The Future of Audio: Integrated Systems?

Integrated amplifiers
The Future of Audio: Integrated Systems?

Bass with the integrated system was more balanced too, and, dare I say, integrated. My experience with subwoofers is that their addition to a system is often fraught with problems which cause bass to sound unnatural. This is partly because low frequencies are so affected by room dimensions and subwoofer placement that you simply face a choice of various lumpy LF regions. MartinLogan addresses this with DSP equalization (Anthem Room Correction), and my measurements show that ARC and the personal tuning adjustments allowed (e.g. changes in overall level and output below 30Hz) make a huge difference. Subs are also problematic because it is hard to set the phase correctly. Here I cheated a bit and used my measurement system to adjust subwoofer phase. Using my ear I was close, but things still weren’t right. The measurement system, and the fact that MartinLogan allows continuous phase adjustment (360 degrees), allowed me to change phase by about 20 degrees from my original setup and that adjustment yielded important results. Ideally, if adhering to the integrated systems manifesto, KEF or MartinLogan would have provided a way to do this automatically. In the end, bass on this system was deep, controlled, and less distracting than on many systems. I had a greater sense than is usual that bass was just part of the music, not something generated by an audio system.

Analytically, the LS50W and Dynamo 800X are very good, and I would say substantially better than the system you might build around passive LS50s. But I wouldn’t want you to assume that they sit at the edge-of-the-art in performance thanks to the transformation wrought by partial integration of various pieces of the system. A few examples may help. The first is in the domain of dynamics. I had these systems in a smallish room and even with this attempt to not ask too much in terms of output, there are many more dynamic systems on the market. Output isn’t really the issue; this particular system is just consistently a bit soft. Another limitation is in the lower treble where I thought the LS50W was slightly dry sounding (a characteristic shared by the LS50 in my experience). 

But, from a big picture perspective, the LS50W/Dynamo 800X system did something that I am coming to view as a valuable hallmark of good audio systems: it sounded quite good on almost everything I listened to. To give a sample of my playlist: Mahler 1, 5 and 7, Los Lobos, Brandi Carlile, Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2, Little Feat, Kate Rusby, Wagner Flying Dutchman, Pretenders, Fairport Convention, Messiaen Organ Works, Radiohead, Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony, Art Blakey. In my lengthy experience of high-end audio, this ability to engage the listener with just about all the music you might want to play suggests a fundamental rightness to the important things the system is doing. The more you just want to listen to more music, and the more you are well-rewarded for that, and the fewer distractions on offer, the better. 

I think we often can be enticed down the path of seeking an amazing sonic experience, only to find that this outstanding result comes at the price of many recordings sounding just okay or worse. Reviewers are tempted to write this off as “the system was very revealing of flaws in the recordings I played.” Yes, perhaps, but perhaps the system has distortions that work well on occasion but not very often. You have to decide if that is what you want, but I find I am more and more interested in enjoying the music with the limited time I can devote to it. I found the LS50W/Dynamo 800X particularly good at working in that context. 

I should also mention the ease with which these results were achieved. I spent less time setting up this system than I do on average by about 75%. I did my placement calculations, set the speakers there, put the sub where MartinLogan said to put it, wired things up (five wires!), adjusted the apps and that’s about it. I did measure for sub phase and level. And I did move my listening chair by 3" later on and made one adjustment each to sub and treble level—all based on listening. For the right listener, there is a freedom derived from the limited ability to tweak via component substitution. Or, one might say, there is a psychological refocusing on the music that comes from such a simple system. 

The question these observations about performance and usage raise is whether this consistent high level of listener engagement is a byproduct of the integrated systems element of the system. We won’t know, of course, until we have many more examples. But, in reflecting on what was intriguing about this system, I came to the conclusion that the musical engagement I experienced was a direct byproduct of the integrated approach. My listening notes say “90% of state of the art on everything—100% on nothing.” I think this is, at this price point, an indication that integration has lowered overall system distortion significantly. If the development of integrated systems can thereby lead to substantially high listener engagement, I think that is a big deal for the future of audio.