Are Headphones for Serious Listening?

April 2012

Headphones on SSX!There probably aren’t quite as many reasons why people choose to listen to music through headphones as there are people who do so, but there are a great many. Some don’t wish to disturb others with their music -- or are fearful of the repercussions that may result if they do. Since the introduction of the Sony Walkman, headphones have been the primary means of listening to your music when you’re out and about, thankfully replacing the boom box carried on the shoulder. The Apple iPod and other products like it, in combination with the storage and distribution of music transitioning to computer files, has made music on the go ubiquitous. There is also a group of consumers who genuinely prefer listening to their music through headphones, even when high-quality speakers are at hand. 

I grew up in a house with a moderately sized stereo of mass-market quality and a few tabletop radios. There was often music playing, both at home and in the car, but sitting down and paying attention to it was rare. For that, we went to concerts. I had a mini system in my college dorm room, which was fine for background music while studying, or for listening more attentively to pop, rock, and jazz. It didn’t really serve for classical. I wasn’t a music student, but I took very seriously my playing of trombone in the college orchestra, and I wanted to understand how my part fit into the overall fabric of whatever pieces we were playing. In the music library, I could hear recordings of whatever I wanted through headphones, and I discovered on those recordings a wealth of musical information of which I’d previously been unaware. Needless to say, I bought a decent pair of headphones and used them to listen to all genres of music. It would be many more years -- and many thousands of dollars -- before I found a speaker-based system that could deliver half the musical information I could hear through a pair of good headphones. 

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Binaural Recordings

January 2012

Binaural headAs part of SoundStage! Xperience’s expanding coverage of headphones and earphones, we’d like to draw readers’ attention to some recent binaural releases.

Binaural recordings are intended to be played back through headphones. They’re usually made by positioning two microphones the same distance apart as the distance between the average listener’s ears, with a baffle between them. Some are made with more sophisticated setups that include a detailed facsimile of a human head, with a microphone inserted in each of the head’s ear canals -- a device usually called a kunstkopf or dummy head. There are many resources on the Web that give detailed information about the history and methods of binaural recording, so I won’t go into them here.

Properly done, a binaural recording can produce an even more immersive listening experience than the best surround-sound loudspeaker array. Even when the recordings are compressed to MP3 files and played through inferior equipment, much of the sense of space remains. With the number of people now listening through headphones -- both at their computers and with portable players -- I’ve been awaiting a resurgence in binaural recordings. I’m still waiting.

There are two reasons why more artists and recording engineers haven’t embraced binaural techniques. First, a convincing binaural recording requires musicians to be playing together in a real space, which is not how most modern recordings are made. Second, binaural recordings can sound odd when played through loudspeakers. The solution to the second problem is to make two versions of the recording available: one intended for headphone playback, the other for use with speakers.

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A Modern A/V Receiver: The Onkyo TX-NR808

April 2011

Onkyo TX-NR808The great thing about today’s A/V receivers is that they can do just about everything except scratch your back and make a cheese sandwich. The not-so-great thing about today’s receivers is trying to figure out how to make everything work before you scratch your head, throw your hands in the air, and go make that cheese sandwich yourself. I found, however, that the multiple options and outcomes possible with the Onkyo TX-NR808 were initially daunting but not painful to navigate; that, once up and running, it pretty much ran itself; and that, in the end, all its features, instructions, and stickers made sense. 

The TX-NR808 ($1099 USD), the latest mid-level fire-breather from Onkyo, is a behemoth by any standard, but it’s actually fourth in Onkyo’s pecking order. Ahead of it are three 9.2-channel monsters, the TX-NR1008, TX-NR3008, and TX-NR5008, each loaded with successively more amazing and sophisticated audio and video options. In Onkyo’s parlance, “NR” means “network receiver,” which in turn means that these things all have Ethernet ports with which to connect your amp to the Internet. The advantage of this, as we’ll see, is that it theoretically gives you direct access to vast oceans of content. No longer are you restricted to hard media -- your CDs, DVDs, BDs, and LPs (bless them, Onkyo still offers a phono preamp on each of these models) -- the TX-NR808 and its brethren are designed to access soft media via the Internet. Another advantage to Networthiness is something that’s become commonplace in computing: software upgrades. When Onkyo upgrades or changes something, a GUI interface accessible through the receiver’s menu makes the connection and initiates the upgrade for you. You don’t even have to log in. Pretty cool. 

