Steven G. Baird (SGB)
"Conformity is the high road to mediocrity." (Stan Ricker, from a recent interview).
Golden Tube Audio SE-40 amplifiers (pair; $1098 each) Single-ended Parallel Pentode; 40 Watt Stereo Class A tube design.
Sound Dynamics RTS-9 loudspeakers ($700/pair).
A recent advertising campaign from Apple Computer used a number of familiar faces to promote its products -- people such as Albert Einstein, along with a variety of others from all walks of life -- people who have made contributions to our lives in myriad ways. When these commercials were aired on television, there was usually a narrator talking both about the individual featured in the ad, his contributions to society, and those qualities of an Apple Macintosh computer that the company considered the most demonstrable in comparing it to the competition. As the advertisements came to an end, the TV screen turned black, and the words, "Think Different" along with the familiar Apple logo slowly emerged. One of my favorites in this genre was aired on television only once -- during the 1999 Super Bowl -- but it remains accessible to anyone who wishes to see it by visiting Apple's website. The personality featured in this ad, for all of you non-jocks who didn't watch the Super Bowl last January, is the computer, Hal, from Stanley Kubrick's famous film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this ad, the narrator's voice is replaced by Hal's, and he is talking to Dave, one of the two main characters of the film, with the same slowly paced deliberation we found in the film.
As with the individuals who have chosen Apple's alternative to computing, we who have chosen to "think tubes" instead of adopting the conventional wisdom of the transistorized equipment camp, are often thought of as kooks, or mavericks bent on trying to prove the unprovable. One segment of tube audiophiles known as tube rollers (people who experiment with or "tweak" their equipment by switching to different brands or vintages of tubes), are often thought of as screwballs. But there are tweakers in the transistor camp too. You can usually find them wielding a soldering iron to replace anything replaceable inside their equipment. In the '70s and '80s, Wonder Caps and silver wire were all the rage among both tube and transistor enthusiasts; and, depending oil who was listening to these modifications to the stock units, the changes were not always heard as all improvement to the sound, just different.
An even smaller faction of those who "think tribes" have entered into the world of single-ended triode amplifiers (SETs) and extremely efficient horn loudspeakers, maintaining that these amplifiers offer the purest, most accurate, sound possible. Since SETs rarely produce more than 10 or 15 watts, these tube enthusiasts are limited to only a few commercially produced loudspeakers that are capable of producing high sound levels with so little power. We find them costing much more than those found in the typical audio salon too. Because of this, many SET enthusiasts resort to building their own speakers. Their belief is that an amplifier sounds best when producing less than 1 watt of power, no matter whether it is an SET or not. This perspective runs quite to the contrary to that which states "the more power, the better." I think there is merit in both positions. As it is so often pointed out in T$S, the sound of both tube and solid state amplifiers is converging; so much so that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish one from the other.
When I reviewed the SE-40 several years ago, I described it as a far more neutral sounding amplifier (as opposed to the classic tube sound) than the one I had been using for more than a decade. The SE-40 differs from SETs in several ways, the most important of them being that it is a more conventional amplifier design using a pentode output stage, not triode. Although single-ended triodes can outperform the SE-40 in one way or another, none of them offers the power to drive conventional speakers as well as the SE-40 does at its price. Most SETs that one finds in the current audio market sell for much more than the SE-40. For these reasons, it has become my reference. There are considerations that the audiophile needs to understand for the amp to perform optimally, however: the two most crucial of these are that his speakers maintain an 8 ohm (or higher) impedance across the frequency spectrum, and that they have a sensitivity rating of at least 91 dB.
A 4-ohm speaker would not be a good choice for the SE-40 because it is in the bottom octaves where most loudspeakers dip well below their rated impedance. A very low impedance at the lowest frequencies cause the SE-40 to lose some of its composure. The bass output becomes loose and soft. On the highest frequencies, a speaker with low impedance measurements might make the SE-40 sound hard and dry. Golden Tube designed their amplifier to offer the highest performance possible within the limitations of its cost to build. Most tube amplifiers are designed to operate best with speakers whose load falls within the 8 ohm range. Some offer separate outputs for 4 ohm speakers so that the user has a choice, but even then there is no guarantee that the amplifier will perform as well. Although transistor designs usually have the advantage when it comes to driving speakers with difficult loads, the euphonic potential available to tube rollers is just as advantageous. All of the speakers in the current Sound Dynamics RTS line that I have auditioned maintain fairly linear impedance loads, and are easy for the SE-40 to drive.
Most audio hobbyists know that, as a rule, a +3 dB change in volume level will require a doubling of amplifier power. This is why it is important to choose an efficient loudspeaker when using any amplifier producing as little as 40 watts. In order for a low-power amplifier to be used at its best, the higher a speaker's sensitivity rating is, the better. The RTS-9 is rated at 93 dB at 1 watt. With it, the SE-40 will be approaching its maximum rated output as the sound level reaches 108 dB. Under normal listening conditions this will be adequate, but this will not be enough power to reproduce demanding crescendi at live levels without also creating a good deal of distortion, and some constraint.
But, by running a pair of SE-40s in mono, we can double their output, which allows us to reach, theoretically, 108 dB on the RTS-9s with about 48 watts of amplifier power to spare. That will be close enough to the loudest of live levels, I think, and louder than most wives will tolerate. Since we now have more than half of the amp's rated power in reserve, we can anticipate that the occasional massive crescendo we'll encounter on some sources is given ample headroom.
One caveat regarding the use of stereo amplifiers in mono is worth mentioning. Generally, amplifiers bridged to mono may not sound as their designers intended. The primary reason for this is that the impedance is changed so that an amplifier optimized at the factory for an 8 ohm load is now optimum for a 4 ohm speaker; often the input impedance is halved as well. This is the case with the SE-40 if one follows the manufacturer's instructions completely. But by merely switching an internal jumper to its mono position and nothing else, the user retains the two independent channels that develop only 40 watts, and retains the original input impedance. The jumper merely feeds the identical signal to both channels from either input. Then, by removing the shorting straps on the RTS-9, we can run a speaker cable from each of the two outputs on one amp to the high and low frequency inputs on one speaker, and duplicate the process on the other. Doing so allows us to retain the amplifier's intended specifications, but each channel provides full power to only one part of the speaker. This method is called vertical bi-amping, and in this case it results in providing 40 watts from one channel to the woofers and 40 watts to the tweeter with the other. Sound Dynamics discusses the benefits of bi-amplifying in its owner's manual, but please note that their illustration describes horizontal bi-amping only. If you choose horizontal bi-amping, it is important that you do not switch your amplifiers to mono. In either case -- vertical or horizontal bi-amplification -- it is critical that one use two amplifiers that are identical (or very close) in gain output and phase relationship when no external electronic crossover is used. Doing otherwise may not produce the desired results, and electronic crossovers aren't needed in this application.
The results of vertically bi-amping the RTS-9 with two SE-40s is quite a revelation. The advantages of vertical vs. horizontal bi-amping are not immediately evident, but over time and many recordings, the listener begins to understand that the interaction between the two channels of a single amplifier retain more stability when each channel is producing the entire frequency range from the start. The interaction between the amp and the speaker's internal crossover will provide you with the cancellation of the frequencies that are not needed in each of the two channels. You also have the potential to enjoy better separation. Thanks to the added power, the RTS-9 is even more dynamic in this setup, with cleaner highs, a tad bigger midrange and tighter bass. That subtle darkness I described in my RTS-9 review (in Issue 72) is reduced significantly.
So how does this combination fare against higher powered transistor amplifiers? Pretty well, I would have to say. Depending on the size of a listening room, this setup call play the awesome-sounding Rite of Spring from Telarc (reviewed by JMC in Issue 73) at average levels surpassing 100 dB without a trace of distortion or constraint. (Remember, at this level, the amplifier is using less than 8 watts in this combination). Add one or two powered subwoofers, and you can extend the prowess of this system even more. Having been a tube audiophile for many years, this is one of the best amp-speaker combinations in this price range that I have heard so far.
At current prices, the SE-40 is $1,098 retail, but this having been one of the most popular tube amplifiers of recent years, there have been, literally, thousands of them sold worldwide. Accordingly, the thrifty audiophile will be able to find them for sale used -- possibly for just a little more than half the original price. These are almost continuously found for sale at a variety of websites on the internet. If you have trouble finding them, contact me by e-mail, and I'll provide you with a couple of places to start looking.
I decided not to recommend a front end by name, but a CD player with a quality volume control of its own would be a good choice. With a player that has this capability, one need not have a preamplifier or line stage to connect the source component to the amplifiers. Aside from saving money, this enables the listener to be that much closer to the sound of the CD by eliminating a pair of interconnects and another electronic device that might detract from optimum performance. Remember to keep interconnects and speaker cables to as short a length as possible. Not only does this save money, but it avoids the potential for some signal loss and an array of related potential problems. These components total a sensibly priced $2,896 at full retail, but I know of several audiophiles who were able to find the speakers at good discounted prices.
After you have discovered the real advantage of tube audio, you might want to upgrade your SE-40s to the Special Edition model. For about $300 more, Golden Tube replaces the output transformers with better ones that offer sound closer to SETs. Think different: think tubes. Readers with questions about this article can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks and happy listening.
Joseph M. Cierniak (JMC)
I will start (and end) my listing of recommended components by stating thusly: spend your money where it will do the most good. To assist the readers in getting the most for their money I have listed the recommendations in my own (personal) order of importance.
SOURCE MATERIAL: Good sound starts here. A chain of audio components is no better than its weakest link, and in today's world that means the CD. If the recording isn't very good than no system is going to make a sonic silk purse out of a sow's ear! To make my point: imagine money is no object, you purchase the greatest stereo system there is, and your listening room is acoustically the equivalent of Boston's Symphony Hall. Your source material is a collection of outstanding performances recorded on Edison cylinders! Poor source material + Great System + Great Listening Environment = Lousy sound!
Spend your money on well recorded material. I have no real preferences here but the Naxos label has a large catalog, state-of-the-art sound, and at about $5 per CD makes one wonder how the major labels can justify prices of $15-$17 per CD! The RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence CDs are also good buys at about $10 per CD, with excellent sound and outstanding performances and performers, particularly the RCA Living Stereo.
SPEAKERS/FULL RANGE: The PSB Stratus Gold i speakers at $2,549/pair are the absolutely best conventional (box) speakers I have ever heard. In addition to their great sound they have the largest "sweet spot" of any conventional box speaker I've reviewed. These speakers may be conventional in design but attention to detail, incremental improvements based oil reason not marketing, blind listening tests used to separate actual differences from imagined differences, and ignoring the influence of the tweak speaker experts results in unmatched sound at an unmatched price. Their price is on the low side of four digits to the left of the decimal but their performance exceeds that of speakers costing on the high side of five digits to the left of the decimal point!
