What's next for the ultimate sound quality?

The question may be naive, but I'm not sure what's next to try in the quest for the ultimate sound. I owned the entry level magnepans mmg (didn't like them much for anything but jazz), monitor audio S6 (good all around, imho, but nothing spectacular except for the cheap price tag). Lately I built speakers myself that should supposedly rival the best in the world (ZRT 2.5 from Zaph Audio with Scanspeak drivers)


actual speakers:

The question is what's next? These speakers use one of the best drivers in the world and the best I've heard to date with excellent bass and accurate sound, but soundstage and imaging could be improved (magnepans are better). Also, the sound is a little thin. Am I asking too much, though, from 2 wooden boxes with paper diaphragms in the middle? The speakers are built precisely up to spec and I'm pretty sure that's the way they should sound.

Have I reached the limit where the speakers should be left alone and improving other components can make better returns; e.g, room acoustics and/or amplifier not to mention using quality recordings?

P.S. The receiver I'm currently using is Panasonic SA57 connected to a computer via digital COAX cable and JULI@ sound card. Despite the cheap price, this receiver is great, imho, and sounds better than my NAD 754 (probably because Panasonic is on the bright side and the speakers are warm, so it pairs with them better).

The next step is Troels Ekta Grande with the 7000 ring radiator. I'm not sure you are giving these speakers everything they deserve. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the sound quality though. There are probably not a ton of people on audiogon familiar with these speakers. I'd like to see them paired with something like the Krell 400 xi.
Is that your listening room? If so, you should first add some stuff to absorb reverberations- whether it be furniture or sound treatments- IMO of course...
I think that you have answered your own question. You say that the speakers are competitive with other high end offerings, but you are using them with a Panasonic reciever. You need to get serious with your amplification to do the speakers justice.
You are a long way from the limits of speakers and who really knows what that limit is. That said, those speakers may have much more potential than you realize; I would concentrate on upgrading the rest of your system.
I second Brian's comments, and just want to add that you're an ACE woodcraftsman! (Where do you live? ;-)
Wow - scary website on Zaph Audio.

He says,
How often has someone said "Forget the measurements and tell me how it sounds." Or "Learn to listen with your ears." Well I hate to say it, but stubborn and uninformed is rearing it's ugly head again. A lack of understanding without an open mind leads to a refusal of the facts and an embrace of whatever view happens to further that individual's cause.
- Wow - this would really upset some A'goners - although the logic that "measurements are relevant" is a mantra that I tend to follow (along with listening too).

As for your comment
These speakers use one of the best drivers in the world and the best I've heard to date with excellent bass and accurate sound, but soundstage and imaging could be improved (magnepans are better).

Sorry to inform you but they use the best of the cheaper mass produced drivers. There are pro drivers out there costing several times more than what you used. But do not be sad - compared to most audiophile speakers the drivers are indeed expensive and good.

FWIW - I would try a good DAC next - your receiver may be giving you jitter issues because of the digital interface - feed it analog and it might sound better - less bright less harsh and more musical. It won't be night and day but with good speakers teh source will matter more.

BTW - Your speakers look absoluetly awesome - absoultely no way I would change those without getting your source up to scratch first!
Don't confuse dollars with quality. There are some pro drivers that are better, but just because they cost several times more than the scans the OP used does not make them better. There are also much more expesive consumer drivers. Accuton, and Audio Technology to name a couple, but the general consensus is that the Scans still come out on top. My personal opinion is that there are better drivers than the Scans, but these two (8531 and 6600) are widely recognized as some of the best for home use - regardless of price.

Zaph is definitely a measurements type of guy. Which is great, I think. He designs first, then listens. Tough to listen while you are designing, that why measurements work.
Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of experience with different speakers to compare them with. The best I've heard to date (besides these ones) were monitor audio gold reference 60 ($3K retail). ZRT speakers are a *little* better imho -- they have more airy highs and deeper bass (probably due to silk/paper drivers vs metal ones in MAs). At the same time, it feels like continuation of the same sound -- nothing radically different. Not sure if shelling out $2,500 for a Krell receiver would change the sound much... Or will it? Is it a warm receiver? I feel like these speakers need something bright and pushy. (Which is what Panasonic SA57 is)

Basically, my only problem with these speakers is that when I close my eyes, they don't disappear and sound a little thin -- I'd like to hear a wall of powerful and clean sound but still not there yet... Can the thin sound be due to poor room acoustics -- all the walls and floor are flat and there must be a ton of reflections?

