Opinions on Stereo Equipment

Mark Verber -  January 1995 [Some Updates Feb 2006, and Nov 2015]

Sections: Headphones (seperate document) / Speakers / Amps / Sources / Cables / Stores / About Mark / Related Links

Times are a-changin'. Most people's audio systems are either part of their home theater system (which I know nothing about) or are built around multi-function digital devices: smart phones, tablets or laptops. People are using headphones and in the ear monitors (IEM) with ever increasing frequency. I bet more hours are spent listening to music through headphones than through speakers. If you just decided to upgrade from the basic ear buds that came with your device or you have become dissatisfied with the headphone jack on your computer I would suggest not bothering with much of what I have written here and head over to my headphones page.

Gathering Information

The best source of information is your EARS. Form your own opinions, don't just accept what other people say. Believe what your ears tell you when listen to music!  Remember that everyone who write about high end audio are biased in one way or another.  Beyond that, There is often a lot of  hype to justify very expensive equipment. You might want to use some of this information to help you narrow down what you would like to take a first look at, but you need to listen for yourself.

I would suggest doing blind A-B testing whenever possible. Blind A-B is were you do back-to-back comparisons of two (or more) pieces of equipment, but have no knowledge which is which. When doing blind testing it is important to vary only one thing.  For example, when you switch amplifiers, you need to make sure the output levels are equivalent.  This is possible if someone is willing to switch equipment around, not telling you what they are doing, while keeping a record of the sequence used. This said, 30 minutes of blind AB testing in a showroom is not a sufficient.  You really need numerous hours in your listening space to fully evaluate a piece of equipment.  I have found that knowing what equipment I was listening always tainted my evaluation of the equipment. In particular, I tended to favor well regarded equipment (e.g. more expensive) even when I couldn't tell a difference in blind testing. There is a nice write up about blind vs sighted testing and the bias when people know what they are listening to. Purchase what sounds good to you. There is no reason to spend $10,000 on a high end system if you don't notice significant difference between it and a $1000 system, or a $100 amplified speaker.

When evaluating new equipment you should listen to music you know well. Ideally music that you have heard live. I have found that female vocalist, percussion, piano, violin, and cello solos are particularly helpful in evaluating equipment for good timbre. Choirs with a large orchestral backing can help you determine how the system renders very complex sounds. There are a number of audiophile recording companies like Chetsky have samplers which can be quite useful and companies like hdtracks which specialize in high fidelity records. I would suggest though, that the music you test with is primarily the music you listen to. I would also suggest have at least a couple of tracks which aren't well recorded because you will likely have some music that you love but is poorly recorded. You will want a system that doesn't render this music painful to listen to.

I encourage people to consider that what sounds good at first might not be a sound you want to live with. A powerful bass may seem rockin for a few minutes but but very well may sound boomy if you have to listen to it for hours. Better quality audio equipment is neutral, allowing each piece of music to sound as it was recorded without adding or subtracting anything.

While you need to form your own opinions, it can be helpful to learn from others, both to prioritize what equipment to listen to, and to discover equipment which you might not have known about.  A technique that I have found to be useful is to read reviews about equipment I have listened to myself.  My goal is to find reviewers whose opinions are well correlated against mine.  When I find a reviewer that seems to have similar opinions, I prioritize the list of equipment I want to listen to based on their opinions.  The reviewers have listened to a lot more equipment than me, so why not use their experience to prioritize my list.  For example, if I have listened to a particular speaker and thought it was really good, I will look for reviewers who agree with me.  Then I will see what other components they liked.  The components they liked (which are in my price range :-) would go to the top of my "try it" list.

BTW: Something that might be useful as you read reviews is know that is the audio community there are a variety of descriptive words that have specific meanigs to that community. There is a brief sound description glossary which was assembled at head-fi.

I have found reviews written by serious audiophiles to be helpful because they have a good feel for what is possible.  They don't rank the high end of mass market components 5 out of 5.  The down side is that they tend to nit-pick some of the best sounding gear in the world because some of them need to find some way to justify spending an order of magnitude more money on some  exotic piece of gear. In the past, some of the better reviews can be found in periodicals like Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, as well as several of the audio oriented review web sites listed below. Stereophile's April and October issues have a large "recommended components and the absolute sounds buying gear can be a useful starting point.

In the old days, there was a good community who communicated using the Usenet news groups rec.audio.high-end, and rec.audio.opinion. I have no idea how active these groups are anymore. My guess is much of the traffic has switched to one of the various web boards which is listen at the end of this document under communities. The danger in any public forum is that anyone can express an opinion, even if they are complete idiots.

I have found there are numerous information sources which are completely useless.  I am consistently disappointed in reviews found in Consumer Guide and Consumer Review.  and generic technology/gadget sites like Wired, Gizmodo, Engadget which seem to get over excited by products which really aren't that exceptional compared to over priced / over-hyped mass market consumer electronics.


Recommended Systems

I was planning on listing recommended systems at various price points... but I just don't have the time to do this right now. I have a daughter Helen who is taking up most of my free time. I believe you should put 35-40% of your funds into the speakers (>=50% if you are spending more than $1k on a headphone system, $4k speaker system), and the rest of the money divided (more or less evenly) between amplification and a single source. Unless you want to spend spending mega-bucks on a system, stay away from expensive interconnects/speaker cables, just try to keep your cable runs short, and make sure your speaker cable is 12gauge or better.


Speakers

I believe that you should always chose your speakers first, and then select components which work well with the speakers you have selected. There are a number of reasons for this.  First, I believe the speaker choice (or headphones) will have a much greater impact of the sort of sound your system delivers. It is common to find individuals who will largely agree about the relative merits of a amplifiers or DAC, and completely disagree about speakers.  Unless you are spending a great deal of money, you will have to make serious tradeoffs in selecting a speaker.  Because all low and mid priced speakers have flaws which you must choose between, speaker preference will be extremely personal. The other reason to figure out what speaker or headphone you like is that they will require different amplification characteristics depending on their efficency and impedance.

The cheapest way to get truly excellent speakers is to purchase great headphones.  Often you could build headphone based systems which will be superior to speakers costing five times as much (or more). I have a seperate headphones web page if you are interested in using headphones.

I have found that the speakers that I generally favor electro-static speakers made by Martin-Logan, SoundLab, audiostatic, older Quad (quality issue with newer quads), Acoustat. I also tend to like panel speakers that use ribbons such as the classic Apogee and the reborn Apogee Accoustics. Electrostatic speakers are particularly well suited to the sort of music I like: "small" and intimate. Vocalists, especially female, chamber music, folk, blues, and small jazz combos. I want clear and tight bass, but it doesn't need to shake my bones. I want something that gives me a lot of detail, and has exceptionally smooth vocals. Most panel speakers, once properly place (which can be hard to do right) give superior soundstage, and are particularly good in the mid-range and higher frequencies. Weakness of most panel speakers is that the absolute dynamic range is less than a conventional design, they tend to be large and difficult to set up correctly, and may have a weaker bass end. Sometimes panel speakers will be paired with a dynamic woofer, since the real-estate required for a good panel woofer is quite large.

When I first starting shopping for speakers in 1993, I was hoping to find something under $1000 which would be noticeably better than my old, failing  Boston Acoustics BA-60s. I was hoping to find something that would get close to the performance of speakers I grew up with or my roomates had. I listed to a number of the highly regard "budget" speakers (less than $1000) of the day.  The speakers I liked the best were the Magnepan SMG.  Other reasonable speakers included  NHT SuperZeros + subwoofer, Epos ES11, PSB Alpha, Paradigm Titan, and the Spica TC60.  In 2000 the NHT SuperOne seemed like one of the better value.  In more recent times I have been told that the Aperion 422-LR ($220),  Axiom Audio Millennia M3Ti SE Loudspeakers ($400), Emotiva XRM-6.1 ($349), various NHT bookshelf speakers, and Omega Loudspeakers Super 3 ($650) are suppose to provide good quality sound for a moderate price.

Since we couldn't find any speaker that sounds significantly better than than the BA-60s, we looked at speakers up to $2K. We were surprised to find only a few speakers in the $1000-2000 range that sounded significantly better than my BA60s.  My favorite speaker in the under $2000 price range was the Martin-Logan Aerius. [The Aerius is no longer made.  I have been told that the Martin Logan Theos is the closest (though better) speaker in the current ML line-up].  There were a few speakers (and none under $2500) which have the combination of transparency, liquid midrange, good imagine, and an accurate bass we hear coming from the Aerius. I found that the Aerius had a lot of detail which pulled me into the music while not being too analytical. The negatives about the Aerius are that they are very sensitive to placement and the sound can be a bit too bright in rooms with very lively acoustics. The Aerius are visually striking which could be good or bad depending on your taste. I think they are nice looking, but I would love them to be more in the background. Everyone who enters our living-room for the first time comments on "those interesting looking speakers". While they look large, the Aerius has the same footprint as a mini monitor on stands.  The Aerius was update (called the Aerius i) which is a bit more pricey, has removed the sometimes excessive "brightness" and tightness up the bass.  Runner up to the Aerius in the under $2000 price range was the Apogee Centaur (updated as the Slant 6 and now doesn't exist) and the Magnepan 1.6 which have been replaced by the Magnepan 1.7 which is one of the best values these days.

