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tensquared
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What should I upgrade first?

I'm getting into hifi, but being a kid (and thus having no money) I have to rely on times when I can convince my dad to buy stuff, and even then my budget is absolutely bargain-basement. The current setup I'm using is stuff I dug out of a closet, the following equipment:

Infinity SS 2001 loudspeakers (purchased in 1996)
Denon DRA-835R stereo receiver (purchased in 1992)
Technics SL-50 CD changer (purchased in 1992)

I don't often use the SL-50 as my main source is my computer, running Winamp 5.54 with standard MP3 source material (most of the stuff I listen to isn't available in lossless form, at least not in this country) through a Creative Xmod. All my interconnects are Monster Cable RCA-RCA, and my speaker cable is just plain copper wire.

So my question is this: With the lowest possible budget, maybe say 200-300$ US, what can I replace that'll make the biggest difference in sound? I've been looking at the KEF iQ1 speakers, but all the hifi stores in my area pretty much only stock B&W speakers, so I can't really audition anything. Would I even be able to get a better speaker than the SS 2001 for only 300$?

Also, regarding the receiver: it is technically a home theater A/V receiver (with an AM/FM tuner no less), but I've never listened to my speakers with a different amp so I can't tell...

EDIT: Oh, and if it helps, I listen mostly to techno, drum n bass, etc.

JasonVSerinus
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Hi. Your question is excellent. The bottom line answer: there is no single right answer.

My first hit: if I were upgrading speakers, I'd look at the speaker of the year list in the December Stereophile, and investigate things in your price range. To that I would add speakers on the recommended components list.

The problem, of course, is that mini-monitors usually lack low extension, and full range speakers at the $300 price range often distort like crazy or have bright-sounding treble. Add in that your usual source is mp3, which is brittle on top, limited in bass extension, flat and lacking life in the midrange, and devoid of music's full color, and you have a problem. Hence, if you choose to change speakers, you need to choose carefully.

My second hit: contact The Cable Company at 1-800-FATWYRE, and look for some used speaker cables in your price range that can get a whole lot more sound out of your components. Speak to a salesperson. The cables can transform the sound of your system by unlocking the full potential of your equipment.

My final hit: Take your time. Listen for awhile. Read reviews. And when you do test equipment, even though you primarily listen to mp3, test with both a well-recorded, uncompressed CD AND a lossless music file.

jason victor serinus

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

As far as speakers, the lack of available auditioning may make that too difficult. The combined effort of all 3 hifi stores in my area only manages 3 brands (B&W, Klipsch, and Boston, though we own some old Boston speakers and I didn't like them very much), and B&W speakers are awfully expensive.

Can cables really make that big of a difference in a system with all old budget equipment? And is it really worth spending $300 on? Should I go for interconnects (between xmod and amp) or speaker cables?

And I know this may not be the best place to ask, but would a sound card upgrade be helpful? I've been looking pretty strongly at the E-MU 1212M since it comes with oh-so-nice Cubase LE and WaveLab LE and has 24/192 resolution.

I would upgrade my source material to lossless if I could. But tracking down copies of the albums all this music came from could take weeks and cost easily over a thousand dollars.

mrlowry
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

The Denon and the Infinity are probably equally good, though without listening to them that's really an educated guess on my part. So I guess you could start with either component. B&W speakers are wonderful does the B&W dealer also carry Rotel electronics? Those are good matches for each other. Good cables certainly make a difference too. But it's more on the level of "seasoning" in a gourmet dish as apposed to "ingredient."

High end audio is all about PRESERVING the signal as close to the original signal as possible. IF you start with MP3s you've lost before you have even started. Translating a CD to an MP3 does far MORE damage than YOUR current system. At the moment your source material is the weak link.

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Well I have a few that are still in AAC from being ripped, but other than that it's all MP3. Know where I can download lossless music files by any chance?

Glotz
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Re: What should I upgrade first?


Quote:
I'm getting into hifi, but being a kid (and thus having no money) I have to rely on times when I can convince my dad to buy stuff, and even then my budget is absolutely bargain-basement. The current setup I'm using is stuff I dug out of a closet, the following equipment:

Infinity SS 2001 loudspeakers (purchased in 1996)

Denon DRA-835R stereo receiver (purchased in 1992)
Technics SL-50 CD changer (purchased in 1992)

I don't often use the SL-50 as my main source is my computer, running Winamp 5.54 with standard MP3 source material (most of the stuff I listen to isn't available in lossless form, at least not in this country) through a Creative Xmod. All my interconnects are Monster Cable RCA-RCA, and my speaker cable is just plain copper wire.

