Lost Among Europeans

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Audio obsession

The last two months I’ve been busier than I like at work, it’s been tough. At the same time, at home, I’ve been consumed by audio, to the point of not being able to get a good rest. Of course, that was just the time for a thorough tidying of the apartment. I’m an obsessive person, and every now and then I get into these periods of feverish activity.

The audio obsession has a long history: for years I’ve been annoyed by the lack of clarity in dialogues in DVD in my system. I’ve tried many tweaks, and even replaced some equipment, and still, I often needed to turn subtitles on. I’d be following dialogue normally, and then some sounds would just seem to disappear, and I’d lose sync. Since I have no problem understanding English speech in real life, needing subtitles was a bit of a slap in the face.

In January, I began another wave of research and tests. This time I went deeper, I bought books on digital audio, pored through internet forums, asked around. Nobody seemed to have exactly my same problem. Several experiments yielded incremental overall improvements, but still the lack of clarity. I remembered I didn’t use to have the problem so badly when I watched DVDs on the laptop, as a student. Today, listening to DVDs on the mac with my headphones gives very clear and defined speech. I assumed this was due to my headphones being so good (Grado, I heartily recommend them).

Then, just for laughs, I connected my mac to the amplifier and played a DVD through it. The change was immediate. Speech was easy to follow, words had much better defined contours. Aha! A bit more testing, and I found the issue. I had my system set up so that the Dolby decoding happened in the amplifier, instead of in the DVD player. The amplifier manual recommended this. However, the Dolby decoder on the amplifier turned out, evidently, to be bad quality. The DVD player does a much better job.

I have found this audio stuff very entertaining. I have visited two high end stores, and concluded that my cheap system is very good, and expensive gear does not have that much more to offer me. On my to-do list is exploring digital home recording of old LPs, learning about room acoustics, exploring the new amplification technologies, and possibly building my own speakers. That is the fun part of this whole story. The un-fun part is the dead ends, the frustration, the days and nights spent on tests and online research. But I don’t get to choose. Obsessions are both a blessing and a curse.

Here are my pearls of wisdom from this whole journey:

  • If you have bookshelf speakers, get them on speaker stands so they level with your ears in the listening position. Both the floor and bookshelves are bad places for your speakers, they will produce resonance and reverberation.

  • Place speakers at least 3ft/1m from any wall. This reduces reflections and sound wave interference.

  • Avoid a naked floor, or reflecting objects like table tops, between you and the speakers. A rug will do. Again, interference reduction.

  • Get good source components (DVD, CD) and have them handle decoding and digital to analog conversion (DAC). Your amplifier should be as simple as possible.

  • Somehow, everyone seems to think surround is good, and a center channel is a must. Resist! Two speakers work great for both music and movies.

  • When going to listen to equipment in stores, carry a bunch of CDs and DVDs that you know well, and use them to test. You may find your current system is better than you had thought.

  • Don’t trust manuals. Experiment, experiment.

  • It’s hard to get equipment better than a good computer.