The Budget Audiophile, Rolling Stone (2001)
HOW TO BUY A WORLD-CLASS STEREO FOR LESS THAN $2000
MOST PEOPLE IMAGINE that you can buy a pretty good stereo for $50,000. Not many suspect that you can put together a system almost as good for $2,000. This can’t be done, I’m afraid, with gear you find at your local RadioShack. To join the fraternity of the Miserly Audiophile, you have to know what you’re doing — it’s easy to drop two grand and end up with something dire. Also, if you are absolutely committed to the accurate, sub-rumbling reproduction of the bottom few notes produced by the world’s monster pipe organs, you probably won’t find satisfaction for less than five figures. But if you can develop an ear for a certain kind of (often British) component, it’s more than possible to create serious music at a less than silly price.
SPEAKERS? GO BRITISH
START WITH THE SPEAKERS, AS THESE, more than anything else, will determine the overall flavor of your system. As a general rule, you should pour half your budget into the speakers (say, $1,000), a quarter into the CD player or turntable, and another quarter into the amp and cables. The greatest bargain in audiophile speakers tends to be the tiny British studio monitor. These are speakers that were designed to bring the engineer as close to the original music as possible. The best of them are exceptionally accurate and provide an eerily holographic stereo image. They even look good: discreet shoe boxes, often finished in exotic wood veneers. Many of them weigh a lot for their size and have the feel of something exceptionally solid — as if they were much larger speakers, compressed. Which, in a manner of speaking, they are. These monitors are generally expensive, judged by the cubic inch, but, relative to huge high-end speakers, a bargain.
The archetypal Tiny British Monitor is the famous LS3/5A, produced initially in the mid-Seventies as a portable studio monitor for the BBC. Critics immediately hailed this design for its uncanny imaging, its sweet mid-range and soothing treble, and its impression — despite the fact that the lowest bass notes were near-nonexistent — of balanced reproduction across the entire sonic range. You can often find a used pair for between $500 to $800. Try eBay or do a search for classifieds on the Web; look for the ones made by Rogers or Chartwell. The LS3/5A went out of production for a time, but after much lamentation, Stirling Broadcast was given a license just this year to start building them again (stirlingbroadcast.net). Production is limited; prices start at $750 for walnut or black ash. During the interregnum, Hi-Fi News and Record Reviews — the best of the British magazines — deemed the Harbeth HL-P3ES-2 the successor, and an improvement. Another great substitute for the original is the tiny Spendor S-3/5, championed by The Absolute Sound (a quirky, uncompromising American magazine, almost British in its sensibilities). The HL-P3ES-2 is $1,175 per pair, the Spendor $900.
Current TBMs to consider are made by ProAc, Harbeth and Monitor Audio. Of course, there are truly exquisite American (and Canadian) speakers. Aerial Model 5s are not much larger than the LS3/5A; they’re priced slightly out of the cheapskate range — $1,800 — but you might find a demo pair on the Web for about $1,200. I first learned about them from a percussionist at the Met, a guy whose organs of hearing make most of ours look like cirrhotic livers. He bought the Aerials, he explained, because it was important to him to be able to catch the nuances of a particular kind of skin, stretched on a particular kind of frame and struck with a particular stroke by a particular mallet.
My favorite TBM isn’t, strictly speaking, so tiny. The Epos ESII is actually about the size of two shoe boxes. I picked up my pair for $400 from perhaps the best of the stereo-geek Web stores, audioadvisor.com, but they were cheap only because they’d just been discontinued. The current version of the ESII is the M12 and is an equally solid option, although you’ll have to shell out $895 for a new pair. Do you want Epos ESIIs if you listen to a lot of Slipknot or System ora Down? Yes and no. It depends on how you feel about accuracy. The Epos ESII (and the small monitor in general) does not give you the wild thumping bass that a metalhead might crave, but what it does give you is tight, accurate bass. That is, the bass won’t necessarily shake your eyeballs in their sockets, but you will hear pretty close to what the engineer heard when he was producing the thing. You’re listening to his decisions, if not precisely what emerged from the stacks of vicious Marshalls on either side of the stage.
GOING TO THE SOURCE
THE NEXT MOST IMPORTANT component in your system is the machine that extracts the information from your records or CDs. If you’re a true audiophile, there’s no argument: You know that vinyl records are superior to compact discs. Even though digital sources improve daily, there’s no question that they still add a brittle edge.
