There will not be many surprises found here for experienced audiophiles. This is a place for beginners who are trying to avoid costly mistakes ("junk") before they find their own direction, in contrast to their friends or their favorite "reviewer". In effect, the components below are a place to park, before making "the big commitment".
The first advice that I always give to a beginner is to take the time and trouble to read about and, even better, audition as many components as possible, especially speakers. "Reviews" in magazines, or websites, that accept advertising for audio products, should never be taken at face value. In the end, the only opinion that really counts is the listener's. (For my really young readers: Much of what you have ever heard, seen or thought, about "adults" generally being easily corruptible, is usually, and sadly, true. See "The Audio Press" and "Reviewing the Reviewers".)
I would also attempt to purchase only used models of the components that are eventually chosen. In this way, there won't be a large loss on the models that don't "work out", and there will also be a good monetary start for the replacement models.
This isn't just "talk" on my part. When I first got into "Hi-Fidelity" in the late 1960's, I bought only new equipment. That changed in the early 1970's, when I realized I could get a lot more with my (very limited) money when I bought components used. Most of the equipment was in good condition, so that wasn't a problem. With the arrival of the Internet, buying new makes no sense for a beginner, and even for most audio veterans in most situations. Actually, even now, after all of my years in the audio business, and with all of my contacts, I still buy used myself. There's no shame in it. In fact, it's the one preventive measure to ensure you are never ashamed yourself after realizing that you have grossly overpaid for a component that was overhyped, which is an experience that has been increasingly common in the last 20 years.
Audiophiles should only buy new, which usually means paying the highest retail price, when they are experienced and reasonably certain that the component will perform as they expect.
Finally, please don't be put-off, insulted or discouraged by my use of the term "Entry Level". While they have less ultimate potential, these components are still able to compete with supposedly "real High-End" models. In fact, in real-life situations, they can actually outperform those expensive systems in many instances.
This is particularly true when an Entry Level audio system has well matched components, which have been modified and/or otherwise optimized, and correctly positioned in a good sounding room. In my actual experiences, I've heard literally hundreds of costly audio systems, in private homes as well as at audio shows, many costing well over $ 100,000, that sounded mediocre, if not worse, because of poor inherent performance and/or mis-matching, improper positioning and/or horrible room acoustics, or some combination of these factors.
Well Tempered Record Player- I was a dealer for the Well Tempered line when it came out in the 1980's. This was their "budget" model, and for some unknown reason I overlooked placing it here, where it should have been from the beginning.
Its strengths were similar to the original and more expensive ("Classic") model; excellent neutrality, speed stability and retrieval of low-level information. Its downsides were also the same; mediocre bass and unconvincing dynamic contrasts. Overall though, it is the finest of this group, along with the Alexandria below, which has a different assortment of strengths and weaknesses. (9/03)
Rega Planar 3- This model is now discontinued, so look for one used, since people are always trading up. Go for the most recent model. The Planar 2 is not quite as good. The more expensive Rega models are overrated in my experience and should be avoided. There is no suspension, so acoustical isolation is critical with this model. I have not heard the replacement model for this turntable yet.
Rega's lower-priced tonearms, available separately, are probably the finest ever made for the money. A reader has informed me that they can be purchased directly from England, and even the modified versions will still be less expensive than the stock models sold in North America. Their one serious problem is the difficulty in changing the VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle). However, as good as they are, I still prefer the Linn Ittok to either their RB-250 or RB-300 tonearms.
Oracle Alexandria- This turntable is really "good looking" and it also has very good sonics, superior to the Rega 3 and even comparable to the models in Reference Class C (Lower). Make sure to always get back-up belts and even an extra motor from this manufacturer.
Further- A reader has informed me that Oracle no longer has parts for this model. I have no other verification of this information. (5/03)
More Recent- These excellent sounding turntables are now prone to failing motors, which the manufacturer can do nothing about, so a letter I recently received from a reader is really good news:
"I have just installed the "Advanced Motor Upgrade" kit (from Origin Live) into my Oracle Alexandria Mk II. I can say without reservation that the improvement in sound quality is significant and worth way more than the $ 540 that I spent.
I did not have high expectations for sonic benefits other than the elimination of the increasingly annoying motor noise from the aging Pabst. Extending the service life of the deck was the focus so I was not prepared for what I heard. As I related to the Origin Live folks, it was like looking at fine print with my aging naked eyes and then slipping on my reading glasses. It's just a lot easier to enjoy the musical presentation.
The installation required a little DIY ingenuity, but was relatively straightforward. I was anxious to complete the installation so it is not as tidy as I would like. Therefore, I will be making a more refined version of the motor mount adapter plate in the next two weeks. As I told Origin Live, digital pictures and detailed assembly instructions will be forthcoming in case other adventurous Alexandria owners are looking for an upgrade." (4/04)
VPI JR.- This also has very good sonics, comparable, though not equal to the Alexandria. The looks are below average. There is no suspension. An important consideration may be its ability to be upgraded at a later date, with the platter being the most important part to change.
Careful- It is wider than many component stands.
THORENS TD-150 AND TD-125- These are similar in design and sound to an older, stock Linn Sondek. You should check the motor, bearings etc. for noise and rumble. They're well made and preferable to the later TD-160.
The TD-125 (all versions) is very desirable. It had sonics comparable, if not superior (especially in the bass), to the earlier Linn LP-12, with 3 (adjustable) speeds (16/33/45) and was much better built. (The replacement model, the TD-126, also had 3 speeds; 33/45/78. I never felt it was as well built as the TD-125, but the 78 speed will be important to some.)
The earlier model, the TD-124, which is an idler-drive, should be avoided by most beginners. I've never been satisfied with it myself. However, according to many serious audiophiles, it does have a lot of "potential", but only for those owners willing to make the investment in finding, and/or building, a really sound plinth. In short, the TD-124 is a "project", short-term and long-term.
