Future-Fi

I started this piece in response to an inquiry from younger friend Matt who is considering purchase of a nice audio system. Said friend is a professional software engineer currently at FaceBook, moves with some frequency, who has varied musical interests having played trumpet in high school bands, and guitar and bass off and on, and has fairly eclectic musical interests.

I don’t know if he will trade equipment as frequently as he trades jobs. I’m guessing simplicity is important, durability to withstand moves, durability to withstand loud playback, and non-fatiguing reproduction of the various metal genres. This may mean rolling off the high end in playback processing to loose some of the distortion harmonics.

My financial advisor is also interested, initially as a headphones listener but maybe as a speaker listener. He has a largish home and could probably find a room to use as a listening space. He’s currently an iPhone streaming user who has outgrown ear buds and would like to move up to headphones. He’s married with children so spousal acceptance and resistance to acts of children are factors. The children are at an age where they can be introduced to music listening.

Read on to learn more about building a high performance audio system able to play a broad spectrum of musical genre and styles. The material after the break reflects my experience from 50 years in the hobby, my evolving taste as a music fan, and directions in the modern component audio system industry.

Recordings Mentioned

  1. Judy Collins: In My Life, This record has an a cappella version of Amazing Grace recorded in an chapel with a choir of musician friends backing Judy singing lead. You can locate individual voices in the choir.
  2. Chris Thile and Brad Mheldau eponymous record. This genre bending critically acclaimed newgrass record is a mix of instrumental and vocal tracks with the two voices and instruments brilliantly recorded. It is easy to picture Chris playing in front of the piano with the two voices in duet. The piano notes dance in space as the melody moves up and down the scale. Chris’s percussive “mandolin scratching” and note play are focused and clearly articulated.
  3. Jazz at the Pawn Shop: This is a live with audience jazz quartet recording with a natural perspective and ambient sounds from the audience. Tonal balance is spot on and image placement puts the band in your lounge with the audience around you when everything is working right. One of those times when magic happened in a field session.
  4. Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall is RCA’s first stereo field recording of Harry Belafonte’s combo and big band performing in a large hall for a large audience. Before wireless microphones, Harry is carrying a stage mike in a very dynamic live performance. The combo his hand drums, guitar, and bass. On many songs, the guitar and hand drums are playing small, well under the vocal. If you’ve got it right, you can hear them clearly under the powerful vocals. This record needs a great DAC to and speakers to reproduce the dynamic contrast between singer and accompaniment.

Revisions

  1. Fix some spelling errors, especially the ELAC speaker model
  2. Revise Matt’s musical background and interests and add a second married with children purchaser.
  3. Add an introduction to loudspeaker placement
  4. Correct SCHIIT Modi 3 DAC misidentified as “Mani”. There is no SCHIIT known as “Mani”. The little headphone amp is correctly identified as “Magni”
  5. Move the “Read More” point up to the end of the led.
  6. Revised Pro Audio Horns to identify
  7. Revised DIY streamer section to correctly identify what I had tried and heard personally and what I’d taken away from Darko.audio reviews. John Darko uses the BlueSound streamer as his reference in this price and capability range.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war
  2. https://darko.audio/
  3. https://community.klipsch.com/index.php?/topic/185910-klipsch-heresy-speakers-for-sale/ Klispch owner’s forums
  4. https://www.head-fi.org/forums/ Well regarded headphone listener forum with a Schitt Audio recommended Schiit gear forum.
  5. https://roonlabs.com/partners.html
  6. https://volumio.org/product/volumio-primo/
  7. https://www.hifiberry.com/
  8. https://allo.com/
  9. https://nadelectronics.com/m10/
  10. https://beta.bryston.com/digital-audio/bdppi/
  11. https://mytekdigital.com/hifi/products/brooklyn-bridge/
  12. https://us.kef.com/speakers/hi-fi-speakers/ls50wireless-powered-music-system.html
  13. https://www.elac.com/series/navis-powered-speakers/
  14. https://www.bluejeanscable.com/
  15. https://www.bluesound.com/
  16. https://www.danleysoundlabs.com/products/loud-speakers/studio/studio-1/

So, what is future-fi?

