As we all know, nothing lasts longer than a temporary fix. Mine consisted of some well-aged DIY boxes that I had supplemented with additional loudspeakers from the Holocene period of Dolby surround sound and that didn’t harmonize in the least. The tired sound from my old boxes meant that I listened to music almost exclusively through my iPod, and watching movies wasn’t all that much fun either. Since I had built all of my previous boxes myself, there was no reason to take the “risk” of buying a finished product; so I ended up on this site a few months ago. I was actually interested in the FirstTime 8, and if things hadn’t kept getting in my way I probably would have ordered it sight unseen. But in the meantime, I used my time wisely and kept up with it on Loudspeakerbuilding.com pages and in various forums. Everyone said that you needed powerful subwoofers with subterranean basses for a home theater so you could feel the gunshots in your own gut. All well and good for someone who has a home theater in the cellar of his solitary farmhouse, but maybe not the best for me, since I live in a thin-walled old building in the middle of a large city. Why should I knock the fillings out of my teeth and the pictures off my neighbors’ walls whenever I want to watch a movie ?
In one forum, someone reported that with his previous home theater sets, the speed with which the neighbors started complaining had much more to do with the lower frequency limit than with the volume. Since music is very important to me too, my attention was finally drawn by the SB 36; it doesn’t offer thundering basses, but the music reproduction is very fine and it would perfectly supplement the SB 18 as a center and rear loudspeaker. After looking at countless frequency responses and reviews, I was still plagued by doubts as to whether the bass would be strong enough; the only solution was to fill up the tank and drive to Intertechnik studio to hear it for myself. The demonstration started with the SB 36; after 10 measures I could have driven home again, because I was convinced right away – not only did the basses reach much lower than I had imagined.
Planning and construction
Unfortunately, the limited availability of the SB chassis at the time SB Acoustics started meant a long waiting period, so I had plenty of time to play with various constructions and designs in Google SketchUp. The center would be an SB 18 laid on its side; the 17-cm woofer doesn’t make it very elegant, but it would fit perfectly with the main speakers in terms of its tone. That was essential for a home theater. For the rears, I had originally planned to be stingy and use cheaper assembly kits like the Quickly 14, but given the overall cost, I decided to build two SB 18s here as well. And when you have too much time for planning, you tend to give yourself a lot of work: since my sofa is right next to the wall, which is less than ideal – no, I’m not prepared to turn my whole apartment upside down for the sake of the TV – I didn’t want deep cabinets with speakers that would radiate the sound right past me into the corners of the room. So I gave the cabinet a sharp 45-degree corner in the back so that the rears could either be squashed into the corner of the room or played indirectly off the wall. Rear speakers are actually supposed to be placed significantly higher than the listener’s head, but I ignored that for aesthetic reasons and let the reflex channel end on the underside, which was set on a stand – surely reasonable for the loudspeakers in the back. If some day I decide it’s too much of a shame to reflect the nice SB 18s off the back wall, they can still serve as very good little free-standing speakers. To make the plan work, I had to saw some edges at 22.5 degree angles; a short survey showed that buying a cheap circular saw was no more expensive than hiring a cabinetmaker. And once you have the saw, you can also go ahead and miter the baffle board and the lid, which worked very well with a little practice. For the sake of my camera, I didn’t document the long, dusty day I spent in my plastic-sheeted kitchen with the circular saw, router, vacuum cleaner and dust mask. Since the assembly kits still hadn’t arrived, I left the interior of the chassis cutouts alone for the time being after I was finished with the router, so that I could do some more shaping if needed. Fortunately, that turned out not to be necessary.