Others- Two other turntables that may also fit the bill are the Linn Basik, now discontinued, and the Revolver line, which was very similar to the Rega. I have limited exposure to both of these models, so more caution is in order.
ARISTON/SYSTEMDEK TURNTABLES- Their original model, the RD-11S, was a virtual clone of the Linn LP-12 in appearance and in basic design during the 1970's, though one can make a convincing argument that it was the other way around. The sound was very good, but I (and many other listeners) felt that the Linn still had a slight edge in performance.
In the 1980's, the two companies went in different directions. Ariston was, by then, unfairly left behind by "serious audiophiles", but they reorganized and came out instead with some high quality budget models. They were all "good for the money". Their new name was: Systemdek. I was a dealer for this line when I first opened my store back in 1981.
Further- A reader later informed me that a new version of the Systemdek is still available from Audio Note, which is well-known for their single-ended amplifiers, kits and high-quality, exotic parts. Below is the short write-up on the Audio Note website:
"The Audio Note TT1 turntable is a three point fully floating suspended sub chassis model derived from the award winning Systemdek IIX. The platter is a acrylic platform and drive to the platter is provided by a round rubber belt."
None of us has had any experience with this Audio Note model, but a different reader sent me a letter in early Fall 2005 with some interesting information and observations. Here it is...
Further- Below is a letter from a reader who has some interesting information about the Systemdeks and its latest version made by Audio Note. There are some other experiences he also share. (He's also a friend of technician and designer Tom Tutay.) Here it is, with minor editing:
"My reason for emailing you is about the Systemdek tables.
One small correction. The Audio Note TT 1 is the same table as the Systemdek 2X900 (I believe that was the model) The 2X900 was a much better sounding table than the IIX, and the IIX was a very good sounding table. Especially with a Rega RB 300.
The acrylic platter on a IIX would transform it, and add a RB 300 well you have a very good sounding table. I have heard many versions of Systemdek tables with Rega arms which made them sing. I personally own a Systemdek IV. It is a substantial beast over the IIX or 2X900. It features an 11 pound platter, a stiffer suspension and larger mounting board compared to the IIX (and other II series). It also featured a better electronic speed control system than the IIX series.
To me I think it is more attractive too. The IVe ("e" for electronic) sold new for $750 without arm. I have only seen a handful of these monsters. It weighs well over 30 pounds compared to the II series 18 to 20 pounds. It is quiet and presents a very good soundstage. I have had a Sota and a Music Hall MMF5 turntable, and the Systemdek sounds as good as the Sota with the exception that the Sota has a black(er) blackground. And it blows away the Music Hall MMF 7. No rumbling noises, etc. in the Systemdek IV. The II series was quieter too. Another good tonearm was the Sumiko FT 3 with the Systemdek IV. Tom (Tutay) heard mine when I lived in Florida. It was blessed with a AT OC7, yes OC7. It was a brighter presentation than the OC9. I needed that at the time. It wasn't a hard sounding cartridge at all. My system then was Apogee Centaur Minors, DB Audio DB1 with DB pre preamp, in addition to over 5 other preamps during my stay in Florida, and some of Tom's creations too. I used an Eico HF 89 modified by Tom (excellent)."
I believe, in most instances, that the phono cartridge will have a greater overall effect on the sonics of the system than the different turntables listed above.
Accordingly, readers should try to find and buy the Denon 103. If the Denon is too expensive, or too much of a hassle to purchase (and amplify), there are a few alternatives that are also excellent choices, though all of them are at least one step down in sonics.
The "alternatives" are the "budget Grados"; the Audio Technica OC-9 (a new version, the MLII, is now available which may be a lot better); and, if you can trust the seller, a good used cartridge, which may be the best choice. (A "Secret": Most audiophiles take serious care of their cartridges.)
Look for the latest "budget models" from NAD, Rotel, Oppo and Parasound. Their more expensive models, with the important exception of Oppo, should usually be avoided, but last years models, at used or "sale" prices, are the best value. All the Musical Fidelity models I've heard have been impressive, but more expensive. Look for them used only.
The AH Tjoeb costs a little more, but it has a tube output stage. The MSB Link, basic model, is the best value in DAC's, period. It is also upgradeable in steps. The Yamaha CDX-390 was a superb value. The Marantz CD-63 SE was also special. Important: Avoid all "carousels".
The latest line that has really impressed us is from MHZS, plus the Doge, all from China. They may cost a little bit more, but are well worth the extra money. They all have superb build quality, actually comparable to models selling for 5 times their cost.
When it comes to digital sources in general, especially "budget models", the purchaser should do some serious "homework", because the technology shifts extremely fast. As of 2010/11, there is also "Computer Audio" to consider, though my associates and I have yet to have a positive experience with this particular solution, but that can always quickly change.
For our latest thoughts about digital sources, visit the Digital Source Reference File.
Vintage Tube Amplifiers- They are listed in their own file. Also, the less expensive Counterpoint Hybrids, SA-12, SA-100 etc. I have also been hearing good things about the kits and manufactured models from Decware (their website is in the Links), though I have no personal experience with them. The Conrad-Johnson MV-75 was a good "all around" amplifier, though it requires a simple modification (modern coupling capacitors).
ANTIQUE SOUND LAB "THE WAVE AV-8"- This mono tube amplifier can be purchased new. It is only $ 99 per mono amplifier. It is not a kit. An associate was very impressed with it. It is only 10 watts, so speaker choice is extremely critical. This could be the best amplifier in the world for the money.
Further- I've been informed that this model is no longer made. It has been replaced by the AV-20, which is 20 watts per channel and $ 249 a mono pair. None of us has heard this recent model. (2/04)
Used Transistor models- These amplifiers can offer tremendous value, with no sonic advantage going to the newer versions. In fact, many recent replacement models are not as well built as these original versions.
