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A powerful new reference

program that audiophiles can employ

to significantly improve their audio systems.


RoomPlay Reference is a better way of evaluating

system performance that audiophiles may not have

experienced or even thought much about previously.

RoomPlay™ Reference

 

Get Better Sound author Jim Smith writes,

In over 30 years, after visiting thousands of advanced audiophiles, I cannot recall a single audiophile who had sound quality that was at a level worthy of the sound system that they owned.

I’ve tended to believe that it was because they had no real reference for what sort of sound he or she should be expecting from their own systems, in their own rooms. As a consequence, no matter how much they had spent on their equipment - and even their room acoustics - they suffered with a sound quality far less than what was possible.

For most of them, it wasn’t for a lack of trying to learn…

  • Reading engineering books didn’t really help them. They needed practical advice, not theories and formulas. Sadly, even the consumer audio hobbyist publications offered very little practical, ‘hands-on advice’ in this area. Even when advice was offered, it would invariably differ from publication-to-publication.

  • These folks acknowledged that most dealer demos fell far short. In fact, quite a few expressed the opinion that their sound was superior to their local dealer’s demos.

  • By far, reading Internet forums was probably their greatest source of misinformation. The more they read, the more confused they became.

  • Fortunately, attending shows could sometimes be a pleasant diversion.

  • But with all of these ‘authoritative sources’ voicing their opinions, they simply never learned how to achieve the sound they deserved.

Speaking as someone who has received a number of “Best Sound at Show” Awards, I have always known that those show demo systems were pale shadows of what was really possible. So even if audiophiles had heard the Best of Show demos, they still had no solid and reliable reference – certainly nothing they heard actually would have approached its full potential.

As a result, audiophiles have always been astonished (and more rewardingly - ecstatic) at what we achieved by simply working with (rather than against) their rooms. I call this phenomenon “Playing the Room.”

Of course, the big improvement came about by working with their existing systems, instead of spending more and more money on new or different audio gear.

Amazingly, after all those years, these facts registered as a consistent pattern to me only recently, as I traveled around North America, voicing readers’ systems.

The questions then arose – Is there an affordable way that I can help people realize what their standards should be? How could it work and be effective?

First, it’s important to know a little more about the basis for such a program…”

The Art of the Possible

When I voice a system, there is an internal list of standards that I expect to achieve. It’s my reference. I carry the sound in my head (and heart):

  • A powerful sense of presence. I expect to get the distinct impression that the performer(s) are performing expressly for me. If the sound stays over there by the speakers, without enveloping me in the experience, I have work to do. Nothing to buy, I just need to spend a little more attention to voicing detail.

    This is not an ordinary illusion. I rarely ever hear it from most systems. Yet, when the system is voiced properly, and I play the first tune in a demo, it’s quite common for the listener to make a few unplanned comments in the first 10 or 15 seconds!☺ I’ve almost come to expect it - they simply had no reference for that illusion being possible.
  • High emotional impact. I’m not looking for a background music system. If done right, it should even be compelling at medium to low levels. Inflections and the use of vibrato in vocals should draw me deeply into the music. The sense of listening to a stereo system is gone as I follow the performer’s musical lead.

    After a listening session the previous night, the next day, we should still feel the music in our souls, the way we do after live concerts.

    This is as true today as when I started talking about it in the 90s. Why do audiophiles never think that their music playback should touch them emotionally enough to feel the effects next day? It should, it’s their right, and they shouldexpect to receive it.
  • Tone quality. It’s hard to truly connect with the message of the music without it. I wish I could explain this phenomenon so that it’d be easy to understand. Visitors here “get it” immediately. Often it’s most noticeable in the sound of plucked strings and especially in the sound of violins, cellos, guitars, dobros, etc.

    It manifests as an unusually dense harmonic presentation, with a fuller and more prolonged decay time. And it will pluck your heart strings on the right music…
  • A palpable, reach-out-and-touch-it imagery. If this isn’t happening, how can I suspend my disbelief enough to fall into the music?

    This is not related to the sort of ‘audio spectacular’ imagery where all sorts of pin-point sizes instruments are arrayed between and behind the speakers. I’m referring to an image that seems to have a body, a palpability.

    In a properly voiced system, human voices are anything but emaciated caricatures of the real thing. This sort of image feels as if it is inhabiting a space in the room with you.
  • Increased energy and effortlessness.

