Friday, July 8, 2011

Audio Guide Part 1



An Audio Gear Guide Special! 

So I've been working on documenting my trials, tribulations and glories of researching and putting together a really amazing home stereo for listening to music. My neighbors might unionize with your neighbors to stop this information from spreading, but until then, I'll be posting a long series of articles explaining every step you need to go from a complete novice to being a paragon of musical reproduction geniuses!  

The Boring Short Introduction:

What this guide intends to do is take you though putting together a new home stereo — From recommending what gear to buy, to any options or upgrades you might want, all the way to hooking up and placing the gear. 

This guide is aimed primarily at people who are novice or completely uninitiated in terms of building a component audio system. Nor is this guide meant to be completist - it's not a home audio reference manual, but rather a lower-cost guide to putting together and getting running a home system for listening to music in much more exciting way than almost any pre-packaged system could hope to offer. 


The Long, Only Slightly Less-Boring, Introduction:

I love music. Adore it even. My art is deeply inspired by it. (I got a cracked rib at a Decapitated show if you need proof…) Much like when I love a photo I want to see a real decent print of it, not some tiny, dotted, reproduction in a magazine nor a thumbnail on a computer screen. As such, I want to hear my music in all it's nuance and grandeur. I mean, everyone hates shitty sound at a club so why would you put up with it in your home - the place where you (other than your car) probably listen to music the most?

If you've ever had similar thoughts, but feel nervous about putting the wrong ends of the cord in the wrong places (insert "That's what she said joke," here) at doing much more than plugging your iPod in to your car, this guide is for you. Good quality music at home is a lost art in the age of boom boxes and ear buds. Despite it's esoteric reputation once you know a few of the details and leap-frog from my mistakes and research, you'll easily be able to set up a stereo at home that will make you very happy.


Assumptions: 

The first assumption I am making is that you have a desire to take your home music listening into the glorious wilderness beyond the rustic farm village boarders of those tiny, LED-lit Walmart speakers, garage sale turntables, or plastic-y iPod docks. Have you ever noticed how sometimes those bands you love sound flat, bass-less, muted, or tiny? Like there is a miniature, wizened, lounge-lizard version of your favorite band playing that album you so love? Well with a tiny bit of study and effort that can be fixed! 

The second assumption I'm going to make is that you don't need any prior experience with audio gear; In fact, this guide is really just a documentation of my recent experience putting a system together for myself when I moved to a new loft in downtown Los Angeles. I have some solid experience doing live A/V, but I'm hardly an audiophile. When I built my system, a primary goal was that I just wanted a hassle-free system that will let me appreciate my music better. So this guide is for the music lover first and foremost. 

The last assumption is that you have a bit of money and that you want to make a long-term investment. One of the coolest things about great audio gear is that, if you are even half-kind to it, it can easily last you twenty or more years! So the initial price might be a little steep, but it's a very good value on the hour of enjoyment ($400 only is like 10 bar tabs!) These are items that also usually take well to being repaired if something is damaged (and have great resale - often in the 80%+ range). 

But yes, even though this is a budget guide, I am not magic, so be aware that your new system will cost you a bit of money. I'm going to provide a few options along the way, and a few different "builds" to suite your budget. Even if you want to spend at the higher end if you go through all the planning first you can easily spread the costs out over time. I'm broke too, so I wrote this specifically to maximize price to quality! 

That is, even putting aside the fact you probably live in a tiny stucco box with terrible acoustics (nothing you nor I an do about it, so worry not!) if you've never even owned a nice stereo before, this guide is going to assume you aren't particularly interested in listening to reference vinyl of Hayden symphonies on a $10,000 turntable in an isolated room, so while that stuff is *neat* we'll just totally ignore the vast majority of the wondrous and awe-inspiring and wallet-crushing high-end audiophile products and focus on things items with excellent core performance. Even in the early stages, people will beg to come over to drink PBR/Schlitz/Whatever-hipster-beer-is-making-the-rounds and listen to their favorite albums on this setup. 


What elements particularly tend to be enhanced with a better system? 

Just to give you some basic ideas, here are three simple, easy to hear benefits. First off, you can much better hear important dynamic details — There is a huge difference between a piano being played very softly and with intense gusto. A better system will do a better job doing justice to both, as well as all of the nuances in between. 

Another is sheer range of tones - a quality system will more accurately (and more naturally) render the lowest 5-string bass thumps to the highest cymbals chatter.  The full sweep of a piano. The full crush of doom metal. The physicality (not just volume) of the instruments and voices will be so present that you will get goosebumps. Outside of Top 100 pop, the people who make the recordings often use very pricey monitors in in the studio, so if your home system is a bit closer to what they are using, you'll hear more what they intended. 

A third benefit is differentiation between the musical elements. There is a reason that Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" album is one of my standard system test albums — at times it has 12 or more instruments playing complicated parts at once, in many cases duplicates (two basses, two keyboards etc). On most cheap systems it is very tough to tell more than 3 or 4 instrument-voices apart, but on the systems we're building here, you can actually hear what all 12+ members of the band are individually doing, just like if you were at a wonderfully mixed, intimate, live show! Honestly, you'll probably pop a couple albums on after finishing hooking up everything and be shocked at how new the recordings sound. You'll constantly be finding new stuff in the music - hearing "deeper" details. 

These are just a couple advantages you'll hear, but in general, it will just sound damn better. 


Two caveats — One I'm going to ignore, another I will deal with later:

The first caveat: Remember how I slipped in that parenthetical reference to the fact that your car is probably the foremost place people listen to music? Well, it's true. I'm fortunate enough to work from home many days by myself (and living with my girlfriend) being an artist and all, but that's rare to be home most of the time and not have to worry about bugging roommates or whatever. However, if you are like most people you listen to most of your music in the car. And if your car stereo sucks, you will likely get a much higher price-to-enjoyment radio if seriously consider buying a decent receiver with an iPod dock, an iPod and maybe even replace the speakers etc. I know next to nothing about car audio though…

Caveat two ("caveat" is a great word!): I mentioned above about not having roommates to bother… well, that is a half truth. I love free jazz and death metal, which are far from the most accessible musical genres and though my girlfriend Callie is amazingly tolerant of my quirks, our musical tastes are, shall we say, quite distinct. Not only that but she often has to be at work at 6AM while I stay up working until 1AM or 2AM with great regularity. If you spend 90% of your time in a situation where you can't really play your stereo, I'm going to guess you rely on headphones to rock out? 

I'll be blunt — Failing to invest in a serious computer headphone rig was my biggest mistake in building my system. For $300-400 (the cost of one component of a home stereo) you can get a killer headphone setup. If you consider your situation and find that you would rather spend the money on a great personal audio setup, never fear, I will cover headphones and pre-amps and DACs in this guide!

But now we're ready to dive in and make some music happen and buy your receiver and amp - Part 2 will be coming along within the week. 


[For future reference these prices and availabilities are as of July 2011. Also massive thanks to the guys and gals at audiokarma.org where I lurk. They are a fantastic resource.]

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