Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Putting together a quality audio system for $1500 (all prices USD) is easy. It’s also hard. For audiophiles on a budget -- people like me -- these days it’s easy to find high-quality audio components for not much money. But today there are so many high-quality components that it’s hard to narrow down the choices.

A bit about me

I’ve been buying, listening to, and writing about audio gear for more than 30 years, and I’ve been listening to and evaluating budget audio components for all of my audio life. I’ve heard my share of great components, and some that were not so great.

The budget bracket can span a wide range of prices -- budget means different things to different people. Most of my non-audiophile friends and family consider a pair of speakers costing $1000 to be expensive, but most audiophiles would consider that an entry-level price. But regardless of price class, what most excites me is finding an audio component whose sound quality punches far above its class. That’s what’s driven me for the past 30 years, and still does.

Vince Hanada

I’ve made my living as a mechanical engineer, a job that has trained me to pay close attention to specifications. In audio, I value things that can be measured and that make audible differences. I’m not interested in components that achieve the lowest distortion figure possible and cost tens of thousands of dollars. I do get excited by a component that produces inaudible levels of distortion yet costs only $500. Another thing I value in an audio component is reliability. I don’t like fussy or quirky components that require some sort of ritual to work properly, or with which you have to keep your head absolutely still to hear any sort of imaging. If it’s unreliable or not really useful in a typical domestic setup, I’ll get rid of it. That’s typically why I buy components from long-established companies with solid reputations -- their products usually cover those bases.

Assumptions

In the past, you’d have had to allocate up to about $500 to a source component such as a CD player or turntable. In this age of streaming music, such source components are optional; if you forgo them, you can spend more on speakers and amplification. For the purposes of this article, I assume that most of those reading it have a subscription to a music-streaming service such as Amazon Music, Qobuz, Spotify, Tidal, etc., as well as a smartphone or tablet to provide wireless control for streaming music to an audio system.

Naim Audio

More assumptions: The $1500 system I propose is dedicated to the playback of music in two channels -- it’s not a surround-sound system for music and/or movies. I assume that you want separate components for speakers, amplifier, and source. I have nothing against all-in-one systems from reputable audio manufacturers, such as Naim Audio’s Mu-so 2nd Generation, which retails for $1599, just $99 above this budget’s upper limit. The Mu-so includes two three-way speakers, Bluetooth streaming, and Internet streaming via Wi-Fi or Ethernet -- all contained in a single, small desktop box. However, the Mu-so is more suited to casual listening -- its speakers are too close together to produce the sorts of stereo soundstaging and aural images that are such big parts of this hobby for so many audiophiles. I’m talking about a real hi-fi system.

Planning your budget

As I said above, these days $1500 is a generous amount for a high-quality two-channel audio system. This has been made possible in part by the availability of high-quality audio through purchased downloads or via a subscription to a streaming service. You no longer have to spend a lot on such physical formats as LPs or CDs and the players to play them. In the past, a decent CD player would easily set you back $500. Here, I’ll prove that you need allocate only $100 for a source component. That would leave you $600 for amplification and $800 for speakers, and a bit more for interconnects and cables (also recommended below). These ballpark figures can be varied by a few hundred dollars up or down.

Choosing speakers

The most important part of choosing an audio system is the speaker selection. A system’s speakers have the biggest influence on its sound quality, and the biggest influence on your enjoyment of music. You often read in reviews that a speaker “got the midrange right.” By this it’s usually meant that the midrange -- the part of the audioband from 500Hz to 2kHz -- is neutral, or generally flat, meaning without audible coloration. It’s crucial to get the midrange right: human voices are in this range. When shopping for speakers, listen through them to men’s and women’s voices, to hear if those voices sound natural. The combination of the size of the speaker and the size of your room will dictate how much bass your system will produce. If you prefer hip-hop or EDM, you’re probably better off getting a subwoofer to augment your speakers. For jazz, a minimonitor could go deep enough in the bass. For treble response, the more reflective your room’s surfaces, the brighter the sound will be. A room with a lot of upholstered furniture, drapes, and carpeting can tame the sound of bright-sounding speakers, but might make more neutral speakers sound dull.