    Systems that require lots of power to come alive, and shortly after that, start to sound fatiguing, are systems that will have difficulty conveying the message of the music. Careful attention to component location, as well as seating location, can significantly help to offset any drawbacks that a system that leans in this direction may normally exhibit.

    We want to enlarge the window of acceptable playback level to reach a level that is inviting at most settings, not just a narrow one between coming alive and becoming obnoxious.

    This effortlessness sometimes shows up as a sort of ‘bloom’ on the sound. It’s inviting and contagious.
  • Graceful and delicate details reproduced to their full effect. Subtle nuances show up, but only to serve the music, not to create an audiophile showpiece. The heightened expressive quality of a performer’s vocal is an example. Subtle shadings of tone and even soundstage presentation all serve to help the listener suspend his or her disbelief.

    Whether it’s a harp, a violin, a guitar, or any other instrument, when it’s being played softly, it invokes a sort of hushed reverence. These delicate musical sounds intertwine to portray the most gorgeous musical palette. Sadly, this wonderful illusion can be damaged through improper wave launch into the room, or inadvertently sitting in the wrong place in the room where the beauty is lost.

    This delicacy is often portrayed in a soundstage where lots of small musically inter-related things are happening, but together they build something very special.

    Since this is the revelatory part of the complete music listening experience, it’s critical to know how to preserve this delicacy in a manner that serves the music.
  • A vast difference in the presentation between ‘they are here’ and ‘we are there’ recorded perspectives. If this difference is not dramatic, then much of the potential to become immersed in the music will be lost. These cues serve to transmit the illusion of being in the presence of live music, appropriate to the recording’s inherent perspective.

    It’s one of the major offenders I hear when I arrive to voice a system. It’s as if the system is compromised in both arenas. It’s hard to hear the performance and its venue when recorded deep depth is fore-shortened, and recorded shallow depth sounds not all that different.

    This is ‘fixable’ and it is paramount to help us fall into the music as the performers intended.
  • For a ‘we are there recording’, the listener should feel virtually transported into the venue. Almost as if he or she can feel the air moving in the hall. Little remains of the sense of being in their room back home.

    As I mentioned above, this is big, and rarely is it at an appropriate level of resolution.
  • For a ‘they are here recording’, there should be the distinct feeling that the musicians have packed up their gear to come to my client’s house to perform a concert just for us. Very intimate and engaging. No walls, no ceilings and no speakers. Just the event.

    Intimacy is the key word here, but very few audiophiles have ever dealt with this aspect (at least, not from their stereo systems!). I make this observation from the reactions I see when they do finally experience it here or in their own homes.
  • Soundstage depth that extends beyond what was thought possible with the current system. Although achieved through technical set-up means, the end result is the firmly grounded creative expression of the live event.

    We covered this topic somewhat above, so I need not go further, except to say that, once you’ve experienced it, you’ve simply gotta have it.

  • True soundstage width, not what is often described in message boards and audio publications. This is an area that has received so much misinformation, that it’s probably not possible to correct the myths that surround it. At any rate, there is a definite standard for what is correct, and once heard, the misinformation is always exposed to the interested listener for what it is.

    I rarely spend much time on this aspect for clients, except to show them what it really is and explain what it can’t be, no matter how lofty and incorrect the claims get.
  • Tuneful and powerful bass, produced with authority & uncompromised dynamics, but never overwhelming (unless the recording is produced that way). Unless the bass is reproduced as accurately as possible within the framework of the system and room, listeners will never be truly satisfied with their musical listening experience.

    This foundation affects tone, presence, and dynamics – the cornerstones to any involving listening experience. It even affects soundstaging. At the technical level, booming or missing notes contribute to a false impression of the music and its performance. Compromising its capability means a dramatic reduction in the overall listening experience.

    The way it can compromise dynamics is especially concerning, and it is why I always say that until you get the bass right, you’ll never be happy.
  • All of the notes reproduced faithfully, with none emphasized, diminished, or altered. You would think this would be a given, but it has never been my experience when I have encountered any audiophile’s system.

    In fact, it’s most often the biggest shortcoming in systems today. It is almost never the fault of the speaker, at least within its’ published frequency extremes. It’s most always the room. In fact, it’s almost always the wrong seating position in the room. And it’s not rocket science – it just requires a bit of adjustment for it all to come together.
  • Greater focus and inner detail, but always serving the musical experience, never at its expense. Musical transitions should flow, not sound mechanical.

