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STAFF PICKS.

In Issue 63 we published a "Staff Picks" compilation, following it up in Issues 65 and 67 with additions by contributors who a bit tardy in getting their lists together. Now that we have the staff up to speed, we have been able to assemble a really thorough listing of our reviewers' advice and recommendations, and we plan to update this listing on an annual basis from now on. Not only will readers gain some valuable insights into equipment, but they will also gain valuable insights into our contributors' preferences and prejudices, insights that can be most helpful when reading future reviews. In alphabetical order, then, here are most of our contributors with their picks for 1998:

Steven G. Baird (SGB)

The most fascinating aspect of an article meant to describe a great-sounding system at a reasonable price is that it gives the writer an opportunity to put aside a modicum of objectivity and feed his own ego. Many of us who write this kind of article would consciously deny this little foible, but I will not. The love of good sound and music is not something entirely objective, and I confess to the reader that most of my preferences, even those outside the realm of audio, are not always made with scientific accuracy as a priority. I prefer red wines to white ones for no particular reason except taste. I like my steak broiled medium-rare despite recent admonitions to cook it longer for health reasons. I like cushion-soled shoes even though their appearance doesn't seem to match well with $500 suits, and so on. Objectivity has its place in human interaction, but it has little to do with what makes human beings individually comfortable or satisfied with the material things in their lives.

The objectivity applied here pertains to the availability and price of the items in a sensible system. A reasonable total system price is certainly something completely subjective, so I have decided to set a price of $2,500 as an amount that most audiophiles can afford. As much as I would like to refer to certain discontinued audio components as a bargain for the price, there are many who do not feel comfortable in seeking out used items for sale. I am not one of those persons, but I am sympathetic to those who take that stance. Although many audiophiles have embraced multi-channel home theater, I have decided to limit these recommendations to conventional two-channel stereo, as I have not had any positive experiences with home theater so far. All of the items below were current at the time the article was written.

I prefer vinyl to CD at least half of the time, and as more and more audiophile releases in the LP format appear -- thanks to the vinyl renaissance -- the analog record player becomes ever more viable to the savvy music lover. After all, the sound source is the most important component in your audio system. Companies such as Classic Records, Acoustic Sounds, DCC, Blue Note, MCA, EMI and even Sony -- just to name those that immediately come to mind -- now giving us heavy 180 gram pressings that are meticulously mastered by some of the best engineers in the business. I invite you to compare the Classic Records vinyl release of Kind of Blue on the sensibly-priced NAD 533 turn-table to the new Sony SBM CD on any of the Sensible Choice CD players you've read about. Chances are good that you will prefer the analog sound in this and many other comparisons. At $399, the NAD turntable is a surprisingly good value for money, performing nearly as well as turntables costing thousands of dollars (no joke!). Install the Shure V15VxMR phono cartridge ($250) on it, and you have the beginnings of a superb audio system.

At the heart of any audio system is the electronic amplification needed to drive a pair of quality speakers. Unlike other writers who deem the electronics least important, I am of the opinion that the amplifier has a sound of its own, and is just as important as the other components. Since the latest fad among manufacturers has been to offer integrated amplifiers, it gives me great pleasure to mention the AMC 3030 here. Talk about cutting edge: I wrote my review of the 3030 a full three years ago (July '94) at a time when integrated units were available only from the mass marketers. Now that the audiophile icons are cashing in on this market niche with high-priced units that are missing essential features, the 3030's time has come. A little short on power, this 30 watt, EL-34 tube-based, unit is best used in average-sized listening rooms. It has the deliciously sweet tube midrange and high end that sparkles Where transistors cannot, AND it has its Own phono section already included -- a must for the audiophile who senses, as I do, that digital Should, for the most part, be confined to COmputers, and only rarely heard in audio systems. At $895, it is a true bargain.

I am still quite enamored with the Sound Dynamics R-616 loudspeakers. These little honeys are a bit more forward in the top end than API's famous 300ti, but they display an enormity and power that the 300ti just can't duplicate. When I reviewed them a little more than a year ago, I wrote that they had become one of my favorite speakers of all time, and they still are. There is imaging and depth in the R-616 that surpasses many other speakers even at higher price points, and a sense of midrange Smoothness and transparency I never thought possible from cones and domes This speaker sets the standard at its mere $650/pair price, and begs comparison with API's more costly Mirage speakers. To do appreciably better be prepared to spend $6,000 on Rosinante's Evolution Signatures.

Well, I managed to spend $2,194 on this sensibly-priced system, so I've got $306 left in my budget. This amount could buy you one of the compact disc players that others have reviewed so favorably in The Sensible Sound. Since this is MY article, however, I am more than merely apprehensive about all of the under $300 CD units I have heard, none of which are sensible choices from our other contributors. Instead, feel free to spend this money on the Other things you will need for this bargain-priced musical system, such as speaker cables, record cleaning fluid and brushes, or even a backup stylus. All of that will still leave you with about $200 that you can use to buy some of the new vinyl releases I have mentioned. Better yet, take your spouse out to dinner, and have a really good time.

Addendum: Feeling confident just a few weeks ago that the items I had listed in my article could not be surpassed by anything else, I sent KWN the final draft. I have, however, a new pair of Sound Dynamics loudspeakers recently sent to me that is superior to both the 300ti and R-616 in significant ways (this may also signal the unavailability of its antecedents in many markets). Yet, this speaker from API's new RTS line has much in common with its two predecessors.

The Sound Dynamics RTS-9 is a floor-standing unit selling at the same price point as the R-616, and having approximately the same dimensions. My first impressions are that it inches past the R-616 by providing an ever-so-slightly clearer midrange, tighter, more controlled bass, and a more linear but equally smooth tweeter. The caveat here is that these are first impressions based on just two weeks of listening, but I suspect they will withstand further scrutiny quite well. I am not prepared to dethrone the R-616 as one of my favorite speakers of all time just yet, but recommend to prospective buyers who have the advantage of listening to both to do so before making any final purchase decisions. A review is forthcoming.

