Friday, March 30, 2007

Connections for Dummies

There are many varieties of connections between audio components. Some are better than others, and while they may look similar, it's important to know the difference. Using the wrong connection between audio components, also called an "interconnect", will cause a loss of signal due to impeadance mismatch at best, and at worst cause damage to one or both components.

The most common type of connection is between "line-level" components, and usually uses RCA plugs. These connections are ordinary sine waves with an amplitude of roughly one volt, though in car audio equipment this may vary. These are basic connections which take analog audio - usually before volume adjustment, and are sometimes used for video, too, as is shown in the left/right/video "composite" connection shown below. (Red is almost always right, white is almost always left, and yellow is almost always a TV connection - though they're all the same cable.)

In addition, there are also "balanced" connections, which feature two leads and a ground, usually intertwined. Because the two "hot" leads are exactly out of phase, any RF is almost entirely cancelled out. For this reason, balanced connections are very popular for "pro" audio usage and in cars. These usually use a three-connection XLR plug.

Another type of common connection is the S/PDIF digital audio link. S/PDIF is the traditional format of connection between digital audio components and DACs, and can carry multiple channels of audio with a single cable. It's generally advised to use one of these to connect your DVD player to your home-theater reciever, and they're the method of choice for the use of external DACs with a CD player (in this case, you bypass the internal DAC in order to use one of higher quality.)

While S/PDIF uses RCA plugs, the cable itself has a different impeadance, and so it is strongly reccomended that you do not use a normal RCA interconnect for S/PDIF connections. The impeadance mismatch will cause signal loss, which will lower the quality of a digital connection.

Digital audio in S/PDIF format may also be transferred through an optical connection, often called a Toslink connection. These are featured most commonly on Sony audio equipment - most notably MiniDisc players - and the Apple G5 and Mac Pro.

While functionally the same, digital optical cables have a few advantages and disadvantages. First, because they use light instead of electricity, they're totally immune to RF noise, such as that produced in an engine. However, the optical cable, made of glass or plastic, is much more fragile than a stranded copper-wire cable, and if the ends become scuffed or dirty on either the jacks or the plugs, it will cease to function properly. In addition, these cables are generally a good bit more expensive than S/PDIF cables.

And remember, folks - you might just find me on Speakchat.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Digital audio and you.

Most CD players sound like junk compared to a good turntable, it's true. They're noisy, fuzzy, and just plain unpleasant.

But that's not because of the quality of compact-disk audio. It's because of the player.

Contrary to popular belief, not all CD players are created equal. Unlike a turntable, which converts vibration in the stylus - through a sort of microphone - into an electrical signal, a CD player instead must deal with a constant input of digital data which must be converted to analog in real-time. Most CD players have three parts: The transport, or pickup; the digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, and the output stage. The transport is a mechanical device containing a motor to spin the disc and a laser to read the CD; the DAC turns the digital signal into audio, and the output stage sets the gain and output impeadance to more usable levels.

The first source of problems is often within the optical pickup on the transport. Each "stripe" of data on a CD is only a fraction of a millimeter wide, and the laser which reflects off of it must be very precisely placed. If the laser pickup is unable to read parts of the CD, that data - and hence, music - is lost.
While a CD player is able to by design able to "smooth over" any missing data, large holes will in turn result in reduced quality. While this is not a problem for most modern CD players, a cheap transport in a cheap CD player (not necessarily an old one) will reduce sound quality.

The most common problem, however, is with the DAC. Digital audio is converted using Nyquist's Sampling Theorem, which essentially states that an analog signal can be turned into data by taking its level on a regular basis. Compact disc audio is 16-bit, and hence has 65,536 possible output levels, which are varied between to create an analog signal. The signal changes level over 44 thousand times per second. Both of these are in excess of what most people can discern - but this is meaningless if not all of it is used.

