Frustrated with the sound of my system

Here is my system:
Rotel RCD-965BX CD Player as transport
MSB Link 2 DAC
Sonic Frontiers SFL-1 Signature preamp
Classe 10 amplifier
North Creek Audio Borealis speakers (Custom built kit speaker...something close to a Proac Response 2.5 design)
M&K V-75 sub
Kimber and Cardas interconnects
Kimber 4TC/8TC bi-wire speaker cables.

Here is my frustration:
The sound, regardless of music, sounds stringent, hard, really lacks air, and is anything but relaxed. It is fatigueing. I can listen to my Grado 60 headphones on an iPod and the sound is frustratingly more relaxed and has what I would call air.

I don't think that my system is that outstanding, but it really seems like I should be more pleased with what I am hearing.

I would be interested in your thoughts on where the most likely opportunity is. I really like the individual components of the system (OK the Rotel/MSB set up is old and just OK), but all together they seem to be underwhelming. I am thinking it is either in improving the digital front end (new player or DAC) or moving to a planar speaker to get the sound I desire. I have thought about new player like an OPPO 93 or 95, perhaps a tube based player or DAC, or else looking at something like a used pair of Maggie 12's or 1.6's. I have always enjoyed the Maggie sound.

In either case I am thinking that $2k is the absolute max I would want to spend on any solution. Thanks in advance. If there are other questions I would be glad to supply details.
Sounds like you may have poor room acoustics. Any system will sound bad in a room with poor acoustics. You could either put the system in a better room or try to work with the room you have by installing sound absorbing panels at the primary reflection points. If you still can't get no satisfaction then perhaps electronic equalization would be worth a try. Even Magnepans will sound bad in a bad room.

Best of luck to you.

Tell us a bit about your room and how you have gone about placing the speakers in it. Have you measured the speaker's response in the room in any way?
Switch to vinyl and your troubles will go away. Your description is exactly how I hear CDs. I would also be suspect of your kit speaker and would try to borrow something else just to see if that is an issue.
You need to hook up with someone who knows a lot about audio to help walk you through this. A person who knows your sonic goals and can help you reach them. I know this may sound vague or simplistic, but until you find this person, you will wander through the forest of hifi perhaps never being satified. This person could be a dealer or a local audiophile with a system you like who has been through the maze and finally got to the other side. Check out local audio groups and try to get some good advice. Be warned - it's not easy and it's often more expensive than you initially thought. Best of luck.
You can get superb sound from quality digital components without question. Digital or analogue systems run the spectrum from poor to sublime.
I`ve heard more than my share of bright,analytical and amusical analogue setups(believe me).

If possible audition different digital components(the front end) I`m confident you will find some that will 'substantially' improve your sound, just be patient and methodical.
It would be easy to try swapping the speaker cables, I found the 8TC to be a bit thin and lacking bass in my system.

Just to add an example of how hard to figure this stuff out without hands-on help from an expert, I was once dissatisifed with my system for what I was positive would be cured by a more powerful or "better" amplifier until it was proven to me that every sonic trait I was seeking was much better achieved by upgrading the preamp rather than the amplifier. It doesn't always work the way you think it does. Carry on.
Reading through your complaint, I can offer a different way to approach this problem. It's not a solution that most people will agree with, but I think its a legit way to start out in your case. You have identified something in your system that you don't like. Now the question is what to do. I say, locate the problem first, before you spend a lot of money on different components. After reading your post, it looks like you are not really sure what the problem is. That's OK; we all have situations like this at one time or another. But just guessing and buying different components is almost certain to fail. Think of it like this: If, for example, you decide to get a new CD player, think of what it is going to do. Buying a component like this is like buying an EQ with one setting. The worst part is, you do not know what the setting is until you actually plug it in and try it. I can tell you from personal experience that you will most likely fail. There is no better feeling than getting rid of your best component while leaving the problem on your shelf. Kiwi2 is suggesting a very good place to start. Get a cheap meter and a frequency sweep cd and see what is really going on. If you get some bad measurements you can take it a step further you can take it a step further and get a cheap EQ. (I got one for $40 on amazon. Behringer FQB800.) Use it to get a flat response in your listening chair. You might be surprised as to what you come up with. If you read some of the other posts from above you get: new CD player, fix the room, go analog ect. They are well meaning and any one of them might fix the problem; or none of them will. That is why I recommend a different approach. As far as your equipment goes, I have had your preamp and rotel Cd players (different models). I don't think either are the cause (the preamp is great). Also, I have had the Magnepans you mentioned. I wouldn't even think about those unless you can get a really good in home demo first. Anyway, I hope this info can help you out.
Hi all ! Sounds to me as you probably should spend some effort treating the room . You can spend a whole lot of money and get no improvement if the room is bad . How do I know this ? Been there done that .
I was in a similar situation and I simply started replacing elements of the system. This is simply reality, the way most of us do it. I doubt few were able to buy complete systems all at once. It took several years but eventually ended up with a really great system. I did belong to an audio club and got many ideas by listening to their systems. My guess is that you will end up wanting the sound of tube power amps, will change your source, and speakers. Some final tweaks to your cables and you will be all set. Don't rush and with time you will be able to afford more.