The Paradigm Studio 100s at $1,800 per pair are the best buy of any large conventional (box) speaker I've reviewed. They're not quite as smooth or refined as the PSBs but mall are they close! At $700 less than the PSBs (and slightly better bass extension!) I could easily live with these aural beauties, knowing that better is discernable but only with extended and careful listening and only with specific recordings providing the absolute best in source material. This kind of performance/price ratio is obtained through no-nonsense design where doing things (design-wise) for superior sound is never sacrificed for marketing, or tweak fads. Yes, they're plain looking, but so is the Mona Lisa. Get the picture, so to speak ...
The Polk RT600s at $680 per pair (if you're willing to shop you can beat that price by $50 to $100) are a good example of sound quality that not too many years ago would have cost $1,000 at minimum. They don't go much below 40 Hz, but in today's world a plethora of subwoofer choices no longer makes this a limitation. And Polk has been in existence for over 26 years, something very unusual and reassuring in today's world of audio companies that go from conception to death faster than the time it takes to load a CD-ROM at 100X speed!
SPEAKERS/SUBWOOFERS: The Sunfire True Subwoofer Signature at $1,895 is everything anyone could want in a subwoofer. It's a slightly larger (13" cube) version of the original Tree Subwoofer (11" cube). But it goes lower (16 Hz) and can pound the confines of the listening area with higher SPL levels, easily exceeding 110 dB. Challenge the loud and deep and you'd better wear ear protection.
The Bag End Infrasub-18 at $1,495 is something of a sleeper. My subjective impression (later verified by several of the measuring masters) is that it goes lower than any subwoofer I've heard with the exception of those subwoofers that use a house or attached garage as an enclosure. It doesn't seem to be able to go as loud as some but perhaps that's me. It's on the large and heavy side. To wit: five cubic feet and 90 pounds. But there are certain CDs where the ability of this subwoofer to go below 16 Hz will make a difference.
ELECTRONICS/AMPLIFIER: The Sunfire Signature amplifier at $2,995 fulfills what is required in an amplifier: lots of clean watts, as inexpensively as possible, reliable even under the most demanding conditions, and no need for a special AC line, although a dedicated line is probably not a bad idea. At 600 watts per channel (continuous) into 8 ohms and 1200 watts per channel (continuous) into 4 ohms the Sunfire Signature will be loafing most of the time but is capable of meeting demands that will bring lesser amplifiers to their knees. The highest compliment I can pay this audio powerhouse is you plug it in and then forget about it.
ELECTRONICS/PREAMP & CD PLAYER: No real preferences here, unless you're into tubes where the Sunfire Signature tube preamp comes in at a modest price (for a tube design) of $1,499. Lots of neat things with this unit, including a feature which gives an LP sound to a CD; it's certainly not a perfect replication of the LP sound as there are no clicks, pops, swishing, center hole being off-center, intermodulation distortion, inner-groove distortion, tone arm resonance, tone arm skating, inadequate channel separation, wow, flutter, etc. If you have a record collection this preamp has an optional phono preamp at $350 that will accommodate both MM and MC cartridges.
My recommendation for a CD player is a carousel type and one costing the least amount of money. At one point I would have said there's no need to spend more than $500 on a unit. I stand corrected. I purchased an RCA RP-8065 carousel unit for $79.95 and well over six months later it is still mechanically intact and the sound is as glorious as anything from one those expensive spreads! In fact, it's mechanical durability far exceeds that of four "brand S" carousel changers that all went belly-up (mechanically speaking) well within four months of purchase or replacement by the manufacturer.
CA BLES and INTERCONNECTS: It's your money so spend it as you deem appropriate. But to spend more than Radio Shack prices for cables and interconnects is a complete waste of money. An extreme example of attributing magical and mystical qualities to cables and interconnects is exemplified by a tweako cult reviewer. This leading intellectual declared that sound quality was more dependent on the speaker cables than the speakers! Yeah, right.
If only the tweako cultists stopped at magical properties being attributed to cables and interconnects! But, oh no, the audio world is now bombarded with claims that make stupidities like claims of aliens living, reproducing, and managing Hi-End audio stores in Roswell, New Mexico, seem like mainstream science! Enough. Spend your money where it will do the most good, and that sure as hell isn't cables, interconnects and other assorted cult stupidities. As I said earlier, start with the source material, whether it be CDs or DVDs.
David M. Doll (DMD)
Bose Acoustimass 15 Home Theater Speaker System: To dedicated subscribers, the selection of the Bose Acoustimass 15 may seem eccentric at best. When I state that these speakers are serving as my reference system, eyes may roll and heads may wag. Dr. Bose is a charming gentleman who undoubtedly knows more about electronics and psychoacoustics than I could begin to fathom. He has considerable prowess in the manufacturing and marketing of electronics worldwide. My children used to urge me to review those "Playboy" speakers (the 901s). When I did review the 901s and sundry other Bose speakers, I was favorably impressed. Yet I consistently found it difficult to believe that these small speakers could perform so impressively. Moreover, if I acknowledged that such modest enclosures could produce quality sound, my wife would argue against filling the living room with massive home theater speakers visiting for review.
After a demonstration of the Acoustimass 15 system, I decided that I should review them at length and in depth. We had just moved into a new house and being able to set up and listen to an ultra compact system while settling in seemed very auspicious. I could position the Cube speakers for optimum performance without strain and make adjustments in the furniture and furnishings knowing that the flexibility of the Cubes and the Powered Acoustimass Module would keep me mellow and sweet-tempered during the stresses and strains of moving.
The Powered Acoustimass Module provides a level of gut-wrenching bass that I found wonderfully satisfying. Every test I could think of in terms of home theater and pure musical challenges revealed new levels of sonority and accuracy in reproduction. The Cubes, freed from the need to handle deep bass, provide midrange and treble sounds to match the quality of the Acoustimass Module. I found that the quality of the high end seemed to enable me to hear sounds that had become beyond my ken a good five years ago. Since the paired Cubes can be turned in myriad directions, it is possible to provide balanced sweet spots for several locations in even problem rooms. Since they are shielded, there is no problem with the monitor. Most rooms in a new house (actually I was raised in the "new" house but well before stereo came into the picture) are problems until one gets everything sorted out.
A sudden turn in events focused my attention another advantage of the Bose Acoustimass 15 that I hadn't paid much attention to. I tore a rotator cuff, and both before and after surgery found that moving conventional speakers and other hardware became difficult, painful, and frequently impossible. Moreover, both pre- and post-op, I had lots of time for long hours of diligent listening and little else. My initial extremely favorable impression of the 15s' performance was confirmed and reinforced. I did not find the system wanting in any respect. My wife was so favorably impressed that she lobbied for their taking up permanent residence even if that meant parting with ready money. The two family dogs and the four cats are not given to reading press releases or product information. We cannot watch Twister after 4 p.m. or the puppy has nightmares. The cats leave very quickly when I watch The Ghost and the Darkness, and whenever films involve knocking on doors, the menagerie scurries about trying to welcome cinematic visitors.
I am middle-aged (while trapped in physical therapy, I feel downright old) and I found the system-in-a-box aspect of the Acoustimass 15 a genuine asset. I installed the system single-handedly (literally) and was able to get the included wiring hooked up and secured in less than an hour. At this point I suspect purists are wincing but I don't have any runs longer than 15 feet so that I can use the supplied wiring without qualms. Moreover, I hate to think how the dogs and cats would handle the hawsers that serve as serious speaker wire in this day and age.
One of the major factors that makes people reject home theater systems is the wiring for six transducers snaking across modest living spaces which double as the center of many domestic activities besides watching films. Similarly, many people find the plethora of hardware that can be involved in providing the home theater experience something they do not wish to share their living rooms with. The Acoustimass 15 Home Theater Speaker System provides all the necessary transducers and connections in a very tiny package. Adding a DVD player and an amplifier together with a TV monitor makes a complete home theater system. Dr. Bose has a number of sleek and sonorous receivers that are beautiful and eminently suitable for home theaters but the Acoustimass 15 is flexible enough for all manner of mixing and matching.
Finally, the sound provided is so fat and spacious that it can make even a 27" monitor a satisfying video component for a true home theater experience. Every home theater devotee yearns for a giant direct-view or projection TV, but in the real world we must make many compromises. With the Acoustimass 15 one can compromise on the size of speakers without losing anything vital to a true big sound home theater experience. Moreover, these speakers serve with equal quality and accuracy reproducing music of all sorts.
Kevin East (KE)
Onkyo Integra A-807 ($600). Reviewed in No. 58. I sent this one back to Onkyo with deep reservations. It has 80 wpc power, beaucoup inputs, and performs excellently. It was discontinued some time ago, and its more expensive replacement, the Integra A-9711, has also been discontinued. Readers report finding the A-807 with aftermarket vendors at a substantial discount.
Onkyo Integra DXC-606 ($489). Six-disc carousel changer reviewed in No. 56. Sonically indistinguishable from one-disc boxes, fast, and quiet at a peanuts price. It's been replaced by the DXC-730 with some extra features and a modest increase in price (to $550).
Parasound C/DP-1000 ($495). Reviewed by GDB and WCH in No. 58. I recommend this unit for its build quality and flawless performance. Mano-a-mano comparisons with high-end darling Rega Planet (No. 71) revealed no appreciable audible differences that would warrant spending an extra $300.
Parasound P/HP-850 ($395) reviewed in No. 62, and Adcom GTP-350 ($400) reviewed in No. 64. Personal taste and the rest of your gear will dictate your choice of either of these quality entry-level separates. The Parasound has a lovely phono section. The Adcom has no phono section but does have a serviceable tuner.
AVA Omega III EC ($649). Reviewed by KMD and KWN in No. 57. In my view, the standard by which any preamp should be measured. Deep black background, enough inputs to run a battleship, and features galore. The optional phono section ($90) is a stellar performer. A caveat: the RB ("real basic") version, at $299 plus $90/each for tape buffers and a phono section, is not value-competitive with either the Parasound or Adcom.
Parasound HCA-600 ($395) reviewed in No. 62, and Adcom GFA-5300 ($400) reviewed in No. 64. The choice between these two entry-level separates is one of styling over power. The Parasound's looks are hard to beat. The Adcom boasts 80 wpc versus the Parasound's 60. The Parasound also has some interesting dual mono and bridging options.
Sunfire ($2,175). Reviewed by JMC and WCH in No. 56. Besides Bob Carver's astonishing load invariant design (as resistance is "halved," output power doubles), the "voltage" and "current" speaker outputs produce distinctive sounds with the addition of a tad of impedance to the latter. I've bi-wired my Legacy Classics: voltage source to the woofer complement, current source to the raids and tweeters. After trying each source on its own, I believe the bi-wired configuration coaxes the best possible sound from the Classics.