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Cheap Stuff Can Be Surprisingly Good

March 2011

Just over a year ago, when I moved into a brand-new house, my first priority after settling in was to set up a basement home theater so I could start reviewing home-theater equipment as soon as possible. It took about a month to get the gear in the big rig up and running, and several more months to have all the room's trim work completed. A year later, I'm about 95% finished. Only my equipment rack is yet to be done.

During a year that exhausted my finances and my time, I neglected my living-room system. Still, I'd had the builder rough-in the living room for a 5.1-channel system. A 50" plasma TV has been on the mantle over the fireplace for over a year, with no accompanying speakers or sound system. The left, center, and right locations have wall plates covering the speaker wires, and two holes in the ceiling show me where the ceiling surround speakers should go. Over a year of staring daily at these reminders of my unfinished work has been depressing -- not to mention having to endure the TV's tinny sound.

In the past few months, I finally decided to do something about the holes in my living-room walls. I would use the system casually, during the day -- no critical listening -- and it wouldn't have to play really loud. I'd already thought of using on-wall speakers, and so had bought the set of Angstrom Suonos I reviewed a while back. Now I needed an A/V receiver and a Blu-ray player. I also found a bargain-basement plasma TV that I could use in my bedroom.

Yamaha RX-V667Yamaha RX-V667 A/V receiver

The missing link in my living-room system was an A/V receiver. After poring online through specifications and any other information I could find, I came across Yamaha's RX-V667 receiver, packaged with Harman/Kardon speakers, for a total price of $699 USD at A friend had use for the speakers, so we split the system: my portion came to $295, about half the RX-V667's list price.

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All About the 6th-Generation Apple iPod Nano

February 2011

iPod NanoWhat’s in a name? A lot, if you judge by Apple’s new iPod Nano. Until now, the Nanos have been rectangular affairs, and just a year ago, the 5th generation added video capabilities, including a camera, and the ability to play music videos. That version also had the familiar click wheel. The new, 6th generation has ditched all the video stuff but added the Multi-Touch screen and 30-pin connector from Apple’s iTouch and iPhone. And Apple has borrowed from the iPod Shuffle a rear-panel clip and a new, smaller size. In short, the sixth Nano is more like an iTouch or a Shuffle than a Nano. So why did Apple call it a Nano? You’ll have to ask them.


Apple can always be depended on for appealing packaging, and this time is no exception: The iPod Nano comes in a neat little plastic box. Remove the seal strip and the Nano and you find a pair of Apple’s justly maligned earbuds, a USB charging cable, a quick-start instruction manual, and an Apple logo sticker. What you’re supposed to do with that last item is beyond me. Maybe you stick it to your car window to identify yourself to other Apple users. I’m not that indiscriminately social.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Nano is its size: just 1.61"W x 1.48"H x 0.035" thick, including clip. It weighs just 0.74 ounce. The screen takes up the entire front, and the clip almost all of the back. The only controls are on the top edge: two buttons for volume up/down, one for on/off. On the bottom edge are a headphone jack and the iTouch 30-pin connector, for charging the Nano’s battery and connecting the Nano to your computer and Apple iTunes. Despite its small size, the Nano feels solidly built; I had no fear of damaging it in normal use. It comes in seven different metallic colors.

The Nano is touted as being Multi-Touch -- you can use two fingers to rotate its 240x240-pixel screen 360 degrees in 90-degree increments. Changing the menu displayed is done by swiping a finger across the screen, to reveal, in turn, four different menus, all but the last having four icons each: Playlists, Now Playing, Albums, Songs; Genres, Composers, Artists, Genius Mixes; Podcasts, Clock, Radio, Photos; and Fitness. You can touch and hold any icon until it wiggles, then move it wherever you want. This feature, familiar from the iTouch, lets you group the functions you use most often on the same screen.

