Recently I had the chance to put my mantras to the test.
One has been, "You can't make a silk purse out of pigskin."
The other has been, "Audyssey is a must have."
I'm moving house. (Always a great thing, it helps you declutter, if nothing else. Not that my better half would think so!)
With my HiFi in transit I stumbled upon an advert in the local classifieds for a 5.1 system with Denon AVR for a very decent price. I rocked up and found the front floor standing speakers in dreadful condition, so I bargined them down for only the 2 satellites, AVR and subwoofer. A 2.1 Audyssey system for just $150!
Plugging them in the sound was.... mediore. No-name-brand loudspeakers. I wasn't surprised. But the Audyssey calibration microphone was still to come (the sellers were searching for it) so I just connected it up to my PVR and I left it at that - we had "better" sound than that from our (temporary) 32" TV.
A week later my HiFi and other household items arrived and I pulled out my own Audyssey calibration microphone and and gave the system a go, before I sent it to the games room (or trash!)
The sound improvement was... amazing!
Yes it was no silk purse - not having multiple non-mirrored powered subs my own personal biggest gripe. But certainly the audio was very much improved - better than the majority of "hi-fi" systems I have heard, even those which have been super-tweaked.
So, instead of throwing good money at equipment, cabling and bad rooms, get yourself the best loudspeaker you can afford with a (pair of) subwoofer(s) and simply connect them to a DSP-"smart" AVR. Remember, cross them over at no higher than the THX recommended 80Hz (and, I say, no benefit to drop it below that too - Audyssey manages all those bass frequencies very well, so let it do its job).
The future has arrived.
What are you waiting for?
There is a simple reason why the venerable Bose 901s are still held in high regard by those in the know, and why Magneplanar loudspeakers constantly rate highly in the "low" end of HiFi: their cross-over points, or - in the case of the Bose 901s - the lack of a crossover altogether.
Human hearing is most sensitive at 2kHz to 3kHz, the frequency where - and it is hard to fathom why - most two-way loudspeakers cross over from their woofers to their tweeters! The woofer does bass and mids, and the tweeters do treble - and also mids! A recipe for disaster, as we all have heard.
The 901s not having this problem still manage to put a smile on the face of people who hear it with an open mind (but not "audiophiles" already biased against everything Bose).
If you do a simple Google search, there are now many instances of single-driver "full-range" systems available for the audiophile.
Into this strange group of loudspeakers, the lower end Maggies jump in and cross over at 500Hz. Yes, its "tweeter" is also its midrange - hence the effortless quality of vocals reproduction when paired with even half decent electronics.
Into this rare club now joins Manger loudspeakers from Germany. They have a single driver model, but their two-way systems cross over to a conventional woofer at a low 360Hz.
They're winning rave reviews and, like the Bose 901s and Magneplanar .7s, SC-HiFi are happy to recommend them to the discerning listener.
There are many to get the flattest possible bass response in your listening room. One is not to have a room, of course. Cos walls reflect sound waves and these then build on each other to reinforce themselves leading to several one-note bass issues. Several? Yes, because the walls on your left and right have one "standing wave", one between your front and back walls, and another one between the floor and ceiling (which is why sloping ceilings are better from a hi-fi perspective). And there can be multiple smaller ones too.
The other way to get a flat bass response is to install bass traps. These slow down the bass passing through them and bouncing back (usually off the corners), thus reducing the chance of a wave of sound building up. If you can, do so. Bass traps are great.
The last way is to utilize each of these waves to help even out the bass response in the room. Every standing wave also has a dip, not just a peak. So what if the second standing wave has it's peak where the other standing wave is a dip?
That's how multiple subs help.
They even out these peaks and dips. It also means they need to be in different locations in a room. Both in corners will accentuate the problem. The second needs to be in a different position so it's peaks and dips are not adding to the problem!
I suspect a third or even a fourth sub will help smooth the bass out even more.
My own system has 2 powered subs. One in an alcove together with the main speakers (yes not the best place for loudspeakers, never mind a sub!). And the other in almost the centre of the room under a sofa. They have certainly evened out the bass in the room. You can walk the entire length and breadth of my open plan house and not have spots where the bass is crazy loud, or missing. Something which is always the case in a listening area with a single or no subs. Plus small subs have a better transient control, ie. tighter bass.
Give multiple (small) subs scattered throughout a room a try. You'll be glad you did.