There were a lot of well regarded speakers in the $1000-2000 range (in 2013 this quality of speaker is more like $2000-4000) which did not particularly impress me. Yet, there are a lot of people who seem to like them. If you don't like panel speakers, I would suggest the slightly bright Thiel 1.5 (replaced by the 2.4) or the more laid back and warm Vandersteen 2Ce.  Other speakers that seemed reasonable included Epos ES14, JM Labs Micron, and B&W Matrix 804. I had heard great things about the Totem 1 but found myself completely unimpressed when I listened to them. Maybe the setup was wrong (though it was being driven by top of the line Sonic Frontiers equipment in what appeared to be a well prepared room) or my expectations were too high.

There were a number of speakers that I like better than the Martin-Logan Aerius, but didn't work out for reasons other than sound quality: Aerial Model 10T, Apogee Stages (and up), Larger ML, SoundLab, Sonus Faber Electa Amator (and up), and the Quad ESL-63.


Amplification

I think the very best amplifiers are like wire with gain. That is, they add or take away nothing from the sound quality. They just boast the signal enough to drive the speakers. An amplifier that does this requires the source and speakers to be well matched. Often times, people will choice an amplifier that will "color" the sound to componsate for their speakers characteristics. For example, speakers which are known to be "bright" are often paired with a tube amplifier.

One of the first question with amplification is whether you are going to use an integrated amplifier or separate components. The advantage with integrated amplifiers are they they tend to be less expensive and offer more value than equivalent separates. If you are spending less that $3000 on a system and don't plan on playing the upgrade game, you should strongly consider using an integrated amplifier. The advantage of separates is that you have more flexibility and are able to update one piece at as time.

If you aren't familiar with electronic design, you might want to read the wikipedia article about electronic amplifiers. Most high quality pre-amps use a class A circuit design. Most power amplifiers are class A/B, the better ones are designed to be pure class A through normal listening levels and switch to class B when there is a need for a lot of power. Most companies don't make class A amplifiers because they are less efficient (run hotter, use more electricity) and will be more expensive to build than an A/B amplifier of similar output power. On the other hand, it's easier to design a clean class A amplifier. Most class A integrated or power amplifiers are expensive. It is possible to build low to moderate class A power amplifiers (say less than 20 watts) which are reasonably priced.

The wikipedia article mentioned that there is something called a class D amplifiers. Class D amplifiers are more efficient than class A or A/B amplifiers. Until recently nearly all class D amplifiers were designed for efficiency and not for high fidelity. In recent years a number of decent class D amplifiers have hit the market. Many (most?) are built around chips from Tripath or the more recently the B&O ICEpower. I would describe most of these units as budget hifi rather than truly audiophile quality.  Appropriate for someone who will shell out the money for an iPod and a few hundred dollars for a speaker. There are a number of feature filled products like the NuForce Icon (review). Most low end products typically use the TA2024. Higher end units often seem to use the TA2022 or the ICEpower chips which has much better specifications in terms of distortion and output power. If you have high efficiency speakers (>90dB/W/m) you might want to check out the Sonic Impact T-Amp which is decent sounding for just $30. This amp have gotten a fair bit of press from reviewers at 6moons, stereophile, tnt-audio, audioasylum, audiocircle and a host of other sites. There are a number of amps built around Tripath chips that are a bit less cheesy than the Sonic T-Amp such as the $99 Trends TA-10. There is an active community of DIY hackers who are customizing these amp such as Michael Mardis. Some folks did a comparison / shootout of commercial tripath based amplifiers. I tried the TA-10 between my Squeezebox3 and Martin-Logan Aerius and was unimpressed by a lifeless sound. When I put my Classe Four pre-amp between the Squeezebox and the TA-10 I was impressed. Did it sound as good as my >$1K Classe 70 amp?  Nope. The Trend TA-10 didn't even touch our more layback Bryston B-60, but the sound was pretty good when you consider it was more than an order of magnitude cheaper. An easier load would have narrowed the distance, but I think the other amplifiers would still have been significantly better. A few simple mods like replacing the power supply with something like pyramind ps4kx (or any good 13.2-13.8 regulated power supply) and upgrading the input capacitors improves the sound quality. I haven't found any moderately priced amplifiers which use the higher quality TA2021B & TA2022, but there are a variety of tripath kits or DIY class D projects that might worth investigating. The cheapest pre-built I have found using one of the better chips are being made by Hawk Audio. I predict that as more people figure out how to build high quality class D amplifiers, that we will see class A/B largely disappear from the mass market. Why?  The class D amplifiers don't sound as good, but they are close enough while being cheaper, more compact and more power efficient. Welcome to the iPod generation where people don't seem to care as much as audio fidelity. I expect that class A and A/B will only be found audiophile orient products in ten years.