And unless you’re a DJ, you want a belt-drive turntable. Belts are perhaps less accurate than direct drives, but they sound better. The best of the most affordable high-end turntables were introduced by Rega in the mid-Seventies: the Planar 2 and its slightly pricier brother, the 3. The Planars have remained in production, almost unchanged, for decades; you can often find a used Planar 3 on eBay for less than $500, including the Rega arm (spectacular!) and a decent cartridge.
If you want a new turntable, some great, cheap stuff is coming out of the Czech Republic. The British audio press was bliss-struck recently by the Pro-Ject, a simple but elegant table that could be had, with a decent tonearm and cartridge, for half the price of a comparable Rega. The models start at $319, at fredsoundofmusic .com/sumiko.html.
The Music Hall MMF-2.1, also Czech and imported by the same guys who bring Britain’s Epos into America, uses the same tonearm as the Pro-Ject, and is silly cheap. Table, arm and cartridge? $299. The cartridge itself is merely OK; a good upgrade is one from the Grado line.
As for CD players, for $500 you can find a number of lovely machines. California Audio Labs is a superb make, but its recent models cost a fortune.
Two discontinued models, the DX-1 and the DX-2, can be found for well under $500. If you really want to spend more, then theRega Planet is spectacular at $950. The latest, and slightly controversial, CD player is the Ah! Tjoeb. Say it out loud, and it sounds like tube, mangled by a Dutch accent. Ah! is the name of the company.
What these guys do, in the Netherlands, is add a tube stage to an already respectable Marantz unit. Some critics swear by the improvements; others insist it’s hype. The latest version, the Njoe Tjoeb 4000, (new tube), is available at upscaleau dio.com for $579.
GETTING WELL CONNECTED
YOU CAN SPEND $30,000 ON CABLES. I don’t recommend it. On the other hand, you want something slightly better than the cheesy zip cords that come with your amp and speakers. It hurts the miserly heart, but put a hundred bucks into decent wires. MIT Terminator 4 speaker cables at audioadvisor.com are a bargain (believe it or not) at sixty bucks per eight-foot pair. The cheaper MIT or AudioQuest interconnects are also good. Keep your wires as short as possible.
SLIM BLACK BOXES
WHEN IT COMES TO AMPLIFIERS, THE first important decision is whether to go tube or transistor. Audiophiles overwhelmingly prefer tubes — the sound is warmer and less clinical — but it’s much easier to find bargains in the worm of solid-state equipment.
The less an amp adds to the sound of your system, the better. In transistor amps, connoisseurs have long favored svelte black boxes with minimal controls: preferably a knob to adjust volume and little else. Back in the Seventies, when dials and equalizers and flashing lights were the rage, two budget amplifiers famously bucked the trend and helped bring a minimalist approach to the masses: the Advent Model 300 and the NAD 3020. The NAD was an integrated amplifier — that is, a preamp plus power amp — and the Advent (a receiver) threw a tuner into the bargain. Neither had much in the way of raw wattage, but they sounded great.
How many watts you need, by the way, depends entirely upon the size of your room and how efficient your speakers are. Some of the TBMs suck up a fair bit of power. Equally important is impedance, which again has to match your speakers; the LS3/5A is particularly weird in this respect. (The Dynaco ST-70, mentioned later on, is a good match.) This stuff is too complex to get into here; when you buy the equipment, seek advice.
The Advent is long deceased, but you might say that it’s been reincarnated in the Arcam Alpha 7R: also slim, also black, also pretty-sounding and pretty cheap at $550. And it has a good phono stage.
Another Advent-ish buy is anything made by Musical Fidelity, a really fine British company. The newer products are costly (upscaleaudio.com), but most of their discontinued amps are a good buy.
The NAD has undergone a number of generational enhancements and can be found in much more powerful versions, but the various models remain minimal, marvelous and an astonishing bargain. They sound (or don’t sound) wonderful. And with most models, you can decrease the sonic interference by pressing a little button that causes the circuitry to bypass the tone controls. Tone controls are a very un-British concept: They go against the notion that you want to have as little as possible between the source and the speaker. Your amp should do a disappearing act; every knob that gives you the Possibility of tampering with the signal is also — even when set to NEUTRAL — standing in the way of accuracy.
