Two-Channel Stereo (Part 9: Phono Stage [Pre-Amp])

Let’s start simply. You own, or may soon own, a turntable. The turntable is comprised of a spinning platter, a tone arm, and at the end of the tone arm, a phono cartridge with a tiny stylus. The stylus makes contact with the grooves on the record, and if you listen carefully, you will hear music–the sound of the stylus, or needle, running through the various bumps and valleys in those grooves. Now, the trick is to amplify those sounds, retaining both clarity and character, without introducing anomalies.

If you think back to the stereo systems of the 1970s, you could simply plug an RCA stereo cable from the back of the turntable to the back of the stereo receiver, and choose the “turntable” option on the front. The concept has not changed. The receiver contained a phono pre-amplifier to bring the turntable’s incoming signal up to a certain level, which was then amplified to a level that could be heard on a pair of loudspeakers (or headphones).

Today, this setup is still available, but we’ve become more sophisticated. Nowadays, you can buy the tonearm as one device, the phono cartridge as another, high-priced cables to assure the best quality sound running from the tone arm to the phono stage, and then, a separate pre-amplifier, amplifier, high quality loudspeaker cables, and the speakers. In this article, we’re focused on the phono stage, or phono pre-amp (the terms are used interchangeably).

One more thing before we discuss equipment. (This paragraph gets a bit technical.) There are several types of phono cartridges, and your choice of cartridge will affect your choice of phono stage–and vice-versa. The two key terms are Moving Magnet–often abbreviated as MM–and Moving Coil (MC). The difference between them is not simply explained nor easily understood. Most inexpensive cartridges are MM, but there are excellent MM cartridges available. MC cartridges are usually purchased by those with better audio systems, but a good MC cartridge can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. All of this will be discussed in a future article.

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Inside the Sutherland Insight phono stage, easy adjustments for Gain and Loading. Once you decide upon a specific cartridge, just move the four little red caps one time, and forget about them.

For now, you should know that every cartridge offers its own electrical characteristics.For purposes of selecting an appropriate phono stage for your needs, you’ll be concerned with “gain” and “load.” Gain is easy to understand–it’s the amount of amplification required from the phono stage for that particular cartridge. Gain is expressed in decibels, a familiar term. Load is more complicated, involving some understanding of impedance, capacitance, etc. No worries. Let’s move on.

I’m now spending so much of my listening time with LPs, I was becoming more aware of how good my CDs sounded, and I was wondering why my LPs didn’t sound as good. No real complaints–the current setup has served me well for twenty years. Still, I suspected there was room for improvement in the “analog front end” of my stereo system could be improved. But where to start?

I like my turntable–and apparently, so do the people who service it from time to time. I consulted my various advisors, and everyone felt I could stick with the Rotel RB900 for a long time. Nobody felt turntable replacement was the place to start.

How about if I swapped out my Shure V15vx–a classic, well-regarded MM cartridge that cost a few hundred dollars new. How old was it? How many records had I played? Did I treat it with care and love? Was the stylus dirty? Could the whole thing sound better if I just spent more on a new cartridge? Which one? I started reading reviews online–but the reviews led me to believe that the phono stage mattered more than I realized.

So here’s the challenge. You can’t listen to a phono stage in isolation. You need to listen to a phono stage connected to a turntable with a particular cartridge on the one hand, and a pre-amplifier, amplifier, various cables and loudspeakers on the other. To some extent, you can ask your local dealer to swap out the phono stage and leave everything else as-is, and try to discern the differences. Fortunately, I found a dealer who was as curious about the difference as I was, so I started there. Before we started the tests, we tried our best to match the sound of my existing stereo system in his showroom–and did that fairly quickly. And we started to listen. Remember: my starting point is a $200, 20-year old phono stage.

I know what I want to hear. I want a single cello to sound like it has heart and soul. I want a violin section to sound like individual instruments, not a like a mass of high sounds. I want a clarinet to sound like a clarinet. I want to hear the difference between brass instruments in a jazz ensemble, and I want the drummer to tap every so gently and to hit it hard and make me smile. All subjective. All in my head. All pretty easy to hear–or not.

Phono stage pre-amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes, designs, even colors.

Phono pre-amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes, designs–even colors. I prefer a more traditional look.

The tests didn’t take very long, in part because I had carefully read just about available review on the internet. It was more of a checklist exercise, with confirming glances shared between us–nope, this wasn’t it, nah that wasn’t the one either. I had high hopes for the Lehmann Audio Black Cube Original ($629), and the Creek OBH 15 MKII MM/MC Phono Preamplifier ($595), but neither sounded substantially better than my current setup. I had read good things about Vincent’s PHO 700 Phono MM/MC w/Outboard Power Supply (now on sale for $499), but I felt my existing setup offered greater fidelity, despite the Vincent’s impressive clarity (these terms are very, very squishy but I knew what I heard). In my research, I found 85 different phono stage boxes at Music Direct, and I was intrigued by those in the $700-800 class–perhaps this price point was a better choice for me. I explored the Jolida JD9 II Standard Tube Phono Preamp ($699), and the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ ($75o) but again, I didn’t find the significant jump I was hoping to hear. Confused and frustrated, I wondered whether I ought to shift my focus back to the phono cartridge purchase, but I wanted to do this exploration in a systematic way. I’ve always been a big fan of Balanced Audio Technology, but their products are designed for far more discriminating listeners. I tried their least expensive phono stage, the VK-P6 ($3,499)–and smiled.

I was right–the phono stage was the right move! I just needed to accept the idea that a mysterious box–a phono stage–was worthy of a larger investment. I continued to explore–the internet is amazing for this sort of thing but you must be patient and give yourself time to absorb and compare–and I came upon a company called Sutherland. Like B.A.T., Sutherland seemed to be very serious about engineering. The company’s website showed a whole line of phono stages that were remarkably well-reviewed. The most reasonably priced model, the Insight, cost $1,399. Along with its $10,000 big brother, the Insight was included in the useful list of Stereophile Recommended Components for 2016 with a $$$ notation which means, roughly, performs beyond the price expectation.

goldmarkkarlKarl Goldmark was a contemporary of Brahms, and he wrote a lovely piece called the Rustic Wedding Symphony. Four bucks bought a fine recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I like to use this as a test because it begins with a slow-and-steady sequence by the double basses and cellos, really low and distinct. The bass section is followed by a more animated sequence with violins and violas–a distinctly different sound. Enter the winds: bassoon, clarinet. Everything is clearly in its own section. And then comes the allegro with lots of instrument sounds: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, plus the violin and viola. Lots of variety in a relatively short time. Lots of opportunity for total enjoyment of the music and assessment of the rendition of individual and grouped instruments. (And, there is a free score available from the New York Philharmonic! With the conductor’s markings!!)

insighthero-1024x438Not wanting to make my phono stage exploration a career, I was hoping to hear what I wanted to hear. First up listening with the Insight: the low sequence. The double basses and cellos were strong, rich with quiet power, full of resonance and mystery, very natural. But the instruments were less clearly delineated than I hoped. The animated violins and violas can sound a bit screechy, but they were controlled here, again not quite as distinct from one another as I dreamed they’d be, but certainly satisfying — and the bit of screech faded with the first twenty or thirty hours of use (equipment needs to be broken-in). I loved how the soundstage was cast–the low strings were far over to my right, and the violins and violas were definitely in their own section to the left of the conductor, and for the violas, back a bit. Next, the winds–warm and lovely. And here comes everything! Would the variety of woodwinds, horns, strings all jumble into one conglomeration, or retain their individual identities? On my old (inexpensive) phono stage, they made for pleasant listening, but they were not clearly defined. Here, they were. Again, not perfect, but far more than acceptable, and filled with promise–I was beginning to imagine what an upgraded phono cartridge could deliver (in fact, I have upgraded the cartridge–that’s the topic of the next article in this series–matched it carefully by listening to good advice, and I’m now even more satisfied with the discrimination between instruments, the clarity and richness in some of the higher and low ranges–more on this coming up). The more I listened, the more I smiled. So: I was listening to records and hearing, and feeling, so much more than I had before. What a thrill! Seriously, I kept listening, trying one record after another as if I had discovered something magical.