I read both of your posts and while you may have had a rough and confusing time in the past, things in the future will get a lot easier for you. The preamp is probably the most overlooked component in the chain. While there is no guarantee for success, now that you have a real understanding of how important it is component matching will be much easier. Simply put, you will be far less likely to play the tube, cables and accessors game. For example, I used to buy cables to offset things I did not like in my system; now I only need them to transfer the signal. I know it sounds very boring but I offset the boredom by listening to music. Unfortunately for the OP if this thread, I had the same exact preamp and it is an excellent piece. Unless it is broken in some way, I can't see that as the problem.
The room might contribute, but I don't think it is the main issue here. I would probably keep the preamp, sell the rest and build a new system.
I have the Grado that you use. You say that they actually sound more satisfying than your stereo, that means that the stereo is really bad.
Get yourself hi-fi.
Thanks for the input so far....I really appreciate it. My room is 18 X 18 with 9 foot ceiling. Double french doors on on wall (usually open), triple windows with blinds on another wall, and a sofa, chair and desk in the room. THe floor is carpeted and there are several pictures on the walls.The speakers are somewhat off center, almost placed across a corner and less than two feet off the wall. They are about 5 feet apart. Listening position is either about 12 feet from the speakers, or off axis to the right at my desk. I know the speaker placement is probably not ideal, but I do have some constraints based on room layout and aesthetics.

I do have a little of a hard time believing that placement could be the primary culprit, but I have been wrong before. I do appreciate the advice of not blindly buy a respected/well reviewed, but somehwat random product and think it would solve my frustration. I apprciate the wisdom. At the end of the day the only piece that I would really hesitate in replacing is the SFL-1 Signature preamp.
IMO, you have alot of "issue" gear.I would start with your source ,the Rotel.I had one years ago and its really not worth messing with.Next the speakers...but for someone to tell you to "switch to vinyl" is just stupid...
Are the tweeters pointed right at your ears? If so, that might be an issue with your speakers. Try no toe in at all and pointed straight ahead. If possible, separate them at least 7-8 feet apart.
Upgrade big time.
Seems like Gcdm01's advice about getting an inexpensive meter and test tone cd would be helpful in at least some respects as Stuartbmw3's room dimensions are pretty much a worst case scenario. Not sure how far up into the midrange an 18x18x9 room's nodes will get pushed, but he has a less than ideal acoustic situation. (Rives Acoustics sells a test tone cd that has it's test tone levels adjusted for the Radio Shack meter's departures from linearity.)
All the advice about treating the room is the most important. you do need a test cd like the Stereophile disc and a radio shack meter. print tbe Rives graph and plot your graph. you do need to move your speakers. advice from my audio buddies really helped. i too have a square room and have 15 sound panels, 2 diffusers,and 4 bass traps. it has taken 2 years to get it dialed in. i replaced the Rotel cdp with a Sony 5400 and that helped. get help before you spend the money.
Take a look at my system.looks good too,right.Well I'm going through the same thing..It 's the room,I guarantee it's the room.You have nice gear and It should sound better then a IPod..
Room setup can make a huge difference. You could have two different people set up the same gear in the same room and end up with two totally different sounding systems.

