Joseph M. Cierniak (JMC)
This is a transitional time as the industry and consumers make the shift from two-channel stereo to multichannel sound. The demise of two-channel sound will not occur as quickly as the demise of the LP, but occur it will. I am involved with multichannel sound and the temptation is to write about this new audio format and associated equipment. But various multichannel audio standards are still in a state of flux and I don't want to recommend today's equivalent of yesterday's Quadraphonic sound. Nor do I want to recommend an expensive piece of equipment today which might be tomorrow's flea market special!
Within a year, my new music room will be coming online and I'd rather wait for its completion and subsequent usage before making definitive statements about multichannel equipment. I will be emphasizing multichannel sound, not the video experience. It seems that when video is factored in, most multichannel users equate louder with better, dialing in sound pressure levels exceeding those generated one foot away from the Space Shuttle at liftoff. (And after all, this is the The Sensible Sound, not The Sensible Sight!)
So, two-channel equipment recommendations it is, probably for the last time, but in this realm I have knowledge and experience that go back--way back! As usual, my recommendations are in order of importance; my order of importance, to be specific.
Source Material: It all starts here, folks. Your choice of CDs will be the largest factor in the resulting sound. You might go for the sound, or you might go for the performance, or you might strike a happy medium between sound and performance. I find it amazing how much print is devoted to equipment and accessories but source material hardly mentioned, if at all. Spend the money on CDs, which contain music, rather then on various expensive accessories, interconnects, and speaker cables. Don't become the equivalent of the computer nerd, i.e., the audio nerd who spends $100,000 on a system and has a music library of 10 CDs!
Speakers/Full Range: Second most important component in the reproduction chain. With one exception, I will not mention specific models, but those made by PSB, Paradigm, and Polk combine sensible pricing and an outstanding performance/price ratio. I might add that our Canadian neighbors (PSB, Paradigm and others) seem to do a better job of combining (very) sensible pricing with performance equal to or exceeding that of more (sometimes much more) expensive speakers designed and manufactured within the USA borders. I would also suggest that if you are thinking about eventually going to multichannel sound then any purchase of a set of speakers be done with consideration given to integrating them into a multi-speaker setup. Plan ahead and save money!
A good example of planning ahead is represented by the Paradigm 90P. It has a powered woofer, is magnetically shielded for use in a multichannel video application, configured to be biamped or biwired, configured to give subwoofer performance via an input which is fed from the subwoofer output of a surround-sound receiver or surround-sound processor (plan ahead!), sounds great, and at $1,500 per pair exemplifies the sensible pricing and outstanding performance/price ratio mentioned above.
One last thing. Stay away from speakers that use anything but the standard five-way binding posts. Life is too short to spend it having to accommodate odd-sized connectors. I prefer the all-metal version of the five-way binding post, but in a lifetime of attaching speaker cables I've never had any of the plastic type break.
Subwoofer: There are many good choices out there, a plethora of manufacturers and models to choose from. My own personal choice is the Sunfire True Subwoofer Signature at $1,895. No, that isn't cheap, but it's a 13" cube enclosure taking slightly more than one cubic foot (1.27 to be exact) of space, which makes it significant-other-friendly. It goes down to 16 Hz, and will any reproduce the nuances of the lowest frequencies emanating from a symphony orchestra or shake the room with sounds emanating from bombs, twisters, hurricanes, thunderstorms, automobiles, trucks, airplanes, monsters from inner and outer space, the Big Bang, the Big Crunch, etc.
If 16 Hz isn't low enough, the Bag End Infrasub-18 goes below 16 Hz and there are times (source material dependent) when it will really get your attention. The $1,495 price is very sensible if you can live with something five cubic feet in size and weighing in at 90 lbs. But if you want low then this is the one you want.
Electronics/Stereo Amplifiers: Very simple. Purchase a solid-state amplifier that will give you a low dollars/watts ratio, i.e., a low cost per watt, manufactured by a reputable manufacturer. Filling this requirement admirably is the Sunfire Signature amplifier at a cost of $2,995. It will pound out 1200 watts per channel (continuous) into 4 ohms, which translates into a cost of $2995/ 2400 watts, or $1.25 per watt. I have had it in my reference system for almost two years, have never turned it off, it never gets more than warm to the touch, there's no load it can't drive to (if you choose) ear-bleeding levels, and the sound produced by this reliable behemoth isn't surpassed by anything out there, including those amplifiers costing five digits to the left of the decimal point.
I am currently testing an amplifier (review forthcoming) that delivers 700 watts per channel (continuous) into 4 ohms. It's shy by 500 watts per channel of equaling the Sunfire's output, but the cost per watt is 43.4 CENTS! Assuming its sound isn't distinguishable from the higher-priced spreads, and you can live with only 700 watts per channel into 4 ohms, then this is almost as good a deal as the $79.95 CD player mentioned later in this column.
Speaking of good deals, give the following a thought, as one of our readers did. Two-channel amplifiers are numerous out there and many are on sale. Doing one's math indicates that under the right circumstances one might purchase three two-channel amplifiers that have a lower cost less per watt than one of the newer five- or six-channel amplifiers. You would now have a mutichannel amplifier setup for pennies per watt. At 43.4 cents per watt for the mystery amplifier mentioned above you could have 700 watts per channel (continuous, amigo, continuous) into six channels at a total cost of slightly less than $1,800! So give some thought to purchasing (preferably on sale) three bargain amplifiers of the two-channel variety and setting two aside until you go the multichannel route--plan ahead!
I am tempted to name the manufacturer of the mystery amplifier mentioned above, but first I must verify that its sound is, or is not, distinguishable from more expensive amplifiers. This means double-blind testing using myself and six younger individuals as the panel of listeners. Stay tuned.
Electronics/Stereo Receivers: As the multichannel trend accelerates, the number of two-channel receivers being offered is declining. Those receivers still being sold are available for relatively low cost. I make no specific recommendation except to recommend that you look into it. If modest output wattage will suffice, the two-channel receiver is a great way to go. There's also something to be said for incorporating the preamp and amplifier in one chassis.
Electronics/Stereo Preamps: As with the two-channel receivers, the two-channel preamp (once a basic audio component) is being phased out. I am quite happy with the Sunfire Signature tube preamp that is in my reference system. It does everything well, isn't temperamental, accommodates both MM and MC cartridges, and brings back memories of yesteryear's technology (and girlfriends) as I listen to Beethoven with the lights out, mesmerized by the warm glow of the tubes. At a cost of $1,695 plus $350 for the phono stage (total cost of $2,045) it may seem a bit expensive, but after taking a look at what typical tube preamps cost, the Sunfire is a steal. I'll say it again, you connect everything to it, turn it on, and forget it while you enjoy the sound.
Electronics/CD-DVD Players: Almost without exception, today's DVD players can also play CDs. I would strongly suggest that you purchase a DVD/CD player. There are numerous models out there ranging in price (Baltimore area) from $150 to $1,000. I would recommend staying with a modestly priced player to "get your feet wet" in the multichannel arena. Prices are dropping and today's $1,000 player may be tomorrow's flea market special.
