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TWM's Reference System
IP Address: Last Update: May 25, 2010 at 13:50:39
Amplifier: Bryston 7B SSTs (standard series configuration), using the balanced inputs. My use of the prior Bryston 7B STs was partially explained in my Whisper review in the April 2000 StereoTimes, but besides the obvious high power, even the 7B STs were more transparent, detailed, and dynamic than my prior Cello Duet 350, which had been the best amp I had auditioned. The 7B STs were a bit bright but very alive tonally. The 7B SSTs are yet more neutral in tonality (still just a bit to the yang/bright side, but compensated for in other equipment choices), extremely quiet, and seemingly vanishingly low in distortion, with powerfully full and deep yet tight bass. The SST version ameliorates a slight sense of strain, glare, or crunch which was sometimes audible with the 7B ST version at high volumes. The SSTs just cruise along, never sounding like they are working hard. They are incredibly detailed and nuanced and sound quite real. I'm sure the newer-yet SST-squared versions are even closer to ideal.
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): None. I've been through a lot of preamps, but for now I'd say that if you have a good D/A coverter with adequate input switching and a capable analog output stage with decent handling of volume attenuation in that unit, you don'tneed a traditional analog preamp. At least that is what I hear from my PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC. Even the TacT RCS 2.2XP I was using as a "preamp" before the Perfect Wave was at least as good, overall, at preamping as the best analog preamp I previously owned, the Bryston BP 26.

I cannot overstress the importance of remote control of volume, absolute phase, and muting in a system where you cannot physically reach over and manipulate the preamp from your listening chair (like I could with my prior Cello Palette Preamp on its Cello acrylic cart). Now that I have lived with such remote control for several system iterations, I could never happily use a unit lacking these remote controllable features.

Also as part of my 'preamp,' I can use equalization. I have a lot of experience using EQ, both in amplifying live sound and in home reproduction systems. I've owned the Cello Palette Preamp and Z-Systems rdp-1. Then I usedd the Rives PARC, then the Rane DEQ 60L, then the Audient ASP231 graphic EQ, and now have a TacT RCS 2.2XP. At this writing I am "down" on active electronic EQ, however, and recently have only been using the TacT as an A/D converter for analog sources. There are big pluses to active electronic EQ, but at least in all the units I've used, there also seem to be some sonic minuses. There are no minuses to "passive equalization," however, such as can be accomplished by moving the speakers and listening position around to eliminate the worst peaks and dips in response.
Speakers: Harbeth Monitor 40.1s. Overall, these are the best speakers I've owned. The Harbeth midrange magic is the primary draw here, as it is with other Harbeth models. Here, that magic is maximized. The midrange is just simultaneously clearer and more natural sounding than anything else I'm familiar with, with exceptional overall integration among the three drivers allowing near-field listening without being able to hear transitions among the drivers.

No, they are not perfect. No speaker is. Others will play louder, have more extended bass, or a "bigger" stage. The midbass can be a bit too generous in some rooms, including mine.

When I first started using this room, I had Carver Amazing Platinum Mk IVs. I moved from those to Cello Strad Premiers, and then to Legacy Audio Whispers. Then in August 2004 I got the original Harbeth Monitor 40s to replace the Legacy Audio Whispers which had occupied pride of place in my reference system since January 2000. Yes, the Monitor 40s were better than the Legacys in almost every way I can name except ultimate SPL capability (but the Harbeths 40/40.1 play plenty loud enough for me as I have them set up) and ease of achieving flat bass response. That's it. In all other ways, the M40s surpassed the Whispers in terms of realistic reproduction of the sound of live music, and in several areas SUBSTANTIALLY surpass the Whispers and anything else I've heard. The truth of all voices is incredible; until you have heard Harbeths, you have not heard voices reproduced properly. Woodwind reproduction also far exceeds the realism of anything else I've heard. True inner detail is also unequaled in my experience; detail without ANY brightness. The speakers sound detailed and full even at very low 'midnight listening' levels. Yet for any given program material there is one, and only one, volume level at which everything--imaging, staging, frequency balance--comes together and says 'live!' The integration of midrange and tweeter is so seamless when listening on the proper axis (about one to two inches below the tweeter center) that, as REG said in TAS, there are highs but no separate tweeter sound. I have not heard this kind of integration in any other multidriver cone-based system. The midrange and highs in general are just unbeatable, in terms of the combination of accuracy and listenability in my experience. So clear, so natural, so beautiful. Every word REG has ever said in TAS about these is true, except for one area . . . the bass.