I have found TrueRTA to be the easiest way to measure a room to see what is going on. After a year of using a meter and a CD of tones manually... TrueRTA is a godsend!
I used to have th ekimber 4tc/8tc biwire. When I switched to something newer the music played and the space opened up. I thought they were good cables but only realized how poor they were when trying something new.
I disagree with all the room comments. Yes room can make a difference, but you cant put lipstick on a pig. I would not give it that much weight for performance improvement based on what you said. The next place I would check is the amplifier. Not sure your budget, but you probably need something newer and a lot more resolving to get your "air" while at the same time being smoother on top that would not be so irritating. Try an older Musical Fidelity A3CR, Pass Aleph3 or Aleph 30 and dump those Kimbers for whatever you can afford at Morrow Audio.
You aren't on board with what is considered axiomatic in hifi circles:
A GREAT system is a poor room is outgunned by an OK system in a GREAT room?
The speaker is what everything plays through. Chances are, if you get a speaker to your liking, the system will be easier to build.

If you like the Maggie sound, I think buying a pair of Maggies is a step in the right direction.

Also, be sure to get out and listen to equipment when you can. I try to make two or three outings a year to different cities to hear new offerings. You obviously have to decide.
It took me many iterations, time and money to get the sound quality I was looking for from my system. I found one key issue is the mains wiring, and in particular power supply grounding i.e. are all components grounded or should only the preamp and/or amplifier be grounded. However do be careful in removing the earth connection to a component - first check the manual whether this is a potential safety risk.
The other issue may be the loudspeakers - in particular the tweeter. I don't know what drive units you using, but it took decent and pricey loudspeakers for me to get the combination of detail, air and smoothness I was looking for in the highs.

So my suggestion for debugging your problem is to borrow a recent released good modest CD player (e.g. Marantz or Cambridge Audio), a good integrated amplifier (ditto) and a decent loudspeaker (that is relatively easy to drive from modest integrated amplifier). Ideally you should hear these components perform in a different system to the level you expect. Then swap out these with your system one at a time until your find the problem.
I recommend an integrated amplifier because that limits the power supply connections. Also I recommend that CD player and amplifier are from the same company so that you minimise risk of incompatible power supply grounding.

If none of these solve the issue, then look at the mains quality and then the room acoustics.

BTW, I have previously successfully used Kimber 8TC - they are unlikely to be the cause of hard stringent sound.
You have quite a conglomeration of components and cables going on there. The fact that you are unhappy with the sound is a perfect example of buying recommended components without knowing how they will work together. This is why, when in doubt, it is better to stay with like brands of various components since they are designed to work together. Your SFL-1 is known to be on the forward/thin side and I have no idea how it mates with the Classe, but the Classe amps I have heard after the DR series sounded less then full bodied to me.

For starters I recommend trimming your system down to locate the problem. Take the subwoofer and DAC out of the system and just work with the basic system. Try a warmer tube in your preamp and experiment with different cables before changing components.

Without knowing a single thing about the room or how the system is set up in the room a recommendation for room treatment is absolutely rediculous.
Arbuckle, Is lipstick on a pig like earrings on a monkey?
Earrings on a monkey could look quite nice, I can imagine. But earrings on a, no good, better lipstick.
I think Rrog makes a good point to simplify your system.

Also, the only time I heard Classe I did not care for it, it really lacked micro dynamics compared with Rowland gear that we were comparing it to.
I don't believe anyone has recommended that the OP treat his room without first ascertaining if it's going to help. Testing a room's response simply allows one to have a baseline of understanding as to what degree the room is contributing to or inhibiting good sound. As to the "lipstick on a pig" comment, I know in the past I've never been able to get anything resembling great sound out of an untreated bad room. The room IS an integral component in the audio chain and the most overlooked IMO. I'm lucky enough to have a good room in my present residence and adding minimal room treatments was every bit the equal of upgrading components and it positively affected the sorts of problems the OP mentions. Again, I'm not saying the room IS the problem. However, spending less than $100 on the test meter and test cd will quickly allow one to have objective knowledge about the possible causes of the problem. It is admittedly sometimes difficult to know how to interpret and act upon the insight such testing gives without knowledge of acoustics. At the very least, it allows one to see whether or not moving speakers this way and that is smoothing out or exacerbating room nodes.
Hi all ! Rrog......If he has no real room treatments how can treating the room be ridiculous ? Regular curtains , pictures , etc most times do nothing to tame the room . If they did nobody would make or use real room treatments , either commercial or DYI .

Your statement is ridiculous considering the room contributes maybe 75-80% of the end result.

Bradluke0, I disagree. Furniture, window treatment (drapes), bookcases, etc. are in fact very effective room treatment. Compare an empty room to a furnished room and hear the difference while clapping your hands.

