Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

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Last month, in “Integrating a Single Subwoofer into a Two-Channel System for Beginners,” I wrote about the first steps of that process. This month I go deeper, into various ways of using a high-pass filter with your main speakers, and the advantages of taking more measurements and using equalization (EQ), aka room correction.

Although I’m now a big fan of using a powered subwoofer or two with a stereo pair of loudspeakers, as I explained in a May 1 article on this site, I’m a recent convert to the practice. It’s only in the last year or so of my 30-year audio journey that I’ve realized two things: 1) The sound produced by all but the most expensive and extreme speakers will benefit from the reinforcement provided by a subwoofer -- few speakers of any stripe can produce useful output down to 20Hz, the lower limit of human hearing. 2) Dollar for dollar, the quality of bass produced by a good subwoofer easily outclasses the quality of bass from a good or even a great speaker. This is due not only to the fact that subs are designed to reproduce only the low bass, but also because their placement in a room can be much more easily optimized to serve their intended purpose.

SVS is well known to two-channel-loving audiophiles and home-theater enthusiasts alike. Founded in 1998, the company began by producing subwoofers that quickly earned critical acclaim. In 2012, SVS added loudspeakers to its product line, and in 2015, cables, footers, and wireless products. Today SVS offers 12 subwoofer models, ranging in price from $500 for the SB-1000 and PB-1000 in standard Premium Black Ash finish, to $2500 for the flagship PB16-Ulta in Piano Gloss Black (all prices USD). They offer a total of six bookshelf and floorstanding models of passive loudspeaker, ranging from $270/pair for the Prime Satellite to $2000/pair for the Ultra Tower in Piano Gloss Black. There are also center-channel and surround models, to flesh out full surround-sound arrays.

Home-theater enthusiasts have long extolled the virtues of using two or more subwoofers. The advantages over a single sub are many, and include increased bass output with less compression, and better blend of the subs’ sound with the sound of the main speakers (that is, it’s more difficult to identify the subwoofers as the sources of the lowest frequencies). However, the biggest advantage of using two subs in a home-theater system is the mitigation of bass peaks and nulls, to produce a smoother, more consistent overall bass response audible at a greater number of listening positions.

My mission was to scour the halls of the Hotel Bonaventure Montréal, the venue for the 2019 Montréal Audio Fest, looking for affordable products to report on. That turned out to be fun but not all that easy -- most exhibitors were showing off their five- and even six-figure systems. But among all the audio bling, a few manufacturers and distributors displayed some gear that was indeed affordably priced. (All prices in Canadian dollars.)

Henry Kloss (1929-2002) was one of the pioneers of North American hi-fi. He studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before dropping out to embark on a career in which he founded several storied audio brands, including Acoustic Research, Advent Corporation, Cambridge Soundworks, and Tivoli Audio. Along with patent-holder Edgar Villchur, Kloss helped design the first commercially available sealed-box loudspeaker, the Acoustic Research AR-1. Kloss is probably best remembered for KLH Research and Development Corporation, which he cofounded, with Malcolm Low and J. Anton Hofmann, in 1957 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. KLH -- the name was formed from the initial letters of the founders’ last names -- produced several innovative electrostatic loudspeaker designs and electronic components, but by 1967 Kloss had moved on. KLH thereafter changed hands several times, and quickly fell off the hi-fi map.

To the surprise of no one, about 12 people -- including several derelicts, some tumblin’ tumbleweeds, and SoundStage!’s own Brent Butterworth -- attended the hi-fi segment of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. If you haven’t visited Las Vegas, imagine a city codesigned by Louis XIV and a strip-mall developer, and fueled by a near-lethal combination of vodka, Red Bull, and poor decision-making, all tinged by the aroma of burnt tobacco. The high-end segment of CES has been on a slow decline for years, domestically usurped by the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and internationally by Munich’s annual High End. Despite this, this year’s CES was chock full of new and affordable audio gear.

In the past 12 months the SoundStage! Network has undergone some major changes, including some shifts in editorial direction. The addition of Gordon Brockhouse to sister site SoundStage! Simplifi has proven a shrewd move -- Gordon is not only a great writer, his system is ideally suited for reviewing such progressive hi-fi endeavors as all-in-one-ish stereo loudspeakers like the DALI Callisto 2 C and Kii Audio Three, and KEF’s new LSX wireless loudspeaker (review in the works). In many ways, I envy Gordon’s position. For the last few years I’ve felt that if I were ever to depart from SoundStage!, I’d probably sell my traditional hi-fi rig of passive loudspeakers driven by a massive integrated amplifier-DAC, and grab a pair of Devialet Phantoms -- e.g., the Silver Phantoms I reviewed on Access a couple years ago.

A couple months ago, I chronicled my adventure in dumpster diving for a new music server. My $280 USD eBay purchase -- a 2015 Intel NUC5I5RYK computer -- arrived on my doorstep looking as if it had spent several years in an abusive relationship. It also turned out that the seller was guilty of false advertising: he’d claimed that the unit contained a “fleshly installed” copy of Windows 10. But installed in my little abuse victim was Windows 7, decidedly not freshly, or even fleshly, installed. Luckily, its 8GB of RAM and 250GB Samsung SSD were legit, and it worked just fine. At the time, I lamented that Roon wasn’t working smoothly, and that my vintage Apple wireless keyboard couldn’t connect to it. Should I have purchased a new NUC for several hundred dollars more, or even Roon’s own Nucleus, which costs a lot for what you get? No, and I’m glad I didn’t.

SoundStage!’s founder and publisher, Doug Schneider, calls me at least once a week. “I’ll just keep you a minute,” he says. Then, almost without fail, the ensuing 15- to 30-minute conversation is steered toward affordable, high-value gear. Over the past year or two Doug and I have become convinced that gear costing less than $2000 USD -- and now, less than $1000 gear -- is what SoundStage! Access should focus on. In 2018 and going forward, the phrases lo-fi or even mid-fi no longer apply to this site, because so much real engineering is now on offer at those prices from real hi-fi brands.