Blogging on Audio
- Written by Hans Wetzel Hans Wetzel
- Parent Category: BloggingOnAudio BloggingOnAudio
- Created: 13 October 2022 13 October 2022
Since I began writing for SoundStage! back in 2011, I’ve written from—erm—compromised listening spaces. My grad school apartment building was full of senior citizens whom I respected too much to play music too loudly. My first apartment with my now-wife was a 750-square-foot concrete studio in Center City Philadelphia that was an acoustic nightmare. And our century-old, 1020-square-foot first home together, in South Philadelphia, was a long, narrow row house that left my stereo most of the way down the long wall of its open-floor-plan first floor, resulting in horrendous room modes. I vowed that if we ever lived that suburban life, I would have two things: (1) a proper listening room that was truly my own, with as few compromises as possible, and (2) a big family room with a nice television and an audio system that was both inconspicuous and super user friendly.
In the fall of 2021, with a kid on the way, a neurotic dog, and a historic housing market here, we bid aggressively on a suburban Philadelphia townhome that checked most every box of ours, and landed it. We now had a modern home with a lot more space for our growing family, and crucially, two perfect rooms in which to build systems. I’ll focus on my main listening room in a follow-up article, but for now I want to walk you through my new family room.
The previous owners ran a tight ship—the house was immaculate.
Here’s how it looked in the original listing. I loved it for its oversized joinder with the kitchen, fireplace, and copious natural light. Now, the old owners, and seemingly most modern interior decorators, were keen on putting televisions over fireplaces. I think that’s neat in theory but terrible in practice. That’s not only a lot of potential heat wafting over expensive electronics, but also, who wants to crane their neck by looking up whenever they’re watching television? Plus, I wanted a big television, which would mean putting speakers to either side of the fireplace in front of the room’s two windows—and well below where the screen was. Hard pass.
That left the rather large canvas of the adjacent wall with which to play. I researched TVs to death, and with 2021 models on sale ahead of 2022’s finest about to drop, I went with Samsung’s 65″ QN90A Neo QLED panel. Its mini-LED backlight promised crazy peak brightness and great black levels for a non-OLED display—perfect. I could centrally wall-mount it, grab a modern media console to throw under it, and start focusing on the audio solution.
Here were the prerequisites. Whatever I bought had to work flawlessly with the television, pulling double duty for screen time and for music. My wife is—and I’m being quite diplomatic here—not tech savvy. So the audio system had to be foolproof. The list grew from there. She’s a Spotify user, so Spotify Connect functionality was high on the list, as was being Roon Ready, since I could leverage Roon for both my family-room system and my main system. It also couldn’t be big, unsightly, or have lots of wires. I wanted our family room to be clean and modern, and to secure my discerning wife’s approval. Her perfect audio system is the complete absence of one, so you could say my leash was short.
I’ve been obsessed with Devialet Silver Phantoms since I reviewed them back in 2016, so the second-gen Phantom Is felt like strong contenders. The issue was the wiring: one power cord each, and an optical cable to boot, the latter of which meant my wife would need to get comfortable having a second remote control around in addition to the television’s. KEF’s LS50 Wireless II speaker system got me a step closer. Like the Devialet setup, the KEF system is compact and boasts Spotify Connect and Roon Ready certification. Unlike the Phantom Is, the Wireless IIs have an HDMI eARC connection that would allow the Samsung’s remote to control the speakers’ volume, a huge plus in this house. For a while, this felt like the front runner for our new living space. I then re-read Gordon Brockhouse’s thorough review of Bluesound’s Powernode from August 2021, and my entire line of inquiry changed.
I’ve always loved the idea of all-in-one loudspeakers, and thought that they represented hi-fi’s endgame, so to have my head turned by a $799 Canadian streaming integrated amp was unexpected, to say the least. I was just shocked at how much you could get for the money. 80Wpc into 8 ohms of class-D power, HDMI eARC, a pair of optical inputs, and a subwoofer output with both low- and high-pass filters. My mind swirled. My concern about all-in-one loudspeakers is the flipside of what I love about them: all-in-one convenience also means they turn into boat anchors when something inside of them breaks or their functionality becomes outdated.
NAD’s M10 V2, the brains of the operation, with Roon playing.
But with a clever integrated amp, the options opened up. Like in-wall speakers for a truly “wireless” look for the room. And then there was the possibility of an easy-to-integrate minisub like SVS’s Micro 3000 or the comically small KEF KC62. I floated the idea past SoundStage! publisher and resident Napoleon Bonaparte, Doug Schneider, and he blanched, calling me out for being unable to shake my roots as a cheap bastard. While I’m proud to say that my dumpster-find Intel NUC is still running well, Doug had a point. If I went to all this effort for a new house, and I’m building a system from scratch to sound as good as possible in exactly the fashion I want, then do it right. I pitched Doug on Bluesound sister company NAD’s C 700, and he replied, “Come on, man. Just get the [NAD] M10 V2.” He may be short, but that didn’t make him wrong. At $2749, the M10 V2 was roughly three times the price of the Powernode I’d originally become enamored with, but there are good reasons for that. It looks way better, has a big touchscreen, has more power (100Wpc into 8 ohms), has higher-quality Hypex Ncore class-D amps, and has all of the functionality and connections of the Powernode and then some. The coup de grâce? A license for Dirac room correction. I was instantly sold on the idea.
