Home Stereo for Beginners
So you are interested in the world of home audio. First let me tell you, this hobby isn’t for the weak; physically, mentally or emotionally. I wish I had spent more time researching, listening, and exploring other enthusiasts audio systems before I decided to upgrade my ancient class B amp Yamaha. What I hope to do for you is present you with options all in one spot. I am going to write this assuming the only type of stereo you’ve ever owned is an Aiwa or Phillips type system. Let the lesson begin.
Like any major purchase, one must decide upon a budget and what they wish to accomplish with that budget. Furthermore I must caution you, upgrading stereo equipment is extremely addictive. If all you've ever heard music on was a cheesy Wal-Mart purchased bookshelf system, you are in for a sensory enveloping surprise. Setting up a decent sound system will change the way you appreciate music, you find yourself listening for hours on end, mesmerized by details and layers unfolding from your favorite tunes like they we’re new again. My second caution; if you have a significant other, you will need their blessing to pull off a meaningful system upgrade. The kind of upgrade that you will want requires a special room or section of your home…yes it gets that good and should be treated as such.
Back to the budget; do not get hung up on your limitations in the beginning, the beautiful thing about buying quality gear is it is easily traded on Audiogon, eBay or craigslist (I've done both and often). If you do not like a certain CD player, or speaker set up or sub-woofer, you can sell it at a decent price and buy another with little loss (and you learned something). The space you have carved out for your sound system will limit you more than your budget. So think in terms of cubic feet and sound levels you wish to achieve. If you have a very small space, say an 8’ by 10’ room, then your speaker selection is absolutely detrimental. If you have a 12’ by 18’ room, then your options are much greater. Audio guru’s recommend using monitor speakers (bookshelf) for spaces of less than 125 sq ft., or less than ~900 cubic feet. My room is just over 2000 cubic feet so I have dedicated full range towers for 2.1 listening and home theater duties.
My third caution, hearing is highly suggestive, what I like in sound versus the next guy or gal is completely dependent upon what their ears communicate. Good stereo is wading through trial and error despite the best advice. I benefited from starting at the bottom and am slowly building up my system each year, living with a new component for a while and deciding if it stays or goes.
Here is the part where my advice may contradict those of the large budget magazines. They say to set aside roughly 50% of your budget for the speakers and the other half for all other components. I say that is silly because it will drive you crazy trying to match each component down to the penny, thus possibly sacrificing a much better choice over a couple hundred dollars difference. These decisions do not have to be permanent; you want this to be a fun experience, not a chore. Try to stay flexible, keep an open mind, and make sure you grease you partner well…married guys you know exactly what I am talking about.
In order for you to stretch your budget and make quality purchases, stay far away from big box retailers. Anything you find in a Best Buy, Sears, Costco or other such non-dedicated mass merchandise stores is garbage. Standalone Magnolia dealers do offer some good choices up to esoteric levels of performance, such as Bowers and Wilkins 800d’s or Sonus Faber. The most expensive set up I've tested out was a pair of McIntosh towers driven by...yep, McIntosh gear. Nevertheless I plan on steering you toward some very reasonable choices with links at the end of this article. Buying factory refurbished items from reputable dealers like Audio Advisor, or Music Direct is a great way to save several hundred dollars per item. Demo clearance items and or model clearances are also recommended. Good stereo doesn't require having the newest gear; technology and stereo sound do not work on the same scale. I am going to recommend an excellent hub by a user who is very knowledgeable regarding vintage equipment.
What are you looking for?
Here are the pieces to consider;
1. Speakers (Full range loudspeakers or bookshelf type)
2. Amplifier type; Tube, Solid State, or integrated (class A, A/B, or D)
3. Preamplifier (active or passive)
4. CD player, SACD Player, or all in one SACD/DAC/Headphone amp.
5. Turntable (optional)
6. Cables (speaker cables, Interconnects and power cables)
7. Power Conditioner/regulator
8. Do you need an audio stand, cabinet or do you have sufficient space for separates?
The good news about this economy is there are literally thousands of choices in new and old gear to sift through. The bad news is there are thousands of choices to sift through when trying to decide what you like and want. I would steer clear of tube amp and preamp equipment if you do not have patience and want to fuss with changing out worn tubes (Note: amps and preamps with lots of tubes means you will spend a bunch of money replacing them down the road. Also, if any one of them is bad or or fades at different intervals, it will have an impact on total sound quality - hence having to bias them). If you choose to venture into records, first research the music genre you like most and found out what availability you will have and what cost, records aren't cheap. The way CD’s are recorded and the latest gear has evolved much since the 80’s and 90’s. One obvious way to tell is by putting on a cd made in 1988 versus the latest release, gone are the hollow, compressed sounds that gave records such a strong second wind.
