Self Reflection

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Wanted to share a few things on my mind concerning our beloved audio.

Should I upgrade my components?

Hmm. It is easy to believe that the newest thing I hear is a breakthrough product. If it were, why is it so easily traded for something newer?

Maybe the best way to upgrade my sound is to buy better recorded music. I have found that as I have upgraded my program material I have also upgraded my enjoyment of music.

Should I buy expensive headphones?

Maybe? If I am going to use them for casual listening then I am not going to be able to hear the improvement in the sound. Maybe I need them because I am a recording engineer? Hah, I am not a recording engineer. But aren’t they more accurate than speakers because the best phones have lower distortion and more resolving power. Yes, but I am not a recording engineer. I want my music in the room and not my head. I like to feel the low notes as well as hear them. Besides there are so many great sounding headphones at very reasonable prices. But I like those Earspeakers!

Aren’t there new models of bookshelf speakers that sound as good as or better than the little AudioEngines. and are similarly priced?

Maybe, but most of them do not include a built-in class A/B amplifier that is matched perfectly to the speakers. Getting the right amplifier is an important part in selecting a speaker system. The amps often cost more than the speakers. And if they are any good, they cost way more than the speakers. Yes, but I need an excuse to spend more money.

What is all this about sound quality? Why cannot you enjoy a piece of music regardless of that?

When I go to a live concert, do I say to myself: “I wish I had a worse seat in the hall so that the sound would not be as good?” People spend more money on tickets that offer better seating. Why would they do that? They want to hear a great performance but they want to hear as much of it as possible. Could be that these are audiophiles without knowing it. Well I can just make it official and declare them to be audiophiles anyway.

How about a double blind A/B comparison to make the best determination about what component sounds best?

Nah, I really do not listen to music that way. Maybe I could just see how much I enjoy the music for a reasonable length of time if I substituted a new component into my audio system. Of course, if I am listening to a low quality recording will I be able to determine if a new amp adds to the fidelity of the recording? But what if I have great ears and this amp goes all the way to eleven?

Magnepan Magic on a Beer Budget

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My first real audiophile loudspeakers were the Magneplanar Tympani 1’s. (Before these I owned a pair of Rectilinear III’s which were quite nice for their day.) The Tympani 1’s were so good that I pursued recordings to reveal just how good they were. in doing so, the speakers revealed to me just how wonderful music could be. They helped to start my love affair with classical and Jazz recordings. I first fell in love with the music of Bach by listening to it through the Tympani 1’s.

The speakers were far from perfect, but they presented a certain allusion of live music being played in one’s home, provided that the recording was up to snuff. A wall of sound washed over the listener. One could close his or her eyes and imagine being at a live concert. Precise pinpoint stereo imaging was not their forte, but they never failed to bring across the idea that the music to which one was listening was indeed music. Their midrange was clear and transparent, while highs and lows were lacking. The bass was tight, but lacked weight, and the highs were rolled off and overly damped. Bells simply did not ring enough.

Fortunately, over the years Magnepan speakers grew smaller in size but far better in sound, The latest models of Magnepan are significantly improved at both the high and low end of the frequency spectrum. Today the speakers stand at the peak of their performance. Only very expensive speakers can revival them or exceed them, but the “Maggies” still excel at presenting the allusion of live music being played in the home.

You say that their bass does not play loud enough? They are not able to reproduce the impact of a rock concert? You are right! Just buy some other speakers. Get some top grade cabinet speakers. These will be very expensive if they are to compete with Magnepan. I like rock music – some of it anyway. But I am not willing to compromise certain qualities I hear in the Maggies for the sake of reproducing loud rock music. The Maggies just cannot do it. You will need other speakers for loud rock.

If you are ready to audition Magneplanar speakers you are surely going to run into some difficult choices. The speakers are not as big as they used to be but they are still dipoles. They must be kept away from the back and side walls. In other words, they need to be out in the room. They may simply dominate the room decor. The speakers are lovely to look at but they can be obtrusive. Better not to install them in too small a room.

Not every amplifier can drive the Maggies. The speakers are inefficient and they require an amplifiers that high current capabilities. Power alone is not enough. The amp must also be unconditionally stable. Some amplifiers may drive the speakers but they will not sound at their best. In truth, though this may be controversial, they really come alive when driven by excellent tube amplifiers which are very expensive.

AUDIOGRAM II is about buying sensible products. We love extravagant music reproduction but not extravagant prices. We are going to recommend a relatively inexpensive Magnepan system for your hone without loosing too much of the total Magnepan experience.

