A PARABLE OF ADAPTATION
While sitting in the sand meditating, an ancient sage noticed a man crawling toward him with a boat strapped to his back. The sage walked over the man and asked why he was carrying a boat across the desert. The man replied, “I needed this when the desert was an ocean”.
THIS IS A
- 24/192 USB/OPT/COAX DAC
- PREAMP W/REMOTE CONTROL
- 50WPC AMPLIFIER
IT IS THE SIZE OF A
- PAPERBACK BOOK
THIS IS A
- COMPUTER (RASPBERRY PI ZERO WIRELESS)
IT IS SITTING ON A
- QWERTY KEYBOARD
My introductory piece on the audio value proposition has brought an unexpectedly large and positive response, for which I’m very grateful. But I’m frankly quite surprised at the preponderance of inquiry from Audiophile Stylers interested in smaller, less costly and complex systems because they’re downsizing, simplifying, or otherwise consolidating their space (both physical and emotional). My wife and I just went through this, with unbelievably great results – she actually turned on the music herself today! So I thought a special installment on the audio value proposition and lifestyle change would be a useful addition early in the series. The following facts and philosophy proved very valuable to us as we moved from a 4000 sq ft home to a 2000 sq ft condo apartment, entered our 70s, retired, and optimized our resource base to secure the most enjoyment we can for the rest of our lives.
Downsizing is widely considered to be an accommodation to aging, and it often is. But the concept applies equally to those who are simplifying, compacting, or otherwise reducing one or more scopes in their lives for any reason at all. While aging is probably the most common stimulus (as it was for my wife and me), everything from a spiritual awakening to economic change to new demands on time and other resources can precipitate a change in the course of your life. With each change comes a choice - go with the flow or get pulled under by the tide!
Each of us has his or her own value scale to guide us in prioritizing use of our time, our money, and even our emotions. Somewhere deep inside, we each know what’s most important to us. We even know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, despite ignoring that little voice more often than we should and at our peril. When faced with an impending life change of any significance, the adjustment process starts with a reassessment of one’s value scale. Knowing what’s important to you is critical to making change work for you. Your wants and needs may not change much, but you’ll almost certainly have to move some up or down on your scale. If your wants are incompatible with impending change, you’re doomed to disappointment.
This installment of The Audio Value Equation might best be considered a users’ guide to the reviews and comparisons in the rest of the series. To the many readers who have expressed concern about downsizing in response to the concept of developing your own audio value proposition, I say don’t worry, be happy, the world is your oyster, it’s going to turn out fine! All you have to do, to paraphrase the wise carpenter, is think twice and cut once. After defining and acknowledging your resource base, you’ll find a world of sources, systems, and settings in which to enjoy yourself beyond your wildest dreams. For us, it starts with 10 principles of happy living:
- There is no such thing as “the best”. There are many alternatives and substitutes for pretty much everything in the world that you could ever want, and you can be happy beyond belief with any of multiple choices.
- Know what’s really important to you. Most of us don’t really know what it is that we value in our favorite things – we just know that we love them, and we rarely think about why. What you have now and/or have coveted forever is convenient and comfortable – but it’s not the only way to satisfy your wants and needs.
- Opinions without experience are of limited value. We have many strong likes and dislikes of things we’ve never encountered in our lives. We’ve read about them, heard them praised, and seen the awards others have given them. But we have absolutely no idea if we’ll like them ourselves.
- You don’t need as much as you think you do. We can live happily (often more happily) without a lot of things we always thought we had to have. We don’t realize this because we’re creatures of habit. We’re a tad slothful, we don’t like change, and we don’t stop to consider whether what we’ve been doing for X years is still as rewarding as it was when we first got it.
- Change is opportunity. We especially hate (and deny) change that makes us consider our own failings, mortality and frailty. Downsizing is often a response to life changes perceived as limiting and constricting, so we cling to our stuff in the vain hope that we’ll wake up with a check from Publishers’ Clearing House, perfect hearing, and a full head of hair. This ain’t gonna happen – but you’re getting along without those things now and there’s a lot of excitement waiting once you lose the baggage!
