WAJ on AUDIO - for truth



Getting The Very Best HiFi-Sound At The Least Possible Cost


by W.A.J.

When it comes to high-end audio, it is best to buy used equipment if what you seek is the best value, and best quality sound, for your money. This is something the manufacturers, distributors, and mainstream audio magazines will never tell you. But it's absolutely true. Even if you're rich, this statement is still relevant.

Here's another tip; used classics hold their value like good gold. New gear depreciate in value like butter under the sun.

Why? Well, used gear will have already settled at the price you bought them for, the classics even appreciate in value. Therefore, having bought such gear you're unlikely to lose much, if anything, when you decide to sell after years of use. New gear, however, generally lose approximately 25 to 35% of their re-sale value the moment you start using them, and that's for starters.

Bear in mind, also, that owners of genuine high-end gear usually treat them as well as they do their spouses. So quality is virtually assured when such gear is re-sold. And despite what some may claim, there's, generally, not much to gain (sonically) and a lot to lose (monetarily) by buying brand-new equipment, especially when disappointment leads to a quick re-sale.

I know those are strong words, very controversial too, and I can just imagine the howls of derision this would cause in certain circles.

Mainstream audio-magazines, for instance, would like to have you believe that there are earth-shattering breakthroughs in high-end audio every month their mags hit the streets. They perpetrate, and perpetuate, this fallacy with rave-reviews of the best-ever this, or the best-ever that, on a regular basis. Every month we're confronted with a new 'best-ever', only for it to be eclipsed the very next month by the latest 'best'. This is what sells magazines and keeps their advertisers (manufacturers/distributors) happy - to the detriment of the consumer. Audiophiles are encouraged to join the circus in 'upgrading' their equipment every few years - even months. To each, his own. I take a different view.

I'm certainly not saying that there haven't been advancements in audio over many years. I'm definitely saying, though, that these advancements are far fewer, and of much less magnitude, than some would have us believe. Let's just look at a few cold, hard facts:

The Great 'Advancements' in Audio

The very best digital components [from Red-Book (CD) to Blue-ray] despite ALL their advancements, are still sonically inferior to good analogue turntables (you don't even need the better, or the best, turntables to annihilate most digital competition). Of course, digital is great, absolutely. But analogue is still the best - today. That's just the stark, unadulterated reality!

Turntables, themselves, have been subject to many 'advancements' over the years, so much so that some claim prices of over $100,000. Yet there are idler-wheel-drive turntables from the 50's/60's which, when slightly modified with better plinths/bases, are sonically competitive with, and even superior to, many of their their mega-buck descendants. Seasoned audiophiles are increasingly becoming aware of this. Stereophile magazine's Art Dudley, for instance, a long-time Linn Sondek user/fan has now forsaken the Linn (which, today costs way over $10,000, fully accessorized) for an ancient Thorens TD124 because of its superior sound-quality. Many had preceded him in similar moves, and many more continue to do so. Arthur Salvatore of the web-zine, 'The Audio Critique', has also given up his very expensive and highly 'advanced' air-bearing Forsell turntable (modified for 'state of the art' performance) in favor of the better sound supplied by his 'new' antiquated idler-drive Lenco, with modified base and bearings. So much for all the 'advancements' those mags rave about, but let's not leave the topic just yet.

All of these advanced mega-buck turntables, and every other conceivable source-component, are also eclipsed in performance by antique reel to reel two-track/15 ips tape-machines which can't even be bought new anymore because they're out of production. And they were put out of production mainly because of all the great 'advancements', proclaimed by the magazines, in the inferior compact-cassette format. Where is that 'highly-advanced' cassette-player today? [For details of all these allegations please refer to other relevant articles on this site].

There is also overwhelming evidence that the better moving-magnet turntable cartridges (costing approx $500, more or less) are more natural, realistic, and 'master-tape like' than the so-called 'highly advanced' moving-coils which fetch prices of, up to and exceeding, $10,000.

For today's speakers, claims have been made of advancements in the areas of middle-midrange to high-frequency detail-resolution and pin-point stereo-imagery. And in this case, these claims are mostly true. But they're also guilty of neglecting other more important areas, and because of this they are woefully incompetent at replicating the realism of a live performance. In this regard, ancient designs such as Altec, Klipschorn, and Tannoy, reign supreme over their modern counterparts in so far as duplicating the 'full-bodied' tonality, dynamism, and overall realism of a live musical event. These are the only reasons these fifty-odd year-old designs are still in production, still relevant, and still highly respected by all who recognize their superior abilities at SONIC-REALISM!

