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An Audiophile Journey's End - 15 years on

edited August 2022
One day last week, I was bored working in my home office and started to browse through some old comments in the forum and read an old piece of my write-up posted some 15 years ago which still resonates with me until today !
This old piece of writing was my heart-felt reaction/impression after my final system's change to horn speakers driven by single-ended amplification. It touched me more than any system I had owned as well as many other systems that I had experienced. However, I hasten to add this is just my very PERSONAL bias of what a fine and realistic hi-fi system should perform.
If you are curious to learn what the fuss is all about, please read the original write-up below :
Contrary to popular belief that horns are directional drivers which transmit sound directly at its listener, the use of room tuning device such as the sugar cubes on 3 strategic (reflective) places of the wall to deal with reflective sound pressure resulted in getting the exact tonality I wanted, see the position of these little wooden cubes, top one deals with the big horn, middle one for the ...
Those who regularly change their speakers or amps once every 2-3 years may not appreciate or understand what I am driving at. Reproduction of hi-fi sound in your home is really about building a combination of hi-fi components to satisfy your aural aspiration - you must be clear of what kind of sound reproduction (like food) you are striving to achieve.  Once you have found what you want , you'll stick with it - to prove my point, PT has his AEON speakers for over a decade too.
I have been aspiring for a sound system to reproduce music with real/very colourful tonality, vocals should be reproduced with emotions and you can hear movements in the mouth and throat. Individual instrument should carry harmonic decay. Acoustic instruments especially wind instruments will generate very dynamic sound as well as rich harmonics, so I expect any decent sounding hi-fi rig to sound 'musical' with correct tonality and can reproduce loud dynamics without hardness (compression).
There is a saying 'there are many roads to Rome". Therefore, I am sure there are many paths an audiophile can take to achieve the 'ultimate' goal of reaching high fidelity sound from your system. For me, we need to find good electronics, be it valve, transistor or hybrid with 'matching' speakers. Once this complete system is set up, the next endeavour is to provide an environment for it to sing. This is the most difficult part which is very time consuming and can also be costly and unsightly (I will elaborate below). 
Do not underestimate proper speaker placement  (as opposed to correct, as there is no such thing), whenever you change your components or even cables/power cords, the frequency and dynamic will change also. Therefore, even your previous speaker placement is spot on, you'll need to make minor adjustments to achieve the best possible sound reproduction, that's why almost all hi-fi dealers' systems do not sound good as they constantly change the components of the system. For instance, if the component or accessory you have just changed produces a little bit more energy which may detract you from turning your listening to maximum sound level, then you'll need to push your speakers 1-5 mm farther apart  or have less toe-in etc. 
Next and in my opinion, the biggest challenge is tweaking room acoustics in order to make your speakers sing. Case in point, Divin Lab has been in existence for many years and you can see the two monoliths have been moved around many times, the acoustics have also been improved with new sound tweaking tools with positive results. The latest use of many wooden diffusers which require a lot of precious and limited space in your home is a challenge to some of you for sure.
Unless you are able to tackle room acoustic problems successfully, you'll never be able to hear the true potentials of your speakers/system. My humble opinion from my listening experience which started in 1973 is most systems are not performing 50% of their  true potentials.
Let me elaborate on what I have just said above. I wrote "An audiophile journey's end " some 15 year ago, and apart from upgrading my Cessaro speakers with bass horns and subwoofers, the system has not changed except interconnects and power cords. I am sure those who have visited me from time to time during this long period of time could discern a tangible improvement in the overall sound even though I have not changed any electronic component and speakers - both Zanden and Cessaro are love at first hearing.
Most of you who have not heard my system will obviously be doubting Thomas but unless you spend a lot of pain staking time and effort to tweak your system on speaker placement and room acoustics, there will be no major change in sound reproduction. Simply by replacing components or accessories with another brand will obviously and hopefully give general improvement in sound, it won't lift your system's overall performance especially if your speakers are not positioned properly and your room acoustics are less than ideal especially if you have large windows and hard floor and untreated walls etc etc etc..... to make matters worse, if your room has obvious acoustic problems for instance, either there's insufficient bass (mostly due to incorrect phase) or too much of it, simply by changing your components will never solve this, period.
Fast forwarding to present,  I have moved to this apartment some 3 year ago, its long corridor plus balcony were causing slight phase problem in the bass but the surrounding living and dining room area with good amount of wooden fixtures provided very nice tonality and harmonic decay in sound.
Since the distance from my listening position to the big horns is shorter than previous hi-fi den, I was challenged by the powerful sound and had to extensively tweak the back wall to diffuse the direct sound as well as the left and right side. This acoustic tweak continues until now but has yielded very satisfying sound.
Now, I am very happy with the sound of my system which gives a very solid and three-dimensional sound with realistic tonality and lots of harmonic decay. Simply put, it's very musical and when the musical passages call for a thunderous sound, it rises up to the challenge. I have repeatedly measured the room and system dynamic range, its goes from 38 dB (with aircon turned off) to 115 dB, no kidding !
The purpose of my write-ups is to foster better hi-fi reproduction in domestic environment by sharing my encounters with room acoustics and to a lesser extent, speaker placement. I hope to share more with fellow audiophile in the future if there is a genuine interest in system and room optimisation.
Happy listening
Mr Z