Joseph M. Cierniak (JMC)

Rather than a nitty-gritty listing of specific components I will stay with making general recommendations about the best way for audiophiles to maximize their most precious and limited resource (courtesy of Tom Nousaine) ... money! What follows are some do's and don'ts to help with the maximization process.

1. Speaker cables/Interconnects: Determine what you need in the way of interconnects and cables. Using the Radio Shack catalog as a pricing guideline, calculate the total cost of these items. Purchase these items from wherever you choose, but don't pay more than the Radio Shack cost; at most, keep the total cost to no more than 10% in excess of the Radio Shack price.

2. Amplifier: Purchase an amplifier that gives you the most watts for your money. By most watts for your money I am talking cost per watt. For example, suppose tube amplifier J costs $550 and puts out 20 watts per channel into 4 ohms. That's $27.50 per watt per channel or $13.75 per watt calculated at 40 watts for both channels. Solid state amplifier A at $1,750 puts out 450 watts per channel into 4 ohms. That's $3.89 per watt per channel or $1.94 per watt calculated at 900 watts for both channels. I would suggest that you go with solid state and to stay away from the tube amplifiers. Tube amplifiers are insanely expensive (cost per watt), have very limited output capability, and are (maintenance) cost-intensive. Plugging in new tubes periodically makes for a fond remembrance of things past, but it's a costly ritual as the tube supply becomes less, less, less and tube pricing goes up, up, up!

3. Preamplifier: Determine what features/functions you want on a preamp by checking out various preamps in person and via manufacturer's product literature. Purchase the preamp that gives you the most desired features/functions for the least money. Remote control operation has almost become standard. You might want to shy away from remote control operation where the device selection switching and other functions (volume, balance, bass, treble, etc.) are done via active electronic circuitry; mechanical relays for switching and motor-driven controls make for a cleaner signal path (and minimize the possibility of total destruction of the preamp and associated amplifier if a component should fail) by isolating the control signals from the preamp's signal circuitry).

I have no problem with tube preamps. Unlike their big brothers (tube amplifiers) tube preamps are relatively low-power devices. If you go the tube preamp route check for excessive microphonics (it can drive one crazy!) by rapping the preamp case with your knuckles.

4. CD Player: The two-piece CD player (CD drive and outboard D/A converter) should be avoided. The one-piece CD player -- with the CD drive and D/A converter integrated into a single box -- is the way to go. The integration of these two functions results in a cost savings and better performance specs compared to a similarly priced two-piece unit. I will go one step further and suggest a carousel player (rather than the discpack-type player). They're convenient and keep the annoying disc changes to a minimum.

5. Speakers: Oh boy, what can one say about speakers that hasn't already been said! This is one area where I will make an exception and talk brand name rather than just general guidelines. If you are in the market for speakers costing $2,000 or less the Paradigm Studio 100s are a better buy than the purchase price of Alaska! They have no serious weaknesses, do everything well, and without strain. Their bass response goes down to a "useful" 20 Hz! They are one of the few speakers systems I could live with sans a subwoofer. I would suggest that you give these speakers a hard listen before spending more than $2,000 for a speaker system. At a modest $1,800 per pair they prove that good engineering, solid construction, and a no-frills approach to sound reproduction will win out over insanely expensive and cult voodoo speaker design beliefs. The final result is speaker system that embarrasses systems costing much, much, more than the cost of the 100s. These speakers are number one on my list for "Sensible Choice."

6. Source material (CDs): Here's where you should be spending a goodly portion of your limited resource (money). Have you heard about the guy with a $20,000 system and fewer than 50 CDs in his collection? Get my point, huh? Speaking of CDs, I recommend the Naxos label. A most Sensible choice when it comes to CD pricing. Here's great sound, large and varied selection, and excellent performances by lesser-known but competent ensembles, conductors, and virtuosi. At an average cost of $5.00 per disc (retail!) Naxos is making money and you're saving money! The major labels should be charged with unarmed robbery!

Final thoughts: If you plan to eventually go the "Home Theater" route you might do some planning ahead; such as purchasing a 5-channel amplifier or receiver and being amplifier/receiver ready when you go the 5-channel route. And you can still play all those 2-channel CDs. Like it or not, "Home Theater" is no longer the wave of the future but the wave of the present.

And finally ... let your own ears be the final arbitrator in determining what to buy or what not to buy. If you think you hear differences because of green ink, expensive cables, wooden pucks, demagnetized CDs, bricks, etc., then fine. Spend your money on these things. But ... your limited resource (money) becomes more limited when you spend it on things not directly related to the sound chain.

David M. Doll (DMD)
Virtual Listening Systems Auri
Virtual Listening Systems Cyclone 3D
Koss ESP 950 headphones
Mitsubishi 45" Tabletop rear projection TV
Millenium 246 DTS decoder/preamplifier
Yamaha DVD 1000


Kenneth M. Duke (KMD)

Speakers:

Eminent Technology LFT-VIII ($1,500) Reviewed in #47. Hybrid speaker with dipolar, push-pull panel/ribbon mids and trebles; dynamic cone driver bass; excellent integration of the two driver types; open image; smooth natural sound with slight metallic flavor to upper mids and trebles when played loudly.

Snell D ($1,799) Reviewed in #53. Excellent bass into the low 30s; excellent mids, trebles, and imaging; good value.

Definitive Technology BP 2002 ($2,000) Reviewed in #63. Full range speaker including the deep bass, neutral mids and trebles, good detail; built-in woofer amp with level control permits tailoring bass to the listening room; excellent value.

B&W 804 ($2,200) Reviewed in #50. Big, real image; handles power well for a modest-sized speaker; excellent detail; modest size; bass to 50 Hz.

Snell B-minor ($3,699) Reviewed in #50. Very good bass down to mid-30s; excellent mids and trebles; power speaker.

Gradient Revolution ($3,995) Reviewed in #54. Sounds less like a speaker and more like music than most; outstanding imaging and presence; detailed mids and trebles; neutral balance; excellent bass to 50 Hz.

Duntech Statesman ($4,000) Reviewed in #56. Neutral sounding from bass through mids and a bit polite-sounding or laid back in the trebles; bass to about 50 Hz; plays loud very well; very dynamic.

