Finding the Perfect High-End Stereo Equipment Can Be a Journey into Musical Madness
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Speaker designs, sizes and prices are all over the map. Many speaker companies offer several sizes and prices of speakers that have the same design. And some speakers do sound better with certain kinds of music (vocal or instrumental, rock or symphonic). With these caveats in mind, you might listen to speakers from these producers, most of whom make speakers in several sizes (including surprisingly tiny ones): Audio Physic, Celestion, Dunlavy, Martin-Logan, Paradigm, NHT, Quad, Snell and Thiel, Sonus Faber and Totem. There are hundreds of speaker makers. These are just a few of the better ones.
As mentioned, your choice of amplifier and preamplifier all depends upon your choice of speaker. Here, your dealer is critical. Small speakers do not need vast amounts of power. Some speaker designs work better with some amplifiers than others. An "integrated" amplifier has both the amp and the preamp in one box. Although most audiophile gear is in separate boxes, there's no technical reason why integrated amps can't be as good as separate components.
Although amplifiers (especially) and preamplifiers are important components, the general level of amplifier technology today is impressively high. If you bought a top-quality CD player and terrific speakers, you can get amazing sound from amplifiers that are at a less exalted level than those other components. This is the place to save money relative to other components.
A word of warning: The audiophile world is divided between those who prefer solid-state electronics and those in love with tubes (which they call "valves"). To outsiders, the idea of using old-fashioned tube technology in 1995 seems silly bordering on absurdity. Yet tube proponents are impassioned, insisting that the "tube sound"--which they characterize as warmer, rounder, smoother--is unequaled. Others are less convinced, suggesting that although tubes are attractive, solid-state electronics deliver better bass and more "snap" and are every bit as good.
To this outsider, the whole tube business is classic audiophile madness. Not only do you get to play with your toy (by changing the tubes you can modify the sound), but some tube equipment looks like nothing else you've ever laid eyes on. And yes, the sound can be distinctive. But the equipment requires more attention, warm-up time and other things that are near and dear to the audiophile passion. Tube amps are worth a listen, but unless you're really committed to playing with your system, leave them to the audiophiles.
Among producers of solid-state amplifiers, I would suggest using a Rotel amplifier and preamplifier as baseline equipment. Their prices are at the low end for components of audiophile quality. If the more expensive amps you use for comparison don't make the speakers you choose sound significantly better, well, why spend any more money than you have to? With that in mind, you might investigate such solid-state producers as: Aragon and Arcurus (two makes by Mondial Designs), McCormack, NAD, Rotel and Sonic Frontiers.
About wiring: Nothing in the audiophile world is goofier than wire. (And that's really saying something.) Does the quality of your wiring make a difference? It does. How much of a difference depends upon your setup. The more "transparent," that is, pure of sound, your system is the more difference wiring can make. Usually, it's most apparent in the bass. But even on the high end, the difference between one good-quality speaker wire (they call them "cables") and another is minor indeed. Yes, spend the money. But don't get carried away. The same applies to interconnects, the wires that connect the various electronic components. Buy the lowest-priced wire of producers such as Audioquest, Kimber Kable, Tara or Wireworld, and you'll be in great sonic shape.
Regarding multiple speakers, keep in mind that audiophiles don't live in what might be called the real world. For example, most music lovers like to have speakers in more than one room. Many amplifiers have more than enough power to serve several sets of small, efficient speakers. To do that, though, you need a speaker switch box. It addresses electronic problems such as impedance, which is the electrical equivalent of water backing up in a pipe. No problem, you say? But there is.
Audiophiles believe in what's called a "dedicated" system, an electronic version of the one person/one vote school. (Some even run separate power lines into their homes dedicated only to the stereo system, as they consider its electricity to be "cleaner.") Speaker switch boxes degrade the sound. So there must be nothing between the electronics and the speakers--never mind that the amp could handle more than one pair if allowed.
I can tell you first-hand that this is a problem. When you get audiophile-quality gear, you really do get a transparent system. That's why the music sounds so good. But even the best switch boxes noticeably degrade the sound. Couldn't someone make an audiophile-grade switch box that didn't degrade the sound? I'm sure they could. But they don't care about such real-world concerns. Theirs is a pursuit of the absolute.
What did I finally do? After having tested every switch box out there, I came to the solution of last resort: I bought two Rotel amplifiers. Both are wired to one Rotel preamp, which runs both sets of Totem Model 1 speakers. Oddly, a good-quality volume control (anathema to audiophiles) wired to one pair of speakers made no audible difference, even though it "interferes" with the desired straight-line configuration. So there.
When installing your system, hire a professional. High-end audio wiring and equipment can be much more complicated than anything you set up back in your college days. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by having a pro set up everything.
About prices: Nobody pays full retail for high-end audio. The jacked-up prices are designed to allow dealers considerable leeway in closing a deal. Your best deal will come if you buy more than one component from the same dealer. Although hard-core audiophiles often buy by mail, this is an unwise route for the rest of us. You really need dealer backup, as systems sometimes fail for no apparent reason. Whichever shop you choose, make sure that the dealer will let you return equipment, no questions asked, at least 30 days after purchase. Ask if the store offers an upgrade program, which can give you a generous allowance on your equipment if you decide to improve your system down the line. Keep your receipts forever.
Also, consider buying used equipment. Many audiophile dealers have used gear, as the crazies are constantly changing their systems, forever pursuing a mythical audio Nirvana. Their castoffs can be golden bargains. Audiophiles rarely abuse their equipment, so used high-end gear is generally a safe bet.
Matt Kramer is a contributing columnist to Wine Spectator.