The Monitor 40s measure flat in the bass in REG's room and the sound studios for which they were originally designed. But in my room, where reasonably flat bass has been easy to achieve with all prior speakers I've had there (the Whispers were + or - 2 dB from 250 Hz down to 25 Hz), the Harbeth M40s had a major peak centered between 60 and 80 Hz no matter what placement I've tried. By major, I mean between 15 and 20 dB, too much to just sound full or rounded. This is so for any reasonable stand height; I've tried extremes of 13.75" stands and 24" stands.

Electronic EQ was a necessity for the M40s in my room. This eventually led me into dalliances with other speakers, including the Gradient 1.3, Gradient 1.5, and Ohm 5 Series 3. While these were less bass-problematic, and each had great strengths on their own, eventually I missed that magic midrange the Harbeths had. Thus, in 2009, I traded my M40s for M40.1s. The M40.1s are still a bit too generous in the midbass for my room, but the strengths I loved in the M40s are magnified.

Given the M40/40.1s' coherence, they work extremely well when listened to quite close up. I currently listen only about 51" from the plane of the speakers. I also find that wide separation, with a 75- to 90-degree subtended angle between the two speakers as viewed from the listening position, works best.

The M40/40.1s also sound best on 24" stands which put the woofers at about 32" above the floor, or 1/3 the distance from floor to ceiling. I also have them positioned at the 1/3 width, and 1/3 length positions in the room. And, given my rooms dimensions, this positioning also is very close to being ideal from an Allison Rule perspective. Yes, I need a fairly high chair to get my ears up even with the tweeters, but an office-type chair with its pneumatic lift at full extension does the trick.

I like the sound of simple wooden stools as stands with the Harbeths. No hard coupling between the speakers and stands or the stands and the floor is used. To my ears, in this room, hard coupling produces sonic overbrightness and brittleness.

Subwoofers: a pair of corner-mounted JL Audio Fathom f113 subwoofers, operated in stereo, rolled off at 24 dB/octave above 55 Hz. The best low bass I've ever had in any system.

CD Player/DAC: PS Audio Perfect Wave Transport and Perfect Wave DAC. This is by far the best digital front end I've ever owned or heard. It sounds remarkably analog in its lack of digital artifacts, but with all the lack of noise, pitch stability, added detail, and frequency extension which was the promise of CD playback from the beginning.

I also use an Oppo Digital BDP-83 SE for playback of SACD and decoded HDCD disks. The TacT RCS 2.2XP then converts the analog output of the player to digital at 24/96 resolution and feeds that signal to the PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Turntable/Phono Stage: None
Other Source(s): Day Sequerra M4.2R HD FM/AM tuner or vintage Sansui TU-X1 tuner fed from fed by attic mounted Channel Master FM-9 Stereo Probe 9-element Yagi antenna and 100 feet of unspliced RG-6 quad shield wire.

The Sansui replaced my Fanfare FT-1A with Kimber KCAG internal silver wiring. Before purchasing the Fanfare, I compared this over several days in my system against a Magnum Dynalab MD-102. While the Magnum sometimes generated an endearingly larger and more relaxed sonic picture, in all other respects, the Fanfare beat it. The Fanfare pulled in weak adjacent channels significantly cleaner than the Magnum. The Fanfare has less background noise and hiss, and lacked the slight constant background grunge which some other reviewers of the MD 102 have noted. Instruments sound more like themselves tonally on the Fanfare. The imaging and soundstaging is much more precise and specific and changes more dramatically from station to station and selection to selection than on the Magnum, which I take as an indication that the Fanfare is imposing less of its own sound on the signal. The Fanfare's bass response is far deeper, tighter, and more detailed than the Magnum's, and its macrodynamics are at least as good. Then, of course, there is the Fanfare's superior ergonomics, with its included full-function remote control. Finally, unlike others, I find the Magnum's front panel, meters, switches and overall look to be just plain ugly. The switches of the Magnum, while appearing substantial, look and feel clunky. On a good sounding station, such as Chicago's WFMT (classical), the Fanfare really does sound like a high quality CD player--better than CD in some ways on live or taped classical transmissions.

