My Audio-Video Journey

Updated 10/25/23

Well, here we are. If you’re reading this, we have commonalities. Music, movies, television, and media of most types conjures emotion. That emotion may have led you down multiple pathways: collecting media or in the case of the focus of this site, attempting to reproduce sound and visuals to the intended expectation of the creators (or potentially beyond). This pursuit is the journey and the journey is the way.

While the level of depth in this journey truly commenced as a COVID project, music and movies were always a passion for me. The moment I could start collecting media in the 1980s began the path of the sonically enlightened. While buying power was extremely low, mowing a multitude of neighboring lawns during a hot New Jersey summer led me to my first purchase in fidelity, a dual cassette, and CD player boom box.  While fidelity was likely low, that purchase special and also the beginning of where we are today.  Hard work provided the freedom to save an ultimately purchase the conduit to music listening and also in the case of the dual cassette player, the ability to create mix tapes.

Nobody beats the wiz

Products bring excitement. The exhilaration coursing through my veins when I entered the “Wiz” as a teenager is (to my aging brain) the same feeling I get when I enter Best Buy or a high-end home audio video store. It’s wildly cliche to use this phrasing but a “kid in a candy store” sums up the feelings that somehow persisted for the last 30 years. Fun aside and nostalgic thought is looking back on some of the many now-defunct electronics department stores. I found a fun one on the Wiz.

The teenage years arrived and my love of audio/video lead down into the bottomless pit of car audio. I’ll never forget the tongue-lashing and punishment I received when I decided that the family 1995 Periwinkle Dodge Neon needed an upgraded sound system. Of course, my cash flow was considerably less than now so I decided to rely on some friends to help me with the installation of a system upgrade. The tape deck was installed without incidence but there was slightly more resistance when I installed the 10-inch subwoofer in the trunk. I mistakenly did not tighten the bolt on the ground wire and of course, the car wouldn’t start. My parents were forced to have it towed and brought to the repair shop where they laughingly explained that the $300 bill was solved with a wrench and caused by a teenage DIY audio enthusiast who just wanted to feel the bass during his favorite tunes from The Prodigy. Well, at least something was grounded out of the ordeal. If you aren’t into dad jokes, this is going to be a painful journey.

1997 Dodge Neon

Periwinkle Dodge Neon like the one I drove in 1997

Looking back, I wish I took pictures as regularly as I do now with my phone.  While the first attempt at car audio may have ended in teenage financial ruin and relentless shaming, it certainly didn’t stop me.

what’s in the box?

I spent the next 7 years dabbling with different audio systems in 3 different cars.  I certainly found help in communities of like-minded, passionate individuals, but nothing like we have now with FB groups and forums.  My father even utilized his word-working skills to help me create a custom subwoofer box for the backseat of my Mitsubishi 3000GT.  Before you start thinking I’m spoiled and rich, note that this was not a Twin Turbo 3000GT but rather the 1994 economy version that was vastly underpowered and weighed roughly the same as a dump truck.   Regardless, those times usually ended in me stripping the car out and selling it but after college, I lost the lust to continually create epic sound systems in cars.  If I’m being completely honest with myself, part of it was for me but the other part was a wildly unrealistic belief that others and potentially attractive women would clearly recognize my suave appeal if they could hear me pumping Insomnia by Faithless as I drove by.

Smattered in all of this car audio I was a fledgling musician and mediocre singer who attempted to perform in college.  That unfortunately didn’t turn out as expected.  Sure I played with multiple church bands, covered Lifehouse at the school talent show, and futilely attempted multiple times to start a badass band with a much more talented musician who actually performs to this day in the Baltimore area (Dana & the 408), but I was not at the level to even gig locally.  Although I loved live performances and attended multiple concerts, it turns out I was much better at managing events than performing in them. For two years in college, I ran a show called “Coffeehouse” which I assume was originally devised to be a pseudo, low-key talent show on campus but by the time I took over the position, the events required reserving the professional audio crew, half of the gymnasium or cafeteria, and attracted an array of talent beyond acoustic Howie Day wannabes.  My personality drove the quality of the event based on the need to create something amazing–an event people would truly enjoy.

