[SoundStage!]Surrounded!
Back Issue Article

October 2002

Multichannel Flux

Uprooting a stereo system from its home and casting it into an unknown room can lead to weeks of tweaking and positioning to get anywhere near the cohesiveness you had before. But that’s what I just did. For me it was especially challenging because I was setting up a multichannel system, and with almost twice the complexity of a two-channel rig, the proposition was not something I was looking forward to. Add to that the fact that the new house is a temporary rental, so I can’t alter anything permanently (like knocking out a wall), and the pressure mounts.

While my wife and I are building our new house, and my new listening room, we are inhabiting a nice but small slab-on-grade 1300-square-foot house on the outskirts of my home town. The three-bedroom home has a living room that flows into the dining area which in turn flows into the kitchen. We like open floor plans, so this fits our lifestyle just fine, but setting up a surround system in this type of layout is not a straightforward proposition.

Standing down the reference system

First to go were my Wilson Audio loudspeakers. Even my WATT/Puppy 6es would overload the new room. The X-1 Grand SLAMM Series III was simply out of the question. I also didn’t need the massive power from my Krell FPB-700cx, but more importantly, I didn’t need the massive size and heat buildup from this class-A monster.

Essentially, all I could bring forward to my new home was my oldie-but-goodie Technics DVD-A10 DVD-Audio player and the just-in Orpheus Laboratories Two multichannel preamp (check back next month for a full report). So that meant I needed some appropriate speakers and amplification to set up my new listening space. The search was on.

Out with the old, in with the new

Luckily I didn’t have to look too far as I had the budget-reference Axiom Audio Millennia M3Ti loudspeakers on hand. They’re small and easy to place, and they have a terrific midrange and an overall neutral character. I figured they would work fine in the surround position -- not on par with WATT/Puppy 6es to be sure, but easily manageable and able to convey the essence of music.

I found an Adcom GFA-545 II at a garage sale a few months back, and for $50, I had to rescue the little tike. I knew I’d find a use for it someday (actually I was going to drive a small system in my garage, but that was before I sold my house). Driving the Axioms in the rear-channel position was a perfect use. Just to be sure of compatibility, I hooked up this combination as we moved in. Admittedly, this was only for casual background listening, but it did sound pretty good, especially considering the money invested.

The front channels were next, and my requirements were clearly laid out. The speakers had to be slender so they could be placed on either side of my TV. This was critical because the front door of the house is very close to the television, and I couldn’t place the right speaker in front of the door. The mains would not have a lot of breathing room to open up acoustically either, which meant they had to interact as little as possible with the walls around them. It was obvious that I could not run a truly full-range speaker (i.e., response to 20Hz) in this room due to the limited space I had available to me. However, I was not willing to have a speaker so limited in the low frequencies that I would miss out on the majority of the oomph in my tunes.

I settled on a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C-2s. They are floorstanding speakers, but very slender, and they will play down to a rated 28Hz (-3dB). They proved to be just the ticket. In fact, they exceeded my expectations in many ways. Their resolving power is first class, especially in the upper frequencies, where the twin Esotar2 tweeters take over. They produce enough energy down low in the bass range to be satisfying, and will resolve the fine detail in high-resolution music. They also play quite comfortably in the bombastic home-theater environment that I also enjoy; this means they play loudly and without strain or distortion. I wouldn’t put them in a much larger room and expect the same performance though. After all Dynaudio does make the C-4, and the even larger C-7 is coming soon. But in this room the C-2s sing and are about all the speaker I need.

To drive the Dynaudios I chose an NAD Silver Series S200. The silver livery and compact dimensions (compared to the Krell) work great on the floor next to my component rack. The S200 is a very quiet amplifier, and it has tons of reserve power for almost any situation. And the NAD also runs cool, which definitely can’t be said of the Krell FPB-700cx, and it scores another point in my new environment.

How does it sound?

Pertty good, I’d say. If I had to choose one word to describe the sound of this system, it would be smooth. Oh, and clean. OK, that’s two words, but they just about sum it up what I'm hearing here.

Listening to Chesky’s Swing Live [Chesky CHDVD222] on DVD-A proved my point. This reference-quality disc continues to be my mainstay to judge the sonic abilities of a multichannel system. A good system must be balanced to pass the Swing Live test. All the aural ingredients must be present to make this music, recorded in a live space, sound close to what was intended. The percussion, the brass, and the ambient nature of a small New York City jazz club -- all this must combine perfectly in a balancing act that would make a trapeze artist wince!

The verdict? My new rig did pretty well overall. The general tone of the instruments in the Chesky-produced jazz ensemble was reproduced correctly, and all the fine detail in the recording was left intact. Bass too, was free of boom and bloat. But of course there were…

Compromises

You bet there are compromises! But then again no room is perfect, and I am coming from a frame of reference that includes much pricier equipment in a huge acoustic space.

The biggest problem I’m having with my new system is that the surround speakers are too close to the back of the room and too close to my head because the couch is jammed up against the back wall. I can get almost no rear-channel imaging from the surrounds, and effects in the home theater are more localizable than I would prefer. I’m also not sure the drivers in the Axioms integrate quite like they should -- through no fault of their own but because they just don’t have enough space to do so.

The front channels are a bit too close together too. I do get a rock-solid center image, but I imagine that if I were able to spread the Dynaudios out a little further I would get a more expansive soundstage. This does hurt my ability to audition multichannel music somewhat because I can’t get a totally precise handle on recordings that possess good delineation of instruments and performers.

And to make matters worse, there’s also the left side wall, which is very close to the left speaker. I’ve minimized this, though, with manufacturer-advised placement of the C-2s: Dynaudio recommends a pretty-good toe-in for best imaging, and in this case it works quite well because it also minimizes what would be some pretty harsh reflections.

Enough complaining!

OK, I’ll quit complaining, but this isn’t the end of the story. We’ll surely look at this system’s metamorphosis throughout the next year or so. I don’t want to invest a ton of money treating the room or swapping components because it is temporary situation for me.

Next year at this time I’ll be telling you about my new room, some newer components that I’m planning to install in the new house, and the inevitable challenges that will occur there. But I’m not yet done with this system and the sound it makes. With some more work on positioning, maybe some strategic placement of household items, and if I can sneak a few inches of couch movement past my wife, there just may be hope for improved sound quality. At least, though, after some weeks without my sound system, I’m surrounded again! And that’s a good feeling.

...Jeff Fritz
jeff@soundstage.com

 

[SoundStage!]All Contents
Copyright 2002 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved