Deciding on a DAC and Sonos connection for an audiophile room



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Early this week, to assess the play 1 sound quality in my home, I did a side by side test of a play 1 pair + Sonos Sub with a pair of Harbeth C7s I have - street price of USD 3800 for the pair - DAC/amplifier and speaker cables extra.
Because of how small the play 1 units are, it was easy to keep them next to the Harbeths, and feed the same music via the same NAS to both. Once grouped, fade in fade out was also easy to do on the controller.
Without the Sub, the only place I could clearly identify the Harbeths was in bass scale and depth - the Harbeths go down to 45 hz, the play 1 to about 90hz. Midrange and highs from the play 1 were very close to the Harbeths. Very good performance for USD 400, and if the bass limitations are acceptable, a great set up in up to a medium sized living room, with some care over unit positioning, again easier to do given the small size of a play 1. One has to also remember that many of the subtle things that speakers like Harbeths do are lost in the noise floor of even a quiet listening room at normal listening distances.
Once the Sub was turned on, and volume set with some care, bass performance from Sonos was noticeably better, and midrange differences narrowed further. And the LF differences clearly rise above the noise floor referred above, to be very audible.
The Harbeths are now for sale, moved to my HT room to be used there until they go - it took me a couple of days to get over the good looks of the Harbeths before deciding to let them go. I am getting equivalent performance from a USD 1100 set up by Sonos - even if it doesn't look audiophile. Which isn't to say that it looks bad.
This also led to some research on active speakers - the kind play 1s are- and it turns out that this very surprising result I ended up with is because of recent progress with DSP equipped active speakers, equipped with high efficiency amplifiers dedicated to each driver. Nothing to do with DACs or Hi res. The ideal seems to be to have speakers with as flat a response as possible across the frequency range capability of the speaker using DSP to make up for gaps arising out of driver performance. And then provide EQ controls to accommodate room responses.
If I was still in the equipment upgrade boat, my next step would be to get something like Genelec speakers, using a Connect to feed them. Since I am not, I am happy to use the play 1 + Sub combination in my main listening room. If Sonos in the future introduces a more evolved play unit, perhaps one which also looks the part with wood veneer and the size of the typical bookshelf, I may be tempted.
This experience reinforces for me my view that DACs are now a sonically trivial part of the system. As are amps. And no need to agonise over the which speaker cable, which interconnect questions, unless one enjoys doing that.
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Hahahaha.. Pair of play ones as good as a set of Harbeths.. What is April Fools Day celebrated in August over there? I'm sure Alan Shaw would dying laughing...
I'm sure Alan Shaw would dying laughing...
What he does is no skin off my back.
What he isn't doing is putting out a pair of active speakers, allowing Harbeth to be bypassed by the one area in home audio where there is significant audible progress being made.
Instead he is spending an inordinate amount of time on his forum explaining over and over again that amplifiers and DACs are trivial. Or why speaker cables are a non issue. Or why it is important and yet not easy to get an amp that doesn't clip, given what seem to be very high input sensitivities on most amps these days, along with volume controls that max out at 12 o clock while having a 5 o clock physical rotation range.
With a pair of good active Harbeths, he could make all these issues irrelevant.
Perhaps he has an active speaker in the works - he isn't the kind to miss a trick, nor will he pre announce one before he is satisfied with it.
And the jury is out on whether a fool is someone that believes that just because something is expensive, it must be good.
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And the jury is out on whether a fool is someone that believes that just because something is expensive, it must be good.[/quote]

