Bob on Stereo

Audio Systems Design

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A little look back may shed some light on today


I have an obsession with music playback systems dating back to the 1960s. 8-track tapes, Akai 4 track reel-to-reel tape, and Koss Pro-4aa headphones!

It was not until 1985 that I started to understand what clean sounding systems were: Thiel CS 3.5 speakers, Bryston 3B power amplifier, APT Holman Preamp. Set up in the basement because it was too big and "ugly" to be a part of the family life. I started learning about room reflections from the paneling on the walls and the low ceiling.
Fast forward to the '90s and the system was allowed in the living room because we had more space in the new to us house. We upped-the-ante a little bit with a better CD player and a Threshold FET-9 Pre-amp! The family could play CDs and records. Then the CD player gave up, and I said, Hey let's rip the CDs and play them from the computer! Instantly the system was too complex to use. iTunes was not friendly like a CD. The machine had to be on, and you had to log in! I do not think that this was or is progress.

Then there was this side trip to Sonos speakers in the living room that nobody listened to because they could not run them! NOTE TO SELF: Never run beta software on something that others have to use!

The last five years have been a classic case of "audiophilia nervosa." There has been a constant stream of speakers, amps, pre-amps, cables, DACs and the like. I settled down on Schiit Yggdrasil DAC, and Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated with B&W 804S speakers using Transparent Cable throughout.

Then there is the computer side of things. Laptops, MacMini, Sonic Transporter, custom built server, custom build D-to-D. Four different operating systems! Oh, and do not forget the networking issues! And maybe a small light at the end of the tunnel.

Digital Audio playback software is starting to get a lot better and presenting a user interface that almost anyone can use. As an example, Roon Labs software gives you a friendly interface to your local music, Tidal, and Qobuz along with a limited interface to internet radio. Jriver Media Center is continuously improving. Audirvana is expanding to new platforms. What a great time to be able to listen to almost any of the music the world has to offer!

There are a lot of rough spots, and it can be hard to access content such as Bandcamp or YouTube on your stereo system. There are still issues around the complexity of managing a local music library.

Today you can tell "the lady in the can" to play some music, and the "super" computers at Google, Apple, or Amazon will typically present you with what you asked to hear.

Taking all of this knowledge, services, systems, and individual requirements into consideration I have built a set of audio playback systems that will work in virtually any home, can be operated by almost anyone and provide not only sit down performance listening but add in the virtual assistant integration and casual around the home background information delivery and music.

Enough gazing fondly into the past. Next time I will write more about what is going on right now with a complete redesign of the audio system. We will eliminate a lot of the complexity and take the sound quality to another level!

Shared Listening

Last time I discussed some of the issues about building systems in your home. Today I want to talk a bit about creating a shared listening experience.

Some audiophile systems have an accessibility problem. Either the system is not accessible by others or nobody else as the ability to run the system.

I regularly find issues like these:
• The system located away from family life.
• It has a very complex setup and operation
• Equipment is too fragile to let "just anyone" use
• The "owner" does not let anyone touch the system.
• The system design only provides a single person listening position.

These issues can create hidden or public tension and stress around music where there should be none! So the shared listening experience is not there. Now I may be a little harsh here, but I think it is crucial. I do not intend to denigrate the audiophile who has a personal need to build systems for whatever reason! Please enjoy the music but think about including others in the musical experience.

The stand-alone system is not the only culprit. Devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod all provide instant music that has an almost magical feeling. The sound can be a bit like elevator music or the old Intercom system with terrible little speakers around the home. Just not great for "performance" listening experience.

There is another trend in stereo called multi-room audio. Companies like Sonos, Bluesound, and others have created system designs that allow you to place speakers around the home and synchronize the music playing on them or to play different music as desired in each room. The system designs are a great way to get music everywhere. While the quality can be pretty good, there is still no drive to take time to listen to music together as an experience.

The technology companies named above have also started providing multi-room audio and are very serious about their work, but they do not appear to be serious about the listening experience. Their voice activation systems are very compelling, and it will be fascinating to see where this all goes.

Do not take me wrong here; there are Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod devices in my home. They all fill some valuable roles in our day to day lives. The incumbent multi-room systems like Sonos and Bluesound are most likely feeling the pinch.

Next time we will take an abbreviated journey through time and start experiencing the future today!

Three Challenges

Building a new music system in our homes today presents both technical and personal challenges. We need to make sure that a few things are ready before we start. 

The first challenge is the local network in the home and the feed from the Internet.  While audio is not as intense as say video streaming they both require a stable, consistent internal network.  If the system streams files from the Internet, then some additional requirements have to be met.

The second challenge is placement and system requirements.  Where does the system go to encourage maximum use and enjoyment?  Will it go in a shared space such as a living room?  Is there a spare room dedicated to music? 

The third challenge is the people and adds what additional audio systems are required?  Google Home, etc..  It is best to build a plan and stick with it.  Get everyone on board, setup and taught how to operate things, play music, etc.

I will address these challenges and much more. You can subscribe to the RSS feed and follow along on Social Media, see the links in the footer.

Introduction

Welcome to my website and blog as well as my audio systems business. 

My goal with this blog is to share my experience with you, write a little bit about where we are today and take a look into some visions of the future. Let's start with three broad subjects that I will delve deeper into over time.

Over the past couple of years, I have been developing digital music servers using different computing environments to improve usability and sound quality. Today we can deliver very high-quality digital music to our playback systems over a broad range of designs and prices.  At the same time, we now have access to millions of music tracks streamed to our systems along with thousands of radio stations "broadcasting" to the world digitally from the internet.

I have also been studying the analog side of audio systems. There is a daunting array of speakers, cables, amplifiers and more to select.  Even narrowing this down to a few brands available at local stores, navigating the selection and matching process is frustrating, expensive and time-consuming.  As inventories shrink and stores disappear, this challenge is turning into an impossible dream. All is not lost, and there are simple ways for many to solve this problem.

Lastly, I would like to address "The Elephant in the Room" --- The Room.  Most systems designs do not take into account the environment that the playback system has to operate.  The majority of listening systems have to work in spaces that are multi-purpose and do not provide optimal audio playback. There are new and exciting ways to address "The Elephant."

I will be writing a lot more these subjects as well as several others to help you pick your ideal system.   
You can get better sound in your home and on the go. Please follow along!  There is an RSS subscription link in the footer along with social media links.

Thanks for reading.

Bob Fairbairn