If you want to go with a CD (only) player, then now is the time. Prices have dropped to the point where you can get high-priced units for a steal. I would strongly suggest that you go with a carousel player; for casual listening, getting up every 60 minutes or so to change a CD is reminiscent of bygone years when one had to get up every 15 minutes or so to flip over an LP. And if you want to do some serious listening (the purists seem to have a problem with serious listening via a carousel player) then just insert one CD! Carousel players for sale under a $100 abound in my area; whatever you do, don't spend more than $100 for a carousel CD (only) player in today's world.
For those readers who have arrived only recently to The Sensible Sound I will quickly add that my test-bed CD carousel player, an RCA model RP8065, purchased in November of 1998 for slightly under $80 ($79.95, to be exact) has performed flawlessly for more than 16 months while subjected to every cruelty I could devise. The latest cruelty is loading it with five CDs and putting it in continuous play mode; by continuous I mean well over 60 days without stopping and not missing a beat! The sound? Glorious and not distinguishable from the sound of several high-priced, single-play CD players. It's still available from, among others, Amazon.com at $79.99.
Turntable/Cartridge: Something to consider if you have an LP collection. I make no equipment recommendations but I will suggest that if you go this route, don't spend any substantial sum on a technology that, contrary to a small but vocal group of worshippers, is dead and will eventually be buried. I have added a modestly priced analog front end to my reference system. I was remiss in not having done it sooner to play those LPs I come upon that have never been transferred to CD. Suggestion: For a solid technical explanation of phono cartridges take a peek at the Shure web site at www.shure.com; you'll be getting information from a company which has been in existence since 1925 and manufacturing phono cartridges since way back when.
FM/AM Tuner: Again, no equipment recommendations here. AM is dying, may it rest in peace. I find it convenient to have access (via an FM tuner) to the programs offered by National Public Radio (NPR). In the Baltimore-Washington area there are two classical music stations that not only play music but have all sorts of information and discussion programs related to the arts. If for no other reason I would have an FM tuner in my system to receive the weekly broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. For those readers not aware of it, staff writer Richard T. Modafferi knows more about FM than just about anyone out there. When he writes about FM, pay attention!
Interconnects and Cables: If you pay much more than the Radio Shack prices for these items you're not spending wisely. My suggestion is to go with good quality Radio Shack interconnects and speaker cable. If not Radio Shack, then some other reputable manufacturer, but don't spend more than 20% over the Radio Shack price for an equivalent cable or interconnect. If you really want to save money I'd recommend going to Home Depot or equivalent hardware supply house for your speaker wire. The bottom line in this area is sensible pricing, solid construction, and quality material taking precedence over enriching the coffers of those who buy from the same wire manufacturers as Radio Shack and Home Depot, but charge prices which are akin to robbery without a gun!
To Be Ignored
Any device which is promoted as "massaging bits," or words to that effect. Any claim that states sound quality is dependent upon the public utility supplying the electricity. Any claim that states something contrary to a physical law, such as a stylus does not wear down (I mean, if that was the case why are they replaceable, huh?). Any claim by an LP/analog loving cultist--which is not the same person as someone who loves LPs and analog. Any reviewer who is more interested in telling the readers--in detail so painful as to make getting shot at sunrise an eagerly anticipated option to reading the complete review--how he would redesign the speaker under review rather than simply stating what the reader is interested in, i.e., the sound quality.
Til next time, keep those letters and cards coming!
Kevin East (KE)
Regular readers will notice that the recommendations below have changed little since last time. Indeed, the list is characterized more by deletions (outdated models and components I haven't properly listened to in too long a time) than additions. Personally, it's been a lean couple of years for iron, and I have yet to ramp up to home theater and all that entails. Nonetheless, the units recommended below are solid performers that will afford hours, days, months, and years of unbounded musical listening pleasure. They have for me.
CD Players: 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--recently discontinued, alas). 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.
Preamplifier: 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 similarly priced preamps from Adcom and Parasound.
Amplifier: 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 mids and tweeters. After trying each source on its own, I believe the bi-wired configuration coaxes the best possible sound from the Classics.
Speakers: 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, or a powered sub like the PSB Alpha Subsonic 1 or 5, 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). The original Alpha at $180/pair earned distinction because it rendered superior sound while being engineered for shelf placement. The newer Mini (see TM's review in No. 75) is smaller yet no less distinctive.
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 (see DRM's comments about B&W's voicing in his Nautilus 802 review in No. 78) are forgiven by overall balanced sound. Still, it delivers more bass than one would believe possible.
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.
Executive Systems: NAD L 40 ($800). This nifty "one-box" system comes with receiver/CD player and a pair of PSB Alpha Minis. Though 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.
Harman-Kardon Festival 60 ($800). Review forthcoming. The HK comes in three boxes with two modest mini-monitors--Harman-Kardon's initial foray into speaker construction. It includes a 7-CD changer, RDS FM, and just enough power (35wpc) that speaker upgrades will be less problematic than with the NAD.
Howard Ferstler (HF)
My previous "staff picks" contributions usually involved a generalized series of shopping suggestions and admonitions, combined with a few scattered product recommendations. I have not changed my mind about those suggestions and admonitions. However, for a change of pace, this time I will simply offer an annotated list of products within three important component categories that I think will deliver the goods in a very serious way.
Subwoofers: There are a number available that are a cut above the competition. That is, not only can they deal with the frequencies between 30 Hz and 90 Hz, but they also can deal with that last 1/3 octave below 30 Hz that will be important if you like pipe-organ music and some really serious synthesizer stuff.
Velodyne HGS-18. I have not specifically reviewed this item, but I have reviewed the earlier F1800RII model (indeed I own one), and have also reviewed the HGS-15 for another publication (see below). The HGS-18, FSR-18, and F 1800RII are all similar enough to be performance clones (although the HGS-18 has a superior surround material that might make it a tad more long-term robust than the F1800RII), and together they are probably the best commercially produced subwoofers available. You pay for this performance, however, because the current version lists for three grand. I realize that there are some competing subwoofer units out there that cost even more, and that some enthusiasts swear by those other brands. However, the biggest Velodyne just clobbers those models when it comes to a combination of maximum output, ultra-low distortion, and uniformity of extension. There are some models that may outpoint the HGS-18 in some areas, but no other subwoofer I have tested, read about, or discussed with other product testers has integrated the factors that really count as well as the HGS-18 and its predecessors.
Paradigm Servo 15.1 reviewed this unit some time after I reviewed the F 1800RII, and I was astounded to discover that in terms of subjective performance, it was just about the big Velodyne's equal. It could not quite match the F1800RII's maximum output at 31.5 Hz (which certainly guarantees that it would not match the abilities of the even more powerful HGS-18), but at all other frequencies it could, and although it had a tad more audible distortion at very high levels with test-tone inputs, with musical or home-theater source material it was sonically pretty much the Velodyne's match. With a list price exactly half that if the HGS-18, it is obviously an item that serious subwoofer buffs on any kind of serious budget will have to take very seriously indeed. These two subs have different crossover designs and hookup options, and as I noted the Velodyne does have a very slight maximum-output performance edge. The Velodyne, curiously, also takes up less floor space, due to the rather longish front-to-back depth of the Servo 15's cabinet. So, a great deal will depend upon the installation needs of your particular system and your room, location and placement requirements, and perhaps output requirements. However, as a bang-for buck, killer-bass item, it is hard to believe that any subwoofer can surpass the Servo 15.