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ThinkFlood RedEye Universal Remote Application and Transmitter

January 2011

201101_redeye1I love my Apple iTouch! Of all the electronic toys I’ve acquired in the past two years, it’s the best, and I imagine that other owners of it (or the iPhone or iPad) are just as enthusiastically in love with theirs. Apple gets some details wrong, but overall, they create communication devices that are cool enough to match one’s wildest imagination. One of the coolest things about them is discovering, through applications (or apps), the diverse and wonderful tasks they can accomplish. Thanks to apps, I have such different things on my iTouch as the complete plays of Shakespeare, access to all of my e-mail, three different weather forecasts complete with Doppler radar, workout moves, bird calls to help identify feathered friends in the backyard, and now, thanks to the young and innovative company ThinkFlood, a powerful universal remote control.

iPeng pointed the way to this several years ago by producing an app that would allow an iTouch (assume from here on that when I say iTouch, I also mean iPhone and iPad) to act as a remote control for the Logitech Squeezebox family of products. When I installed that app, my mind raced forward to a time when the iTouch might control everything in my audio/video system. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before several apps appeared that could do that. RedEye isn’t the only one, but it’s the only one that uses a base-station transmitter.

The basic idea is simple: RedEye allows my iTouch to send signals through my WiFi network to the RedEye base station, which converts them into infrared signals that can control my preamplifier, power amp, television, cable box, three Blu-ray players, one HD DVD player, an SACD/DVD-Audio player, a Squeezebox Touch, and an HDMI switcher. Pretty cool.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Home Audio

December 2010

201012_aperion_5tIn my previous article, I detailed my visits to several retail stores, where I pretended that I had $2000 to spend on assembling a stereo system. The goal of this mystery shopping, as it were, was not only to see what products the salesmen would recommend, but also to get a sense of how an average consumer might feel when venturing out to buy audio equipment in a store. It was an interesting experience, and one that defied a lot of my decidedly grim expectations. As a follow-up, I was assigned the task of taking my (lack of) audio-gear knowledge and working with an Internet-direct company to put together a stereo setup tailored to my living room and my listening habits. For the purposes of this article, Jeff Fritz, my editor, set me up with Aperion Audio, a Web-based company out of Portland, Oregon, that prides itself on not only building superior speakers but also offering its products at affordable prices. In fact, Aperion got its start after company owner Win Jeanfreau’s boom box died in 1998 and he endured a frustrating search for a full stereo system with a "snug budget of $1500." Dealing with inexperienced and unknowledgeable salesmen was a big factor in his decision to start his own company, but more than that, Jeanfreau was flabbergasted by the outrageous markups that the brick-and-mortar stores put on their products.

As an Internet-direct company, Aperion cuts out the middle man and can thus offer its speakers at prices well below what you might see at Best Buy. Unlike the research for my first article, where I could listen to the systems only in the stores, where it’s nearly impossible to figure out what they’ll sound like in your home, this time I got to have the system shipped to my apartment. Also, for this piece I went a bit over my hypothetical $2000 spending limit, but we can just pretend that I begged and pleaded Scarlett -- my hypothetical girlfriend in my first article -- to give me a small loan.

My apartment building was constructed in the early 1900s, and it has 12' ceilings, hardwood floors, and thick walls that make it almost impossible to hear the other tenants. In fact, when the couple in the apartment above me moved out, I set up my drum set in my living room with no complaints. This was something of a surprise given that all of the open space, uncarpeted floors, and plaster walls did nothing to dampen the thumping of the kick drum or the clang of the cymbals. Armed with my first-hand knowledge of how my room handles sound, I called the guys at Aperion to find out what kind of stereo system would work best for me. I reached Oliver when I called, and after a few niceties we got down to the serious business of putting together a system that could really pump out the jams.

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Is Bipolar Dead?

November 2010

201011_deftechAround 15 years ago I visited an audio store with associate editor Roger Kanno to listen to Definitive Technology’s latest bipolar speaker. The salesman, Serge, asked us why, insisting that bipolar was dead. We both laughed at him, since at the time the bipolar speaker was well represented in a number of loudspeaker lines beyond Definitive, including Mirage and Paradigm. In fact, Mirage devoted their entire line to bipolar loudspeakers.

Over the years, I’ve reviewed a variety of bipolar speakers, especially in the rear-surround position, and I’ve even owned an entirely bipolar home-theater system -- a Mirage OM-9-based setup. Although bipolar surround speakers are in use everywhere, sadly, bipolar mains are dwindling. Paradigm no longer makes them, and Mirage doesn’t exist anymore.

