A First System

I’m so much more impressed by good, affordable systems than I am by those costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. I find it difficult to concentrate on music when I’m overwhelmed by the high prices of the gear delivering it. Price should never be the most impressive aspect of hi-fi.

When price is the most impressive aspect of a system, the system sucks. Plain and simple. Is that clear?

My first "system"—a Magnavox boombox and CDs.

If your $100,000 speakers and your $80,000 amplifier and your $150,000 turntable do not absolutely knock the crap out of me with heavenly music and sound, to the blissful point where I’m considering robbing a bank, selling an organ, finding a sugar momma, or otherwise dreaming of attaining the funds to acquire such a system because, Good God Almighty, this music is electrifying my once-weary soul, then your silly system sucks and you’re just wasting my time.

So, I was happy to see this first system, posted by Tim F. in our Gallery. Sitting on a nice Quadraspire rack, Tim has a Rega P2 turntable with a Bias 2 cartridge and upgraded glass platter; an NAD PP-2 phono preamp; and an NAD C325BEE integrated amplifier—all very fine choices representing good value. Standing on distinctive Quadraspire stands, Tim has PSB Image B25 loudspeakers. (Note the placement of the left speaker, blocking Tim’s glass door: Evidence that Tim values sound over practicality!) Speaker wire is Silver Sonic T-14.

I bet the system sounds great.

(And it looks like Tim’s got some trees just outside his listening room—always a good thing.)

See the album resting against the wall? That’s a band called Harmonia. Jon Iverson told me; he says they’re “AWESOME.” (And rare is the occasion Jon uses all caps. He’s normally very reserved.) So, while Tim clearly has good taste in gear, he also has good taste in music.

Later, I spent some time with a pair of Totem Arro loudspeakers and Musical Fidelity A3.5 CD player and integrated amplifier.

In the comments below the picture of Tim's system, Tim confesses that he had avoided hi-fi for a long time. “I assumed that I couldn’t afford it,” he says. This breaks my heart. It means we’re not doing a good enough job. So, let’s reflect on an essay published by John Atkinson in November 1994, “The High End, Mid-Fi, & Pretend High End.” I go back to this essay whenever I need to remind myself of what hi-fi is all about. In it, JA very clearly reminds us that hi-fi does not have to be high-priced:

Components primarily designed to meet the needs of audiophiles and music-lovers are worthy of the appellation "high-end," no matter what they cost. The much wider range of products whose genesis lies purely in the need of their manufacturer to fill a gap in their product line or attack a previously unoccupied niche in the market, or even just to flesh out their business plan, are "mid-fi" by definition. It's as simple as that. The next time you find someone equating the words "high" and "end" with "high-priced," or feeling that low-priced is automatically equivalent to "mid-fi," remind them that it ain't necessarily so.

(Ooh, yeah. Did you feel that? I love that paragraph. It gives me chills!)

Let’s work together to destroy the notion that hi-fi must be high-priced. Okay?

The system today: DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 3 loudspeakers, Rega P3-24 turntable, Exposure 2010S CD player and integrated amplifier, Furutech Evolution cables, Polycrystal equipment rack. The boombox and television are long gone. My living room has been transformed into a listening room.

We’ve got this idea for a new monthly column in the paper mag. It’ll be written by me, and it’ll be called “The Entry Level.” I’ll focus on affordably priced products, but I’ll also speak with hobbyists and people in the industry to learn more about their first experiences with hi-fi. I want to know about first times, first systems, first loves, those things that got you into hi-fi—your entries into the art of listening. The thing is: Hi-fi is like anything else—you have to start somewhere. And there is nothing like a beginning.

Even Jon Iverson, whose listening room looks out onto the Garden of Eden, had to start somewhere.

A young Jon Iverson, back in the days when if you wanted something, you built it yourself.

Nick's picture

What a great idea!!! we have this retailer here in Montreal who sells Rega gear and B & W speakers. While he sells more expensive gear he will tell you to go for the Rega's, NAD and B&W gear and he is spot on. This explains why he is still in business. My friend who bought his NAD/B&W combo from him left his gear for me to sell while he left for China. I put it against my Linn electronics and YBA CD1a player and you know what? I couldn't hear any huge differences (except that with the YBA the imaging was behind the speakers as opposed to up front with the NAD). But I would have been very happy if I had to live with this system. Point is the technology has trickled down to all price levels to make hi-fi enjoyable for all budgets.

