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Finding the Perfect High-End Stereo Equipment Can Be a Journey into Musical Madness
By Matt Kramer | From Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

High-end audio is its own rarefied world, a community so self-contained that new arrivals are barely noticed, although welcome. It is a club whose access, though democratic, still somehow smacks of initiation, usually with a price tag that can cause gasps.

So why bother? The answer comes not from the audio folks, but from the poet e.e. cummings: "Listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go." That's it in a poetic nutshell. All of your life you've been listening to recorded music--rock, classical, soul, R&B--and there's a hell of a universe right next door that you've never heard. It's as simple and unbelievable as that.

My journey began during a visit to one of the better stereo shops in town, a conventional sort of place that sells at least a few brands that we've all heard of. The object was simple--a new compact disc player and an amplifier. I am not an audiophile, as the initiates call themselves. I was, and still am, just a guy who has always liked listening to music. I was prepared to spend some money, but I most definitely did not want to be bothered by my stereo setup. I wanted to play my compact discs and enjoy my music. I did not want to be--nor have I become--what audiophiles call a "tweak."

After doing a bit of research in the audiophile press, I concluded that Rotel was the brand of choice. An English company using Japanese parts, Rotel is a producer of moderately priced gear that even the audiophiles concede offers a lot of bang for the buck. You can pick up a Rotel compact disc player for about $450, which is peanuts by audiophile standards. I also was interested in Rotel's RB980 amplifier, which lists for about $600 but is available for less ("Excellent value for the money," says Stereophile magazine).

Within hours, a loaner unit was in my living room, and I discovered that it sounded great, but it didn't fit in my space. The spot where my wife and I have to put all of our stereo stuff is a deep, but extremely narrow, niche. The amplifier was no problem: I just stood it on its side. But there was no way that the compact disc player, which has to be flat on its feet, would fit. Still, I sat it on a table and strung a long wire (an "interconnect" in audio lingo) to rig it to the amplifier and preamp (a separate box that has the volume controls) so I could listen to it. The sound was great. The new amp made a difference, but it was the new compact disc player that really stood out. Who could have imagined a compact disc player could make such a difference?

But I needed something smaller. When I called the store, the salesperson noted that the Rotel job was one of the smaller ones. No help there. So I went to another store that mixed a little high-end equipment with more mainstream stuff. Feeling like a pervert confessing an intimate problem, I told the salesperson about my embarrassing space limitation. Did he have anything that sounds as good as the Rotel (which his store didn't carry) but would somehow fit into a foot-wide space?

To his credit, he didn't laugh out loud. He agreed that the Rotel was a good-value CD player. He had others that would equal it, but they, too, were of a similar size. "I do have one item, though, that would fit easily," he said. "But it's a lot more money." I was getting desperate. There was no going back. I had to find something. "Let me show it to you," he said, all choirboy innocence. Without my knowing it, I was about to step across the threshold into audiophilia. He lead me to a compact disc player of a sort I had never seen before: It was in two pieces. And it was wonderfully tiny. "This is a compact disc player?" I asked incredulously. "Why is it in two pieces?"

"This," he said, pointing to one small box, "is a California Audio Labs Alpha DAC (digital-to-analog converter). And that," he added, pointing to the other tiny box, "is a California Audio Labs Delta Transport." The "Transport" is the machine that spins and reads the disc; the DAC is the electronic guts of the gizmo that unscrambles the digital code. Every compact disc player, no matter what the price, has both. But usually they are enclosed in one box. This, I discovered, is not the high-end way.

I goggled at the two units. "Boy, those will fit in my space with no problem," I enthused. "How much is this CD player? And is it as good as the Rotel job?" Here, he finally allowed a small, faintly smug smile. Yes, he confirmed, it was as good as the Rotel--better, in fact. As to the price, he did warn me that it was significantly more expensive. "But how much more expensive could it be?" I riposted in my best swaggering, Diamond Jim Brady voice. He replied briskly: "The CAL Alpha DAC is $1,495 and the CAL Delta Transport is $895."

Math was never my strong suit, but by my calculations that was more than two thousand bucks! "$2,390 to be precise," he suavely replied. "But the Rotel job was $450," I protested. "You're showing me something that's five times as expensive." He conceded the point happily and then suggested that I take the two units home for a spin. "Look," I said firmly, "there's no way I'm going to spend two grand on a compact disc player."

"No problem," he replied, with the same breezy self-assurance Satan uses in finding new recruits.

What happened next is what moralists call a cautionary tale. I still had the Rotel CD player and amplifier. And now I had this California Audio Labs Transport and DAC. Here was a rare chance to see, or rather, hear whether anything could possibly justify such an exorbitant price difference--and for a compact disc player, no less. After all, isn't it just a matter of zeroes and ones being read by a laser beam bouncing off microscopic pits in the disc? It's all abstract wizardry, not the easily imagined effects of a needle furrowing its way in a vinyl groove.

Since the Rotel CD player was already hooked up, I played a track on it first. Then I switched the interconnect wires to the California Audio Labs setup and played the same track on it. Everything else was the same--the amp and preamp, the speakers, etc.

I couldn't believe what I heard. It simply wasn't possible. It was like seeing a night sky in the desert. Who could ever have imagined there were so many stars? The music simply came alive on the high-end CD player. It wasn't just a matter of a little more bass or treble. Instead, there was a whole new depth and dimension to the sound. I called to my wife and asked her to go into the living room, where she couldn't see the equipment. I repeated the comparison. "The second one was really something," she reported. "Let's get that one," she said happily. I couldn't bring myself to tell her the price. Still, I was uneasy. I guess I could find the money, but jeez, $2,390 for a CD player?

That evening, I was conducting a wine-tasting class. The group trooped in and spied all the audio gear arrayed in the kitchen, wires trailing everywhere. "What's this?" they asked. I told them the story--leaving out the price difference. "Nonsense," said one. "Ridiculous," said another. "Bits is bits," said a third, who is computer-savvy.

"OK," I replied. "Go into the living room and I'll play you the same track on each CD player. And you tell me if there's any difference."

Keep in mind that this group of wine tasters was a pack of Burgundy junkies, the sort who ponder such lunacies as whether a producer's plot is on the upper or lower slope of a five-acre vineyard. The sort who long ago became inured to the idea of a wine selling for 200 bucks a bottle.

I ran the comparison and then walked into the living room to hear their reactions. The response was as close to a stunned silence as that opinionated bunch of Burgundy hounds had ever gotten. "Whatever the second one was, get it," opined one. This was echoed by everyone present. "I can't believe it," said another. Unprintable expletives were voiced, followed by the word "incredible." They were right. And I was hooked.

If you detect in this saga a sense of pleasure mingled with pain, you are correct. A really great stereo system is a joy beyond most of our imaginings. I suggest you pursue it if you have any interest in music. But I cannot tell a lie: Getting a really good system takes time and trustworthy advice. And keep an eye on your wallet. It is possible to get a stellar system for a price that most of us would consider reasonable--for something of dramatic quality. Of course, you can also spend more money than most people make in a year. Then again, look at how much money we plunk down for the likes of a Lexus, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Their quality is enduring and enlightening. A great stereo system has those same possibilities.

But remember whom you're dealing with. Audiophiles are not really into music--no matter how much they protest to the contrary. Their real passion is sound reproduction. Music is just a vehicle for testing the sound reproduction capabilities of their components.

Once you get to a certain level of performance, the differences are minor--or even imaginary. The quality gap between mainstream stuff and audiophile is huge and real. But once you leap across the divide and land on the audiophile side, the steps you take afterwards are relatively small. Audiophiles are into these differences, but musically they are minor at best after a certain level of performance. As a buyer, all you want is to hit a home run. How far out of the park the ball goes is of interest only to baseball nuts. Do you really need to buy the Mark Levinson No. 30.5 digital audio processor for $15,950 (with a separate No. 31 transport at $8,495)? Not a chance. The difference between it and another home run hitter of a CD player at a fraction of that absurd price is marginal--and of no interest except to audio nuts.