Now back (mostly) to conventional A and A/B designs. There used to be a large a number of very fine integrated amplifiers which were in the sub $1K price range (many $250-550) that provide excellent sound quality for the money, especially when compared to separate preamp / amp systems. It seems that many manufacturers have stopped selling reasonably priced integrated amplifiers. Today (2011) if I was looking for a good intergrated amp I would take a good hard look at:

For less performant / expensive options I would suggest looking at  Rotel and NAD, such as the CS320BEE which is a decent sounding 50W integrated amp for around $400. The Onkyo A-9555  uses a good quality class D amplifier which costs in the same range as the NADs (street price around $500) and is reported to be slightly better for classical music. I listened to one for a week or so, it was ok, but didn't touch my Bryston B-60. The Outlaw Audio R2150 receiver has  gotten some good reviews and has a built in USB input for direct streaming from PCs, though I don't go for the retro styling and haven't listened to it personally. Also, based on my experience with Onkyo-9555 (which typically is rated higher than the Outlaw) I doubt it would come close to the Bryston B-60. While no longer made, it would be worthwhile to look on the used market for the now discontinued Arcam Alpha line, and Creek 4xx0 line which sold for $400-800 in the 1990s.  If you like tubes give a listen to the Jolida 302 ($850, my favorite integrate amp for under $1000).  I would also recommend look at the used market for a Classe' CAP 80/100, Bryston B-60 SST (slightly updated Bryston B-60 is still made but overpriced at $2k), YBA Integre, Acurus DIA-100, or Krell KAV 300 (updated as the 400 and overpriced a $2.5k) which you should be able to find for less than $1k. Each of these integrated amps with extremely well built and provides extremely good sound quality.

It used to be that there were four good choices for moderately priced seperates at the high end of consumer electronics, or low end of audiophole: Rotel, Parasound with NAD and Adcom trailing slightly behind. Adcom seems to be history now. A newer company getting very good reviews is Emotiva. Their combination of some good designs, Chinese manufacturing, and direct marketing has produced some excellent products for the money. Several of the engineers at Martin Logan recommend them as a modestly priced amplfier.

I was surprised how much of a difference the preamp can make. I found a great deal of difference between comparably priced preamps when doing blind A-B testing. I did not find that similarly priced power amplifiers varied as much as the preamps did. I found that $1000 seems to be a significant turning point in preamps. Most of the preamps under $1000 (no matter how good the power amp they were connected to) did not sound significantly better than my old NAD 3020. There were a number of preamps over $1000 which impressed me. All the pre-amplifiers I liked used discrete components rather than op-amps. My favorite preamp the last time I listened was the Audible Illusions Modulus-3a ($1995). When I purchased my preamp, I though the two best preamps for under $2k were the Melos SHA-1 ($1095), a top rated tube headphone amp which also can function as a line stage preamp and the Classe' 4 preamp ($1395). I think the Melos SHA-1 is the best values if you can live with it's minimalist controls. Other notable preamps I tried (in order of preference) Sonic Frontiers SFL-1, Bryston BP-20, Conrad Johnson PV10A, Classe' 20, and Aragon 18k.

In recent years I have experimented with not using a pre-amp. Since my music is coming from a single source I have wondered if simplifying the signal path could result in better source. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on the source. In most cases, I found a good preamp significantly improved the sound quality when placed between a source and a power amplifier. One notable exception was the Lavry Black DA11 DAC. I found that I couldn't tell the difference between the Lavry driving my power amplifier directly, or passing through a high quality pre-amp, so for simplicity sake, I no longer use a pre-amp.

Most of the power amps I tried sounded good.  There were only minor differences.  I ended up selecting the Classe' 70 because it sounded slightly better to me than the other amps with the Aerius, and because Classe' has a reputation  for standing behind their product, it was one of the amps Martin Logan used in the lab with the Aerius, and I got a good deal on it.  All Classe' components come with a life time warranty for the original owner. All Classe' amps use the same basic design. I found that the Classe' 70 ($1195) was enough for me, though the Classe' 15 ($2995) did sound a bit better. Eventually I decided I wanted more power than the Classe; 70 could deliver. I got a used Chord SPM-1200 (the original version) which can deliver 250watts/channel @8ohms, 512watts @2ohms continuously, and can do more during peaks without distortion. Other amplifiers that I listened to in the order of preference: McCormack DNA-1 ($1995), Forte 4 ($1595), Aragon 4004 ($1995), and Rotel RB-990BX  which has been replace by the RB-1090 ($995). I was very impressed with the Rotel's sound and power for it price (e.g. nearly as good as the McCormack at half the cost). I expect that the McCormack DNA-.5 ($1295) would be an excellent amplifier, as would the Muse 100 ($1395) though my dealer didn't have them in stock when I was comparing equipment.