- Everything is a compromise. You’ve “learned the hard way” so many times by now that you must realize you’re tough enough to do it at least a few more times. As long as the positives are stronger than the negatives, you’re a winner!
- You won’t know if you don’t try. The fact that you didn’t like something in the past does not mean that you won’t like it now. I can’t even remember why I didn’t like a lot of things in my past, including cilantro, the sound of accordions, and dogs. But I love ‘em now!
- Unrealistic expectations can lead to snap judgments that keep you from finding greatness. First impressions can be spot on, but they can also prevent you from looking past a silly and largely irrelevant flaw. Approach everything with an open mind to see what’s really there. Let your senses guide you, not a desire to preserve the past.
- None of us has done everything right every time. We’ve all lived with choices made in haste and regretted at leisure. If you’re clinging to something because you can’t admit you made a poor decision, let it go! If it’s a sunk cost, it has no value to you – just give it away if you can’t sell it, and junk it if you can’t give it away. Life is too short to schlep that albatross around your neck. You can probably live without it. If you can’t live without it, find a better alternative.
- The sun will come up tomorrow, even if you made a less than stellar choice of something. If you define and allocate your resource base before actively making change, you’ll almost certainly not put terminal strain your budget. With some caution and a modicum of commonsense, the stakes are lower and remedies more available than ‘way back when you bought that expensive, limited production amplifier with the novel new circuitry that no one else used – and you found out the next year why no one else used it.
PUTTING AUDIO IN PERSPECTIVE FOR MAKING CHANGES
Audiophiles are fortunate beyond words and more so than most other hobbyists. Convergence of multiple technologies (old and new) has led to better music reproduction and better toys at lower cost from smaller & simpler devices than any of us would have believed possible not too long ago. Dramatic physical downsizing of audio systems now requires no compromise in sound quality, functionality, or fiddle-ability for anyone able to embrace digital or hybrid systems architecture. Even tube loving analog-to-the-enders can greatly reduce their space and energy requirements, along with the size and impact of their carbon footprint, without losing much (if any - YMMV) sound quality, functionality, or fiddle-ability. We’ve all struggled with stuff that we really wanted but that didn’t drop easily into our lives and that failed to bring joy to us or those we love. When you think about it, there are fairly few categorical needs and considerations to be met for accommodating an audio system:
- physical space for all the parts of the system including sources, e.g. vinyl, CDs
- sufficient mounting, support, cooling etc for safe, sound, secure housing of all components
- an acceptable listening area and environment
- adequate, accessible power
- sufficient access among components for interconnection and control
- concealment as needed for unattractive necessities, e.g. hard wiring, power conditioners
You can’t get a quart into a pint bottle, but audiophiles are duty bound to try! In the first 8 years of my marriage, we lived in a 1 BR apartment for 2 years before moving to a 2 BR unit so we could have children. After shoehorning Rectilinear IIIs into the 1BR along with a Mac MX110, two power amps, and my Thorens TT, I put a pair of 19” racks in the living room of the 2BR to hold a Crown deck, multiple preamps and amps, an SAE graphic equalizer, a dBx, an oscilloscope, a 3 way electronic crossover, a patch bay, and a host of revolving toys. The electronics were cooled by a pair of Rotron Whisper-Fans through ductwork made from anesthesia and respirator circuit tubing. And it’s better if we don’t even discuss the Infinity Reference Standards I snuck into our new house after #2 son was born.
Space is a critical resource for audiophiles, and most of us manage to accumulate at least a few space occupying items as we gear up for sonic splendor. When the need to downsize and simplify brings reassessment to the table, we have to face reality and choose among conflicting priorities. While sound quality is a high and valid priority on anyone’s list, inertia and ego gratification fall below it on the sensible audiophile’s value scale. There’s great stuff in small packages today. Truly stellar sound can come from electronics and speakers of surprisingly slender stature, at very reasonable cost, with minimal compromise compared to either your legacy system or the one you were planning to buy before you found yourself at the crossroads.
