Musings from a SECRET’s Reader
– Richard Johnston
I just want to start by saying this is a relatively long post (ok, really long post), but it ends up summarizing my personal view of audio equipment in general.
Originally, I was going to post this on the Secrets Facebook site in response to the Anthem D2v 3D review where some people essentially said that releasing a new component without 4K support or support for the newer sound formats seemed pointless (neglecting to note that the product was already 2 years old at the time of the review). It was also stated that comparing equipment in a retail environment with little control for the setup, or speakers not capable of actually resolving any differences (I have no idea if this was true as the equipment used was not disclosed) is a valid test.
Far be it from me to say that nobody should even want to have the absolute latest and greatest, even if there is little actual use for it today, and in the case of upcoming hi-res video formats, no guarantee that it still won’t change further so that anything you buy today that adheres to today’s “standard” won’t be obsolete next year. Think back to Sony Beta, HD-DVD, and the various ongoing HDMI specification updates that have driven all the “I have to have the latest” folks a bit crazy on upgrades until the “standard” stabilized to some degree.
As someone who has spent the last 20 or so years with a definite goal in mind for my audio system and have incrementally upgraded slowly over the years, my goal has always been to have an audio chain that, in effect, took whatever the input signal was and just made it louder without messing with it or colouring it in any way. If I need to add anything to the sound to fix bad mastering, I can choose to do so, but by default I leave my system “neutral”. However, I am truly fortunate that my room measures pretty flat already, so the use of ARC from my Anthem Statement D1 made little difference for me, but that was what I expected anyway, given what I already knew about my room.
Since the “experience” each individual has listening to their personal system (or watching on their display device of choice) really is a personal thing, as long as you are satisfied with your own setup, then it doesn’t really matter what it cost (inexpensive or way too far the other way), or if it adheres to the absolute latest “standard”, as long as you are enjoying it.
Even in my own home, my expectations of the audio in various rooms is different. I am completely satisfied with the sound I get from a Logitech Squeezebox Radio in my bedroom for example, or the Squeezebox Boom in the backyard, but when I listen to the ‘Big System’, I expect it to be essentially perfect (as far as my ears can tell). I have also set up a Denon 1708 receiver with a tiny set of five Paradigm speakers and an extra 8″ sub for someone, and when we got it properly set up, it sounds wonderful for them and is certainly very pleasant to listen to in its own right. It is all a matter of perception and expectations of what you want from the setup.
So, although it is great to be able to compare components in a store setting, it may not be the case that the entire system is up to showing what differences there are between the units. This is especially so in a retail setting, and ESPECIALLY not in your own system and room, which is really where it counts. This relates to one of the comments at the end of the article about how a Denon and a Statement D2v 3D sounded essentially the same. I conclude from that that something else in the signal chain likely was holding back the reproduction of the sound (typically this is contributed to by the speakers for the most part in my experience).
As I said much earlier, I have been slowly upgrading my audio system for a very long time now and have finally almost reached what I consider the ultimate end-point for it. I am currently using an Anthem Statement D1, and the lack of HDMI or processing has not been a huge hindrance to me. I just made sure that for hi-res audio from Blu-ray, I bought a player capable of producing very high quality analogue sound (an OPPO 95) and use the analogue inputs on my Anthem to work with it.
So, I run HDMI straight to my TV and both digital and analogue audio to my Anthem. I will switch between them on movies to pick which sound is more natural for that specific movie. Why? Unfortunately, just because the sound for a movie may be labeled as hi-res doesn’t necessarily mean it was originally recorded that way, and therefore ends up being a marketing gimmick (checkbox tick if you like) for those who feel that if it says it is hi-res, it must be better. The same issue exists with some of the hi-res audio available from some of the download providers where it is really just upsampled 16bit 44.1kHz material or hi-res recordings of poor masters. I am not saying all recordings are like this, but it is still a case of being careful.
All that said, I would like to have HDMI inputs and internal video scaling (for old video game consoles for example) in the Anthem and am considering upgrading to a D2v for the enhanced video handling, but like pretty much everything else in my system, I will wait for it to come along at the right price. It took me 20 years to finally get the speakers I wanted, so in the interim, I made due with some other really very good speakers that were not outrageously priced themselves. The total cost of both sets of speakers was still much less than half of my latest speakers new.
Given the equipment I desired to have in my system, I could never afford to buy pretty much any of it new, so that is another reason I spent so long getting to where I am now. I figured out I have saved at least 75% of the new prices overall on my equipment.
