This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

The piano was right there behind the mantel. It was well proportioned and lifelike. It had body and dimension. The frequency range was fully ripened from highs to mids to bass. I’d have never expected a 6.5" ceiling-mount woofer to demonstrate this level of credibility in the low frequencies deep and clean. I began to think that Polk Audio must have done something right with their polymer woofer’s butyl rubber surrounds claimed to "provide excellent damping and bass response". For the first time I witnessed the effectiveness of the so-called infinite baffle tuning of in-ceiling speakers that virtually make use of the entire space between joists and sub floor above. In my case the front and center speakers share an ‘enclosure’ of more than 12 cu.ft., likewise the rear pair. Those are pretty big boxes simply nicely tucked out of sight.

The most incredible thing about in-ceiling speakers is that you can forget about them and pretend they don’t exist. The only thing present is the music. On the Polk website the MC60 and larger MC80 are marketed as ideal for multi-room applications producing low-level background music. That’s an understatement for a great speaker with unlimited potential. It has detailed highs and admirable imaging even off axis. While the bass is surprisingly good for its size, it can use help from subwoofers. And that’s where a major breakthrough entered.

This is how I hooked up the paired Mark & Daniel Maximus subwoofers. Both the L and R subwoofer’s high-level inputs connected to the Dared DV-6C’s subwoofer binding post and the low-level RCA inputs to the Symphonic Line RG3 MkIII preamp which takes in the stereo l/r source signals. Such a setting ensured that no resource was wasted. During 5.1 playback, the paired subwoofers reproduce LFE and FL/FR signals simultaneously. During stereo playback, the l/r channels receive an LF boost. Since the Mark & Daniel subs are downfiring, they couple with the in-ceiling speakers to form an entire wall of three-dimensional sound that envelops me head to toe. The dispersion magnitude and uniformity of sound coverage was an exciting new experience for me and would be for anyone brought up in the stereo straight jacket.

Part 2: Filling in the middle ground. I tried many music CDs varying from vocal to orchestral, Baroque brass to Philip Glass. I rolled back and forth between my two digital sources, a Philips DVP-9000S for multi-channel and a Restek Radiant + Assemblage D2D/DAC combo for stereo. This was perfect for the Dared DV-6C, which is not only equipped with 5.1 and 2.0 inputs but also a conversion circuit to turn 2.0 into 5.1. The simple Polk and subs combo had nothing to apologize for. Admittedly it handled simple instrumental pieces better than complex symphonic works and solo/duet vocals better than mixed chorus but I had reinforcement mobilized in no time.

Here I had two choices - the Symphonic Line RG4 MKIII driving the Apogee Centaur Minor; or two battery-powered Virtue Two.2 bi-amping the Mark & Daniel Diamond+. Actually I had a third choice. This was running both systems with the Dared + Polk combo. In fact that’s how all three systems are currently configured. Each can run solo or any two or all three simultaneously. Weird? I know. It’s hard advocating multi channel. It’s even harder to make you believe 2 + 5.1 or 2 + 2 + 5.1 for that matter. But I just opened a new chapter in my audio journey and want to share with all those who have ears and use them.

Without dwelling on any particular CDs, the bottom line is that a reasonably well set-up two-channel system can benefit from ceiling-mounted 5.1 augmentation in these areas:
  • More lifelike realism closer to a concert experience
  • More spacious wider deeper soundstaging
  • More mellifluousness resulting in more musical involvement and less attention to high-fidelity attributes
  • Compact floorstanders will sound grander with boundless ambience

Some audiophiles have been battling with room tuning devices and resonance control. Even the most successful cases I’ve witnessed are successful to the extent of offering ultra high-fidelity that is almost no different from monitoring playback in the editing room. It’s top-class canned music with hairsplitting accuracy. Nothing wrong if that’s what you want. It’s also why more and more audiophiles have come to realize that real performances are different. Still, from time to time—myself included—we can’t help exclaim "wow, the guitar sounds so real!" But real in reference to what? In most cases we mean the musician is performing right there in the room within measurably proximate distance. What we tend to overlook is that such accuracy and clarity, detail and timbre could be larger than life which even a real performance won’t match.

Don’t get me wrong. I indulge in this kind of illusion myself all the time—listening to canned music—especially that of the Jones & Maruri cello & guitar duo who did perform once in my house. But with huge orchestral or choral works? Close your eyes during a live concert and all the hifi attributes shatter. Sound images are blurred. How blurred depends on the venue. This is the interesting part of 2 + 5.1 (or rather 2 + 5.2 in my case). I can control the degree of blurriness and customize the concert hall acoustic to my comfort level. Like it or not, it is with this controlled blurriness that one achieves the spaciousness and realism of the concert experience. For me the Dared DV-6C was the master key, everything controllable with its wafer-thin remote card from 2.0/5.1 conversion to individual channel volume, master volume and mute so handy for A/B comparison with or without ceiling speakers.