One of the most common tricks for lowering the price of a DAC is "oversampling". By sampling the frequency twice as fast, it's possible to replicate a voltage at double the actual level of resolution (say, 1.5 volts ) by quickly switching between 1 and 2 volts at double the normal sampling speed. While this can do good things for signal quality for high-quality DACs that oversample at an effective 20 bits (standard 16 bits - but eight times as fast!), many cheap DACs are often just 12-bit DACs set to oversample to an effective 16 bits.

In addition to oversampling, some DACs are simply of low quality. These DACs use poor-quality parts or inferior design, and simply do not sound very good. As a rule of thumb, cheap electronics have poor-quality DACs, while better-quality electronics have better-quality DACs. There are many different varieties, though Texas Instruments makes some of the best.

While even relatively inexpensive transports often are more than adequate, built-in DACs are often of low quality in many CD players. AS a result, many CD players sport external S/PDIF digital audio connections for use with recievers that have on-board DACs, or discrete DAC modules. If you have an older-model CD player, an external DAC may be a valuable upgrade.

Finally, it is hard to ignore the output electronics. Some CD players use cheap op-amps and low-quality power filtering, while others use high-quality op-amps and well-filtered power to reduce noise and hum. While it's generally unnecessary to purchase an external power conditioner, a cheap CD player will often pick up more noise than a well-made player.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Yet More Helpful Links

Well, I'm in a bit of a crunch, as I need to finish some papers to turn in before the end of the quarter. Hence, more semi-lame filler. More verbose audio goodness should, however, follow after the break.

The following are excellent places to visit if you need help with speakers and audio, and I highly suggest you check them out.

1. Speakchat is home of the Speakchat java chatroom. (It's not actually IRC, if you're wondering.) While not the most popular of chatrooms, it's the hangout of a few extremely knowledgable individuals, including WmAx and AndyG. Just click the "chat" button in the upper left, and you're done!

The DIYaudio forums have been for years a major center of all DIY audio building and design. Wether you're into single-driver speakers or complex class-A solid-state amplifers, you'll find a variety of experts on it here. Also featured is a sub-forum dedicated to the excellent work of Nelson Pass, who himself posts there on a regular basis.

3. Audiokarma
Audiokarma is the home of a lot of old-school audio enthusiasts. If you want information on your vintage Halfler amp or need to repair your Pioneer HPM-100's, this is the place to go. It's also a frugal audiophile's paradise - with a little work and combing of Goodwill stores, it's possible to get stereo equipment superior to that sold at Best Buy for a fraction of the price.

DIY Mobile Audio is the hangout of car-audio enthusiasts who do it the right way: using high-quality drivers and custom crossovers. If you want to get a serious sound system in your car without a massive drain on your wallet, this is the place to do it.

5.Parts Express "Tech Talk"
While less formal than the more complex bulletin-board system employed by the other listed forums, Tech Talk is a useful resource nonetheless. If you need a quick question answered - or just want to look at other people's designs - this is a great place to go. Also easily found is information on Parts Express' clearance drivers, and assorted very inexpensive speaker designs based around them.

Finally, feel free to E-mail me any questions you may have. I'm still learning as I go along, but I'll help to the best of my ability.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

And now, my first original speaker design!

I recently snagged a pair of Neo3PDR tweeters for $60. While the Cryolites are supposed to be excellent, I'd like to go for something a shade smaller.

As a result, I'm going for the Dayton RS150 woofers and active 8th-order crossovers, courtsey of a pair of Alesis amplifier modules. Distortion should be even lower than the Cryolites, and thanks to the impressive off-axis performance of the RS150 and Neo3PDR, I won't need to worry much about a "sweet spot".

To go with them, I'll hopefully get a subwoofer of some sort. The end result will, hopefully, be a system I won't want to upgrade anytime soon.

(Yes, I'm lazy and not posting much today. I need to go to bed.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

So, what's this amplifier jargon mean?

Amplifiers are a vital component - while the loudspeaker reproduces the sound with a varying degree of accuracy, a speaker can only be as accurate as the signal sent to it. While there are an endless supply of meaningless buzz-words attached to almost all amplifiers, there are meaningful numbers as well.

