Friday, 13 December 2013

MUSINGS: A Look At The Sound Room...

It's about 2 weeks now since I moved into the new home. As expected, it was stressful; with kids in tow, it's not like the bachelor days with just one's personal belonging in the trunk of my old hatchback!

Well, for the most part, the move hasn't been horrible. And the exciting thing as I've already previewed is that I now have a good sized "man-cave" for my A/V "needs" :-). Without further ado, let me show you the setup so far:
Head on view of the main system - Transporter playing.
Angled from the side - note the SUB1 just lateral to the left front speaker. The black box closest to edge of the sofa is the computer (Fractal Design Define XL case - nice and quiet).
"Super deformed" wide angle view of the room... Rear Paradigm Studio 80s visible.
As a MUSINGS post, I'm just going to spend a few words on thoughts around building the setup. Since the start of this blog and explored briefly in this early post, I do believe that judging the quality of an audio component can be accomplished objectively; that is, there is a technically "good" or "bad" way to know whether components live up to engineered goals. As I mused in that post, the gold standard for me is not so much to reproduce the "concert experience" as some might desire, but rather the ability of the equipment to reproduce exactly what's on the CD/DVD/DVD-A/SACD/Blu-Ray - that is my definition of high-fidelity. If the CD has an ability to transport me to a faraway concert hall, then I want my equipment to be able to reproduce that encoded sensory stimulus which leads to (hopefully) my ability to experience the same. Of course, not all CD/DVD/DVD-A/SACD/Blu-Ray's can do this! The medium itself must be able to encode quality to the extent that the experience is possible and the experience itself is provided by the artist, recording engineer, mixer, mastering engineer, producer, etc... who have put their expertise and knowledge into the recording. On my (consumer) end, I'm just looking for a good enough combination of components that can take that encoded sensory experience and provide it accurately; nothing more. I do not personally believe in aiming for a "euphonic" setup where the components can make all albums sound "sweet". I'm interested in just an honest presentation of what is on the disk; if I want to add euphonia, I will happily do it myself such as the PCM-to-DSD upsampling process or re-EQ with my Behringer DEQ2496.

As with anything in life, unless I were a billionaire, there are practical limitations on how much I am willing and able to spend on a sound system. I'm happy to sink money into the pursuit but it's only one of many interests! To spend as little as reasonably possible to achieve the best sound quality (and within decent aesthetic parameters) is a virtue I strive for. My experience has been that for electronics gear, there really is very little correlation between price and the (objective) sound quality it buys. For example, there's generally very little if any audible difference between a $500 DAC compared to a $2000 DAC if they measure the same; speakers, room acoustics, amps will easily trump the sonic differences. I can enjoy the inexpensive AUNE X1 (<$200) just as much as the more expensive TEAC UD-501 (~$800) even though I know the TEAC measures significantly better. In fact, I prefer the AUNE's more powerful headphone amp when I'm listening with the AKG Q701 headphones. However, the TEAC offers native DSD playback which is the niche it fills in my system. Likewise, the Transporter is my hi-res ethernet streamer, and the ASUS Essence One lives on my desktop for computer listening on account of its separate headphone/speaker controls and beefy headphone power. Where cost does seem to correlate better IMO is with the transducer devices - headphones and speakers. For these components, I'm quite happy to sink $$$ down! For fun, here's approximately how I've allocated out the cost of the audio system (minus HTPC which is more powerful than I really need for audio purposes). Note that I did not sit down to calculate this out before hand, it just organically came to be:

Speakers (fronts, rears, center, sub): 77.5%
Digital sources (including Behringer DEQ2496 processor, Panasonic Blu-Ray): 10%
Amplifiers (including Onkyo receiver): 10.9%
Cables + Belkin PF60 power console: 2%

Alright, I'm pretty happy with those numbers - I think they reflect reasonably well my priorities. Of course, the cost that truly trumps everything is the cost of real estate in Vancouver! So, let's run over the components I have set up in the room and share a few thoughts... As usual, since this is a MUSINGS post, it's mainly an experiential discussion with opinions thrown in.

I. First, let's talk about the 2-channel signal path:

Most of my music is in stereo. Therefore good 2-channel reproduction is most important. Enough said.