Hsu TN1220. OK, this sub may not be able to surpass the performance abilities of the Servo 15, but it can at least equal the Paradigm, and do so for even less money. The one I reviewed had an outboard 250-watt amplifier (a later version of this amp had a bit more usable power than the earlier version) and the latest model can also be teamed with a newer 500-watt unit that features better cosmetics and a slicker way to change out the many different crossover modules the user will find available. This combination is available from Hsu for $1100. The TN 1220 is not cosmetically as slick as the big Velodyne and Paradigm units, and although its footprint is smaller than all but the smallest subwoofers, its 4-foot-plus height might make it difficult to integrate into some environments. You also have to find a place for its outboard amplifier in your equipment rack, although if you have the space in that rack the close proximity of the amp to your preamp or controller will make for a slicker hookup. This is a great subwoofer that will deliver the goods in even the most potent home-audio or home-theater set up I can think of, at least if the listening room is not as large as a hanger. If your room is that large, the 500-watt amp is fully able to drive a pair of TN1220 subs in tandem. Hsu also has the HRSW12Va subwoofer, which uses the same driver and amp, but installs the driver in a shorter, but larger diameter cabinet. According to Hsu, it is a tad more potent than the TN 1220 down really low, and I do not doubt for a minute that it is.
Velodyne HGS-15. I reviewed this unit for another magazine, and I found that although it could not generate the kind of maximum output that the units discussed previously could, it was still potent enough to rattle the rafters in all but the largest rooms. It also has the super-low distortion levels that all servo Velodyne models exhibit as a matter of policy. The HGS-15 is perhaps the smallest 15-inch subwoofer available, and it has all the hookup options that the HGS-18 has. It is a bit pricy at $2,500 list, but for that money you get a terrific performer.
Velodyne HGS-12. I reviewed this little dreamboat for our magazine some time back, and it basically is a smaller, lower-output version of the two bigger Velodyne models. Its output will not crack plaster in large listening rooms, and with a list price of $2,150 it is a bit on the pricy side. However, if your own room is not too big and you need a space-saver sub that is still a performance champ, the HGS-12 would be something that you would want to look over. Yes, the top Sunfire model probably outpoints it in terms of maximum output (but not in terms of the low level of its distortion) and the Sunfire is about the same size. However, because the Sunfire radiates from both the front and rear of its enclosure, it might be tricky to integrate it into a compact location that the HGS-12 could slip into with ease.
Velodyne FSR-12. I reviewed this sub right along with the F1800RII quite some time back, and in my tests I discovered that up to the smaller sub's maximum output level, it was the sonic equal of the bigger unit. It is not quite so potent as the HGS-12 (it has only one-tenth the amplifier power and does not have the dual-tandem magnet assembly driver), and it is also somewhat larger in size. However, with a list price of $1,300, it is also cheaper, and enthusiasts with budget limitations and who have listening rooms that do not exceed about 2,500 cubic feet, and who want flat, very clean performance right down to 20 Hz, the FSR-12 has to be judged a very serious item. Indeed, in my tests it actually was a tad flatter below 30 Hz than the HGS-12 was.
Surround Processors: Lexicon DC and MC series. I reviewed the DC-1 in this magazine; it has been superseded by the DC-2 and MC-1. If those two products are able to match the DC-1, then they will have my wholehearted recommendation. If they surpass it (and it stands to reason that they do), then the recommendation is even stronger. The DC-1 that I reviewed had a list price of almost $5,000. The MC-1 costs even more ($6,000), but the DC-2 is $1,000 cheaper than the DC-1 was, and from what I gather it has all the performance attributes of the earlier unit, and then some. The DC-1 was able to so some fantastic things with music and home-theater program material, and its "Music Logic" function in particular was able to simulate three discrete channels across the front from two-channel source material to an uncanny degree. It was a real music-lover's piece of hardware. If you see a DC-1 for sale used and it is in good shape, seriously consider it as a Sensible way to upgrade to serious home audio or home theater. You can couple the thing to a reasonably priced set of amplifiers and end up with near state-of-the-art performance on the cheap.
Yamaha DSP-A3090. It has been some time since I reviewed this processor/amplifier and of course it is now long out of production. However, if you can find one used for a good price, it will be an excellent way to get into the surround-sound big leagues on a shoestring. It lacks a few features that some more modern units have, but what it does have covers all of the important bases, both musical and motion picture. Although I have replaced my A3090 in my main system, it still does duty in my smaller one, and it still is a contender in the state-of-the-art surround-sound sweepstakes.
Yamaha DSP-A1. When I reviewed this unit, I noted that it had only a few advantages over the DSP-A3090. I pointed out that if one did not own the earlier unit, the A1 would be a sensational way to upgrade to advance home theater and musical DSP. However, although the DSP-A1 was terrific, none of the advantages it had over the A3090 were monumental enough in my opinion to warrant suggesting to those who owned the older version that they ought to drop what they were doing and run right out and trade in their older units. I even followed my own advice and held off making a purchase. However, not too long back, I discovered that the local high-end franchise shop was having a clearance sale (getting ready for the new, killer receiver, the RX-V1), and so, what with some extra cash being on hand, I snatched up a brand-new A1 for more $1,100 off list. After fooling with it for a while, I am as much impressed with it now as I was previously. It has DTS decoding (DTS may or may not have a major future home audio and home theater, but it is fun to play with), has a bit more power than the A3090, and has an outboard, 6-channel input which may come in handy if DVD-A ever takes off in a serious way.
Although the new RX-V1 promises to be quite a piece of work, I do not believe it will have a quantum edge in performance over the DSP-A1 in terms of its abilities with musical program material. As I noted with the A3090, the DSP-A1 is now a discontinued product. However, if you can find any leftover models on sale, or if you can spot a used one in top condition, it would be a terrific way to upgrade to upscale home theater or DSP-enhanced audio.
Equalizers: I do not recommend using an equalizer to deal with serious frequency-response anomalies in home-audio systems. However, I know of three that work near wonders when it comes to fine tuning speaker/room combinations to get that last nuance of flat frequency-response performance from gear that is excellent to begin with.
AudioControl C-131. This is a 1/3-octave mono unit that is a bit on the pricy side (at $529 each, this means almost $1,060 for two-channels of equalization, and almost $1,600 if you want to equalize all three front channels of your home-theater set up), but it can do some wondrous things when it comes to making a good pair of speaker systems sound sensational in a good room. To use this device correctly, you need a good 1/3-octave real-time analyzer. AudioControl's own $650 R-130 is an excellent choice, but their $A-3051, which admittedly costs nearly twice as much, is even better. The 3051 has continuous-integration and summing features that make it easier to calculate the overall room response better than what you get with the single-measurement function of devices like the R130.
