Spiral journey

July 13, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

For many years I got frustrated in my sonic journey because it felt like I was moving in circles. In my quest for greater dynamics and realism, I would move from speaker model to speaker model and always wound up back in the same place. Forced to add a subwoofer to augment what I had.

This was years ago before I came to the understanding that all full-range systems require subwoofers—either internally or externally. Back then, I had wanted a single speaker system that kicked ass on all fronts: transparency, dynamics, depth, width, realism, full range.

Out of those years of effort came an interesting observation. Though it felt like I was endlessly circling back to the same place I started—a desire for a single-speaker full range experience—what I began to notice is that at the end of each cycle I had made overall progress.

I was not in a circular pattern, but rather a spiral, constantly moving up the improvement ladder.

With every attempt and failure, we grow and learn so that the next round is better than where we started.

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42 comments on “Spiral journey”

  1. Permanent frustration is guaranteed when only changing components and loudspeakers unless you doesn’t realize that you need to know the quality of the recording and (!) that you have to optimize room acoustics first and (!) to minimize inter-loudspeaker crosstalk. Not to mention to go for time and phase aligned loudspeakers, today preferably active loudspeakers with integrated DSP function.

  2. I’ve never owned full range speakers and I don’t use a subwoofer. I have one, but prefer not to use it. I agree with Paulsquirrel about room treatment and DSP. It used to be quite complicated and require an extra box and cables, but now many all-in-one players have things like Dirac built in and it is a core technology in most active systems.

    1. Indeed, it is most impressive how things have been miniaturized and simplified today concerning DSP-integration. Just see these tiny KEF LX 50s or even Apples Home Pods with integrated microphones. Not to mention the fascinating active B&O Beolab loudspeakers based on basic research from NHT, Canada.

      1. I have an immersive sound system being built in and future upgrades will apparently include motion sensors to track listener position. The idea of sticking two passive speakers in a triangle with the listener seems to be rather old fashioned.

        There is a niche dealer a few minutes from me, based from his home, sells some very high end, was the first UK dealer for the Swiss Illusonic DSP devices, and has sold miniDSP since it arrived in the UK. He’s one of those rare dealers whose first consideration is the client’s room, not the client’s wallet, and offers to get great sound from fairly modest systems.

        1. Steven,
          Hmm…so how are your, wife selected, passive ‘old fashioned’, still fairly new, Wilson Audio floor-standers positioned?
          And where do you &/or your wife sit, stand, hang from the ceiling when listening to canned music through them?

          Australia playing like schoolboys at the ‘Darren Sammy’…so sad 🙁

          1. I have both 2-channel and multi-speaker immersive systems going in. The walls are covered with Soundbloc and Acoustiwall, a partially lowered ceiling, -40dB window glass and two types of DSP will be in use, plus books and records to break up reflections. My dealer will be back to tune in the speakers. There will be no visible acoustic treatment.

  3. In my experience without a subwoofer, most of ambiance information is not available, as well as important harmonic completion of the frequency band, having benefits up to the mids. It’s one of the most essential components for me, even with large speakers like big Wilson’s etc.

    To have it in a full range speaker combined, in my observation mainly has disadvantages, as one is not able to optimize both at the same time (ideal speaker placement for imaging and ideal sub placement for tonality and ambiance goals as well as ideal sub cabinet size, separated from optical design demands for the main speaker)

  4. W.B. Yeats used the phrase “widening gyre” in one of his better-known poems. I’m pretty sure he did not necessarily mean this in a positive sense, since it implied getting away from one’s origins. Still, I’ve always thought it was a useful way to look at life.

    Ever since my first pair of Maggies, I have also moved in a sort of spiral. I have alternated them with a number of dynamic speakers, including horns. Each time I returned to the Maggies, I employed larger and better power amps until I ended up with BHK monoblocks. Even then I found myself switching in some of my old dynamic speakers every month or so. That finally stopped when I set up a pair of small fast subs around the listening room. My wife does not believe me but I think I’m completely content and have not found myself in the market for anything new since doing this about two years ago.

    1. Most people who own Maggies and tried to swap them out usually come back to them and purchase a subwoofer(s).

      I sold my infinity RS-1B setup after listening to 3.6 R’s which I immediately purchased after listening to them for only a minute or two. I have never regretted this move. And yes, I purchased a subwoofer within months because I knew it was necessary to get the best sound from top to bottom.