For ears accustomed to normal stereo systems, there’s no transitional pain at all. Friends who listened weren’t even aware of the ceiling speakers. They only noticed them in absentia when I turned the Dared off. Then they complained about the ambience having sagged or shrunk. Nevertheless the stereo system always played in the lead. The Apogees and Mark & Daniels are backed off the front wall by 68" and 66" respectively measuring from their baffles with very slight toe-in. The front L/C/R Polks are high above backing off the front wall by 20"/17"/20" measuring from the center of each. I can balance resolution/imaging against atmospheric ambience. Most of the time I keep 5.1 dosage minimal. To set my starting point, I stand right under the center speaker and start raising the volume. I stop immediately when I begin to hear the sound as coming from above. Then I sit down in my listening spot and fine-tune by one or two increments from there.) Occasionally I might give it a boost just to give myself a free ticket to row 10 in The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

Without technical measurements to support this highly unorthodox approach, I obviously cannot prove that a stereo system can assimilate a more lifelike performance by adding more omni-directional reflective sound dispersion from more speakers instead of controlling existing reflective sounds. My post-rationalizing theory is that in a concert hall reflective sound is highly dominant to direct radiation compared to a home-audio environment. This is most noticeably so with sound coming from above. Most concert venues have high domes or ceilings and some have huge reflective devices suspended from above. My approach accidentally discovered finally gives me the flexibility to attenuate these assimilated reflective sounds or take them out entirely.

While I got carried away seriously contemplating adding 5.1 ceiling speakers to all my other systems, a very interesting playback format somewhat similar to my theory caught my attention. That was the 2+2+2 Recording logo on a German label called MDG for Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm. At first I was almost misled to believe that 2+2+2 Recording was a new recording format but it’s not. I was hoping that there would be a special 2+2+2 layer on the disc but there isn’t. It’s just a standard hybrid SACD. Apart from the 2+2+2 logo and MDG mission statement on "Our Sound Ideal", no further explanation about the format is anywhere in the booklet. Some Google help was warranted. As it turns out, the "technology" was first pioneered by Werner Dabringhaus of MDG in 2007 and originally intended for DVD-Audio. (Another source calls it a Swiss development. Incidentally one other licensee is the Swiss Divox label.) In a nutshell, 2+2+2 is nothing more than a speaker placement formula. It’s drastically different from the normal 5.1 placement and according to 2+2+2 Marketing AG it"not only allows three-dimensional sound reproduction but provides sweet spots all over the listening area."

In theory any multi-channel recording can adopt the 2+2+2 configuration with a 6-channel amplifier and six loudspeakers. This is how. Keep the front L/R and rear L/R speakers where they usually are. Add two speakers above the front L/R, feed the center channel signal to the upper front L speaker and the LFE subwoofer signal to the upper front R speaker. The height of these uppers should be half the horizontal distance between the main fronts. If suspending them from the ceiling or putting them on stands proves impractical, the upper fronts can be mounted on the side walls angled at the listening position. These speakers don’t have to be the same size as the main speakers as long as they preserve the same timbre characteristics.

Since I already had sufficient multi-channel systems in place, I tried their speaker configuration with my Mark & Daniel systems. Setup was easy. I just kept the stereo system and rear department of my 5.2 system, Restek Sector + Sim Audio Celeste W-4070 + Thorens-Restek MMA-5 biamping Maximus-Monitors and Winsome Labs Mouse driving the Topaz. I reconnected center and sub from the Oppo BDP-83 to a pair of Mouse to biamp the Sapphires which originally were the front speakers of the 5.2 setup but now stacked atop Maximus Monitors to meet the 2+2+2 requirement.

The result? I wasn’t impressed or convinced. There are a lot of ambiguities clouding this ‘technology’. I am 100% in support of the theory that in a live performance, be it concert hall or church, reflective sounds coming down from above are critical for believable atmospheric ambience and that therefore we need an extra pair of upper front speakers. An article in disclosed that "when SACD first came on the scene, the Telarc, DMP and Chesky labels all experimented with using either the LFE channel alone or with the center channel to feed speakers either overhead or on the left and right sides of the listening position *at a height*. Aurophonie improves on the enhancement offered by such uses of the additional channels by recording with a second set of stereo mikes above the normal frontal mikes."