We will need to pass on the most expensive Magnepan. It is a magnificent loudspeaker but very expensive. Not only that, but its true ribbon tweeter, though very quick and extended, just does not integrate with the midrange and bass drivers as well as it should. Two lower priced models do a better job of driver integration: the Models 1.7i, and the Model .7. These speaker models use what is called quasi-ribbons for all of their drivers. The drivers blend together well and produce a very smooth and transparent wave front.

Which model should one chose? For a medium sized room chose the $1,995 Magnepan 1.7i.

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For a slightly smaller room chose the $1395 Magnepan .7i. They give up some bass response but still have the overall Magnepan sound. A quality subwoofer could augment them and not muck up their sound if cut off very low.

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For a small room, forget it. Stay with the AudioEngine 2A+’s. Magnepan’s smaller models are just too difficult to set up in a small room and are not that cost effective.

Which power amp should drive them? That is the question! Do amplifiers sound differently? Yes, and especially on the Magnepan’s. Partly it is a matter that Magnepan’s are difficult to drive. But largely it is a matter that the Maggies are just so revealing. There is no question that David Berning or Audio Research amps make the Maggies come alive, and I mean alive! But the prices of these amps are absurd for a “budget” audio system. So don’t listen to the Maggies on these amplifiers please. But what if you could come close to the capabilities of the Maggies without them?

We are talking quality used tubes? Quality used tubes can be expensive to bring up to speed and maintain, not to mention that they are not cheap at the starting line. (Paoli 60M’s may be an exception if you can find them.)

How about solid state? They will not sound like quality tubes driving Magnepan. Too much of the magic of the speakers might be lost. But I am thinking about a solid state amp that sounds like tubes and does not cost a bundle. There is only one candidate. The very first solid state amp that did not sound like solid state at all. Why it is the QUAD 303 power amp, Peter Walker’s masterpiece!

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Yes, it is a rated at only 45 watts RMS per channel. That is a conservative rating. It is a high current amplifier that has rock solid stability. These amps are still being used in the field, but they are no longer produced. However, a used reconditioned one may be obtained for less than $500. That is the good news.

Here is the best news. This amp makes the Maggies sing such beautiful songs. It reproduces such a wonderful sound stage. Voices are crystal clear. Instruments are separated. There is air around them. And the amp has such a sweetness about it. Yes, the sweetness might be a coloration, but that does not seem to hurt the typical CD sound. Good vinyl comes through unscathed. Ultimately, I listen to music and not audio equipment. If you love music and live on a budget, pick up the 303 even if you don’t have Maggies. The amp gets along very well with many other speakers as well.

I must admit that we have bought some rather expensive beer here. But the sound is more like champaign. No need to give up your treasured 2A+’s if you would spend the money on vinyl.

Audio Legends: Matt Polk & Sandy Gross

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A Trip Down Memory Lane: Speakers That Rivaled the Greats

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I was introduced to the Polk Model 10 loudspeakers at a CES in Chicago many years ago. It was, for me, the first American speaker that rivaled the best from England. Up to that time most American box speakers lacked stereo imaging. The Model 10 did not! The imaging was there and so was the low coloration on voices. This was the American version of a Spendor BC1. I raved about the speakers but had very little circulation at the time. Fortunately for Polk, good word of mouth carried the day.

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Polk initially headquartered in a beautiful old house in a suburb of Baltimore. Here the principles of the company lived and worked. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Polk compound. I had little circulation but Polk and company were very gracious to me. (I was traveling with my genius audio friend Murray Zeligman and that may have been the reason I got inside the compound.)

Matt Polk was listening to some Model 10’s that sounded even better than I remembered. On the floor behind the speakers were two banks of custom-built tube power amplifiers pumping out the sound. Yes, amplifiers do controll the sound of a loudspeaker! A good monitor speaker will reveal all that is in the audio chain ahead of it.

The Model 10’s were an amazing set of speakers. It is a classic that will hold its own even to this day. If you can find a pair in good condition, buy them!

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Sandy Gross, the marketing guru of Polk, graciously took me to one of his listening rooms. On the floor were a pair of the original Quad ESL’s – speakers that I greatly admired as well. Sandy eventually left Polk and started two high-end loudspeaker companies of his own, first Definitive Technology and then Golden Ear Audio – aptly named. Sandy has a golden ear indeed and his speakers sound great.

My hero is Matt Polk, however. He has designed and sold so many excellent products – from subwoofers to headphones. They are very competitive with high-end products but are offered at what must be considered budget prices by today’s standards. Matt has a been able to translate his technical training at John’s Hopkins into highly practical products. He is able to zero in on what contributes to excellent sound reproduction while eliminating the frills.

