Complexity vs. Simplicity – The Audiophile’s Dilemma…
hese are the days when anything goes (with apologies to Sheryl Crow)….
Every audio system can supposedly be enhanced with the newest electronic gadget. And the variety, price, and sheer abundance of gadgets just grows and grows and grows.
Not to be dismissed so easily, though, the stereo contingent fought back with the lovely high-end extension of the (now lower output) moving-coil stereo cartridge. And along with that came the entire pantheon of moving-coil step-up transformers, and electronic pre-preamplifiers. I remember fondly the Sony HA-T10 transformers and the Mark Levinson moving coil pre-preamp. These devices still needed the RIAA equalization and phono input of the typical receiver or integrated amp, though. And those were the SIMPLE old days.
When the digital revolution rolled through in the mid-1980s (along with the vilest sounding audio electronics ever sold – remember the Technics by Panasonic receivers with 0.000001% total harmonic distortion – achieved by odious amounts of negative feedback that caused the most brittle high frequencies known to man). The “perfect sound forever” of 16/44.1 audio launched itself atop the “everything should sound crisp and clean” hubris of the 1980s audio scene. Alas, poor Yorick – though my lady should put on paint an inch thick to this favor she must come (and even decades after, thine ears burn yet…).
Starting at the front end:
Many of us use a spare computer as a music server. The variety of server software available is prodigious, with Roon and J-River Media Center or even Audirvana probably leading the pack. So, if you also want internet streaming services (TIDAL, Amazon, Apple, Qobuz, etc.) your server computer usually suffices. But once you have that software installed, you need a way to stream from wherever the computer physically resides to wherever your audio system lives.
For most of us, this means we also need a streamer (or in Roon-speak, a “destination”). This device receives the signal via Ethernet or 802.11 (usually) and exports a digital signal via TOSLINK optical, USB, Coaxial PCM, ABS/EBU, or HDMI to your Digital to Analog converter (DAC). This can be a DIY project like the Raspberry Pi (about $100), an intermediate solution such as the Bluesound Node 2i (about $550), or a marriage wrecker like the Lumin X1 Networker (about $14,000).
Digital room correction
Curiously, this issue is moot if the room correction is being done to the subwoofer signal only. Subwoofer distortion is already high enough that the extra damage done by room correction is beneficial despite the audible decay.
But even if equalization is done on the analog side, the phase-shift inherent in steep filters can be audible too. A simple bass/treble set of analog controls is unlikely to do significant harm. But if you’re using a 31-band, 1/3-octave pro equalizer, the band filters are very steep, causing a lot of phase shift. I’ve found the four-band Schiit Loki equalizer to be fairly benign, but the more bands of analog equalization you’re applying, the greater the chance that phase shift (or even uneven slopes caused by inexpensive parts) will make the equalization’s side effects audible.
But with every device yet developed, there have been negative effects along with the positive ones. The audiophile community has never accepted any of these devices as being truly high-fidelity due to their unwanted side effects.
But with the surface mount technology of today’s miniaturized components, such modification is generally beyond the capabilities of the do-it-your-selfer. Additionally, the circuit complexity has grown by orders of magnitude, making the effect of any single component not only less audible but also less impactful on the overall reliability of the circuit.
- The first few sound absorber treatments make the biggest difference. After those first few, the effect of each successive absorber is exponentially less. This is at odds with the online room treatment estimators that recommend you cover your walls, corners, and ceilings with their products. This is because the vendors are estimating what you’d need for a home recording studio (not a listening space) and because they’re in business to sell you LOTS of room treatments.
- The second bit of good news is that you can make your own sound absorbers at a fraction of the price of commercial ones. See YouTube for a plethora of types and methods.
Of the items discussed, the one that I’d recommend without much hesitation is room treatments, specifically in the form of sound absorbers, sound diffusers, or bass traps (in that order). These make readily audible differences in the sound, are usually beneficial, and even a few make a more audible difference than the rest of the items discussed in this article combined.
But that’s just my opinion. My opinion and a buck will buy you a cup of McCoffee®. The bottom line, ultimately, is that YOU have to listen for yourself and decide based on what you’re hearing. The best advice I can give you is to NOT make a quick decision on any audio improvement purchase. Sleep on it (maybe even for a few nights) before deciding. Is this item REALLY going to improve your system? Can you REALLY hear a positive difference? Is this item a cost-efficient way to improve your system or would the money be better spent elsewhere (or even, not at all)?
We all want more realistic sound (and video) because we love music (and movies). But many music lovers get caught in the constant churn of buying something they think will bring them closer to the music only to be eventually disappointed. When this comedown occurs, they often sell what they just bought (at a loss) and go looking for the next big thing that will improve their audio system.
This way lies madness! One of the first lessons for audiophiles is this: No reproduction system will ever be like live sound. Symphony orchestras are often recorded with dozens of microphones, but you only have two ears to listen to it in person. You wouldn’t want a rock band or a symphony orchestra in your living room anyway. Live music and music reproduction are different experiences. Learn to appreciate them both for what they are.