Saturday, April 11, 2009

JL Fathom F113

JL Fathom F113

Subwoofers are one of the most desired components for a home theater. Unfortunately, understanding of what makes a good subwoofer is far less sought after by the folks that I speak to everyday about their home audio system. The objective is typically bass output over quality of sound. There are a few things I have learned about subwoofers over time and I hope this article provokes you into giving more time and consideration to the positive effects your careful choice will give you over the long run. Subs have changed a lot over the last few years and size is no longer a key factor in achieving good bass.

I have worked with and sold many of the popular sub companies while doing system design for people and their home audio systems. Most companies do a decent job with their subwoofer designs but they are simply a compliment to their speaker and surround systems. Few companies have the ability or the focus to make one or more great subs. The complexity of sub design just makes a good subwoofer hard to come by.

So the topic of this is the JL Audio Fathom F113 subwoofer. I have been a complete supporter of the the JL Audio home line of subs since one was brought into my store several years ago to test and put through its paces. First thing you notice is the sheer heft. Trying to move the F113 is difficult. If you need to lift it up stairs plan on a day with a chiropractor afterward. Due to the massive amplifier and box design the sub is one of the most dense speakers available. You believe there is a lot going on before you even hook it up to your system. The build quality is second to none. Anyone that has listened to different subwoofers knows this is a huge departure from the norm before they get started.

The subwoofer itself does what you would expect of any high end piece of audio gear. It plays with accuracy, control, depth, dynamics, and neutrality. What is surprising is the control this sub has at any volume level. The F113 has excellent sonic abilities and can be used with any high end two channel system for accurate reproduction. For home theater the requirements can be somewhat different. Some people want the ability to play loud. The JL can do this with ease at extraordinary volume levels. I will caution you that with a properly set up system you may want more bass from your sub. But, to do audio right you need control in the lower ranges and the JL uses its massive 4" voice coil to make sure you get control and accuracy at all times. The large heat sinks ensure that there is little problem with prolonged playback. The weight of the JL and the feet material selected by JL allows for precision movement of the driver. Better sound with attention to details all the way down to the feet of this behemoth.

As humans we learn to use anything people design into a product good or bad. When a new design shows how awful the prior attempts have been you realize that you have been putting up with a less than acceptable solution. What am I getting at? The controls and set up for the Fathom are right on the front of the sub. If you have ever had to lean over the back of a sub to make adjustments you know what I am talking about. The design and engineering team at JL obviously saw this as a short coming of all traditional subs. Moving the controls to the front allows you to do the set up and make corrections and not move the sub to do so. Easy to read, easy to change.

This move to the front created some challenges that had to be over come. JL is a company that understands the issues created by this departure and has addressed any negative audible change to the output of the sub. Clearly JL has a focus on all of the details to build a better speaker. Their attention to detail and tenacity of engineering staff make this a stand out speaker design not just in the subwoofer world, but of all speakers.

Speaking of the people at JL, it has been my pleasure to have learned about the subs from one of the key members of JL Audio. Carl Kennedy knows audio and has a passion that comes through. His passion about his products and the company are from a culture that I believe comes right from the top of JL Audio, Lucio Proni. Lucio has been know from years of car and marine audio to take his time in developing and testing his products thoroughly before introducing them. I believe he sets high standards for the products he makes and has a culture of very passionate people around him.

I believe the passion shown by the people at JL will make you believe you should have one of their subs in your system. I have one in mine...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Arcam AVR 600

I recently had an opportunity to take home a new Arcam AVR600 receiver to play with for a couple of days. I wish I could have had it for much longer. The new AVR600 has quite a list of features and functions including some new to the industry. I just want to go over some of the useful things I found in my short time with it and give you some reasons why you would want this big boy receiver at the heart of your entertainment system.

At a price of $5,000 it is not a typical receiver and certainly will not be on the radar of many people. I think the real attraction for this receiver is anyone considering some of the separate pre-amp processors that are available at a similar price when paired with an amplifier. The benefits of separates are many but this receiver can compete in the areas people seem most concerned with, performance and value.

