Okay, I'll admit it. I am a Hi Fi nut. But I'm not too far gone. Yet. I haven't decided that I can hear a difference when I use $1000 silver wired power cords to my equipment. Some shred of rationality prevails. In fact, as my vacuum tube and vinyl friends are only too happy to point out, rationality is my whole problem. I can't seem to let go and just go with what feels good. I have to actually be able to detect a difference in double blind testing.
I find the Hi Fi industry to be delightfully bankrupt of intellectual honesty and ripe with hubris, snobbery, and every other form of chest thumping one could imagine. Make no mistake--this is a game of one-up-manship in which few females care to participate--not because they can't, but because they think we're stupid for playing it. It's a shame really, as female hearing is well known to be better than that of males. Hi Fi is largely a religion the way it is practiced today. There just isn't any other way to describe it. How else can people get away with the claims they make and the products they sell. So, in the time honored ways of the past, Caveat Emptor. Let the Buyer Beware.
Here is the inventory of equipment I'm using. All I can tell you for sure is that I did a lot of listening and picked what was absolutely and unequivocally the best sound my money could buy. You can spend a lot more, but I doubt you can get a hugely better result that is reliably perceived by anyone in a blind test.
Proceed AVP Surround Processor
Proceed 5 Channel Amp
Bohlander Graebener Radio Ribbon Speakers for Left, Right, and Center Channels
Triad Rear Channels
Toshiba Rear Projection TV
This room sounds pretty good, but is not a showcase for extreme hi fi. The room itself is accoustically too bright, with limestone and hard plaster surfaces, large glass topped coffee table, speakers in "bright" cabinet cubbies, etc. Nevertheless, it is well ahead of 99% of the systems I see out there. Aesthetics were key for this room, so the gear is rack mounted, and the speakers are very impressive looking. They have a lot of detail and not much bass, hence the REL sub. The sub is a very polite and musical one and integrates well with these speakers. It doesn't have enough punch to do killer screenings of "The Matrix", but it gives the system a full sound.
NEC Multisync LCD 2000
Gallo Nucleus Speaker System
Bang & Olufsen Beosystem 2500
I mention this system in passing. It is again, not a serious listening system, but it does have its virtues.
First, I want to comment on the Gallo speakers. I bought them to use with my computer system because they looked cool and matched my decor. The sound came as a very pleasant surprise. These are definitely high fidelity speakers. I wouldn't hesitate to compare them to other speakers in their price range. I think you are likely to prefer these if your ear likes what the Hi Fi pundits push, and mine do. How do they compare to traditional computer multimedia speakers? There is no comparison. I bought these guys to replace the best computer speakers Cambridge Soundworks makes, and those are considered pretty good by the computer set. The Gallos instantly blew them away. It was obvious in just the first 15 seconds of listening. I've gotten to where I really like using the Microsoft Media Player as a jukebox for the MP-3's I keep on my computer (see Discography and the Nomad pages). It's really a joy to listen to them with these speakers.
Originally, the B&O was intended to convey music in this room while I was hard at work on the computer. I find that I seldom use it anymore. If I find myself wanting music for another room, I'll probably move the B&O.
B&W Nautilus 805
NEC Plasma Flat Panel TV
Once again, the speakers really make the difference to this system. And guess what? The speakers are always your most important component from a sonic perspective. Like the Gallos, these are speakers that you know within seconds are really awesome. If you want bookshelf speakers, by all means, audition these. This room should actually sound pretty good from the equipment perspective, but once again, other factors intervene to prevent it. In this case, the speakers are not positioned well for imaging. They're too close together, and are offset to the left of the listening position (our bed) by about half the speaker separation. Nevertheless, the system is extremely enjoyable to listen to, just not critically.
I want to put in a good word for B&K here. If I was on a budget, I would not hesitate to buy their equipment. They're awesome on a "bang for buck" basis. The surround processor sounds 95% as good as my much higher end units, albeit with less flexibility. The amp also sounds great, and you really have to strain to hear the Krell sound better.
Martin Logan Quest Left and Right Speakers
Martin Logan Logos Center Channel
Proceed PAV/PDSD Surround Processor
Krell KSA-200 Amp
Now we're getting warmed up to some good sound! I absolutely adore the sound of Martin Logan speakers. My Quests have more bass than the slightly more refined ReQuests, and I prefer them, having listened to both. Evidently, they don't make even the ReQuest anymore. To look at their site, they are now heavily focused on Home Theater. Anyway, their speakers sound awesome! There are numerous reasons having to do with phyics for this, but take my word for it, these are some of the finest speakers you will ever hear when properly deployed.