In the end Hi-Fi is not about systems, it's about the music. But we've got to get the system "right" first. And Audyssey room/system calibration is one of the best 'fixes' available.
I'm very blessed in that I stumbled across a solution to Audyssey's issues with audio files.
Cos Audyssey often gets a bum rap from Hi-Fi 'experts'.
You've got to understand that Audyssey is SMPTE-standards based. That is, movies. Blu-ray and DVDs.
For audio, it's another matter entirely.
Movies are set to output at a certain loudness. Then loud parts are LOUD, and soft parts are soft. Some people hate this, and for that you can reduce the dynamic range from Full to Half or even less. So that explosion in your action movie does not awake the neighbourhood at 2:00 AM when you're feeding your insomnia. But when you ARE watching a movie and want the the full effect, you can have it.
To do so, check your DVD or Blu-ray player settings.
If you have Audyssey it's right there too, under "Dynamic Volume". At least that's what it's called on Denon AVRs. Check your user manual carefully. This 'feature' is available on all flavors of Audyssey. You can choose from None, Low, Medium and High(ly reduced range) options. For Hi-Fi it should be set to "None" of course, but when I have dinner parties background music benefits from a "High" reduction between a song's loudest and softest bits.
The issues many complain about start with Audyssey's "Dynamic Loudness".
This is another Audyssey feature that realises you've lowered the volume of your playback and changes the sound to compensate since at lower volumes our hearing is less sensitive to bass and - to a less extent - treble sounds. So, bass (mainly) seems to disappear and loose it's presence when we play things below their intended levels. So Audyssey is clever, automatically increasing your bass, yes? Well, not quite.
This sort of auto-adjustment is dependent on the levels recorded within the source material. Since Blu-ray and DVDs are SMPTE calibrated, they work well with Dynamic Loudness's automatic adjustments.
But such smarts are Hell with most music - Internet radio, digital downloads, YouTube files and CDs.
This is because of The Loudness Wars. Even though the capable dynamic range of the lowest forms of digital audio is 40dB more than analogue systems, music producers insist on making their digital files and CDs louder than everyone else's. So in the main digital music input into Audyssey is some 10dB to 15dB higher than your standard SMPTE digital video, throwing Audyssey off it's carefully calibrated settings.
The easiest way to get around this is to set your Audyssey "Reference Level Offset" from it's default of 0dB to -10dB, or even -15dB. Remember to put it back to 0dB when you play your movie tho!
But with audio, how to tell which is right, -10dB, -15db, or -5dB? There is a way.
But first, how did I discover this? It happened purely by accident. I had a DVD of pop hits that sounded fine but the same hits off CD were awfully bassy. That's because when I dropped the volume control on my AVR from -10dB to -25dB (from reference maximum) Audyssey added more bass to compensate - since I was playing my "movie" at a much lower level than designed. How was Audyssey to know my Blu-ray player was playing a louder than usual audio CD, and not a SMPTE-calibrated movie?
Once I figured that out my music never sounded better!
So which, -15dB, -10dB or -5dB against "Reference Level"?
I took a different approach.
I re-calibrated all my digital audio files to SMPTE levels. That way no more changing Audyssey settings for when I played movies vs music.
Using MediaMonkey as my audio player software I went to Tools, Analyse Volume and allowed MediaMonkey to check the RMS levels of my tracks and store metadata on how much to change it by. The default setting is 89dB, but over the years I've realised 85dB is the right settings. Going forwards your tracks are now "SMPTE calibrated" and Audyssey does it's magic perfectly with these tracks whether played softly or LOUD.
The other benefit of this happened recently. Realizing that Spotify has 320Kbps quality audio I signed up and started streaming. The default level was too loud (of course!). The solution was 'simple'. I played that same track off my private collection and also off Spotify as close in sync as I could. I then adjusted Spotify's level till it matched MediaMonkey's. Now even my Spotify is "SMPTE calibrated" - correction, properly Audyssey-calibrated!
Don't give up on Audyssey. There is no better-value room and speaker/sub calibration system out there! If you haven't got it, get it (preferably with 2 non-mirrored powered subs)!
Note that sub/mains calibration is a critical thing for great hi-fi. Slow, ponderous, heavy subs are no match for main speakers with super light highly-transient capable drivers. Audyssey allows them to match up so both move together at the same time. For example, when a bass drum is kicked (sound isn't a single frequency, it is a spread of frequencies) this affects your sub, woofer and even your tweeter at the same time. So any sub-only "tuning" system is thus inherently flawed - just fixing EQ isn't enough. Since Audyssey controls both the sub and mains, it manages this elegantly and perfectly. As for systems with a sub and no DSP, go figure. No wonder most audiophiles who add a sub quickly retire it.