I want to get to some of the great things about the Arcam, but I need to state that I am not trying to provide a highly technical review. There are plenty of good reviewers with great ability to do that. This receiver will certainly get plenty of rave reviews from the industry. I'd rather focus on the facets that I think are important to people that I speak with everyday in planning their home entertainment systems.

On to my short lived stay with the Arcam. First, the sound was absolutely amazing. Arcam has always been a favorite of mine for their ability to produce great sound quality in receivers, CD players, amplifiers, integrated amplifiers, you get the point. The trend continues in their new control center. To be blunt, no receiver should sound this good. I was truly surprised at several things the receiver did well with sound.

On music playback it provided a great sound stage and excellent resolution. On Blu-Ray movies I was able to hear very clearly things I have never heard before. I use tracks that I am familiar with. I spend a lot of time using the same material so when something is so dramatically better it gets me excited about having a better product to show people. When you can do a distinctly better job on movies it is a strong statement to the overall quality of the design and ability of the receiver. Movies are what most people will be listening to and this is a very enjoyable component of the Arcam's abilities.

Lately I have been spending a lot of time gaming. There is a lot of surround information in the sound tracks of some games. What is useful is that most of the sound effects and vocals are repeated quite often. I know my room and my system well and how Call of Duty sounds at high and low volume levels. The Arcam changed everything on my favorite game. My room sounded bigger. The sound was as if I had speakers everywhere and no where. There was so much more information available to me that I felt like I must have been playing at a severe disadvantage for some time. I was in the middle of the action like never before.

Back to the speakers for a moment. The AVR600 comes with a big microphone for set up. It is a far more robust mic than any other receiver I have seen. Perhaps it is the reason the automated set up was the best I have experienced. Or, the mic is just one more detail that Arcam paid attention to in this all new product. The set up was very accurate. I always go back in after an auto calibration to tweak things and be more specific to the set up. Most auto setup processes get you close on speaker placement, size, and output volume but to be done right I need to follow up with a SPL meter and a tape measure. The Arcam was incredibly accurate. I only made one small adjustment to the distance of one speaker. I'm being very picky here because I see how coarse most auto set ups really are. The best thing of all was the subwoofer output level. I have never been happy with the volume of any auto calibration set up. Most of my customers are not happy either. My sub blended very well with the rest of the system and needed no adjustment after the set up. Truly a calibration worthy of the comment "easy auto set up."

Video is what drives most people in today's market to their choice of a new receiver. The AVR 600 has all of the latest and greatest features and did a very good job of up-sampling my HD component video game to an HDMI output. I would have liked the opportunity to see what the receiver looks and sounds like with an HD cable box but my TWC box failed shortly after getting the system set up. (my third box in as many months) Sound from the HDMI cable was excellent. As I said, improvement over my existing separates when using Blu-Ray. I couldn't try the new Dolby volume setting. Very disappointing.

The video adjustments are laid out well and provide individual adjustments per input. Nothing new, but done well. The individual brightness, contrast, and other video adjustments allow you to move back and forth in the menu and see the picture easily while you make your adjustments to the video. Good job on ease of use.

As I mentioned earlier, I want to help people make a better decision on products based on how they are used in their everyday environment. The user interface on the Arcam is very intuitive and easy to navigate. I can't tell you how many times good products are left on the shelf because they are difficult to install and use every day. My wife is very critical of this fact being a PhD in this area. What it allows for is better set up by qualified installers or a home user looking to upgrade their system. You can get what you pay for in performance with the AVR 600 and enjoy its ease of use for years to come.

The one gripe I had with the receiver comes from the labeling of inputs. My method of thinking stems from years of inputs labeled numerically or alphabetically. The Arcam has several pre-labeled inputs. (HDTV, DVD, etc..) You can rename any input like most good products, but you need to know that you hooked up the Blu-Ray to the DVD input. Not a big deal and soon forgotten once the set up is complete. I just don't like to think of things in these terms.

