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Getting Great Sound
How to get great sound at home

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March 2016   audio reviews   headphones   tube amps   all reviews

 

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Great sound is closing your eyes, and you're at the concert hall. You can hear everything, and even with your eyes closed, can see all the musicians, everything they are doing, and everything that's happening.

This is a long article and will cover many things at many different prices, but honestly the best thing I've heard for the least amount of money is to get a set of beyerdynamic T51i headphones. Plug them into your iPhone and you're done. Personal tastes vary, but I actualy find them more enjoyable than my $5,000 STAX SR-009 headphones or $100,000 speakers as set up by most people. Get the T51i and you can enjoy your music and not worry about everything else in this article. Stay with me, though, and I'll have your home speakers sounding just like the original concert.

You don't want the musicians to sound like they are in your room. Unless you live in Carnegie Hall, your living room probably sounds terrible compared to where the music was performed. You want the sound to match what you'd hear in concert; you don't want to hear the sound of your own room, unless you live in a concert hall.

I know what what the concert hall sounds like, and have spent decades learning what I'll share here after nearly 50 years since I first started designing my own live recording equipment.

The world knows me as a photographic artist, but what they don't know is that the first decade of my career was spent doing live music recording for a living. I'd still be doing that today if I hadn't gone to college to get a "real" job instead of doing what I really loved, which I've kept doing for fun all these decades since.

You don't have to spend much to get fantastic music reproduction today, although this article will show how to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars if you like. I'll start at free and go up from there, but first let's start at what's important.

 

What's Important

The music is all that matters.

Music should be brilliantly composed, brilliantly preformed, and brilliantly recorded.

Music is the only thing that matters. It doesn't matter how well reproduced it is if it's boring or poorly performed. Some people will spend a lifetime fiddling with their stereo system, but never actually sit back and enjoy any music for more than a moment before stopping to fiddle again. Don't become one of those.

Music lovers like me will stop in our tracks if a favorite song, or something interesting we've never heard before, is playing in an elevator or on-hold on the phone. We don't care how well it's reproduced, so long as it's worth hearing.

A former radio boss of mine in the 1970s, Dr. Brown, came from decades of playing in major radio network orchestras, back when they had orchestras in the 1950s. One day as chief engineer when I was going off about somesonic improvement we needed to make to our FM radio station, he replied that it's all about the music, and that "he enjoys a Beethoven symphony even if it's playing on a 3" speaker on a car radio." He's 200% right: the music is all that matters.

We'll cover a lot of ground below, but remember to spend more time enjoying music than you do fiddling with wiring.

Let's start with the easy things, some basic equipment recommendations, and I'll get to the details later.

 

The three legs of the bar stool

Reproduced music has a long way to go from the imagination of its creators until it makes it into your head.

 

1.) The Music

As just covered, the music has to be great. Why bother reproducing boring music?

Music should be genius. It should be brilliant, and then its performance should be spirited and engaging.

If the original performance isn't a total knockout, no reproduction of it will be worth anything either.

The music itself is the most important part of the sound you'll hear. The work itself has to be great, and the performance of that work also has to be exceptional.

 

2.) The Recording

Recording engineers spend lifetimes improving our abilities to capture the magic of a performance. We're always trying new ways to capture the sound: different microphones, different places to put them, different preamplifiers, and of course the medium on which we record has gone from wax to wire to tape to digital. The art of recording is just that, and everyone does it differently, and every project comes out differently.

Recording quality varies wildly from one to the next. Some people who worry too much don't realize this, and spend lifetimes trying to track down problems that aren't even in their reproduction equipment: half the problems people hear are simply in the recordings in the first place!

If the stereo image isn't the way you want it, if things are too brittle or too muffled, often that's just the way it was recorded.

Much as the music is the most important thing since it's the contents of any recording, the quality of that recording is far more important than the medium in which that recording is delivered to you.

It doesn't matter much if it's a CD or high-resolution file or a crummy Napster MP3 if the music and the recordings aren't first rate. If the contents is great, then the way it's delivered to you isn't that critical. I'll cover formats in more depth below, but to summarize, CDs and AAC files (iTunes at 128 kbps VBR and above) and fancier files are great. MP3 is an obsolete format that survives just like cockroaches (replaced by AAC), and can sound good or bad depending on many factors. Streaming services also vary wildly, since their actual data rates go all over the map.

 

3.) Your Gear

Your gear is the last part of a long chain. If you don't have great recordings of great music on tap, no speakers will sound good, even if the music is enjoyable.

If you do have great recordings, then 99% of what you hear are your speakers and your room.

Headphones are fantasic because your room doesn't matter. Pop on your headphones, and you're there. It's much, much easier (and therefore much less expensive) to get great sound out of headphones, so I'll start there first.

