This is a companion article to my essay on AV Industry Audio and Video Scams over the Years.
I recommend a projector over a television as you can enjoy a much larger image and it reduces the temptation to have a TV running in the background interrupting conversation and making your home seem more like an airport lobby and less like a literary salon or a concert hall. Most of these recommendations apply to projectors.
Black level. Black level controls contrast levels. A really low black level will make a less bright projector still look good. With high black levels, even a bright projector won’t look great.
Colour accuracy. It’s hard to remove a colour cast. There’s nothing more annoying than images with yellow hue (hello BenQ projectors) or with impossible-to-calibrate images (hello Panasonic projectors). It’s possible to calibrate in many cases, but it’s very hard work and requires all kinds of special gear and technical knowledge. Buy devices which come with good built-in calibration (often Sony projectors, though recent generations are worse).
Resolution. Real resolution makes a difference. The key benchmark is 1080p. A really good 1080p image looks fantastic and allows suspension of disbelief. 4K looks great with nature and documentary films, where detail on animals or giant landscapes is important. I’ve not been persuaded by 4K on fiction yet. Mostly 4K draws viewer attention to the skin flaws of the leading actors (the human eye is finely tuned to the appearance of other humans).
You may wish to choose a 4K projector these days, as the 4K projectors generally offer a higher quality HD image, not just 4K. Still there is great value in used 1080p projectors. While people criticise bulb-powered projectors as old hat these days (age quickly must be replaced), what’s nice about bulbs is that every time you replace it you get a new projector. Life spans are about 2500 hours with a bulb and 20,000 hours with lasers. The issue is that your laser driven projector will gradually get worse over those 20,000 hours and there’s nothing which can be done about it. Bulb driven projectors gradually burn out the LCD panels as they age. I highly recommend running your projector on low lamp to burn it out much slower as high lamp runs much hotter. Another reason to avoid HDR and prefer SDR. If you are buying a used HD projector make sure that it still offers colour integrity and good contrast with a new bulb.
In my AV scams article, I come down hard on surround sound formats of various kind. AV processing has been the scam which never stops giving for the AV industry. It’s irrelevant to the enjoyment of high fidelity music. Here’s what does matter.
Frequency range. Many symphonies and electronic music compositions have a very deep mid-bass. You really want your speakers to go down to 45 Hz relatively persuasively. The deeper the speakers go, the less of the music you have to send to your subwoofer. Subwoofers sound pretty awful on sounds from 50Hz and up. Get yourself solid floorstanding speakers.
In an office setup, (where I’m writing this), it’s mostly impossible to set up floor standers.1 In this case,
Subwoofer. On the same topic, the 20 to 45Hz range won’t be properly covered by 98% of floorstanding speakers. Ideally stereo subwoofers for better directional bass. A good mono subwoofer still solves 80% of bass issues.
CD Quality. A CD quality source makes a huge difference. There were some very poorly mastered digital recordings at the dawn of the CD epoch but properly mastered, it’s very hard to tell the difference between 24-bit 96 kHz and 16-bit 44.1 kHz sampling. The reason HD recordings sound better is usually the better original recording. If you listen to a good mixdown to 44.1 kHz, it should be indistinguishable from the original on all but a few (rare) notes, mostly from symphonic orchestras.
DAC. It’s become trendy to say all DACs (Digital Audio Converters) are the same. That’s somewhat true in 2023. The inexpensive high quality Topping DACs don’t sound much worse than very expensive boutique DACs. That wasn’t true even five years ago. A bad DAC ruins everything, distorting every piece of music which goes through it.
If you have a mid-range old CD player, you can test this by listening via the analogue outs and then with your modern DAC via optical. The good ones had BurrBrown chips built-in which still sound good but most had relatively awful built-in DACs. I have an old Sony CD walkman which sounds so awful as a source to make one wish for cassette tape and analogue. Personally I like a DAC which attenuates the treble a bit (treble roll-off).
My Musical Fidelity V90-DAC does this perfectly. What you need as a baseline though is a transparent DAC. The current Topping products meet that standard.2 The slight treble attenuation can be done in hardware (my home ADI-2 DAC has a built-in parametric equalizer) or in software at the source.
There are exceptions. In my old office in a former palace with exceptionally thick walls and ceilings I did have floor standers and subwoofers and could blast all night. Spent many a night working through 2am with club level audio running. ↩
My preference still goes to AKW based chips as the ESS chips were always too brilliant for me, which results in sharper sibilants and a general audio irritation over time (counting from twenty minutes), which is inimical to enjoyment of music (one often listens for hours). The latest iterations don’t seem to be as sharp. Not every AKW implementation is ideal so the DAC chip alone is only part of the equation. ↩
Alec has been helping businesses succeed online since 2000. Alec is an SEM expert with a background in advertising, as a former Head of Television for Grey Moscow and Senior Television Producer for Bates, Saatchi and Saatchi Russia.