Thanks for your comments, btw!
BTW, the receiver may look dorky and cost less than some of your cables, but it sounds quite amazing: it beats my NAD 754 quite easily in the extended bass range and definition and If you look at this thread down below, there is a post that compares it with sunfire ultimate http://forum.ecoustics.com/bbs/messages/1/239777.html
i would consider a tube amp, maybe a nice little integrated. tubes have a nice way of fleshing out the sound and it may add a nice element to your perception of the speakers as thin. you can get nice amps under a 1k and even under 500$.
Interesting. Tube amp? Never even considered them... To be honest, I thought tube amps were kind of in line with power conditioners and gold cables (i.e., look cool and audiophile, but not really add anything besides design value :) Can they really beat modern all digital receivers? It would be interesting to try, though.

Does anybody know of an audio show in the Chicago area where companies bring hi end equipment? It would be a great experience to attend one of those to at least look at what's out there.
probably due to silk/paper drivers vs metal ones in MAs

Yes that is probably why your speakers sound good and "thin". Paper and fabric drivers tend to be much more internally damped compared to metal drivers and therefore you tend to get a waterfall with less resonances. Do not conufuse warm, nasal or etched sound with better - although it can seem that way initially (so does a compressed CD on a car radio). Perceptively, internally damped drivers make for a very clean sound - in a tight, low Q design (25 Hz tuning option) then you will get a punchy detailed sound and really extract the benefit of these drivers (a higher port tuning will sound impressive but boomy and sluggish).
There are many tube amps out there that will do just fine against your Panasonic. In fact, if you got sold on that one because it is "all digital" I'm afraid you've been had. It sounds like you have not had the opportunity to experiment with many different amplifiers. The Krell I spoke of was not a reciever, although they made one. It is an integrated amplifier.

The speakers you built are nice speakers. My initial hunch (now after reading all the other comments) is that you need to work on amplification, placement in room, and room treatments.

Regarding thin sounding, you can't blame that on all paper cones. I would disagree that this is why they sound thin. At least the woofer is used in many other high end audio speakers that are not thought of as "thin"
Shadorne, you got it! The sound is indeed clean, detailed and punchy and slightly damped.

Given my ideal sound description (a wall of clean and powerful sound), I've got clean and powerful, but the "wall" is missing.

Is tube amp the right answer? There seem to be a lot of DIY designs for tube amps. Or should the room acoustics be dealt with first? Thanks!

Your room looks very "bright" hardwood floors and bare walls. I'd get an area rug on the floor and acoustic panels on both front and back walls and the 1st reflection point on the side walls and then see how it sounds!

Right, I'm quite a newbie and haven't had a lot of opportunity to experiment. In fact, very little. Before building these speakers, and having listened to Seas drivers for 3-4 years (in monitor audio speakers), I bought drivers from Aurum Cantus, Bohlender Graebener and Scanspeak (for reference planning to return them later). After auditioning, the scanspeak tweeter came so on top that I really decided to build a reference system and not waste time and money on everything in between. In terms of amplifiers/receivers, Panasonic and NAD are the only ones I've got and Panasonic sounds better with these speakers. NAD was wonderful with Magnepans.

In terms of "thin", English is not my native language, so this may be a confusion on my part. "Damped" may be a better description. If I put studio headphones to compare the sound (I have AKG 271), it's pretty much the same except that with the headphones, it feels like there are more instruments playing (thin, damped?) and the speakers have more realistic bass and highs.

P.S. How does one experiment with amplifiers/receivers anyway? Do you buy a receiver and return it if you don't like it? Or bring your speakers to the dealer?
That's what audiogon is for. Figure out what you want, buy it used, and sell it later for small or no loss if you don't like it.