Today's amplifiers and pre-amps, despite claims to the contrary, have made very little progress over their outstanding equivalents from the long distant-past. The better, and best, pre-amps from the 1980's-90's era (Audio-Research, Conrad-Johnson, Counterpoint, etc.) for instance, are still absolutely competitive with their 'highly-advanced' counterparts of today - even those from some of the same companies.

With regard to amplifiers, for example, the Audio-Critique web-zine's 'Vintage-Files' section carries a testimonial from a reader who owned $7,000+ Manley Neo-Classics and discovered they were comprehensively out-performed by a pair of ancient 1950's/60's Ampex 6973-tubed 15watt power-amps, from a stereo-console. Needless to say, he then sold the expensive Manley-Neos (at a significant loss, for sure) and reconditioned his 'new' Ampex relics for front-line duty in his audio-system.

Another ancient 15 w.p.c. power-amp, from a Magnavox 93-series stereo-console, is also touted by another reader to be better than expensive and highly-reputed amps, including SETs, he's also owned. For the past year, his refurbished $99 Magnavox is the amp of choice in driving his Spendor 9/1 speaker-system - only $200 went into updating it. Another audiophile, who also builds amplifiers for sale, had this to say about the sound of this Magnavox; "...First, each instrument and voice is so defined and individual that it is spooky....I hear noises like chair squeaks and breathing(!) and people in the background that were never there before.....Each individual instrument has a full range of tonality that goes from the fundamental to both directions of the audio spectrum. But it does not sound colored. It sounds neutral. But it does not sound sterile. It sounds extended, but it sounds absolutely flat. Quite frankly I did not know that such sound could come out of the speakers I have......When I first heard this amp, it brought tears to my eyes.....Sorry to say to all out there who are afficionados of single ended triode or Williamson type amplifiers, but this amp puts all those to shame..." All I'll say to that is; them thar's fight'n' words. Nevertheless, I may just add this ancient relic to my 'to-do' list - I seem to derive a warped sense of satisfaction from hearing gems that cost next to nothing trouncing  over-hyped, over-rated, and over-priced components. (Oh, here's a link to that review).

Similarly, the $4,000 ASL Hurricane has been hailed in high-end circles as a 'bargain' since it consistently equals or out-performs amps in the $10,000 to $20,000 price-bracket, and above. Yet, another reader from the Audio-Critique also discovered that his Hurricane was similarly out-performed by a pair of tubed 50 watt Stromberg-Carlson AP-55's from the same era as the Ampexes and Magnavox above. Since these revelations, the prices for these relics have escalated somewhat, but it's still possible to find similar giant-killers for less than a grand - the Magnavox, for instance, still costs typically less than $200. Reconditioning with new capacitors and resistors, etc. would add to that figure, but not by much.

However, since those amps are tubed; let's just say that you appreciate the sonic qualities of tubes but, like many, you are reluctant to endure the hassles and expense of  tube wear, biasing, replacement, etc. Well, the good news is that one aspect of the few real advancements that have been made over the years is that some solid-state equipment are now closer to tube-gear in the areas where tubes traditionally excelled - and vice-verse (since some tube-gear also give nothing away to solid-staters). So though the very best tube equipment still hold an advantage, in my opinion, some solid-state equipment are serious contenders in tube-gears' traditional areas of excellence. I speak from a basis of personal experience since a solid-state ARC LS3 pre-amp succeeded in fooling me into thinking it was a tubed component for several months after I'd bought it. This was because it sounded more tube-like than most tube-equipment I had been familiar with. The same is also true of a solid-state UREI 6150 power-amp I also own - it passively allows the tube-like qualities of the LS3 to prevail, without subtracing anything, or adding any solid-state artifacts, as many others do. And it's better at this (among other things) than an undeservedly 'well-regarded' tubed Dynaco ST70 I once had lying around - marginally the least-accomplished tube-amp I'd owned, but representative of many - I'm not a fan.

This advancement of the narrowing of the gap between the better tube and solid-state gear actually commenced many years ago: The LS3, for instance, is of early to mid-nineties vintage, and the UREI precedes it. So it is possible to find tube-like solid-state gear today, at very reasonable prices, on the used-market.

[Incidentally, one of my own readers recently bought a UREI 6150 power-amp, based soley on my review of it, and found himself in total agreement with my assessment of it . Tube-like, indeed. And it's better, in his opinion, than certain models of Krell and Levinson he's also owned - better than most others too. And somewhat shy of the amp indicated below:

He's also informed me that, in his opinion, the solid-state Quad 510 mono-bloc power-amps are the very best amps he's ever heard, overall. And that includes a highly-regarded Hiraga SET he'd also owned. (He admits that the Hiraga is as good as the 510 with some types of music, and not so great with with others, but that the Quad is outstanding with ALL types of music - the tie-breaker). Perhaps I should mention that, in addition to owning the tubed Hiraga SET, Mark-Levinson, and Krell, he'd also owned nearly every (tubed and solid-state) amp in the Quad inventory, tubed Quicksilvers, and very many others.

At another forum, he had this to say about the Quad 510 monos;

"I consider these amps something like a Holy Grail in audio – you can look long and hard but it is unlikely that you will find beter amps.

These amps managed to unite detail and transparency of tubed single end amps, power and slam of best solid state designs and great musicality and naturalness which you can often find in Quad amps. Also you can add absolute reliability and you have something as close to a perfect amp as you will ever come."

The best of both worlds, apparently. Could this be the real deal? This is significant, aboslutely. Perhaps those interested in such a beast could investigate. I know I will!

Based on my own research, so far, I'd be inclined to suggest that the stereo version, the Quad 520, could be virtually as good. These 520s typically go for something in the region of 200 to 500-bucks, with the 510 mono-blocs averaging somewhere above that level, depending on condition, of course]  

So what does one do with all this ground-breaking information? Well, one could actually build a world-class audio-system which sounds much-much more realistic than most, for a fraction of the cost of most. That's, basically, what one could do, actually.

Building the Best Audio-System for the Money

Before looking at an example of this, I'll outline an example of the cost of its much more expensive, yet sonically inferior alternative bought new. But before doing even that, let's look at my take on an all-out state-of-the-art system, from my point of view, just to further illustrate my way of thinking, and how such a philosophy could be relevant even in the highest echelons of audio. I'm formulating this hypothetical system even as I write, but I'll bet it will not cost as much as $100,000. [That is: A complete audio-system (with several source-components) potentially capable of absolute state of the art performance, for LESS than the cost of ONE 'highly-advanced' turntable].

This proposed system will not constitute an amalgamation of the most expensive brands, conjured to impress the impressionable. That's much too easy - neither does this fit with WAJ on AUDIO's 'best for less' philosophy. Moreover, for top-quality SOUND, you really don't NEED that sort of extravagance. So in this list you'll not find $1/4 mil Wlison WAMMs, or Goldmund's $300k turntable, nor will you find $300k-$600k amps from Wavac, Goldmund or Ultrasound. [The $1mil Kharma Grand Enigma speaker-array, for example, is simply ridiculous for the home, unless your 'listening-room' is a large sports-arena. It's not one system, bye the way, but several speaker-systems stacked together]. No, my proposed state of the art audio-system will be unbelievably inexpensive, by comparison, and may even inspire amusement in the ignorant. But in terms of its potential to reproduce sonic realism, the system will be as serious as a heart-attack, and fully competitive with ANY conceivable system today, regardless of cost.

System #1 - Absolute State of the Art SOUND On A Budget:   Starting with the speakers; I'd initially cited an advanced version of my own system. But since that version turned-out to be more complicated than necessary, for the purpose of illustrating a simple example, I've decided to revise this segment. An alternative approach could simply be the equivalent of a 'Jean Hiraga-modified' Altec A5 speaker-system, augmented by super-tweeters and sub-woofers - highly recommended as one of the simplest and most cost-effective routes to the ultimate in realistic audio-reproduction. [Even a standard A-5, costing less than $5000, used, or an A-7 (especially, equipped with Altec's 515 mid/woofer) features lifelike dynamism combined with a tonally-realistic midrange/lower-mids/upper-bass, and beyond, unapproachable by almost any other. And simple mods elevate their performance to even higher levels. Here's a link to my comments on the similar Altec A-7. And here's a copy of Sound Practices magazine's review of a version of the Hiraga-modded A-5, along with comments on the actual original state of the art A-5 system that started tongues wagging about its realism:  http://wajonaudio.webs.com/Voice%20of%20the%20theatre.pdf]

So, what does a well-sorted, and properly-driven A-5 sound like with, say, acoustic music - the ultimate test? Consider a Quad ESL on steroids - lifelike authenticity, from highs to mids, also featuring unbelievably-subtle delicacy and finesse, with devastatingly realistic low-mids to mid-bass. Consider a lower-midrange, especially, which cannot be matched, in its realism, by most of the most expensive conventional s-o-t-a speaker-systems - neither can they match the A-5's dynamism. No.... better still.... just consider a live acoustic band, in performance..... That's it..... I'll leave it at that!

