Getting Real Page 2

Later that evening we were sitting listening to music and waiting for the pizza to arrive when I thought I heard a faint knock. I got up quickly—worried that my neighbors had come up to complain—and peered through the peephole: it was the pizza delivery dude. Turns out he'd been knocking throughout the entire run of the Kinks' "Hatred" (Phobia, Columbia CK 48724), but we couldn't hear him because the music was too damn loud, I said! I'm sure my neighbors were loving it—especially with that big-boy sub sitting right on top of their heads.

This room only has two walls!
I kept the entire system set up for about three weeks just as I'd "positioned" it out of the box. But I knew I had to move that sub away from the 'Zeros—I could tell they weren't integrating optimally because the best listening seat with that setup was my toilet. I also wanted to get the SW2 off the floor—my conscience was starting to get the better of me re. the thumping I'd been subjecting my neighbors to all the time. I figured some space between sub and floor would make for a richer sound.

So Stoner and I went to the lumberyard, got four 3' pieces of pine four-by-four, then to the arts'n'crafts store for a yard of fuzzy red material—the cheesy kind they put on bean-bags—to set the sub on. We went back to my apartment and proceeded to completely rearrange my living room. I don't have much space to work with in the first place, so it was a bit of a challenge trying to decide where to put everything. But my number-one priority was getting that sub away from the 'Zeros. I wanted to put it in my bedroom, but the speaker cables weren't long enough, so we ended up leaving the 'Zeros at the long end of my living room near the window with the CD player and NAD sitting on top of one of my end tables, which we placed in the middle of the adjacent wall.

I put the NHT MA-1 on the second tier of the same table, and the sub on top of the red-fuzzy-material–covered four-by-fours (which we'd arranged in the shape of a square) at the far end of that wall, between the end table and my TV—this was as far away as I could possibly get it from the 'Zeros. I ran into a problem with outlets—I don't have enough along that wall to plug all my electronics into. So I keep both amps plugged into the wall, and the CD player plugged unswitched into the NAD. I plug in my TV or lava lamp only when I need them. Problem with this is that I can't listen to music and watch the lava lamp at the same time. I haven't taken the time to solve this problem yet, but I suspect that I'll have to buy one of those multi-socketed adapters, which may degrade the sound of my system a bit—just one of the unfortunate compromises apartment-dwellers have to make to get a little atmosphere.

Gimme back those superzeros quick! i'm coming down!
Then I went to Los Angeles for a week's vacation, so I let Stoner borrow my SuperZeros—he'd just recently purchased his own SuperZero/SW2/MA-1 system (footnote 4) and wanted to hear how four 'Zeros and the SW2 would work as a Home Theater system.

When I got home from LA, I walked into my apartment ready to turn on some jams, and remembered that my SuperZeros were gone! I phoned Stoner.

"Dude, you have to bring those SuperZeros over right now. I wanna listen to some music."

"Do you have to have them now?"

"Well, I sure would like to have them real soon," I replied. "I haven't listened to any music for a long time now."

"Hook up the RA Labs," he suggested. "You still have them there."

"Oh, yeah. But I really like that sub," I said. "Actually, I just had an idea—I can hook the RA Labs up with the SW2 and see how they compare to the SuperZeros."

I popped the speaker cables onto the RA Labs and cued-up Chrissie Hynde's and UB40's version of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" (Pretenders: The Singles, Warner Bros. 25664-2). Yeeee!!! It sounded awful—the bass was real thick and muddy, and not at all integrated—too much overall. So I turned the MA-1's volume almost all the way down. That helped a little, but listener fatigue set in after about three minutes. As I listened to other tracks I continued to mess around with the level of the MA-1 and the bass and treble knobs on the amp, but the RA Labs and SW2 just would not integrate.

I turned the sub off and listened to the RA Labs by themselves for the three days it took Stoner to get around to bringing my 'Zeros back, but I just couldn't listen to them at the volume I was used to listening to the 'Zeros/SW2 at without getting fatigued.

Stoner and I did a direct comparison the night he brought my SuperZeros home: Using Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" (Rumours, Warner Bros. 3010-2), we listened first to the RA Labs alone. Then, keeping the volume controls and bass and treble knobs set at the same levels, we listened to the SuperZeros/SW2; the difference was amazing. The SuperZeros/SW2 actually had a soundstage—that was the first time I was ever able to identify that. The RA Labs, in comparison, sounded flat—as if the music was stuck on the wall behind the speakers. There were also subtle thumb-rolls on a tambourine that we discovered while listening to the 'Zeros—they weren't there with the RA Labs. Listening to the 'Zeros/SW2 after the RA Labs was like reaching the Rocky Mountains after traveling across the wastelands of Nevada: lush, fragrant, moist, colorful, variegated landscape vs dry, dusty, brown flatlands. Ahh—what relief!

What i love about my reference system
Pretty straightforward: I love the deep, rich bass; I love the clean, clear sound of the music; I love that I can listen loud without becoming fatigued; and I love the way it looks in my living room—my living room is my dedicated listening room now, proof positive that music is of central importance to me. I like that people will know that when they visit my pad—it makes me proud. For $2000, this is a system that makes plenty of music.

What my reference system lacks
I wish the Rotel CD player had a function that told me how much time was left on each song of a CD, and on the entire CD itself—even my portable Sony CFD-440 CD/tape player had that simple provision. I wish the amp had a remote. The CD player has a remote, which is nice for skipping tracks or repeating songs when I'm sitting down and don't want to get up. But more often than not, when I'm skipping around CDs, I want to listen to some tracks louder than others. In a way, using the CD's remote is pointless, because I have to get up anyway to turn the amp up or down.

I wish the NHT MA-1 amp had some kind of different-colored mark on the volume control that allowed me to see what level it's at—there's only a small black notch on the dial, but I can barely see it in the daylight, let alone at night, when I do most of my listening.

The reference system could be better at revealing hidden musical details. I've been listening quite a bit to the Optimus CD-3400 CD player with an antique pair of Sennheiser HD 420SL headphones. (I tried the $69 Grado SR60s that everyone's raving about, but found them unbelievably uncomfortable. I also found that, although the Grados played louder, the highs were too present—ie, it didn't take long before my ears started to hurt; also, the bass through the Sennheisers was richer and easier to listen to.) I hear details through the Sennheisers that I can't hear through the 'Zeros/SW2/MA-1—eg, Kurt Cobain's coughing on "Pennyroyal Tea" (In Utero, Geffen GFE-24607); and the section in Liz Phair's "Mesmerizing" (Exile in Guyville, Matador OLE 051-2) where she sounds as if she's singing in a bathroom full of hot-shower mist.

Why is this particular system incapable of reproducing those details—is it the CD player? the amp? the speakers? any combination of components? I don't know, but I find myself looking forward to hearing them, and being disappointed when I don't. I hope to discover the source of the problem; I just hope I don't have to spend a lot more money.

Footnote 4: He said his curiosity was piqued by CG's review (Vol.17 No.1); the evening that he and I traded songs all night sealed the deal.

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.