, Motorola, and Cirrus logic are in the lead for high fidelity ADA solutions. Don't count out consumer electronics powerhouses like Sony and Sharp, but their solutions are more likely to be used in-house. Things could get even more interesting if Analog Devices gets on the bandwagon this year.
To accelerate the acceptance of ADA in the high-end market, some enterprising manufacturer could produce a branded or OEM multi-channel ADA unit for use in digital active speakers. Add some filter design software and half the industry would be knocking on your door. QSC has the right idea with their DSP-3 module and filter design software for their analog amplifiers.
Speaker design houses could integrate ADA boxes into their designs, or they could be purchased separately by the consumer and the appropriate software downloaded from the speaker manufacturer's website. The convergence of digital audio makes it likely that this type of product will be developed by both amplifier companies and digital audio companies alike since the cost of adding one to the other will be low.
High end amplifier companies will need to enter the ADA ring as even mid-priced digital power amplifiers will challenge their fidelity. Some high-end companies will probably become nothing more than valued brand names and distribution channels for repackaged OEM amplifier modules. However, when everyone is using the same five amplifier chipsets the problem for companies will be differentiating themselves from the pack. Since high performance will be easier to achieve, manufacturers may try to add value with unique packaging and hardware/software features targeted at niche markets. For instance, ADA boxes with integrated high quality Analog to Digital Converters like might be a selling point for those with large record collections.
Luckily the coming transition to ADA won't force companies to abandon their current customer base. With the inclusion of an analog to digital converter ADA boxes could be used just like traditional amplifiers. Sharp is doing this with their SM-SX100. Manufacturers will be able to serve different audio market segments with the same electronics.
Most of the digital amplifier chipset vendors are building products at three power levels. Portable, consumer, and Professional / Audiophile. This is a sensible strategy as the market exists today. However, if the cost and quality of ADA electronics causes the audiophile market to transition to active speakers, there will be reduced demand for high power amplifiers. With multi-amped active speakers, high fidelity companies may end up piggybacking on the midpower mass market segment.
In multi-amped designs it is common to see every driver's amplifier under 100 Watts. A 30 Watt module, bridged to provide 60 Watts for a driver would satisfy many active driver requirements. With clipping distortion in digital amplifiers mitigated by transparent signal processing, designers will be able to size the system's amplifiers better, and without the risk of expensive warranty repairs for blown drivers. Mid-power mass-market modules could offer the incremental cost savings of high volume parts.
With the DSP power and programmability of consumer products like Perpetual Tech's P-1A and Sony's TA-E9000 ES, and innovation from pro audio companies like QSC we're already halfway to high quality ADA active speakers. We can't be sure exactly how events will play out, but high fidelity enthusiasts have a lot to look forward to in the years ahead.
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The next quantum leap in fidelity is now on the horizon. Make yourself familiar with the concept of the direct digital chain. You are going to be hearing a lot about it. In the digital realm, analog middlemen are going to be eliminated to the great benefit of fidelity. There are three levels of audio system sophistication of interest to anyone reading this.
The first level involves a largely analog signal path which either originates as analog in a turntable or as digital in a CD player and is converted (A to D) to an analog signal. It then goes through interconnects to the pre-amp, is processed and passed through interconnects to the amp where the signal goes through 2 to 4 gain stages and feedback loops emerging as a power signal passing through speaker cables and ends up in the loudspeakers where it passes through passive crossovers consisting of large inductors, capacitors and resistors. A higher level system uses bi-amping and electronic crossovers to replace the passive crossovers for distinctly superior results.
The third level, and the one that offers a quantum leap in fidelity is now starting to gel. It will take a digital signal right to the loudspeakers where it will be equalized and crossed over in the digital domain and then amplified in digital amplifiers, one for each transducer. The amp output will then travel between 10 and 20 inches along internal speaker wire until it reaches the actual loudspeaker driver.