A few years later, life transitioned to a professional career, getting married, purchasing a condo, and focusing on other passions like cycling, gaming and attempting to figure out how to cook.  Of course I still absolutely loved music and listened to it relentlessly but my connection to high level home theater or audio reproduction was wildly minimal.  I will give myself some credit for the $1100 investment in a Samsung flat screen LCD from Electronics Expo (nostalgically located in 2009 in the previous location of the aforementioned WIZ in Bridgewater, NJ) and the pure brilliant decision to focus on HD/DVDs connected to my XBOX 360 (sadly, I still have this somewhere in the garage)  Secondly, I made the very first step toward home theater.  I had the realization that the reproduction of movie sound from the TV alone was NOT going to suffice.  For many of your reading this (perhaps a 2 or 3) this was your epiphany–the moment where you were so dissatisfied with the sound you noticed it more than following the movie storyline.  Voices: unintelligible, sound effects: too loud, bass: non existent and you are as far from immersed in the movie as humanly possible.  Consequently, it was time to activate step 1 in the emerging home theater afficiando playbook: buy an all-in-one system in a box.

Now, let me be super clear here, I’m not completely shitting on all-in-one systems.  Do I personally prefer them at this point in my audio journey? No. Yet, there is a place for these and in most cases (depending on the system), they are better than TV audio regardless of what manufacturer marketing teams frivolously claim of their acoustic-screen, sound-rendering, super-crisp, ultimate-audio, mega-boom, über OLED, mini, micro LED TV.  Secondly, it’s important remember what I talked about originally: audio and the endless pursuit is a journey and everyone has a starting point.  Who’s first car is a Ferrari?  Don’t answer that.  Finally, I thought the system was cool as hell at the time: wireless rear speakers, an iPod dock, and a subwoofer.  Sadly, my new 5.1 surround sound system in a box had a problem: we were in a condo and my partner despises the idea of inconveniencing or bothering someone else.  The sheer possibility that a neighbor or a random person would think ill of us due to our bombastic sound system was overwhelming.  Consequently, moderate volumes were the maximum expectation in order to not cause significant marital strife.

Sony Home Theater in a Box

Sony All-In-One Home Theater System from the late 2000s

polked in Seattle

Not to make this an exposé on my partner but the all-in-one system was packed and re-packed a few times as we followed her career.  That led us to a stint in Seattle for 3 years where we rented a somewhat beat-up house run by a wealthy landlord who loved to neglect the property.  Yet, it didn’t matter if this place was growing black mold in the bedroom closet, neighbor sound disruption anxiety ended now that we inhabited a single-family home. There was a run-down, exposed stud, concrete, uneven-floored basement beckoning for a new home theater system.  At the time, I also was quite heavily into XBOX gaming so the idea of playing Call of Duty on an unendingly loud system was my mission.

This next step is a mission that I would follow and is also some of the impetus behind this site: deal hunting for audio equipment.  To fast-forward, I’ve remained a fan of supporting local small businesses including high-end audio and home theater installers but there’s something amazing about the hunt.  Subsequently, like any self-respecting audio aficionado bargain hunter in 2012, I went on Craigslist.  I found a 7-piece Polk Audio system with a Pioneer VSX-1022-K receiver for $200 and ventured on a 30-minute drive to pick it up.  The proprietor kept all the plastic and original boxes for every single piece (which I learned later is a thing high-end audio folks and other major collectors do).  I was ecstatic and while this likely wasn’t the deal of the century between that and the $100 crap Visio TV I picked up, $300 was all I had in the budget at the time to build my first “out of the box” home theater system.  Here are some images of the system below that I only sold in 2021 after I made my Kef purchase.

