Audiophile on a Budget
So I have this old college buddy who’s constantly telling me how awesome his sound system is, and I have always been very into music, electronic, rock, jazz, rap, basically anything except country with the exception of Shania Twain, because I love her – but that’s another story. Anyways, this friend is always going on and on about how I don’t know how good a system can really sound because I am driving my nice speakers with a receiver. Granted a good receiver but all of the components that drive the music to the speaker cables are in one box with one power supply. So after years of him telling me how much better a system sounds when you build it with separate components, and me finally having a house where I have a room I can build a music only system (a dedicated listening area), I finally caved! He gave me the basic info on what to do and I kind of ran with it. So this is all kind of how it went down – what I got, some of the pitfalls, and how it all turned out.
It started with a pair of monoblock amps I bought on ebay for $400. Marantz MA-7001. These are very powerful clean sounding and small amps:
Rated Power 200W / 8 ohms, rms 300W / 4 ohms
Rated Input Level 1.0V rms
Frequency response 5 ~ 100K (-1dB)
Signal to Noise Ratio 110dB
Damping Factor (8 Ohms) 200
Power Requirement 120 V AC, 60 Hz
Power Consumption 220 Watts
Power Consumption (Stand-by) 3.5 Watts
Weight (lbs) 17.6 lbs (8.0 kg)
When they arrived they were in one box and the shipper had done a very good job of carefully packing them, they were in perfect shape, whew. So I connected them to an old Yamaha receiver I had which I used as a preamplifier (which going forward I will call a ‘prepro’). Then I connected my Sony CDP-CX3552 multi disk player to that via optical and connected the setup to a pair of old bookshelf speakers I had and a spare Polk PSW5053 sub I had in the garage. It sounded pretty good but I was not blown away. So next I decided I needed some new speakers. I had always wanted a pair of Energy speakers, for years, I read so many reviews on them and love the look of them. Well, it so happened that Fry’s was having a sale on the RC-704 at $299 each, so I pulled the trigger on those and added them to the mix. The luck of the Bargain Audiophile strikes again!
Here’s a review of the RC-70 speakers, basically they were and could still be some of the best speakers you can get for under $5000. Speakers are a very subjective thing but the RC-70 is known as a having a very laid back silky smooth yet crisp and detailed sound. If placed properly away from the walls having also having a very 3 dimensional sound stage. Very easy to listen to at high volumes – and addicting to listen to at high volumes. I have tried mine toed in and straight and while the toed in position does give one sweet spot (directly 8 feet in front of them) an edge, I found the sound wasn’t as good in the rest of the house, primarily the kitchen where I do a lot of listening while I am cooking. So I am leaving them straight.
So with these in the mix things were starting to sound really good but I was still not blown away like I had been hoping. So I decided to buy a real prepro. Now that HDMI has come along and become the standard interface to deliver video and audio signals to components, all these ultra high end flagship devices that lacked HDMI suddenly lost about about 75% of their value. No one wanted anything that wasn’t HDMI – so old flagship components were being liquidated left and right to try and recover something for them. This is only good news for the audiophile on a budget. I was able to score a refurbished (but looked brand new to me) Outlaw 950 preamp5 for $189 shipped from Outlaw through ebay. These retailed for about a grand in 2002.
• Frequency response: 10 Hz – 90 kHz: +0, -3 dB (Bypass Mode)
• Signal to Noise Ratio: 102 dB (Bypass Mode)
• Distortion: 0.0038% (20 Hz ~ 20 kHz) (Bypass Mode)
• Input sensitivity / input impedance: 200 mV/ 47kohms
• Rated output: 1V(0dB gain in Bypass Mode)
• Signal to Noise Ratio: 102 dB
• Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.005% (1 kHz, at 0 dB)
• Dynamic Range: 100 dB
• D/A Output: Rated output 2 V (At 0 dB playback)
• Digital Input: S/P-DIF Format
• DSP Processor: Cirrus® CS 49326
• ADC: Cirrus CS 5360
• DAC: Cirrus CS 4396
• High-grade, audiophile components throughout, including glass-epoxy circuit boards and fully enclosed torrodial power transformer
from OutLaw’s site:
“Additional attention to detail in the Model 950’s design includes the use of premium 24-bit, 192 kHz Cirrus digital-to-analog converters with exceptionally low jitter and high-end signal-to-noise figures. The unit’s large torroidal power transformer is completely shielded to reduce noise, and all inputs and outputs are buffered to improve the interface with other components and cables. Only 1 percent tolerance components are used in critical circuit elements.”