Rotel RP-955 ($600). Reviewed in No. 75. No, it's not vinyl nirvana, but it is the reason to chuck the old Denon, Pioneer, or Technics rumblefish you've kept around for your aging and irreplaceable record collection. Comes with tone arm and Audio Technica cartridge. A modest cartridge upgrade (Shure V15 VxMR, Sumiko Blue Point, or Grado Reference Platinum) should vault the Rotel into embarrassingly excellent performance for the price. I'm trying it out with the Shure and will report in a later issue.
Dana Audio Model 1 ($199/pair) and Sub 1 ($295). Reviewed by BB in No. 49. Alone the Model 1 has withstood test after test against such worthies as the PSB Alpha, Celestion 3, and B&W DM302. Liquid, smooth midrange and generously supple soundstaging make it a perennial winner. Couple it with the Sub 1 subwoofer, and the entire sonic range jumps to life. Dana now offers an upgraded version, which we have not reviewed, at the same price.
PSB Alpha and Alpha Mini ($200/pair). Review of the latter forthcoming. The original Alpha at $180/pair earned distinction because it rendered superior sound while being engineered for shelf placement. The newer Mini continues the Alpha's performance heritage. The Alpha has been reborn as the "A/V" with an enlarged driver complement and costing $250/pair.
B&W DM302 ($250/pair). Reviewed in No. 63. Unique "Prism" design squeezes out an awful lot of music for chump change. Slightly forward upper midrange and treble are forgiven by overall balanced sound. Still, it delivers more bass than one would believe possible.
Audio Advancements Maxeen ($2,700 /pair). Reviewed in No. 68. Pricey, but an exceptional performer. The only faults I could find were a slight--very slight--lack of definition in the lower bass and a shallower soundstage than the Legacy Classic.
Legacy Classic ($2,650/pair). Reviewed by TL in No. 64 and yerstruly in No. 68. I resist waxing rhapsodic about almost anything besides music, but these marvels deliver so much music that only a rhapsody will do. Incredible value for the price.
NAD L40 ($800). Review forthcoming. This nifty "one-box" system comes with receiver/CD player and a pair of PSB Alpha Minis. Although seriously underpowered (20 wpc), it just may mark the high-end breakthrough into a province previously occupied by the Japanese--a mark that the overpriced Linn Classik misses.
The Most Music for the Least Money:
A lot of folks like you read this magazine and others for the drool value, "Gosh, if I only had an extra gazillion bucks ... just think what I could get." And sadly, some can't even afford the affordable gear touted in these pages. So what if you have a bigger-than-a-boom-box budget, and no margin for error or rotten sound? Fear not, hi-fi is available to all budgets, even the leanest.
First, let's get one thing straight: KWN, RT, JMC, HF and other like minds are not lying to you -- it's pretty darn tough to discern appreciable audible differences among well-designed and well-made solid state power amplifiers and compact disc players. Further, the advances in sound reproduction technology over the past two decades have been profound. The stunning leaps in sound improvement have trickled down so that even the most basic stuff at the bottom of a manufacturer's line will perform acceptably. In fact, your biggest worry with mass-fi gear is build quality: you don't want your new rig to fall apart the moment you get it home. It is on this note that I part company with HF on CD players. Folks on the most basic of budgets will not buy equipment to beat up, wear out, and get another. So, sticking with reputable brands versus department store badges and, ugh, "house" brands is probably a safe bet.
All in all, great sound is dirt cheap.
Amp/Preamp: Separates are out. If you want a radio, you'll need a receiver. If not, all integrated amplifier. Trouble is that it's very difficult to find a stereo-only receiver these days. 99% of them are A/V, 5-channel monsters with all sorts of superfluous, digital sound-shaping circuitry that is utterly meaningless to the reproduction of music. You end up paying for bells that will never be rung and whistles that will never be blown. Integrated amplifiers are more easily found, although they also require some poking around. A buddy just got the Onkyo TX-8511 receiver, 100 wpc and plenty of inputs. The Onkyo Integra A-807 integrated amplifier recommended above would have been a great choice had he not wanted a radio. Even Onkyo's A-9310 integrated amplifier, without the enhanced Integra circuitry and power supply, pumps 50 wpc for $365. The TX-8511 lists for $350, and was purchased at a significant discount. GK likes the NAD 712 receiver with 25 wpc for $440.
CD Player: I like changers, and prefer the carousel variety. Sony and Onkyo both make solid, affordable models. For example, Onkyo's DXC-340 will handle six discs and lists for $260. Its bare-bones single disc player, the DX-7210, lists for a mere $220. The NAD 523, another GK pick, handles five discs for $380. Avoid the juke box 100-disc changers. They're slow, clunky, and the ones I've tried out are flimsy beyond measure.
Speakers: This is the lone area where what you pay will pretty much determine what you get. Still, the scrape-knuckled budgeteer can find one bargain after another, all affordable, all good. It's hard to beat the Dana 1 ($200). They're incredibly well built. I've had mine now for over five years, and they simply perform--even after the housekeeper has knocked them off their stands on more than one occasion. The B&W DM302 ($250), Sound Dynamics RTS3 ($280), and Tannoy Mercury M3 ($350) are all outstanding performers. The NHT Super One ($350) impressed GK, although he felt its bass-shy performance warranted the addition of a subwoofer. I have a soft spot for the original PSB Alpha (now the "A/V" model at $250), engineered so that shelf placement actually enhanced their bass performance. PSB has diversified the Alpha into the Mini ($200) and Mite ($170), both of which have received excellent reviews in other publications. [Note: The Mini was reviewed in Issue 75 by Thom Moon. -KWN).
All of the above speakers are "mini-monitors" designed to rest on something up off the floor. I don't recommend speaker stands for sound reinforcement--one of the grander audio fictions, but I do recommend getting 'em off the floor. Cinder blocks, milk crates, even the decorative, faux-concrete plant stands found in nurseries (I'm enamored of the miniature Doric columns) will do. And, yes, speaker stands are okay. Just make sure that the "stand" is solid, doesn't waver in the breeze, and doesn't jump up and down when you turn up the volume. And pay attention to HF's periodic treatises on speaker placement.
Interconnects and Speaker Wire: Use the interconnects that come with the source component--the ones included these days, especially those from Onkyo, are unusually well made. If you absolutely must have gold-plated jacks, hie thyself to Radio Shack and knock thyself out. Radio Shack's interconnects are solid, cheap, and work like a charm.
Radio Shack's 12 AWG copper speaker wire ($1/foot) is all you'll need. If you can't afford that, Radio Shack offers 16 AWG zip cord for around half that. And again if you absolutely must have audiophile wire, Kimber's 4VS at $2.60/foot is reasonable. Speaker connectors (banana plugs, pins, and spade lugs) are not necessary. All the speakers listed above take bare wire, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. Remember, audiophiles like to change things around frequently, so easy on/off connectors appeal to them. Another view is that connectors simply add another component to the signal chain--one that might become loose and cause the sound to degrade. Again, if you must have them, Radio Shack's versions work excellently and cost less than half of what you'll spend in an audio shop.
So what's the bottom-line, least-bucks verdict? Well, you can put the Onkyo TX-8511 receiver together with its DX-7210 CD player and a couple of Dana 1 speakers for a total bill of $770--and the receiver and CD player can no doubt be found at a discount. Add 20 feet of 12 AWG speaker wire, and the bill still doesn't break $800. My buddy who bought the TX-8511 hooked it up to a year-old Denon CD changer and my PSB Alphas. They sound glorious in his very small (12x12) den. Another buddy mated the Sony STR-DE 310 stereo receiver (100 wpc, $200) with the Sony CDP-CE415 five-disc CD changer ($200) and a pair of B&W DM302s, and now his whole family has virtually migrated from the television room to the living room. His cost? $660--including the 10 bucks for Radio Shack 16 AWG speaker wire. The sound? Well, the fact that he's using inexpensive, mass-fi components to drive a couple of overachieving speakers lends further credence, at least to this set of ears, to the notion that your choice of loudspeakers is the single most critical decision in building your system.
And when the upgrade bug bites you, start with better speakers or add a subwoofer. Even passive subwoofers such as the Dana Sub 1 will open up the sound considerably. Small, floor-standing speakers such as the B&W DM305 ($450) or the Sound Dynamics RTS9 ($600) offer excellent performance. Got a really good bonus? Then consider mini-monitors such as the Coincident Speaker Technology Triumph ($800), the Legacy Studio ($950), or the biro technology L/2 ($990). [Alas, the L/2s have been discontinued ...-KWN].
Executive Systems: Finally, especially since I've recommended one above, there are the "one-box" systems. While the stereo-only versions are quickly disappearing (giving way like the receiver to 5-channel A/V applications), JVC, Sony, and Aiwa all make credible one-box systems, usually consisting of a receiver, CD player/changer, one or two tape decks, and endless variations on karaoke inputs, DSP circuitry, and so on. The trouble with all of them is that the speaker enclosures are lightweight plastic--like the one box--, house drivers made in Upchuckistan, and sound simply awful. I immediately replaced my Aiwas with PSB Alphas. Further, they're usually (tho' not the A/ V brethren) lacking in the power section, 25 wpc more or less the rule. And if something goes wrong, you're without music until it's fixed. Nonetheless, if your cash reserves are at an absolute minimum, and you still crave some semblance of high-end sound, the NAD L40 seems to fill the bill. Sooner or later, however, you'll want to upgrade one component or another, and you can't pick and choose your options with a one-box wonder. And if you decide to upgrade speakers first, the NAD's power complement (20 wpc) will limit your choices. Depending on your life plan, these kinds of trade-offs may or may not make sense. You can still buy a Japanese box and replace the speakers, but the NAD in all likelihood will obviate that.
When the dust has cleared, sit back, read the music section of this magazine (unabashed plug), crank up the volume, and enjoy.
Howard Ferstler (HF)
In my last Staff Picks installment, I noted that I have traditionally been reluctant to construct a recommended-products list of components that I have formally reviewed, let alone auditioned on a casual basis in dealer showrooms or in friends' installations. Even if such a list included items that I liked a great deal, I could not help but feel somewhat uneasy about it, simply because there might be other versions out there that I had not checked out that perform better--and which possibly cost less.
Consequently, in that last installment, my commentary mostly involved a list of guidelines to help individuals intelligently pick their own products. I hoped that an essay of that kind might not only assist people in choosing decent components but would also help them gain a better understanding of why products perform as then do and why some products are not as critical to super-duper sound reproduction as some people believe.
However, time marches on, and while I recommend that interested parties go back and read my series of comments in Issue 69, I think that it is time for me to offer at least a few concrete suggestions in certain product categories.