Dynamic realism thru high efficiency is the reason why horns would be used. Efficiencies above 97db/1w/1m would be targeted. And the realistic lower-midrange prowess of large (15") drivers operating in large (or horn-loaded) enclosures is the reason why that configuration is the choice - Altec mid/woofers are also among the very few, available today, with particularly outstanding abilities in this region. In ensuring realistic dynamics, AND realistic lower-mids, we will have addressed the two major areas where most other systems, including most at the top-echelon, are severely compromised. (Even many of the, relatively, few that are most efficient/dynamic also seem to neglect the lower-mids, sadly). Therefore in addressing BOTH these neglected areas (dynamism and lifelike-tonality) we will have gained a considerable advantage over most alternatives (especially the popular high-priced conventional types) in portraying lifelike REALISM, at the very outset. The rest is, therefore, easy.

Alternatives to my previously cited, and somewhat complicated, DIY sub-woofer arrangement could be supplied by also having custom-built, bought, or DIYed, such designs as; the Jensen Imperial, the Karlson Resonator, the enlarged Klipschorn-clone of Electro-Voice's (18") Patrician, one of Tannoy's folded-horn designs could also be considered, Edgarhorn's 'inexpensive' Seismic, or even a simple tapped-horn design for deep-bass only. Let's estimate, pessimistically, that subs would cost 4 to 7 grand. (By the way, excluding the latter two, any of these, or similar, could be considered for 'full-range' duty). Needless to say, acquisition of the A-5 could be accomplished in a similar manner.

If a version of the Hiraga-modified Altec A-5 is used, then we'd need only to consider one stereo-pair of amps for these, and a separate amp for the sub-woofers. For example; World-class Coincident Frankensteins, at $6000, could be used 'full-range'.  [If a more powerful tube-amp is craved, perhaps the $3k, 25 w.p.c., Decware Zen Torii MKIII would be great, considering all the raves about it and, especially, since at least one of those raving 'lunatics', on the Decware forum, has admitted to selling his Frankensteins after purchasing a Torii III. (The last point is a real attention-grabber - these guys are no fools). An $11k pair of Dragon 211PP  tubed mono-bloc power-amps, from Coincident, could be an option for those in need of even more power - around 75 w.p.c. - with 'negligibly less' finesse, perhaps. And the excellent 100 w.pc. single-chassis solid-state Quad 520 is an option for those averse to tubes, here, at less than 500-bucks, 'used' - this is no joke; quite possibly one of the very best of its type - the Quad 510 mono-bloc is also viable and, perhaps, marginally 'better' with stereo-separation.] Additionally, a refurbished pair of Stromberg-Carlsons, approximately $1500 - $2000, could be used for the subs - the more expensive Dragon is also an option here. (Less costly solid-state options, like the fore-mentioned UREI or Quad, at less than $500, could also be considered for the subs).

Eschewing the Hiraga-mod, with its 'passive' x-over networks for the A-5, a more costly 'active' quad-amplification option could, instead, be utilized. By this route one channel each of three pairs of new Coincident Frankenstein 300B-tubed 9watt power-amps would drive each of the super-tweeters, mid/hi horns, and mid/woofers, per channel - $18,000 total -. or it could be a total of $9000 for three Zen Torii IIIs. (As another alternative; a pair of Dragons could be used on the mid/woofers, with a pair of Frankenstein mono-blocs, or a single stereo Torii, driving the 108db/1w/1m-efficient mid/hi horns, and the supertweeters - other combinations and permutations are also viable). And subs could be amplified as discussed above. The active crossover units would perhaps be used tubed items from ARC costing $3,000, or slightly more. As an alternative, each amp could be modified to limit the frequencies supplied to each driver, thereby obviating the need for seperate crossover units. Generally, the 'active' route is what I'd recommend for this level. But then, the Hiraga-mods for the A-5 and its x-over are reputedly so outstanding that I feel this option must be at least considered, especially since this route is so much more economical, and also since it tailors the commercially-oriented A-5's response, ideally, to domestic conditions.  Nevertheless, if I were limited to only one recommendation, I'd suggest the 'active' route, if only for its slightly enhanced clarity and its superiority in transient-response, especially down to mid-bass and upper-bass where A-5s also excel. Hiraga-San's physical mods to the enclosures would still be incorporated, however.