In my opinion, those speakers deserve better than a reciever. Something like a really nice integrated, or a separate pre amp and power amp.

I do not think a tube amp is the answer. I think better quality solid state along with proper placement, and room treatments is the answer.
Given my ideal sound description (a wall of clean and powerful sound), I've got clean and powerful, but the "wall" is missing.

Are your speakers uncluttered well away from any side walls or furniture? Any sharp edge obstructions can kill soundstage. 2 feet minimum and 4 feet is best. Also - is your listening position away from any walls - this can kill soundstage too.
Also jitter and phase can affect soundstage. Again I'd recommend you try out a DAC rather than rely on a PC and a sound card and an interface to your DSP.

Also check your PC settings very very carefully - many people think they have a bit transparent sound only to find out there are a multitude of software bugs/reported problems and software volume control/EQ issues(software volume control can be especially bad in many cases).
>The question is what's next?

The physics of conventional speakers are inherently flawed, where conventional speakers have non-uniform polar response especially in the cross-over region.

The polar response is too non-uniform to sound natural, especially if you're stuck with walls within a few feet of the speakers where the early reflections with non-uniform spectra are integrated with the direct sound.

The reverberant field is too bass heavy.

You're also likely to have enclosure issues, from resonances and internal reflections coming back out the thin driver.

To get away from the problems you need to get away from conventional speakers. The differences are huge even with modest (a couple hundred a pair) drivers. The differences between speakers that have more uniform polar response are less.

Open baffle dipoles (4.8dB directivity index at low frequencies and first side wall reflections which can be attenuated 10+ dB in a conventional room) like the Linkwitz Orion are one approach.

I've heard the Seas coaxials in a dipole; they were surprisingly natural too.

Wave guides are another; although practical sized ones only provide control at high frequencies. Earl Geddes Nathan/Abbey would be starting points.
Gleb, great job on the speaks! You definitely need some better amplification to get them to shine. IMO there aren't any mass market "receivers" out there that can beat a decent integrated or preamp/amp combo - just my opininon.

Tubes certainly aren't just audiophile fluff. Generally, they impart a bit of richness and depth in a system (among other qualities). I am currently using a Jolida 502BRC tube integrated and might not ever go back to SS. For the money it beats any SS I have ever used. What is the speakers sensitivity rating?

Looking at your room I would strongly suggest room treatments. Start with a thick area rug (preferably padded underneath) between your listening position and the speakers. Next, get some absorption at the ceiling and wall first reflection points. There is plenty of info on the web about this. I did this a few weeks ago and am enjoying the vast improvement.

Finally neighbor, you are lucky to be in a big city with a wealth of audio shops. Get out and start some auditioning ASAP! Most places will let you home audition gear. Search the archives for shops in Chicago or let me know if you need assistance.
Right. So the consensus seems to be to leave the speakers be and upgrade amplification + install sound panels.

If tube amplifiers sound as cool as they look, then I'm sold :) It also seems possible to build one yourself and stick to the DIY philosophy. I'm afraid the richness of sound also means "warmness", no? In this case, tube amps may not be the best match for the warm scanspeak drivers. I'm going to try a tube amp anyway. Also, browsing a little online about Krell 400xi, it seems that it's kind of bright, revealing and aggressive, which is exactly what these drivers need imho. Definitely something to try!

So many thanks, everybody!
You describe two shortfalls: soundstage and imaging and thin sound.

The soundstage and imaging could be improved with the acoustical treatment as suggested by Mdowns32. You are probably getting alot of sound reflection which blurs the image and soundstage. Also, make sure that the speakers are equi-distant from side and back walls. Also, play with toe-in angle.

Thin sound: You might try putting the speakers closer to the corners or at least closer to the back wall.

Other than that, you are into trying a number of things including different amplification - I have always preferred tube and there are a number of different designs using different driver tubes that can affect the sound. I have gotten the impression from reviews on digital switching amplification is that it can sound thin. You might want to try different cables. Good power cables can make a huge difference. The DAC recommendation is also very valid. Finally, controlling vibration and resonance is also important.