NHT 3.3 ($4,300) Reviewed in #52. Excellent power speaker with bass into the 20s; revealing, neutral mids and trebles; precise imaging but a bit less open-sounding than the best.

Amplifiers:

AVA ST-70i ($595 rebuild of your ST-70) Reviewed in #51. Good if you want tubes but lacks the classic tube sound -- neutral with reasonable extension in bass and treble; reliable; low power at 25 watts/channel.

Carver A-400X ($685) Reviewed in #58. Powerful, neutral, decent construction, inexpensive -- excellent value.

Legacy High Current ($1,795) Reviewed in #56. Powerful, well-built, essentially invisible (no apparent sonic signature) power amp.

Integrated Amplifiers:

ARCAM Alpha 7 ($449) Review forthcoming. Small, lightweight, svelte. Sound is undistinguishable from the best when used within its power envelope (40 watts or so). A very sensibly priced high-end integrated amplifier.

NAD 317 ($799) Review to come. Classic NAD charcoal styling housing their 214 basic amp and a remote controlled preamp. Excellent, versatile "no-sound," powerful 80 watt integrated amp. Need more power? Then bridge the 317's amp section, add an outboard 214, and you'll have 240 watts/ channel to play with.

Preamplifiers:

A VA Omega III ($645) Reviewed in #57. Detailed, natural sound; well-built; very versatile in the "EC" version; progressively less versatile in SL and RB models but these two models offer the same sound at less cost; excellent value.

AVA SuperPas Omega ($495) Reviewed in #49. Similar to the current 4i preamp; extended bass and treble, lets the music flow though without coloration; tubes with solid-state output buffers, can drive long interconnects; 3D imaging.

Kevin East (KE)

Integrated Amplifier:

Onkyo Integra A-807 ($600). Reviewed in #58. For power, options, and clean sound, you'll have to go to separates to beat this underrated, value component. It's been replaced by the A-9711, which hasn't been auditioned and boasts a hefty price increase -- the 9711 is $850. Readers report finding the A-807 with aftermarket vendors at a substantial discount.

CD Players:

Onkyo Integra DXC-606 ($489). Six-disc carousel changer reviewed in #56. Loads of convenience features, digital out, and great sound 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 #58. Lord, how I love this exquisite one-box player, a worthy successor to the legendary Rotel 955AX.

Preamplifiers:

Parasound P/HP-850 ($395). Reviewed in #62. Hard to beat for a budget separate. Wonderfully silky phono section.

Adcom GTP-350 ($400). Reviewed in #64. No phono section; but a serviceable tuner and crystal clear controls makes this budget separate a winner in its class.

AVA Omega III EC ($649). Reviewed by KMD and KWN in #57. A killer, affordable, high-end preamp. In my view the standard by which any preamp should be measured. A caveat: the RB ("real basic") version, at $299 plus $90/each for tape buffers and a phono section, loses the value wars to the Parasound and Adcom.

Amplifiers:

Parasound HCA-600 ($395). Reviewed in #62. The best looking, best performing entry level amp I've heard -- period.

Adcom GFA-5300 ($400). Reviewed in #64. Not as sexy or as versatile as the Parasound, but runs loads cooler and packs an extra 20 wpc to boot.

Sunfire ($2,175). Reviewed by JMC and WCH in #56. Pricey, but it does s-o-o-o-o-o much. The current and voltage-source outputs introduce an amazing range of options into any listening environment. I have yet to encounter the speaker load it can't handle.

Speakers:

Dana Audio Model 1 ($199/pair) and Sub 1 ($295). Reviewed by BB in #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.

B&W DM302 ($250/pair). Reviewed in #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.

Audio Advancements Maxeen ($2,700/ pair). Reviewed in #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 sound-stage than the Legacy Classic.

Legacy Classic ($2,650/pair). Reviewed by TL in #64 and by me in #68. I fully agree with what TL said. Awesome value for the price.

Howard Ferstler (HF)

As I noted in my last "Staff Picks" installment, I am not comfortable when it comes to making detailed contributions to a suggested-components list. I am reluctant to construct a recommended products list of components I have formally reviewed or heard in dealer showrooms or in friends' installations, even items that I rather liked, because there might be other versions out there that I have not checked out that perform better, and possibly cost less. You would have to have rigorously compared a lot more products than I have done to create a truly fair "list" of recommended components. At any rate, then, for products I have reviewed, I recommend that the reader look over the specific reviews to judge on the suitability of the items for their situation. Instead of a lot of specifics (although I have scattered a few here and there in my text), I will again offer some guidelines that might come in handy for individuals looking to make genuine improvements in their systems. I believe they can be useful, whether actually shopping for gear, or simply reading test reports in audio magazines. It is important to remember:

(1) 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. Yes, a few receivers, nearly all top-line models (but still cheaper than a lot of separates), have wonderful surround-sound capabilities. However, if you want top-drawer, home-theater and surround performance and really useful flexibility, it will be necessary to spend a fair amount of cash for high-end gear in the Lexicon, Yamaha, Fosgate, Meridian, etc., category.

(2) 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; although many non-certified models sound just as good. Usually, any transistor amp producing 100 watts, or more, per channel should be adequate for most people, particularly if a powered subwoofer is going to handle the low range.

(3) That a reasonably low-priced CD player made by a mainstream company will often have an advantage over an expensive one made by anybody else, including one made by the same company, because if it breaks after a year or two, the owner can simply replace it with another cheap model -- whereas getting an expensive model repaired can often be a pain in the neck. If you want to go upscale in the CD player department, get a DVD player. Then, you will get both great audio and great video.

(4) That for speakers, wire is wire, provided it is large enough to carry the current required and displays no oddball capacitive or inductive characteristics; the best place to buy speaker wire is at a hardware store and if runs of less than 10 feet are contemplated, and the speakers are rated at not much less than 8 ohms, 16-gauge is fine. If you are obsessed with getting wire that looks formidable, Radio Shack has some nice 12-gauge stuff, as does Belden. Note also, that some hardware emporiums will occasionally have decent speaker wire in the 14- to 12-gauge category that costs not much less than ordinary lamp cord. Low-voltage, outdoor-lamp wire in 14-gauge sizes is also available.