Tim F.'s picture

Thanks for the kind word, Stephen! For the record, I think you are doing a fantastic job of flying the flag for affordable hi-fi. It's just that when I walk into to the local shop and the first thing I see is a machine that is "burning in" $8000 Nordost interconnects, it is easy to feel like I have no business being in there. P.S. The album "Musik von Harmonia" is indeed all-caps AWESOME, like most vintage krautrock. Pick up a copy the next time you're at Other Music. You won't be sorry.

M.'s picture

You have a point, Stephen. You don´t need to spend a fortune to get great sound. Just getting the essentials right and taking due care of speaker positioning is all that's needed to have a good sound. However, it pays to go a little further than entry level: when you try something like a Primare integrated amplifier, you realize that getting closer to perfection is possible - at not such a high price.There is one path that must be avoided at all cost, and that's silly-priced accessories. And by that I mean everything from cables and interconnects to racks and speaker stands. (My DIY supports work just fine.)Whichever way you look at it, it's important not to let the gear prevail over musical fruition. Sitting back and listening to a great record should be more gratifying than getting neurotic about power cords and super spikes.

Jay's picture

"The Entry Level" by SM could be the best idea of 2010. Make it so.

MJS's picture

Great Blog!It is very rewarding to put together a terrific sounding system on the (relative) cheap. Over the years, I've worked in several audio shops and we always got a kick out of creating inexpensive systems whose whole was much better than the sum of its parts. Times and equipment change, but it is always possible to find inexpensive components that have amazing synergy together.

HalSF's picture

I really enjoy the blog, Stephen, and the spirit of this post shines. I loved the boombox system shot; for me, it's going to take a lot more years of listening before my current pretty-good system provides me with as much joy as my big black plastic Sony 'box piled up back in the days of my low-rent youth. But still, I brood. Just yesterday I ran across a flame skirmish at the AudioCircle site in which one long rant against audio mags denounced "the stance of relentlessly condescending [toward] gear under a certain price point." Amen. While i'd welcome a column called "Entry Level" (as I do Absolute Sounds "Start Me Up" column), the connotation of these things always bugs me. The implication that "budget" system are like the first audiophile baby steps, or like your first crummy job at the bottom of a career ladder, is part of that relentless condescension. Despite the obvious affection in your post, it also partakes ever so slightly of the pat-on-the-head snobbery of the high end world toward affordability.

Stephen Mejias's picture

The implication that "budget" system are like the first audiophile baby steps, or like your first crummy job at the bottom of a career ladder, is part of that relentless condescension.Good point, Hal. We need to destroy that, too. I certainly didn't mean to take a condescending tone. I fully believe that a person can live happily with an affordable system, that the entry level can also be the exit level. And I simply don't see many everyday situations in life as being crummy. When I worked as Stereophile's editorial assistant, filing papers and sending faxes, I loved my job and wanted to be the best editorial assistant ever. I love my job now more than I did then, but I don't see my current position as being my final position. I'm interested in the process, the journey, and I realize that all journeys are different. I hope "The Entry Level" will welcome people into high-quality sound, encourage them, convince them that the high-end doesn't have to be high-priced.

Nick A's picture

My interest in hifi was always about enjoying the music and understanding the technology. I'm at a mostly static place now with a few informed Audiogon purchases. I would much rather spend additional time finding new music than pondering upgrades.I'm still at the 'low-end' of dealers like Definitive A/V in Seattle, but have gotten much more bang-for-the-buck than those who unimaginatively spent more at Best Buy.

HalSF's picture

Thanks for the reply, Stephen. Like I said, I brood. (Cue up the Shostakovich...) Minor qualms aside, you are totally on the right track. "The entry level can also be the exit level." Nicely played.

Scott Atkinson's picture

Yes.The only thing I'd add would be - aside from the dependables of the budget world, (the NADs, PSBs), if there is a way to evaluate the occasional 'big box' piece that might fit, and the oddball ultra cheap piece (I'm talking to you, Dayton speakers!) I'll be a very happy reader.Scott A.