In short, no losses, no distortions until the signal is turned into analog power within the digital amp. The digital amp, itself serving as the D to A converter will turn the signal into speaker driving current in a single gain stage as opposed to 2 to 4 gain stages in conventional amps. There are no negative feedback loops.
The following components and their noise, distortion and phase anomalies are thereby eliminated from the audio signal path:
D to A converters pre-amps at least 2 sets of interconnects speaker cables passive or active crossovers 1 to 3 amplifier gain stages feed back loops.
There is a vast improvement in the noise floor and in phase coherency. How important is this? In our own listening sessions and in discussions with others in the industry, it became very clear that the sound improvement is much greater than that achieved by going from 44kHz/16 bit CD to either DVD Audio or SACD. The higher resolution formats are distinctly better but you need a good system, well set up, to really appreciate the improvement.
The direct digital chain will knock the socks off any listener, experienced or novice (actually, if you compare the direct digital chain with the factory direct concept, there are quite a few similarities). Effective, seamless room equalization may not arrive at the same time as the rest of the digital chain but it is coming as well.
Upgrading Newform loudspeakers when the time comes will be straight forward and we plan to offer kits for an easy conversion. E-mail for details. A lot of heavy industry types are working on this so look for it to become commonplace in 2 to 3 years.
The bottom line is, don't spend a great deal of money on amplifiers or pre-amps.
DIGITAL AMPLIFIER MANUFACTURERS
DIGITAL PROCESSOR MANUFACTURERS
Moore's Law Catches up with High Fidelity Audio
ACOUSTIC BENEFITS OF VIDEO PROJECTORS
Many of the first video enthusiasts came from the ranks of audiophiles. Equipment and performance driven they expanded their fascination of music reproduction to include the whole home entertainment spectrum. This meant taking a TV and plunking it down in between their carefully placed hifi loudspeakers.
Of course, it must be noted that many budding videophiles were sufficiently wellheeled to allow them to have a dedicated room for both music and home theater. They didn't even try to achieve great sound in their home theater room because the equipment of the day and the soundtracks were way, way below audiophile standards.
That part at least has changed. Although still variable, many movie soundtracks now boast excellent acoustics and dare I say it, true hifi sound. And the equipment is now fully on a par with the best from the music 2 channel world. Except, perhaps, a tube surround sound processor is not available. (That's an audiophile joke.)
Back to dropping a big TV into a carefully tuned music system. In a word: disaster. The soundstage becomes much more two dimensional and both horizontal and depth focus significantly degrade. Also, timbre is slightly to moderately changed. There is no good news here except that when the TV was on it provided enough of a distraction to make the flaws less noticeable.
Why is a TV an acoustic nightmare? A tube or rear projection TV from an acoustic point of view is a large box consisting of reflective and resonating panels and sharp corners. Instead of the generous space in which the speakers were placed with a wall well behind them, they find themselves roughly on the same plane with this large reflective surface. Effectively now each speaker is in a bit of an alcove. The typical rear projection TV with room for its cabling in the rear, effectively moves the wall forward 2 ½ to 3 feet. That is a big loss of space. Anyone still living with a large TV should place the speakers as far ahead of the plane of the TV as possible.
Where once the sound radiated out from the speakers in a an uninterrupted hemispheric pattern, the side wave now encounters the TV chassis and reflects both back towards the speaker and forward toward the listener. These delayed waves arrive shortly after the main direct wave from the speaker. This multiple arrival time smears the soundstage focus.
Because the reflective surfaces of the TV are not 100% solid, they are more reflective for some frequencies than for others. Thin plastic, glass and wood panels are less of an obstacle to low frequencies than they are to high frequencies so they reflect more highs than they do lows. Hence there is a slight tonal imbalance introduced as well.
Those same thin panels move with the sound that hits them and once moving don't stop once the music does. They now have a (short) life of their own. Tap on any panel of your TV and listen to it's individual sound. This tone is playing (excited by the soundwaves from your main speakers, sub etc.) when your sound system is on and each panel speaks with a different voice. A low level cacophony. TVs are simply not designed with any thought of acoustic performance.