Just look at the transformer in this thing.. and this is only to process the sound – absolutely no amplification is happening here. So adding this to the mix was a game changer. I threw on some CDs that I had listened to before (Dire Straits ‘Brothers in Arms’ and others) and I was finally blown away. The detail and sound stage coming out of my new speakers was simply amazing. I had never imagined owning a system that would sound like this for what I spent on it (we’re at $1300 ish total now). I was playing my whole CD collection over again rediscovering my music. How could this get better? Well, my friend suggested something that is widely debated in the audiophile community as being ‘not worth it’ and ‘having little or no impact on sound quality’, bi-amping! But my old chum said you won’t believe how much this will take the sound to the next level, so I figured well I am in this deep, I mine as well dive in 100%.
The idea with bi-amping is that you have a dedicated amp for each section of the speaker, the highs and the lows. First off you need to have a speaker with two sets of binding posts – which most higher end speakers do. Then you connect one amp for the highs and one amp for the lows. This means each section of the sound producing components have their own power supply – this is very important. When the bass amp is busy driving those two 6.5″ bass drivers the highs amp is 100% non stressed and able to sing like a bird through the tweeter and 5.25″ mid driver. And don’t forget the prepro has it’s own power and it’s job is just to deliver clean distortion free sound to the RCA cable that’s feeding those amps. As I said, lots of people in the audiophile community say there is no gain by bi-amping but I respectfully disagree. At the very least you are gaining more distortion free power and this makes a significant impact on the sound. Also as I said the bass and the highs amps are 100% dedicated to driving those sounds. When an amp is stressed driving bass it’s not going to be able to reproduce treble as clearly as it can when it’s not stressed. It’s not a difficult concept. So splitting this load up into two components definitely improves the sound but most of the benefit you hear at higher volumes when the amps are being pushed.
So once again I went on ebay… and I got lucky to find a perfect set of amps to run my highs.
Enter the Marantz MA-61006. I paid $320 for both shipped.
It’s the baby brother to the MA-700 but newer and I think it sounds livelier personally. Here are the stats:
Rated Power 125W / 8 ohms, rms 180W / 4 ohms
Rated Input Level 1.0V rms
Frequency response 10 ~ 70K (-1dB)
Signal to Noise Ratio 110dB
Damping Factor (8 Ohms) 60
Power Requirement 120 V AC, 60 Hz
Power Consumption 230 Watts
Power Consumption (Stand-by) 3.5 Watts
Weight (lbs) 12.6 lbs (5.7kg)
I was lucky enough to find these from a seller who was the original owner and took very good care of them, packed them well, and they arrived in perfect shape. So now the bi-amp game is on. The idea with monoblocks and also bi-amp setups is you run a long RCA cable from the equipment rack to the speaker, that connects to the amp then you keep your speaker cables as short as possible because that’s where you loose audio quality the most in cabling. Usually with a bi-amp setup you run a separate RCA cable to each amp but with my prepro I don’t have the ability to run two stereo outs for each channel, so I had to use a y-cable splitter. This is not ideal, but it gets the job done and does not diminish audio quality. You do loose a tiny bit of signal voltage as you are splitting one into two, but very little.
Now things were getting serious. I have about $1650 invested but the sound is jaw dropping. I found myself playing the same songs over and over, songs that I didn’t necessarily like that much but they sounded so good I couldn’t stop listening to them. The bi-amp setup has individual power supplies for every component that drives a part of the music. I didn’t think this used to matter – but my ears tell me otherwise now – I am a believer. Another element – I am delivering upwards of 400w per channel to my speakers (which are 8 ohm but dip to 4 ohm also – so I am guessing here) but this is clean power. Driving speakers with clean distortion free sound does not hurt them, you can double their rated input specs easily with clean power. It’s when you drive them with distortion filled sound that hurts the speakers and also fatigues the ears. I found myself listening to music at -20 on the attenuator having no idea how loud it was because it was so clean – ZERO ear fatigue after hours of this. Then my wife would come home and try and talk to me – only then would I realize wow, it’s loud – I can’t hear a thing you’re saying. WHAAAAAT??! 😉
The only thing that was a bit out of place was the bass. Now, my Polk PSW505 had some power, but it was a bit of a one trick pony. You just get one sound out of it – thump thump thump… for the level of articulation I had with the rest of the system I wanted a sub that would compliment the rest of the sound. I went on the AVSforum and chatted up a bunch of people. Long story short I ended up with an SVSsound PB-1000. 10 inches of thunder – I like to call it. It’s a 10″ ported sub, weighing in at around 50lbs with a 300w amp that peaks at 720w. These go for $499 but can be had on the svssound site’s “specials” section for less. And let me tell you, they are worth every penny. I plugged this baby in and finally the whole thing came together.
This is a sub with a 10″ driver that will hit 19hz, and it really does. Plus it delivers mid bass like nobodies business. My journey was almost complete. I decided to spring for a Furman PST-8 power strip and conditioner for the left side of the room. $90 but these are the only power strips with conditioning that anyone says are worth a damn.
Update: 02-21/15 – The sub for this system has been upgraded to an Outlaw Ultra-X12.
I also added a Super Audio (SACD) player I already had, a Pioneer Elite DV47ai7 and I got a Monster Power MP HST 1600 for the right side of the room in the equipment rack. It was on sale and had mixed reviews but mostly positive. I know a lot of people bad mouth Monster Power products as being overpriced and not good quality, but this glorified power strip seems to work fine, and it lets me know where my wall voltage is at all the time, which is kind of nice. Here they are:
The rack itself was a gift for my birthday from my awesome wife. We got it at BestBuy for $129. A Whalen BBAT27TC. It was a pain to assemble but it looks really nice all done and all my gear fits in it nicely. The Sony 300 disk player at the bottom was a bit of a squeeze but it fits, just barely. So now with the sub and the power conditioners we’ve crested $2000 a bit but I have a system that rivals systems that could cost 20k to 50k. If you get nit picky about some elements of the sound systems you spend “real money” on will have an edge – but not by that much.
For cabling – RCA interconnects – I recommend going with car audio cables that are decent quality but easy on the wallet. DO NOT buy any cables at BestBuy or any place like that… Hit up ebay for some ‘Stinger Audio’ cables or amazon for ‘Cable Matters’ or ‘Media Bridge’ cables… You’ll spend a fraction of what you would in a BestBuy and get cables that are better quality. For optical cables hit ebay and get something that’s inexpensive and the length you want. You don’t want a bunch of extra cabling spooled up behind the rack so buy to length what you need. For speaker cables I would just get some decent generic copper 14 gauge speaker cables – for a 2 foot run you just need something decent but real stranded copper. I used cables I had left over from other projects so I used a heavier gauge than I needed but I figured what the heck since it was free. Banana plugs – not necessary but make switching components in and out a lot easier. If you must, buy these on amazon and go for something cheap that has good reviews (for example – Monoprice are good and cheap).
The finished product:
So now I have my dream audio system and I only spent a fraction of what I thought something like this would cost.
Lastly, just a few words of wisdom about buying audio gear on ebay. Try and stick to sellers who were original owners or seems to care about their gear. Places that specialize in audio equipment are usually safe also. If you roll the dice on a seller who has a strange ad but the price is really low, you’re probably going to get burned. Now, this usually only results in a cost of your time to contact and tell the seller things arrived broken or not as they were advertized and you have to repackage things to ship back and eat the cost to ship things back in most cases. It might not seem like a big deal but when you start getting into this – you’ll quickly realize that’s a real pain to get damaged gear so spending a little more from a good seller who was an original owner and obviously cared well for their equipment is worth the peace of mind, your time, and money. CL is another spot you can get good deals, but I have had very bad luck on CL. It’s probably just me, but all the stuff I bought on CL crapped out on me after a month or two, so I just don’t go there anymore. It’s probably just bad luck so your mileage may vary.