My suggestion would be try to locate the closest audio society in your area, listen to different set-ups, and possibly borrow equipment from other members to see what the effect is of different equipment, cables, etc.

You will get a lot of good recommendations from the Audiogon forum but it comes down to gaining experience with different types of equipment - solid state, tube, and digital switching amplification; effects of cables, effects of good transports, effects of vibration control, and so on...

Good luck and enjoy the journey!
The system sensitivity is around 92-93db. The tweeter is 92.5 and woofer is 87, but since there are 2 of them wired in parallel facing the same direction, you get +6db = 93db for the woofers as well.
I bought a used Sugden amp here and it makes an astounding difference in the sound of my speakers. Extremely warm, natural, beautiful. The sound from my Denon receiver is nice for video or background music, but never for critical listening. It sounds thin and forced. A good amp will let the music just flow, and when you close your eyes the speakers will disappear.
I'm reading this post quite a bit late, but I wanted to put in my two cents and ask questions, as I've been really contemplating building the 2-way version of this kit.

IMHO, the source will make the biggest noticeable difference, followed by amplification. That said, if it were me, I'd upgrade the amp first. Due to the efficiency and easy load of these speakers, you'd be doing yourself a huge disservice by not trying out some single ended or low powered tubes, as in something in the 10-30 watt range. You will be very surprised how powerful those little watts can sound on decently matched speakers. They can be had for fairly cheap on the A'gon. I found tubes to really shine in terms of 'presence'; not as pinpoint in the imaging, but much more 'real' sounding. If you want a 'tubey' sound in a solid state, a safe bet is Pass Labs. They have great resale, and sound tube-like for solid state. I'll do a little Krell bashing here. They just don't sound good to me. Very thin, analytical, but powerful. Same goes for Levinson.

It's too bad you haven't heard more gear. I'm considering getting Merlin vsm, because they suit my needs at the moment. At one point I swore I'd never get them, but I'm really curious as to how they will sound. But I really wonder how they would compare to the ZRT's, a good design speaker with top of the line components. Anyone out there do anything remotely comparative? A friend of mine has some diy monitors using Dynaudio drivers and really likes that sound. I just wonder how much "The whole is more than the sum of it's parts" applies to something like the Merlin vs. the ZRT.
the "ultimate sound" is live music. the next step is to go to concerts and not worry what your stereo system sounds like.
Gleb, you seem like practical type guy. I would suggest that if you're going to play around in tubes that you don't go all the way to some incredibly expensive amps...you can do pretty nicely with an upgraded Dynaco St-70...with mods from either Curcio, Van Alstine or Kimmel (Welborne). Honestly, although the amp is vintage, it wasn't bad at all and with the mods it compares to some stuff that's pretty expensive. In fact, a friend of mine is the rep for Zanden (make 50k amps) and he tells me that from what he sees on a day to day basis, really not many folks out there are doing very interesting stuff in terms of circuit topologies... many of the top brands are just straightforward circuit designs with high end materials (expensive caps...silver wound transformers..etc). Ron Welborne's kits are great, if you can still find them...but in the end they may not have enough juice for your speakers. If the Dyna is too mainstream for you, other nice entry gear would be a Conrad Johnson. But yes, tubes are really the way to go...I've not been able to find a solid state amp that can match the beatiful decay that tubes can give you. In comparison, solid state sounds harsh and sibilant to me now. Ok, well all the best
Oh and for your question about the next thing:

Not sure about the quality, but he's doing something innovative...

Your ZRT 2.5 are lovely. As a singer I generally prefer smaller 4-5" drivers in small speakers like proac response and have also been enamored with electrostatics. Having read about the ZRT 2.5 and being a fan of scanspeak, I also decided to build these speakers and find the midrange to not be what I had hoped for. Wanting to preserve my investment in these drivers, I am considering building troels Ekta or Ekta Grande re-purposing the ZRT drivers and adding mids...