The British picked up on this early which is why, in a high end British audio shop, there was only one pair of speakers in the room at any one time. If you wanted to listen to another pair, the first were removed and the second brought in. This eliminated the effects of having a set of large boxes upsetting the sound from the working speakers. A large screen RPTV is like having several sets of large speakers at the front of the room.
The effects are not subtle once you have tried it with and without and you'll be aware the situation is less than ideal until you get rid of the problem. With our own Ribbons, which extend above the top of most RPTVs, standing up will reveal a tremendous depth of soundstage and openness while sitting down the sound stage flattens out and the sound closes up. Very distinct and completely unavoidable even with damping on the sides of the TV cabinet to somewhat reduce the effect.
Front projectors change all of this. Essentially, they and the screens they project onto are acoustically invisible and return the room to it's state before the arrival of the 3 cubic meters of living surfaces which is a rear projection TV. They give the speakers space and act much the same as the wall behind them. If video screen material is acoustically reflective, it must be at a vanishing level and if the screens resonate (I suppose everything does at some point) it must be imperceptible and probably un-measurable. Video screens suspended several inches off the wall simply get out of the way of the proper and natural sound propagation.
The bottom line is that front projectors give you your music back. We have long maintained that in the future a great music system will be a great home theater system with the video switched off. Despite an acoustically rough start for home theater, front projectors have now made that ideal an attainable reality for the great majority of music and video enthusiasts.
THE CHANGING FACE OF HIFI HOME THEATER
It may seem that music is being left behind in the rush to cram every conceivable piece of electronic gear, reproducing every format the corporate marketing wizards can conjure up into the "home entertainment room". Certainly music and fidelity have been casualties in the early days of home theater.
However, the clear trend is back to superb music. This may be happening more by accident than by design but over the next few years, the reproduction of music in the home will be dramatically enhanced by a number of technical advances.
Number one is the digital chain (link). This is here now in the form of the Tact amps and preamps with DSP crossover and room correction. In combination with excellent drivers and the correct radiation pattern, (digital technology won't correct for everything!) a huge step forward in fidelity is guaranteed for any system. Being in the digital domain, prices can only go down and performance can only go up. With the Tact's superb current level of performance, it is safe to say that although prices will go down dramatically with digital advances, performance will increase in only modest increments.
Newform had wanted to produce our own system by this time but the delays at the major chip companies plus the arrival of the OEM/DSP crossover capability in the Tact amplifiers has allowed us to go digital now with a level of sophistication we could not have achieved ourselves. Ditto Onkyo and Emotiva.
The second major breakthrough is the arrival of affordable, high performance front projectors. Many great hifi systems have had their musical potential severely reduced by the addition of large rear projection TVs in between the main loudspeakers. Read "The Acoustic Advantages of Front Projectors" for a more detailed discussion but front projectors restore the acoustics of a hifi only room to pre-RPTV levels. You can now have both superb music reproduction and great video capability in one, no-compromise, system. Upgrade your video capability and get your music back for free.
Looking at these small, light video projectors, one really has to wonder just what they are going to cost when the factories really crank up production. Ditto digital amps and processors. Future cost may not be precisely definable but the trend is certainly clear. Advances in many areas are converging to make the reproduction of music in the home better, easier and cheaper. High fidelity strikes back!
Not to be forgotten is the music itself. While media focus has been on the new formats, SACD and DVD audio, the lowly CD has come a long way as well. Recording techniques are improving rapidly and so is our understanding of how to get the most out of the 16 bit, 44kHz format. Up sampling, time correction and buffering are all producing large improvements in sound quality to the point where the higher resolution formats may almost be caught from behind. Not quite maybe but the best CD material will raise a light sweat on the forehead of any of the new formats.