Rane ME-60. At $700 for a two-channel device, this 1/3-octave equalizer is a better buy than the C-131 pair noted above, and it also takes up less shelf space than two of those units would. However, the more compact design means that its sliders have less movement range to work with, meaning that it can be a bit trickier to set up. In terms of overall sonic performance and flexibility, the products are functionally identical. As with the AudioControl unit, a good RTA is required for proper set up. Doing it out with a proper measuring tool would be a waste of time.
Rane THX-22. This two-channel unit has 1/3-octave equalization between 80 and 800 Hz, with a two-band parametric equalizer that operates anywhere between 1 kHz and 10 kHz. It is a terrific device, and its $500 price makes it kind of a best buy in the stereophonic, super-equalizer sweepstakes. Rane also makes an $1,100, THX-44 version that does the same thing on three channels, with a separate subwoofer equalizer thrown in as a bonus. Note that these units are absolutely clean sounding, as one would expect with any electronic products given THX certification. As with the other units, an RTA is needed to make any sense out of the adjusting process.
James T. Frane (JTF)
Mach One M-TWo speakers: 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 I have auditioned that equal them in all areas (plus having low bass), are the $4,000/pair Ohm 300 speakers.
Weltronics DAC8 outboard 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.
B&W CDM 1 speakers: The B&Ws approached the performance of my Mach One M-Two in many areas at a lower cost.
NHT VT-2 music/home theater speakers: Visually unobtrusive with very good performance and the versatility of being able to switch crossovers to change performance for home theater applications.
Parasound HCA-1000A power amplifier: I reviewed this amplifier and ended up buying it. The Parasound amp performed extremely well, never running out of steam with loud passages and dynamic transients in my system. There was no mechanical noise, and minimal electronic noise. This noise was evident only when my ear was right at the speaker and amounted only to a slight hiss.
AudioControl R-130 analyzer and C-131 equalizers: These units performed their intended functions well. They have the potential to make improvements to a wide variety of situations. If all other avenues have been followed in an unsuccessful attempt to correct frequency response anomalies in your system, the C-131 equalizers may be the solution. The R130 enables you to make adjustments in your system (with or without equalization) and identify the effects on the entire audible range.
Bryston B60 integrated amplifier: This amp delivered smooth, neutral sound with accurate reproduction of the ambiance of the recording. Dynamic transients were handled well, with no congestion. This would be a very easy amplifier to own because of its performance, physical aesthetics, and obvious parts and craftsmanship. I missed having a phono preamp, however. Of interest to virtually any potential purchaser is Bryston's 20-year parts and labor warranty against manufacturing defects. The B60 is totally quiet, both at the unit and through the loud-speakers.
Dynaudio Audience 60 loudspeakers: These are are well made, visually appealing, and have good sound. I think the quality of construction and components are likely to continue to produce good sound for many years. I could listen to them for hours at a time without fatigue and their slightly softer sound will appeal to many people. Priced at $1,200, they are a very Sensible value.
Grado Prestige Red phono cartridge: There may be some measurable 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. More expensive cartridges may well provide incremental improvements in one or more areas, but the Grado performs at a level where such improvements will be small.
Krix Lyrix loudspeakers: The Krixes are fine speakers, both in appearance and sound. They have detail and extended bass and highs, with a smooth and pleasant midrange. They are worth a look at the fine cabinetry and a listen to the fine sound. Also, their relatively high sensitivity means they can fill a moderate-size room with sound without using a high-powered amplifier.
Mach 1 Subwoofer: When bass was present in the music, it was clean and clear with no audible distortion. The flexibility of a variable electronic crossover can make a seamless blend with satellite speakers. The Mach 1 subwoofer is well thought out and solidly constructed. While not inexpensive, the Mach 1 is competitively priced with many powered subwoofers.
SimAudio Celeste I-5080 integrated amplifier: I found the Celeste to be an aesthetically pleasing amplifier that appears to be of high quality. My biggest complaints: the lack of a balance control [without the optional remote], the lack of phono preamp [increasingly common], and having to step through the source selections. None of these are major and they are a matter of personal preference.
SimAudio Moon P3 preamplifier: The P3 preamplifier has high quality parts and construction. Its aesthetics are a matter of taste--I heard a variety of opinions from family and friends. Comments included "retro," "art deco," "gaudy," and "the nameplate is out of keeping with the rest of the design." Its styling is likely to generate more comments than you're likely to hear about many other components. Its sound was superb and its operation flawless. My biggest complaint is the lack of a phono preamp (an increasingly common omission). Also, I missed not having a monaural switch, which is useful for speaker setup. The SimAudio P3 is an excellent preamplifier.
Sony XA20ES compact disc player: This is a well-made CD player with a sturdy drawer mechanism. The spindle accurately locates the CD and the stainless steel stabilizer disc holds the CD firmly in place. All of the controls worked as they should, both on the face plate and on the remote. The remote was not particularly sensitive as to angle nor distance from the player. Performance and sound were very good. The XA20ES is a CD player worthy of an audition.
Thorens TD 320 Mark III turntable: The Thorens has a good suspension system to isolate the platter from the motor and from vibrations conducted through the support feet. Its controls work well and its music reproduction is very good. A range of adjustments permit tailoring to extract maximum performance from your cartridge. Bass was well reproduced. From an aesthetic viewpoint, the black wood grain with black knobs of the Thorens was appealing.
John A. Horan (JAH)
I would like to recommend used equipment. Do "real" audiophiles purchase used equipment? Yes they do, but it's a fairly new phenomenon. Prior to two years ago it was very difficult to purchase used equipment. Most of the time it was done by catching a classified advertisement in the local newspaper, hearing about somebody at work who wanted to buy or sell something, or picking something up from a dealer who had little to select from, at prices you knew were egregiously inflated. Today, everything is different. People are buying and selling audio equipment using various forums on the Internet at the rate of thousands of pieces per week. It's a worldwide market, and the amount of fun and learning which can occur in the process seems to have no limit.
Don't have a computer? No problem. Those taxes you have been paying and pissing and moaning about for years have stocked your local library with a bunch of them, and there is usually a nice lady there who will be glad to show you how to "do it."
There are the Usenet newsgroups, led by rec. audio, marketplace. The audio-related newsgroups are mostly the arena of paranoid high-enders and the dealers and manufacturers who prey on them. There is a lot of obscure stuff here that is pretty much unsalable at retail and is being offered at discount by dealers who are trying to make the rent. There are also a lot of high-enders here trying to bail out of stuff they paid too much for, and of course, are trying to get too much for in return. That's the generality. However, you can find good equipment at sane prices from time to time but you must have patience; a difficult trait in the face of so much obvious hype and drivel.
There are a large number of audio-related Web sites, virtually all of which are trying to sell you something while pretending they aren't. Many have classified and auction areas. These sites are mostly populated by dealers and manufacturers trying to bail out of little-known, overpriced stuff before it becomes worthless. It's not that you can't get a great deal on some of these sites but you just have to hang in there and be ready to buy when the offer is right and not before. The real action, however, is on eBay.com. It is the largest marketplace on the planet. I just checked the eBay auction site and found over 6,000 items up for auction that would be of interest to the audiophile. Over the past year I have noted between 4,000 and 8,500 audio items up for grabs at any given time.
