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The Audiophile

-newetoy staff

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An Audiophile’s Perspective
In the world of home audio, the audio aficionados’ debate of home theater equipment is inevitable, frequent, and passionate. Arguments are made. Sides are taken. Audio religion is rampant. Many audiophiles spend all day on audio forums arguing about which audio-video receivers (AVR) and power amplifiers sound the best, which speakers sound the best, and making recommendations to those seeking advice. I will offer my perspective on speakers, subwoofers, amplifiers, AVR, pre-pros, DAC, and wires based on my personal audio experience over the years.

My Experience
I’ve been an audiophile for over 20 years. My current tower speakers, bookshelf speakers, and subwoofers collection inside my house includes the 1) Revel Salon2, 2) B&W 802D2, 3) Linkwitz Orion 3, 4) KEF Reference 201/2, 5) TAD 2201, 6) Philharmonic 3, 7) Focal 826V, 8) Dynaudio X32, 9) ATC SCM7, 10) Funk Audio 18.0, 11) RBH SX-1010N, and 12) Velodyne SC600 IF/IC. My current pre-pro (preamp-processor) is the Denon AVP-A1HDCI. My current AVR is the Denon AVR-5308CI and AVR-3312CI. My current amps include ATI AT3005, AT 3002, AT2004, AT6012. My current speaker wires are the Kimber Kable 8TC. I also use two Adcom speaker selectors to switch speakers. Using the Denon’s quick select function, I have volume level matched the speakers. I want to emphasize the 3 words “volume level match” and will come back to this later.

I have also auditioned speakers from Krell, Magnepan, Martin Logan, Definitive Technology, GoldenEar, Klipsch, Paradigm, PSB, Monitor Audio, Wilson Audio, Pioneer, Sony, Polk, NHT, JBL, Yamaha, and a few other speakers using amps, preamps, and processors from Mark Levinson, Krell, Bryston, McIntosh, Classe, NAD, Parasound, Outlaw, Emotiva, Acurus, and a few others. I’ve used speaker & audio cables from Audioquest, Kimber Kable, Vampire Wire, Monster, Blue Jeans Cable, and a few others. I’ve used high-end CD players & universal players from Denon and Oppo.

I used to attend live classical music symphonies and concertos as well as some rock and jazz concerts. I think for the most part that I have walked the walk in terms of my home audio experience.

The Loudspeakers
Speakers and subwoofers (subs) are unequivocally the most important aspect of the home audio food chain. The subs need to reproduce the tight punchy powerful yet musical bass from 20 Hz – 80 Hz (subwoofer driver), while the speakers need to reproduce the potent mid-upper bass from 80 Hz – 250 Hz (woofer driver), the accurate crystal clear midrange from 250 Hz-2 kHz (midrange driver), and the smooth non-fatiguing treble (tweeter driver) from 2 kHz – 20 kHz. That’s no easy task if all requirements are to be met.

Audiophiles are heavy into audio religion. We talk about the speaker’s driver materials like aluminum tweeter, magnesium tweeter, beryllium tweeter, diamond tweeter, soft dome tweeter, metal tweeter, horn tweeter, waive-guide, etc. Many even claim they can hear the difference among the driver materials. We talk about driver sizes and number of drivers on the speakers. Some of us are more “scientific” and we talk about speaker measurements (like frequency responses) and double-blinded studies on speakers. For example, you take 100 people and have them blindly listen to speaker A vs. speaker B with volume level matching and then let them pick which speakers sound the best to them. Assuming the study is well conducted, If 80 people out of 100 favor speaker A without knowing the brand, model, price, aesthetic of the speaker, would you be convinced that speaker A is better than speaker B? What if you repeat the study 5 more times with 500 different people and the results were the same – that 80% of all people favor speaker A over speaker B? And then retrospectively find out that speaker A has an accurate average on-axis frequency response of +/-1dB or +/-2dB with a smooth off-axis frequency response, while speaker B has an inaccurate average on-axis frequency response of +/-6dB or +/-10dB with an uneven off-axis frequency response? You could then deduct that speakers with accurate average frequency responses would be preferred over speakers with inaccurate frequency responses most of the time.

There have been many published double-blinded studies on speakers. And this is exactly their findings – that speakers that measure accurately (average frequency responses less than +/-3dB) tend to be preferred over speakers that measure inaccurately (more than +/-3dB). So the +/-3dB is about “average”. Any number smaller is accurate, any number bigger is inaccurate.

