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Feature Articles & Reviews
I was chatting with Group Commander Jeff Fritz, going over what I was currently excited about covering -- and there’s a lot going on that fills me with hope for our treasured hobby. We’re in the midst of an all-out assault on sound perfection, and not only where you’d expect to find it. Sure, all those lucky folks who write for SoundStage! Ultra get to spend their days contemplating what’s possible with unlimited funds. But what excites me is that members of the middle class who seriously love music can now assemble an audio system that, in some important ways, will sound better than monster systems costing more than most cars. That quality is made possible by listening in the nearfield.
There are three principal reasons that less-expensive equipment has shown such a remarkable surge in quality. On the electronics side, the cost of parts, whether for amplification or analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion, have dropped as their quality has increased. Look at such components as Oppo’s BDP-105D universal Blu-ray player or Benchmark’s DAC-1 digital-to-analog converter. Each lists for about $1000, and outperforms almost anything that, just a few years ago, cost twice or even thrice their price. I’d take the Benchmark over a Mark Levinson No.30.6 DAC, which cost $16,950 at the turn of the millennium. Of course, as John Atkinson wrote in his Stereophile review of the No.30.6, “Madrigal includes the [No.30.6] in its ‘Reference’ series, by which they mean that the unit will not become obsolete.” Hmm.
The other reason for the ascension of more reasonably priced equipment is that speaker manufacturers have gotten smarter. Instead of trying to stretch the boundaries of a speaker’s frequency response to cover everything from a 64’ organ pipe to the tinkle of a triangle, they’re buying better components and keeping the bandwidth well within the speaker’s capabilities. With frequencies below 80Hz ceded to a subwoofer or the sound gods, a speaker can be more efficient, or smaller, or both. A side effect of keeping the speakers sized to the parts’ capabilities is that you can end up with immaculate-sounding small speakers like the KEF LS50 or the Neumann KH120. These models not only have startling clarity, but because they’re so small, they can create a genuinely lifelike soundstage.
Finally, I think it’s impossible to overestimate the formidable impact of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) on the improvements in the science of loudspeaker design. Even manufacturers that don’t avail themselves of the NRC’s capabilities have benefited from the trickled-down effects of discoveries made there. For instance, speaker pairs are now better matched to each other, which pays dividends in depth and imaging. Designers can also use the NRC’s findings to fiddle with a speaker’s internal components and find a combination of drivers, cabinet, crossover, and wiring that will allow a speaker to reach its highest level of performance without ever forcing it to play notes that are out of its range.
But the real value of smaller, higher-performing speakers is the ability to listen to them in the nearfield. It’s important to remember that when music is recorded in a studio, engineers usually rely on small speakers sitting atop the meter bridge, no more than 3’ to 5’ from their ears. These professional monitors are almost always powered speakers with huge dynamic ranges. More and more of them use some form of electronic crossover that makes possible significant improvements in speaker-to-speaker uniformity, which in turn allows the speakers to be placed farther apart, which widens the soundstage and immerses the listener more in the music. (Poorly matched speakers can make center images disintegrate, especially as the distance between the speakers widens.) Some active speakers also have built-in digital signal processing (DSP) and internal DACs. That makes balancing two speakers very easy -- and if their internal DACs are good enough, you might be able to have a direct digital connection between computer and speakers, with no intervening electronics.
Over the years, a few audio writers have pushed the concept of nearfield listening. In most cases, it was someone who’d fallen in love with a minimonitor like the BBC’s LS3/5A. That design’s success led several very high-end speaker makers to dip their toes in the minimonitor market, including Harbeth, KEF, Rogers, and Spendor. These little speakers were equally at home in the studio or the space-challenged urban home. (This BBC document provides an excellent synopsis of the genesis of the LS3/5A. It also provides a strong foundation for understanding the benefits and trade-offs of small monitors and nearfield listening. Those interested in the history of the LS3 and a description of its wildly inventive nomenclature should read this article from England’s Hi-Fi News & Record Review.)
But there was a problem. In 1972, when the LS3/5A was invented, feeding the speakers the quality of signal they deserved required a high-quality turntable or reel-to-reel tape deck, a clean preamplifier, huge power amplifiers, beefy cables, and substantial speaker stands. All of that gear created a visual non sequitur, and required the listener to become a hermit, hunched between a pair of tiny speakers. Most audio sales staff threw up their hands in despair. We’ll never be able to sell these tiny speakers for so much money!
Then came a paradigm shift. Suddenly, the best sound you could get came from a FLAC file stored on a computer. Active speakers became more available, which obviated the need for big amps and lots of cables. Room-correction software abruptly sounded good enough for audiophiles to pay attention to it. Most important, more listeners finally had the opportunity to experience the joys of nearfield listening.
What you need for nearfield listening
Because the biggest audible improvements from nearfield listening have to do with soundstaging, dynamic impact, and flat frequency response, it’s important to pick components that are already capable in these areas. Depending on your budget, you can set up a standard system with an analog or digital source, a preamp, power amp, cables, stands, and speakers designed for nearfield listening. Nothing has to be purpose built, though you should remember that many speakers are engineered to be listened to from a distance, to allow time and distance to integrate the outputs of their various drivers. Listening in the nearfield to such speakers will result in disjointed sound, with individual sounds clustered around each speaker rather than creating a convincing soundfield.
Speakers with coincident drivers, such as KEF’s LS50 and Thiel’s SCS4, have an inherent advantage as nearfield speakers, and both of these models are well worth considering. But whether or not a speaker has coincident drivers, it’s important to remember that small speakers usually image better than floorstanding behemoths. Good small speakers can seem to put you in the room with the musicians, or bring them to yours. Focal’s Solo6 Be ($3990 USD per pair) is a perfect fit for my room, my system, and me. A two-way powered speaker with a 6.5” midrange-woofer and a 1” inverted-dome tweeter of beryllium, it has enough oomph to produce 110dB peaks at my listening seat. I’ve placed the speakers 9’ apart, and I sit 5.4’ from each. It’s like sitting at the center of a clock with the speakers at 10:15 and 1:45. That describes an angle of 113 degrees, or close to twice the normal listening angle. You might think such a setup would create a hole in the middle of the soundstage. Not at all. The experience is immersive, almost like a supersized pair of headphones. Unlike headphones, though, the soundstage has incredible depth and dimensionality -- and it’s not inside my head.
A list of excellent speaker possibilities, in order of ascending price:
- Paradigm Atom ($398/pair)
- Paradigm Millenia CT 2.1-channel system ($700/pair, powered; includes subwoofer, associated crossover networks, remote control, and a simple but effective preamp signal switcher)
- KEF X300A ($800/pair, powered)
- GoldenEar Technology Aon 3 ($1000/pair)
- Amphion Ion+ ($1395/pair)
- KEF LS50 ($1499/pair)
- Neumann KH120 ($1500/pair, powered)
- Dynaudio BM6 ($1798/pair, powered)
- Gallo Strada 2 ($1998/pair)
- Thiel SCS4 ($2299/pair)
The next requirement is transparent electronics. I’ll assume that you’re going to feed this system music from your computer -- and once you hear the impact of the room-correction softwares from Dirac or Audiolense (see below), you’ll really want to use your computer. Still, you’ll need some way to control the volume. If you choose one of the active speakers listed above, you don’t need an amp. Otherwise, something along the lines of a sleek integrated amplifier that includes high-end DACs might be the best way to get digital signals to your speakers.
One of the most elegant and easy-to-use solutions is the NuForce DDA-100 Direct Digital integrated amplifier ($549). It includes a great-sounding DAC, a very good volume control, and pretty good amplifiers. To do appreciably better than the NuForce, you’ll have to step up to the Bel Canto Design e.One C5i integrated-DAC ($1895). This will raise the sound quality a step, and you’ll have more options as a signal selector. If you’re going to choose one of the active speakers mentioned above, you might consider the Cambridge Audio Azur 851C CD player-DAC-digital preamplifier ($1999). It lacks a power amp, but active speakers already sport the perfect solution for amplifiers and crossovers -- and the Azur 851C includes its own CD player. Finally, there’s the Jeff Fritz-approved Pro-Ject Stream Box DSA integrated amplifier/network player/DAC ($1699), a little all-in-one box from the turntable manufacturer. It gives you everything you need, from amps and DACs to volume controls and switchable inputs. But the reason I mention it last is that it includes something I wish all preamplifier-processors did: it’s compatible with your network. (Jeff, by the way, thought it a great match for the KEF LS50.)
If I were in the market for a top DAC-preamp combination, I’d go with the Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 HDR DAC-preamplifier-headphone amplifier ($1495). Folks who buy consumer electronics are just now learning about Benchmark, even though it’s been a stellar force in the world of professional recording for over 30 years. The DAC1 HDR doesn’t have a lot of the switching abilities of the others listed above, but its DACs are beyond reproach, and its volume control and signal switching are silky smooth. The big news is Benchmark’s terrific headphone amps. Good headphones are the ultimate form of nearfield listening, and very few integrated components include respectable headphone amps. The Benchmark is one of those few.
