What to spend money on? What will make the most difference in my sound quality?
There are no lack of opportunities to spend money on audio gear, and really no limits to how much you can spend on any item. How about $1000/foot wire? How about $60,000 speakers? Ok, that may be a little nuts, but certainly possible to do.
So for those of us here on Earth with limited funds, what should we spend our cash on to make the most difference? Here are some items I came up with, in defending order of “impact”, from the good, to the bad and finally, the ugly.
1. Speakers – the one thing than affects sound more than anything else is the speaker. Sound quality is everything, but it need not be expensive. Turns out, nearly everyone prefers natural sounding speakers. A recent test at Harmon proves this fact. It also proves that speaker cost doesn’t relate to how it sounds. Find natural, and uncolored sounding speakers, buy them, love them, live with them for a very long time. Good value. Impact level: Huge.
2. The Number of speakers and channels. Yes, more is better, but there’s an interesting relationship here. Every time you double the channel count, everyone can hear the improvement. That means going from mono to stereo is huge. Stereo to 5.1 is huge. 5.1 to 7.1…um, not so big a deal. but 5.1 to 11.1 (yes, we can do that!) is huge. In short, there’s not reason to stop at 2 any more. Impact level: Huge.
3. Speaker placement. Here’s a high value item if ever there was one. How about big impact for nothing? Place your speakers properly and win huge sonic benefits. Follow guidelines published by Dolby and THX for 5.1 and 7.1 systems, look to Audyssey for 11.1 layouts. Proper placement costs you nothing but perhaps a bit of decor-strife. Impact level: Significant to Huge.
4. Acoustic Room treatment. No room is right, they are all wrong to some degree. The size and shape of your space hits your sound quality where it hurts. The fix is to add appropriate absorbers, diffusors and traps to mitigate the nasties your room is doing. Absorbing bass in one locations actually can boost bass in another. Room treatment isn’t the cheapest thing to invest in, but it’s not the most expensive either. You’ll knock heads with the decorator, but be creative and you can harmonize in a better acoustic environment. The impact here can be Huge to Significant.
5. Calibration systems (Audyssey, Pioneer MCACC, Yamaha YPAO, etc.) (particularly significant if you can’t optimize the above two. And any cal system beats none, even with treatment.) Some think of auto-cal systems as band-aids to be used in place of acoustic treatment. Others think of them as precision tuning methods. In reality, they are neither, and both. On occasion, auto-cal systems can work wonders, and be an acceptable compromise in light of acoustic treatment. But they aren’t doing the same thing as treatment, and actually the two work best if used together. Auto-cal systems have their limits, but don’t discount them as unnecessary. Even in a good, treated room, calibration is worth the investment…mostly in time…to implement.
6. Audio file formats, bit rates, etc. If you’re building a music library, this might be of concern to you. Yes, we all know/love/hate .mp3 files. They’re universally everywhere. But .mp3 isn’t a single “process”, it’s actually adjustable. The key to better sound quality is a higher bit rate. 320Kbps MP3 files are mostly indistinguishable from the original CD. But then there’s AAC, which is even more efficient. A 320Kbps AAC file sounds identical to the CD, yet takes up much less storage space. Then there are the “lossless” file types, like FLAC and ALAC. They, too, take up less storage space than a conventional WAV or AIF file, but are bit-perfect copies of the original CD. If you’re buying files rather than ripping CDs, look for high quality AAC files from iTunes, or try one of the many new sellers of high-rate lossless files. Starting with good audio files can make a significant difference in your overall sound quality.
7. Play software, amplifiers and AVRs, DACS – Lots to spend on, little to be gained. The benefits of many amplifiers, AVRs and outboard DACs are mostly the realization of expectation bias…you think they will sound better, so they do. But if you had no idea that you were listening to that shiny new platinum-plated, rare-earth extruded DAC, you’d never know the difference. Good amplifiers have no sound of their own. Very little to be gained here, once the basic needs are met for power and performance.
8. Exotic wire types and power conditioning. Got some extra cash? Want some real fun? Spend it on a concert, a vacation, a motorcycle, boat, plane, hang glider, hovercraft, fine diner with your partner, an addition to your house (for that home theater! Call us!), or a summer home at the lake. But DON’T bother with exotic and expensive wire! Power conditioning does have a benefit, if it includes surge suppression and transient control, but power conditioning will have no audible (or visual) benefit other than to protect your investment from power line related damage. Tread lightly, spend carefully, know what and why you buy.
Spending where it counts is always a good idea. If you need specific suggestions, drop us an email or ring us up on the blower. New products are introduced every day, but we filter through all of that and find the ones that are really worth it.