Getting Real

If you: 1) live in an apartment, condo, townhouse, dorm, or share a house or apartment with someone;

2) are going to, have recently graduated from, or have never gone to college and are not working at all, are working a minimum-wage job, or have just gotten your first job but have loans, Visa/MasterCard/American Express bills, a brand-new car payment, and can't afford to eat anything but macaroni and cheese anyway;

3) love music and want to get into hi-fi but can't imagine spending $9000 on a pair of speakers, $2750 on a preamplifier, $7950 for a pair of monoblock power amps, $7900 for a CD transport, and/or $14,000 on a CD processor because you don't even know what a CD processor is, don't even make $9000 a year, can't tell the difference between the Yorx stereo system your dad bought for you when you were in junior high and the ProAc Response Whatevers you saw in the local hi-fi store last weekend when you and your friends decided to see if anyone at Stereophile knows what they're talking about in the first place; or

4) want your music to sound "good," whatever that means, because ever since you started reading Stereophile, you've gotten your priorities all confused and/or challenged, and you didn't even know you had priorities—then you just might be living in the Real World.

And if you're living in the Real World, you just might be interested in joining me as I venture into the nether regions of HiFiLand, into the EW/NS latequator region known as the "Affordable Region": an area untouched by many, yet talked about behind closed doors and written about on bathroom walls.

We'll begin our journey by hopping on Virgin-System-Setup Airlines; then we'll fly over Ecstasy Sea, replan our itinerary, drive across flat, barren wastelands, and end up in three-dimensional mountains. I'll be your tour guide, taking you into and out of (maybe) the many trials and tribulations that one faces when trying to be hi-fi in a hostile Real World. We'll encounter many hardships and experience many joys, but we'll also have a lot of funnnnn, because that's what music is all about.

New toys
John Atkinson suggested I put together a $2000 "reference system" (that's what he called it) from components that had already been positively reviewed in Stereophile's pages. That way, both I and many of Stereophile's readers would already be familiar with the components, and I wouldn't have to worry about dealing with products of whose value I or the reader was unsure. This would be the system to which I would compare all future components.

I could hardly wait for UPS to deliver the goods. It nearly drove me nuts when my NAD 304 amplifier ($379), then my Rotel RCD-965BX CD player ($600), arrived, and I had to wait three more weeks for my NHT SuperZero/SW2/MA-1 sub/satellite/amplifier system ($930) to come! So until it arrived, JA suggested I use the $173/pair RA Labs Black Gold Mini Reference speakers we had in-house. Okay, I thought, but I sure hope I don't get stuck with them as my reference speakers—see, because bass is reeeeeeal important to me, and I was reeeeeeally looking forward to that NHT sub.

JA scrounged up a pair of Arcici Rigid Riser stands and some AudioQuest F-18 and Kimber 4PR speaker cables and loaded up his Mercedes. Gathering up Steve Stoner (not Stone—like Gordon Holt, he lives up in Colorado), he jaunted along to my third-floor apartment to help me give my neighbors a reason to hate me. I like my music loud, and most people find much of the music I listen to obnoxious at any level.

JA set up the speakers for me: equidistant from the corners at the long end of my living room. He and SSer did most of the setting up; I drank a beer, told them where I wanted the furniture located (footnote 1), and asked a couple questions, like, "Why do you want the speakers the same distance from the walls?" (footnote 2). JA also pulled the speakers out from the rear wall, where I would have instinctively put them, muttering under his breath about "free space" and "smoother bass." Apparently while speakers give the most bass against a wall or in a corner, a speaker gives its most musically natural low-frequency balance when arranged to be unequal distances from the three nearest boundaries (two walls, one floor). In any case, JA left me with instructions to experiment with placement: "Placement, placement, and placement are the three most important things in speaker setup!"

After all was said and done, John and Stoner asked me to put something on my new $1200 reference system. I chose Metallica's "Enter Sandman" (Metallica, Elektra 61113-2), which is a very intense song—I can't listen to it any way but loud, even if I'm listening to a cassette on my cheap Panasonic portable. I cranked the bass knob on the amp all the way up and turned up the volume. JA and SSer looked at each other, then at me with amused fatherly faces.

I was impressed. The RA Labs even handled the bass on N2DEEP's "Back to the Hotel"—anyone familiar with rap knows that they like to go heavy on the bass, so I was quite surprised that the bass didn't bottom out on these 14" H by 8" W by 8" D speakers. They started to compress when pushed to loud volumes, but other than that, I enjoyed my time with the RA Labs. For $173/pair, I'd recommend them to any Real Worlder in a heartbeat.

Bigger, better toys
Then the NHTs arrived. Stoner and I took them to my apartment and ripped open the boxes. My heart began racing as I plunged into the sea of styrofoam packing popcorn, and as I pulled my first little SuperZero out of the depths, I began dancing around my living room to the sound of my own hearty "Whoooo-peeeee!!!" I felt like I was seven years old on Christmas Day and had just opened my 34th present after having eaten all the Christmas cookies we left for Santa the night before. I unpacked the other SuperZero, the SW2, and the MA-1 monaural amp for the SW2, popped the little 'Zeros on top of the RA Labs sitting on top of the Arcici stands, set the SW2 on the floor near the table where my CD player and amp were sitting, and pulled the speaker cables off the RA Labs and screwed them onto the 'Zeros (footnote 3). I was ready to rock'n'roll—I didn't care about the placement of any of the speakers, I just wanted to listen to mah music!

