ONLINE - ISSUE 18
Audiophile Sound on a Budget
Many audiophiles, myself included, can't afford speakers costing $20,000 or more, amplifiers costing $10,000 or more, or CD players and preamplifiers costing $5000 and more, not to mention expensive cables, power cords, and room treatments. In this article, I will discuss how you can get audiophile sound for much less—under $10,000 for a whole system. You may say that that is still a lot of money, and it is, but many people spend more for just one component.
The most important part of any high-end sound system is the room in which it is located, the acoustic treatment of the room, and the placement of the speakers. A room that is primarily used for audio is a very good idea. If you don't have a decent room, spending big money on a stereo is very wasteful. Most speakers sound their best at least four feet away from the back walls and at least three feet from the side walls. With the additional requirement of about nine feet between you and the speakers and at least four feet behind the listening position. With that in mind, a room larger than 15 by 20 feet is needed for the best sound. Exact placement of the speakers is a matter of experimentation.
Next comes the treatment of the room. The best sound I have heard was in an audio shop that had over $20,000 in room treatments. This is well above our budget, so we must improvise. Tube traps can be improvised from commercial pipe insulation covered with cloth, with painted particle board caps on each end. Egg-crate foam may be used on walls. Wall-mounted rugs, disc storage, and tapestries can also help. On the floor in front of the speaker, an area rug with pad is a good idea. The Shakti Hallographs are very good, but out of our price range unless they can be found used. It is hard to come up with inexpensive room treatments that look good in a room. Artificial or real plants can be used as room treatments in the corners behind speakers, and have a high mate-acceptance factor.
Room treatment is a tricky undertaking. Reflections off of room surfaces are detrimental to the sound, as they are perceived as separate sonic events. In a small room, the reflections smear the notes. You might think the solution would be to make the room completely dead, but the problem is that the music will sound dead. Part of hearing live music is hearing the acoustics of the room, so a balance must be made between direct and reflected sound. Another problem is that most room treatments absorb sound differently at different frequencies, which can cause the sound to have a peaky nature. One solution to this is a surround-sound system in a room that is fairly dead at most frequencies. It is also cost effective to combine your video system and your audio system. It is unlikely that a person on a budget can afford two sound systems. Combining them will allow a bigger budget for the single system. One interesting tweak is putting a humidifier in the listening room. This reduces static electricity, and it also makes the air slightly heavier, giving the sound more impact. Do not make the room too humid, however.
The next thing to consider is the equipment. If you are on a budget, you have two choices: The first is to buy cheaper components and the other is to buy used equipment. I feel buying used is the best bet. Used audio equipment is usually about half the price of new. Sources for used equipment include your local newspaper, although not much audiophile gear makes it there. Local stereo stores may offer used equipment or have bulletin boards for it. Some audio magazines have classified ad sections. Local audio societies can be a source, and if you have audiophile friends, they often upgrade their equipment. There are also Internet sources. It can also be better to spend slightly less, and to use the savings to have the equipment modified. Usually, $500 spent on modifying good equipment will produce more improvement than spending the extra $500 on another component.
You will need a disc player, a preamplifier, an amplifier, and speakers. You will also need cables, isolation devices, and electrical treatment. First is the disc player. I highly recommend getting one of the omni players that play SACD, DVD-A, CD, and DVD. I know people that have put big money into modifying cheap players—one friend has made $1000 worth of modifications to a $200 Sony player! I do not expect cheap players will have more than two or three years of life, so I think this is a bad investment. I suggest finding a well-built unit in the $800 price range and putting $300 to $500 worth of mods into it. If you get a model that is being discontinued, you can save even more money. ModWright did a $400 mode on my Marantz DV-8300 that was very worthwhile.
It is very hard to find a good used multi-channel preamplifier. My suggestion for a preamplifier is the Outlaw 950, a good-sounding preamplifier that has the bonus of 7.1-channel sound for DVD, DVD-A, and SACD. I had Andy Bartha do a $500 mod on it that was the highest quality parts-per-dollar mod that I have seen. The job was also very professionally done. Andy did not want to play with the surface-mount op amplifiers, so I had ModWright do it for an additional $200. This made a big improvement. I would put the modded player against anything selling for below $5000. It sounded better than my modified $4000 Melos stereo preamplifier and within a smidge of my modified $4000 Citation 7 preamplifier in bypass mode. It also has very good DTS, DD, and surround-sound decoding.
