Thursday, July 25, 2013

Good Buy: "Hi-fi" Speakers. Remember to bring a car...

Songs don't get stuck in my head, they get stuck on repeat on my music players. Nowadays, that includes my cheapo iPod Shuffle and stupidly expensive stereo system hooked up to my computer at home. Even though I usually repeat the exact same five songs over and over again, sound quality is still important to me.

Time to upgrade my speakers
Years ago, I realized this appreciation for sound and decided to upgrade my speakers. The set I had were considered "expensive" at just over $100. With many sets available for less than $30, this was an extravagance to some -- feels like sunglasses. I thought they sounded hollow with a pretty poor soundstage. Bass also felt a bit boomy with the speakers with subwoofer designed and marketed as gaming speakers. These were not real issues when it came to games and movies, but music was another thing.

So, off I went on a quest to upgrade my speakers. The two major sets at what I thought were an extravagant price of $300-ish were 5.1 systems designed for use with computers. Chances are that they would have been fine. However, something came over me and I decided that I should just get the best damn speakers I could somewhat afford. The idea would be that I'd never have to upgrade again.
Paradigm Atoms
From $300 to $600
Throughout my research, I had heard recommendations to get bookshelf speakers, hook those up to a receiver, and get a subwoofer to finish it off. These self-made systems were supposedly miles ahead in terms of sound quality with an open road for expansion and/or upgrades. After doing even more research, I managed to put together a system that should at least turn on. The tally was about $600 for the receiver and speakers alone minus a subwoofer -- what was that about $300 being extravagant?

Picking the system up on foot -- FML
The speakers I wanted were on sale one week, so I thought it was time to blow $600. Not being a driver or wanting to burden anyone else, I went there on foot alone with the plan to maybe buy a receiver or speakers, then go back another day to pick the other component out.

Some pushy sales tactics and gullibility later, and I had picked up the full system with an extended warranty -- no sampling was done. That impulsivity led to me walking out of the store with two big and heavy boxes. If you're not aware, even small bookshelf speakers can weigh about 5-10 lb each and I got a set of two. The receiver was probably close to 10 lb. Both items were bulked up with foam packaging. Being 5'4" and 140 lb, carrying about 25 lb for long distances in two hands isn't the easiest thing to do.

I made it about two blocks and kept thinking how difficult and stupid it'd look to get on public transit with two giant boxes. Luckily, I was close to a taxi stand, so I gave up on walking and got a taxi. End of the delivery/transport story. Worst two blocks of walking ever.

Having never stripped wires before, setup was not the funnest. Everything else just plugged in, but I needed to strip four cables to connect to the two speakers from the receiver as they both used binding post terminals. It probably took an entire evening to successfully strip the wires without nipping the copper strands using scissors (wasn't tool oriented). When I finally made it, securing the wires was as simple as screwing the posts in.

First system: Too high
My initial introduction to the world of high-fidelity sound went terribly. I noticed right from the start that the speakers were not agreeing with my ears. The soundstage was great, overall sound quality was great, and they were loud, but my ears were in "pain". They sounded too high-pitched, or in slightly more technical terms, the speakers seemed to emphasize the higher frequencies too much.

This first set of speakers was given about a week. I even tried to "break them in" by playing music on them for hours at a time over a few days. From what I've heard, the break-in process can take months. At some point, I just decided to give up and return them, as well as the extended warranty, which was a complete rip-off.

Second system: Success
With my recent failure in my mind, I decided to do more research and seek out a set of speakers with a "warm" sound, which should have emphasized the mid-range frequencies. I don't recall too many options because before long, I was looking for a Paradigm dealer in my city that had Atoms in stock. On a weekday afternoon after school, I went to try the speakers out with some of my CDs to make sure I wouldn't carry home another 20 lb dud. Well, they were great and, once again, there was a sale. I managed to pick up the floor models for a discount. This didn't remotely bother me because I knew that I would be getting the exact same set that I had just heard and loved.

The wires were already cut for my last set of speakers, so the only installation required this time was the attachment of the wires on the speaker end. Within the hour, I was mesmerized. A few months later, I picked up a subwoofer on sale for $150. The woofer was a great addition. It's a shame I can't properly place it in my room to really get the best sound of it though.

Anyways, the final tally was about $700 -- definitely higher than the $300 I set out to spend.

Still kicking
I have probably had the exact same set of Paradigm Atoms (V3?) for over six years now. They still rock. There have been instances where I've been tempted to upgrade either my bookshelves or the subwoofer, but they're honestly good enough. Any further step up would probably not be as pronounced as going from relatively cheap computer speakers to bookshelves. This was definitely one of the purchases I ever made in terms of value and enjoyment.

Final System
This is my setup:
- Pioneer Receiver VSX-516 [~$250 new]
- Paradigm Atoms (V3-ish generation) [$180 floor models]
- Velodyne VX-10 [$150 sale]

Bad Buy: Blackberry Playbook
Bad Buy: Playstation 3
Good Buy: Intel 520 SSD