Are you really getting the full potential of your system?
This is part one of a multi part article, written not by a reviewer or stereo installation “expert” but rather from someone who is passionate about his system and would like to share what I’ve learned over many years with the high-end community.
The aim of this series of articles is to explore one person’s opinion about what true high-end audio should be about and how to achieve it without spending even more money than you already have. If you can relate to this idea, then read on.
Most Hi-Fi manufacturers would like people to believe that all they have to do is to buy their latest equipment and voilà, high-end audio is yours!
Unfortunately it is rarely the case.
For me, true high-end audio is when a system is simply no longer noticeable as a system; it simply disappears. A setup that allows you to forget about the new exotic interconnect you have just purchased and where you are not listening to a series of electronic components connected by copper wires – you forget all that – and there’s nothing but music.
In a perfect high-end setup you can believe the performance is happening live in front of you. There should be no distortion, no coloration of sound, no chest thumping bass just pure music as the artist intended it to be heard. The system should disappear.
You should be able to concentrate on the smallest detail and extract it clearly from the rest of the performance. The performance should fill your room and, if recorded properly, you should be convinced that what you hear is actually bigger than your living room. What we are trying to recreate with a great recording is the excitement of being in a live concert hall while the orchestra is playing and forgetting the equipment.
High-end audio is an emotional experience which should get you closer to the music. It isn’t about buying more hardware or distortion figures.
Unfortunately, all the best gear in the world doesn’t make for a true high-end experience if you forget that your listening room (whether it is dedicated or just an average live room) won’t have the same acoustic properties of a concert hall. It has been my experience that Audiophiles tend to ignore one of the most important factors in music reproduction; the room itself. I’d say that at least 50% of what you hear is due to the room and the rest is the result of the equipment you connect together.
If you buy the best Hi-Fi equipment you can afford, it is very likely to sound average once installed into your house without a lot of experience and knowledge about setup or the help of a professional.
Experts can achieve great results but they are very expensive and you won’t be proud of achieving the best sound possible yourself!
If, like me, you fancy experimenting while having fun, you can achieve great results provided that you are willing to invest the time and effort.
For me, trying to improve the sound quality of my system is part of my hobby as an Audiophile but I have to make sure that it doesn’t turn into an obsession. Music comes first!
I would like to share with you a typical example from a real life experience.
A very good friend of mine is as passionate about Hi-Fi as I am. After a few visits to my listening room, I convinced him to upgrade his current Hi-Fi and buy the same system as I had.
On paper, his set up was actually better because he had bought a newer version of my DAC and speakers.
After weeks of waiting, his system finally arrived and was installed in his front room by his retailer.
He ran it in for a few days and I paid him a visit expecting to be envious of his better speakers. Within seconds of listening to his system, I was surprised to see how different it was.
For me, the number one sonic enemy is distortion and there was plenty of it there. It felt like the violins were played with hacksaws and not bows! Not the kind of sound you expect from a system costing thousands of dollars.
I spent a great deal of time and tested his system with recordings that I knew really well and the difference in sound quality between our two systems was, for a lack of a better word, shocking.
Consider that our two systems were nearly identical, yet his wasn’t even close to mine in sound quality. I expected to be the envious one and it turned out to be exactly the opposite. Over time and with some careful guidance and work, I helped him achieve what I had in my system and this is the kind of help I want to present in this series of articles.
There’s no reason each and every one of you cannot have a significant improvement without purchasing upgrades, better equipment, new cables, etc. Some simple setup help may be all you need.
A proper setup isn’t always the best looking arrangement in your living room, yet time and again we are presented with examples of poor setup from the people who should really know better, the manufacturers themselves. Want proof? All you have to do is to check the online or print Hi-Fi magazines for examples.
There you will no doubt see countless pictures of systems featuring very expensive equipment from famous manufacturers and, in many cases, the setup would never serve the music as well as the review or the marketing does.
Look for speakers tucked in corners, very close to a wall, or placed around a very modern looking fireplace, for starters. These setups won’t sound great; they only look great. The setups are certainly misleading displayed this way.
Another common thing manufacturers do is to show pictures of modern and expensive looking rooms in their brochures. Their speakers and electronics are usually placed in front of a gigantic window and on an immaculate tiled floor. Yes, it looks appealing and inviting, perhaps makes you want to buy it, but don’t set it up this way! To me, the acoustics of these rooms are probably similar to what you would get in a bathroom! Just sing out loud and listen to yourself in the shower and you will understand what I’m talking about.
Of course some manufacturers do make sure that their products are displayed in the best acoustic conditions but they are fairly rare. Use your ears as a guide and don’t fall into the trap of trying to emulate what you see in the marketing pieces and reviews as examples of how to setup your system.
We need to understand why the room is such a critical component in your system and to get started in that understanding, we need to wipe the slate clean and start fresh(even if you already have a system setup) and check the acoustics of your room.
It is really easy to check, just use your eyes and ears and try to answer the following questions:
If you have answered yes more than once then expect trouble – but it’s trouble we can fix.
It is really important for you to understand that any room, unless fully treated will add all sorts of spurious artifacts to the music you are listening to, even with the best of equipment in place.
High-end speakers are painstakingly engineered to preserve phases throughout their whole spectrum. When the room interferes with the original signal all this information will be polluted by reflected rubbish and interference patterns.
So where does this pollution come from? It is quite simple: sound waves bounce back from hard surfaces such as a bare concrete wall, drywall, corners, glass, every surface in the room.
After being reflected, they will merge with the original sound wave and either combine their energy or cancel each other out depending on their phase. They are called peaks and nodes. That’s why in some areas of your room bass might sound louder but leaner in others.
By moving the speakers and the listening position to a different location you can reduce this issue and, in many cases, you can use this to your own advantage to compensate for a frequency imbalance. This is where the fine tuning comes into play in a big way; where even subtle changes of the room, the furniture placement, the listening position all add together to help create that perfect listening environment.
In the second part of this series of articles, I’ll give you tips on how to improve sound quality whilst keeping your partner happy. I’m assuming that like most of us, your other half isn’t into high-end audio and that you cannot afford a dedicated listening room.
Not everybody can convince their wife to cover the walls of their lounge with sound treatment material!
The last part will cover smaller tweaks which can make noticeable improvements without breaking the bank.
So to conclude, system and room tuning can pay huge dividends, and I promised that it will be your best upgrade!