HI-FI ENTHUSIASTS spend a great deal of time, money and energy trying to get the best combination of stereo components. Some mix and match, others choose gear from one manufacturer. Sometimes a lot of the money is spent on a single part of the signal chain, while in other cases the money is evenly allocated across the full system. The one component that’s seldom looked at with any real focus is the room, and if we’re being honest, the room has as much influence on the final sound as any component… if not more so.
Over the years, I’ve heard high-end gear sound very average in a bad room and I’ve heard budget kit sound amazing in a good room. Careful setup helps, but if your room just doesn’t suit your components of choice, especially the speakers, then you can go insane trying to get them to peacefully coexist. It’s usually easier to change the speakers than to change the room because most of us have to first peacefully coexist with our significant others, which means that tearing the family lounge apart or installing room treatments just isn’t happening, at least until a Lotto win pays for a new house.
In the ideal world, you’d consider the room as the most important part of your stereo system, and would spend a great deal of time getting the basics right before putting so much as a mini-system down on a desk. This is exactly what Paul Quilter did when he started designing a new warehouse and office building for PQ Imports, his Hamilton-based audio-visual distribution company.
I had a look at the site of the new building quite a few years back, when it was nothing more than some pegs in the ground and a few partially laid foundations. Standing in the middle of what was to be the listening room gave me pause for thought, because I could see that it was going to be huge. The material of choice for the entire site was thick haybales lined with plaster, which had to be better than Gib board in sonic terms. All in all, I had a feeling that the site, and the room, were going to be impressive. I visited again when the building was mostly complete but not fitted out or wired up, and that feeling was reinforced in a big way.
Eventually, with everything long since completed and the demo hi-fi system in place, I knew that I had to have a look and a listen but the time just couldn’t be found. However, when I was informed that the VTL Siegfried power amps had just come back from the manufacturers after being upgraded to the latest specifications, I decided to get off my butt and make time.
The overall site is even more striking than I thought it would be but the listening room just about blew my socks and shoes off. It’s huge! Bigger than I’d expected based on my previous visits when it was nothing but lines in the sand or when it was just naked walls. At 10.33 metres long by 5.45 wide, it’s an expansive area, but the high ceiling really opens up the space (it’s 4.1 metres high at the side of the wall and a lofty 6 metres high in the middle).
It’s much more than just a big room – Paul has carefully considered every single aspect of the construction with the stated aim of balancing the sound of the room using the materials. For example, rather than applying some random but good looking timber, the ceiling was constructed using soft poplar timber (not plywood) that has been treated with a thin layer of a specialised coating, which sinks into the wood and seals it without hardening it or changing the reflectivity of the timber. There’s a double layer of wool bats lined with ply behind the poplar.
The walls are half-metre thick straw bales coated with plaster, which in this room has been deliberately applied in an uneven manner to avoid smooth, high-reflectivity parallel surfaces. The plasterer was told to do a “wonky job” on the walls, only to ask Paul what degree of wonk did he want. Even the surface of the haybales was left rough to avoid any smooth planes. There are three coats of plaster (1.5 tonnes) on the rear wall alone, which added up to over 7.5 tonnes of plaster in this room all up. The floor is concrete, covered with a specially selected soft carpet that’s backed by a liner.
With the stereo system in place, the room was exhaustively measured to find and moderate any peaks or troughs in the overall response, so there are differently sized bass traps in the four corners of the room, each one made to address a specific peak. That said, even without the traps, the design and size of the room has meant that even difficult speakers are less problematic to place. For example, Paul’s old set of big Infinity speakers used to have a +32dB jump from 31Hz to 27Hz in his old room. In this room there’s only a 2dB difference in the same range: no amount of component switching or speaker shifting could achieve that kind of result, and the room makes all the difference.
The room looks remarkable, but when it comes to the system housed within, I have to admit that I was a touch dispirited when I arrived to see a set of Magneplanar’s big 3.7 panel speakers. Why? Well, I’m a devotee of the “speaker first” school of thought, so I was hoping to see a pair of expensive Magico speakers taking pride of place. After all, how could a set of $12,000 speakers, even ones that have reviewed so well, do justice to $140,000 of valve amplification, plus Wadia’s top of the range digital source?
The system is made up of the following components:
Wadia four-box Series 9 Decoding Computer System (a 971 CD transport, two 922 mono decoding computers – DACs – and a 931 Digital Controller)
VTL 7.5 Series 3 two-box preamplifier
VTL Siegfried Series 2 monoblock power amplifiers
The upgraded 800-watt VTL Siegfried power amps, which feature KT88 tubes, power supply upgrades and entirely new transistors. According to Paul, the changes have resulted in major dynamic range increases: he’s generally listening at levels around 10db less than before, but is hearing much better dynamics.
The Magneplanar 3.7 speakers are backed up by a Paradigm Signature Sub One, ($8000) which features six 8-inch drivers in a hexagonal cabinet with 1700 watts of continuous power on tap. This sub is going to be replaced with a pair of REL subs in the near future.