New line-stage and phono pre-amps could also be tubed Coincident Statements, coincidentally, at a cost of around $11,000 total. (All Coincidents quoted are adjudged to be at the 'edge of the art' in performance, despite their 'moderate' prices). Turntable could be a modified vintage unit such as Garrard's 301/401, Lenco's L75, or Thorens' TD124, costing approximately $5,000, more or less, after mods. Factor in a new tone arm for a similar cost, and a cartridge which could cost as little as $600 for a re-tipped Garrott P77, or something similar, or a maximum of $3,000 for something like a new Grado Statement. Add a reconditioned reel to reel 2-track/15ips tape-machine with custom-built tubed playback-amp stage costing, let's say, $6,000 (more likely much less since the machine, itself, could be obtained for as little as $1000). Digital could be handled by a computer, at no extra cost since most already own one. The sound of this PC, or similarly (USB) equipped CD-player, could be up-graded to surpass most high-end digital units with a Pro-Tools M-Box utilized as a digital/analogue-converter for our purposes (used by most studios in producing CD's) costing less than half-a-grand. Why the M-Box is ignored by the high-end community is a mystery to me, considering the fact that it betters most DAC's. Perhaps, and I do believe, most are not aware of its possibilities. And for others, perhaps it's not 'costly enough', ironically. (Interestingly, an early Sony Play-Station 1 children's toy (the SCPH-1001 versions, which may be had, used, for less than $30) is better than many expensive CD-players. But we'll stop short of recommending it here - it's much too embarrassing for those with mega-buck CDPs. So please don't go broadcasting the fact that you saw this at WAJ on AUDIO - blame it on that other fella in the link provided for the purpose, or on Stereophile, or you could also blame Audiogon for bringing this to your attention).

[Note that all these components have a legitimate claim to being at, or near, the top of their category. Alternatives to the speakers may be found in the 'A-list' of another article, here. But since brand-new 'off-the-shelf' candidates which meet all the performance criteria are so very rare, and near non-existent at 'reasonable' cost, then some improvisation may be necessary, for the cost-conscious (though the 'used' or custom-built A-5/sub combo, above, is already seriously cost-effective, at possibly less than 10-grand in total). For example, aside from placement constraints, relatively 'inexpensive' new Klipschorn bass-bins with mid and treble horns replaced by new Avantgarde units (or similar quality - even DIY) could never be reasonably disputed, in principle. Moreover, efficiency/dynamism would be top-notch. And I'm surprised not to see such a combo more frequently utilized - here's one similar, by Martion, which also utilizes a Klipschorn variant. (Avantgarde's small sub-woofers are ruled-out since the Klipsch is better, in my opinion. And the large Basshorns from that brand are also ruled-out for being un-necessarily expensive, in the context of this excercise, and in the context of the cost/quality of the Klipsch alternative). Even with new Klipsch/Avantgardes, or even new 'off-the-shelf' Edgarhorn Titans with their Seismic sub, this whole audio-system would still cost less than $100k. And, not to be forgotten, the fore-mentioned modified Altec A5 (sub-woofed and super-tweeted) is also an option amongst the most formidable imaginable - it's the 'used' speaker-system of choice in our hypothetical audio-system, after all.

This system of used and reasonably-priced new components, I guarantee it, would equal or better any state-of -the-art million-dollar audio-system. Utilizing its 'master-tape' reel to reel facility would put it beyond reach of ALL but a hand-full of similarly equipped systems. And it would only have cost you a 'mere' 60-odd grand, with the more expensive 'actively-driven' A-5 speaker-option (quite possibly much less, considering all the options) leaving you only to source your power-conditioners, and cables/inter-connects. (Cables too, could cost you very much less if you buy from the factories that actually make them, not the facades that claim to).

Sites such as e-Bay, Audio-Asylum, and Audiogon are among the most likely places to find bargains on used high-end gear. Check on them if you're so inclined.

$47k System - Mid-Fi Sound at High-End Expense:  On now to an example of a system which I'd consider to reflect an unfortunate excess in un-necessary expenditure, especially considering its ultimate potential sound-quality. Yet, there's no denying that it's typically representative of the vast majority of 'serious' high-end systems today, absolutely. Let's start at the point where the quality, the realism, of most systems is choked - the speakers.

Most, yes absolutely, MOST high-end speakers are compromised in their ability to emulate lifelike sonic-realism. This is because, while they excel at stereo imaging and minute detail-resolution, they're also dynamically constrained and tonally thin (ie lacking lower-midrange body). Unfortunately, these two major elements that they lack are, absolutely, the most important for achieving realism in reproduction (please see my articles on the subject, starting with Part 1 here). We could name almost any conventional high-end speaker-system, at random, and this statement would still be true, unfortunately. But since I've had occasion to compare them to my own in the past, we'll name the highly-regarded $12,000 iteration of B&W's 802(D) for this hypothetical system. Amps are Boulder 850, at $10,000 per pair. Line-stage pre-amp is a VTL 7.5 II at $16,500. Phono-stage is Lector mkII at $3,000. Turntable is Clearaudio Ambient with arm and Concerto cartridge - total $6,000. Total cost of this system would be around $47,500, without cables. That's nearly the cost of our no-holds-barred system above. Nearly 50-grand for great detail-resolution & stereo-imaging, but NOT MUCH OVERALL REALISM since this system is fatally choked at the throat - at the SPEAKERS.