There were very few physically small high quality audio components before computer audio, none of which made much power. Transformers were basically iron anvils, and the more power you wanted the more iron you needed. A Dyna Stereo 70 power amp weighed 32 lbs, the original MC275 weighed 76 lbs, and the big Mac tube amps weighed up to 135 lbs for an MC2000. Those audiophiles suffering from even moderately advanced gear acquisition syndrome (aka “GAS”) developed many space-occupying lesions including turntables, tape decks, equalizers, noise reduction devices, tuners, etc. And, of course, any system worth having must let you hear, feel and enjoy the longest stops on the largest pipe organ in the world, along with all 97 keys on the Bosendorfer Imperial Grand piano used in a handful of pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Bartók and a very few others.
DEFINE YOUR PERSONAL VALUE SCALE
Here’s some breaking news: downsizing is not a pejorative term! To downsize is most often thought to mean making or using a smaller version of something, e.g. downsizing a car. Synonyms include to trim, retrench, reduce, diminish, curtail, shrink, cut, deduct, decrease etc – and all suggest or imply a compromise of one kind of another. But with the right mindset and motivation, downsizing becomes nothing more than maximizing efficiency to get the most benefit at the lowest necessary cost from everything you do and everything you have. Whether retiring or just simplifying your life, you need to get rid of everything that takes more from you than it gives you back. If you don’t, you’ll be short on joy and resources before you’re ready to push your “off” button.
If you objectively assess how much “value” you got from those anvil amps and monster speakers you adopted so you wouldn’t miss a single dB at 20 Hz, you have to consider whether you even have any music that contains it and, if so, how often you listen to it and if it brings you great joy. You also have to assess available substitutes, e.g. a really fine little sub, or maybe a pair of ‘phones like Sennheiser HD800s (spec’ed at 3 dB down at 14 Hz – haven’t tested, can’t confirm, but they pack a pretty solid punch down there). And once you sell the manse for a condo apartment, you may have to choose between the big system and a spare bedroom.
OK – you loved those huge, costly amps and speakers. You flew close to the sun on wings of sonic gossamer, lifted by the air in your soundstage. You know in your heart that you can’t achieve that kind of ecstasy from small stuff at low cost. News flash: it’s 2019 – get that boat off your back, pilgrim!
LIST YOUR ESSENTIALS, THEN FOCUS AT THE TOP
Thinking through a subject will almost always raise your awareness of its secrets. Bass response is often the deal breaker for audiophiles when buying new gear, so let’s use it as an example of something about which you have to make decisions. Separating reality from your unsubstantiated beliefs and etherial desires is critical to making good decisions when downsizing (and at pretty much every other time). We’ll discuss many specifics throughout this series, but bass is probably the most dramatic issue for many audiophiles. How deep does your music really go and how much bass is enough? “It depends” - but the facts surprise many who previously assumed otherwise.
For starters, most recorded music has little or no direct content below 40 Hz. Even a bass drum thwack has most of its fundamental content around 60-80 Hz. The spectral splash of percussive transients that gives definition to that kick drum is actually in the 3k-4k range, so “muddy” bass is at least as often the tweeter’s fault as it is the woofer’s. Further, the wavelength of a 40 Hz tone is 28 feet. So you’d have to be amazingly lucky to have neither troublesome reflections nor standing waves in rooms in which we normal people live, while neighbors lucky enough to live on a node of those long wavelengths originating in your living room will think there’s a typical thumping car stereo outside their windows. Physical acoustic treatment is notoriously ineffective for low frequency anomalies in rooms significantly shorter than 20 feet in longest dimension, while DSP can both improve problems down there and correct wide field frequency response issues in smaller rooms.
Among ~2000 vinyl albums, ~1000 CDs, ~30 10 1/2” tape reels, ~100 7” reels, and over 10,000 FLAC files, I own one (count ‘em – ONE!) album on which the extra bass keys on a Bosendorfer are played, and I haven’t listened to it in many years. Although you will surely miss your water if the well runs dry, I’d bet that none of you has suffered much from legal bans and social boycotts of foie gras in 17+ countries around the world plus California by law (and many US restaurants who just believe it’s the right thing to do). We audiophiles, like hobbyists of all stripes, live much of our lives reading and planning and acquiring for experiences we want to have and might have and would love to have…….but probably never will have. As a result, most of our oxen spend their lives un-gored.
