WAJ on AUDIO - for truth in hifi / stereo / high-end audio




[a.k.a. HIGH-END AUDIO on a BUDGET; Pt 2: Near S-O-T-A Sonics for $2.3k]

by W.A.J.


In part 1 I suggested that prudent system-design incorporating used equipment could afford an audiophile state of the art realism (or very nearly so) with the minimum of financial outlay.

I also provided an example of an un-necessarily expensive system, costing around $47k, which epitomises the majority of currently popular systems, excelling at detail-resolution (in limited regions) and soundstaging, but inept at overall sonic realism, unfortunately. Also provided, more importantly, was a paradigm of an absolute state of the art system (#1) costing only around $60k+, capable of the very ultimate currently achievable in sonic realism. Another system (#2) costing only $10k was also illustrated; extremely close, in its abilities, to the s.o.t.a. system #1. And still another system (#3) was also illustrated in our 'High-End on a Shoe-String' segment. However, this $2k - $2.5k system (#3) was somewhat compromised, compared to systems #1 & 2, with significantly lowered potential for the replication of sonic-realism.

Let's see now; 'lowered sound-quality' - significantly lowered, compared to system 2. I'm really not too comfortable with that. Since writing part 1 of this article, I've discovered some phenomenally outstanding 'used'components, available at even more ridiculous prices. Sony's PlayStation 1, for instance, is reputed to be as good as, or better than, high-end CD-players costing as much as $6000, with exquisite analogue-like reproduction (unattainable with most digital sources) operating as a CD-player - at a cost of only thirty-bucks. Unbelievable? Similarly, Quad's ss 500-series amps are said to excel at both the best attributes of outstanding SET-tubed and solid-state amps - the best of both worlds - at the probable cost of only around $200 to $500 for a Quad 520. The mere fact that the 510 & 520 are, indisputably, the very best Quad amps is enough cause for pause, even if we disregard the fact that versions of the 520 was the amp of choice, for monitoring purposes, at the British Broadcasting Corporation's facilities. A Magnavox 15 w.p.c. tube-amp, from a 93-series console, is also another rising-star on the horizon of truly outstanding vintage components, with unique sonic characteristics more akin to 'real-life' than those of others. (And, having just-recently bought one for upgading and testing, I'll be sure to report on its performance  in the coming months, God willing).

What if we were to combine those with a very good pre-amp and a really outstanding, highly efficient, speaker-system which is also armed with highly realistic tonal capabilities superior to most others? For instance, the Altec A-7, which I've commented on here, is widely recognized to be just such a beast (especially when slightly modified) though it may be too expensive for inclusion in a very low-budget system. However, Altec's Model 19 or Valencia would cost somewhat less, for example, and mostly because they're both  equipped with drivers identical to those of certain versions of the A-7 they're very nearly as good. Some even argue that they're better than the A-7, in a domestic setting.

In this edition (part 2) let's see if we can build a near-sota system, incorporating our new-found amps and CD-P, for this 'shoe-string budget' segment. And at no extra cost. (Analogue-lovers would need to add one of the tt or R2R options cited in part 1, though).

Revising the Audio-System's Hierarchy: In the design of this system, I'll also illustrate why it may be prudent to disregard certain system-building principles long prescribed by audio's 'powers that be' as I suggest a more radical and controversial, albeit logical, route to sonic realism.

Bear with me: Conventional thinking holds that it's best to build a system from the front-end outward. (Re; the 'Gospel' according to Linn's Ivor Tiefenbrun. Oh yeah, I admit I was once a disciple, before I saw the 'light' and became a scribe expounding on the errs of such ways). Nevertheless, considering the current obsession with detail-resolution, it does make sense to allocate a larger proportion of one's budget to more expensive front-end components which are imbued with the ability to extract said detail. Detail is King, in this scenario. Those who actually believe that detail is the omnipotent 'King', in audio, should continue to adhere to the 'Gospel' according to 'St. Ivor'.

I've come to believe differently. I now believe that overall realism is more important than minute detail - generally (and relatively) speaking, of course. Heresy?

[Consider how ridiculous this is: This obsession with favored detail is stressed, today, in a context where virtually all of the most popular types of modern conventional speakers are inept at the major elements of realistic sound-reproduction; dynamics & tone - thus distorting the overall picture even more - this makes no sense. Such speakers produce a sound completely alien to the real thing - sweeter, thinner, much more 'detailed' (in limited areas) and much less dynamic - as acknowledged and proudly proclaimed by some of their own advocates who've 'missed the boat' completely. Indeed, many actually think these speakers are near 'perfect'. But even the manufacturers will admit that such speakers are relatively inefficient (and consequently un-dynamic) though they won't mention that they're also tonally compromised. A simple comparison with live instruments will prove both points, though - as those linked above have done, en-route to arriving at their pathetically ridiculous conclusion.