Our buying advice has really not changed in the past 5 years. Due to the imminent arrival of the digital chain, don't spend more than you need to on conventional technology. Since the imminent has actually arrived in the form of the Tact system and affordable front projectors, continue to pick your spots with an eye to the future when buying. It is now possible to clearly see the trend of future developments in both audio and home theater.
You can take your time and get it right because technology is driving the changes in high fidelity in the right direction. Delays in decision making will result in better available choices when you do decide to commit. Just like buying a computer. By the time you decide to get down off the fence and do something, a faster model will pass you before you can turn the key in the ignition.
The factory direct business model is a double edged sword. On one hand, there are strong advantages to selling direct to the final customer. At least one middleman (the dealer) is eliminated. This is beneficial from both cost and communication standpoints.
On the other hand, it takes more work by the customer to make such a purchase. More research, more discussion and more thought. In most cases customers won't actually see (or hear) what they are buying until it arrives at their door. And oh yes, more uncertainty!
What are the numbers behind the two methods?
In typical consumer electronics retail distribution the cost to manufacture the product is usually between 1/5 and 1/8 the retail list price. In the factory direct model, those figures would be between 1/3 and ½ the final selling price. In a retail channel, the dealer takes between 30% and 80% margin depending on the brand and the product type. Distributors, if involved, add their own costs.
There is no dealer in the factory direct model but this type of business must still maintain a customer interface if only in the form of a phone or email presence. Also, factory direct operations usually have lower volumes so unit production costs are higher.
But there is more to retail selling than just the store overhead. Stores carry product that consumers ask for. In order to create that demand, there is a large overhead cost in advertising and marketing. Factory direct operations do not create demand, they make themselves visible.
This is an important distinction because it defines who your market is. Retail selling is done largely to people who have to be told what to buy. They are told in ads, reviews and by salesmen on the floor. Factory direct buying is done by people who know what they want and do their research in order to find a suitable product.
There are vastly more people who can only buy retail than people who have the inclination and the experience to buy factory direct. Factory direct will therefore remain for niche products sold to informed customers. These niche products have very little chance of expanding into mainstream distribution due to the cost inflation which would have to occur.
Even allowing a great deal of leeway for the economies of production which would accompany much higher volume, the extra layers of cost and complexity involved in distribution would sink most specialty products. It might be possible to ship the product but it is extremely difficult to deliver, on the retail floor, the product expertise that went with it at the factory.
The bottom line is, buying factory direct can be a great way to go and perhaps the only way to go if you know what you want and what you want is a unique, high performance product at an affordable price.
The term "sweet spot" in audio refers to the area in which the listener can move their head without experiencing large changes in the character of the sound.
Generally, the larger the sweet spot the better but for some loudspeakers, like large planars (electrostatics and ribbon panels), the sweet spot can be extremely small, often referred to as "head-in-a-vice" listening. This is because one small movement from the ideal listening position (and all rooms and loudspeaker setups have an ideal spot) yields a dramatically different sound. This is disconcerting and it also limits the high quality listening area to one person.
Newform's wide dispersion Ribbon speakers produce a large sweet spot that typically can accommodate 3 listeners on a couch. This is one of the reasons very few of our customers feel the need to use a center channel speaker for either home theater or music.
With our new Coaxial Ribbon LineSource speaker technology (patent applied for) the sweetspot has grown even larger. No loudspeaker technology offers the room coverage of this breakthrough innovation. The room reflections and modes are minimized so there is far less soundwave interference to generate uneven response and the coverage becomes very even over a large area. Very few rooms will require more than 4 loudspeakers for home theater i.e. 4.1 is the no-compromise solution. (The .1 is the subwoofer.)
Bottom line - easier audio system setup with or without room correction, fewer speakers, more relaxed listening, higher fidelity, more musical experience.
