Audiophile grade music? Reference listening? Read on...
For everybody who loves music and like to think of themselves as discerning audiences, entry level speakers just will not do. The simple fact is that making speakers is an art, a black art even, and mastering this art of aural nirvana isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Remember that sound quality is a relative term — relative to the best your ears have heard before. Remember too, that quality doesn’t come cheap. As you listen to better and costlier sound setups, audio systems you thought of as “great” will start to sound mediocre and then downright rubbish. For me, the fascination with sound quality came via my first interaction with a set of reference grade headphones. I started to hear notes and effects that weren’t present in my music collection before. Or rather they were always there, but my music system couldn’t reproduce them. I later added a proper headphone amplifier to these headphones and voila! The best part is that there is so much more to come.
Do remember that as good as your 5.1 setup is for movies, it’s woefully inadequate for quality music playback. The kind of purist music quality I’m talking about can only be delivered by good old stereo. In music, more than ever, the quality you get is equivalent to the weakest link in your system. For example, a good set of speakers may be let down by a poor amplifier or a low quality DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter), or even a poor source. In fact the source, i.e. the music you play, is of utmost importance. Most of us convert to MP3 using 128 or 160 KBps which is a big no-no for a good amplifier and speaker set. This is because at such low bitrates a lot of noise is introduced into the recording and a good amp will also amplify this noise making cracks, hisses and pops very audible.
Sadly, I’ve found most music mastered in India to have woefully inadequate quality, and this becomes apparent on a top quality system. If you must use MP3s, encode at 320 KBps and keep CBR (Constant Bit Rate) enabled. Else only use .FLAC, which is a lossless format.
For your speakers, bass isn’t everything. Buying a set of speakers on the basis of the “boom” they produce is the stupidest thing a music lover could do. The fact is, most of the boomy speakers are rubbish — bass is supposed to accompany the other frequencies with impact, not with over emphasis. This means the speaker system isn’t reproducing the frequencies faithfully; rather it is focussing on a particular frequency more than others in the sound spectrum. Bass should be clean, impactful and defined. Just a dhum-dhum-dhum isn’t bass, it’s noise. The mid-range is the most important part of a speaker setup, and often most speakers do not produce mids well. Guitars, some piano notes and vocals belong to this frequency spectrum. For most speakers mids are either recessed, or coloured; both of which are undesirable situations. Speakers should be able to reproduce the mids without any sort of distortion and guitar plucks and strumming should sound as close to the real thing as possible. Vocals need to sound as close to the real thing — the timbre of voice, the tone, even the breath of the performer at the end of each note is audible on good speakers or headphones.
I suggest building a music system from scratch by choosing your own speakers and amplifier. And it’s surprisingly cheap to do so — people think that amplifiers are costly. Sure they are, but the entry level sets are pretty good too. Even speakers aren’t too costly these days and a combination of amplifier and speakers will sound much better than, and may be just Rs 2,000 or so more than, the HiFi systems you will find in malls. Of course, such setups also scale upwards in price, and it’s possible to spend well upward of Rs 1,00,000 on a set of stereo speakers and amplifier. Of course, if you intend to spend more than Rs 50,000 on such a system, you’d better consider an upgrade of source as well.
