Listening #181

The company appears to be long gone, but throughout the 1970s, virtually every Sunday, there was an ad in the New York Times Magazine for a manufacturer of whole-house music systems—I recollect the name as Bolton, but that gets no hits on Google, so perhaps I've misremembered—with a headline that went something like: "ENJOY MOZART IN THE DINING ROOM, BEETHOVEN IN THE LIVING ROOM, AND THE ROLLING STONES IN THE CHILDREN'S ROOM." I remember wondering even then, as a distinctly unworldly teenager in upstate New York: Who in God's name would want such a thing? Why squirt background music everywhere—and make no mistake, any system in which the user has less than complete, hands-on control of playback media is a background-music system—when, for a lot less money, you could fill one room in the house with a collection of records and the best, most compelling record player money can buy?

That comes to mind because, in recent months, I've received two requests from people who wonder if I might take their money in exchange for consulting on a domestic playback system they hope to acquire and install. In both cases, I made it clear that as well as not being able to act as a paid consultant, I will have nothing to do with systems intended to provide background music. (Having expressed that condition, I have heard back from neither requester as I write this, but it's too soon to draw any conclusions from that.) I'm not immune to luxury's appeal, but I want nothing to do with senseless luxury—and, like putting a first edition of Don Quixote in every bathroom or painting the lawn gold, filling an entire house with superior-quality music playback gear is senseless, not to mention wasteful. Better to put your gear someplace in the house that's both logical and pleasant, so you can go to it when you want it—just as you go to the kitchen when you want something to eat, and to the bedroom when you want to sleep. It's so simple, I shouldn't even have to say it.

Home Sweet New Home
So it is in my compact but pleasantly open-feeling new house, whose living room is also my listening room. That room measures 16' long by 11' wide by 9' high. Centered in the short exterior wall behind the speakers is a brick fireplace, the tile hearth of which is higher than the hardwood floor by only a fraction of an inch: a slight but not deal-breaking limit to flexibility in speaker placement. Also on that wall, on either side of the fireplace, are two smallish casement windows: a nice architectural detail that seems typical of the mostly ca-1930 homes in my neighborhood. At the opposite end of the room, an archway leads to the dining room, itself just slightly larger than the living room.

On September 20, within minutes of the movers' departure, I set about setting up if not completely dialing in the most basic elements of my system: Garrard 301 turntable with homemade plinth and Auditorium 23 bronze tonearm board; EMT 997 tonearm and TSD 15 stereo pickup head; Auditorium 23 Hommage T2 step-up transformer; Haut-Brion stereo power amplifier; and vintage Altec Flamenco loudspeakers on homemade stands, plus a Box Furniture rack for source components and electronics, and cabling from Shindo, Auditorium 23, Audio Note, and Luna. Of those chores, installing the record player took the greatest amount of time, since, before moving, I'd had to remove not only the pickup head but also the tonearm and tonearm board.

My first impressions of my new space, compared to the one where I'd done most of my listening for the preceding 14 years: The sound is pretty well balanced, bass through treble, with no room-induced top-end harshness, although upper-midrange decays seem too generous. (This with a 6' by 10' area rug on the hardwood floor, no curtains on any of the windows, and minimal artwork on the walls.) There's a bit of added darkness—and a subsequent slight lack of clarity—in the two octaves between 40 and 160Hz, but that, too, is minor. The system communicates punch and drive very well—as well as in its previous setting—without the sense that it's working harder than before to do so.

And, unexpectedly, the floor beneath the rack on which my turntable now stands seems more stable—although to achieve this, I found I had to move the rack a few inches left of where I'd originally had it. In my new home, I haven't had a single problem with a record skipping, or other sonic disturbances caused by footfalls. As they say at the Clinique counter: your gift with purchase.


That said, already I've found that the sound of my system depends on whether the windows in the dining room are open or closed: It sounds better when they're closed. And the system sounds better when the casement window behind and above each speaker is open. But my system doesn't sound its best until the side-by-side sash windows on the long exterior wall—which together comprise a picture window 60" high and nearly 70" wide—are closed, and when the Levolor fabric shades I've installed on them are fully lowered.

So: with the dining-room windows closed, the windows on the short wall open, and the windows and shades on the long wall closed, my system sounds really, really good: colorful and tactile, with generous measures of momentum and drive and punch. Although most of my records are still in storage, awaiting installation of my new record shelves, I made sure to keep with me a hundred or so select titles—and Leroy Vinnegar's first plucked (as opposed to bowed) note in "Chelsea Bridge," from Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (stereo LP, Verve MG V-8343), told me that everything is going to be all right.

But . . . protests to the contrary, I'm just as much an audiophile as any of you. And just as in yours, there exists in my heart a conductive diaphragm that swings wildly between two stators. One of those stators is labeled: That baby is smiling at me and making cute faces: Babies love me! The other stator is labeled: The baby is smiling because he's taking a dump in his pants.

Thus, when we ask people to come over and help us tweak our hi-fi, we're not so much asking for their help as asking them to come by and tell us if we're delusional, and if our hi-fi needs tweaking. That's because we're insecure and reluctant to acknowledge when we do or don't like the sound in our home—although neither we nor anyone else has any compunction about stating, loudly and often turbocharged with drink, when we do or don't like the sound of a given performing space. That's a whole 'nother thing.

So I enlisted some help by buying and downloading to my iPhone the Audio Tools app ($19.95) offered by Studio Six Digital. In particular, my colleague Larry Greenhill has often written of his experiences with this suite of applications, which includes a real-time analyzer (RTA) and Fast Fourier Transform (FFT), and can be upgraded with such extra-cost additions as a utility for measuring loudspeaker impedance (although that requires the purchase of a hardware interface that sells for about $480). So far, the measurements I've made in my new home with Audio Tools are encouraging. Suffice it to say that I do indeed have a full-range room without serious acoustical flaw. But those measurements are also inconclusive, owing to the fact that I have so far taken them only with my iPhone's internal microphone. Better mikes are available, most notably Studio Six's own iTestMic2 ($199.99). If anyone's wondering what to get me for Christmas . . .

Irving Berlin's Gramophone
My friend Sasha Matson, a composer with a number of recorded works to his credit, is a member of the extended family of the great and long-lived American songwriter Irving Berlin (1888–1989), who divided his time between New York City and his retreat in the Catskill Mountains. At Sasha's invitation, I recently stayed at the latter, and it was there that I learned an unexpected lesson about recorded music.


Charles E Flynn's picture

Thank you for not cooperating with the desire to put ignorable music in every room.

The company with the ads in the New York Times magazine was Boulton Music Systems, Inc. I remembered their odd trademarked name for a feature:

The Boulton ads appeared around the same time someone wrote to High Fidelity magazine a letter that began, "I have a The Fisher receiver...".

ZombieFish's picture

Looks good. Plus I did a quick search (no luck) but found some interesting articles on how to listen to classical music, which I will read to help me appreciate more the music I do enjoy.

jimtavegia's picture

These two companies incorporated intercoms into their systems and I remember when they added CD players as options, and even though I sold them. I wondered by anyone would think this is a good way to listen to music. The intercom made sense, but music through terrible speakers...NO.

supamark's picture

In my apt. there's a hallway that runs parallel to the main living/dining area with an archway entrance (9' ceiling in rooms, 8' in hallway). I noticed a very strong resonance in the arch that extended perpendicular to the hall - basically the hall w/ its bedrooms et. al. on either end was a tuned chamber and I can change the bass response in the listening position by opening/closing various doors and changing the tuning frequency of the chamber. I think this is something most people overlook when setting up their audio system.

Ortofan's picture

... a set of Tannoy SuperTweeter-Gold to go with his Altec speakers?

Is that an Ortofon box atop the left-hand speaker?

audiodoctornj's picture

As a store owner who specializes in state of the art two channel as well as home theaters and multi room installations, quite frankly could not disagree with you more.

