People often come to me and ask “Unca FX tell me how I can get good music sound cheaply”. Ignoring the implied cheapskate slur and choosing instead to accentuate the positive implication that I know a bit about good sound I usually oblige. So when Shaun from Rock n Roll Damnation and Lardarse Rodeo and Harry Clarke from Kalimna who also spends a lot of time here sent out plaintive bleats on the net I put up my hand. And promptly didn’t do anything. Now with New Year and all that – here/hear I am.
Over the years having set myself soundwise up cheaply and family members and friends and relatives I have accumulated a certain wisdom. A wisdom fed by experience listening, mainly to music, but lets not forget its not always all about music, in different settings and with various technologies.
I first heard a lot of reproduced music on an old wind up 78 player in a shed. “Come Down Come Down from Your Ivory Tower” still takes me back to my childhood in the bush. I first heard “Hey Joe” and "My Generation” on a crystal set in bed. Later when we got electricity and a radio in a modest radiogram I went halves in a Sonny Terry LP with my dad. My Fair Lady and Camelot were on high rotation as was a Dave de Hugard collection on bush songs which we got a bit later.
Then on to buying my own records – I think my first record was 12 X 5 by the Rolling Stones, although my first music purchase was the sheet music and words to Dylan's Like Rolling Stone, so Chris Shanley could play it on the piano while I sang.
I got older, shifted houses, got my own systems, bought vinyl, cassettes, CDs, and so on.
So Harry and Shaun who have asked and any others can join me on this interactive journey titled : “How to achieve pretty bloody good sound without wasting money”
Sound reproduction is a complicated business involving much science, some art and a lot of old husbands' tales and myths and a lot of strongly held views.
As an aside the nastiest USENET group I ever participated in was aus.hifi, there was stalking, online and in real life, bannings and denial of service, identity theft, threats of violence and threats of legal action. All in a group occupied by hi-fi nerds who might to an outsider seem like a pretty harmless bunch of bearded losers in corduroy pants and tweed sportscoats with leather elbow patches. I’d had an easier ride when I was active on alt.religion.scientology in the early days
I’ll conduct this imparting of wisdom with a dialogue in which I will make some simple but big statements of principle and allow others to argue. I probably won't put up all references or sources first unless a stoush develops or people want further reading. I’m biased. I’m biased toward fact rather than folklore. Evidence rather than woowoo and handwaving and a distinct bias toward a cheapskates kind of Ockams razor in this field. For example if I, and most people, can’t hear any difference between when a $60 DVD player is used to play CDs and when a $5,000 CD player is used – I would say buy the $60 DVD player.
Mostly people want to uprade from an existing system.
My First Big Statement is: Don’t throw the old system out. It quite possibly is very ok. Or at least parts of it are. The amp may be a lot better than some around now and speakers don’t usually wear out and with a small fix may well be very good.
Next big statement: The biggest effect on your sound is your room. The size of the room and the shape of the room but very importantly the “aliveness/deadness” of the room.
Even though the most important effect on your quality sound is your listening room it is also, at least at first glance, the most difficult to control and tweak.
Next biggest effect on your quality sound is your speakers.
The next biggest effect on your sound is the input or content container which will most likely be a CD or perhaps a vinyl LP. Increasingly this content container may be a hard drive or a flash drive carrying digital music.
The least effect on your music will be the CD player, the amplifier and the wires.
The CD player simply has to read the information off the CD and send it to the amplifier. All the amplifier should do is take that signal, amplify it, and send it to the speakers where it is turned into acoustic energy and it moves air in the speaker box and in your ear.
Let us say our defendant has around $1,000 to spend on a music stereo set up.
Allocating money in line with the hierarchy. We get:
1 Most money on room. In theory – but in practice this money will be already “sunk costs” and may be difficult to do more than some simple tweaking around the edges. Don’t worry, to use econo talk there is some “low hanging fruit” and “gains can be made at the margins” – say $200 or less
2 Next most on Speakers – spend about $600
3 A little money on a decent amplifier- I’ve had my last 3 given to me or you can get one off eBay for around $80 - $100
4 Even less money on a CD player – grab an old DVD player or buy a cheap new one for $80
5 and as little as possible on connecting wires. $15
If your budget goes to more money hold everything the same and up the investment in speakers.
Some Homework and background reading:
1 Why the music you are listening to probably sucks
2 The Death of Dynamic range
Next time I’ll go into why and what about the room and some experiments with your existing system and room. Later on I hope we can get input from Floppy and dogpossum on integrating digital music (other than CDs) into the system. Not a mature solution around as far as I can see. I hope also to get commenter Carl to chip in with his Recording Studio experience.