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My Visit to Audiophile Style HQ — Another Take on Immersive vs. 2ch Audio
I have been wanting to visit @The Computer Audiophile Chris’s audio lair for several years, but it was only recently that the stars actually aligned, and I got to spend a full and enjoyable day there, listening to his epic immersive system.
It’s great enough to visit a 2-channel system of this caliber, with Wilson Alexia V speakers, Constellation Audio preamp and monoblocks, and DACs like the EMM DV2 and the T+A DAC-200, but once you add in the all-Wilson 7.1.4 speakers and the other goodies that Chris has installed, and been writing about this past year, we enter uncharted territory! I’m not sure how many other immersive audio-only systems of this caliber are out there in the wild. I suspect Chris’s system is one of a kind, so I was very excited and curious to experience it.
I’ve seen pictures of Chris’s room in his articles, but being there in person makes you realize that it is a challenging space. Golden ratio, it ain’t. As he described in a series of articles some years ago, Chris put a lot of work into room treatments and room correction EQ, so I would be hearing the benefit of all his efforts. First, some pictures.
The gorgeous Wison Alexia V’s, with a Watch center channel speaker standing guard, ready for immersive duty!
The side, rear, and ceiling Wilson Alida speakers and room layout. In the distance, a rare glimpse of the reclusive Computer Audiophile, in his natural habitat.
Goodies lined up (left to right): Constellation monoblock, preamp, EMM and T+A DACs, Merging HAPI DAC, Brooklyn surround amps, Wilson Lōkē sub, and a Wilson Alida surround speaker. The full system list is maintained here: https://audiophile.style/system
Effectiveness of room treatments and EQ
We started the day with me seated in the listening chair, and Chris playing me some of his favorite tracks. This wasn’t critical listening, it was just for me to acclimate to the environment, the room, and the equipment. We played a mix of Atmos, other surround formats, and 2ch music.
From the get go, I was struck by how much better the sound quality I was hearing was compared to what I was expecting from the look of the space. The Wilson Alexia’s are one of my favorite speakers. While I had not heard the V’s before, I immediately heard the excellent instrument placement. Tonally, the sound was just stellar, sounding very natural and organic. Bass was deep and impactful, without any boominess or obvious room modes.
In the time domain, transients were crisp and fast, with no hint of smearing from excessive reverb. I’m no expert on evaluating rooms, but one of the things I listen for in any setup is the front to back depth of the soundstage. Especially on the 2-channel orchestral tracks (more on this later), Chris’s setup had this in spades. The extent to which I could hear the positioning of instrument groups from front to back was really fantastic. It is one of the most important aspects of imaging and listening satisfaction for me.
Immersive Music Listening
Once I’d familiarized myself with the sonics of the system and the space, it was time for the main event: listening to immersive music. We broke this session up into 3 sections: first we listened to lossy Atmos music from Apple Music, then lossless TrueHD Atmos, encoded at 24/48, and finally some lossless DXD (24/352.8) discrete immersive tracks from the 2L label.
The lossy Atmos session was perhaps the most realistic gauge of the typical immersive music experience, as this is the format where the largest amount of actual music is available, and the format delivered by Apple Music. Perhaps not surprisingly, this experience ranged from ho-hum to sublime.
In the latter category, Chris fired up Elton John’s Rocket Man. While not something I listen to very often, this song is intensely familiar to me and, I suspect, half the humans on the planet. The track starts off fairly conventionally. Elton John and his piano are portrayed very nicely up in front. But what immediately grabbed me was the ambience, and sense of space. As the track builds, other instruments emerge from around you, but my jaw dropped at the first crescendo around the 1 min mark, when the chorus kicks in from behind. The sense of envelopment, of being surrounded by the players was quite intoxicating. Not to mention the vertical sounds of the actual rockets. I could tell from Chris’s knowing smirk that he’d demoed this many times before, and yeah – it was impressive!
Other tracks were not as impressive. I fired up Blomstedt’s recent release of the Schubert 8th and 9th. This has quickly become one of my favorite versions of these symphonies. On the lossy Atmos mix, I heard a mix of good and bad. The good was – again – an increase in ambience, a sense of spaciousness that transcended the physical listening room. That is something the 2ch mix does not do as well. The bad was a noticeable loss of resolution. Transients were smeared, instruments were hard to disambiguate, massed violins sounder like a homogenous blob. Perhaps the most disappointing was a lack of front to back depth in the sound stage. It seemed like the Atmos mix was rendering ambience very well, but not necessarily enhancing the soundstage in the way I would have valued. Well, perhaps this was an artifact of compression.
We then moved to a collection of lossless mixes that Chris had on his local storage. We fired up another of our favorites, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic’s rendition of the Rite of Spring on DG. Ah, this was better. Gone were those smearing effects from compression. Transients were nice and crisp, and the soundscape was expansive and detailed. However, here again, I felt I was trading off ambience for soundstage depth. The sense of being present in the hall was really quite impressive. But the soundstage depth was not particularly deep. There was a foreshortening going on, while on the other hand, I got a much more palpable sense of my surroundings, and of the hall. But these are not things I value quite as much.
