Audiophile Sound on a Budget
by Clay Swartz
Many audiophiles, myself included, can't afford speakers costing $20,000 or more, amplifiers costing $10,000 or more, or CD players and preamplifiers costing $5000 and more, not to mention expensive cables, power cords, and room treatments. In this article, I will discuss how you can get audiophile sound for much less—under $10,000 for a whole system. You may say that that is still a lot of money, and it is, but many people spend more for just one component.
The most important part of any high-end sound system is the room in which it is located, the acoustic treatment of the room, and the placement of the speakers. A room that is primarily used for audio is a very good idea. If you don't have a decent room, spending big money on a stereo is very wasteful. Most speakers sound their best at least four feet away from the back walls and at least three feet from the side walls. With the additional requirement of about nine feet between you and the speakers and at least four feet behind the listening position. With that in mind, a room larger than 15 by 20 feet is needed for the best sound. Exact placement of the speakers is a matter of experimentation.
Next comes the treatment of the room. The best sound I have heard was in an audio shop that had over $20,000 in room treatments. This is well above our budget, so we must improvise. Tube traps can be improvised from commercial pipe insulation covered with cloth, with painted particle board caps on each end. Egg-crate foam may be used on walls. Wall-mounted rugs, disc storage, and tapestries can also help. On the floor in front of the speaker, an area rug with pad is a good idea. The Shakti Hallographs are very good, but out of our price range unless they can be found used. It is hard to come up with inexpensive room treatments that look good in a room. Artificial or real plants can be used as room treatments in the corners behind speakers, and have a high mate-acceptance factor.
Room treatment is a tricky undertaking. Reflections off of room surfaces are detrimental to the sound, as they are perceived as separate sonic events. In a small room, the reflections smear the notes. You might think the solution would be to make the room completely dead, but the problem is that the music will sound dead. Part of hearing live music is hearing the acoustics of the room, so a balance must be made between direct and reflected sound. Another problem is that most room treatments absorb sound differently at different frequencies, which can cause the sound to have a peaky nature. One solution to this is a surround-sound system in a room that is fairly dead at most frequencies. It is also cost effective to combine your video system and your audio system. It is unlikely that a person on a budget can afford two sound systems. Combining them will allow a bigger budget for the single system. One interesting tweak is putting a humidifier i...