Time and again, measurements of the ASUS Essence One, Transporter, and TEAC UD-501 have demonstrated the superiority of balanced cabling. Whether anyone can hear the difference of course is another issue. Balanced operation was the reason for the choice of the Emotive XSP-1 preamp as the heart of the 2-channel system. To maintain the balanced topology, I got a couple of Emotiva XPA-1L monoblock amplifiers - good price and with the option to switch over to 35W Class A bias if I want.

Squeezebox Transporter music server chain:
Win8 HTPC --> ethernet --> Transporter --> Emotiva XSP-1 preamp (crossover at 60Hz to feed SUB1 subwoofer) --> Emotiva XPA-1L monoblock --> Paradigm Signature S8 v.3

Computer audio PCM/DSD chain:
Win8 HTPC --> Belkin gold USB --> TEAC UD-501 DAC --> Emotiva XSP-1 preamp (crossover at 60Hz to feed SUB1 subwoofer) --> Emotiva XPA-1L monoblock --> Paradigm Signature S8 v.3

Although just "fast ethernet" (100Mbps) is all that's required for the Transporter, the house is wired for gigabit and I've used generic Cat-6 cables for the Transporter to the gigabit switch. I'm quite pleased that I can easily transfer >100MB/s between machines around the home. All balanced audio cables were inexpensive (but good build) Monoprice Premier XLR's from 3-6' in length. Over the months, I've used Monoprice cables to measure balanced output from my DACs and the results have been excellent, not unexpectedly.

In the same vein, speaker cables are Monoprice 12-guage "Enhanced Loud" (LOL!) OFC. Monoblock to front speakers only 4', center channel 6', rears at most 25'; cut to minimum lengths required. I bought a 100' spool for $30 and still have some left.

II. Multichannel signal path:

I love multichannel music! The realism achievable can be amazing and IMO anything that enhances the creative potential of artists can't be a bad thing. Remember that historically multichannel speaker configurations were being explored along side 2-channel stereo. 3-channel stereophonic sound was demonstrated by Bell back in 1933 and the right-center-left "3.0" arrangement was used in some of the earliest "Fantasound" systems for Disney's Fantasia when released back in 1940. Having a center speaker in a theater setting allows the anchoring of front-and-center sound which improves the imaging for those not sitting precisely in the "sweet spot". For music, likewise it helps especially for solo/vocal tracks. For example, the Analogue Productions' Nat "King" Cole SACDs like The Very Thought Of You presented in 3.0 sounds phenomenal with this arrangement with Nat sounding like he's right in front of you crooning.

More than 10 years ago, I built a discreet multichannel system based on my old Denon AVR-3802 receiver. However, I had to give up the 5.1 setup when my kids came 8 years back to make room. After many years in "pure stereo" wilderness, I'm glad to finally be back with a full 5.1 setup again! Here's how it's hooked up:

Win8 HTPC / Panasonic Blu-Ray --> Energy HDMI --> Onkyo TX-NR1009 (amplifies rears and center, up to 145Wpc 2-channel measured) --> unbalanced RCA --> Emotiva XSP-1 preamp (HT Bypass Mode with channel to SUB1) --> Emotiva XPA-1L monoblock --> Paradigm Signature S8 fronts

Center speaker = Paradigm Signature C3
Rear speakers = Paradigm Studio 80 v.2 (tonal balance complements the Signatures reasonably well)

As you can see, my rears are full range towers.  I'm aiming for speaker layout angles approximating the ITU-R BS.775-3 (08/2012) recommendation at the "sweet spot" position:

I suppose I have room for a full 7.1 surround setup with 2 extra speakers to either side using the Onkyo receiver... Another SUB1 for 5.2 or 7.2 would give insane bass! One of many projects for the future, I suppose. I am unaware of any music I want available in 7.1 at this time and I suspect a TV upgrade to something like 80" would be more likely.

III. Challenges...

In a moderately complex setup, it's not surprising to find some challenges along the way. The main thing I found was that for multichannel, the Home Theater Bypass setting on the XSP-1 was very sensitive to noise. I had to move the PC to the left side about a foot from the subwoofer and ~5' from the XSP-1 to get rid of RF noise picked up by the preamp. Also, I had to use a "cheater plug" for the LG 55" HDTV mounted against the wall to remove ground loop noise. This was the relatively easy stuff!