I would recommend considering purchasing amplification components used. In particular it's possible to purchase very high quality units from the 1990s at very reasonable prices such as Classe DR and first generation CA lines. They are easy to find on various web sites. Amplifiers are generally durable having minimal moving parts and most audiophiles treat their equipment well. Many audiophiles play the constant upgrade game so it is possible to find good equipment in great shape, with almost no wear.


Digital Sources

At one time I thought that digital devices like CD disk players or DACs were more or less the same and would not make a significant difference in the sound of a stereo system. My reasoning was it's all digital so everything should be about the same provided bits aren't dropped. I was wrong because I forgot that ultimately there is a digital-to-analog (D/A) converter which can differ wildly. I have generally found that audio quality from the modern digital devices falls in roughly four levels:

  1. poor (the built in audio jack on most computers, some phones, cheap consumer electronics)
  2. decent (some phones, most DAPs, low end DACs, better quality mass market consumer electronics))
  3. good (budget audiophile audio gear, many DACs, high end DAPs)
  4. incredible (select high end DACs).
To me there is an decreasingly small difference as the quality improve. That is to say decent is hugely better than poor, but that incredible is only a small, incremental improvement over good. I would also say that the difference been a decent DAC and an incredible DAC is much less noticable, and much more nuanced than the difference between good and great speakers.

CODEXs

All microphones, speakers and headphones used in the music industry are analog devices. This means that if music is stored digitally, it has to pass through a analog-to-digital converstion of some sort to be saved, and then pass through a digital-to-analog conversion to be heard. The conversion process uses something called a codex, which is basically the set of rules for how a signal is converted between the analog and digital realms. In general, I highly recommend people use and store music using lossless codex which are at least 441.khz sample rate, and 16 bits of data. There are three factors which control accurately of the A2D / D2A conversion process. The frequency that the analog signal will be sampled (expressed in khz, CDs are 44.1Khz), the number of discrete values that are used for each sample (expressed in bits, CDs are 16 bits), and whether the digital value is stored loseless - what comes in will be exactly the same as what comes out, or lossy which throws away some information to save space. Loseless data can be compressed 30-50% which will have no impact on the quality of playback. FLAC is the most popular lossless CODEX, though ALAC (Apple Loseless) is popular with audiophiles who are enmeshed in the Apple eco-system. Lossy codex give up perfect reproductions to save significant amounts of space. The better codex are built using a deep understand of how humans hear and how the human brain will "fill-in" missing information. The most popular lossy CODEX is MP3, though ACC is very common, especially among people using Apple products. Unless you have taken care to get CD resolution music - or better, your music is likely somewhere between 192-320kbs, 16 bit stored with lossy compression. The wikipedia audio data compression is a good starting place to see what encoding others exist. Hydrogenaudio has a good lossless codex comparison

There is compelling research indicates that prolonged exposure to compressed audio will erode your ability to distinguish small differences.. so consider how much you want to listed to lossy MP3s. The one up side of listening to a lot of lossy MP3s is that you won't need as expensive an playback system after a while :-). Unfortunately, significant portions of the recording industry have been making the situation worse by mastering CDs to sound good as MP3s.

I would not recommend purchasing music through itunes or most of the other online music stores. Most of the music is lossy 256kb/sec which is no where close to CD quality. You would be much better off purchasing a CD (which is approx the same price as the songs from itunes), spend the time it takes to RIP the CD yourself. It used to be these stores also encumbered music with DRM (digital rights management) which restricted how the music was used. Thankfully, DRM seems to be pretty much dead in the music space. As to whether you need to do high resolution audio (greater than CD quality)... I am not convinced. The difference between CD quality and higher quality are sufficently small that I haven't been able to consistantly identity it. I don't seem to be alone. In one study with more than 500 audio engineers suggested that CDs just as good as SACD when facing the limits of people's perceptions.

Portable Digital Audio Players

These days, people typically use smartphones or tablets to access music when they are on the go. There are several reasons for this: to simplify life / only need to carry one device, the ability to listen to music stored on the device as well has streaming music over the Internet, and a greater selection of applications / user interfaces / playback features than dedicated players. Dedicated DAPs are still used. Among audiophiles, it seems like players from Astell&Kern are the most popular because they have a high quality DAC built in, a large amount of storage, and support higher resolution audio codexs. Among the general population the Apple iPod used to be one of the most popular players, but these days smart phones seem to be the most common player.

