There are some who may read this and say, “that’s easy, just play vinyl record albums. After all, doesn’t analog always sound better?” That’s not always the case as I’ve written in an earlier newsletter.
We’re not knocking the sound of CDs. They can sound fine and usually much better than compressed music such as MP3s and iTunes songs for example. However, the CD format is not perfect. When music is converted to digital for a CD, it is sliced up into 44 thousand segments every second. These segments will vary in loudness by 65,536 different voltage levels (16 bits-2 to the 16th power). Then when played, the device will reassemble these digital signals back into analog, where the amplifier makes it loud enough for it to be played over the speakers.
CD music files are pretty large, which is why compressed music formats such as MP3 are so popular. However, thanks to high speed internet it is possible to purchase and download music that has the potential to sound even better than CDs. For this newsletter, we’ll focus on two popular sites: www.hdtracks.com and www.acousticsounds.com . Both of these sites offer downloads of popular albums in higher sampling rates of up to 192 KHz. Vs CDs 44 KHz and 24 bits instead of CD’s 16 bits. There are many who maintain that when you get to this level that the sound will be as good as analog. These websites do this by obtaining the master when the album was recorded and digitizing it at the higher quality.
To really enjoy the full potential of the improved sound, you’ll need good equipment capable of playing back the higher resolution files and revealing speakers, such as our RSLs (shamless plug).
These high resolution downloads are usually available in FLAC format. This is a lossless format that helps to minimize the file size without any compromise in sound quality. One way of playing the files back is to copy them to a USB flash drive. There are home theater receivers and DVD players (such as the Oppo) that are capable of playing them back as well as separate outboard DACs (digital analog converter).
This has been a brief overview of high resolution music. Obviously, if you’re interested in finding out more there are many websites that are dedicated to this subject including www.audiostream.com .
Today’s audio/video receivers come with a mind-boggling amount of features and thick owners manuals, which can be intimidating. Few people I know have the patience to read these cover to cover. Personally, I’d rather read a 4 year old magazine in a doctor’s waiting room. One section that is worthwhile to read is the one that covers the different surround sound modes. Choosing the correct surround mode for your movie or TV show is important for unlocking the potential of your home theater system.
When you play a DVD or Blu-Ray disc, you’ll often have a choice of surround mode in the audio setup menu of the disc. Some people just skip going into the audio setup and just play the movie. Sometimes this deprives them of getting true surround. It’s important to choose the right surround mode. Although this is no substitute for your particular receiver’s owner’s manual, here is some basic info on some of the surround modes:
Synthesized modes eg. Concert Hall, nigh club, stadium, etc.
These are not true surround modes but are synthesized inside you’re A/V receiver. To our ears, none of them sound good and should be avoided.
All channel stereo
This takes the stereo signal from a stereo music source, such as CD, radio, or stereo TV and uses all the speakers in your system. If the music sources doesn’t have true surround, this can sometimes be useful.
If your movie or TV track is stereo only and not surround, this can often provide a very convincing surround effect. Dolby Pro Logic takes real information from the tracks and sends some of it to the rear speakers. Whenever I watch a movie that is in stereo, I use this. For music, it often works well. However, you’ll need to experiment.
Dolby Digital Surround
Dolby Digital Surround, originally called AC3, made its debut with DVDs. This is a true surround mode with 5 discrete channels, which utilize compression. This is a good choice when watching movies. Besides DVDs, Dolby Digital surround tracks can also be found on cable and satellite channels for movies and TV shows. Even though Dolby Digital isn’t the latest surround format, it can still sound excellent.
DTS was also introduced with DVDs and is a competitor to Dolby Digital Surround. Often, it can sound a bit better than Dolby Digital surround due to its higher bit rate. If you get a choice of either Dolby Digital surround or DTS, we recommend using DTS.
Dolby True HD
This surround format for either 5 or 7 channels is currently only available on Blu-ray discs. It is the same quality as CD. As such, it offers best surround audio quality currently available.
DTS Master HD
This is the competition to Dolby True HD and also offers spectacular sound. Usually, a blu-ray disc will offer one or the other.
We have listed some of the surround formats in order of quality with the last ones being the best. If you’d like to discuss this further, feel to give us a call.
To answer this, I’d like to relate an experience we about a year and half ago. We are fans of the group Linkin Park. When the opportunity arose to see them live, we jumped. Got the best seats we could for sonic wonderfulness – dead center. There is nothing quite like experiencing live music: the excitement of witnessing your favorite musicians’ performance, seeing their facial expressions, hearing your favorite songs, the thrill of being caught up in the crowd’s energy. So we were pumped up for the concert. We’ve been enjoying a Linkin Park Live Concert Blu-ray, running the audio through our RSL 5.1 Theater System. However, we experienced a big disappointment. Not the band itself. They put on a great show. But the sound system was a non starter. The band’s signature subtleties, keyboard themes, big drums and gritty guitar licks seemed to get lost in a jumble of distortion. There was no ability to distinguish each of the band’s components. We were hearing a big wash and roar, but little differentiation. Was it the quality of the PA system? Was the sound engineer overdriving the amps? Any way, we were disappointed.
