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Building a Compact Reference System | Part 1: Requirements

building compact system

Robert Harley is one lucky fellow. He got to build a custom, dedicated, no-holds-barred listening room in his new house. As Robert chronicled in these pages, he selected every element of the room—from proportions to materials to electrical power—expressly to optimize audio performance. What a luxury! Robert could let his sound system dictate his listening room’s parameters. Most of us live with the exact opposite situation: Our listening rooms dictate many of the audio system’s parameters.  

Fortunately for Baby Boomer audiophiles like myself, and most TAS readers, listening rooms haven’t posed many constraints lately. That’s because as a demographic group, we’ve done pretty well for ourselves, allowing us to live in homes with listening rooms that, while not custom-built, are at least audio friendly. As our families and material appetites expanded, most of us bought single-family suburban houses with plenty of room for kids, cars—and a high-end audio system.  

That roomy lifestyle has had a direct impact on high-end manufacturers’ offerings. Boomers are, after all, their core market. So manufacturers know where and how we live, and they’ve been designing products accordingly. Bulky separates? No problem! There’ll be dedicated equipment racks on which they can perch. Monoblocks with footprints that would embarrass Sasquatch? Perfectly fine! There’s plenty of floor space. Speakers optimized for placement well into the room? No issue whatsoever! The listening room can easily accommodate them. Besides, what else would you put there?     

The thing is, all of these previously safe assumptions made by manufacturers about Boomer listening spaces are in the process of being rendered moot. Why? Because the traditional Boomer lifestyle is undergoing a dramatic, once-in-a-generation transformation. It’s not just me saying this; this is a verified sociological phenomenon. That transition is creating a disconnect between what the industry has historically offered and what Boomers now need.      

Shifting Demographics

So what’s changing, exactly? In short, we Boomers are downsizing. Our kids went off to college, leaving us with empty nests. We no longer need that big suburban house, with its surfeit of now-vacant bedrooms. Two or three will do just fine. And at this stage in our lives, we’d rather be near cultural and recreational attractions than now-superfluous grade schools. Finally, instead of having to drive to do practically anything, many of us would prefer to walk, which is healthier and easier on the environment. 

Put these criteria together, add the perquisites to which we’ve become accustomed—hey, we’re downsizing, not downgrading—and they add up to luxury apartments, amenity-rich condos, and upscale townhouses located in walkable, culture-rich, urban settings. That, sociologists confirm, is precisely where Boomers are moving.    

I can personally attest to this phenomenon because my wife and I just lived through it. In the past year, we found ourselves empty-nesters, made the liberating decision to downsize, and engaged in a search that culminated in our buying a charming townhouse in historic Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. 

I won’t say the move wasn’t painful. Although our new townhouse is commodious, as these things go, we still had to sacrifice many cherished belongings. One was the Steinway grand. Another was my space-devouring reference system, which was built for a sprawling listening room that would no longer exist.  

However, rather than mourn this situation, I took it as a challenge. I would build a new, more compact reference system—one that would fit and function comfortably in our new home. Frankly, I had no idea how hard meeting that challenge would be. 

Space: The Zero-Sum Equation  

Before getting into the specifics of what I learned about how a downsized residence affects an audio system, let me first share an overarching principle that I discovered early on: In a downsized dwelling, space is a zero-sum game. That is, if you dedicate a quantity of space to some thing, you’ll have to forego some other thing that would occupy an equal amount of space. 

For example, say you want to upgrade from an all-in-one CD player to a separate transport and DAC. That would be two boxes instead of one. In the past, most of us wouldn’t have given that a second thought. There’s always an available shelf on the equipment rack; if not, we can always add another rack. 

Not so when space is both limited and fixed. For reasons I’ll describe shortly, there probably isn’t even an equipment rack available. In all likelihood, the system will be sitting on (or in) a media console, where there are only so many shelves—all full. So if you want to add a box, you’ll have to subtract one, too. Moving from a stand-alone disc player to a transport and DAC means removing a DAC-sized component to make room for the new box. 

This is a difficult principle to absorb when you’re used to having so much space it’s effectively infinitely expandable. Nonetheless, absorb and apply it you must since, as you will see, this simple principle of space being a zero-sum equation has huge implications when it comes to building a compact reference system.    

The Listening Space

Even the most spacious condos, apartments, and townhouses don’t typically have enough rooms for one of them to be devoted to listening. Where, then, will the system go? The most obvious candidate is the family room. Or, in the case of a townhouse with a basement, the rec room. The next question, then, is what are the characteristics of such rooms, and what constraints do those factors impose on the system?  

Consider, first, the layout and furnishings typical of family and rec rooms. Most often, there’s a sofa or sectional facing a wall. On that “media wall,” there is commonly a TV (make mine a nice big OLED, if you please) mounted over either a media console or a fireplace. In the latter scenario, an adjacent wall likely hosts the media console or built-in shelving. 

That media console or built-in shelf system is not only the most conspicuous and convenient place to put system components, it may also be your only option if, as mine did, your Significant Other bans these bulky, blocky, industrial-looking objects from the home’s social hub. For that’s exactly what a family or rec room is: a shared space used by every household member to watch TV, entertain guests, wrestle with Rex, and relax with a book. Consequently, whatever is housing the system must harmoniously integrate into the room’s décor and functions, as well as the aesthetic sensibilities of its various users. 

Not only do downsized abodes offer fewer rooms, but those rooms also tend to have more modest dimensions. For this reason, the distance between the media wall and the sofa is rarely expansive. Further, since one clearly must have a place to set one’s drink, a chunk of that space will be taken up by a coffee table in front of the sofa. All of these room elements have significant ramifications for the audio system.  

Source Material 

By now it should be clear that our compact reference system will be living in a universe completely different from what we’re used to. The overall space available for sources, electronics, and speakers is both limited and fixed. Unfortunately, it gets worse, because that space must also support our music libraries. 

Most of us are accustomed to homes that can store an arbitrarily large library of source material, in any variety of formats. Our collections have expanded accordingly, unbounded by spatial limitations. Indeed, for most of us, our media libraries, not our systems, are the most voracious space consumers. In my suburban house, the dedicated listening room had three long walls full of floor-to-ceiling LP, CD, and SACD-laden bookcases. 

Clearly, that sort of profligacy won’t fly in a downsized dwelling. In fact, the media console or built-in shelving that’s already housing the system is probably also the most convenient place to house the music library. And, as we know from the zero-sum principle, space taken up by physical media is space that’s no longer available for components.  

For this reason, a compact reference system must be designed in a way that minimizes both componentry and physical media. How can the latter be accomplished? For most of us, the answer will come down to making choices about which formats to preserve and which to sacrifice. However, that may not be as painful as it sounds. All we need to do is recognize that “music” and “physical media” are not necessarily intertwined concepts.  

For instance, there’s little point in maintaining an exhaustive library of physical CDs and SACDs when the bulk of those titles are available as downloads or are instantly accessible via streaming—often at better-than-CD resolution. By transitioning to Internet-based formats, a single book-sized NAS or streaming DAC can replace an entire library of CDs. For those who haven’t yet made the move from physical digital media to Internet-based equivalents, downsizing could be the ultimate catalyst.

LPs are more complicated. In the analog realm, unlike digital, there is no space-saving alternative to physical albums. Therefore, if you have room, you’ll probably want to keep your LP collection. If not, building a compact reference system may mean moving away from physical media altogether. 

Whatever you decide, the decision will have to be made early in the design process. Your choice of sources and formats obviously will have a direct influence on which components you’ll need—and how much room you’ll have for them.  

 

Components

The best audio electronics and sources are almost always the biggest. That’s a problem, since the new listening environment lacks equipment racks, and what shelving there is probably being shared with source material. In the end, there may only be room for just two or three components, other than speakers, for the entire system! They will have to include amplification, since floor-bound monoblocks are incompatible with limited floor space. And, if you hung on to your LPs, another one of those components must be a turntable.  

The inescapable conclusion is that in addition to scaling back on physical source material, compact reference systems must scale back on the sheer number of boxes. For this reason, when building such a system, multifunction components are your best friend. 

What about speakers? Given the likely layout of a downsized home, speakers are going to find themselves in a very different position than before the move. They sure as heck won’t be following the Rule of Thirds, wherein they stand a third of the way into the family room. At that point, they’d be right on top of the coffee table! 

Instead, the speakers will be close to—perhaps mere inches away from—the media wall behind them, facing the sofa. And that’s only the start of the placement constraints. Since the speakers will almost certainly flank the media console or fireplace, and since there may also be a sidewall adjacent to one or both speakers, options for spacing between the speakers will be limited.  

Ideally, there would be a plethora of high-end speakers specifically designed for such a scenario. Needless to say, there aren’t. Lacking that, for now, what we need are speakers that, while not necessarily optimized for such circumstances, nonetheless perform well under them. Do such speakers exist? That’s one of the topics for Part 2 in the next issue.

Placement flexibility isn’t our only speaker requirement. Obviously, the speakers can’t be too large. Those hulking brutes that take pride of place on TAS covers would have both footprint and headroom issues in a downsized home. So we’re seeking speakers that, while not necessarily petite, are sized proportionately to the room. Yet, since this is a compact reference system, we’re still striving for exceptional bass quality and extension. 

A less obvious speaker requirement is that they shouldn’t need to be played loud to sound good. Like a car engine with turbo lag, many speakers aren’t at their best until they’ve been revved up. But that’s unacceptable in this context because downsized homes typically share walls with neighbors, and blasting away is bound to make them cranky (the neighbors, not the speakers). Consequently, we need speakers that sound good even when not turned up to eleven. 

There’s also an aesthetic requirement. Since the system components, including speakers, will be on display in a shared social space, they need to look good. By “good” I mean featuring graceful lines and an unobtrusive demeanor. Remember, Significant Others don’t usually consider “industrially handsome” a compliment.  

Furthermore, given that the system is now readily accessible rather than in its own off-limits den, there’s a much better chance that others will actually want to use it. If so, then intimidating or inscrutable controls won’t fly. You want the system to be user friendly enough that your SO can put on music when you’re not there, or make their own selections when you’re listening together. For that to happen, the system must be easy to control, preferably via an intuitive touchscreen interface. 

Summary

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I’ve outlined the trends driving sweeping changes in the typical listening environment of Baby Boomer audiophiles, and what this demographic’s move to downsized homes means for audio systems. In the new Boomer lifestyle, electronics will need to be smaller, multifunctional, and less intimidating, both aesthetically and operationally. Speakers, in turn, will have to work well despite significant placement constraints, and they’ll have to do so even at modest volume levels. Since physical music collections will be sharing strictly limited space with the audio system, they’ll need to be reined in, either by foregoing some formats or by moving to Internet-based source material.  

In Part 2, “Implementation,” I’ll apply these new requirements to what the high-end audio industry currently offers, searching for viable compact reference component candidates and identifying gaps in what’s available. I’ll also describe some workable system configurations, and recount my own decision process and where it led me.

Tags: BUILD COMPACT LISTENING ROOM

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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