    When detail becomes a distraction, there is definitely some additional voicing to be done.
  • Story telling prowess – the combination of dynamics, tone, presence, and emotional impact must combine to make the listener feel as if he or she is on the edge of their seat, anxiously awaiting the next part of the story/song as it unfolds. 

    This is perhaps the trickiest effect to achieve with voicing. It helps if one of the components already has the ability to capture the listener’s rapt attention. Just having had the experience does elevate the reference level that is to be applied, even if it cannot always be fully realized. ”


So is it ‘science versus art’ or is it ‘science serving art’? Technical excellence vs. creative excellence?
These two descriptions of system set-up are not at all separate. All too often, I hear a technically excellent component or system that sounds – well, boring – when listening to actual music.

Yes, all the audiophile sound effects are reproduced to great effect. But when the thrill of audio delights diminishes, what’s left? Most systems – if they ever get there at all - remain at the “audio delight” level. And their owners, never having experienced the next level of music reproduction are satisfied with themselves and their systems. Except, of course, needing to upgrade as finances allow.

Creative excellence accepts all of the tenets of technical excellence. But then the creative juices kick in - driving the system to an exalted level, as tone, presence, dynamics and more begin to assert themselves on the musical reproduction stage.

So how can we make this happen for audiophiles?

First, we need to establish that solid reference we talked about. That’s the one thing that I’ve discovered that audiophiles do not really possess. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who seems to have the full grasp of what is possible in his or her room.

Since they don’t really know what is possible, how can they establish a known reference? Without a reference, how can they know where their system falls a bit short, and therefore, what to do about it?

Scenario

What follows is a scenario (designed to help them establish that reference) that has received rave responses from clients. Figuring I needed a name for this program, I call it RoomPlay Reference.

I realized that, in order to establish a known reference for audiophiles, they needed to hear a system that addresses the common issues that audiophiles face daily. There’s only one place where I hear all of the notes reproduced correctly with all of the soundstage, presence, tone, dynamics and musical involvement presented properly. That’s on my own system, in my listening room. Industry vets and advanced audiophiles who’ve experienced this system unanimously agree.

I’ve always carried those same sounds in my head, as a reference, when voicing a system, including setting up for shows. Now you can carry them as well, and use them to move your system to an entirely different level. We’ll see how this can happen, but first…

My goal has been that my personal system not be priced in the super stratosphere, but be priced at or below other “typical” high-end systems. After all, it’s about the set-up in the room, not the components. I’ve achieved similar results (written about on the Internet) with other components in the same room.

This listening room is nothing special at all – it’s simply the bonus room over my garage. It has its share of odd shaped and unfriendly room dimensions. So it’s a perfect example of working with the room, rather than against it, the central core of my beliefs re voicing any system. It is a dedicated room, however.

Wait a minute – what’s the difference between RoomPlay Reference and RoomPlay?

RoomPlay Reference is the program described here for audiophiles to firmly establish a reference for what is possible, and to be able to go back home and move their systems forward, including accessing additional input as described, and as they require.

RoomPlay is my term for the original RoomPlay voicing session in the client’s home.

Back to our scenario…

Reference visitors to my listening room hear exactly the same cuts that I play when voicing clients’ systems. But this is a no-excuse demo. No excuses for the bass, presence, soundstaging, tonality, dynamics, musical involvement, etc. No excuses, none...

Each cut will be evaluated as to its relevance and how it can be used as a reference cut in the listener’s own system.

As always happens, there’ll be a few Audiophile Common Knowledge myths debunked during our time together. Even with myths being debunked and certain effects being demonstrated, it’s not a time that focuses on these issues. It may be useful to know them in your personal quest for better sound, but they are simply extra info, not the main event. It does add to the fun, though!

At seminars, I often ask attendees this question – Do you remember how a concert can affect your emotions, so that it’s not uncommon to feel its effects the next day, even at work? Most will agree that they have had that experience. Then, when I ask them how often have they experienced it the next day after a listening session at home, all I get is blank stares. I’m not sure they really believe me when I tell them they deserve that experience and that it is possible.