The vintage Sansui TU-X1 goes the Fanfare one--actually several--better. This is one of the top rated FM tuners over on the Tuner Information Center site, and those folks are REALLY into FM tuners. They don't think nearly as highly of my Fanfare. I now have to admit that they are right. Not that the Fanfare is bad or even mediocre--far from it. It is still excellent in my book and I wouldn't trade it for any currently made tuner, except perhaps the Accuphase. But the vintage Sansui has amazingly good sound on a good source like WFMT, and draws you in even on mediocre stations. There is a sweetness and low distortion to the sound that the Fanfare and Magnums can't touch, and the greater three-dimensional imaging and staging must be heard to be appreciated. Instruments sound more like they do live. The word 'analog' comes to mind, maybe because that is what it is, an 'old-fashioned' truly analog FM tuner. It's as if even digital sources at the radio station are being played on fine analog turntables. And live location broadcasts of classical fare are unbelievably good. Background hiss is about as low on any station as with the Fanfare, which means quieter than anything else I've tried. After having the Sansui aligned and all its capacitors replaced by by Mark Wilson of Absolute Sound Labs in Minnesota, the tuner matches the Fanfare in the only areas where it previously might have been second: inky black background, dynamics, and bass extension and punch. FM sound quality is maximized by detuning and muting the AM reception. RF-wise, the Sansui is at least as good as getting and quieting distant and adjacent stations as the Fanfare, which means better than the Magnum MD-102 and better than anything else I've owned (e.g., Dyna FM-5, Tandberg 3001A, Sony ST-J75, and AVA FET-Valve tuners). This is a honey and a definite long-term keeper. By the way, mine is in truly excellent condition after clean up by Absolute Sound Labs.

But the DaySequerra M4.2R is AT LEAST as good as the Sansui. In my location, 30 miles from the transmitter, and limited as I am to an attic-mounted antenna, the advantages of HD done right, as in this unit, outweigh the superiorities of the analog FM signal. Even on the best station, WFMT, analog FM through the Sansui has better depth and midbass/lower midrange "roundness," but the HD reception is better in terms of freedom from audible distortion, clean high frequencies, dynamics, bass extension, and freedom from background noise.
Other Accessories/Room/Misc.:
Speaker Cables/Interconnects: Blue Jeans Cable Belden 10-gauge speaker cables, with bare copper ends soaked in Caig Deoxit Gold (ProGold). These displaced the previously unbeaten Bryston speaker cables. They are just a bit better than the Brystons in every way I can think of.

Bryston interconnects. These are better than anything I have used previously, including Cello Strings, Acoustic Zen Silver Reference, Joseph Grado Signature, Marshall/Mogami 2534, MIT Shotgun, Monster, etc. The balanced Bryston cables are made by the British firm Van Damme, then terminated by Bryston. The balanced interconnects use the gold-plated black Neutrik connectors and the speaker cables have the large Bryston spades which are among the few spades which will not leave you cursing the binding posts on the Bryston amps since they, and they alone, seem to fit those custom-made binding posts perfectly.

The unbalanced Bryston cables use special Neutrik RCA plugs with retracting ground sleeves which always make ground contact first and break ground last to prevent annoying pops if you happen to forget to turn things off before changing cables. The cable itself is a special heavy-gauge very low capacitance Canare model, made in Japan. I use the unbalanced version with the Sansui tuner, which of course does not have balanced-out connections.

The Bryston XLR cable looks like ordinary black professional microphone cable, and that is in fact what it is. It is rated for sub-zero use and is extremely flexible, allowing air-suspensions to work optimally since the cables add no damping.

The Bryston cables and interconnects, and now the Belden speaker cable, sound so much better in this system than anything else I've tried than all the others sound broken. Plus, they are not at all expensive, as audiophile cables go: a 1-meter balanced pair of interconnects costs $150.

The Bryston cabling might be a bit forward-sounding for some tastes, or when paired with brighter electronics. It was a tad bright with my former 7B ST amps. With the SSTs, however, it sounds incredibly right. If the Bryston cable sounds bright in your system, I suggest tempering it with judicious use of the 1/5-the-cost Marshall/Mogami 2534 interconnects. The Mogami interconnects sounds as good in my system as anything (including $1000/meter pair Acoustic Zen Silver Reference) but the Bryston and by comparison is sonically more laid back in perspective and a bit recessed in the midrange and lower highs. The Mogami is aimed at pro-audio folks and therefore is extremely reasonable in price; a 25-foot (8-meter) pair set me back $75, and the prices come down from there for shorter lengths. It looks and handles just about like the Bryston, being slightly skinnier and a slight bit stiffer, but still quite limp and flexible.

The Blue Jeans/Belden speaker cable is also practically "free" as audio cables go. Either a 20 foot pair or a 10 foot pair with locking bananas at both ends will set you back less than fifty dollars delivered to your door as long as you're willing to assemble the cables yourself.
Other (Power Conditioner, Racks etc.): Active Vibraplane for Bryston amps; Arcici Suspense rack for rest of electronics except Power Plants; Symposium Rollerblocks doublestack with Grade 3 Superballs under Oppo player; PS Audio Premier and P300 Power Plants on modified Sims Navcom Silencers on BDR shelves for clean power for front-end components; MIT Z-1 Stabilizer plugged into the circuit powering the left-channel Bryston 7B SST amp, sitting on three of the squash balls atop another BDR shelf on the carpet. The Absolute Power Cord for all electronics.

The Vibraplane and Suspense have been acknowledged as among the finest in air suspension systems. To my ears, air suspension executed like this (or even as in the Bright Star Air Mass which I also own and still use in another system) beats any accessory cones, pucks, spikes, etc., I have tried (and I have tried many) hands down.

If you don't use an air suspension rack, the combination of the BDR shelves sitting right on the carpet and modified (by removing the metal ring around the edge) Sims Navcom Silencers are the next best thing I've found. For light-weight components, such as the MIT Z-1 Stabilizer, Dunlop Revelation Pro double yellow dot squash balls can be substituted with no performance loss for the Silencers. Squash balls work initially well under heavy components just as well, but within a few months they lose air and need replacement.

The separate PS Power Plants are perhaps overkill, but putting the digital source on its separate circuit and Power Plant did in fact noticeably improve the sound of all sources. I have but do not usually use the multiwave function on either Power Plant. Clean sine wave power at 60 Hz usually sounds best to me, and all the multiwave settings produce audibly increased physical vibrations from the transformers of connected equipment.

The MIT Z-Stabilizer is an oldie, but real goodie as parallel power conditioners go. Forget the Quantum Symphonies; this is the real deal. To fully appreciate it, though, you have to ground your system properly, as I have, and plug the Z-Stabilizer in so that there is the shortest possible electrical path between it's circuitry and the point where your system is grounded to the home's electrical system.

I don't yet consider myself an expert on power cords, but The Absolute Power Cord is far and away the best I've tried. Part of the problem with power cords is that they seem to vary so much sonically. I can't figure out why the last few feet of miles of electrical distribution cable should make any difference at all, but my ears cannot deny the evidence. Power cords make more difference in my system than interconnects or speaker cables, and seem to vary at least as much as digital links between a transport and DAC.

The Absolute Power Cord is a rather ordinary looking affair, about as stiff as a stock 14-gauge 3-wire cable that comes with an amp or PS Power Plant. It's eight feet long. It's only visual distinction is a translucent hospital grade plug.

The Absolute Power Cord sounds marvelously clean and clear with very flat response. It actually makes the sound seem louder and more dynamic without making the sound come further forward. It has very extended and impactful low bass, just the right amount of midbass with great articulation, and the highs seem to truly be more extended without any spurious brightness. Soundstaging is larger and more enveloping than any other power cord I've tried. It sounds like my amps got more powerful. Also, at low volumes the sound is fuller and more satisfying; part of that is the result of a seemingly total lack of grain and fuzz. I am hearing low level details I never heard before simply because the residual background noise seems to be reduced.

All this from a power cord, and a 'cheap' one at that? I would not have believed it either, had I not heard it for myself. And this is with the power coming out of a PS Power Plant on dedicated 30-amp circuits.

The Rollerblocks, are the first aftermarket 'feet' of any kind that have definitely improved the sound of equipment sitting on the Arcici rack, as opposed to just changing the sound. At $900, the Rollerblocks are expensive, but give high value in this system.