Focal’s 1000 IW6. Notice the rocker switch to adjust the beryllium tweeter ±3dB. I thought it sounded great as-is.
I explored lots of different in-wall options, but kept coming back to the same model: Focal’s 1000 IW6. The flagship two-way in-wall from the French manufacturer features a similar 1″ inverted beryllium-dome tweeter and 6.5″ W cone to those found in the Diablo Utopia Colour Evo I reviewed a couple of years ago. But whereas that speaker retailed for $16,999 per pair at the time, the 1000 IW6 costs a mere $3798 per pair by comparison. I love the Focal sound, and have always been beguiled by beryllium-dome tweeters. Plus, the 1000 IW6 is easy to drive, with a minimum 7-ohm impedance and 88dB sensitivity. Given that I didn’t need crazy output and would be partnering a pair of them with a sub, they were my perfect solution. As for the subwoofer, as terrific of a value as SVS’s Micro 3000 is, it’s not quite full-range, and maybe most importantly, it’s not quite as small and unobtrusive as the KEF KC62. So I opted for the KEF and had my perfect system all picked out.
KEF’s KC62. There’s small, and then there’s small; the KC62 is the latter. It digs shockingly low despite having a tiny footprint.
Here’s the thing. I am not very handy. And while I am ordinarily so keen to YOLO everything I do for the sake of saving a few bucks, I wanted to do this right. So I called my local dealer, World Wide Stereo, for a consultation, explaining that I needed help with a couple of TV purchases and wall installations, the Focal in-walls installed, and some network wire run, but that I’d be purchasing the 1000 IW6es directly from Focal Naim America. Graciously, Ryan Rumer, my consultant at World Wide Stereo, was willing to oblige me.
The World Wide Stereo techs who installed everything, Scott and Paul, were both enthusiasts and Focal owners, and they did flawless work with three TVs (we had a third TV installed in our bedroom), the Focal in-walls, and all the wiring over the course of six hours or so. It took me only about 25 minutes to hook up and set up the NAD integrated amp and KEF sub, thanks to the included Bluesound iOS app that I could use to control the amp. I quickly found my Roon Core, logged into Spotify and Tidal, and crossed over the attached KC62 at 80Hz. With a couple of settings enabled in the Samsung QN90A, the experience was—with one exception, explained below—flawless. My wife and I use an Apple TV 4K for all of our video streaming, and given the NAD’s HDMI eARC connection, I am able to run the TV and the NAD from the Apple TV remote, since the NAD auto-senses the TV going on, and goes into standby upon several minutes of inactivity. Chef’s kiss.
Mid-install. Our place was a mess, and we were eight weeks into being first-time parents.
Musically, the NAD instantly appeared as an option in Roon and automatically switched to Roon as a source upon selection from my phone or tablet, with remote volume control working quickly and smoothly from around the house. Similarly, my wife is able to select the NAD from within her Spotify app when she’s in the kitchen. It just works, and I’m frankly thrilled with the outcome. NAD is crushing it these days, and I cannot speak highly enough about how thoughtfully designed the M10 V2 and the Bluesound software are. The only exception is that the Bluesound app will occasionally “forget” my M10 V2, leaving me unable to connect to it or to wirelessly change its settings. A couple of times over the past several months it reappeared; another couple of times it didn’t, and I had to reset the unit. Of note, I did not have a convenient way to get a network jack into my living room, so I have my M10 V2 connected wirelessly to my Asus ZenWiFi AX (XT8) mesh Wi-Fi setup—that could well be the culprit. Luckily, the last five weeks have been trouble-free following the NAD’s latest firmware update, and I’ve just been able to enjoy as user-friendly an experience as I could have hoped for. Great sound, responsive control, zero hassle.
Roon Ready was a must. And don’t judge my Rammstein; I saw them recently during their North American stadium tour, and it was, without question, the grandest spectacle I’ve seen in my life.
