How to Build a Great Sounding 2-Channel System for $5,000
Excellent Sound Can Be Achieved Without Breaking the Bank
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 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.
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).
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.
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.