Multichannel music is the future. The two-channel reproduction that we have enjoyed for the past four decades is but the first step from monophonic (single-source) sound to true stereophonic reproduction. I intend to preach that to Stereophile readers who believe it and to convert the obstinate objectors.
Along with speakers and their placement, the greatest influence on the sound of a music system are the acoustics of the room itself. With two-channel stereo, some reflections and reverberations are necessary in order to maintain the perception that one is listening in a real space. So, while many experts recommend having a "dead" end behind and near the speakers that absorbs most sound, few suggest such treatment for the rest of the room. With too few sonic reflections, the stereo image would narrow; without the aid of "room gain" to enrich the bass, the sounds of instruments and voices would be thin. Listening in an anechoic chamber is interesting and informative, but far from pleasurable.
When I was a young amateur photographer, I subscribed to all the major photo magazines and avidly read all the articles. However, I was bugged when I realized there was a cycle of repetition—that I was reading about the basics of Ansel Adams' Zone System for the third time.
Ever since I installed dedicated power lines for my multichannel system, I've been wrestling with the issues of surge protection, power conditioning, and voltage regulation. I start with a bias based on decades of happy listening without being concerned about any of these problems, and my belief that competent electronic components must be, and are, designed to perform in the real world. After all, whether the device's AC power supply is a traditional transformer-bridge-reservoir or a switching supply, its output should be a DC source that is sufficient to let the active circuitry meet its specifications. Many manufacturers, such as Bryston, recommend bypassing any line conditioners and plugging their components directly into the AC outlet.
The ongoing reissues of Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo recordings, have been the signal successes of the SACD format. Despite having been recorded in only (!) three channels, these releases have given us very good justifications for going beyond two-channel stereo to get as unrestricted a hearing as possible of live performances.
Looking back to see which of the multichannel discs I've reported on that have made a splash in the market, I detect an ominous trend. Most are reissues of classic performances, including all the RCA Living Stereo and the Mercury Living Presence SACDs, as well as a number of classic jazz and rock albums (including yet more editions of Kind of Blue, Dark Side of the Moon, and Brothers in Arms).
In the past few installments of this column I've promised to talk about another subwoofer equalizer system. Now I'm going to pull the old switcheroo and discuss a different subwoofer EQ. The SMS-1 is a new, standalone digital equalizer system from Velodyne, based on the EQ built into their DD-series subwoofers. Larry Greenhill went gaga over the Velodyne DD-18 in the June 2004 Stereophile, particularly because of the ease and sophistication of the EQ system. Apparently, one of the Velodyne sales guys asked the obvious: What about making the EQ available separately for use with other subwoofers?
In September 2005, for the first time, I attended the Expo of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA), in Indianapolis. Although I saw many familiar faces and companies, it was apparent that the event was dominated by a spirit very different from the one that pervades this magazine or the high-end exhibitions at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES). That spirit, however, does suffuse the rest of CES, and is well represented at Primedia's own Home Entertainment shows. That spirit encompasses video, and a view of audio that differs significantly from that of traditional audiophiles. Multichannel surround sound is taken as read, and novel technologies are prized higher than the proverbial "straight wire with gain."
It seems these days that everybody and his brother is doing something about room equalization. Sure, we had the old-time graphic and parametric EQs—now we're seeing much more sophisticated and dedicated devices, from the TacT and Z-Systems standalone products to the auto-setup and EQ systems found in many A/V receivers. I was impressed with the Audyssey MultEQxt in the Denon AV-4806 receiver—see my "Music in the Round" column in March, p.50—and a standalone AudysseyPro unit was demonstrated at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show.
It doesn't take much to read between the lines of Sony's discontinuation of the TA-P9000ES analog preamplifier and their introduction of the SCD-XA9000ES SACD player with IEEE1394 digital output at Home Entertainment 2003. (A similar feature from the DVD-Audio camp has been promised.) Surely, we will at long last be able to have external digital processing and DACs in our preamp or control units. In addition to the freedom to mix and match components, this opens the door to having a single digital component manage bass and channel balance for all sources, and room/speaker correction without redundant redigitization.
Bryston describes its SP2 multichannel preamplifier-processor ($4995) as consisting of a stereo analog preamp with a volume-controlled 5.1-channel analog pass-through plus a full-featured multichannel digital audio processor, and claims that none of those functions compromises any of the others. The analog preamp is fully equivalent in features and performance to their BP26 preamp. The digital processor includes all the latest Dolby Digital, DTS, and THX modes, and is based on Texas Instruments' powerful Aureus DSP chip, which can be updated via an S/PDIF input. The digital and analog sections have independent power supplies, and there are no video inputs or functions other than a control port for the optional, external SPV-1 video switcher.
I've been tweaking my weekend multichannel system for years, but with my city system I've kinda faked it. I now realize that I listen more actively to the weekend system, and not only because that's when I have the time for it—the sound of that system is simply more engaging and psychologically immersive. So, with the growth of my library of SACD and DVD-Audio recordings to almost half the size of my CD collection, I told my wife that it was time to transform of "our" city stereo rig into a full-blown multichannel system.
California company Now Hear This (NHT), which has been around since 1986, has always taken a no-nonsense route based on good engineering principles and innovative thinking. Two of their strikingly good ideas were the use of side-firing woofers, and integrating an active subwoofer with a pair of small monitor speakers. Both philosophies culminated in the Xd series of DSP-EQ'd active loudspeakers, which I had the pleasure of reviewing in the November 2005 issue. My first reaction to the concept was "Why hasn't anyone done this before?" The results completely justified an approach that, I believe, points loudspeaker design in a new direction.
My reviews of the TacT RCS (Stereophile, September 2001) and the Rives PARC (July 2003) are ample evidence that I've been fascinated with room equalization for quite a while. This is because I don't have a dedicated, purpose-built listening room in either of my homes, and having experienced what such rooms can do for recorded sound, I've always been somewhat dissatisfied with what I do have. Sure, I've got lots of great equipment, and a wife who understands enough to let me install some acoustic treatments (as long as she approves their appearance). Still, I'm sympathetic to those audiophiles who, when I suggest acoustic treatments to resolve their particular problems, say that it's simply not possible for them, either because of the Spousal Acceptance Factor or the need to accommodate other activities in the same room. Room equalizers seem to offer the hope for a panacea for what ails such spaces.