If you want a great receiver with the latest features and don't want to compromise on anything, I think this is a great choice. If you want the sound of separates but don't want the additional bulk in your system look no further than the Arcam AVR600.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Media servers and music

I would like to write about a newer segment in the home audio industry, DACS's and media servers. I speak with people about the subject on a daily basis. Home media servers are becoming more popular than ever. Music is a big part of most people's life. I am seeing people becoming more interested in the quality of their music experience again. Media servers have been around for a while but there is a bigger evolution taking place with servers, DACs, and streaming audio.

One of the most frequent questions I get is how to listen to all the music you have on your computer, iPod, etc, the best way possible? Add to that the massive CD library you have collected over time and want access to without trying to find discs that have spread through the house.

The best part for me is people want to listen to their music. They want access and they are starting to want quality to go along with their stereo or surround systems. A music server simply takes information from your CD and stores it on a hard drive. You can then connect the server to your theater system or home stereo. The user interface of each server varies greatly and should always be a big consideration of what server you might choose.

The quality of sound coming out of the server depends on several things. For simplicity lets keep it to a couple of primary factors. The rate at which you store your music on a server has a huge impact on the final sound quality. This is simply the type of file quality you select when you take the music from the CD and put it on the hard drive. Some will allow you to make an exact duplicate of the disc. This is the best sounding but does use a lot of space. MP3's tend to sound like something is missing because there is. There are several loss less formats available that maximize file size and quality as well.

The second is how the information coming off of the server is taken from digital to analog. Most devices have the ability to send the sound out to your home stereo system using typical RCA style connectors. Your sound will be dependent upon the quality of conversion that takes place in your media server. The other option is a DAC.

DAC's for home audio aren't necessarily new but they are finally available in entry level to high end system for amazing playback quality. Many of the newer more useful DAC's have a USB connection so you can stream right form your PC or Mac to the DAC using a USB cable. I have listened to a lot of these and really prefer them. It allows you to use your existing PC or Mac as your server with whatever player you choose.

I have owned several high end media servers and as time has progressed I have moved into the most available platform, itunes. iTunes offers a great interface and excellent quality playback if you encode your CD's at a higher rate such as Apple Lossless.

I will post some opinions of external DAC's in the future. In the meantime, feel free to send questions.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Why me and my Guide to Home Theater

I have started this site to present my opinions about the Home Theater industry. I have been working as a professional in the home theater, audio, and video market for more than 9 years. My history with movie theaters and my love for them goes back much longer.

I grew up in a movie theater. My father was a projectionist for most of my childhood. I followed in his footsteps and learned from him. I learned the trade to put myself through school. I did a lot of commercial movie theater installations and even had the opportunity to do several test audience research screening for major studios.

The technical side to My Guide to Home Theater is more from learning by doing. I have worked in a few high end Audio stores that sell all kinds of cool audio, video, home automation, and control systems. I have had the benefit of performing several job responsibilities while working a different specialty stores.

I have held several different job titles within the various organizations. I have been a retail sales consultant ( very professional sounding), custom sales consultant, project manager, system designer, installer, warehouse guy, and tech support for when your stuff doesn't work.

Currently, I work with Audio Advice in Raleigh, N.C. I have been a member of this exceptional team for 2 years. The company has roots in the Raleigh market going back more than 30 years. The store is an incredible sight to see and hear. It is easily one of the best in the country and has a lot to offer anyone making a trip to the store.

I have had the pleasure of working with, meeting, and learning from many industry veterans. I have been exposed to different philosophies from around the industry and can appreciate each companies approach to their products.

My hope is to help people understand some basics about audio and video using My Guide to Home Theater as a resource. I hope to appeal to anyone at any level of their audio and video journey. I will try to cover questions I have answered a million times in a store. I hope to help those seeking information about different types of products by knowing what to look and listen for. Many times products or features may benefit one person but not another. Hopefully I will help you understand those differences and know what to ask before making decisions.

Ultimately I look to apply my experience as a professional and my time as an enthusiast to promote good audio and video experiences for anyone that looks into My Guide to Home Theater.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

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