Surprisingly, Definitive Technology announced in 2010 their newly revamped line of bipolar speakers, consisting of four new tower speakers, three center-channel speakers, and two surround speakers. With virtually no other mainstream speaker companies producing bipolar main speakers, I’m pretty excited by this announcement, but it also reopens the question of whether, as Serge pointed out 15 years ago, bipolar is dead.

A polar primer

The usual configuration of bipolar loudspeakers involves identical drivers on the front and rear faces of the speaker. These drivers operate in-phase (all drivers pushing "out" at the same time), unlike dipole speakers, where the drivers run out of phase (while one set pushes out, the other pulls "in"). The net result of either speaker is that a lot of sound bounces off the wall behind the speaker. This is in contrast to direct-radiating, or monopole, speakers, which make up around 95% of all speakers and which have very little or no sound directly pointed to the back wall.

The designers speak

Should we care about the sound off the back wall, or side walls for that matter? Isn’t the direct sound the only thing that matters? For most people without a heavily acoustically treated room, the answer to the first question is yes, and to the second no. For the vast majority of speakers and rooms, the sound you hear from a loudspeaker is the sum of its direct and reflected sound. In fact, most of the sound from a loudspeaker is reflected off the walls. So it is important for speaker designers to pay attention to the reflected sound.

Years ago I spoke to a couple of speaker engineers from two different speaker companies, and they both said that their design goals included not only flat on-axis frequency response but also flat-but-downward sloping (from low frequencies to high frequencies) sound power response. The sound power response is defined as the sum of frequency response around the speaker, representing both on-axis and off-axis frequency response. Flat and horizontal power response is undesirable because it would sound too bright in a room.

201011_tooleIn his book Sound Reproduction: Loudspeakers and Rooms, world-renowned speaker expert Dr. Floyd Toole looks at research showing that most people value a neutral speaker without excessive brightness and coloration. But for the vast majority of people, the single most important characteristic of a speaker is spaciousness, or reproducing a feeling of space. In order to reproduce a sense of space, a speaker must have wide dispersion, where sound is spread broadly so that it reflects off the walls of the room. Another necessary characteristic is similar frequency response curves for the direct sound as well as the reflected sound, called a constant directivity index. In other words, the sound bouncing off the walls should be very similar to the sound directly from the speaker. And what type of speakers can easily display these desirable traits? You guessed it -- bipolar speakers!

Bipolar speaker advantages

Dr. Toole and the other speaker designers I spoke to agreed that the desirable traits of speakers favor bipolar radiating speakers, yet none of them worked for manufacturers that produced bipolar main speakers. I questioned why there are so few manufacturers producing them.

One of the reasons is that bipolar speakers didn’t sell because the public thought they don’t image well. This belief was based on the mistaken assumption that what you hear is mostly on-axis, and that extra drivers that don’t even point towards you would ruin imaging. Having lived with bipolar speakers for years, I can say that the lack of good imaging is false. They can and do image well, and they tend to sound more natural, in the sense that most sound you hear around you, in your home or a concert hall, is reflected off some surfaces. The hyper-realistic imaging you here with most well-designed direct-radiating speakers can be unnatural sounding. Bipolar speakers, on the other hand, can produce more rounded and three-dimensional imaging, which is less precise but more accurately mimics real sound in a real space.

As Paul DiComo from Definitive Technology pointed out, during blind listening tests most listeners prefer the sound of speakers pointed backwards (towards the wall) for music but prefer direct sound for speech. In research explained in Dr. Toole’s book, the ideal radiation pattern would have the combined reflected sound 5dB higher than the direct sound for music. This would indicate that reflected sound is more important than direct sound. This was indeed the design philosophy of Mirage Loudspeakers, whose Omnipolar array produced a 360-degree radiation pattern with 30% direct sound and 70% reflected sound. Definitive Technology tones this down a bit, and they call their new design Forward Focused Bipolar Array, with the rear drivers attenuated to give both very precise imaging with an added sense of spaciousness.

Another reason that people might be biased against bipolar speakers is the perception that they’re harder to place in a room. With additional drivers, it would be conceivably harder to place them, but my only caution would be to pull them away from the wall behind them a bit. In general, around 1' to 2' is all you would need, and that recommendation applies to most direct-radiating speakers, too. You might also want to make sure that the wall behind them is relatively clutter-free so that the rear drivers have a chance to produce a decent sound wave. But aside from those considerations, they aren’t that fussy to set up, certainly less so than time-aligned first-order-crossover speakers for which inches must be measured out to ensure the sound arrives precisely at your ear from all the drivers at the same time.