Perhaps the most commonly flaunted number is "watts RMS". This is, very simply, a measure of power - in other words, what would happen if the signal were rectified to DC from an AC sine wave, and the wattage (volts multiplied by ampres) were measured. While there are several other forms of measurement also employed today, such as "music power" or "PMPO", these are almost always meaningless, and should be treated as marketing baloney.

An amplifier's RMS output is usually stated at a given impeadance - for example, 120w into 8 ohms, or 200w into 4 ohms. This is basic electronic physics - current is equal to the voltage divided by impeadance (ohms), and if a given voltage is applied to half the impeadance, the resulting current - and hence, wattage - will double. This only occurs in the best of amplifiers, though: with the exception of some massive Nelson Pass designs, inefficiency and internal resistance within the amplifier - if not simply the internal power supply - will limit output to a bit less than double.

Some cheaply-made amplifiers are only capable of driving an 8-ohm load. While it's usually safe to use them with a 6-ohm load (common on some home-theater speakers), a 4-ohm load will cause too much current to flow through the output transistors on the amplifer - which will, in turn, cause it to overheat and die.

As much as it is flaunted, raw power is not a measure of quality. Much like speaker drivers, amplifiers also have a measurement of distortion - but they must also include residual noise from the power supply and crosstalk. This is abbreviated to THD+N, and is the benchmark for audio quality.

However, there are several tricks in measurement to look out for. First, almost all but the highest-quality amplifiers distort more at higher frequencies; as such, the THD+N is measured at a very low frequency, and this may give misleading results - especially on some cheaply-made class-D amplifiers. Secondly, distortion will often increase as the power output increases - make sure that the THD+N rating is at no less than 1/10th the rated maximum output power, or roughly half maximum volume.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

DIY Loudspeakers Part 4: Return of the Boxes

While speaker drivers and crossovers are very important, they're generally quite useless without a box to put them in. In fact, a woofer's frequency response is determined largely by the box it is used in - without a box, they won't work very well at all.

There are basically five kinds of boxes: Sealed boxes, ported boxes, horns, transmission lines, and open-baffles. Each performs very differently, and each has its own benefits and hindrances.

Sealed boxes, like the name suggests, are air-tight boxes into which drivers are placed. Because there is no way for back-pressure created by the driver to escape, these are sometimes also called "acoustic suspension" speakers. They have a -12db/octave roll-off below the tuned frequency, although this will vary between box and driver. In addition, the lack of other resonant objects aside from the air in the box eliminates potential sources of distortion.

Ported boxes are similar to sealed boxes, except that they have a hole or tube - a "port" - that resonates at a pre-determined frequency. Because this "port" allows a point of resonance of a lower frequency than the box itself, it can help increase response at low frequencies. However, the roll-off is a steep 24 decibels per octave - eliminating some very low frequencies entirely. Furthermore, the port can cause unwanted resonances in the driver, and may cause distortion if not designed properly.

A horn works a lot like the instrument which shares its name: Small at the end with the speaker driver, and large at the other. However, many horns incorporate resonating chambers and reflective sections to compensate for frequency response, making them far more complex than a simple expanding pipe.There are generally two variants of horn: Front-loaded horns, which go on the front of the driver and face towards you, and back-loaded horns, which go behind the driver. While front-loaded horns - which more directly affect the sound which travels to your ears - can cause distortion if built improperly, they are also generally very, very efficient - they work like an old-fashioned megaphone, which despite having no electronic parts can make your voice effectively louder.

A transmission line works like a horn, except backwards. The general concept behind a transmission line is that they are in essence a tube behind the driver, stuffed with a filling- usually some sort of fiber-based fluff. The longer the wavelength, the more fluff a single quarter-wave of the frequency will have to travel through,. The physics and design of transmission lines is very complex, and requires some sophisticated mathematics for modelling them - however, the bass performance of these can be impressive indeed.

