999Exp: #063– Build my own audiophile quality sound system
So this is an interesting tick on the bucket list. I have number of close friends and family that is either musicians themselves, or have a deep love and appreciation for all things good music. A number of them I’ll call proper audiophiles.
The proper definition of an audiophile according to Wikipedia:
Audiophile values may be applied at all stages of music reproduction: the initial audio recording, the production process, and the playback, which is usually in a home setting.
“Audiophile” recordings include those using conventional formats but with special attention to audio quality, as well as recordings in high-resolution formats such as Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio. Recently, there has been interest in lossless file formats such as WAV, FLAC, WMA Lossless, and Apple Lossless.
A key goal of audiophiles is to capture the experience of a live musical performance in a room with good acoustics, and reproduce it at home. It is widely agreed that this is very difficult and that even the best-regarded recording and playback systems rarely, if ever, achieve it.
The term High-end audio refers to playback equipment used by audiophiles, which may be bought at specialist shops and websites. High-end components include turntables, digital-to-analog converters, equalization devices, preamplifiers and amplifiers (both solid-state and vacuum tube), horn and electrostatic speakers, power conditioners, subwoofers, headphones, and acoustic room treatment.
A lot of what audiophiles talk about is complete gobbeldy gook to most of people. They have a way of obsessing about the minutiae of the finest seemingly irrelevant detail about all things music and especially sound quality wise. They claim to hear things which we mere mortals can never comprehend. A proper audiophile sound system is rarely if ever a completed project. High fidelity sound is a road for the audiophile – a journey and exercise in perfection. The destination is never actually reach, and every additional step towards perfection becomes increasingly difficult.
Audiophilism is in many regards both an art, and a science. The science part alone is no short learning curve, which I found out to my own dismay embarking on this project. There was a lot to learn – even the very basics took me some time to comprehend. The art only comes later, I am told. As your hearing muscle becomes stronger and more sensitive to the subtleties of precision sound, so to your enthusiasm grows for the science part of the game. The science part of the equation allows one to delve deeper and explore more and more of the artistic side, and vice versa.
At some stage, a good friend embarked on such a project. It took months, and we spoke about it briefly from time to time over a couple of beers. I was never really that interested in pursuing a similar project, up to the point where I saw commercial system on which he was basing his own design. The speaker system in question was the Jamo Reference R909’s. I was immediately blown away by their look. They looked like works of art – exceptionally high end and absolutely gorgeous. I had to have a pair, and I’ll most likely by shot for this blasphemy: “I did not even care what they sounded like.” The shock came when I realised that they were super expensive. Locally in South Africa, the price was the equivalent of $50,000! Definitely outside of my price bracket. It was a very big disappointment. Here are some pictures of the commercial product:
Here’s a little write-up of the company on these babies:
When we set about to develop the R 909, our mission was to establish new standards for craftsmanship and performance in the high end speaker category. Our quest led us to an open dipolar principle—a design that has sound from the front of the speaker mirrored by the sound coming from the back. The result was an award-winning speaker that has garnered praise from audiophiles and sound professionals the world over.
Our flagship Jamo Reference R 909 audio speaker not only offers a truly lifelike listening experience, it reflects Danish design at its best. With its unique open back and high gloss black and red finishes, this is one speaker that is as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears.
The open design also allows you to see the quality components that make the Jamo R 909 so remarkable: two massive 15-inch woofers, the Hard Conical Cone midrange driver and the premium textile dome tweeter. From deep, precise bass to startlingly concert-like vocals, we’ve spared no expense to deliver sound in its purest form.
This remarkable floor-standing loudspeaker is not designed for everyone; it’s for those who demand true high end audio performance as well as the ultimate in stylish, contemporary appearance. The Jamo R 909 has been created for the increasing number of people who prefer a two-channel solution for music and a separate surround sound system for those times when they want to watch a movie.
Dipolar loudspeakers have existed for many years; most of them have been electrostatic designs. However, electrostatic technology has one significant drawback: bass frequency reproduction is often compromised. They simply aren’t able to produce the characteristic physical bass “thwack” you feel in your midriff. The Jamo Reference R 909 audio tower uses electrodynamic speakers instead of electrostatics, and the results are amazing. The exceptionally firm, deep bass and concert-like high end dynamics put you in the middle of the soundstage.