Many of your fellow audiophiles are having the time of their lives buying and selling used equipment on eBay, and they are doing it for just about any reason you can imagine: To touch every piece of equipment that they ever lusted after, just to pick up a piece or two to enhance their current system, to change their system because that's what audiophiles do, to set up a second or third system, or to get involved in the Home Theater game. It's all valid and it's all a good time.
I'm here to tell you that if you're looking to upgrade your system with equipment from what I would call a non-new-technology area, used equipment can save you money, give you as good or better sound than most new equipment, and also supply a lot of fun and the process. Non-new-technology items fall under the following categories: Power amplifiers, pre amplifiers, tuners, turntables, tonearms, and phono cartridges. To a greater or lesser degree I feel that each of these product categories reached its apex of sophistication (golden age) sometime in the 1980s.
Power Amplifiers (1980-1987 Golden Age): A little story: A friend of mine was setting up a home theater system and was so disappointed with the multi-channel power amplifiers on the market that he decided to see if he could purchase better sound, at a better price, on eBay. He bought three amplifiers (six channels of amplification), each with over 100 true watts per channel. These three amps were built in the early to mid 1980's, each channel having its own separate power supply, and the finished system sounded quite amazing when compared to the new multi-thousand dollar five and six channel amplifiers he had auditioned. Of course, most of those new power amps run all those channels off one power supply that in many cases is smaller than a single channel power supply used in those "old" amps he purchased. A basic audiophile rule in the 80s was that a good quality power supply was required for each channel of amplification (dual-mono), especially in higher-priced products, but that and a lot more seems to have been lost in the amnesia of the new century. I notice that most of the new power amplifier advertising says nothing about the specifications of the product, if they do speak of performance we are never given the con text of how the measurements were taken. I'm afraid that audiophiles and home theater junkies need to go back to the roots of the hobby. Oh yes, my friend's deal, he paid $857 plus shipping for the three amps.
There really is no new technology in amplifiers, and today's parts are just about the same as they were in the mid-1980s. However, the market was fairly large and robust back then, and manufacturers were competing to make the best amps possible for a savvy clientele. Today is very different. Audiophiles seem to have forgotten what they once knew, and those new to the hobby seem to concentrate more on "the look" than the sound because it all kinda sounds the same with a cell phone jammed in one ear. I'm not saying you can't get great audio amplifiers today for both audio and home theater use, but if value enters your equation at all, you might want to give serious consideration to the used route. There are thousands of great models out there, probably a few in your basement and a couple in your buddy's attic.
Preamplifiers (1978-1987 Golden Age): Preamps are a similar story. Today a preamp is really needed only in a system where vinyl is still being played and I would think twice before purchasing one designed and built more than 15 years after vinyl had begun its demise. This is not brain surgery.
Tuners (1978-1986 Golden Age): Without a doubt anyone looking for serious sound quality, sensitivity and/or selectivity in a tuner has NO CHOICE but to purchase used from the multitude of amazing units that populated the market between 1978 and 1986. The Japanese companies had a friendly competition going on at this time to see who could make the best tuners at the best price. They all used the Mcintosh MR-78 tuner as a target, and they all hit it; many exceeded it. Any of the top two or three tuners offered by each of the Japanese companies during that period qualify for a hardy recommendation. I have not heard a single "modern" tuner that comes close.
Turntables and Cartridges (1976-1986 Golden Age): Do you think a newly manufactured product in these categories is going to sound better or be better built than the products made during the LP's heyday? Do you think there has been a lot of development going on here since the market for these products collapsed a decade and a half ago? Right ... Unless you have dreams of becoming a DJ, a Rave promoter, or a Dub star, stick with the old stuff. Every audiophile on the planet has a drawer full of cartridges somewhere and most of them have very few miles on the odometer. Current favorites: Shure V15 Type V, Dynavector Ruby, Sonus Blue, any late production Fidelity Research, and any Satin model (surely the most colored and interesting cartridge line ever made). In turntables I love the concrete-plinth Kenwoods, the big Technics and their high-line close'n plays, and the Denons.
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 five levels: a Mini system that starts at $1,000; an Entry system that starts at $2,000; a Value system that starts at $3,600; a Performance system that starts under $6,000; and an Over The Top system that can run over $15,000 and adds very little.
One major change from my last set of recommendations is the deletion of the NAD system. I followed my own advice but reliability has not been what I expect, so I no longer recommend NAD.
Mini 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 Sensible Sound. But if you're limited to $1,000 for the entire system, your 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 an excellent starter system that will give great pleasure immediately and will also grow as means allow:
Denon D-M10 "personal component system" ($1,000). Three matched silver minichassis for the receiver (40 wpc and AM/ FM), 3-CD changer, and auto-reverse cassette deck; plus the nifty Mission 731i speakers. (See my review in Issue 79.)
You can start there and have a solid basic system for $1,000--but as soon as possible I would add the Mission 700AS powered subwoofer ($500). Top things off with Denon's matching minidisc deck (DMD-M10, $500).
For $2,000 you've got full-range sound and all the functionality and flexibility you need.
Entry System: For the same price as the complete Mini system, you can build in full-range sound with full-size components:
Rotel RCD-951 compact disc player ($500). 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 is one of the few manufacturers that still uses multi-bit DACs, and this is the cheapest unit in that line.
Parasound P/HP-850 preamp ($400). Reviewed by KE in #64. Phono input and headphone amp as well as basic preamp functions, with the usual high-quality Parasound fit and finish.
Adcom GFA-5300 power amp (80 wpc, $450). Also reviewed by KE in #64. Plenty of oomph and plenty of staying power.
PSB Alpha A/V speakers ($250). Reviewed by TM in #75. Good value in an entry-level satellite speaker, and they mate perfectly with the:
PSB Alpha Subsonic 5 subwoofer ($400). TM reviewed the predecessor Subsonic 1; now for less money you get a slightly larger driver. Ain't progress (or the weak Canadian dollar) wonderful?
For $2,000 you get more power and inputs and the flexibility of separates. Want to fill those inputs? Consider:
Parasound T/DQ-1600 tuner ($385). Tuners 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). Every entry-level tuner with solid reviews has been deleted, so I'm recommending this one based on Parasound's reputation and the benefit of matching the preamp.
Sony TC-KA1ES cassette deck ($300). Cassette decks are few and far between now; Sony is one of the few diehard supporters. This one gives you Dolby B/C/S/H and the classy ES styling.
Sony MDBundle6 minidisc deck ($360). Minidisc once appeared to be dead in the water but it seems to be developing a niche as the replacement for cassette; MP3 may yet kill it, but at this price you haven't mortgaged the farm. Whose deck to buy? Sony is the developer. This includes a basic 20-bit minidisc deck plus a portable player and some discs.
Complete system price: $3,045.
Value System: For a little more than the complete Entry system, you can get full-range speakers, a remote on the control amp and really nice construction:
Rotel RCD-971 compact disc player ($700). This unit has the better Burr-Brown PCM63 (20-bit) DAC and seems like the best value in the line.
Acurus DIA-150 integrated amp ($1,600). Combines a passive preamp with a 150 wpc power amp; the single chassis eliminates the problems inherent in a passive preamp. Includes a remote control.