David Manley, the founder of VTL and Manley Labs, designed a studio for his ViTaL recordings. The studio was designed of wood with specific angles and notches in the walls to control the room's sound. There was no commercial acoustical treatment at all.

Room treatment is necessary at times, but lately it seems to be highly overrated and in many cases used as a band aid to overcome problems within the system. Throwing more and more money at a system is not always the answer to achieving good sound.
Shakeydeal, The room does not always contribute 75-80% of the end result. That sounds like advertising by someone who makes or sells acoustical treatment. A recommendation for room treatment is ridiculous without knowing anything about the OP's room or how the system is set up. If the OP's room is 30'x20' and the speakers and listening position are arranged for near field listening would you still say the room is contributing 75-80% and room treatment will solve the OP's problems?
Boy oh boy, people really get upset when someone disagrees with them. If you don't like my suggestions simply ignore them. People pushing room correction devices and the like is snake oil in my opinion. It does not matter how perfect the room is, if the gear is inadequate the overall sound will be inadequate no matter what room you put it in.

This is a forum for ideas for the original poster, take these comments as such. That is the point of all of this, no?

Why not relax and provide the poster some ideas on how he can fix his problem instead of pushing a single-minded agenda?
Shakeydeal......really? Come on, can we keep sales pitches out of the forums and provide some honest advice.
"People pushing room correction devices and the like is snake oil in my opinion."

Another stupid blanket statement. I do not sell or manufacture anything audio related or otherwise. I am NO fan of digital room correction, but I still stand by my statement that the room is by far the most important component. Ever go to an audio show and hear six figure systems sound like crap? Throwing money at the problem, especially when it's the wrong problem, isn't always the answer.

Get the room and placement right, then work on what might be wrong with everything else.


Surely you must be referring to your own post when you say stupid blanket statement. Here it is one more time:

"Your statement is ridiculous considering the room contributes maybe 75-80% of the end result."

Given your handle is "Shakeydeal" I think we can all read into your intents. Putting together a perfect room with $300 in gear should do it right? Let's dump all of our money into room tweaks and forget about what we have hooked up, hell the room is 80% of the sound right? What a moron.
You guys are crackin' me up. There are times when room treatment is obviously needed like when the listening position is backed up to a wall. Treating the wall behind you is a must to eliminate reflections off that wall. However, lately it seems whenever someone is not satisfied with the sound of their system room treatment becomes the hot topic. Honestly, looking at the OP's system I would rather have a CJ preamp than Sonic Frontiers with Classe any day and maybe that would be a good place to start.
Rrog is spot on. Come on folks. I tore down all those ugly room treatments that I messed with for 2 years only to find my music came back to life again. Place your speakers properly and use drapes, carpet, common sense, a little reading on proper speaker set-up and furniture and be done with it.

I think a couple of well placed panels are fine, but let's not go overboard with this room stuff. Goodness I have spent a good amount of money and time on treatments only to find my 3 panel treated room sounds best.
The last few posts reminded me of something I read on the Polk forum the other day. Check this out............

I plan to soundproof and treat for acoustics before I bring anything in. The room shares a wall with the bedroom so I need to get this right or I'll be shopping for headphones in no time! I need to do it on the cheap, though. I'm leaning towards a case of 12 heavy moving blankets so I can cover the ceiling as well.
-Is this overkill?
-Is it possible to overdampen a room this small given the distance from ear-to-driver (3' for each)?
I was thinking I would also put cheap pillows in the tricorners and hope I don't need further bass reducers in the corners.
-Would those round pool toy foam noodles work for this?

Original Poster,
I wasn't planning on another post because I still stand by what I originally said in my first post. After reading through some of the above recommendations, well meaning as they may be, I want to make just a couple of quick points that may help you out. Of all the posts on this thread, not one person, myself included, knows what is wrong with your system. That should be apparent. From what I can see, the only fix that wasn't mentioned yet, is to just bulldoze your house down and start over using audiophile building materials and room dimensions. Don't worry though; if you decide to go this route, I'm sure that we can all give you some construction advice. Aside from that, you should also realize that this is a problem that you are going to have to fix yourself. I don't deny that it may take some time and patience but if you use you head and make some careful decisions, you will get it right. (You'll also gain a lot of knowledge and experience that you can share with others just like we are all doing on this post. Another opinion is always needed.)
Over the years, I have posted several questions about possible things I might be able to do to improve my sound quality. Some questions were about speakers, some about amps, and so on. On almost every thread, advice was strongly given to treat the room. Well, the other day, I put about a 4' by 4' section of insulation on the right wall in my bedroom system, at the first reflection point. This fairly well sucked the life out of the sound. This is not to advocate against room treatments, and I think a smaller panel might be the ticket. But, apparently, it is very easy to do too much treatment.