Enjoy your music!
With stories of years and thousands of iTunes music libraries being lost, many are rightly reluctant to clean up their slow Windows PCs.
I managed to do so, and you can too. But it got tricky. It's not as straight-forward as it could be. But if you follow the Tips here, you'll be fine.
Firstly backup all your M4A and even MP3 files onto a USB hard disk drive.
The easiest way to do that is to get Windows to do a search on *.m4a then RIGHT click on an item found. Then press Ctrl+A. Next RIGHT click on an item and and click on Copy. Lastly go to your USB drive and also RIGHT click on a blank space, then click on Paste.
When copying is done ensure - double check and triple check - that the number of tracks on your USB drive matches the number of tracks in your iTunes library!
Once you are sure you have everything backed up you can erase Windows and install a fresh new copy free of bloatware or malware. (Also check out our other Tips page on how to keep it that way.)
On your new PC launch iTunes (easiest is to install it from http://ninite.com) and go to Edit/Preferences/Advanced. When there ensure "copy to iTunes music folder when adding to library" is checked.
Then go back to the main screen of iTunes and in File/Add File To Library, select the folder on your USB drive and click on one of the songs. Then press Ctrl+A to Select All. Next press Enter on your keyboard.
The tracks will start being copied onto iTunes and placed into folders by artist and album automatically.
Many audiophiles fall for the snake oil and myths surrounding modern digital audio systems.
The holy grail of "straight wire with gain" has been achieved (and surpassed) - in digital audio.
Unfortunately the input and output stages (the microphones used for the recording, and the speakers, cabling and amplifier in your room) are analogue, and therein lies the problem. Even your brain and your day to day physiology plays a part in what you finally hear.
Digital audio is simply 1s and 0s. A 0 is represented by no voltage and a 1 is represented by voltage. But digital is smarter than simply that. Since voltages in a system are analogue, digital works on a range of numbers. If the 1 needs to be 10 volts, digital can treat any value between 6 and 12 as the 1, and any voltage between 0 and 5 as the 0. Read that again. This is absolutely critical in understanding why digital simply does not care about the issues that plague analogue systems.
Here are some numbers to give you a better idea:
volt 02 09 02 01 08 11 01 12 02 03
digital 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0
It is because digital is so forgiving of the analogue world it lives it, that it is precise and absolute. Imagine a legal document being emailed to you with errors. In the very rare instances it can be corrupted, but when it is it'll be very obviously corrupted. One does not pour through every word to ensure there are no spelling mistakes.
So, ask yourself. How can digital audio files be any different?
They are not.
It does not matter one iota if it was raining, the voltage in your home power supply was 110/220 or 111/222 volts that day. It does not matter if the power supply cable was oxygen reduced solid gold or a 5c cable from a junk store. Digital is designed to ignore such analogue induced errors - you get 100% output from what went in.
The DAC (or ADC) one uses has two sections within it, of course. The digital and analogue. Differences in the digital portion are minuscule - if that. Here's a thread that is trying to find out if there are differences. But all a DAC does is take the 0s and 1s and put them out as sine waves. These are just mathematical numbers undoing what the original ADC capture process did. Can one take the approach that these digital differences are zero (or so little as to be impossible to hear unless one has a multi million dollar system)? Note the emphasis on digital.
Once that DAC has created those analogue sound waves however, anything goes! The DAC chip in your laptop is essentially no different to the DAC chip in your external USB DAC. Any differences now lie in the analogue stage.
By all means spend your money on (analogue) loudspeakers (the most important component in your audio system) - or headphones, or on (analogue) room treatments (the second most important component in your audio system. Changes here make a big difference in how your ear/brain/body hear such playback.
In the digital realm it is - essentially - a straight wire with gain.
Just finished watching "The Boat That Rocks" movie - mainly for it's 60s rock hits. The soundtrack download is going to be a must buy!
Getting to my sofa, I needed more Rock. So I switched the media player to Rock genre, and let my HiFi rip.
Then something that's been gnawing at me slowly over these past few months became as clear as day.
It wasn't my system!
I had simply been playing some "rubbish".
