A lot of people are missing out on the benefits of high-quality audio. We're thinking of the person who wakes up in the morning, dresses impeccably, drives an eco-conscious hybrid to work, then comes home, sits down in front of a 60-inch plasma, and watches a movie with the soundtrack playing on built-in TV speakers. In the kitchen, there is a granite countertop with a boombox sitting on top of it. In the basement are CDs and LPs packed into boxes because there's nothing to play them on that would make them sound compelling. Imagine how much this person’s quality of life would improve with a real investment in:
- a surround sound system to reinforce the dramatic impact of high-definition TV,
- a multi-room audio system to distribute music to the kitchen, bedrooms, and throughout the home,
- and a high-performance audio system to bring that forgotten music library back to life.
How Does Better Audio Improve Your Listening Life?
Here are some of the ways in which better audio can improve your listening life:
Your Relationship With Music: The primary reason to invest in quality audio is to have a better relationship with music. A good system, carefully set up, delivers a more deeply moving experience and makes available a wider range of emotional responses. We invest in loudspeakers, amplifiers, and signal sources to get closer to singers, guitarists, and drummers.
Your Relationship With Movies: Like big-screen television, surround sound immerses the senses and makes a cinematic story more involving. Invest only in the HDTV and you've missed half the experience.
Your Listening Potential: While human hearing varies, most people's ears are better than their audio gear. It takes no special expertise to be a sensitive listener. The simplest example is the human voice. Simply day-to-day contact teaches you what it should sound like. Can your system deliver that sound? If not, you have yet to realize your listening potential.
Pride of Ownership: Those who love well-made objects for their own sake sometimes find beauty and satisfaction in high-performance audio gear. Speakers may come in glossy hand-matched veneers. An amplifier chassis may be carved out of solid aluminum. Even cables can qualify as audio jewelry. The cosmetic niceties aren't for everyone, but for some, they enhance the pleasure of owning great audio gear.
Longevity of Use: High-quality audio components can last a lifetime. They are not necessarily disposable. There are manufacturers who are willing to repair products made decades ago. Your local audio specialty retailer can tell you who they are.
What Is Better Audio?
High-quality audio suffers from the destructive misconception that bigger is better. But sheer size is not the only thing that defines a quality audio system. Audiophiles also seek the following things:
Materials and Build Quality: Speakers may have wood-veneer enclosures instead of vinyl wrapping. Their drivers may be made of silk, exotic metals, paper, or plastic. Receivers and amplifiers may have advanced digital processing circuitry to implement surround-sound standards, as well as high-quality power components for cleaner and stronger output. Simply looking at a product can tell you a lot about its build quality.
Specifications: Accurate frequency response, low distortion, and high power output/handling are just a few of the characteristics that separate high-end performers from mass-market products. Manufacturer spec sheets contain some of this information but it's better to obtain it from independent test reports published by audio and A/V specialist magazines.
Performance: High performance can be measured objectively (and published in the sources mentioned above) or experienced subjectively. When the objective data and your ears point in the same direction, you have hit on a winning combination.
What Kind of Listener Are You?
Different kinds of gear fit into various parts of your listening life as needed. To get a handle on what you need, consider the following choices:
Surround vs. Stereo: The conventional wisdom is that surround sound is best for movie soundtracks and two-channel for musical applications. But don't let yourself be limited to that division. A surround sound system can do great things for music. And a stereo system can do great things for movies.
High-End vs. Real-World Audio: Boutique audio brands attract some people and repel others. But even in the high-end audio world, there is a "low end of the high end" category that offers high performance in an unpretentious package for an affordable price. You don't need to be stinking rich to be an audiophile.
Multi-Room vs. Local Systems: Would you prefer to have a TechHome integrator design a single system that serves the entire home? Or would you prefer to have different kinds of systems in different rooms?
Big Room vs. Small Room: A larger room can support floorstanding speakers and may require heavy wattage from a preamp/power-amp combo. A midsized or smaller room is a candidate for compact bookshelf speakers, "in a box" systems, satellite/subwoofer sets, and docking systems.
Component vs. Stealth Systems: Regardless of room size and performance level, systems can still have a small footprint. A TechHome Integrator can relegate components to a closet. Speakers—just like your flat-panel TV—can be in-wall or on-wall.
Foreground vs. Background Listening: If you have an intense relationship with music, a high-performance component system is best. If you are a more casual listener, you might be more interested in networked and multi-room audio. There's no reason why you can't have both.
Where Can You Find Better Audio?
Audiophiles naturally gravitate to specialty Audio/Video stores. In that respect they are no different than buyers of sports cars, fashionable clothing, fine wines, or pedigreed pets. What distinguishes a specialty retailer from a mass-market chain store?
Specialization: An A/V specialty retailer sells audio and video, not boomboxes, cellphones, or refrigerators.
Intimate Scale: The retail space should be designed for listening, conversation, and human interaction, not rapid volume sales of stacked boxes.
Demo Rooms: There may be multiple listening rooms with systems at different scales and prices, meeting different needs.
Human Attention: A well-run store will have knowledgeable salespeople on hand to orient you, provide options for comparison, answer questions, and offer advice.
Love of Music: Audio retailers and salespeople typically get into the business because they love music. If they're any good, they'll have lots of music on hand, and they'll be interested in what you bring along.
Opportunity to Listen: To feel the full impact of quality audio, you need to listen with your own ears. Trained sales staff will offer you ears-on experience in a relaxed atmosphere, letting you truly enter the world of high-end audio. To locate a retailer in your area, visit GreatAudio.com.
How Can You Improve an Existing Audio System?
Even a good audio system may have weak spots. How can you improve your system?
Identify Weaknesses: What is it that leaves you dissatisfied with your system? Is it performance, the way it fits into your home, or the user interface?
Listening for Problems: Does your system have strong bass? Does it deliver intelligible movie dialogue? Does it throw out a convincing stereo soundstage or surround soundfield? Does it have any objectionable coloration? Is it fatiguing? Does it play loud? Does repositioning the speakers help?
Upgrade One Component at a Time: Generally, once you know the problem, you can move on to a solution—more accurate speakers, better amplification, more trustworthy signal sources.
Upgrade Cables and Accessories: Even if your system is delivering the fundamentals, it may benefit from some tweaks. Stick to cost-effective ones that make audible and positive differences. Speaker cables may be a good place to start.
Rethink Whole System: If none of your components is worth saving, or the system as a whole doesn't meet your needs, you need to go back to square one. Start by identifying your needs—see What Kind of Listener Are You?