To weigh in on the classic argument of the superiority of live versus recorded audio, after experiencing Linkin Park live and listening to them through my audio system, I would have to say that, I much preferred the RSL system. No contest. Why? We can hear not only a superbly defined sound field – front-to-back and overall sound stage and ambiance (you felt immersed in the concert), but surprisingly, I hear vertical imaging, which not common in a system within this price range. I can hear the sound of the instruments as they are being played, down to the small details like the impact of drum sticks on the drums. To sum it up, in this case the Linkin Park Blu-ray sounded much better than the live performance. When considering the cost of the tickets, transportation, and hotel (we had to travel to San Diego), it doesn’t take too many of these “live” performance to pay for an entire RSL 5.1 system. I’m just sayin’.
If it seems as if the price of everything has gone up over the years, just look at speakers. Back when we started in 1970, a good bookshelf speaker sold for about $200 (although we sold equivalent speakers factory-direct for less than that). Recently, I’ve seen complete 5.1 systems in the newspaper for $199 including a subwoofer! In the same ad, I also saw large floorstanding speakers for under $150 each. Both of these were from well known brands that not too long ago were revered by those who knew fine audio.
With everything else going up in price over the years, how can a manufacturer make a low cost speaker? Let’s break it down in to 2 main approaches:
First is the approach that is used by virtually all of the major brands. These brands are found in stores, both brick and mortar locations and online. Here, the dealer will make typically 40-45% profit. So, if you buy a $200 speaker, the dealer will typically pay $110-$120 for it. Often, manufacturers go through distributors, which can get another 10%. The manufacturer typically winds up with $90-$100. They need to make a profit, so their cost could be half that. How do they build a speaker for that kind of money?
Over the years most of these once prestigious brands have been acquired by giant corporations with one goal; to use these names to generate the highest possible sales volumes. To sell more products, they have to be made to sell cheaply. Here are some of the ways they do it:
Vinyl Finish cabinets
- A simulated wood finish printed on a plastic sheet and glued to the wooden cabinet provides huge savings over a real wood finish or a high gloss hand finish. And this may be fine for some people, kind of like vinyl furniture compared with real leather.
Thin wooden cabinets without internal bracing
- A speaker cabinet is supposed to be solid. Vibrations can degrade the sound. Just knock on the side of a cheap speaker and you’ll know what we mean.
Plastic front baffle boards
- The baffle board is the front of the cabinet where the woofers and tweeters are mounted. Lately, manufacturers have been making a 1 piece baffle board that contains the basket structures of the woofers and tweeters. This means that instead of having to use separate woofers and tweeters with their associated metal baskets, they can build those speakers right into the plastic board. Also, they can mold shiny metal trim rings around the woofers and tweeters to make them look more impressive. This saves a lot of money. The downside of this is that if you blow a woofer or tweeter (which is more likely in a cheap speaker), you have to replace the entire baffle board with all the speakers, which is often as costly as the speaker itself.
- The crossover is the brains of the speaker. Its job is to channel the correct frequencies to the woofer and the tweeter with adding any distortion. Since the crossover cannot be seen from the outside of the speaker, this is an area that’s ripe for cost-cutting. There’s no getting around it, quality crossover parts are expensive. Cheap crossovers can add distortion, especially when you turn up the volume. Also cheap crossovers will degrade over time.
There are many other areas that manufacturers use to produce a cheaper speaker, but I think you get the idea. As you can see, theme here is compromise, compromise, compromise.
However, there is another way. And that is to build a high quality speaker without compromises. A way to get the price down is to sell the speakers factory direct. Then, you can take the profit that would normally go to the dealer and distributor and put in back into the quality of the speakers.
In the case of RSL, we had a choice. We could make an inexpensive speaker and make it even more inexpensive by selling it factory-direct. Or, we can build a speaker that qualifies as a high end reference quality monitor and make it affordable by selling factory-direct. We chose the later. We like to say, “built like a Ferrari, priced like a Kia.”
So with RSL speakers, you’ll find lavishly expensive hand-finished high gloss cabinets that are solid and internally braced, woofers with cast metal frames, highest quality crossover parts, metal grills held in place by invisible rare earth magnets, gold plated binding posts, etc. etc. There is absolutely no brand available through dealers that can offer this level of quality at our factory-direct prices.
Besides the construction quality, our patented Compression Guide Technology makes our speakers sound clearer and cleaner than other competing conventional loudspeakers.
We feel the extra quality is worth it. We get emails all the time from happy RSL customers who purchased their speakers in the 1970s are still enjoying them. The extra cost of a quality speaker over the long term is negligible.
People ask us if our speakers need to be on stands or if they can be wall mounted or placed on shelves. Traditionally in stereo systems, it is usually better to place the speakers away from the wall on stands. This allows them to have depth and image better. If you’re setting up a home theater system, but plan on doing a lot of stereo listening with just 2 speakers, it is probably best to set your left and right speakers away from the way.
