Lyngdorf RoomPerfect Tag

A Guide to Luxury Amps & Preamps

A Guide to Luxury Amps & Preamps
What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

As promised in our last Cineluxe Basics post, which covered the things you should consider when picking source components for your luxury home-entertainment system, this time we’ll be turning our attention to one of the most important—but also one of the most overlooked—components required to make such systems work. It’s such an esoteric piece of gear that you may not fully understand what it does.

 

But hopefully by the end of this discussion you’ll not only have a lot more respect for the lowly preamplifier; you’ll also be better able to make a more informed decision about which one is right for your system.

 

Everyone understands that source components like disc players, satellite boxes, movie servers, and video streamers deliver the movies and TV shows you watch on a regular basis, either from a silver platter, the airwaves, or a hard drive somewhere.

It’s positively axiomatic that your TV or projector is responsible for delivering those images to your eyes, and your speakers transmit sound through the air to your ears.

 

The preamp, though? It’s the box that sits in the middle, functioning as a sort of air-traffic control for your entertainment system. It sends the video from your sources to your display. It decodes the digital audio stream from your source components and sends it to your amps and speakers in analog form.

 

And you may be thinking to yourself, “That sounds an awful lot like an AV receiver!” It’s true. Preamp/amplifiers serve the same function in a luxury home-entertainment system as do AV receivers. It’s simply that a receiver combines all of the preamplification and amplification in one box, whereas going the preamp/amplifier route gives you a lot more flexibility in terms of perfectly matching your amplification needs to your speakers and your room.

 

As a result, it’s not inaccurate to say that a preamp/amp combo will generally give you better performance than a receiver, especially in a larger room. A more accurate explanation would also be a much more complicated one, but if you’re itching for a geeky discussion about the topic, I wrote one a few years back for Home Theater Review.

 

At any rate, these days all of the above is only part of the equation when it comes to selecting the right preamp. Another important function that has arisen in the past few years is digital room correction. Broadly speaking, “digital room correction” is a catch-all term that covers a number of different technologies, but all of them ostensibly serve the same purpose: To use a combination of equalization and other filtering to reverse the deleterious acoustic effects your room itself has on the sound leaving your speakers.

 

These effects come in two forms: Those caused by the shape of your room and those caused by the surfaces in your room. The former affects the clarity and evenness of bass in the room, as the low-frequency sounds coming from

your subwoofers and other speakers bounce off the walls and ceilings and either cancel each other out or reinforce one another.

 

Bass frequencies below 250 Hz or so (the highest note you can play on a double bass) have a really long wavelength, between five and 60 feet, so it takes a really big, flat surface to reflect them. So, it doesn’t really matter if your room is decorated with wood paneling or acoustic fabric; your subwoofer is going to sound overwhelming in one part of the room and wimpy in another. All good room-correction systems will listen to a microphone placed in and around the seats in

your entertainment space and tweak the sounds coming from your subs and speakers so the bass has impact and authority without sounding boomy or sloppy.

 

A great example of a room-correction system that positively excels in this respect is Anthem Room Correction, which you’ll find, appropriately enough, on preamps made by Anthem, like the AVM 60 (shown at the top of the page). If you have a dedicated home cinema space with acoustically treated walls, Anthem Room Correction is likely all you need to whip your bass into shape and make your subwoofers sounds like a million bucks.

If, on the other hand, you have a multi-use home-entertainment space in a living room or family room, your installer may recommend a more sophisticated—and indeed more expensive—preamplifier with a more advanced room-correction solution. That’s because it takes a lot more processing power and a lot more calculations to digitally correct problems that arise from hard or uneven surfaces in the room—like mirrors, windows, cabinets, hardwood floors, etc.—or even standard decorations like vases, coffee tables, or even columns along the wall. Since these surfaces are smaller than, say, the entire back wall of your room, they affect smaller wavelengths of sound—hence, higher frequencies.

 

You can attempt to correct for such problems with almost any room-correction system, but the cheaper ones—like you’ll find on most mass-market AV receivers—don’t do a very good job of it, leaving you with a sound system that’s lifeless, dull, and uninspiring.