Especially desirable are the models from those companies which offered good value to begin with:
NAD (Most Models),
Rega Super Brio,
Creek (most models),
Rotel (Early/Middle 1990's models),
Adcom (1980's models-especially the 535),
Parasound (most models, excellent bass, though "dry"),
Sugden (Low Wattage/High Current Models, such as the A21a),
Amber Stereo 70 ("natural", but watch the condition, since these are very old now)
Musical Fidelity (all models I'm aware of, and especially the early A1 etc.),
Luxman (Tube Hybrids) LV-103, LV-105 (the higher power models are not as good)
B & K (older models),
Van Alstine (all models I'm aware of)
Bryston stereo power amplifiers (all models)
and others, especially from England.
CAVEAT: The condition is critical when purchasing these units because of the potential future expense in repairs and maintenance.
AMBER STEREO 70 AMPLIFIER- A reader reminded me of this amplifier. I was never an Amber dealer, but I had a few of them come in as trades during the 1980's. They were unusually natural sounding, while also retaining a good amount of detail. The frequency extremes were pretty decent also. They're relatively old now, so be careful of the condition. They were well built, with a good power supply, and should be able to drive most speakers made today with no problem, including those that require some current. I don't know what a reasonable price would be, but I would guess a few hundred dollars, unless you really score. An excellent choice for a first amplifier.
CONRAD JOHNSON MV-75 (MODIFIED)- This was a good "all around" amplifier, but it requires a simple modification to earn its Entry-Level "Reference" designation: The coupling capacitors must be replaced with some really good modern types. Putting film cap bypasses on the B+ supply is also advised. The MV-75 works well with most speakers, but it does have noticeable problems with unusually low impedance loads and/or really large woofers. Also, make sure the circuit board is still in good condition, which means it hasn't either badly deteriorated or was butchered by some incompetent "modifier".
This amplifier has been the "Forrest Gump" of my audio life, with a lasting impact far greater than its actual performance compared to other amplifiers I've owned, some of which were far superior in performance. For all the details and the anecdotes, please see the Readers Letters in the Amplifier File.
SPICA TC-50- The TC-50 is the finest overall speaker ever made for the money. Its only "rivals" for that title are the various Dynaco (single woofer) speaker models from the 1970's, which are usually too deteriorated by usage and age by now to unqualifiedly recommend, though I know of a number of pairs myself which are still working well after all of these years.
The Spica has a natural ("musical") sound and with excellent imaging and separation of instruments. Both of the frequency extremes are rolled off, and it is not quite as detailed and clean as many current models.
Spica's other "budget" models may also be worth looking into, but I have no direct experience with them.
COINCIDENT TRIUMPH SERIES- My former retail store represented this speaker company. This series consists of the original Triumph, the Mini-Triumph (both now discontinued) and the still current Triumph Signature. They offered the best overall value I knew of in small, low-priced, dynamic speakers manufactured in the late 1990's.
They look conventional, but the drivers, crossover, cabinet, binding posts and veneer are all higher quality than usually found in their price class. The sonics are generally natural, accurate and detailed. The bass is well-detailed and goes unusually low for such a small cabinet. The imaging qualities are also very good.
One potential downside is that they are less "forgiving" than the Spica's and most other speakers in their price range, which could be a problem with bright sources or amplification etc. They are both a high-sensitivity (90dB+) and a high-impedance load (8 ohms). This even allows them to be used with high quality, low-powered amplifiers.
VANDERSTEEN 2C AND 1B- All the different versions of these models are References. They are warmer than neutral and they are not among the more immediate and detailed speakers either, even for their price.
The main strength of the 2C is that it has no obvious ("in your face") irritating weakness, plus the bass goes unusually low for its price point. They are especially listenable on poorly recorded material. They should be purchased used, which should be easy considering how long they have been manufactured and their consistent popularity. Selling them later should be just as easy.
Finally, I have observed that the more contemporary Audio Research tube electronics work very well with Vandersteen speakers.
VANDERSTEEN SUBWOOFER- I originally overlooked this desirable model for some unknown reason. It is modestly priced, self-powered and excellently engineered. It uses a somewhat different approach than most subwoofers; taking the signal from the main power amplifiers, instead of from the preamplifier. It may sound like a recipe for problems, but it works surprisingly well, mainly because its bass is both deep and controlled, while retaining the "character" of the main amplifier, which allows the entire system to sound more cohesive.
It has three 8" drivers facing down, while the sound comes from the sides. The crossover is adjustable, though it requires the use of resistors. I still haven't heard an actual optimized pair of these units in one system, so it may be even better than I think.
Further- In my short write-up about these subwoofers above, I speculated about the potential improvements using a pair of them, since, up to now, I've only heard one of them in a system. Well, it turned out that Bill Feil has some experience on this subject. The direct question I asked:
"Big Time. The mains image so much better with a pair. Night and day would be an exaggeration but I would never go back to a single sub if space permits a pair. I don't think you'll get anybody with half an ear say that 1 is as good as 2."
Personal Note- I've been continually using subwoofers for more than 30 years now. I can indirectly confirm what Bill Feil has observed above. That is- I've always experienced a significant improvement when going from one to two subwoofers, assuming there was adequate space, and the subs were properly set up. If you have the money, space and time for optimization, then go for it.
OBVIOUS CAVEAT- If you don't like the first subwoofer, for whatever rational reason, then don't bother buying another one in the vain hope that, with a matched pair, "it will all work out". It won't. Just start over.
DAHLQUIST DQ-10- These speakers offer quite a lot at their typical used price, usually less than $ 500 a pair. They have very good detail and transparency in the midrange. They are mainly neutral, except for some problems in the high frequencies. The bass goes surprisingly low, and with good impact and detail.
They are physically wide, and strikingly similar to the Original Quad Electrostatics in appearance (which is not a coincidence). They need above average power, over 100 (good quality) watts, "to get going". The woofers must be closely "checked out" to make sure their surrounds haven't rotted out over time.
Some of these speakers were "modified", so make sure that the work was done properly. This is the speaker to get if you already have a good, powerful amplifier and don't have much more money to spend.