(5) That if cheap interconnects did not work OK, manufacturers would not include them in their shipping cartons; the engineers that design and build the stuff (people much more technically intelligent than any of the more esoteric interconnect manufacturers) would not stand for such antics, given that even the expensive cables are often surprisingly cheap to produce. If you want exotic-looking cable, Radio Shack has some nice gold-plated-terminal items in 1-meter, 6-foot, 12-foot, and 20-foot lengths.

(6) 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 have tested both Hsu and Velodyne models, and can attest to their quality. However, I am sure that a few other companies make models that will satisfy most users as well as what those guys make. For all-out performance, though, it looks like it would be hard to beat the Velodyne F1800 and the Hsu TN1220, both of which I thought enough of to purchase. If your room is not too large, I found that the Velodyne FSR-12 also worked quite well -- well enough for me to end up purchasing one of them for my smallest system, even though I had never initially intended to do so until I heard the system in action.

(7) That if you get a subwoofer, it is almost mandatory that you also obtain a good measurement device of some kind to assist in integrating it with your system. A simple sound-level meter can do OK, but I have found that a 1/3-octave RTA, like the AudioControl SA-3051 that I use for testing and set ups, is more flexible. AudioControl also has a more straightforward shelf model, the R-130, that can do nearly as well. I am not familiar with other versions, but any that you obtain should be able to resolve to within 1 or 2 dB.

(8) That if you cannot come up with an RTA, try to at least get a decent test disc. The best one I have found is the Delos Surround Spectacular (DE3179), which will allow you to set up both conventional and surround-sound systems quite well. The disc has some very useful subwoofer-setup, center-channel phase, imaging (both stereo and Dolby Surround), and surround-balance test sequences. A two-disc set, it also has a good selection of musical material, recorded by John Eargle. Consider getting it even if you do have an RTA, because some of the tests become even more useful with measurement gear. If you have invested in Dolby Digital, consider getting the Delos DVD Spectacular disc to help you see what this new technology can do. Dolby also has a good test disc (available in both DVD and LD formats), although it requires a bit of background knowledge and possibly some test equipment to use to decent effect. If DVD video is your bag, you will want to get a copy of Video Essentials, produced by the Imaging Science Foundation.

(9) 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. If you cannot afford big speakers (for big bass), shop carefully for smaller models that satisfy those important distortion and dispersion requirements, and then spend a few bucks on a decent subwoofer a later date, if you want the bottom end filled out adequately. Some TI-IX-certified systems may do this satellite/subwoofer thing automatically, although the minimum THX performance standards (which some certified models surpass handily) may still not be adequate for what certain enthusiasts consider necessary for top-grade musical reproduction.

(10) That if you want to really refine the performance of your already darn-good speakers, get a good equalizer. I used to be suspicious of the things, but I have found that really decent models, like the 1/3-octave, AudioControl C-131 can do a lot to smooth out assorted, sometimes minor and sometimes major room-related anomalies that manifest themselves at the primary listening position with even the best speaker systems. Most one-octave units are mainly glorified tone controls, and not speaker/room fixers. Note that using an equalizer to fix extreme standing-wave problems can be counterproductive.

(11) That there is no high fidelity without surround sound; after speaker upgrades, the biggest thing you can do to improve a playback system's sound is to get a good, DSP, surround-sound-synthesizing 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.

(12) That if your listening room is no good and reasonably intelligent room-treatment techniques, the use of a good equalizer, and/or the addition of a good surround processor will not make for a decent improvement, you will probably not be able to get high-fidelity unless you opt for a better room or forget speakers and switch to headphones.

(13) That unless one resides in a area very different from what most Americans live in, a power-line conditioner will have no effect at all on the sound delivered by their hi-fi rig. However, a surge protector of even the hardware-store variety might save the day during unruly weather.

(14) That after speakers, rooms, and surround processors, the biggest factor in obtaining reasonably "realistic" sound involves good recordings -- items whose behavior is determined by microphones, rooms, and associated mixing hardware that have far more impact on sound quality than exotic contributions from expensive amps, expensive CD players, expensive wire, and power-line conditioners.

(15) 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.) are useless, and possibly detrimental to good sound reproduction.

(16) That (and I must admit that this is a plug) if you want to learn more about audio and home theater, look over a copy of The Home Theater Companion (Schirmer Books, 1997) or my earlier, but still up to date in terms of the basics, High Fidelity Audio Video Systems (McFarland, 1991).

James T. Frane (JTF)

Speakers:

Mach 1 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 1 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.

Thiel SCS2: The Thiels are very good speakers in appearance, component and build quality, and sound. They have extended highs that roll off a bit above 8 kHz. The Thiels are about 1/3 more expensive than my reference Mach 1 Acoustics M-Two speakers, are more mellow and warmer, and extend deeper in the bass. If you're in the market for smaller speakers in this price range, or a single speaker for a center channel, give the Thiel SCS2 speakers a listen.

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.

DACs:

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.

Amplifiers:

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 at 92 dB). At $575, the HCA-1000A appears to be a Sensible power amplifier. I enjoyed its good looks and good performance.

Interconnects:

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 3.0meter 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 tuner. The Monster 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.

Phono Cartridge:

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)

For a variety of reasons, I don't feel comfortable choosing components for an entire system or nominating items in each category. Instead, I'd like to draw our readers' attention to a couple of items that may be of interest. These aren't necessarily or even likely the "best" in any category, and I certainly haven't heard anything near all the components available in any category or price range. Instead, let me just say that the following just seem to me worthy of attention:

Sumiko Blue Point and Blue Point Special Phono Cartridges: The Sumiko Blue Point (standard) has been my mainstay cartridge for several years. Its inestimable value derived from the fact that I was able to listen to music whenever I wanted while paying no attention whatsoever to the cartridge. (OK, I did clean the stylus once in a while). A lovely, musical performer on all sorts of recordings, and at a very reasonable price. The Blue Point Special, in the system for a some months now, is like the Blue Point only more so. Since it is fragile, I mess with it even less. Ain't life wonderful?