As you can tell from my last sentence, their shortcoming is that they are extremely sensitive to room placement. I confess, my placement is probably only a 6 out of 10, so these speakers are not able to perform at their peak in my library. Their placement woes are due to a couple of issues. First, they are dipoles, so you get reflected sound off the back wall. They have to sit out from the wall. Once upon a time I researched this heavily and formed a couple of conclusions. First, they start sounding good when at least 4 feet out. This is because that distance delays the reflected wave by enough that the ear stops using it to locate the sound source. That's critical to good imaging! Secondly, they are extremely directional. That means the sweet spot where you really get their full impact is very limited. Originally, I was going to use these in my home theater. A friend happened to embark on a home theater project at the same time, so I got to hear Martin Logans in use in a theater. They are wonderful for about 2 of the seats and the rest get lots of problems. This seldom bothers my friend--he just sits in the good seats and directs any audiophiles present to do same. Nevertheless, they are very finicky and hard to set up for this application. I would favor them for very small theaters if I used them at all in a theater. In fact, there is no video in this room.
I have a theory about Martin Logans, and that is that you would have the perfect speakers if you could just eliminate that pesky rear wave. I've often wondered how they'd sound in a room perfectly designed for them. You'd have a rear wall that totally absorbed and still you would place the speakers a good 6 feet away from that wall. I bet it would be a religious experience!
The Krell amp is, of course, fabulous. It isn't the latest in the FPB series, but it still sounds awesome. The Martin Logans are a touch hard on amps, so you definitely wouldn't use a tube amp with them.
The Proceed unit sounds great, but it has it's little idiosyncracies. That unit was originally ensconced in my theater, occupying the Greatest Place of Honor for electronics at my home. Unfortunately, it is somewhat flakey. It is nearly impossible to remote control the unit reliably, and I kept having problems with it crashing out of the digital stream on some DVD's. It went back to factory for work twice with little improvement. Finally, I just gave up and bought a Lexicon for the theater. The Lexicon is dead reliable, easier to interface to the touch panel controls, and sounds every bit as good to my ear. Beware the Siren Song of the Bleeding Edge. Take whatever the top of the line is in the rarified atmosphere of the High End and drop back down about 10,000 feet. There is more oxygen there and fewer bugs in the equipment. Besides, you'll hardly notice what you're missing!
Electrohome Marquis 9" CRT Projector
B&W Nautilus 801 Left/Right
B&W Nautilus Center
2 x Velodyne 18" Subs
2 x Bag End 18" Subs
4-channels of Triad Surrounds w/ Subwoofers
6 Clark Tactile Synthesis Chair Shakers
3 x Bryston 500W Monoblock Amps for L/R/C channels
2 x Bryston 500W Monoblocks for Bag End subs
ADA Amps for Shakers
Lexicon Surround Processor
Faroudja Line Quadrupler
"Special" Sony DVD-S7700
Dish Satellite HDTV Tuner
Maier Parametric EQ's
Check out the pix here.
Okay, I'll admit it. This system is way over the top. Four 18" subwoofers plus the chair shakers? 5000 watts of power? You can pulverize rocks into gravel with that much sonic energy! But hey baby, it rocks. And just as Emeril says, "Pork fat rules" for food, I say, "Bass rules for movies!" So strap in. Pregnant women, adults over 70, people with heart conditions, anxiety, or general intolerance of real excitement should opt out of this E-ticket ride.
But seriously folks, what the heck is Bob doing here? I started with the absolute best my theater installer could come up with and then added to that. BTW, he works for the likes of Andrew Grove, Larry Ellison, and George Lucas, so I had to get pretty creative to "one-up" his design. It was also important that I one-up my buddy and business partner Steve Kahn, who had finished his theater long before mine. Just a little friendly competition, don't you know.
I knew speakers were key, so I went for the B&W's. They were getting rave reviews at the time, and I knew they were for me when I listened to them. It didn't hurt that their aesthetic design was also perfect for the house. The are full-range speakers to say the least, so they have wonderful punch for theater purposes. We coupled them with the Bag End's because my installers (and other reviews I'd read) experience was that they would integrate more seamlessly with the full-range speakers (or any speaker for that matter). They have a very sophisticated crossover and avoid having too much phony-sounding "thump". Producing bass is very amp-intensive, so we paired them with the Brystons for virtually unlimited power. Those amps are fab, BTW. Audition them if you get the chance, they are a total steal. To my ear they sound identical to the best Krell or Mark Levinson offers yet they cost thousands less. This is critical when you are buying 5 channels worth!