I say: Fix the overall picture, then fill in the details.

As to the current excesses of detail (in limited regions) over and above that which we perceive with live instruments, I'd say this is un-necessary, and obviously unrealistic. However, it can be interesting, and it may be tolerable - but, only if the overall picture is already authentic. Ideally though, I believe that a reduction of the level of detail to a level commensurate with that perceived at a live performance is more accurate, and more desirable, than artificial excesses in favored regions, and the accurate depiction of tone and detail in currently neglected regions would certainly be beneficial to overall realism - dynamism would be helpful too. (I'd confidently challenge anyone to dispute that statement).

And this is why I don't believe one needs to strive for outrageously-expensive components whose only 'claim to fame' (not to mention their claim to exorbitant prices) lies in their ability to present these artificially excessive levels of 'detail'. (This argument excludes pre-amps which, I believe, should be as close to Class A as possible, because of their current short-falls - compromising the quality of even modest front-ends and amps. Testing a system with and without a pre-amp proves the point - with competent components - even while it also proves the indispensible benefits of an active pre, and the unrealistic limitations of the passive). In this context (pre-amps aside) it could be argued that the less-expensive 'Class B' and 'C' components (whose only 'crime' is slightly-lessened detail, compared to those of Class A) could be the more desirable, in the quest for overall realism and realistic levels of detail. I say again; it could be argued!]

Nevertheless, in my more expensive systems (1 & 2 - illustrated in part 1) both are assured  - i.e. overall-realism AND, the popularly-endorsed, 'extreme' levels of detail. But in a budget system, the bias towards overall realism must be even more pronounced. Therefore, contrary to conventional thinking, I've come to believe that it's best to build a system beginning with the best and most realistic speakers one can afford. So, in a low-budget system, the vast majority of the funds would go towards the speakers, absolutely. [Cynics view Wilson Audio's current touting of this tact as tied to their desire to sell their own speakers. These cynics also made similar assertions in regards to Linn's similar claims for the front-end. I, on the other hand, have no such axe to grind - I call it as I see it: Speakers (appropriate speakers) are the most important components, by far - if realism is the goal.] In my experience, I've found that the speakers need to be outstanding at the attributes that really facilitate realism; tone and dynamics - very few are.

Unlike most speakers, tone and dynamics are already integral to virtually all good source-components and 'active' pre-amps, thankfully - leaving only detail-resolution for us to worry about, here. However of the two, the preamp is the culprit most responsible for the choking of detail and the diminution of quality. (This is mainly due to their poor volume-controls - capacitors and other issues are also relevant - see here, for elaboration, and a route to correction). Pre-amps, in my opinion are second only to the popularly-endorsed types of speakers in retarding the quality/realism of most audio-systems and, likewise, deserve special attention. Therefore, I'd rank the importance of an outstanding 'active' pre-amp (or one modified to be so) slightly ahead of the need for an outstanding source-component, especially when funds are limited. Good front-ends are, relatively, the best performing and least problematic (with the least of detremental 'issues') of all components in the audio-chain. So why waste effort and resources stressing over a 'near-perfect' component, relatively speaking, while others virtually ensure the degradation of that front-end's quality, along with overall system-performance? (For instance, what's the sense in having the best front-end if the pre-amp compromises the quality? Nearly all pre-amps do this to even some of the cheapest front-ends. It's better, then, to ensure the very best pre-amp performance, even thru mods, so as to unleash the quality of a decent front-end).

And lastly, in the order of importance, I'd cite the power amp. However, amps have issues too (though much less than pre-amps, generally). And one of the chief among them is that we also need to ensure that this amp does not choke the lower-mids naturally supplied by the front-end and active pre - very many amps do exactly that. (And this is also why passive-pre-amps are not considered here, since, though they're more transparent than unmodified actives, generally, they're also notorious for limiting the lower-mids, and the details there-in - though some mistakenly believe that this is 'accurate'. Passive pre-amps are the 'enemies' of complete and realistic tone, and should be avoided like the proverbial plague. Here's one of my 'sermons' on the subject, ensconced in a review of the ARC LS3 recommended in a couple of the systems here, including 'System #3a' below).

So then, my order of priority in system-building is; 1. Speakers, 2. Pre-amp, 3 Front-end, 4. Power-amp.