Further- Dahlquist also came out with a "passive" subwoofer, the DQ-1W. It was "OK", but there are better choices from that period, particularly the excellent Janis W1, which included its own crossover and amplifier, a rarity at the time.
A much more successful component was their DQLP-1 electronic crossover. It was an 18/dB an octave "low-pass" design, but it had a unique variable frequency control, which made it very flexible when searching for the optimum crossover point.
It had another advantage: Because the "high-pass" (6/dB an octave) outputs were "passive", it didn't degrade the sound as much as "active" crossovers, if used for the satellites (still not advised).
SPENDOR SP-1- I am not as familiar with this model as the others I have listed. It is very neutral in the midrange. The quality of the high frequencies depends entirely on the position of the speaker. This is critical, so, in effect, this is a "one-man" speaker. The bass goes reasonably low and it plays reasonably loud. There is an overall "naturalness" to this speaker that should be especially appealing to listeners of acoustical music. It has been around for a while, so look for a pair used. The earlier model, the BC-1, had more obvious problems, but it could still be an attractive alternative to some listeners.
Further- One veteran audiophile and former customer had some kind words about the Spendor BC-3: "They go lower and louder than BC1's while retaining the same magic naturalness in the midrange." I'm not personally familiar with these speakers, but this reader has similar priorities to mine. If true, then the BC-3 is a very desirable speaker. (8/03)
SPICA ANGELUS- The unique looking Angelus wasn’t worth the extra cost when it was sold new, but a typical "used discount" changes the equation. Its strengths are an overall naturalness, cohesiveness, excellent imaging and separation of instruments. It is unusually good at capturing low-level detail. It also has some obvious weaknesses...
The bass doesn't go as low as you would think with such a large, well-built cabinet. The highs are also rolled off, and its speed, immediacy and "precision" (outer detail) are not "strong suits". This speaker's crossover can be modified with better passive parts and wiring. I have done it myself, and it is definitely worth it.
Spica also manufactured a self-powered subwoofer, which didn’t go very low and also had minimum impact. There are better alternatives, such as that just below.
KINERGETICS SUBWOOFER- This is the finest subwoofer I have heard for the money (along with the Vandersteen subwoofer above). They can be used singly (least advised), in pairs or in stacked pairs (most advised). They do everything "well" (extension, impact, cleanness, detail etc.), but nothing "exceptional". Their dedicated amplifiers and crossover are good, but also not exceptional.
The preferred strategy with these subwoofers is to buy them one or two at a time, as your budget permits. With each purchase, the performance will greatly improve. A stacked pair (per channel) is competitive with all but the finest (and most expensive) subwoofers out there, and a great value.
I will try to add more speakers in the future, some of which will hopefully cost even less than those above. As mentioned above, the older (1970's) Dynaco models (with the one exception of their ill-designed dual-woofer model) are superb value, but they will probably be in poor shape by now, and very difficult to repair. Any mint versions are very desirable.
NOTE- The audio magazine, The Sensible Sound, has done a large amount of reviews on "budget" speakers, and their "speaker issues" should be checked out.
A reader from Holland, who appears to have much more experience with the entire Thorens turntable line than I do, sent me this letter, which I feel is very informative. Here it is, only slightly edited:
"In the entry level section of your site you (Arthur Salvatore) state the following:
'Thorens TD-150 and TD-125- These are similar in design and sound to an older, stock Linn Sondek. You should check the motor, bearings etc. for noise and rumble. Well made, and preferable to the later TD-160.'
I can agree with this statement, but not without a few reservations because this is an area I know something about. The biggest advantage of the TD150 over the TD160 is its bigger armboard which makes it easier to upgrade on the tonearm. The TD150 also has a better platter-bearing than most TD160's because it has a ball in the bearing shaft.
And now my reservations:
The first generation of the TD160-mkI also has this superior platter-bearing and a much better tone-arm, the TP16-mkI. It also has a much better plinth and therefore this series is the one to search for and preferable to the TD150. The tonearm of the TD150-mkI, the TP13, must be upgraded for best results. Mostly a SME-3009 is used here but this is an overrated arm (except the IIIs version with titanium armtube, which is excellent), chosen only for the looks. Much better is to fit a Linn Ittok or any arm which works well on a Linn LP12 (light arms like the Hadcock also work well).
The odd-looking TP13a tonearm on the TD150-mkII is much better and on a Thorens TD150 preferable to a Rega for instance. The TP16 arm on the TD160 (or TD145 which is the same but has an optical auto-shutoff) is a very good arm and doesn't need to be changed at all because it is much better than the turntable itself can handle but if you really must, use the same recommendations as I did for the TD150. Because of the small armboard of the TD160 some modification of the subchassisis is needed to be able to fit a SME.
The bearing shaft of the more recent TD160-mkI is slightly longer and no longer has the ball, but a spherical tip instead, and is still of the 10mm diameter type. With the TD160-mkII, the 7mm bearing shaft comes into view and this is not a change for the good. The heavy platter has a tendency to sink in time because the 7mm shaft hasn't enough "grip" to hold the platter on the correct height. The 145-mkII is mostly fitted with the 10mm shaft but has a resin inner-platter instead of the metal (Zamac) one of the TD160. The TD160-Super has the 10mm shaft and a heavier plinth and bottomplate. The 160B is equal but has no tonearm but a modified subchassis and armboard ready to fit a SME. Build quality of this types is far better than the TD150.
Types 165, 166 and 146 are budget types with simpler tonearms (TP11, antiskating by a small weight instead of the magnetic antiskating of the TP16, later 166/146 have TP28 and TP50 tonearms) and resin innerplatter. The TP16-mkII and III tonearms have a lighter armtube, the TP62 and TP63, and a lighter counterweight, and are, on a Thorens, far better than a Rega. The TD147 is equal to the 160-Super, but has an optical auto-shutoff and is a very desirable player. The TD160s-mkIV has the TP16-mkIV tonearm, but this arm has inferior armbearings. The TD160s-mkV has the finest of all Thorens tonearms, the TP90, a tonearm never to be changed for something else because there's nothing to be gained here. Like the TD147, the mkIV and V also have an optical auto-shutoff. The TD160-mkIII doesn't exist.