Now, I would also recommend trying different speaker cables. The biggest recent improvement I have made in the aforementioned bedroom system(Monitor Audio Silver 9i speakers) was going to a set of Goertz MI-2 speaker cables(I had tried them years before in a different system and were in storage). Before that, I had been using some Morrow SP2 cables which I thought were pretty good on the highs, but I wasn't getting much bass out of the speakers. With the MI-2, however, I now have much more and better bass, great attack on transients, and really clear dialog on movies and vocals. YRMV, of course.
Oh, and be sure to install the Zobel networks if you try the Goertz cables.
I think there is a fatal flaw in trying to get good sound from this system, apart from the sonic's of the equipment which I agree may not approach optimum.

The OP sez that the speakers are 5ft apart and he listens to them from 12 feet back. The speakers are only 2ft off the back wall and are not symmetrical to any of the walls in his 18x18x9ft room, not good room dimensions as we all know, and the excessive nulls and nodes which will defy correction, will all be too apparent. The room will have more reflections than just the important 1st reflections to deal with. But with a lot of work via experimentation with set up he should be able to get something reasonable.

The OP complains of harshness which could be from excessive 1st and 2nd reflections off the walls, as well as reflections off the ceiling. He wants more 'air' but in my humble opinion he hasn't even approached the height/width sound stage available let alone the sense of depth and 'air'. In fact even if he is listening in a triangulated seat/speaker placement, he still isn't getting much more than expanded mono and the attendant congestion caused by having speakers too close together.

IMHO the OP need to think out side the box by discarding for the moment what won't practically or esthetically work for him and play with setting the speakers up in a classic manner (starting with the Cardas methodology) and also set his system up in a very near-field set up well away from the boundries to see what his system really sounds like without room boundary reinforcement and reflections. He should also be mindful of the benefits of proper toe in used to minimize 1st reflections as well as optimize speaker focus without getting a hot treble (which depends on the speakers driver's designs on and off axis.

He should also realize that, as he has already been told, there is no cure for his problem without a lot of experimentation. You can't buy what he needs other than some good books on all things audio, especially rooms, set up, and managing reflections appropriately.

Newbee, The OP states the speakers are almost placed across a corner. I take that to mean diagonal placement. If that is the case the majority of your post regarding speaker placement does not apply. The same is true of the Cardas program which does not work for the majority of people.

The OP knows the speaker placement is not ideal, but has constraints based on room layout and aesthetics.
I'm convinced the room is everything.Get this right and your halfway there..I think alot of audiophiles leave this out of the equation .Or just don't want to admit it.
Spaz you are spot on. And before I get mega flamed again, it's not ONLY the room treatment that I am talking about. You have to start with a decent room. Not a closet, and not an open floor plan with 16 ft. vaulted ceilings. You only need to browse through the virtual systems on this site to view some of the nightmarish listening rooms and speaker placement. Some are better suited for headphone listening,

>Given your handle is "Shakeydeal" I think we can all read into your intents. Putting together a perfect room with $300 in gear should do it right? Let's dump all of our money into room tweaks and forget about what we have hooked up, hell the room is 80% of the sound right? What a moron.<

I wondered when the name calling would start, what took you so long?

To even speculate about a 300.00 system on this site is laughable. But I won't stop you from showing your ignorance once again.

Nobody in this thread is advocating a cheap system in a 10K treated room. Use that lump on your shoulders for something other than a hat rack......

I am one of those that believe a room, that is a particular space, regardless of set-up and components can contribute in no small way to poor sound or conversely, great sound. I have personally experienced it and in my particular case tried every possible set-up making wholesale changes to the system including 3 speakers. The final solution? I ended up abandoning the room after my wife and I had a serious talk about rearranging our living space. I do agree about treatments though, they can be taken too far and there are other means to achieve good results including plants, window treatment and furniture placement. First and foremost as Newbee notes is speaker placement relative to listening position and wall boundaries and go from there. Last thing is recommending component changes until it is determined if there is a fundamental problem with the room regardless of set-up. Some rooms just don't work.