Vandersteen 2Ce speakers ($1,300). As KWN said in Issue 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 $3,600 you get a system that nobody can sneeze at but everybody will like to listen to. Want more inputs? Consider:
Magnum Dynalab FT101A tuner ($875). Magnum Dynalab specializes in tuners, and this is their cheapest model. Analog tuning means no presets, but the ability to tune off-center often helps get a cleaner sound.
Sony TC-KA2ES cassette deck ($450). Three heads, Dolby B/C/S/H, and the classy ES styling. Sony cut the price by $100 recently, so this is either a bargain or the last gasp of a dying medium.
Sony MXD-D3 minidisc deck ($360). No portable is included, but the deck is more substantial than the bundle version.
Complete system price: $5,285.
Performance System: The Performance system is what I would buy for myself, if I 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 than the 971, but this way you'll never have to wonder.
Acurus RL-11 preamp ($850). 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 $850 preamps stay in business. (See my review in Issue 68.)
Marantz MA-700 power amp (200 wpc mono $1,000/pr). The big brother to the MA500, which was reviewed by KWN & WCH in Issue 58, with more power and a certified high-end design (but not the usual high-end premium price). If you think home theater may ever cross your horizon, these amps are a great building-block idea. Mix and match with the MA-500 for surround sound, and if one breaks you've still got music.
Legacy Classic speakers ($2,700). Reviewed by TL in Issue 64 and by KE in Issue 68. 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.
The basic system costs $5,850 and should provide sound quality unequaled by much more expensive systems. If the bank balance is still positive, the following would fit in very nicely:
Magnum Dynalab Etude tuner ($1,450). An upgraded version of the FT101A; without a head-to-head comparison I'm not sure this is worth the premium, but it's MD's classic design in its final form.
Sony TC-KA3ES cassette deck ($800). This adds dual-capstan drive to the KA2ES specs and is the best unit Sony makes.
Sony MDS-JA20ES minidisc deck ($700). Same 20-bit encoding as the cheaper unit but more recording functionality and the classy ES styling.
At $8,800 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 phono 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 ultraCbut while I can drool over it, I really can't recommend it:
Rotel RCD-991 compact disc player ($1,300). Same as before. I was going to recommend the Parasound C/DP-2000 Ultra that KWN reviewed in Issue 75, but it has disappeared from their website.
Legacy Streamline Preamplifier ($1,600). Top notch sound, exquisite build and feel, and the best remote control functionality in the high end. My all-time favorite preamp with new styling (see KWN's review in #80). But only the digital readout for volume/balance adds value over the Acurus and the price is nearly double.
Bryston 4B-ST power amp (250 wpc $2,400). 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). Reviewed by KWN in Issues 54 and 79. The best sound available for larger rooms.
The basic system costs almost double the basic Performance system and won't sound that much better. But why stop there?
Accuphase T-109V FM tuner ($3,300). The finest FM tuner available. Of course, you could buy the entire playlist of most stations for a lot less, and get full CD-quality sound?
Sony TC-KA3ES cassette deck ($800). Tandberg and Nakamichi both seem to have abandoned high-end cassette decks, so the top Sony is the ne plus ultra.
Sony MDS-JA555ES minidisc deck ($1,100). Sony justifies the more than 50% premium by claiming 24-bit encodingCbut tests show that production equipment rarely exceeds 20-bits in the real world so I don't know whether this will really outperform the MDS-JA20ES.
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 almost double the price, so we have clearly passed the point of absurdly diminishing returns.
Tom Krehbiel (TK)
I'm overjoyed with the B&K ST3030 Series II amplifier that has been the heart of my system for just about a year. Finally I have what seems to me to be all the totally neutral and transparent two-channel power I could possibly need.
I'm less pleased with the Philips CDR-765 audio CD recorder. I keep finding little quirks that I have to work around. But in general, it does the job and I highly recommend any audio CD recorder over using a CD-ROM writer in a computer to make audio CD recordings.
If the B&K amplifier is the heart of my system, its soul is found in the pair of Soundwave Fidelity Soliloquy speakers that happily accept every watt the amplifier throws into them and turns those watts into a glorious musical experience. These have been in my system for more than 10 years now and I've never been tempted to turn them in for anything else. You won't find these in any audio salon. The company dissolved a few years ago. But the idea that makes them work so well is amply documented in designer Jim Gala's patent. It's #4,881,265 and you can look it up online (http://www.uspto.gov/patft). The information it contains is sufficient for someone with basic loudspeaker design knowledge and better than basic woodworking skills to construct a system using Gala's highly effective "apex" concept. By the way, Soundwave Fidelity eventually turned into Vero Research and the Soliloquy model metamorphosed into the Point Source 2.0 and Point Source 3.0 systems. All still used the patented Gala design.
I'll join the crowd that likes the new B&W LM-1 Leisure Monitor speakers. They've replaced the Rock Solid (also from B&W) mini-monitors in my kitchen and now I hear smoother, deeper bass and better dispersed highs.
Finally, I'll enter a provisional recommendation for Perpetual Technologies' P1A DSP Correction Engine. The P1A comes box comes as a jitter-reducing, interpolating upsampler that is supposed to upgrade the sound of current CDs to that of 24-bit/96 kHz recordings. That's just fine, but the P1A has much more interesting potential. Software add-ons turn it into a digital system for correcting both loudspeaker and room anomalies. I liked what I heard from the workings of the P1A in the Perpetual Technologies demo room at T.H.E Show (in Las Vegas at the same time as the CES). But I believe that it needs some conceptual honing. Keep an eye and both ears on the progress of this product. I know I will.
Tom Lyle (TL)
Similar to my last staff picks, I will focus on equipment that I use in my own system rather than what I would recommend in theory. Of course, there is some discussion of some less expensive alternatives where applicable.
Speakers: When it comes to speakers, I occasionally become infected with the upgrade bug. That's not to say I'm not happy with the Legacy Classics I've been using for the last few years. But as I upgrade the front end of the system, every once in a while I start thinking that it might be time for new speakers. The problem is, every time I investigate alternatives to the Classics I realize it's going to take a lot more coinage to improve the sound in my 14 x 18 room. Sure, I've heard many good sounding speakers within the Legacys' price range, but none that are better. Similarly priced speakers that are decent, at best, would be a move sideways rather than up. Therefore, models from Aerial, Dynaudio, and ProAc that I occasionally lust after are almost twice the price, and for now I'm going to have to wait on them.
When I mention to other audiophiles that I'm using Legacy speakers they usually respond with something akin to a "hmmmph?" When I ask whether they have actually beard Legacy Classics, 99% of the time the answer is along the lines of, "No, but I couldn't imagine them sounding as good as manufacturer X's speakers." I think the main problem with these speakers is that they are only available factory direct. But as far as dynamic speakers are concerned I've heard none anywhere near their price range that are as good.
After quite a long time, I still think that the best affordable small speakers I've ever heard are the PSB Mini Stratus ($1,049/pair, plus $199 for optional stands, reviewed in Issues 58 and 65). As far as super-affordable speakers go, the best I've heard are the PSB Alpha ($299). I'm sure there are others out there, but these Lilliputian black boxes are amazing for their price and size. I owned a pair for quite a while when I had a small system set up in the bedroom.
