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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 20
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Auroville 36: Realsization
by Srajan Ebaen

One of my readers crafted this term. It lives somewhere between realization and downsizing one's system to befit real rather than imaginary needs and budgets. It's a cunning word for a very ordinary concept—how to minimize our audio investment but retain maximum satisfaction.

Having lived with expensive stuff for a few years and being bedeviled by what-if curiosity, I recently decided to embrace this realsization concept. See where it might lead. Besides benefiting my own learning curve, it also seemed pregnant with true rather than dream-stuff relevance for our readership. What better tour guide than using expectations reared on the truly upscale stuff to explore how far one can scale back without sacrificing the core aspects that make music listening enjoyable?

Nearly by definition, learning to distinguish between what's essential and what really are just luxurious redundancies involves a process of stripping away. Only by taking away do we see what we can live without and what absolutely brooks no compromise except that if it don't stay, we'd be quitting. Approaching it from the other end merely invites having to imagine and project what things would be like if. It's the only fundamental difference between a young man and an old man. To be in the present, the old man must let go of his past, the young man of his future. It's easier for the old man since he gets to let go of something he actually had. The young man's future is merely promises and hopes—imaginary dream stuff. Same with people who've never owned or lived with expensive audio but categorically state that it's all overpriced and underperforming.

Considering scaling back or downsizing, one of the first questions to ask is: "How much do I really need?" Most sales guys will oversell us rather than undersell. It appeals nicely to our insecurities to acquire something—anything—that incorporates headroom for the what-if scenarios. Cue up car sales floor: "Sir, should you ever get into a tight spot while your kids are in the back and your wife next to you, isn't it gratifying to know that this car can accelerate from 60 to 100mph in a mere 2 second, allowing you to evade potential death traps on the road?"

Of course you could simply step on the brakes. That sounds less sporting and masculine though. Men thrive on visions of conquering odds and feeling prepared. In audio, one equivalent of automotive performance headroom is idle reserve power. It just sits there unused until you deal with those mythical dynamics peaks. But how much power do you really need even for that if your room is 12' x 16', you have neighbors and you'll never exceed 95dB peaks?

Another factor is a speaker's ultimate SPL potential. 'Big' speakers can play louder than 'little' speakers before they get ugly. That's a dandy quality if you live in a mansion or throw parties in parking lots. Otherwise it's pure silliness just like those subwoofers that'll do 20Hz flat at 120dB. Good grief, why rattle your own cage?

If you factor in higher than average speaker efficiencies, your realistic power requirements will not only remain well within the 2-digit realm but you can probably count your listening watts on ten fingers. Settling on two-way monitors can save money over three- or more-ways which are more expensive to get right. If you insist on 20Hz bass, getting there with a subwoofer is cheaper and easier than trying to do it (properly) all in a single box.

Whether you really need 20Hz and actually have more than a few CDs where 20Hz appears in more than a few spots over more than just a few seconds is another question. For most people, 35Hz will do just fine. It's something even affordable so-called subwoofers will manage in case your two-way needs a little help. If you want to go down that road in style, a Sonus Faber/REL combo could be the epidemy of this concept. If you need to conserve bread, Paradigm of Canada would have you covered. For higher efficiencies, think Omega Loudspeakers. The options are endless.

If you're playing with 95dB speakers, miniature 6-watt amps like Red Wine Audio's Clari-T or Decware's Zen Taboo are perfectly sufficient and cost a lot less than a grand each. For digital duties, a Japanese player bought at Electric Avenue and modified by any number of domestic houses will be better than should be legal. The instant accessibility of information via the Internet makes researching whom to consider for such mods child's play if you're even remotely interested to suss out this topic.

The smart money of course wants to know how much will be left on the table if we play cheapskate. The first things to go bye-bye are those tantalizing what-if scenarios. No outdoors rave party by the pool with simply the windows to the soundroom open (do you even have a pool?). No Gladiator soundtrack at insane Cineplex levels. The second thing is resolution. Think of resolution like microscopic particles. In order to make it through the plumbing of your system, you can't have any filters anywhere or the smallest of those particles won't get to your ears.

As we downscale, chances are one or more components in the chain will act as bottlenecks for resolution. One way to avoid that is to minimize component count. Go CD-direct into an amp (or fixed out into an integrated). It really doesn't get simpler than two boxes. You should be able to identify two components that play in the same league. Still, if money's the issue (and isn't it always?), what separates two affordable boxes from two that are expensive (and worth the upcharge) will be resolution.

How much resolution do you really need? If you can be honest with yourself and admit that even a car radio in a rental wreck can be enjoyable with the right kind of music, then you've already answered that question. Forget about killer soundstaging, depth of field, ruler-flat frequency response, extended treble or bass, truth of timbre and all that Jazz.

You need not shop for those to enjoy HiFi. Simply figure out why a car stereo can be enjoyable. If those audiophile-approved qualities are more or less missing in action, what's left that's actually important? That's for you to find out since we're all different - but concentrate on that, whatever it is for you.

If you're anything like me, we're down to tone now; to the absence of anything truly annoying; and probably to a good sense of timing mixed in with some warmth. Could it really be that simple? If you consider how many of those boxy Hondas and Scions are cropping up on our roads (forget wind-tunnel excellence, acceleration and sex appeal), it seems that way. There are real and rather practical needs that can be served well within reason. Then there's what-if stuff that either never happens or only so rarely that we might as well do without it.

While a car salesman can persuasively argue that your life could be saved if you accounted for the unexpected, audio is not a lethal sport where unexpected outside influences alter the equation. Your room size is fixed and so are your maximum playback levels. Unless you listen to classical music, so-called dynamic peaks and the power reserves required to recreate them without compression are laughable. Most CDs of commercial music are eq'd and compressed to hell and back.

Don't think brute force, think finesse. While Rubicon Trail spectacles of torture tracks are the giggles at shows and dealers, most of us don't listen to search-and-destroy material at home. We listen for pleasure. This often has to mean at background levels. It then becomes vital that our rigs sound good quietly. Forget power and massive speakers and think agile and responsive. Think high efficiencies which come to life right away and additionally require minimal power to do so. This can also mean physically small. And that can mean cosmetically unobtrusive. Think "allowed in the living room" instead of the basement dungeon or the extended broom closet that serves as your sanctum sanctorum. Aren't most living rooms bigger anyways—except we're not allowed in there with our audiophile madness?

If you can get into the living room, your HiFi would get used 24/7 rather than rarely and secretively. Let's face it; most of us will never have that dedicated dream room. And even if we did, isn't it a lot more fun to listen with our family in a lived-in comfortable space?

The fact is, those boxy entry-level Hondas and Toyotas are way practical. They're used for far more things than just getting somewhere in a major hurry while looking mahvelous (but with no trunk space). HiFi kit should be practical too so it's being used by the whole family and for all manner of occasions. If something gets used a lot, it's an expression of a real need. Need and usage match up. If your Hifi becomes so cumbersome that it only sees rare use, it suggests far more frustrated desires than real needs. Wherever there's real need, there's actual engagement of that which fulfils it—or else there's death or at best, ill health.

Realsizing can thus become not just an endeavor to free up funds and make our Hifi rigs more livable. It can end up having our HiFi get used more often because it's no longer threatening and complex, ugly and big but small, unobtrusive and in the living room where even the kids are allowed to turn it on. What a concept.

Visit Srajan at his site www.6moons.com

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