You simply don’t have much (if any) music in your collection requiring 21” bass bins in any room, let alone a 10’x16’ condo living room with two seating areas and a wall unit. The lowest note on a standard 88 key piano tuned to concert pitch (A=440 H) is a low A at 27.5 Hz – and it’s rarely played. The lowest string on a standard bass is a 41 Hz E. The C foot on a classical double bass bottoms out at about 33 Hz and a 5 string bass (often used now in jazz, blues, pop and rock) only goes down to a 31 Hz B. A good, solid small speaker that’s down 6 dB at 50 Hz will still pump out clean, tight bass because every fundamental is “doubled” by its second harmonic (one octave above), and there’s enough of the fundamental for excellent attack and solidity. And as you won’t have room to stand your ProAcs 3 feet from the walls of the above described living room, you’ll pick up 3 to 6 dB of boundary reinforcement for your bottom end anyway just from wall & corner proximity. If you still need more, there are many excellent small powered subs you can hide behind (or even use as) an end table – we have an 8” Yamaha sub out of sight behind the couches in our living room when my rumble jones hits.
“Ahh, but I’m an organ music lover!” you say. The lowest standard pitch on a pipe organ (called the “normal” or “standard” pitch) is the 64 Hz tone generated by an 8’ pipe, and the bottom descends from there as longer pipes are added up to the maximum stop of 32’ (which puts out a 16 Hz tone). Most of the world’s pipe organs go “only” to 16’ (32 Hz), with only the largest cathedral organs in the world having a 32’ pipe and in a few cases, two of them. There are only two 64’ stops in the world, as far as I know. I grew up with one, having been born and raised in Atlantic City, where the Midmer-Losh organ in Boardwalk Hall (formerly Atlantic City Convention Hall) has a 64’ stop. I actually got to play the thing once during rehearsal for our high school graduation, and I can promise you that it’s pretty impressive. And you’ll simply have to trust me that no audio system brings it into your listening room.
The only other 64 footer of which I’m aware is the William-Hill organ built for the Sydney Town Hall in 1890. It was the world’s largest organ until my home town did the Midmer-Losh in about 1930, and “ours” is still the largest pipe organ in the world based on number of pipes (some of which are not currently functional and for which restoration is still planned). Philadelphia also has the original pipe organ in what was the John Wanamaker Building until that company’s bankruptcy and demise. As I recall, it’s now the largest fully functional organ in the world, having been enlarged and restored several times to its current grandeur with 6 manuals and about 30,000 pipes. The other world class pipe organ with which I’m personally acquainted was another Atlantic City Midmer-Losh, this one in the Atlantic City High School building (now demolished) in which I toiled for 4 years. With 5 manuals and thousands of pipes, it was one of the largest and best organs in the world when built in the 1920s – and, again, no audio system I’ve ever heard can come close to the live sound of this instrument. Oh, yes – this organ only goes to 16’ as I recall. It’s now in a private home (!) in Arizona.
Why do I go into this detail about organs? There are two reasons: first, I want to reassure you that I really do know what a pipe organ sounds like and I’m not giving you hollow advice or information. Second, pipe organ lovers may be overdramatizing their need for huge speakers driven by amplifiers whose output is measured in horsepower. There are so few recordings made on organs like the above that you needn’t fear having to tolerate a weak 64’ stop when you downsize.
Even if you’re fortunate enough to downsize with sufficient space for giant components, their marginal cost over smaller stuff most often exceeds their marginal quality, and their size alone makes them less flexible in placement for best listening. Most smaller home environments are limited by their designs, dimensions, and physical properties in both providing naturally fine acoustics and responding to physical and electronic treatment to sonic improvement. So when placed in small rooms, it’s usually much easier to position and control physically small systems, and you can get stellar sound quality from some mighty small boxes. This is especially true when you can add DSP and subwoofers to computer based systems. The great news is that you can almost certainly get the same sound quality and functionality you have now from a system of components about 15% the size of your current stuff, for 25% of its equivalent new cost today. You can use the electricity already available in most modern apartments or townhouses, without the need to have an electrician run dedicated 20 amp lines (which you almost certainly won’t be able to do in many condos).
