06 December, 2009

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (5): How to construct a bedroom-study system

pic: (L) bedroom in NYC; (R) study in HK

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (5): How to construct a bedroom/study system

This article represents a personal view of how to listen to music in a smaller secondary space, be it a bedroom or study. Of course, if you're the lucky few with a huge house and your secondary space is the size of a living room, congratulations to you. For those of us with smaller spaces, and want to retain the function of the small space, here's what I would do.

The pro's and con's of near-field
Many people, be they young people living with parents or older people sacrificing space for their children and families, have only a small room to do their things, usually equipped with a computer desk. Often people would choose a desktop system, upgrading their sound card or using active speakers etc. To go with the trend, even "reputable" magazines have reviews of gears conducted at least partly on the desktop. An example is Steven Stone of TAS, who has a "serious" desktop for CAS, connected to a subwoofer for "fullrange".

While I would concede that a serious desktop (particularly if your desk is large) can be serviceable, it has drawbacks. While it is possible to construct a system that plays with some detail and finesse at low volume, with only direct sound the music is robbed of its foundation. yes, you can get a "soundstage" but it's one so small I'd not bother with. For the same reason I'd hardly consider listening to headphones, no matter how good it is (even electrostatic Stax). Without excitation of the room, music is not quite music. At least, it loses connection to the event.

Place your speakers near the ceiling
My preferred way is to place the speakers high up, where real estate is not so precious. Place them so they're as far from your seat/bed as possible. If you think this is unusual, think again. Think of record stores (in particular, HMV and Pro Sound with their quality speakers) that mount speakers up high. The music always sound beautiful and flowing and without "problems", have you not noticed? Placed thus, you get reflected sound and excitation of the room, and little of "room problems". The only caveat is the soundfield is high in the smaller room. For me I'd gladly trade an artificial soundstage for a much bigger sound.

Set up thus, my rooms can play large symphonies with heft and satisfying bass. Right now I'm listening to this sonic spectacular (Varese 2; Naxos) and the HUGE orchestra with its many exotic instruments gets me so involved I can hardly type! A piano sounds like a piano, an organ a organ, and a bass drum a bass drum. Try to do that with your computer speakers.

The speaker makes a difference. In my HK study, my Proac R1 outperforms my ATC A7 and SCM7. In my NYC bedroom, standing where I took the photo, it was obvious the Linn Kan creates a larger sound field (one that is lower too) than the Focal. If you have more than one pair of small speakers on hand, it's worth experimenting. However, it's comforting to note that, placed thus, no speaker sounds bad in my experience.

Your mileage may vary. For equipment used in the 2 systems, go down the side-bar.

(This article was started in NYC, but finished in HK).

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