The Sound Of Simplicity
If you think a 5.1 channel system and six speakers means great sound, try out good old stereo – or a minimalist, one-piece system. You’ll be surprised. Prasanto K Roy elaborates.tech reviews Updated: Apr 26, 2009 14:11 IST
Do you like your music distorted? Or authentic, high fidelity, close to the original? Silly question? Well, most people listen to distorted sound. And I don’t mean just the eardrum-shattering Singh is Kinng on a dance floor with monster speakers. The music in your home is ‘tweaked’. And then you fiddle and adjust. You have bass and treble controls, maybe a ‘graphic equalizer’. Your TV has preset options like ‘voice’ or ‘music’.
Fair enough. You adjust sound for your environment or preferences. Dialogue is clearer with more treble; music sounds good with a hint of bass. With pricier systems, you’ll get more controls, and even presets and memory to store combos of settings. But go further up, and the controls drop off. In top-end audio, you might find a volume dial – and nothing else.
Some take this to extremes. A Bose system I bought last month has no controls at all. A tiny remote control has power and volume. The idea is simple. Reproduce the original. Don’t let the listener fiddle and distort.
This is one of the few things audiophiles agree on: more controls, more distortion. So even if their pre-amp has bass and treble dials, it also has a ‘flat’ switch – to bypass them completely.
A BOX OR TWO... OR 5.1
Despite reading up those audio magazines in my college years, and designing speakers and audio systems and writing articles on them, I could not identify with the audiophile. A good reason was money.
The audiophile built his system with separate components: a Linn turntable (separate arm, head, needle), a Marantz tape deck, a NAD ‘receiver’ and pre-amp, two Quad tube-powered amps for left and right channels, studio reference speakers. About Rs 10 lakh for starters...
Twenty years down, the top-end audiophile hasn’t changed much. Their setups can be stunning, but they take money and effort, and so do the room acoustics. But tech now gives quality audio to a large ‘audio middle class’. You get great sound from an iPod. While digital doesn’t mean perfect – a lot of music is poorly ‘ripped’ – it does mean consistency.
Within this audio middle class, there’s two directions: discrete and integrated. The electronics is mostly integrated: you may find the entire electronics housed in one device: a console, with DVD, amplifier, and maybe radio. But then, this will proudly output 5.1 channel sound to six separate speakers... a pointless exercise in home audio.
A word about 5.1, which derives from Dolby Digital. There are six channels: five for ‘normal’ speakers: front left and right, rear left and right, and centre. The sixth is a subwoofer channel. Nice for movie halls, which are designed for acoustics. (Batman Returns, 1992, first used Dolby Digital.)
Your home is different. It’s not designed for high-quality sound. Your rooms are not acoustically symmetric. There’s stuff all over the place, which reflects and absorbs sound variously.
Many people I know place their speakers wherever they can. Some even put the rear speakers in another room. To use a 5.1 channel system well, a sound-symmetric room helps, with lots of curtain area or other sound-absorbing material. And then you sit tight in the right spot. Okay for watching a movie, but not practical for music.
The home is where simplicity makes its mark. A good stereo beats an average 5.1 channel system. Even against a great 5.1 system, it’s easier to get a stereo’s placement right. A simple option is the ‘soundbar’, such as Yamaha’s Sound Projector. That’s a single bar you put under a flat panel TV, and this has everything – DVD, amp, stereo speakers – in a one-piece package that creates surround sound. You can also buy them from Philips and Samsung. (They may use an external subwoofer.)
The most minimalist system I've used is from Bose. The WaveMusic (Rs 33k) has CD, radio, amp and stereo speakers – all in one tiny box. The sound has clarity, depth, and stereo imaging, and great bass for a small package. It also is more tolerant of placement than more elaborate systems I’ve tried. And then there’s my wife’s Bose SoundDock: an even tinier one-piece iPod dock. (At a party, people thought they were listening to a large system till they saw the SoundDock and their jaws dropped.)
Bose is a philosophy in two parts. One: psychoacoustics. Numbers are meaningless – distortion, sound output power, dynamic range – and the key part of the system is the listener. Two: in a concert hall, the reflected sound has a greater role than the direct sound paths. Most of their models use this direct-reflecting mix.
I don’t agree about the numbers part, but I have no quarrel with the clarity and depth of sound from our tiny Bose systems.
(Prasanto K Roy (email@example.com) is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Dataquest and Living Digital)