Monday, 7 June 2010

High end audio at Best Buy

As promised earlier, this weekend I made the epic journey to the new Best Buy store at the Lakeside retail park in Thurrock.

We made up a rhyme, "so much that I want to buy, that I cannot justify". Right now, at my stage in life I am skint and the only thing I can justify spending money is a mains lead for my old WD 500gb external hard drive. Alas modern drives of that capacity just run off usb, and have no additional power requirements. Best Buy had no spare mains lead department.

At home I currently have no broadband internet, I can only survive by going to a nearby friend's flat and using their wifi. If only there were a way to boost my friend's wifi, so I could use it from the other end of the corridor. At Best Buy I put this problem to their Geek Squad and as I'd previously predicted they sucked their teeth and said no.

With these issued addressed, I thought I'd have a look at their hi-fi and home cinema set ups as suggested at last week's bloggers meetup.

The first thing that struck me was their Loewe tv set up. It set my teeth on edge and made me sick a little in my mouth.

I've had dealings Loewe tvs before, in one of the setup menus there's some kind of image enhance setting that sounds great, but it fucks the picture. Its hard to describe how, but it does something to the lighting and motion that makes anything you watch look like it was done in a cheap American sit-com studio blue screen.

It doesn't matter what you're watch, James Bond or Avatar, it just looks crap, un-movie-like.

What pains me more is that people don't notice or object.

Its like when widescreen tellys and movies first came on the market, and in shops and home people would watch stuff with the wrong aspect ratio, so it was stretched or squashed - distorted, and folk would shrug, "its widescreen, its supposed to be like that"

No, its wrong. Its like you've broken the movie. Would you play a 33rpm record at 45rpm?

It amazes me that any shop anywhere manages to sell Loewe tvs.

At Best Buy they had several demonstration rooms for hi-fi, high end audio and home cinema.

A few times when I was young my pa took me to hi-fi shops, they were quiet, dusty places, lots of wood panelled speakers and turntables decked in smoked perspex. People studying specifications and quietly asking attendants if they could listen to certain systems.

When I worked at Linn Products and Roksan Audio, again, listening to things was a quiet and patient experience, setting up the system, listening to a piece of music, adjusting or changing the system, then listening again, comparing contrasting, adjusting and deciding.

Not so at Best Buy, demonstration rooms blasting out blockbuster movies, endless arrays of speakers blaring out whatever kids listen to these days.

My ears aren't delicate flowered but I couldn't bear to stand in the demoroom for more than a few seconds before retiring. It was just too stressful and unrelaxing.

Is a fight scene from Transformers 2 really the best thing for demonstration surround sound, or is it just designed to bewilder and confuse customers so they buy any old crap and escape as quickly as possible?

One of the demonstration room was kitted out with the walls decked with every single speaker they sold. Do you know how speakers work? They have a cone that moves in and out, to reproduce sound, how the cone moves is precisely controlled by the amplifier/ preamp playing whatever mp3/CD/record you're listening to. The waves of sound pressure come from the speaker, bouncing off walls and the floor and ceiling to varying degrees until they reach your ears. This is something people rarely need to consider, except if you work testing high end audio or if you are about to spend a lot of money on speakers. By a lot of money, I mean anything more than what you earn in a week.

Anyhoo, these waves of sound pressure will bounce off smooth surfaces and get absorbed by soft or furry surfaces, like carpets, curtains and sofas. Try listening to music with they curtains in your room open or closed, the music will sound different. Try standing in the corner and speaking and then moving into the middle of the room and doing the same, you'll sound very different. Imagine if the walls moved freely, this is essentially what happens if you have loads of speakers in one room and only listen to two at a time.

For each speaker for any room there will be a sweet setup, the distance its positioned from the walls, the angle it's toed in at, the distance it is from its partners.

In Best Buy you can't listen to any speakers or any sound system and make an accurate judgement about which sound better than others. No matter how much money you throw at them when you get those speakers home they're going to sound completely different to how they did at the store.

They may very likely sound better than they did in the store, they couldn't sound much worse. Best Buy's setup seems design to get the worst performance out speakers on the home cinema side of the store.

I might have got the wrong end of the stick with the speaker, mind, that in the demonstration room with hundreds decked out on the walls, you're not supposed to listen to them, and its merely just to see what they looked like. If that's the case then I apologise for the ranting of the previous few paragraphs.

Oddly though, on the other side of the building they get it right. In the games console demonstration room, the speakers are set up perfectly, the screen is set up great. They're doing it right. Pick any game you want to play, and you can have a go in the best gaming, video and audio environment I've seen in a long while.

It only half makes sense. In the gaming room, they're doing it right, but not trying to sell speakers or tvs, and in the home cinema/audio room, where they are trying to sell hardware, they're doing it wrong.

I fear there's nothing I can do to help them.
Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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