Currently, I use a Focusrite Forte ($750), and I’m quite happy with it. The Forte comes from the semi-pro market, and its microphone preamps and multiple inputs will be overkill for most home-audio aficionados. Nonetheless, if I were in the market right now, I’d stick with a semi-pro device -- they generally comprise better and sturdier component parts than do consumer products. My next step will be the Benchmark DAC1 HDR, the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo ($1129), or the Lynx Hilo ($2795).
The single greatest joy of listening to music via a computer is that you can make very effective use of room-management software. Of course, the closer you sit to the speakers, the less impact you’ll get from the room -- but even so, something that can solve problems of unequal arrival times from multiple drivers and nonflat frequency response is a godsend. For years, I’ve used a combination of the MediaMonkey player ($40) and Dirac’s Live Room Correction Suite ($850).
Unless you drive a Rolls or a Bentley, you may not know about the Dirac suite. I found the sonic improvements jaw dropping. After spending a long time with the system, my only complaint is that Dirac basically becomes your soundcard -- every sound coming out of your computer will have Dirac’s thumbprint on it. My problem arose when I wanted to record some audio coming from the computer. Since I was using Dirac, the sound being recorded would have the thumbprint already on the audio. If I then played it back through the same system, I would get a double dose of the Dirac’s processing. But if you don’t record, this is no problem. Dirac offers a two-week trial of a complete working edition of its Suite -- evaluate it for yourself.
About a year ago, after reading Bob Katz’s ringing endorsement of it, I switched to a combination of JRiver Media Center ($50) and Audiolense (€165). Katz, author of Mastering Audio: The Art and Science, is a well-known mastering engineer whose ears I respect. He describes the JRiver-Audiolense combo thusly: “Let me start by saying that the correction that I have gotten is the best sounding room correction I’ve ever heard, analog or digital, in my 43 years of professional listening! Which means it is now one of the best-sounding stereo systems I’ve ever heard!” The difference in sound between JRiver-Audiolense and Dirac’s Live Room Correction Suite was subtle but important. The Dirac’s corrections are based on many calibration points, which means you can get great sound for two or three people sitting on a couch. But with my system, I’m fairly well planted in one location. For that purpose, the JRiver-Audiolense combo opened up a slightly more coherent soundstage with just a bit more palpability in the bass. Audiolense lets you measure for free, then listen to a corrected file for 90 seconds. If you like what you hear, you can buy the entire suite.
You can’t go wrong either setup -- just be sure you use one of them.
Finally, you’ll need some recordings that will teach you what a real soundstage sounds like. I’ve listened to a lot of music while writing this article, searching for a few genuinely instructive items. I began with the masterful recordings by producer and engineer Kavi Alexander, owner of the record label Water Lily Acoustics. Alexander works closely with E.A.R.’s Tim de Paravicini to develop the best possible analog tape recorders, tubed power amplifiers, microphones, and microphone amplifiers. He uses a Blumlein pattern for his two recording mikes, works hard to find a room that will fit the music, and diligently to do nothing more or less than capture the sounds floating in the air. Music recorded by a single pair of stereo mikes in a Blumlein arrangement always yields an immersive soundstage. I tried FLAC rips of Water Lily CDs as well as high-resolution downloads: 1-bit DSD from Acoustic Sounds.
Water Lily is often assumed to be devoted exclusively to the classical music of India, but Alexander also offers Western symphonic music and, most important, a premier catalog of cultural fusion music. And translated into rock terms, his roster of Indian musicians would be equivalent to a single label having signed the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Eagles, and Michael Jackson. Ustad Imrat Khan (surbahar), V.M. Bhatt (mohan vina), Dr. L. Subramaniam (violin), and Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) are such magnificent musicians that, for me at least, the name of any one of them on an album makes it an automatic buy. Here are a few of my favorite Water Lily Acoustics recordings, every one of them in the purest sound with a perfect, three-dimensional soundstage:
- Ry Cooder (bottleneck guitar) and V.M. Bhatt’s A Meeting by the River (WLA-CS-29-CD) won the 1994 Grammy for Best World Music. It’s astonishing to hear the two men cross cultures in this meeting.
- Banjoist Béla Fleck joins V.M. Bhatt on mohan vina (slide guitar) and Jie-Bing Chen on her-hu for Tabula Rasa (WLA-CS-44-CD), a work of beauty and power.
- Dr. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s Indian Architexture (WLA-ES-20-SACD) has just four tracks. All begin slowly, and build to incredible displays of virtuosity.
- José Neto’s Mountains & the Sea (WLA-CS-02-CD), with percussionist Airto Moreira and singer Flora Purim, both from Brazil, provides cool bossa nova and hot samba.
- Dr. L. Subramaniam’s Electric Modes, Volumes I & II (WLA-ES-4&5-CD), take flight to areas that Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane only dreamed of.