System #3a - Near S-O-T-A Sonics for $2.3k: After all the fore-mentioned issues are addressed in our basic concept of the system, then we can consider whether we may want to spend more in a quest for more detail-resolution, as this is the attribute that mainly drives component-prices up. More detail = more expense. [This is a general simplification, of course, as other factors also apply (transient/dynamic-response, bass, treble performance, etc. - but detail-resolution apparently is the sonic feature most responsible for cost-escalation on the price-ladder.] All these issues are addressed in system 1 and system 2. However, our original system 3 is somewhat reticent in both detail and dynamics because of cost-constraints, at that time, especially regarding the inexpensive Advent speakers necessarily advocated. In the quest for realism, as I've said, a slight reduction of detail is acceptable (more realistic, in fact) but compromise in either tone or dynamics is not. So, though the double-stacked Advents' level of detail and tonality (especially at lower-mids) are more realistic than that of most of the popular types today, they're also significantly less efficient/dynamic than the speakers of systems 1 & 2 and, therefore, somewhat less realistic than those, overall. Let's address that in our revised system 3 alternative (we'll call it; 'System #3a') with the same 'shoestring-budget' of $2000 to $2500:

Speakers - Altec Model 19, or similar - $1300. Pre-amp (line-stage only) - Audio-Research LS3, or similar - $500. Pre-amp modification - Stepped-attenuator volume-control - $170, incl installation (at least, an upgrade of coupling-capacitors  for amps and pre is also advisable, where applicable - perhaps later). CD-Player - Sony PlayStation 1 - $30. Power-Amp - Quad 520 - $300. (A tubed alternative, here, could be a refurbished Magnavox 93-series amp for $300, but I'd prefer to confirm its quality myself, before recommending). Total cost; $2300.

This $2300 system, believe it or not, would be , effectively, the sonic-equivalent of our $10,000 System #2, using digital sources. This means it's also 'extremely close', in performance, to our 60-odd grand s.o.t.a. system #1, with similar sources. (Despite the high quality of the other components, it is the similar attributes of this speaker, to those of systems 1 and 2, that guarantee system 3a's similar strengths at sonic-realism. A truly capable speaker is the great equalizer - the main facilitator of sonic-realism, in the context of the prevailing circumstances where nearly all popular modern speakers compromise realism in favor of excessive 'detail' in limited regions - surrealistic soundstaging too). A speaker-system which excels at tone and dynamics (the two elements most modern speakers lack) will facilitate significantly increased levels of realism from any decent system - all else being equal.


[A Real-World Example. To further illustrate the importance of the speaker (and an active pre and amp) perhaps I should reiterate a few points from part 1. Briefly; a reader approached me with a request for me to design a similar system to one of those illustrated in that article. Here's an example of his comments on the resulting system's performance, even before all my recommended components were incorporated.

Note that, at this stage, only the recommended Altec Valencia speakers and a decent Sansui tube-amp were incorporated into a pre-existing system which was still utilizing a 'crappy' (his words) passive pre-amp and CD-player - these comments, therefore, indicate the phenomenal difference made by only the 'new' speakers and amp:

" I got them home and hooked them up to the Valencias (speakers - Ed).  Remember that I had only heard the Valencias in my house on a Super T amp -  not that impressive.  The 12w pair (amps - Ed) blew life into the speakers.  I was literally trembling because the sound was so full and encompassing ( in haste - I only could hook it up to a CD player through a crappy preamp box that I think is just a line splitter).  I couldn't believe that I had made such a difference in my experience of listening to music in such a short time and I only had a few pieces so far. .....

. .....I listened to a bunch of cds on Wed night that were like brand new experiences for me.  I was hearing soundstaging and instrumental parts I wasn't aware of.  I listened to a few things I'd been listening to hundreds of times and it was a brand new experience.  As far as I'm concerned  - I've already reached my goal, which was to put together a system without breaking the bank which would give me an opportunity to listen to recorded music in a way I've been missing for years.  Tues and Wed night we're incredible for me.  Now the best part is that there are more goodies on the way that will only (hopefully) enhance the sound."


The following comments will now indicate the similarly phenomenal difference made when a good active pre (ARC SP-8) is substituted for the 'crappy' passive pre. No other change was made at this stage, as my recommended front-end components (modified Lenco tt, and master-tape capable R2R machine) were not yet implemented. At this stage, the 'new' components (speakers, amps, and pre-amp) only totaled a cost of around $3300. (The complete system rounded out to about ten-grand, with our fancy front-ends.) But, as further indication of the importance of the speakers and the rest of the system, contemplate the description of the realism of the sound with only a 'crappy' CD-P operating at the front-end. Bear in mind that system 3a, recommended here, utilizes similar quality components, with very similar attributes, combined with a much better front-end than that used with the reader's system, at this stage:


"Sp 8 is here.  Sounds great .  Really could not be more pleased.  Speakers sound so real. I've decided (super) tweeter is not necessary right now.  Im very happy w the sound right now.."