After a month of listening, I am a kid in a candy store. Or, more accurately, a record store. When I have some free time, I drive out to a record store–yes, they’re still around but you may have to do some web searching before you go shopping–and I buy a bunch of LPs. Used LPs–high quality, often classical, some rock, some international, some this, some that–mostly costing less than $4. I get home, I wash each record (new obsession, more about that in a future article), and I just listen. I close my eyes and listen to the subtlety of a Smetana string quartet for 27 uninterrupted minutes. It’s the strangest thing–I am listening to the same stereo system that I have listened to for two decades, I changed one piece of equipment (okay, two because I have now changed the cartridge, too), and I am mesmerized.

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What’s inside the box? I sure wish I understood what I was seeing, why this design provides excellent sound. Best of intentions–I would love to spend the time learning, but inevitably, I spend my time listening instead. Which is, after all, the whole point.

So what have I learned? A quality phono stage can make the whole analog front end sound a whole lot better. I was not so impressed with most of what I tried, so the choice of a specific box from a specific manufacturer is well worth the time and trouble. My old tendency to buying lower in the product line from a small manufacturer that specializes in much higher-end products within a single category is, once again, a strategy that seems to work. The phono stage is only part of a puzzle–there are definitely places in the musical spectrum that felt inadequate when I listened through my (lesser) Shure cartridge that greatly improved with a better cartridge.

lpsMost of all, I confirmed the importance of patient listening–confirming what I thought I heard by listening to the Goldmark symphony by also listening to jazz by Lee Morgan, vocals by Ricky Lee Jones and Linda Ronstadt, rock and roll jams on the obscure Music from Free Creek (with music by Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Jeff Beck), bringing some old Delaney & Bonnie & Friends recordings back to life. There is a consistency about the listening experience that not only sounds and feels right–amazing how much pure instinct and right brain judgement is involved in confirming my sense that the Insight is the right choice–instinct and behavior. If I notice that I’m just standing next to the turntable, intending to lift the stylus but deciding to listen to just one more song, I know I’m making a good decision.

Well, part of a good decision. Based upon many listening sessions, I’m confident that the Sutherland Insight makes sense, but only with a properly matched phono cartridge. That process is the subject of the next article in this series.

Complete list of articles in the series

A Clever New Way to Play Records

3c8017d58837b3a633a260de50c535e5_originalYou’re looking at a very clever approach to playing LPs. No turntable required. Just place the LP on a flat surface, and the RokBlock will drive itself along the grooves. Totally busts any expectation about what a record player ought to be. Use it anywhere!

So here’s the deal. This is an active Kickstarter campaign–they have already met their goal. The RokBlock contains amplification and loudspeakers, so this is all you need. Of course, you can use the built-in Bluetooth to send the sound over to any Bluetooth device–a headphone, a better wireless speaker, even your high-end stereo system.

No, this won’t sound anything as good as a proper sound system, but most people don’t want / cannot afford / could care less about being an audio phone. Most people just want to have some fun and listen to some music. Anywhere. And now there’s a way to do that.

If you want one, the best available KickStarter deal costs $79–that’s still 20% off of the expected $99 retail price. But you, like anyone who orders, will have to wait until September 2017 before the box arrives.

There’s a rechargeable battery that lasts about 4 hours. You can play 33 and 45 rpm records (but not 78s rpm).

It’s a cute gimmick, a clever example of creative thinking in action. Without one in my hands, it’s tough to imagine the sound quality. I’m sure it’s no worse than an old record player, and my guess is that this will sound better than those early devices.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 8: Listening to Beethoven–or Do CDs Sound Better than LPs?)

Or do LPs sound better than CDs? Or, in the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Or is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation?

Just for fun, we decided to listen to several recordings of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (also known as Eroica). Just about every recording was an award winner, or the work of a notable conductor working with one of the world’s most highly regarded orchestras. People who are serious about their two-channel stereo systems often use classical recordings to test their systems because (a) the instruments are acoustic, unadorned by digital special effects, and (b) by and large, classical recordings are made by serious engineers working to the high standards of deeply experienced conductors and label executives.

karajan-beethove-3-dgWe started with one of the past century’s best–Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1961-2 for Deutsche Grammophon. I had just picked up a $4 LP, in very good shape, from Bop Shop Records in Rochester, NY. And I was anxious to do some critical listening with a more sophisticated phono stage pre-amplifier, the Sutherland Insight (which will be the topic of an upcoming article). Everything else in my system remained as it has been for nearly twenty years, except a replacement phono cartridge that’s easily five years old, the Shure Vx15. A very good system, but not an extravagant setup. We would be able to hear the recordings clearly. And we planned to test both LPs and CDs from various eras, various labels, to determine which we liked best. Not a scientific survey, but a reasonable way to spend a winter afternoon.

So: Karajan… Energetic, punchy, but the instruments were not clearly delineated from one another. The record looked pretty new, but we heard a lot of clicks and pops. Not much energy in the mid-highs or the mid-lows. A violin section sounded like a single, thick violin. Some strain evident–the playback was not as stable or confident as I hoped it would be. All in all, not we had hoped for.

eroica-bernstein2Next up: Leonard Bernstein from the same. Era. This was my LP, purchased decades ago, kept in it boxed set, played maybe ten times. This was a master work from Columbia Records at the label’s prime. The performance is ambitious, engaging, flowing–but the sound of the horns and the strings was compressed, very limited in highs and lows. We wanted to hear the depths of Beethoven explored by Bernstein in his prime–but the recording let us down.

eroica-toscanini1Before going modern, we decided to go for Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, first on LP and then on CD, recorded in 1949–before stereo recording was available. This was state-of-the-art at the time, but the dynamic range was so limited on these recordings, they did not stand up to modern listening. Historical interest only.

colin-davis-beethoven-symI had high hopes for my treasured 1995 CD set from Colin Davis and the Staastkapelle Dresden. Sure enough the CD really delivered–a full range of highs, lows and everything in-between. Wonderful placement of instruments. Lots of clarity, distinct individual violins and basses, just the right horn sounds. I was excited–but somehow, the listening experience was a few marks less than thrilling. After Karajan and Bernstein, the passion felt a little lacking. A fine performance is not the same as a thrilling performance, and when I’m listening to Beethoven’s Eroica, I want to be thrilled. But the sound was more satisfying here than it was on any of the LPs.