- Dr. L. Subramaniam recorded From the Ashes (WLA-CS-59-CD) with jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. This introspective music, recorded shortly after the death of Subramaniam’s wife, brims with love and melancholy.
Kavi Alexander has almost twice as many recordings still in the can as he has so far released -- financial troubles have prevented him from getting the rest out to the public. Please consider buying one of these albums, if for no other reason than we might get the chance to hear even more.
I’d especially like to recommend one classical label for nearfield listening. Lyrita, which focuses on British music, was founded in 1958, and was in business during the last quarter-century of the life of Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) -- many of their recordings feature the world-renowned conductor. Boult Conducts Holst (Lyrita SRCD222), with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, includes the definitive performance of Holst’s A Somerset Rhapsody and top versions of A Fugal Overture and the “Hammersmith” Prelude and Scherzo. In the nearfield, this recording is reach-out-and-touch-it accurate. I used to be a classical disc jockey at Dallas’s WRR-FM. Every time I played William Mathias’s Dance Overture, with David Atherton conducting the London Symphony (Lyrita SRCD328), the phone board lit up with people wanting to know what they were hearing. It’s 6:36 of some of the most gorgeous music ever written. Like all Lyrita recordings, it was made with the simplest microphone setup and zero compression.
Recently, the Soundmirror recording and mastering team was in Austin to record the Austin Symphony Orchestra, and during a grueling (for them) three-hour lunch, I interviewed their CEO, John Newton, and senior producer Blanton Alspaugh. Newton had worked as a staff technician for Dolby Labs and Vanguard Records until 1972, when he founded Soundmirror. He was also head of the Philips recording department, and worked on the development of the Super Audio Compact Disc. He won Grammys for Best Engineered Classical Album in 2008, 2011, and 2012.
Newton and I had both worked in high-end stereo shops in high school, which led both of us into a never-ending search for the best-sounding audio system. A quick look at Soundmirror’s discography reveals a cornucopia of amazing-sounding recordings from such labels as Chandos, Deutsche Grammophon, Harmonia Mundi, Naxos, Philips, Telarc, and dozens more. One thing that particularly caught my attention was that Newton was in charge of remastering all of RCA’s Living Stereo recordings for release on SACD.
I asked the two a question no one in the field ever wants to answer: “What is the best-sounding recording of a great performance you’ve ever made?”
Alspaugh and Newton consulted each other for a few minutes, then gave the answers listed below. I highly recommend all of these recordings for their ability to transport the music lover. Each was natively recorded in DSD, and all are available on SACD/CD.
- Peter Takács’s recording of the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven (11 SACDs, Cambria CD-3800A) was one Newton and Alspaugh agreed on, noting that, for some reason, it’s currently priced under wholesale on Amazon.
- Music for a Time of War, a recording by Carlos Calmar conducting the Oregon Symphony Orchestra (Pentatone PTC 5186393), includes a scintillating version of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No.4, as well as music by Adams, Britten, and Ives.
- Alexander Grechaninov’s Passion Week, with Charles Bruffy conducting the Kansas City Chorale and Phoenix Bach Choir (Chandos 5044), was another that Alspaugh and Newton immediately agreed on. This sacred work for choir is incredibly difficult to sing. Again, the sense of imaging is amazing in the nearfield.
- Finally, they mentioned the work they’re doing with the Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by the ever-volatile Valery Gergiev. Like many orchestras, the Mariinsky has launched its own record label. Newton said that working with Gergiev and the Mariinsky is a dream job, and pointed to two recordings resulting from that partnership: Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 15 (Mariinsky MAR0502), and his opera The Nose (Mariinsky MAR0501), both fling open windows on the soundstage. Check Soundmirror’s discography for more such gems.
Then I listened to something I knew had no natural soundstage, just to hear what was there. I love electronic composer Ralph Lundsten’s series of Nordic Nature Symphonies -- big, beautiful works with lovely sounds, but no soundstage. Somehow, that’s not so much of a problem through my big system, but listening in the nearfield exaggerates these recordings’ two-dimensional sound.
But that’s not to say you can’t have an entirely electronic soundstage that’s completely satisfying. Take “Blue Ocean Floor,” from Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience (RCA 88765 47850 2). Almost all the sounds are synthesized, on a well-constructed soundstage that sounds very real. Ditto for the Pink Floyd albums that follow their Atom Heart Mother. Even “Echoes,” from 1971’s Meddle (Parlophone TOCP54527), has an immersive soundstage.
There you have it. The road to a new sound is simple, and I bet you’ll love hearing just how great a three-dimensional soundstage can sound. Set a budget and buy some great small speakers, clean electronics, room-correction software, and a few of the recordings mentioned above. Enjoy the trip.
. . . Wes Marshall