1. HEAD IN A VICE SWEET SPOT
2. NEWFORM TYPICAL SWEET SPOT
3. NEWFORM COAXIAL RIBBON LINESOURCE SWEET SPOT
There will always be only one best spot, but a large sweet spot allows the listener(s) to move around the listening area with very small changes in timbre and soundstage stablility
Assembly consists of taking the mid-bass enclosures out of the cartons, attaching the bases and setting them up. For the smaller speakers, no assembly is required as the Ribbons are attached to the bass enclosures. For the systems using the R30 and R45 Ribbons, the Ribbons are packaged separately and must be bolted onto the brackets on the top of the mid-bass enclosures. This is done by first inserting the two smaller bolts bottom rear of the Ribbon structure and sliding their heads into the keyhole slots in the bracket. These smaller bolts do not have to be tight as they are there for alignment and stability. The larger bolt should then be inserted and tightened finger tight. A light twist with the Allen key (included) will complete the mechanical installation. Connect the Nordost interconnects from the binding posts on the top of the enclosure to those on the back of the Ribbon and installation is complete. Warning, the Ribbons are heavy and smooth so handle with care to avoid dropping them or putting pressure on the screen. Do Not Move the Speakers with heavy R45 or R30 Ribbons attached as they may Topple Over.
SPEAKER PLACEMENT AND ROOM SETUP
After the loudspeakers themselves, proper placement in the listening room is the most important factor in your listening pleasure. Due to their exceptionally wide and consistent horizontal dispersion, Newform Ribbons are capable of presenting both unsurpassed soundstage depth and focus. The best room setup sacrifices the least of their potential.
THE IDEAL SCENARIO
Under ideal circumstances, the bass response will be tight and deep and the soundstage will exist in three dimensions with precise 3D location of all of the music sources. The soundstage will extend to the sides of the loudspeakers themselves and the speakers will "disappear".
ROOM PLACEMENT ISSUES
Bass response will vary with the distance between the speakers and the back and side walls. Bass depth and output will be reinforced by backing the speakers into corners or up against the back wall. Such locations typically produce too much bass and sacrifice depth of image. Corner placement may also degrade the horizontal image.
Soundstage has three variable components; breadth, depth and focus of image. There should be an even distribution of sound across the soundstage with no holes in the centre (i.e. where sound can be distinctly heard to be coming from the individual left and right speakers). Depth of image is usually the hardest to achieve but when it is achieved, musical sources extend back into space behind the speakers. The curtain goes up! The precision of the location of the instruments within the soundstage should develop as the horizontal and depth properties are improved. Generally speaking, the further out from the front wall, the greater the soundstage depth. Consider moving them out for critical listening sessions when it is not possible to have them out in the room all the time. The depth effect is highly variable from room to room. As always, experiment.
Newform Ribbon Series Loudspeakers were originally designed for the seated listener. However, given the length of some of our Ribbons, sound quality will not change significantly from the seated to the standing position as long as the listener's head is kept in the strata of the Ribbon. When the listener’s head is significantly above or below the plane of the Ribbon drivers, high frequencies will be reduced. If you like to walk around when listening, then the R645v3 or stacked Coaxial Ribbon LineSources should be considered.
Strong wall reflections can degrade the soundstage but fortunately the solutions are simple. A strategically placed plant, bookcase, tapestry etc., will reduce sidewall reflections. Make sure both sides of the room are as balanced as possible. With all Newforms, the best results are usually obtained with the speakers facing directly forward. Toeing in the speakers results in less information being reflected off the side walls which can be beneficial in some rooms. Toe in may also be necessary if the listening position is close to the speakers. The advice above holds true for most loudspeakers. Newforms are actually easier to setup than most due to the lack of ceiling bounce and rear wave.
Do you think you have a soft (acoustically absorbent) room because of the carpets and couches? The Ribbon sees the walls above the 2 foot level. Walk around the room clapping your hands to judge the echo. If you get lots of it, you will have to take greater care in the room setup.
Placing subs in close proximity to the listening seat often reduces room modes.
Corner placement and using both a front and rear subs may also reduce strong modes. 4 subs is the ideal.