Two more shots. Strangely, it’s the same Dresden orchestra, this time led by Herbert Blomstedt in the 1970s and released by the lesser-known Berlin Classics. Again, very good orchestra, very good conductor. This is digitally remastered, perhaps a strike against. The sound is a little thin, not as robust as the Karajan LP, but the performance is full-bodied and fun, if a little slow. The horns sound like horns, the violins sound like violins, there some separation between instruments, and it’s fun. Some of the highs are not reproducing perfectly, but they’re more than acceptable. And it’s a remastered CD. If there’s any logic to the argument that CDs are better than LPs, or vice-versa, I can’t even remember what I was supposed to think.

beethoven0371Now here’s my last one. It’s a digital remaster from 1963, a CD box that I didn’t even know I owned. It’s the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig led by Franz Konwitschny, a notable if not famous European leader. And it’s very good. The energy is there, the instruments sound like real instruments, and it’s compelling. And it’s a remastered CD. I’m listening now, and overall, it’s just plain better than anything else I’ve heard today.

How is this possible? A world class LP from one of the world’s most revered Beethoven conductors on one of the world’s most meticulous record labels, played on a very good stereo system, ought outdistance everything else in the category. Right?

Let’s give Karajan from 1962 another try. As it happens, I just found a box of all 9 Beethoven symphonies, on DG (Deutsche Grammophon), that I bought in very clean condition for $8. (The box was misfiled; I just spotted it.) I’m getting up to remove Konwitschny from the CD player to play a record–and I’m finding that I really want to listen to that CD. I’m engaged, involved…but I also want to finish and publish this article.

From the start, the Karajan is very good. The orchestra is towering, formidable, lovely and sensitive, propulsive. The musicians are spectacular. When the orchestra gets busy on a thick and aggressive passage, my room is filled with life and extreme energy. But the strings are thinner, the horns are less clearly defined, the highs not quite right, the lows are not offering quite the thrill I just heard on CD.

I want to hear this classic record properly, but I am maxing-out the capabilities of my current stereo system. My sense is that the Karajan, and probably the Bernstein, can and will sound better, perhaps much better, if I swap my lower-priced (though highly-regarded) cartridge for something better, a cartridge that excels in presenting mid-highs and mid-lows now so understated when I audition these LPs. I also hope the horns will be more stable, the strings and complicated passages reproduced without the strain that I can now hear too clearly, and the tympani will hit me in the solar plexus.

Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs.

At the same time, I am more and more confident that my CD player, though 20 years old, sounds quite wonderful, holding its own against my rapidly-improving analog phono setup. I hold the other components in equally high esteem. I am especially pleased with the improvements made possible by the Sutherland Insight, now holding the place long held by an inexpensive but competent phono stage–as a result of the Insight, I can hear all of my LPs with far greater clarity, punch, and fidelity to original instrument sounds.

Back to the original questions:

Do LPs sound better than CDs? – Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs. The answer depends upon the quality of the performance, the quality of the recording, and as we’ll see in future articles, the quality of the manufactured CD or LP (the pressing, etc.)

In the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Yes. Almost always. Except when the performance is so special, even a crappy recording does not detract from the pleasure of listening.

Is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation? Oh, there’s a plenty good answer. A very good performance on a very good LP can be spectacular, and the same is true of a very good CD. The quality of the equipment matters as much as the quality of the recording. And you can GREATLY increase the quality of the LP with surprising ease–by washing it. More on that in an upcoming article.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two-Channel Stereo (Part 7: Where to Buy)

The holidays are coming up fast, so I thought I’d take a break from our step-by-step progression toward higher-end audio with a look at places to spend some money for yourself, or for loved ones. Bearing in mind that a quality two-channel stereo is likely to remain popular long after other digital devices have lost their luster, allow me to encourage you to explore the possibility of a new stereo system direct from Santa. Or, if you prefer, from the following web sources:

soundstage-directSoundstage Direct – A wonderful vinyl record store with lots of terrific equipment, including a steady flow of demo and clearance items. Unique because they offer a turntable trade-in plan (as you listen, you may develop a taste for upgrading equipment, now or in the future), and also an equipment upgrade plan. They are serious about good equipment–Soundstage Direct is an authorized and certified VPI Turntable dealer (among the best in the industry–more about VPI in a future article). At Soundstage Direct, the focus is records–high quality, new records. I love the story told by founder Seth Frank: “I went to my wife; we had a 3-month-old baby. I told her I wanted to quit my job and start selling records. I knew she was the woman of my dreams when she said, “Okay, let’s do it.”…We started selling records out of a spare bedroom in our small house. Eventually, we moved it to the garage. Eleven years later, with 18 employees, I get to wake up doing the thing I love. I sell vinyl and audio equipment. That’s all I do… Vinyl has been resurrected and is here to stay. For many of us, it’s a way of life, something we cherish and keep alive together.” Based outside Philadelphia, PA. Since 2004.

audio-advisorAudio Advisor – For decades, I’ve been recommending the knowledgeable people and fair prices at Audio Advisor. The emphasis here is quality audio equipment at just about every price point. Headphones seem to be among their most popular category, and their “Customer Favorite,” nicely reviewed, is the $399 OPPO PM 3 Closed Back Magnetic Planar Headphone— a current fave on many of the audio sites I visit. If that seems like too much to spend, try Grado’s $99 headphone, also very popular–the SR80e. Or any of the 51 other headphones on the site. BTW: The HiFiMan HE1000 Headphones are currently on sale, marked down from $2,999 to “just” $2,399. Call them, ask them why anyone would ever spend that kind of money for a headphone. The person on the other end of the line would probably answer your question clearly, with solid technical knowledge, and a sense of the type of customer who pursues this level of audio quality. Indeed, that’s the best part about Audio Advisor–their website only begins to expose the extraordinary cache of knowledge and experience to be found here. “Over the past 34 years, Wayne Schuurman and his hard-working staff earned the confidence of more than one million satisfied customers in over 200 countries. Our phone lines are staffed by the most knowledgeable and experienced audio sales representatives in the world. They are happy to answer your questions, and they’re experts at recommending low-cost gifts, matching components, or improvements for any hi-fi or home theater system.” Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A two-page spread from Music Direct's print (or PDF) catalog. Or, simply visit the website.

A two-page spread from Music Direct’s print (or PDF) catalog. Or, simply visit the website.

Music Direct – Providing a roughly equal balance between music and equipment, my favorite part about Music Direct is their old-style catalog. It’s so “not overwhelming”–the pages are well-designed and the the information is clearly presented. And it’s a PDF that you can download here (and you can order a paper version–and I just remembered, Audio Advisor has a print catalog, too!). Music Direct is  serious about high-end audio: this year’s best seller was a $3,999 VPI Prime Turntable. Holiday specials include a $79.99 Audio Additives Digital Stylus Force Gauge for $49.99, plus a variety of turntables (I recommend the Rega Planar One for just $299 down from $445). Lots and lots of top brands, including a personal favorite that’s not always easy to find: Balanced Audio Technology, which Music Direct now owns (the company also owns Mobile Fidelity, an early leader in high-quality vinyl pressings). Their News and Blog website feature is an especially good source for new vinyl releases. Based in Chicago, Illinois.

