by October 3, 2011 0 comments

“All the left-channel stuff is on that shelf,” said the pony-tailed audiophile. “Separate power supply, pre-amp, equalizer,left amp. All tube, of course. The right channel’s thisshelf”.

Wow, I said politely. That was 25 years ago. I was dabblingwith designing and making audio systems. But I didn’t quitefit into the high-end audiophile community that reveled in thesnobbery of components: separately bought turntable andarm and head and needle, separate monoblock left and rightchannel amps, all, of course, vacuum tube-based…

Integrated systems were already pretty good, and gettingbetter. Clever little power-amp chips like the TDA2020 madeour job really easy, and gave us almost the specs of componentsystems (including clean stereo separated by well over 90 dB)on a one-chip circuit-board.

But life would get more complicated. First we added sub-woofers to stereo speakers, and got 2.1 sound. Things gotworse, and in a couple of decades life had moved on to 5.1channel surround sound. It didn’t stop there, and went on toso-called 7.1 channel sound,and other nonsense.

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We do not have seven ears.Properly recorded sound played back over high-quality stereoheadphones can give you concert-hall realism. Yes, a 5.1 chan-nel system playing back specially-recorded audio can’surround you’, but that effect is often an artifice (recordingsare ‘enhanced’ to separate recorded channels or instruments,creating an exaggerated sense of being surrounded, or of a carmoving from rear left to right). And it is highly restrictive: youhave to sit just right, in the acoustic center, to experience it.There are elements with a far greater role in affecting soundreproduction than the number of speakers: acoustics, includ-ing room symmetry, wall reflectivity, open doorways, etc.

There was, thus, a welcome move back to simplicity,driven largely by the iPod. Its flotilla of accessories includedthe dock, a single unit combining electronics and stereospeakers. The compact, portable design forced designers toinnovate to pack high quality audio, and stereo imaging, intoone little box.

Among the leaders was Bose, with a lot of expertise in com-pact systems. Their Wave Music System is astunning example of what you can do with onesmall unit: high quality stereo that sounds likeit comes from a big system, in bedroom orparty. (Sadly, the WMS was not designed forIndia, and a cooling-fan that sucks in dust en-sures that my unit goes back for expensiveservice every six months, with a stuck CD. Thedocks, however, have no such issues.)

The Bose SoundDock (in the Rs 20krange) brought high-quality stereo sound to a compact unit.But it wasn’t alone: many others joined the fray. The Bowers &Wilkins Zeppelin came in at twice the price, with somewhatbetter sound detailing, and stunning looks that overshadowedthe Bose. The latter’s SoundDock 10 caught up with the priceand the audio, if not the looks. JBL’s OnStage brought inrather good sound at half the price. There were dozens more.

The new Bose SoundLink wireless speaker (around Rs19k) is another example of what you can do with a single unit.Compact, portable, long battery life, it plays music from yourphone, iPod or iPad, streamed over Bluetooth, with amazingstereo sound for such a small device.

And a compact single unit’s great spinoff is flexibility: youcan move it around to suit the listeners in a room, withoutforcing them into an “optimal spot”in the middle of a 5.1 system.

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