Then there are the Focals. The sealed-back two-ways are pretty big, each measuring 17.2″H × 12″W installed, and boasting a bandwidth of 55Hz-40kHz, ±3dB. They sized up well on either side of my 65″ flatscreen television, and I didn’t have any regrets about not springing for a three-way in-wall option. Their installation went off without an issue, and the magnetic grilles keep them hidden away, as flush as possible with the wall. The KEF sub is a known quantity at this point: legitimate extension to 20Hz and below, excellent control over its 6.5″ opposing, side-firing woofer cones, and a tiny footprint. It’s a dense little sub, weighing almost 30 pounds, but it’s so small that I can’t help but grin foolishly whenever I see it. The Focal-KEF tandem promised much.
So how does my system sound? Sublime. The Focals have this uncommon clarity that I just adore, very much reminding me of the Diablo Utopia Colour Evos. That beryllium tweeter is sensational, with seemingly endless extension and exquisite transparency. I worried that it might be prominent or, even worse, bright. Fresh off the install, and even months later with hundreds of hours of use, they sounded great. Vocals and instruments were likewise reproduced with superb definition, with a neutral tonal balance. Their bass was practically non-existent, to be fair, with that 55Hz -3dB point sounding awfully optimistic, at least in my setup. That’s not surprising given that the 1000 IW6 is a sealed design without a ton of internal volume to work with, and without the benefit of a port to goose its bottom end. The concession that I knew I was making by going with in-walls over a traditional loudspeaker was soundstage depth, and true enough, there wasn’t a great deal to speak of at low volume levels. But matters improved the louder I played the system, with a highly convincing stereo image, and a real sense of three-dimensionality to boot. With gobs of definition and delicacy on display every time I press play, I’m ecstatic with the 1000 IW6es.
The finished product. Perfection.
Then there’s the KEF KC62—what a pint-sized powerhouse it is. There’s a measure of cognitive dissonance in watching a 10″ cube produce tight, full-throated extension below 25Hz. And while the microsub may not be the best option for a larger, dedicated listening room, it is perfect for my use case: low-to-medium volume, with maximum extension and control, using a minimal footprint. Like the NAD, it auto-senses when it’s fed a signal, turning on within ten to 15 seconds of the music starting, and turning off within five to ten minutes of the signal stopping. The only hiccup is when the NAD’s volume is set low on initial turn-on—the voltage of the signal to the sub isn’t sufficient to trigger it to turn on. I’ve only had it happen to me a few times, and bumping up the volume a few clicks usually does the trick.
The only remaining item after several months was to use the NAD’s built-in Dirac room-correction functionality. The pint-sized integrated comes with a wired USB microphone that you plug into the back of the unit. Simply download the app, connect to the network with the M10 V2 on it, and follow the on-screen prompts (I tried it with both my iPhone 11 Pro and M1 MacBook Air). I took about a dozen measurements at the defined locations in my room, exported the resulting room-correction curves to the amp—up to five curves can be loaded at any given time—and started experimenting. The suggested factory curve is a roughly 5dB left-to-right tilt, with the bass boosted by 2.5dB, and the treble relaxed by 2.5dB. At higher volume that may actually work well in my room, but given that most of my and my wife’s listening will be at more moderate volumes, I felt the need to dial in a bit more punch down low and top-end sparkle, ultimately settling in on the bass boosted by 5dB and the treble falling only -1dB. That yielded the subtly vibrant sound that I was looking for without being egregious.
Experimenting with Dirac Live. Note the various custom curves on the left, and the Focals and KEF having separate “Groups” so that individual target curves could be applied to each.
A/Bing the system with Dirac enabled and disabled was fascinating, as you can do it on the fly through the Bluesound app. The biggest difference is below 150Hz, where everything just tightens right up. So much so, in fact, that I felt that I was missing something fundamental, and in a way I was: my room’s bass modes. When the material called for sub-60Hz, the KC62 positively slammed with Dirac enabled, with zero fat or overhang, and it proceeded to load my room far more effectively, especially at higher volume levels. Where bass foundations were closer to 80-100Hz, the post-Dirac sound was thinner and less satisfying at first blush, but my ears slowly adapted to the peaks and valleys of my room having been largely eliminated from the equation. The effect was subtler through the midrange, and especially above 4kHz, but still discernible in the form of greater focus and linearity. Material sounded cleaner, with better edge definition. The extra $100 for the full-range Dirac license is a no-brainer—the M10 V2 comes with a limited license that only operates from 500Hz on down—and having the ability to dial in your system to both your room and your personal predilections is quite the boon.
A heartfelt thanks to World Wide Stereo, Focal, KEF, and NAD for helping to make this a reality.
To say that I’m happy with the outcome of my living room system would be a criminal understatement. I’m thrilled with it, and it is one of the very few big-ticket expenditures that I’ve made over the past decade that has actually exceeded my expectations. I find myself using the living room system far more than my proper hi-fi system in my basement. And maybe even enjoying it more? It’s fair to say that I now have a truly high-performance, full-range living room system that is both user- and décor-friendly. Even my wife likes it. And if that’s not the highest compliment I can pay, I don’t know what is.
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