If not already present, the subchassis must be damped to stop the ringing. Don't use lead because this is to heavy for the springs but use cork or foam. A thin bottomplate must be replaced by a thick one, preferably a sandwich of MDF-plates with lead between them. The ringing of the platter can easily be damped with foamtape. Also bear in mind that the versions with resin inner-platter have lighter springs so if you want to replace it for the Zamac platter you'll have to change the springs too.
The versions with internal power supply can do with a better powercable or you can build in a power-entrance. In case of hum fit a better interconnect with better connectors. If you like you can build in RCA-chassis' on the rear. The early versions don't have a separate groundwire and this can cause a hum too. Disconnect the groundwire from the tonearm and the chassis-ground from the right signalground and connect it to a groundwire together with the chassis-ground. Clean the platter bearing and put a little motor-oil in it and replace a worn belt for a new one which is important for pitch stability. Adjusting the springs of the suspension is a matter of patience to obtain a perfect vertical bounce."
(This reader later sent a letter concerning the damping of the Thorens TD160 platter:)
"I do stop the ringing of Thorens TD160 platters, which are quite similar in design as the (Linn) LP12. Without damping, you can easily use the platter as a doorbell. Some Thorens platters have a large plastic washer or ring pressed around the bearing shaft. In that case I cut out a ring of matras-foam and glue it under the inner-platter. In absence of that ring I use isolation foam tape on the inside of the inner platter rim. Eliminating this kind of unwanted resonance results in a much tighter sound with more upper detail and more pressure in the mid and low region. Quite a big improvement because it also gives a more relaxed listen. This can be explained by the fact that you don't have to concentrate so much to hear every detail that otherwise got lost. Damping of the subchassis improves things even more for the same reasons as making the plinth and bottom heavier because extra weight also has a dampening effect." (8/05)
Personal Note- A large number of Thorens turntables and tonearms came through my former audio store over the years. Only a few made a lasting impression on me. I thank this generous reader for filling in a lot of the gaps.
I just received a letter from a helpful reader with some important updates and additions to my Reference Component Files. Here's his letter, with some minor editing (my bold):"Some updated information for the digital sources section on:
NAD has 2 entry-level CD players - they list for $ 300 and $ 500 (models C521BEE and C542 respectively).
Rotel still has the RCD-1072 cd player for $ 700.
Parasound currently doesn't have a CD player, but are planning to introduce 2 new universal players. cheaper one is $ 1,500 and other is $ 2,500. This might be a bit much for budget gear. Also, judging by their website they seem much more home-theatre oriented than hifi.
The AH! TJOEB'99 has been discontinued, but has been replaced by the AH! TJOEB 4000 based on the Marantz CD-4000 chassis. Still sold by Upscale Audio. Starting price is $ 750. Similar to the MSB Link, it's upgradeable - you can buy isolation feet, upgraded power cord and a $350 upsampling board. I have links to various reviews of the Tjoeb 4000 if you want to read about it.
The MSB Link is still in production and is now sold through www.sound4sale.com
The Pioneer dvd player you have listed as a transport (the DV-05 Elite) is discontinued. However, I'm impressed that even the most basic Pioneer unit ($ 80) has coaxial audio ouput. One model, the DV-588A-S, can play CDs and SACD and DVD-audio. If those last 2 formats take off, at least you have a basic player for them. It's listed at $ 130.
You currently don't have anything under "Some (Initial) Thoughts on Other Interesting Digital Sources".
You might want to consider the Jolida JD 100A CD player here. It has a tube output section. Lists at $ 900. Here are some reviews:
There are companies upgrading it as well:
Although, like you say, you have to careful otherwise you could end up spending more on a tweaked machine than a better Class B model."
Personal Notes- There's some good informations here. Thanks for the reader for his efforts. Also, a good number of my former customers, and later readers of this website, have informed me that they really liked the Jolida CD player. I never heard one myself, even though I was a Jolida dealer for some years.
Since the above post, the same reader sent me another letter with more advice, information and links. Here it is (my bold):
"In the AMPLIFICATION section:
I definitely agree with your advice re: building your own amps. The best way to get started in this hobby is to subscribe to AudioXpress, the magazine for DIY audio builders:
Here's a nice article on how to upgrade a $ 300 linestage preamp (a kit): http://www.hardwareanalysis.com/content/article/1826/
One small correction: the output of the Wave AV-8 is 8 watts not 10. The Wave AV-8 was produced for about a year to get people interested in Antique Sound Lab's products. At $ 99 per amp, I'm sure it was a loss leader. The AV-20 has been discontinued. Its replacement is the AV-25, 25 wpc at $ 700/pair.
All three amps can be improved significantly by upgrading the coupling capacitors with Auricaps or similar. Response Audio offers a complete upgrade package including capacitors, resistors and diodes for $ 300:
A recent addition to the entry-level tube market is the PrimaLuna line. Designed in Netherlands, built in China. Their cheapest amp is a 35 wpc integrated unit for $ 1,200, with models all the way up to 70 wpc monoblocks for $ 2,700/pair. The most interesting thing about these amps is that they use adaptive autobias which is a circuit for continuously monitoring and adjusting the bias current. Never need to manually adjust the bias. Also makes for lower distortion. described here:
Another budget choice is the Onix SP3 38 wpc integrated tube amp. It lists for $ 1,000. But if you buy the package deal - amp with their pair of bookshelf speakers - the price is $ 1,200.