 

Headphones

Since we want original concert sound, headphones get us there much faster and cheaper than speakers in a room.

For a few hundred dollars worth of headphones we can get sound from an iPhone that's as good as from $10,000 worth of speakers and amplifiers, so let's start with headphone systems.

Headphones sound great right out of the box, plug and play. Speakers can take years to get set up perfectly in your home.

 

Closed versus Open-Back Headphones

Most people think of closed headphones when they think of headphones. These isolate you from outside sound, and people around you don't hear your music.

Open-back headphones are just that: they let half the sound out the back, and since they are open, you can hear everything around you. People have to hear you, and you have to hear them.

Ideally all headphones would be closed, but ask yourself what happens to the half of the sound that goes out the back? In closed headphones it still has to go somewhere, and what doesn't get absorbed inside the headphone case comes reflected back into your ears through the driver. This can muddy the sound, and is why the very best headphones are usually open.

I prefer closed headphones because they do a better job of brinigng me out of my house and into the concert hall, but only if they have clear sound as do the T51i.

 

Free

Apple's latest EarPods that come free with your iPhone are actually pretty good.

Here's a trick: Use the free Dirac HD Player Lite app and it honestly improves them immensely for critical listening.

I found that my free EarPods used with Dirac sounded about as good as my $1,500 Ultrasone Edition 8 headphones. Not bad for free!

 

$3

If you want to splurge, for $2.99 you can get the full version of the Dirac HD Player which adds the ability to use your playlists, as well as correct for Apple's sealed in-ear earphones as well. Sound quality with the EarPods is the same as the lite version.

See also my Dirac HD player review.

 

$100

For around $100, your best bets are the classic Sony MDR-V6 or the Senal SMH-1000. The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 have been a standard in recording studios for years, half because they are tough and also because they sound pretty good.

The Apple Earpods with Dirac for free above sound as good as these $100-range headphones; the advantage of these is that they block the sound of your room and have fortified bass response which make them more fun.

See their reviews; the Sony have better deep bass, while the Senals are smoother. The ATH-M50 cost a little more and are about as smooth as the Senals with the bass of the Sonys. Choose your poison, or ideally go to the next step which offers no compromises. Your music is worth it.

 

$300

Everyone's tastes will differ because we all have differently-shaped heads that alter the sound of any headphone, but on my ears, my beyerdynamic T51i capture the original sound of the concert hall like nothing else. I put them on, and Bingo!, I'm transported back to the original concert. They sound fantastic for every kind of music.

I've had my set of these German-made beauties for two years, and have never grown tired of them. Whatever I play on them, their minor errors from what a "perfect" headphone like the STAX SR-009 actually makes them sound better. My STAX SR-009 are extraordinrily accurate, which make them dull and boring — sounding exactly like a recording. I don't want to hear recordings; I want to hear music. My T51i add a little bit of magic that makes recordings sound like the actual concert, which makes them far more enjoyable. I'm honest; I own all this and never use my SR-009 exept for forensics.

Not only do the T51i sound spectacular, they work fantastically with any iPhone, and don't need any other amplifiers. The T51i are also tough and comfortable and portable, and come with a sturdy, handy case so you can take them everywhere.

While the more expensive headphones below are more accurate, more accurate means that they make the music sound more like its recording. These T51i are uncanny in making the music sound not like a recording, but like the actual concert. For me, that's what wins.

Plug them into your iPhone and you're done. Seriously, if you're a music lover as opposed to tweaker, these are your answer. I own headphones like the STAX SR-009, SR-007 Mk II and the special amplifiers to drive them, and while they are more accurate and slightly clearer for over ten times the price, I still prefer my T51i for pure musical enjoyment over my SR-009. Done.

 

$700

The American-Made Audeze EL-8 are another revelation. They reproduce sound almost as well as my STAX headphones, but plug right in to your iPhone.

The new EL-8 are much improved from earlier models like the LCD-3 and LCD-X because the EL-8 weigh much, much less. The originals are big, bulky, not that comfortable and fall off your head if you move around. The EL-8 cost only a fraction as much due to some very clever innovation, and sound just as good, and are smaller, lighter and much more comfortable.

The EL-8 fold flat, and stay on your head as you move around.

The EL-8 are more accurate and smoother than the T51i. I still prefer the T51i for overall enjoyment and reproducing the elusive sound of the actual concert from what we actually get in recordings becuse the EL-8 are a bit too muffled for me. The sound is too dull or far away in the EL-8, but if you prefer the sound towards the back of the concert hall (I always sit front row or in the esamble), the EL-8 could be worth a look.

THe EL-8 are big and don't travel anywhere near as well as the T51i.