"Hmmm...which one first?" I asked myself as I leafed through the pile of CDs I'd just pulled out of the rack.

"Well, while you're trying to decide," replied Stoner, "let me listen to this Carlene Carter song."

"My turn to play a song!" I shouted over the music, shaking the jewelbox of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville at him as the Carter song neared its end.

"Okay. Then I want to play this Dave Edmunds song..."

This went on all night. I was loving it—couldn't get enough. The music sounded great. What that meant to me at the time was: the bass went deeeep, and was well-integrated with the highs, which were clean; I could listen to it loud all night long without my ears starting to bleed.

Footnote 1: I have very little furniture in my apartment: a twin-sized futon on the floor, a couple end tables near the walls, one chair, a TV sitting atop a milk crate, and now my stereo.

Footnote 2: Something like, "The symmetry in each speaker's immediate acoustic environment maximizes the imaging stability and accuracy," was the answer. Huh? What I think he meant is that you have to position the speakers symmetrically, otherwise the musical information will bounce sporadically off the walls, causing a general state of musical chaos. Or something.

Footnote 3: This has proven an arduous task: the cumbersomely small, round terminals on the SuperZeros are awkwardly angled into the back of the speaker. I find it extremely difficult to tighten them down onto the spade lugs on the speaker cables—and my hands aren't that big.


Robin Landseadel's picture

Since a post regarding $ [or the lack of it] and audio, this seems like a real good place to repost this Stereophile review of the Optimus 3400:

This is 1994, 25 years ago. I had a subscription to Stereophile at the time, made half of my money as a recording engineer. The review convinced me to get an Optimus 3400. When I got my Optimus 3400 I found I liked it more as a digital transport hooked into an outboard DAC than as a stand alone player. My experiments led to putting together an array of gel cells with 60 amp-hours of 6 volts dc, bypassed with over a Farad's worth of capacitors of various sizes, all of this used as the power supply for the 3400. Why? Because as the power supply enlarged, so did the music. By the time I was done, it sounded bigger, more spacious, with better defined bass than a Mark Levinson 31.5 performing the same chore. I'm sure there's a lesson in this, maybe that raw digital doesn't want to be anywhere near AC or power supply dirt. Maybe digital wants really solid DC with no noise.
To get back to the article here, Kristen Weitz notes that low-level detail was better with the Optimus 3400 through Sennheiser HD 420SL headphones than with the $2000 "Real World" audio system that takes up the bulk of the review. I also had the Grado SR 60s, had the same problems with those as Kristen did. Had better luck with Sony V-6's at the time. But rarely listened to the Optimus 3400 that way as it was out of this world as a digital transport, particularly into a t.c. electronics M2000. However, I usually was listening through Stax Earspeakers with that digital combo. I had those Super Zeros too, along with some other NHT designs that could handle more power and deliver more bass.

My current primary system is similar to what Kristen has, a/d/s 400s on low stands, a Sonance powered sub, a Yamaha A/V amp, Sony DVD player as a digital source-the Yamaha receiver has a built-in DAC. All that set me back something like $300. I get more low-level resolution from my Fiio M3K Digital Audio Player than I ever got from the Optimus 3400, have a pair of Sennheiser HD 599 headphones that play nicely with the little DAP. With 512 gb of audio storage that portable audio set me back $275.This stuff is getting cheaper. In part, that's because the used market is flooded. Wired headphones are being sold off for cheap as wireless headgear becomes the norm. There's cheap digital these days with specs one could only dream of a quarter century ago. Serious audio designers are putting their names and reputations on what I like to call Lo-End gear.

Lo-End Audio is thriving right now, there's lots of ways to get high-end on the cheap. However, for whatever reason, audio journals tend to be drawn to gear that very few can actually buy. Make of that what you will.

ednazarko's picture

We have multiple systems in our place - family room main listening and 5.1 AV, basement studio system, master bedroom, home office one, home office two, guest room. Soon to add living room (so music can be played at a volume that is only mildly annoying elsewhere.) I want each of the systems to deliver joy and the urge to sing and dance along.

The first two systems are max-quality systems, but all the rest are "good enough for..." systems, but I still want them to be engaging and easy to listen to. We tried those Alexa things in the guest bedroom and gave up because guests kept going to listen to one of the other systems. Same happened with an old Bose Wave radio. Tried low end computer speakers in the home offices and gave up because we kept moving to the family room or basement (or master bedroom) to work. Where we lived before was more open design, so we didn't have so much need for separate systems.

So don't assume that the people who eagerly read the high end reviews won't be interested. We just may be.

Now I've got to go see if I can get those NHTs on a trial basis...

Robin Landseadel's picture

"Now I've got to go see if I can get those NHTs on a trial basis..."

