Sorry if the subject title sounds like a riff on "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" *cringe* but I wanted to post a general summary of my experience as a complete neophyte to audio hi-fi, putting together a system for the first time, so that other newbies can gauge from my experience what their process might be like, in putting their systems together. Hopefully it will help them in the process, save them some grief & time.
I think it was this past December, just before Christmas, that I was trolling around in Amazon.com for no reason, that I got the idea of maybe upgrading a pair of speakers for my computer. So after a storm of clicking, I found out there was a company called Audioengine. I was going to settle on that, but I thought about it, the prospect of listening to all music - lossy files, too! - seated at or near the computer, and it wasn't so enticing. Then, after more clicks, I saw that there were things called receivers and amplifiers *gasp* which allow people to listen to music from a dedicated system. Hence my first posts here on Stereophile: should I get Harman Kardon 3485 or Onkyo A9555, Infinity Primus P162 or PSB Alpha? (Notice how all these are also available on Amazon.com. )
Then I received a LOT of expert advice from forum members. The general consensus was that I should consider an integrated amplifier along with affordable speakers. I forget who (I think it was KBK) but I was advised to contact Glen at Audio Two for some opinion on integrated amps. Glen was a huge help - he fielded my lengthy emails daily, and I got the general sense of what was out there, mainly through my correspondence with this kind man who had almost zero interest in selling me his stuff... I'd find out in short order that there are MANY people who are like this in audio, willing to mentor you through the process, which makes this hobby worthwhile (Walter Swanbon at Fidelis AV, John Rutan of Audio Connection, and Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports come to mind, too.) It's a community in the truest sense of the word, and hopefully when I am older and semi-wise in ways of audio, I can usher in the younger people in a similar way, with generosity of spirit.
Anyhoo, from my correspondences with Glen and flurries of posts in this forum, I had a vague but definitely formed ideas of my target amplifiers. The safest recommendations seemed to be: Creek, Rega, Cambridge Audio for integrated amp. Glen also recommended Atoll, a French amp, which I actually preferred to Creek, Rega or CA in actual auditioning. But did I end up with an Atoll-based system? No. Life would have been so much easier if I jumped in quickly & have been done with it. I guess what people call 'audiophile nervosa' kicked in, along with the endless series of 'what-if' questions, and I knew I wouldn't be satisfied until I explored most of my options, exhaustively.
A couple of points here: one thing I do not regret is doing thorough research before actually auditioning. I read almost all the reviews of gear that was within my budget in Stereophile. I was hitting other forums to get 1st hand accounts of owner experience. In the process, I picked up the technical vocab, etc., and what to look for in matching components. As a newbie, it can be daunting when people are talking about impedance, sensitivity of speakers, whether or not a certain amp's output is driven by MOSFETs or not. But you can soak it up while reading the reviews, get a general sense of what the terms are.
Another point is that I went about researching amplifier first, then speakers second. Many audiophiles would maintain that this is counter-intuitive. Speakers primarily have the 1st-order influence in the sound signature of your system, I was told, and I'd save time by shopping speakers first, then electronics second. I know there's a great deal of common sense there. But for some reason, I intuitively knew that wasn't going to be the way for me: the lesson here, if there is one, is to listen to advices, but trust your instincts. True I would have saved some time by going speakers first, but there are a few advantages of going electronics first. First of all, the dealers have their rooms set up, usually, so that there aren't more than a few sets of speakers in the showroom, but many different kinds of amps. Such was the case with my first audition experience at Sound by Singer.
At Sound by Singer showroom, there were only 3 speakers: Devore 8, Audio Physic Spark, and Focal monitors - the expensive Berylium kind. But there were many amplifiers. The first speakers I heard, Audio Physic Spark, were deeply unimpressive, no offense. And I didn't like the way how the music sounded crunchy and sizzle-y on the Focals. Then I heard the Devore 8s image the live account of Stravinsky's "Rite" conducted by Gergiev with full blood & anima, and said holy crap. The point is: the speaker preference is relatively easy to form, at least in my opinion. In short order, I had only one pair of speakers to listen to in the room. But I had many amplifiers to listen to, as the showrooms usually have many more amplifiers in the room than speakers. I guess the sensible approach is the 2-pronged attack: have a general idea of the speakers you are interested in, but a CONCRETE sense of what you're looking for in electronics. Hence: research the amplifiers first. It worked for me.
At SBS, the first amplifier I heard was the Musical Fidelity A5. Not impressed. It delivered on the Stravinsky, especially the brass/percussion. But when I moved to a poorly recorded CD - Radiohead's "Amnesiac" - it made Thom Yorke's voice sound unbearable/unbelievable. I have my share of badly recorded discs, and I want to live with those, too, as well as the great ones. I also heard VTL IT-85, which was simply gorgeous on Thom Yorke's voice, as well as the Tallis Scholars' impeccable a cappella on their Requiem discs. Radu Lupu's Brahms sounded golden, the best that I've ever heard & had me at the brink of tears, it was so good. My first exposure to tubes. But it lacked the dynamism in the Stravinsky. Gorgeous mid-range, but what's that when the music calls for murder and blood and violence?
Then I heard the Pathos Classic MKIII. I simply fell in love with its sound, and although I didn't end up with it, I still believe it's simply one of the loveliest integrated amps out there. Great hybrid design that combines the best of tube & SS. Just a perfect way of balancing everything - power, dynamics, harmonics, lyricism. And the Pathos had this singing tone. Silky & velvety smooth on the Devore 8s and Super 8s.
So I had a reference to go by, "the standard." Pathos Classic MKIII matched with Devore Super 8s. You'll notice that my initial budget, by this point, has been fed to the paper shredder. Some people are more prudent. They watch their finances carefully, eat healthier... they will live longer & achieve success, most likely. I belong to the school of "fuckit." I probably won't live as long, and may turn out to be an underachiever for the duration of my life. But for now, I'm happier than a vast majority of people in this country because I listen to divine music, delivered to me in the way I prefer to hear it.
Other amps I considered seriously: Primare I30. A seriously great integrated, especially matched with Primare's CD31. If anyone's looking into one-company approach, he/she should look seriously into this combo. Very powerful, muscular, burnished sound. Musical. (The speakers were ProAc 152) Stopped me in my tracks. But still, I preferred the lyricism and impeccable balance of the Pathos/Devore combo, albeit by a small margin. On a given day, I'd probably prefer the Primare/ProAc, depending on the music I'm listening to.
Then I heard Plinius integrateds. I had an occasion to A-B-A-B the older 8150 to the newer 9100. I preferred the 8150 to the newer 9100, no contest, although the dealer seemed to think I was hearing weird. (But in an Audio Asylum post I found in the wee hours of the night, John Marks intimates almost as much, too, and I agree.) 8150 delivers the music to you holistically; in the Radiohead song "Pyramid Song," disparate elements of the song can break apart & not congeal in some amps - 9100 was one case - but come together through some amps: 8150 did this in spades. I played my audition CDs, over & over again. And deliberated. I was still in love with the Pathos sound, but here was an older amp, which was significantly cheaper, but delivered music to almost the same quality (Pathos had better clarity, still) and with more power and authority. I went back to listen to the Pathos. And after a week's deliberation, had my 1st audio purchase: Plinius 8150.
Speaker-wise, it was pretty easy, as I fell in love with the Devores. I also heard Vandersteens and was impressed by the 2ceIi Sigs. Just utterly natural & musical in presentation, surprisingly nimble & powerful at the same time. But I loved the small footprint of the Devores, and also how they imaged the music so naturally. But I didn't end up with them...
I went to In Living Stereo, actually, to see if I can listen to Harbeth speakers. I was told by Mike Nadler at SBS who told me they might have it (Mike is a GREAT guy, let me audition for like 3 hours.) It turned out that ILS didn't have Harbeths. I sneaked up on Steve Mishoe, who was setting up for another customer, but he was gracious enough to accommodate me in a short time: I was going to listen to Leben CS600. The speakers were, again, my favorite Devore Super 8s. When I put the Stravinsky disc in, I was expecting the typical "tube-y" sound: warm, dark, opulent in decay... but my expectations were upended. It did have tube's liquid fluidity to the sound. But the amp was also dynamic and powerful, had tremendous slam with Stravinsky's brutal percussion, trombone glissandos. I was pretty floored. The most impressive aspect of the amp was that it had this honesty: it made you follow the music you were listening to with a kind of fanaticism. And compared to the Pathos or VTL, or even to some of the other great SS amps, Leben sounded "neutral" to me. Nothing artificially colored to the music I was listening to. Just allowed music - disc after disc - to speak for itself, purely, on its own terms.
And Reader, I married it. The Leben's in my system now and I'm ecstatically listening to music everyday. One thing, though: I thought I detected a bit of over-brightness in the treble and didn't know whether it was the Leben or Devore 8s. At first I thought it was the Devores, and speculated that Leben didn't have synergy with Devore speakers. In fact, this was one of the reasons I started looking elsewhere for speakers to match with the Leben. (I ended up with Harbeth Super HL5, which are fantastic w/ both Leben & Plinius 8150.) It turns out that my speculation was wrong, and that it was not the Devores that added brightness to the sound. It was the stock Sovtek output tubes in the Leben. As soon as I replaced them with Winged C 6L6GC, and now EL34, the sound changed. The harsh brightness completely disappeared, and now, I realize that I haven't come close to tapping the Leben's potential. Lord save me if I perish in tube-rolling hell, but I will most likely try some NOS tubes later down the line.
I must admit that the Plinius 8150 has been languishing in shadow ever since the Leben came in the house. I am moving into a 2-bedroom in May and my original plan was to have the living room system anchored by the Plinius and the dedicated listening room/study system by the Leben. If I stick with the plan, budget permitting, I'd like to go for the Super 8s. (If the budget does not permit this, probably Magnepan MMG.) Another tantalizing proposition: Walter Swanbon of Fidelis AV, when he comes down to NYC, can bring the LFD Zero MKIII for me to listen to, and I can trade in the Plinius if I prefer the LFD. But since I'm trying to set up analog front end - an entire post in itself - I don't know anymore whether or not I should still go for the 2-system approach. A big part of me is convinced that I should just put all my efforts into building one great system, sell the Plinius toward funding for the turntable system.
Well: a long ramble. It's just an honest account of what transpired, how an innocent foray into Amazon's Consumer Electronics page turned into THIS. Oh, how life changes in 3 months! I didn't mention sources yet. I'm returning the Cambridge Audio 840C because of Playstation 1 SCPH-1001, which really belongs to another entry. As mentioned, am looking for a TT. Probably Nottingham 294/Ace Space 294 arm for its 12-inch tonearm, as I do mostly classical music.
I hope some newbies read my account of all this as a cautionary tale. As Stephen Mejias, by way of Alexo, mentions in his blog about our Analog/Drunkards tour, this quest for optimal delivery of music is a bottomless pit, but a happy one. Just make sure you're not burning up your kids' college fund to get your Lamm mono blocks. My initial budget, which was ~$700-$800 ballooned exponentially, but fortunately, I was in a position to absorb the blow. I'd like to say, though, you definitely don't have to spend as much to get gorgeous sound out of your system. I believe my way has been the blockhead's approach. I know so many other newbies who are AT LEAST as happy as me, but have spent more prudently, according to their expectations. I'd recommend that route rather than mine.
But as I'm writing this, 4 AM (I should be working on my thesis!), I'm listening to Michael Brecker's last CD through my Leben/Harbeth, and I gotta say, it has been worth it. I can't be happier about what I'm hearing, this moment. I know I'll live with this system for a long time. Maybe down the line, who knows, when I'm a corrupt & filthy corporate lawyer, I'll swap out the tubes in my Leben for Western Electric 350B or something, and maybe trade in my Harbeths for a newer incarnation down the line, if there's significant improvement. But I know I'll keep this system with me as long as I can: it's my first system ever. Even if I get a different system later in life, I'll still have this 1st system with me somewhere in the house or office, will never sell it. People develop strange, sentimental attachment to their cars. I've already started to develop that kind of unhealthy attachment with my 1st system.