HIGH-END AUDIO on a BUDGET: Getting The Very Best HiFi-Sound at the Least Possible Cost.
When it comes to high-end audio, it is best to buy used equipment if what you seek is the best value, and best quality sound, for your money. This is something the manufacturers, distributors, and mainstream audio magazines will never tell you. But it's absolutely true. Even if you're rich, this statement is still relevant.
Here's another tip; used classics hold their value like good gold - new gear depreciate in value like butter under the sun.
Why? Well, used gear will have already settled at the price you bought them for, the classics even appreciate in value. Therefore, having bought such gear you're unlikely to lose much, if anything, when you decide to sell after years of use. New gear, however, generally lose approximately 25 to 35% of their re-sale value the moment you start using them, and that's for starters.
Bear in mind, also, that owners of genuine high-end gear usually treat them as well as they do their spouses. So quality is virtually assured when such gear is re-sold. And despite what some may claim, there's, generally, not much to gain (sonically) and a lot to lose (monetarily) by buying brand-new equipment, especially when disappointment leads to a quick re-sale.
I know those are strong words, very controversial too, and I can just imagine the howls of derision this would cause in certain circles.
Mainstream audio-magazines, for instance, would like to have you believe that there are earth-shattering breakthroughs in high-end audio every month their mags hit the streets. They perpetrate, and perpetuate, this fallacy with rave-reviews of the best-ever this, or the best-ever that, on a regular basis. Every month we're confronted with a new 'best-ever', only for it to be eclipsed the very next month by the latest 'best'. This is what sells magazines and keeps their advertisers (manufacturers/distributors) happy - to the detriment of the consumer. Audiophiles are encouraged to join the circus in 'upgrading' their equipment every few years - even months. To each, his own. I take a different view.
I'm certainly not saying that there haven't been advancements in audio over many years. I'm definitely saying, though, that these advancements are far fewer, and of much less magnitude, than some would have us believe. Let's just look at a few cold, hard facts:
The Great 'Advancements' in Audio
The very best digital components [from Red-Book (CD) to Blue-ray] despite ALL their advancements, are still sonically inferior to good analogue turntables (you don't even need the better, or the best, turntables to annihilate most digital competition). Of course, digital is great, absolutely. But analogue is still the best - today. That's just the stark, unadulterated reality!
Turntables, themselves, have been subject to many 'advancements' over the years, so much so that some claim prices of over $100,000. Yet there are idler-wheel-drive turntables from the 50's/60's which, when slightly modified with better plinths/bases, are sonically competitive with, and even superior to, many of their their mega-buck descendants. Seasoned audiophiles are increasingly becoming aware of this. Stereophile magazine's Art Dudley, for instance, a long-time Linn Sondek user/fan has now forsaken the Linn (which, today costs way over $10,000, fully accessorized) for an ancient Thorens TD124 because of its superior sound-quality. Many had preceded him in similar moves, and many more continue to do so. Arthur Salvatore of the web-zine, 'The Audio Critique', has also given up his very expensive and highly 'advanced' air-bearing Forsell turntable (modified for 'state of the art' performance) in favor of the better sound supplied by his 'new' antiquated idler-drive Lenco, with modified base and bearings. So much for all the 'advancements' those mags rave about, but let's not leave the topic just yet.
All of these advanced mega-buck turntables, and every other conceivable source-component, are also eclipsed in performance by antique reel to reel two-track/15 ips tape-machines which can't even be bought new anymore because they're out of production. And they were put out of production mainly because of all the great 'advancements', proclaimed by the magazines, in the inferior compact-cassette format. Where is that 'highly-advanced' cassette-player today? [For details of all these allegations please refer to other relevant articles on this site].
There is also overwhelming evidence that the better moving-magnet turntable cartridges (costing approx $500, more or less) are more natural, realistic, and 'master-tape like' than the so-called 'highly advanced' moving-coils which fetch prices of, up to and exceeding, $10,000.
