How to Build a Great Sound­ing 2-Chan­nel Sys­tem for $5,000

Ex­cel­lent Sound Can Be Achieved With­out Break­ing the Bank

NOVO - - AUDIO VECTOR - by Dou­glas Brown

As an au­dio re­viewer, I’m priv­i­leged to hear some ob­scenely ex­pen­sive 2-chan­nel au­dio­phile gear. It’s FAR too easy to spend breath­tak­ing amounts of money on the hobby of high-end au­dio. Some­times au­dio­philes re­mind me of death-row in­mates who just don’t know when it’s time to quit. If you’re strapped into the elec­tric-chair, does it make any sense to douse your­self in kerosene and set the chair on fire like a Bud­dhist monk circa 1966-era Saigon only sec­onds be­fore the prison war­den flicks the switch and bar­be­ques your sorry arse into ashes? No… of course not.

Sim­i­larly, it’s much harder to show fi­nan­cial re­straint and some com­mon sense when putting to­gether a 2-chan­nel au­dio­phile stereo sys­tem. When friends come over to see and hear my sys­tems, the #1 ques­tion I get is: “If I had a $5,000 bud­get to in­vest into high-end au­dio, what should I buy?”

In this ar­ti­cle, I’ll make a few rec­om­men­da­tions as to how new au­dio­philes can put an en­try-level 2-chan­nel stereo sys­tem to­gether that will be mu­si­cal, en­gag­ing, and emo­tion­ally sat­is­fy­ing for about $5,000 US. To do so, you’ll need to in­vest in four com­po­nents: a source, an in­te­grated am­pli­fier, a pair of speak­ers and ca­bling.

The Source

The first thing a bud­ding au­dio­phile needs is a good qual­ity mu­sic source. Much like wa­ter, if the pu­rity of the au­dio sig­nal com­ing from the source is hope­lessly pol­luted, there’s no way to pu­rify it far­ther down­stream. Most mod­ern mu­sic sys­tems are cen­tred around a source that can play dig­i­tal files from on­line mu­sic ser­vices, your home net­work and your smart phone. Many mu­sic lovers also have an ana­log source - as in the good old turntable - and of course a lot of us still have large CD col­lec­tions.

The go-to mu­sic source com­po­nent these days is a dig­i­tal mu­sic player

/ streamer. In this cat­e­gory, Sonos is a brand hugely pop­u­lar with mu­sic fans for all the right rea­sons. The Sonos Con­nect is a com­po­nent ca­pa­ble of stream­ing mu­sic from just about ev­ery on­line mu­sic ser­vice you can think of, stream­ing in­ter­net ra­dio, and play­ing files wire­lessly from your home net­work as well as your phone. Its func­tion­al­ity is con­trolled com­pletely by a smart phone app. At $350 US, not only is it a bar­gain, it of­fers one of the best graph­i­cal user in­ter­faces avail­able in the dig­i­tal source com­po­nent cat­e­gory. Just be aware that in or­der to ex­tract the very best per­for­mance from the Sonos Con­nect, you’ll need to use its dig­i­tal output and feed it to a good dig­i­tal to ana­log con­verter (DAC).

Of course, as with any au­dio com­po­nent, the sky is the limit and bet­ter per­form­ing units are of­fered from other man­u­fac­tur­ers. A few years ago, Cam­bridge Au­dio un­leashed a beau­ti­ful sound­ing streamer called the CXN. I re­viewed this unit a cou­ple of years ago. At $1,400, for what it of­fers, it’s a phe­nom­e­nal au­dio­phile bar­gain. This streamer has been called the best mu­sic streamer in the £500£1000 price range by What HiFi? mag­a­zine in 2016 and 2017. Sony also re­leased a very well re­garded dig­i­tal player a few years ago called the Sony HAP-Z1ES High-Res­o­lu­tion Au­dio HDD Player ($1,999 US).

Some great mu­sic stream­ers are also avail­able from Yamaha, Onkyo, Denon and Blue­sound.

If you’re into vinyl records, I’d bud­get be­tween $750 and $1,000 for a turntable, ton­earm and car­tridge. Gold Note makes a very mu­si­cal, high-value turntable called the Valore 425 Lite ($950 US), which comes with a ton­earm, but you’ll have to pick up a car­tridge sep­a­rately. Rega and Mu­sic Hall both make a num­ber of ex­cel­lent en­trylevel plug’n’play ‘ta­bles which come fully set-up and are im­me­di­ately ready to play your records. In par­tic­u­lar, Rega’s P3-24 is a favourite with 2-chan­nel new­bies. Why…? Sim­ply be­cause, as one’s bud­get al­lows for im­prove­ments, af­ter-mar­ket up­grades and su­pe­rior sound­ing Mov­ing Coil (M/C) car­tridges can be swapped in and out with­out too much trou­ble.