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Needle Doctor – The name comes from a time when finding a stylus for a cartridge was not an easy thing to do. Since 1979, this mail order company has been a leader in phono accessories: their current site features the new Hana MC Phono Cartridges, a buzz item in the industry, along with the Pro-Ject Carbon DC Turntable ($399) with an Ortofon 2M Red Cartridge, a nice combination at a fair price. They do sell other types of equipment–their loudspeaker selection includes Dali and Peachtree among other respected brands (each retailer stocks only a limited range of brands, so you’ll find yourself exploring all of these sites at one time or another). Good closeout section, and some helpful FAQ articles, like this one about buying a turntable.

ed_logo2014Elusive Disc – Based in Anderson, Indiana, this mail order house started in 1989 as a source for hard-to-find vinyl records (hence the company name). Nowadays, they stock a wide range of new vinyl, plus a nice assortment of audio equipment. When I last looked, they were running at 10 percent off sale on Soundsmith phono cartridges, and 30-40% off some Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) discs. I find this site very useful because they maintain TAS Editor’s Choice (The Absolute Sound, a leading trade publication) going back as far as 2005, and similar lists for Stereophile’s Recommended Components. They carry a nice assort of phono-related gear, far less equipment in the categories of amps, pre-amps, and digital gear.

acousticsoundslogo_rawbig2017_250wAcoustic Sounds – At first, Acoustic Sounds appears to be a similar site, focused mostly on records. Look deeper and you’ll find an extraordinary collection of very serious high-end gear. For example, on the integrated amplifier page, we begin with a $12,500 PASS Labs INT-250 Class AB Integrated Amplifier, topped by a $40,000 PASS Labs XA 200.8 200-watt mono XA.8 Put Class A Amplifier (priced for the pair). You don’t have to spend that much, but if you’re in the market for a very high quality pair of bookshelf-style loudspeakers (always placed on specially-made stands, not in bookcases), this is the place to find Harbeth HL-Compact 7 ES-3 speakers in Tiger Ebony cabinets for $3,900/pair, or a wide range of Klipsch loudspeakers (currently quite popular). Also, lots and lots of records. And some of the best available expertise on turntables, cartridges and phono stage equipment in the entire U.S. audio industry. Make good use of their knowledge and experience–and then, become a customer.

Others worth exploring (with an emphasis on two-channel stereo and analog):

Audio Renaissance, a small high-end audio business iN Rochester, NY. The owner is a turntable expert who rebuilds (and sells) used and new turntables.

Audio Renaissance, a small high-end audio business in Rochester, NY. The owner is a turntable expert who rebuilds (and sells) used and new turntables.

YOUR LOCAL DEALER – You know: an actual, physical retail store that carries real inventory that you can buy and put into your car on the very same day. In this era of internet everything, it’s easy to forget these guys. Some stores are extraordinary, with bona-fide expert owners who have spent a lifetime selecting equipment, serving the widely divergent needs of individual customers, installing equipment in every conceivable home and other type of setting, and more. Most dealers stock far less than the internet retailers, so you must either find a specific retailer for a specific brand, or (often better), simply trust their experience and good will. Recently, I found two terrific local dealers in Rochester, New York–the result of diligent internet research. If you’re in or near the area, be sure to patronize Audio Renaissance and Forefront Audio. Both Craig Sypnier and Lance Shevchuk, respectively, are the kinds of people who care deeply about their small businesses, about the technology, and most of all, about their customers. Neither operates in a traditional retail location: they’re both in office locations (not five minutes from one another). One useful source for local dealer information is the manufacturer’s websites; that’s how I found out about Soundscape in Baltimore, Sound and Vision outside Columbus, Ohio (and two outside Cleveland), and Goldprint Audio, south of Winston-Salem. Do some web research and you’ll find a dealer not too far away.

Two-Channel Stereo Articles – Published and Coming Soon

This series is quickly becoming popular, and there are more articles in the works. If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably noticed that I’m moving from reasonably inexpensive approaches to two channel stereo on our way up to high-end audio. Prices are higher, but I believe the experience of listening to music is worth the investment.

Articles published so far in the “Reintroduction of Two-Channel Stereo” series:
1 – General Introduction, emphasis on turntables
2 – Basic Loudspeakers
3 – Integrated Amplifiers
4 – Pre-Amplifiers
5 – Amplifiers
6 – Listening Room
7 – Where to Buy
8 – Listening to Beethoven / Do LPs Sound Better than CDs?
9 – Phono Stage / Phono Pre-Amp

As I wait for review equipment from several manufacturers, here’s a list of articles to come in the near future:

– Upgrade: Phono Cartridge
– Upgrade: Turntable
– Tube Pre-Amplifiers and Amplifiers
– Better Loudspeakers
– Cables – Interconnects and Loudspeaker
– The Importance of Excellent Power
– Racks and Other Vital Accessories
– Clever Inventions That Solve Specific Problems

The process of writing these articles involves a lot of listening. To music. And to experts who have devoted their careers to home audio. Imagine that–people whose primary interest is to make certain that I have a good time when I listen to records. It’s an interesting mix of extreme obsession with technology and a complete surrender to the subjective factors that control every listening experience. My ears and your ears do not hear the same sounds in the same ways, and, of course, every recording is unique. Add that to the sometimes reasonable, sometimes inexplicable result of combining this turntable on that turntable stand with this tone arm, that phono cartridge, this amplifier, that carpeting, these wall treatments–AND YET… And yet there is a kind of listener’s consensus that leads people who listen carefully to certain loudspeakers, certain turntables with certain cartridges, and so on. Should I pay more attention to the music I hear through my own ears, or should I attend to the collective wisdom of those who design, build, market, and loving compare equipment over decades? Of course, I should, we should listen to the music first–but I sure do welcome the guidance that working professionals and serious amateurs in this industry provide.

To everyone involved in this series–thanks for all of the help!

HB

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 6: The Listening Room)

What’s the most important component in your two-channel stereo system? Hands down, it’s the listening room. For casual listeners, this may seem to be a dubious argument, but time after time, I’ve experienced a tremendous difference in sound quality, and personal enjoyment, as a result of paying proper attention to the listening space.

This diagram comes from a useful article from the well-respected audio component manufacturer, Cambridge Audio. For more, click on the image.

This diagram comes from a useful article from the well-respected audio component manufacturer, Cambridge Audio. For more, click on the image.

Mostly, this article is about the placement of your loudspeakers, and the ways ways in which the sounds coming out of those loudspeakers interacts with the floor, furniture, walls, ceiling, and with one another. It’s astonishing: even a shift of a quarter-inch can dramatically affect the positions of the instruments on the imaginary soundstage, the reproduction of bass and percussion instruments, and the clarity of the entire sonic presentation. There’s more useful info here.

First up—and not always popular in rooms occupied by more than one person—is the placement of the speakers AWAY FROM ALL OF THE WALLS. For smaller speakers, not less than two feet in every direction, for larger ones, as much as four feet. Your primary listening position should form a precise equilateral triangle with the center of each of the speakers. (Get out the measuring tape or the laser measure. No kidding.) I prefer that each leg of the triangle be about eight feet, but some rooms will allow only about six feet, and others will allow for ten or even twelve feet (not ideal for smaller speakers). The face of each speaker should face forward—not be “tipped-in.” The cables should be of equal length, which means the electronic components should be placed in-between the loudspeakers (preferably in a sturdy rack made for that purpose—more on that in another article). Placing the rack behind the line between the speakers is fine, too.

