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M&K Surround System

Better Than Scalping Superbowl Tickets

Francis Vale

The early survival prospects of the human species went up enormously because it had acute hearing, some recent bad rappers notwithstanding. The ability to pick out subtle 3-D aural cues would have been crucial in early man's ability to live another day in a world filled with endless mortal terrors. Our development of sophisticated visual and higher thought process functions were also probably dependent on a well-developed sense of hearing. The more sophisticated the hearing functions, the better able to drive the eyes towards the sound source and make conscious sense of it: Oh shit! -- Which one of us gets to be lunch? The fact that our hearing can also be used to make subtle sonic judgments about tonal color and timbre in music may just be an evolutionary byproduct (or maybe it was just an added bonus for being good). In any event, aural aesthetics had to be the last thing on Lucy's mind as she roamed the ancient African Savannah in her desperate survival search for mates, food and shelter.

It's probably because hearing is so tied to our early survival that sound, rather than vision, typically still has greater gut-level emotional impact and superior context information. If you listen to a CD of a movie sound track, even without seeing the movie you can still pretty much figure out what are the key emotional sequences in the film, as well as their nature, e.g., love, fright, victory, etc. It's no wonder that such lavish attention is paid to film scores. And because our hearing is so terribly fussy, it's fiendishly difficult to produce a contrived sonic illusion. The minute our ears go, uh-uh, that's not real, the whole elaborate illusion created in our head suddenly collapses into time-to-get-another-beer disappointment. One really good example of the problem is how to produce truly believable surround sound.

Some rear channel speaker makers embrace a THX dipole setup, whereby sound radiates from each rear channel speaker in a diffuse, difficult to localize manner. Meanwhile, some other makers are espousing direct radiating sound by using conventional forward firing speakers for the rears. Some innovative audio companies, like Miller and Kreisel (M&K, http://www.mksound.com) have come up with an ingenious solution to this which-is-better in the rear argument. M&K makes "tripole" rear surround unit that combines both a TXH-compliant dipole speaker and a direct radiator in the same enclosure. The M&K SS-150THX surround speaker ($650 each) works as a conventional dipole and radiates diffuse sound from its left and right baffles. But in tripole operation, the front baffle on each speaker is activated and works as a full range direct radiator. However, its side diffusion baffles, which are positioned at a 15-degree angle relative to the front baffle, continue to operate. With a pair of SS-150THX tripoles anchoring the rear, and with all three drivers activated, you simultaneously get a directional stereo image, as well as an enveloping, wrap around you sound. Thus, the movie's surround sound information is radiated on all three axes from the left and right rear speakers.

If you are an adamant THX purist, or think some source materials sound better this way, you can disable the direct radiator baffle and use just the two diffusion baffles. I left them in tripole mode most of the time and got consistently great results. Star Quest, a wonderfully loopy satire of Star Trek, is one of the best available DVD video and audio transfers. The tripole effect was uncanny with this very funny flick. The speakers just disappeared, as THX surrounds are supposed to, yet rear channel directional effects were also realistically rendered via the stereo imaging. The overall effect was extremely cool A? and eerily convincing.

M&K also makes a very, very cool front channel speaker, the self-powered S-150P THX. This compact (12.5" h x 10.5" w, x 16.13" d) but very heavy puppy (@ 45 pounds) solves one of the myriad problems that continually plague loudspeaker designers, namely, how to deal with a passive crossover. The crossover network in a loudspeaker separates the incoming signal's lows from the highs and then feeds them to the appropriate woofer(s) and tweeter(s). The problem with passive crossovers is that you incur high-level signal losses that can limit a speaker's dynamic range and also diminish its output. However, the high-end audio community, of which M&K is a long-standing member, can never be accused of a shortage of problem solving inspirations. With its S-150P, M&K has successfully taken what some consider a lunatic fringe idea and transformed it into an eminently useful and practical application.

To overcome the sound-sapping problems of passive crossovers, M&K instead uses an active crossover coupled with two 180-watt amplifiers that are built right into each S-150P speaker. The speaker's two midrange drivers (crossed over at 80 Hz) get their own amp to blissfully suck on, while the three tweeters in the speaker get their own private 180-watt powerhouse. Technically, this is known as a bi-amp set up. In the audio high-end, some over the top crazies use a solid state amp for woofers (for tighter down deep control), and tube amps for the midrange and tweeters to gain a more refined and transparent 3-D sound!