The revolutionary Jamo R 909 floor-standing dipolar loudspeaker is packed with high-performance features:
* Two massive 15-inch woofers,
* A Seas magnesium midrange driver
* A customized Scan Speak Revelator tweeter
* A beautiful high-gloss, 1.7-inch thick baffle, with unique multi-ply construction
No other high end loudspeaker sounds—or looks—quite like it.
The R 909 is the perfect match for the highest quality amplifiers on the market. However, with 89dB sensitivity and very stable load at 4 ohms, it doesn’t need huge power to drive it—although it will handle more than 800 watts of peak power, if you choose! The open design and drivers reproduce wonderfully transparent vocals and a response so dynamic that it’s hard to believe you’re listening to a speaker. The exceptionally firm bass provides excellent transient speed, precision and fluidity throughout the frequency range with no coloration or reverberation. The Jamo Reference R 909 fully captures the heart of the musical experience.
Time moved on, and my friend was slowly but surely making process on the development of his project. He had no interest in making his speakers look good – he was purely in it for their sound. Lots of discussions later and I was slowly learning the lingo and I started to get interested in the effort, and the idea dawned that perhaps I should piggy back of all the work and research he did, and perhaps build my own. There was just one problem, if I was going to go through the effort of building myself a set of these speakers, they must look like the originals, even if the components, the amps and cross-overs are a completely different in design.
The project took me over a year, but finally after months of research, work from CAD designers, getting the component routed using CNC, the spines cut from stainless steel using laser cutting, getting the components sprayed with a total of 17 layers of car quality paint for a flawless high gloss finish and finally over 30 hours of assembly later, I had a sound system which is now the envy of many. It was a very demanding project primarily because I wanted a sound system which has to look fantastic with no compromises, but also has the credibility of a proper audiophile high fidelity sound quality. Also, this exercise was not a cheap one, and I ended spending a lot more on the project than initially anticipated. So much so that this is meant to be my sound system for a very, very long time. Finally, I wanted enough flexibility in the overall design that I can easily change a couple of aspects down the line.
So, what did I end up building? Briefly, my system consists out of the following components:
Here I copied all components and aspects of the Jamo’s 100%.
Woofers: Eminence Alpha-15A
Mid-Range: Seas Excel W15CY001/E0015
Tweeters: ScanSpeak Revelators D2905/9900000
I got three Behringer Europower EPX3000 Digital Power Amps for each of the three channels.
Unlike the passive cross-over built into the Jamo’s, I have opted for an active component to give me significantly more control over the end result. I went for the Behringer Ultradrive Pro DCX2496 active cross-over. This is a fantastic piece of kit, and it allows me to control a vast range of aspects of the sound quality and the ultimate experience. It’s a bitch to set up though – the manual is completely insufficient. However, once you get it working, it really operates like a charm.
So what does the end result look like then?? Here you go – decide for yourself. I am however childishly happy with the result.
And finally, and most importantly, how do they sound?
I have spent roughly 20 hours listening to them so far. Initially there were many issues to iron out. I got heavy distortion. There were weird sound shadows. It was actually quite bad. Slowly I tackled each problem, checking wiring (this caused some problems), check settings on the active cross-over (this caused even more problems), etc. After some time things started to stabilise. Last night I decided to compare my new creation with my old set of speakers. I was shocked! It’s a different world – one which I have slowly become used to and never even realised what was happening to me. Like the frog in the boiling pot! It really strikes you when you have to go back to what you were used to before.
So far then I am very happy with the end result. Audiophilism is a journey and I still have many laps ahead of me in this pursuit for perfectly clear sound. It was a very good start and I am afraid that the bug has bitten me. There is many years’ worth of listening enjoyment and pleasure ahead with this kit, and I am in no hurry to rush any part of it. It was a risky, long and expensive project – but I am thrilled with the end result. There is a very serious problem now in that three friends are bugging me to help them to build their own. As if my own project was not enough of a mission!
Here are a couple of pictures of how mine turned out in the end: