Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Hi-Fi Alternative

Sometimes, consumerism steers society in weird directions.
The easiest example to point at is MP3 sound. It was only a decade and a half ago that CDs used to be the go to medium for music consumption. But then the iPod came out, and we sold our souls: in exchange for portability we gave up on the non compressed 16 bit sound quality of CDs in favour of something vastly inferior.
A similar trend has been taking place over the past couple of years. The availability of LED backlit LCD panel TVs has made a lot of us replace our TV sets yet again in favour of these models. Why? Not because they’re necessarily better, but because they’re thinner. Sure, percentage wise they are significantly thinner than the flat panel TV of “old”, but in absolute terms? It was purely a case of thinner for thin.
The transition to even thinner panels brought with it significant deterioration in sound reproduction. Those thinner panels don’t have much room for speakers, so the speakers they do have sound awful. Not that the consumer electronics industry minded: it offered them an opportunity to sell us yet another product, the sound bar. [Short sanity check: consider the rational of trading off a slightly thicker TV for a thinner one given the need for an additional speaker system much thicker and bigger than the TV of old and the cost in thousands of dollars this whole affair incurs.]
The question then turned out to be – which sound bar does one get?

I got myself a Yamaha model that came without a subwoofer at Costco. Yamaha, because I have been using Yamaha equipment for decades and in general appreciate their sound (not that it can compete with true hi fi), their unblemished reliability record, and their experience in creating phantom surround images out of a stereo soundtrack. Costco, because of the price. And no subwoofer because, seriously, a real subwoofer has to be huge because of basic physics (which thus directly implies it has to be expensive). What passes for subwoofers in the sound bar market tend to be one note boom boxes that are just awful on the ears.
I like that Yamaha sound bar. Yet I keep asking the question – was that the best I could do for the money? Now I am at a point where I can confidently say “no, I could have done better”. Albeit with a less stylish solution.
The better solution involves using a good but cheap digital amplifier and a couple of good but cheap bookshelf speakers. Good but cheap digital amplifiers did not used to exist, but now they do; check this DTA-1 model here. And good hi-fi bookshelf speakers have always existed; a pair that will knock any sound bar selling for less than 3-4 times the price will cost you $100-$200. What you will be getting, in effect, is a small time hi-fi system; what you will be losing is the form factor of the sound bar.
The choice is yours. Personally, I would say that people should jump at this newly available opportunity to introduce hi-fi sound into their lives. It won’t only do wonders to your TV sound, it will do wonders to your music, too.

Image by Phillips Communications, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence


wile.e.coyote said...

I was toying with the idea of sound bar myself as digging in the walls for speaker wires is not an option.
However I was surprised that you will go for such an option and not the traditional 5.1 option.
Does the single speaker can emulate the work of the separate speakers from perspective of emulating a 3D sound environment?

Moshe Reuveni said...

Broadly speaking, there are several techniques for creating the feeling of being enveloped by sound:
1. Play with the phase of a stereo signal. That's the trick used by Dolby Pro Logic to create surround sound from a stereo signal, and that's what the cheaper sound bars do, too.
2. Have a sound bar with multiple speaker units pointed at different directions. Some point at the listener directly, others point to side walls / ceilings in order for the listener to hear reflected sound. The more expensive sound bars do that (they also do option 1).
3. Have multiple speakers around the room. There are lots of varieties to that, too: you can have THX configuration with speakers pointing to walls, you can have the speakers pointing directly at the listener, you can arrange the speakers differently, and you can have different numbers of speakers.
Obviously, option 3 tends to be better than the simpler ones.

Note that nowadays you can get good wireless speakers. If money is no object, the ones from Meridian are a good reference, but there are also cheaper models around.

wile.e.coyote said...

Wireless speakers is nice option, but you will still need the wiring for the electricity so we didn't skip that problem.

Is there a technical terms I should look for to know if the sound bar is of option #1 or #2?
The Duty Free options provide JBL's BT SB200 for $200 while the Yamaha YSP4100 cost 8000 NIS.
In the details there is no indication to the direction of the internal speakers.

Which Yamaha did you get?

Moshe Reuveni said...

If you made up your mind to go with a sound bar, you shouldn't care whether the sound is generated by a band of pygmy monkeys playing the bongos; just pick the one you like the most that falls within your budget.