Last month I wrote about “The Reference System” for the March 1 update of SoundStage! Ultra. In that article, I examined the notion of the reference audio system, outlined the types of folks who have them, explained why these systems matter, and provided some insight into how to go about assembling one. I concluded by promising to explore reference audio systems on SoundStage! Ultra “in greater depth and in some very exciting ways in 2022.”
And here I am to announce the kick-off of that journey.
On April 15, you’ll see a component-by-component breakdown and extensive photos of my current reference audio system—the Ultra Reference System. Some of these components are ones you may already know from reading my prior reviews, others will be new to me and my room. And still others are temporary placeholders for gear that will enter the system over time.
Jeff Fritz, Hans Ole Vitus, and Alon Wolf listening to Jeff’s reference system in 2012.
The Ultra Reference System is my main review testbed. This stereo setup occupies pride of place in my current listening room, and it’s the system I use to evaluate the majority of products that come to me for review right here on SoundStage! Ultra. Of course, no reference audio system exists outside of . . .
Neutral in-room acoustics
It all starts with the room, and that’s the one “component” in the Ultra Reference System that isn’t about to change anytime soon. The space this system resides in is acoustically treated with custom polycylindrical diffusers on the front wall and commercially available absorptive wall panels and wall-mounted bass traps on the side walls. A detailed look at how this listening space was created and the specifics of its sonic footprint can be found in my March 2019 article, “A Measured Approach to Room Acoustics.” The room itself is 18′ 3.5″ deep and 20′ wide, with a slight bump-out to the right side of the right speaker, and the ceiling height is 9′. The room is on the second floor of my home in southeastern North Carolina.
The three massive polycylindrical diffusers in the current listening room.
I have addressed room acoustics in an effort to create an environment that’s as close to a blank sonic canvas as possible for my reference components to make sound in. In addition, I value the judicious use of in-room acoustical measurements for setting up loudspeakers in my room. The room will always have a great impact on the sound of the audio system contained within it, but there’s no question this impact can be controlled to varying degrees through the use of acoustic treatments. My room is very good, but it’s not perfect. A survey of the loudspeaker reviews I’ve conducted over the past several years reveals a room that mostly gets out of the way of well-designed loudspeakers. The exception is a slight null of up to 5dB between 70Hz and 80Hz, followed by a peak of several dB at 100Hz. (These conclusions were drawn from examining in-room measurements taken with FuzzMeasure acoustic-measurement software and using a Behringer ECM8000 condenser microphone placed at my seated ear height at nine spots on a 20″ radius at and around the listening position. These measurements were then averaged and displayed in a 1/12th- or 1/6th-octave-smoothed graph.) Otherwise, the room is broadly neutral in the midrange and upper frequencies, and this allows me to hear what my reference audio system sounds like sans egregious room-induced colorations.
In-room response of the Estelon X Diamond Mk II loudspeakers.
The components contained in the Ultra Reference System were carefully selected and assembled. Not only do they represent my associated equipment for reviewing other audio products, but also, when combined, these components produce a sound that I greatly enjoy for day-to-day listening. Although I’ll tell you on April 15th what these products are and why I picked each of them, for now, I’ll let you in on some basic priorities I have for any component I chose for this system—both the components that currently make it up and those I’ll be adding to it in the future. My most pressing criteria for selecting this system of components—and there are some characteristics that I value more than others—are as follows (in no particular order):
- Full range(ish): The generally accepted definition of a full-range audio system includes bass extension to 20Hz. With a modest amount of room gain, this should be attainable by most large three- and four-way speaker systems in an appropriately sized room. My reference audio system must be capable of reproducing bass below 30Hz, although I must note that my room is not quite large enough to house the most ambitious of floorstanding speakers the way my previous room, the Music Vault, could. (And did.)
- Uncolored sound: I value sound that is as neutral as possible. It must have excellent dynamic range and reproduce a wide, deep soundstage, with pinpoint imaging and appreciable detail across the audioband. In my systems through the years, this has generally meant using advanced (if not the top-of-the-line) DACs; powerful, low-distortion solid-state amplifiers; and multiway speakers designed by engineers who value low distortion, flat frequency response, and controlled off-axis dispersion. This doesn’t mean everything I choose will sound the same or be similar to the component it replaces. I’m open to well-designed audio gear regardless of product type, implementation, or configuration.
The MSB Technology remote.
- Straightforward user interfaces: I’m not into quirky electronics. I don’t want to fiddle with a system’s settings every time I turn it on just to make sound, or to make whatever’s coming out sound good. I’m not one to experiment with seven different digital filters to see which of them suits a particular music track best. I’m also not prone to spending the better part of a Saturday afternoon comparing aftermarket footers under a well-designed component. If being a tweaky audiophile—nothin’ against ’em—is a prerequisite for earning my audiophile pocket protector, then I guess I won’t get one.
- Reliability: I admit this is a slippery slope, and it’s a characteristic that’s rarely written about in audio reviews due to the limited timeframes in which products under review are typically assessed. However, for a component that’s under consideration to become a permanent (ahem) part of the Ultra Reference System, it’s a different matter altogether. After all, if you were to use a component in the context of a reference audio system for a year or more, you would get a general sense of its overall reliability. The bottom line for me is this: no matter how good it sounds, if it’s in the shop, it’s not making sound, and it’s not for me.
- Fantastic build quality: What does this have to do with sound? Not much. But it does add to the enjoyment of owning, operating, and listening to a high-quality reference audio system. And admittedly, I’m more into this aspect of audio components than most audiophiles. I simply refuse to compromise on build quality or fit’n’finish at the prices these components demand. I almost always comment on build quality in my reviews, and there are no compromises in this regard for the components that make up the Ultra Reference System.
Build quality inspected: The Plinius Reference A-150 stereo power amplifier in August 2020.
- Good measurements: I always want to see the objective measurements connected to a component, even though I’m not a measurements-only guy. As I’ve said previously, good objective measurements are simply additional data points you can use to make a purchase decision. It’s been my experience that an audio product designed to excel in the listening room will also excel in the lab or in front of a microphone. So in this respect, I do want to have my cake and eat it, too.
Check back on April 15th for the unveiling of the Ultra Reference System. You’ll find a special tab on SoundStage! Ultra that will take you directly to the page. There, you’ll find photos, a sound description, and additional links to detailed accountings of the Ultra Reference System’s components. This won’t be the only system that we’ll be listing—there are others yet to come. We’ll be setting up tabs that lead to two other reference audio systems that will be unveiled over the next year. Each of these systems will have a different purpose, which I’ll explain in greater detail as we get closer to their launch dates.
Shipping and receiving in the Fritz household.
I look forward to exploring the subject of reference audio systems in greater depth than I ever have before—and presenting it all right here on SoundStage! Ultra.
. . . Jeff Fritz