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Positive Feedback ISSUE 62
The following submissions are for the 'Readers Who Want to be Writers' Contest. The authors are not Staff members of Positive Feedback.
An Audiophile Tale
I've thought of myself as an audiophile for about 40 years. Despite that, there have only been relatively brief periods within that time when I have devoted significant time and money to improving and optimizing my sound reproduction system, so maybe I'm less of one than I think. Like many music lovers I've almost always found it easy to get enthusiastic about acquiring new and/or better sounding music, usually easier than to spend that energy, time and money upgrading stereo components. Still, over the course of two houses in the last 25 years I've consistently had a room dedicated to my music collection and stereo system, with some attention paid to room dimensions, materials, dedicated power and some acoustical treatments (I bought my first ASC Tube Traps in the late '80's).
Just over two years ago I began to give serious thought to comprehensively upgrading my stereo system. For about 15 years I had owned various configurations of Acoustat speakers; in the mid-'90's I finally became frustrated with what I felt was their inability to adequately reproduce the musical dynamics I desired (even using separate subwoofers) and their very limited "sweet spot". I ended up replacing them with NHT 3.3's, a great speaker with its own set of limitations. In the years since then I listened to a variety of other speakers at dealers and people's houses, and began to consider the possibility of finding speakers that combined what I liked best about both the NHT's and the Acoustats. I eventually settled on VMPS RM-40's, even though I had heard only the RM-30's from the VMPS RM line. I liked the RM-30's quite a bit, but like my NHT's they didn't seem to throw as large an image as I wanted, and the larger and taller RM-40's seemed likely to do this. In addition, the quasi-ribbon midrange and true ribbon tweeter brought back the inner detailing of the Acoustats that I had found myself missing with the NHT's, and the entire system was as loud and dynamic as the NHT's (if not even more so). Last but not least the price was right (~$4500 delivered new)!
The first few months after their arrival were taken up with speaker placement and room acoustics. Even though the speakers are run-in a little at the factory, they ended needing several months more (a good part of that time running bass tone sweeps at night and whenever we weren't home) before I was convinced the woofers were working at their best. As they began getting close to what I expected it became apparent that the bass energy they put into the room was going to require some more attention, so more Tube Traps were acquired. The improvement from this move got me thinking more about improving the sound of the speakers in the room, so diffusions panels were placed at first reflection points on the sidewalls and absorption was added at places on the rear and front walls, even though my listening position is about a third of the way into the room. At least with the planar mid/tweeters floor and ceiling reflections aren't such a big problem!
Next came a progression of events all too familiar to many audiophiles; with the improvement in overall performance in the speakers/room part of the system I began to question the quality of everything upstream. Not surprisingly, some initial changes produced minimal if any sonic benefits. To two multi-format disc players (Marantz 8260 SACD and Denon 2910 universal player) I added a Cambridge DACMagic for PCM sources; perhaps a small improvement, but not particularly significant. However, replacing all three with an Oppo BDP-83SE was a much more satisfying move. At this point all the electronics sat on mid-line Target shelf units with Vibrapods under each piece. Experimenting with several other relatively inexpensive footer-type pieces (Black Diamond Cones, Bright Star Isonodes, Vibracones) didn't produce much change. Enter Adona Corporation racks and multi-element shelves; now I was getting somewhere, and with the Vibracones between the Oppo and the new shelf the system's sound improved noticeably.
The Cable Company's lending library was my next stop, and after another couple of months I had settled on Kimber 8TC speaker cables and Wireworld Eclipse interconnects. Hmm, interconnects; I wondered what the advantage (to me) was in having a separate pre-amp and power amp (Bryston BP20 and 4B-ST). Up to now it was to have adequate amplifier power and to shorten the speaker cables in favor of longer interconnects, but in the last few years some quality high-power integrated amps have come to market. In particular the Pass Labs INT-150 had attracted my attention, and since the largest Pass Labs dealer in the world was just a handful of miles from my front door my next move seemed straightforward. Soon I was the proud owner of a used INT-150 and with it came the biggest improvement in sound quality since getting the speakers and room (mostly) dialed in. Sharper imaging, cleaner bass, more detailed but less "etched" sound overall. Remote controls lessened the inconvenience of having the equipment rack midway between the speakers and midway between the front wall and the plane of the speakers, so now I had cables only from source to integrated to speakers. It is of course impossible to tell in retrospect how much of the improvement in sound quality came from changing the amplification versus moving the rack or eliminating a length of cable, but at this time it doesn't matter to me; all I care about is that there was a clear jump in quality.
I've made a few more changes since then (about 9 months ago); the Oppo 83SE gave way to a Modwright (solid state mod) Oppo 95 for SACD and Bluray, a NuForce DAC-9 was added for PCM sources, and a Squeezebox Touch with Channel Islands Audio power supply for access to music on my computer. Try as I might, I have not been able to get the Touch (into the NuForce) to match the sound quality of discs in the Oppo (also into the NuForce); there's a slight but eventually noticeable lessening of dynamics. I'm moving in the direction of adding a dedicated music server but it hasn't happened yet. The NHT 3.3's and Bryston 4B-ST now reside in my separate home theater system, improving its audio capabilities significantly. "Footers" for the speakers and equipment rack is an area still open to further exploration; after some experimentation I have the speakers spiked directly into a hardwood floor on concrete slab and the rack is spiked into cups on the same floor. Either or both might benefit from something like Rollerblocks or Stillpoint risers. Multiple subs would probably be the best way to really minimize my room's bass nodes. There may be no end to continued small additions and modifications to the room treatments.
The last two and a half years has been my biggest commitment to improving the sound quality of my primary listening system and space since I first became interested in audiophilia. I'm quite happy with the sound I'm getting now but have no idea if that contentment will continue or if I will be further infected by the audiophilia nervosa disease.