The most difficult noise issue I'm still dealing with now is the USB interface to the TEAC UD-501. If I have the USB cable connected, there's a high pitched whine emanating in HT Bypass mode. This does not appear to be a component ground loop issue but rather noise from the PC through the USB interface polluting the analogue pass-thru. This actually does not affect stereo playback from the TEAC, just when I'm in multi-channel mode with the XSP-1 passing through the front stereo and subwoofer channels. It's not an issue with the RCA cables since more expensive AudioQuest and Tributaries RCA cables make no difference compared to inexpensive Radio Shacks whether 3' or 6'. The simple solution for now is unplugging the USB cable to the TEAC DAC when I'm listening to multichannel. Trying other USB ports and hubs have so far not helped. I'll have to look at other options like the FireStone GreenKey "USB Isolator" or some other way to achieve galvanic isolation but maintain high-speed USB 2.0 for DSD and hi-res PCM playback.

Looking ahead, I still have to try out some frequency response measurements and subwoofer room correction with the Paradigm PBK-1 ("Perfect Bass Kit") I bought (only ~$120). I'm inspired by Mitch's experiments with Acourate so may look into that too... The room is still bare and resonant so things should also improve when the rug comes and in time, perhaps some acoustic paneling and bass traps. Not to mention some clean up and better cable management!

As is, subjectively the system sounds good despite the lack of room treatments... Of course, I am a little biased :-). The Signature S8 v.3's are the current top-of-the-line Paradigm floor standers. Good to see some positive recent reviews like this one from TONEAudio. Some might consider them too "clinical" but that's fine with me since surgical accuracy is what I'm after. A large company like Paradigm can leverage the economy of scale to maintain costs and has access to research facilities which IMO is important. The beryllium tweeters sound sweet and very realistic. The other night my wife jumped when she heard the sound of the glass shattering on Michael Jackson's Jam (surely a sign of high fidelity!). So far I've also been quite impressed with the SUB1 subwoofer. I'm easily measuring excellent levels around 20Hz. I'll post PBK-1 and REW graphs when I start doing the room measurements...

I've played around with the Class A/B vs. A settings on the Emotiva XPA-1L. Realistically I doubt I will need much beyond 30W of power through the efficient S8 speakers so I expect the amps will remain well within the 35W Class A limit (these are 250W monoblocks in A/B). So far, I cannot say I hear much of a difference although I have not specifically done any "serious" listening in Class A mode yet. It certainly does get quite warm (somewhat uncomfortable to touch) after an hour in Class A mode - as expected. Makes for decent space heaters through the holidays I guess :-).

Signature SUB1 clearly visible.
I thought I'd end off with a couple of recommendations for multichannel lovers; both of these titles are only available as DTS-CDs from the early 2000's. I've since ripped these disks and converted to 5.1 16/44 FLAC with the DTS plugin for foobar2000.

- Lyle Lovett - Joshua Judges Ruth (2002 DTS release): Folks, this is a great example of what a good multichannel mix sounds like. Lyle's voice is mostly centered up front, good use of surrounds for ambiance, some discreet vocals in the rear tastefully done. Great dynamic range of DR16. I've always enjoyed the track Church from this album (and used it as a test track for the old MP3 test). In the multichannel version, you literally feel immersed in the choir when they start singing! It's unfortunate that a proper DVD-A/SACD was not released for this album given how good this sounds (already in the DTS-CD incarnation, this album puts to shame many DVD-A and SACD multichannel releases).

- Alan Parsons - On Air (1996 DTS release): Hey, it's Alan Parsons who knows a thing or two about good sounding audio... Progressive rock was made for multichannel - especially so when conceived from the start for surround sound. Rear channels utilized aggressively on some tracks along with birds singing, and cool jet flyby special effects (check out the first track Blue Blue Sky). Again, a multichannel DVD-A/SACD release would have been phenomenal.

Until next time... Enjoy the tunes, wishing you and yours a wonderful Christmas & New Year season.

(BTW: I got my Nikon D800 back from Nikon Canada for repairs on an autofocus issue under warranty. Wow. The focus seems to be spot on and only minimal lens fine-tuning is required now. There was quite a stir online about poor left auto-focus point accuracy as well which seems to be much better now. If you have a D800 and are running into focus issues, check if Nikon can do a tune-up.)

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