The choice of an amplifier depends on what you can find used and how much power your speakers need. Again, modifying a slightly cheaper amplifier is probably preferable. Amplifiers have changed very little in the last fifteen years, except for the extreme high end.
Speakers are a matter of taste. The speakers I would suggest would be the Gallo Reference 3s at $2600. Triangle also makes a couple of good-sounding models below $2200. The smaller Magnepans can also sound very good, but have very limited midbass and setup is very critical. Good higher-priced speakers can often be found used. Speakers should be properly sized for a room. Speakers that are too large for the room are deadly. Ones that are too small will give you anemic sound that will make you play them at a level they cannot sustain.
The next things you need will be interconnects to go between your components and a pair of speaker cables to go from your amplifier to your speakers. Medium-grade audiophile cables will cost at least $1000. Buying used cables can save a lot of money. You can get much better cables for the same price, or get the same grade of cables for 50 to 70 percent less.
Tweaking is very important to the sound of your system. The first thing to do is the mass loading of equipment. All of the speakers that I have heard—even very expensive ones—sound better with two or three 25-pound lead bricks on top. For a $100 investment, your system will sound like you spent several thousand more on speakers. All lead needs to be primed and painted with a sturdy coating to stop contamination. Lead sheets and laboratory rubber stoppers on top of components can produce big dividends, although lead sheets are getting harder to find. You can use slabs of marble or granite, though they are not as good as lead. Go to stone cutting shops and getting marred slabs to save money.
If you are lucky, your speakers or speaker stands already have spikes. If not, you will need to get some. You will also need feet for under your components. If you can find some good used feet, buy them. Different types of feet sound better under different equipment. I do not like the sound of absorbent feet under components. I like the metal Avalon feet under my disc player and mpingo or ebony type feet under everything else. If you or a friend has a wood shop, you can save money by making ones from scrap wood. You can also build Bright Star-type sand boxes for components, which can be very beneficial.
Next we have AC tweaks. If you have some electrical abilities, you can wire a couple of dedicated circuits for your audio system. It is also a good idea to have power conditioning. High-end power conditioners produce big improvements, but can be very expensive. To buy them new is beyond our budget. I suggest waiting for a good used one rather than buying a cheaper new one. Then you'll need three good power cords. Again I suggest buying used. Buying three new medium-grade audiophile cords will cost around $500 to $1000. Buying them used will save you $200 to $500 or give you better cables. Speaker cables must be lifted off the floor. I use is 8-inch high 4 x 4s with one end cut to a near point. You'll need to place one at about every eighteen inches of speaker cable. You can paint them whatever color fits your décor.
With a decent room, proper tweaking, and the other things suggested above, you can smile to yourself when you hear most systems that cost many times more than yours, but don't sound as good. The biggest flaw is usually the room. The next is the lack of proper tweaking. Many people that can afford big-buck equipment do not have the time or enthusiasm to tweak their systems. It takes many, many hours and lots of trial and error. Another problem is that they are often too concerned about the appearance of the room. Let's face it—the system I described above will probably not fit into a House Beautiful spread.
If you want good, deep bass, you need to increase your budget by a couple thousand dollars. The only subwoofer I have heard that produces audiophile-quality sound is the Thorough Bass Incorporated sub. Any other sub should only be used for video. It is better to have no deep bass than bad deep bass. A pair of smaller ones with amplifiers will cost $2000. Bigger ones will run $2800. See my reviews in Audiophile Audition (www.audaud.com/comp3.html and www.audaud.com/comp1.html). If you can find used subs, great, but it's highly unlikely.
If you want to have surround sound, get out your checkbook. You will need four surround speakers, a center channel speaker, and a subwoofer. You will need four more pairs of decent-quality interconnect cables, and one more run of high-quality speaker cable. You will also need five more channels of amplification. Do not use multi-channel amplifiers on your main speakers. Packaged surround speaker systems either tend to be not very good, or they force you into paying more for the surrounds than is necessary. Some audiophile speaker companies insist that you have five to seven of the same speakers surrounding you. This is only acceptable for people that do not have to ask what that will cost. Surround speakers are for ambient sound and effects. Spending big money on them is wasteful.