Yet another reason that companies might have abandoned the bipolar format is the expense; with additional drivers, more complicated crossovers, and a more complicated cabinet, it’s easy to see that a bipolar speaker is more expensive to design and build.

Surround-sound bliss

201011_monitor_360wAs rare as bipolar main speakers are, the opposite is the case for surround-sound speakers. The vast majority of home-theater-oriented loudspeaker companies have a least one surround speaker with a bipolar radiation pattern. My Monitor Audio Silver RX FX surround speaker has a switch for dipole and bipole operation. I always leave it on the bipole mode. Some of my best experiences with home-theater speaker systems were with bipolar main speakers, too, especially with the Mirage OM-9 system I owned and the Mirage OMD-15 speaker I auditioned for a long period of time. What I found with these two systems is that bipolar speakers tended to create a sense of space better than direct-radiating speakers, and having bipolar mains blended better with bipolar surround speakers. The speakers tended to disappear, and sound images weren’t restricted to the speaker plane but formed all around the speakers.


As you can see, I’m a huge fan of bipolar speakers, and my interest was piqued when Definitive Technology announced their newly revamped line. Although Serge the audio salesman was wrong and bipolar is alive and well in surround speakers, he was somewhat right in that the bipolar main speaker, although not dead, is a rare breed 15 years later. I’m hoping that my enthusiasm for this type of speaker rubs off and you’re compelled to check them out. Perhaps other manufacturers will see the value in this design and this type of speaker will flourish once again.

. . . Vince Hanada

Media Players and Servers: Something for Everyone

October 2010

The convergence of computers, the Internet, high-end audio, and home theater is the hottest thing in home entertainment right now, with new media players and servers seemingly announced every week. In fact, any old computer can be considered a media server, with the ability to store media files and stream them to a monitor or TV. The computer I’m writing this on -- an Acer laptop with Gigabit Ethernet, wireless-N, HDMI output, and Intel High Definition Audio -- is a capable media server. It also has the Windows 7 Media Center interface. I’m not sold on this computer’s audio capability, but an external DAC can be added to its USB port for excellent sound. And with its 11.6" screen, weight of under four pounds, and nine-hour battery life, it’s excellent as a portable device as well.

But this is the computer I regularly use for writing, and constantly plugging it into and out of my home theater and audio system is a hassle. If you’re in a similar situation, there are many solutions in every price range to meet your media-playing needs.

Media players and streamers

201010_asusMedia players play content from your network or the Internet through your audio system and TV. Over the past year I’ve used two such devices from the budget end of the market: the Asus O!Play R-1 ($99 USD) and the Western Digital TV Live ($149.99), to serve my living-room audio system and my basement home theater. They’re essentially the same, with one big difference for audio enthusiasts: the Asus O!Play will play 24-bit/96kHz audio files that you can download from such websites as The best thing about these players is that they’ll play almost any media you throw at them: video files and photos, and music files from MP3 to lossless FLAC. Western Digital’s TV Live has a nicer interface, so navigating files is a better experience. The only drawback is that with neither of these can I compile playlists of my favorite songs; finding and playing tunes is tedious.

Another inexpensive streamer is the recently announced and revamped Apple TV ($99), with which you can rent films and TV episodes via your iTunes account or from Netflix. Another cool feature of the Apple TV is also available with the Western Digital TV Live: the ability to watch YouTube videos. I can punch in "double rainbow" and, instead of crowding around my computer, share some laughs with my family in the comfort of my living room. One limitation of the Apple TV is its maximum video resolution of 720p; the Asus and WD players can play video in full-resolution 1080p.

Moving considerably upmarket, the Linn Klimax DS lists for a cool $20,000. This music-only media player plays MP3s, and FLAC, WAV, and AIFF files of up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution. Linn considers the Klimax DS to be their best music player and has spared no expense in making it their highest-resolution audio player of any kind. In fact, they think it’s so good that they’ve stopped making CD players. Still, I’d have a hard time justifying spending $20k on a Klimax DS, especially as Linn’s Majik DS costs only about a tenth the price.