Open baffles really are not boxes at all. Instead, they're just a flat plate - a "baffle" - that allows for reflection of sound waves off of it, and prevents vibrations emanated from the front from being eliminated by vibrations from the back. Open-baffle speakers are generally poor in terms of bass performance, as low frequencies have a wavelength long enough that it would require a massive baffle to prevent bass from self-neutralizing. However, so long as they are placed a suitable distance from walls, the lack of back-resonance can eliminate a large amount of distortion. For this reason, open-baffle speakers are very popular, and a mid-woofer in an open baffle is often combined with a woofer in a ported box.

Tomorrow: Baffle step, and what exactly is, anyway.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Budget Challenge, Part 1

Recently, I've blown a massive amount of cash on speaker drivers. (When I try something, I always seem to go overboard. It's a fault of mine.)

However, most high-school students (let alone grad students), interns, and thrifty individuals cannot afford the price of even the cheapest of DIY speakers. While a $120-a-pair design might outperform $200-a-pair commercial speakers, there's not much in the $60-a-pair bracket.

While Zaph's single-driver B3S design is an excellent design with a sub-$50 pricetag, the low maximum output and lack of bass make it less than appropriate for "rocking out", as also applies to many other small single-driver designs. And buying "buyout" parts is also impractical- good as they might be, they're not going to be very useful if there are no pre-existing examples to work off of.

As a result, I'm starting a competition of sorts for a reliable, easy-to-build, and cheap speaker design. The catch is that they must have a total driver cost of less than $50 total, and that the drivers must be commercially availible - NSBs don't count. The winner wins a yet-to-be-disclosed grand prize, while the 2nd place winner wins a Linksys WUSB11 wirless adapter. (I have a spare.) 3rd place winner wins a collection of singles on CDs that I have laying around.

So, the rules are as follows:

1. Total driver cost of $50 or less. (A little more than $50 is okay.)
2. Simple crossovers. No more than 2nd order, if possible - this helps keep the cost down.
3. No single-driver speakers, unless they're usable down to 60hz.
4. Reasonably high output level - preferably at least 100 db/1m before clipping.

Ideally, I'd like to see some transmission lines or towers - good bass is priority.

And now, for a few reccomended drivers:

1. Silver Flute W14RC25($17)
This woofer was featured by Zaph in one of his low-end designs, and while I can't tell you much other than that it was a transmission line, I recall that it's been used successfully in another design with the Hi-Vi K1 tweeter ($9).

2. Peerless 830392 5.25" woofer ($10)
Madisound's had these in stock for ages. Peerless is a good brand - for $10, how can you lose?

3. Hi-Vi W4-654 woofer ($18)
While this might be more appropriate for a smaller speaker, its large frequency range means a simple crossover.

4. Dayton DA175 ($18)
This driver offers good performance - and good bass - at a very reasonable price. Far, far better than the dayton "classic" woofer.


1. Hi-Vi K1 ($9)
An all-around decent performer - and cheap, too!

2.Aurasound NT1-204-8D titanium-dome tweeter($8.50)
This seems to require a somewhat high crossover point (~3khz), but is supposed to perform well.

3. Vifa D19TD05 3/4" soft dome ($15)
I think that this is similar to the tweeter used in the Paradigm Atoms.

4. Vifa D20TD05 3/4" soft dome ($16.50)

5. "Shielded Soft Dome Tweeters" (A.K.A. Meiloon tweeters) ($7.50)
These were used to great effect on the PE board - they're supposed to be quite good.

6. Dayton ND20FB 3/4" soft-dome tweeter ($5)
This driver tweeter offers nice performance at a very low pricetag...above 5khz.

DIY Loudspeakers Part III: Crossovers

While a loudspeaker driver may be excellent at what it's designed to do, very few speaker drivers can cover the full range of human hearing from 20hz to 20khz. As a result, multiple drivers are almost always used in speakers; some for high frequencies, and some for low. There are endless permutations on these; some speakers use a tweeter that can handle the midrange, and hence "cross over" to the woofer at a low frequencies, while others apply a midrange driver to cover the area between where a large woofer and a tweeter can perform.

Of course, you don't want low-frequency signals sent to the tweeter, nor high-frequency to the tweeter - in this way, you can have them produce sound in the areas where they distort the least. This device, which determines where the signal "crosses over" from a low-frequency driver to a high-frequency driver, is hence referred to as a "crossover".

Because even the best speaker drivers work better in some frequencies and worse in others, a crossover can make or break a speaker. There are numerous examples of half-cocked DIY projects using $160 Scan-Speak tweeters and $300 Eton woofers that sound awful because the designer chose a crossover ill-suited to the components, and speakers using $17 woofers and $9 tweeters that sound marvellous because the designer was able to use the best parts of both drivers. In addition, a careful crossover design can help correct for artifacts in frequency response - dips and peaks can be neutralized.

Most crossovers are passive devices, having no components that require any power. These usually consist of capacitors and inductors in various configurations of series and parallel to determine functionality.

While the electrical engineering behind these devices is somewhat complex, the simplified version of it is as follows: Capacitors will reduce power moving through them 75% every time the frequency is drecreased by 50%, or, in other words, they reduce volume from the speaker driver by six decibels every time the frequency is moved down an octave. Inductors work much the same way, except backwards, reducing power moving through them 75% every time the frequency is decreased by 33% (6 decibels per octave down). Past a given point, the decrease in power is so tiny it's almost immeasurable - hence, capacitors are useful for sending high frequencies to tweeters, and inductors for sending low frequencies to woofers.

Inductors are measured in Henries or Micro-Henries (uH), while capacitors are measured in Farads or Micro-Farads (uF). The value of these components determines what frequencies they will let through, and what they will not - a larger inductor's effects are noticeable at increasingly low frequencies, while a smaller capacitor will attenuate the frequency at much greater levels. In other words, bigger inductors block lower frequencies, while bigger capacitors let through lower frequencies.

However, because two capacitors or inductors wired in series will simply act as a single inductor or capacitor, they are usually combined: For example, a capacitor may be used in series with a tweeter, followed by an inductor in parallel. The capacitor blocks low frequencies, and what is not blocked by the tweeter will then bypass the tweeter through the inductor. As a result, 12db per octave is lost. The number of components corresponds to the resulting drop per octave; a two-component crossover as above is called a "second-order" crossover with a 12db/octave drop, while one with an additional capacitor after the inductor would be a "third-order" crossover with a 18db/octave drop.

In addition, capacitors and inductors can be used to fix problems in frequency response. For example, the Bohlender-Graebner Neo3PDR tweeter, which I am using in a project, has a frequency response peak around 3khz. As a result, most people put in parallel with the tweeter an inductor and capacitor : The capacitor allows through frequencies from about 11khz up, the inductor allows through frequencies below 9khz. Between these two points, the frequency is decreased by 6db/octave up from 9khz and down from 11khz - just the right amount to eliminate the peak.

I should stress that crossover design is tricky, and I, as a newbie myself, strongly recommend that you consult someone more experienced than yourself - or, better still, use a tried-and-true design, such as I provided links for yesterday. Designing a crossover by hand is very difficult, and while most good speaker design programs include excellent crossover design functionality, these tend to be both expensive and difficult to use.

Friday, March 23, 2007

And on the 5th day, he did get lazy, and posted links.

No more not-quite-in-depth, poorly-worded information today, folks! I suffer from a bad case of friday-itis.

Anyways, I figured I ought to bring up something that everyone can appreciate: Aggregated, organized, and easily-explained links for DIY speaker designs.


Zaph's B3S single-driver speakers:
These are single-driver speakers, which means that they're not going to be the all-time best for treble or bass. On the other hand, at under $40 a pair, they're also really, really cheap. They make very nice near-field (i.e, desk or computer) speakers, and are a very good option for HT satellites - especially the rear channels, which rarely carry high treble or low bass anyway.

