Tuesday, 1 October 2013

System Setup

I tend to have a somewhat contrary attitude towards some aspects system setup. I don't know how many people have a similar point of view, so I thought I would share it.

Unlike a lot of commentators, I find myself to be quite tolerant of the category of sonic defects that fall under the broad umbrella of "coloration". Which is not to say that I can't hear the differences and recognize "tonal palette" defects when I hear them. Its just that they don't upset me as much as they seem to for many other people. When I compare A vs B, my personal preference tends always to be for the most revealing and resolving, the best micro-dynamics, and the cleanest imaging. If that comes with more tonal coloration then so be it. This doesn't mean that I actively LIKE coloration. All else being equal, I will always prefer a natural and uncolored sound. And my tolerance for coloration does have its limits. Beyond a certain point, coloration does become an unacceptable defect on its own, but is something seldom encountered these days (with the notable exception of one of the most hyper-expensive SET/Horn setups on display at this year's CES, whose 1960's level of coloration was appalling).

I have always played every loudspeaker I have ever owned with the grilles, fascias, and protective structures removed, regardless of how that tilts the tonal presentation.  My present loudspeakers are B&W 802 Diamonds, and I prefer to listen to them with the magnetically-attached mesh that protects the desperately fragile tweeter removed. I know that this lifts the treble response out of balance, but it gives me that itty-bitty increase in resolving power. Actually, its not so itty-bitty!  Experience has shown me that if I get those things right, then the music tends to "communicate" with me more.  After an evening spent listening to a great recording with the mesh removed, it sounds strangled with it back on again.   Of course, YMMV.

I tend to have the same reaction to sorting out bass management issues. Bass management is a problem with the room and the speaker's interaction with it. The solution should therefore be with the room, the speaker's placement, and possibly with judicious use of subwoofers. Room treatment involves many things. The choice and placement of furnishings and decorations is a given. Once those are in place, sound-absorbing panels and traps can be used to fine-tune the sound. These can be cost-effectively constructed even by a walking DIY-disaster like myself, but the design and planning is best done with the assistance of an expert. This whole process can take weeks. Months even. For example, introducing an absorbing panel can mean that the speakers might work better in a slightly different position. Or it may make things different, but not necessarily better, which can leave you struggling with what to try next.

When it comes to getting the mid-bass right, though, the interesting question is where I would choose to end up compared with where you might choose to end up. There is no absolute right or wrong here, even though some people will tell you otherwise. Its all about what you prefer to listen to. My room would end up with bass instruments like tympani having excellent stable spatial location, and a clearly resolvable texture and tone. Voices - male voices in particular - would emanate from a human-head-sized point in space (I really dislike those sonic images that evoke a monster-sized human head). Good, acoustic recordings are best for this. Heavily processed studio-based recordings using electronic or amplified instruments introduce an element of uncertainty regarding what it should actually sound like. The bass region is also quite crucial to achieving a sense of acoustic 'space' - the 'you are there' experience, as opposed to the 'they are here' sound. So, ideally you want to listen to the type of recordings that best capture that sense of space. But if the overall sound which best exhibits those characteristics also has a certain element of incorrect tonal colour to it, well I could - and would - live with that. How about you?

[There is a rational argument to be made that if you get the one, you are bound to also get the other, but life is seldom either that easy or that fair.]

As an aside, why does nobody ever mention loudspeaker tilt? Getting the tilt angle 'just so' can pay enormous dividends.  My B&W 802 Diamonds are tilted forward at a quite alarming angle, an adjustment which has allowed the sense of acoustic space (or image depth, if you like) to spring more sharply into focus.

I have never liked the application of EQ to address mid-bass management. Signal processing affects the signal - duh! - but in insidious ways.  It is an unavoidable mathematical consequence that any change in the frequency response brings it with a change in the phase response (and, by extension, in the transient or impulse response).  It is a fair point that you can argue against the audibility of such issues, particularly if it is executed well, but my experience is that in signal-processing your audio, you inevitably pay a price in the revealing/resolving stakes.  At least you do if the original signal was half-decent in the first place.

For the specific problem of sub-bass management, maybe active EQ is the way to go, but since I have never seriously tried that, I really don't have anything helpful to say about it.

I want to end up by suggesting that you need to build up an inventory of standard recordings that you can go back to time and time again when doing system setup. Each of these would highlight a particular aspect of sound reproduction. Before doing anything else, take a handful of these down to your local high-end audio dealer, and arrange to spend a couple of hours with the best system he has available - something as far beyond your existing budget as he can manage. (He will be happy to do this. If not, don't worry, you'll be able to drop by again and maybe avail yourself of a bargain or two during his going-out-of-business sale.) This will give you a point of reference as to what these particular recordings can (should?) sound like. Here are a few that I like to use:

Stravinsky - The Firebird Suite - Minnesota Orchestra, Eiji Oue, Reference Recordings

The Who - Quadrophenia - (I like the Japanese SHM-SACD version best)

Antonio Forcione & Sabina Sciubba - Meet Me In London - Naim Records

Johnny Cash - American IV; The Man Comes Around - preferably on LP

Mahler - Symphony No 2 - Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer, Channel Classics

The Hoff Ensemble - Quiet Winter Night - 2L

Shirley Horn - I remember Miles

Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture - Cincinnati Orchestra, Erich Kunzel, (1999 version)

I'm listening to Quiet Winter Night as I type this:)