Our expectations of immediate gratification were instantly shot down. The speakers sounded way too boomy. The solution: bringing them out farther into the room and filling their ports with the foamrubber plugs supplied with the speakers by B&W, a cure mentioned in the multilingual owner’s manual. Plugging the ports eliminated the booming bass but also altered the speakers’ overall bass response, changing the 602’s from rowdy rock ’n’ roll party animals to polite recital performers. A series of vocal and instrumental recordings led to another revelation. The midrange was inexplicably predominant, more so than could be explained by room acoustics or choice of recordings. “Something’s not right here,” I grumbled.
Although it took us outside our selfimposed restrictions on approaching the setup as much like beginners as possible, we had no choice but to experiment with the interconnect. Replacing the G-Snake with the Monster IL400 Mk II from the Yamaha/Energy system brought everything into focus: bass, mids, highs, depth, width, impact, and detail. Imaging improved substantially, and after some careful tweaking of speaker placement, the system really began to sing.
Once we got the system balanced—a task that Patrick, to his credit, volunteered to do when I first made the purchase— it sounded wonderful, delivering the essential soul of the music, and the dimensionality of recordings, in a way that the other two systems hadn’t. Vocals and instrumentals alike had air around them rather than being confined in the space between two loudspeakers. While not capable of creating a fully immersive soundfield the way more elaborate systems can, the Marantz/Rotel/B&W setup offered more than a taste of true high-end audio. The fact that it could easily resolve differences between interconnects is proof of this. Prior to replacing the G-Snake, Lenny actually rated this system worse than either of the other two, and I had it between them. We assumed that had Patrick come out to the house and tweaked the system, he would have experimented to find the right interconnect. We felt that replacing it was within the rules of the game, and gave the system a revised aggregate score of 6.5.
Of course, once we had finished evaluating all three, we couldn’t resist doing a little mixing ’n’ matching. The most substantial improvement was simply hooking up the Polk PSW12 subwoofer to the Marantz/Rotel/B&W system. The Rotel RA-1062 integrated amp doesn’t have a subwoofer output, but it does have preamp out, and we used a pair of two-meter Nordost Quattro-fil interconnects to hook it up to the sub’s line-level inputs. The irony of using interconnects more expensive than the rest of the system combined wasn’t lost on us.
As has proven true every time I’ve done it, the addition of low-frequency reinforcement took the system to an entirely new level of performance, with better perceived dynamics, impact, pace, and imaging. It was enough to convince Lenny that a subwoofer should be his next audio investment. As Sterling Trayle explained to me when he was at Sumiko: “A good sub doesn’t need to draw attention to itself. It should energize the room, and establish an optimum acoustic environment for the main speakers.” The Polk PSW12 is a great subwoofer for the money: a $300 addition to a $2000 system elevated it from merely “good” to darn near excellent. Stretching a budget just a little bit can yield wonders.
Moral of the story: The best values and best service are still to be found in traditional brick-and-mortar specialty audio stores. Helping customers select a system, set it up, find the optimal interconnects, and install and tweak a subwoofer are the kinds of services you should expect from a specialty audio shop like Access to Music. They’re in business to help people enjoy music. Big retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City are in the commodities business, moving mass quantities of goods at small margins, with little concern for customer service. Mid-sized chains like Good Guys are disappearing, and with them salespeople and service techs with decades of experience. In fact, between the time the first installment of this feature went to press and the writing of this follow-up (late October), Good Guys’ corporate parent CompUSA announced that the 30-year-old chain would be shuttered by mid-December. By the time this story sees daylight, Good Guys will simply be one more casualty of corporate mismanagement. That’s all the more reason why music lovers should patronize independent shops in their own communities. As the bumper sticker wisdom has it: Think globally, act locally.