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Ignoramus_Maximus
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Truly Entry Level Questions

Hi All,

I decided a few weeks back to start investigating getting my first real (albeit entry level) stereo system, and the past few weeks have been a whole new world of terminology and equipment I never knew existed. I think I've got the basics down, but if you guys could help me with a few points, your knowledge can probably save me hours of additional internet searches.

Background: I'm in my mid-20s, so (and I know many of you will shake your heads at this) ALL my music is digital. The stuff I care about - mostly jazz and classical, but some other odds and ends ranging from prog rock to house - is either lossless (FLAC) or high quality mp3 (320 kbps) though, so hopefully that's one issue I can set aside for now. I'm not in a rush to build the system, so I'll probably be able to devote around $2000-$2500 to it. Before getting into specifics of brands, room size, etc., am I on the right track regarding what equipment I'll need?

-A DAC
-An amplifier (this is the point I'm most confused on - what comes between DAC and speakers: amp? Receiver? If both are an option, what are the factors that will push me towards one over the other?)
-Speakers
-Sub-woofer (there seems to be a dearth of sub-woofer coverage out there...if your speakers are good enough, it seems to be assumed you'll be okay. Is this a really "necessary" part of the entry level system, or more a nice add-on if it doesn't break the budget?)
-Cables to connect all this stuff together

I'd be extremely grateful for any opinions, or even links to others' opinions. Be warned: I'm sure for every answer you give me I'll have another dumb question.

Many thanks,

Ignormaus

U6astik
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Receiver or Amp

Receiver is needed when you are building an Audio-Video system.

If you want to dedicate your new system to audio only, you need an amp.

Whether to buy a sub or not depends on two things:

  • How deep you want to go Down (in Hz)
  • Quality

If you need bass, but don't care about low-frequency quality (the more bass, the better) - buy sub.

If you don't care about low-frequencies  - don't buy sub. (Stereo speakers that are going down to 60 Hz at -3dB will fit fine for you)

If you care both about low-frequencies and quality - buy stereo floorstanding speakers (PSB Synchrony One eg. k$ 3,5)

IMHO

Cheers

Slee ZZ
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Welcome, Ignoramus

Having been in your shoes not too long ago, here's are some definitions and my advice:

Definitions:

1. A pre-amp generally controls the volume and the switching between your inputs (between CD player, turntable, and computer/DAC for example).  From a slightly more technical standpoint, it voltage gain.

2. A power amp simply provides the actual amplification, or current gain.  It makes the signal strong enough to make your speakers vibrate, basically.

3. An integrated amp is both a pre-amp and a power amp in one box.  Personally, I am a big fan of integrated amps, as I believe they tend to provide more bang for the buck.  You don't have to buy interconnects, and the material costs involved in manufacturing are lower since it's just one box instead of two.  Others will argue, and perhaps rightfully so, that separate pre-amps and power amps are better because each function and power source is isolated from the other; hence, separates allegedly provide better sound.  (That may or may not be true, but it definitely adds cost.)  Also, separate pre-amps and power amps give you more flexibility in experimenting with sounds as you move up into higher end stuff.  That definitely is true, but I still prefer integrateds.

4. A receiver is an integrated amp that also receives and processes FM and AM radio transmissions.

5. If you want surround sound, then you have to get an integrated amp or receiver that can do that.  I'm making a big stereotype here, but a lot of those amps or receivers that do that do so at the expense of good two-channel sound.  You can get very good "movie" sound from a plain-old, two-channel system, but that's a personal choice you have to make.  I am not an expert on video sound, so you'll have to ask someone else about that.

6. Put very simply, a DAC is a glorified sound card.  All computers, iPods, CD players, or anything else that turns 1s and 0s into sound have one, but it's probably a piece of crap.  A good outboard DAC will sound significantly better than the one in your computer or iPod.

So, in short, you'll need an amp and speakers and cables, obviously.  Then I would worry about a DAC.  A subwoofer would be last on your list.

I'm happy to provide recommendations, too, as I'm sure others are.

--Slee ZZ

Slee ZZ
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A few other things...

Forgot to answer a few things.

1. Yes, the amp/receiver goes in between your DAC and your speakers.  A typical set up would be: Computer outputs via USB or optical to DAC, which then goes into the pre-amp via RCA cables, which then goes into the power amp via RCA cables, which then has speaker wires attached to it going into the speakers.  There are a few different cabling methods, but that's a typical one.  And, of course, if you have an integrated amp, you won't have the pre-amp to power amp part.

2. Again, you won't HAVE to have a DAC because your computer already has one.  I don't have one myself, but only because I've had to save up.  They do make a sizeable difference, and I'm about ready to pull the trigger.

3. You didn't mention vinyl, but if you decide to get into records, you'll also need a phono stage.  Some pre-maps and integrateds have them built in; others don't, so you'd then have to get a phono stage.  It's kind of like a DAC for analog systems.

4. I may ruffle some feathers here, but don't sweat the all-digital deal: Gun to my head, I'd pick digital over vinyl.  I dig vinyl for several reasons and will never get rid of it, but I also listen to lots of digital.  Yes, the sounds are different, and, on average, audiophiles prefer vinyl.  But I've A/Bed about a dozen albums that I own in both formats, and can say without hesitation that I prefer the digital version on at least as many records as I do vinyl.  And, in my system, my vinyl path (Rega p3-24, Dynavector 10x5 cartridge, Rega Mira-3 amp) is considered much stronger than my digital path (AIFF files in iTunes on my iMac streamed into an Aiport Express into the Rega amp via the AE's analog out--notice no outboard DAC).  A lot of high-resolution (greater resolution than CD) files sound amazing!  And they'll sound even better once I get a DAC and use either the optical output of the AE or the USB off my iMac.

commsysman
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SYSTEM

A good set of floorstanding speakers that are rated to go down to 40 Hz or below will give most people the bass they want. If you want really really low bass, such as pipe organ pedal notes or lowest tuba or the booms of the biggest kettledrums, that takes a subwoofer (or a huge ultra-expensive speaker system).

The AVS forums have a dedicated subwoofer discussion group where you can get lots of info and answers, The thing you have to remember there, however, is that 90% of the people are into home theater, NOT high-fidelity systems. Music and movies are two different areas. Most of them have cheapass home theater receivers which sound like crap to experienced ears, and speakers that are very cheap and not very good; but they want those big booms when the spaceship blasts thru the room.

Almost none of the multichannel home theater recivers are anything but crap IMO, even some very expensive ones; they are all full of gee-whiz feaures but terrible sound quality and badly underpowered.

As a good system for a beginner, with the kind of budget you seem to be looking at, i will recommend an amplifier and speakers that are not only excellent, but real bargains.

The speakers are the PSB Image T6 speakers, which were reviewed in Stereophile a while back. They run $1300 per pair, and IMO they can't be touched for under $2000. They are remarkably good; most people will never want to spend $3000 or more to get better ones. They go down below 40 Hz; good bass. I suggest that you read the Stereophile review.

The amplifier is the Music Hall A15.2, which is the best amplifier I know of for under $1000, and it only costs $499 from Music Direct online. There is simply nothing at anywhere near its price that compares. It has 70W per channel, excellent sound quality, and even has a built-in phono stage if you ever want a turntable.

I would strongly recommend those two things as a place to start a good system.

I had the Image T6 speakers for 2 years, and was very happy with them until something a bit more expensive grabbed me...lol.

For a DAC and/or CD player, I suggest that you look at Cambridge Audio's products; good stuff at fair prices.

Some of that stuff can be found on the Audio Advisor website, and they give you a 30-day return privilege on most products.

P.S.-The only really stupid question is one you already know the answer to...