Bongofury's picture

They used to call a bottle of Jack Daniels a cowboy hifi.I have been in the live touring music space 30 years (do over 300 shows per year), and when not producing shows, listen to 90% of my music on a iPod and Sony 7506 headphones. I laugh when audiophiles claim they can recreate the "live" experience. In the end, it is about the enjoyment of music and not the rig.

Vince's picture

I too have just recently made the plunge into the world of hifi at the age of 30,and having always felt intimidated when listening to the other customers at the audio store talk of their systems, I realized I was missing the big picture. It's all about the enjoyment of the music. I am just as happy listening to my Radiohead albums on my B&W 685s and Technics 1200 mkII as they are on their 802D's with a pricey Music Hall. While my system will never be considered "good" in the eyes of the snobs that ruin the hobby for newbies, my first system will always be my fist love. The one that made me really appreciate "The Experience" of listening to music.

Jorge's picture

Great article Stephen... yes... in our hobby sometimes we forgot that "music comes first"... This entry level coment is very similar to my gear and my goal is to enjoy music first.. by the end of the year I hope to coming back to vinyl. Fantastic blog !!!

Bill Bailey's picture

Good grief! Are we really still on about this old chesnut...I drive a Volkswagen Polo - I love it to bits and wouldn't be parted it from it for the world. My brother on the other hand, well he drives an Aston Martin Vanquish. And on (the very rare) occasions he give me a go, I think to myself, wow, this is so much better than that piece of junk I drive... Does that make the VW a bad car? Of course it doesn't! But if you can afford a supercar my advice would be buy one and love it. And if you can't you'll still have lots of driving pleasure with whatever you have, because the roads (ie the music) will be the same.Stop apologising for high-end audio. A lot of it's overpriced garbage, but some of it is well worth the price of admission and we shouldn't pretend any different. Go and give something like an Ayre KXR a listen and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Phil's picture

I just came into a little money and dove back into vinyl with Primaluna mono blocs, a VPI Classic and some Harbeth Compact 7s. While I recognize that this is not "high end" by some standards, it is to me. And I've never been so thrilled. The point being, it's all relative. Enjoy! Its a great time to be into audio.

tbemiller's picture

Great discussion and perspective. Five years ago I decided to upgrade my music and my life by going digital and investing some money in a starter audiophile system. After a few months research, I went with Apple's I tunes lossless format which I ripped my CDs to and bought a NAD C 720 BEE integrated amplifier/receiver and B&W 705 bookshelf speakers. These components are accessible to the majority of aspiring stereophiles and provide a truly sublime experience. With well produced source recordings the artist is "in the room". I recently bought my son a Yamaha RX397 receiver and Paradigm mini monitor speakers and the results were the same for half the price. I am amazed at the sonic quality available for the price. Classical, rock, jazz and especially acoustic music just emanates neutrally from these systems. I added a Aperion Bravus D10 subwoofer to my system last year and now the whole range of music is available. I highly recommend starting with simple systems like these. You may never need more! I don't.

Tony G.'s picture

It's great to see someone start covering the entry-level. While some magazines cover some entry-level offerings, most cover the high priced dream systems that will remain just that, dreams.When buyers are tired of systems, just because they can peel bricks from the walls next door, and get serious, they need guidance in what serious listening is about and what gear can best replicate the "live" music experience. I don't think, without lots of listening experience with a lot of different equipment, you will tell a great deal of difference between entry-level gear. You should read Stereophile and TAS and research your options, listen and decide what's good for you.

Dismord's picture

Hooray Stephen ! You've finally removed those stupid plastic stools that sat there for far too long between your speakers and listening position. Good boy.

mikeb's picture

Great idea. Consider going farther afield than the standard "names" -- consider some of the rebuilders of olde stuff too. Surprises can result. In my case, some of my "starter" system pieces are still here, with a few repairs & upgrades over the years, and still sound great. Key is probably the speakers: if you can give up the bottom octave there are some very natural sounding speakers (I love my EPI 100's) that seem to improve as the electronics get better. If you ever decide you need that last octave, you can always get a sub.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

My entry level. I bought used Spica speakers, a Magnavox CD player, some used monster cable, and a Pioneer receiver. Once I got the CD player, which was supposedly softer than the Japanese-made models, I bought my first CD - Aretha's latest at the time. I brought it home, screamed, packed it up, and marched it back to the store. My ears were burning so. "If this is what CD is all about," I said, "forget it."The system has changed, as have CDs. At least people starting out with CD at this time have a fighting chance of surviving with hearing intact.The column sounds great. If I ever get the opportunity to write one, maybe I'll title it, "Virgin no more."