High fidelity audio is in a period of transition as physical media become less and less important. John Darko, proprietor of https://darko.audio/ is a leading proponent of the transformation. John is a “music first audiophile” which is to say that he likes well recorded and well reproduced music. John’s taste runs to electronic (all synthesized or mostly synthesized) music, running the gamut of genres in the electronic space.

John Darko also introduces the notion of Kallax-Fi. A Kallax-Fi system is one built from components that will fit IKEA Kallax shelving bays. The MYTEK components mentioned will fit. Most 19 inch rack sized components will not.

Introducing https://darko.audio/

John Darko is an Australian expat currently living and writing in Berlin, Germany. Berlin has a rich live music scene for the electronic music John likes and is central to the EU high fidelity manufacturing scene and audio show scene. John describes himself as a music-first audiophile. Gear exists to play music for listening alone and with friends. John is not gear obsessive. He has his preferences and clearly discloses them.

  • John listens with loudspeakers in the common rooms of his home and with headphones in the private areas.
  • He uses streaming services but prefers physical media (LP and CD) and has players for both formats.
  • He has a fairly simple system that plays music mostly but probably doubles for film though he seldom talks about film soundtrack reproduction.
  • John has given kindly review to both passive and active loudspeakers.
  • John doesn’t recommend systems as that requires too much knowledge of listener preferences and habits.
  • John does compare and contrast  review components with other respected components he keeps about for comparison.
  • John usually has KEF and ELAC speakers around and MYTEK and HEGEL electronics and various Raspberry Pi home brew.

John is a thoughtful reviewer. John sees his mission as preserving and promoting interest in high fidelity music reproduction and in expanding the listening audience to keep the music and equipment economically viable. He is primarily an equipment reviewer but does mention the recordings used to illustrate component behavior.

John discloses his preferences. When he reviews, John tries to place the product under review in the evolutionary context of its kind and compares the product to others he has in house at the moment that are similar in capability. John maintains a stable of comparison speakers, amps, and DACs to use in reviewing. If a component is especially capable, John will compare it to others similar in capability without regard to price.

Just what is Future-Fi

What John calls future-fi are systems with a minimum of bits, usually just a stream receiver and pre-amp combo, power amp, and speakers or powered speakers. They are compact and low fuss yet musical.

John has a main system, kitchen audio, and office audio in addition to walking about audio. John’s main system has the following components mentioned in various reviews.

  • Roon server
  • Intel NUC small computer hosting the roon server
  • NAS for media storage
  • Hegel or Chord Digital stream-receiver/DAC combo
  • Harbeth floor standing speakers
  • Allo Digital DigiOne Signature stream-receiver (Raspberry Pi and Roon Based)
  • Hegel power amp and pre-amp
  • Hegel CD player
  • Technics turntable and Ortofon cartridge (mid priced color series).

John subscribes to Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify.
John has other things in inventory that he uses for review purposes and trots out as needed

  • ELAC passive and active stand speakers
  • Speaker stands
  • KEF speakers and stands
  • Kii powered speakers and stands

These are the components to which John compares the component under review.

John is careful to use the same stands and cables with all of the review speakers and comparison speakers to minimize variability. He’s careful to make one change at a time.

Loudness Wars

Producers are in an arms race to make music sound louder. This leads them to use ever more amplitude compression in tracking instruments, in the mix, and in the record master. See Reference 1. These practices are why most popular music records sound horrible. Acoustic, classical, and jazz music producers are not fighting in the wars, just the people dependent on radio air play, namely pop but especially metal producers.

It will probably be necessary to roll off the top end of a high resolution system when playing metal on a high resolution system. But equalization can be removed for playing acoustic music. Modern digital filter based equalization is much more flexible than the tone control filters of a traditional preamplifier.

A starting point for Matt and Advisor Pat

I assumed Matt had about $5000 to spend and that he would probably keep his speakers and amplifier for some time and trade front end components as sources change. I assumed Matt would continue to listen to metal but that he might begin to explore the larger universe of acoustic music in the future. In making a starting recommendation, i assumed a 2 or 3 component system would be attractive to Matt.

