Thursday, June 08, 2006

Surrounded by Sound

These days, when people talk consumer electronics, they are almost exclusively talking about things designed by the Japanese. Sure, the Americans still occasionally show brilliance with things like the iPod, and the Koreans and Chinese have pushed up under the Japanese for the stack them high and sell them cheap goods, but the Japanese generally rule the roast.

Except for the niche area of audiophilia. Here, the UK, with its quirky culture of boffins and techno geeks still retains a comfortable lead position alongside our Asian friends. If you’ve got a bit of dosh, and I’m not talking about remortgaging the house, you can buy British and buy the best in sound.

This was an important factor for me recently. Last year, we finally cracked a long-standing water leak in our house. We had done everything, rebuilt the chimneys, replaced guttering, took off and rerendered exterior walls, and finally, by a slow process of elimination made our house dry again. This was important as the primary leak manifested itself in our bedroom.

For years we had lived with walls in the room we slept that were blistered and mottled with various molds. I kid you not, it was really quite grim. Finally, on getting it sorted, we were confident enough to strip the walls back to the brick and replaster and redecorate and generally make it look nice.

Being the crafty sort of guy I am, and knowing my wife well, I casually suggested that it was a prime opportunity to wiring ducts if we ever wanted to put in surround sound speakers and a telly. Now we don’t watch much television, maybe a quick half hour of the news as we go to sleep, and once in a blue moon a movie. Thing is, when you watch a movie you want to be comfortable and relaxed and your bedroom is as good a place as any.

She bought it, and clearly the next step was to actually put in surround sound and a telly. This is where my strategy flowered in its brilliance. To put such things into our bedroom they had to be stylish and descrete. Plus, I was able to play the English card. My wife is not a rampant nationalist, but given her druthers she will definitely plump for home grown goods. As I was able to say that everything, bar the telly, would be from Jolly Old Blighty, it was the final straw that broke the camels back and let me indulge in a bit of boys toys shopping.

Oh the joy, the bliss as I was able to freely look up reviews and go into shops guilt free and trial the various options. A bit disappointingly plasma flat screens are still dominated by the Japanese. Yes, there’s Philips and Thompson, but they can’t seem to produce anything to match. It was actually the hardest item to source, as LL’s design constraints outlawed most options.

I have to admit, many of the current flat screens really are over done. There’s lots of fiddly chromed bits and wide expanses of plastic. I had to finally hit the corporate market to find something descrete and clean. Thing is, this was an advantage as the item of choice, a Panasonic corporate 42” model (TH42PHD8BS), actually had a smaller footprint than most 37” domestic models. It was quite astonishing, plus it was built to a higher standard as it was designed to be used in brightly lit board rooms.

Next was the examination for the sound. This was actually the more important bit. I’ve got a wonky ear, its yet to prove itself a definite blessing or curse to have perfect pitch. I cringe any time I hear music that’s off pitch, or is unharmonic. Plus, I have bad white noise filters. In normal life it makes being in crowded places hell, as all the extra noise makes it hard to concentrate. It also means that, poor sensitive petal that I am, I can’t stand bad audio.

The good news is, I don’t have to. There is such a wide range of choice of really top notch kit that produces brilliant clean sound, all of it British designed and manufactured (most don’t even outsource the build to China, they build right here at home). Both speakers and amps, all can be found right here at home.

After a long search I settled on two key manufacturers. B&W for the speakers, their low profile bookshelf range are astonishing. Perfect clean sound with a depth of base that for everything but the big booming special effects, is sublime. Then, for the audio and DVD I went Arcam. The AVR300 amp and surround sound unit really is remarkable. With 100 watts per channel, firing up to seven speakers, it’s a real all rounder. Most surround sound units fall down a bit playing basic audio, and few audiophile amps can do good surround sound. This one can do both.

The DV97 DVD player falls into the same camp. It has a versatile range doing audiophile quality CD playback, and top of the range DVD conversion. It outputs in HDMI format, so with the plasma accepting HDMI, means I get pure digital to digital transmission and a cut crystal image. I’d highly recommend both units, though the DVD may have to be swapped out when the high def DVD wars settle into a clear winner.

We do actually use it a lot. Of an evening we’ll either watch the news, and war reports in full surround sound are more than a bit daunting. Or, we’ll slip in a CD and do a bit of reading. Last night I had on some Bach solo violin that almost made me weep. If I closed my eyes I could hear the violinist about 10 feet in front of me, there was the scrape of his chair, his almost silent humming to the music, an occasional shift of his foot. Remarkable.

So, if you’re in the market for audio, or are putting together that home cinema, put aside just a little bit more and go British. None of the choices are bad, and there are many affordable options that beat the pants off the Japanese. You won’t regret it.


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