In articles to come, we’ll drill down on each category of component to evaluate and compare multiple real world choices in home environments. But to start your thinking and focus your search for downsize-friendly items, there’s a list at the end of this installment of some of the things we’ve evaluated and our current selections used in the 5 systems now in our apartment. This is where the rubber meets the road, and it’s truly an exciting drive for the flexible, adventurous and innovative audiophile.
HOUSING, FEEDING, POWERING ETC
Our first apartment after marriage was a 1 bedroom unit of about 1000 square feet. My wife filled the closet with clothes and shoes. I filled half of the living room with a large, low, solid teak table that held the system described in the intro above plus a wooden box filled with turntable / arm setup tools and record maintenance aids: Zerostat, Memorex and Discwasher record brushes, stylus mirror and cleaning brushes, Signet ultrasonic stylus cleaner, stylus pressure gauges, alignment jigs, etc. Flanked by a pair of Rectilinear IIIs (pretty good and fairly large floorstanders most of you probably never heard of), the system was shocking to my new bride, whose family music center was an RCA portable stereo record player.
Building codes were not what they are today, so there was only one duplex outlet at each end of the wall behind the system and another on each of the end walls. I plugged a “contractor’s” double duplex box on fat, ugly black 12 gauge 3 conductor cable into one outlet in each wall box, which thrilled my wife no end as it was all quite visible. But it did leave outlets for television, table lamps, vacuum cleaners, etc - so we lived with it.
Those of you with legacy systems of considerable bulk and complexity already know that sources alone occupied huge amounts of your personal space. Shelf and storage space for records, open reel tapes, cassettes, CDs etc was at least equal to the combined footprints of electronics and speakers for many of us. And all that stuff was heavy - a hundred standard quality 12” LP records weigh about 33 pounds plus sleeves and jackets, and they take up about 17 1/2” of linear shelf space at least 12” high and 12” deep. Of course, records and tapes also had to be protected from dust and extremes of temperature and humidity while being gently held in a vertical position.
Audiophiles without dedicated space, strong stable storage, sufficient power, and adequate HVAC were at an extreme disadvantage for sound quality, flexibility, and usability of their systems until the advent of digital audio. But if you’re “right-sizing” today, you can forget about almost all of the above issues. In fact, you can almost always put together a system that meets your requirements for it while blending into your space. The days of 19” rack mount cabinets for home audio are long gone – we’ve replaced them with very high quality “mini” rack and shelf systems that offer far greater stability, flexibility, and hideability while looking good enough to receive spousal approval.
A few basic needs remain, including adequate power of adequate quality and the need for environmental control around devices. But even those needs are different now and more easily met in smaller residential environments. We have both knowledge and devices sufficiently functional and attractive for open use in our homes to ensure that every component in an audio system has clean, stable power from its own outlet along with temperate filtered air. The interaction of power line nonlinearities and EMI (both ambient and entering through power portals) are not yet as well understood for class D amplification as they are for traditional analog class A or B circuitry of any type (e.g. vacuum tube, traditional transistor, FET etc). But high quality class D amplifiers (OK – please save your flames for that review) have integral management methods for both power line interference and EMI. These amplifiers are no more sensitive to power line problems than any other type. With appropriate system considerations like optimal circuit design and the shortest possible power and speaker wires, many sound extremely fine and can replace serious legacy hardware.
INNOVATION IS YOUR BEST FRIEND
As the impetus for this “special edition” was inquiries about helping audiophiles to downsize and other adapt to similar life changes, I’ll start by suggesting that one of the critical abilities for a successful morph is innovation in integrating your living and listening environments. If you still have a dedicated listening room after moving from the empty nest, you can ignore what comes next – but you’ll never reach equilibrium with the future if you don’t at least consider innovation as an aid to long and happy life. A lot of this is also about being greener, preserving our resources for future generations of audiophiles, and teaching them a better way to think about how their lives and loves impact their world.