(1) In that last report, I noted that "most enthusiasts, provided they listen blind, will be as satisfied with a really fine receiver as they would be with separates, unless absolutely top-quality surround sound is required." However, a "really fine" receiver will not be all that cheap, and if you want to have one that gives separates a run for the money, you are going to have to be willing to spend more than the $400 to $600, or so, for the moderately upscale versions found in places like Circuit City. This means going for one of the top-line Yamaha, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, Denon, or other big Japanese brands that sell for upwards of $1,000. My personal favorite would be the Yamaha RX-V2095, simply because it incorporates many of the features of the DSP-A3090 and DSP-A1 surround processor/amplifiers that I reviewed in Issues 65 and 72. One of the most significant of those features is the use of four, rather than the usual two, surround channels. For me, this allows for a more enveloping surround field -- an important attribute of any surround processor. I should also point out that if you do not need a tuner, the Yamaha DSP-A1, which admittedly costs a lot more than the RX-V2095, is probably the best all around surround processor you can buy, short of maybe the super-duper, considerably more expensive models by Lexicon and Meridian--and Yamaha throws in seven channels of amplification as a bonus.
(2) In that last report, I noted "that if one wants a super-grade amplifier, a THX-certified model will at least be a safe buy, because it should not have any weird problems." I still believe this, but I do have to re-emphasize that a solid-state amplifier produced by nearly any reputable company will probably be able to drive nearly any speakers as well as anyone would want, at least up to the amplifier's clipping level. This means that there is no reason why amplifiers made by outfits like Rotel, Carver, NAD, Parasound, Adcom, Hafler, ATI, Marantz, and even AudioSource should not sound as top-notch as amplifiers made by Levinson, Krell, Bryston, McIntosh, Boulder, Levinson, and the like, provided that none of the amplifiers are called upon to exceed their maximum-output levels and that outrageously weird speaker loads are not involved. I have an old AudioSource Amp One that I use for occasional testing purposes, and up to its maximum output of about 80 wpc, it sounds as good to me as the Carver M-5001 have used for years, or as well as the beautifully built, Bryston-made Lexicon NT-412 that I reviewed in Issue 74.
(3) In my previous commentary, I also noted that a reasonably low-priced CD player made by a mainstream company will often have performance equal to just about any upscale model made by anybody, including the company that made the reasonably low-priced player. However, I also noted that "if you want to go upscale in the CD player department, get a DVD player." Making this move will get both great audio and great video, should you later on opt to convert your audio-only system to an audio-video system. (Even die-hard audio-only types who hate ultra-loud action movies will have to admit that videos of operas, ballets, and musicals can add an important dimension to one's listening pleasure). Because of this, I intend to forego ever getting a basic CD player again, and will only obtain DVD players.
I have not reviewed any players recently, but I will note that sonically there should not be a nickel's worth of sound-quality difference between most mainstream brands. The only factors that should concern anyone involve price, cosmetics, operational convenience, and (with DVD players) picture quality. Even the latter is not hyper-critical with the latest-generation players. Nearly all of them deliver knockout audio and video quality all around.
(4) I also noted that wire is wire, at least as far as speaker hookups are concerned. Provided the stuff is large enough to carry the current required and displays no oddball RCL characteristics, it should all perform pretty much the same. I indicated that ordinary, 16-gauge lamp cord will work with fairly short runs, but that larger wire probably is never a bad idea. I pointed out that both Belden and Radio Shack have some nice 12-gauge versions, but I will add here that I recently discovered some wire made by the Carol Wire Company, selling at Home Depot for 39 cents a foot. I did a direct visual comparison between it and some basic Monster Cable that the store had on hand at that time, and other than the different tinting of the insulation, the stuff looked identical, right down to the multitude of tiny wire strands.
(5) My previous commentary also pointed out that cheap interconnects almost always work as well as the exotic versions, although there is no doubt that expensive cable will nearly always hold up better than the cheaper stuff if you do a lot of connecting and disconnecting. The question is: do you need cable that robust? After all, you are going to plug it in and pretty much forget it. I do a lot of cable switching at times, during my product testing, and I have come to like the Radio Shack Gold cables, both for their build quality and for the fact that I can modify them to different lengths. I am neatness-obsessed enough to like a tidy backside to my equipment rack, and so in addition to getting finished cables, I also purchase separate Radio Shack Gold RCA jacks, cut the cables to custom lengths, and solder the new connectors into place. To ensure a good, solid weld, I also use a glue gun to carefully inject liquid plastic into the joint area, before screwing the outer sleeves into place. The result are custom-length cables of very high quality. They are fairly cheap, too.
(6) My last write-up also noted "that if they already have decent speakers, the addition of a subwoofer may be the best thing that budget-oriented individuals can do for their sound systems." I then went on to praise the Velodyne F1800 and FSR-12 (with the smaller sub more or less being the equal of the larger one up to its maximum output level), and also praised the Hsu TN1220, which has since had its amplifier upgraded to 500 watts.
As far as I can tell, Velodyne's newer FSR-18 sub, which in turn has been superseded by the HGS 18, is pretty much the same thing as the F1800, with a little more maximum output down really low (due to the bigger amp). Given that the F1800 can already crack the plaster, I do not consider the upgrade to be significant, and I am not sure the price jumps from $2,000 to $2400 (FSR-18) to $2,600 (HGS-18) are completely justified in terms of what has been done. However, the HGS-18 (or FSR-18) is still a whale of a subwoofer, if you can afford it.
Velodyne also has its new HGS series of subs, which I have not had a chance to review. Other than their smaller size, I can see no potential advantage with them over the FSR versions. They also cost more, which is not something that I, as a tight-fisted money grubber, can get enthusiastic about at all. However, as with the bigger Velodyne models, if you can afford them you certainly will not be disappointed.
To the above-noted subs, I can almost certainly add the Hsu HRSW12Va, which actually can very slightly outpoint the TN1220 at frequencies below 25 Hz. I will also enthusiastically add the $1,500 Paradigm Servo 15 to my list of super subs. Those who feel that the Velodynes are a bit on the pricey side will give up very little in terms of performance (indeed, I am not sure they will give up anything significant at all), if they opt for those Hsu and Paradigm models. The big Hsu amp is so potent, by the way, that Hsu claims that it can drive two Hsu subs simultaneously--which means that for about, or maybe a bit more than a grand and a half, you can have a subwoofer system that holds its own with just about anything. Two other subs that I have reviewed that do nearly as well as the above models down to about 30-35 Hz (but with less competence below that range) are the B&W ASW 2000 and the Atlantic Technology 272PBM. The PBM in particular is a good buy in the $800 class, particularly if home theater is your main interest.
(7) I also noted that "if you want a significant upgrade in sound, the best way to do so is to spring for really serious speakers; models with a wide bandwidth, low distortion, substantial output capabilities (at least if the listening room is going to be large), and uniform dispersion at all angles off axis, including those well beyond 45 degrees away from dead ahead." I also noted that if someone cannot afford big speakers (for big bass), it would pay off nearly as well to simply shop carefully for smaller models that satisfy those important distortion and dispersion requirements in the midrange and treble, and then spend a few bucks on a decent subwoofer to fill out the bottom end.
The more I fool around with speakers, the more I am becoming convinced that the sub/ sat concept is the way to go for most people, be they interested in music playback or home theater. My experiences with smaller, two-way speakers such as the Atlantic Technology 271LR, Polk RT-35, B&W DM305, Tannoy M2, and NHT VS1.2 has convinced me that if you get speakers like those and couple them to a potent subwoofer, such as the ones noted in (6), above, you will have sound the rivals, and possibly surpasses, many conventional, often fairly large three-way systems. These satellite systems do not sound alike, due to response-variation differences, and different radiation patterns, but they are still excellent choices.
Regarding sub/sat systems vs. bigger, three-way pairs, remember that most such three-way, floor-standing systems will have a tweeter, midrange, and woofer in each cabinet. A sub/sat system will also have the a tweeter and midrange in each satellite cabinet, and there is no technical reason why those drivers cannot deliver performance (including maximum output) equal to what the big three-way system can deliver. That takes care of everything above the bass and if the subwoofer module is one of those models noted above, the bass potency of the three-piece array may handily surpass that of the two three-way, floor-standing systems.
Of course, if you already have some large main-channel systems that employ multiple tweeters and midrange drivers, you may still discover that a potent sub can help out at the extreme bottom, giving you a complete system that is top-drawer to say the least. For example, the Dunlavy SC-II speaker I reviewed in Issue 70 is a two-way model (with dual mid/woofers), but it has exemplary behavior in the midrange and its control of soundstage focus is unsurpassed by anything else I have heard. Coupled with a killer sub, it is a showpiece loudspeaker system from top to bottom; one that will appeal strongly to those who favor sweet-spot listening and demand very precise soundstaging. However, not every floor-standing system has to be expensive, and the AR310HO I reviewed in Issue 68, although not quite a match for the Dunlavy in the imaging department, was a device that can do terrific work -- work that is even more terrific if a big sub is added to deal with the very bottom. It was recently discontinued but may still be available in some locales.
(8) I still believe that there is no high fidelity without surround sound. After speaker upgrades, indeed, possibly even before speaker upgrades, the biggest and best thing you can do to improve a playback system's sound is to get a good surround-sound processor. As noted above, for big-league performance, particularly when trying to synthesize ambience from two-channel recordings, you will probably have to spend a fair amount of cash for an upscale model that does its work in the digital domain.
One that I can wholeheartedly recommend is the previously mentioned Yamaha DSP-A1. The Lexicon DC-1 that I enthusiastically reviewed in Issue 72, along with the Yamaha, has been replaced by the DC-2, which is not only apparently a bit better (particularly in terms of ergonomics), but is also cheaper. Lexicon also has an even more super processor, the MC-1, which costs more than the DC-1 did, and from what I gather it should be able to do some very remarkable things. However, how it compares to the DC-1 and DC-2, and whether it is a truly $ensible choice, I cannot say. With products of the DC-1/DC-2 caliber (or even the DSP-A1 caliber) the law of diminishing returns is starting to come on really strong.
(9) As I noted in my previous recommendation essay, I still believe that most esoteric audio accessories and nostrums (green ink, edge stabilizers, disc weights, amplifier bricks, special power cords, vibration isolators, speaker spikes, clamp racks, digital clocks, exotic speaker stands, tuning dots, disc freezing, disc or system demagnetizing, etc., etc.) are useless, and possibly detrimental to good sound reproduction. Their main function is to transfer money from your bank account to the bank accounts of the companies that sell them. That they can do this without howls of protest from the sound-reproduction community is one of the wonders of the audio world.
(10) Finally, while my first book on audio and home theater is out of print, my latest one, The Home Theater Companion (Schirmer Books) is still readily available, still decently up to date, and ready and able to offer guidelines for shopping and system set up. Admittedly, it has nothing on DVD-Audio, but all other bases, including video, are well covered.
James T. Frane (ITF)
Mach One M-Two: These are not inexpensive at $1,500 (plus what seems to me a disproportionate $250+ for veneer), but they are very good in all areas of reproduction except the missing lowest octave. The only speakers (without subwoofer) I have auditioned that equal them in all areas (plus having low bass), are the $4,000/pair Ohm 300 speakers.
B&W CDM 1: The B&Ws approached the performance of the Mach One M-Two in many areas at a lower cost.
NHT VT-2: Visually unobtrusive with very good performance and the versatility of being able to switch crossovers to change performance for home theater applications.
NHT SW3 Subwoofer and SA-3 Amplifier: I enjoy attending live music performances, in a variety of venues. I've not heard every subwoofer available, but I have heard a lot of the music live that the NHT SW3 reproduced in my listening sessions, and it did a fine job. The SW3 subwoofer's bass performance, like any speaker, will vary with location. The SA-3 amplifier's built-in electronic crossover is so designed that the subwoofer output can be tailored to match many different satellite speakers and many subwoofer locations. The SW3 and SA-3 combination is not inexpensive, but the value for the money offered makes for a Sensible choice.
Thorens TD-320 Mark III: The Thorens had deep bass, retrieval of fine detail from the record, and holographic imaging when these were present on the record. A fast startup with good torque and effective vibration isolation all combine to make this a good value. Its range of adjustments make getting good performance from a variety of different phono cartridges easy. Setup is straightforward and the result is rewarding. I also found it visually appealing. I believe it is a good value for the price.
Parasound P/PH-100: This is a small, attractively styled phono preamp that permits the user to connect a turntable to any preamp. It provides an improvement over the phono preamp built into my preamp/tuner that I could easily hear without A-B comparisons. The P/PH-100 is a good-performing and attractive unit. It can be placed nearly anywhere away from the power amplifier or line cords, both of which could induce hum. Ventilation is not required and there are no controls to operate. While it can be out of sight, the Parasound's small size and attractive design encourage display. The P/PH-100 is not only a good performer, its low price makes it a Sensible choice.
Weltronics DAC8: An inexpensive digital-to-analog converter add-on for older CD players: This $200 unit made an improvement in the performance of my older ('87 vintage) Magnavox CD player.
Carver TFM-55x: I have been using this amp for a long time now and have found it to be powerful, dynamic, and capable in all those areas that are desirable for a power amp, such as soundstaging, imaging, depth, and not adding any apparent colorations.
Parasound HCA-1000A: The THX-certified, John Curl-designed Parasound HCA-1000A power amplifier is a visual delight. It performed extremely well, never running out of steam with loud passages and dynamic transients in my system (my Mach 1 M-Two speakers have relatively high sensitivity @ 92 dB). At $575, the HCA-1000A appears to be a Sensible power amplifier. I enjoyed its good looks and good performance.
SimAudio Celeste I-5080: This stylish integrated amplifier has a power output of 80 watts per channel amp (into 8 ohms) and cranks out 140 watts into 4 ohms. It has a minimalist remote control, is simple to operate and solidly constructed. The lack of output protection devices requires reasonable caution when changing connections. The Celeste is a good performer, attractive, and I expect it will be reliable.
Gotham GAC-1: These relatively inexpensive cables exude a feeling of quality and have performed well. They are sold by Mouser Electronics, P.O. Box 170426, Arlington, TX 76003 800/292-2834) at $26.95 for 0.5-meter length; $31.95 for 1.0 meter length, $41.92 for 2.0 meters, and $52.95 for a 3.0-meter set. A pair comes with one gray and one red cable, both jackets of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). The actual insulation is polyethylene with a conductive PVC inner sleeve. The conductor is 24 AWG and the shield is "double reussen" (there was no information as to what that is). Center and ground contacts are 0.5 micron gold-plated brass with black chrome-plated brass cap and spring. These cables are extremely flexible and the relatively heavy phono plugs give a feeling of sturdiness and quality. I used pink noise at 27 different frequencies, ranging from 25 Hz to 20 kHz, and a Radio Shack digital sound level meter to test the response of these cables compared to the Monster Cable interconnects I had been using between preamp and timer. The Molester Cables had 2 dB higher output at 25 Hz and 1.5 dB lower at 20 kHz -- all other frequencies were essentially the same (within a measured 1/2 dB). As heavy-duty interconnects go, these are attractive, of high quality, and available at a Sensible price. Their performance is good and the connectors grip the phono jacks firmly. If you have need for some interconnects up to 3 meters long, these are worth considering.
Grado Prestige Red: There may be some recordable response differences between this cartridge and its more expensive brethren, but it's difficult to imagine more pleasing and musical performance. The Grado Prestige Red is proof that one does not have to spend large amounts of money for good sound from a phono cartridge. I recommend that you consider this Sensible cartridge, as it is good value for the price.
William C. Heck (WCH)
After a rather light year of reviewing, only a few notes seem appropriate.
Blue Point Special Phono Cartridge: The Staff Picks section provides an opportunity for a quick update on long-term use. After two years, the Blue Point Special phono cartridge, its apparent fragility notwithstanding, has withstood my fumbling fingers and continues to sound natural and perform perfectly.
Legacy Whisper Speakers: After completion of my review of the Legacy Whisper speakers, they remained in my system for several months. They continued to impress as extraordinarily neutral transducers, capable of reproducing natural sound with seemingly unlimited dynamics. Obviously these are large, expensive speakers and therefore not for everyone. But for those who can accommodate and afford them, they must be heard. For those of us on more restricted budgets, the question arises: when will the folks at Legacy figure out how to capture most of the virtues of this system at a significantly lower price? Soon, I hope.
Gregory Koster (GK)
When friends ask me for advice on putting a system together, they're usually looking for an entire system. So rather than list components by type, I'll group them into four levels: a Budget system that starts under $1,000; a Value system that starts around $3,000; a Performance system that comes in around $7,500; and an Over The Top system that costs almost $20,000 and adds very little.
Budget System: If you are prepared to spend $500 per separate component it's not that difficult to assemble a good system, especially with the help of the reviews in the last few issues of The Sensible Sound. But if you're limited to $1,000 for the entire system that job is a lot harder. The problem has been that all-in-one systems generally stint on the speakers, and if you have to replace the speakers you lose any price advantage. The other alternative was to choose good small speakers and add a receiver and CD player, but two chassis and three separate purchases also sacrifices value. What was needed was an all-in-one system built around audiophile minimonitors.
Luckily, this category has caught the attention of several manufacturers recently, and I am in the happy position to suggest not one but two excellent starter systems that will give great pleasure immediately and will also grow as means allow.
NAD Music System ($800). This is a direct answer to my wish: one normal-size black chassis that combines NAD's 522 CD player, 310 integrated amp (20 wpc), and an FM tuner; plus the highly regarded PSB Alpha Mini speakers and some fancy-sounding speaker cables. When you get some more money, add the PSB Alpha Subsonic 1 powered subwoofer ($440). I don't know where you can get better sound for $1,240.
Denon D-M10 "personal component system" ($1,000). But if you want more now and later, for only a little more money, consider this Denon system: three matched silver mini-chassis for the receiver (40 wpc and AM/FM), 3-CD changer, and auto-reverse cassette deck; plus the nifty Mission 731i speakers. There's also an optional matching MiniDisc deck ($500), but I'd use that money for the Mission 700AS powered subwoofer. For $1,500 you've got full-range sound and more functionality and flexibility.
Value System: For three times as much as the Budget system, you can build in full-range sound with a much higher level of fit and finish:
Rotel RCD-971 compact disc player ($700). All CD players may sound alike to some, but I have found that multi-bit D/A converters (DACs) sound better than Delta-Sigma (1-bit) designs. Rotel's top three units all use 20-bit DACs. This unit, the middle one, has the better Burr-Brown PCM63 part and seems like the best value.
Parasound P/HP-850 preamp ($400). Phono input and headphone amp as well as basic preamp functions, with the usual high-quality Parasound fit and finish.
Marantz MA-500 power amp (125 wpc mono, $600/pair). Reviewed by KWN & WCH in #58. If you think home theater may ever cross your horizon, these amps are a great building-block idea. Start with two for stereo, buy more as you add channels; if the 5.1 channel standard expands, you can just keep on going.
Vandersteen 2Ce speakers ($1,300). As KWN said in #63, "very good for the money in all sonic attributes, making it a safe choice in this price range." Full range with lots of bass; highs that sound like a good concert hall (rather than a dentist's drill); relatively forgiving on room placement. The value comes from the double-knit sock finish, which saves expensive veneer and labor but may not fit your decor.
For $3,000 you get full-range sound, plenty of power and inputs, and a system that nobody can sneeze at but everybody will like to listen to. Want more inputs? Consider:
Yamaha TX-950 tuner ($430). Turners are the neglected stepchild of both high-end design (because they sell so poorly) and the high-end press (because there are real design and performance differences that require expert knowledge to describe and measure). This tuner got a great review in The Audio Critic, which does more thorough tuner reviews than any other journal, and it sounds like a real value.
Sony TC-KA2ES cassette deck ($550). Three heads, Delby B/C/S/H, and the classy ES styling. You're wasting your money on a dying format, but this is a nice unit.
Performance System: The Performance system is what I would buy for myself, if l didn't already have adequate components in most areas (and if I had that kind of scratch in one place!). There are more expensive components available, but I believe that everything above these has passed the point of diminishing returns:
Rotel RCD-991 compact disc player ($1,300). Two 20-bit Burr-Brown PCM63 DACs, class A analog section, and a Sony mechanism give this unit the best of all worlds (since Sony uses only 1-bit DACs in their units). Probably doesn't sound any different from the 971, but this way you'll never have to wonder.
Acurus RL-11 preamp ($800). I still love the digital volume readout on the Legacy preamp, but the Acurus has the same clean sound and convenient remote control of volume and balance--for about half the price. I can't figure out how non-remote $800 preamps stay in business.
Marantz MA-700 power amp (200 wpc mono, $1,000/pair). The big brother to the MA-500, with more power and a certified high-end design (but not the usual high-end premium price). Mix and match with the MA-500 for surround sound, and if one breaks you've still got music.
Legacy Classic speakers ($2,650). Recommended as a Sensible Standard in #63. Unless you've got a big enough listening room for the Legacy Focus, these are likely to give you comparable sound at half the price.
Rotel RT-990BX tuner ($750). Not a clear recommendation over the Yamaha: higher quality parts and a nicer looking design, but you give up AM and the FM performance isn't that different.
Sony TC-KA3ES cassette deck ($950). This adds dual-capstan drive to the KA2ES specs and is the best unit Sony makes. If you are still committed to tape this will hold up with the rest of this system.
At $7,500 you've got a system that only a rabid audiophobe would fail to drool over. If you really want to make them crazy, get a yard-sale Garrard record changer--there's no phone input on the preamp, but it's only for shock value anyway ...
Over-The-Top System: Speaking of shock value, here's a system that is the ne plus ultra -- but while I can drool over it, I really can't recommend it:
Parasound C/DP-1000 compact disc player ($500 plus optional AES-EBU output) and Parasound D/AC-2000 D/A converter ($2,000). The CD player is just for the transport, and I specified Parasound to get a matching cabinet. The real performance item is the D/A converter, which uses twin UltraAnalog 20-bit DACs for the ultimate in multi-bit performance. The optional AES/EBU connection should minimize the jitter introduced by a two-chassis design. But will it sound twice as good as the Rote19917 Will it even sound different?