  • MYTEK Brooklyn Bridge streaming source pre-amp combo
  • ELAC Navis ARB-51 powered speakers or KEF LS50 active speakers or LS50W wireless powered speakers
  • Roon subscription plus FreeNAS home brew NAS for music storage
  • Roon runs nicely in a VM on the NAS with media as mounted disk devices.

Wireless Speakers?

Note that passive speakers have speaker cables. Active speakers are not wireless. Most have a power cable and a signal cable. But several use digital wireless signal delivery getting the cable count down to one.

The LS50 requires both power and signal cables. The LS50W (a $1000 dollar option) includes electronics that eliminate the need to run signal cables from the front end equipment position to the speaker position. This allows placement of the MYTEK Brooklyn Bridge at an easy chair without running cable from the chair to the LS50 positions. The option is about the cost of an electrician and helper for a day. And unlike installed cable, moving is trivial.

The ELAC Navis also have a wireless option. To use them as wireless speakers requires addition of the ELAC Discovery Connect transmitter. This includes all of the bits needed to make a Navis system wireless.

Passive loudspeaker option.

As an option, those who prefer unpowered speakers might consider Magnepan LRS (little ribbon) speakers and SCHIIT Vidar power amplifier for acoustic music. These reproduce vocals and image like a dream but don’t have weight below C-3 (C below middle C on the piano). But they do have deep base down to C-2 and will cleanly reproduce kick drums, bowed bass, and electric bass.

KEF and ELAC both make excellent passive speakers in addition to the powered speakers described above. You can usually find both a passive and a powered version that share cabinetry and drivers.

The starting point system would play nicely in the 85 to 90 dbA range but would not vibrate ribs or loosen bridgework.

Speaker Placement

The ELAC and KEF speakers are small bookshelf speakers that are fairly easy to place. The Magnaplanar LRS is a full range ribbon speaker packaged as a 1 foot by 5 foot by 1 inch panel. This speaker is a dipole radiator desinged to be placed at least 3 feet out into the room, maybe more depending on room size and shape.

Typically the equipment cabinet and speakers share a wall with the speakers separated by about the distance from the line connecting them to the listening position (isosceles triangle). The speakers are placed in from the side walls and out from the back wall to manage room resonances. These typically show up as some bass guitar notes or horn notes sounding louder than they “should”. That is, the affected frequencies sound louder than the notes around them.

Once speakers are placed, the listening position can be placed. Move the position in and out until the best sound stage is obtained. The Thile-Mheldau duet record is good for this as there are two instruments gloriously recorded plus the two voices. I also like to use the Judy Collins In My Life record which has a natural acoustic. Because of the nature of the instruments and microphone techniques used with them, it is fairly easy to get a natural live music sound. It would be really hard to do the same with a big crazy ensemble like Snarky Puppy that can have 8 to 20 people playing loud and the entire image is created in the mix down.

To tame bass resonances, start with the speakers about 1 meter off the back wall with each the same distance from a room corner if possible. Often, a walk way will constrain one placement. Having the speakers off the wall reduces the amount of wall reflected sound arriving at the listening position.

Start with the listening position as far from the speaker base line as the speakers are apart. If the speakers are 8 feet apart, the listening position would be around 8 feet from the speaker baseline. Move a dining chair around to find the sweet spot, then replace the dining chair with your regular lounge seating.

Most speakers have a 90 degree horizontal beam width. The distance in from the side wall determines where wall reflection starts relative to the listener. The wall behind the listener will also reflect sound to back toward the listener. These delayed reflected sounds will reduce the image crispness and may affect the room modes mentioned above. Floor rugs, shelving holding books, and upholstered furniture can be placed to reduce reflections. Absorbing panels covered with cloth prints like those by Mermeko make attractive acoustic treatments.

Side wall reflections can be managed by toeing the speakers in 45 degrees or until the listening position is on axis. This toe in gives good center fill and broadens the usable listening area to allow inclusion of family members or guests.

Cables?

I recommend ordering the cables you need from Blue Jeans cables in Seattle. They use Belden wire and Neutrek or other quality connectors and use the proper cable for the application. I have speaker, SPDIF patch cable, and balanced cables from them. They will make signal and speaker cables to length.