INNOVATION WITH LAYOUT, FURNITURE, STORAGE, ETC
My wife and I typify the older AS cohort. On retirement, we downsized from a large 5 BR home we designed, built, and therefore controlled, to a very nice 2 BR condo apartment that’s “preconfigured” unless we want to do major renovation at considerable expense (which we don’t). The house was all ours – furniture, floors, walls, ceiling height, HVAC, etc were entirely to our specification. The condo is what it is, leaving us to integrate our stuff as best we could and find new items to replace what we didn’t want to being with us. So innovative integration was number one: figure out exactly what you need and find or build it. This applies both to your audio systems and how you fit them in your space.
We learned in the first month that many years of having what we wanted had unexpected effects on our ability to compromise. We discovered that downsizing is a major compromise in itself, and it left us a bit more sensitive to the little things that make ya’ go “ugh”. What helped the most was our ability to wait until we found what we wanted & needed, rather than compromise purely to fill a space or provide a function. So patience and optimism are innovation number two: you can and will find what you want and need in a form compatible with your downsizing plans. You just have to wait for it. Use our approach to fashioning and housing our downsized audio system and sources as an excellent example.
The best start is always to determine your needs, your wants, and the resources you’re going to devote to each. We did a fairly intensive needs assessment and decided to use the second bedroom (13’x18’) as a combined library and den, with a good queen sleeper sofa to accommodate the odd family members or friends we couldn’t persuade to stay at the very nice Hilton about a mile away 😁
Ooops! The library was also my listening room – there was no audio equipment in the living room of the house. Now what? You could hear the gears turning as we reached an acceptable compromise with no difficulty (well…..not much, anyway). We decided to put a smaller system in the multipurpose room, with powered monitors flanking a 39” smart TV and our computer and network hardware on the counter. Our Focal towers would go on either side of the grand piano at one end of the living room and be driven by a separate system living under the piano. Innovation number three is looking out of the box for what you need. In this case, there are some very fine and solid stainless steel shelf systems for commercial kitchens that easily support hundreds of pounds and provide for excellent air flow. We pieced 2 and 3 shelf systems together for both living room and library system support.
The shelves shown on the library counter hold 3 NAS units, a network switch, an iFi DAC, an ASUS Chromebox, a NUC, a Samsung SmartHub, an Xfinity X1 box, and appropriate power strips for all. A similar unit at the left end of the counter holds an H-P PC, a Parasound preamp, an M-audio digital interface (ADC-DAC + headphone amp), 2 USB drives, and second network switch. My Thorens TD125 is barely visible on the counter at the left end of the picture. (Yes, I know I have to level the cabinet doors- I’ll get to it!)
Remembering our requirement that the room also sleep two in a pinch, we got the largest sleep sofa we could fit along the wall. But respecting innovation number two, we searched until we found a sofa we loved that happened to be a queen size sleeper. It had to be right, since it’s also where we usually watch movies – we can eat on the coffee table in front of it and the desktop audio system is great for HT sound.
Across from the sofa is a 15’ built-in having cabinets above and below a counter top with desk alcove. This left 46” from the sofa’s armrest to the back wall, which spans 50” from the corner to the window. So we had to find a 48” long, floor to ceiling shelf unit that looked good enough to live with and was both strong enough and deep enough to hold at least 1500 albums plus several pieces of audio equipment. This took about 3 months of searching, both on line and in every furniture store we could find. We were rewarded with the most solid étagère we’d ever seen by respecting innovations number 2 and 3! it’s exactly the right size in every dimension, truly gorgeous, and strong enough to hold hundreds of pounds despite being truly fine furniture. It was a display piece that I noticed through the window of a store that was going out of business – I bought it directly off the floor for a fraction of its original price. It also serves as my lab bench for audio experimentation and evaluation.
INNOVATION IN SYSTEM DESIGN AND ACQUISITION
Much of the current computer based audiophile spectrum is based on cutting edge hardware and software that changes and advances almost daily. Few people have extensive experience with all available products, and there’s plenty of room for creative experimentation in every aspect of system design and implementation. With so much great stuff now available at what would be bargain basement prices for legacy analog equipment of the same quality and capability, it’s easier and cheaper than ever to experiment. It’s also cheap and easy to practice continuous quality improvement, when amplifiers of decent quality can be had for $250, computer sources like Raspberry Pis cost $35, and an amazing assortment of open source software is available for no more than you want to contribute to its creators if you love it.