MOST AUDIOPHILES DREAM, WHEN they’re not having solid-state nightmares, of glowing glass bottles, humming (preferably in silence) along with the glorious music, to which they add that subtle, mysterious tubular warmth.
Tubes are retro, and if you’re going to go retro, my advice is to buy a classic tube amp from the decades in which they were first properly appreciated. New tube amps are pricey — they tend to start around a grand and climb into the stratosphere; you, on the other hand, want to start at a grand and descend. If you hunt through pawn shops or perch like a vulture on eBay, you can buy what the Japanese consider the finest amplification in the world. What you want here is a pair of monaural Leak TL/12 Point Ones, from the late Forties. One amp for each speaker. If you’re not a genius with a soldering iron, count on putting at least a couple of hundred into bringing these gems up to spec. Kids, do not try this at home unless you really know what you’re doing. Even when the amp is not plugged in, electrocution remains a poignant possibility. The original TL/12 Point One has been discovered and is getting expensive — often well over $1,000 for a pair of them. So you might want to look into some later Leak gear -the TL/12 Plus, which some consider just as good, or the Stereo 20, which is cheaper and more powerful.
Those are the more expensive options. In the $500 range is the fully reconditioned Dynaco ST-70 power amp, coupled with a PAS-3 preamplifier. Dynaco is a famous cheapo brand whose gear was available pre-built or in kit form for the budding young Tom Swift. The ST-70 is gaining a solid following, however, buy one soon, as prices are rising.
My audiophilic guru is Bob Herman, a high-end salesman and consultant who moonlights — although he’ll never admit this — as a Miserly Audiophile. He has the PAS-3 and ST-70 combo at home, and he’s offended by price gouging: “More than $350 for a pristine ST-70 and you’re being ripped off; more than $150 for the preamp and the guy’s a thief. They made a zillion of these things.”
Even cheaper — revered by a much smaller cult — is the Fisher 500C receiver. You get it all — amp, preamp and tuner -for about $200. Call up A1 Pugliese, a.k.a. the Fisher Doctor (fisherdoctor.com); he’ll put it in shape for you, sell you a DIY kit if you want to doctor the thing yourself or sell you one he’s already refurbished. Fishers were once popular. If you’ve ever been to Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, you’ll have some sense of how much money Mr. Fisher made off these products.
Lastly — and here’s what I bought after a ton of research — you can get what’s considered by many to be the best integrated amplifier ever made: the Scott 299C. The integrated amp, in which preamp and power amp share the same box, is a much-maligned concept and has been for decades. The separation of these two components results, according to many amp designers, in a better “topology.” By which they mean the way the bits and pieces are arranged. It’s the purity thing. My advice is to throw ideology to the wind, however, and listen to the 299C.
From 1946 to 1966, HH Scott produced components for the upper-middle-class, a budding demographic of audiophiles. If you were a bit richer, you bought separate components by Marantz or Macintosh, but the Scott integrated amplifier was more than respectable. And the 299C represents the high point of Scott production. I picked up a 299C for $175. It worked from the moment I plugged it in and has required no surgery. You may not be this lucky; it might cost you a hundred bucks or so to get the thing in shape. If you have to buy tubes, either new or used, try Ned Carlson at triodeelectronics.com Oh, and by the way: The Scott has a superb phono stage. Were you to manufacture an amplifier of this quality today, with its huge transformers and point-to-point wiring, it would cost a ludicrous sum.
As an experiment, I went out on the Net to see whether I could replicate my system, which I’ve put together over the course of years. I tried eBay first, where a pair of Epos ESIIs, with matching stands, recently sold for $350. Hmm. I could have saved some money. A Rega Planar 3 without cartridge went on eBay for &365. Add a brand-new Grado Reference Platinum (since used cartridges can be a gamble) for $300 from audioadvisor.com.
The California Audio Labs DX-1 was offered for $150 — funny how prices don’t change — in a classified ad at audioreview.com/market. And, in an ad at antiqueradio.com, I found a Scott 299C for $175. Throw in a hundred bucks for cables, which is what I paid. The total, for a system that set me back $1,525, came to $1,440. And that’s with a brand new cartridge.
I got ripped off.