Cables and cable selection can take on aspects of religion among tweak audiophiles. Cable evaluation is subject to placebo effect. You expect an improvement so there is one when in reality, there is little to no difference in sound. Audio memory is fickle and audio comparison will prefer the louder of two. For example, listen a system with the same pre-amp using unbalnaced and balanced interconnects. The balanced are 3 db louder as they carry a full differential version of the unbalanced signal. You’ll prefer the balanced interconnects over unbalanced almost always.

Horn loaded passive speakers

Matt likes metal and metal is loud. If bass energy is important and kick drum transients are important, you might consider horn loaded speakers like the Klipsch Heresy horns. The new ones are pricey but older series in good condition can be had for $1000 or so on the used market.

The Heresy horns excel at reproducing the energy of a live performance, especially the dynamic contrasts. They do this without regard to genre. Metal, rock, and big orchestral music all come out well. They don’t just play loudly, Klipsch horns are unrivaled in their ability to present soft sounds and loud sounds together. That is, they have dynamic range and dynamic contrast. And they preserve contrast playing softly or at concert hall levels.This matters in recordings like the Thile-Mheldau record where Brad is playing a bold piano improv with Chris plucking percussive sounds in accompaniment. Both John Darko and Steve Guttenberg have commented favorably on these speakers and their ability to reproduce dynamics and dynamic contrasts.

What they give up is spatial detail. Through the years, Klipsch has been working on phase coherence and the sense of space is improving but the big horns (Forte and up) are unrivaled in making you feel you are in the hall or venue. The’ll match concert hall image but they won’t have that pin-point specificity of image constructed in the studio.

But they are not renter friendly (big, heavy) and may require some attention to room placement. For example, some are designed to be in the room corners or against a wall.

These are extremely efficient and have 15 inch bass drivers so they will rattle ribs and crowns. You’ll need a power amplifier with these. I recommend the SCHIIT Vidar with unbalanced interconnects for a 200 watt per channel stereo amp. Using balanced interconnects puts Vidar into bridge mode where it will deliver 400 watts of clean power all day long. 1 watt average is sufficient for the Heresy horns to develop 90+dba sound levels. The SCHIIT Vidar will give 23 db of headroom for musical transients.

The original Klispch horn speakers had a reputation for nice voicing but could not image with other speakers built with phase coherence as a priority. The newer Klispch speakers still have the same Klispch voicing and dynamic authority but image focus is improved as the newer designs take pains to time align the horn drivers. The newer to model, the better it should image. Image placement and focus are not important to metal playback but matter for acoustic music, especially jazz.

Pro Audio Horns?

Danley Sound Labs is best known for its big arena and stadium systems but Danley makes movie theater and house of worship systems noted for their fidelity and ability to image. Danley Sound Labs speakers are known for their precise radiation patterns, natural voice, and coherent sound. They are equally adept at rocking out for the Who or Metallica or preserving the club intimacy of Jazz at the Pawnshop.

Danley Sound Labs makes pro audio studio horn-loaded loudspeakers that have the same careful voicing and time alignment found in high fidelity home speakers for use in recording studios as playback monitors in the mix room and engineers booth. These have a flat black finish and smaller size but they are tough, they can play loud, and they can be repaired.

At least one enthusiast has used Danley SM60-F horn loaded speakers as mains in a home theater rig used for both music and movies. He commented favorably on this application.

See https://www.homecinemaguru.com/review-of-danley-sm-60f-molded-horn-loudspeakers/

The SM-60F has a 60 by 60 degree radiation pattern. The SM-96 has a 90 by 60 radiation pattern making it a closer match to traditional home speakers. See https://www.danleysoundlabs.com/products/loud-speakers/synergy-molded-horns/sm96/

When my church was selecting a sound system provider, we had the opportunity to hear most of the Danley Sound Labs product line. Every speaker from the Jericho stadium horns to the stage monitors had the same voicing and clean, natural sound. Unfortunately, we heard the speakers in a mono demo system in a very reverberate church gym in mono configuration. But the speakers are phase coherent so should image nicely.

