DIGITS AND US - MORE THAN A FINGER
Having been a contributor to AudioVideo magazine for more years than I care to remember, its demise left a considerable gap in my life. What was I going to do with my spare time?
It didn’t take long before the “tweaking bug” bit and there I was “inching” my speakers around the lounge to confirm they were indeed in the correct position, conducting trials comparing balanced and unbalanced interconnects, brands of speaker cables and so on.
During this time I re-discovered albums not played for many a year. Each listening session was like renewing old friendships. I was listening to music for sheer pleasure, certainly not concerning myself with how to describe what I was hearing to readers of AudioVideo. Pretty selfish, huh?
So what changed this new-found attitude of mine? Digits! Now here is one hell of an admission from an analogue devotee. Certainly my system is fed a diet of 75–80% CD to around 20% LP, but when time is available, analog is my source of choice.
I am not knocking CD. Indeed my collection gives me a great deal of pleasure and you sure can’t beat the convenience angle. But to my ears, a well recorded LP produces that bit (no pun intended) more in areas of natural sound, space and involvement.
The digit in our lives
Just what effect has the humble digit had on our way of life? In this instance I refer to any numeral from 0–9, not this words other meaning, finger or toe.
One of the Oxford dictionary’s reference to ‘digital’ states “of sound represented by digits or in similar discrete form, to improve quality.” While many could argue against the latter, the is no doubt digital recordings stored on CD have successfully invaded our listening rooms.
A digital loudspeaker?
A digital loudspeaker! Who’s kidding who? Many of us remember the flood of digital speakers that hit the market not long after CD arrived in 1983. You knew they were digital speakers because the badge on the front told you so. What a have! Except for this badge on the front shouting digital, most of these speakers were no different from the same, supposedly non digital models on sale a week earlier.
The way we hear sound hadn’t changed overnight with the advent of CD. Twelve years on and our brains have still not “evolved” to the stage where they can interpret a stream of digital code and make music out of it.
Manufacturers, or their advertising agents, were soon bought into line and some changed their marketing hype to “Digital Ready.” Whatever that meant. More honest speaker designers however, made a genuine effort to produce speakers which could take advantage of CDs wider dynamic range. The distinguished team at Meridian were among this group. They had been working in the digital domain for some time and their CD players have received world-wide acclaim from day one. I remember one reviewer describing an early Meridian model as “the first musical CD player to come on the market.” High praise indeed considering the controversy raging at the time over “perfect sound.”
Meridian DSP 5000
No, the Meridian DSP 5000 does produce an audible (but meaningless to our ears) stream of digits. At first glance they appear to be a conventional, floor standing speaker of compact dimensions, with familiar drive units located behind the grille. There any similarities with convention end.
Contained inside each cabinet are three power amplifiers, one each for treble, midrange and bass. Nothing new in that – Meridian and others have been dabbling with active speakers for years. The difference here is that these speakers also contain a digital to analogue converter and a computer in each cabinet. Also included on the front, top of each cabinet is an illuminated display (digital of course) to tell you what settings have been given to the computer for various functions.
Users of remote control units (another digital device) will immediately think of such functions as volume, balance, treble, bass,input selection,track selection etc as being those parameters which can be controlled from the listening position. Indeed the Meridians are remote controllable in these areas, often with better results than their competitors, eg bass and treble. Instead of the coarse cut and boost applied by most pre amplifier controls, here the sound is gently altered in keeping with the way our hearing works. Result, natural tonal balance at different volume levels and compensating for poor recordings or specific room characteristics.
We all know that most speakers sound best when placed away from room boundaries (rear and side walls) and, in particular, corners. Positioning them as per a manufacturer’s recommendation, 1–2 metres in from side walls and 0.5–1 metre from the rear wall can play havoc with decor and the appearance of our lounge, which usually doubles as the listening room.
Thanks to onboard computers, the DSP 5000’s can be set up to overcome most problems associated with their positioning. All processing being done in the digital domain before the signal is converted to analog and fed on to power amplifiers and speakers.
