"What a refreshingly honest blog about listening to music through hi-fi. So happy to see views based upon the enjoyment of music rather than so-called sound 'quality'." - Peter Comeau, Director of Acoustic Design at Mission / Wharfedale

Thursday 2 July 2015

What’s In A Room? In This Case, Lots Of Attention To Detail. Sir David Brailsford Would Be Proud.

Quite a busy room containing this system, and much attention to detail. But so what? Does it matter?

Tucked away upstairs in a substantial brick built house in the South East of the UK is this particular music den which features one of the most complex and unusual room configurations I’ve seen. If you have a loft conversion and you think it has some interesting sloping ceilings, think again – you’ve probably got it easy. How about sloping ceilings of different lengths on each side, a door on each side wall, a ceiling that has steps / supporting beams, a half-width room divider / book shelf behind which is a desk, book shelves etc? The system and speakers are across the shorter wall, firing down the length with the listening position just after the side doors and before the partial room divider. Just to add to the fun, there’s a big flat screen TV between the speakers, possibly because the room itself isn’t enough to be getting on with?

So what? Well, all of that is a bit of a challenge, acoustically. If you try to select components based on how it performs for the standing waves at one height of the room, it won’t work for the other heights. What about side reflections that are not consistent side to side? And who’s up for that challenge? Well let’s call him Peter, for now, a member of a number of on-line forums, a retired IT techie and seemingly a man who likes to not only face a challenge, but successfully overcome that challenge, in between an extensive and frequent range of holidays. You might sense a slight note of jealously in these ramblings… Peter is retired. I’m not. Enough said.

Peter was invited on the same evening at another forum member’s home about 18 months ago – that’s the first time we met. He brought along his Linn Klimax DSM streamer / pre-amp which we compared with Andrew’s Klimax DS/0 Renew – an evening that lead to me saving and saving the saving a bit more so my then streamer (an Akurate DS/0/1) would eventually be replaced by the then current Klimax DS/1. At the time, Peter invited Andrew and I to another evening - time to be determined - when we would get together to listen to Peter’s complete system in his own place. And, as is the way, with work commitments, family commitments and the very limited windows between Peter’s holidays, it took us all of that 18 months to make the follow up session happen. Inevitably, Peter’s system moved on in that time too.

So after a tasty meal (we’ll not go into the pitfalls of surprising vegetarian visitors who thought they were going to contribute a take away to the evening’s proceedings with a spicy chicken dish…) which Peter had generously put together, glasses were appropriately charged and we headed off to the listening room, described above.
Nestled under the (cloth covered, to reduce acoustic reflections – watch out for more on the attention to detail as we go through these notes) flat screen TV are the following:
Control is from an iPad using the Lumin control point app, the NAS is loaded with the lossless FLAC tracks. The Lumin interface is pretty much the best I’ve seen – intuitive, fast, easy to navigate, great hi-res album art etc. Its certainly on a par with BubbleDS, but unfortunately not available for Android at the moment. A joy to use.

What about the music? Is that a joy too? Well this system presents the music in a very different way to my own system, and other Linn systems I’ve had the chance to listen to. And it takes some time to “tune-in” to what’s going on. Let’s be very clear though – this is not a NAIM system at one extreme, but neither is it of the polite to the point of boredom of some systems that often feature turntables, or valves, or horns, or some combination. So that puts it somewhere between forthright and overly dull. Doesn’t narrow it down much does it? Something that I thought might be a feature was a lack of integration. Sub-woofer (whoops, sorry WB!), isobaric loading in the standmounts, and super tweeters would suggest that there might be peaks and troughs associated with each of these components and any gaps between them. Nope. Not here. Lets listen to some more tracks. In hifi terms, there’s good imaging and stability, the full frequency range seems present and even, vocals are clear and instrument separation is fine.

Emotionally, is the music connecting? Well my foot is tapping voluntarily, so timing is working – I’m getting the feeling of passion from the vocals at appropriate times when the times are good, there is the sense of shock when its due on sudden dynamic peaks and relaxing tunes are, well, relaxing. Do the angry tunes make me feel angry? Not so much. When a song is about bad times, do I feel for the singer – again, not so much. Cranking the system up for Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” from the “Live At The Greek” album shows that the sub can both kick hard on the kick drums whilst not suffering from any notable hangover (more on this later, when discussing the room acoustics). We mess with switching the sub in and out a few times. This is one very impressive piece of kit – for me its just slightly too dominant, but it is by a tiny margin, in terms of the frequency spectrum, but there’s no doubt it adds much in terms of building a picture of the recorded acoustics. On top of this, it adds slam to the system – a neat trick, subs often adding wallow and uncertainty. A fine product when used with these WB standmounts.