Another important aspect of the sound of a stereo pair of speakers is their ability to produce convincing soundstages and aural images. Part of the magic of listening in stereo is being able to “see” individual instruments and/or singers as each occupies its own space before you. Your room will greatly influence how a pair of speakers performs this feat. You should also make sure you’re sitting far enough away from the speakers, and that the speakers themselves are far enough from each other. As a general rule, you’ll want the speakers to be at least 4’ to 10’ apart, and you’ll want to sit at least 6’ to 10’ away from them, to produce adequately convincing aural images and soundstages.

Paradigm

When a manufacturer releases a new line of loudspeaker models, that line usually comprises a couple of minimonitors, a few floorstanders, and, for home theater, a center-channel or two. The idea is to mix and match models within the line to put together a home-theater system with consistent sound across all channels. Often, the smallest models include the same technology as the largest, which can often cost several times as much. Obviously, the bigger speakers’ cabinets require more raw materials, but also more internal damping materials, to ensure that their larger cabinets produce as few vibrations as possible, so that all you hear are the soundwaves produced by the drivers themselves.

The best value in a line of speakers, in my opinion, is usually one of the minimonitor models -- usually a two-way design with a 1” tweeter and a 5” or 6” midrange-woofer. Examples of good minimonitors: Axiom Audio’s M3 ($598/pair), Paradigm’s Premier 100B ($798/pair), MartinLogan’s Motion 15i ($850/pair), and Focal’s Chora 806 ($990/pair).

Focal

I own a pair of MartinLogan’s Motion 4i’s ($499.98/pair), my go-to bookshelf speaker. The Motion 4i has a small (4”) midrange-woofer, but uses a sophisticated port to extend the speaker’s bass response. Although the Motion 4i’s treble might sound aggressive to some, a pair of these speakers is capable of excellent imaging. Coupling them to a small subwoofer, such as ML’s own Dynamo 400 $449.99, for a total speaker cost of $949.97, would provide an excellent near-full-range system. The only drawbacks would be that adding a sub requires a bit more floor space, and more tweaking to match its output to the speakers’ output.

If you lack the room for a sub but want more bass, there are some good small tower or floorstanding speakers that would fit in this budget. Again, I recommend looking at the smallest tower in any speaker range, as they sometimes represent the best value -- as floorstanders within a line increase in size, they don’t always produce that much more bass. Some great examples: PSB’s Alpha T20 ($649/pair), Monitor Audio’s Bronze 200 ($995/pair), and SVS’s Prime Tower ($1000/pair).

PSB

Amplification

For amplification, there are two main categories: tubed and solid-state. I’ll stick to solid-state amps, as they are more readily available in this price range. There is also amplifier class to think about: class-A, class-AB, class-D, etc. To stick as close as possible to the $600 for amplification budget, I recommend solid-state. In the $500-$700 range you’ll likely find mostly class-D amps, which are not only more powerful than similarly priced class-AB amps, but are also very efficient -- they produce almost no heat. In transforming the power they take from the wall into power output to your speakers, class-D amps can have specified efficiencies of 90% or more. Compare this with the efficiencies of class-AB amps, which are 50% or less; they waste a lot of power as heat.

For this budget I’m not talking about a separate power amplifier -- I recommend an integrated amplifier, which combines a stereo preamplifier and a stereo power amplifier in a single housing. This saves money -- there’s only one chassis, one case, one power supply, and one power cord and plug, instead of a doubling of all of these for separates. These days, unless you want to add a turntable, analog inputs aren’t as important as they once were, but it’s good to have an integrated with a built-in digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and many digital inputs. If you buy such an integrated, make sure that one of its digital inputs is a USB port (see below). You also might want a built-in Bluetooth receiver, for direct streaming of music from your smartphone or tablet.