Today more than ever you can actually construct a very high end music system that can function to provide real high end music throughout a house it all depends on how you do it and what components you use.

That company is Naim and to a lower level NAD.

The issue is by centrally locating equipment and having to run long runs of speaker cable, yes I would agree with you that your multi room system will not sound that good, and yes the Sonos world isn't very good either.

With that being said, Naim makes the Muso a $899 streaming speaker that sounds very musical,

and you can then upgrade to a Uniti Atom a $3,000.00 all in one amp/streamer

and locate that in another room, you can even go up to a $13k stack of Naim streaming preamp the NAC 272 with a 250DR amplifier

and run a set of $10k speakers and you have a real audio system.

Everything in the above scenario can be controlled by one Naim app and you can listen to high quality Tidal music in any room.

Art go to a Naim dealer and listen to a Uniti Atom with a pair of good bookshelf speakers and now imagine that your friends can have a system which may not be as esoteric as a system with tubes and vinyl but very few people in the high end would not consider Naim to deliver anything other than really fantastic sound.

The issue with your friends might be that they are enamourued with the low cost to do wireless systems throughout their home for many rooms which is Sonos's strong point.

We like to educate our clients into doing one good streaming speaker amp for $900 use that in your Kitchen and get a higher end Naim Atom or an even better system for your Living Room.

NAD makes Blue Sound which offers a less expensive but still good sounding echo system with steaming speakers, stereamp amp/dacs including a $4,500.00 M32 which is a very powerful integrated amp/streamer, and you can even get Blue Sound in the companies Suround sound receivers.

We need to embrace and educate anyone who wants to listen to real music there are more than one way to do it and to make happy newly minted audiophiles.

Dave Lalin, Audio Doctor

mns3dhm's picture

"Perhaps, with luck, the time is finally upon us when the thick faceplates, outsize cables, and absurd prices that make our pastime so repulsive to the young will start to show up in our collective rear-view mirror. I can but hope."

Amen. Stereophile desperately needs new editorial direction. Too much of the equipment reviews are obscure and\or ridiculously expensive products whose unit sales volume is miniscule; too much of the music coverage often focuses on weird artists few people listens to, and the technical discussions, while presumably interesting to engineers, are of little interest and beyond the comprehension of most of the magazines readership.

Hopefully someone in charge at The Enthusiast Network agrees with me and has the guts to make significant changes to the magazine and its contributors.

John Atkinson's picture
mns3dhm wrote:
Too much of the equipment reviews are obscure and\or ridiculously expensive products whose unit sales volume is minuscule...

Perhaps you should take a look at what product is currently featured at the top of our home page.

mns3dhm wrote:
Hopefully someone in charge at The Enthusiast Network agrees with me and has the guts to make significant changes to the magazine and its contributors.


John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

ken mac's picture

The Nova, a review of which is forthcoming, is absolutely state of the art as a powerful 80Wpc network player, able to play in every room of the home, includes excellent internet radio, Tidal, Roon-coming, a terrific DAC--and is, might I say, a bargain when it comes to sound, design and build. Naim is hardly esoteric; it's a global brand with deep roots in high-end. Editorial direction--spot-on!

Ortofan's picture

... who could easily afford to spend $7K for a Nova would never do so. Their idea of a multi-room music system is a couple of Bose radios. Yet, they wouldn't hesitate to spend ten times as much on a home theater.

windansea's picture

Gosh the new room seems cramped (but cozy). Good thing Art's not running big maggies in there! Sure would be interesting read a "trading places" piece where Art spends some time in a bleeding-edge system while the other aficionado listens to Art's setup. Perhaps mutual torture, but ya never know.

fifthbusiness's picture

I only have two systems - the main one (extremely modest compared to yours) and the small system in the back room where I am typing. The small system (Pioneer SP-BS22 speakers driven by a class D amp) is to supply some music while I tie flies! I find that some Bach piano sonatas really helps me concentrate on filling the fly boxes back up this time of year.