Legacy High Current Preamp ($1,600). Topnotch sound, exquisite build and feel, and the best remote control functionality in the high end. My all-time favorite preamp. But only the digital readout for volume/balance adds value over the Acurus and the price is double.
Bryston 4B-ST power amp (250 wpc $2,265). The best build quality backed by the best guarantee justifies the highest price in this class. It may not sound any different from the Marantz, but in 20 years it will still be working and still be satisfying.
Legacy Focus speakers ($5,400). The best sound available for larger rooms.
Accuphase T-109 FM tuner ($3,000). The finest FM tuner available today--outperforms the Yamaha by a small margin and outclasses it by a mile. But you could buy the entire playlist of most stations for a lot less, and get full CD-quality sound ...
Tandberg TCD-3014A cassette deck ($4,000). You give up Dolby S and HX-Pro, but this unit has the best wow and flutter spec on the market and with the perfection of CDs in that area I think it's paramount for a top quality cassette deck. Except that all I use cassettes for any more is the Mars Hill Audio Journal, and you hardly need high fidelity for talking books ...
Each of these components offers the finest performance I know of, and compared to the overpriced high-end-cachet brands they even offer value of a sort-but this system would barely outperform my recommended Performance System at more than double the price, so we have clearly passed the point of absurdly diminishing returns.
Tom Lyle (TL)
In retrospect, I think it was a bit presumptuous of me in my last staff picks not to list equipment that I used in my own system other than the speakers and some accessories. However, this time I will discuss what I currently use, with some less expensive alternatives where applicable.
More than once, T$S has received letters criticizing this magazine's unconditional praise of Legacy speakers. But honestly, as far as dynamic speakers are concerned I've heard none that are as good. The Legacies' only shortcoming is that they are primarily available factory-direct (although this also might be their strength, in that perhaps Legacy can be compared to more expensive brands because of the latter's dealer markups).
Most of my experience of late comes from speakers in the $2,500 price range. Of those, the Legacy Classics ($2,650/pair, reviewed in Issue 64 and 71) are the best I've heard. If you'd rather not deal with speakers that sell factory-direct, the NHT 2.9s ($2,500/pair, reviewed in Issue 73) are very good. But the Legacies have about twice the driver surface area -- and sound it. Admittedly though, I haven't heard every $2,500/pair speaker available (although I have auditioned quite a large sampling). When I hear a pair that sounds better than the Classics in as many areas as they excel, I'll be sure to mention it! But I'd feel more comfortable reviewing other manufacturers' $4,000/pair models, since these might be comparable to the Classics.
I've made no secret that the best small speakers I've ever heard are the PSB Stratus Minis ($1,049/pair, plus $199 for optional stands, reviewed in Issues 58 and 65). I've been using them in my recording studio for years.
Analog: There are plenty of bargains out there when it comes to used turntables and tonearms. I acquired my modified Oracle Delphi at a fraction of its original price. There are plenty of turntables listed for sale, for instance, on the Internet and in the Audio Trading Times. Also, dealers often take them in as trade and are usually priced to move them out of the store as quickly as possible. That's how I got my first "high end" turntable, an AR ES-1 (reviewed way back in Issue 26) that came with a Grace 707 tonearm that I bought for about $250 in the 1980s. If you'd rather buy a new turntable, the Rotel RD-955 KE and I reviewed in Issue 75 is an excellent turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination with a list price of $599 (although you may want to replace the cartridge it comes with). There are alternatives to this turntable, of course, some even lower in price. Turntables such as belt-driven models from Rega, Thorens, Music Hall, and Sumiko (Pro-Ject), come to mind, but none of which I've auditioned.
Admittedly, the Triplaner tonearm I use is exorbitantly priced. At over $2,500, for most it is not an option. But admittedly, the secondhand Sumiko Premier MMT that it replaced that I transferred from my old AR was pretty good, considering its modest price. I was about to upgrade the 'arm to a Rega RB-300 ($425), but the Triplaner came along.
For an affordable cartridge, I cannot recommend the $195 Sumiko Blue Point (reviewed in issue 73) highly enough. Believe it or not, the cartridge is the least important part of an analog set-up, the first being the turntable itself followed by the tonearm. It you put a $1,000 cartridge on a 1972 BSR changer, it might sound better, but it would still sound like a BSR.
As my rig improved, I slowly upgraded my cartridge to match. I started with the Sumiko Blue Point, eventually upgraded to a Sumiko Blue Point Special ($295, reviewed in Issue 73) and now use a Benz-Micro Glider ($750). Although, as the price increases on cartridges, rapidly the return diminishes.
If your preamp does not include a phono section, either the dB Systems DB-8 ($150) or the DB-8HG ($175, both reviewed in Issue 61) are a fine places to start.
Digital: These days, the difference hi sound quality between CD players is getting very, very small. I guess it depends how important these minute differences mean to you. To me, it means quite a bit. That's why I was willing to take a chance on an "outdated" used player that I would not necessarily be able to afford when it was new. CD players on the used market can sometimes be very inexpensive compared to their original asking price. But buyers beware -- reliability problems with used CD players are legendary. The Meridian 200/263 combo I'm currently using sounds great to me, especially its bass. As far as reliability is concerned, the only problems I have are that sometimes it refuses to read a disc, meaning I have to open and close the drawer a few times until it does. Plus, its ergonomics are practically non-existent. These are inconveniences I'm willing to put up with (for now). Could a new player that costs just as much as the price I paid for the used Meridian sound just as good? I bet it could. But the last currently available CD players I auditioned are now over two years old. However, the Arcam Alpha 7 ($595), the Rotel RCD-975 ($595, both reviewed in Issue 66), and the Rega Planet ($795, reviewed in Issue 71) made very good impressions, and it would be a safe bet to assume they still would.
It has been said that the best preamp is no preamp at all. It is simply a component that should be for convenience only -- to switch between upstream components, impedance matching, to provide a bit of gain and control the volume, etc. That said, I've found little difference in sound between solid state units. A well-built unit with the features one requires should do just fine. The importance in the small differences in their sound will have to be considered by the individual making the purchase, and it would be hypocritical of me to chastise anyone for putting one unit ahead of the other because of these slight differences. Though if I were looking to buy a solid state preamp and was low on cash I would seriously consider models from Parasound or AVA. Many models of both have received many positive reviews in T$S.
However, I prefer tube preamps. I feel that in an "affordable" high-end system such as mine some embellishing of the sound is helpful. Transparent solid state preamps in my system tend to lean toward a sound that gives the impression of a perfect rendition of the recording, where vacuum tube preamplifiers aid in the illusion of a perfect rendition of the performance. Acoustic instruments sound more real. Call it euphonic, less than perfectly transparent, or call it what you wish, but when it comes to preamplifiers I prefer mine powered by tubes.
As much as I love reviewing tube power amps, I feel that the inconvenience of owning a tube power amplifier too great -- but a tube preamp in the chain is a fine way of injecting a bit of the tube sound without as much of the hassle. I'm using a conrad-johnson PV-12A ($2,595 including a phono stage, $1,995 for just the line stage). For a less expensive alternative, one can get almost as good a sound from the less expensive conrad-johnson PV-10A ($1,495 with a phono stage, $1,195 without).
I am currently using a 250 wpc Krell KAV-250a (reviewed in Issue 74). It lists for $3,000, which I feel is awfully expensive for an amp, but the difference is worth it. An excellent buy is the Parasound HCA-1500a (reviewed in Issue 70). It has 205 watts per channel of very clean sound for $995.
If you are on a budget you can't go wrong with the power amps by NAD. The 214 ($449, reviewed in Issue 59) at 80 wpc, 240 wpc bridged, or the 216 ($699) at 125 wpc, 400 wpc bridged, are excellent choices. If you insist on a tubed power amp, the Rogue Audio Eighty-Eight ($1,395, reviewed in Issue 70), at 70 wpc is a good choice.
It is also a good idea to try a power conditioner. If you live in a populated area the difference it makes to a system may be dramatic. The MIT Z-Center ($1,500) made the Parasound amp sound so close to the Krell it was beyond belief. If you live in an area where a power conditioner makes no difference, this is not all that uncommon -- some homes have better power supplied to them than others. Other power conditioners I've tried that were good were models from Chang Lightspeed (which I'm currently using in my studio), Tice, and Blue Circle. For as little as $200, one can try the Adcom ACE-515 (reviewed in iIssue 45), although its effect on a system's sound may be more limited.
Cables and Accessories:
MIT Terminator 2 interconnects and speaker cable, MIT Terminator 3 digital interconnect, Target PS5sa equipment rack, 18" x 18" x 2" concrete slab under the turntable, Radio Shack CD Polish and Scratch Remover (catalog # 42-127), Audio Advisor Record Doctor II record cleaning machine (with home-brew record cleaner and Record Research Vinyl Wash), Last Stylus Cleaner and Stylast fluids.
Thom Moon (TM)
Magnum Dynalab Etude ($1,350) Overkill unless you have a great sounding FM station you listen to faithfully, but far and away the best combination of real-world pulling power and glorious sound. No presets. Useful hi-blend circuit for quieting noisy signals at the expense of some separation of high frequencies. Excellent at separating stations close to each other on the dial. Still my reference after three years.
NAD C440 ($299) This is not the most sensitive or selective FM tuner by any means; its sound on AM is a bit of the "pinched-nose" variety; and as with most British-designed tuners, it has no signal-strength indicator. Those sum up its bad points. Its good points are: exceptional sound on FM (close to that of the Etude); real station-pulling power on AM; 30 presets, any of which can be AM or FM; a good FM blend circuit; and a very usable eight-character, programmable alphanumeric readout, so that the frequency readout can be replaced by station call letters or whatever.
Joseph Grado Signature 8MZV ($200; discontinued) Silky but defined on top; powerful on the bottom. Compatible with both great tables/tonearms and more humble ones. And on my 'table, it tracks better than a Shure V-15 V-MR. Out of production for some time, but a few still may be available if you look. This has been my reference for more than three years.
Budget Phono Cartridge:
Grado Prestige Green ($60) Its response is not so smooth as the Grado Signature, but it sounds better than anything else I've heard for the money. It tracks well, too. Perfect for that old Dual 1218 or Garrard Lab-80 lurking in the closet.
Linn Majik-1P ($1,345) At first glance, this jewel doesn't look like a Sensible value: 33 watts per channel (@ 8 ohms; double that at 4) for $1,300+ (with phono preamp). But its sound lets the Majik live up to its name. It's the closest thing to the classic "straight wire with gain" I've encountered. Bi-wire your favorite speakers, feed it with a good source, and you'll be enthralled. It's been my main amp for more than two years, and I have heard nothing better so far.