Allow 3 weeks for the Ribbons to break in but you should notice a significant difference in 3 days.
Avoid strong rear reflections.
Don’t over damp the room. Keep it simple.
Make sure the ribbons cover the seated listener’s ear.
Working with one subwoofer? Put the sub in the listening seat and then walk around the room to find where the bass is the best. Try sub there.
Ideally the surrounds should be behind the plane of the listener so they aren’t pointing in from the sides.
Our goal is to deliver a true high fidelity experience in your room quickly and easily. This will avoid frustration and unnecessary furniture movement. Virtually any room can produce good sound with the right setup. The following diagrams will assist you in achieving optimal sound performance.
BASIC SETUP RULES
Strong reflections foul the soundstage and upset tonal balance and must be avoided whether from the front, side or rear wall. This can be accomplished by moving the speakers away from the walls and/or putting something on the walls, bookshelf, tapestry, plant etc. to break up the reflecting wave. Toe-in can also be used. Once the reflected waves are in balance the soundstage will become very well defined with excellent depth and focus. Bass becomes stronger and usually less well defined as the speakers are moved toward the walls and corners. As they are moved toward the listening position, these tendencies are reversed. Changes of as little as several inches can produce dramatically different results. Your room is unique. The key to success is experimentation and simplicity.
WHY THE EXAMPLES WORK
1. This large rectangular room with no obstructions allows the speakers to be moved well away from the front and side walls and the listening seat is well forward of the rear wall. The reflections are weak and well delayed relative to the direct wave.
2a. Typical apartment setups can be done like this or as per 2b. The speakers have plenty of air and the right side wall is treated in some fashion.
2b. This setup quite a bit of air but requires a large amount of sound absorbent material behind the listeners head to damp the reflected rear wave.
3. Going diagonally across a room breaks up the reflections and gives an excellent soundstage in what otherwise would be a very compromised installation. No wall treatment was used but the speakers were toed in.
4. Placed on either side of a large opening into another room, depth of soundstage is excellent due to a weak front reflection and room re-arrangement is minimal. Side walls need some treatment (plant and bookcase, etc.).
5. If you are set up well for stereo, you can be just as well set up for home theater if you can locate the rear speakers behind and off to the side of the seating position. The object here is to create an enveloping soundfield as opposed to being blasted with noise from the four corners of the room. Helpful, expert advice is only as far away as your telephone, fax or computer keyboard. You know your room and we know our loudspeakers. Let’s talk!
SUGGESTED HOME THEATRE SYSTEMS
For a world-class home theatre system depending on the room, one of the following configurations should be ideal:
MEDIUM TO LARGE ROOMS
1. 4 x R630 (add a first-class sub-woofer)
2. 2 x R645 up front
2 x R630 in the rear
(add a first-class sub-woofer for the bottom half octave)
3. 2 x Stacked Coaxial Ribbon LineSource modules
4. 2 x Ribbon Pyramid
SMALL TO MEDIUM ROOMS
1. 2 x R630 and sub-woofer
2 x LineSource Modules
2. 4 x LineSource Modules and sub-woofer
Direct support from the designer is available. Make use of our expertise.
PLAN YOUR ROOM
Why settle for a poor seat in your own theatre? Next to the loudspeakers themselves, proper room setup is the most important factor in the listening experience. Tell us a little something about your room and we will help you achieve the best results.
You will need to print the room planner and complete the Room Planner and then either fax (705-835-0081) or better yet, email your completed sketch pdf.
You will need: A measuring tape and 15 minutes. The spacing of the grid lines is meant to be one square = 1 foot. Draw in the outline of your room to the nearest foot. Sketch in doors, windows, major furniture, large plants etc. Indicate what each side wall is made of. Feel free to add your own comments and make your own specific answers.
First, print this page.
Then, you will need: A measuring tape and 15 minutes. The spacing of the grid lines is meant to be one square = 1 foot. Draw in the outline of your room to the nearest foot. Sketch in doors, windows, major furniture, large plants etc. Indicate what each side wall is made of.