Later, he elaborated...

"Sp8 is in. I could only listen for  a little while. I intend on auditioning them tomorrow. From what I heard - the sound is so real that I can only listen for no more than 2 minutes at a time and I have to give my ears a  chance to process. It's too good right now. I need to get used to it. 

I'm blown away by the realism of the system. I never had an expectation for this level. Exceeds expectations which is becoming more difficult to do at this stage.

I can't believe that following advice sight unseen could produce something so excellent. A lot of advice out there and lots of opinion . Following yours has produced good results so far. 



Perhaps I should offer an explanation as to what really happened here, in regards to the vast improvement in realism elicited by the changes made to an existing system. The speakers are mainly responsible for  facilitating this realism - by far:

Even with our better amps and pre; if we were to revert to the original small-coned inefficient speakers (similar to those used in the vast majority of systems, world-wide, today) then we'd return to much the same small unrealistic sound that existed before. (It doesn't matter how cheap or how expensive such small-coned speakers may be, really, or how potently sub-woofed. As long as 5" to 8" mid-woofers are used in single, or doubled, configuration to 200hz, or below, then such speakers will be consigned to less than ultimately achievable realistic-reproduction, regardless of excellence in other attributes. If one of these popular small-coned speakers does defy the laws of physics, then I haven't yet discovered it - I'll keep you informed, for sure. This reader also owns a much more expensive system; custom-designed, sourced, and installed, by a famous audio-consultant - with Genelec speakers - no better at realism. It's why he sought a more realistic alternative, for his second home).

By virtue of the Valencias' large cone-surface areas, large enclosures, and high efficiency, the capacity for facilitating lifelike tone, dynamism, and overall realism, is provided. Consider such a speaker as a large carton-box (for packing-purposes) capable of accommodating, or 'packing in', all the elements required for realism (including realistic tone, dynamics and, yes, detail - as supplied by the upstream gear) and facilitating conveyance of said elements, and consequent realism, to the listener. The popular inefficient small-coned speaker of today would be a small carton-box lacking the capacity of accommodating (i.e. packing in) all these elements, and consequent realism, in order to convey them to the listener. (By the way, this small packing-container cannot carry the absolutely-necessary realistic tone or dynamics, those are left by the way-side, but it sure does 'pack in' a whole lot of excessive detail, in 'compensation' - for you to analyze - excessive detail limited only by the tonal & macro-dynamic elements/details it can't carry. Impressed?)

The pre-existing passive pre-amp and Super T-amp, like many similar inferior components, simply fail to supply full and COMPLETE tone, etc., as his description illustrates. (Refer to his allusion to the "full and encompassing" improvement as the new amps "blew life" into the new speakers - a feat not achieved with the previous T-amp - further improved when the active SP8 was added, in lieu of the passive, re; "the sound is so real"). The better ARC SP8 active pre-amp and Sansui amp merely 'fill' speakers like the Valencias' 'capacity', to the maximum, in COMPLETELY supplying ALL the elements necessary for the lifelike sonic-realism now experienced by the reader, causing this comment; "Speakers sound so real."

His previous Infinity small-coned inefficient speakers, like most, simply do not have this capacity for 'packing in' the elements of truly lifelike sound. They would have 'choked' (or left by the way-side) the most realistic elements (tone & dynamism) supplied by even the world's best pre-amp and amp (or front-end) as all small-coned inefficient speakers do - despite what the makers and mainstream mags delight in telling you as they dishonestly highlight, as more desirable and important, such speakers' excessive detail and soundstaging.

This reader's response to the effects of our design-principles (not to mention his allusions to the resulting system's mind-blowing sonic-realism) provides independent verification of the efficacy and veracity of the radical points we've been making at WAJ on AUDIO, since this site's inception - as all these points, principles, policies, and philosophies, are incorporated in the design of that reader's system. This is the result!

The full thread of our correspondence through-out the build-process of that audio-system is here.]


Indeed, mainly because of the speakers, this is also the result systems # 1, 2, and 3a would virtually guarantee for those seeking a near facsimile of the live sound; "...I'm blown away by the realism of the system..."

Remarkably, just as with systems 1 & 2, or that reader's system (with similar sources) this system (#3a) would be much more REALISTIC than the $47k system we also highlighted in part 1.

Imagine that: A $2.3k audio-system much more realistic than one of the very popular conventional types costing over $47k. A $2.3k system which approaches the state of the art in overall realism (with digital sources) utilizing a $30 PlayStation 1?

My Gosh!


Copyright 2012