Finally, Chris fired up a demo track from 2L that was 12 channel DXD. Unfortunately, my notes don’t record the name of the piece, but it doesn’t matter, as it was up to the best standards of 2L recordings. This was a truly impressive experience, because the mix placed the listener in the center of the action. To have well-recorded music reproduced at full resolution all around me was quite spectacular. I wish my visit had occurred after Chris had received the 5.1.4 DXD version of 2L’s Magnificat, which is by far my favorite 2L recording. I’m sure a 10-ch DXD rendition of this amazing album must be a real treat on this system.
As much as I would have liked to spend the whole day with immersive music, our time was limited before Chris’s parental duties kicked in, so we switched to 2-channel listening, as this was a format I was more familiar with, and I wanted to try out several things on his system.
Baseline with the Merging DAC
Until now, we had been listening to 12 discrete channels where the DAC duties were being handled by the Merging HAPI MkII DAC. To recalibrate my ears, we kept this DAC in place, only this time with conventional 2ch music, playing to Alexia V’s through the Constellation pre and monoblocks. For this session, we used a selection of tracks I had brought with me, both in native resolutions, as well as upsampled to 32/16FS with PGGB-256 (see upsampling section.) These included the Schubert and Stravinsky albums mentioned earlier, as well as several others.
Listening to the Blomstedt Schubert album in 2ch lossless 24/96 after the lossy Atmos was quite illuminating. On the one hand, the 2ch mix did not convey that sense of ambience and space that the Atmos mix did. On the other hand, soundstage depth, instrument timbre and texture were so much better on the 2ch mix.
On the Stravinsky, we were going from the lossless Atmos mix with 24/48 resolution per channel to the 2ch 24/96 mix. This was a better indicator of what a surround mix adds without the downsides of compression. Certainly, here again, there was a loss of space and ambience, but was it a crushing loss? Not to me. My focus is on the stage, and I place the most value on how the musicians and instruments sound and are rendered.
Moving up to the T+A DAC-200
Staying in the 2ch realm, we now moved up the scale of quality and price to the T+A DAC-200 that Chris had reviewed some time ago. The original plan was to continue on to Chris’s reference EMM Labs DV2 DAC, and if I was lucky, the Rossini Apex would have arrived in time for my visit. However, that did not happen, and we even ran out of time to fire up the EMM as well. Time flies when you’re having fun!
Still, the T+A answered most of my questions for me, and gave me much to ponder.
First, let me say, the DAC-200 is a very impressive DAC! It draws you in from the first note, and never puts a foot wrong. We first listened to tracks in their native resolution, using the DAC’s builtin BEZ 2 (Bezier) oversampling filter. Both Chris and I liked this filter the best of the builtin options.
Listening to the same tracks again, the step up in quality from the Merging HAPI MkII to the DAC-200 was immediately obvious. There was a growth in the soundstage, which became deeper and more expansive. Instruments were more realistic and the overall sound was natural and organic. Now I was really hearing the Alexia V’s sing!
On the title track from TOOL’s Fear Inoculum, you want to hear a deep, dense wall of sound, and this is exactly what the DAC-200 was giving us. I should mention at this point that we were running pure 2ch, without EQ or subs in the mix. They were not missed at all. The Alexia V’s were growling with aplomb, although as I write this I find myself wondering: does anything actually growl with aplomb?!
Another of my favorite albums is Susanna Mälkki’s BIS recording of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta with the Helsinki Philharmonic. The last movement really tests a system’s ability to reproduce percussion, and on Chris’s system with the DAC-200, this was spectacular. Compared to the Merging HAPI MkII, the intricate rhythms of the celesta and the tympani were much better articulated and easy to follow, as well as being more textured and palpable.
DSD Upsampling with HQPlayer
As impressive as the DAC-200 was sounding on native 2ch material, we were still only driving it in 3rd gear, so to speak, as were using the inbuilt oversampling filter. As Chris’s review highlighted, the DAC-200 really scales well with upstream upsampling.
We first tested with real-time upsampling all the test tracks to DSD256 with HQPlayer, using Chris’s preferred settings (poly-sync-gauss-long (1x), poly-sync-gauss-hires-lp (Nx), and the ASDM7ECv2 modulator). The DAC-200 has dedicated PCM and DSD pipelines, and in keeping with previous T+A DACs, the DSD pipeline uses pure 1-bit processing. In this scenario, we set the DAC-200 to the NOS2 (no oversampling) mode. Chris’s CAPS Twenty server did the heavy lifting, as upsampling PCM to DSD256 in real-time is a computing resource-intensive operation.
Technicalities aside, the upsampled DSD256 tracks supplied another large step up in sound quality. The sound was more lustrous and refined, with excellent bass heft. There was a real sense of space and ease, as if the music had been freed and allowed to breathe. Another word that kept coming to mind is natural. Just lovely.