A lot of past innovation is begging to be tried again. Think about the “double Advent” adventure chronicled by Harry Pearson in TAS Vol 1 No 1. He raved about the sound quality of stacked Advent speakers pared in parallel, after citing as their 3 biggest drawbacks for audiophiles that they were commercially successful, readily available, and low in demands on back and budget. “It is very difficult to take a $120 speaker system seriously”, said HP in 1973! He then went on to detail how wonderful paired Advents were, to wit:
- “The bass, if anything had that certain low end sock that you hear in a good hall”
- “The upper strings, massed violins in particular, began to sound like massed strings”
- “relatively colorless”, “very smooth”
- “Quite obviously, a speaker system in the authoritative class...”
Remember that $120 in 1973 is about $700 today. The Martin Logan 4i currently reviewed on AS is $249. For the cost of 4 of those those paired advents today ($2800), you can buy a pair of 4is plus a small ML powered sub at list price and have almost $2k left for the rest of your system plus a lifetime Roon subscription and dinner for 4 at a really nice restaurant.
Nothing is stopping you from doing this kind of thing today. Given the ease of buying and selling high quality, popular, inexpensive equipment both locally and on the internet, there is no reason not to experiment like this - and you have every good reason to do so. Next time they go on sale, consider doubling up on two pairs of small Wharfdales, DefTechs etc. You may be very pleasantly surprised at the bass, the image, the soundstage, and/or other characteristics. Maybe there’s serious synergy in pairing small active monitors on each channel, or single driver wonders like the KEF – who knows?
INNOVATE WITH SOFTWARE
A lot of great audio programs are open source, and many can be run on small board / single box computers. The next installment of this series evaluates and compares dozens of open source players for Windows, Mac, Linux, and proprietary JEOSs (“just enough operating systems”). Beyond players, you can get and play with everything from processors and equalizers to electronic crossovers like the EKIO that will let you split your input into multiple frequency bands using the channels of a MC receiver or DAC to power single range drivers individually. With these crossover programs, you can experiment with crossover points, slopes, time alignment, etc to find and set up what you think sounds best. Many audiophiles prefer the SQ of one open source player to another. Try it & see if you’re one.
You can even run Windows programs like Foobar2000 on Linux boxes using a program called WINE (“Wine Is Not an Emulator”!). It works very well and opens up a world of windows to Linux users at no cost. There are so many plugins for Foobar now that it’s impossible for me to catalog them all here. There’s a crossover program that lets you biamp or triamp as long as you have a MC sound card in or connected to your computer. Many of these crossover and MC programs will output bit perfect audio through HDMI as well as optical, coax and USB. So you can use a high quality AV receiver (also inexpensive these days) to drive a multi-amped stereo system plus subs, saving money and space when rightsizing. You can also run a home theater from the same unit if it has switchable speaker outputs.
Innovate with software on your mobile device, too. Control, stream, monitor and share your files over your home network and out to the internet. I use 3 old smartphones as remotes in my home system.
INNOVATE WITH HARDWARE
You can and should explore the world of pretty fine equipment made for musicians. It includes ADCs, DACs, and system components for live music reinforcement, as well as recording, mastering, and playback software and hardware. I use an M-Audio USB audio interface for recording that has a stereo 24/192 DAC (from AKM, I believe) and sounds so good that I often listen to music on my AKG-701s through it. I love the huge gain control knob, and the entire device appears to be made extremely well of high quality materials in a metal case. I wouldn’t hesitate to use this as the DAC in a home audio system – sound quality is equal to my Emotiva XDRs and close enough to my Stealth to keep me happy. It’s not as flexible (e.g. I&O options and control, balanced ins and outs). But for a small, inexpensive, reliable home audio system with very fine SQ, it’s more than up to the task. And it cost me $100 brand new!