Class A only amps are for “special” enthusiasts who cling on to the illusion of what is the best, and also can afford their ridiculous prices. Just below is a tech link explaining the technicalities of Class A only operation versus Class A/B which makes up the majority of amplifiers. If you can afford Class A mono block amps, then you probably can skip my entire hub, plus you can afford the energy costs of wasting 50% of your electricity into heat...
Digital is no longer an abomination; Bang and Olufsen have designed newer, well respected ICE direct energy amps (Class D) which really pump out big power with little waste of electricity and none of the excessive heat. Pioneer makes a few home theater receivers with very impressive stats; the SC-37 is rated at 140 watts per channel X seven channels, has the THX classification and London AIR studios certification. For an all in one box, I haven’t seen better for under $2,000. I actually am using an SC-35 bi-amped for 360 watts per channel to my dedicated stereo speakers. I haven’t switched to separates yet because of budget and I still run a full home theater 25% of the time. What I can tell you is my 4 ohm speakers will blow long before my Pioneer amp gets fatigued.
*update* Hypex also makes many newer D class amps used by well known companies such as Rogue audio. Rogue Audio has a few very well received hybrid integrated amps - the Pharaoh and the Sphinx.
Cables; ah, those controversial cables…yes, I am a believer. You will come across rabid enthusiasts on both sides of this fence. Ignore all of us and trust your ears, but by God, do not forbid yourself from experimenting with different speaker cables, power cables and interconnects of various material and quality. My systems started out with cheap, bought on the spool wires. My interconnects from the cd player to the amp were basic OEM RCA’s. The power cable supplied with all my equipment was exactly all I thought I would need. I trust my ears; there has been a big difference in my set up. I have upgraded all my cables to what I deem an exceptional price/performance improvement ratio…that’s all that matters. No technical talk, no double blind BS. When my wife comments on the difference she hears after changing out cables, those nay-saying engineers with their white papers can go fly a kite. TRUST YOUR OWN EARS.
Power source; as you are making a considerable investment into a hobby designed to give back years of pleasure, do not skimp where the power starts. Using a plastic Lowes bought power strip for your TV and Sony bookshelf system is okay, using that same power source to run what could be a 1,000 watt set up is not. There are very reputable sources for budget conscientious audioophiles. I use an APC H15 home theater power regulator for my toys and I love it. Picked it up from Amazon at a great price and it does a fine job. When running a plasma TV and Class A/B amps at the same time, power dips are a given, power conditioners help keep voltage stable, especially when the missus turns on a high powered appliance during your listening time.
Last thing to mention and it really depends on the gear you choose with how your room sounds, and that is room treatments. I will not discuss them because they are an after effect need based on what you've set up. I have a bass heavy room, so I have positioned acoustic diffusors in specific areas to dampen some of the room boom. Thick carpets work, heavy drapes work, it all depends on your walls, ceiling height, and floor type.
Remember, this takes time and patience. You are going to have to schedule demos all over town to hear what you want, with the equipment you are interested in. Many great online only manufacturers offer 30 day in home trial such as SVS, Emotiva, Aperion and Zu Audio. I would be remiss if I didn't mention this; new equipment needs break in time, especially speakers. Some require up to +100 hours of burn in time before loosening up and sounding optimal. PATIENCE.
I almost forgot something new I learned through gear testing; do not judge products too heavily by paper specs, they are objective averages set by the manufacturers and can be off in unexpected ways, or at least deceiving. Case in point is I was really worried about buying my Marantz PM15S2 Limited Integrated amp because of its very low dampening spec. I was concerned that I wouldn't get the punchy bass I was used to with my class D amp. The quality I am getting now is an order of magnitude better than before, so my fear was unfounded and almost steered me clear of what has been my favorite amp to date.
I figured now is as good a time to update my own path to audio nirvana. Experimentation and changing course has afflicted what I had previously thought was a straight path - I've learned something about my own tastes along the way...I like convenience - A Lot. The two images from above are a couple of my recent changes. Distancing myself from Vinyl and the investment required, I have peeled the onion further back upon digital audio.
As they say, one change begets another; hence I purchased a Wadia 171i digital dock for Apple products. At the time, I had a third generation ipod Nano, with regular AAC files. Reading through the Wadia manual it said to change Apple settings to Lossless for best results...okay, I reripped a couple of CD's on Lossless setting and fired up the Wadia - all I can say in the words of our Matrix hero Neo, "Whoa." Several hours later I reripped all my collection and quickly hit the 16gb limit of my Nano, "oh, this is totally unacceptable!" Now I have a taste for more detail, cleaner backgrounds and a larger sound stage, I need more...