PSB Alpha A/V & Alpha Subwoofer w/stands ($777) The Alpha A/Vs alone are $249/pair, and at that price are a real "best buy." However, mounted on the PSB stands and accompanied by the Alpha sub, the full system puts out, so far as I'm concerned, the best sound available for under a grand. I still like the KEF 7s I recommended last go-round (now discontinued), but the PSB Alpha A/Vs are better, with a broader response, although a bit forward on top. The smaller Alpha Minis are also a good bet.
N.E.A.R. 50 Me-II ($2,499/pair) Still the best sound I've heard for speakers at the $2.5k level. Sturdy but controlled bass; exquisite midrange; smooth, extended highs. Excellent soundstage, both in width and depth. Check these out before you buy anything else. Large (48" high) but rather elegant to look at. They need some room around them to sound their best. [Alas, N.E.A.R. home speakers are no more. The parent company, Bogen, has decided to kill off the line.-KWN].
Grado SR-80 ($95) Not the most comfortable to wear, but outstanding sound, resembling that of the Joseph Grado Signature 8MZV: silky and defined on the top end; powerful on the bottom.
Inexpensive Indoor FM Antenna:
Terk Pi. For about $50 on the street, you get a small, almost decorative unit that can provide good reception, even on stations from 2040 miles away. But, you need to be able to move it around for the best results, and don't go nuts with the gain control. Offers less successful help for the AM band.
NAD 712 ($399) On the surface, $400 looks like a lot of money, but the 712 belies its 25-watt/channel power rating. The tuner is no great "station stalker," but is more than adequate for most urban/suburban conditions and sounds nearly as good as the NAD C440. Six line inputs; no phono stage (an outboard phono preamp is optional). With a decent CD player and a pair of PSB Alpha A/Vs or Alpha Minis, the NAD can form a very good starter or second system.
Roy Nakano (RN)
Here are my selections for Sensible Choices. Since it is my belief that the many of the most sensible choices (and the best buys) often happen to be used equipment, they have been included on this list:
AR XA/XB Turntable. A cheap but sound design with a lot of history. The AR turntable was the inspiration for the Linn Sondek LP-12. Robert Clifford did a restoration article for it a while back in L.A. Audio File. Mods also are available. It is obtainable for around $100 on the used market.
Rega Planar 3 Turntable System. The Rega is almost a bargain brand new. It comes included with an outstanding tonearm, the RB300. The arm alone use to cost an arm and leg, but Rega will sell you the whole Planar 3 package (with a high-quality turntable included) for $695.
Dynaco PAS-3x Preamplifier. It is not uncommon to be able to pick up a used PAS-3x in good condition for $50-100, a price that has held for the last 15 years. Units in mint condition can be much more. The out-of-production PAS is a favorite among audiophiles for modification. However, even in unmodified form, audiophiles have always had a soft spot for this quite decent-sounding vacuum tube preamplifier.
Dynaco Stereo 70 Amplifier (the original). The Dynaco Stereo 70 is carved out of the traditional tube school of sound -- i.e., a fat and rather ill-defined on the bottom, very three-dimensional sounding in the midrange, and a little bright in the upper midrange. On the used market, the Stereo 70 goes for around $75-$175, about the same price range it sold for when new. The Stereo 70 is certainly not the most accurate-sounding amp around, but it's the best vacuum tube show in town for under $500.
NAD 3020 Integrated Amplifier. This is, quite possibly, the largest selling integrated amplifier of all time. The 3020 originally sold for $175, and incorporated a Tom Holman-inspired phonograph preamp section (similar to the designs of the Apt-Holman preamp and Advent Model 300 preamp section), a power amp section that could play down to 2-ohm loads, and provisions for hooking the preamp to a more powerful amplifier. NAD produced the 3020A, 3020B, and 3120, which are all essentially the same integrated amp, give or take a few features or refinements. All remain excellent buys.
Advent Model 300 Receiver. Here's one product that's dirt cheap and quite decent. It's the one that put Tom Holman (the father of THX) on the map, incorporating his famous phono preamp. If nothing else, you can use it for its phono section. Around $125 should get you a good used unit. Its schematics are on the underside of the receiver.
Sony STR-DE625 Receiver. Home theater receivers have come a long way in recent years. This unit is a particularly good buy, offering five discrete channels capable of 4-ohm loads (rare in this price range) plus a preamp-level subwoofer output, and adaptable for use with DVD players with built-in Dolby Digital (AC-3) decoders. $350 (street price).
Onkyo T-9090 Mk II. Onkyo has always been known as a good tuner designer, and their T-9090 Mk II remains a benchmark for modern tuner design. $790 new, but its street price should be considerably less -- and on the used market, even less than that.
Sony TC-WE825S. A worthy successor to the Sony decks that keep getting top-rated in the consumer magazines. The 825S, however, features relay recording, which allows you to sequentially record on all four sides of this dual-well deck. Sonically, it's quite decent -- particularly in Dolby S mode -- but still short of the performance of the Nakamichis. It's ability to record four-hour radio programs and other quixotic musical pleasures, however, make the sacrifice worthwhile. At a street price of $250, it's a gem.
Paradigm Atom. There are a number of good budget loudspeakers on the market, but most suffer from treble responses that lack the refinement of the best high end speakers. The Atom is an exception, now that it sports the company's new ceramic-metal composite dome tweeter. At $180/pair, this is about as low as you can go for high end sound at a budget price.
PSB Alpha Mini. A good budget ($199/ pair) loudspeaker system. Revealing enough for differentiating the sound of amplifiers, but tolerant of many of the budget receivers it will probably be paired up with. For its price, it has a clean midrange and a treble response without most of the annoying ringing that plague speakers in this price range. Lacks the bass solidity of many of its competitors, but the Alpha does have an optional subwoofer that it can be mated to. There is also an Alpha center channel speaker available -- making these a good choice for budget-conscious audiophiles who think they might be going home theater.
JBL HLS610. If you prefer a high-output loudspeaker design, the horn-loaded 610 is a good alternative. Ever since Harman International (JBL's parent company) hired Floyd Toole (of Canada's National Research Council fame) to head its loudspeaker research, the company has been producing some very good products. Originally listed at $299/pair, you can now pick up the 610s at a street price of $200/pair.
NHT SuperOne. The SuperZeros are an audiophile favorite, but they're a bit too lean without a subwoofer. The SuperOne provides a better spectral balance, and offers very good performance for $350/pair.
Vandersteen 1C. At $715/pair, the 1C seems to be one of the few speakers that bridges the gap between the fine budget speakers and $1,000+ high end speakers. For the extra money, you get accurate, stereo bass response, and an airy midrange and treble that resembles its bigger brother, the 2Ce.
Vandersteen 2Ce. Vandersteen is a relatively young loudspeaker manufacturer. But, the 2C and the newer 2Ci and 2Ce have earned their stripes. Brand new, the 2Ce goes for $1,495 a pair. The price has held steady, and for that you get a very pleasant ("musical"), airy, transparent sound, with genuinely extended bass response. A used pair of 2C/2Cis goes for around the high $800s to the high $900s.
Gradient 1.3. If $2,195/pair can be considered sensible, this is a remarkable speaker system. It has many of the virtues of the original Quad ESL, without its vices. Its ability to radiate an extremely narrow path is the key to its spectacular imaging and freedom from much of the distortion caused by room boundaries. Its vices: deficient in the lower bass region, and you have to be sure to sit exactly in its narrow sweet spot.
Tom Nousaine (TAN)
How to keep your sanity before Y2K. First consider my list of the most significant innovations in audio in the past 20 years that have actually made an improvement in the sound quality experienced in the home.
1. Compact Disc
2. Remote controls
3. Powered subwoofers
4. Surround sound (in theaters, remember)
All aided by the incredible falling price of computing power and watts. Recommended:
All of them, especially the ones you already own, except SETs.
All of them except those silly ones with outboard DACs (make sure yours has a good remote).
Yes, one of these should be your next player of any kind. Unless you already have one.
Yes; budget 1-2% system resources for good wire. Speaker wire should be 16-gauge or larger. Interconnects that will be patched many times should be custom made (by you) to length with connectors you find easy to use. If you don't want to bother, buy a truckload of cheapies and throw ones out when they fail (which will usually be during a repatch).
Lynx One (expensive, but an exceptional performer).
Lexicon DC-1, DC-2, MR-2 (expensive, but exceptional performance).
Yes, with remote control (there's no better way to tune your system than from a listening position. You can use one of the Lexicons to provide this function).
Yes. Those by Velodyne, Paradigm and Hsu generally represent state-of-the-art performance.
Read about them in other magazines. Don't buy them.
New Reading on a Lonely Night:
John Eargle: Loudspeaker Handbook (his 5.1 DVD recordings on the Delos label are the state of the art).
AES Loudspeaker Anthology Volume 1-4
Durand Begault: 3D Sound for Virtual Reality and Multimedia
Howard Ferstler: The Home Theater Companion
Hearing Protection and Accessories:
ER-20 HiFi Ear Plugs
ER-15 and 25 Musician's Ear Plugs
Monsoon MM-1000 Multimedia speakers
Altec Lansing ADA305 Multimedia Speaker System
FunTac reusable adhesive
Premium OEM Autosound:
Bose Gold in Cadillac STS; find a place to listen. You'll need to move the fader forward to get a front stage but this system will make you rethink car audio.
Raw Drivers (for the project-minded):
12-inch woofer: best mix of price and performance for subwoofer projects. These guys have long, clean stroke: Avatar Shiva, Crystal CMP-12,JL Audio 12W6, Audio Concepts SV12.
Best Shopping Advice:
When you are sitting at a demo and wondering why you aren't hearing the wonderful things going on around you that are being described by the host -- stop worrying. Research shows that over three-quarters of the time people are perfectly happy to report preferences for identical sound presentations.
The better sales presentations don't allow "no difference" answers. Watch the flow: good salesmen start two or three assumptions up the ladder. Plus, the worst thing an audiophile can admit in front of other audiophiles is that he didn't "hear" something. Relax. Lots of stuff doesn't sound different. Amplifiers, wires, and CD players for example (`ceptin' the broken ones -- but why would anyone want one of those?).
Robert Thompson (RT)
One thing I've always tended to shy away from doing is recommending a particular audio component or system for a fellow friend. This facet of my personality should not be misconstrued to mean that I don't have opinions about what it is I like and dislike at various price levels in terms of performance, (I do). My reasons for tending to shy away from recommending a particular brand and model of audio component at a select price range primarily relates to the following:
1. The infeasibility of any one person to have given anything other than a courtesy look-over of what's truly available in a given price range. The fact is that there are simply too many products available to consumers to allow a through and complete overview of the marketplace.
2. The fact that what I consider to be great ergonomics, size, aesthetic looks, etc., in a component may not coincide with what a potential purchaser values. Note that I am not stating that what sounds good to my ears, may not necessarily sound good to yours, etc. I believe that it has been adequately demonstrated in well-controlled, double-blind testing, that good sound tends to be "good" for the vast percentage of the population. The same can be said for "poor" sound quality.