Note that the use of almost any other popular speaker would render similar results: The B&W 802D is, in fact, one of the best of its kind. It uses some of the same components of the flag-ship, highly-acclaimed, 'state of the art' 801. B&W themselves will tell you that, except for deep-bass, both sound identical, and we all agree. So the 802D is also virtually 'state of the art' too. Nearly ALL popular high-end speakers have sonic characteristics similar to the 801/802, more or less. But any honest and experienced audiophile will tell you that neither the 801/802 nor any other popular high-end speaker can even come close to the REALISM of the relatively 'inexpensive' Klipschorn, for example, NONE. And there are obvious reasons why the Klipsch and others like it are so realistic. But many still fail to address these issues in the process of system-building. 

[It is important to note that, yes, it is necessary to have high-quality equipment for high-quality sound. But at the levels of quality of the equipment being discussed here - in class A, B, and C - differences are minute. Once the minimum level of 'high-end' performance is within reach,  it is much more important to ensure overall system-synergy and, especially, commensurate levels of competence in every component in the chain. One weak link WILL compromise the quality of the whole chain. Therefore, it is entirely possible for a system of mostly class B and C components, for instance, to thoroughly out-perform a system with mostly class A components if just one of those components is compromised - the speakers, for instance. In quite a few of my articles I've been trying to point-out that MOST of our speaker-systems are severely compromised - the weak link. Many of them certainly deserve their class A, B, or C classification if  stereo imaging and detail-resolution are the main criteria for excellence ('hi-analytics' is my name for this - not hi-fidelity). And certainly, this could be the ONLY reason they're rated so highly. But we seem to have forgotten that high-fidelity is all about fidelity to the source - live music - as it was recorded, with all its fullness of tone and awe-inspiring dynamism. Sadly, judged against this standard, most modern speakers are abysmal - dynamically retarded (because of their inefficiency) and tonally anorexic at the lower mids (because their small drivers cannot realistically reproduce the lower-mids). Judged against the standard of sonic-realism (as they should be) most speakers would be firmly ensconced in class D, or below. A pity. They do sound pretty. But they fail to replicate sonic reality!] 

System #2 - Near State of the Art Realism for Much Less: Now for the economic, giant-killing system of used components: Speakers could be the 104db-efficient Kilpschorns, at approximately $3,000 (if you can find an owner willing to let them go. If not, then around $5,000 will buy them new - it's best to swap the upper horns for less colored options, tho). Tannoys are a more expensive option. Nevertheless, we could buy the ('used' 15" dual) drivers and have the enclosures built, preferably to a 'Prestige' Tannoy-design. Scrimping on the size is not an option since efficiency-induced dynamism (along with correct, 'full-bodied', tonality, btw) is where most of its advantage lies. We'd be targeting an efficiency rating of at least 94db/1w/1m. The same could be done with other classic high-efficiency designs such as from JBL, Altec, E-V, etc. Used Altec Model 19s or similar, at around 1.3 to 2-grand, are also serious contenders. [And those who'd prefer new speakers at just north of this price-range could go with the $2.5k Tekton Pendragon, at the cost of slightly less performance, in my opinion, especially in tone, compared to the Altec. Conversely, those like the Mode1 19 would need to be actively driven in order to approach the transient alacrity of the Pendragon's main 'full-range' drivers - one reason you should avoid passive x-overs, if you can.] Another option is the DIY system roughly outlined here, based on my own system. In addition to its high-efficiency/dynamism and 'full-bodied' (lower-midrange) tonality, this DIY system is also ultimately adept at detail-resolution and stereo-imaging, among other things. Both the latter are minor issues with the likes of Tannoys and Klipschorns, for instance, but any of these will easily out-perform the 802D, and the vast majority of high-end speaker-systems, in so far as sonic realism is concerned. Therefore, half the battle is already won.

