You’re on the computer. Odds are you’re listening to music right now. Our goal here is to help you build or improve your system in steps. We’re not going to obsess about grandiose, upper reaches here. We’d be happy to cover those bases in person in our shop. This section is for those of us that work for a living and can’t do it all in one shot.
You want a great system, but are probably going to top out at $20k or much less. Have some fun ruminating about the options!
Every component, including cables, in your system contributes to the end game. Each piece has its own characteristics. I’ll share my perceptions of each piece in hopes that you can create a system you’ll absolutely love!
Let’s discuss one topic to start. State of the art sound is derived from hi-res source material. You can get that from SACDs or by buying hi-res files through the web. Or, as of February of 2017, you can STREAM MQA files through Tidal and get edge of the art sound through your system affordably!
The sources recommended below are for people that want to play music without the time and hassle required in assembling a fancy library on an outboard drive. Just stream, or plunk your disc in the drawer and hit play!
Streaming: Bluesound Node 2 $500
You want this! It shakes hands with the web wirelessly or wired. Sign up for Tidal or some other service you like. Tidal offers music in MQA (hi-res) or CD quality. Both are terrific and you don’t have to pay per album to own a file. Run Node 2 into your preamp or integrated and you’re good to go!
Most of us have a boatload of CDs. There is no reason to toss them out. Don’t believe that foolishness purveyed in some audiophile circles that says silver discs are over. For a hundred and one reasons, that’s ridiculous. I won’t waste time here on that subject! Consider the following fine disc players to start your system.
$300: NAD C516BEE
NAD’s entry level disc player is very good, and very inexpensive. If you have an older player with problems- TOSS IT! Because you can buy this guy for three bills and get back in business. It is clean and lean. It doesn’t have subterranean bass like the Emo ERC-3, but for $300?!
$500: Emotiva ERC-3
ERC-3 is the class of its price range! For only five bills you get a 22 pound CD player that sounds great and is built like a tank. With RCA and XLR outs, the Emo provides audiophile performance at a bargain price.
$1200: Marantz SA-8005
SA-8005 can serve as a fine source in all but the priciest of systems! There is no better source bargain in our biz! SA-8005 plays SACDs as well as Red Book (regular) CDs.
SACDs came out in 1999. The info on an SACD is approx 64x that of a Red Book CD. The difference is well worth the modest extra outlay. SA-8005 plays Red Book discs well too- of course!
Even if you own thousands of Red Book discs, you should have SOME SACDs as well. We’re not telling you to purchase all your music in SACD. But some of your favorites… for music that is really special in your life, deserves to be played on SACD! There are over 5000 titles available out there. You’ll be surprised how many you’ll want.
$2500: Marantz SA-14S1
The 14 is the least expensive model in the Reference Line from Marantz. It sounds modestly better than the SA-8005. Of course it plays SACDs and Red Book CDs. It is built like a brick out house! You might buy this if the money is right. But you might just look a notch north…
$7000: Marantz SA-10
I’ve gotta tell ya, if you can beg, borrow or steal the cash, this is the player to buy! At $7k, it is unsurpassed! It is built like Ft. Knox. SA-10 is the finest disc player our planet has seen. It has a unique MMM music treatment that eschews traditional D to A converters. That’s right. No DAC necessary. It has an effortless, open sound like nothing else I’ve heard. It supports XLR as well as single ended connections. Many disc players have passed through our doors and I can say flat out, SA-10 is the best ever!
Alternative Source: Turntable
We recommend MoFi and Rega as your analog source providers. Nothing sounds more antiquated than a rickety plastic turntable. If you’re spinning something like that- you’re not hearing your records! With a great table, machining is at the crux of the matter. Where ever one material meets another, machining and materials choices have been carefully chosen/considered. The less friction you get, the better sound will result. Each step up in the line is audible.
When it comes to playing records, think… of, you’re riding in a vehicle and trying to write a letter on the dash board. If the car/truck is vibrating like mad, your writing will be a jiggly mess. Your stylus is trying to perform a similar trick when playing records. The more attention you pay to these details, the more clear your “handwriting” will be.