Kumar, as a general rule, what you say is probably true. However, good equipment often IS expensive, and the sound quality is better than a Connect or Connect Amp and a pair of speakers. I use a Burmester 082 integrated amp and a pair of Proac Response D80 speakers. The sound quality is superb, and definitely surpasses that from my Sonos setup. That's not to say that I'm trashing the Sonos equipment - I quite like it, but there are limitations.
I use a Burmester 082 integrated amp and a pair of Proac Response D80 speakers. The sound quality is superb, and definitely surpasses that from my Sonos setup. That's not to say that I'm trashing the Sonos equipment - I quite like it, but there are limitations.
Both the above are expensive and good. I would still pose this question though - would the Proacs not sound just as good with any modern day solid state amp of the same measured power rating as the Burmester? If yes, and there is a lot of DBT testing of amps done to indicate that, what are you getting for the extra spend on the Burmester? If you say that knowing how much it costs, how it looks, its reputation and so on also play a part in your listening experience, even if it can't be picked in a DBT, I am willing to go along with that too. But these factors will play out differently for different people, being very subjective.
In my case, I did a side by side listening test of the play 1s against the Harbeths, based on which I wrote my assessment. I also did this late at night, when the room was quiet, but it still measured at 40dB, and my average listening levels at 4 metres are about 85dB, peaks of 95-100dB. So effectively all I am hearing is that sound quality which rises above 40dB.
Once the Sub was thrown into the mix - remember that low frequencies aren't as affected as subtle detail by room noise floors, it wasn't hard to make my choice.
One reason for that in my case is that I am not overly affected by the audiophile looks of the Harbeths. A subjective thing.
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Audiophile looks of the Harbeths? They're just nice wood boxes, nothing really audiophile about that Kumar, in fact they look pretty much like any box speaker finished in wood veneer made in the last 50 years. A Martin Logan, or a Wilson, or Magico.. They look audiophile!

So if what you're saying is that you've now decided that "active" speakers are the way to go how about getting a real set of active speakers like ATC's, or Meridians?

I mean seriously the Play 1 isn't much more than a glorified clock radio.. Maybe on par with a Bose wave radio...
Audiophile looks of the Harbeths? They're just nice wood boxes, nothing really audiophile about that Kumar,

So if what you're saying is that you've now decided that "active" speakers are the way to go how about getting a real set of active speakers like ATC's, or Meridians?

Ahh..then you don't know anything about the cult of Harbeth!
I don't need any other active speaker, thanks - and if I did, I would go the studio monitor route. With state of the art DSP and EQ features they would still be a lot less expensive than Meridians, and I don't need the latter to enhance how my room looks.
My "clock radio" play 1 pair+Sub is audiophile enough for my needs. After a couple of decades of using "audiophile" equipment at home and listening to live performances outside.
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I owned a pair of SHL5 for a few months..I'm pretty familiar with the Harbeth cult..

And FYI ATC make some of if nor the most highly regarded Pro monitors on the market.. In addition to their consumer models.
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I'm running my Connect into some AVI ADM RSS speakers. I can say two things:

1. I notice no difference in sound using optical or phono. (Obviously phono is more convenient as it allows volume control on the Sonos app.)

2. I am completely sold on active speakers. They are so much better than the previous hi fi kit I have owned.
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If Sonos in the future introduces a more evolved play unit, perhaps one which also looks the part with wood veneer and the size of the typical bookshelf, I may be tempted.

Personally I'm curiously awaiting the launch of this:
http://www.electrocompaniet.no/dg/
Personally I'm curiously awaiting the launch of this:
http://www.electrocompaniet.no/dg/

Looks very good for sure, the reviews should be interesting.
I'm running my Connect into some AVI ADM RSS speakers. I can say two things:

1. I notice no difference in sound using optical or phono. (Obviously phono is more convenient as it allows volume control on the Sonos app.)

Eh? The Sonos volume control works just the same on optical, coax or RCA. The digital out is only Fixed if you make it so. Use the optical connection and get the benefit of confining analog to the internals of the ADM9. The Wolfson DAC is most probably superior too. ;)

I used to run optical at Fixed Volume from a ZP80 into my AVI ADM9s, but have since switched to leaving the Sonos volume at 75% to get the benefit of the loudness option. The ADM9s accept 24-bit so there's no loss of resolution by using Variable Volume, and the IR control of the ADM9s' own volume is much more granular than Sonos'.
Eh? The Sonos volume control works just the same on optical, coax or RCA. The digital out is only Fixed if you make it so. Use the optical connection and get the benefit of confining analog to the internals of the ADM9. The Wolfson DAC is most probably superior too. ;)