Amps would be similar to either of those 'giant-killing' tubed Ampexes and Stromberg-Carlsons alluded to earlier, acquired and reconditioned at a cost of perhaps $1,500. And I'm tempted to include the $99 Magnavox here but, at this ridiculous price, I'd prefer to confirm its quality myself - hard to believe - for consideration at this level. [Or it could be a solid-state ARC D130, UREI 6150/6250, Quad 520, or similar, for those with an affinity/aversion to tube-sound/tube-hassles, respectively. The Quad 520 is now the most strongly recommended, by this site, amongst all ss-amps - 510 monos too.] Line-stage pre-amp would be an ARC LS3, or similar from Conrad-Johnson, Counterpoint, etc., and would cost perhaps $500 to $1500.  Phono-stage could be a tubed EAR 834P, at around $1200, used. Or, one could consider something like an ARC SP10 or SP11 for around $3,000, thus eliminating the need, and cost, of a separate phono-stage - not very cost-effective, tho, with 'new' options like the $2k Doge Clarity lurking in the shadows. Other used phono-ready pre-amps like the ARC SP8 are, also, less costly options at around $1200, and preferably modified (as recommended for virtually all pre-amps - see here). Turntable could be a used Linn Sondek/Ittok at $1000 to $2000 (or a Thorens TD125/SME for less, or even an idler-drive similar to those above, modified with at least a heavy-plinth and arm, for a little more - the latter option being the one most highly recommended). And cartridge could be a re-tipped discontinued moving-magnet such as the Garrott P77 above, or a new Grado Sonata for a similar price of around $500 to $600. [Oops! Again I seem to have broadly described a familiar system, albeit, sans sub-woofers and ancilliaries.] Oh digital? Well, that $47k system doesn't have one (couldn't afford it) but perhaps we could 'unfairly' add the sonic equivalent of an outstanding ($4000+) CD-player, here, by investing all of $30 in an old Sony PlayStation 1. (Shhhh). But why not? It's only money!

We could stop there, or we could add $1000 for an unmodified 'master-tape'-capable tape-machine, such as a ReVox A77mkIV for instance, to extract unparalleled performance untouchable by any other rig that is not similarly equipped. (Substituting a good tubed output-stage, on the R2R, would make it even better). So, for a total of approximately $10,000, more or less, we would have a system which would be vastly more realistic than that $47,000 system previously described, and extremely close to our s-o-t-a system #1, if we're careful - I repeat; extremely close*. 'Upgrading' to the greatest front-end components and amps on planet-earth (let's say; a million-dollars worth of Goldmund tt, and Wavac or UltraSound amplification) could render marginally more detail and stereo-imagery, but would still not significantly improve that un-necessarily expensive $47k system in terms of overall sonic-realism. (Note: Extreme levels of detail and imaging, as emphasised by increasingly more-expensive modern components/systems, do not enhance sonic realism - though they can be interesting in analytical terms. In fact, such extreme levels of both deter from realism since they're not apparent at a live performance. Realistic tone and dynamics are much more responsible for realism. And these are the traits most modern conventional speakers ignore, in favor of unrealistic excesses in detail and imaging). The irony is that just changing the speakers (the weak link) of that $47k system, as it stands, could make it just as good as this $10k one, or nearly so - with virtually no loss of realistic detail, and with imaging more akin to that of the 'real world'. But then, with our own system #2, we'd still have achieved this level of realism for very much less.

*[Here's an actual 'real-world' example proving that a system costing $10,000, or less, can be 'extremely close', in performance, to the realism of an all-out s-o-t-a system (similar to our own system #1) costing many tens of thousands of dollars more:

A reader was recently inspired by the original of this article to solicit my design of an audio-system which would be more realistic than several he already owned. These included a system designed and implemented by a famed audio-consultant, incorporating highly-reputed and expensive components, such as Genelec speakers - all of which he found to be 'nice' but unrealistic and, therefore, not inspiring him to really listen to music. The project ensued over a period of five-months. The system I designed and recommended (and sourced, in many instances) turned-out to be the equivalent of our $10k system #2, and at similar cost. Indeed, apart from the amp, virtually all of that system's components are (the exact, or equivalent) options listed for our system #2. For instance, the near-equivalent Altec Valencias were substituted for Altec Model 19s, in his system (in fact, they're the near-equivalent of any H-E design of this type, including Klipsch, Tannoy, etc.).

On one occassion, at a vintage-audio dealer's studio, this reader got the opportunity to audition a system similar to our s-o-t-a system #1.

Here are my comments in response to (and incorporating) just one of his own remarks on the experience, as he compared that outstanding system to the system we were in the process of building, at that stage of its development at the time:

.My comment, here:  ............I can't get over this tho; You listened to those awesome Western-Electrics, which demonstrate a ridiculous level of superiority over some of the most expensive modern speakers in existence, and then you said this;  "When I got home and hooked them up to the Valencias - I was impressed with the sound of my amps and speakers to same level that I experienced at his studio.  That's a good sign." Ha! "That's a good sign". What an understatement. I agree tho, that's definitely a good sign....