I still own a 1999-era Rega Pla­nar 25 turntable with the RB-600 ton­earm. Just shy of 20 years since I bought the beast, I’ve up­graded ev­ery sin­gle part in my P25, in­clud­ing: the ball bear­ing, spin­dle, sub-plat­ter, plat­ter, in­ter­nal wiring, the ton­earm’s counter-weight, and the orig­i­nal M/M car­tridge to a FAR bet­ter sound­ing M/C. These parts up­grades have dra­mat­i­cally el­e­vated the sound qual­ity of my P25 turntable’s orig­i­nal set-up. Af­ter two freakin’ decades, five pres­i­dents, and 14 or 15 house moves, my P25 still cre­ates a jaw-drop­ping sound. And, un­like most Pres­i­dents, it’s al­ways a plea­sure to lis­ten to.

Other great turnta­bles you should con­sider in­clude the Pro-Ject 1Xpres­sion Car­bon Clas­sic Turntable ($999 US), Clea­r­au­dio Con­cept ($1,800+ US) and the Marantz TT15S1 ($1,499 US).

If you own x-num­ber of CDs and want to build a larger col­lec­tion, many glo­ri­ous sound­ing bud­get CD play­ers are avail­able from au­dio­phile com­pa­nies like Cam­bridge Au­dio, Ar­cam, and Rega. I’d al­lot about $750 and search on­line at sec­ond-hand au­dio re-sale sites like Canuck Au­dio Mart or Au­dio­gon for a de­cent sound­ing CD player with a dig­i­tal out. Why a dig­i­tal out? As your au­dio­phile jour­ney con­tin­ues, you’ll be able to hook said CD player up to a stand-alone out­board DAC; which, far­ther down the road, will dra­mat­i­cally im­prove the sound qual­ity of all of your CDs and other dig­i­tal sources.

In­te­grated Am­pli­fiers

Most se­ri­ous au­dio­philes with 6-fig­ure 2-chan­nel stereo sys­tems once started with en­try-level in­te­grated am­pli­fiers. Why…? ‘Cause the cost sav­ings over buy­ing a preamp + power amp (Pre/Power) com­bi­na­tion is con­sid­er­able. Here I’d bud­get $900 to $1,500 for a mu­si­cal sound­ing in­te­grated amp.

Yamaha makes a killer per­form­ing A-S801 in­te­grated am­pli­fier ($899 US). In a re­view, the Ab­so­lute Sound mag­a­zine said that “the Yamaha A-S801 looks good, sounds splen­did, and has a long list of use­ful fea­tures at a price that makes it a flam­ing bar­gain!”. At the NOVO mag­a­zine, we had the plea­sure of lis­ten­ing to Yamaha’s higher end A-S2100 in­te­grated am­pli­fier in 2017 and we ab­so­lutely loved it be­cause its per­for­mance punched far above its ask­ing price. There’s no ques­tion that Yamaha has made a huge come­back in HiFi over the last sev­eral years and de­vel­oped some wicked sound­ing amps, with sev­eral mod­els well below $1,500.

Back in the au­tumn of 2015, I re­viewed Cam­bridge Au­dio’s phe­nom­e­nal CXA80 in­te­grated am­pli­fier. Priced at $999 US, for the qual­ity of sound, com­pat­i­bil­ity, and ease of use, it is a stun­ning bar­gain. A num­ber of my friends have bought the CXA-80 too. And, to this day, not one of them — not a sin­gle one — has ex­pressed any re­gret in do­ing so. In fact, they uni­ver­sally say: “Since I bought the CXA-80, I find my­self lis­ten­ing to a lot more mu­sic and feel­ing a much deeper emo­tional con­nec­tion to the songs I love.”

And that, at essence, is what high-end au­dio gear should do: it should give you far greater mu­si­cal sat­is­fac­tion and al­low you to con­nect on an emo­tional and spir­i­tual level

with the mu­sic you love. Whether you’re into Pink Floyd, Prokofiev, L7, or Les­bian Dope­heads on Mopeds mat­ters not. A bet­ter sound­ing in­te­grated am­pli­fier will bring you a much deeper and more sat­is­fy­ing mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.

Other note­wor­thy in­te­grated am­pli­fiers we rec­om­mend con­sid­er­ing in­clude the Ar­cam SA10 ($1,000 US), Ar­cam SA20 ($1,300 US) and NAD C 368 ($899 US). If you’re will­ing to stretch your bud­get a lit­tle fur­ther for an in­te­grated am­pli­fier, check out the won­der­ful sound­ing Rok­san Au­dio K3 ($2,000 US) - the re­view is fea­tured in the lat­ter pages of this is­sue - or the Hegel H90 ($2,000 US).

Speak­ers

In the $1,500 price range, you should be look­ing at loud­speak­ers from KEF, Brys­ton, Totem, Au­diovec­tor, Tri­an­gle, Mon­i­tor Au­dio, Fo­cal, B&W, PMC, Dy­nau­dio and Par­a­digm each of these brands has ex­cel­lent of­fer­ings in this price range.