An essential feature common to most of these media players is an Ethernet connection, which makes it possible for me to share files among all the computers and both media players in my networked systems. Invoking file sharing on my computers allows my media files to be visible to the media players. But a better solution is to have a network attached storage (NAS) device. If you have a networked audio system, I strongly urge you to store your files on an NAS, so that you can back up your files. 201010_dlinkI have the excellent D-Link DNS-323; the beauty of this two-bay storage device is that it supports RAID 1, a scheme in which all of your files are backed up twice, to two different hard drives. If one drive fails, I can rip it out, and the RAID controller can rebuild the hard-drive array with a new drive without losing my media files. My D-Link’s two 1.5TB drives have plenty of room for all my files.

Other useful built-in features of the D-Link DNS-323 are its iTunes server and Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) A/V server. The iTunes server permits detection of the NAS device within the iTunes player so that all of my computers can share music. The UPnP A/V server permits detection of my NAS by any compatible A/V player, so that I can stream media files over my network.

How do these players look and sound? Surprisingly good, and far better than their $100 street price would suggest. CD-quality tracks have the punch and resolution of a good CD player, and high-resolution audio tracks sound excellent -- the dynamic range and lack of noise are astonishing for such cheap players. And the video looks nearly as good as from a standalone Blu-ray player.

Media servers

Higher in price are media servers that include hard drives for storing media files. One of the more affordable and most intriguing is the Olive O3HD ($999), which has a 500GB hard drive for storing FLAC, WAV, MP3, and AAC files. It also has a free app that makes it possible to control the Olive from an Apple iTouch or iPhone, including browsing files and creating playlists. Under the hood is a 24/192 Cirrus Logic DAC, so hi-rez audio files can be played. And with the built-in CD-RW drive, you can create CDs from the stored music files as well as rip CDs to the Olive’s hard drive.


At the other end of the price spectrum is Kaleidescape, which has been at the forefront of media-server technology for some time. Their 1U server starts at $10,000, and can be expanded with additional 1Us. Each 1U contains a 2TB hard drive in a proprietary RAID-K hard-drive array. I don’t know exactly what a "K" array is, but it provides backup and rebuild capability, so your media files are safe in the event of hard-drive failure. Because these are only storage devices, you need to buy one of Kaleidescape’s media players, the M300 or M500 ($2495 or $3995). The M500’s Blu-ray ripper lets you copy BDs to its hard drive, although, to satisfy copyright laws, the original BD must be present in the disc tray before the M500 will play the movie. An entry-level price of $12,495 for a player and server is a lot of money, but the system has incredible versatility, a wonderful user interface, and file-backup capability.

Another two-piece server-player is the Vidabox RackServer V2 (starting at $3299), which can stream media content to a maximum of ten extenders, such as their ThinClientHD, which looks to be a Windows-based Media Center PC. One feature of this system that’s sure to appeal to audiophiles is DualRip, with which you can rip an audio track to two formats at the same time: MP3 and a lossless format such as WAV or FLAC. You can store the MP3 on your iPod, and still have a lossless version for listening to on your high-end system. The entire Vidabox system is upgradeable and expandable, with RAID-arrayed hard drives as an option.


Although this is just a small sample of the vast number of media players and servers out there, you can already see that there’s something for everyone in every price range, and that a network-based storage system can also be affordable and convenient. I can attest to how well the cheaper products work and sound; while you give up some slickness in the graphic user interface, not much money can still buy you a very satisfying and secure system for viewing and storing your media files.

. . . Vince Hanada

(Don’t) Look Before You Leap

September 2010

201009_scarlett_johanssonThe summer after my freshman year of college, while some of my friends took résumé-building internships and others embarked on life-changing trips to places around the world, I moved back home and took a minimum-wage job at a water park. At the time, it seemed the most miserable thing I’d ever had to do. As far as I was concerned, the job’s only perks were the free sodas in the break room and the frequent interactions with girls in bikinis. By the beginning of that August, though, I’d saved $1500, and decided to spend part of it on a car.

I didn’t take my search for a vehicle lightly. I read up on which cars were the best to buy used, and things to look for to avoid buying a lemon -- an easy mistake to make when you have less than $2000 to spend. The search was a frustrating and time-consuming one that, with only a week to go before classes started, finally ended in an old guy’s driveway with my purchase of a mint-condition, fully optioned 1993 Chrysler LeBaron for $1000 -- the most money I’d ever spent at one time in my life. Karen, as I named the blue LeBaron, made it until last year, when her transmission gave out and I had to begin the search again.