 

$1,500

I hate having to say this that we can spend this much and it still sounds better, but I really, really enjoy the sound of my Ultrasone Edition 8.

The Edition 8 boosts the deep bass, which sounds better than the flatter response of more accurate headphones like the Audeze and STAX.

 

$3,000

The very best headphones are electrostatic, which today are STAX headphones.

A disadvantage is that they require a separate high-voltage power supply, making them a poor choice for portable use.

Any of them, even the old ones from the 1970s, sound great. The most popular today are the SR-007 Mk II and the SR-009.

I have a complete review of the SR-007 Mk II, and am still working on my review of the STAX SR-009.

The SR-007 Mk II are more enjoyable than the more expensive SR-009. The SR-009 are the most accurate audio transducers known to Man, but that also makes them more boring than the SR-007. The SR-007 are warmer, while the SR-009 are drier.

Get the SR-007 Mk II; they are fantastic. Pass on the SR-009, unless you're using them for forensics like coder algoritm development, deciphering scrambled audio or trying to understand voices against a lot of background noise in survallance tapes.

 

Speakers

Your speakers, where they are placed and where you sit, are by far the most critical part of your system.

Put most of your money into your speakers and most of your time into where you put them. Great speakers well placed and driven by basic electronics sound much better then so-so speakers driven by the very best electronics.

I'm very serious: great speakers driven by awful electronics sound much better that merely very good speakers driven by the finest electronics. All electronics are prety good, while speakers vary all over the map.

Back in the 1980s I sold my original Quad ESL electrostatic loudspeakers to a freind. He had Barbara Steisand playing over them when his freinds came to visit. They were floored at the quality of the sound, and wouldn't stop asking him silly questions to which he didn't know the answers — but I did. They first asked what kind of speaker wire he was using: Radio Shack 24 gauge. Then what kind of amplifier: a Lafayette 40 WPC transistor integrated amplifier, and then what source: a first-genration 1985 Radio Shack CD player (this was 1985). I finally had to bust out lauging ad explain that what they hadn't asked yet is that he had my Quad ESLs, which just happen to be the very best speaker ever made for te reproduction of the human voice. Even driven with relatively crummy electronics placed well they sound magnificent.

It's always about your speakers and their placement, and almost never about your electronics.

 

Speaker Placement

Speaker placement is critical. Ours ears hear even the slightest change in speaker positioning. A centimeter or a fraction of an inch is a big deal, which is why it can take years to find the best way to position your speakers.

Be prepared to spend a lot of time experimenting with where you put your speakers. My B&W 801s roll on their own casters, and I put other speakers on furniture dollies so I can move them easily as I discover the best-sounding place for them.

I strongly recment using dollies so you can move larger speakers around; wigh out these you won't be able to move tem easily, won't experiment much, and you'll never find the AHA! position that finally sounds as you want them to.

I kid you not: it usually takes me over a year when I move to a new location to find the best places to put my speakers! I keep trying, and it takes a long time to try out all the different new ideas of where best to put them.

 

Where you sit

Where you sit is just as critical as where you put yor speakers.

THe reason it may take a year is that you have to try different places for your chair as well as for your speakers.

 

Bass

Exactly as with speakers, the closer you are to a wall or corner, the more bass you hear.

 

Stereo Image

It's also critical that you sit exactly equidistant from your two speakers.

Even a quarter-inch or few millimeters error will stongly shift the stereo image to one side or the other. Because of this you can't deliver a clear stereo image to a group of people unless they all have their heads in the plane that represents the locus of points equidistant from each speaker. If a bunch of people stand around, probably no one will actually see the correct stereo image unless there the guy who closes his eyes in the exact center and moves his head left and right until the image comes into focus.

 

WARNINGS

Don't use the back wall

The worst place to put your speakers is along your back wall, with your gear in the middle.

Sadly this is what most people do, and it sounds horrible. When you put your speakers close to a wall, you now have early reflections coming from that wall, which completely mucks-up your sound.

Worst, most of the time when people do this the speakers are also near a wall on each side. This makes the bad sound ten times worse from all the reflections.

Putting your speakers far away at the far side of your room ensures that you're going to be hearing a lot of your room, which unless you're Carnegie Hall, is going to sound horrible.

 

Recommendation

After years and years of fiddling, it turns out that the best place for my chair is a against a wall or a foot away from it, the the best place for my speakers is

speakers usually

 

Acoustics

Your room acoustics are as important as your speakers. Your room has When I read about a new studio being built

Your electronics have very little to do with it, since electronics are so good today. Your choice of amplifiers has 1% or less to do with your sound, and trivia like cables and power conditioners have nothing to do with anything, unless some other part of your system is crummy.

 

 

 

 

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June 2015