That's what I thought too, having used the coax output on the Connect in the past, but I have no experience of the optical out, so I did not comment.
As to the SQ of even the AVI DAC, from their website:
Quote
though DACs these days are virtually impossible to tell apart, so perhaps most important is that it now locks and unlocks silently when attached to devices
Unquote
I am not sure what the silent locking means in practice. I see one advantage of the built in DAC to be giving a way to use sources that have only digital outputs.
My big concern about active speakers is one of service, if the electronics fail. Quality service and parts back up is still rare in India. A play unit fails, changing the unit by buying a new one is still possible and not a big burden, where play 1s are concerned. A AVI or like fails, it would mean shipping it back to the manufacturer for repair.
The other advantage of play units is that stereo pairing means no wiring from one speaker to the other.
Although Sonos may never build one, a play unit that looks like a AVI active...that would be tempting indeed.
The other advantage of play units is that stereo pairing means no wiring from one speaker to the other.
In the AVIs' case it's a pretty unobtrusive 5m black RCA cable, a special one I suspect which breaks any potential earth loop.

2. I am completely sold on active speakers. They are so much better than the previous hi fi kit I have owned.

I did some research on these only after I realised how good the play 1 can sound if its potential is fully utilised, and I am not surprised now at the above conclusion. One "issue" with them is that they leave very little scope for the equipment hobbyist by way of changing upstream components including cables and interconnects, perhaps a reason why they still aren't very popular in the audiophile community. Ensuring good mastering quality sources is about all that is left to be done.
In the AVIs' case it's a pretty unobtrusive 5m black RCA cable, a special one I suspect which breaks any potential earth loop.
I suppose they aren't interchangeable as the Sonos play units are when stereo paired? If one has trouble with one unit, and repairs for some reason are not viable, does AVI sell just the one replacement unit needed?
I suppose they aren't interchangeable as the Sonos play units are when stereo paired?
Not at all. The left unit has all the inputs (and output for optional sub), DAC, source selection and IR control. Plus the amps for the left drivers obviously. The right unit has just the amps for the right drivers.

If one has trouble with one unit, and repairs for some reason are not viable, does AVI sell just the one replacement unit needed?

No idea, but I doubt it as the drivers are matched. However the company's of a size where customer support is pretty personal. If you wanted to enquire try dropping Ashley James an email.
Small companies can deal with matched sets.

I recall a small, high end company (now departed) who's amplifier required matched transistors. They kept records for each unit and, if a transistor failed, the company would check their records and send out a hand selected match.

Large companies will avoid designs that require matched transistors, however, if the need for a match cannot be avoided, the matching will be done by machine and the repair part will be a matched set, not an individual transistor. Recod keeping, stocking and handling of matched pairs, in addition to training the service network to repair as a matched set (not the usual repair), is viewed as an expensive liability for large manufacturers. Plus, as the unit ages, the large manufacturer will be reluctant to keep the matched pairs in inventory.
In this case it's not just the components which are matched, the actual cabinets have matching veneers.
If the cabinets are wooden, matchbook grain or not, replacing an older cabinet with a new cabinet will result in mismatched colors due to the finish aging.

And, many times the manufacturer has changed drivers and the current drivers have slightly different characteristics than the original. In this case the speakers should be repaired as a pair, even if only one is defective. The repaired speakers might have slightly different characteristics than the original, if only due to driver age. Repairing both speakers will at least result in a similar sounding pair. It is a different debate about the speakers sounding as good, better, or worse than before.

This all assumes that the speakers can be disassembled without damage.
If the cabinets are wooden, matchbook grain or not, replacing an older cabinet with a new cabinet will result in mismatched colors due to the finish aging.

And, many times the manufacturer has changed drivers and the current drivers have slightly different characteristics than the original. In this case the speakers should be repaired as a pair, even if only one is defective. The repaired speakers might have slightly different characteristics than the original, if only due to driver age. Repairing both speakers will at least result in a similar sounding pair. It is a different debate about the speakers sounding as good, better, or worse than before.