$475: Rega Planar One with Carbon Cart
The Planar One is a fine turntable. I highly recommend it! Running with the Rega Carbon cartridge is a good value. Butttt, I really want you to upgrade the cartridge from the Carbon to the Ortofon Red. It will run you a C Note so your price is $575. It’s WELL WORTH the extra pesos.
$675: Rega Planar Two with Carbon Cart
The new Planar Two is a fine starter table. It comes with Carbon MM cart. Planar Two is good enough to justify stepping up in the cartridge some day. So you might start here and move north as the bug bites harder. Consider the Rega Bias 2 cartridge which runs $165 and is well worth the upgrade- the package landing at $840.
$1145: Rega Planar Three with Elys 2 cart
This Rega combo is a nice notch up. The arm/cart alignment (fixed 3 point) is specific and fool proof. You get more information=better definition off the grooves. This is the point of diminishing returns in the line. Elys 2 cart also has 7.0mV output! This new Planar Three is a true bargain at $945 sans cart.
$1150 MoFi StudioDeck+
MoFi’s new tables are exquisite. The sound is smooth, warm and BALANCED. The cartridge with StudioDeck+ is the StudioTracker ($200 a la carte). It has MoFi’s unique DUAL MAGNET design which emulates cutter head technology.
$2000 MoFi UltraDeck+
MoFi’s new UltraDeck+ is a smokin’ value. With three chunks of steel to weight this sucker down, it’s a heavyweight with higher level performance than anything above. It has extra mass, a better motor, better arm and wiring than StudioDeck+. At $2k it’s my favorite analog source and uses the UltraTracker cartridge with DUAL MAGNET design for optimum performance.
Ortofon Bronze Cartrdige $440
What a great MM cartridge! Smooth, warm, loads of mellow detail.
Ortofon MC Quintet Black Cartridge $1000
With Sapphire cantilever and Line Contact stylus, you do need an MC headamp for this fine cartridge- the first MC I consider worth the effort and expense of going into MC world. That phono preamp should be MoFi’s new StudioPhono for $250, supports MM & MC.
There are many ways to go in electronics, but let me suggest two STACKS of separates here.
A “stack” is a preamp and amp. The advantage of running separates is that you have more PUSH and control from the amp, since the real estate of the power amp chassis is all muscle. Think of 8 cylinders instead of 4, or 12 instead of 8!
Emotiva BasX Preamp & Power Amp $700 Together!
You read that right! Only $700 for this combo which will make any speaker below get up
and dance like nothing else for $700.
PT-100 Preamp: $300
This is absurdly inexpensive for a fine sounding preamp with phono and a DAC! For any of
you with older Hafler, Dyna, GAS etc preamps, this boy at $300 beats ‘em!
A-300 Power Amp: $400: 150×2 8 ohms, 300×2 4 ohms
What fantastic power amp! With large toroidal transformer, 8 output devices and a big bank
of filer caps, A-300 will whip smaller amps and I can prove it to you in two minutes! Take me up on the challenge.
Emotiva X Series Preamp & Power Amp $2200 Together!
XSP-1 Preamp $1200
Fully BALANCED discrete preamp! With an ample array of ins/outs, including fine MM/MC phono and a sub out, XSP-1 is nothing short of the best preamp value in our biz!
XPA2G3 $1000: 300×2 8ohms, 550×2 4ohms
This is made in the USA with a five year warranty. Its power and sound quality are RIDICULOUSLY good for the money. Buy this X Series stack to get the most out of your speakers.
It is clean, smooth and drops the hammer like nothing in this price range!
The Integrated Amp
Integrated amps give you a nice bang for your buck. We have so many phenomenal INTEGRATEDS out these days!