Which means: “bookshelf” speakers should not placed in a wall unit or a bookcase. Speakers should not be attached to the wall, or placed next to the wall. They should not be placed snugly in the room corners (doubling the problem of placing a speaker against a wall, now you’re dealing with two walls for each speaker).

Unless you’re amazingly fortunate, the sounds coming from those speakers will reflect off the floor, walls, furniture or ceiling. Let’s take those one at a time.

Floor: a bare stone or hard tile floor is the worst because it’s completely reflective (sound waves will be bouncing all over the room, reaching your ears at different times, sacrificing clarity, tonality, presence, and soundstage), but you can correct much of the situation with one or several thick throw rugs (inside and outside the triangle).

You may recognize Sonex panels from sound recording studios. A four pack of junior sized (2 foot by 2 foot) panels can be stragically placed on your walls to minimize reflection. They really work--but you may not love the addition to your room decor. Fortunately, many solutions are available--but these panels are among the best.

You may recognize Sonex panels from sound recording studios. A four pack of junior sized (2 foot by 2 foot) panels can be stragically placed on your walls to minimize reflection. They really work–but you may not love the addition to your room decor. Fortunately, many solutions are available–but these panels are among the best.

Walls: if your side walls are parallel, then sound waves will bounce between them (causing somewhat similar problems). This is tricky: you need a combination of reflection, absorption, and diffusion. In other words, you will need to experiment, and you probably ought to ask your local audio retailer to provide some acoustic treatment (many available products to mitigate these problems). Sometimes, bookcases help, and sometimes, pictures on the wall help (but be careful about large glass surfaces because they are very reflective).

Big cushy couches and chairs may be very comfortable, but they absorb sound in a big way, and you will lose bass. This, too, is tricky, and you may need to choose between cushions and fidelity. Furniture without soft surfaces can make life complicated, too. A mix of hard and soft is usually best.

Ceilings: a very low ceiling may be reflective (treatments available), and a very high ceiling could cause some echoes (depends upon height). A room with an angled ceiling is better—and sometimes, challenging. A room with walls that are not parallel—same deal.
Other tips:

If you want more bass, try placing your loudspeakers a bit closer to the back wall.

If you raise or lower your listening position (or the loudspeaker), you may hear a difference in the amount and/or clarity of the high or low ranges. This is because your ear is even in height with the tweeter (highs) or woofer (lows).

The Sanus Steel Foundation Mark IV Speaker Stand available from Audio Advisor for about $130-150.

The Sanus Steel Foundation Mark IV Speaker Stand available from Audio Advisor for about $130-150.

Bookshelf speakers should not be placed on bookshelves–too close to the wall! Instead, they should be placed on speaker stands made for that purpose.

Boomy bass is a problem for everyone in the house, and it can be difficult to control. Often, it’s the result of choosing the wrong combination of loudspeaker and power amplifier for the room setting—one good reason to ask the dealer or other expert to help you to select and setup the equipment. Once the system is in place, this can be a challenging problem to solve.

img_0909Fine adjustments matter a lot. When I was first setting up my reference stereo system, I moved each speaker perhaps 1/8 of an inch toward or away from one another, and I routinely heard meaningful changes in the female vocalist’s timbre, the highs and lows in her voice, and the clarity (in this case, the vocalist was most often opera singer Dawn Upshaw on an album entitled I Wish It So (the song was most often “There Won’t Be Trumpets”), but I found the same indisputable improvement listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Rhiannon Gibbons, and then, on solo piano by Brad Mehldau and Mitsuko Uchida, and then, on the Derek and the Dominoes’ first album, and so the list goes on. I know that this seems to be an extremely geeky way to listen to music, but believe me, the extreme attention to proper setup has paid off for more than twenty years—I have never moved the speakers again.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 5: Amplifier)

Time to get serious by placing the amplifier, or power amplifier, in its proper context. As the final electronic component in the chain from original recording to loudspeakers, the amplifier’s job is to increase the power of the signal, or simply, to make everything louder. For better or for worse. Better: high quality original recording, high-quality turntable / cartridge / phono stage or CD player, pre-amplifier, and high quality interconnection cables running between these devices. Worse: the inadequacies of the weakest link are amplified, too.

In the previous article, we discussed a $999 Rotel pre-amplifier, the RC-1570. Happily, this component was designed to pair with the same company’s RB-1552 Mk II, also $999. (Each can be used with a component from another company, but they look and sound good together—and they’re available in a choice of silver or black.). The RC-1570 is a 130 watt amplifier—a 200 watt version is available for $600 more as the model RB-1582 Mk II—useful if your loudspeakers require more power.

Here's a look inside the Rotel RB-1552 MkII with the large transformer common to power amps.

Here’s a look inside the Rotel RB-1552 MkII with the large transformer common to power amps.

How much power do you need? The answer depends upon several factors. The first is the size of the room—think cubic feet, not square feet. A small room—let’s say 10 feet by 15 feet with an 8 foot ceiling—that’s 1,200 cubic feet would require about 50 watts per channel, more if you’re driving a pair of speakers with a special power-consumptive design (the Magnepan series of flat panel speakers are an example). A good-sized living room (20 x 20 x 10 feet = 4,000 square feet) requires about 100 watts per channel—more if you play your music loud. Bigger room, more power required. However: if your room’s acoustics are “dead”—tapestries on the walls, lots of soft absorbent furniture, thick carpeting, few exposed reflective surface—you may need more power. And if your room is very “live,” you may need less power.

If this seems complicated, trust your ears. Ask your dealer to arrange an in-house test so that you can listen to the prospective amplifier and loudspeakers in your listening room. You will learn a lot about the relationship between the amp and the speakers. (More about listening rooms in the next article.) Be sure to listen to your own records, your own CDs—music whose sound you know from past experience.

Start with the low register: the bass, the drums, the bass section of the orchestra, the lowest vocal sounds. If the amp is suitable to the room and the speakers, the bass will be clearly defined—and thrilling. If you sense some straining, or graininess, then the amp is insufficient for the speakers’ needs (this is why your in-home demo ought to include a test of an amplifier beyond what you believe you need). Now, listen for the soundstage—the placement of the instruments, the sense that you are listening to a full group, ensemble or orchestra. When the music becomes complicated, does the amplifier keep up, or does the soundstage begin to decompose? Start at a lower volume, then gradually increase. If the music sounds very good at a low level, you’ve got a good match between speakers and amplifier. If the music doesn’t sound as good when the volume increases—is the higher register smooth or does it become edgy (and, perhaps, headache-inducing)? Don’t be afraid to go louder than you might listen to under normal circumstances—you want to push the system near its limits (preferably under dealer supervision so you don’t blow out the speakers). Listen to a variety of recordings in order to expose both strengths and weaknesses. And by all means, step up to a better amp in order to understand what you are and are not buying.

For most listeners, most of the time, the Rotel RB-1552 Mk II will be an ideal choice, but it’s considered an entry level amplifier for high-end audio, as is the competitive Parasound A-23 Halo (also $999) for comparison. If you were to increase your investment to about $2,300, and your room, listening preferences and/or loudspeakers require the additional power, you should certainly consider Parasound’s 250-watt A-21 Halo. And, take note, there is a sister pre-amp ($1,095), the well-reviewed Parasound 2-channel P5.