Spending thousands of dollars on anything never fails to make me nervous, so I always do what I can to ensure that I’m not making a bad purchase. My assignment for this article was, as an audio equipment novice, to go to several stores with the intention of spending no more than $2000 on a stereo system, and to document my experiences. Outside such well-known names as Sony and Pioneer, I’m unfamiliar with makers of audio equipment. There are probably third-graders who can tell you more about, say, multizone receivers than I ever could. For this article, I did no research about what I was getting myself into. With my wallet wide open and my mind unencumbered with what a reasonable price might be for a set of bookshelf speakers, or whether 12- or 16-gauge speaker wire is best, I ventured to Best Buy, anticipating the worst.

Big-box store: Best Buy

I began my research at Best Buy because, I figured, it might offer a less intimidating experience than what I expected to face at the boutique audio stores I’d also be visiting. Of course, I expected that any salesperson at Best Buy would try to “upsell” me on things, and I figured, too, that he or she would try to overwhelm me with jargon. I don’t think my mouth was agape, but my body language may have revealed that I was confused and vulnerable -- it wasn’t long before a Best Buy employees approached me as I stood in the aisle where sat shelves full of shiny black A/V receivers, each of them dotted with smooth-turning knobs and mysterious buttons that made satisfying little clicks when pushed.

“You need some help?” asked the blue-shirted guy.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m looking to put together a stereo system.”

“We’ve got a lot of good surround systems.”

“I just want two speakers, a 5.1-channel receiver, and a subwoofer.”


201009_yamahaI was then informed that the so-called home-theater-in-a-box is one of Best Buy’s biggest sellers. Even though I’d just said that this was not what I was interested in, he still led me over to this section to show them to me. When I again told him that this was not what I was looking for, he led me back to the receiver aisle and showed me what he considered the best options: Yamaha’s RX-V367 (MSRP $249.95 USD) and Pioneer’s VSX-520-K ($229), both 5.1-channel receivers that provide in the neighborhood of 100Wpc. I also learned that these receivers were designed with an eye toward the forthcoming 3D technology. Because the main uses I had for an AVR would be listening to my iPod, playing CDs, and running a Blu-ray player through it, the salesman didn’t encourage me to spend more money -- which I found somewhat surprising.

Next, we moved over to the speaker aisle, where I asked the salesman if floorstanding or bookshelf speakers were the way to go. One of the caveats of the system I was supposedly intending to assemble was that it had to fit into a relatively small room (17’L x 15’W) without being too obtrusive -- something I had to be mindful of to keep my hypothetical girlfriend, Scarlett Johansson, happy. Given these requirements, he recommended bookshelf speakers. Specifically, he thought that a solid choice would be a pair of Polk TSi100s ($229.95/pair), which can handle from 20 to 100W. I like the look of floorstanding speakers, though, so I asked which of those he could recommend to meet my needs. The Klipsch Icon VF-35s ($374.99/pair) can handle up to 400W of power and are sleek enough for my room-size restraints.

Best Buy’s selection of subwoofers is somewhat limited -- this store carried three models -- so the salesman could offer only one recommendation: Polk’s PSW110 ($249.99). This is, apparently, a nice entry-level sub that can deliver enough bass for my room. The last thing we discussed, before the salesguy rushed off to help an actual customer, was speaker wire. He recommended Rocketfish 16-gauge ($19.99/30’), a Best Buy store brand that, he contended, is comparable to Monster Cable.

Boutique shop 1: Soundtronics, Inc.

I entered Soundtronics, Inc., here in Wilmington, North Carolina, on a Thursday afternoon. The store was empty of patrons but filled with audio/video goodies. To the left was a room lined with TVs, to the right rooms for demonstrating equipment, and between them rows of shelves filled with receivers, cables, and anything else you might need for your home theater. I was just beginning to take it all in when a long-haired, bearded fellow walked up to me.

“How can I help you today?”

“I need a 5.1-channel receiver, two speakers, and a sub.”

“Gotcha. Let’s start with the receiver.”