If you do the math, you will see that with three S-150Ps (front left, center, and right) you get 1,080 floor thumping, circuit breaking watts staring you in the face, all in a compact form factor. With the S-150P, not only are there are no rack-filling amps to worry about, neither are there any speaker cables. Just a single line level wire goes to each S-150P from the surround sound processor. However, each speaker now requires its own power cord and a power outlet, so a profusion of wires still sprouts out the back. For this review, the M&K speakers were fed by the remarkable Sunfire Theater Grand II surround processor. The Sunfire in turn was nicely fed via an S/PDIF output on a Turtle Beach sound card (their Santa Cruz model is one very slick card) installed in a PC home theater rig. For line level wires, I used, and heartily recommend, cables from Nordost (www.nordost.com), which in this review case, were the company's very good Red Dawn interconnects.

Each M&K S-150P costs a cool $2,200 apiece, so they deserve to be fed by the best wire you can afford. This may sound like a lot of loot, but remember, a high quality, high-end audio amp will easily set you back thousands of dollars. Plus, that outboard amp doesn't solve the passive crossover problem like this M&K unit does. When you are staring down millions of years of evolutionary tinkering, it still takes a lot of money to hoodwink Mother Nature and her brilliant aural handiwork. She has made maddening sure there is no audio free lunch.

There is another hot and ongoing debate in audio high-end circles about whether or not speakers expressly designed for home theater use, especially those that follow the tight vertical dispersion-control specs of THX, can also succeed as listening-only rigs. The M&KS-150P puts paid to that argument. The M&K S-150P does indeed deliver the audio purist goods, which, truthfully, came as no great surprise as its design is based on M&K's Professional reference 2510P powered monitor used in music recording studios. The 150P's highs are sweet, the mids spot on, the 3-D sound stage huge, and the sense of you just-really-might-be-there-after-all comes uncannily close on a lot of listening occasions.

As for the TXH dispersion issues that so flummox many audio high-enders, there is a toggle switch on the speaker's back that changes the vertical dispersion pattern. The "Narrow Mode" conforms to what the THX spec requires, while the "Wide mode" setting offers a larger, more conventional dispersion pattern. And for quickly achieving correct front speaker alignment in your listening area (always a huge pain), the S150P has a tiny red LED on the front that glows brightly red when it's perfectly aimed. Any Alpha Geek would have to love that nice touch.

The S-150P's have no problem in belting out the sound up to, Yo! The SWAT team is busting down the door decibel levels. The speaker's dynamic range, as promised by the system's special design, is awesome. A three pack a day smoker will have an easier time at quitting than these gusty puppies, which hang in no matter what and how much you throw at them. Of course, with its 80 Hz threshold, there is a natural limit to how deep and dynamic the 150P can ultimately party. Enter the M&K MX-350 THX subwoofer. When this 84-pound black box showed up, I went uh-oh, here goes the lease for sure. Well, yes and no. The MX-350, with its dual 12" long-throw woofers and its internal 350-watt amp, will indeed blast the ceiling plaster straight into your downstairs neighbor's soup. But at the same time, this awesome thing isn't infatuated by its own prodigious boom-boom capabilities and knows when to quickly shut up and be silent. The $1900 MX-350 has a very tight grip on its bass bowels and will not make an unsightly mess of your music or movie sound effects. It's one very impressive piece of gear.

With two SS-150 THX speakers for surrounds (which were powered by a Sunfire 300 watt/channel stereo amp), three S-150P TXM monitors up front, and an MX-350 subwoofer anchoring the low end, this all-M&K rig totaled up to a cool let's-wait-until-our-IPO-happens $9,800. $10K will buy movie tickets for six every night for almost half a year. But hey, is that any way to impress the hell out of your yeah, yeah, Radio Shack is just as good friends? Sit those unwashed disbelievers down in front of this M&K killer setup and get ready because judgment day is at hand. When your beer bellied buds stagger out your door after being hit by multiple body blows from watching "On Any Given Sunday", you will know payback is indeed sweet. Feeling A? not hearing A? the over top sound track in this actually pretty good flick in the privacy of your own crib makes the $10,000 price of admission almost seem like a bargain (which it is, from an audio high-end perspective). And when Super Bowl Sunday arrives in full Hi-Def TV/M&K surround audio splendor, you can even try subsidizing your outlay by scalping tickets to watching it your knotty pine playroom.

When you walk away from a virtual experience feeling battered and bruised, you know you had a good time. Maybe if old Lucy had one of these M&K rigs, she might still be sitting at home in her cave on the lush Savannah.

Copyright 2001, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

21st Pub date: March 2001

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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