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To learn more about any audio component, download the owner’s manual before you buy. (Click on picture.)

Here, we begin to understand the passions of an audiophile: the resonances of the cello, the timber of the piano, the breath behind the vocals, the feeling of warmth and presence, all of these indescribable factors come together to more than justify the additional investment. It’s tempting to read the engineering background, and to refer to the design of the transformer, or the capacitors, or the overall approach to technology, but for me, none of that matters much. Most equipment in this price class is well-made, and most benefits from sophisticated engineering design, but it’s very difficult for me to understand these technology discussions. And besides, what I hear—and I do spend a lot of time listening, as you should if you’re making this kind of investment—and I’ve learned to trust my ears, my brain’s ability to process the information, and the holistic feeling that each recording seems to offer. I think the Rotel sounds very good, and the Parasound A-23 sounds even better—for all of the reasons described above. They also sound different from one another, but I cannot fairly detail the differences because I listened to these models in different rooms, with different loudspeakers.

img_0903Too theoretical? Maybe. We can shift back to the practical side of technology. These amplifiers—typical of their class—offer both RCA and XLR (“balanced”) inputs. It’s best if your pre-amp and your amplifier are both equipped with balanced connection. In the high-end community, there is no clear consensus in favor of balanced connections, so try both to determine which approach you prefer.

The other big decision: tube vs. solid state design. Certainly, tubes can sound sweeter, but solid state may seem less, well, scary. This is a longer discussion for a future article. My short-form recommendation: a tube pre-amp paired with a solid stage amplifier—but there’s lots more to discuss.

img_0902If you’d like to dig deeper into the world of amplifiers, that’s a good reason to buy The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by long-time Stereophile writer Robert Harley (now in its fifth edition. Some of the information in the book is fairly technical, but most of it is written for the same reason I’m writing these articles—to help select the best listening equipment.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 4: Pre-Amplifer)

Just to review: an integrated amplifier combines two functions, pre-amplification, and amplification. A pre-amp accepts  incoming signals of varying strength–from the CD player, FM tuner, and phono system–and makes the necessary adjustments on the way to the amplifier. Your volume adjustments are made on the pre-amp, too. In theory, a pre-amp should do little more than equalize the signals, and allow you to switch between the devices. In practice, your choice of pre-amplifier will greatly affect the way your system sounds, so it’s worth experimenting with several models before you make a decision.

A good pre-amplifier will cost over $500. You can spend a bit less, but you won’t get much for your money. You can spend many thousands of dollars on a pre-amplifier, and we will cover more expensive models later in this series of articles. For now, let’s have a look at what $1,000 will buy–and for that exploration, I often turn to a long-time favorite manufacturer in this price range, Rotel.

Specifically, let’s explore the Rotel RC-1570 ($999). And let’s have a look at the front and back panels of this pre-amp because we’ll be referring to the various features in a moment. (FYI, there’s a black and a silver model.)

rc1570_silver_0rc1570_back_0

As with any pre-amplifier, you’ll find a power button, a volume control, an input selector, and, on mid-priced models, a headphone jack. This particular pre-amp offers a whole lot more–a trend that is gaining favor. On the left, there’s a USB connector so you can attach a mobile device (an iPhone, etc.). There are a lot of other inputs, discussed below, and there is a visual display that provides a remarkable range of technical information. These features are uncommon, but all are welcome.

In fact, the back panel is the place to go for a clear understanding of capabilities. Let’s take a closer look.

rotel-pre-amp-diagram

On the left, there are two rows, one for the left and the other for the right channel. First up is the phono input–this pre-amp includes an equalizer for “Moving Magnet” or MM phono cartridges (some pre-amps do, others do not). You can also plug in a CD player, a tuner, and two other devices. All with RCA-type plugs. Then, there’s the output–both via RCA plugs and also via XLR connectors as “Balanced Output” (a different way to connect components that often reduces background noise and adds considerable clarity). There is one Balanced Input pair of jacks, too. There are some additional digital inputs useful for connection to a TV set top box, or a Blu-Ray CD player–in addition to the basic two-channel experience that is the principal purpose of a stereo preamplifier. And there’s more–but now we’re getting way beyond the typical operation of a pre-amplifier. (Perhaps that’s why Rotel refers to this model as a “Control Amplifier”–it does a lot!

It’s easy to get caught up in features, but before we move on, I’ll mention two ideas that aren’t typical of pre-amps, but make this device a pleasure to use. First, the volume control comes with a kind of memory–when you listen to a CD player, for example, it will remember the most recent volume setting, even if you turn the power off. It’s smart enough to recall the most recent setting for each of your devices, so the next time you play a record, it will remember the most recent volume setting for that device, too. Pretty cool! Second, you can attach a USB receiver so that anyone (with a password) can wirelessly connect and play music through your stereo system. Nice!

I am not an engineer, but friends who know audio engineering design are often impressed with the “build quality” of Rotel products. Often (but certainly not always), good design translates into a good listening experience. We can speak of particular transformer designs or the specific qualities of the Wolfson D-to-A converter, but that’s beyond me and most other people. And now is a good time to set expectations: this is not a high-end stereo pre-amplifier, but it is a very good mid-priced pre-amplifier. The difference is explained in a review of this device, and its paired amplifier, by The Absolute Sound, a leading audio journal:

The sonic question for components in this price range is not whether they can produce a fool-you facsimile of the real thing. Unfortunately, barring a technological revolution, they can’t. The more pertinent question, then, is whether they get enough sonic elements right—and whether those strengths are not overly compromised by the inevitable trade-offs—to convey music engagingly. “Engaging” is a word we high-enders use as shorthand for the cumulative effect of a multitude of sonic factors, but I believe that chief among these are the elements that most directly impact musical expressivity. Speci cally, I look for good timing, tonality, and dynamics.

As someone with a similar system in one room of my home, and a bona-fide high end system in another, I can attest to the difference. That said, listening to the RC-1570 is a pleasure, especially when paired with the RB-1552 Mk II Stereo Power Amplifier, and the sister CD player, the RCD-1570 CD Player. Each of these components costs $999–add a good turntable with an equally good cartridge for another $500 (the Rega RP1 with a Rega Bias 2 phono cartridge is on sale for $445 from Audio Advisor). And you’ll need loudspeakers. Total system price: about $5,000, but if you needed to come down a bit, I would probably cheat on the CD player (a $500 unit from Cambridge Audio or NAD would probably be fine.)

Gee, does that sound like a lot of money? We’ve only just begun. For most people, a $999 dedicated preamplifier is a major step forward, the beginning of a serious two-channel stereo system. And yet, $1,000 is considered a modest investment in high quality sound. As this series of articles continues, we’ll get into more costly gear. In fact, the next article, which is about power amplifiers (or, if you prefer, amplifiers) will begin to explain the virtues of a larger investment.

I should mention that Rotel makes an even more versatile pre-amplifier, the RC-1590. The step-up adds a lot of features and technology. See it here.

 

Be sure to explore more than one pre-amplifier. You’ll find different features and a different sound. One of the most popular is the Parasound Halo P7 7.1, which costs $1,699 and comes with a very wide assortment of RCA and XLR inputs and outputs. The phono input accommodates both a Moving Magnet and a Moving Coil cartridge. There are home theater capabilities, too.