 

Better, more sophisticated room-correction solutions, though, can go a long way toward erasing the harsh audible effects of such surfaces from the sound that reaches your ears, without making it sound like you’ve thrown a blanket over your head. Examples of such systems include RoomPerfect, which you can find on Lyngdorf’s MP-50 and MP-60 preamplifiers, as 

well as Trinnov’s Speaker/Room Optimizer, found on the company’s Altitude line of preamps. Your installer may also recommend preamps that rely on Dirac Live room correction, an excellent mid-priced solution.

 

As for amplifiers? Your best bet here is simply to listen to the advice of your installer. You will, of course, need one channel of amplification for every speaker in your system (except perhaps for the subwoofers, which often contain their own amplification),

so if you’re installing a 7.2.6-channel system (that’s seven ear-level speakers, two subwoofers, and six overhead speakers), you’ll need at least 13 channels of amplification. That may come in the form of two seven-channel amps, seven stereo amps, or even 13 standalone “monoblock” amplifiers, with each configuration having its own relative pluses and minuses. But again, chances are good your installer is intimately familiar with the speakers going into your system, and knows what amplification will work best.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

So You Think Your Room’s Bad, Pt. 4

So You Think Your Room's Bad, Pt. 4

Dennis Burger:

 

In Part 3 of this series, I discussed how we arrived at a speaker system for the Kaleidescape booth by solving the riddle of the back of the room and working forward. I also hinted that Trinnov’s Altitude 16 home theater preamp/optimizer was key to making those speakers sound their best.

 

How did I get from “I need something to power these speakers and process all of the audio” to “Gimme one of the most advanced and luxurious audio/video preamplifiers on the planet,” you ask? It was a bit of a winding road, so let’s start at the beginning of it.

 

When we were first understanding what this room would look like and how we wanted it to sound, someone in our design group (I forget who) asked a simple question: “Can we do this with an AV receiver?”

 

It’s a reasonable question, since we wanted the space to evoke a living room environment, and AV receivers—in which all of the digital signal processing and amplification reside in one box—generally power the sound systems in such rooms. But in this case, my back-of-the-napkin calculations told me we needed 160 watts of clean power for every speaker, which is way more than most receivers can deliver.

 

I also knew we needed really amazing digital room correction to compensate for all of the acoustical shortcomings of this space. (If you’re not familiar with digital room correction and how it works, check out my article “Room Correction Revisited” at Home Theater Review.) The long and short of it is that the room optimization software built into most AV receivers wouldn’t be sophisticated enough.

 

So, given that we needed a separate AV preamp to handle the processing and standalone amplifiers to power the speakers, I started thinking long and hard about what was out there. I wasn’t picking between equipment manufacturers; I was picking between room correction systems—two in particular: Dirac and Trinnov. (Lyngdorf Audio’s RoomPerfect probably would have been a great option, too, but I don’t have hands-on experience with it, and given our time constraints I had to go with what I knew.)

The advantages of Dirac are that it’s available in much more affordable equipment, and its filters would have made this particular room sound really good with only a little effort. But I was informed that “really good” wasn’t good enough. We needed the best.

So You Think Your Room's Bad, Pt. 4

So, I turned to Trinnov, whose Altitude 16 (shown above) delivers the most advanced and customizable room correction I know of. What’s more, the Altitude 16 can sonically relocate speakers through some deft processing that I don’t even understand. This was handy because, as I said in the last post, sometimes we had to position speakers in such a way as to accommodate multiple standing-room-only attendees.

 

I reached out to Jon Herron, Trinnov’s International Sales Manager, and asked if I could take him on a 3D tour of my latest revision of the booth design via Google Hangouts. Here’s Jon with his own first impressions of the 3D renderings, along with some thoughts on the specific room correction challenges this demo space posed.