$650: NAD C338, 50×2
C338 is an absolute stunner for the money! With NAD’s patented Soft Clipping and Power Driver circuits, C338 provides a real slice of audiophile quality. NAD amps sound at least twice as strong as their power ratings imply and are stable into low impedances. With a modern array of features including USB-B, Bluetooth & MM phono, C338 is a nice buy! Has sub out, not pre out.
$900: NAD C368, 80×2
As you would infer, C368 is the bigger brother with quite a bit more power. It lets you drive a hungrier speaker and deliver stronger bass. C368 will drive almost any speaker respectably- even the big dogs! So going modest in price on the amp might make good sense so you can spend more on the speakers, where you’ll surely appreciate it. C368 has modern inputs and pre-outs.
$1500: Rogue Sphinx V2, 100×2
Sphinx is a wonderfully mellow, tube based integrated amp built in Pa. The preamp uses two 12AU7s, the amp section is solid state. It has MM phono and three high level inputs. It’s a super value for you vinyl lovers and people that own a fine CD player. No DAC on board. It can drive Maggie 1.7i’s ($2200pr) pretty comfortably. It’s an intriguing entry into the budget audiophile market and my favorite choice south of $2k if you’re not a head banger.
$1600: NAD C388, 150×2
With 600w peak power, C388 has major thunder capability at an affordable price. It plays huge speakers comfortably and allows your integrated investment to stay reasonable so you can spend the motherlode on the speakers where it matters more! C388 is especially sweet with the GoldenEars!
$2500: Rogue Cronus Magnum V2, 100×2
For analog lovers and SACD owners, Cronus Magnum V2 approaches rarified air. The preamp and amp sections are tubed. MM phono is on board. Think warm and mellow, no tinge of grit or sizzle. No DAC on board.
$3800: Hegel H-190, 150×2
Hegel’s H-190 mates strength and music. It has an on board DAC and interfaces with DNLA and has Airplay. All Hegels provide a level of detail, immediacy and bass impact that are the class or their price ranges.
$6000: Hegel H-360 Integrated Amp, 250×2
Hegel from Norway offers this new, sumptuous top of the line, integrated. With the power of a battleship and on board DAC, Hegel’s 57 pound tyrannosaurus brings integrated performance to new levels. Amp design is AB. Huge toroidal transformer. Twenty bipolar transistors. Circuit design is patented SoundEngine- a current dumping design with no negative feedback. The noise floor is silent. The high damping factor (4000!) provides grip to your speakers they’ll really appreciate. What a wonderful, musical piece that can accompany the best of loudspeakers.
While everything matters in a system, it is undeniable that speakers contribute more to the sound of your system than anything else. You can buy two speakers at the same price point that sound NOTHING ALIKE. Here, more than anywhere else, your taste comes into play. We don’t all like the same flavor/ingredients in our pasta sauce.
Speakers need to be mated to electronics that will drive them appropriately for YOUR taste. As a bad classical piano player, I don’t need my speakers to play urban music at trunk rattling SPLs. But I do need them to do justice to fine rock bands like the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac or Grace Potter & The Nocturnals.
$280pr: Elac B6
This is my favorite inexpensive speakers. With 6” Kevlar woof and 1” Silk dome tweet, B6 is the best bookshelf value I’ve ever heard. It delivers more impact than B5 and isn’t that much more money. If you have the space, buy this super smooth, rich sounding speaker!
$700pr: Emotiva T-1 Towers
Hot off the presses are these open, airy, under priced towers from Emo! With RIBBON TWEETER, one 5 1/4” mid, and two 6” woofs- you’ll be pleased with how open and airy the T-1’s sound. They’re efficient and can be driven by literally any amp out there. How nice to fine a bargain speaker with a ribbon tweeter and punchy bass!
$800pr: Quad S-1
My wife says these are the most “DARLING!” speakers she’s ever had in the house. They are stunningly attractive in their real mahogany finish. More importantly, they sound great with ribbon tweeter and 4” Kevlar woofer. You can’t beat it as a true mini with open, airy sound!
