Well this was interesting. I booked into a very high end dealer’s showroom for a detailed listen to one of the DSP-active products that I have mentioned in these pages, plus a presentation by the manufacturer. We are talking the price of a grand piano, a house extension, or a very nice car. Basically, my aim in going was to understand a little bit more of what I’m writing about, and to confirm that DSP active systems are indeed the bee’s knees. (And also, I am not immune to the pleasure of gawping at ultra-expensive stuff in a luxurious showroom – and it really was a very, very nice showroom).
The medium-to-large demo room was a fairly standard rectangular shape with a sofa towards one end, carpeted with plasterboard walls and ceiling and a small amount of ‘acoustic treatment’. The speakers were located reasonably well away from any walls without any toeing-in. There was an audience of about seven or eight of us.
The representative launched straight into playing ‘audiophile music’ and I could tell immediately that some listeners were not altogether impressed. The sound, to my ears, was ‘boxy’ with a very peaky, congested mid range, and little deep bass. The representative turned it up quite loud (much louder than a girl-and-guitar would be in real life) and it was not impressive – I might have expected a similar sound from one of those compact systems you can buy in the electrical sections of supermarkets. There were a couple of vinyl-and-valve afficionados there, and I got the feeling they were quietly triumphant, as this proved what they knew all along.
I spied on the representative’s laptop that the system had been configured with what looked like quite strong room correction and I became convinced that this was the problem, thinking “Aha, there’s the problem. Once he turns that off, people are going to be astounded.” He duly did turn the correction off but the audible difference was relatively subtle – it sounded poor with, or without. I listened carefully, and not only did there seem to be a problem with the ‘EQ’, but there seemed to be nothing in the way of stereo imaging either – I couldn’t locate where any particular sound was supposed to be emanating from.
The source was switched from the slightly unreliable digital (“server problems”) to vinyl. A completely fresh LP was taken from its cellophane wrapping and placed on a well-regarded brand of record deck. It sounded very similar to the digital except for some very loud crackles and pops during one track.
So what was the problem? The company representative didn’t seem to notice that there was anything wrong with the sound (or he hid his doubts well), but I am pretty sure that the listeners were not impressed.
I went out into the shop’s main foyer and had a quick listen to an £82,000 (yes, really) streamer/amp/passive speaker system which comprised the largest speakers you’ve seen in your life (yet still bass reflex – why?) and a large stack of purposeful-looking boxes on a rack, with as many power supplies as functional boxes; £2000 here, £4000 there. Amazingly, in this day and age, there was a loud ‘crack’ from the speakers when the power was applied to one box while others were already on; maybe one of the hazards of multi-box systems. We turned the volume up fairly high, and again the sound didn’t seem all that impressive – you wouldn’t have known you weren’t listening to smaller floorstanders – and I thought that the drivers didn’t blend together well. However, in this case, the listening environment was definitely not ideal and we should have been standing further away from the speakers. Even so, I was hoping for a sense of something amazing. I didn’t get it.
As so often happens with my encounters with the world of ‘real’ hi fi, I am left bewildered. I am sure that there’s a lot of fine tuning that can be done in the speaker positioning and room layout, and you can’t dismiss the psychological aspects of expectation bias, what mood you’re in, how your ears have become accustomed to your existing system, and so on. Maybe on another day I might have heard something different. But I can’t help but think that something has been lost somewhere along the way; I think that there used to be an unmistakable richness that came from large sealed speakers, even if you just heard a brief burst in a shop. There were problems, too, but what I am hearing these days just doesn’t seem as good. In the case of today’s DSP active system, I think it was just plain wrong.
Of course I am undermining my thesis that DSP active systems are the way of the future, but I think that if they are loaded up with the wrong crossover files, or some other drastic problem then all bets are off. What struck me was how one bad experience could easily put you off a particular brand, or type of system, or type of room. I have no doubt that some of yesterday’s audience went away with reinforced beliefs that DSP/digital/solid state sounds bad. I am left wondering whether in my proposed house extension I should be insisting on directly-plastered walls rather than dry lining, just in case.
(My own £380 system is still easily the best I have heard so far. I genuinely wanted that not to be the case with yesterday’s listening session, so that it might show me what I am missing and inspire me to replace my £9 mid-frequency drivers with something better – but after a year and a half I still feel no need to change anything.)