You wouldn't like them

See if you can find a used pair of Infinity Primus 360s on the cheap. Mine were $40.

ednazarko's picture

Thanks, but I need bookshelf speakers in most places. Got floor standers in the two high end rooms, but everyplace else is small spaces. I found a set of KEH LSX powered speakers on sale, scratch and dent, for $800 and may go that route since it means they'd be the only expense for the room I'd put them in.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I guess you meant the KEF LSX, that sounds like a rational solution. I've got a similar situation, different systems for different rooms. Instead of Wi-Fi I use my Fiio M3K or smartphone hooked up with interconnects that have 3.5mm plugs on one end, RCA plugs on the other. Got a cute little Boston Acoustic table radio at a yard sale, has a 3.5mm auxiliary input, use it in the kitchen.

Along the lines of the NHT Super Zero, the Paradigm Atom is a superior realization of the same concept. The Paradigm Titans are larger but still appropriate for a smaller room. Both are speakers that make you want to dance. The Atoms need a sub, the Titans not so much.

ednazarko's picture

Was looking at the PW 600 from Paradigm, along the lines of the KEF LSX (rented fingers never work properly...) Not Roon enabled, though, and we're currently enjoying Roon as our server manager. That's why the powered LSX may be the solution.

shadowplay0's picture

I mean, as I scramble up the ladder (first rung or no) I like reviews that cover "best component for X" where component is what I want and X is what I now afford, but...

What audio bargains lurk out there? I await more reviews from the cheap seats!!!

Ortofan's picture

... the What Hi-Fi site:

jimtavegia's picture

I would even look at some powered monitors ( love my affordable JBL's in my studio) with a CD player and a passive volume control. You could even buy a Mackie 402VLZ4 mixer ($99) and run the cd player thorugh that and it has two mic inputs for karaoke. THIS will make your neighbors mad. It is clean sounding and has a headphone out for private listening. Here you would be under $1K and JBL has some good powered subs as well for low cost.

Oerets's picture

It's heartbreaking that you're on a budget and you spent $600 on a CD player. You can get a DVD burner on Amazon for $25 that plugs into your computer via USB and it's as good of a CD player as anything else you could possibly buy. (I mean, a CD player either reads bits correctly or it doesn't. That's not up for debate.)

There's some debate about whether or not your amplifier makes a difference, but double-blind (and scientific) testing indicates that there's no difference between modern, competently-designed amplifiers as long as they're run well within spec. You could have bought a name-brand AV receiver for under $200 to use as your amplifier and it would have been cheaper and better than the NAD 304 in every way.

We live in the digital age. We have for decades. Take advantage. A computer with a DVD drive is an optimal source of sound. Plug it into a receiver (DIGITALLY) and use the rest of your budget to buy the best speakers you can afford. Speakers are basically the only component left where your choice will make an audible difference.

chuckles304's picture


They didn't have DVDs in 1994. This article is 25 years old.

Oerets's picture

Thanks. Sorry. How embarrassing.

christophervalle's picture

I should have remembered her name, but didn't. I should have figured out something was amiss based on the vintage of her "reference components". I didn't. I should have asked, "how the heck old is she?" based on her choice of music. Oh, well.

Oerets's picture

Well, it also doesn't speak highly of the audiophile "industry" that some companies are probably still selling $600 CD players... :)

Ortofan's picture

... the "value priced" Kalista DreamPlay One CD player that retails for a mere $43,000.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Wonder whether the DreamPlay can fit into the dashboard of a SAAB automobile? :-) .........

supamark's picture

the 2nd hand market is great. You can put together a really good and musical system of high quality gear for not a lot of money. You do need to know the gear (Stereophile is a great resource reprinting all their old reviews!) and if the mfg no longer supports/exists who can fix/restore it (yay interwebs).

currently running a restored Tandberg 3012 integrated and some Boston Acoustics A70 series II speakers (2-way, sealed cab, close to 90dB efficient) that mate wonderfully with the integrated (gonna need to have the speakers re-capped soon, it should be quick/cheap - 1 cap/x-over). I'd put it (with new caps in speakers and my Schiit Modi Multibit) against any combo available today for $2k and stomp a mudhole in it. A comparable modern integrated alone would be several thousand dollars. Seriously, this thing's awesome. Was like $1,200 in the early 80's when new, so it was awesome then too lol.

Still need a modern DAC of course because even a good/cheap new DAC is better than what you could get 20+ years ago (yay progress). I also have a Thorens TD-316 turntable that I've owned since new, need to update the cart (next up after speaker x-overs) but otherwise working well. They sell on eBay for about what I paid in the late 80's lol.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

1994 was the year of the (in)famous 'Bronco chase' :-) ...........

Indydan's picture

But why in the world would you bring that up? It was also the year baseball went on strike and there was no World Series.

As an Expos fan, I will never forget it.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Just as a historical perspective ........ I saw it mentioned as 25th anniversary on TV :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

1994 was also the year Stereophile original article 'musicality vs accuracy' was published ..........

rschryer's picture

The Expos were favored to win. It was heartbreaking.