So what’s the take-home message for loudspeakers? How do you know if you are the “80%” or the “20%”? It’s not about which speaker is more accurate. It’s about which speaker you prefer more. So the best way to know for sure is to audition the speakers in your own home. Make sure the seller, store, or dealer has a good return policy. Some online retailers like NHT and Aperion offer free shipping both ways so you don’t pay shipping if you don’t like their speakers. Listening to speakers at dealers and stores may not always be optimal. The environment and setup of the speakers are very important. Some speakers may sound great at stores, but sound mediocre in your own home and vice versa. But if you must buy without auditioning first, then it is prudent to buy speakers that measure accurately. The odds will be in your favor. Accurate speakers are usually speakers from brands like Revel, KEF, RBH, NHT, Boston Acoustics, Infinity, Pioneer, JBL, PSB, Paradigm, Aperion, Salk, Philharmonics, and Ascend. I would avoid Bose because of their inaccurate speakers (+/-12dB frequency response) and expensive price tags. In fact a $60 NHT SuperZero bookshelf speaker will sound better than any Bose speaker.

The Subwoofer
The job of the subwoofer is to reproduce that bass frequency from 20Hz-80Hz accurately, which is measured as distortion (THD) of no more than 10%. As long as the 10% THD is met, the biggest difference among subs is their output capability. Music bass is usually from 30Hz-80Hz, while movie bass is from 20Hz-30Hz. Some subs can output an average of 90dB from 20Hz-80Hz, while some can output 120dB. Unlike speakers, most people don’t even need to audition subwoofers. And unlike speakers, you don’t need the subwoofer brand to be the same as your speakers. For example, you can buy NHT speakers with HSU subwoofers. Many people want to “feel” the bass. They want their walls to shake. If you want wall-shaking subs, then buy subs that can output 110dB or more. I recommend subs from Funk Audio, RBH, Rythmik, SVS, HSU, and PSA. Other subs that may not be as earth-shattering, but still produce good bass include NHT and Aperion subs. Subs like Velodyne, JL Audio, REL, Revel, B&W, and KEF subs may also sound very good, but they are usually overpriced and usually don’t perform as well as the likes of Rythmik, SVS, HSU, etc. Also, just because your subs are capable of shaking your house does not mean you have to let them – you can always turn down the subwoofer volume level.

Towers vs. Bookshelf
The goal of any sound system is accurate or desirable reproduction of the entire audio spectrum. If the bookshelf speaker (monitor, stand-mount speaker) can do its job from 80Hz or 100Hz to 20kHz and the subwoofer can do its job from 20Hz to 80Hz or 100Hz, then the combination of bookshelf plus subs would successfully achieve the goal. Audiophiles may debate pros and cons to justify their own systems or because their experiences with integrating subs with monitors may not have been successful. But in my experience, bookshelf speakers plus subs can sound as good as some towers and better than most towers, depending on your preference of bass amount. The reason is that most towers (even $30,000 towers) just cannot compete with the bass in subs. Towers plus subwoofers would also sound great, but the cost is usually higher since towers usually cost more than monitors within the same line of speakers. I recommend buying monitors that can go down to around 60-80Hz and setting the crossover in the AVR to 80-100Hz. Even with my Salon2, which can go down to 23Hz, I set my crossover to 80Hz. So the take-home message here is that you don’t need to spend money on big towers to sound big because the “big” part is handled by the subwoofers, not the tower itself. If your budget is limited like most people, just get bookshelf speakers and subs.

The Preamplifier and Amplifier
The preamplifier takes the signal from the source (BD players, TVs, PCs, etc.) and sends the signal to the amplifier which powers the speakers. There are 3 types of “preamps”. The first type is the analog stereo preamp. It is the most basic type. It does very little processing of the signal and has very few features. The second type is the pre-pro. It combines the preamp with the processor. The processor can take the original sound signal and apply room correction algorithm (like Audyssey), bass management like subwoofer equalization and Dynamic EQ. The third type is the audio-video receiver (AVR). It combines the preamp, processor, and amp into one box.

Audiophiles argue on the topic of amp sounds forever. My experience is that when amps are operating in optimal condition (which is most of the time for most people) and when the volume level is matched, they all sound the same. There are also double-blinded studies to prove this. For example, in one study, audiophiles could not tell the difference between a $300 AVR vs. $20,000 amps! Some audiophiles will question the veracity of these double-blinded amp studies. The fact is, the mistake is when audiophiles try to compare amps in their homes and they fail to volume level match. A system that is louder will sound better. Even a 1dB difference is significant. Some amps have a voltage gain of 27dB, while some amps have a voltage gain of 34dB. In this case, the 34dB gain amp will sound louder unless you level match. Some speakers have a sensitivity of 84dB/2.83V.m, while some speakers have a sensitivity of 94dB/2.83V/m. In this case, the 94dB speaker will sound louder than the 84dB speaker. So amps really do sound the same when level matched.