In fact, voicing a system with a goal to deliver that effect is what I call the Art of the Possible. You should still feel the effects of the listening session the next day. You certainly will after a RoomPlay Reference session. In fact, a recent visitor, not an audiophile, someone who is very musically sensitive, said, as she was leaving the demo room to go back downstairs, “I feel like I’m leaving a musical sanctuary”

If we can escape the mechanical aspects of music listening and move into another realm, then we finally have something. Yes, there are always some technical issues to be resolved, but once they are handled, what remains is the music. I cannot think of a simpler way of saying this - it’s the audio equivalent of hard-wiring your ears to your heart.

Although I obviously have thousands of cuts I could play, during our Reference session, I’ll be focusing on the RoomPlay 72, the selections that I choose to play depending on the outcome of our demos, and your reactions and needs for your system. We will focus on these cuts in a way that will burn into your consciousness how they sounded and why they sound the way they do.

Carrying it with you.

I guarantee that you will carry this sound with you when you get back home. It will serve as a reference. But it can only be a true reference if you have it to play on your system, so that you can compare what is possible with what you are hearing.

That is why you’ll receive 6 CDs – 72 cuts – exactly the same source material used in your RoomPlay Reference demos & in my RoomPlay voicing sessions. These CDs are burned on the same digital system that I use for demos and voicing. The CDs are the property of Quarter Note Press, made available to you as a courtesy loan during the 90-day access period.

Having listened to and discussed what to listen for with each cut, you can play them back at home. Now you’ll have a real reference.

Your Reference session also includes 90 days of phone or e-mail access to discuss what you are hearing and how to overcome certain issues that you will discover. With what you learn during the listening session, and in follow-up discussions, your system will reach a whole new level.

Q&A

I’ve already been asked, “What about doing this with vinyl?” The answer is a bit complicated, but in essence, we can’t do it. If you are a vinyl-only person, it would still benefit you to hear what a properly voiced system can sound like, but you couldn’t really apply the references, since you couldn’t play the discs. In that light, I can’t justify a Reference session for you.

Furthermore, of the hundreds of systems that incorporate vinyl that I’ve voiced, less than 10% have their turntables really sounding as good as they could. The problems range from poor location to poor isolation to incorrect tracking force, to incorrect VTA, to incorrect anti-skate, to incorrect cartridge loading, etc. And this assumes alignment and overhang were done properly!

With the variables I’ve mentioned, even if I could produce the cuts on vinyl, there is little chance the user would know what needed adjusting. I’ve always used CD cuts that I know are free from recording issues to do preliminary voicing, even for vinyl owners. Once that was working, I could then start work on the turntable. But I needed to know that the system was working to its highest potential before introducing still more changes from the turntable set-up.

So this is still another reason why I cannot incorporate vinyl into the program.

I’ve also been asked, “Why not provide the discs in a lower-priced program for those of us who can’t travel to Atlanta?” This is actually an interesting question. My problem is, how could it be a reference if you never heard it reproduced properly? I am not sure I could ever describe what you could easily hear in my demo room in ten seconds.

OK, I’m still thinking about it, but don’t have an answer other than “not now.”

Another question I get is, “Why don’t you record how it sounds in your room?” My answer is, if your playback system is not yet “Playing the room”, how will you know what it should sound like? So I’m not considering this one. Not to mention that I’m not sure the effects could even be captured on a recording.

One more typical question – “Why can’t I use the test discs from (xxx audiophile source)?” I want to make it abundantly clear that the “test discs” that are being sold that have imaging sounds and the like will not help you to voice your system in any meaningful way. In fact, I’ve heard more than a few that were actually considerably worse – especially those that were tuned to present pin-point imaging (which nearly always comes at the expense of tone, presence and musical involvement).

Credits and payments

A RoomPlay Reference session (averages about 6-7 hours) is $450, including the session, the training, the discs, and 90-days access via phone or e-mail. As mentioned above, the $450 may be applied as a credit to be applied towards a full RoomPlay session, as long as it is booked (not necessarily performed) within 180 days of the Reference session.

So if you are already leaning towards a RoomPlay Master session, essentially the Reference fee is free!”

For more info, call me at 770-777-2095 or e-mail me at jim@getbettersound.com.

Best regards –

Jim Smith

PS – Imagine what it would be like to KNOW what is possible and to have a roadmap and the necessary tools to take your system there – a place that you hadn’t known was possible - and to do it all without buying another component…

 
     
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