So could it be an aesthetic of the fly tiers - that of having one system rather "music for every room"? More importantly, do you listen to music while you tie flies?

I'm also curious if you know or could find out if Ernie Schwiebert enjoyed music? I don't recall him mentioning it in his many articles in Flyfisherman but being an architect I suspect he must have had some appreciation for high fidelity sound...

Thanks and happy new year!

Xwilliphant's picture

Happy New Year in your new house. Looks like a set up that emulates most "real" peoples experience. This gives greater veracity to your reviews. My nephew in law in Vancouver has just acquired Valencias and I am aiding him through the birthing pangs!
Thanks for being such a voice of civilised reason in this audio minefield of ours!

Doctor Fine's picture

Thanks Art for asking me personally to take a look at your room and help you with the acoustics.
The basic physical arrangement is rather reflective and cramped however with a little sweat equity you should be able to elevate it sonically and get fine results without too much effort.
As it stands your speakers are no doubt sounding quite woofy jammed against the back wall and reflecting on hard surfaces into every angle.
I imagine they don't sound awful there as the location has some redeeming qualities (it is symettrical, at the long end of the room and has little in the way of junk in between the speakers except for what can't be helped---the fireplace and stove!).
Anyway I doubt there is much room for alternative considerations as you just can't fight the basic archetecture at times. And it is nice to have some windows in your view to add interest in being oriented towards that end of the room. Nice windows, Art.
Though the fireplace will reflect hard it is of some use as it is nice to have a hard surface in the middle where it adds a center phantom channel.
Frankly I would add a TV/Monitor on your mantel since that space is crying for one. I am sure you are hooked up to the internet to listen to MQA and thus it is handy to have a nice big display for navigating around.
A TV/Monitor won't screw things up anymore than they already are (yes I would rather "tune the space" here with something anti reflective but that might fight the looks of the room too much as after all it is multi purpose).
Your windows are the wrong kind as they are hard reflecting and not adding anything helpful to the sonic soundstage above the speakers.
Replace them with double hung and you get the bonus of being able to install blinds which DO add something when partially open as they break up the standing waves nicely.
And finish the window area with heavy acoustic drapes floor to ceiling behind the speakers but stopping at the fireplace. These will help soak up mud behind the boxes.
Add white fireproof Sonex coming out from either wall to about your heater register on the right and the same distance to match on the left. Floor to ceiling Sonex here will really kill first reflections AND dry up the front of the room quite well.
White will look acceptable as after all your windows and fireplace are all that color.
Following my design you wind up with a nice usable niche for whatever speakers are in use and will be able to move them around in the niche looking for least boxy midrange coloration and best tightest bass. All without any more of the nasty echo reflections from the cramped quarters they operate within.
I would rather imagine once the work is done you will be able to use it on a regular basis for speaker evaluations as the "throat" of the room should be clearly located at the apex of where your current "boxes" are emanating. Won't it be great to hear just the speakers output without all the noise added by your current set up?
If this all sounds practical and simple common sense once submitted---then good show.
Your constant attention to the nuances which make our hobby so interesting have yielded more than a few conceptual upgrade ideas in my personal cranium. Ideas for which I will be eternally grateful, Art.
I am so glad you asked me for some advice and I was able to return the favor.
Doctor Fine

Jimmy D.'s picture

Thank you Art for sharing your digs with your followers. I've been a long time reader since the early days of Listener. I recently scored a very nice pair of Flamencos with beautiful drivers and even the original sales receipt from 1971. Only problem is the owner painted the cabinets white for his beach house so I have a stripping job ahead of me. I would like to know if you still use the original Altec crossovers or something new and better?

Jim Dudley

sethgodin's picture

Art, sorry for the delay, just getting to this in my feed reader (ah, the joys and pains of digital).

I love your new digs. And confess that I was touched to see such a huge book on your coffee table. I'm told it helps a great deal taming wayward acoustics as well.

Keep making this magic.