As you may have seen, I built my own audio system because I had never before heard a system which took the seemingly obvious steps of using large sealed woofers, time alignment, DSP crossovers, driver correction etc., and I wanted to know what it sounded like. I also wanted to experiment with various aspects of crossover design (although I ended up doing less of this than I expected), and to understand what is important versus what is myth. Maybe DEQX, Kii, B&O or Meridian could have sold me something that sounded good, but it would have been an expensive black box that I couldn’t tinker with.
What have I learned from listening to my DIY system? I think the following:
There is a superficial ‘hi-fi’ sound that is achieved by many conventional systems – and I have owned some of these systems. The frequency response is balanced. Harmonic distortion is low – it sounds ‘clean’ at moderate volumes – it has bass and top end in seemingly generous amounts. It is certainly ‘stereo’ as you can clearly hear different things coming from the left, right and middle. If you start to turn up the volume, it does begin to sound somewhat ‘loud’ and ragged, and it can also feel as though the sound is being extruded through an opening that’s slightly too small. After a long listening session at high volumes your ears feel quite ‘sore’, but you are reasonably satisfied with the sound. This, presumably, is how recordings must really sound – you certainly can’t put your finger on anything that isn’t a reasonable facsimile of what it is supposed to be.
And then there are other, more specialised systems which cost much more to buy, and take us into the realms of audiophilia. They’re often impressive to look at, but I think they can sometimes sacrifice “high fidelity” in order to indulge their creator’s interest in a particular material or ‘retro’ technology. You may disagree.
There should be the possibility of a system that just implements the obvious pragmatic steps necessary to get the recorded waveform out of the speakers reasonably accurately (however we define that). There aren’t many of these about, it seems to me. I have heard only one such system – the one I put together using cheap off-the-shelf parts and DSP ‘glue’ – and I find its sound to be different and, if I may say so, better than conventional systems. Here’s what I think it sounds like:
The first thing that strikes you is that although it is ‘clean’, ‘sweeter’ and less ‘edgy’ than the conventional system, it also has ‘flavour’ and ‘body’ – it sounds just like real music. If it’s a double bass being plucked, you hear the fingers releasing the string, and the sound hits you in the chest; if it’s a hi-hat cymbal being struck, you hear the stick meeting the cymbal in delicate detail; if the sound is being made by something heavy and solid, or wooden and hollow, you picture the object making the sound. A part of the dynamism of the sound is how quickly it stops, as well as how quickly it starts. Bass is ‘real’ and not just a ‘rumble generator’; there is no arbitrary limit on how low the bass can go – not that you analyse the sound in those terms. It is simply ‘real’.
Next, you notice the imaging, the clear separation of the instruments, and the acoustics. The person singing is in front of you, located at some position in space between or behind the speakers – you feel as if you could reach forward and touch them. If it’s a live acoustic recording, they are in an acoustic space, and you are there too. There is separation between the singer and other instruments spread around the space – if that is how they were recorded. In a studio recording, maybe the vocalist is in a smaller space than your listening room, and you picture them close to the mic in a booth, perhaps, singing towards you. Or if the sound is coming from within a cool, stone cathedral, you picture the cathedral extending beyond the walls of your room. This is definitely the ‘party trick’ of stereo – a compelling, coherent acoustic space that appears as if by magic in thin air.
Then, you realise that you can listen to the recording at its intended volume. The ‘natural’ volume setting for each recording is usually quite apparent, but the system doesn’t mind what volume you set it at. The copious, dynamic bass means that you are not tempted to turn up the level excessively to compensate for a missing part of the spectrum. Your ears don’t ring afterwards, and even after listening for long periods at what would normally be considered high volume, they don’t feel sore. And there is a physical element to loud, natural, dynamic music that generates an excitement all its own.
It doesn’t need training or experience to appreciate these aspects of the sound, but at the same time there is just so much more to hear in the recording. You become more engaged with it; involvement rather than passively observing a superficially pleasant sound wafting over you.
Thinking about it some more, it is obvious that what I am describing is the sound of the recording, not the system. Some would describe this as a “neutral” system, but the mistake would then be to say that the resulting sound is neutral; I think recordings are astonishing if only we get to hear them without an intervening interpretation.