For today's speakers, claims have been made of advancements in the areas of middle-midrange to high-frequency detail-resolution and pin-point stereo-imagery. And in this case, these claims are mostly true. But they're also guilty of neglecting other more important areas, and because of this they are woefully incompetent at replicating the realism of a live performance. In this regard, ancient designs such as Klipschorn and Tannoy reign supreme over their modern counterparts in so far as duplicating the 'full-bodied' tonality, dynamism, and overall realism of a live musical event. These are the only reasons these fifty-odd year-old designs are still in production, still relevant, and still highly respected by all who recognize their superior abilities at SONIC-REALISM!
Today's amplifiers and pre-amps, despite claims to the contrary, have made very little progress over their outstanding equivalents from the long distant-past. The better, and best, pre-amps from the 1980's-90's era (Audio-Research, Conrad-Johnson, Counterpoint, etc.) for instance, are still absolutely competitive with their 'highly-advanced' counterparts of today - even those from some of the same companies.
With regard to amplifiers, for example, the Audio-Critique web-zine's 'Vintage-Files' section carries a testimonial from a reader who owned $7,000+ Manley Neo-Classics and discovered they were comprehensively out-performed by a pair of ancient 1950s/60's Ampex 6973-tubed 22watt power-amps. Needless to say, he then sold the expensive Manley-Neos (at a significant loss, for sure) and reconditioned his 'new' Ampex relics for front-line duty in his audio-system. Similarly, the $4,000 ASL Hurricane has been hailed in high-end circles as a 'bargain' since it consistently equals or out-performs amps in the $10,000 to $20,000 price-bracket, and above. Yet, another reader from the same source also discovered that his Hurricane was similarly out-performed by a pair of tubed 50 watt Stromberg-Carlson AP-55's from the same era as the Ampex above. Since these revelations, the prices for these relics have escalated somewhat, but it's still possible to find similar giant-killers for less than a grand. Reconditioning with new capacitors and resistors, etc. would add to that figure, but not by much.
However, since those amps are tubed; let's just say that you appreciate the sonic qualities of tubes but, like many, you are reluctant to endure the hassles and expense of periodic tube replacement. Well, the good news is that one aspect of the few real advancements that have been made over the years is that some tube equipment are now closer to solid-state in the areas where solid-state traditionally excelled - and vice versa. So though the very best tube equipment still hold an advantage, in my opinion, some solid-state equipment now equal or surpass their general tube equivalents, overall, and also in the areas where tubes traditionally excelled. I speak from a basis of personal experience since a solid-state ARC LS3 pre-amp succeeded in fooling me into thinking it was a tubed component for several months after I'd bought it. This was because it sounded more tube-like than most tube-equipment I had been familiar with. The same is also true of a solid-state UREI 6150 power-amp I also use - it passively allows the tube-like qualities of the LS3 to prevail, without subtracing anything or adding any solid-state artifacts, as many others do. And it's better at this (among other things) than an undeservedly 'well-regarded' tubed Dynaco ST70 I once had lying around - marginally the least-accomplished tube-amp I'd owned, but representative of many.
This advancement of the narrowing of the gap between the better tube and solid-state gear actually commenced many years ago; the LS3, for instance, is of early to mid-nineties vintage, and the UREI precedes it. So it is possible to find tube-like solid-state gear today, at very reasonable prices on the used-market.
So what does one do with all this ground-breaking information? Well, one could actually build a world-class audio-system which sounds much much more realistic than most, for a fraction of the cost of most. That's, basically, what one could do, actually.
Building the Best Audio-System for the Money
Before looking at an example of this, I'll outline an example of the cost of its much more expensive, yet sonically inferior alternative bought new. But before doing even that, let's look at my take on an all-out state-of-the-art system, from my point of view, just to further illustrate my way of thinking, and how such a philosophy could be relevant even in the highest echelons of audio. I'm formulating this hypothetical system even as I write, but I'll bet it will not cost as much as $100,000. [That is: A complete audio-system (with several source-components) potentially capable of absolute state of the art performance, for LESS than the cost of ONE 'highly-advanced' turntable].
This proposed system will not be an amalgam of the most expensive brands conjured to impress the impressionable. That's much too easy. Moreover, for top-quality SOUND, you really don't NEED that sort of extravagance. So in this list you'll not find $1/4 mil Wlison WAMMs, or Goldmund's $300k turntable, nor will you find $300k-$600k amps from Wavac, Goldmund or Ultrasound. [The $1mil Grand Enigma speaker-array, for example, is simply ridiculous for the home, unless your 'listening-room' is as large as a large sports-arena. It's not one system, bye the way, but several speaker-systems stacked together]. No, my proposed state of the art audio-system will be unbelievably inexpensive, by comparison, and may even inspire amusement in the ignorant. But in terms of its potential to reproduce sonic realism, the system will be as serious as a heart-attack, and fully competitive with ANY conceivable system today, regardless of cost.
Absolute State of the Art SOUND On A Budget: Starting with the speakers, I'd use custom-built spherical horns similar to those of the Avantgarde Trio as a basis. Special attention would be given to the often neglected lower-midrange region to ensure realistic performance in this area - vintage KLH drivers could be ideal for this because of their uncommon abilities at the lower-mids. At mid-range, 7" Yamaha NS10 drivers could be used because of their clarity and accuracy in this region (likewise, at mid-bass too). Ultra-xpensive exotica such as ceramic drivers, and diamond-encrusted tweeters, are not necessary, in my opinion - there're others at the very top-echelon that don't utilize such exotica either. (Acapella's ion tweeter, however, is an option that would be beneficial in limited terms, but at its high cost we'd also examine alternatives. In the interim, an Altec compression driver would suffice admirably, in the overall scheme of things, especially since it betters most contenders in dynamism).
Dynamic realism thru high efficiency is the reason why horns would be used. Efficiencies above 100db/1w/1m would be targeted. Spherical-horns are the choice because of their apparent lack of colorations in the mids, compared to other horn types. In ensuring realistic dynamics AND realistic lower-mids we will have addressed the two major areas where most other systems, including most at the top-echelon, are severely compromised. (Even the few that are most efficient/dynamic also seem to neglect the lower-mids, sadly). Therefore in addressing BOTH these neglected areas (dynamism and lifelike-tonality) we will have gained a considerable advantage, over most alternatives, in portraying lifelike REALISM, at the very outset. The rest is, therefore, easy.
Sub-woofers would be a pair of vintage Goodmans 18" drivers in JBL-designed cabinets (known as ‘Scoops’ where I come from). Those are rear-loaded horns terminating in a semi-circular chute - for deep-bass. Two to four 7" Yamaha NS10 /woofers in a sealed enclosure would assist one Goodmans 15"er, per channel, in under-sized ‘scoops’ to supply mid-bass. That total DIY speaker-system should cost less than ten-grand, believe it or not. [I'm confident of the 'low' cost and high performance because, with the exception of the enclosure-design, the horn-bells, and the 15"inchers (double 8" inchers are presently used here) I've just described my own system, basically - see the article, 'DIY Speaker-Systems::...' for more on this. In lieu of horns, high-efficiency is currently ensured by doubling-up on some of these same mid-range/mid-bass drivers. The highly efficient drivers at treble and deep-bass (along with massive bass-reflex enclosures) ensure dynamism in these regions too].
For purity, no passive crossover-networks would be used. One channel each of three pairs of new Coincident Frankenstein 300B tubed 9watt power-amps would drive each of the three spherical horns (treble, mid, and lower-mid) per channel - $15,000 total. And two used UREI 6300 solid-state stereo power-amps would cover the four bass channels - used price; much less than $3,000. [Lower-powered tube-amps (perhaps four 50watt Stromberg-Carlsons) could instead be considered for duty here, depending on the requirements of the listener(s) and space]. The active crossover units (3&2-way) would perhaps be used tubed items from ARC costing $3,000, or slightly more..