Parasound C/DP-1000 CD Player: Another set-and-forget component. I replaced my ancient Denon with this unit a couple of years ago. It plays every disc I put in it without complaint, and sounds great. Ergonomics are more than adequate. See my review in Issue 58.

Arcam Alpha 8 CD Player: Another CD player with which I am greatly impressed (review forthcoming). I continue to hear subtle improvements in the sound, although I'm desperately trying not to. In any case, a unit that has several nice touches in packaging, control, and fit `n' finish. Alas, it's too expensive to qualify as a premier Sensible value, but still an awfully nice unit.

Old Speakers: I can't resist a couple of, well, odd speaker notes. And if you want them, you'll be buying them used, as neither is available new any more. Let me add here that, for those on strict budgets, used equipment is worth checking out. Many dealers have a room full of trade-ins, which can provide excellent value.

Now on to some specifics. First, my own reference speakers: Quad 63s (USA Monitors). For absolute purity of sound, still a classic. I bought mine years ago for about $1,600 with stands. Haven't seen any on the market lately, but one really ought to be able to find these things at a good price. Oh yes, try to get stands, or else stick them on concrete blocks; yeah, that ought to go over big with the spouse ...

Perhaps a moment of silence is appropriate for the seemingly moribund Fried line of speakers. I still have fond memories of the A5s (reviewed way back in Issue 51). If you are looking for small speakers sporting very smooth, natural (dare I say "relaxed"?) sound, you should be able to find a pair of these on the used market for a few hundred bucks.

Gregory Koster (GK)

When friends ask me for advice on putting a system together, they are usually looking for an entire system. So rather than list components by type, I'll group them into three levels: a Budget system that starts under $1,000; a Value system that starts around $3,000; and a Performance system that comes in around $10,000. Note that none of the systems represents what I own, nor are they limited to components that I have reviewed personally. I've either heard them or they've been recommended by people I trust.

Budget System: I used to try to do my friends a favor by concentrating on sound alone in this entry system, but they give me the fish eye over brands they never heard of and they want all the convenience of a rack system. So here's a basically mainstream system that still delivers maximum sound for the buck:

NAD 712 receiver ($400). For little more than the cost of a power amp with a volume control, this combines a preamp, a tuner and a 25 wpc power amp. Pre-out/Main-in jacks let you add a more powerful amp later, so this is a great building block.

NAD 523 compact disc changer ($380). At this price range most people want a CD changer, not a one-disc player. They also want maximum convenience, and by staying with NAD you can use one remote control for everything.

Dana Audio Model 1 speakers ($200/pair). Reviewed by BB in #49. There are lots of mini-monitors around, and even a few that can be recommended at this price point -- but these are distinguished by the availability of a matched subwoofer for upgrading.

Cement block stands (next to nothing at your local lumber yard). I gave up on these as a reviewer only because they're such a pain to rearrange. As an owner, they offer a rock-solid (literally) foundation for mini-monitor to bookshelf speakers at a fraction of the cost of the genuine hi-fi variety. Designer styles available for slightly more!

So there it is: a basic system for $1,000. When that's paid off, add the Dana Sub 1 subwoofer ($300) and a more powerful amp such as the NAD 214 power amp ($450).

The only thing you'd need to complete the system is a cassette deck, such as the NAD 616 ($400). Again, convenience is gong to be appreciated as much as sound in this price range, so I've specified NAD's only dual-well deck. It's a solid unit, but the real virtue is that it works off the system remote.

Value System: For three times as much as the Budget system, you can get full-range sound and a much higher level of fit and finish:

Parasound C/DP-1000 compact disc player ($500). Reviewed by GDB & WCH in #58. There may not be a sonic difference between the Marantz CD-67 and this unit -- but the Parasound has a clear superiority in fit and finish. Since this is the component you will actually operate most of the time, I think it's worth paying a little for look and feel.

Parasound P/HP-850 preamp ($400). Phono input and headphone amp as well as basic preamp functions, with the same superior fit and finish as the matching CD player.

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.

You've got 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:

Magnum Dynalab FT-11 tuner ($545). Separate tuners are a dying breed, but Magnum Dynalab is a specialist; their entry-level unit will give reliable service and they'll be around for service and upgrades.

Sony TC-KA2ES cassette deck ($550). The Aiwa AD-S950 offered dual-capstan drive and a remote for $50 less, but it isn't in this year's Audio directory. The Sony has 3 heads, Dolby B/C/S/H, and the classy ES styling. You're still 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 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:

Sony CDP-XA7ES compact disc player ($3,000). A beautifully made, beautiful sounding (even if they all sound alike), work of art. As a one-box unit made in the best way Sony can do, it should continue to outperform the fanciest outboard D/A converters for years to come. No, you don't need it. Yes, you want it.

Magnum Dynalab FT-101A tuner ($875). This tuner hasn't gotten much notice in the press, and I can't figure out why. I bought the original FT-101 based on RTM & GAH's reviews in #30, and have been satisfied with it for more than 10 years. What other hi-fi product can you think of that is still available (with one upgrade) after that length of time? If you listen to 50,000-watt highly-compressed mainstream stations, any automated Japanese tuner will do. But if you want to hear classical or jazz from a low-power NPR station, you need a tuner that lets you tune the signal for best sound. Magnum Dynalab's analog tuner, with both signal strength and multipath meters, let's you do just that.

Acurus RL-11 preamp ($800). I still love the digital volume readout on the Legacy preamp, but the Acurus has the same clean sound, convenient remote control of volume and balance -- for about half the price. I can't figure out how non-remote $800 preamps stay on the market.

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 Parasound 2200, or even the Rotel 990 at less than half the price, but in 20 years it will still be working and still be satisfying.

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.

At $9,590 you've even got a tuner and you can still buy some fancy cables and stay under $10,000, with 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 ... Or for a slightly less obsolete input, consider:

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.