The center channel speaker is a completely different matter, as it carries more of the sound than any of the other speakers. It is nice to have a third speaker that matches your front ones, but if you have a video system, it is not likely that there will be room between your front channel speakers for a third. Many companies produce a dedicated center channel speaker. Using one from the same manufacturer can be a good idea, but it can get to be very expensive. If you do not get one from the same manufacturer, you will need to make a careful selection to match the tonal balance and speed of the main speakers. The main characteristics that you should look for in surround speakers are speed and transient ability. The speakers that I would like to suggest are, unfortunately, no longer made—the Radio Shack speakers with the Linaeum tweeters. The standard speakers were quick and balanced, and the center channel speaker was better than any that I have heard for under $1500. I think a fairly good-sounding surround system could be made with these speakers, especially if the crossover components in the front and center channel speakers were upgraded and a little tweaking was done.
I suggest using your main amplifier for the front channels, and it is a good idea to use a separate, good-quality mono amplifier (or a stereo amplifier bridged to mono) for the center channel. Either a multi-channel amplifier or two stereo amplifiers can power the surround speakers. It is cost efficient to buy these used. It is also important to use high-quality interconnects from player to preamplifier and preamplifier to amplifier for the center channel. Good-quality speaker cable should be used for the center channel. Decent-quality interconnects can be used for the surround sound channels. I suggest using standard audio-grade 10-gauge speaker wire for the surrounds. Because of the decoding schemes, the side channel speakers are more important than the rear ones. Unfortunately, most surround systems are set up with appearance as the main concern. Many times, speakers are in the walls or cabinets, which is sonically deadly. An audiophile surround setup will sound better than any theater setup, and those in most stores or home systems. I have yet to hear a good-sounding multi-channel system that was installed by a video installer.
One way improve the sound of your system is to use the five-step disc treatment for CDs, DVDs, SACDs, and DVD-As. This consists of beveling the disc, greening the edges, degaussing the disc, cleaning the disc, and finally, holding the disc in front of a fluorescent light for about twenty seconds. More details of the process are contained in my article that can be found at www.positive-feedback.com/Issue1/swartz.htm. I took my treated SACD of Roger Waters' The Wall Live in Berlin to David Robinson's house. David has what most people would consider a state-of-the-art system, which costs well over $100,000. We played his untreated copy, then we played my treated copy, and the treated disc sounded much better. I had not recently cleaned the disc or used the fluorescent light on it, so the difference could have been even greater. If you heard a piece of equipment make that much difference, you would think that it was worth thousands of dollars more. Four of the five treatments are very inexpensive—a fluorescent light is under $10, blue/green pens are under $5, Radio Shack Tape Demagnetizers are around $40, and large magnets can often be obtained from discarded woofers. The Beveller is about $500, however. Each disc takes about seven minutes to treat, but the treatment can transform good-sounding CDs into very-good-sounding discs, and can make mediocre discs enjoyable. It brings many CD up to the level of a good, untreated SACD.
One final way to lessen the strain on your audio budget is to reduce your expenses for software. Greatest hits and collection albums will give you the most listening enjoyment per dollar. Most pop albums can be found used for $6 to $9 a couple of months after their release. Day-of-release discounts are often given at stores. Record stores will often have label or performer sales, which may include SACDs and DVD-As. SACDs and DVD-As are much harder to find used, but it is still possible. Deep Discount DVD (www.deepdiscountdvd.com) offers DVDs and DVD-As at reduced prices and no shipping charge. Their CD counterpart (www.deepdiscountcd.com) offers a selection of SACDs at reduced rates. Buying standard CDs, even at sale prices, is not cost effective when you can buy them used. Best Buy has pretty much taken itself out of the SACD and DVD-A market, but there is still a fair selection at their website. If you have a Fry's Electronics store in your area, they offer a fairly good selection of SACDs and DVD-As at reduced prices.
Internet sites for used equipment: