Our Music Editor explores the science and design philosophy behind the rise of upscale home audio systems.
WORDS OISIN LUNNY
A visit to Ted Cohen’s sprawling modernist home in the Los Angeles hills is an unforgettable experience. The renowned music industry executive and tech maven – who has held senior roles at EMI Music, Warner Bros Records, and Philips Media, and now serves as Managing Partner of digital entertainment consulting firm TAG Strategic – brims with off-the-record backstage stories of Van Halen and Fleetwood Mac, accumulated during the halcyon years of the music industry.
On this occasion, though, Cohen’s behind-the-scenes anecdotes play second fiddle to a bigger story – that is, the one told by his magpie-like assortment of audio tech equipment. Positioned at the intersection of music, technology, and entertainment, Cohen has navigated the formative years of our music tech revolution, and his home listening installations provide a fascinating potted history of high-end home hi-fi.
“The quest for hearing music in great quality at home isn’t new, it’s just been out of reach,” he explains, showing me an immaculately preserved copy of the inaugural issue of Audio Video Interiors magazine from 1979. The state-of-the-art systems of the time, splashed across the pages, are eye-watering- ly expensive stacks of separate black rectangular hi-fi components, so complex that they were controlled by dedicated Apple computers.
Cohen points to homes in the Mulholland area, which “look like Downton Abbey mansions or Ritz-Carlton hotels” on the outside. “Today, they have $100,000 sound systems installed in the media room with Martin Logan speakers and Krell amplifiers,” he says. “But these days, you can get what was a $100,000 home audio experience for $3,000, and a $10,000 system is now at your fingertips for $500.”
Cohen’s observation is accurate; the cost-to-quality ratio of digital audio has transformed since its introduction in the early ’80s, when it failed to match the sound quality of the best analogue equivalents, but improvements in recording techniques and audio hardware and software have steadily tipped the balance.
Those advancements are reflected by the 50 sets of speakers in Cohen’s home – many driven by an elaborate home audio ‘control centre’, split into zones and accessed via phones and tablets – which form a high-spec selection of the biggest names in audio. A Sonos system reaches 22 zones around the home, while a hi-resolution HEOS solution links to seven. There’s the analogue seduction of a Luxman turntable, combined with a Sonos amp, playbar, and sub, along with vintage Magnasphere speakers and a formidable Polk Audio sub. At a lower price point, Cohen recommends a pair of Devialet Phantoms: “They sound like God! I never liked Metallica until I heard it in hi-res.”
High-resolution digital audio – a relatively new consumer streaming format delivering audio quality higher than that of a CD – is making waves in the industry, and Cohen swears by it. His preferred service is Qobuz, not only for the “sublime” FLAC 24-Bit quality up to 192 kHz, but for the in-depth contextual commentary on the musicians and engineers behind the recordings.
The high dynamic range of classical music (for the uninitiated, that’s the dif- ference between the loudest and quiet- est points in a recording) makes hi-res classical audio a natural bedfellow of upscale hi-fi systems. Leading classical streaming services, Primephonic and Idagio, have partnered with hi-fi manufacturers such as Burmester, Sonos, Bluesound, and Roon to bring the concert hall to your living room.
Along with the rise of hi-res audio formats, the poor sound quality of most flat-screen TVs is another driver for better home hi-fi. Mini systems like the Marantz Melody will automatically wake up when you turn on your TV and provide a superior listening experience. Wireless speaker systems like HEOS and Sonos are also boosting our expectations of what home listening can sound like.
Despite owning several high-end turntables, Cohen is not a vinyl evangelist. “Vinyl never sounds as good the second time you play it as the first time,” he says. “It’s not about the warmth of analogue; it’s about the cool hipster thing of having a turntable in your living room.”
When I speak with seven-time Grammy-winning producer Frank Filipetti, he tends to agree. “Some people like hearing plastic being dragged through by a rock, scraping stuff off. That’s great!” He laughs. “But you now have a choice: you either get the impact and the amazing clarity of digital, or you get the warmth and the squashed transients of analogue.”
For Filipetti, hi-res audio offers an unprecedented listening experience. “You have the ability to send to your listeners something they have never had in the entire history of recorded music. That is the ability to sit in their living room and hear exactly what I hear in the studio. Not close, not almost, but exactly.” The endgame of hi-res audio is not sterile perfection, he explains, but instead to truly “capture the emotion” of the performers.
The science behind the emotional experience of listening to music is a subject that Dr. Hauke Egermann, Director of the York Music Psychology Group, has studied in depth. “Sound quality comes down to two dimensions: spatial resolution and spectral resolution,” he says. “The dynamic experience of music is associated with our ability to identify individual objects, streams, instruments, and voices.” Hi-res audio helps convey objects in greater detail, but for Egermann the most critical element in any home audio setup is the speakers.
Dr. Sean Olive concurs, and he should know. Dr. Olive is the former President of the Audio Engineering Society, and a Senior Research Fellow for Harman International, and has written over 50 research papers on the perception and measurement of audio, for which he has won multiple awards. He recommends taking your time when deciding on which speakers to buy. “Go and compare different speakers, have some media with your favourite songs, and compare them at equal levels across the different models. The one that sounds best covers the entire range and plays loud without distortion. That’s key.”
What about the space beyond the speakers? Canadian sound guru Geoff Martin has worked as Tonmeister and Senior Technology Specialist in Sound Design for the mighty Bang & Olufsen for over 17 years. He emphasises the importance of “fixing” your room to get the best experience.
“You can put up some curtains and a cozy couch to soak up some reverb, or get a system that has some kind of room compensation,” he says, referring to a new generation of smart speakers which analyse the precise dimensions of your listening space and tailor the playback accordingly.
Many Bang & Olufsen products, such as the Beoplay A9, feature this technology, as does the Apple HomePod, which integrates room compensation with a voice-activated interface. At the high- end, the audacious Lexicon SL-1 speakers use SoundSteer technology to adjust to the exact position of your head, positioning the “sweet spot” with the help of a companion mobile app.
Sound United, the parent company of Denon, Marantz, Polk Audio, and Definitive Technology, recommend taming the room by mounting shelf-size stereo loudspeakers on stands at ear height when seated, equidistant from the stereo to form a ‘triangle’. Bass too boomy? Move the speakers further from the wall behind, and avoid corner placement.
In today’s booming home listening market, audio heads are spoiled for choice. Box-fresh or vintage? Analogue or digital? MP3s or hi-res? Whatever your preference, Frank Filipetti sums up why the choice is important: “It’s the ultimate connection between you and the music, so why wouldn’t you want that to be the best it can be?”
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