However, if most of your listening will be done with your 5.1 system, it is OK to mount the front speakers close or on the wall. This is because your surround speakers will provide ambient sound, which seems to pull the sound out of the front speakers and place it in the room around you creating a 3 dimensional environment. Then, it becomes less important for the front speakers to have the depth of image since sound is now all around you.
The particular wall mounts we offer give the user the choice of mounting the speaker close to the wall or spacing it away from the wall using the included extension bar.The back and surround speakers can be wall-mounted or placed on stands, whichever is more convenient.
Our owner’s manual has a section on speaker placement for 5.1 and 7.1 systems. We’d be happy to email you a copy. Feel free to ask for one. If you’re not sure about where to place your speakers, we’d be happy to help you if you’d give us a call. Many of our customers email photos of their room, which helps us give you the best possible advice.
Strangely enough, in this day of digital music, the old vinyl record album seems to be making a comeback. Vinyl records have long been worshiped by audiophiles who view it as the only way to seriously listen to music. A surprising amount of current music can also be found on vinyl, which normally commands a price premium over CDs.
Many think that vinyl always sounds better than a CD. They reason that with digital, the music is chopped up into little bits and then reassembled where it looses something. With vinyl, the music starts out and stays in its original analog form until it reaches the listener’s ears.
But does vinyl really sound better than digital? Not necessarily. The reason is that with analog, it is a lot easier to mess up the sound during the process from recording to the pressing of the album. In addition, several factors during playback must be perfect to get the proper sound.
With digital, as soon as the sound gets captured by the microphone and is sent to the mixing console, it is converted to digital. And while it can go through different processes to modify the sound, it stays in digital form and the basic sound quality will not deteriorate. It stays digital all the way to the CD which is usually accurately read by the playing device, where it finally gets converted back to analog so you can hear it.
Making an analog recording requires many steps, each one capable of deteriorating the sound if not done correctly. Without getting into a lengthy explanation of why each step can have a detrimental effect, here is a list of some of them:
….Bad recording or mixing. Regardless of whether it’s digital or analog, there are recording engineers who don’t do a good job recording or mixing.
….Substandard recording equipment or equipment not maintained properly that introduces distortion and noise.
….Putting the recording through a lot of different stages to doctor the sound. Every analog stage opens the possibility of sound deterioration.
….Improper techniques when cutting the master with on the recording lathe.
….Poor vinyl pressing techniques. This includes using inferior vinyl, pressing at the wrong temperature and humidity and pressing too many discs off of the same master.
In comparison, digital is almost mistake-proof. Creating a vinyl album is an art form. In the days when vinyl was the most popular format, there were many people who perfected this art. I’m not certain if many people new to this format have the experience needed.
I have an extensive collection of vinyl albums. I have some that sound magnificent; probably better than CDs. I also have some that sound much worse. I have some that have scratches, pops, and ticks. CDs don’t have that problem.
Taking full advantage of a vinyl album’s sound requires an expensive turntable and cartridge. The cartridge must be aligned perfectly from several angles and have the correct tracking weight. The album must be cleaned of all dust before playing or permanent damage to the grooves could result.
So the answer is: If every aspect is perfect, a vinyl album can sound better than a CD. But, in a real world, things are not usually perfect.
Personally, I listen to a lot of vinyl over the RSL CG Stereo System, which I feel brings out the best of this analog art form.
When we ask our customers about what they use their systems for, they’ll tell us that it’s mostly movies and some music. Digging a little deeper, we ask about what kind of music they play on their system. The most common answers are CD’s, MP3′s, iPod, and Internet radio such as Pandora. It’s not too often that people say they listen to concert DVDs.
For music lovers, there is a treasure waiting to be discovered. Depending on your age, many of the musicians you may have grown up with still go on concert tours. Quite often they release these concerts on DVD and Blu-ray. These discs are recorded in 5.1 (and occasionally 7.1) surround. Quite often, the sound quality is absolutely stunning! It is way beyond stereo. With stereo, 2 speakers have to do all of the heavy lifting. They have to provide a broad 3 dimensional image and relate the acoustics of the environment in which it was recorded.
With a 5.1 system, the surround speakers can recreate the acoustics of the concert venue along with the audience. They can also place the musicians around you. Listening to a well recorded DVD or Blu-ray over a reference quality system such as the RSL 5.1 system can be a lifelike experience (sometimes even better if you didn’t get optimum seats at the concert).
Some examples of my favorite concerts include, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Doobie Brothers, Eagles, Crosby Stills & Nash, James Taylor, Adele, Diana Krall, Eric Clapton, Simon & Garfunkel, Genesis, Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few. I also heard some classical music on Blu-ray that sound much better than any classical CD or album I’ve heard. Blu-ray concerts can be recorded in the ultimate surround formats of Dolby True HD or DTS Master HD. DVDs will be recorded in DTS or Dolby Digital and will also sound excellent.
If you haven’t heard a well-recorded surround concert over a great system you owe it to yourself to experience this. You may never want to buy scalper tickets again.