With the Arcici Suspense Rack, one set-up trick is to position the air bladders so that they do not contact the side walls of the wooden tray. That greatly improves the horizontal isolation provided by the rack itself. Another trick is to inflate the bladders so that there is a minimum of 1/4 inch of space between the bottom of the steel top plate and the top wooden edge of the tray in which the air bladders sit.

Tweaks: Dedicated custom-designed listening room; Sonex room treatment; custom installed and modified electrical system for audio equipment; Auric Illuminator, or Walker Vivid, or CD Stoplight/ECO/Optrix/, or Audio Systeme Desk treatment for CDs; power cords and speaker cables raised off floor with glassware; all connections cleaned and treated with Caig Deoxit Gold (ProGold) GX5 spray. Cardas RCA and XLR caps on all unused RCA and XLR jacks. Bright Star Little Rocks or magazines on top of front-end components.

To achieve and hold the proper very small listening height window for the very best sound from the Harbeth speakers, I use a fully-featured Steelcase Leap chair. This has a pneumatically adjustable chair height which is quite stable over time. The seat cushion, back, and arms, while very firm, are also very comfortable for listening. I have immobilized the casters so that the chair does not move. If you do need to move the chair, its center pillar which extends to near floor level makes it extremely easy to exactly reposition. I taped a 1/2' Tiptoe point up to the carpet exactly under the center of the bottom of the adjusting post; this is exactly the right height to tell when the nipple in the bottom center of the chair post is exactly centered over the point of the Tiptoe.

I try to use tweaks that actually move me toward my goal of concert hall absolute sound for live, unamplified musical instruments. Anything you do to an audio system will change the sound. Separating differences from real steps toward my goal--which I classify as improvements--takes discernment and lots of time and experimentation.

Room Size (LxWxH): 20' x 12' 8.5" x 8'
Room Comments/Treatments: The Room

My 'reference' audio system is in a basement listening room entirely below ground level. This room was purpose-built for audio as part of the construction of our new house nine years ago. All walls and floor are poured concrete. This simple rectangular room is in the corner of our basement, with one long and one short wall backed by earth. The floor is carpeted and padded with medium weight synthetic materials. The finished walls are painted 5/8' drywall over 2' x 4' studs, 16' on center. There are also 3' thick fiberglass insulation batts in the wall cavities formed by the studs, the drywall, and the poured concrete. The ceiling rafters are 2' x 10' and there is 8' of fiberglass insulation above the ceiling. The room has one solid wood, one-hour-fire-rated, gasketed door near the right rear of the listening area and there is one 30' x 36' 'escape' window midway on the left wall of the listening area. The room is unusually quiet and lets very little sound into the rest of the home. (The room should ideally be larger, say about 26' L x 20' W x 8' H, but to make it larger without structural pillars within the room would have required major redesign of the entire house plan and substantially more expense.)

Acoustical Treatment

I use 3' thick Sonex to dampen the walls, ceiling, and 6' on the floor at the first and second reflection points of any part of either speaker when viewed from the listening seat. (Such dampening, especially of the floor reflections, yields important dividends in achieving the best imaging and soundstaging the system is capable of. Carpeting the floor is not good enough.) I also dampen the eight ceiling and floor tri-corners with small triangles of this Sonex (a la Michael Greene's Corner Tunes).


My home has 400 amp electrical service which is split into two 200-amp panels just past the service entry. The exclusive job of one of these 200-amp panels is to feed 10 dedicated circuits in the listening room. All wiring is 10-gauge solid copper. The wiring for each circuit is separately conduited from the service panel to a single quad of outlets. The outlets are Hubbell hospital grade 20-amp outlets and all circuit breakers are 30-amp rated. I use up to six of the available 10 circuits. All grounding and neutral wires for these six circuits are star-grounded back to the same post in the service box which holds the incoming ground wiring: there is direct copper-to-copper connection between all the grounds used by the system and the incoming ground wire. The grounds are referenced to an 8-foot solid copper post driven into the ground just outside the service entrance, and are bonded to a cold water pipe just above floor level some 50 feet away. All other unused ground wires are disconnected and insulated from the service entrance and the circuit breakers for the unused circuits are open. The six circuits used are all attached to the same phase of the incoming electrical service.

