Finding the Perfect High-End Stereo Equipment Can Be a Journey into Musical Madness
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
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We certainly shall see mainstream CD players proclaiming HDCD capability in the next few years. But keep in mind that it's no panacea. An HDCD chip in a mediocre machine still results only in slightly better mediocre music. Anyone buying a brand-new, high-end CD player is well-advised to get HDCD. Within a year, we'll see a lot of high-end manufacturers adding it to their products, either through aftermarket upgrade or right out of the box.
If you are looking for CD players (either in one box or with separate transports and DACs) that offer high performance at plausible prices, check out the following manufacturers: Audio Alchemy, California Audio Labs, Enlightened Audio Designs, Micromega and Sonic Frontiers. Each of these, as well as others, offers several levels at escalating prices. Sometimes the differences are noticeable, sometimes not. An honest dealer will steer you to the best value for money within a particular line.
Nothing is simultaneously more pleasing and vexing than selecting speakers. There is no single speaker design that absolutely is better than another. Here, art triumphs over science. Some noticeably "color" the music; others are very "bright." Some sound terrific at first and then their brightness begins to fatigue the listener. First impressions, this once, do not count. Listen to them in your own home to know what they'll really sound like.
So now that you have begun, what do you do next? First, round up several potential candidates for CD players. Then make a decision about just how big a set of speakers you're prepared to live with. This may seem trivial, but knowing what you need makes life easier. Many people equate speaker size with quality. Twenty years ago that may have been true, but today some of the finest speakers are astonishingly small. Sure, there are still plenty of hulking speakers out there, but they're not necessary for top-quality sound. Neither I nor my wife wanted to feel as if we were living on top of a set of speakers. Besides, our rooms are small and sparsely furnished, so they are quite "live."
The speakers I suggest you use as baseline reference are the Totem Model 1. Physically, they are very handsome and amazingly small (12 and a half inches high, nine inches deep and six and a half inches wide) for the amazing quality of sound they deliver. They've been acclaimed by nearly everyone, so if you use Totems as a reference point, you won't have to calibrate other speakers from one extreme of the design or taste spectrum. At $1,595 a pair, they will convince you of the legitimacy of spending what seems to be a lot of money on what seems to be not much speaker. (They also sound great on bookshelves, although audiophiles recoil at the idea.) What is more, they are not amplifier-sensitive, which means that they work well with a lot of amplifiers; this is not true of many speaker designs.
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.
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