This is hopefully the first of a handful of reviews of domestic custom installation products and their performance from a sound perspective. This has come around because i've been asked a few times by integrators "what products should i sell?". I've certainly got plenty of experience from when i designed and sold complete solutions myself, but really i never did get to try out products in a controlled environment. You can always find reviews of CI products, but do they discuss the sound in enough detail?
Sure, all of the Crestron, Control4, Sonos amplifiers that i sold, went into racks and seemed to sound fine. As I walked around the house, tilting my head towards the pairs of ceiling speakers, i did kind of wonder which element was doing what. But to really breakdown the components and see what amplifiers like this are actually outputting audio wise is something i've wanted to do for a long time. How do they compare to stereo hifi amplifiers? After all, they are just trying to achieve the same thing but for more rooms. Hifi amplifiers can be great and can also be terrible! Some sound clear but are no fun to listen to, some can be a bit muffled but really enjoyable to listen to.
So, as part of the custom installation community, we often promise "great multi room sound, throughout your home" in the quote. So it's time to put words into action and make an experienced decision to support the claim.
So many multi-channel amplifiers will often have sources connected such as Sky, Apple TV and Sonos or similar. Ceiling speaker pairs are then spread throughout the home. For testing i'm using hifi equipment and some typical AV sources as well, using the hifi equipment i can hopefully get a clearer view of what custom install amplifiers are capable of.
Apple TV - optical out
SkyHD - optical out
Naim NS-01 music server - analogue out
Gamut Phi5 floor standing loudspeakers
KEF LS50 and Arcam Muso bookshelf speakers
The Chord Company cables - Cadenza RCA to RCA, Sarsen speaker cable, C-Power mains cables
Firstly, i needed to get control of the amplifier, via a web browser, to bring it out of standby, set the input levels and control volume prior to connecting to a pair of Gamut Phi5 speakers (rrp£3000). Once successfully on my network under DHCP, the web page presents various tabs (see gallery images). Running full level analogue line out of the Naim NS-01, input sensitivity worked well set to 2V. A higher setting introduced distortion but might be perfectly adequate for the varying analogue output of Sonos streamer for example.
My speakers at home are wired with cables terminated with 4mm 'banana' style plugs, which meant that using the phoenix screw down connectors on the Director was going to be an issue. Whilst i gathered the extra parts to do this, i was forced to listen to amplifier in mono for a couple of days! If that sounded good then it'll just get better of course once two speakers are attached. Starting with Arcam's Muso satellite speakers, music sounded just fine from the word go. You really never know what to expect from audio equipment, but the Director obviously wasn't a wolf in sheep's clothing. There wasn't any extended bass, treble or nasties that were obvious.
Once connected in stereo, to the main Gamut speakers, i had an insight into the whole picture of what was being presented from the M6400. Playing CD rips in WAV of Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid sounded involving and dynamic. Rather than play just a piece and skip to another test song, i let the album play through three tracks. It really was acting like a good hifi amplifier. Taking things up a notch i switched to Skindred's Babylon. A ragga-metal band from south wales with massive fun wall of sound. Again the Director kept up, again, i kept it on for the first three tracks of the album.
Sunday evening i tried the amplifier with a lower quality source, the Apple TV, connected with an unbranded optical lead into the M6400 DAC input 1. Making my way through some classic Bowie videos, all quite low quality, the sound was perfectly enjoyable. Some amplifiers, or hifi combinations kind of 'look down' on poor quality sources which put's you off of listening. For multi room audio throughout homes, this is the last thing you want. I'm not saying that the amplifier filled in the missing parts of the audio spectrum, lows and highs were limited from YouTube and the 70's videos, but the fact that it was still enjoyable and drew me in is what matters.
To EQ or not to EQ
Audio Control take pride in showing off their EQ facilities on many of their amplifiers. I was definitely sceptical when i received the amplifier for testing. Too often EQ is bundled into products these days because of the easy availability of Digital Sound Processing. Which means you can get endless control of frequencies at a low cost. Some DSP sounds good, some can be horrid to play with, and cost rarely reflects what you get.
Also, with a typical multi room speaker system throughout a home, what exactly are you going to do with lots of EQ? Many would most likely set it up over-excitedly and then wonder why speakers have blown after the first party when you all you did was add 18dB of fake bass enhancement!
One thing you can do though, is to try and use EQ wisely to tidy up issues. If some of the ceiling speakers are a bit cheap sounding, then maybe dropping the HF by a couple of dB will help for that zone. If they sound cold, then a tiny tiny lift of bass may help. To my surprise, the Director won again, the preset curves were smooth and subtle. 'Loudness' was a bit too much. I'd still want to use it 'flat' and did, it was just great like that.
Every room rocking
When customers opt for multi room audio, all too often they're going to play poor sources a lot of the time, such as TV, internet radio and Air Play over WiFi into bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens. Better resolution sources like CD, vinyl and Hi Res into these rooms will be less likely. And even then, not every CD, record or FLAC file sounds perfect anyway.
Designing and installing a system that'll be completely enjoyable for Mum, Dad and the kids with a wide range of sources is the key to them not just telling you "the system is so easy to use" but that "it's sounds really great, better than we expected".
The Director M6400 is worth auditioning as i believe it'll fulfil the above with ease.
All you have to do now is find a great sounding CI speaker cable and ceiling speakers to match.