With home theatre equipment, audio became simple. You set up for a movie-watching experience; listening to music was an afterthought. Basically, you pressed the ‘2 channel stereo’ button on the receiver and accepted whatever emerged from that 5.1 channel speaker set up. The art of setting up for a two-speaker stereo environment was lost. Unfortunately, most of us have to revisit that art when we set up for music in an area like a lounge or living room at home.
I went through this recently and was surprised to discover how difficult it was. A lot of people have the same problem and very little help is available. Here’s the task in detail: the quest is to set up an unobtrusive two-speaker music-playing rig that doesn’t cost too much, doesn’t take up floor space, looks interesting, isn’t boxy, delivers fantastic sound and isn’t a nightmare to install.
The problem stems from the fact that most retail stores sell generic 5.1 home theatre-in-a-box solutions or iPod/MP3 player docks and towers, while specialist audio stores cater to the high end audiophile. This is where you will find giant floor stander speakers or tiny satellite speakers with a monster sub woofer and a lot of fiddly extra equipment. Most of this is either underwhelming or an overkill. Also, there are two other major dilemmas that have come up in the world of pure music play. To DAC or not and does this need a sub woofer?
By far the most important and the most difficult to get when you don’t want them big or boxy, you don’t want them to make your room ugly and you still want them to sound terrific. Most companies seem to be ignoring what I believe is a very large market. My solution came in the shape and size of pure innovation. The first: the uniquely shaped JBL Control Now. These arced little wonders can fit anywhere, are reassuringly heavy in a not-too-big enclosure, can be ‘legoed’ together in a series, can be set up as a semi circle, full circle or a three fourth, have most mounting options in the box and sound like a million bucks for a lot less. For me, the 4 Control Now, snapped together as a full circle and pole mounted down from a ceiling, was the most innovative and easy solution. Just as I was about to plunk down my money, along came the spherical wonder Planet L. These almost perfect balls of acoustic delights come in a lot of colours, look futuristic, the build and finish is spectacular, can be wall, floor or roof mounted and sound fantastic. I’m pretty sure one of these will be my final choice.
DAC, what’s that?
It’s a Digital to Analogue converter and it’s an add-on device that has made a huge comeback recently. Our music is now completely in the digital format – CD, MP3, WMA, AAC, Apple Lossless. That we know! What you may not know is that irrespective of what you play your music on, your speakers need that digital format to go to an analogue audio signal. The device that does that is a ‘Digital to Analog Converter’. All audio devices have a built-in DAC. Unfortunately, the ones in your iPod, MP3 player, DVD player or new CD player are crap. It’s a cheap generic little thing that’s giving you music that is noisy, muddy and not pure. Enter the DAC. I was shocked to hear the same music through one of these. The tone is warmer, more transparent and the clarity enhancement is shocking. A DAC is the cheapest way to truly upgrade your music listening experience.
The Sub Woofer Quagmire
Do you need a sub woofer with this kind of setup? The answer to this, from all the audio experts I spoke to, was a resounding Yes. And to all of them, I respect you – but you don’t know what you’re talking about! In the pre-home theatre set up, most people didn’t know what a sub woofer was and most didn’t need it. The bass requirements for music isn’t as demanding as a movie soundtrack. The bass you can get from an array of speakers with 4 inch+ woofers is more than enough. Now the sub woofer story has moved into mythical territory and it seems it’s almost compulsory to add one – according to retailers. Hogwash! I’ve heard enough floor standers sans a sub woofer do a better job with pure music play – and that’s in a big room set up for just audio. Thus in a smaller lounge setup, a sub woofer is definitely a no-no!
By no means is my quest for lounge audio nirvana over. I still have to find a unobtrusive source player plus a receiver or amplifier that looks elegant and doesn’t take up more space than all the furniture in that room. I’m still looking...
From HT Brunch, Januray 9
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3.
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