With the arrival of the Raspberry Pi 4, you can have a serious little computer with gigabit ethernet, dual 4k HDMI outputs, a quad core 1.5G CPU, 4G of onboard RAM, and USB 3 – for $55! The default operating system (Raspbian) is pretty good for audio. You can also run any of several alternatives including Ubuntu Mate, which I like a lot. The 4 is a pretty competent little computer that can even hold its own against a stock ASUS Chromebox, another fine and inexpensive little audio source on which I’m currently running Ubuntu 18.04 and a host of servers dishing out everything from music files to 3 fully functional internet sites. I have a full JRMC instance on a Pi 3B+ that works just fine.
If you’re curious as to whether something – ANYthing - might work, it’s cheap and easy to find out. Your old laptop may be just what you need to pump music into your system or home network. You can always let your home PC double as a music server while you’re sorting tings out – and you may find out it’s pretty fine at the job.
INNOVATE WITH ANCILLARIES, CONNECTIONS ETC
WiFi has changed a lot in only a few years. Multi-access systems are now commonly used for best performance in tough areas like thick-walled condo buildings with hundreds of surrounding, competing WiFi signals. You can consider a “mesh” system, a range extender, and other options for cleanest and most reliable WiFi transmission. I set up a range extender at the far end of our 2000 sq foot apartment, and we have no problem with Roku sticks at both ends of the unit. I set them up to test Comcast’s recent beta Roku app that streams our Comcast cable programming to Roku receivers….and it works great!
Did you know that there’s now wireless HDMI? I’m also running a Nyrius Aries+ system in our condo, because there’s literally no place or way to run wire or fiber inside our walls and ceilings – the building is stressed concrete and many walls are only a few layers of drywall separated by furring strips. With wireless HDMI, we can have full cable programming (including On Demand) in rooms to which we can’t run a drop or an HDMI cable.
Decide what you want and what you need when rightsizing. Then go out and find it – it’s probably already available. If it’s not there, look to commercial and other nontraditional solutions you can adopt and adapt. it’s out there, it’s inexpensive, it’s educational. And it’s fun. Best of all, new tech can make downsizing not only tolerable but downright great!
INNOVATION WITH DESIGN AND PRESENTATION
Downsizing really sucks up floor space! But there are other surfaces waiting to be used, and innovative ways to use them. My favorite example is track lighting – there’s some great mounting hardware on them there ceilings, just begging us to use it! It will help you blend speakers into the woodwork, and it’s powered. I’m building a pair of small platforms to suspend small, wireless, powered monitors using the fittings that support pendant track lighting. I use H track, but the other systems are equally fine and there are many accessories available for each. Adapters like the two on my desktop in properly mounted track will easily support systems like Audioengine 2+. Drive them with a BT dongle for a noncritical background system or as rear speakers. I’ll have mine up and running for the speaker evaluation piece.
Keep your eyes and your mind open, and you’ll find many opportunities to innovate when choosing, setting up, and enjoying your audio system. There are a million ways to skin a GUI !
SO IF YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT DOWNSIZING……..
Relax! Do not worry about your sound system options. You don’t need half of the stuff and function that you think you do. You don’t need big, expensive, hot, ugly, boxy components and dedicated audio space with sturdy shelves and racks. You’ll still need clean power and enough outlets, but that’s easy to achieve these days. Cables and multiple outlet strips or adapters even look pretty good now, and there are many attractive ways to guide / conceal / manage exposed wiring in living areas. You can run your connections optimally for noise reduction etc with great ease.
You’ll have better sound and more fun with your new system than you ever dreamed you could have with your old one. There are many ways to have great sound in small spaces for far less than the cost of the same SQ in your current system. You can set up a very nice system de novo for under $500 to give you music in your new surroundings while you reach equilibrium with them. You’ll have time to consider your audio value scale, decide on your compromises, seek the right equipment, and locate it in your new digs.
Stay tuned for detailed presentations of your options in software, front end hardware, processing hardware, amplification, interconnections, and housing of your system. But also be on the lookout for solutions of your own. Remember the double Advent and let your mind wander a bit – you might be the next audio genius!
And now back to evaluations and comparisons……..
Here's the list with some of the things we’ve evaluated and our current selections used in the 5 systems now in our apartment.