New Thinking in Home Stereo

By Jeffrey the Barak

Attention retail consumers: you don’t have to buy that rubbish from the high street electronics store! You know it will only malfunction and fall apart like an ’87 Plymouth.

There is an alternative! Go heavy duty. Go professional. Go tough. Go strong. Go powerful. Go quality. Get the real thing!

What’s in your living room right now? Do you have a large silvery plastic thing containing a couple of cassette decks, a pop-up CD drawer or a five disc carousel and an FM tuner with LED’s all over it? Is part of it broken, just like the one you had before?

Let’s face it, most of the equipment we see on the shelves at “The Good Guys” and “Circuit City” is all flash and no guts. You drop it and it breaks. You bump it, it cracks. You push it a little too roughly and the doors jam open or closed. And even though the stickers proclaim 200w total system power, it sounds awful if you turn the volume up.

Well it’s our own fault that these things are out there on those shelves. We buy them, we break them and we replace them. And we’re too polite or stupid to say “Hey, this thing sounds awful and parts of it don’t work anymore!”

“Leave the Chinese spaceship in the garage because the old Dodge truck sounds much better.”

Earthlings, I will offend your ears and then fall apart before I'm paid for.

“Earthlings, I will offend your ears and then fall apart before I’m paid for. ”

“Why don’t professional DJs use silver plastic things with flashing turquoise lights and center channel speakers?”

The Big Power Scam

It’s legal, and it’s widespread. Decals proclaim the mighty output of the silver plastic monsters on the shelves at the store. They say 100W + 100W + 50W. Total 250W power! The stickers have voices just like the guy who advertises drag races and wrestling on the radio.

But wait, all Watts are not created equal! What’s a Watt?

RMS Watts

This stands for “Root Mean Squared,” a mathematical measurement of the magnitude of the AC signal. More watts means more power output to the speakers, which in turn means louder volume. Very high quality stereo components on the most expensive shelves in the store have their Watts measured honestly as Watts RMS. Professional DJ equipment is described in the same clear way.

Watts RMS is the average continuous power output an amplifier can produce consistently over extended lengths of time. When looking at power ratings of an amplifier, look only at RMS Wattage!

Caution: manufacturers will misrepresent Wattage to make their amplifiers appear more powerful!

The easiest way for them to do this is to describe a 50 Watts per channel stereo as “100 watts total system power.” 100 sounds like a lot, and it is indeed twice as much in linear terms, but if that system was 2 X 100 Watts, it would be about four times as loud and clear as the 2 X 50 Watt system.

Update on Watts, 2005

Following the original publication of this article in 2001, it has been brought to this writer’s attention that even RMS Watts are not a good way to asses the power, loudness and clarity of any system. In fact, its bad news because the only way is to test and listen, because there is no genuine standard applied in the industry. “Long term almost undistorted sine wave average power into a resistive load”, often shortened to “average sine wave power”, “average sinusoidal wave power”or simply “average power” would be more accurate. (Thanks to Michael Benson for the feedback in June 2005). But of course it can be difficult, and as we can hear for ourselves, a little computer speaker system can sound superior to a big rig at extremely low volumes and close proximity in a quiet room. (See Greg Borrowman’s article about RMS Watts at this link)

Peak / Maximum / Dynamic / Total system Power

Even more misleading is to quote a “maximum power” or “peak power” rating. A system will only produce maximum power for a split second, during a cymbal crash for example. Such levels cannot be sustained and should not be used as a genuine measurement of power.

If you see “maximum power,” or “total system power” or “dynamic power” or “peak power” on a label with no other RMS figures to justify it, you are looking at the great power scam. That stupid flashy lump of junk on the shelf is really only half or a quarter as powerful, or less.

“My 1500 little Watts look flashier than your 500 big Watts.”

Surround Sound

Watching DVD movies with music at the front, gunshots at the back and dialogue in the center can be very exciting. Because of what we are seeing, having the sounds come from a certain direction can enhance the movie watching experience. But how many times have you done this and found yourself too close to one speaker and too far from another. How often have you strained to hear what the actors are saying when that fountain, explosion or orchestra is flying around the living room?

The point is, we have two ears, not five. The brain uses these two ears to place sounds three-dimensionally. We know when something is behind us, below us or in front. Watching a movie in stereo is just as good, especially if those two speakers are very good speakers. The more speakers in a system, the smaller the “sweet spot.” If you have a five channel speaker system, then usually only one person can enjoy the effect properly in that room.

Bottom line, forget the surround sound and get one good speaker per ear. (That’s two, in case you can’t count your ears.) Stereo!

This also means that “Dolby Surround Sound” amplifiers can never be as good as stereo amplifiers.

Components or integrated systems?

“If there are seven machines stuffed into one unit and one breaks, is the unit broken?”

A friend of mine had a thousand dollar hi-fi. It had two tiny bookshelf speakers and a powered subwoofer to make up the bass. At low volumes it sounded great but despite what the impressive stickers proclaimed it put out about 45Watts RMS. It sounded distorted and noisy at high volume.

Anyway, it had two cassette decks, capable of high speed dubbing. This was a few years ago, before the cassette ended it’s 35 year period of acceptance. One of the cassette deck doors had to be held closed with tape. The CD player had to be fixed three times. each repair cost over $100.

From the front, the amplifier, tuner, CD player and dual cassette decks looked like separate components, but the back was all one piece of particle board. It was a boom box disguised as a high end stereo system.

“How much of this box should be broken before I replace it with the latest box?”

It was great fun throwing it away.

So we know what’s bad. Tell us what’s good?

Okay, look at this stuff.

Bulletproof professional DJ speakers, 19″ rack mount mixers and amplifiers!

Once you see professional equipment in the flesh, there is no doubt that is more beautiful than the Chinese spaceship pictured at the beginning of this article.

The speakers sound clear at low volume, and just as clear at very high volumes. They reproduce enough clear deep bass to make subwoofers unnecessary.

The amplifiers deliver pure, undistorted sound, comparable to that put out by very expensive high-end audiophile equipment.

Mixers are a fun and simple way to control the sources of the sound, CD players, tuners etc. Most good mixers also have equalizers so you can boost the bass and treble and reduce the middle of the sound before it goes to the amp. The familiar u-shaped curve that our ears love so much!


Help! It looks too complicated. How does it all go together?

Plug any CD player, anything from a professional dual deck to a domestic carousel with remote control to a personal “Walkman” straight into one channel of the mixer. Plug any tuner, even a tiny “walkman” type tuner into another channel. Plug your home computer into a third channel so you can play those MP3’s and funny sound effects.

The cables you need are available at an electronics store such as Radio Shack. One end is dual phono plugs and if you are utilizing portables, the other is a mini jack, like your little headphones.

Also, you can play along with your keyboard, guitar, drum pad or microphone, without fear of clipping the speakers. Balance the volumes using the mixer.

Isn’t this stuff expensive?

Compared to true audiophile equipment, a small system like this costs very little. In fact it costs about the same as the more expensive giant boom box type systems we discussed earlier or the so-called executive systems which look pretty on your desk, but have no power.

Because this equipment is so tough, it’s also fairly safe to buy it used. Look on Ebay for used bargains.

The Bottom Line

The whole point of having sound equipment is to enjoy good sound. I set up the system pictured below in the same room as a two and a half thousand dollar surround sound system. The professional DJ system made the high-end home system sound extremely inferior. This is without a doubt the best way to get the sound you’ve always wanted. Go heavy duty. Go professional. Go tough. Go strong. Go powerful. Go quality. Get the real thing!

the-vu puts it to the test:

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