I don't know when or where I read the statement, "The more you open the window, the more the ruck gets in", but that was all the 'problem' was.
Before we go any further I must describe my HiFi system.
Key to everything was a Gold Reference standard, my Sennheiser HD-600 cans. Even the initial listen so very many years ago had a slight warmness that further painful research verified, a gentle hump spread over several octaves centred around 125 Hz by some 2dB. This I easily then EQed out and the resulting tone is what I use to judge expensive and inexpensive systems alike. Like it or not, my sense of "good" HiFi needs a balance across all the frequencies - and I emphasize, all. The only difference in the better (not "more expensive"!) of good systems is in lower (often times not readily apparent) distortion and increased 'resolution'. But I must have the full frequency range that's possible in a recording or it's a Fail.
So when it came to my non-headphone system, I spent many years looking for reasonably-priced gear to get that (EQed) HD-600 "sound" from loudspeakers in a room.
My first pair of Magnapan loudspeakers were "lost", way back in the mid-1980s (long story!) My 2nd pair of Maggies were a gift from a dear dear nephew in 2003 - a pair of used 0.5s. I sold my 0.5s when I was offered a pair of used MG12s 3 years ago, and these are the linchpin of my system currently.
The source is a PC with raw digital data being sent to the internal DAC of my AVR. Yes, AVR! Don't laugh, hear me out first....
I have the MG12s and 2 powered subwoofers connected up to the AVR.
As a sound engineer whose bible is John Eargle's "Sound Recording (first published in 1976), I've always been convinced from John's clarification of why bi-amping is essential for any good sound system. A sub-woofer is an effective bi-amped system as any.
The 2 subs spread out the comb-effect bass has in all rooms. In fact they work so well I've dropped the idea - at the moment (I reserve the right to change my mind later) - of putting corner bass traps in my room.
Sub to mains cross-over is at 60Hz. How this helps even out peaks and dips in the 150Hz region I have no idea! But it does.
The key to both of the above succeeding is the AVR. Two things. Firstly it has a setting to delay main speakers (using the Distance setting) output to have the ponderously slow subs fire first before that signal is let loose on the mains (there is no such thing as a kick drum that has a 35Hz pulse and nothing at 140Hz, however little). And if the sub and mains are out of time, it's... bad. If you think about it you'll realise that there is absolutely no way any multi-way system is going to be able to keep heavy bass transducers in sync with their lighter higher frequency counterparts without electronic processing!
The second thing the AVR does is Loudness Compensation. Well my choice of AVR anyway. It's the old Loudness button of the 70s, but in a much smarter way. Minor disputes aside, the Fletcher Munson Curve is a valid requirement - unless you're only listening at Live levels. The reason Loudness got a bad vibe from the 90s in HiFi circles was simply because it requires source input levels to be absolutely correct (I ReplayGain my tracks to ensure this).
It took me many many years to sort all the above out, but the result is extremely good audio playback for so little money it's laughable. But at times it can be bad. Hence the window/ruck 'discovery'. Playing a genre of mixed tracks highlights bad recordings in way nothing else can. Which tells me it's not my system, but the recording.
Well recorded tracks are simply breathtaking. Depth. Resolution. Separation. Every instrument clear but not overemphasised. Bass that hits you just so. Nothing clouding something else. Nothing missing from the lowest lows to the highest highs.
When a poorly recorded track plays, everything reverses. Great song (I wouldn't bother to keep it if so), but it'll be a real pain to listen to. Luckily it's an easy tap on my smartphone to skip to the next track.
(There is a clear difference music listening, and hearing music. Music listening is when you sit, maybe turn off the lights, and just listen. Hearing music is when there's a party going on, or if you're reading; music just being a background activity.)
So in a great HiFi system, you're going to be listening to some pretty bad playback sometimes. It's normal: you've opened the window and if there's ruck, it's going to get in. It's the price you have to pay to be able to get the super fine sounds that is possible with great Hi-Fi systems. Anyone who doesn't realise this will be constantly chasing their tail with system upgrades and useless tweaks.
It's about a 60/40 split, between well- and badly-recorded music in my library of tracks. It so depends on whether the record producer has tried to do the engineer's job (on the compressors, limiters, mix levels and EQs at hand) with his or her limited listening skills. If so, you can bet the track will be anything but HiFi.
So when your carefully put-together HiFi system next sounds poorly - don't reach for your wallet. Change the track that's playing!.
But make sure your system has been tuned to a reference standard first!