Since the Wadia 171i is sending a purer digital signal to my Pioneer SC-35, the on board DAC is good, but I have no idea what it is pulsing through. I've been a sideline fan of Emotiva products for sometime and I knew they were closing out their stand alone DAC for a future upgrade. What used to list for $349 could be had for $199 and add $49 for 12 gauge power cable with Wattgate ends. Now I have a dedicated Apple Lossless digital signal sans Wadia, going to an Emotiva digital analogue converter. From there it travels to my SC-35 switched to pure analogue direct setting. This is really convenient, clean sounding music. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention I dived in and upgraded the ipod Nano to Apples ipod Classic with a 160 gigs of storage, now I have plenty of room to spare for years.
So audiophile beginners, for less than the price of a decent turntable, I have yet again increased my listening pleasure considerably and I don’t have to get up to change out any records after a handful of songs play. What could possibly be next in this adventure?
Well my audio friends, it doesn’t take long for one to change direction on the path to audio nirvana. As I continue to build upon my journey and this article, something’s inevitably must change. In this for instance, I sold gear that was barely broken in for gear that I simply don’t know how I could live without…
Upon a whim I decided I wanted to try audio files straight from my computer with a USB based DAC and pit it against my (what I thought really good sounding Apple set up) Wadia/Ipod Classic/Emotiva rig. I ended up trying out the new Audioquest Dragonfly with their mid-level Sidney interconnect. Now, the Audioquest Dragonfly/Sidney set up is all of $513 including tax versus my three piece digital rig ($960 excluding interconnects). After initial 50 hours of burn in, I was both shocked and ashamed of my previous set up. How could this little USB port Dragonfly sound so much cleaner and better articulated than a full digital dock to an out board DAC? That very weekend the Wadia and Emotiva DAC went on Ebay and I decided to go dedicated laptop server and upgrade my DAC.
Enter my extensive reading of the Eastern Electric Minimax Plus. While I may have been pleasantly surprised by the step up in sound quality with the Dragonfly, I knew that at $249 I could do much better after having sold my old digital gear. Furthermore, my logic told me that if the 24bit Sabre chip in the Dragonfly elevated my system, surely the vaunted 32bit Sabre chip could add more. Another fringe benefit to the EE DAC Plus is it has a tube buffer stage with a 12au7 tube. This unit can go solid state or tube switchable and has separate power supplies for both (see photo below). I am not going to gush and throw superlatives all over the improvement in my system, lets just say that within 2 hours of playing the music through the EE DAC Plus, I knew I could return the Dragonfly back to Best Buy without a second thought, and I didn’t know I was missing tubes in my system until now!
Yes, the EE DAC Plus is four times the price of the Dragonfly, yet it is more than twice the performance and the Psvane gold pin 12au7 is synergizing with my class D amp very well. Since I did technically remove an additional touch point in my system from Ipod to Wadia to Emotiva to amp, now it’s Acer M5 touch screen to EE Dac Plus to amp (simple is better). I sprung for a solid silver USB cable which right out of the box made another instant improvement over my Belkin printer USB cable. I now have over 100 hours on the EE DAC Plus and the sound better than I thought would be possible - I really do wonder how much better the sound can get with my trusty Monitor Audio RX8's???
(I know I am running out of word space on this installment – I will carry this on a new article in the future – Thank you for reading)
- Totem Acoustic Element Fire: Speaker Review
Just another part time audiophile reviewing the fabulous Totem Acoustic Element Fire bookshelf speakers. Are they grandeur at a grand price? Read to find out.
- What is an Audiophile?
What exactly is an audiophile and how do you know if you are one among us? This article helps to shed some light behind the curtain of those who profess a love of music and the equipment.
- Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC: Review
An owners review of the Musical Fidelity M1 SDAC, a bargain purchase that plays with the best in its price class.
- Marantz PM15S2 Limited Edition, An Owners Review
An owners review of the terrific Marantz PM15S2 Limited Edition integrated amplifier.
Five Great Speakers Under $4,000:
1. Monitor Audio RX6, or Silver 10's
2. Tekton (nice line up)
3. KEF R300, R500 and R700's
4. PSB Synchrony 2 (Synchrony 1’s are roughly $5400)
5. GoldenEar Triton Towers
Great Integrated Amp Choices
2. Wyred 4 Sound
3. Roque Audio
6. Rogue Audio Sphynx
Digital to Analogue Converters (DAC's)
1. Halide HD
3. Schiit Bifrost or Gungir
4. Eastern Electric Minimax Plus (Highly recommended)
5. Musical Fidelity
Power Conditioner Choices
2. BPT (Balanced Power Technologies)
4. Richard Grey’s Power Company
I wish you the best of luck, and ask that you come back by and leave me some comments of what you ended up with. It is always great to share these with the hifi community.
Also, since I ran out of room on this hub, please check out my newer contributions below, reviewing my personal choice for integrated amp and the flavor of year speakers. Thank you so much for reading - Cheers!