One thing you may hear on the internet is that if your amp is underpowered, your speakers will get damaged due to “clipping”. This is mostly false. You should Google and read more on this topic. The chances of your speakers getting damaged due to too much power are a lot higher. The chances of damaging your speakers secondary to not having enough power are a lot less. In addition, AVRs have protection circuits. If there is a problem with power requirement, the AVR will shut down for your own good. This is usually due overheating or playing music too dangerously loud. Take heed and turn down the volume.

Most speaker companies will specify the power handling of their speakers. For example, the Infinity P163 bookshelf speaker has a power handling of 10-150 watts into 8 ohms and the P363 tower speaker has a power handling of 10-200 watts. The B&W 802D speaker has a power handling of 50-500 watts into 8 ohms. So as long as your AVR/amp power is within the recommended range for your speakers, it should be fine. If a speaker has a sensitivity of 90dB/2.83V/m, it means that 1 watt of power will produce a volume of 90dB from 1 meter (3.3ft) away, 4 watts of power will produce a volume of 90dB from 2 meters (6.7ft) away, 16 watts of power will produce a volume of 90dB from 4 meters (13.3ft) away. The louder the volume, farther the listening distance, and the less sensitive the speaker (89dB is less than 90dB), the more power you need. In reality, most of the time, your speakers will only need about 1 watt to 20 watts of power. Even a $300 Denon AVR can output 119 watts into 8 ohms x 2 channels, 142 watts into 4 ohms x 2 channels, and 80 watts into 8 ohms x 5 channels playing simultaneously. Power is power. Don’t buy into the nonsense.

The pre-pro or processor can either enhance or detract the sound quality when processing the sound with its room correction, bass management, and subwoofer EQ. The amp just simply amplifies the speakers. Audiophiles argue whether separate components (pre-pro + amps) sound better than AVR. The fact is, the measurements for AVR are similar to pre-pro and amps, and AVR will sound just like pre-pro + amps if they are under the same conditions – for example in Pure Direct or Direct mode which bypasses all room correction and EQ. But turn on the different room correction software and EQ and all bets are off.

The take-home message is that an AVR can sound as good as a $30,000 separate pre-pro and amp. I prefer Denon because I think they offer a well balance product. I love the Audyssey Dynamic EQ feature that Denon offers. They are reliable and feature rich. Others prefer Yamaha for their reliability and features, but I am not as impressed with their room correction and sub EQ features. Pioneer, Harman Kardon, and Marantz (Denon’s cousin) are also well regarded. I would avoid Onkyo because of their unreliability and poor customer support.

Wires and DAC
DAC are digital-to-analog converters. Before the sound can be played on speakers, the signal must first be converted from digital to analog. AVRs and pre-pros have built-in DACs for this purpose. Over the years, the DAC technology has reached full maturity. And today, outboard DACs offer utterly no advantages over the DAC found in even $300 AVRs. Thus, outboard DAC are an absolute waste of money.

Speaker wires are used to connect the speakers to the AVR or amps. Audio-video wires (like HDMI and audio cables) connect a player (like Blu-ray, CD, or PC) to the AVR or pre-pro. Unless the wires and cables are defective (loose or broken connectors), they will not sound any differently. Thus a cheap Monoprice or RCA wire/cable will sound as good as a $20,000 wire/cable.

Conclusion
You don’t need to spend a fortune on separate electronic components or big expensive speakers to have a great sounding home audio system. An accurate bookshelf speaker + subwoofer + AVR system can sound as grand and majestic and awesome as a $100,000 exotic system. Even in-wall speakers from accurate speaker companies like Revel, KEF, RBH, NHT, JBL, etc. can sound great. Internet hearsay is like wildfire and often times false. Take opinions with a grain of salt. After all, who do you trust more – the professional engineers who designed and built the AVRs and speakers aimed at millions of people, or some self-proclaimed internet experts who got their PhDs from the university of Google? Trust your ears. At the end of the day, it’s the actual sound that you care about, not some audio religion. So enjoy the music.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Newetoy.

 

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