Tom Lyle (TL)

Small Speakers:

PSB Stratus Mini ($1,049/pair, plus $199 for optional stands, reviewed in Issues 58 and 65). In my last Sensible Choice list I said there were two pairs of small speakers I'd recommend, the Phase Technology PC-80 Mark IIs and the PSB Status Minis. Since then the PC-80s have been discontinued. That leaves the Stratus Minis as my sole choice. These are my reference for small two-ways, which I use in my home studio as monitors. They have excellent bass for a small speaker, natural mids and highs, can handle all types of music, and can play surprisingly loud.

Large Speakers:

Legacy Classic ($2650/pair, reviewed in Issue 64). Go ahead, shop around and listen to all the speakers in this price range you can find in your area, and then order these factory-direct six-driver speakers with a 30-day satisfaction guarantee. In the last installment of Sensible Choices I proclaimed their worthiness only after a short time into the review period.

Since then I have made them my new reference, replacing my Snells. They sound extremely natural throughout the frequency range, and their realism is in a class of which I've only heard from speakers costing much, much more. Plus, they can handle any type of music that I throw at them, their bass goes down to 22 Hz, and they look good while performing the task.

Power Amplifier:

I wasn't sure how to approach this Sensible Choice selection -- maybe because the options are so numerous. So, after much thought, I narrowed my selections to these few: 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. Audiophiles with more money to spend can't go wrong with the solid state amps from Classe. I've been using the Classe 70 for years, and this discontinued amp (which originally sold for around $1,200) can sometimes be found on the used market in the $500 to $600 price range. However, its replacement, the Classe CA-100 ($1,495, 100wpc) is even better. Individuals with deeper pockets should check out either the Krell KAV-250, or conrad-johson MF-2300a, both rated at 250wpc, and both priced at $3000. Finally, if tubes are your thing, I recommend auditioning the Rogue Audio Eighty-Eight ($1,395, review forthcoming). At 70 wpc, I doubt you'll find a better value in a tube amp.

Tube Preamp:

Rogue Audio Sixty-Six ($1,195, reviewed in Issue 68). This is an amazing preamp for the relatively low price of $1,195. A phono section is included, and its unique styling makes it look almost as good as it sounds.

Inexpensive Solid-state Preamp:

AVA Omega RB ($399 assembled, $299 as kit, $90 optional phono stage, other options available on request, reviewed in Issue 68). I was blown away at how such an inexpensive unit could perform so well. Transparent and has plenty of gain. Some will find this bare bones preamp to be lacking in features (it only has two line inputs and a tape monitor, but does include a headphone jack), so AVA makes available models with the same circuitry with more inputs and features with only a slightly higher price.

More Expensive Solid-state Preamp:

Tandberg TCA 4038 ($1,095, reviewed in Issue 64). When I first got this unit in to audition, I was impressed that it was an excellent value at $1,500. I was wrong -- about the price, that is.

Phono Preamplifier:

DB Systems DB-8 ($150) and DB-8HG ($175, reviewed in Issue 61). If you are in the market for a phono preamp you would be doing yourself a great disfavor by not checking these babies out. They are neutral, quiet, and provide plenty of gain. They might not be the ultimate in phono preamps, but for the price, who can complain?

Phono Cartridge:

Sumiko Blue Point ($195). When I was working on my review of the similarly priced Grado Prestige Gold, I borrowed my friend's high output moving coil Blue Point. I forgot what a giant-killer this cartridge is. It can be used without a MC step-up transformer because of its high output, so it makes a perfect first "high-end" cartridge purchase. If you want to hear what modern analog sounds like, dust off your old turntable, get a Blue Point -- then buy a newly released LP. It will instantly draw you into the wonderful world of analog reproduction that you've been missing.

CD Player:

Rega Planet ($800, review forthcoming). I've heard so many under-S1000 players in my system in the last year I've lost count. And in every one of those the differences between each was minute -- and making a choice between them was always followed by a disclaimer that the "loser" of the comparison was still a fine component. That was until I heard the top-loading Planet. Its sound is so much better than any of the players I've heard in its price class, (including the former champ, the $649 Arcam Alpha 7), and quite a few beyond its price.

Accessories:

Record Research Vinyl Wash ($24.95/32 oz., Deep Cleaner $24.95/2 oz). After Nitty Gritty First was discontinued, I went on a search for a new cleaner that would work as well. Used with a vacuum record cleaning machine, this is the stuff. It's made of triple distilled lab quality water, and not much else besides some surfactants. Because of the lack of a surface tension reducing agent (such as Kodak Photo-Flow) it behaves much differently than I'm used to, but when used in combination with the Deep Cleaner it works better than First.

18" x 18" x 2" concrete slab (about $3) I bought mine at my local Home Depot megastore for a tad over three dollars. Available in a sort of salmon pink, or unpainted. I bought one in pink and spray-painted it black. Before you shell out the bucks for a resonance-control device such as the Seismic Sink or the Little Foot/Big Rock, I suggest you try this inexpensive cure first. Placed under my turntable the improvement in sound was NOT subtle. The bass was more solid and went deeper, the imaging became sharper, and there was general cleaning up of the sound. Under my CD player the changes weren't as huge, but still noticeable.

Radio Shack CD Polish and Scratch Remover ($9.95, catalog #42-127) The least expensive stuff I've used to repair CDs. It works. I've rescued CDs that I thought were permanently ruined, and I even have repaired some CDs well enough that they were accepted by used CD stores for trade.

Richard T. Modafferi (RTM)

The problem in making a recommendation is that almost no tuner fits into requirements for The Sensible Sound. $4,000 tuners -- no way are those Sensible, but unfortunately, I have looked at many $900 tuners that work no better than a $40 boom box! However, I finally have found and tested a good tuner for a sensible price -- the Yamaha TX-950 ($429 retail). Review forthcoming.

Thom Moon (TM)

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 ability to separate stations close to each other on the dial.

Phono Cartridge:

Joseph Grado Signature 8MZV ($200) Silky but defined on top; powerful on the bottom. Compatible with both great tables/tonearms and more humble ones. Discontinued, but there may be some floating around dealers' shelves.

