Quote “ .. In the 5 years I’ve since I got the 645s and the Behringer/Panasonic package, I’ve spent all of my money on music. I’m off the audiophile treadmill!”
Get off the audiophile treadmill!
Experimenting with different components, system configurations and room layouts has always been part of the high fidelity hobby. But the core of the hobby is music and enjoying listening to it regardless of the state of your system. Stereo and home theater sound systems always have a number of weakness in them. These can stem both from the music reproduction chain behind the speaker diaphragms and from the listening environment in front of the diaphragms.
The electrical chain starts with power cords and ends up with the loudspeaker crossovers. Keeping noise out of the system and avoiding format changes (digital to analog and visa versa) are the main issues here. The old concept of matching components, so important in the days of tubes and analog devices, is something for the scrapheap as finding two digital components with offsetting design problems is highly unlikely.
Where the electrical response stops, the acoustic response begins and room/speaker interactions are paramount.
So the first order of business is identifying a problem and the second is reducing it. In the audiophile world, anything less than perceptually perfect can be described as a problem. In reality, it is simply sub-optimal. Improvements are always possible. Perfection is unachievable.
There are those who will purchase $20,000 cd players to improve their systems. Hopefully they will have dealt with the major listening room/speaker interactions first. Very, very close to the same sound quality can be had from a good $400 DVD player as long as the digital outputs are used. In some cases, the most expensive products lag the cheaper mass produced units as demonstrated in a number of carefully conducted lab tests. The last 2% of high fidelity can be hard to nail down and trying is very expensive.
But even assuming top $ means top performance, the digital differences are small. Analog outputs are another story - generally the high end gear is way ahead of the cheaper stuff - but do you really need to use analog outputs? The $19,600 difference can be much better spent on room treatments, amplifiers, loudspeakers and digital crossovers - the areas with the largest errors and where the greatest improvements can be made.
Upgrading your system to accommodate the playback of higher resolution formats will also produce a large improvement although these formats are anything but convenient or consistent at the moment. Improvements are being made however and now upsampling high resolution format music servers are dropping in price. No surprise, they are digital and the price/performance ratio and the friendliness factor are moving in the audiophiles’ favour.
Read our pages on Acoustic Room Treatments and Audiophile System Strategy. The key is to recognise where the opportunities for the largest improvements in sound can be derived. Understand your room and it’s fundamental acoustic properties and then pick loudspeakers which will best complement those properties.
At some point in time, all systems will incorporate room correction and digital crossovers. Understand what a digital crossover and room correction can do for you in your room with your loudspeakers. Digital correction of room issues and some loudspeaker flaws can provide very large benefits with few acoustic drawbacks.
But room correction and digital crossovers will not cure all ills. Dispersion mismatches with the room, dynamic limitations, diffraction and high levels of distortion are fundamental problems which will simply not be cured by digital means.
However, there is a price to be paid in system complexity when installing a digital crossover. Double the amplifier count is required and, once you get into home theater, the system becomes basically unmanageable for the less than technically devoted. We have great things to say about the Behringer DCX 2496 digital crossover and the DEQX in a stereo system but these are awkward to incorporate into a multi-channel setup.
The Tact Audio amplifiers with digital crossovers built in are an obvious solution to this complexity (one stereo amplifier per channel would be required) but they cost over $4000 each. However, a Tact amplifier ( or other world class amp with digital crossover) in every corner is something which will do a great deal for any audio system. And it is possible to spend a far more money on far less effective approaches.
The sonic advantages of digital crossovers are very substantial both in terms of eliminating the inherent shortcomings of the passive crossovers (large inductors, capacitors and resistors) in loudspeakers and in extremely fine tuning speaker response. They offer precision and flexibility that passive crossovers simply can’t approach.
Digital crossovers also offer some basic room correction with no loss (to our ears) in transparency. Rather than complete spectrum treatment, digital crossovers, by taking out the 2 or 3 worst bumps or dips, can dramatically improve system spectral balance.
Room correction devices flatten response and possibly also add phase correction at the expense of some transparency. Transparency loss - very noticeable in early systems - has been dramatically reduced in recent years even in the cheaper receivers. However, some still remains.
Basically, the less processing the better but if you have room problems and lack the means to tackle them directly, room correction can be a very large overall plus.
On the electrical end, every component performs better when fed clean power and when static is reduced and grounding is properly done. Ground loops result in a loss of dynamics and transparency which can be fairly dramatic but it can sneak up and be hard to identify.
Special electrical circuits and power conditioners can deal with many problems but listen to the power conditioners in your system before buying as some can actually degrade sound quality. High end power cables actually can offer audible improvements but they are expensive.
Expensive digital cables are highly questionable as are extremely expensive speaker cables. Some of these can cost more than the digital crossover/extra amplifier route which offer vastly higher fidelity returns.
Last but not least, many systems built up over the years have become very complex. Try simple. Unplug and disconnect the unnecessary, particularly processing and switching devices, and see what you can hear.
Most home theater systems with Newform Ribbon systems sound better without centre channels. We also hear this from other high end speaker manufacturers. Try your system without the center channel.
Less can be more and higher profits for the equipment vendors do not automatically mean higher fidelity for you. You got into this hobby for the music didn’t you? Experiment on faith. Buy on results. Relax. The latest and the best won’t be the latest by the time you walk out the door and it won’t be the best for much longer.
Don’t allow fascination and then frustration with various components to interfere with your connection to the music.
Loudspeakers Unsurpassed in Soundstage, Transparency, Detail and Dynamics in High End Stereo and Home Theater Systems