With the aforementioned taken as a backdrop against which the following should be judged, I will now present you with some of my thoughts and opinions on this subject.
Focus on the Basics First: Every good real estate agent worth his salt knows the three most important things to bear in mind when shopping for property--location, location, location. Just as real estate agents have their creed, so too must audiophiles. However, instead of the words: "location, location, location," audiophiles mutter: "speakers, room acoustics, and recordings," (given in no particular order of precedence).
Like a universal law of physics that cannot be broken, the audiophile creed will not be silenced. There will always be Snake Oil salesmen who come with their bags of tricks, and their superbly crafted, well-rehearsed speeches, attempting to break these inevitable laws of truth--all to no avail. The well-grounded audiophile understands and knows that his creed has stood the test of time and that it is built on a bed of rock and therefore his foundation is solid, i.e., good recordings, speakers, room acoustics and a well thought-out physical layout (speakers/listener to each other and to adjacent room boundaries), equals good sound.
The point is that if any one aspect of the audiophile creed is out of alignment, the foundation becomes weaker and the entire chain suffers, e.g., if the source recording is poor and the rest of the playback system is superb, the result will still be poor-quality sound playback. As long as these basics are always foremost in mind, the well-grounded audiophile knows that other related aspects are of only secondary importance, i.e., speaker cable, interconnects, D/A converters, etc.
On to the Recommendations: With the firm foundation laid down and always foremost in mind, we'll delve into specific component recommendations.
I've always felt that receivers offered the most bang-for-the-buck when compared to integrated amplifiers (preamplifier and power amplifier combinations), or the all-out separates (preamplifier, power amplifier, and tuner). That this should prove to be true should be of no real surprise. Since a receiver incorporates all three of these main elements into one chassis that share a common power supply, etc., make it less expensive for the manufacturer to produce. This savings can therefore be passed on to the consumer.
In terms of performance, receivers more than hold their own when compared to their separate counterparts. Receivers can be purchased with more than adequate power amplifier capabilities. Specifications wise, receivers can match separates with no audible compromise.
The only convincing argument that I can make for going the separate component route is that it affords the end user more flexibility in terms of upgrading when new formats come out, i.e., DVD, DTS, DVD Audio, etc. The tradeoff for this flexibility is of course higher costs. It could be very effectively argued that when newer formats hit the streets is the time to upgrade receivers anyway, and use the older one for a second system, (office, bedroom, family recreation room, etc.).
So what's important when choosing a receiver? First off, the receiver should have a good ergonomic feel. The button layout as well as its remote control should be logical and intuitive. You shouldn't choose a receiver that is difficult to operate or that requires you to constantly refer back to the owner's manual in order to manipulate it.
A second, though no less important criterion is that the receiver have sufficient power output to drive the speakers to an end-user's subjective preference. It bears reminding readers that power output is not what truly dictates how subjectively "loud" your system will be able to playback. The speakers and the room they play in will have a far greater impact on how loud your system will be capable of playing. Since loudspeakers are inherently inefficient reproducers of sound energy, it makes more sense to purchase more efficient loudspeakers that can handle higher power levels than to purchase more amplifier power. Loudspeakers are typically on the order of only 1 to 5 percent efficient and therefore most of the power supplied by the power amplifier section of a receiver ends up being converted to heat in the drivers themselves. So when considering a receiver's power amplifier section, the questions to ask are: "What speakers will it be expected to drive?; What is the efficiency of the speakers?; How "live" or "dead" is the room in which the speakers will play?, e.g., live rooms have hard reflecting surfaces and little absorption in them and therefore will require less power; What is the volume of the room the loudspeakers are playing in?; What is the end-user's subjective requirement in terms of desired loudness?
When mentioning the power amplifier section of a receiver, one thing that may turn out to be an issue is the question of how difficult a load will the amplifier section of the receiver be driving. Most readers are no doubt aware that speakers behave much differently than non-inductive resistors. When amplifier power is mentioned in the specification section of literature it is based on what the amplifier is expecting to "see" in terms of a resistive loud on the other end, i.e., the speaker. People will often times be heard to say: "Oh, yea, my speakers are 8 ohms -- they say so right on the back label." Well, I'm sorry to say, but as in most things in life, it just isn't so simple. Some speakers prove to be much more difficult for an amplifier to drive than others. If, for example, the speaker's impedance dips below 2 ohms, it may prove to be too much for some amplifiers to comfortably handle. This is where good test reports from reputable audio magazines come into play. Beware of any speaker where the reviewer states it is a difficult speaker for an amplifier to drive in terms of its impedance dipping too low or the phase angle being too great. If it is, than ensure the receiver you purchase has the capability to drive low-impedance loads with no problem, i.e., that it is capable of high current output. Fortunately, the vast majority of loudspeakers are relatively easy to drive and this is not a problem, but it bears looking into.
Of course, you'll want to ensure that any receiver you purchase has the necessary features that you'll require, i.e., Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital, DTS, etc. If a format you desire is not in the receiver, it's time to look elsewhere. Although it is possible to upgrade a receiver, the rewards of doing so are too small to justify it in my opinion. Better to purchase the receiver you desire in the first place in order to take advantage of the greater cost savings of mass production vs. a select few, truly competent individuals, upgrading all existing receiver by hand, (it's just too expensive).
I do not feel it is too important to select one brand over another based solely on brand name. Purchase a receiver based on my aforementioned criteria. Any major brand will do, i.e., Technics, JVC, Sony, Pioneer, Kenwood, etc. If you're looking for major audible performance differences in this department, you're looking in the wrong place. The tuner, preamplifier, and power amplifier sections of these units within a given price category are far more similar than not. For example, if you're really into FM stereo, it is better to invest in a good, highly directional, outdoor FM antenna with a rotor rather than a receiver with slightly better FM specifications.
Here is the area that I know, without a shadow of a doubt, makes a huge difference in terms of audible sound quality. Budget the largest share of your money to this area and you'll be handsomely rewarded. If you follow the following advice, you should be able to select a winner in short order:
When evaluating speakers, use music that you're intimately familiar with. The music you choose should cover a wide range of musical styles, but again, most importantly, you should be intimately familiar with it. If you have access to a good set of electrostatic headphones, such as the Koss ESP/950 models, you can learn what the music should sound like prior to your initial comparisons in stores, (don't try to use dynamics, as their sound quality may be inferior to the speakers you're listening to). Be aware that although headphones like these will allow one to become familiar with the sound of the discs you choose to use, headphone listening in and of itself differs greatly from that of loudspeakers. After learning with the electrostatic headphones, you should search out the best loudspeakers you can find. It makes no difference whether you can afford these speakers. Get a sonic feel for what good sound is. This exercise will not happen in 5 or 10 minutes. Allow yourself an hour or so to really learn. As you're listening, shut your eyes to avoid visual distractions, and concentrate on the sound, its depth, stage width, etc. Once you've gotten this sonic memory burned into your brain, it's time to go shopping for the speakers you think you can afford, using this sonic memory as your guide.
When shopping, ensure that you don't attempt to compare more than two different loudspeakers to each other at a time. It's just too difficult to keep the sonic memory of them in your mind if you're comparing more than two at a time. Also ensure that the two loudspeakers are setup in the room according to the manufacturers recommendations and hopefully close to one another, (if possible).
Ensure that you attempt to set the volume levels of the two loudspeakers to approximately the same level. Failure in this key area will result in the louder speaker being chosen over the other, not necessarily due to it being a higher quality, but due to our preference for louder sources. It may help to have a Radio Shack sound pressure level (SPL) meter and a pink noise test disc in order to set the approximate levels between the two speakers. Don't shoot for an exact SPL match. The closer in SPL the speakers being compared are, the more relevant the results will be.
When evaluating speakers, it's easy to become enraptured with the sound of a speaker that appears to impart a little extra "sizzle" to the mix. Don't let yourself be fooled into choosing such a speaker too quickly. Often times, such speakers end up causing "listening fatigue" relatively quickly. If you purchase a speaker that is natural and doesn't call any attention to itself, but rather, allows the music to play through it, you'll end up being a happier audiophile and listening to more music, and more often.
Once you've gotten the speakers home, ensure you set them up in accordance with the manufacturer's directions, (if possible). Don't expect a great speaker to sound great if it's hidden behind the plant and the other speaker is asymmetrically placed in the corner of the room above the TV. The point is that you should pay attention to room acoustics and experiment with the layout of your listening position and loudspeakers over the course of time.
As can be seen, when shopping for speakers, it helps to have a local dealer that offers a return policy should the speakers not sound good once you've taken them home. It's quite conceivable that the set of speakers you selected, that sounded so good in the dealers showroom, sound horrible once they're in your home. If this does occur, it is most probably due to the difference in room acoustics between the dealer's showroom and your home. This is why a good dealer will allow returns if the speakers you purchase don't sound as good at your home as they did in his showroom.
So what speaker brands do I recommend? Personally, I have tended to like Canadian and British speakers for a number of years. I felt that these two countries did the most research and development and were always at the forefront of audio technology.
This is changing however. With the money, industrial might, and unmatched talent which has poured into Harman International's loudspeaker division in the last few years, they're the company to watch, i.e., JBL, Infinity, etc. In my opinion, Harman International has the best loudspeaker engineering minds and resources in the world -- bar none. People such as Dr. Floyd Toole, Sean Olive, and Allan Devantier are tops in their class. Couple this with the amount of money that Harman International has invested into anechoic chambers, dedicated listening rooms with instantly switchable speaker locations, etc., and you've got an unstoppable winner on your hands. This is not to say that every product they manufacture is an automatic winner. However, they are definitely, and without a doubt, the company on the move and the one to watch for innovation, and new product development that will have a truly audible impact.
So which brands of speakers would be on my shopping list if I were to go on a shopping spree? First on my list would be Harman International's brands, JBL and Infinity. Other brands that would definitely be on my list would be Polk Audio, ADS, Optimus/Radio Shack (Linaeum dipole tweeters), Magnepan, Definitive Technology, Atlantic Technology, Boston Acoustics, Legacy Audio, NHT, Klipsch, Hsu Research (subs), Velodyne (subs), Sunfire (subs), Pinnacle, PSB, Paradigm, Celestion, Spendor, B&W, and KEF.
Does the above list mean that you should limit yourself to these brands of speakers? By no means should this be the case. I'm comfortable recommending any of the aforementioned brands to individuals and letting them make their own decisions. If that person happens to chose a brand that isn't on the list--that's okay too. This list isn't meant to mean that these are the only companies/individuals who warrant your hard-earned cash. I know from experience that the aforementioned brands offer a lot of bang for the buck, but choices will differ just as individuals do. Rather, it is designed to give readers a starting point to begin their journey. Good luck and good hunting to you!
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|Title Annotation:||audio equipment and systems|
|Author:||Baird, Steven G.|
|Article Type:||Buyers Guide|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1999|
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