Erick Lichte's picture

I am so glad that you'll be writing a regular column for Stereophile. I can't wait to read what you write.

Al Marcy's picture

Money has nothing to do with Music. You can rent real musicians to play for less than some interconnects. Real musicians are sort of dangerous, but, so are some ear gear sales people.The first thing to get over is that it must be brand new to sound good.It must be brand new to make you feel powerful.Relax, we ain't.

Kingsley Flint's picture

When away from home in a difficult place, such as the tropics, I take a second system, Rotel 6 amp and CD deck with Rega 3 speakers. With excellent cables - Monster for the speakers, and Cardas for the interconnect - it makes a wonderful sound. It all came in at under 2000 Euros when I bought it, tremendous value for money, and other music lovers will happily spend an evening with me listening to a wide variety of music on CD. This is far far better than the first system I had 40 years ago, but what a snip! When I get home to Switzerland, however, the big Naim system with Sonus Faber Cremonas, fed by a Brinkmann turntable (just the least expensive Bardo) puts it into perspective. Actually, every system sounds different to another, and I hear different aspects of the music on different systems. A WAV file on an iPod through my B&W Zeppelin Mini sounds pretty good too! Please do indeed review more systems at different price levels. Great idea!!

Larry aka Poor Audiophile's picture

That is a great JA column!! I refer back to it often."Ooh," yeah. Did you feel that? I love that paragraph. It gives me chills!" Yes!! Me too!Excellent idea you have for a column; I can't wait to read it!!

Bevensee's picture

Entry-level, first system, audiophile-on-a-budget...Call it whatever you want, it's a brilliant idea for a column. I remember buying my first system. It was an AIWA 990 system that I had saved up for for 2 years (I was 14). When it came to speakers, the salesman told me to forget about those big lookin' 3-way boxes with fancy names and treble controls. He told me to buy a pair of small English bookshelf speakers (Mission 707). All my friends at school thought I was crazy, and they laughed at the way they looked compared to their bigger and cheaper ones. That always made me a bit sad (remember, I was only 14...). But alone in my room with my records...Boy was I happy about those Missions! They had a level of musicality and detail that made the lumpy one-tone base-boom and screaky treble of my friends' speakers hard to listen to. I often think back to that glorious day where my father took me to the hifi-shop to finally buy my own system, and I smile at the salesman who sold me those speakers. My first hifi..

Shane's picture

Just stumbled across this post while researching my 'new' first system (I sold all my gear 4 years ao when moving country and now I'm starting from scratch).I regular column on these lines would be fantastic. Trying to find reviews on the low end items has proved to be more of a challenge than I had expected. More over going into most stores left me feeling like a poor leper. Can I tell the difference between Paradigms S6's and a budget pair of Atoms, of course I can, but am I willing to sell my car for the difference, no way!In the end my saving grace was a down to earth local supplier who was happy to give practical advise. With their help I've settled on a nice Arcam Solo integrated Amp and a pair of ex-demo Epos M12i's as my first system. I'm over the moon with the solution, but getting to this result was a lot harder than I had every expected.

Dan's picture

One of my favorite subjects. I admit to being an audio nut from the time I heard a friends system as a young teen, A Marantz receiver, Thorenz TT and I think JBL Speakers. Fast forward a few years and I'm 18 and stationed in Berlin, Germany in the Air Force. Audio gear was plentiful and priced right for our meager incomes, or what was left after beer. My first system was a Marantz 2225 receiver, Dual 1225 TT and JBL L110 speakers. Wish I had it now for nastalgia sake...

Sean C's picture

This is great. I have been a big fan of your blog for quite some time but let my subscription run out because there was never anything I was able to relate to in the magazine. I am a current college student with a love for indie music who just got his first turntable, a pro-ject Debut III, and has quickly amassed 40 records. I still need to find my first pair of speakers (other than my bookshelf klipsch's) I hope to look back to your magazine, and specifically this piece, for advice into great musical speakers.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks, everyone. Passion is a favorite topic of mine, too. So, I'm really looking forward to talking with people in hi-fi and hearing from readers about how they got started in the hobby. How you got into it, why you got into it, how you've gotten to where you are now -- these are the things I want to know about. I think it should be very interesting and a lot of fun, and it should also help me become a better listener, which is a great goal of mine. Sean, thanks for your comments. Congrats on the new turntable! That's awesome. We have a Pro-Ject Debut III on hand, which I'll use for comparisons with my Rega P3, my Uncle Omar's Rega P1, and the upcoming Rega RP-1. And I also hope to get in a bunch of great, affordable loudspeakers for comparisons with my PSB Alpha B1s. Should be a good time.