Integrated Amplifier:

Linn Majik-1P ($1,195) At first glance, this jewel doesn't look like a Sensible value: 33 watts per channel for $1,195 (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.

Budget Blast from the Past:

Luxman R-1050 receiver Always liked its looks. Bought one used in 1983. Aside from a slight tendency to drift off channel on FM, the tuner is quite good. And the 55-watt/channel amp offers much more lifelike sound than the typical Far Eastern specimen of its day. A classy unit from the late '70s.

Budget Speakers:

KEF Coda 7 ($250/pair) For a couple of hundred bucks, you get minimally sized speakers that provide more than a semblance of bass, a reasonably smooth midrange and top end. Can sound a bit "in your face" with some electronics, so try before buying if possible. Recently replaced by the similar (but supposedly smoother) Coda 7se.

Expensive Speakers:

NEAR 50 Me-II ($2,499/pair) 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.

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 nuts with the gain control. Offers less successful help for the AM band.

Budget Receiver:

NAD 712 ($399) On the surface, looks like a lot of money, but the 712 belies its 25-watt/channel power rating. Tuner is no great "station stalker," but is adequate for most urban/suburban conditions. Six line inputs; no phono stage. With a decent CD player and a pair of KEF Coda 7s, 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:

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. 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 used to cost an arm and leg, but Rega will sell you the whole Planar 3 package (with a high-quality turntable included) for $775.

Preamplifiers:

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.

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 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 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-D560Z 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 Dolby Digital (AC-3). The street price is $330-$350.

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. It is $790 new, but its street price should be considerably less--and on the used market, even less.

Recording Equipment:

Sony TC-WE805S: A worthy successor to the Sony decks that keeps getting top-rated in the consumer magazines. The 805S, 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 $280, it's a gem.

Speakers:

Optimus PRO 77: With their metal enclosure, 5" woofer and soft-dome tweeters, these resemble (both visually and sonically) the old Braun units that used to drive the midrange of the Wilson Audio WAMM system--except that Radio Shack sells these for much less. At the normal price of $198/pair, they face stiff competition from PSB, NHT, and others, but they are almost a steal at their periodic sale price of $99/pair.

PSB Alpha: A good budget ($220/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.

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 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.

Gradient 1.3: If $2,195 (a 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.

Thomas A. Nousaine (TAN)

1. Sony DVP-S7000/SB DVD player (Performance)

2. Marantz CD-63 CD player (Value)

3. Lexicon DC-1 Surround-sound decoder (Performance)

4. Paradigm Titan speaker (Value)

5. PSB Alpha speaker (Value)

6. PSB Stratus Mini speaker (Performance)

7. Paradigm PS1000/1200 subwoofers (Value plus Performance)

8. Velodyne F1500RII and F1800RII subwoofers (Performance)

9. Meniscus DV-12 12" raw driver (Value plus Performance)

10. Rane ME-60 1/3 octave EQ (Value)

11. Etymotic Research ER-4S in-ear headphones (Performance)

12. Etymotic Research ER-15, ER-25 (Performance) and Hi-Fi Ear Plugs (Value plus Performance)

13. MLSSA System Analyzer (Performance)

14. Delos/Stereo Review Surround Spectacular Test Disc

15. NHT 1.1C center channel speaker (Value)

16. Boston Acoustics Runabout II patio speaker (Value)

17. PSB SubSonic 3i 15" subwoofer (Value)

18. B&W ASW 2000 12" subwoofer (Value)

19. Klipsch ASW 300 15" subwoofer (Value)

20. Paradigm Active Surround Speaker System (Performance)

21. Delos DVD Spectacular (DVD multi-channel music)

Tim Parker (TP)

I've divided my staff picks list into three categories for low price (not cheap, just inexpensive), medium price (for those who can afford to move up a level), and higher priced units. A little explanation for the latter category may be in order, as it may seem out of place in a Sensible list. As with many things in life, audio for the most part is a compromise between price and performance. You usually do get what you pay for with most audio gear (with a few exceptions, and then there's the high-priced esoteric gear which just isn't sensible at all). If you can spring the extra bucks to upgrade the CD player, for example, from medium to high level, you'll find the investment pays off in sound quality mostly because of better digital to analog converters. Similarly, paying more for speakers tends to give you a better frequency response and deeper bass. You pay a premium for what may be small increasers in quality, but the difference is audible and worth it if you can swing the bucks. (Heck, if you can't hear the difference, don't pay for it!). And with that, on with my picks.

CD: Forget separate transports and DACs, except as an upgrade to an existing system. The best idea is to go with a CD player and get the best you can afford in one package. If there's a digital output that allows a separate DAC to be added later, then all the better. A great CD player tends to make a great transport.

For the budget system, I'd pick any of the CD players from Rotel. I started with a Rote1965 in my quest for audio nirvana, and have steered dozens of people to different Rotel models since. They're all well built, perform reliably, and sound great. I'd avoid the Bitstream models in favor of the 16-bit units, but that's a personal choice. Since Rotel offers several models, you should be able to find a CD player to fit your budget. I'm so enamored with the Rotel bang for the buck, that I'd pick one of their higher priced CD players for my middle price system, too. There are a couple of new Rotel CD players above the older 965 models that sounded really nice in a short audition. Sure, Rotel isn't a high-end label according to many, but it sure sounds like one.

For my high-price CD player there is nothing I've heard that would inspire me to change my Sony CDP-XA7ES. It's expensive, but it will not be disgraced by any mega-buck CD transport or player. I've had my CDPXA7ES for a year now, and just love it. It's a great transport when you invest in a separate DAC, too. You may be able to find the older Sony CDP-707ES for less, or pick one up on the used market. It too is a fine player.

DACs: If you want to go with an external DAC for a CD player or another device like a laserdisc or DVD player, my budget unit would unquestionably be Sonic Frontiers and the Parts Connection's UltraDAC. Available prebuilt or in a simple to assemble kit, the UltraDAC is now in HDCD trim. The parts in the unit are very good, the design is clever, and I love the sound. I use mine on my laserdisc and DVD players and an old Teac CD player which has a lousy DAC but remains a good transport. Three inputs allow you to switch between devices. In the middle price range, I can't really recommend a unit as I haven't fallen for any other unit except my high-price pick. I've tested units from Rotel, EAD, CAL, and several other manufacturers, but none gave a significantly better sound for the money than the UltraDAC. At the high end, I have to go with the Sonic Frontiers Processor 3 (and their now discontinued SFD-2). Big bucks, great sound. Not too sensible, perhaps, but a great indulgence if the rest of your system offers support.