If you’re seeking something simple–fewer features, more of a focus on sound–you’ll likely jump up into a somewhat higher price range, and you’ll be encouraged to explore the various advantages of tube vs. solid state pre-amps. Again, a topic for another day.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 3: Integrated Amplifiers)

The first two articles in this series covered the basics of tw0-channel stereo: a low-cost turntable, modest amplifier (built into the powered speakers), and the first steps toward a better system: the choice of loudspeakers that require a separate amplifier. For now, we’ll stay in the budget category, but this is the article where we’ll make a turn into the future of this series: equipment that offers a far more realistic, compelling, rich and entertaining presentation of recorded music. We’ll spend more money, and we’ll look at options for saving, or at least, investing with intelligence for the best long-term results.

A quick lesson before we get into specifics. You may recall that a receiver is a box that contains an AM/FM tuner, an amplifier called a phono stage that adds power to the tiny signal emanating from the phono cartridge on your turntable, a pre-amplifier to provide a similar function for the tuner and your CD player (or MP3 player, etc.), and a power amplifier (usually just called an amplifier) to provide enough energy to the loudspeakers. Each of these is available as a separate box, or component in audio lingo. The quality of each of these components affects the quality of the sound you hear through the loudspeakers. The quality of the cables that connect these devices matters, too–and you can spend tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars on these cables (again, a topic for a later article in the series).

Continuing for a moment with lingo: when purchasing amplifiers in the hundreds-of-dollars range, it’s  wise to consider an integrated amplifier. This device contains a pre-amplifier and a power amplifier, and often, a phono stage, too. Let’s start there, and consider completely separate components later on. Set aside $350 to $500 and you’ll be able to buy your first integrated amplifier–it won’t be a world beater but it will provide clearly delineated instruments and vocals, a bit cleaner bass and mid-range than you’d experience with a less costly setup, highs that don’t cause discomfort, and some presence or realism. You’ll be attaching this integrated amplifier to a pair of loudspeakers that cost about the same amount of money, and to a turntable and phono cartridge assembly that also costs a few hundred dollars. In total, your new stereo system will cost about $1,000. And we’ll step it up: if you purchase the right equipment, a greater investment should increase your listening pleasure. (Of course, it is possible to spend serious money and end up with lousy results. I’ll try to help you steer clear of this messy situation.)

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The Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 is a popular entry-level component for those interested in high-end audio. Be sure to read the review in The Absolute Sound (see link in text).

Crutchfield is one of several internet retailers who stock integrated amplifiers in this price range. Often, the discussion turns to the number of watts–in essence the power of the amplifier to drive loudspeakers. It may be tempting to focus on a 40 watt amp instead of a 25 watt amp. If you are driving large loudspeakers, extra power may be a consideration, but the difference between 40 and even 100 watts may be inconsequential because every loudspeaker and every room behaves differently. One good choice in this price range is NAD’s 40-watt model, a product from a respected low-cost manufacturer of long standing. Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 also comes from a well-regarded maker (reviewed by top audio magazine The Absolute Sound here). Go up to the $500-600 range and the quality of the sound will increase, along with the number of available inputs (mostly not useful in today’s two-channel world), along with the the range of available features (most of which, you will never use). In this higher range, I would again look at NAD’s current offering (each manufacturer offers a product in this price level, but the model numbers and some features vary from one year to the next). This level also introduces components from Pro-Ject, a popular high-end maker with some lower cost products in their line: here, the MaiA for $500 with a convenient USB input (more and more popular among integrated amps). Find the NAD units in the extremely helpful, twice-annual Recommended Components edition published by Stereophile magazine.

In a larger room, you may want an integrated amp with more power or more refined electronics (resulting in more refined sound reproduction)–Cambridge, Pro-Ject, NAD, Marantz, and Yamaha are good manufacturers for those who wish to invest $1,000 or more. And now, we’re beginning to enter a more exotic realm, the world of high-end audio.

Why would you spend $2,000, or $4,000, or more on an integrated amplifier? There’s a simple answer. If you select the right integrated amplifier for your room, listening habits, and style of enjoyment, the music will simply sound better. At first, you may not buy into this way of thinking. You might even listen to one or two high end systems and proclaim that you do not hear a difference. While that may be true for you in a certain time and place, you will begin to discover differences as you take the time to quietly listen and compare one system to another. Why bother? Because we all spend a lot of our lives listening to music, and the experience can be extraordinary. Imagine enjoying an extraordinary experience every time you listen to music at home. That’s why you begin to invest in better audio equipment–and, inevitably, more recorded music, more LPs, and if you like, more CDs, too.

nait5si_1

The Naim NAIT 5si is an excellent choice for those who want to establish themselves in a high-end audio environment without spending a great deal of money. It comes with 60 watts per channel–sufficient for most mid-sized rooms and most listening levels–connections for a single pair of loudspeakers, a CD player, and your choice of other A/V equipment. There is no phono stage in this component–you will need to buy that component as a stand-alone. (See subsequent article about the phono portion of your new two-channel stereo system.)

In this category, one solid candidate for your long-term stereo system would be the Naim NAIT 5si, an update of a popular integrated amplifier first released in the early 1980s. The new model, released in 2015 for about $1,895, is typical of higher quality gear. And here, we dive into some tech talk. The quality of the transformer and the power supply matter a lot, and they are among numerous electrical and electronic parts that demonstrate the benefits of modern design and modern materials (capacitors, for example). In real terms, this means the newer product offers much improved sound: an open presentation that allows each instrument to be distinctly heard with nuance, even when the volume is turned down. The attack and decay of a snare drum sounds more realistic, more energetic, more captivating. The details become clear–listeners find themselves describing albums that they’ve heard a thousand times and are only now hearing the details. With speakers properly positioned, the Naim NAIT 5si and its kin generate a wonderfully wide and deep soundstage–close your eyes and you’ll imagine the musicians individually positioned, not only from side to side but also, remarkably (and magically) from back to front, and also from top to bottom. Some of this may seem like complete nonsense, but I have experienced the phenomenon time and again, and I have invited many other people, particularly the doubters, to engage in a similar experience. The Naim NAIT 5si has been well-reviewed, and it’s comforting to read a few positive reviews before you buy.

For about $400 less, you can make yourself happy with the Peachtree Audio nova150, pictured below. The earlier version of this product was nicely reviewed by one of my favorite (plain language!) reviewers at Stereophile magazine who goes by the pen name, Sam Tellig. Acknowledging that this is review of a somewhat different product, Tellig is wonderfully helpful in describing the characteristics of what remains a $1,500 integrated amplifier–one of the best you can buy in this price range. Just be sure to compare specs with the current model before you buy. And to keep you busy (and well-informed), here are some reviews of the newly designed 150.

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USEFUL ADDITION (November 30, 2016): The distinguished audiophile magazine, The Absolute Sound, just published its 2017 Buyer’s Guide to Integrated Amplifiers. If you’re considering the possibilities of a quality integrated amp, the guide is a superb reference.