Zaph's Silver Flute/Vifa combo
This is a pretty darn good design for the money, and Zaph has a reputation for nearly unbeatable crossover design. If you're short on cash, these are hard to beat.


The Modula MT is a classic 2-way (woofer and tweeter) speaker based around some high-quality and inexpensive drivers. While some people don't like metal-cone drivers (like those in the Modula) for their resonance at high frequencies, this is a tried-and-true design that works very well for HT or music duty.

Lou's Cryolites:

These 2-ways use the BG Neo3 planar tweeter in a design similar to the Modulas. However, the tweeter is very, very different - many people prefer them. Both these and the Modulas are supposed to be excellent - and the price difference is not that huge (about $30), either.

Zaph's Bargain Aluminum MTMs:

This uses the excellent Seas 27TBFCG in an MTM configuration with two slightly cheaper woofers. They're very efficient speakers, and with a subwoofer, are nigh unbeatable for home-theater use.


Zaph's L18/27TBFCG 2-way

This is a 2-way by Zaph using the same tweeter as the BAMTM, but with a high-grade Seas L18 aluminum woofer. Testing has shown that these are over 95% as good as their more expensive Excel-class cousins, but at half the cost - and many builders will testify to this design's quality.

Lou's Zircon towers

The Zircon is essentially the "big brother" of the Cryolites, using a more expensive Vifa woofer in place of the Dayton. They're also much larger, being traditional tower-style speakers, but have better bass as a result. I'm afraid I can't give any testimony other than that of the designer, but his other design featuring the tricky-to-use Neo3 (the Cryolites) is extremely popular - and it's hard to go wrong with something which compares well to the $2,000 a pair ACI Jaguars.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

DIY loudspeakers part 2: What's all this stuff mean, anyway?

In a standard pair of speakers, there are three parts: The box, the crossover, and the drivers.

Speaker drivers are the objects in the box that make noise - woofers and tweeters. Due to their complex construction, these are almost always purchased pre-manufactured, unlike the box and crossover. While some drivers are definitely of better quality than others, it's important to pick the right driver for the right application - for example, if you want to use a tweeter that only works at high frequencies, it's necessary to use a woofer that can cover the midrange.

A speaker driver's performance is measured in one of several ways, some of which are meaningless, while others are no more useful unless you have a degree in acoustics. However, we'lll be ignoring them in favor of the two most useful: the response graph and total harmonic distortion (THD) graph.
This graph courtsey of - visit it!

This is a response graph for a Seas 27TBFC/G, a very popular, high-performance and moderately priced ($35) tweeter popular for DIY use. A sound spectrum sweep - similar to playing all the keys on the piano from the low end to the high - was done, and the Sound Pressure Level, or SPL, was measured at a set distance. (SPL is essentially a very accurate measure of how loud something is.)
The purpose of a SPL chart is to show how well a driver works as a whole. Because this is a tweeter, the SPL - in other words, how loud it is - decreases rapidly below 2khz, as it is not intended to be used at low frequencies. Above that, it produces more or less the same volume level up to above 20khz. (The very high level of response above 20khz is due to resonance, but you can ignore it - it's largely inaudiable.)

The other important measure of a driver's performance is the harmonic distortion graph. Harmonic distortion is exactly what it sounds like - how much a loudspeaker driver distorts from the audio signal input to it. Expensive drivers generally have much lower distortion than cheap drivers, but all drivers distort differently at different levels - even the best tweeter will not work very well at low frequencies.

Yet another awesome graph from
The above is a THD graph for a tweeter, the Dayton ND20TA ($5). As you can see above, there are several forms of distortion, but it's easy to see that the higher the frequency the tweeter is used at, the less it will distort. As a result, it's strongly reccomended not to use this tweeter below about 5khz.

Tomrrow: Crosssovers, and how they will eat your babies.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

DIY loudspeakers part 1: Why bother?

Home-made speakers are nothing new. In fact, at one point in time, almost all audio stuff was built from a kit.