Rick's picture

Thank you for the entry level column. I remember my first Hi-Fi system. Phase Linear 400 amp (200rms/ch), Ohm F Speakers, Quintessence Pre-Amp, Thornburg Turntable w/ SME arm, I forgot the exact cartridge (perhaps an Ortofon model), I used, and an Advent Cassette Deck; could not afford a Reel-to-Reel at the time.Found memories indeed! I look forward to reading your blog/articles.Thank you.

steve dodds's picture

This will be interesting. The Audio Cheapskate of course had a similar column a while back but now seems to think nothing cheap sounds good enough.But here's my beef...Stereophile has always reviewed entry level components. And there is invariably a comment about how said component gives things x times the price a run for their money, or it sounds better than components at y times the price.So start naming the over-priced products. Start explicitly pointing out the value and diminishing returns. Equation of what you review.At the moment, pretty much everything reviewed here sounds good. Whichbeither means everything sounds the same so there is no point spending more, or that you guys are not doing your job of seperating wheat from chaff.

Phil B's picture

What a great idea...I fell in love with music+sound+electronics when I was 13 at a friend's house and soon bought my first CD player that I paid 75$ (with loaned money from my younger sister...). I managed to salvage an old Marantz receiver and a pair of old B&Ws that were resting for quite a long time in the living room...ah!...the feeling of getting what i'm supposed to get was and still is so satisfying! I'm currently feeding a pair of Focal 714s with yamaha receiver and panasonic BD60 BD player...this is not my definition of High-End but it's surely giving me satisfaction for the time being. My own personnal definition of High-End is quite simple...If I close my eyes...the artist should be in front of me. Not the speakers. I've heard 5000$ systems doing so and 30000$ one's not achieving it. It is, in my opinion, simple as that. Thanks for considering the low-budget mass of audiophiles reading your magazine each and every month. By the way...Outlaw Audio 2200 would make a great review, 349$ mono amp.

Winslow's picture

I got my system after going into a local hifi store looking for a "record player." I left empty handed, though my head was now swimming with the possibilities. A few days later, I returned and bought my NAD C326BEE and a pair of Paradigm Titan Monitors. This replaced the tiny speakers I had been playing mp3s through from my ancient tower computer.Since, I've added an inexpensive bluray player, a used Yamaha 5-DVD changer, an old, used NAD receiver, a Pioneer PL-514 with a Grado F3 cartridge, a home-made(by me!) Bottlehead Seduction Phono Tube Preamp, my ASUS EEE PC Netbook with a 1TB external drive running Mediamonkey Gold as a media server feeding a NUFORCE HDP DAC at 24/96 via USB 2.0, and a Paradigm 10" powered sub. Finally, I built a Bottlehead Quickie battery-powered tube amp to "warm-up" the signal coming out of the NUFORCE DAC.Total Cost:about $4,000.It sounds so good, even people who think they know what good sound is end up sitting here and listening to track after track with me...amazed. :-)

Ian Kovtunovich's picture

Regarding this proposed column, I, as a subscriber of 10 years (holy shit!), heartily say "YES!" (Did you see how hearty that was?) I'm never going to complain about the 'phile reviewing expense-o gear; it's fun to hear about and look at, and maybe listen to when I'm at Stereotypes here in Portland, and they have some spare time to wow me with something I'll never buy. But I love the affordable, and the bang-for-the-buck (a lot of the stuff Bob Reina writes up, for example), and I think Stephen's voice is a great one for this. Fresh and snarky and funny, and, hey, the same age as me!Go get 'em, young 'un!

Mike Mercer's picture

Again - Great read Stephen! BTW - I mentioned you in my recent article in Positive Feedback Online: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue51/mercer.htmHope to see you at RMAF!!!!Keep it up - You rock.Michael