New line-stage and phono pre-amps could also be tubed Coincident Statements, coincidentally, at a cost of $10,000 total. (All Coincidents quoted are adjudged to be at the 'edge of the art' in performance, despite their 'moderate' prices). Turntable could be a modified vintage unit such as Garrard's 301/401, Lenco's L75, or Thorens' TD124 costing approximately $5,000, more or less, after mods. Factor in a new tone arm for a similar cost, and a cartridge which could cost as little as $600 for a re-tipped Garrott P77, or something similar, or a maximum of $3,000 for something like a new Grado Statement. Add a reconditioned reel to reel 2-track/15ips tape-machine with custom-built tubed pre and playback-amp stages costing, let's say, $6,000 (more likely - much less since the machine, itself, could be obtained for $1000 to $3000). Digital could be handled by a computer, at no extra cost since most already have one. The sound of this PC, or similarly equiped CD-player, could be up-graded to surpass most high-end digital units with a Pro-Tools M-Box utilized as a digital/analogue-converter for our purposes (used by most studios in producing CD's) cost - much less than a grand. Why the M-Box is ignored by the high-end community is a mystery to me considering the fact that it betters most DAC's. Perhaps, and I do believe, most are not aware of its possibilities. And for others, perhaps it's not 'costly enough', ironically.
[Note that all these components have a legitimate claim to being at, or near, the top of their category. However, to dispel any doubts about the speakers, since they're unknown DIY's, those could be substituted for known, off-the-shelf, items. But since candidates which meet all the performance criteria are so very rare, and non-existent at 'reasonable' cost, then some improvisation would still be necessary. For example, aside from placement constraints, relatively 'inexpensive' Klipschorn bass-bins with mid and treble horns replaced by Avantgarde (Duo) units could never be reasonably disputed, in principle - moreover, efficiency/dynamism would be top-notch. And I'm surprised not to see such a combo thought of before now. (Avantgarde's small sub-woofers are ruled-out since the Klipsch may be better, in my opinion, and the large Basshorns are also ruled-out for being un-necessarily expensive, in the context of this exercise, and in the context of the cost/quality of the Klipsch alternative). For me though, the completely customized DIY system above would be slightly better than the Klipsch-based one, overall, for reasons concerning ultimate performance at the lower-mids, mid-bass, and deepest-bass. Efficiency/dynamism concerns would also be added to that list for most other contenders - perhaps I'm just too fussy]. But even with new Klipsch/Avantgardes, this whole audio-system would still cost less than $100k, lesser still with the prefered DIY array.
This system of used and reasonably-priced new components, I guarantee it, would equal or better any state-of -the-art million-dollar audio-system. Utilizing its 'master-tape' reel to reel facility would put it beyond reach of ALL but a hand-full of similarly equiped systems. And it would only have cost you a 'mere' $61,000, with the prefered speakers, leaving you only to source your power-conditioners, and cables/inter-connects. (Cables too, could cost you very much less if you buy from the factories that actually make them, not the facades that claim to).
Mid-Fi Sound at High-End Expense: On now to an example of a system which I'd consider to reflect an unfortunate excess in un-necessary expenditure, especially considering its ultimate potential sound-quality. Let's start at the point where the quality, the realism, of most systems is choked - the speakers.
Most, yes absolutely, MOST high-end speakers are compromised in their ability to emulate lifelike sonic-realism. This is because, while they excel at stereo imaging and minute detail-resolution, they're also dynamically constrained and tonally thin (ie lacking lower-midrange body). Unfortunately, these two major elements that they lack are, absolutely, the most important for achieving realism in reproduction We could name almost any high-end speaker-system, at random, and this statement would still be true, unfortunately. But since I've had occasion to compare them to my own in the past, we'll name the highly-regarded $12,000 iteration of B&W's 802(D) for this hypothetical system. Amps are Boulder 850, at $10,000 per pair. Line-stage pre-amp is a VTL 7.5 II at $16,500. Phono-stage is Lector mkII at $3,000. Turntable is Clearaudio Ambient with arm and Concerto cartridge - total $6,000. Total cost of this system would be around $47,500 without cables. That's nearly the cost of our no-holds-barred system above. That's almost 50-grand for great detail-resolution & stereo-imaging, but NOT MUCH OVERALL REALISM since this system is fatally choked at the throat - at the SPEAKERS.