Tuners: Running the risk of being accused of excessive favoritism, every model in the Magnum Dynalab series of tuners is worth getting. Pick the one you can afford. The FT-101A is a long-time favorite (and on several reviewer's pick lists I'll wager) and the Etude is one of the best tuners I've been lucky enough to listen to. For a low-price model, take a look at the Rotel dedicated tuners, and there are a few from Sony that seem to be reasonable although I haven't done critical comparisons. If you listen to a lot of uncompressed radio, though, swing the bucks for a Magnum Dynalab.

Tape decks: Is it silly to talk about tapes these days? I think not. I tape a lot of stuff to listen to in the car and at work. For quality listening, you really need DAT, but the entry price of a DAT deck and the costs of the tapes themselves are enough to discourage most people. For cassette decks, there are quite a few competing for attention. I like several of the units I've tested from Pioneer, Nakamichi, and Teac in the mid-price range. There isn't a single deck I can recommend. My best advice is to figure out which features you want, and get them. Don't pay for things you won't use. I don't have a high-price recommendation as the best cassette deck ever made, the Nakamichi Dragon, is now discontinued and nothing comes close.

Amplifier/Preamplifier/Integrated Amplifier: This category was a toughie. There are a lot of superb units out there, and a lot depends on whether you want integrated or separates, tubes or solid state. Add the fact that I've only heard a fraction of the units on the market, and choosing the best are difficult. However, I'm happy with my picks. For budget systems, you pretty much have to go for an integrated amplifier, and again Rotel pops up on my list. They're solid state and solid sounding, with good power for the buck. An alternative for the tube fanatic would be the integrated from Anthem, a Sonic Frontiers line. A higher priced integrated that I bought after my enthusiastic review is the Copland integrated. It sounds superb, especially with electrostatics like Martin Logan Aerius.

Separate units really rule out the budget category, as most of the cheapies I've heard are just that: cheap sounding. In the mid-price range, Anthem tube-based systems are very good, and for solid state there are a number of good units from Adcom and Rotel. Most audiophile-oriented names tend to bump prices into the high category, but there are a lot of good units from Copland, Sonic Frontiers, and Adcom. If you have the cash to spend and want the best, well, I've never heard any system that rivals Spectral's DMC-20 and DMA-180. Or you could buy a car, instead.

Turntable and cartridge: Still spinning vinyl? Make sure your preamp or integrated amp supports phono inputs (a lot don't anymore). For budget and mid-priced decks check out the Rega turntables. The Planar 3 is a classic for good reason, and teamed with a good arm like the Rega or Linn it sounds great. At a higher price, the Planar 9, a new unit, is very good. For more bucks, move to the VPI turntables which have the great advantage of being step-upgraded to the VPI TNT, my favorite turntable on the market. The TNT Jr. isn't really that much of a reach from the Rega Planar 9, and offers much better future upgradability.

For cartridges, I like the Sumiko Blue Point Special in the lower priced market, and Benz Micro cartridges for the rest. Pick your budget, there's a model to fit it. The Benz H20 is superb cartridge for the money, as is the Glider. I've also had good times on a Planar 3 turntable with an Ortofon MC cartridge, but they tend to vary in quality over the price range.

Cables: Yes Virginia, cables do make a difference. Maybe not with rack gear, but in a well designed system the speaker cables and interconnects make an audible effect. You can go silly and spend thousands of dollars on cables, but for most people the reasonably priced cables from Monster and AudioQuest are fine.

Both companies make a range of cables and interconnects to fit different budgets. I personally prefer AudioQuest, and recommend you buy one or two grades higher than you think you need. For higher priced cables I leave it up to you to audition them, as the sound changes depending on the source and speakers.

Speakers: Here's the category I get the most questions about. My favorites in the three price ranges are simple: Coincident Technology, Coincident Technology, and ProAc. (The Martin-Logan Aerius are superb speakers, but cost a hefty bit more). If you've read my reviews of the Triumphs and Conquests from Coincident Technologies, you know these are superb speakers, especially for the money.

I have yet to hear a speaker under $1.5k that beats either of these two Coincident models. The difference between the two is not so much a money decision as a floor-standing versus bookshelf one (with good stands, the two cost about the same). The Coincident Technology speakers may not have a knock-dead gorgeous finish (exotic woods add a bunch of bucks) but they are gorgeous in sound. There are good mid-price speakers from several other manufacturers, including Totem, but the Coincidents are just too good for the money to not be favorites. Want some subs? Hsu Research, plain and simple. Inexpensive, relatively, and excellent extension.

The jump from Coincident Technology to ProAc speakers is an expensive one, but it's a revelatory sound difference. I adore the minuscule ProAc 1S (now in a more recent incarnation) and for the bigger budgets, the Response 3.5s are superb. I have had the older Response 3 Signatures for about four years now and haven't changed them despite many offers. ProAc speakers image like crazy, are fast and clear, and just plain tickle my senses in ways no other speakers have.

Complete System: A couple of complete systems I've just assembled for friends shows how these picks can be combined. One friend who resides in a decent-sized house loves the warmth of tubes (both aesthetically and sonically). For him, we selected a Copland integrated amp with 40 watts per side, a pair of Martin Logan Aerius electrostatics, a Sony ES-series CD player, a VPI Jr. turntable, a Solid rack, and AudioQuest cables throughout. He didn't break his bank account and has a wonderful sound in a live listening room.

My other friend has a more modest budget and smaller room. For her, we chose a Rotel CD player, Rotel amp and preamp separates, a Rega Planar 3 turntable with Sumiko Blue Point Special, and Coincident Technology Conquests. Different sound from this system, but very satisfying to listen to.
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Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:May 1, 1998
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