Because I write about wine for a living, however, I long ago learned that to get the good stuff, you can't ignore the crazies--you must consult them. Wine is esoteric enough, but audio gear is a world of madness unto itself. A good rule of thumb: If you've heard of it, it isn't any good. High-end audio, like estate-bottled Burgundies, is composed of hundreds of small producers that--until you drop down the rabbit hole--you will never see advertised. Your friends will never have heard of any of the brands. But then again, nobody ever told you just what a world of pleasure awaits those who venture in.

"Consulting the crazies" in any field is tricky. Crazies aren't stupid. They're just, well, a little nuts. They push the boundaries and--here's their value--they bring us a level of quality and refinement that we wouldn't otherwise ever see. Consulting the crazies means reading their publications. Two stand out: the previously mentioned Stereophile, which is the biggest and best; and The Absolute Sound, which is the wackier of the two. The trick in consulting crazies is separating plausibility from lunacy. For example, do we really need pure, stranded silver speaker wire that sells for $100 a foot? ("The Kimber 4AG is an expensive hyper-pure silver cable that can offer a glimpse of audio heaven," reports Stereophile.) Nevertheless, the audiophiles are on to something.

All right, how do you begin? For starters, never make a purchasing decision until you've heard the equipment in your home. You don't listen to music in a vacuum. The size of your room, its furnishings, how loud or soft you'll be playing and what kind of music you most listen to will all affect your decision. Listening in a store, no matter how well set up, is unenlightening. That's why all good audio shops will let you take equipment home. If any shop is reluctant, walk out.

When shopping for components, the first thing to remember is that in really good audio, the hip bone is always connected to the leg bone. This is to say that buying a great pair of speakers and hooking them up to a mediocre CD player, or powering them with a mediocre amplifier, is wasted money. This is why the madness sets in so quickly among audiophiles. They are forever trying to "tweak" the weak link. And there are plenty of links.

You would think that, if money were no object, someone like Bill Gates of Microsoft would simply go out and buy the so-called "best" and--voila!--he'd have the perfect system. Yet it doesn't work that way. Different speakers work best with different amplifiers. And the shape, size and "liveliness" of a room can make huge differences in sound. But unless you have a huge amount of money, you've got to prioritize, which means investing more money in certain items and less in others.

Put most of your money in the CD player and the speakers. The computer sorts long ago warned us about garbage in/garbage out. The same applies to audio. To a stereo system, music is just a set of signals. If they are garbled or muted from the start, that is, because of a mediocre CD player, then it doesn't matter how good the speakers are, does it? Even the greatest speakers are mere messengers. If what the CD player has to say isn't much, well then, having such terrific speakers will not help.

Choosing a CD player that really delivers the goods is easier than selecting speakers (more on those in a minute). A multitude of producers now create CD players that truly can be described as audiophile quality--and that won't cost more than a car. Remember though, that each has its particular "sound": some are brighter-sounding, others emphasize smoothness. Don't choose the first one you hear. Take home several and compare, in combination with several different speakers.

There's a new development, by the way, that you should pay attention to. A tiny California company called Pacific Microsonics, Inc., has come out with a silicon chip, which it has trademarked, called High Definition Compatible Digital, or HDCD. In effect, it does for compact discs what the Dolby noise reduction system does for tape players: It makes the music sound more real. It's an authentic advance.

What's more, like Dolby, HDCD can be used both in the recording process at the studio and in your home playback system. Even compact discs not encoded with HDCD (which is only just being introduced) sound better when played on a CD player with the HDCD "decoder." A number of audiophile CD player manufacturers have incorporated the HDCD chip into their digital-to-analog converters. Others are offering inexpensive upgrades on their older equipment, where feasible.

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.

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.