Why buy an integrated amplifier when you could buy a separate power amplifier and pre-amplifier? That’s the next question we’ll tackle in this series.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 2: Basic Loudspeakers)

So we’ve begun. A brief explanation of older and modern two-channel stereo systems with a quick stop by two web sites, one to buy a pair of low-cost powered loudspeakers and the other to buy a turntable with a built-in phono amplifier to boost the strength of the signal coming out of the tiny phono cartridge. The system is adequate for a small room, and for very casual background music. The music sounds, well, just okay: clear enough, but not very lifelike. Certainly better than the sound you’ll hear from most of what’s available on streaming services, or from your iPhone, but quite low on the scale of what is achievable.

Throughout this series, we’ll seek out incremental steps as we improve various parts of the stereo system, sometimes taking big steps, sometimes modifying just one piece of equipment, sometimes several at a time. We’ll consider the various technologies and options now available–some offer substantial leaps in quality, and others offer more refinement and incremental joy.

For this step, let’s keep the turntable as-is: a $250 investment including the cartridge and some amplification of modest quality. But let’s separate the loudspeakers from their built-in amplification. This opens a wide gamut of opportunities to employ both new and used loudspeakers, each with its own particular personality, or acoustic characteristics. For example, some loudspeakers will offer improved bass but less clarity in the higher treble ranges, or greater detailing, or a more realistic sense of instrument placement in the panoramic sound field made possible by combining the sounds from the stereo system’s left and right channels (a bit of stereophonic magic that can be even more profound in surround sound systems involving five or more loudspeakers–an exploration for another day).

A very simple black box: the NHT Super Zero loudspeaker, a long-time favorite.

A very simple black box: the NHT Super Zero loudspeaker, a long-time favorite.

So, what we want is a pair of good-sounding, reasonably inexpensive loudspeakers offering just enough of each of those key ingredients. If you’re buying new loudspeakers, NHT offers a pair of their very popular Super Zero 2.1 loudspeakers for about $350. The company has been making reasonably priced, good-sounding loudspeakers since the 1990s. What I like about them: they’re clean, free from any obvious or annoying flaws, well-balanced in their bass, mid-section and high ranges and accurate. They are not $3,500 speakers, so don’t expect deep and clear bass, or silky strings, or extraordinary nuance in the vocals, but for most listening purposes, they are very satisfactory, and very enjoyable.

As a rule, loudspeaker manufacturers attempt to organize their product lines by price points. Many offer a “bookshelf” speaker for several hundred dollars to meet basic needs. PSB’s Alpha B1 costs $300 for the pair, and you’ll find a similar pair from Peachtree Audio, their SX60, for $350 to $400, and these compete with Monitor Audio’s Bronze 2, currently marked down from $500 to $378–all of these speakers are/were available from Audio Advisor, a leading web direct marketer, alongside speakers and other audio gear at prices from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars.

Here's an selection of bookshelf speakers offered by Audio Advisor. In the second row, note the speaker on a speaker stand. And on the top row, note the use of small speakers as part of a home theater setup.

Here’s an selection of bookshelf speakers offered by Audio Advisor. In the second row, note the speaker on a speaker stand. And on the top row, note the use of small speakers as part of a home theater setup.

I put “bookshelf” in quotation marks because you should NOT place these small speakers in a bookshelf because they will not very good. Instead–and here’s the first of many lessons learned from audiophiles–allow several feet of open space around the loudspeakers so that nearby surfaces do not reflect the sound. Initially, this may sound like complete nonsense, and admittedly, you may not hear any substantial degradation in a low-priced stereo system, but once you do notice, you’ll be redesigning your listening area until you eliminate the uncomfortable sound. Since loudspeakers cannot be suspended from mid-air, you will want to invest at least $100 in loudspeaker stands for your bookshelf loudspeakers. Or, you will want to invest in tower speakers–larger rectangles that are several feet high and often represent a step-up in sound quality (and price). More on that upgrade in an upcoming article.

One further note: the placement of loudspeakers matters. A lot. An expensive pair of speakers can sound just awful if they are not carefully placed. And an inexpensive pair of speakers can sound surprisingly good if they are in the optimum position within the listening area. To begin, nothing should be closer than a foot from any wall or large piece of furniture, and ideally, two or three feet. Then, imagine an equilateral triangle with you at one point, the left speaker at another, and the right speaker at another. Generally, the front panel of those speakers should face you very directly. (Avoid the temptation to angle the speakers.) Why bother? The stereo effect will be far stronger: instruments and vocalists will suddenly become clear and distinct images–the bassist over there, the piano over there, the singer center stage, etc. It’s an amazing thing–the way even modest loudspeakers can “image” when they are properly placed. And yes, you may need to do some rearranging of furniture for the optimum effect. If your loudspeakers sounded better in the store, placement is probably the secret sauce. Experimentation is part of the process because every room is different and because furniture, carpeting and other stuff affect the traveling sound waves as they move from the loudspeakers to your ears. Despite what others in the household may say, this process is always worth the time and trouble–and is often a good reason to find a room where you can be left alone to listen to your music.

Do you need new speakers? Your money may go further if you purchase a high quality pair of used speakers–but you must choose very carefully.

I found this pair of Thiel 2.2 loudspeaker on eBay for $490. You'll need a better amplification system to make the most of these speakers--we'll cover that in a future article--but these were considered very good in the 1990s (the larger 3.6 speakers were even better, but they require even more sophisticated equipment--also the topic of a future article). No surprise that these speakers require a local pickup in the SF Bay area where the seller is located.

I found this pair of Thiel 2.2 loudspeakers on eBay for $490. You’ll need a better amplification system to make the most of these speakers–we’ll cover that in a future article–but these were considered very good in the 1990s (the larger 3.6 speakers were even better, but they require even more sophisticated equipment–also the topic of a future article). No surprise that these speakers require a local pickup in the SF Bay area where the seller is located.

If $350 is within your budget, you might also consider a pair of used loudspeakers purchased from a very reliable local dealer. It is not unreasonable to search for a pair of twenty year old loudspeakers that may have cost up to $1,000–offering a great deal more quality–but the search may require several months of patient web searches and store visits, and some driving (figure a 100-300 mile radius, even if you live near several large cities). You’ll need to study to find the manufacturers whose products were reliable, high quality, and available in the used marketplace–and, unfortunately, information on the web is neither consistent nor abundant on these topics. If you have a friend who cared about loudspeakers in the 1990s or 2000s, a joint exploration is recommended. And I cannot emphasize the importance of a very reliable, trustworthy dealer quite enough. If you’re willing to take the time, you could certainly explore these and other quality brands: Thiel (for some ears), Magnepan (flat panel speakers employing a unique technology), Dynaudio (extremely accurate), KEF (good all-around), B&W (now marketing as Bowers & Wilkins), Celestial (good all around), and the list goes on (please add your favorites in the comments area below).

If you want to dig deeper, spend some time exploring this historical survey of superior audio equipment. It’s part of a massive website published by the longtime high-end (expensive, fine-sounding) stereo enthusiast magazine, Stereophile.

To some extent, the loudspeakers you find in the U.S. may be similar to those found in the U.K., France, Germany or Japan. Each region of the world has its own loudspeaker makers, and remember: the larger the speaker, the more costly the shipping. In the U.S., you will find a lot of European speakers and a lot of American-made speakers, but the selection is likely to be more local in other countries.

Now that we’ve got the loudspeakers, we’ll need to purchase an amplifier, perhaps an integrated amplifier to start. That’s coming up next.

 

 

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