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    A full suite of Zanden components and original Cessaro Beta horns
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    Without proper acoustic treatment, one will never be able to listen to very loud passage. Last Sat. with aircon turned on, the dynamic range went from 43 dB to 115 dB. If you are sitting in the middle of the 5th-8th row in the concert hall, you'' may be able to experience this sensation.
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    Mr Zanden,

    I agree with all of your experiences especially on speaker positioning.  Can you elaborate on this point of your own experiences?  Your gigantic horn system, how do you adjust position? I am eager to learn. 
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    Dear Raymond

    Thank you for reading my write-up which I felt was long-overdue as I suspect the majority of hi-fi comrades' systems are not performing to their full potential due to inadequate room acoustic treatment as well as room acoustic problems .

    My findings from personal experiences, most systems with less-than acceptable sound (to my ears)  are attributable to a combination of factors such as speaker placement, room acoustic (or lack of it), incompatible components' matching leading to wrong tonality in sound.

    I hope this discussion will continue for at least one year until everyone is satisfied with the sound of their system. I have been suffering from 'dissatisfied hi-fi sound syndrome' from 1973 to 2007. 

    I have repeatedly questioned myself very deeply over the years WHY I do this....... that is why I constantly make effort to try to improve the sound of my existing system. The only reason I can think of is a good sounding system which can create an illusion I am almost listening to real music or feeling someone singing/playing in front of me makes me feel HAPPY, I can indulge myself in this very enjoyable and exciting listening session without having to think about or face off the many lingering worries or unpleasant things in life. 

    Enough of this soul searching or self-discovery stuff, once you are satisfied with the latest mix and match of your hi-fi system, the only way to test this is to listen to it through your mechanical  transducers.

    Raymond, being a seasoned audiophile, I'm sure you are familiar with the traditional method of speaker placement by experimenting with one speaker first and listen on mono music, then place it in the position with most energy etc. But reality dictates in H.K. with its very limited space in the listening area, audiophiles don't have much room to maneuver (this is a blessing in disguise). 

    If I'm not mistaken, you have 4 monoliths in your hi-fi den and if your electronic crossover is a digital make, then the bass unit should be placed slightly in front of your speaker for proper bass reproduction.  As our speakers are very different, horns are directional and Cessaro tweeters and mid-range are open baffled design, they need to be placed not too far away from the back wall for sound reflection but conventional box designed speakers should be placed well away from back wall to reduce colouration. 

    Next move, whether to toe-in or no (or very little) toe-in very much depends on the distance between the speakers and the listener. As my listening position is ridiculously close to the horns, I need to toe-in quite a bit to produce a well-defined sound image. However, if I have a much longer listening distance, much less toe-in will suffice. I also believe conventional box speakers do not require large toe-in, period. 

    Hard and fast rule, once you have positioned your speakers properly (this word is used very loosely), whenever you have changed your component with a little more energy especially in the mid-range region, then you can either move your speaker farther apart by 1-5mm or with slightly less toe-in angle, the opposite applies if new component has less energy in the mid-range.

    Well, I wish life is as simple as I have stated above but we must start somewhere, right. The sole problem in preventing your system from producing decent sound is the listener is unaware of the problem in the sound of his/her system. Over the years, when audiophiles have visited my hi-fi den, they comment after hearing my system, they now realise their system sound lean, cold, anemic and less musical.

    Perhaps one day I may have the privilege of inviting you over to listen to my system so that you fully understand what I have been driving at all these years of what the fuss is all about in proper hi-fi sound reproduction in a domestic environment. 

    Audiophiles are very different type of animals, normally one will not invite a stranger to your home to have lunch/dinner but they will usually welcome strangers to listen to their system, perhaps to share their happiness ?

    Happy listening.

    Mr Z 

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    Dear Mr. Zanden,

    I would like to ask if it is convenient for you to post demonstrative videos of your sophisticated Hi-Fi system on YouTube.

    If the answer is yes, then we can enjoy 70%-80% audio quality of your superb music collection because YouTube videos now unofficially support PCM 24-bit 48 kHz.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your invaluable audiophile experience with us!

