Having discovered that salespeople at massmarket retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City show a dismaying lack of knowledge about audio, I purchased three $2000 systems— from the West Coast electronics chain Good Guys, the online/mail-order operation Crutchfield, and the independent audio specialty shop Access to Music in San Rafael, California. (See the previous installment for details about the shopping experience.)
Stage Two of the experiment involved evaluating the systems for ease of setup and operation, and sound quality. As with the shopping, I tried to approach setup and operation from a novice’s perspective; however, there were minor glitches with all three systems that could have presented daunting problems for beginners and that required me to shift character to “system expert” to fix.
The listening experiment coincided with a three-week visit by my friend Leonid Korostyshevski—an engineer, lifelong and very eclectic music fan, and audiophile of long experience from Saratov, Russia. “Lenny” helped me set up and evaluate all the systems and repack the gear when we were done. I printed up some score sheets, so that we could methodically rank audio performance (treble, midrange, bass, dynamics, imaging, pace), ergonomics, appearance, ease of setup, and ease of use. We used the same selection of recordings, played in generally the same order, to maintain consistency—all of them commercial CDs, save for one CD-R encoded with MP3s. A medium-sized, fully carpeted room off my kitchen served as the test area, with some of the furniture moved out to make space for the audio gear and for two listening chairs. All the electronics were plugged into an AudioPrism Foundation III line filter.
The Crutchfield system—a Denon AVR-2805 home-theater receiver and DVM-1815 DVD/CD changer, Polk Monitor 60 tower loudspeakers, and Polk PSW12 subwoofer—was the first one we tackled. In cherry veneer with silver accents and detachable black grilles, the Polks looked stylish, but felt insubstantial. The Denon AVR-2805 offers a lot of performance for the money—in fact, it’s one I’ve recommended to folks wanting to put together a budget home-theater system—but its back panel is completely and dismayingly encrusted with connectors. Lenny and I both commented that the complex back panel and perplexing operating options probably would have stymied first-timers. Fortunately, the only connections needed were speaker wires (Monster XP2F HT- 15—ordinary16-gauge zipcord with gold-plated pin plugs), one optical cable to the disc player, and an RCA cable to the subwoofer. Crutchfield hadn’t supplied a cable for the sub—points off for that—and we made do with a two-meter length of coax scavenged from a box in my garage.
With the electronics between them, the Monitor 60s stood about seven feet apart and 18" out from the back wall, with the subwoofer on the inside of the left speaker. Aiming for the best bass extension with the smoothest transition to the primary speakers, we set the sub’s crossover point, polarity, and level using Gregory Isaac’s “Night Nurse,” a bass-heavy reggae tune. We didn’t experiment with any of the receiver’s many synthetic soundfields or tonal-balance tweaks, sticking, instead, to basic stereo playback with the tone controls set to “flat.”
That seemed to be the best evaluation technique and was the one we followed with the other two systems, as well. In all three cases, we placed the amp or receiver on top of the disc player to dampen vibration and to make sure the heat-generating component would have adequate ventilation. This counterintuitive setup, with a heavier component on top of a lighter one, would probably not occur to first-time users. CDs included rock, pop, jazz, and classical, with some—like discs of Kathleen Battle, Bernadette Peters, and Zemfira (the Suzanne Vega of Russia)— chosen for vocal clarity.
Despite the simple hookup, the Denon electronics were balky to use, a situation worsened by overly complicated remote controls—especially that of the disc player, which seemed to cough and hiccup a bit with every disc change and every move to a new track. Especially annoying was its lack of direct-track-access buttons on the front panel. (“DVD player SUXX,” Lenny noted on his score sheet.) Unlike the Yamaha and Marantz players in the other two systems, it played MP3- encoded CD-Rs, a benefit for music fans with eclectic collections of downloads. Unlike its hefty companion receiver, the Denon disc changer felt flimsy. The Polk speaker system had seemingly endless low-end potential but its high frequencies were somewhat veiled, a characteristic that improved after about 15 minutes of warm-up.