So, back to the room. What to do with such a challenge? Well, lets dive right into all those details. There are acoustic panels strategically placed on various aspects of the ceiling(s) – we didn’t mess about with them, but Peter will undoubtedly put time and effort into getting them into the best place, within the physical constraints. The Klimax EDSM is equipped with Linn’s room optimisation software – SPACE. This only deals with frequencies in the lower regions that are affected by room dimensions – those below 200Hz, so it doesn’t mess with the important vocal range, for example. It uses a set of dimensions such as room height, length, ceiling height, speaker position in the room (ideal and actual), position and size of windows etc. Which, in my experience, is a good tool to get good results, as long as you don’t accept the defaults it calculates, but follow the instructions on how to get the best settings once the defaults give you a starting point. But my room is rectangular so the measurements are easy to input. But what of Peter’s complex room? Where to start? Well Peter had put the major parameters into the system (Linn recommend using the largest dimension in the room. If there are irregularities (e.g. a bay window) in a wall, then the advice is to use the largest dimension, if the irregularity is more than 1/3 of that wall). Helpful, but still no use for Peter’s room. He’s solved this by using response measuring equipment (microphone, software) and then used the SPACE filters to tailor his own implementation of room optimisation. Again, through experimentation and careful research and thought, much attention to the details. Peter’s SPACE “picture” of the filters has many overlapping filters with gentle slopes, leading to an overall curve that looks very much like a flattened version of Gartner’s hype cycle curve – from left (lower frequencies) to right (higher frequencies), it climbs quite quickly, reaches a peak, then drops significantly before rounding out back to flat with a gentle slope.

Does such a curve work? Well, switching SPACE off gives a flabby, boomy sound. Not really very pleasant. Cut it back in and everything snaps back into a tight groove, making music enjoyable. So yes, it works, and works extremely well. Could it have been done better? I don’t know, we didn’t have time to step through options, but I suspect that Peter’s got it as good as it can be with the current tech, system and room. Impressive.

So what else? Well, Peter made a few tweaks over the course of the evening – I’m not sure if this was to demo differences or to test me to see if I was able to observe and comment on differences heard.  These amounted to changing from QNAP to Melco, from Twonky software to Minim Server, inserting and removing the Audio Revive Ethernet filter, leaving the Melco connected to the network and using as a standalone server etc. So what? Well, some of these were noticeable tweaks (I like what Minim server does), some were in the category of possibly just being debatable or imagined (disconnecting the Melco from the network) and in between (Audio Revive filter). Were these worthwhile? Well, compared to the room optimisation they were, at best, marginal. But here’s the point of the post title. Marginal benefits are cumulative. That’s what Sir Dave Brailsford did with the Sky procycling team. He drove through intensive examination of every aspect of team and individual performance that the team found for consideration. Then they took that aspect and found a better way to deal with it, to improve the performance of that one parameter. But if you do that with enough small parameters, and add them together then at worst they are cumulative, but at best they are compounded - the effects stack up and the whole improvement can be more than just adding up the little tiny improvements.

And that’s how I felt after the evening at Peter’s. So much time to look into and experiment with all the little bits and pieces, try them, compare them, choose them. Is this the best system I’ve heard? No, but its nowhere near the most expensive I’ve heard either and its seriously impressive compared to some very expensive systems out there. Would it be something I could live with? Absolutely. Would I choose this particular combination of components? Probably not – there’s just a touch of excitement missing, for me - perhaps its the system, maybe the software in the DS, maybe SPACE processing, maybe something else - there is much to consider when considering a system - its and end to end thing, not just a pair of speakers. Is it an achievement? Yep – consider it as a system, it does a lot of great things. Put it into that room, and it becomes more than an achievement – it becomes something unexpectedly good.

Thanks Peter – a very enjoyable evening!

Sorry - no pictures this time - they might've helped explain the room somewhat.

P.S.  Peter later went back from Davaar version 25 software to version 17.797 (see, detail!) which he reports added a bit of life back into the system, but prevented the use of SPACE.  Now, with the latest Davaar 32, Peter is back on track as he reports that this sounds like 17.797 but with the benefit of SPACE.

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