    2. Agreed, i’ve been an audio enthusiast since 1971 and my conclusion is simple, why place a box inside a box? In every case, if you have an aversion to planar loudspeakers you best have vaulted ceilings and an open floor plan to remove those nasty reflections that remind you’re listening to a hi-fi system, not even close to the illusion of being in the hall, or better yet, on stage with the performers.

      DSP & subwoofers are on the bottom of my systems priority list. It’s instructive to first get everything else in the system chain right. The majority of music’s magic is in the midrange. Why attempt to fix that which isn’t broken?

      Digital is unnatural sounding and fatiguing in many applications. Yeah the noise floor, dynamic range and low frequency extension are impressive. However, our brains struggle to process high sampling rates and place us in a state of discomfort while listening. Oftentimes we adapt for a while until our consciousness reminds us it’s time to turn off the noise and relax our ear/brain mechanism.

      It’s further understood that as it applies to women, wine and song it all boils down to personal taste.

      1. I think we’re about 50% in agreement. I have little interest in DSP, though I admit no experience either, but wouldn’t want to be without my subs.

        The majority of music is in the midrange but surely the magic is everywhere.

        It’s an impossible rhetorical question but I wonder if our brains would struggle so much with digital if we had never been exposed to vinyl. It’s just that I had what I would describe as a lower level vinyl set up and now have a better level digital system, wouldn’t want to swap back and don’t experience any of the negatives described.

        I’d be 100% in agreement with your last sentence though, it’s all down to personal taste.

        1. You’re probably right, restating my original comment – the essence and majority of music exists in the midrange. Further, i’ll add dipole speakers to planars in terms of minimizing room interaction and delivering that additional sense of dimension in terms of music transparency.

          I grew up with Northern Illinois thunderstorms and listened to an awesome pipe/pedal organ at the local church every Sunday (the only interesting aspect of our hour long weekly dose of humility while fantasizing playing music on the alter/stage in that room) standing hundreds of hours in front of Owsley-Healy-Ultrasound designed systems listening to Phil Lesh transport the audience with low frequency aplomb so i know what real low frequency performance is. That initial crack, dimensionality and decay of thunder fucking rules! No man made loudspeaker can touch that.

          It’s frequently difficult to integrate subwoofers into domestic listening environments without drawing attention to themselves showing their detrimental side effects, one of which is having to tweak them for every different source and the other is the need to add two or four for phase, acoustic & and standing wave balance.

          Yes it can be done, but my listening room works just fine without them. I put my money into the sources, electronics, cables, speakers, balancing the room with decorative/artistic materials and most importantly the music library.

          Relax and be inspired…

  5. I couldn’t agree more jazznut.
    A system without subs is like the girls without the spice, the yard without the vine.
    Shoes without soles. There is no bottom (end).
    So definitely subs in my room.
    Definitely no distorted sound processor (DSP) in my system. Better fix the acoustical problems.

    1. jb4,
      As long as she’s got the sugar & all things nice I can get by.
      Large floorstanders do enough bottom-end in an apartment;
      don’t wanna really(!) piss off the neighbours.
      Everything’s a compromise (eye rolling emoji)

  6. So far I’m JB4’s camp. It took a really long period of time and incremental changes to ‘fix’ the room and dial in the gain and crossover freqs of my subs. Maybe it would have been a much faster process with DSP, but from what I’ve been able to measure the results are very similar. More importantly very satisfying to me.

    A really good question that you don’t hear the answer to very often is the preferred way people electrically set up their subs. My preference has been to use an active crossover either between the source and preamp, (line level) or between the pre and amps. I’m not sure I hear a significant difference yet between the two. It becomes a matter of volume control(s). Any thoughts?

  7. “…what I began to notice is that at the end of each cycle I had made overall progress.”
    I should bloody-well hope so Paul.
    The success of the PS Audio – ‘FR-30’ floorstanders, in the home-audio-market-world,
    will be an indication of what sort of ‘spiral’ it is; hopefully not a death-spiral 😉

      1. Paul,
        A man with your knowledge & experience in home audio & with your trusty designer & lieutenant by your side, I can only imagine success.

        1. It’s not easy to get a newly developed speaker system to sound great at any price. Speaker design is more of an art than a science. Great speakers usually have great specs but great specs don’t necessarily mean a great sounding speaker. Some of the best speakers I have heard are inexpensive speakers with closely matched drivers that use a minimal 6db per octave first order crossover with a simple high pass capacitor that keeps low frequencies out of the tweeter but no low pass filters or complicated crossovers. I have heard and own some more expensive speakers with more complicated crossover systems that also sound great. But there seems to be less compression and more transparency going on with the minimal crossover design though the power handling of those speakers might not be as high. The successful speaker with the more complex crossover design might be a bit more refined. Both sound great in their own ways. The ear is the final determiner of whether the manufacturer nailed it or not. Throw out the specs in speakers when it comes to the listening tests. Specs have meaning but speakers with the better specs have nothing to do with whether they end up in Stereophiles recommended components or not, or how highly they are ranked in their grading system.

          1. Joe,
            Back in the late 1980’s Mordaunt-Short made a cheap little standmount, the ‘MS-3.10’ designed by Robin Marshall who went on to design loudspeakers for his own company, ‘EPOS’…the EPOS 11’s & EPOS 14’s sold like hot-cakes!
            Anyway, the MS-3.10 got rave reviews (& also sold like hot-cakes) from everyone & they had just a single cap as the whole crossover because the main driver rolled-off perfectly where it needed to…ahh…those were the days 😉

            1. Yep I was referring to the EPOS speakers and also the classic EPI speakers before Burhoe left the company and went onto more success and there are others built just like them from Burhoe, Kloss and some other legendary speaker designers. Speakers that last the test of time and audiophiles who are willing to rebuild them to keep them going. Burhoe made these interesting speakers too available at Human Speakers.

              I have been designing innovative world-class speakers for a variety of companies since the late 1960s (AR, KLH, EPI, Burhoe Acoustics, Boston Acoustics, Energy, Nuance, etc.). My latest design uses a dramatic breakthrough in deep bass reproduction and uses all the refinements I know of to make the tonal sound reproduction natural and pleasing. This includes designing the cabinets to blend smoothly into the room acoustics. These are speakers I have designed for my own use.

              I am so pleased with them that I am making them available to the public.

              They are called “Silent Speakers” because their sound is so lifelike
              that you cannot tell that you are listening to speakers.

              Vladimir Meller, recording engineer

              I can’t create this kind of pounding bass with four big sub-woofers. Greatest little speaker I ever heard. Highs are there, mids are there, bass is unbelievable

              Thomas Sheehan, piano technician and tuner

              I remember the EPI line very well, especially the Model 100 which I used to recommend to all my friends in Boston. At the time I was chief piano technician at Berklee College of Music. Now that I’ve acquired these new speakers, I’m again enthused about the work you’ve done and the products you have. They sound like musical instruments, not merely drivers pushing air!

              I think Burhoe also worked at Snell for awhile. These silent speakers with a single 6.5 inch woofer can reach down close to 20hz. It takes Burhoe brilliance to produce speakers like this at that low cost.


    1. Fatty, did Paul name the FR-30s after you? That would be an upward spiral in sound quality as I expect nothing less from Paul and crew. The original model that he Demo’d at the show got so many rave reviews the audio industry was abuzz touting their sonics.

  8. To sub or not to sub, that is the question. 😀

    Wilson Audio recommends a $30K sub with its TOTL speaker system that cost over $800K and Magico’s TOTL M9’s come with built in subs and and active crossover for a mere $750K. Back in 2002 I heard a Von Schweikert system with active subs in each speaker that sounded really good. The beast weighed 600 lbs. each ( making my S7’s look like light weights at 300 lbs. each ).

    The problem with many subs is they are meant to be slam bam machines for AV systems. Back when I had a pair of Audio Physics Virgo III’s I used a pair of small REL subs that were pretty good at giving me a full extension sound. I have an REL G1 sub ( circa 2012 ) in my video system that does a pretty good job of slam bam and yet remains musical.

    In my current turn of the spiral ( which will probably be my last turn of the spiral ) I have a pair of Magico S7’s which gives me a total of six 10″ woofers which are powered by 750 Watts per channel. This gives me what I find to be a very robust full extension sound. Thus for the present I choose not to sub.