As much as possible of the electrical equipment in the rest of the house which experience has shown can cause electrical interference with audio (e.g., water softener, sump and ejector pump, furnace fan, other audio and video equipment, sprinkler and alarm systems, the lights in the listening room) is connected to circuits which are powered from the other phase of the incoming electrical service, the phase not used by the six dedicated circuits I use in the listening room.

For serious listening, I unplug many electronic items not in the listening room such as all other stereo systems, my computer, and any item powered by a 'wall wart' AC transformer; I also 'de-tune' all TV, satellite, and AM and FM radio receivers so that all that is received by these is random noise. Thank you, Enid Lumley, for these suggestions you made years ago in TAS.

Currently, two 30-amp circuits feed the Brystons (one circuit per channel). I use another dedicated 30-amp circuit, filtered by the PS Audio Premier Power Plant for the tuner, preamp, equalizer, and other analog front end electronics. Another circuit in use is filtered by a PS Audio P300 Power Plant currently dedicated to an analog satellite TV box. Two other dedicated 30-amp circuits power my JL Audio Fathom f113 subwoofers.

The Bryston SST amps, unlike the prior ST series, have special proprietary circuitry which prevents ground loops and have dispensed with the ground lift switches of the ST series. Note that the sound of the amps and system is HUGELY affected by proper grounding. The 7B SST manual recommends plugging the amp power cords straight into wall sockets and warns against cheating the earth grounds. At least in my system, which uses multiple circuits, and two circuits just for the amps, this factory-recommended method of powering the 7B SSTs sounds best, and I have experimented EXTENSIVELY with alternative grounding schemes for both the amps and the rest of the system.

Speaker and Room Set Up

I prefer near-field listening. This means speakers and listener positioned at 1/3 of the room length, width, and height, with the speakers subtending a 75- to 90-degree angle and listener about 51 inches from the plane of the speakers.

The Harbeth Monitor 40.1s are extremely coherent sounding as long as you are listening at the proper height with respect to the tweeter from any distance of more than about two feet away. Near field listening maximizes what you hear of the recorded acoustics, minimizes the effect of your listening room's acoustics on what you hear, and maximizes the effectiveness of the acoustical room treatment you employ. Also, near-field listening gives you higher SPLs for any given speaker efficiency and wattage input, allowing you amp and speakers to coast even at high SPLs at the listening position.

The speakers fire into the short dimension of the room. The listening position is almost 51 inches from the wall behind the listening chair. The speaker centers are almost 51 inches from the wall behind them and more than 79 inches from the nearest side wall. The plane of the speakers centers almost 51 inches in front of the listening position and the speaker centers are more than 79 inches apart, yielding a subtended angle of 75 degrees at the listening position. If I want 90-degree separation, I move forward to the edge of my seat. Thus, not only do I listen in the near field, but I like fairly wide stereo separation. This amount of separation is what is needed to get the best from the coincident and quasi-coincident stereo recordings which have the potential for the best soundstages anyway. This sort of set up is also great for three mike recordings like the Mercuries and Telarcs.

The speakers are toed in so that the right speaker is aimed at my right ear and the left speaker is aimed at my left ear(I use a small flat mirror taped to the from panel of the speaker between the tweeter and midrange to determine this).

I have worked hard to physically arrange the equipment and furniture in the room so as to maximize both acoustic and visual balance and minimize visual distraction. I have found that visual imbalance and visual distractions impede the effortless aural perception of soundstaging and imaging which an excellent system is otherwise capable of presenting to the ear/brain.

To avoid long speaker cable runs with the Harbeth/Ohm systems, the Bryston amps are stacked atop the Vibraplane, which is mounted on a 1 1/2'-thick granite slab sitting on the carpet centered on the floor between and behind the plane of the Harbeths.

The Arcici rack is against the wall to my left as I sit in the listening chair. So positioned, the displays of the equipment on the Arcici Suspense rack are not in my line of vision as I listen to the system. I find this helps greatly to preserve the visual balance of the soundstage in the listening room when the room lights are off: the sonic stage is not skewed by what my eyes see since what my eyes see when listening is a left/right balanced view of the Harbeths, the centered Bryston amps with the amps' centered pilot lights, and the soft, indirect light from two night lights hidden symmetrically behind my subwoofers in the room corners. A bookcase on the right wall acoustically balances the effect of the Arcici rack on the left. The Sonex pads are all symmetrically distributed left and right and front to back, even as to the use of male and female Sonex pad patterns. My two Davidson-Whitehall 550-CD racks are symmetrically placed along the rear wall to the rear of the listening seat, their up-angled shelves of CDs helpfully dispersing the sound from left and right rear while Sonex directly behind the listening seat creates the feeling of a much larger acoustic space.