I was interested to see that he recommended the same AVR that the Best Buy guy had: Yamaha’s RX-V367. The Soundtronics salesman, though, also endorsed the RX-V567 ($479.95), a 7.1-channel receiver that’s something of a step up from the V367. However, once I’d told him about my budget, the exact specifications of my hypothetical room, and the demands of my neat-freak girlfriend -- whose celebrity status I didn’t feel the need to mention -- he told me that the V367 would be just the thing.

201009_mirageAs a specialty store, Soundtronics offers higher quality and a larger selection of speakers than Best Buy. The brand the Soundtronics salesman was most high on was Mirage, which I discovered is a subsidiary of Klipsch -- the manufacturer of the floorstanding speaker recommended to me at Best Buy. Again, the salesman steered me toward a bookshelf speaker, in this case the Nanosat Prestige ($349/pair). The Nanosat is very small (5.8”H x 4.2”W x 4.3”D), and its slanted, dome-shaped top gives it a slick, futuristic appearance. The dome is a necessary part of this speaker’s design, as it accommodates the interesting, stacked arrangement of the woofer and tweeter that allows the speaker to radiate sound through a full 360 degrees. I got the chance to hear the Nanosats cranked up pretty high, and was impressed with how good they sounded. Though my ears aren’t as well trained as a true audiophile’s, I could detect little deterioration of the sound at high volumes. The bass, too, sounded powerful, even without the support of a sub. But given that I (supposedly) had $2000 to spend, the Soundtronics salesman informed me that I might want to consider the Mirage OS3-FS ($889/pair), as this would provide me with a richer sound, and a nice foundation for building a full surround-sound array.

As for subwoofers, this salesguy thought that the Proficient PS8 ($360) might serve my needs. It’s smaller than the sub I was shown at Best Buy, but from what I was told, Proficient is a bit of a step up from Polk. Soundtronics also carries some Mirage subs, and the model that was pointed out to me was the Mirage Prestige S10 ($599.99). Though a bit more expensive than an introductory-level sub, this, again, would be a good start for a full surround system. Finally, the Soundtronics salesman told me that, for my budget, speaker wire is not much of an issue. Basically, any brand of 16-gauge will work as well as any other.

Boutique shop 2: Sound Decisions

Sound Decisions, my final stop, has a listening room set up with a large plasma screen and full surround sound. As I had at the other two stores, I told the guy at Sound Decisions exactly what I was looking for, and gave him a full rundown of the specifics of my room and the requirements of my especially significant other. I basically had two choices for speakers, he said: Paradigm’s Mini Monitor ($499/pair) or Studio 10 ($799/pair), both bookshelf models that can be paired with stands ($150 and $400/pair, respectively) and that pack a powerful punch. The bass that either of these speakers can put out is quite impressive. In fact, the Sound Decisions salesman suggested that I might want to bypass the subwoofer for now and invest in a better receiver.

201009_paradigmAgain, as with speakers, I was strongly encouraged to purchase only one brand of receiver: Onkyo. At $499, the Onkyo HT-RC260 is a good bit more expensive than the Yamaha RX-V367, but it’s a 7.2-channel AVR. However, I haven’t been able to establish to my own satisfaction if Onkyo’s products are more highly regarded than Yamaha’s. When I asked for suggestions of a good subwoofer, the salesman at Sound Decisions said that the Paradigm PDR-10 ($349) is the way to go. I heard this sub paired with both the Mini Monitors and the Studio 10s, and found the power of the bass to be amazing. I finished my conversation with the salesman at Sound Decisions as I had my conversations at Best Buy and Soundtronics: by asking about speaker wire. He suggested that any brand would do, but that 12-gauge was what I would need.


I was surprised that none of the salesmen I spoke with made an effort to hard-sell me on anything, and I appreciated that none went out of his way to talk over my head or make me feel dumb. Not knowing much about what I was looking to buy made it a bit difficult to decide whether the advice all these guys were giving me was reliable, but it was interesting that two of the three recommended the Yamaha RX-V367. This indicated to me that this probably is a good component that’s worth its price.

At each of these stores, the choice of speaker made a big difference in what it would cost to assemble a stereo system. Though more expensive than other bookshelf models, the Paradigm speakers sounded the best to me, so my $2000 would ultimately go to Sound Decisions.

But at any of these three stores, a novice could, with some friendly guidance, put together a system that would make him and his famous girlfriend happy for years to come.

Now, on to my next assignment: assess an Internet-direct shopping experience . . .

. . . Andrew Jones