So my question is this: With the lowest possible budget, maybe say 200-300$ US, what can I replace that'll make the biggest difference in sound? I've been looking at the KEF iQ1 speakers, but all the hifi stores in my area pretty much only stock B&W speakers, so I can't really audition anything. Would I even be able to get a better speaker than the SS 2001 for only 300$?

Also, regarding the receiver: it is technically a home theater A/V receiver (with an AM/FM tuner no less), but I've never listened to my speakers with a different amp so I can't tell...

EDIT: Oh, and if it helps, I listen mostly to techno, drum n bass, etc.

My recommendation is PSB Alphas, as they are some of the most ubiquitously reviewed speakers out there, and the price is right under the ceiling of your request. To be sure, the speakers are very upfront in the treble, with a very ball-sy bass for a mini-monitor. They have been consistently well-reviewed for over a decade, see many upgrades, and can handle power with aplomb! I think what you'll find with B&W is that they are too darkish (even series 3 and the newst 6 series models) for techno and rock material. You just won't be impressed in the inital phase of listening, and to be honest, if dance music is important, you will probably never warm up to them, in terms of the dynamics, bass and power handling you are accustomed to. I like Infinity as well, for entry level goodness, but realize the playing field is pretty fairly level at this price point these days.

mrlowry
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Unfortunately, the best way to get lossless music is still to buy the CD. There are a couple of sites that sell downloads that are CD resolution, but the selection is a bit limited, musicgiants.com comes to mind.

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

No I'm prepared to pay for my music, but it's a lot cheaper and easier to download it than buy the CD. The only site that apparently would let you download FLAC/AAC was AllOfMP3.com, which isn't shut down but they don't appear to be selling music anymore, now it's just a blog with all the news concerning them having been sued by Sony BMG and having the suit dropped.

Yeah, looking into it, I would essentially be paying 12 dollars/song for at least half my songs since I'd have to buy the album for just one song. A lot of the CDs would come from either Europe or Japan also.

Jan Vigne
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Re: What should I upgrade first?


Quote:
The current setup I'm using is stuff I dug out of a closet, the following equipment:
Infinity SS 2001 loudspeakers (purchased in 1996)
Denon DRA-835R stereo receiver (purchased in 1992)
Technics SL-50 CD changer (purchased in 1992)

I'd say your sources are the weakest point in the chain. Both a CD changer from the early '90's and MP3's leave a lot to be desired in the way of fidelity.

Then the Denon is the second weakest link. Try something like a budget NAD integrated or catch a pre owned Rotel on sale somewhere. Which you prefer, the NAD or the Rotel, would be a matter of taste, I would think the NAD is more like your present Denon in overall character than would be the Rotel which should be noticeably sharper and more emphatic in the upper regions than either the NAD or Denon.

However, if you want the "biggest difference", buy new speakers. Speakers are always "different" from each other. The same speaker in a different location within the same room can be surprisingly "different". Place your present speakers in the center of the room and then against the wall in the corners to hear just how much the location can change the sound of any speaker.

Therefore, if you want a "difference" rather than an improvement, buy different speakers.

Now, if you feel you have reached a point of sophistication in your listening where you are capable of hearing "improvements" and not just "differences", I would suggest making new speakers the last of your purchases. Ideally or unfortunately, depending on how you look at the issue, high quality speakers can do little except hold a lens to the rest of the system's quality. The saying goes "garbage in = garbage out".

Finally, I would suggest you begin to familiarize yourself with the sound of live music. This is the reference from which you work when making upgrades to your system. Whether you prefer the Rotel or the NAD should depend on what you hear in live music, not the idea the Rotel is "brighter" than the NAD or the NAD is "warmer" than the Rotel. These terms should have some meaning to you in relation to live muisc and not just to audio components. Making an informed decision is not about asking other people's opinion of certain products, it's about developing your own opinions so you may compare what you hear to what we claim to hear. At your age you have plenty of time to buy better components, don't hop on the upgrade treadmill. Learn what music sounds like in a live setting and apply that knowledge wisely as your budget grows.

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

PSB Alpha 1: 279$.
NAD C-325 : 299$
CDs to replace your MP3 collection: 693$.
Enjoying your music: priceless.

That price is almost all of my music collection. A few slip through the cracks, but nothing too major. I checked musicgiants.com and they have downloads, but only for a few songs.