Analog Front End: I get a little tired of reading about the failings of LPs and the superiority of the digital medium. But no matter what anyone might tell you, I am not a Luddite (on second thought maybe I am--I've never even tried a multi-channel home-theater system, but I digress). I have quite a large collection of CDs, and I listen to them (almost) as much as LPs. But when I buy a new LP, especially from an audiophile label, and even from most mass-market releases, the vinyl is very quiet and the sound is great. If I have a choice when buying a new release, and especially something from the back catalog, I almost always opt for the LP.
But why do some complain about the ticks, pops, and noise, even on their new albums? I'd be lying if I said that vinyl is as silent as digital, but it certainly isn't as bad as many make it out to be. No doubt many have gotten used to the dead silent background of digital. But it also might be the fault of the playback systems that are being used more than anything else. I admit that my analog set-up is better than most folks, but dragging a 15- or 20-year-old direct-drive turntable with its integrated tonearm arm out of the closet, hooking it up to a high-end system, and expecting bliss is more than a bit naive. Even low-price belt-drives will give better results, although even those turntables will not perform adequately if they aren't properly set up.
I've had almost as good sound as my current system in regards to noise rejection when I was using a much more modest AR ES-1/Grace 707 combination. If one wants to check out the pleasures of analog playback for the first time, or one wants to get back into the game, 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, the ARES-1 (reviewed way back in Issue 26), which came with a Grace 707 tonearm. I bought the package for about $250 in the late '80s.
If you'd rather buy a new turntable, the Rotel RD-955, which 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, Music Hall, and Sumiko, come to mind, but none of which I've auditioned. For a second system in my basement I bought a used belt-driven Nikko NP-500 for $59(!), put a decent but affordable Grado cartridge on it, and it sounds excellent.
Admittedly, the Triplaner tonearm I use is exorbitantly priced. At over $2500, for most it is not an option. If I wasn't so lucky and didn't get such a good deal on it, I would probably not have even considered it. But admittedly, the second-hand Sumiko Premier MMT that it replaced was pretty good, considering its modest price. I was about to upgrade the arm to a Rega RB-300 ($349), 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. If 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 then for quite a while used the Benz-Micro Glider ($750). After wearing out two Gliders (which lasted about 2 years each), I used a similar Benz-Micro, the H2.0 ($1200), for a short time, and now use a lower-output moving-coil, the Lyra Clavis DC ($1895). However, as the price increases on cartridges, rapidly also does the diminishing return.
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) is a fine place to start.
Digital Front End: These days, the difference in sound quality between CD players is getting very, very small. I guess it depends how important these minute differences are 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 have been 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 is that sometimes it refuses to read a disc, and I have to open and close the drawer a few times until it does. Plus, ergonomics are practically non-existent. But using a remote takes care of that problem with no difficulty. 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 in assuming they still would.
Lately, I've been experimenting with a few alternatives and additions to my set-up. The Pioneer VD-525 DVD player (with a street price of less than $300) I've used as a transport improves the sound slightly, but does nothing to better it to the point where I would consider it significant. There are a few upsampling devices now available that that are inserted between the transport and the D/A that I'm going to try, and I will get back to you on those.
As far a SACD and DVD audio are concerned, I'm sure they sound great, but: I already have over 1500 regular CDs, and that collection keeps growing. Plus, I'm not ready to pay $20-25 per CD, and the majority of the titles available that I would consider buying I already have in another format that is still viable.
Preamplifier: It has been said that the best preamp is no preamp at all. It is simply a component that should be for convenience only--to switch between upstream components, impedance matching, to provide a bit of gain and control the volume, etc. That said, I've found little difference in sound between solid-state units. A well-built unit with the features one requires should do just fine. The importance in the small differences in their sound will have to be considered by the individual making the purchase, and it would be hypocritical of me to chastise anyone for putting one unit ahead of the other because of these slight differences. Though if I were looking to buy a solid state preamp and was low on cash I would seriously consider models from Parasound or AVA. Many models of both have received many positive reviews in T$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. For almost the entire '90s I used conrad-johnson preamps, first a PV-11 (now discontinued), and then for the longest time a PV-12a ($2,500 including a phono stage, $2,295 for just the line stage). I'm waiting for shipment of an Audible Illusions Modulus 3a ($2,495 to $3,265 depending on options). From my short auditions of this preamp, I'm in for quite a pleasant listening experience. It's likely going to be my new reference. For a less expensive alternative, one can get almost as good a sound as the more expensive conrad-johnson preamps from their much less expensive PV10 ($1,295 with a phono stage, $995 without).
Power Amplifier: I am currently using a 250 wpc Krell KAV-250a (reviewed in Issue 75). 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 ssue 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 125wpc, 400 wpc bridged, are excellent choices. If one insists on a tubed power amp, the Rogue Audio Eighty-Eight ($1,395, reviewed in ssue 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.
Although the MIT served me well for quite some time, the PS Audio P300 ($995) blows it away. It synthesizes pure AC, and I could waste some serious space writing about its benefits. The downside is that it only has enough power to treat the front end, but what a difference it makes! Without doubt, It has made the greatest improvement in sound to my system than any other "accessory" I've ever tried.
Besides the MIT, other power conditioners I've used that are 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 Issue 45), although its effects 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)
High-end Tuner: 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 four years.
Real-world Tuner: 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. Solid; not flashy. A Sensible value.
Phono Cartridge: 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 four 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.
Integrated Amplifier: 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 three years, and I've heard nothing better so far.
Budget Speakers: PSB Alpha A/V and Alpha Subwoofer w/stands ($777) The Alpha A/Vs alone are $249, 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 back in 1998 (now discontinued), but the PSB Alpha A/Vs are far better, with a broader, smoother response, although a bit forward on top. The smaller Alpha Minis are also a good bet, they simply lack the last half-octave of bass provided by the Alpha A/Vs.
Budget Headphones: 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 20-40 miles away. But, you need to be able to move it around for the best results, and don't go wild with the gain control. Offers less successful help for the AM band.
Budget Receiver: 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. The logical source for used equipment are the popular auction sites, such as ebay.com. However, the prices aren't always that good, since you end up competing with the whole country to buy the product. Therefore, also consider non-auction sources, such as recycler.com, or your local classified ads.
DVD/CD Players: Apex AD-600A. It's hard to argue with a DVD player that can play any DVD from any region in the world, play back 13 hours of MP3 music off of a single CD-R, and has a Macrovision-defeat modeCall for only $179. It also sounds very good in CD playback mode. All the information you want on this unit is at http://www.nerd-out.com/apex/, but the unit itself is available from Circuit City.
Turntables: 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 (laaudiofile.com). 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.
Preamplifiers: Dynaco PAS-3x Preamplifier. It is not uncommon to be able to pick up a used PAS-3x in good condition for about $50 to $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.
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.
NAD 1020. Based on the preamp section of the 3020, with its Tom Holman-inspired phonograph section (similar to the designs of the Apt-Holman preamp and Advent Model 300 preamp section). Good for systems with turntables. Around $125 street price.