Today, however, there are a bewildering array of pre-built options from the cheap clock radios at Wal-Mart to $10,000 a pair Bowers and Wilkins obelisks.

So, why bother?

To most people, the most important reason would be price. As a rule of thumb, no more than 40% of the cost of a pair of speakers goes to parts - sometimes less, and sometimes more. Even though it's not practical to buy the parts by the thousand as commercial vendors do, homemade speakers can cost over 40% less than their store-bought equivalent - and even less than that if you take the time to find the parts as surplus.

The quality is also an issue. The majority of low-priced speakers - in other words, anything below $200 a pair - are junk. In this price range, however, there are a plethora of designs using low-priced components that make a mockery of what you'll find at best buy for double the price. Because there's relatively little profit in these less expensive speakers, the parts are almost always far, far cheaper. As a result, a thriftily built pair of homemade speakers will generally outperform commercial speakers costing as much as three times as much.

For more pricey speakers, this works doubly so. While it is possible to save only 30% off the price of a commercial offering, this is a big deal when you're using $160 Seas Excel woofers and $180 Hiquphon tweeters. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars can be saved in this way, and because these high-end components are designed to last, they can often be purchased used at a fraction of the retail price.

Others build their own speakers as a matter of convenience - often, certain locations or situations require specialized speakers. Some people desire a line array's movie-theater level punch in their home cinema, while others want speakers able to maintain a high level of quality even at very low volume for use in unusually small rooms. Obviously, there's not much of a market for these sorts of specialized speakers, and if you want some, you build them yourself.

However, more than any other reason, people build speakers simply because it's fun. It's far more rewarding to spend $180 on parts and six weeks on your prized home-theater towers or mini-monitors than to simply drive out to Best Buy and plunk down $600 for something roughly as good. Your speakers will be a reflection of you, exactly how you like them - no more wishing you could get a better veneer, or get just a little bit less treble out of the center channel.

Regardless of your reason, I hope to provide information to everyone - especially Madison residents - on building your own speakers.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to Madison, WI: Part One

Madison, Wisconsin is a marvellous place to visit on a budget. While we lack much in the way of youth hostels, there are a variety of places where you can sleep in your car.

Of course, if one is visiting Madison, food is a concern. While portions are large, prices tend to be as well - many seemingly "family-style" eateries are $10 a plate - plus drink - for most of the menu. This will not do for the traveller trying to see the wonders of the midwest on thirty of any dollars per day.

Here are a few of my favorite options for cheap - but edible - food.

1. Bagels Forever.
Bagel chains - you know, those schmucks who want you to spend $2 for a bagel with cream cheese?

Forget 'em. We have real bagels.

The main Bagels Forever is, in fact, a bagel factory - they make bagels on location, and when I say "make", I mean they start with flour, water, and eggs. And, unlike those that are pre-frozen and sold at supermarkets, they're delicious.

And best of all - $0.30 gets you a bagel, and $0.40 gets you a jumbo bagel! $0.50 gets you a can of soda (don't be tempted by the more expensive carbonated beverages - they're not that much better), and cream cheese or peanut butter can be had cheaply, too - but then again, you probbably brought peanut butter packets from some place that was giving them away for free.

Price for a meal?
$0.60 - 2 bagels (I reccomend egg - the protein is yummy!)
$0.40 - packet of peanut butter
$0.50 - drink

Total: $1.50 for lunch.

Alternately, their "Breakfast Bagel Sandwiches" - which are almost identical to those at McDonalds, except made with recognizable eggs, meat, and cheese - are great for lunch. At $2 each, they make a great way to beat the cold.

2. The Maharajah's Sunday Buffet
$7 does not seem like a bargain for a buffet. Anyone can get a buffet for $7.

But most buffets are not this amazing.

As a rule of thumb, expect tureens of above-average tandoori chicken, at least three curries (the saag is not bad at all), and several desserts - which always include the traditional gulab jamun, and often have at least one "dessert of the day", which is generally very complex and would sell for at least $4 a portion otherwise.