Note that the use of almost any other popular speaker would render similar results: The B&W 802D is, in fact, one of the best of its kind. It uses some of the same components of the flag-ship, highly-acclaimed, 'state of the art' 801. B&W themselves will tell you that, except for deep-bass, both sound identical, and we all agree. So the 802D is also virtually 'state of the art' too. Nearly ALL high-end speakers have sonic characteristics similar to the 801/802, more or less. But any honest and experienced audiophile will tell you that neither the 801/802 nor any other popular high-end speaker can even come close to the REALISM of the relatively 'inexpensive' Klipschorn, for example, NONE. And there are obvious reasons why the Klipsch and others like it are so realistic, but many still fail to address these issues in the process of system-building.
[It is important to note that, yes, it is necessary to have high-quality equipment for high-quality sound. But at the levels of quality of the equipment being discussed here (in class A, B, and C - differences are minute) it is much more important to ensure overall system-synergy and comenserate levels of competence in every component in the chain. One weak link WILL compromise the quality of the whole chain. Therefore, it is entirely possible for a system of mostly class B and C components, for instance, to thoroughly out-perform a system with mostly class A components if just one of those components is compromised. In quite a few of my articles I've been trying to point-out that MOST of our speaker-systems are severely compromised. Many of them certainly deserve their class A, B, or C classification if stereo imaging and detail-resolution are the main criteria for excellence. And certainly, this could be the ONLY reason they're rated so highly. But we seem to have forgotten that high-fidelity is all about fidelity to the source - live music - as it was recorded, with all its fullness of tone and awe-inspiring dynamism. Sadly, judged against this standard, most speakers are abysmal - dynamically retarded, and tonally anorexic (at the lower mids). Judged against the standard of sonic-realism (as they should be) most speakers would be firmly ensconced in class D, or below. A pity. They do sound pretty. But they fail to replicate sonic reality!]
Near State of the Art Realism for Much Less: Now for the economic, giant-killing system of used components: Speakers could be the 104db-efficient Kilpschorns, at approximately $3,000 (if you can find an owner willing to let them go. If not then around $5,000 will buy them new). Tannoys are a, surprisingly, more expensive option. Nevertheless, we could buy the ('used' 15" dual) drivers and have the enclosures built, preferably to a 'Prestige' Tannoy-design. Scrimping on the size is not an option since efficiency-induced dynamism (along with correct, 'full-bodied', tonality, btw) is where most of its advantage lies. We'd be targeting an efficiency rating of at least 94db/1w/1m. Another option is the DIY system roughly outlined in the article, 'DIY Speaker-Systems'. based on my own system. In addition to its high-efficiency/dynamism and 'full-bodied' (lower-midrange) tonality, this DIY system is also ultimately adept at detail-resolution and stereo-imaging, among other things. Both the latter are minor issues with the Tannoys and Klipschorns, respectively, but any of these three will easily out-perform the 802D, and the vast majority of high-end speaker-systems, in so far as sonic realism is concerned. Therefore, half the battle is already won.
Amp would be similar to either of those 'giant-killing' tubed Ampexes and Stromberg-Carlsons alluded to earlier, acquired and reconditioned at a cost of perhaps $1,500. [Or it could be a solid-state ARC D130, UREI 6150/6250, Quad 303/405 or similar, for those with an affinity/aversion to tube-sound/tube-hassles, respectively]. Line-stage pre-amp would be an ARC LS3, or similar from Conrad-Johnson, Counterpoint, etc., and would cost perhaps $1000 to $1500. Phono-stage would be a tubed EAR 834P, either new and stock at $1000, or used and modified at the same cost. Or, one could consider something like an ARC SP10 or SP11 for around $3,000, thus eliminating the need, and cost, of a separate phono-stage. (Other phono-ready pre-amps like the ARC SP8 are, also, less costly options at around $1000). Turntable could be a used Linn Sondek/Ittok at $1000 to $1500 (or a Thorens TD125/SME for less, or even an idler-drive similar to those above, modified, for a little more). And cartridge could be a re-tipped discontinued moving-magnet such as the Garrott P77 above, or a new Grado Sonata for a similar price of around $500 to $600. [Oops! Again I seem to have broadly described a familiar system, albeit, sans sub-woofers and ancilliaries].
We could stop there, or we could add $1000 for an unmodified 'master-tape'-capable tape-machine, such as a ReVox A77mkIV for instance, to extract unparalleled performance, untouchable by any other rig that is not similarly equipped. So, for a total of approximately $10,000, more or less, we would have a system which would be vastly more realistic than that $47,000 system previously described. 'Upgrading' to the greatest front-end components on earth could render marginally more detail and stereo-imagery, but would still not significantly improve that un-necessarily expensive system in terms of overall sonic-realism. The irony is that just changing the speakers (the weak link) of that system, as it stands, could make it just as good as this one. But then, we'd still have achieved this level of realism for very much less.
High-End on a Shoe-string: Be advised that this philosophy of 'the best for the least' is applicable at all levels, so don't be scared by the $10k figure. That hypothetical system is, potentially at, or near, the state of the art in aspects of its performance, and is easily up-gradable to the ultimate level. It is entirely possible to build a complete system in similar fashion for somewhere around two grand, more or less, potentially out-performing many costing much more than ten.
An example? OK, consider a Thorens TD125 turntable with SME 3009II arm for $700, a Grado Reference Sonata cartridge for $500, an Audio-Research SP8 pre-amp with phono-stage for $1000, UREI 6150 or Quad 303 power-amp for less than $500, two pairs of original Advent speakers for $500. These Advents would be stacked, one inverted atop the other, to form one stereo pair - no mini-monitors advocated here. (There are two sets on e-bay for $249, each pair, even as I write). Total cost of this system (without cables and accessories) - $3200.
ALL these components are reasonably close in performance to the best in existence, and this system's performance would also be close to the best, especially in terms of mid-range naturalness, and especially in terms of sonic-realism. For instance, the Advent may not be as detailed as some of its modern counter-parts, but likewise very few of these can approach its natural realism. This was most recently reiterated in issue #162 of the Absolute Sound magazine where a panel-discussion on sonic-realism highlighted stacked Advents, Magnepans, and original Quad ESL's as being amongst the most realistic reproducers of sound - ever. These Advents could be modified for detail and stereo-dispersion, sub-woofers could be added too, but that's another story.
[Alternatives with similar natural realism and lower-mid strengths could be stacked KLH models, with 12" woofers, from the late 60's thru early 90's, but all will also have to be, eventually, modified for top-tier sound. See the article, 'DIY Speaker-Systems..' for ideas. There are others but, mostly, recommendations for those are not offered for reasons of expense - Tannoys, for example. The tower models from Boston and Cambridge SoundWorks (not Azur) are relatively recent possibilities, though. Recommendations for most others would be thoroughly hypocrytical on my part, unfortunately, due to the dearth of legitimate candidates - as previously outlined].
If you prefer CD's to LP's, then substitution of the turntable et-al for a used (Wolfson 24-bit/96khz PCM DAC equipped) Cambridge Azur 540C CD-player, at around $400, could bring the total cost down to $2400. The Wolfson DAC and other design-features ensure performance well above this CD-player's price-bracket. Low cost and high quality were features of some of this brand's components. In fact, substitution of the amp and pre-amp for the 540A solid-state integrated amp, of the same brand, costing about the same $400, could lower the complete system's cost even further to $1300. Overall, the sound-quality would also be lowered. But the sound would still be high-end, and still better, also more realistic than some that cost much more.
Perhaps it is better to buy used, after all.