One of my fa­vorite speak­ers to rec­om­mend is KEF’s LS-50 stand-mount mon­i­tor - a phe­nom­e­nal sound­ing speaker. Mon­tre­al­based Totem Acous­tic is well known for mak­ing some of the most mu­si­cal sound­ing speak­ers in the busi­ness. The Totem Rain­maker has long been a part of the com­pany’s fam­ily of speak­ers and of­fers an amaz­ing per­for­mance to value ra­tio. How­ever an even bet­ter choice is the Totem Sky, a book­shelf speaker that will sur­prise you with just how large and en­er­getic of a sound it can pro­duce. We have also long loved the dy­namic, de­tailed sound of var­i­ous Mon­i­tor Au­dio speak­ers. The com­pany of­fers a cou­ple of speak­ers that fit very well into a $5,000 mu­sic sys­tem - the Mon­i­tor Au­dio Sil­ver 100 ($1,049+ US) and the Mon­i­tor Au­dio Gold 50 ($1,799 US). Au­diovec­tor from Den­mark pro­duces a great en­try-level speaker se­ries called the QR Se­ries, and the QR 1 book­shelf model ($1,175 US) is a per­fect starter speaker to sat­isfy your de­sire for high qual­ity sound. French speaker maker Fo­cal also pro­duces some fan­tas­tic sound­ing speak­ers un­der the $1,500 mark. The Fo­cal Aria 906 ($1,499 US) of­fers a lus­cious sound that is hard not to love.

If you can af­ford to spend slightly more and don’t mind buy­ing a used speaker, Ref­er­ence 3A’s MM DeCapo BE is an­other in­cred­i­ble sound­ing book­shelf mon­i­tor. Priced on sec­ond-hand used mar­kets around $2,000, it of­fers elec­tro­static PRaT (Pace, Rhythm, and Tim­ing), out of a stand-mount box speaker.

CA­BLING

The last item on our list that’s needed to com­plete your en­try-level $5,000 2-chan­nel stereo sys­tem is ca­bling. Nor­dost, Car­das, Kim­ber Kable and Au­dio Sen­si­bil­ity of­fer a num­ber of ‘bang-for-the-buck’ op­tions in in­ter­con­nects, speaker ca­bles, power ca­bles, and A/C power con­di­tion­ing.

High-end au­dio com­po­nents come with de­tach­able A/C power plugs and RCA jacks for a rea­son: the man­u­fac­tur­ers ex­pect au­dio­philes to up­grade the power cords to far bet­ter sound­ing ones.

Much like a five year old pick­ing up a tuba for the first time and ex­pect­ing to hear a mel­liflu­ous Mozart sonata emerge from the other side, us­ing the stock ca­bles that came with your high-end au­dio com­po­nents isn’t go­ing to pro­duce the most de­sir­able re­sults. In fact, poor ca­bling will com­pletely waste the sonic po­ten­tial of your valu­able au­dio gear.

I rec­om­mend read­ing Suave Ka­jko’s “The Jour­ney to Higher Qual­ity Au­dio with Nor­dost Leif Ca­bles” 3-part se­ries of ar­ti­cles to get a bet­ter sense of what you can ex­pect from up­grad­ing your ca­bles. The third part of this se­ries is fea­tured in­side this very is­sue, and you can find the first two parts at www.novo. press.

You wouldn’t leap out of plane wear­ing a bar­gain para­chute or use Fi­breGlas Pink in­su­la­tion as toi­let pa­per. God above please pre­vent the hor­ri­bly painful and itchy end re­sults of do­ing that. So why would you use cheap ca­bling?

If, in the short-term, your bud­get won’t al­low for higher-end au­dio­phile ca­bles, then start with the stock ca­bles. But… se­ri­ously: do your­self a favour and up­grade the throw­away cords as soon as pos­si­ble. Bet­ter ca­bles will al­low your gear to cre­ate far more sound from your 2-chan­nel sys­tem and also gen­er­ate a much deeper emo­tional con­nec­tion with the mu­sic you love.

Be­yond sug­gest­ing some brands and spe­cific prod­ucts, the best ad­vice I can give you is to try be­fore you buy. Ev­ery­one’s ears and mu­sic tastes are dif­fer­ent, there­fore HiFi com­po­nents and speak­ers will sound dif­fer­ent to ev­ery­one. Some might pre­fer a warm, nat­u­ral sound­ing pre­sen­ta­tion when lis­ten­ing to mu­sic. Oth­ers might opt for a hy­per-de­tailed sys­tem ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing a sound­stage with a pin-point ac­cu­racy. One thing is for sure, it is al­ways best to do some re­search, read some re­views and - most im­por­tantly go to a lo­cal re­tailer and lis­ten to sev­eral sys­tems. If you build your mu­sic sys­tem well, it’ll pro­vide you with many years of en­joy­ment. For in-depth shop­ping guides for mu­sic sources, in­te­grated am­pli­fiers, speak­ers and ca­bles, I in­vite you to check out the Buyer Guides sec­tion on www.novo. press.

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