My new audiophile rig, why you should consider a Chord DAC, and why you should care about room acoustics

Rundown of my new audio system

So I just set up my new audiophile system with very satisfactory results. Here’s the rundown of what I got so far:

  • Chord Qutest DAC ($1700 retail)
  • NAD C338 Integrated Amplifier with built in DAC and Chromecast ($700 retail)
  • ELAC Debut Reference speakers ($600 retail)
  • Moveon RCA cable ($45)
  • Audirvana 3 on Macbook Air player
  • Tidal and TangoTunes FLAC CD quality 16bit/44.1kHz, HiRes 24bit/96kHz and DSD source files

This is more of a “mid-fi” system despite the fact that I spent significantly more than what I see being invested at the standard milonga: mp3’s played from iTunes or Traktor and (if you’re lucky) a USB audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett or Traktor Kontrol into some cheap PA speakers. The exception is perhaps the Chord Qutest DAC which is fairly high end but I was lucky to be able to get it secondhand for a grand.

But for my needs this is adequate and I’m very happy with the sound I’m getting. I’m finally getting the value out of the high resolution 24bit/96kHz files from TangoTunes played from Audirvana 3. My initial impression is that the system is very much not “in your face” but disappears and you’re just hearing the music. There’s loads of detail but the sound is not brittle and it’s easy to listen to. I’m going to focus on getting the most out of it by making sure the room acoustics are taken care of (see below).

As I was researching the components I had to watch a lot of reviews and it’s interesting to learn the vocabulary that the reviewers use to describe the sound coming out of various systems. It’s difficult to discuss sound without comparing equipment from different manufacturers as a point of reference. Every component has some effect on colouring the music in one way or the other. This is called the “sound signature” of a given manufacturer.

I had an NAD amplifier when I was a teenager and they’re an established brand since the 1970s. Their 3020 amplifier is probably one of the best selling if not the best selling amps of all time. You always get value for money with their products because of their no frills approach and focus on the budget audiophile market.

Andrew Jones of ELAC is considered a “rock star” of speaker design. Again, these speakers are meant to provide value beyond the price tag. The Reference model is an upgrade on the Debut 6.2 which already had very good reviews. I tended to listen to reviewers who listen to more classical music and I liked Andrew Jones’ philosophy of speaker design. It also seems that these speakers are a good match with the NAD C338 amplifier.

You should consider getting a Chord DAC

If there’s one piece of advice that I would give in terms of investing in a sound system, it would be that, if you want to get maximum value out of high resolution 24bit/96kHz music files from TangoTunes you should consider investing in a Chord DAC. Of course I’m assuming that you’re not using the cheapest possible system. But you will benefit even if you use basic active monitor speakers such as those from KRK. I used to use the AudioQuest Dragonfly which is often compared to the Chord Mojo. Now I would definitely recommend going for the Mojo over the DragonFly, especially as I found that the DragonFly Cobalt broke not once but twice, and the Chord DAC technology is probably the best there is.

You should care about room acoustics and speaker placement

The other thing is the issue of room acoustics, speaker placement and various treatments. You really can’t seriously consider yourself a “Tango DJ” unless you acquaint yourself with the issue of room acoustics. The audiophile channels are consistent in the view that the contribution of room acoustics and speaker placement to sound quality is at least 50%. In other words, you can have a great system and terrible sound if the room acoustics and speaker placement are wrong, and vice versa, you can improve the sound a lot even on a low cost system by changing the room acoustics and speaker placement. I already invested in some treatments in the form of a bookshelf placed to diffuse the sound, a couple of bass traps in the corner, and a rug on the floor. My next project is to get some sound absorbers and diffusers.

Now, there is the question about how this would translate to a milonga where you have limited control over the room and there’s no single place where you’re sitting. I think that this knowledge at least helps to understand why the sound in some milongas is great and at others it sucks. In particular, milongas that are either empty, are held in a studio with a large wall-to-wall mirror, or have speakers located close to the wall, are not likely to sound good. For example, at Salon Canning the speakers are hung from above the dancing floor, away from walls and the ceiling, and are pointing towards the centre. This has the effect that

  • the dancers have a surround sound experience,
  • the sound coming directly from the speakers will not be competing with any sound reflected off walls,
  • the sound that is above the listener tends to be preferred, and
  • any sound that is reflected off the dancing floor will be diffused by the people dancing

My own observation is that at milongas even with good DJ-ing with a decent sound set up, when there are relatively few people present the sound is not as good as when the milonga is relatively full. I had generally noticed that milongas that are relatively empty have correspondingly low energy. Now you could put that down to the fact that few people translates into low energy. But it could also be the case that an empty space can produce an unfocused and confusing sound experience due to reflecting sound, or perhaps the sound system is too small to provide adequate sound to fill up a large space.

In other words, when you have a large space, either you lack the power to fill it with sound, or you do have the power but the sound is reflecting. Without sound absorbing surfaces such as rugs, furniture, wall coverings and curtains, few people in the space results in the sound reflecting and distorting. This is likely to be exacerbated by wall-to-wall mirrors that are common in studio spaces that I see often used as milonga venues.

Acquainting yourself with even the basics of room acoustics should provide reasons to

  • avoid rooms with reflective surfaces like wall-to-wall mirrors, uncovered walls, and few furnishings
  • avoid rooms that are too large for the sound system to power, and
  • avoid placing the speakers close to walls

The videos and channels below provide information that explain these concepts in greater detail as well as the exact physics of this and what decisions you can make in terms of the choice of space, audio equipment and furnishings to deal with some of the issues with sound.