Since this a direct-sale-to-customer via internet you can't audition the system. You'd have to rely on reviews. This is risky IMO although it comes with 30 day money back guarantee. Would have been nice if this was a longer period. Link:
One area you don't cover on your website are books about hifi. I've come across a few that have been helpful:
2 books put out by UHF magazine: The UHF Guide to Ultra High Fidelity (1991) and The World of High Fidelity (1994). The 1991 book is a bit uneven as it was written by 2 authors. The 1994 book was written by Gerard Rejskind and is more readable. (http://www.uhfmag.com/Books.html)
The only one that I'm aware of that provides comprehensive coverage of hi-fi is "The Complete Guide to High-End Audio" by Robert Harley. He's the editor of The Absolute Sound (and I know your opinion of that magazine!), but in spite of that, it's very useful for getting down the basics like terminology, how things work etc. It's been kept up-to-date and is now in its 3rd edition. (http://www.hifibooks.com/)
A college text in the area is "The Science of Hi-Fidelity" by Johnson/Walker/Cutnell. These 3 profs at Univ. of So. Illinois wrote and used it in their Physics of Hi-Fi course. Book is out-of-print but look for used 3rd edition which adds coverage of digital audio.
Finally, Laura Dearborn wrote "Good Sound: An Uncomplicated Guide to Choosing and Using Audio Equipment". Out of print now. Came out in 1987. Many people in the newsgroups don't like this book, however."
Personal Notes- Of the above, I've only quickly read an early edition of the Harley book. It may be helpful for a beginner, but be wary of "propaganda", whether deliberate or not. In general, the beginner is best served by listening to as many systems and components as they can. Anything you read that directly contradicts your own experiences, is usually best ignored.
SYSTEMDEK/REGA ACRYLIC PLATTERS- I received this letter from a long-time reader concerning platter upgrades for both the Systemdek and Rega turntables. This same company also has updates for other popular turntable brands such as Thorens and Linn Sondek.
"...there is a maker of acrylic platter in Europe that has a platter to fit the Systemdeks. The price is usually around $ 69 plus shipping. It has the small spindle hole rather than the large hole. Either way make sure they understand the size of the center spindle hole before they order one. It will make the table sound much faster and dynamic. Check out the link below, it will take you to Stuart-100 SRM-TECH audio products."
ODYSSEY AUDIO EPIPHONY SPEAKERS- I have no experience with these speakers, but they appear to be very similar to the Spica TC-50, a classic design, and they're not that much money ($ 595/pr). They'll need subwoofers for truly full-range music reproduction, and their sensitivity is an average 86dB, which means you'll need at least 30 watts or more to do the job. A good tube push-pull amplifier, like a Dynaco Stereo 70 (or its equivalent), would be an excellent choice.
There's a review of these speakers at TNT-Audio, in which the reviewer goes absolutely crazy over their "imaging" capabilites, which, of course, was also the original Spica's main strength. Below is the URL to Odyssey Audio's own website (the actual link to it is below):
A reader send me this letter with his experiences with various "Entry-level" components. My bold:
"I'd like to mention a few pieces of hardware which do not cost the earth but offer pretty good performance:
Totem Arro speakers. These are easy to drive, almost holographic in staging, fast and convincing in all areas except deep bass - they nevertheless go impossibly deep for such small units. For the price they are amazing. They work best in small rooms, but mine is not so small and they manage to put out near-concert volumes without getting brittle or flattening the soundstage.
Amphion speakers from Finland - I've heard the two lowest priced offerings from this company - stunning. Soundstage is not quite as large as the Arros, but they are incredibly fast. Rhythm is very infectious. The speakers totally disappear into the soundstage. I gave a demo pair of their small bookself speakers to one of my sons as part of a wedding present, matched up with an old Rotel dual-mono integrated.
My own amplification is an Arcam Alpha 9 integrated plus Alpha 9P matched power amp. This is a very potent combination and can be found 2nd-hand for well under US$1000 (and MUCH less if you are lucky). I picked up an additional Alpha 9 amp at a hock shop for about $100! The Alpha 9 amp on its own is not bad, but, in combination with the 9P, it is really pretty special, punching way above its weight. The phono board, which you can get installed into it, is a truly abominable piece of trash.
I found it curious that you did not include the LP12 in your Entry Level list for phono - obviously new it is unaffordable for most and I know you regard it as seriously flawed. But my 2nd-hand Valhalla LP12 cost me about US$600 a few years ago and my 2nd-hand Akito arm cost me under $400 recently. I invested a hundred dollars for the Linn agent to lovingly set the Akito up in it, and it blows away anything in its price range. In the next couple of weeks, I'll be replacing the power supply and motor by an aftermarket DC alternative (US Power Supply, Scandinavian motor, Australian installation and warranty), which is supposed to be at least as good as the Origin Live Advanced kit, but only about US$500 installed. So, slowly and affordably acquired for well under US$2000, I'm about to have a turntable/tonearm combination that may not reach B-performance but must be pretty close. I'd recommend that path to anyone who can't afford to buy a top-quality turntable and arm up front.
CD Players - I bought an Arcam Alpha 9 CD, 2nd hand for AU$650 (about US$500) a couple of years ago. Far far better than anything I'd had before (or ever heard for under $3000), but high fidelity? No, I can't say it was high fidelity. It had a lot of the right stuff, but it just wasn't involving enough and it was too bright. And it suffered from that "CD" sound - flat soundstage and in-your-face presentation. I had bought a Burson Audio low-jitter clock/power supply replacement for a hundred bucks, which was to go into a Marantz CD63 Mk2 that I had. Instead I decied to install it in the Arcam. NOT a job for an amateur as I soon discovered.
The legendary ring-DAC in the Alpha 9 CD is on a 4-layer surface-mounted circuit board - I knew the job was beyond me the moment I saw it! I emailed the circuit diagram to Burson, who got back to me with the diagram modified to show where to attach their clock. A local electronics repairer did the job for me for under a hundred bucks and I fully expected to get no real performance gain from the exercise. Switched it on and, without any burn-in time, the difference was obvious - much better spacial information, much more emotion, much more subtlety, better rhythm, better vocals, better everything. Since then it has improved markedly. It is easy to compare as I now have a 2nd Alpha 9 CD which I use in my office. I've considered doing additional circuit mods to the CD player, but frankly, it doesn't need it.