SketchUp was amazingly helpful with the styling, and I was quickly able to create what I thought were very nice-looking results without too much effort. For the body, I used black MDF like what Udo had chosen for his SB 36; even when varnished, it is still not really black, and it keeps its typical MDF pattern. The side walls were made of simple multiplex wood from the hardware store. After the surface-grinding and circular milling of the vertical edges, I glued together the middle pieces, made a rag from an old sheet and stained the sides with two coats of teak stain. The result, after barely two hours of work for five boxes, was a wonderfully warm wood color. Smaller defects in the wood were filled in more or less successfully with wax, or I just left them. A wise man (with a white beard) once wrote that do-it-yourself boxes should still look homemade from up close, and I followed his advice. ;-)
Once the speakers had finally arrived and I confirmed that they fit into the openings, I rolled on the last of my three coats of stair and parquet paint, which provided a satin finish. The mitered edges of the baffle board and lid look amazing, and they are almost impossible to see – especially when you compare them with the glued butt joints on the back sides, which still look dull after the third coat of paint. Most of my visitors have trouble believing that I built the boxes myself, which is actually a bit of a disappointment – maybe I should have chosen a more exotic design, but integrating them smoothly into the living room was a higher priority in the end.
When the chassis elements finally arrived, I was running short on time, so I started by assembling the two SB 18s for the back and finished them around midnight. Just to hear whether they worked, I quickly connected them. Not until well after 1 a.m. was I able to bring myself to turn off the stereo. I quietly listened to the legendary “Live in Hamburg” concert by e.s.t., and I heard jazz exactly the way I had always wanted to hear it. I was fascinated by the airy sound and the analytical high notes that let me locate every musician on the stage even at the necessarily very low volume. The next morning I finished the two SB 36 units and set them up on the sides. In comparison – and I’m probably one of the only people so far who have done a comparison in their own homes – the SB 26 is much rounder. The basses are deeper, and the box has a wonderfully full sound that is never aggressive or annoying. Even with a harder musical style, the SB 36 pulls a wealth of detail out of the music that I personally had never heard with my old boxes or with very good headphones. In any case, you can start to see what Udo meant when he called this the Blues class. Set up right next to the wall, the SB 18s also have a wonderful, very analytical sound, but with rock and pop they lose their steam in the bass range; the SB 36 units were just what I needed to add a little bass. By the way, there is also a small difference in the high ranges: the SB 18 sounds slightly sharper here, while the SB 36 is just a touch more reticent and balanced. The SB 18s should not face the listener directly, which Udo also mentioned in his description. More proof that you can trust his sound reviews absolutely.
Now that I was completely satisfied with my sound when it came to listening to music, and with the “5-channel disco” program of my AV receiver filling the room very evenly with sound from all five boxes, it was high time to put in a movie. All of my fears that I would notice a shortage in the bass and be tempted to start looking through the subwoofer catalogue were laid to rest right away in the first few scenes of “Casino Royale.” My musical home theater, with its five “full-range” boxes, is perfectly capable of sending bullets whistling very plausibly through the room, and it convincingly reproduces the inevitable bass rumbling for action scenes. It also proves that honesty and neutrality are not out of place in a home theater. The brilliant film music from “The Big Blue” sounds just fantastic, and the voices are natural and believable. Above all, they don’t change tone when they move back and forth between the three boxes in the front. Of course, if Godzilla or a T-Rex decides to stomp through my living room someday, the vibrations in my wine glass will be fairly restrained, and my belly will still be able to handle it – but there is really no danger of missing any of the sounds. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to add a subwoofer right now, which die-hard home theater fans might have trouble understanding. But I’d rather stay on good terms with my neighbors.
My SB 36/18 home theater was a much bigger jump for me than I originally planned. I hardly think that the 1000 euros I spent on the assembly kits, wood and paint could have gotten you anything of similar quality in the ready-made category. Especially not if your priority, like mine, is music reproduction, which is where most home theater sets run into trouble. Customizing the system to your own taste is what ultimately makes do-it-yourself kits so attractive. My only problem: in order to showcase the boxes, I should really trade my old AV receiver in for a much higher-quality model, and the big sound is suddenly making my television seem awfully small. But that’s another story…