Sigh.

JasonVSerinus
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

If you go into the Stereophile archives and search on lossless downloads, you'll find articles by me and Wes on a number of sites.

I second Jan's suggestion about familiarizing yourself with live music.

The answer to the cable question is simple. Try some other cables and listen. That's why I offered a specific resource that maintains a database which may include information on which cables work best with your specific model components.

It is certainly true that if your older model CD player is harsh, bright, and "digital-sounding," better cables will only enable you to better hear its flaws. If, on the other hand, you've got decent-sounding components, the right cables will enable you to hear more of their positive attributes.

I certainly want to second Jan's suggestion that you spend time listening to live unamplified music. Even if you mainly listen to amplified rock or hip hop, understanding how acoustic instruments sound in a live acoustic gives you a reference point.

Here's the great thing. You don't have to do this overnight. You've got download sites to explore, live music to explore, and various components and cables to check out. Have fun with it. Make it a present for yourself. Comparing the sound of various pieces of equipment and cables, and then always checking back to the live reference, is how I started out in this field.

jason victor serinus

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Re: What should I upgrade first?


Quote:
Hi. Your question is excellent. The bottom line answer: there is no single right answer.

My first hit: if I were upgrading speakers, I'd look at the speaker of the year list in the December Stereophile, and investigate things in your price range. To that I would add speakers on the recommended components list.

The problem, of course, is that mini-monitors usually lack low extension, and full range speakers at the $300 price range often distort like crazy or have bright-sounding treble. Add in that your usual source is mp3, which is brittle on top, limited in bass extension, flat and lacking life in the midrange, and devoid of music's full color, and you have a problem. Hence, if you choose to change speakers, you need to choose carefully.

My second hit: contact The Cable Company at 1-800-FATWYRE, and look for some used speaker cables in your price range that can get a whole lot more sound out of your components. Speak to a salesperson. The cables can transform the sound of your system by unlocking the full potential of your equipment.

My final hit: Take your time. Listen for awhile. Read reviews. And when you do test equipment, even though you primarily listen to mp3, test with both a well-recorded, uncompressed CD AND a lossless music file.

jason victor serinus

What about his 16 year old CD change, not a very good one to begin with? $300 would buy a lot of CD improvement.

Audio Advisor also has been running speaker sales of late. Something to check out.

Jan Vigne
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Re: What should I upgrade first?


Quote:
What about his 16 year old CD change, not a very good one to begin with? $300 would buy a lot of CD improvement.
Audio Advisor also has been running speaker sales of late. Something to check out.

What Jason and I have been saying is don't get in a rush to upgrade. That seems to be the mistake so many people make in this hobby. At fourteen years of age the op does not need new bad habits encouraged.

"Upgrade!"
"Upgrade to what?"
"Don't know. Upgrade!"
"What are you looking to improve?"
"Don't know, if I upgrade I'll find out."
"You'll find what?"
"I'll find something better."
"What will be better?"
"Don't know, if I upgrade I'll find out."
"Why don't you learn about what you need to improve and then find the components that will accomplish that before you just spend money?"

"Upgrade!"

This is a 14 year old we're talking to. Fourteen is not a kid but 14 is acting like a kid if his only desire is to "Upgrade". Fourteen is the time to learn and to form your own opinions. Fourteen is old enough to understand how to make wise and informed decisions and it is too old to simply want to spend money for the sake of having something new. We don't have any idea what the op hears or what he listens for. But we give suggestions for how to spend money.


Quote:
Oh, and if it helps, I listen mostly to techno, drum n bass, etc.

I don't want to be a broken record here, but for this music, I would actually suggest a subwoofer. But that doesn't serve the question very well. Just suggesting yet another way to spend money without thought isn't serving anyone well.

I feel strongly that at age fourteen, the op should not hop on the upgrade treadmill with its never ending course. He should have some education in music and audio before spending money willy nilly on components. He has a system that works, now he needs to learn what its strong suit is and how it fails. You can only do that wisely IMO by learning about what he is trying to reproduce.

I can hear the cries out there.

"Upgrade."

If his father is interested in music and audio, this is the chance to learn what his father already knows and then take that knowledge to form his own opinions. He could ask his father what music he likes and then ask to be taken to a few concerts his father would appreciate, where his father could explain how the performers approach their job or the history of the music his father listens to compared to what he prefers.