I managed to unfortunately not take any photos of this system but if you can squint up at the Visio image above, you can see the exposed studs.  I installed the 4 surround speakers to the studs pointing down at the couch.  The front stage (Right/Center/Left) sat on top of a 2nd hand, old dresser.  Clearly, I was not focused on function over form as the goal was to be enveloped in sound, not enjoy the aesthetics.  Mission accomplished.  I spent many nights gaming, drinking local Seattle beers, and watching action movies at ridiculous volumes.   Amazingly, since my focus was on cycling at the time–my upgrade bug only bit for bike parts, but I do remember the joy that first system provided.

Sonos strikes

Another move and the systems were boxed up and headed back east for our next adventure.  Sadly, there just was not the right space in the Baltimore row house for the Polk system, so we survived off the Sony system in a box.  These were some of the “lost” years for movies and music as my career changed, we transitioned our life as adults trying to start a family, and again, every extra cent I could earn invested in cycling.  I like to think that during this time I was just distracted from a purposeful purple thread that weaved through the vast majority of my life.  At least that’s how I rationalize not pursuing audio excellence for 3 years.

After our daughter was born, we moved out to the suburbs of Baltimore County and purchased by far the largest home I’ve ever lived in.  It had multiple spaces to employ audio strategies and windows galore (not amazing for reflections but sunlight is worth it).  The best part about this home was the finished basement.  It was partitioned into multiple rooms (bedroom, laundry, unfinished boiler room and 46L x 12W mixed media space.  Initially, we turned it into a play area since we didn’t have the income to fully furnish it.  It would have been amazing to consult with a A/V company to design as space but at the time, I still hadn’t taken the plunge into the deep depths of audio euphoria so I went for what was popular in the market.

Sonos Beam Sound Bar

Between the holiday mess, you can see the Sonos Beam under the TV

We had a 4000 sq ft. home and I wanted audio throughout.  Of course, the house was completely not wired for anything (no ethernet lines, only 1 cable line running from the unfinished basement area to the bedroom).  A quick note to all of you reading this who are renovating or building a house, do the wiring work.  It’s completely worth spending some extra cash during this period of time when your house is a malleable shell as opposed to cutting through dry wall.  Since the house wasn’t wired, I decided to start investing in a whole-home Sonos System.  It started with a Single Play 1 and slowly over a few years ended with 6 Sonos speakers throughout the house including a soundbar under the fireplace TV.  Controlling whole-home audio is an exceptionally powerful feat like you’re conducting an orchestra or managing a team of musicians but WiFi audio also provides connectivity issues where I would inevitably start swearing under my breath or even deteriorate into a complete tirade, “Why the hell isn’t the kitchen Sonos showing up on the app?”  Just like the home theater in a box, I’m not saying Sonos is a terrible system.  To the contrary at this time (2023), I still have part of that system in the house.  My palpable frustration is actually just part of this journey.  Here’s a grant generalization for you, employing a more complicated system introduces more shit that can go wrong.  Sure, I can blame Sonos but I still produce the same angry explosions now with a multi-layered, multi-input system.  It’s not the source’s fault, well, not always.

Chaos begets life

Fast forward to COVID.  Many can share in this same story where upon being restricted to their home, they decided to discover, expand, or incessantly obsess over a new hobby.  For me, that hobby was clearly on the horizon.  I did not have the ample budget or complete recklessness to attempt to turn an unused guest room into a full-on home theater (although I sincerely contemplated it) but the research process commenced.  Actually, it helped me in the cultivation of my first article on finding used high-end audio and video gear.  Prior to my research, I attempted a few options between 2017 and 2020 for our mixed multi-purpose space.

Old Sony Box Home Theater Dinner

Option 1 (Sep 2019): The old Sony home theater in a Box option on an overly saturated Samsung TV complimented by some home made guac. 

Old Polk System with some new Movie Posters

Option 2 (Oct. 2020): The old Polk system with only one side surround but some kick-ass movie posters.