The trick with this is to eat no breakfast, pig out at about 1:30 PM (it lasts from 10:30 to 2 P.M, if memory serves) and eat no dinner. $7 ($9 after drink) is not so bad for a day of food.

3. Pizza de Roma
Pizza de Roma is one of my favorite restaurants. It has almost no atmosphere to speak of - while there are some nifty murals that appear to have been unchanged for a period longer than I've been alive, they're spoiled by the endless din of the not-quite-working-properly big-screen TV in the corner - but, trust me on this one, you won't care.


Amazing pizza.

While the prices - between $2.60 and $4.50 a slice - seem high, a single wedge of pizza is a meal in itself. My particular favorite has vast amounts of eggplant, fresh mozzarella, and basil - real food! - and only costs $4.15 for a meal. The desserts and calamari, while not quite such an excellent value, are also similarly delicious.

If you want to go where the locals go, forget the Nitty Gritty (food only enjoyable when you're inebriated, it would seem) and other such hawked attractions. Pizza de Roma is the place to go.

Also, please leave a tip. These folks work dang hard, and actually heat up the pizza on the spot, so it's piping hot and bubbling gloriously when you eat it.

4. Yummy Buffet

Yummy Buffet is yet another MSG-enfused bad-asian-food extravaganza. Aside from its small side and less than amazing array of selections, it has two notable features: A proximity to downtown madison, and extremely low prices.

$5 for all-you can eat, $3 a pound for take out.

If you're in a huge hurry, just scramble in, load up a styrofoam tray with whatever looks least likely to cause gastrointestinal anguish, and run - $3 is not a lot of money. Or, get snacks for a group.

I am NOT a wannabe asian.


Yellow Fever victim.

Annoying white people have many names, and thankfully, I am not one of them.

Everywhere you go, there they are: People obsessively speaking in bad Japanese, saying "Kawaii", and watching far too much anime to be healthful for what tiny bit of sanity must be rolling around in their skulls.

They have invaded Cons - where once the halls of great geek gatherings were rocked by cries of "The Ringworld is Unstable!", they are now filled with Tenchi Muyo fans, and the Kzinti are relegated to a small side room. Thankfully, this room is filled with sci-fi fan Vietnam veterans - a group that, ironically enough, likely knows more about Asian culture than your average otaku.

(Remember, kids: Even if you're cosplaying a Klingon, do not swing at or threaten a Vietnam war veteran. They're generally nice guys, but those hair-trigger reflexes can bash your face in before they have a chance to introduce themselves.)

Admittedly, I do suffer from a related affliction: A fetish for Asian food. There's a good reason for it, though: When I was a toddler, my parents lived in "married student housing" across from a Korean couple that also had a kid. My folks usually took care of cleaning and groceries; their Korean friends took care of me, and I learned to love Kimchi before I was able to verbalize "Holy moly, this stuff is smelly!"

However, unlike most wannabe Asians, I like REAL Asian food, of almost all types - I can't stand take-out Chinese. Take me to a Korean restaurant, and I'll order the spicy whole octopus tentacles - I'll likely be crying from the insane heat throughout the meals, but I'll keep eating anyway. The suckers have an interesting consistency, I must say.

(A heads up: While I can't remember the name, there's an absolutely brilliant - if tiny - Korean/Japanese restaurant in Racine, Wisconsin. It lacks all the stupid decor of the crappy pan-Asian place across the street, but you can smell the Kimchi across the street - always a good sign for Korean.)

I am, however, an American otherwise - I like cheese on just about everything, have a weight problem, and can't stand anime. (Unless it's Cowboy Bebop,which is good only on its own artistic and musical merit.) I flat-out hate Sony, too.

I also offer an apology to true Japanophiles: If you bother to learn Japanese and the vast number of related Kanji, AND the nuances of Japanese culture, go right ahead - I dare say that there's nothing wrong with wanting to move to Japan, or being unable to afford the insane price of rent in Tokyo.