 

 

Jon Herron:

 

So, the challenge was to get sound that is as lifelike as possible in a space that (by itself) would be about as far from lifelike as you can get. The background noise would be high (since it was a trade show). The construction would be temporary and necessarily focused on speed of assembly rather than quality. The shape of the space was also driven to some degree by architectural features not normally found in a home.

 

Imagine trying to get a concert-hall experience in a baseball stadium.

 

Success in any endeavor involves first understanding the nature of the problem. In this case, the problem was largely based on psycho-acoustics—understanding how we humans hear and understand the world around us based on what we hear.

 

A key to understanding how we perceive sound is to understand that we always, without thinking about it, hear three different things:

 

Direct Sound: This is the sound that goes straight from the source (in this case, a speaker) to your ears. Our brains will “hear” this first arrival as the true source and nature of the sound itself.

 

First Reflections: The very next versions of the sound are the first reflections from the surroundings. In a room, these reflections are typically the first bounces from the floor, ceilings, and walls. These tell you quite a bit about the environment you’re in—outdoors (few reflections), or in a larger or smaller room, for example.

 

Subsequent Reverberation: Unless steps are taken to absorb or scatter the sound away from you, sound usually will bounce around for a while. These multiple, later, and smaller versions of the direct sound tell you even more about the environment you’re in. You’d have little or no reverberation outdoors; you’d have quite a lot in a cave; you’d probably hear something in between in your living room or a concert hall.

 

Unfortunately, it’s really easy to mess up what Dennis describes as “room correction” by trying to address all these disparate problems with a single solution. The problems are different; therefore, the best solutions are also different and need to be determined and layered together.

 

If you badly break a leg, you must first realign things, stabilize the leg with a splint, and then put it in a cast for long-term healing. Doing just one of those things, or doing all the things out of order, simply won’t work. It’s the same with using digital signal processing to fix a “broken” acoustical environment.

 

In our diagnosis of how we hear, the second and third items above are “soft” in the high frequencies (imagine turning down the Treble control) for the simple reason that higher frequencies are far easier to absorb or scatter than are lower frequencies. If you don’t make an allowance for the reflected energy sounding different than the direct, you’ll mistakenly ruin the direct sound in a vain effort to fix the environment of the room itself. They are different problems.

 

This, by the way, is why we at Trinnov refer to our system as a Speaker/Room Optimizer. We’re trying to optimize all these different problems with appropriate digital processing solutions, rather than trying to simply “correct” the room with a one-size-fits-all solution.

So You Think Your Room's Bad. Pt. 4

In the trade show demo room, the No. 1 priority was to focus on getting the direct sound as natural as possible. Mitigating first reflections (where we could) was also important, but not if it compromised the direct sound.

 

Similarly, we wanted to provide a more natural reverberant decay (the rate at which sound dies away) that didn’t allow one range of frequencies to stick out like a sore thumb or otherwise call attention to itself. In a good concert hall, when the symphony suddenly stops playing, the entire, rich tapestry of sound should

die away together. If the flute section reverberated after the other sounds had faded, even for a moment, it would sound extremely unnatural, even unpleasant.

 

Addressing all these varying challenges in a way that truly lets you enjoy the music or movie you choose without the heavy-handed overlay of the sound of the room you’re in requires (ideally) a combination of passive acoustics and what we at Trinnov have come to call “digital acoustics.”

 

 

DB again:

 

And that’s the perfect segue into the next post in this series. I knew that physical acoustical treatments, working in conjunction with Trinnov’s digital acoustics, would make this demo room sound its best. But I also didn’t want to make the room look like a recording studio. We’ll dig more deeply into those concerns in Pt. 5.

Jon Herron has been in the audio & video business since he was a teenager. The
combination of music and technology was simply too seductive for him to do anything
else—that and the fact that no one would likely hire him to do anything else. He has
worked in both large and small retail organizations, as a manufacturers’ representative,
and (mostly) for a series of audio manufacturers, including Snell Acoustics, Madrigal
Audio Laboratories, Wisdom Audio, and Trinnov Audio. He lives in Connecticut with his
wife and two terribly spoiled cats.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.