If you've read the links then you'll be aware that the similar speakers (Western-Electric L-9) the reader auditioned at the dealer's studio were actually state of the art, owing to the fact that the same model comprehensively outperformed several modern state of the art representatives (earning 'Best Sound at Show', from TNT-Audio, Munich 2010). The rest of the dealer's system comprised similarly revered Western-Electric and Audio-Note electronics. So when he says he was impressed with his own system to the same level that he'd experienced at the studio, he's really saying that his 'new' system (even though unfinished, at this stage) was 'extremely close' to the performance of the state of the art system he'd auditioned at the studio. (So impressed has he been, with the system, that he eventually actually sought to claim credit for the design he'd requested of me - but that's another story (see the links below for that, the thread of our correspondence, his 'review', and my response).

Perhaps we should close this segment with a few more of this reader's remarks (uncharacteristically honest, and prior to his lust for 'stolen glory') regarding his 'new' system, which is a virtual clone of system #2, here;


"...I was literally trembling because the sound was so full and encompassing......... I listened to a few things I'd been listening to hundreds of times and it was a brand new experience.......... 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............  Tues and Wed night we're incredible for me...."


"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.




System #3 - High-End on a Shoe-string:  Be advised that this philosophy of 'the best for the least' is applicable at all levels, so don't be scared by the $10k figure. That hypothetical system is potentially at, or near, the state of the art in aspects of its performance, and is easily up-gradable to the ultimate level. It is entirely possible to build a complete system in similar fashion for somewhere around 2 to 2.5 grand, more or less, potentially out-performing many costing much more than ten.

An example? OK, consider a Thorens TD125 turntable with SME 3009II arm for $700, a Grado Reference Sonata cartridge for $500, an Audio-Research SP8 pre-amp with phono-stage for $1000, UREI 6150 or Quad 303 power-amp for less than $500, two pairs of original Advent speakers for $500. These Advents would be stacked, one inverted atop the other, to form one stereo pair - no mini-monitors advocated here. (There are two sets on e-bay for $249, each pair, even as I write). Total cost of this system (without cables and accessories) - $3200.

ALL these components are reasonably close in performance to the best, and this system's performance would also be close to the best, especially in terms of midrange naturalness, and tone (though there's room for improvement in dynamism, here). Interestingly, the Advent may not be as detailed as some of its modern counter-parts, but likewise very few of these can approach its natural tonal-realism. This was most recently reiterated in issue #162 of the Absolute Sound magazine where a panel-discussion on sonic-realism highlighted stacked Advents, Magnepans, and original Quad ESL's as being amongst the most realistic reproducers of sound - ever. These Advents could be modified for detail and stereo-dispersion. Sub-woofers could be added too, but that's another story. 

[Alternatives with similar natural realism, and lower-mid strengths, could be stacked KLH models, with 12" woofers, from the late 60's thru early 90's (with somewhat more efficiency/dynamism from the later models) but all will also have to be, eventually, modified for top-tier performance. See the article, 'DIY Speaker-Systems..' for ideas. There are others but, mostly, recommendations for those are not offered, at this level, for reasons of expense - Tannoys, for example. The tower models from Boston and Cambridge SoundWorks (not Azur) are relatively recent possibilities, though - but with more significant compromise. Recommendations for most others would be thoroughly hypocrytical on my part, unfortunately, due to the dearth of legitimate candidates - as previously outlined].

If you prefer CD's to LP's, then substitution of the turntable et-al for a used (Wolfson 24-bit/96khz PCM DAC equipped) Cambridge Azur 540C CD-player, at around $400, could bring the total cost down to $2400. (A PlayStation 1 would lower costs even more - see below). The Wolfson DAC and other design-features ensure performance well above this CD-player's original price-bracket. Low cost and high quality were features of some of Cambridge Azur's components. In fact, substitution of the amp and pre-amp for the 540A solid-state integrated amp, of the same brand, costing about the same $400, could lower the complete system's cost even further to $1300. (And I suspect a $100 original NAD 3020 would also be OK for some, here). Overall, the sound-quality would also be lowered. But the sound would still be high-end and still better, also more realistic, than some that cost much more. (For another alternative click on 'Part 2' below).

Obviously, there's a lot more to it than the prices of the components, but....

Perhaps it is better to buy used, after all!  


.Continue to Part 2

[WAJ on AUDIO subsequently designed the near equivalent of one of the-above systems for a reader. Here's his review, along with my response: Shortened version. Extended version.

And here's part 1 of the long thread of our correspondence throughout the 5-month duration of the project.]

Pictures. Re; above article:  

ReVox A77mkIV

Linn Sondek LP12 w Ittok


Manley Neo (Retro)

Ampex (6973)

Quad 33-303-FM3


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