Pro-Ject

How much power you’ll need will be determined by the size of your room, how loud you listen to music, and the sensitivity of your speakers. If your speakers are sensitive, you’ll need a lot less power. A recent and surprising example of a good low-powered integrated amplifier is Pro-Ject’s MaiA S2 ($599). It’s specified to output only 25Wpc into 8 ohms, so at first I wrote it off -- clearly, it was strictly a desktop amp. I was wrong -- the little (8.1”W x 1.5”H x 6.9”D) MaiA S2 easily drove a pair of big floorstanders to loud levels in my room. It has all of the connectivity listed above, including Bluetooth and a phono stage.

Other examples of amps with good power and connectivity are NAD’s D 3020 V2 ($399), which lacks Bluetooth but has digital inputs, and NAD’s D 3045 ($749), which has bidirectional Bluetooth: you can stream music from your phone or tablet to the D 3045, or to wireless headphones from a source connected to the D 3045. Other examples of high-value amps that would work well in a $1500 system: Rotel’s A11 ($699), which has built-in Bluetooth but no digital connections; Rotel’s A12 ($899), with built-in DAC; and NuPrime’s IDA-8 ($1095).

NAD

Source

Most of the integrated amplifiers mentioned in the previous section have built-in phono stages. If you want your $1500 system to include a turntable, I highly recommend one from Pro-Ject Audio, whose lowest-priced model is the T1 ($329). If vinyl isn’t your thing, you could add a CD player, but I think the best way to listen to music digitally is streaming audio. The cheapest way to add streaming audio is to get a Raspberry Pi computer and use it as a dedicated audiophile music player. Open-source music-player software such as Volumio and Moode (I use both) can be uploaded to the Raspberry Pi with a microSD card. This will allow you to stream music from Amazon Music, Spotify, etc., and it will also allow you to stream from a network attached storage (NAS) device through the Ethernet connection or Wi-Fi. The Raspberry Pi has four USB ports, to which you can attach a portable hard drive, flash drive, or any other USB media, and stream music stored on that media device. Music can be streamed at CD resolution (16-bit/44.1kHz) or even higher without stuttering, unlike some commercial products I’ve tried. A basic Raspberry Pi board costs around $50. Add to that a microSD card (8GB minimum), a case, and a power supply, and you’re all in for under $100. Don’t be intimidated by the Raspberry Pi board and all its pins -- all you have to do is insert the board in the case. No configuration of the board itself is needed. The rest of the setup involves only the program on the microSD card.

Raspberry Pi

To use a Raspberry Pi as a music player, connect it to your integrated amplifier’s USB port. When you launch Spotify on your smartphone or tablet, your music player will show up as a device to which you can stream. My two Raspberry Pi music players have been very reliable -- they draw so little power that I leave them on all the time, and they always work as soon as I select them in Spotify. And the Raspberry Pi’s sound quality is superb -- it adds nothing to the sound sent to my speakers.

Cables

To connect everything in this system, you’ll need a USB link between the Raspberry Pi and your integrated amplifier -- any standard link will do. You’ll also need speaker cables. I suggest 12- or 14-gauge wire -- don’t be coaxed to spend more on expensive cables, at least for now. Good-quality stranded wire can be found on Amazon. You may want to buy banana plugs to terminate these cables with, for solid connections at both the amp and speaker ends. However, if you don’t plan to connect and disconnect your speakers with any frequency, as I do when reviewing speakers, you won’t need to spend anything at all on terminations -- bare wire, too, can provide a solid connection. Figure around $75 for interconnects and cables.

Amazon

Wrapping up

If you pick the most expensive model mentioned in each of the above component categories, the total will easily exceed our total budget of $1500. But if you look out for sales and close-outs, you can assemble a system comprising components whose total list prices well exceed $1500 for perhaps a lot less than that. You can also find bargains on the used market. Pick and choose wisely, and you can easily hit a price point that you’re comfortable with. Nor is this by any means an exhaustive list of good components -- there are dozens of worthy manufacturers I haven’t mentioned.

Above all else, trust your ears -- your preferences in sound may well differ from mine. But perhaps this has given you a starting point for your audiophile journey. Happy listening!

. . . Vince Hanada
vinceh@soundstagenetwork.com