$1000pr: GoldenEar Aon 3
Aon 3 has respectable bass and a super mellow top end in a moderately sized shelf speaker. Aon 3 runs a 7” front firing mid/woof and the Heil ribbon tweeter. If you like butterscotch on top and warmth forever, Aon 3 is a top consideration at a grand a pair. GE also makes the Aon 2, $800pr. The Aon 2 is a tad smaller and uses a 6” driver. Most folks prefer the extra bass of Aon 3. But if you’re running a sub or just need a smaller footprint, Aon 2 is an option.
$1400pr: GoldenEar Triton 7
The Triton 7 is GE’s new, affordable tower. It uses the Heil tweeter (of course!), which is parked between two mid/woofs, hence D’Appolito style. The chamber is loaded with two Infrasonic Radiators. The result is… all the things we’ve come to love about GE- clear top end without being bright, imaging that will knock your socks off, and impressive bass for the money.
$2000pr: GoldenEar Triton 5
T-5 is a passive design = no built in powered subs.
It is a muscled up T-7 if you will. It has two 6” mid-woofs and GE’s ribbon tweeter.
It employs four side firing Quadratic Radiators. Its sonic flavor is bigger than T-7, but also more open and clear. A very nice $2k per pair value!
$2200pr: Quad S-5
Quad employs a true ribbon tweeter in a sleek, gorgeous mahogany tower. It comes with great looking outrigger feet as well. S-5 has a very open top end and quite respectable, blended bass.
$2500: GoldenEar Triton 3+
T3+ is the first GE speaker to have an on board, powered sub. It has more weight to the sound than T5, so if you don’t want to fiddle with an outboard sub and want deep bass, it’s a nice option.
$2775pr: Bryston A3
A3 is Bryston’s entry level tower. It’s powerful and smooth on top. It’s an excellent full figured speaker which I’m happy to recommend. But…
$3230pr: Bryston A2
Bryston’s A2 is a big time power house. With slightly larger enclosure than A3, but using two mids and two tweets, A2 sounds quite a bit BIGGER. The timbre is smooth and warm, not bright. A2 is getting recognized as the sweet spot of the A range. It’s a little more than A3 and well worth it if you like big time muscle.
$3500pr: GoldenEar Triton 2+
Triton attained cult status. With a Heil tweeter situated between the mid/woofs, it follows D’Appolito’s design brief. The kicker, literally, is that there are TWO active, octagonal subwoofers housed in each tower, driven by a 1200w amp! The result is a real dose of rich bass to go with the detail described above in Triton 7. T2+ is an upgraded version of the venerable T2. The main improvement is in clarity.
$5000pr: GoldenEar Triton 1
Holy Loudspeaker improvement! As good as T-2 is for $3k, the T-1 is a big upgrade! Not only does T-1 have an extra active woof and bigger cabinet- the two mid drivers and cabinet construction are a nice upgrade from T-2. T-1 offers more clear sound along with a bigger bang. At $5k per pair with on board powered subs driven by a 1600w amp, GE achieves new levels of performance!
Magnepan offers a different slice of life compared to any cabinets. They require a few placement stipulations to make them sound as they can. Maggies have to be off the back wall at least three feet. You can’t slam these boys back in the corner without killing the sound. They radiate front/back and the back wave cancels the front.
If you pull them into the room, give them plenty of juice and let them breathe, they offer a life-sized image that is uncannily realistic! Maggies work best in a room where you’re willing to work around THEM instead of your wife’s decorating instincts. If your music room is in the basement, tell the wife that’s YOUR ROOM and she can keep her decorating opinion to herself DOWN THERE.
Hearing vocals through Maggies is downright amazing. Maggies excel in the ability to throw a life-sized, unboxy image between the speakers. If you want Diana Krall singing TO YOU in your house, you can’t do better than Maggies!
Please be aware Maggies are not electrostatics. They don’t have low impedance problems and amp killer proclivities like the stats. Maggies are a purely resistive 4ohm load so your amp will double power into them.