What else is in my system? Two phono preamps, neither of which is good enough for the rest of the system. One is a MingDa MC767-RD valve unit which is bass shy and hums (I'm sure I can isolate and fix the hum, but the recessed bass problem is a circuit-design fault). Outstanding mid-bass through midrange and very good top end. But the bass can't be fixed. I feed it to the amplifier via a Burson Audio buffer which reduces the output impedence from well over 50K (which the Arcam hates) to under 50 Ohms. The other phono preamp is a slightly modified Cambridge Azur 640P which performs way above its pricepoint but is nowhere near detailed or intense enough. Above 70Hz it is left in the dirt by the MingDa. I've got a rebuilt Benz Micro MC-1 2mV cartridge, which does NOT produce magic but is much better than the $400 I paid for it 7 years ago. I have a Clearaudio Aurum BetaS MM which I've never tried, but I can't imagine it would be any improvement over the Benz Micro, even if it is regarded by some as the best sub-$1000 MM on the market." 9/07
Personal Notes- The Linn LP-12 Turntable is already a Reference on this website, and is in Class C (Lower). I don't put components into two categories. The new Pacific Valve CD Players are Class C/B performers with almost Entry-level prices. This is extremely rare in audio.
A reader sent me these observations about some audio "standouts" for those on a tight budget, but still want quality sound. There's some minor editing and my bold:
"...Have another look at the Audio Technica OC-9 MLII. Big improvement over the first version, and is probably one of the best MC bargains out there. Also, I've got an older Mitsubishi LT-30 turntable that I think may be a gold mine find of a vintage unit. (It) kills many new $1.5K tables. Seriously, one of the best sounding tables I've heard, very nice. My other budget recommendations would be vintage Yamaha CA, and CR series integrated amps, the M and MX series power amps, and a Denon PRA-2000Z preamp, if you can find one. (I've) been around the block with lots of other stuff, but these are really the big standouts that I've found."
Personal Notes- I'm only familiar with the (original) OC-9, which has been a Reference Entry-Level Cartridge for many years. If this new version is even better, then it must be really special. I don't believe I've ever seen (let alone heard) the Mitsubishi LT-30 turntable, so I can't make a comment on it. I'm almost certain I've heard the Yamaha electronics at one point or another over the years, but I don't remember anything about them, one way or the other.
Two Informative Letters about Entry-Level Equipment...
This letter is from the above veteran reader, who challenged my assumptions about CD versus SACD audio reproduction. This is his most recent take on Entry-Level components, with my bold:
"As you mention Entry Level systems, a few comments.
Much derision by Audiophools nonwithstanding, the Technics 1200/1210 Turntable (now marketed and sadly pidgeon holed as DJ Turntable) is a surprisingly well performaing design. If fitted with a suitable headshell (non-rigid) and a Denon DL-103R plus a nice patter mat and record weight this table is quite special and ahead of many of the inexpensive 'garage inductry' Tables of this age.
I recommend placing the table on a suitable suspension (I recommend four of the kind of inflatable doughnuts sold for people with Chalfonts to sit upon down at the local pharmacy topped by a large & heavy Ikea rubberwood Butcherblock cutting board - works for many unsuspended designs).
Two areas of significant improvement but of more advanced modifications are the power supply (Batteries are best, bypassing the on-board regulator and adding a serious heavy duty external supply with a few 100,000uF of capacitance helps too) and re-wiring the original arm (there is not a lot wrong with it otherwise, actually). Another easy win in sound quality states is to disable the stroboscope LED's.
Past that, several "Kit" houses nowadays sell kits at various levels of expense, some off assembled versions.
To name a few to investigate for a potential buyer (in alphabetical order):
Audio Note UK (www.audionotekits.com - DIY line not identical to their finished products, often benefit from further parts upgrades but it gets expensive quickly)
Audio Professor (http://www.audiopro.co.jp/ - very nice Amplifier Kits, difficult to buy, Japanese only website, parts quality could be better)
Bottlehead (www.bottlehead.com - custom builds possible, transformers are Magnequest, other parts often quite generic)
Diyhifisupply (www.diyhifisupply.com - offers all products also assembled at very modest cost and has possibly the widest range from DAC's with tubed outputs over all sorts of premaplifiers and Amplifiers into some speaker stuff and uses very high grade components, mostly on level that would need heavy modifications of commercial gear to equal)
Elekit (http://www.elekit.co.jp/english/ - kits are a little basic as are the passive parts but cheap and fun)
Softone (http://www.icl.co.jp/audio/english/ - they offer semi-kits [motly parts] and some example designs - kit/part section is hidden in the Japanese side of things)
Sun Audio (http://www2.big.or.jp/~sunaudio/index_e.html - Kits are often a little basic, Transformers are custom made by Tamura but not as good as retail grade Tamura, well known but not as good as some of less well known Japanese Kits)
Sun Valley (http://www.kit-ya.jp/ - very interesting kits, like Audio Professor ostensibly Japan only)
Yamamoto (http://www2.117.ne.jp/~y-s/index-e.html - mostly assembled, has kit versions of some products, high quality components)" (02/10)
This letter is from another veteran reader, which provides his most recent observations on Entry-Level components, and again with my bold:
"I’m writing... to communicate my work in optimizing an entry level system, something you suggest and which I took rather seriously. Please excuse the length of this note, but I promise it will only take a couple of minutes to read.
After using some high value 1980s solid state gear from NAD (NAD preamp + 2200 amp, both restored and slightly upgraded), and then moving to a tube line stage with an Odyssey amp, I am very happy with going in the opposite direction with a tube integrated mentioned briefly on your site. It is the Onix/Melody SP3 (in my case the SP8, which is identical except for output tube bias measurements).