Such an arrangement strongly indicates the use of balanced cabling, not for visual reasons, of course, but because of the distance involved. Even in this modestly-sized room, 8 meters of cable are needed to reach between the Arcici rack and the amp stack if the cable is to be routed around the edge of the room and not directly across the floor. I need 10 meters to reach the right subwoofer. Such lengths of cable sounds better in a balanced configuration: with balanced connections, hum and noise become a non-issue, and there always seems to be less grit, glare, and grundge in the upper frequencies with a balanced connection for this distance. And since that link should be balanced and all the rest of my equipment allows balanced connections, it's logical to use balanced connections wherever possible throughout the system.
Music Preferences and Comments:
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Classical and Jazz, plus a smattering of pop, country, bluegrass, and other genres.
System Goals/Comments: Concert hall absolute sound for live, unamplified musical instruments. See my Whisper review in the April 2000 StereoTimes for further comment on my system goals.
System Strengths: It's the closest approach to the above goal I have ever achieved.
System Weaknesses: The midbass could be flatter without EQ. The soundstage could be bigger.

Video/HT System: Separate
TV/Projector: Pioneer Elite PRO HD 1110 50' Plasma
Processor/Receiver/Amplifiers: Denon AVR 5803A
Speakers (Center, Surrounds, Sub): Totem Dreamcatcher 7.2 system (two Dreamcatcher subs for the .2, and two extra Dreamcatcher satellites for the surround back channels.
Sources (DVD/VCR): Pioneer Elite 59AVi DVD/DVD-A/SACD/CD player, Comcast Cable (Motorola) digital HD cable box.
Other HT Gear: Bryston (van Damme) speaker cable; Joseph Grado Signature audio interconnects; Apogee A/D Wyde-Eye coaxial digital links; 2-meter Monster 1000 HDMI cable; Radio Shack Gold Series Quad Shield RG-6 antenna and cable lead-in wire; Salamander Design Synergy Trio cabinet with casters. Monster Power Signature HTPS 7000 power source. Ideal Lume 6500-degree Kelvin fluorescent light from CinemaQuest used as video bias lighting behind the plasma screen.
Comments on HT System: This system resides in another part of our finished basement outside the audio room. My wife and I I looked at projectors also, but decided that for the money we were willing to spend ($20,000 for the entire system), they just weren't bright and punchy enough even for basement viewing, especially if you wanted to keep some lights on sometimes, which we do. Also, the brightest and sharpest projectors of the bunch we looked at were DLP based and my wife got headaches from even a short exposure to watching most of them--that apparently is not uncommon with that technology.

We 'settled' on the Pioneer Elite PRO 1110 HD 50' plasma unit which has images brighter than average movie theater projections, even when calibrated with the AVIA and DVE disks. Gorgeous color and fantastic sharpness, too. Not as three dimensional as good projector images, unfortunately, but no slouch. The addition of the Monster HTPS helped a bit, but not as much as I'd hoped.

Sound amplification is provided by a Denon AVR 5803A, one of the big boys of Denon's line--170 watts per channel with all seven channels driven. I have always liked the sound of the Denon receiver which resided in our den A/V system for many years. The 5803A has all the surround decoding algorithms currently in vogue, plus it decodes HDCD and has a Dolby Headphone surround circuit. Almost everything is adjustable, making set up complex, but rewarding.

For speakers I bought an augmented Totem Dreamcatcher system. By 'augmented' I mean I got an extra sub, plus two extra surround speakers, so I call it a 7.2 surround system. Front left and right are on the Skylan stands Totem sells as a match for these, the center is mounted in the Salamander Design Synergy Trio cabinet just below the plasma (which sits on the cabinet top on its pedestal stand), the two subs are in the two floor/wall corners behind the front left and right, and the four surrounds are mounted on the walls high up near the ceiling and aimed down a bit so their tweeters point at a spot about 2 feet above the listening area.

I am VERY pleased with the sound of this system. It measures quite flat from way up high down to 30 Hz, below which the bass drops like a stone. While the sound can be a little thin for my taste in two channel mode on CDs with just the front left and right and subs playing, it is just right in the surround modes without applying any tonal EQ. The sound is very clear and the surround effects are truly enveloping. The Denon synthesizes 7.2 surround from any 2-channel stereo (or even mono) source and gives you a choice of several surround modes for this. I lean heavily toward Dolby Pro Logic IIx decoding for most stereo material.

By the way, the Denon's surround decoding is also often preferable to the straight discrete surround coming off multichannel surround SACD disks. The disks are at best 5.1. The Denon 'upconverts' everything (if you choose) to 7.1, using Dolby Pro Logic IIx to synthesize the surround back channels. The Denon also assures that the subwoofers are fed the proper level signal, a problem with straight analog multichannel since the disk manufacturers can't seem to agree on the proper level for the sub channel.

Telarc surround SACDs especially benefit from the Denon's digital surround enhancement since most of them are mixed to 4.1, with no center channel and the .1 being a height ambiance rather than a sub woofer channel. The Sound of Glory SACD with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is finally stupendous with this sonic manipulation in this system. (It still sounds at best mediocre in two channels in the reference room.) The first time I played it in the home theater system, my wife started excitedly asking about it: how long have we had this recording, why haven't you played it for me before, etc. She then proceeded to play it many times through over the next few days while she was putting scrapbooks together adjacent to the home theater area.

The sources are the FM tuner built into the Denon, Comcast digital HD cable service, over-the-air digital as provided by my attic-mounted Wineguard TV antenna and RF amp, and a Pioneer Elite DV59AVi DVD/DVD-A/SACD/CD 'universal' player. In my area, all the dealers say that the Comcast HD signal is better than satellite, so that's what I went with. The over-the-air digital signal quality is even better for those channels available that way.

I'm using an HDMI digital connection to send 720p video signals from the DVD player and Comcast HD cable box to the plasma's control box. I have tried 1080i from both the DVD and cable sources, but have found that I prefer the more relaxed and three-dimensional look of 720p to the more detailed but 'edgier' look of 1080i in this system.

As good as the DVD picture is when sent to the plasma digitally at 720p or 1080i, true HD signals from Comcast cable or, better yet, over-the-air, are significantly better and are sometimes breathtakingly good. The NCAA tournament games and NBC's Olympics broadcasts were both visually amazing, and the NCAA games were both visually and sonically amazing. A lot of the 'travel log' features on PBS and INHD channels are awesome in video quality. Most of the local broadcast channels are now available in either HD or enhanced digital format on the cable system as well, so there are usually at least 10 HD or ED signals to choose from at any one time at this point.

I use the top Monster HDMI cabling. All the analog audio cabling in this system is Joseph Grado Signature and the digital audio links from the DVD and the cable box to the receiver are Apogee A/D Wyde-Eye. Speaker cables and banana plugs are all Bryston (actually van Damme). The home theater equipment is on its own 20-amp dedicated circuit, but not from the electrical service box which serves only the reference stereo room.

I am very pleased with this home theater system, as is my wife. It needs updating to Blu-Ray now, but the performance on non-Blu-Ray material is quite nice. On my nit pick list (I'm now in fault-finding mode): (1) the plasma screen is far too mirror like--it reflects perfectly everything in the room in front of it, so you really need to have the lights out for best viewing. The black level on this plasma is pretty good as plasmas get, but still not really black, so having lights on is desirable to make the dark gray of the blacks less obvious. The Ideal Lume 6500 K fluorescent light I have mounted behind the plasma screen greatly ameliorates this effect and allows your eyes to relax even with the bright plasma picture in an otherwise darkened room. A great addition to any home theater system, I think. The light doesn't splash on the screen. (2) I could probably get better sound out of the center channel if I mounted it outside the cabinet on top of the plasma's pedestal base (it would fit there), but that would be ugly compared to how neat everything now looks with the center channel tucked inside the cabinet on a shelf so it is mounted just below the center of the plasma's base.
Other Interests/Hobbies/Occupation: Singing in church choirs and community choruses, going to live classical and opera music performances, mixing live PA audio for churches, and Bible study. Occupation: Attorney; President & CEO of an insurance trade association.

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