Let’s look at amplifiers first. Please do not look for FM Tuners inbuilt inside an amp. This is a cheap feature that many brands add on to attract you, but more often than not this addition comes at a serious drop in music quality. A decent brand both in terms of sound quality and pricing is Norge. Of special interest is their top-end offering the “Concerto Gold 1000” which is a stereo amplifier. The frequency range seems a little overrated at 10 Hz to 80 KHz, but for a price of Rs 11,000 it’s a decent buy. It can supply a total of 250 watts (125 watts to each channel) which is excellent, and should have sufficient power for a very large room or small hall. Another amp, the Norge 4242 is available for just Rs 6,500. It can output average 42 watts per channel, (84 W total), and is adequately powered for a decent-sized living room. Sound quality is pretty good for the price, but purists will want to look elsewhere, as there are some minute detailing issues in the mid range and the bass isn’t as tight as I like. Also available for Rs 18,000 is the Denon 1508 which is a 7.1 channel amplifier with discrete circuitry for a stereo setup. This will also suit those who are interested in both stereo and surround setups and it is one of the very few amplifiers which will not compromise performance either in music or movies. Sonodyne’s SPA 202 is another amplifier capable of 120 W per channel at an impedance of 8 ohms. It also has balanced XLR sockets along with the standard RCA connects as inputs. At a hefty weight of 11.5 kg, this is an attractive looking off-white coloured amp. Priced at around the Rs 15,000 mark the SPA 202 is a good amplifier as an entrant to the high-end. Since this is a power amp, you will need to pair it to a preamp like Sonodyne’s SP 203R available for Rs 9,000. The SiA 102R is an integrated amplifier from Sonodyne, the term “integrated” means you do not need a preamp unlike most power amps. Although it has lower specifications and a smaller power output of 80 watts, the inclusion of a remote control makes it a plus for those hooking it into a source that isn’t remote controlled. It’s priced at Rs 12,500. Frankly, if you are hooking your amp to a DVD player or tape deck, then a remote control shouldn’t be given preference over quality or output since you can set your amp to a particular level of output and control the volume and playback from your players’ remote unit. NADs C325BEE integrated amplifier is available for Rs 25,500. It delivers a true 50 W per channel and as I’ve heard the predecessor (C320BEE) I can tell you that this is perhaps the best deal in terms of bang for buck. Do not be fooled by the 100W rating — these bring down the house and are my recommendation for a good music experience. The older NAD C320BEE is available for Rs 22,000. A hot tip — some really good amps sell very cheaply in India just because they do not come bundled with a remote control unit. It seems our dealers and vendors overprice very mediocre amps just because the manufacturer thought it prudent to bundle a remote unit.
For the speakers there are more options in terms of brands — Jamo, Sonodyne and Wharfdale are the common ones although brands like Phase Technologies and Dynaaudio are also available although you will need to hunt around. You need to look at either floorstanders or bookshelves — the two form factors for speakers. Floorstanders are the tower-like speakers while bookshelves are ones that can sit on your table. Wharfdale’s Diamond 9.0 and Diamond 9.1 are available for prices of Rs 9,000 and Rs 11,000 respectively. The former has a four-inch bass driver and a one-inch tweeter and can be used with an amp rated at between 15 and 75 watts. This set is the entry point of Wharfdale’s range. The 9.1 is a little more powerful, requiring an amp rated at between 20 and 100 watts. It also has a larger five-inch bass driver and the same one-inch tweeter. This is a beautiful looking set of bookshelves, finished in rosewood coloured vinyl. These are marvellously revealing for the price and if you didn’t see them, you would actually think you were listening to a much larger speaker system — volume levels are extremely loud, so show-offs will not be disappointed. Jamo’s E700 are bookshelves available for Rs 18,500. These are bass shy — but their mids and highs are superb. Now for some floorstanders — Jamo’s S408 are available for Rs 16,000. These are a superb deal for the price. Each speaker has a two 8-inch drivers and a single 1-inch tweeter. I personally find them to be a bit bass heavy but that may attract some. Towards the high-end, Jamo’s D590 was on display — a beautiful looking set and the arch-shaped cabinet looks classy. With an 8-inch bass driver, 2-inch mid-range and a 1-inch tweeter the D590 sound really sweet — melodious, revealing and startlingly lively with the right amplification. Priced at Rs 62,000 for a pair, the D590 is a top-end listening experience for this price.
Sonodyne’s Sonus 2605 V2 is priced at Rs 24,000 and each speaker has a pair of 6-inch bass units along with a huge 5.25-inch mid range driver and a 1-inch dome tweeter. Rated at 130 W these are very suitable for a good music system at a fair price.
If one has a huge budget of around Rs 50,000 to Rs 80,000, I’d recommend the Sonodyne Sonus 2605 V2 or the Jamo D590 as speakers, along with the NAD C325BEE as the amp. For those on a budget looking at floorstanders, Jamo’s S408 are more affordable and the NAD C320BEE is a really sweet amp — Rs 40,000 for complete nirvana isn’t too large a price to pay now is it? Alternatively you could try Norge’s Concerto Gold 1000. Bookshelves may sense for those looking for a more personal experience and with less emphasis on bass. Wharfdale’s Diamond 9.1 makes a sweet buy at Rs 11,000, pairing this with Norge’s Concerto Gold 1000 will offer great bang.