I mentioned some pitfalls earlier also, in that I mean I had some bad gear shipped to me. Since getting my current amps I have been scouting others as backups and potential replacements (better sounding or more powerful). In that search I have had a mix of good and bad luck with ebay sellers, as I mention above, it’s really best to stick with reputable sellers who are either original owners or audio enthusiasts or larger audio sellers. They seem to pack the items the best and the items come working as promised. With some these other sellers with super cheap prices and “canned” ads that clearly show they are just selling anything they can get their hands on, you really roll the dice. Anyways, just a warning.
Also – when you buy an item off ebay or a forum or CL even – test it immediately and thoroughly. If there is an issue contact the seller ASAP. Do no wait! The longer you wait the harder returning items might be. Some people only have a one or two week return period. So make sure you test asap! If they give you any grief about the item, open an ebay case and take the whole return conversation to your case. Ebay will fight for you to make things right – so don’t be afraid to open a case. Take pictures of damaged gear and bad packing, etc, put those in the case. I also highly recommend you test used amps for the first time on an old speaker you don’t care about. Bad amps can fry a speaker and you don’t want to take the risk of harming your good listening speakers. I have an old bookshelf speaker I use for that. Yes, it’s sort of a pain and maybe a little paranoid, but I have seen it happen. So better to be safe than sorry.
If you are thinking of building a system yourself here are some brands to consider for the components:
PreAmplifiers: (make sure whatever you get has some form of bass management – meaning a sub out with selectable cross over points)
OutLaw Audio (anything 950 or above)
Rotel (the 1066 is a nice older unit that’s all over ebay and can be had for under $200 if you’re willing to spend the time to bid)
Sherbourn (no longer made, bought by Emotiva, but good stuff and usually at a good price)
Emotiva (older surround units can be had for cheap – good sounding stuff)
Parasound (the 2100 is a great stereo only unit with bass management for $500 new, if you want to go new)
Marantz (obviously, the ma-700, ma-500, and ma-6100)
AudioSource (the 5.3a, 5.2a, and 5.1a – all very good and can be found on ebay pretty cheap)
Sherbourn (the 2/100a – make sure it comes with the speaker hookup connectors or the 1/300a – this one is a beast – hard to find, but an amazing amp)
Emotiva (various models, rack mount style form factor, not long and skinny which is nice for placement next to speakers)
Adcom (various models, these can get very pricy and are rack component style form factor)
Rotel (various models, also pricy, rack style, but very good amps)
Energy (the RC-70 on sale for $299 each is a steal – Fry’s has them on sale at this price it seems every couple of months)
Axiom (the M80, M60, or M50 – all great, but they need power, 4ohm speakers!)
Polk (the RTI9 and RTI8‘s are great and can be found for cheap at stores like Fry’s)
Klipsch (tend to be bright with their horn tweeters, not everyone likes that, can be fatiguing on the ear at high volumes)
Boston Acoustics (definitely a solid speaker maker – they cater more to the Home Theater crowd, but they have nice towers for music also)
SVS (I can’t say enough good things about this company – the products and customer service are top notch)
HSU (supposed to be equally good to SVS but a little pricier)
OutLaw (they have some great down firing 12″ sub that have nothing but great reviews)
CD players / transports: (old flagship DVD players make excellent CD players)
Pioneer Elite (DV47ai, DV59avi, and DV79avi – probably the best cheap universal players you can get sans blu-ray)
Sony (ES line DVD players that play Super Audio CDs are good to get – can be had for cheap if you hunt)
Denon (the 2910 and up are nice and can be found cheap if you hunt – but watch out for older Denon players – the lasers have a reputation for a short lifespan)
These are just a few suggestions… Once you get into this stuff you’ll start to learn more about all the different brands and models and basically what to hunt for. I have found the AVSforum and AudioKarma forums to be great places to get information about audio equipment if you need to ask questions. They both have great communities of very friendly and knowledgeable people – your fellow ‘cheap audiophiles’.
So once again there you have it… how to spend around two grand on a system that rivals systems that cost a LOT more… and you don’t have to take the bi-amp plunge, but I recommend it for the best sound – and it looks pretty cool too with those amps on either side of the speaker. I hope this was an interesting and informative read.
Take care all, and happy listening.
(this SACD is absolutely drool-worthy … I’m really not that into Norah Jones but it sounds so good I listen to it regularly, lol)
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