All Danley Sound Labs speakers have very carefully controlled radiation patterns to control wall and ceiling reflections. The width and height are usually encoded in the model number. With 45 degrees of toe-in, they can be used as home playback speakers but won’t look pretty. Most have matte black finishes but can be had in white for house of worship applications.

Future-Fi source components

Digital storage and transmission of music have changed the front end of a hi-fi dramatically. Modern systems do not have a tape recorder, FM tuner or other radio, and may not have a turntable for LP playback or even a CD transport or player.

Instead, they replace these things with a digital music stream receiver capable of rendering MP3, AAC, ALAC, FLAC, Ogg Vorbils and similar digitally encoded music sent in any of several containers. Standards profiles define the physical layer, media, link layer, transport layer, and network layer handling of these digital signals. So the front end component is often a small computer running software tailored to these tasks and the decoding of the encoded music to produce a pulse code modulation representation of the original.

A digital to analog converter turns the PCM (a sequence of numbers representing the waveform) into an actual electrical waveform having the same temporal variations as the audio waveform that the loudspeakers will produce.

A reasonable transport device will have most of the following capabilities.

  • Stream internet radio
  • Stream content from a Roon core (server plus control)
  • Encode and store CD media in the local media store
  • Retrieve media from CIFS or NFS mounted file systems
  • Retrieve media from locally attached file systems
  • Transmit content to multiple streaming endpoints (Roon endpoints).
  • Play music locally over balanced and unbalanced interconnects

Front end components for Both

In recommending components for Matt, I did so with an eye toward setup simplicity, compactness, and easy pack up for moving. (Save boxes, especially for speakers and power amps that are heavy.) I picked well regarded things I might buy myself with an eye toward stream receiver plus preamplifer combinations that could be used with both passive (external amplifier) and active (internal amplifiers) loudspeakers.

Transport Only or Complete Audio Interface?

DIgital front end components come in two forms, transport receivers and complete audio interfaces. Transport receivers have Ethernet and WiFi interfaces, a computer, a control interface usually running on a tablet, and run the software needed to unwrap the audio and reconstruct the original PCM sample stream (numerical analog of the original audio).

Audio interfaces add a Digital to Analog converter (DAC) to convert the PCM sample stream to an electrical waveform ready to present to an amplifier. They may or may not have a volume control. They may or may not accept multiple inputs and may or may not have an RIAA phono preamplifier (needed to play LP records).

DIY or Plug and Play

One approach is to home brew an audio interface using Roon, a Raspberry Pi, and hats (bonnets if you’re a Brit) and perhaps an external DAC assembly. John Darko has consistently compared the DIY Raspberry Pi streamers with assembled streamers from BlueSound and Sonos. He consistently ranks DIY above BlueSound which is above Sonos. The DIY products rank at the top of those using commercial converters following the data sheets and below those having original DAC designs. The DAC used with the DIY stream receiver determines the sound. I have not heard the BlueSound or Sonos products. I would recommend the BlueSound based on John Darko’s description of it while reviewing the HiFiBerry and Allo Digital streamers.

HiFiBerry and Allo Digital make good hats and have Raspbian distributions tailored to use of their boards in a Roon Endpoint. I particularly like the Roipeee as it handles Roon updating automagically. The Allo Digital DigiOne Signature streamer sounds particularly nice as they have gone to some effort to keep computer noise in the computer and out of the external DAC.

The big challenge facing the designer is to keep computer digital noise out of the DAC. The DAC designer’s challenges are in the digital filtering used and in rejection of digital noise sneaking over the streamer and to precisely reconstruct the sampling interval and properly reconstructing the audio waveform from the sample stream. The folks at SCHIIT Audio are very skilled at doing these things correctly on a budget. A DIY transport with SCHIIT DAC make a high value complete digital to analog audio interface.

The combination of a HiFiberry or Allo transport with a SCHIIT Modi 3 DAC is a very cost effective way to get started at the cost of having a couple of small boxes lying about in the rack.

Volumio also has a plug and play TInker Board based Primo device that works nicely but is not currently Roon ready. They are believed to be working with Roon Labs to license the Roon and certify Primo as Roon ready. This device has a more finished appearance than HiFiBerry and Allo and similar performance as a streamer. It also has a built in DAC that is on a par with the integrated DAC in Cambridge and Parasound gear. John Darko compares this device favorably to the BlueSound which is his bench mark at the low end of high end audio.