This is not IMO just about spending money. Not that he has the money to spend, I assume this is as much a Xmas wish list as anything and he was hoping for a single answer to give to his parents. As always when such opinions are requested, there is no single answer to which component to replace. Therefore, my suggestion is replace a lack of knowledge with a font of information. Go to the source - not the CD player source but the source of the real thing he -you - we all are trying to reproduce with some degree of fidelity. We seem to have lost that word "fidelity" in this hobby. Too bad for it has been replaced with "Upgrade".

Possibly, if a fourteen year old doesn't want a season subscription to the local symphony, he could ask for a year's subscription to Stereophile. Knowledge, IMO, the best gift to give here. The sense that "Upgrade" is the way to go is not.

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Thing is, I hardly ever use my CD player anyway. Typically I rip music to lossless FLAC and listen through my computer. I've been thinking of a new sound card also to replace my old Xmod. I heard quite many good things about the M-Audio Audiophile 2496 on Head-Fi, and it weighs in at a fantastically low 99$.

I found a place that stocks KEF speakers near me (rather interestingly it's a home appliance store), so I'm gonna check them out and see how they sound. The price certainly is right, particularly with the 200$ iQ1 and the 400$ iQ5.

Source material wise, places like MusicGiants really only have a few songs that I would want, to the point that I'd ultimately be better off buying CDs. 12 CDs from Amazon is 200$, coming from 6 countries, including the U.S.

Just saw above post. I'm 16.

Also I'm a bit more well-informed than I may have indicated. I'm an amateur classical musician and have seen quite my fair share of live performed music, acts ranging from a Kraftwerk cover to Scheherazade performed by the St. Louis Symphony. I've thoroughly combed Stereophile's online review archive, particularly the 'budget components' section since I generally get more satisfaction from dreaming about things I will someday perhaps be able to afford.

And really, thank you all for being so kind and patient. You're all being incredibly helpful.

Jan Vigne
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Sorry for the mistake. Tell me, since you have a sense of what live music sounds like, what is it in your opinion that is missing from your present system? What qualities are good and which are less than ideal? Where do you think you will stand to gain the most?

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

I just happened to remember something I read about the AKG 240S headphones, which actually is a pretty accurate statement about how I feel about my system.

"It's not hi-fi by any means. The bass is big, boomy, and not particularly well-extended. The highs are somewhat recessed and don't convey a whole lot of detail. The sound is akin to a fat black woman shaking her booty on the dance floor. Not a lot of refinement...

But she sure knows how to have a good time. "

My system is really a lot of fun to listen to. The sound is lively and exciting. But it feels like a lot of inner detail is lost, even when playing through CDs. Like on Schubert's "An Die Musik": the voice sounds natural and airy, but the chords sort of mush together to form something that sounds by no means bad, but certainly could sound a lot better.

On Pendulum's "Masochist" however, this flaw is practically unnoticeable since most of the perceived "detail" is just high frequency quickness. But both tracks suffered from a very cramped feel. Particularly on Masochist and other tracks from Jungle Sound Gold; it just feels very unreal, like the DJ put in a copy of the album and let it play instead of the mix actually being performed.

Poor Audiophile
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

First off welcome!
As you can see you'll get lots of good advise here!
I don't know much about downloading, but if you end up listening to CDs more, try high quality labels like Reference Recordings, Chesky, Yarlung & even Stereophile's own recordings. Happy listening!!

JIMV
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

If your sound card has a digital out,perhaps a stand alone DAC might make a bigger difference. There are at least a few under $300 and all would be better than the DAC on most sound cards.

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

It doesn't. It has a mini-USB, 1 3.5mm line out, 1 3.5mm line in, and 1 3.5mm headphone. Kind of a piece of junk.

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Re: What should I upgrade first?

First off, welcome. It's good to see another musician/audiophile here.

Now that the thread has come a long ways, I'd say that you should focus on your soundcard or an external DAC. There's some good information here about alternatives, but at www.head-fi.org they are way more players into budget DACs, etc. Getting the DAC right is a key, "next step" IMHO.

BTW, when you rip do you use error correction? If not, you must start doing that. Your crappy CDP is going to produce tons of errors, but if you take the extra time to correct them you'll be rewarded with better sound. You're building an archive that you'll use for decades, so make sure that the transfers are the best possible.

Dave

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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Yes I use error correction. FLAC Level 0.

A DAC+soundcard combo is awfully expensive, and I would only buy a soundcard for standalone use due to my computer geek viewpoint (USB has a bandwidth choke and way slower bus clock than PCI plus a USB will need extra drivers to run which will always be consuming memory).

I've been a Head-Fi member for a few months. The people there are definitely more budget-minded, but so far everyone here has been far more helpful.

dcstep
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Many here are "computer geeks" but that can limit your audio quality unless you get the right cards, sufficient memory and good DAC to maximize sound quality. Generally, most here agree, developing your source to the highest degree pratical within your budget is the best track to a highly involving system.

I'd save up for a while, rather than making a lesser immediate purchase. Resolve this issue and you'll be set to make incremental improvements over the long term.

Dave

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Gah, so overwhelming! If only these systems could have fewer components.

I think I like the sound signature of the Infinity's, but I've never really seriously listened to any other brand since it's the only brand we have...I guess I'll see how the audition with the KEF's goes assuming their website is telling the truth and they really do exist somewhere near me.

So I guess the big thing to start with is getting the right source material, all those CDs. Also looking into a better sound card since the Xmod is really designed for people who are used to MP3-->iPod-->iBud type audio quality.

Jan Vigne
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Re: What should I upgrade first?


Quote:
Not a lot of refinement ... But she sure knows how to have a good time."

For many of us listening through a system that knows how to have a good time is quite important. Far too many audiophiles go through a phase, which some never leave, where their systems have inner detail, air and soundstage depth but the music itself is not interesting, rather like staring at some one who is afraid to dance sitting down.

You might just be finding the problems inherent in modern recordings, some engineers get their hands in there with a bright idea of how to fix things up. However, colorations in the system make response unpredictable and when specific abberations occur across a wide range of styles of music, each recording is affected in ways that reflect the system and not the recordings.

So, is the problem one that tends to move from recording to recording or is it one that moves from source to source? In other words, does one source - CD, computer, or tuner - display more issues than another?

How are your speakers set up? If I understand correctly, these are two way floorstanders with a 5" woofer?


Quote:
First off, I'm thankful for my Infinity Sterling SS-2001 bookshelf speakers. These puppies were last new in 1996, but they can still belt out sound like no 5.25 inch woofer loudspeakers I've ever heard. Bowers-Wilkins doesn't hold a candle. http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-10101708-1.html

Are these something your father had been using?

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Hey look at that, you found my post on Cnet. I certainly am thankful for them considering the unreal improvement they are over my Harman/Kardon SoundSticks II.

Yeah, I dug these out of my dad's closet. They're 5.25" woofer bookshelf speakers.

Some tracks have more problems than others, though this is usually because of filetype differences. There are some changes between tracks, but the big difference is between CDs and my computer. I seem to lose an awful lot, even with totally lossless audio. Bottom end gets rolled off, detail gets lost especially in the midbass, things like that. My guess would be that it's the Xmod.

Jan Vigne
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Then that would seem to be the area that needs the first improvement. Have I missed what you propose might do the trick?

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

If by that you mean "what product are you looking at" the answer is most likely the ESI Juli@. I love that you can switch between balanced and unbalanced configuration, and I especially love that it comes with Tracktion for free. FREE. It gets quite a buzz around Head-Fi as a solid upgrade from things like the EMU 0404 and the M-Audio 2496.

dcstep
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

I wouldn't worry too much about balanced vs. unbalanced at this point of your system development, but tht ESI does look like a decent ADC/DAC, given the specs. I'm sure that you've looked into the reviews. That should allow you to retrieve your files with much less distortion.

Let us know how it works out.

Dave

Jan Vigne
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Re: What should I upgrade first?


Quote:
and I especially love that it comes with Tracktion for free. FREE.

When I was your age I spent a lot more money than that trying to get traction. New gas shocks, new springs, new tires ... somehow I don't think we're talking about the same thing.

I got no clue what "Traktion" is.

I wouldn't worry about balanced and unbalanced. Your Denon don't know nothing 'bout no "balanced" connection, it only knows RCA's. If the balanced comes with the product, that's fine but just having balanced ins and outs is no guarantee of better performance and can actually end up degrading your quality if not done right.

Good luck and let us know how it turns out.

tensquared
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Tracktion is Mackie's audio/midi software. It's quite nice and costs a good bit more than free.

The balanced thing is just like a free bonus. From what I've read there's not much difference anyway, but it's nice to have.

The reviews I've seen for the Juli@ have been quite positive, the general consensus being that it's a solid performing card with a surprisingly neutral presentation.

Thank you guys so much for your help. Really, excellent customer service experience.

Jan Vigne
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Re: What should I upgrade first?

Don't forget to mention that to the management.

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