PCM Upsampling to 32/16FS with PGGB-256
The DAC-200’s PCM pipeline also scales very well, and we exploited this by playing the same demo tracks, this time pre-usampled to 32/16FS (705.6k or 768k) using the latest PGGB-256. In this scenario too, the DAC-200 is configured in NOS2 mode, and PGGB-256 is doing the upsampling to 16FS in software. The mechanics here are different, as all the heavy computational work is done ahead of time, and offline, so playback is as lightweight as native files. It does mean the playback files are very large uncompressed WAV files.
These upsampled PGGB-256 files were the highlight of the day! Compared to the native files, the improvement was huge. All the refinement and luster we heard going up to DSD256 with HQPlayer was now accompanied by an increase in transparency. Instruments snapped into focus, and on the Bartok track, for example, the texture and articulation, the leading edges, of the percussion strokes was extraordinary.
Comparing the PGGB-256 Stravinsky 2ch mix on the DAC-200 to the lossless 24/48 12-channel Atmos mix on the Merging HAPI MkII really distilled the immersive vs. 2ch question. One the one hand, the Atmos mix enveloped you with the ambience of the venue, and the sense of being there. On the other hand, the sheer SQ from PGGB-256 and the DAC-200 on the 2-channel mix, especially in the soundstage depth and instrument realism, was just more compelling for me!
What an amazing day of listening this was.
Reflections on what I heard
Fortunately for me, my visit to AS HQ allowed me to hear both what a state of the art immersive sound system is capable of, as well as what a well-set-up world-class 2-channel system can sound like. Being able to experience both these aspects of music listening in a single day was an incredible experience!
For certain genres, and for certain mixes, experiencing immersive audio of this quality takes you into a new realm, from which there is no going back. Mixes like Elton John and the 2L Atmos DXD have to be experienced to be believed. Genres like rock, pop, jazz, and even chamber music can sound incredible with the right mix, that palpably places you in the performance space, in a way that 2ch stereo just cannot.
For orchestral symphonic music though, a different equation applies. I found the 2ch mixes to be more compelling, as they allowed for the use of an even better DAC. And what this supplies you is an increase in instrument realism, placement, and timbre, and expanding the soundstage in the dimension that really matters: depth. What I was hearing on the 2ch PGGB-256 upsampled mixes of the Stravinsky and the Schubert, played back on the T+A DAC-200 was far more compelling (to me) than the Atmos mixes played back on the Merging HAPI MkII.
This of course begs the question: could you get the best of both worlds with an array of 6 DAC-200’s (or Rossini Apexes!) to handle the 12 channels of an Atmos mix? Maybe so, but this starts to become a very costly endeavor indeed!
But let’s go back to the key point of difference between genres. For orchestral classical music, the dimension I care about the most is the width, height, and depth of the soundstage. That last dimension (depth) is not the dimension that Atmos, or surround mixes in general, addresses. Immersive music formats tackle the listening space from front to back, and use DSP to render sounds emanating from the sides, rear, and above with great precision.
But with classical orchestral music, what is of interest is the soundstage in front of the listener, including the space behind the plane of the front speakers. The physical 7.1.4 speaker layout does nothing to address this space. It is still left up to the mix and the electronics to convey this depth in the best way they are able.
Why is that? I wonder if a surround format could be devised where the forward soundstage depth could be enhanced by front depth speakers. Instead of adding even more channels, could we achieve this by redefining the existing speaker count? Are “side” speakers really necessary? As a classical listener, I would gladly give these up if they could be used instead to enhance stage depth.
I finally managed to get out to Minneapolis to experience Chris’s setup, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to experience it. Excellent lossless Atmos mixes on a world-class immersive sound system can be a transformative experience, and it certainly had a profound impact on me!
Is this a path I would pursue? Without having experienced a system like Chris’s, I wouldn’t have known how to answer that question. Now, I know and the answer is no. But my reasons are highly personal, and relate to what I like to listen to, which 90+% of the time is orchestral classical music. Your mileage may vary!
About the Author
Rajiv Arora — a.k.a. @austinpop — is both a computer geek and a lifelong audiophile. He doesn’t work much, but when he does, it’s as a consultant in the computer industry. Having retired from a corporate career as a researcher, technologist and executive, he now combines his passion for music and audio gear with his computer skills and his love of writing to author reviews and articles about high-end audio.
He has "a special set of skills" that help him bring technical perspective to the audio hobby. No, they do not involve kicking criminal ass in exotic foreign locales! Starting with his Ph.D. research on computer networks, and extending over his professional career, his area of expertise is the performance and scalability of distributed computing systems. Tuning and optimization are in his blood. He is guided by the scientific method and robust experimental design. That said, he trusts his ears, and how a system or component sounds is always the final determinant in his findings. He does not need every audio effect to be measurable, as long as it is consistently audible.
Finally, he believes in integrity, honesty, civility and community, and this is what he strives to bring to every interaction, both as an author and as a forum contributor.
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