I listen to the Parasound P5 internal DAC daily for TV playback and some radio playback. It is competent but for music listening, any of the SCHIIT DACS is better at dynamic contrast and imaging. The P5 DAC is a Burr Brown by the data sheets implementation. It is competent but can be bettered by specialist designers. Digital reproduction is not a current priority for Parasound. Their thing is value high end preamplifiers and power amplifiers. They prefer to leave home theater and digital to others but they stay feature competitive with NAD and Cambridge.

The better separate DACS clearly reproduce Chris’s quiet mandolin parts, the piano notes are clear as a bell and dance in space, and Brad and Chris voices are distinct in the duet chorus parts. On lesser converters, the tiny percussive mandolin plucks are lost, the piano looses is sparkle and agility, and Brad and Chris sound more like Chris accompanying himself through a second delayed chorus vocal effect channel. This is my impression of the differences between my SCHIIT GUMBY and the Parasound P5 internal DAC using Allo and HiFiberry transports. I have not had the Modi 3 in the big rig.

A first system for Advisor Pat

The Moocher is crazy. One day, he took a hatless Raspberry Pi 4B, put Roon endpoint on it, and plugged in a SCHIIT Modi 3 DAC via USB, a Magni amp, and the Sennheisser HD555 cans. And it was good. This represented about $300 of new bits plus ancient headphones for a very listenable headphone listening system. It can be this simple.

This is not a bad place to start for Advisor. He can stream music from a MacBook or iPhone to the Raspberry Pi running Roon endpoint software. Even without a Allo Digital or HiFiBerry bonnet, the SCHIIT Modi 3 will produce good audio that can be delivered to a headphone amplifier like Magni. Down the road, these can become a work system with MYTEK Brooklyn Bridge taking over home evening listening chores.

This allows Pat to get started as a listener without shelling out big bucks only to discover he can’t find much time to sit down to listen after baths and bedtime stories. Down the road, he can move to the Brooklyn Bridge at chair side.

Add a SCHIIT Vidar and Magnepan LRS passive speaker and you have a $2500 listenable system that will keep you a long time listening to acoustic jazz and singer-sonwriters. If you’re happy with metal at 85 to 90 dbA (safe playback level), it will even rock out.

This system works because the folks at SCHIIT are magic. Jason Stoddard does the analog work and Mike Moffat does the digital work. Several folk help with PIC programming for the device control parts and DSP programming.

SCHIIT worked particularly hard to make a proper USB B interface that keeps digital grunge from the computer out and properly and completely implements the USB 2 audio interface requirements. Coming out of the USB receiver, digital signal processors up-sample and re-time the sample stream before presenting it to the converter. Mike’s reconstruction filter cleans up the audio and Jason’s line stage buffers it and sets playback level. The output stage either drives headphones or a power amplifier. Connecting headphones mutes the power amp output.

Recommended stream receiver

If you’re not a computer DIY sort, a complete device from MYTEK, PS-Audio, or Bryston Audio, NAD Audio or Cambridge Audio. PS Audio is in Colorado. Bryston is a Canadian company. NAD and Cambridge are British. MYTEK is in eastern Europe.

Take some care to check streaming protocols, compression algorithms, and container formats supported and whether preamplifier input selection and level control functions are supported. Some, like the Brooklyn Bridge and Volumio Primo, may be useable without a Roon server in the house. A Raspberry Pi rig like that just described will need Roon or Volumio software to stream music to it.

Both Brooklyn Bridge models include a DAC and produce balanced and unbalanced audio out (serve as an audio interface). One has an WiFi and AES digital inputs (pro audio interface standard) while the other has an Ethernet interface in addition to WiFi. Both serve as Roon Endpoints and receive a number of streaming services plus Internet Radio. Both are built to pro audio standards but the DAC+ is a bit more consumer oriented in its I/O.

MYTEK also makes pro audio kit for use in broadcast, audio, and video production. And they are good. An iPad/Android app controls all the network functions. The Roon controller app controls Roon playback.