The room acoustics were critical too. This aspect vies closely with the speakers for being the number one factor influencing sound. As it happens, this room is set up almost perfectly. The walls use double sheet rock for rigidity. It also helps soundproof, but isn't the best soundproofing strategy. Some will tell you the walls need to flex more for good bass. That's partially true if you can't afford enough watts and inches of subwoofer. That wasn't my problem. I wanted accuracy, and not having the walls contribute to the sound was a virtue in my mind. The floors are rigid by dint of having two inches of concrete poured on them. Also, we have a rising floor, and we have ratios of room dimensions that are highly beneficial in avoiding standing waves and other nasty acoustical no-no's. Finally, most surfaces are treated with an acoustically absorbent material (fiberglass panels that have been upholstered, actually).
We went on to equip the system with sophisticated recording studio-quality EQ, and hired a professional sound engineer to bring his fancy spectrum analyzer and tune it all up. The results are excellent!
That system, as described, produces a near-perfect reproduction of exactly what the Director intended for you to hear from the DVD, as well as being an excellent music reproduction system. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of hearing something better.
The date was January 2000, and I was attending CES. I went to a demo that shall remain nameless, and was absolutely blown away by the bass I heard there. They were demoing Saving Private Ryan and The Haunting. I was stunned! Who knew it could be like this. On returning home, I spoke to my installer. He thought I was mad and kept saying, "But you know they spent over $150,000 on the bass alone for that system!" What's a poor boy to do?
Thus was born the idea of the Guy Flick/Chick Flick switch. On my Panja touch panel, I have a little graphical button that toggles my system between the oh-so-accurate and sophisticated Dr Jeckyll and the evil bass-happy Mr Hyde. Switching to Guy Flick mode activates the chair shakers and the Velodynes. Remember, the system is calibrated to neutrality without that stuff, so we're talking about a heaping helping of extra pudding! And boy, does it ever make the difference. Bass, as you may have read, is not very directional. The beauty is that with chair shakers and 4 18" subs powered by 3500 watts, your ear uses the higher frequencies to assign sounds and there is the illusion that the bass "moves". For example, the slow motion bullets flying past in The Matrix is very visceral. The blows in the training scene can be felt on your body. It's very cool!
When watching Driving Miss Daisy, we simply flip back to Chick Flick mode and all is serene again.
As far as I know, this idea is unique to my theater. I suspect anyone that has the bucks and auditioned it would soon want to have it.
What about that "Special" DVD player? This is a Sony player modified by MSB, and it shows very clearly where things are going. I have a pre-release version because my installer is friends with Joe Kane, who is friends with the guy at MSB. Basically, they install a little card in the box that does image scaling in the digital domain. The whole thing with a player costs less than $3000. Sound like a lot for a DVD player? Consider this, it actually looks better than an unmodified player of the same type connected to a Faroudja line quadrupler. That combination will set you back almost $30,000. Is the MSB thingy sounding like a better deal yet? If I were starting from scratch, I'd forget the Faroudja and I'd buy one of these DVD players together with an HDTV satellite tuner. For the money saved, you can buy a damn nice projector, or maybe get that crazy Guy Flick button working for your theater!
Rega Planet CD Player
Sennheisser SD-600 Headphones
Cosmic Headroom Headphone Preamplifier
This is the cheapest way I know to hear sound that would cost you $15,000 to duplicate without headphones. Lately, I've gotten so attached to my Nomad, that I'm not sure I would recommend this route. I bought this system before getting any of the above systems because I wanted to do some critical listening to educate my ear. I also bought a ton of audiophile CD's. The experience was very educational. It's funny how the uneducated ear is easily fooled. I'm sure most people are aware that TV's are set up to appear way too blue because that's what makes them look good alongside other TV's at the dealer. Guess what, speakers can have the same tricks played. Do a lot of critical listening before you spend your money!
Whole House Audio and Video Distribution
Our house has systems to distribute audio and video to all these rooms so we can share source material. The audio system uses balanced digital, which is usually reserved for very high end recording studio applications. It delivers a signal perfectly intact from the central Escient CD Jukebox system. At some point I'll conduct some tests on whether the various jitter-reducing boxes help this system, but for now I think it's marvelous. I took this route because I knew transmitting audio would be short changing my high end systems and I wanted better. I understand Larry Ellison uses this approach, and that it took him two installers to get it to work right. Fortunately, I have the benefit of using the second installer who got my system up and running quickly and with no bugs!
The Escient CD system was such a success that I have recently opted to add a similar DVD jukebox with whole house distribution. For this purpose, we are using very high quality RGB cables to send the video around. I can already see HDTV signals sent to my plasma panel in the bedroom this way and the quality is astounding. The whole system is not yet working, but will be soon, I hope.
All material © 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.