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Polk and Definitive Technology are now owned by the company that owns Denon, Marantz and Boston Acoustics. Yes, Saul Marantz products are still going strong and Polk is right up there with the best.

ELAC Debut B5 Bookshelf Loudspeakers

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Andrew Jones is a very famous loudspeaker designer and rightfully so. He designed the TAD $80,000 Reference One loudspeakers. But it is much easier to design a great sounding speaker when price is no object. Mr. Jones did not stop there, however. He designed some great budget priced speakers for Pioneer. Now he has moved on to ELAC, a respected German loudspeaker manufacture. And there he has done it again, designed budget sounding speakers that most anyone can enjoy if they love the accurate reproduction of live music.

Mr. Jones has designed several models for ELAC. We have chosen the new ELAC Debut B5 Bookshelf Loudspeakers because we want to compare it to the AudioEngine A2+’s. These speakers are about equal in price. There are obvious similarities. In each case, the individual drivers in these speakers are made in-house. AudioEngine assembles their own speakers while the Debut B5’s are assembled in China. The mid/base drivers in both speakers are made of similar materials – a woven aramid-fiber for greater stiffness and lower distortion. The B5’sw are priced at $230 while the A2+’s are priced at $250. Both of these speakers offer outstanding clarity for the price.

The comparison breaks down when it comes to lower bass reproduction however. The A2+’s clearly need a subwoofer, particularly when placed on stands in a medium-sized room. The Debut B5’s are better in the lower end. They have 5.25 inch woofers compared to the A2+’s 2.5 inch woofers. This also means that B5’s have greater power handling which could prove significant in playing louder in a medium-sized room.

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Let us look at the prices again. The A2+’s cost a little more and really need a subwoofer. That will add at least a $100 to their overall cost. But the A2+’s have a built-in dual class AB monolithic power amp that is superbly matched to the speakers. In order for the Debut B5’s to play at their best they need to be mated with a very good power amp and not some generic receiver.

Which ones win? They both do. When it comes to stereo imaging the A2+’s are hard to beat. Their small-sized baffles have something to do with that. The B5’s are much larger speakers. They carry more weight in the low-end. Are they as nimble as the A2+’s? An extended period of listening will be necessary to complete any meaningful comparison. Perhaps you might want to share any experiences you have in auditioning these speakers. They are beauties and the price is right!

Bookshelf Speakers Are Not for Bookshelves

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From the comments it would seem that some do not understand my point about speaker placement and its effect on frequency response. Loudspeakers are greatly influenced by placement, particularly their low end response. Let us examine the chart above depicting the frequency response of a typical bookshelf speaker.  The blue line represents no walled in boundaries around the speaker. The speaker is free standing. The red line represents a single boundary such as a shelf or desktop. The green line represents two boundaries such a shelf and back wall. The black line represents a speaker placed in the corner of the room either on a shelf or the floor. Note the recorded frequency responses in each case. There is little difference in the responses about 3 Khz.

On the other hand, bass response is greatly dependent upon placement. The flattest bass occurs when the speaker is in the free standing position. That is why quality “bookshelf” speakers are usually sold with stands. It makes no sense to design a speaker for flat response and then spoil the achievement with improper speaker placement. In fact, it is difficult, if not impossible, to design a bookshelf speaker to be flat if it is placed on a bookshelf. With just one boundary the bass becomes exaggerated in the region where the uninformed listener has accused the loudspeaker of being peaky. Things get progressively worse when the loudspeaker is moved, first to the back wall and then to the corner. Check out the black line.

The classic LS3/5a’s were monitor speakers designed by the BBC to be used on location when recording. As such, like any small monitor loudspeakers, they were designed to be placed on stands.

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Now about the AudioEngine 2A+’s – they are small monitor speakers. They are not sold as monitor speakers, however. They are sold as computer desktop speakers. (A desktop speaker is merely a small bookshelf speaker.) These speakers are not going to sound nearly at their best when placed on a desktop. In fact, they really need to be freestanding.

Has AudioEngine made a mistake about the markeing of their own speakers? Not necessarily. There is a big market for computer desktop speakers. I just do not care to listen to great music that way. I want to sit back from the speakers and imagine that I have been transported to the concert hall, or at the least the recording studio.

The AudioEngine 2A+’s are almost the perfect monitor speakers from the mid-bass on up, for a small to medium sized room. They are even better with a subwoofer because their power handling is greatly improved, which reduces overall distortion and gives the low end a more solid underpinning. If set up properly the subwoofer will not be heard at all unless there is some low end material like a bass drum or a low organ pedal.

Does AudioEngine realize that their desktop speaker is a great monitor speaker? Probably. Or perhaps they simply got lucky with their design without knowing what they were doing. What do you think?