September 07, 2007
| by EH Staff
Electronic House had the chance to talk to Bob Graffy, vice president of Snell Acoustics, which has introduced its flagship Reference Tower A7 Loudspeaker. Graffy discusses topics including why audio remains as important as video, what to focus on when doing critical listening, and what songs are on his demo disc.
Q.) When it comes to home theater these days, video is still king. Why is it important that they invest in quality speakers as well as the display?
A.) Sight and sound work together. Each provides cues to involve the other. When applied in home theater it is easy to predict that a bigger and sharper video image will make for a more involving experience; a bigger and sharper audio image contributes equally to involve the audience. Quality speakers properly matched and appropriately placed with good electronics and video monitor can instantly transport the audience into the film or concert video. Not the inverse. A big screen with a “home theater in a box” plays to only half of the senses.
Q.) What should consumers listen for when choosing speakers? Anything in particular they should pay attention to when listening to movie dialogue as opposed to music?
A.) Music … all kinds. Acoustic for detail, vocal for clarity and balance, large venue rock, jazz or classical for dynamics, bass extension and definition.
Music is tougher to get right, and it represents a significant contribution to all movie soundtracks (look at how many film scores are available on CD).
Then demanding movie clips … Listen for break up, distortion, loss of definition. The center speaker should preserve dialogue, especially during a big action sequence.
In summary, look for a musical speaker that is bulletproof. Add a sub to fit the room and output requirements, and center that has the definition to provide intelligible dialogue in an action sequence. The surround speakers should provide a sense of space and three-dimensionality, but should not be easily localized
Q.) Your company, like many speaker companies, offers a range of solutions for different budgets. What are some key aspects to look for in a speaker when going from good to better to best?
A.) Better speaker companies are true to their philosophies on sound and preserve a family sound throughout their line up. For 31 years, Snell Acoustics has held true to our family sound with every single speaker.
What differentiates our least from our best, and this holds true for better speaker companies, is output and bass extension. Loud output and deep bass add cost to speakers.
As with the last question, look for clarity, definition, neutral balance (neither bass heavy nor overly bright) and bass extension. Be mindful of room size and loudness needs. A modest system in a smaller room can sound fantastic. Conversely, if the room is large and the system will be cranked up, then expect to move the budget up.
There are four key aspects to look for:
- The first is bandwidth—A great system will produce sound from room shaking bass to finely detailed treble…in your sized room.
- The second is output—Make sure the system plays loud enough, especially the high dynamics found in big action movies.
- Third is timbre—All the speakers, particularly the left, center and right have to be from the same family of sound. Many times as a performer moves from left stage to right, all three speakers are in play…you want all three to have the same sonic characteristics.
- Last is soundstage—Look for a highly localized front stage, where each sound can be pinpointed. The rear effect speakers will transport the listener to the environment of the soundtrack. It can be as though you are placed middle of the scene whether it is a jungle, a church, or a city street.
Q.) Do you prefer multichannel or two-channel audio, and why? What do you see as some pros and cons of each?
A.) I love them both. They both can give me goose bumps, which is why I place them as equal and legitimate forms of home entertainment. I enjoy listening to “Danger Zone” while watching the opening clip from “Top Gun” just as much as cranking it up on a two-channel system on CD. An old but effective example.
At their best, they strive for the same qualities, most I of which I have described above.
I believe the more realistic the playback; the more easily I get swept into the music or movie.
A key differentiator is envelopment. A good two-channel (two-speaker) system can deliver a holographic, three-dimensional soundstage…, which can be breathtaking. A multi-channel system achieves envelopment by carefully placing 6, 7 or 8 speakers throughout the room…also breathtaking.
Pros and cons for me are cost and integration to room décor. As an artform music can integrate more easily into the day, while home theater commits me to the DVD for the whole movie, TV show, or concert video.
Q.) What are some audio trends that the loudspeaker industry is dealing with (7.1 surround, audio on high-def DVD, upgrading sound quality of iPod playback?) and that consumers should keep an eye on?
A.) Let’s start with software. I think the biggest change we will see over the next decade has to do with how we get music and video content. I see a day when all home entertainment content is acquired on-line.
As for hardware, the speaker industry is happy with the success of iPod as it has developed a music market for over 100 million users. The upscale portion of the iPod market is driving interest in higher performance iPod playback in lossless compression formats. The result will push higher definition server based playback system, which in turn will help drive the high-end speaker market.
Q.) If you could create a six-song demo disc to play for consumers on audiophile-grade speakers such as Snell’s A7’s, what’s on the play list?
A.) The point to make first is to choose recordings that are extremely familiar. One very credible audio critic that I know and respect listens to very loud, very electric rock and roll. His familiarity to his playlist allows him to hear the same the same speaker characteristics as me listening to my playlist.
First the voice. We all listen to voices every day, which encourages me to think that we are at our most critical listening to acoustic vocals. The male and female voice should both come from the chest yet have an airy quality. For voice I am quick to pull out Jane Monheit and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Then I listen to small stage bands with 3 to 10 performers. I look for a wide-range from bass to treble; recordings with a scaling standup bass to show accuracy, and then overlaying instrumentals and voice that can be localized in space and their definition analyzed. Here Jane Monheit, Eva Cassidy, and the Blind Boys are my reference.
For soundstage a palpable three-dimensional image is the goal. Michel Camillo has a recording with bass, piano and drums. You can rear him playing from left to right as he scales up and down the piano. The drummer plays a huge drum kit which comes from behind the piano and to the right of center…its as though they are in the room.
Small stage, acoustic recordings show how coherent or well-blended music can sound. Big orchestral pieces with 100 musicians playing together on a large stage taxes the speakers ability to recreate the majesty of these big recordings. I look for definition, imaging, and dynamics. A great speaker allows me to locate each instrument as a soloist or hear a tapestry woven by the integration of the whole orchestra.