I attempted to recycle old systems and they were not satisfying enough.  Of course, I did improve the aesthetics and acoustics of stark walls with the custom movie posters.  Although if I knew now what I knew then, I would have invested the extra money into posters that doubled as acoustic panels.  At the same time, I remind myself of the knowledge journey and it’s likely I would not have been able to stomach the price difference ($25-$40 per poster to $150 to $250 for acoustic panel posters).

Article after article and audio video wormholes were not leading me closer to the goal but I did manage to notice a quality beautiful full system advertised in Philadelphia.  While the starting price was an exceptional deal for a full setup (Kef Q series 7-Channel system, Sony 65″ OLED, and an Anthem MRX 720), I was still hesitant to tell my wife I wanted to cross a significant audio/video purchase price barrier.  It’s important to note that until this point in November 2020, I never spent more than $1200 on an audio or video purchase.  Sadly, the largest purchase I made was at Electronics Expo (former location of The Wix) in 2010 for a heavy 46″ LED TV.  Amazingly, this TV exists in my partner’s office collecting dust and blocking the view of an empty wall.  Secondly, it’s valuable to explain that while there are some in this hobby who complain about their partner’s resistance to audio investment, my wife is amazing and supports the audio/video endeavor and was also in my corner when I spent all of my extra money on cycling prior to this passion.

If you believe in fate or in momentous coincidences every once in a while, the system I watched in Philadelphia sat for months and one day I noticed on FB marketplace that it dropped to a wildly low price.  Some people on Reddit thoroughly enjoy disclosing their exceptional deal-finding abilities and thrift store ultra-grabs but that would make me feel like a braggart.  Consequently, I’ll humbly disclose that I paid about 20% of the retail price of the entire system.

I contacted the ad owner who asked for my number and I called back immediately.  He then connected me with the owner who does not use FB Marketplace.  Yes, I was also thinking possible scam but the owner explained that his partner who was incredibly enthusiastic about building a theater in his house passed away.  He inquired about the reason for my interest and I described my love for sound and the recreation of it but one of my dreams during COVID was to create a fabulous entertainment area for our entire family.  I imagined we’d watch movies, have raucous dance parties for my daughter, and thoroughly enjoy the space often through the pandemic.  He agreed to sell the system and I sojourned to Philadelphia on Black Friday, 2020.

The extent of why the owner was selling was more painful than originally discussed.  The owner’s partner was a home theater enthusiast and audiophile and the owner financed his partner completely renovating an apartment in center city Philly into a movie destination including mat black wall paint, wires hidden in the baseboards, and running cables through the drywall.  Sadly, the owner’s partner committed suicide which was the reason for the sale.  I felt conflicted in my emotions of excitement and joy knowing this is also a painful part of the grieving process for the owner.

Yes, I still went through with purchasing the system but I underestimated the amount of space required in my car and the entirety of what was included in the sale.

  • Kef Q750 Towers
  • Kef Q650c
  • Kef Q150 Bookshelf Speakers
  • Kef Q50a Dolby Atmos Speakers
  • Kef Kube 10b Subwoofer
  • Sony 65″ A9G OLED w/ mounting bracket
  • Panamax MR5100
  • VTI glass media console
  • Anthem MRX 720 Receiver
  • Panasonic UB-820 4K Blu Ray Player
  • Harmony Companion Remote with IR blasters
  • All speaker cables, HDMI cords, and even the wall fixtures for routing cables

We literally removed the baseboards to remove all the cables.  The owner was also going to give me an entire PC media server for movies but I declined since I was reluctant to access someone else’s data for safety.  I have this potentially unrealistic fear that I’ll stumble upon videos of someone else’s sexual escapades.

The owner was the proprietor of a successful furniture business and due to years of creative packing experience, we managed to shoehorn the entire setup including the box for the TV into my 2015 Golf TDI.  The drive home was filled with heavy anticipation and dreams of building my first true high-fidelity system.

building my first hifi system

Prior to any strong antagonist comment on here, I purposely decided based on my previous goals not to setup the room longways.  Yes, that would have created a symmetrical sound experience and likely a more immersive one but I choose to keep the basement open so people could watch TV and listen to music and simultaneously watch the kids playing.  We all make compromises in our setups and in my humble belief, someone could chase perfection relentlessly regardless of how the room is devised.  It’s also a fun challenge to know the room is not ideal and attempt to glean the most sound from a mediocre space.  It’s also relevant to mention that the wall I choose has an “unfinished utility room” behind it which makes running wires simple.  With that said, here’s the somewhat step by step to installing the first system:

Using a laser level prior to cutting into the wall

Step 1: Dachshund vies for attention while I attempt to use a laser level to cut some drywall holes.

Laser level used to cut out drywall for hiding TV cables

Step 2: Cut some serious holes in the wall and install the TV mounting bracket.

Little girl helps pull cables through the wall on hifi system

Step 3: Violate child labor laws and employ tiny hands to help pull cables through the back wall.

Cables run through the cut out drywall for TV and Hifi System

Step 4: Run all cables through the wall for both the TV and the hifi system.

Cable management part 1

Step 5: Let the inner organization, type A personality freak out and obsessively organize cables.

Cable Management part 2

Step 6: Separate power cables from audio/video cables.

TV installed over the new media console

Step 7: Install TV first to reward tiny hands with the Incredibles while continuing to build the system.

Finished Product of Kef System with Sony TV

Step 8: Enjoy the accomplishment.

just one minor SuBgrade: subwoofer

After hours of setup, tinkering, programming, and calibration (specifically using the ARC system from Anthem), the first system was complete, almost.  I honestly knew from the beginning that a 10″ woofer was not going to be enough to fit the odd layout of my basement.  As you can see from the picture, the lower floor of a ranch house layout coupled with an open center column of stairs is significant.  At the time, I calculated about 4700 sq. feet of space not including the obscene center stairs opening.  Consequently, my obsessive internet research informed me of a few different possible subwoofer models:

 

Basement Dimensions for Hifi System

Considering all the companies listed above are direct-to-consumer, ordering from them means I don’t actually get to listen to the subwoofer prior to purchase.  Rather, I’m required to believe the powerful testimonials of passionate customers and/or assure that the in-home trial offers are substantial.  In case you are reading this and are not familiar with the companies listed above, I recommend researching each one, reviewing owners’ threads on AVSforum and hopefully chatting with current owners in local audio groups (usually found through Facebook).

As part of my subwoofer research, I also made my first of numerous visits to one of my favorite local high-end audio stores, Gramophone in Timonium, MD.  For a first-timer, this is truly the cliched “kid in a candy store” experience.  It’s also somewhat unhelpful for the psyche of a person who may relentlessly obsess about perfect sound and video recreation.  Even though I literally just constructed my first and by far most elaborate (not to mention expensive to me) home theater, I was barely tipping my exposed toes into the vast ocean of audio/video excellence.

The focus of this visit, though, was to listen to JL audio subs.  I listened to the D-110 sub which brought me back to my car audio days of visceral, low-frequency extension shaking my chest. The sales associate (Warren, who is hilarious and still works at Gramophone) offered me a deal to purchase 2 of them and while I already researched and understood the significant benefits of dual subs, I was hoping to only spend about $1000 on this low-frequency purchase.  Secondly, I felt somewhat concerned that 2, 10″ woofers would not amply provide enough extension for my open space (even though they sounded great with the door closed in a small space at the store). Consequently, I decided that my 4700 square foot open space would require faith (buying a subwoofer I’ve never heard) and have significant output.

The next few weeks I experienced significant analysis paralysis. If you aren’t aware this is where a person struggles with undue stress and anxiety over making a decision and generally begins to overthink the problem. I reached out to all 4 companies listed above asking the questions that many of us ponder with a large purchase:

  • Based on my hand-drawn map, what you do you recommend?
  • Do I need to purchase two subwoofers?
  • Is this the right sub for me (incredibly difficult to answer)?

All 4 were extremely responsive but I went diving through my old e-mails to find the one for Power Sound Audio.  I removed the opening lines explaining the early part of my audio journey and current setup and jumped right to my questions as well as suggestions from the other 3 companies:

Analysis Paralysis E-mail to Power Sound Audio

    1. I’m somewhat new to home theater and sound and I honestly like the look of sealed sub better but sound for movies (100% of use) is the most important and my understanding is that ported would be better for my needs.  Plus I think the subs will likely be tucked in the right corner and the nearfield left side (either end of the L couch).  Would need to do the “crawl” for this but from a choice standpoint, there are not many other options on placement.  Long of the short, will I tell the difference between a 12, a 15 and 18…etc.?  Due to my room does it require a significantly large and powerful sub due to the space or would anything be an upgrade (since I’m a newbie)?
    2. Low Tones—Reddit constantly bashes any sub that doesn’t get down to 16hz and below.  I know the ported subs do this but when I watch movies, how often does that actually even happen? Wouldn’t the 30-70hz range be more important considering movies use this range more often and the crossover is set to 80hz most of the time?  I could be wrong on this but I feel like I’m chasing a unicorn at trying to get the “ultra-low” sub.  Plus with my space, I likely wouldn’t get that unless I bought some 42s or something nuts, right?
    3. Suggestions?  As I said, I’m in purgatory here because this, to me, is a large investment and something I want to last for years.  I realize I’m getting the bug and the need to upgrade is always on the horizon but I want to be smart, recognize this is a hobby, and invest when possible.  Consequently, I’m definitely looking at this being something I’ll keep for 5 years.
    4. I noticed you mentioned in the AVS forum some value options coming.  Would something in the 18 range be even close to my budget?  As of now, I was looking at your 1512s as it’s the closest thing to my budget but should I be aiming to make budget at duals or just go big on one and hope I can get some money in 2-3 years for an upgrade?  

To reiterate that this is an audio-video journey is wonderful to review knowledge years prior comparatively to today.  I also find it interesting that my focus was “100% movies” whereas now it’s more like 70% music and 30% movies. 

Long of the short, messages went back and forth until I left the owner, Tom (who was corresponding with me via e-mail) a message and he called me back around 10:30 on a Saturday night (he was still working). I realize this is not necessarily realistic and presents it’s own challenges but there’s something amazing about the ability to interact with the owner of a company. You receive much more insight with years of experience. What I learned from my incessant forum reading was that Tom was one of the original founders of SVS before eventually creating his own company. Clearly, he’s been in the game for quite some time and he honestly helped me not go to the furthest extent but find a solution.  While he did recommend dual subs, he mentioned that he has a B-Stock TV1812 for 20% off, and based on the output, I pulled the trigger.

Not that this is an advice or therapy column but the absolute truth is that even if you make the wrong decision, it’s better psychologically to make a choice than to live in the obsessive purgatory in between.  Even the “wrong decision” in audio comes with the possibility of return or resale, which according to the multiple used selling sites for high-end audio, happens often.

 

The Big Dog Arrives

Power Sound Audio TV1812 Subwoofer Arrives on a Palatte

Anything that comes on a palette is seriously legit and heavy as hell. Getting this in the house was going to be formidable.

Attempting to wheel the Power Sound Audio TV1812 into the doorway

We just happened to purchase a dolly a few months prior and it came in handy.  The monster sub barely cleared the doorway.

Power Sound Audio TV1812 Subwoofer Moving to it's new home in the corner

I had to “walk” the subwoofer into its resting place due to it’s 135 pound weight!

Power Sound Audio TV1812 Size is Huge

After significant sweat, tears and pain, the TV1812 was in place.

Power Sound Audio Subwoofer fully setup with the Kef System

No more Kef sub. TV1812 in place and running in the system.  

I try to add to this journey page every week. 

To Be Continued…