You’ve probably heard by now about the big splash Neil Young made with his new Pono high-resolution music player at last month’s SXSW show in Austin, Texas. I’ve read a lot of commentary about Pono. Some pundits insist you can’t hear a difference between high-resolution files and CD. Some are convinced you can hear a difference and are thus cautiously -- very cautiously -- optimistic about Pono.
But I think people are missing a larger point here, and it’s a point that many have missed since the rise of high-end audio back in the 1980s or so.
I’m at least happy that a musician with some cred is pushing the idea of sound quality, and is doing it in a way that is actually likely to achieve good sound quality. Of course, Young isn’t the first celeb to tout the importance of good sound. Dr. Dre talked about sound quality when he launched Beats. Then he went and sold colossally bass-heavy headphones that seemed to audio experts to achieve exactly the opposite. Other manufacturers copied that sound, missing the fact that people were buying Beats mostly for fashion, and we ended up with a couple of years’ worth of mostly bad-sounding mass-market headphones. (Fortunately, Beats is now getting more serious about sound.)
I got an earful -- well, an eyeful anyway -- when I used Facebook to promote my recent review of the new Beats Pill XL Bluetooth speaker. Given that it was a Bluetooth speaker and a Beats product, I expected that someone who’s never heard the product (which at the time had been out for only about two weeks) would attack me for giving the Pill XL an overall positive review.
It took only about 30 minutes. One of my Facebook friends who runs an audio store commented, “Tell the truth. All these modern ‘ghetto blasters’ are a piss-poor replacement for a real stereo.”
If any one product category dominated the recent CES, it was definitely Bluetooth speakers. I reported on 57 of them, and those were just the ones I thought were newsworthy. And I bet that not one of the companies offering a new Bluetooth speaker had “must replace a real stereo” in its list of product development goals. They don’t think in those terms, any more than Toyota worries about whether the Camry can beat a Porsche 911 in a quarter-mile.
Much as the high-end audio community might wish that your average person would spend an hour or two every day sitting in front of a traditional stereo listening intently to music, almost no one uses a stereo that way anymore. Most people like to play music while they work, while they clean the house, while they hang out in the backyard, and when they travel. Bluetooth speakers do all of that easily. Sure, you can blast most traditional stereos loud enough to cover your whole house, but not without annoying everyone you live with -- and probably your neighbors.
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.
As 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.
The 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.
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-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 Amazon.com. 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.
What’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.
I 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.
In 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.
Around 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.
In 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.
As 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