Archive for April, 2010

The Audiophile

April 17, 2010

I began my journey into home theater with a love of music. I know, but I assure you, they can go hand in hand. Growing up as a kid in Oklahoma my main source of entertainment in junior high was to go the local high end stereo store. These were the days when two channel was multi-channel. I remember going down everyday after school to be an “intern”; meaning I dusted and swept just for the privilege of listening to and playing with  ultra high end gear. Back then a pair of Infinity IRS would set you back $30,000.00; about $200k today!

My first high end stereo wasn’t the belly button variety, you know, everybody’s got one. Those were the Pioneer with Advent speakers; all my friends had that set up. No, I wanted what I wanted. What truly sounded good to me. I loved music and the system had to reflect that. My first system was a Yamaha receiver      

and a pair of Norman Lab speakers. Never mind the turntable;   I had a very good friend sell me his for pennies on the dollar.

And not just because they were made in Oklahoma...

The turntable, OK a Gerrard, was adequate. But this system still sang in the most beautiful way. My journey had indeed commenced.

Fast forward to a new millennium. Music is “enjoyed” in compressed, limited range digital formats; mp3’s, ACC, and even streamed. But can it still excite? For some it’s not about the quality, but the quantity;  iPod’s having 75,000 songs for some, is the height of their experience. But storage is becoming less expensive every day;  we can now get a terabyte for less than 100 megs cost a few years ago! New (and not so new) lossless formats let us maintain the integrity of the music, and inexpensive data storage means we can, if we choose, have our cake and eat it too. Lot’s of music with the best possible playback performance.

And this is where the fun begins. Some of us are out growing our ear plugs, longing for something much better. And boy, can we have it. First, I recommend using he highest bit rates possible or formats such as FLAC, Apple Lossless, or MPEG-4 ALS, as these will make downloaded or recorded music sound its’ best.  Then, look long and hard at your stereo gear. Sony, with the  STR-DA1500ES offers a wonderful two channel stereo receiver (I know, redundant). This is extremely musical, has an unbelievable 5 year factory warranty; with a digital media port, you can easily add a Sony iPod dock.  Dock and receiver? Under $500. Then choose a pair of speakers to compliment the receiver on one hand, and that give you pleasure on the other. For warm, rich and inexpensive, the PSB Alpha’s are tremendous value at under $300.00 a pair! Stepping up, the ERA Design 5s or the Usher  S-520, and the new kid in town, the Episode 700 Series bookshelf; great sound, excellent value, and a lifetime warranty.

Well hello there...

While the Episode’s high gloss piano black finish doesn’t lend itself well to the theaters’ with very large (84″ and above) screens because of mirror like reflectivity, as a set of two channel music speakers, or flanking a gloss black flat panel TV they are superb.

Beyond the bookshelf recommendations we get into  floor standing tower speakers; but that is a story we’ll visit later, as well as explore separate components, or separates as they are called.

Once you’ve chosen the perfect music system, proper placement is key. I believe getting the most out of your investment requires tuning, much like a high performance car (without the insurance!). I love going into my clients homes and setting up a system; of course home theater set up is critical, but we want our music to sound good too. Sometimes we have rooms tailor made for optimum musical performance. But most of the times not. So how we set up a two channel system requires every bit as much skill as even the most elaborate home theater. But don’t let that spook you; it doesn’t have to be a chore, or expensive. It just needs to be done right.

The right system, set up properly, can even make streaming music, such as Rhapsody or Pandora, sound incredibly better.  I am having a blast listening to the Surf channel (very Quentin Tarantino) via Rhapsody on an inexpensive Peachtree Audio Decco integrated amp, powering a pair of  equally inexpensive Episode 500 series book shelf speakers. Unlike their big brothers the 700 Series, these could certainly benefit from a small and musically tight subwoofer for the lower depths. But this is streaming music, and it still sounds awesome! I’ll be blowing out the Peachtree very soon, and I will be replacing it with the more powerful Sony receiver. This will be a much less expensive solution, with a little more forward sound; the Peachtree after all has a vacuum tube (wonderfully old school) front end. The Sony ES (and I stress ES) however is very much an audiophile level performer.  But that’s why I own the toy store; so I can keep on playing.