The MYTEK Brooklyn devices, though expensive, are a value in that they combine a moving coil and moving magnet phono preamp, analog line level preamp, multiple digital input sources, network streaming audio receiver, and high quality DAC in a single device having balanced and unbalanced outputs. MYTEK also has a well-regarded high quality amplifier in this product line.

Active bookshelf speakers for Matt and Pat

The ELAC and KEF are good general acoustic music speakers but can do a creditable “Dean Town”, a funk track noted for its bass line. These Roon ready powered speakers have wireless receivers, DSP crossovers and driver correction, and power amplifiers built in. If you’re a gear fiddler, you won’t like them as there is little with which to fiddle. If you like jazz and singer-songwriter stuff like I listen to, they are the ticket for a system that is simple yet can play acoustic music with authority. 

Speaker Stands

Either the ELAC or the KEF need to be stand mounted so that they are about head high relative to a listener sitting in lounge seating. The manufacturer’s stands are convenient in that they are the correct height and the top plate is drilled for use with the the speaker. ELAC includes several pre-drilled top plates for use with its small speakers. KEF is silent on the subject. Proper height of “monitor style” or “bookshelf style ” speakers is important to keep the listener in the center of the speaker radiation pattern main lobe. Being sloppy about this will change the speaker’s voicing and detract from its ability to image.

Loud playback caution

Metal is not my genre but I do stumble across it from time to time on the radio. I personally find metal un-listenable on high resolution systems. It will probably be necessary to band limit the play back by bringing the low end high pass filter up a bit to tame room modes and the high end low pass filter down some to remove distortion overtones (10 kHz to 20 kHz) that high fidelity speakers reproduce but club PA speakers cannot. Roon is fairly adept at these sorts of adjustments. Filtering can be enabled to play metal and disabled to play acoustic music.

The second caution is playing loud. Getting too crazy on the playback level can hurt your ears. And warp the tweeter voice coils. When taking acoustic music to excess, you’ll hear the distortion creep in warning you that trouble is brewing. Metal is already distorted so you won’t notice that added by over-driving amplifiers and speakers. Eventually the voice coils will overheat and deform. When this happens, they will rub in the magnet air gap. And you will notice that. Although ok electrically, they are dead as usable listenable loudspeakers. You’ll have to replace the overheated drivers.

Before shopping

If at all possible, listen to a friend’s system or a shop demo system in your price bracket playing the sort of music to which you listen. Give priority to what you are playing now but also listen to acoustic vocal music and jazz. The goal is to meet your current interest yet have the chops to introduce you to acoustic music in an engaging way.

Block diagram your proposed system to be sure that electrical interfaces match up. Make a list of the cables you need and order them ahead. Have at least a network cable, speaker cables (balanced for powered and heavy cable for passive). and an interconnect cable if needed between source component and power amp for passive speaker systems.

Consider buying used classic components

I’m not a skilled trader of components but if you think you might be interested in trading, there are several things to keep it in mind.

  • Unless you live in a large city, there will probably not be a local market. Seattle and San Francisco are notable exceptions as a result of the tech money floating around.
  • There are several used markets associated with Internet audio forum sites. AudioGone is one of the better known and numerous used gear shops are on Ebay.
  • Select high end brands and models hold their value based on durability and inalienability. Macintosh is one. Quad is another. Some older classic gear is collectable like the Great American Sound Ampzilla currently selling in working condition for five times new price.
  • Modern parts and practices may leave cherished classic components behind. This is particularly true of early high end tube preamps and power amps. It may also be true of early solid state products from the 70’s. Solid state before the ’70s didn’t sound good.
  • Keep in mind that some brands have good and bad periods. Sumo before Jason Stoddard was unreliable with overly complex designs and careless parts selection. Early Sumo gear had high failure rates. In his memoirs Jason describes his stay at Sumo in detail and how he cleaned up their designs and build quality.
  • High price is not high quality. Usually just a stupid expensive cabinet. What is inside may or may not sound good.
  • Electrolytic capacitors dry out and fail. Old gear needs care in powering up and may need caps replaced. Check to see if somebody is repairing and rebuilding your brand.
  • Most modern gear uses surface mount components which need special parts replacement technique.