$1400pr: MG .7
MG .7 is Magnepan’s brand new, most affordable all Quasi speaker. The performance of the .7 is competitive with anything short of MG-3.7i. What a great value- that needs to be run with a great amp like the Hegel H-80.
MG 1.7i is miles ahead of MG-12. With bigger bass and super tweeter, 1.7i is a downright bargain. It can float a boxless vocal between the speakers like nothing else south of the 3.7i below. If your main musical love is singers in particular, do NOT pass up giving the 1.7i a listen. MG 1.7i can do justice with more than vocalists, of course. But because we hear the human voice every day, hearing the 1.7i on voice is a sure way to hear how it’s different (better?) than anything else.
MG-3.7i is a slight update from the very successful 3.7. It has a true ribbon tweeter. The lesser models have a QUASI tweeter. The air and space with the true ribbon achieves the state of the art performance. 3.7i has better bass than the 1.7i. But it’s the top end air and space that take it to another level.
The MG-20.7 is about as good as it gets! It’s larger than the 3.7i and uses superior construction. Specifically, 20.7 uses DUAL OPPOSING magnets to grip the push and pull more effectively. If you’re looking for the ultimate in a panel speaker, the new 20.7 is the Real McCoy!
Bryston has been making speakers since about Christmas 2012. What it is offering is a unique combination of clarity, smoothness and kick arse muscle! Generally when choosing among speakers, “flavor” is your call. Do you like brand A or B? Whichever the choice, it is YOURS.
What Bryston wanted to add to the speaker party- is MUSCLE. The amount of thunder you get, under control and in a tuneful fashion, is nothing short of industry changing! The Bryston “T Range” of speakers all revolve around a massive 8” woofer. The Bryston 8 makes the competition look like Tinker Toys. If you’re looking for big time bass and dynamics with a smooth, mellow top end, think Bryston!
$8685pr: Model T Hardwood Finish
The Bryston Model T is a full size tower that will knock you over at 30 paces! The image is huge. The bass is huge. The power handling is exceptional. The sonic flavor is more mellow than aggressive. The T is getting raves in our industry as THE choice for big time power and dynamics at a fair price. Most speakers that are capable of these SPLs downright hurt in the process. Not the Brystons- which are made in Canada.
$6240pr: Middle T Hardwood Finish
The Middle T uses two of the Model T’s woofs, and one each of the mids and tweets. For the vast majority of our customers, Middle T will be plenty of speaker in a smallish tower. It you want the flavor of the Model T but don’t need quite the uuumphhh, Middle T is your speaker!
$3700pr: Model Mini T Hardwood Finish
The Mini T is a full sized shelf speaker, 3-way, that sounds huge. You won’t know if we have a subwoofer on, or off- when we demo the Mini T for you. Its sonic flavor is identical to the Model T. It is quite a bit stronger than ANY of the comparably priced 2-ways out there.
There are fine 2-ways for $2-3k by Paradigm, B&W, Kef, Dynaudio and others. None of them touch the Mini T for muscle and dynamics. It ain’t even close.
TAS just announced the Bryston Mini T to be the BEST MEASURED speaker RD has ever encountered! And by the way, it sounds great too!
Subwoofers By GoldenEar
We would be remiss to ignore this topic. We find that most of our customers get a big smile on their faces when the earth moves. If you own Bryston Model Ts you might not have to read on. But… you might enjoy this anyway!
GoldenEar makes two lines of subwoofers. The SuperSubs and the ForceField Subs. Reliability on GE subs beats anything we’ve ever sold by a landslide!
$2000: SuperSub XXL
XXL is a dual plane, dual opposing 12” subs design. The opposing subs cancel cabinet distortion. Infrasonic radiators fire up & down. With 1600w amp and DSP technology there’s no bigger puncher out there. One review aptly named this guy “King Kong in a tuxedo.” I’m jealous they beat me to such a clever description.
$1250: SuperSub X
X is the little brother to XXL. But when the little brother is gorilla.. you might not need King Kong.