When looking at a portable music player there are several factors you should consider:

You might want to check out head-fi's portable source gear forum for other ideas. The head-fi community really care about sound quality and have many members who have spent significant time evaluating the portable audio products.

I have found that any decent DAP will seriously out perform generic ear buds when music is encoded at better than 160kbit/sec. I would strong suggest picking up some better quality headphones.

Dedicated DACs

All devices which play digital music contain a DAC. In many products, like the headphone jack on most laptops, the DAC is very low quality, or just ok in the case of inexpensive disk players. In these cases, using an external DAC can significantly improve the sound quality of your digital music. The most common ways digital values are passed from storage to the DAC are:

Nearly all DACs provide line-level analog outputs designed to be fed to audio amplifiers. Many also have built in amplifiers designed to let the DAC directly drive headphones.

Portable DACs

Nearly all the Portable DACs on the market accept USB input. Some also support Coax or TOSlink. Most of the portable DACs have built in headphone amplifiers. Some DACs are powered from the USB bus which keeps things simple if you are using a laptop of desktop (no batteries to charge, just a single cable between the computer and the DAC) but limits it's use with phones and tablets that don't have enough power to run the DACs unless you insert a powered USB hub. I wrote up a bit about comparing the Chord Hugo vs The HiFi-M8 vs my Desktop Lavy DA-11 + GS-X mk2 and Chord Hugo vs Geek Out V2. There is a nice table showing portable DAC with the HD800. Portable DACs I would recommend in order of sound quality:

Over the last several years I demo-ed, borrowed, or owned a rather large number of portable DAC/amps. Below are a few DACs which I thought were particularly noteworthy. In general, I believe the above units will provide better price performance than these, but others might prefer them to what I listed above:

Desktop DAC

There is an amazing price range for desktop DACs. They can range in price from less than $100, to $42k?! Like most high end audio, there is a law of diminishing returns. It's often possible to find less expensive DACs which sound better that moe expensive DACs. I would recommend the following DACs which I have generally arrange in increasing sound quality (and typically increasing price)

At the modest end, less expensive DACs made by Centrance, HRT and nuforce are a good value whose performance in somewhere between the oDac and the Bitfrost. The Musical Fidelity V90 has gotten mixed reviews, with some people claiming it's amazing, good as any $2K DAC, while others say it just ok. I have read several reviews of Questyle Q192 which suggest it might be worth a look.

Based on reviews other DACs which are worth considering, which I expect would be in the same league (maybe better, maybe worse) than the Lavy DA11 in sound quality would include Benchmark DAC2 HGC, Anedio D2, M2Tech Young DAC, yulong a18, matrix-x. In past years the original Benchmark DAC1 often got good reviews. I don't understand, I never liked the DAC1.

There are a number of DACs that others might be interested in that should be in the same league (or maybe better) as the PWD2 / M51 / GD M7. They aren't on my list because of my perceived ROI. This includes the Ayre QB9, Lampizator, Resonessence Labs Invicta, Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2, Lynx Hilo, and DACs from MSB Tech

Some reviews you might find interesting include 21 DACs compared and 20013 mid-level DAC comparison.

One other thing to mention is a sound processor system called the Realiser A8 which gives the experience of listened to speakers or 8-channel surround sound using headphones. They are very cool, but also price ($3k+), but for someone who doesn't want the music in the middle of the head sense and can't use speakers for some reason, these are worth giving a listen to.

Disk and Network Audio Players

It used to be that digital source = CD player. These days few people purchase CD players because people are in increasing numbers moving from CDs to music purchase and delivered over the Internet. All of my experiences with CD players is very dated, so I have removed most of my comments about CD players. On the other hand, multi-function, multi-media disk players are still fairly popular with people who run home theater. There are a variety of devices that will play pretty much any disk format: CD, DVD, Bluray, as well as function as a DAC taking input via USB or S/PDIF. Most also can connect to a local network is accept streams from a variety of services. From my limited exposure, I would recommend looking at the devices made by Oppo. I was particualary impressed with the audio quality of the Oppo-105. There are certainly stand-alone DACs which have been sound quality at the Oppo-105's price point, but they can't do all the Oppo-105 can.