Amplifiers/Receivers: Dynaco Stereo 70 Amplifier (the original). The Dynaco Stereo 70 is carved out of the traditional tube school of sound--i.e., 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 may be the largest selling integrated amplifier of all time. The 3020 originally sold for $175, and incorporated a Tom Holman-inspired phonograph 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.
Sony STR-DE845 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 driving 4-ohm loads (rare in this price range) plus a preamp-level subwoofer output, S-video connections, and built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. $400 (street price).
Yamaha HTR-5240 Receiver. Yamaha is the other mass market manufacturer still building receivers that can handle a 4-ohm load. The 5240 is the cheapest Yamaha unit with built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. It also sports S-video connections and puts out a pretty nice sound. $400 (street price).
Tuners: 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.
Recording Equipment: Sony TC-WE835S. There is still a place for the cassette deck in this digital world. The 835S a worthy successor to the Sony decks that keep getting top-rated in the consumer magazines. This one, 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. Its 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.
Speakers: Optimus PRO-LX5 II. These Radio Shack models with their Linaeum tweeters provide an open, airy sound for home theater. Wait for Radio Shack's periodic half-price speaker sale, wherein you'll be able to pick these up (as well as the timbre-matching PRO-CS5 II center speaker) for $75 each. A subwoofer is needed to balance out the sound.
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, you can't go much lower 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 Harmon International (JBL's parent company) hired Floyd Toole (of Canda'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/pr, 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 $1,295 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.
Thomas A. Nousaine (TAN)
My recommended components are limited to products with great function for the price and/or performance you cannot attain in another product.
Surround Processor: Lexicon MC-1 Processor: Unsurpassed surround decoding and flexibility. Makes all your 2-channel recordings brand new. Enough digital and analog inputs to satisfy even me. Great backlit remote. Very expensive ($6,000) but as a full function pre-amp and surround processor offers maximal performance unavailable elsewhere at any price.
Power Amplifiers: In most circumstances, all that have enough power and low enough output impedance to drive your speakers.
Crown Macro 5000VZ power amplifier: Only needed for special circumstances. Completely stable into any load. Will sink 10 kWatts. Otherwise a perfectly ordinary, but expensive amplifier. Best used in adjacent room for critical listening because of transformer buzz and fan noise. For those who aren't familiar with my amplifier listening tests, every amplifier used within its power or load limit will sound identical. This one is special ONLY because it has met no speaker that taxes its limits. ($4,200)
Preamps and control device: All, as long as they have a good remote control and cover your particular control amplifier function needs.
Electronic Crossover: Paradigm X-30. Full-function subwoofer outboard crossover for $160.
DVD Players: Get one NOW!
CD Players: All that meet your feature and control needs. I have to have remote volume control. Track and A-B repeat. That isn't to say that you couldn't possibly find one that could be identified in a controlled listening test, but you'd have to spend lots of money to find someone who could screw up such a wonderful format, or who would package it with a practically free analog section that reduced performance to any audible level.
Transducers: Earthworks M-30 measurement microphone: Excellent microphone at relatively reasonable price. Still not cheap.
Paradigm Active 20 loudspeaker: Powered speaker with tone control function. Has one of best off-axis measurements I've seen. ($1650/pr)
Paradigm Servo-15 Subwoofer. Excellent performance, style, finish at reasonable cost ($1500).
PSB Image 1B: Incredibly flat 5.25-inch 2-way speaker at $270 a pair.
PSB Alpha A/V: Great magnetically shielded 6.5-inch 2-way. Makes one wonder why anyone would consider spending more ($250/pr).
JBL N24AW: Patio speaker that is hi-fi in every way except that the
4-inch woofer limits low frequency performance. At $250/pr this is a fantastically good-sounding speaker you can leave outside all winter.
Infinity Intermezzo System: Best system I've ever measured. Pricey.
Hsu Subwoofers: Superior performance in all price categories with style/finish tradeoff.
Hsu VTF-2 Subwoofer: At $500 competes with products costing two or three times as much.
Mission AS700: Ditto the Hsu at $500. Limited feature set. Make sure it meets your integration needs. Will integrate with most systems.
Monsoon MM-1000 multimedia Speakers: Excellent sounding planar magnetic-common woofer speaker system. Discounts readily available. List $299.
Velodyne Servo Subwoofers: At every size they own the performance street. The downside is price.
DIY Speakers: Avatar Shiva 12-inch woofer: At $125 a real bargain.
Hsu ASW 1201: At $99 a 12-inch steal.
Audiomobile MASS 1201: Longest-stroking 12-inch driver we've seen. $299 each
TC Sounds TN15: $200 delivers a 15-inch driver that kicks real butt.
Audio Concepts SV-12: Old monster DV-12 no longer available. This one works as well and costs the same. Approx. $125
Other Stuff: FunTac: You've seen the "Blu Tac" recommendations at $10. FunTac is the same stuff (even same color) sold at your grocery store for about $1.50. Reusable adhesive good for sticking anything anywhere for temporary duty.
Sears Nut-Driver kit: Handle fits five-sided multiway binding post speaker terminals. You get the nut-drivers as a bonus.
Pomona dual banana plugs: Roughly $5 each allow easy, reliable speaker connections with 0.75-inch spacing. Don't buy them unless your speakers have the 0.75-inch spacing. Many binding posts now come with plastic inserts to avoid the European mains spacing problem. Just pry the inserts out and toss 'em.
Bruce W. Vigon (BWV)
Most of our readers know that I do not review as many different products as do our other esteemed reviewers. Nevertheless, I do try to keep my eyes and ears on what are good sounding audio benchmarks. Since I've been primarily reviewing speakers, I'm going to confine my remarks to that product category. Some of these may not be current in manufacturers' lines, but may be available used.
NEAR15M: Diminutive speakers with a better than average performance for the price. Excellent imaging and dynamic performance. Can be a bit frazzled sounding if pushed really hard, but very good bass for the size of the woofer and the fact they are ported. Can be driven to high levels with very modestly powered amps. Unfortunately, the company is out of the home speaker business.
Legacy Studios: Currently my reference speakers. Well defined if not overly deep and powerful bass. Solid front to back and left-right imaging. Airy and delicate in the upper frequencies. Not quite as good as the best ribbon tweeters, but very good indeed. Can sound a bit hard if played very loud on program material with a less solid bottom end. Very amp-friendly. Has a rear switch to roll off bass below 50Hz for mating with subwoofers. Does very well on smaller scale jazz or classical material.
Vandersteen 2Ci: Not auditioned in my system, but seemingly offering good value for money. Perhaps one of the best balanced top to bottom reproduction capabilities in the price range. Full bass but providing well articulated upper mids and imaging. Easy to forget you are listening to speakers.
Ohm Walsh 200, Mark II: Best bass reproduction I've heard in my system. Good mid-range articulation with solid center imaging. Somewhat lacking in dynamics, especially for a large speaker. Not as airy or open in the treble as either the Legacy Studios or the Diablo Model 6.
Diablo Acoustics Model 6: Smallish two-way design in a ceramic composite cabinet that manages to sound like a much bigger system. Bass power and quality is excellent and the imaging superb. Slightly softer in the treble than the Legacy Studios, resulting in a more forgiving overall performance. A full review is forthcoming.
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