    Yours sincerely,

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    Mr.Zanden’s spirit is timeless. 
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    Keep it coming,  Mr Zanden!  
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    Part two : Speaker Placement

    I would very much like to wager a bet that most of audiophiles’ speakers are not properly positioned leading to lack of a solid central image on vocals or instrument, slightly blurring imaging and vague soundstage.

    I want to repeat there are many roads to Rome, so therefore, my latest two cents on proper speaker placement below is just one of the many different ways you can experiment to optimize speaker positioning.

    I thought I have positioned my speakers almost spot on recently, two weeks ago, hi-fi comrade Roman invited Mr Dynamic and MichaelM to come over to listen to my system. Mr Dynamic commented the image of the snare drum of one CD track I played to him was a little too high. Although the next day, he messaged me, after listening to the same track in his home, the height/image of this particular snare drum was the same.

    Being a near perfectionist, at the spur of a moment, I removed all the acoustic tweak on the back wall of my hot seat which I had spent hundred of hours in tweaking to achieve latest sound effect and rearranged them all over again. To my surprise and relief, this process took roughly one day to achieve the sound effect which had satisfied me. This week, I moved my speakers 1 mm at a time to optimize the sound picture of the music I play to create an almost 3-dimensional sound stage with uncannily true-to-life vocal image.

    I have collected a selection of this female singer's most famous recording (she's one of my favourite singers) over the years. 

    Let’s start together to position your speakers with an old CD that all seasoned audiophile in HK, Taiwan and Mainland China (Singapore and Malaysia included) has in his/her collection - 蔡琴老歌 (Tsai Chin – Old songs, if you don’t have this one, use Eva Cassidy Live at Blues Alley and play in reverse phase) ). This cd is loved by owners of bookshelf and small standing speakers due to its precise vocal image and bass but loathed by those who have large speakers because if they are not positioned properly, her vocal recording on track 1 has nasty sibilance and bass can be woolly and very often boomy, that’s why you do not get to hear it play in public hi-fi events or showrooms these days.

    This is a very tricky CD to play, trust me as I have listened to it on over 100 systems since its first release in 1985.

    Let’s get some factual parameters into proper perspective. First, the vocal is pretty transparent but if your lower mid-bass and bass are boomy, the vocal will not be. Although the bass is boomy and can resonate in a very nasty way with your room, in my system and present acoustically-tweaked room, the bass note always hit the floor and never bounces above your bum.

    Her voice when played in a proper setting should be rock solid, you can "see" her mouth moving, she sings through her throat most of the time and you can her voice vibrating (harmonic decay some may call it). Marvel commented the sound when he first heard it in my system that she sounded older here. If she sounds under 40 years of age in your system, your midrange is slightly thin, the correct vocal is a melancholy woman in her early 50’s singing.

    Ok, let's hit the play button on track 1, if you hear distinct recording hiss before music comes, you’re playing a tad too loud First, your hear the piano, it doesn’t sound like a concert hall grand piano but you can hear a piano playing in your room on the right hand side and you can hear the lower notes (bass note to some) distinctly, the recording is the pianist is facing the listener, so the lower notes are played from the right hand side.  

    When the vocal comes, if you hear sibilance, especially if it sounds harsh, your speakers ain’t aligned correctly. Try to move speakers a little closer or if your speaker are widely positioned due to your room, more toe in will do the trick. Once you manage to have a reasonably solid central image, let’s check the bass. If it sounds boomy, it is your room which is resonating in sync with speakers. There are many causes of boomy bass, from my experience and I assume you’re not driving Wilson’s flagship speakers with a Kondo 18 watt integrated amp (yes, I heard this track on this system combo 20 years ago, you can damage this amp by playing Gladiator soundtrack very loud and one channel will be gone – yes, I heard this too), you need to do one of the followings : push speakers closer to back wall or the opposite, move speakers closer together or farther apart. Because bass sound wave bounces all over the room, there’s no preset method of how to control it due to your room size as well fixtures and fittings.  

    Once the vocal (sibilance) and bass (boom) are tackled successfully, congrats as you can almost play ANY recordings reasonably well from now on. Can you hear her vocal sounding melancholy which touches your heart.

    However, to further fine tune the system will be a too laborious and time-consuming endeavour.

    Anyway, enough of this, I would be very interested in reading your feedback on how you get on with this CD or LP. Just to reiterate my intention of this write-up is to foster better hi-fi sound reproduction as in my experience, the majority of audiophiles out there are very enthusiastic in changing/upgrading your equipment and never invest in enough time to optimize your speaker placement – tell me do you have a very palpable soundstage in front of you ?

    Happy listening and tweaking this weekend.


    Mr Z






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    edited August 2022
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