Another advantage of digital processing is that the listening axis of these speakers can be altered. Many readers will have experienced a situation when standing up at parties or even when getting up from your listening chair, the sound seems to be lacking in treble. It just disappears. In fact the speaker is firing treble content of the music at a level around your navel. That’s okay when sitting down, but a problem when upright or even seated on a cushion on the floor. Treble is directed either too low or above one’s head. No problem to the DSP 5000’s.
Once more the computer comes to the rescue by altering the manner in which a digital signal is delivered to the power amp. No there isn’t, as one person suggested, a little motor which alters the tweeter’s angle up or down. All this is very handy even when sitting in your usual listening chair. Mine is slightly higher than most (more comfortable for my 6’ 1’’ frame) which means my ears are higher from the floor than yours may be. On those selfish occasions when I enjoy music on my own and there is no one else to consider, what pleasure I received from tilting the axis upwards, even if it was by the smallest amount possible. Focus, imaging and stereo width were greatly enhanced.
Is it a “toy” or a benefit?
Technological advances are great if they benefit the human race. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Here, Meridian with their DSP 5000’s have got it absolutely right.
1. The DSP 5000’s perform in an exceptional manner. Clear, detailed sound with adequate bass weight.
2. The onboard computers enable these speakers to produce a sound quality that is better than most, irrespective of room size/construction, positioning or listening height.
3. Trialed in three different rooms, sound could be tailored so as to appear the same in each case.
4. Once set up and with music playing, it is very easy to forget the electronics and do nothing except become involved in a musical experience. Even the illuminated displays on the front of each cabinet can be turned off so as not to draw attention to the fact that the DSP 5000’s are different.
Everything an audio enthusiast looks for plus more.
The down side
While the DSP’s accompanying manual isn’t as daunting as those supplied with your typical computer programme, it is more substantial than the norm. Some study is required to fully understand all available functions and arrive at the best set up.
All adjustments are made from the remote control unit. But, you have to be quick. The menu, once called up on the speakers visual display, reverts back to volume setting after a few seconds. It pays to know in advance which buttons you need to push to avoid having to try again.
Obviously these speakers accept a digital signal only. To play compact discs a CD transport unit such as Meridian’s 500 is required. This quality unit will provide a digital music signal plus relay track and time information for display on the speakers front panels if desired. The ‘digital out’ connector on a conventional CD player could also be used, but only for music.
If listening to radio, tape, video or LP is among your requirements, the situation is a little more complex. A separate control unit is needed to convert these components analog output to digital so as to be acceptable to the DSP 5000. Just how an LP user would accept his beloved analogue being converted to ‘dreaded digits’ and back again I am not sure.
At $11,500 a pair many may consider they are paying an excess for new technology. If you consider this price includes speakers and power amplifiers, plus on board computers to enable production of exceptional sound quality, the equation looks more reasonable.
Digits and us – the future
Where all this will lead? I certainly don’t know and am certainly not brave enough to predict. But new digital audio applications are appearing all the time.
Several amplifier manufacturers have announced digital pre amplifiers including NAD. Their Model 118 at approximately $3,000 being one example.
Several manufacturers have been experimenting with using digital signal processing (DSP) to try and remove the room’s effect on the loudspeaker, or to remove idiosyncrasies in the drive units.
Recently I had my first experience of CD Plus. An ordinary looking CD which played as expected in the audio system. Placed in a multimedia computer it was another story altogether. It played music, showed the front cover, titles of songs (any of which could be selected with a mouse click) words of songs were displayed ( clicking the mouse at any line or start of a chorus had the same effect as fast search within a CD track) and heaps of information about the artist, composer, arranger and background musicians. If this wasn’t enough, full video coverage of the performance was available on screen.
The CD format is being further developed with industry agreement as to standards for extending it to around 17 megabytes of information. Not that we are likely to see these double layered, double sided discs for a few years yet. However, a digital video disc, the same size as a current CD, containing 4.7 megs (sufficient to store a full length movie, picture and sound) is not too far away.
What other developments are around the corner only time will tell. One thing for sure, the digit will continue its invasion of our lives in ways we haven’t even dreamt of.
It’s an exciting future.
(From the print magazine AudioEnz, May 1996)
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