synthetic zero

April 16th, 2009

I recently decided I wanted to get better speakers. My grandfather used to be into high fidelity, and then my dad; I have fond memories as a child watching my dad happily bring home a new amplifier, or going with him to the stereo store to buy a new set of speakers, where we carefully listened and chose a pair that sounded best.  For some reason these memories really stand out for me.  We’d bring them home and listen to music — a lovely experience.  And speakers last — they were a constant reminder, year in and year out, of a certain commitment my family has to aesthetics, something I was proud of.

When I was in my 20’s I owned a fairly good set of speakers, DCM TimeFrames, and a decent amp, but that system didn’t have a lot of punch, and when they were stolen I never really replaced them with anything exceptional, although what I had was far better than what most of my friends own. It seems the era of high tech has made people less interested in high fidelity. People listen to compressed mp3s on cheap earbuds, or, even worse, on laptop speakers, which sound even worse than the boom boxes of the 80’s.  I’ve been to many parties where the main entertainment was a laptop playing YouTube videos through tinny speakers.

I’d been making do with inexpensive subwoofer + satellite computer speaker systems. Recently, however, I had some savings and decided the time had finally come for an upgrade. I spent quite a while researching online, and I listened to a bunch of systems in the store, and even took some home (thank God for return policies), but the first two systems I bought just didn’t quite have the “wow” factor I was hoping for. With each excursion the price crept up … but I finally decided if I’m going to get some really good speakers and a good amp, I should make the investment, go for something truly beautiful. Speakers can last years, even decades, so in fact the cost, when you think of it, is relatively small, less than the price of a few lattes a month. Even if that weren’t the case, however, I think certain things — beauty, visual or aural, are worth it.

So … I finally settled on an interesting setup. A pair of Polk LSi9 speakers with a relatively inexpensive subwoofer (a PSW110). These are difficult-to-drive speakers that take a lot of power; the audiophile forums all suggested I get an external amplifier, but for now I found a high current receiver, an Onkyo TX-SR806, which can handle these speakers. The reviews for the Polk LSi line of speakers are amazing … for both the LSi9 and the LSi15 (which by all accounts are similar, despite the fact that the LSi9’s are bookshelf speakers and the LSi15 is a much more imposing tower speaker — the LSi15 is very close to being an LSi9 with a subwoofer built into one cabinet).

Of the LSi9, Soundstage said:

I really liked the combination of having a punchy and lively presentation, but also having the refinement and smoothness that I expect in a top-notch speaker. This speaker jumps to life like a Spring Break party, but retains the sophistication of a black-tie dinner. This combination is something you rarely find in small speakers at any price. The LSi9 also images with precision and provides a level of robustness that is thoroughly captivating.

On the LSi15, Onhifi.com gushed:

Quite simply, the Polk Audio LSi15s sent showers of neural sparks coursing through my brain, stimulated my corpus callosum, and produced endorphins by the bucketful — or, to put it in lay terms, they made music.

Most reviews consider the LSi line “audiophile” quality — sounding as good as speakers twice their price or more.  When I got them home I hooked them up — after some adjustments … I was floored. As Katharine said when she heard them … “Is there something wrong if it sounds even better than live?” With a system like this it becomes excruciatingly clear that mp3 files are significantly different from CDs … playing music from my iPod sounded good, but when I hooked up my CD player digitally directly to the Onkyo … you could hear details in the music that I didn’t think possible: the sounds of fingers brushing strings as the musicians played, tiny nuances in vocal performances, and certain recordings just jump out at you, not in a harsh or fatiguing way, but sounding natural, smooth, rich, and full.  I’m going to have to reencode a lot of my CDs as lossless or high-bitrate files, something I never thought I’d need to do.

The overall effect of listening to this is dramatic, striking. It’s far beyond my expectations. This is by far the most impressive soundsystem I’ve ever owned, and the price turned out to be higher than many would pay but well below the upper ranges of what some audiophiles spend. It’s worth it, I believe.

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5 responses to this post:
  1. dmitriy says:

    Thank you for sharing. I’m thinking of upgrading my sound system, too, though I haven’t done much research at this point. I’m curious if you have looked into Bose speakers, and what is your opinion? Also, would any CD player sound good with this setup, or you have to have a certain make/model to take full advantage of the these speakers? Thank you.

    April 16th, 2009 at 12:25 pm
  2. mitsu says:

    I bought some Bose speakers and returned them. They just didn’t have the range and accuracy I think they ought to for the price. I personally think the store demos are set up to make these speakers sound better than they really are … they don’t have the versatility of other brands in my opinion. Check out the Bose FAQ: http://www2.zhome.com:81/ZCMnL/PICS/stereo/bosefaq.htm

    As for CD players … if you use a player with an optical output it doesn’t matter because the sound is being decoded by your receiver. Then it’s the receiver or amp quality that matters. You can also check to see if the player supports high resolution audio like SACD. I happen to have a Playstation 3, funnily enough, but it is actually a good CD and SACD player as well as Blu-Ray player.

    In the end you just have to buy a system and take it home and listen. For around $2000 the system I described is pretty great. Keep in mind that stores often do not set up speakers for listening demos properly. Sometimes you have to take them home to really hear what they sound like.

    April 17th, 2009 at 4:14 am
  3. dmitriy says:

    Thank you, Mitsu. That article really opened my eyes.

    April 17th, 2009 at 10:22 am
  4. mitsu says:

    Sure, dmitriy. It’s funny how there’s this overlap between technical geekiness and aesthetic beauty/quality here. The real point I wanted to make in this post had to do with the beauty of sound … but in order to achieve this you have to put some effort into the technical specifications. It’s a form of craftsmanship, both on the part of the manufacturers and even on the part of those of us trying to assemble a system.

    To get “audiophile” speakers and amps you generally have to go to places other than the big box stores like Best Buy, I might add. Email me if you’d like more advice on that.

    April 17th, 2009 at 12:22 pm
  5. Unbiased Review for polk audio lsi | Polk Speaker Blog says:

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    June 2nd, 2009 at 7:54 am

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