There are a variety dedicated network devices such as those made by Sonos and Apple (Airport WiFi Express, AppleTV) that are designed to make connecting you computer and your stereo equipment as painless as possible. The analog audio out of the Apple Airport Express is very poor, but it also has optical TOSLINK out which is jittery but is bit perfect which works well with better quality DACs. If you have the extra cash (and don't want to hack the software) I think the Sonos is the easiest system to set-up and use.  For more ideas, I would suggest looking at the list of hardware that natively supports FLAC. Many of these support audio that is streamed over the network. Some audio devices also include data storage (e.g. built in disks). Most of these servers don't adequately address backing up your data, are more expensive than a separate player and storage unit, and don't give a good expansion path.  You would be typically much better off separating your file storage from your audio processing. Use your computer's disk or a dedicate file server.

Software & RIPPing

Maybe of us still have a lot of CDs. If you want to stop using didn't you will need to RIP the disks, that is run them through a CODEX and store the resulting data. Often people use whatever software came with the music hardware they use. For example, iPod users often use iTunes, but there are many other choices.  BTW: iPods will sync with only one iTunes computer. If you lose your computer, you can rescue your iTunes song. Under Windows Exact Audio Copy (EAC) seems to be one of the most popular freeware programs because it puts an emphasis on 100% accuracy (eliminating jitter, etc). Official documentation is a bit sparse for EAC, but there is a pretty good  EAC tutorial. Easy CD-DA Extractor seems to be a popular with  people who want a fast and easy to use FLAC/LAME ripper and are willing to spend $35. Some, such as  flacattack and wack will RIP cd's in both a lossless and a lossy form at the same time. This can be useful for people who have a large repository used at home for maximum fidelity, and smaller files used on portable systems which don't require maximum fidelity and have a limited storage capacity. Another popular free ripper is foobar2000. I would also recommend dbPowerAmp's RIPPing tool. If you use Ubuntu, Sound Juicer commons as part of the standard bundle and seems to work reasonably well provided you don't want to do fancy things with tags.

There are also dedicated RIP / serving devices such as the ripNAS which looks quite nice, and very pricy.

My recommendation? If you use an iPod and want full fidelity then RIP using Apple Lossless. In most cases I would generally suggest RIP your CDs into FLAC to maintain the quality since you will be able to convert that to just about anything else. If you are using a portable player which either doesn't support FLAC or doesn't have sufficient storage to carry a desired amount of music in a loseless form, then also keep MP3 copies of your music. Why MP3?  Because nearly every player on the planet supports them. Since you are targeting the files to portable players I would suggest recording at ~192kbps using variable bit rate encoding. No, it won't be as good as listening to a loseless, but it's way smaller, and if you are using a portable player you will most likely not be in ideal listening conditions or have great speaker / headphones. If your RIPPING tool doesn't support doing FLAC and MP3 encoding at the same time, I would suggest get everything into FLAC first, and then do a bulk conversion. The easiest way to do this is to use dbPowerAmp's bulk converter in the licensed Reference edition for Windows. The free way to do this is to install a copy of FLAC and LAME and pick up a copy of the perl script flace2mp3 by Robin Bowes. Robin by default uses "lame --preset standard" which is 190kbps vbr (180-220kbps). Note: this is going to take many hours to run. At some point the  mp3fs might be a way to provide MP3s on demand, but it's not fully bakes, and disk space is cheap, so just make mp3 copies of your FLAC files.

There is no tagging program that I really like for any platform.

I don't know why, but none of the CD databases nor the tagging/ripping programs seem to have gotten classical music right. With popular music organizing by Artist, Album, Song works well, but with classic you typically want something more like Composer, Piece, Performance, Movement.  No one seems to have done anything about this. There is a iTunes classical hack which is a step in the right direction. Some people had develop tagging schemes for classic music which map classic music into the pop music 3 tag mode. You can see a discussion by a number of people struggling with effective tagging for classical music.

Sharing

There is a lot of tools to share play lists and music over the network. At some point I will write something about things like:

More Information?

I would suggest checking out hydrogenaudio.

What do I use?

These days my one the go music typically comes from an iPhone. I have a 6th generation Nano which is perfect for music when I am running. For awhile I tried down sampling our loseless music. First to 192k VBS using a LAME encoder and to 256 using 256 AAC on the theory that on the go I wouldn't notice the drop of audio fidelity. Alas, I did, so I carry a small piece of our music in Apple Loseless format.


Cables and Interconnects

I have been using cables which were given to me or came with my equipment. My interconnects are made by WorldWire, and my speaker cables are the typical 12 gauge speaker cable which can be purchased at better quality hardware store :-).

How much difference do cables make? Is there any significant sonic difference between a $1.50/meter 12 gauge speaker cable from Radio Shack or a decent Hardware Store and a $2000/meter high end audiophile cable? My guess is there will not be significant differences. I did one blind A-B test and didn't notice a difference... it's a low priority to do any more.  I believe I could hear slight differences between some 24 gauge wire and my 12 gauge cable, but it wasn't a blind test. I seem to recall reading something that 18 gauge and up might have an impact to sound. John Dunlavy sent a nice mail note about what he regards as Cable Nonsense when looking at cables from an engineer's perspective.  Likewise, Roger Russell, who was the Director of Acoustic Research at McIntosh Laboratory also notes in his  History of Speaker Wire that the main issue in cable is the resistances, which basically means that heavier gauge is better, which means that the $1000 12 gauge audiophile interconnects has no advantage over 12 gauge wire from a hardware store. For a bit more explination, see the Cables & Sound Quality column.


Fun with Sales People

My experience with audio sales people has been mixed. Years ago I found all the folks at Bay Area Audio, in Cupertino, CA and at Progressive Audio in Columbus, OH extremely helpful and knowledgeable. They seemed to know the equipment and understand that most of their clients are looking to put together a reasonably priced systems. Both of these stores carry reasonable, low cost gear like NAD as well as high end audiophile equipment. I was not pleased with the service at most other audio stores. Sure, there can be people who are really great, but often it seems audio sales folks often don't adjust to their customers needs. There is a tendency to push products that are beyond the customers price range, and to ignore customers who don't seem interested in the more expensive equipment. I have often found sales folks a little too much into audiophile hype.

SF Bay Area audio dealers, many of which were mentioned in sfbay audio store list on audioasylum.com.

Wherever you go, I would look for a audio store and sales person who would let you:

  1. Select your own music: either from a diverse stock they maintain or from disks you brought with you. Lesser stores will play music which sounds impressive, but doesn't give you a fair chance to evaluate the equipment. You should be able to listen to a number of different tracks.
  2. Be in control of the evaluation process. You should be able to specify what components will be connected to one another, and that sequence you want to listen to the equipment.
  3. Have some peace. They should give you some space to think about what you are hearing if you request it. It is fine to give helpful observations when appropriate, but I found a number of salesman who tried to suggest to me what I would hear in the hopes of biasing my evaluation.
  4. Take equipment home to evaluate it with the rest of your system and your particular room acoustics. Many stores are very good about this. Audible Difference in Palo Alto and Elite Electronics in Cupertino were very good about this. Some places will merely require you to sign something, others will want a deposit or a card impression. Even the most paranoid stores should at least let you "buy" the equipment for an evaluation and get you all your money back if you return the equipment within a specified period of time.

Me and My System

I am not a sound engineer or music producer. I do consider myself am an audiophile because I really care about the sound qualty of the music I listen to, but unlike some audiophiles, the audio equipment is only a means to an end and not part of my audio hobby. As a result, I tend to hunt for audio equipped that delivers the sound quality I desire, and then don't think about audio equipment for years. Typically there will be some external event which triggers a re-evaluation my equipment. For me this means I spent time evalulating equipent in 1976, 1980, 1993, 2006, and in 20133. I am willing to spend hours doing blind A-B testing to find equipment which made a significant improvement in our sound system at what we considered a reasonable price.

In this age of MP3s and ear buds with maybe a speaker dock for the audio player, spending $6000 on audio equipment would not be considered a "reasonable price". On the other hand, the $6000 invested in our primary stereo system has effectively provided 19 years of enjoyment. That works out to around $0.86 / day, $0.20/hour of joy. That is less than many people spend each day on coffee. I think it's been a good investment.

My system is currently driven by Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, Macbook) which hold mostly Apple Loseless media or streaming loseless TIDAL via Roon. Endpoints include:

When around town I typically take audio strait out of my iPhones headphone jack because I care more about convenience that sound quality. I use Etymotic HF3 every day (fits in pocket with mic and remote control), Westone ES5 (flying/traveling for long duration comfort and audio quality), and Plantronics Backbeat Fit (gym, running, situational awareness needed).

I got started with a NAD 3020, AKG 240 headphones, Technics turntable and Orofon cartidge. Over the years I have also owned or used equipment that was DIY, and commercially made by made by Advent, AKG, Apogee, Apt Holman, AudioQuest, B&O, B&W, Boston Acoustics, Bryston, CEnterence, Chord, Classe, Conrad-Johnson, Dahlquist, Dynavector, Dual, Etymotic, GAS, Grado, Headamp, HRT, Music Fidelity, Koss, Krell, Magnepan, NAD, NHT, Marantz, Orofon, Quad, Schilt, Slim Devices, Sonus Faber, Sumo, and Stax


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