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 AND SAVING THEM TO AN OUTBOARD DRIVE.
Bryston offers its BDP Music Players. If you buy hi-res files and dump them to an outboard drive, the BDP shakes hands with that drive to provide great performance to your DAC (preferably a Bryston DAC!). If you want to go this route, it’s a “process.” It can be well worth the effort, but it IS an effort that takes real time. Stop in if you would like to discuss the details.
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 plunk your disc in the drawer and hit play!
The Source: Disc Player
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.
$4000: Marantz SA-11Mk3
I’ve gotta tell ya, if you can beg, borrow or steal the cash, this is the player to buy! At $4k, it is unsurpassed! It is built like Ft. Knox. SA-11 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 that cost several times what this guy does. And yet this is the best of the lot! To make everything after your source sound its best, START with SA-11Mk3!
Alternative Source: Turntable
We recommend Rega as the analog source provider. Nothing sounds more antiquated than a rickety plastic turntable. If you’re spinning something like that- you’re not hearing your records! With Rega, machining is at the crux of the matter. Where ever one material meets another, Rega has paid attention to that interface. The less friction you get, the better sound will result. Each step up in the line is audible. Here are the points I recommend.
$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.
$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.
$2100: Rega RP-6 with Exact 2 cart
With outboard motor, superior platter and arm, RP-6 is a very sophisticated table. It’s tough to do better at ANY price. The Exact 2 cart also has the 3 point alignment, 7.0mV output and Vital shaped stylus to give you more deep groove information.
$4000: Rega RP-8 with Apheta Low MC cart
It would be folly to call any turntable-cart combination THE BEST available. So I won’t go THAT far. I will say it rivals the best analog gear out there for a third the price!
Most tables that would belong at this level of the totem pole run about 5k for the table, $2500 for an arm and $3k plus for the cart. In short, $10k easy! RP-8 and Apheta are sold as a package for $4k, $4800 if purchased individually. With Rega, you can be sure it all lines up properly and works as advertised. You can’t say the same for piecing other analog bits together!!
The Integrated Amp
Integrated amps give you the best bang for your buck. There is nothing wrong with separate pre and power amps. But the price is going to jump a bunch. Since we have so many phenomenal INTEGRATEDS out these days, I’m going to start here.
$550: NAD C326BEE, 50×2
C326BEE is an absolute stunner for the money! With NAD’s patented Soft Clipping and Power Driver circuits, C326 provides a real slice of audiophile quality. NAD amps sound at least twice as strong as their power ratings imply. It has 7 line ins (no phono), but does have a subwoofer output, and has pre-out/main-in loop. If you’re budget buyer, look no further.
$900: NAD C368, 80×2
As you would infer, 368 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.
$1500: Rogue Sphinx V2, 100×2
Sphinx is wonderfully mellow, tube based integrated amp. 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 1.7s ($2200pr) pretty comfortably. It’s an intriguing entry into the budget audiophile market!
$2000: Hegel H-80, 80×2
With Hegel’s H-80 we have the most musical integrated line out there- at a reasonable price, with on board DAC. Hegel uses AB designs with heavyweight supplies. H-80 drives real speakers like Magnepans and Brystons. Fairly new to the US from Norway- super value!
$2500: Rogue Cronus Magnum V2, 100×2
For analog lovers and SACD owners, Cronus Magnum 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-160, 150×2
Hegel’s new H-160 mates strength and music. It has an on board DAC and interfaces with DNLA and has Airplay. This may well be the best integrated amp value on the market as it has some usable technology with among the gutsiest performances you can get. 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 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 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.
$230pr: Elac B5
Yes, that says $230 per pair, not each! With 5” Kevlar woof and 1” Silk dome tweet, Elac has redefined speaker expectations for the price. Rather than trying to make its speakers efficient enough for you to drive with a transistor radio, Elac has created a line of terrific, inexpensive speakers. The bass will impress you. The top is smooth as … silk.
$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!
$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.
$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!
$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!
$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…
$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.
$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!
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 DV-75, 1m
For a higher end digital cable, we recommend the DV-75. 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 C-368 $900, 80×2
Elac B5 $230pr