The Entry Level #5 Page 3

In any case, I was impressed. From the rich acoustic guitars and old-school drum-machine beats of Dominant Legs' Young at Love and Life (LP, Lefse 010) to the live drumming and heavily layered synth textures of Four Tet's There Is Love in You (LP, Domino WIGLP 254), I feasted on a steady diet of recordings with deep bass and thrilling stereo imaging. But placing the Audioengine 5s so far into my room proved impractical for a few reasons. First, because the A5s are internally powered, you need simply connect the speaker cable from the left channel's binding posts to the right channel's binding posts to achieve stereo sound. Having the speakers set up far from the front wall, however, meant that the cable dangled visibly and obtrusively across my listening room. Second, placing the speakers well into the room also meant that the left channel's AC cord, even when stretched taut above my floor, could barely reach the wall socket. Finally, because my Polycrystal equipment rack and source components are positioned close to the front wall, connecting the A5 to any source but an iPod proved inelegant and hazardous, with cables again stretching across my room. Girls would not dig this.

So I moved the speakers close enough to the front wall that I could hide their cables behind my Polycrystal equipment rack, and adjusted their toe-in so that the speakers' drive-units were pointed at my ears at the listening position. The final placement was approximately 30" from the sidewalls, 28.5" from the front wall, and 10' from the back wall. While the overall sound lost some of its drama and spectacle, lacking the thrilling stereo imaging I'd previously enjoyed, the soundstage remained fairly wide and deep, and the bass—that glorious bass—had become even tighter! Furthermore, the speakers' proximity to my Polycrystal equipment rack made it possible to achieve what I'd been dreaming about for months: I could pair them with the Music Hall USB-1 turntable.

And that is what I did.

But first I blended together two eggs, two tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, two tablespoons Tabasco sauce, one tablespoon soy sauce, three tablespoons Peter Luger's barbeque sauce, and one cup Wolfgang Puck's beef broth. This would be the best meatloaf ever.

Music Hall USB-1 turntable
The two-speed, belt-driven Music Hall USB-1 turntable ($249) measures 17.7" W by 5.7" H by 13.8" D, weighs 9.35 lbs, and looks a lot like an old-school Technics SL-1200. It comes in an attractive carton with a plastic handle, making the machine almost portable. The turntable is equipped with an aluminum platter and felt platter mat, an S-shaped tonearm with detachable headshell, a serviceable Audio-Technica AT3600L moving-magnet phono cartridge, antiskating and pitch controls, and a thick dustcover. The USB-1 also has a built-in phono preamp and a USB output for converting vinyl to WAV files on your Mac or PC; a USB cable and easy-to-use Audacity software are included.

Leland Leard, Music Hall's VP of sales and marketing, has worked hard to get the USB-1 into great record stores across the nation, and you can now find it for sale in Los Angeles' Amoeba Records and Chicago's Dusty Groove—a good thing for everyone. When I asked Leard what had inspired the USB-1's design, he told me he'd answer my question after his ladies had given him a break from "sunscreen duty." By this, I think Leard meant that the Music Hall USB-1 turntable is all about fun.

Compared to Uncle Omar's Rega P1 ($395) with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge ($99), the much less expensive Music Hall USB-1 had a slower, darker, less rhythmically assured sound, with smaller images and muted tonal color. I wasn't bothered by these shortcomings because, after all, the USB-1 was easy to set up, easier to enjoy, and it made sweet music. Meanwhile, compared to the PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers ($279/pair), the Audioengine A5s lacked some high-frequency detail and delicacy, but made up for it with their outstanding bass control, transparency, drama, and flexibility.

The real fun, however, came when I finally partnered the USB-1 turntable with the A5 speakers. This was a heavenly match, with deep, taut bass; eerily quiet backgrounds; an open, unrestricted soundstage; fine stereo imaging; a good sense of drama and scale; satisfying resolution; engaging musical flow; and addictive immediacy and transparency. The Audioengine 5s and Music Hall USB-1 turntable made one stripped-down, bad-ass, bitchin' little system. For a grand total of $600, including cables, I could play and digitize LPs, play and charge my iPod, and experience real, soul-stirring hi-fi. While the iPod proved adequate, adding the HiFiMan HM-602 portable music player made the experience even better, and enjoying this simple system made me feel that anything else, or anything more, would only prove unnecessary.

Like a good, modern-day audiophile, I ripped several CDs to a Dell laptop and transferred the resulting WAV files to my iPod and to the HiFiMan. I also digitized one side of Cat Power's brilliant covers collection, Jukebox (LP, Matador OLE-754), and again transferred the resulting WAV files to my iPod and to the HiFiMan—a process tedious and boring, but painless. Finally, I listened to the various versions of Cat Power's "Woman Left Lonely" and came to a few conclusions. Interestingly, I most preferred the sound of the WAV file ripped from the CD and played through the HiFiMan and Audioengines. This presented the most natural, enveloping, and engaging overall sound, with quick attacks, long decays, and good musical flow. My least favorite sound came from the WAV file ripped from the LP using the Music Hall USB-1 and Audacity software, again played through the HiFiMan and Audioengines. I had difficulty separating the music from the recorded surface noise—fascinating, because the LP played directly on the Music Hall USB-1 sounded supremely quiet and full of pulsing life. There was also a more mechanical sound overall, with smeared transients and truncated attack and decay.

The meatloaf had been in the oven for about an hour now and was filling my apartment with its savory aroma. Soon it would be time to fry several strips of thick-cut, maple-glazed bacon, the perfect complement to the Brussels sprouts. While I sat there on the orange couch, digesting the sound of "Woman Left Lonely" and praying that dinner would be okay, it occurred to me that I had also prepared several versions of Ornette Coleman's spectacular The Shape of Jazz to Come (CD, Rhino 8122723982), which includes one of my all-time favorite songs: "Lonely Woman." Pairing Cat Power's "Woman Left Lonely" with Coleman's "Lonely Woman" felt like a stroke of magnificent serendipity, and, best of all, I hadn't needed my iPod to come up with it—I'd just used my brain. Again, "Lonely Woman" sounded best—by turns swinging, rocking, bleeding, yearning, searching, insistent, and always emotionally involving—when played back through the HiFiMan and Audioengines.

Dinner that night was very good—Natalie and Nicole decided that it was, in fact, the best meatloaf they'd ever had. Afterward, we sat together in the listening room, and I explained why the little system of Audioengine 5 speakers and Music Hall USB-1 turntable was so special, versatile, and simple. I don't think the girls cared much. They were more interested in the music. We started with "My Girls" from the Dominant Legs' Young at Love and Life, and Natalie was immediately impressed by those deep, taut drum-machine beats and the swelling acoustic guitars.

Nicole was harder to convince. "I don't really pay attention to music," she protested. "My mind wanders, and I can't hear differences between speakers or anything."

So I played a few more albums, including a red-vinyl edition of one of Nicole's favorites, Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary (LP, Sub Pop SP246), and, all too soon, it was time to say goodnight. Before the girls left, however, I packed them some leftovers, and Natalie expressed interest in buying a turntable and speakers, while Nicole asked to borrow my copy of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Dig, Lazarus, Dig! (CD, Anti- 886493), which includes "More News from Nowhere."

"Absolutely," I said, feeling something like a drug dealer.

The next day, Nicole confessed that the sound of her car stereo was nothing like the sound of the system she had heard in my apartment. "I'm not sure if I can live with it now, Stephen, and I'm not sure if I'm happy about that!"

"This is going in the column," I told her.

The meatloaf, too, she said, was even better for lunch that day than it had been for dinner the night before. I nodded and smiled, knowingly. My secret plan was working just as I'd hoped it would. Despite my old-fashioned ways, I felt like a man who could walk on clouds.

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COMMENTS
WillWeber's picture

Hi Stephen,

A fun read. Glad you weren't run over; someday headphones will be illegal in public I suppose.

I think you oughta share that meatloaf recipe! You already gave part of it, and it is enticing, so come on...

Thanks

Will

Stephen Mejias's picture

Hi Will.

I'm glad you enjoyed the column.

I promise I'll post the complete recipe as soon as I finish the Munich show report and get caught up with everything else.

lucien's picture

Hi Stephen,

For a total newbie system, I’m curious how you would compare the AudioEngine A5’s from last month with the NAD amp with PSB Alpha’s from this month’s column for a newbie looking for an entry level setup to play LP’s (with a separate phono stage) and an iPod in a small room at respectable “the kids are asleep” volumes. Cost is a huge consideration, and the A5’s are self-contained for the price of the NAD even before the speakers enter the picture. I figure in a couple years I’ll upgrade the whole setup again either way.

Any thoughts on comparing June and July’s columns for someone just looking to get in the game?

I really appreciate your choices of products and your style. It’s nice to dream about speakers that cost as much as the minivan I need to buy, but practical advice on something attainable is always welcome.

Cheers.

sgibson389's picture

Your review has me rethinking my notion that I need 30, 80 or more gigs of music with me. Looking at the models of mp3 players it seems to be going away from hard drive based players to memory card based players. Thanks for the good review, I will be considering the HiFiMan products.

SPACE CASE's picture

"This would be the best meatloaf the girls ever."  -S. Mejias

A rich morsel of accidental comedy.  But in all seriousness, I am in merely in the zygotic phase of my audiophilia and I have enjoyed the first 5 installments of your column- which I chain-read between tasks at work.  (I am the Logistics Manager at Musical Surroundings... perchance we shall cross paths at an expo in the not-too-distant) 

Maybe a completion of my chain-reading sesh will answer this, but what do you think are the best all-around speakers available for under $300?  (Zygotic, as previously stated.) You have spoken reverently enough about the Wharfedale Diamonds that I have given them the top seed at present. 

Hi five!

-Ryan

xkaapie's picture

Stephen, wonderful column, blog and insights on affordable Hifi!

You pose too many questions for us to ponder!

You are moved to tears by the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1

Addicted to the Audioengine 5's

Dancing to the Daytons!

Prisoner of the PSB!

It is wonderful and I agree 100% with you that there are so many affordable ways to listen to great music in today's world, so many possibilities for our hard earned dollars. The only problem is in todays Audio retailing world, there is no physical place out there in all of our cities to audition these wonderful choices all together at one time, THIS IS THE DILEMMA OF HIFI TODAY!!!!!!,

Could you be a pal, as you have heard all of these and let us know the answer to the following questions....... do the Wharfedale's trump the Audioengine5's????

Best regards,

Ari

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you for the kind, thoughtful words.

Could you be a pal, as you have heard all of these and let us know the answer to the following questions....... do the Wharfedale's trump the Audioengine5's????

No, the Wharfedales don't trump the Audioengines, but neither do the Audioengines trump the Wharfedales. That's not a cop out. It's just that the two speakers are very different tools, offering different sets of strengths for different applications. In an ideal world, we'd be able to own both -- the powered Audioengines are obviously more versatile, can be used on smallish desktops or for computer and media applications; while the Wharfedales provide a real good taste of the nuance and sophistication provided by even the most expensive high-end loudspeakers. 

If you're looking for versatility, power, good sound, and fun, go for the Audioengines. If you're purely interested in sound quality, go for the Wharfedales.

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