The Future of Audio: Integrated Systems?

Integrated amplifiers
The Future of Audio: Integrated Systems?

I have labeled these latter two goals secondary to make it clear that some of the obvious example candidates of musical systems, like the Naim Mu-so and other good one-box systems, are mainly examples of pursuing these secondary goals. The primary idea behind the integrated systems movement, were it to advance, would be the first goals described above. That is, the integrated systems philosophy is primarily a performance-enhancing philosophy, not a convenience or cost-driven philosophy. In my conversations with people about integrated systems, this is rarely understood, because the examples we have come so often from the edges of the audiophile realm. 

Before this gets completely out of hand, let me summarize the story up to this point. The basic observation behind integrated systems is that the recording venue and the recording system and the room in which a playback system exists, and the array of listeners within that room, and the signal processing of those listeners have a huge impact on the perceived accuracy of sound reproduction. This seems rather jejune, until you realize that the modular-component architecture does essentially nothing to address the issue of recording anomalies, room-by-room performance, listener-by-listener signal processing, and cross-component optimization. An end-end system can exhibit ±15dB variations in output at different frequencies in different rooms and the traditional system architecture provides almost no structural way to address these issues. And we haven’t even arrived at the listener’s brain nor have we addressed the problems imposed by system interactions. You can swap as many power amps or power cords as you like, and you aren’t going to fix these problems. The magnitude of the problems is too big, and the problems are too complex. You need a different system architecture based on end-end results.

KEF LS50W and MartinLogan Dynamo 800X

If you’ve read my rant/treatise on integrated systems, I hope you found it interesting, but it is mainly an assertion that there are severe limitations to how well a modular-component system can perform. While I suppose it might be possible to lay out a full theory of integrated systems to show why they will do things that modular-component systems can’t, I doubt this would work to persuade consumers. I, and most of our readers, don’t have the technical knowledge to know whether such arguments are correct. Thankfully, since integrated systems are emerging, it is possible to take a more empirical approach to seeing if an integrated systems architecture really helps. One sample isn’t proof, but my experience with two KEF and MartinLogan products suggests to me that there is a strong possibility that integrated systems are a useful path to progress. 

My plan for this test was simple: Try an integrated system of sorts and see what observations arise. If it doesn’t work well, we don’t know anything, but if it does, we might learn something. 

Beyond that, for practical reasons I had to choose something to try. I chose the KEF LS50W for this test for a pretty simple reason: KEF also makes a traditional passive version of the speaker that is the basis of the LS50W, so it was, to a degree, possible to test the two architectures I’m discussing against each other. 

The LS50W is philosophically aligned with this test to a degree, but only to a degree. First off, it has built-in power amplifiers and an active crossover. The power amps are interesting in that the low-frequency section is a Class D amp, while the high-frequency section is a Class AB amp. The LF amp is much more powerful (200W vs. 50W). These seem in part to be packaging-related and cost-related choices, but KEF makes it clear that they are also performance-driven. I think it is interesting that these engineering optimizations are ones that consumers probably wouldn’t make or perhaps wouldn’t even know how to make. The active crossover is another decision that consumers could in theory make, but probably wouldn’t. First, it is likely that many consumers are unaware of the effects of crossover slopes on inter-driver interference. If they are, they might not feel confident choosing slopes and crossover points. And even then, they would possibly recoil at the budget needed to execute a multi-amp, active crossover system—where those electronics might cost more than the entire system under review here. 

This brings us to my first observations about this system. The total cost of the integrated system under test is $3000, assuming you have a computer or CD drive as a source. Now $3000 isn’t chump change, but in standard audiophile terms it isn’t that expensive. If we started with the passive LS50 ($1500/pair) and the Dynamo 800X ($800) subwoofer, we could add an integrated amp/DAC from the likes of NAD, Yamaha, Music Hall, or many others for about $1000. We’d get 80 to 150 watts per channel. With some cables, we’d be right around the $3000 that this integrated system costs. 

Two related points come from this. First, we’re talking about an integrated system that is comparable in budget to a conventional system with $1k mini-monitors and a mid-power integrated amp/DAC. Expectations should be calibrated accordingly. Second, it is unlikely at this budget level that a user could assemble an electronic crossover and multiple amp setup. We don’t know yet if that architecture is valuable, but by choosing an integrated system, we can see Goal #6: Cost Integration at work. 

I added the MartinLogan Dynamo 800X subwoofer midway through my listening because I found that the KEF isn’t really a full-range speaker and because the Dynamo series employs Anthem Room Correction—an application of the integrated systems idea that fits the brief of this test. 

To get down to performance, the integrated LS50W and Dynamo 800X sounded obviously better than the passive, non-integrated version of the system (which I drove with a Devialet D-Premier to reduce arguments about whether the particular mid-priced integrated amp used was the issue). The midrange of the integrated system is smoother, which I found to be important to the sense of realism on offer. A big effect here comes with being able to hear each ensemble as a naturally balanced whole. And instruments sounded more transparently rendered, with a greater sense of space.

Maybe just as big, KEF allows fine-tuning of the treble level of the LS50W with an app. That tuning allowed me to dial in the HF balance of the system in a way that I couldn’t do with the passive LS50. And in a way that I found very important, even though my adjustment was 1dB in magnitude. This tweak transformed the treble balance of the system from distracting to quite natural. I would go for a little more adjustability in a perfect world, but the KEF app gave me 75% of what I needed.

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