Next, fill in the questionnaire that follows, feel free to add your own comments and make your own specific answers.
GREAT ROOM CORRECTION
The companies that do room correction the best are the companies that have been at it the longest with the most expensive gear. Lyngdorf, Meridian, Tact, DEQX and Rives are about it for the elite of the resonance tamers.
But there has been a great deal of progress in this field in mass market products. Courtesy of Audyssey room correction, this capability can be installed in mid-fi receivers for just a few dollars. This greatly lowers the bar for admission to the benefits of room correction. Not only is the basic capability accessible, it is now of a very high sonic quality with no perceptible loss in transparency to offset the gain in smooth response and phase correction.
Room correction will not make up for a terrible room or a very poor placement of speakers or bad speakers but it can make a well thought out system sound excellent.
At this point in time, room correction has crossed the threshold from being a costly crutch for a bad stereo system to being an asset to any high fidelity sound system regardless of cost.
Receivers are the Swiss army knives of audio components. They do almost everything except move air. Long shunned by audiophiles for their inferior sonic quality, receivers of late have been gaining ground on their separate component cousins.
One large reason for this is the increasing prevalence of digital in the audio chain. Receivers are typically made by large companies with the resources to take on digital engineering and do it right. Getting it right in digital in a mass produced product does not cost nearly as much as it does in analog.
Conversely, the smaller high end companies are typically well grounded in the analog domain and making the switch to, or integrating digital research and engineering into their operations is virtually impossible on an economic basis. How much it cost Texas Instruments to develop their digital amp chips isn't known but but Donald Trump could probably retire on it. Other chip companies have spent upwards of $30 million with no marketable result.
The Panasonic receivers use the TI chipset resulting in the sound quality/price ratio we were trumpeting several years ago. Once the chipset has been developed, it still takes a major player (Panasonic/Matsushita with over 250,000 employees) to incorporate a complete digital product offering.
Other large companies such as Sony and Yamaha now have digital amp receivers with digital chipsets of their own while some companies use Tripath or ICE (by B&O amplifier modules. The net effect is to give them a big boost in closing the huge gap in sound quality between themselves and the best of the separate component manufacturers. Pioneer has chosen to stay with analog amps and upped it’s game by sensing the temperature of each output transistor and adjusting the bias accordingly.
Onkyo (and Integra) has long been the standard by which receiver amplifier sections have been measured but the truth is the top end models of many brands sound extremely good.
Besides the fidelity of the basic signal, the other well developed area of interest for audiophiles is room correction. Taking the major room problems out of the equation is a huge step forward for overall audio performance. There has been a price to pay for this in terms of transparency in the past but with each new implementation, this seems to fade more into the distance. The Audyssey system now incorporated in many receivers has worked extremely well in the systems we've worked with and there has been no sacrifice in transparency.
Good room correction has been very expensive to do in the past and perhaps the top end systems are better but any improvement will cost a great deal more. Lyngdorf, Meridian, Tact, DEQX and Rives are about it for the high end and going with any of these equipment makers will add many thousands of dollars on to the total cost of your system.
Small note. The greatest benefits of room correction have always been in small to medium sized rooms. In very large rooms or rooms with large openings, any room correction system has increasing trouble with the increasingly long reverberation times. This is the case with most systems but the Pioneer does address this in their system - allowing for time sensitivity to be varied.
Edge Audio Hyperion 12 Super performance for $599US. Buy it direct.
HSU Great reputation for quality bang (or boom) for the buck - buy them factory direct
Vandersteen Three 8" drivers in this sub make it a design that we really like. Buy it from their dealer base.
Paradigm Buy any Paradigm sub over $600 and you have excellent performance guaranteed and great value. Buy it through their dealer base.
Atak subs - simple cabinets, killer drivers and cheap enough to go with a distributed subwoofer system.