So, I don’t have the latest and greatest equipment, but I can certainly get around the current “limitations” easily enough with no loss in quality (in my opinion). Audio wise, I would put my system up against anyone’s today, as the sound is truly spectacular on well mastered recordings (I listen primarily to digital FLAC rips of my CDs with some vinyl thrown in for good measure, and mostly Blu-ray movies these days for video). Unfortunately ,CDs (and more than a few LPs) I used to think sounded pretty good on my stereo circa 1990, sound pretty hideous today, thanks to what has been described as a setup that is possibly “too accurate” (even by the guys at Anthem when I called to confirm that it is not an issue with the age of my unit). This is not a bad thing, as I can truly enjoy a lot of really good-to-excellent recordings, and if necessary, add a defeatable processor to the signal path as necessary to tame (where possible) other recordings that I just cannot otherwise get with better mastered pressings.
I personally do not see a lot of value in worrying about 4K compatibility today, since the format is still too young and mostly unsupported by content providers. This also leaves open the possibility for standards creep, as we saw in the past, which would likely invalidate the equipment that gets bought today and requiring new equipment pretty much right away. Chasing the latest and greatest is often a losing battle from your wallet’s perspective. If you can afford it, great. But most of us can’t afford to keep replacing equipment every year or every other year.
Seeing as we have unprecedented quality available to us now with the existing formats, and most consumer’s audio systems will not be able to actually resolve any more detail than they already get from their current sources, why bother chasing features? For the average person, just sit back, enjoy the outstanding home theatre experience we already have, and not worry about whether some piece of equipment has this new feature or that.
In fact, my next actual upgrade will be to remove the passive crossovers from my main speakers in favour of active crossovers and proper bi-amping since I have the amplifier channels to spare for this. Even then, I am contemplating comparing what is supposed to be a very, very good digital processor unit to act as a crossover vs a very, very good analogue crossover I am building to make sure I get the most neutral sound. I don’t want to “hear” anything from the new component in the chain.
On an interesting side note (maybe only to me anyway), my particularly well traveled D1 has made a circuit that included ownership by one of the contributors on the Secrets site (KD) based on the original shipping labels that were still attached when I got it.
If you read this far, thank you for spending your valuable time. I did not intend to ramble on this long, but the whole “we need the latest features the minute they come out even if they are not fully standardized or adopted” thinking gets to me all the time. As I said, it is entirely likely what you already have, especially if purchased in the past few years, gives you an outstanding home theatre experience, so just sit back and enjoy the show.
For those interested, my current main setup after a few decades and very humble beginnings has now reached this state (almost all of this equipment was purchased used):
- Anthem Statement D1
- Bryston 11B (used for the phono section only)
Amplifiers (fully balanced XLR connections to the D1):
- Bryston 6BSST (3 ch, 300W/ch)
- Bryston 4BST (4ch, 120W/ch)
- Newform Research R645 v2, main
- Paradigm ADP CC590 v4 surround
- Velodyne F1800RII sub (amp currently broken)
- OPPO BDP95 Blu-Ray, connected to the D1 with coax digital, 5.1ch analogue surround and balanced 2ch stereo (Why? So also I can choose which sounds better to me depending on the source material), HDMI to the display.
- Logitech Duet network player connected to the D1 with an optical connection
- Pioneer PL-4 turtable with Ortofon Blue cartridge
- Cisco NextBox 3.0, HDMI to the display, optical to the D1
- o Side note and VERY IMPORTANT : I have invested in a relatively inexpensive isolation transformer for the coax for the cable TV. This is usually a source of ground loop nastiness due to the ground for the cable being typically nowhere near that of the house wiring. Without the transformer I get a wonderful buzz through the system, with it, utter silence.
- LG 60” Plasma
- Nothing esoteric, as I am a believer in physics (feel free to flame away at that remark). I made my own speaker cables out of 4 conductor 14awg twisted pair cables, with gold plated bananas and have moderately priced decent quality interconnects (balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA) and reasonable HDMI cables. No single cable has cost more than $30.
I have just ordered the parts to construct the Elliott Sound Products P09 active crossover and will be getting demo units for at least a Xilica XP2040 and possibly the XD2040 digital processors to see how they behave in my system as crossovers, but they would also give me the ability to establish presets to help with crummy recordings to some degree. Once I have the crossovers, the 6B will drive the woofers in the R645s, and the 4b will drive the tweeters (ribbons) and surrounds.
My path from my childhood to today has taken many steps, and the upgrades over the years have always had a noticeable effect, with some steps more incremental and some almost revolutionary in the differences. Of note was that sometimes expected incremental changes were very much revolutionary, and vice versa. Part of the fun of the hobby.