      1. A 600lb sub….
        You’d think companies could come up with way much gooder names for their bulky bass beasts…

        The Chub Sub
        Butterball Bass
        The Pudgy Potbellied Paunch Pounder
        Blubber Boomer
        Rotund Thunder
        Morbid Obassity

        Morbid Obassity would sell WAY more units than the typical, dull Model: “Letter” – “Number”
        C’mon engineer #D-14 – use you imagination!!!!

          1. It is the slang version of “goodlier”
            Canadian beer is way much goodlier than American beer.
            Except the original Miller High Life.
            That was good stuff.
            But not Budwater.

            1. So many ’boutique beers’ around the planet these days that it’s hard to keep up.
              We have a beer-replacement drink here in Oz called ‘Canadian Club’…not sure that it’s goodlier though.

  9. My upward spiral has, too, included several rounds with matched pairs of heavy, expensive subwoofers. In every instance I found the subwoofers to be superfluous and just space and energy hogs, for a bottom end emphasis (actually in my case “overemphasis”) that did not sound completely integrated and natural. I would end up turning their volume down to where they were barely audible, and finally off. Maybe I’m blessed with full range speakers with bass that reaches down to 15 Hz, and do not need that bottom end reinforcement, and a room that gives my speakers an even fullness throughout the audible spectrum. My totally passive, custom-designed Von Schweikert floor-standing speakers are not terribly large (14″ x 20″ x 48″), but Von Schweikert himself said to him they sounded amazingly like they have added subwoofers. Great speakers should not require subwoofers.

    1. Not true IMO. Subs in the main speakers are in the wrong place for low bass. I’ve used an REL sub in one corner for energizing the room to under 40 Hz, as recommended by REL. Set at 28 Hz. crossover with volume at 40%, I get great integration with my 31 Hz @ -6 dB speakers.

      1. I agree with you that not all great speakers sound good without a subwoofer, depending on a variety of circumstances. I guess I should have said “Great full-range speakers should not typically require a subwoofer, in the right room and setup,” or something like that. Having conceded fault in my generalized statement, I still hold that the greatest speakers should not require a subwoofer in optimal setups. I do not agree with you that the subwoofers in the main speakers are necessarily in the wrong place. That depends on the speaker placement and the room.

        1. Over 20 yrs. ago when setting up new speakers, I read a very technical paper by Dr. Floyd Toole of Revel who explained why subs are necessary. When the two main speakers are set up for optimal soundstage and imaging, they don’t energize the room for low frequencies at that location- laws of physics. I’ve subscribed to that ever since.

            1. It’s not luck because you can’t repeal the laws of physics. It’s probably the type of music you listen to. I listen to all classical which has lots of very low bass. The corner placement of the sub boosts bass by about 8 dB, but by keeping the crossover low, it doesn’t mess with the main speakers. What’s important is what works for you.

              1. I listen to classical and pipe organ music. Pipe organ pedal bass is among the lowest bass there is, and my speakers dig deep without reliance on separate subwoofers.

  10. Have fun all. As old saying hath it, it’s the voyage. At this point in my personal little slice of the space-time continuum, I’m just treading water, but the sound track remains good (/!\ Warning /!\: mixed m[etaphor]ode error). To yet again cite the late, great Sam Tellig, baring catastrophic component failure, I have gotten off the merry-go-round. It is up to each individual to make such a personal decision. But this august assemblage of enthusiasts are not yet free of my [sarcasm font on]nuggets of wisdom[sarcasm font off] and other droppings. And as always, happy listening. 🙂


  11. I have owned my AR -58’s for nearly 40 years (12″ 3-way, acoustic suspension). I have always thought they were a tad light in the HF, I still love them to this day. I have heard different, but not, to me, necessarily better. I can still hear some 30 hz from them, but it is a reduced level for sure. I have re-foamed the woofers twice and the midrange with a replacement Audix with the same basket dimensions, closed back and the same power output level. The closed back seemed to clean up the midrange some. I paid about $800 for them back in the day.

    I had owned a pair of Polk Model 10’s before that which my wife really liked, but the tweeters could not handle much power.

    I spend more time with headphones these days: AKG 701’s, ATH-50X, and my Beyer DT 770 pros. With high rez sources I feel completely content…right now.

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