I find it head and shoulders ahead of the other pieces, particularly in tonal completeness and low level playback, and especially with upgraded tubes I think it lives up to its stunning review in 6Moons. It has excellent synergy and no audible tube rush with a George Wright phono stage. Combined as used units the total cost of the integrated and phono stage was about $1,000. As you can see from the image I’m enjoying an MHZS 66F CD player (vintage Mullard 12AX7 tubes and a decent power cord) as the other source, which is also head and shoulders above the NAD player I previously had for very little extra outlay.
Speakers are a pair of vintage Dynaco A25 speakers that were acquired for free. While the drivers were in excellent shape I had to make new cabinets for them. I went ahead and upgraded the capacitor to Obbligato aluminum/copper and added a ‘supertweeter’ to function above 14KHz, used decent quality wire in the cabinets, and replaced the binding posts with goldplated lightweight copper ones. I think they provide significant improvements to a good sounding speaker, and they have great synergy with the modern tube amp. They also blend quite easily with a CA 2000 Mirage MS12 subwoofer.
The Thorens TD150 Mk II has been slightly modified through a series of things gleaned mostly from others--modest dampening of the chassis, moving the arm leads from the tin plated terminal strip under the table to Cardas female RCAs installed at the back of the case, splitting the arm and chassis leads and running them to two binding posts at the back of the case, installing an upgraded captive PC, a Herbie’s mat, custom machined arm counterweights, diy armboard (mahogany-acrylic-mahogany sandwich), and diy silver interconnects (the phono stage and CD player also have diy silver interconnects) with Eichmann copper plugs. Small expenditures, but a big performance jump. From time to time I still use my idler with a Magnepan Unitrac arm and enjoy it immensely.
Speaker cables are diy from a Jon Risch design and they caused me to sell off the AQ cables I had previously.
Phono cartridges. For a few years I enjoyed the Denon DL103, then had a ruby cantilever and line contact stylus installed by SoundSmith, then moved it into a diy wood body while using it with an SUT assembled of Cinemag transformers by a friend. While it is certainly an optimized DL103, I find myself gravitating to TOTL vintage MM and MI cartridges. There is a huge thread on Audiogon about these gems, and while they take some effort to find, I think it’s worth the effort.
This system provides me with tremendous musical enjoyment and seems a good fit with the small (11 X 14) parlor room in our historic house." (02/10)
A veteran reader, who over a number of years has sent a variety of letters to this website concerning Entry-Level components, has just sent me his latest note. Here it is with some minor editing and my bold:
"It is I, your long time entry-level plus reader. I have a couple of bits of information that I thought you might find of interest.
Your links includes Volti Audio as a Klipsch speaker repair house. Volti appears to have grown into a boutique speaker manufacturer with excellent construction quality. The Vittoria speaker (available matching subwoofer) appears to take the Klipsch Belle concept but to 'do it right'. Not cheap and they may have room for improvement, but at 104 db/m/w they appear to be an option for low-powered SETs.
Also interesting is their Veretta speaker, which is a single full range driver using a Feastrex driver, which are alleged to be the creme de la creme of full range drivers. As this design is (or can be) direct wired to the driver, it might be special for acoustic/vocals/small scale classical/jazz types of music. Again, not cheap, but these speakers appear to be fairly priced for what is offered.
Your website notes the LUXMAN MB-3045 amps. I just bought a Luxman R-3045 receiver for $80 as a backup and for a casual listening living room system. My initial impressions are that the amp section is indeed special (a touch dark, perhaps), the preamp section (assuming it has one) is a bit noisy, and the tuner is not the equal of my Sansui TU-9900. I haven't tried the MM or MC phono sections yet.
I believe this one is in your links. Their Lore speaker, http://www.tektondesign.com/, with its 8 ohms, 98 db/w/m, and $999 price tag, would seem to be a serious contender for at least entry-level consideration. This review, if it can be believed, would seem to support this: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue60/tekton.htm
DIRECT COUPLED 300B SETs
Thorsten Loesch designed these Lux91 Mono Max amps for Brian Cherry at www.diyhifisupply.com. Reviewed here at 6moons: http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/diyhifisupply2/max.html. From the DIY website: 'This is a refinement of the famous WE91 circuit added to the reactive interstage comprised of the 5687, choke and direct coupling to the 300B grid for HUGE [sic] dynamic swings (yes, 16W).' $2,700 (plus shipping) without 300B, so let's say about $3K. May be interesting, given that the 6moons review seems to suggest this amp betters an expensive Boarder Patrol transformer-coupled 300B amp (http://www.borderpatrol.net/amp.htm). It also uses the 5687 tube, which is what Roger Herbert of Wyetech Labs uses for his Sapphire 300B SETs.
Thus, the positives of this amp are: 1. relatively high power from a single 300B; 2. designed by Loesch, no capacitor coupling of stages; 3. appears to better a respected transformer-coupled 300B SET; 4. uses the same driver tube as does the respected Wyetech designer; and is about $2.5K cheaper than the Coincident Frankenstein Mk IIs.
It would be interesting to see how these stack up to the Frankenstein Mk IIs, both in absolute terms and in price-performance terms.
DHT OTL PREAMP
The Tram2 line stage. Another T. Loesch design for DIYHIFISUPPLY. Uses either 45s or 2A3s. The 33 page forum discussion on this leads me to believe that this design has incredible potential, but that there are overheating problems either with the design or some components. Nothing that can't be overcome by the DIY enthusiasts, it appears. Once this design matures, it would again be interesting to see how it measures (especially if optimized) against the Coincident Statement Line Stage. $1,750 plus shipping and tubes.
As for my custom 300B transformer-coupled boat anchors - Promitheus Audio doesn't understand circuits and grounding, and abandons their customers -, I have been waiting for at least 6 months for Ottawa's best tube amp guru (Jean Nantais recommendation) to get around to trying to re-design the circuit and especially grounding scheme. If I had been patient, I could have bought used Franks for the same price as these have ended up costing me. Sigh." (07/12)Top
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