Transparent Reference XL 3m speaker cables ($20,000)
Transparent Reference XL 15m balanced interconnects ($32,000)
The vinyl source is a Sota Cosmos turntable with air bearing arm, a VTL TP 6.5 phono stage with a Lundahl silver transformer upgrade and a hand built Garrott Brothers P89 cartridge that was made to Paul’s tastes.
Back to my earlier comment about the Magneplanar speakers. I mentioned the seeming mismatch to Paul and he countered with two observations:
One – He could easily run a set of Magico speakers in the room (and he has) but the Maggies do some things very, very well indeed and the room allows them to really shine.
Two – Price is ultimately not an accurate indicator of quality. He referred me to a demo he once attended at CES in Vegas, where a pair of ultra high-end (US$250,000) speakers sounded so terrible that they literally chased off most of the audience in the course of a single track.
After hearing the system, I’m inclined to agree with his choice in loudspeakers (much to my dismay). The first thing I noticed was the size of the soundstage, which is to “normal” hi-fi what an IMAX screen is to a 55-inch TV. It’s humungous, stretching out well beyond the limits of the speakers and far above them as well. The second thing I noticed was the clarity of the music. Actually, the correct word is probably purity. Freed from the confines of a cabinet and the vagaries and limitations of the typical listening room, the sound is rendered without any of the veiling and muddiness we usually take for granted. All the components in the system – including the most important one – work together in harmony, and there’s no ignoring just how good it all sounds.
A common complaint when it comes to panel speakers of any type is that they just don’t do bass as well as box speakers. That’s true to a degree, even with panels as big as these, but with that sub in the system, there’s absolutely no way to find fault with the low end in terms of weight, speed or extension. It’s worth noting that the sub isn’t doing all the work when it comes to the bottom end, with its input backed up to a surprising amount by the Maggies – turn it off and there’s still plenty of bass, it’s just that much better with the sub active. You could live without the sub if you had to just to have that holistic top to bottom transparency and the amazing speed, but why would you when the sub’s sonic contribution is so subtle and given the fact that it costs less than half the price of the speaker cables?
There’s a delicacy to the sound that belies the brute power available from the amplifiers, but Paul’s right that the dynamic range is superb – it all sounds effortless. As for valve warmth and smoothness, there’s far less than you’d expect with row upon row of KT88s cooking away in those big cases. Sonically, it’s a long way removed from any kind of solid state-based system but there are no negatives to the valves. Glare, sibilance and harshness are banished and the resulting presentation is utterly fatigue free. The turntable is a rare treat as well, offering a powerful, yet highly transparent sound that is a perfect fit with the rest of the system.
We tried the system with a set of Jeff Rowland Model 201 monoblock power amps, which looked truly strange sitting next to the big VTL power amps – heck, these little Class D amps are so diminutive that they don’t even manage to dwarf the fat network boxes on the Transparent Reference XL speaker cables. That said, these amps put out 250 watts into 8 Ohms and 500 into 4 Ohms, so they’re no wimpy wallflowers and they drove the Maggies with ease. All things considered, they put on a good show but a fair amount of the magic that I was hearing with the VTL’s vanished, the openness and overall transparency dropped as did the sheer ease of listening. Effectively, we lost some of the music and stepped back into hi-fi territory – that’s probably to be expected considering the price differential ($117,000 vs. $8999) but it was interesting to check out the hoary old Law of Diminishing Returns. In this case, you really do get what you pay for and what you’re getting is the proverbial open window to the music.
I found that the only disturbing issue with the system was that massive soundstage. Maybe I’m just used to a smaller representation of the original musical event (and who isn’t) but I just couldn’t get my head around the vastness. I mentioned this to Paul and he suggested that we shift a chair closer to the speakers. Once it was in place, everything snapped into focus – the soundstage was still big, running out well to the side of the speakers and standing as tall as expected from the height of the speakers. However, the front to back depth improved, with the soundstage gaining a more focused three-dimensional quality and the performers went from being giants to merely being life size. At that spot in the room, the system was simply astonishing.
I’m sure that there are speakers out there in the wide world of hi-fi that would take the overall system to a higher level, but the price differential would be huge. I’d love to hear a set of the new top of range Magicos in there because the components and the room would do them justice, but until that happens (if it happens), I’ll just have to keep making excuses to visit to hear the current set up.
I’m totally convinced that I’d rather hear this system in this well considered and brilliantly executed room with the Maggies than the same system in a basic, untreated room with a set of Magico Q5 or Q7 speakers in front. The former sounds amazing, the latter might well sound as good, but it would be long odds that it’d perform at its best. The room is still the most important component, if only it were as easy to manipulate as it is to swap out a component.
I’d also like to grab those Maggies for a review, but they won’t work in my room. The smaller ones might, though. Watch this space. ASHLEY KRAMER