Amplifying problems

Problems, problems, problems. Namely, you can't really get a decent amplifier cheap like we used to. But let me get into my setup and the problems that led to this realization first!

My setup
I currently have a Creative/Cambridge Soundworks Megaworks 5.1 THX 550. No, not Cambridge Audio, that's something else. Yes, it sound like a cheap 5.1 for computer systems, but it actually is a very decent one, with the price to match (€300/$300/60 000 Ft at that time, while there were systems for the third of it). Unlike those priced the third or half of this, it has a decent subwoofer (150W RMS), and the neodyum satellites are truly powerful (70W RMS) for their size. This was bought in the PMPO-era, so it was funny and relaxing seeing something with so conservative numbers. As far as I could tell, the amp was at least partially from Pioneer.

A bit of customizing
Please do note that I actually replaced my front speakers with some nice big 3-way Sony boxes I found lying around, as while the satellites are more than OK for films and games, they don't do stereo music justice. These 50cm tall wooden boxes are supposedly 60W only, and about as old as I am.  They still sound as good as my Sennheiser headphones, so they are OK in my book. If you want to get technical, The Sony drivers are 1", 3" and 6" (2.5, 7.5 and 16 cm), the MW originals are 3" only, and the sub is a 7" (18 cm) one.

A real beast compared to your usual PC speaker sets, with a weight to match: 17kgs! 

Power? POWER!
Now you might think that the 500W is actually closer to 50W, but you would be very wrong on that count. I actually couldn't max it out so far, even when reportedly you could clearly listen to the film I was watching on the street, through closed windows and doors. I had to amplify the film audio tracks in the player with about 20-30% for this though. Any higher introduced distortions, but that's likely to be at least partially due to the over-amplified volume of the audio track. Yes, I use this high volume very rarely, but I do actually use it from time to time.

There are two problems with it. The first one is that it is a fully analog system, meaning I do get to deal with noise. A low hissing white noise from the amp, a lower electric noise from the PC that gets amplified to very audible dimensions on 4/5th level, and a new noise that it introduced me to in the last year or so. It now has a distinct mains buzz (~50Hz) for the first couple hours - that is, until it warms up - that goes away. It actually goes away, I'm not getting used to it. I think some parts just aged and partially failed in some weird fashion, because it had no such characteristic before. And a couple weeks ago it started very occasionally (so far only 2 times) producing a very low, but annoying waving noise as well. So yeah, the amp is definitely showing its age.

Analog<->digital divide
The second one is that it is analog. As I actually have a sound card that can output 5.1 optically, completely separating the PC electrically from the amp, I simply want that separation. I've tried it with a cheap Chinese optical -> 5.1 analogue kit from eBay, but the amp chip in that was just unbearably bad (very harsh, over-amplified highs, not enough lows) when it came to music. I do believe my ears are still bleeding from it.

Save your ears, don't buy this, or anything like it. Also, your eyes. That's 3 layers of masking tape on blue LEDs from hell.
Aging in other ways
The has a wired remote, which is great if you don't want to fiddle with batteries, but means that you can't just buy an universal remote if it breaks. And my remote is getting broken: out of the 5 buttons, 4 have developed some kind of problem. It still works, but I'm not sure for how long.

The needs
So I assumed my needs are simple, especially since I'm content with my satellites: I want a good sounding amp with the actual power to drive my speakers (~500W), and it has to have an optical in with Dolby Digital 5.1 decoding (since that's what my sound card puts out with Dolby Live). Lastly, I don't want it to consume 200W idle. I'll also need a new subwoofer, but let's leave that out for the sake of brevity.

The market now: 2.0 masquerading as 5.1
Simple enough, right? Well, as it turns out, not so much. You see, most surround amps under €650 / $720 are not fit to be called even 5.1 surround amps. They have only enough power to drive 2 speakers at the same time, as opposed to my old, cheap one. For instance, a €300 Yamaha RX-V379 is marketed as 5*100W, but like its predecessor, it can't even do 50W when all 5 channels are driven. That's for €300, about what I paid for my whole setup back in the day. You wanted to be at the center of action on that new action movie? Dream on...

Unused extras
Until you pass that magical line of ~€700, you simply don't get an amplifier that actually has enough power for my speaker set I got for way less than that. They are also full with things I couldn't give a damn about: Bluethooth, LAN/WiFi, Spotify, 8 HDMI inputs, DLNA, USB, etc. All superfluous junk, as far as I'm concerned. I'll play my music with WinAmp, and even if I had Spotify, it would be easier to listen to it on the PC than to bother with a remote. I really don't need DLNA and USB for the same reasons, and since I don't have a TV, the HDMI in/outputs are all but useless. They would only add latency to my monitors after all, and as a gamer, that's the last thing I need.

I'll be using... 5 speaker wires, 1 subwoofer, the optical, aaaand the power cord. Out of 36 outputs.

Custom amp? Not any longer
In the past, you could get away and build an actual amp, but now, in the digital age, especially with an optical in and Dolby/DTS decoding, that's not actually that easy as far as I could make it out. AFAIK, the only was to have Dolby/DTS decoding is to literally get the hardware out of other systems and wire it to your own.

Possible amps so far
Granted, I didn't go into much research following these revelations, but so far, I found two amps that would have the power necessary: the Pioneer VSX-1130 (~€720) and the Marantz SR5009 (~710).  Or if I find one, a last-gen Sony STR-DN1050 (~€570). Plus the new sub I mentioned before will cost about €250-300, so the full set would be a cool €1000.

I could also buy a completely new 5.1 PC speaker set like the Logitech Z906, but that one has heat issues AFAIK, and the market for high-end PC sets is really not big these days. Oh, and while it is marketed as 1000W (yeah, right...) / 500W (RMS, but even that's a lie), it actually only consumes 120W max, while being a bit more expensive than my old system was. And there aren't really any systems as powerful as it.

So yeah, the PC Speaker market I knew has shrunk significantly, and the prices of surround receivers are just insane IMO, at least for what I want.

After enduring a week of constant baseline 100Hz noise from the sub, I decided it was time to bite the bullet. In the end, I went with a cheaper Yamaha RX-V378 and a Sony SACS9.CEL subwoofer. The former is OK so far, the latter, not so much. It has a very low but nasty noise floor, and the automatic power saving mode / auto power on function simply does not work. So most of the time it is actually off, and I use my regular fronts (the one with the 16 cm drivers I mentioned in the beginning) for low frequency sound. I really should have taken it back during the two weeks I had, but no use crying over spilled milk.

I am now thinking about upgrading the speakers, to a couple pairs of Wharfedale 220s, 250s and their center version. That being said, I'll take my sweet time, as the current speakers are OK for now.

No comments: