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cheuschober's picture
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Oct 12 2005 - 8:23pm
Foetal 'phile first-system confusion...

First off -- Hi! This site is simply amazing, thank you all so much for your wonderful input. So, here we go -- I'm poised with a meager student's budget to start building my first 'real' audio system... hurrah and huzzah. But, sadly, I'm very very confused about which components I need and which I don't... maybe a little advice would be in order?

I'm a New York City-dweller about to move into a new New York-sized apartment. Sad (I know), my listening room is 11' x 14' where the speakers are against the 14' wall, with multiple reflective surfaces and as an apartment volume levels will have to be kept on the lower end to keep from being kicked out (and to save my hearing for the next 50 years ;-))! The nature of the room is such that whatever speakers I purchase will essentially (if not directly) be forced into corners. Not, ideal, I realize but we work with what we have available.

Unfortunately, price is also a bit of a limiting factor (student). All in all I have roughly $2k to spend on speakers and non-source components, which is where my confusion begins. My source is a gigantic media server (htpc) I built a year or so ago with a terrabyte of wavPack lossless audio (ripped stringently by EAC from the original sources) and with a 24bit 96khz coax/toslink out. Where my confusion comes from is attempting to decide which components I need (in addition to speakers) to fulfill my needs -- DAC, amp, Master Clock, receiver, etc? As the story goes, it takes a decent source to get a decent sound out of good speakers so I'm pouring through various books and articles attempting to decide which components I need for the sound with the highest clarity (given my price range and low-volume / spatial concerns) and which ones are more or less unecessary to drive a low-volume high-clarity source. However, the more I read the more confused I seem to get.

There are receivers with digital in, receivers without, dac's, master clocks... do I need an amp if I already have a receiver for low-volume listening, etc?

Sonically, what I'm looking for is a similar (though not as great budget considering) experience to this: one of my audition recordings was recorded with a single studio mic and an instrumentalist with a cowbell is walking through the space as he strikes it -- on a friend's $20K+ system I can track the movement of the instrumentalist in almost perfect three dimensional space from left to right, up and down as he raises or lowers it, as well as the depth of where he's standing as compared to the microphone. I know I'll never get that close with such a shorter price bracket, it is that type of soundstaging (is that the right word for it?) that I am distinctly interested in.

Also, just to add more fuel to the fire, I'd -really- like a setup where (via the receiver, I imagine) I could pipe the same music that's playing in my listening room to my second favorite room in the house -- my kitchen. Now the kitchen does not need to be anything close to a sonic paradise and the audio can (and should) be the same signal in both cases -- I have some cheap 6" speakers lying around that I was just going to wall-mount in the corners, so, if I'm correct, that would be a receiver, thing, right? But does that mean I need to get a 4.1 capable receiver or is there such a thing a dual stereo? Oh, and (not priority -- I watch 1 a month and listen to music multiple times daily) in the few instances I watch a dvd in the listening room (the one that also has the tv) should I downmix to stereo at the media server level or at the receiver?

Thank you all so much for your attention and assistance in educating the foetal 'philes like me! It's really appreciated.


mmadowitz's picture
Last seen: Never ago
Joined: Oct 11 2005 - 3:43pm
Re: Foetal 'phile first-system confusion...

First off, as a student in a similar postion, I can offer one piece of crucial advice: you need to make sure you don't go back to grad school. It's really killing my system.

Basics here, as I'm sure there are lots of people more qualified than me to address some of the issues you raise. There are a few tradeoffs you are going to have to make given the budget, but these may work given your listening space. If you're comfortable doing it, I'd recommend sacrificing some bass to get better sound--it's always a challenge convincing the 20-something crowd that your system is worth the price if things don't fall off bookcases, so it's not an easy tradeoff to make but the benefits can be huge. If you're willing to go for bookshelf speakers, you can really get some excellent imaging for a reasonable amount--it's also much easier to move which is a concern (the day I moved my magnepans into a 3rd floor walkup was tiring, and about as stressful as a pregnancy scare). If you really want to add bass, you can do a subwoofer later in the game, which isn't that bad of a call either, as musical subwoofers are becoming less rare, and less expensive with time.

Also keep in mind that you are probably going to be in a small room for a while, so having a 5 million watt amp isn't really that imporant (especially if it's driving bookshelves). As far as DACs go, there are a lot of options, at a lot of prices, and they do seem, to me at least, to get noticably better as you spend noticably more. You should listen to a lot of them, see what strikes you as the most musical and pleasing, and try to ignore stats, as this is where digital meets analog, as in analog that gets to your ears. The ears are the intended audience, so they make a good judge.

Specific recommendations:
I'm currently using B&W 601 S3s in my main system, I recommend giving them a listen, they won't blow you away, but they have pretty impressive imaging for the price (I think it's about $400), and offer enough bass that you can get away without a subwoofer with most recordings. I'd also look at the high end bookshelves from paradigm and PSB (closer to $1000), both sounded pretty buttery to me. If you want more bass, I had the last version of the psb image series floorstanders, and can confirm they have pretty decent range and are pretty musical--though less so than my current bookshelves, and much less so than really high end bookshelves. Imaging was kinda iffy--which probably had as much to do with placement as the speakers, but plenty of bass for music purposes. Placement is going to affect imaging a lot, so it's really worth your time to home demo what you can--if the imaging sounds $500 better at the dealer, but is indistinguishable at home, it's probably not the best use of your budget at the moment.

Solid state amps have been around for a long time, and you can get huge bang for the buck here. If you're going to scrimp at any phase, this is where I'd do it. You can pick up a good rotel or parasound 2-channel amp for $400, and your major limitations will be your sources and your neighbors. I had a 30 watt rotel integrated driving mangepans in a 25x14 room (not recommended) with pretty solid results for 6 months. So to summarize, a low power high current solid state amp should do a lot of good for your sound and budget.

So all you need now is a DAC (right? it sounds like you have pretty decent volume control on your source, so you can skip a preamp for now--if you need volume control, listen to the rotel integrateds, they start pretty cheap and don't sound it). Don't know what to tell you here, I'm still researching how best to do this on a budget. There seem to be a lot of used ones around that aren't that pricey, but you can't listen to them. I can confirm that a $4000 meridian sounds great, but that's probably as useful to you as it is to me.

Cables? Deal with that when you have some idea what you're spending on components. Spend more than $5, but in a $2k system, I'm not sure how best to budget for that.

Good luck, happy hunting, and again, sorry about the addiction.

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