 

Speakers -Sub-woofer (there seems to be a dearth of sub-woofer coverage out there...if your speakers are good enough, it seems to be assumed you'll be okay. Is this a really "necessary" part of the entry level system, or more a nice add-on if it doesn't break the budget?) -Cables to connect all this stuff together I'd be extremely grateful for any opinions, or even links to others' opinions. Be warned: I'm sure for every answer you give me I'll have another dumb question. Many thanks, Ignormaus[/quote]

Ignoramus_Maximus
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Thanks and Follow-Up

Thanks for all the information guys - very helpful.  A few follow-ons, in no particular order.

This system is going to be audio only - I'm not going the path of video/home theater.  Are U6astik/commsysman saying that I don't need a receiver if I'm going this route, i.e. I should go the pre-amp & amp route?  Do people have strong feelings on this?

Reading between the lines, it seems like a decent pair of floorstanding speakers...maybe eliminates is too stron a word, but raises the threshold for needing a subwoofer.  I had looked at the review of the NHT Absolute Tower speakers and got this same feeling. (The PSB Image also look intriguing - thanks for the tipcommsysman.) What are the advantages of floorstanding speakers vs. bookshelf paired with amp?

An aside regarding the DAC: about the only thing I'm sure of buying at this point is the AudioQuest DragonFly...I had actually been checking out for a week or so before it appeared on the cover of the October issue of Stereophile, so that put me over the top.

Also, thanks for the vinyl advice - not a route I"m planning on exploring until I can get what I already have playing on a hi-fi system, but it's good to have in my back pocket.

U6astik
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I should go the pre-amp & amp route?

If you can afford preamp and power amp (or even two monoblock amps) - that's great. Go for it.

If you can't - buy an integrated amp (Slee ZZ  has said a lot about the difference between pre+power system and integrated amp)

Bookshelf speakers usually lack bass significantly. For me it's their main disadvantage. If you don't mind - that's OK.

Indeed, if you can afford the PSB Image T6 (1,3 k$) it's perfect. I don't think that you are going to find something better that this for a lower price.

Slee ZZ
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Recommendation

With your budget and needs, I'd suggest going with a Peachtree iNova and some Magnepan MMGs (they are dealer-direct at $600 per pair, plus you can return them after 30 days if you don't like them).  The iNova is an integrated amp with a built-in DAC and a headphone output for $1800.  It sounds wonderful, looks great, and should be enough power to drive the MMGs--or even the MG12s ($1200 per pair) if you want to step up the Magnepan line.

The PSB Images are nice, but, in my opinion, nothing beats Magnepans in their price range.  Their one drawback is that they are a bit lacking in robust bass (even though the bass they do have is tight, clean, and super-fast).  However, they are spectacular on most classical and jazz recordings.  (Rock 'n' roll and rap are where they are generally weakest, though still very good.)  The bass issues can be ameliorated with a good subwoofer later if it becomes bothersome.

I have a pair of Magnepan 1.7s ($2,000 per pair), and I have not heard better speakers this side of $10,000.  MG12s are not far behind, and the MMGs are comparable with your average $1,500 speakers.  Obviously, I'm a huge fan of their stuff, but you've got to listen to them yourself.

bierfeldt
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Integrated vs. preamp/amp

I personally like a preamp and amp better than an integrated.  I like the flexibility that it offers.  For instance, if you want to upgrade to monoblocks, add a second amp or simply get a more powerful amp, you have a lot of flexibility.  With an integrated, if it doesn't have preamp outs, you are SOL.  That being said, there are some great sounding integrated amps out there. 

You don't have a lot of choice, but you can get a  good preamp and amp in a price range that will fit in a sub $2500 budget and still have money for a DAC and speakers.  The least expensive set I know of is from Parasound  and is the Zpre2 and ZAMP 3 but is only 45w per channel.  To get a little more power, Emotiva has a 120w set at $950 and Parasound Classic line which will give you 75w of power for $1200.  

I agree with the guys above, the PSB Image T6's are an extraordinary deal at $1300.  I might also look at the KEF Q900's.  They list at $1800 but you ought to be able to get them for less. 

From a combo perspective, you could get the Emotiva XPA 200 which is a 120w amp at $499, thes P-1 pre-amp and $449, the Dragonfly at $250 and the PSB Image T6's for $1300.  That would give you one hell of a sytem for $2500.

Alternatively, if you liked the KEF's better, you cound get the KEF Q900's for $1800, the Dragonfly for $250 and the Music Hall Intergrated for $499 and at $2550, also one hell of a system,  A little less power than you would get from the Emotiva, but maybe a little nicer set of speakers with the KEF's. 

Good luck and enjoy demo'ing the equipment.  Also, like the Magenpanar (which are a fantastic value as well), Emotiva has a 30 day return policy.   

jackfish
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I'm partial to Emotiva and Magnepan, see my equipment list

at the end of the post. I expect the Emotiva USP-1 preamp to go into closeout when the new XSP-1 preamp is released October 1st. Could go as low as $349 delivered; a great piece even at the current $449. The $499 delivered Emotiva XPA-200 with 240 wpc into 4 Ohms should be more than enough power for $599/pair Magnepan MMGs loudspeakers. If your room is on the large size you could step up to the Emotiva XPA-2 at $799 delivered. Add an Epik Legend subwoofer for $499 (free shipping to my location, might be to yours too) to take you down into the next lower octave where the MMGs leave off. It would be hard to touch this system with other components for twice the price.

$2,300 ($2,600 w/XPA-2), including the very nice Audioquest Dragonfly, leaves $200 to tie it all together with quality cables and other accessories.

http://shop.emotiva.com/collections/processors/products/usp1

http://shop.emotiva.com/collections/amplifiers/products/xpa200

http://shop.emotiva.com/collections/amplifiers/products/xpa2

http://www.magnepan.com/model_MMG

http://www.epiksubwoofers.com/legend.html

http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/preamplifiers/preamplifiers-reviews/emotiva-usp-1-stereo-preamplifier.html

http://www.tonepublications.com/review/the-emotiva-usp-1-preamplifier-and-upa-1-amplifiers/

http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/power-amplifiers/power-amplifiers-reviews/a-secrets-power-amplifier-review89.html

http://hometheaterreview.com/magnepan-mmg-floor-standing-speakers-reviewed/

http://www.soundadviceblog.com/reviews/review-magnepan-mmg-speakers/

http://www.audiovideo2day.eu/en/article/8042/Epik-Legend-Subwoofer-review

 

My system:

13.3" MacBook Air, 4GB RAM, 256GB SSD, iTunes/BitPerfect
MacBook Air SuperDrive
Western Digital My Book Essential 2TB USB HD
Schiit Bifrost USB DAC
Emotiva USP-1, ERC-1 and two UPA-1s
Pro-Ject Xpression III and AT440MLa
AKAI AT-2600 and Harman Kardon TD4400
Grado SR80i
Magnepan MMG Magnestands
Rythmik Audio F12

Blue Jeans Cable LC-1 RCA and subwoofer cables

Dayton Audio SCP-6 speaker cables

DH Labs Silversonic USB cable

mrvco
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Subs are overrated for

Subs are overrated for 2-channel music (particularily entry-level subs designed for home theater use).  Considering that you're putting together your first well-balanced 2-channel rig and developing your ear, any sub money would be better applied to your speaker budget.

Having owned seperates (pre-amp + amp) in the past, I've become a big fan of the simplicty of a quality integrated amp.  You can always hedge your bets by getting an integrated amp with a pre-amp output (for adding an external amp).  Some integrateds also include a power-amp input (sometimes called a home theater by-pass) which lets you use an external pre-amp (using just the power amp section of the integrated).

And don't get suckered into spending a bunch of money on interconnects and speaker wire out of the gate.  You'll be taking a big step up on the components and you can always A/B more expensive cables in the future (which will make, by any measure, a much more subtle difference, if any at all).

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