This all assumes that the speakers can be disassembled without damage.

This points to one downside with actives. Given the advances with solid state, it is now possible to have the upstream components to be a small percentage of the system cost, if one has invested in a high quality pair of passive speakers which can last for decades with reasonable care and some luck. If the upstream electronics fails a lot earlier as it is more likely to, it can be easily and cheaply replaced with no effect on SQ or aesthetics.
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Eh? The Sonos volume control works just the same on optical, coax or RCA. The digital out is only Fixed if you make it so. Use the optical connection and get the benefit of confining analog to the internals of the ADM9. The Wolfson DAC is most probably superior too. ;)

Hmmmmm I am not sure why I didn't know that - thanks!

I used to run optical at Fixed Volume from a ZP80 into my AVI ADM9s, but have since switched to leaving the Sonos volume at 75% to get the benefit of the loudness option.

What do you mean?
...I did a side by side test of a play 1 pair + Sonos Sub with a pair of Harbeth C7s

I only have a Play5 and a Connect driven Onkyo AV amp driving 10 year old Kef speakers. On the very brief test that I did when the Play5 first arrived, the Kef's completely blew away the Play5. This didn't require a long comparison to consider the subtleties, it was a chalk and cheese difference.

As I doubt that the Play1s are that much better than a Play5, I'm rather perplexed by your conclusions, unless the Harbeths are faulty in some way.
I only have a Play5 and a Connect driven Onkyo AV amp driving 10 year old Kef speakers. On the very brief test that I did when the Play5 first arrived, the Kef's completely blew away the Play5. This didn't require a long comparison to consider the subtleties, it was a chalk and cheese difference.

As I doubt that the Play1s are that much better than a Play5, I'm rather perplexed by your conclusions, unless the Harbeths are faulty in some way.

I was very surprised too, I extended my listening session to over two evenings before moving the Harbeths out. There is nothing wrong with the Harbeths, they are doing very well in my 2 channel HT set up now.
Some questions:
Did you do the comparison using a play 5 pair? Did you have a Sub in the mix?
The play 5 is very sensitive to placement v EQ setting in order to shine. Was yours optimally set?
In what areas did you find the difference you heard?
And some observations:
I am not able to give the Harbeths the kind of room they probably need to deliver all they can. They need to be out in free space. Where I can place them, they were in the play 1+Sub class.
I also suspect that a closer listening position than mine will allow more of their subtle advantages to be heard - at my listening distance of about 4 metres, the noise floor in the room is coming in the way. Also because my preferred listening levels are such that can be comfortably met by a 50 wpc amp such as a NAD at 10 o clock. The loudest I would go is about 11 o clock. The room noise floor becomes more relevant at these listening levels.
I am pretty sure that if the Harbeths were in free space, powered by a 100+wpc amp, where that power was being drawn to a large extent, the Harbeths would pull away comfortably even in my room. But that isn't my listening environment, so they don't. To describe subjectively, at my listening levels music peaks make conversation difficult but not impossible.
Separately, the Sub allows for more and better extended bass than what the Harbeths do. And that advantage persists in my room at my listening levels.
I used to run optical at Fixed Volume from a ZP80 into my AVI ADM9s, but have since switched to leaving the Sonos volume at 75% to get the benefit of the loudness option. What do you mean?
Sorry. I meant tone controls, not Loudness. If volume is either Fixed or at 100% there is no remaining 'headroom' to allow for any tone control boost. It's necessary to lower the volume slightly.

Did you do the comparison using a play 5 pair? Did you have a Sub in the mix?
The play 5 is very sensitive to placement v EQ setting in order to shine. Was yours optimally set?
In what areas did you find the difference you heard?


As I said originally - one Play5 on it's own.

The differences heard weren't down to tweaking EQ levels, more the limitations of the Play5 box. Don't get me wrong, I like the Play5 for what it is, but it seems misleading to me to suggest that they have audiophile pretensions.

If they suit your particular room and circumstances better than the Harbeths, that's great.

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