DIGITAL, STREAMING AND THE INTERNET: They’ve all contributed to a resurrection of music listening. With so much audio at your fingertips, it’s natural that you’ll want to spend more time surrounded by your favorite tunes. This can happen through earbuds, streamed through the speakers of your home theater setup or played right from your computer. And the more time you spend listening, the more you’ll come to appreciate the subtle nuances of audio reproduction. You’ll start to savor the instrumentation of a particular classic and begin to understand the lyrics of a hip-hop tune you just discovered. What you’ll also likely discover is that nothing beats a two-channel audio system for producing the purest, clearest playback of any type of entertainment setup.
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We’ve been taught that for the best viewing experience, a dedicated theater should be dark, isolated from the rest of the house and be of a certain shape and size. The rules are a much looser for listening rooms, says Craig Abplanalp, vice president of Definitive Audio, a custom A/V design and installation firm in Seattle and Bellevue, Wash. Sure, hardcore audiophiles might want to sequester their equipment in a room that’s been professionally engineered with acoustical treatments and accoutered with finely calibrated components, but this intense level of design really isn’t necessary to have a great listening environment, adds custom electronics (CE) professional Andres Sauceda of Hanson Audio Video in Kettering, Ohio. In fact, rooms you already use for other purposes, like the family room or den, can function admirably as a listening space. It just depends on your expectations, your budget and how you like to listen.
“If [serious music listening] is something you plan on doing frequently, or if you want to be by yourself and play the music loudly and feel as if you’re sitting in the front row of Carnegie Hall, you may want to dedicate a room solely for music listening, Sauceda says. “On the other hand, if you like to share your music with others, you’ll probably get more enjoyment from a two-channel audio system that’s been incorporated into the family room.” Adds Abplanalp: “While the room environment will definitely have some impact on the sound from an audio system, normally appointed living spaces, which usually have a mix of hard and soft materials, won’t have an ill-effect on the music. It’s only if the room is covered in glass and marble that you’ll have a hard time getting the audio system to cooperate.” But even this isn’t impossible, given the sophisticated calibration technologies being built into many audio products today, as well as a wide variety of attractive acoustical wall and ceiling treatments that can be added to a room for improved sonic performance. For example, many receivers come with a microphone and graphing software intended to help you find the appropriate placement for the left and right speakers. Often, this software is designed for use by do-it-yourselfers. To get the room perfectly tuned, though, it’s best to bring in a professional. A custom electronics (CE) professional comes armed with an arsenal of devices to calculate not only the proper speaker placement, but where to install acoustical treatments and how to set up the receiver to compensate for a room’s sonic imperfections.
Really, though, audio performance all boils down to the equipment, and according to both Abplanalp and Sauceda, you can get incredible sound without having to spend a whole lot. And because stereo components have great resale value, you can start with a modest investment of $500 for a pair of speakers, sell them a few years down the road for almost as much as you spent on them originally, and invest in a pair of more expensive, higher-performance speakers. The same goes for the two-channel stereo receiver, the preamp and the amps you’ll also need for your system.
Unlike video technologies that seemingly become outdated overnight, audio components are blessed with long life expectancies. “A home theater receiver has a shelf life of about nine months; for a stereo receiver it’s seven years,” says Sauceda. This means that you don’t have to worry about the equipment you invest in today becoming obsolete quickly. If it sounds good today, it will sound good years from now. However, once you get hooked, it’s hard not to want to update, says Douglas Acker, whose been building out his two-channel audio system for seven years (see his listening room after the break).
System #1: Audiophile Approved
Douglas Acker set up is first stereo system with the help of his dad when he was 14. Although he’s still just as passionate about music, he’s become much more sophisticated in the way he listens to music and demanding of the systems that he uses to play it. He credits his maturation in part to his wife, a concert pianist who “expects nothing more than acoustic greatness” from a home stereo system.
To satisfy their audiophile ears, Acker spent hours auditioning various speaker and amplifier combinations at the showroom of Hanson Audio Video in nearby Kettering, Ohio. “I would spend three to four hours at a time just listening,” says Acker. “I listened to bookshelf and floor standing speakers, and everything in between, with different amps, preamps and sources.” He ultimately decided on Dynaudio Confidence C2 speakers, along with Bryston amps, preamps and CD player, and a turntable from Pro-Ject. In addition to being the most pleasing combination to his ear, Acker felt the design of the speakers would fit nicely with the decor of his living room, deemed by Hanson Audio Video as the best area for music listening due to its size and acoustical characteristics. “They stand out just enough to look interesting, but don’t make us look as if we’re high-tech geeks,” says Acker.
System #2: Aspirational Audio
Because this space is used mainly for two-channel music listening, the owners had no qualms about planting two 6-foot-tall speakers in the room. Manufactured by Wilson Audio, these top-of-the-line Alexandria speakers mirror the seriousness of this listening space—as does their $135,000 per pair retail price. Says Craig Abplanalp of Definitive Audio in Seattle and Bellevue, Wash.: “Although there’s a flat-panel TV in the area, the owners spend the bulk of their time playing the stereo system,” which also includes a Linn Unidisk 1.1 disc player, a Linn Kistro A/V preamp, Halcro DM68 mono amps, and an SME 30/2 turntable, all connected with high-end Transparent Cable.
Purpose-built for high-performance audio, this room above a detached garage was acoustically treated with fabric panels on the ceiling, which enhances the clarity of music and intelligibility of the dialogue in movies, and is so well-designed it appears as a standard painted ceiling.
System #3: Socializing in Stereo
Yes, it’s perfectly fine to have a TV in your listening room. It won’t impact the performance of your audio gear. In fact, it might make the space feel more inviting and social. That’s what the owners of this space were thinking when they contacted Definitive Audio, with stores in Seattle and Bellevue, Wash., to set up a two-channel audio system in their multipurpose family room. For both casual and critical listening, the homeowners chose a solid yet economical soup-to-nuts system from Linn, comprised of a Majik DSM Network Music Player and two floor standing speakers, which totalled $7,500.
The Majik DSM provides a slew of listening choices. The owners can access downloaded music, ripped CDs and Internet radio streams. And with a mobile device, they can categorize their tunes into playlists.