$1000: ForceField 5
FF5 uses a front firing 12 with 1500w amp, and down firing infrasonic radiator. It hits harder than anything for a grand with respectable control- though not like its SuperSub brothers
$700: ForceField 4
FF4 uses a front firing 10 with 1200w amp, and down firing infrasonic radiator. It produces a big sound that will handle most living rooms.
$500: ForceField 3
FF3 uses a front firing 8 with 1000w amp, and down firing infrasonic radiator. You’ll be amazed what this little guy can do for the money.
Digital Interconnect Cables
From your CD player to DAC in digital domain, you need a DIGITAL cable. We prefer Coax for this use.
$50: Mogami LINK I, 3 or 6’
For $50 you can get a Mogami LINK I, 3 or 6 feet in length. Longer lengths are available. Of course you can buy much more expensive cables. But the LINK I is so good, and so reasonable, that we highly recommend it. Mogami uses an extravagant shielding technology. If you imagine the coil at the top of a hangman’s noose, Mogami COILS the ground along the entire cross section of the cable. They call this the SPIRAL GROUND. Most companies have a flimsy ground system that is largely open, not unlike a chicken wire fence. Other companies use flimsy paper or foil. The Mogami LINKs do it right and affordably. There is no fancy packaging or advertising for you to pay for!
$235: Kimber D-60 .5m
For a higher end digital cable, we recommend the D-60. It has silver plated conductors and a Teflon dielectric. The sound is ever so slightly brighter than the Mogami.
Analog Interconnect Cables
$60: Mogami LINK II, 3 or 6’
$60: Mogami LINK II, 3 or 6’
As described in LINK I above, the LINK II is built the same way. Hyper pure copper with a spiral ground. The sound is smooth and detailed. The price is downright inexpensive. This cable is a great value!
$200: Black Velvet, 3 or 6’
The Black Velvet uses very similar cable and construction to the Mogami above. The advantage is that the RCA heads are the Neutrix make and break style. The result is a better physical connection. The sonic benefit is a whisker smoother sound. Available in RCA & XLR.
$140: Kimber Timbre, 1m
The Timbre is comprised of copper cable, Tri-braid geometry and a clear Teflon dielectric. The sonic advantage is a slightly more detailed sound than Black Velvet or Mogami. Available in RCA & XLR.
$310: Kimber Hero, 1m
The Kimber Hero is a Quad-braid design and has much superior, locking, WBT RCA heads. Its sonic flavor is awesome warmth with great detail- the best of all worlds! Available in RCA & XLR.
$4 Per Foot: Kimber 4 PR
In 1979 Ray Kimber taught us all that there is more to getting good sound out of speaker wire than just running fat wire. The Quad-braid technology set new standards and still offers the best bang for the buck in speaker wire. Its “sound” is detailed, yet smooth- with no proclivity towards brightness.
$12 Per Foot: Kimber 4 TC
4TC has Varistrand construction and a Teflon coating. The sonic result is that it allows more information to be heard compared to 4 PR.
$23 Per Foot: Kimber 8 TC
8TC is our choice in most higher end systems, where speakers run about $2500 per pair on up. It provides the open, airy sound of 4TC but has superior bass impact.
$1545: Kimber Monocle XL, two six foot lengths with terminations
I’m not a “cable maven.” I’m not into snake oil and witchcraft. Yet I promise you the Monocle XL is worth its price if you’re after the ultimate level of EFFORTLESS, dynamic sound. Everything good about hi-fi improves with Monocle XL. Bass, clarity, transients, dynamics. Music floats and breathes to a new echelon. If you have electronics like the Peach Tree Grand Integrated and speakers from S-100 on up, consider Monocle XL! The pricing includes WBT bananas or Kimber spade lugs. It runs $1680 in 8’ lengths, $1900 in 10’ lengths, $1350 in 5’ lengths.
NAD C-516 $300
NAD C338 $650, 50×2
Elac B6 $280pr