The Fifth Element #53

I had no idea, back when I set out to put together a music lover's stereo system in the $2500–$3750 range, that while I was beavering away the stock market would tank and credit markets would freeze up—or that the federal government would print money to bail out overextended investment banks, take equity interests in commercial banks, and become the lender of only resort for GM, Chrysler, and Ford. I usually avoid even the hint of political commentary in my audio writing, but I can't resist passing along a quip I'm very proud of: I told all my friends that, if they voted for John Kerry, within four years we'd have socialism, and I was right (footnote 1).

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this particular quest might be more relevant to a greater number of people today than it was a year ago. Bling for bling's sake is out. Unimpeachable, lasting value for money is in. So where are we today?

The good news is that you can put together a respectable audio system from about $2000 (eg, Arcam Solo Mini CD receiver and PSB Imagine B speakers) to under $3750 (eg, Carat I57 CD receiver and Renaissance Audio MLP-403.5 speakers). The not-quite-as-good news is that in this price range, on both the electronics and the loudspeaker sides, there is still obvious room for improvement: spending more money will not be a case of diminishing returns. But if your budget can't stretch much beyond $2000, the combination of Arcam Solo Mini and PSB Imagine B is, overall, the best way I know of right now to spend that sum on a stereo system.

Very good sound at sensible money ($2000)? Check. Buy it once, buy it right, and live with it forever for $3750 or less for a complete system? I don't quite think so—so far. If someone buys PSB Imagine Bs or a Carat I57 or any other of the components I've explored, I just don't have the gut feeling that, in a year or three, that system's lack of detail or bass extension or sense of envelopment or whatever, compared to more expensive but still-affordable equipment, won't lead to upgrade fever.

The Wisdom of the Marketplace
In sorting all this out, I have been greatly helped by the kind loans of Harbeth's Compact 7 loudspeakers (from importer Walter Swanbon) and Luxman's remarkable duo of the L-505u integrated amplifier and DU-50 not-quite-universal (no Blu-ray) disc player (from importer Philip O'Hanlon). I hooked them all together with Cardas Neutral Reference interconnects and speaker cables.

O blessed synergy! Mama mia, what a great system! If you're in the market, do not pass "Go"—head straight to where you can hear it, or arrange a home audition. The Luxman combo retails for $8500, the Harbeth Compact7—until further notice, Sam Tellig's choice in get-off-the-merry-go-round speakers—for $3500/pair. The total, with stands and cables, falls within the $12,500–$15,000 "sweet spot" that Stereophile's survey data indicate is the average our readers have spent for their stereo systems. I'm certain that any rational person who buys the Luxmans and Harbeths (or Harbeth's larger Super HL-5, at $5000/pair) will be tremendously content for a very long time. More about that later.

Perhaps I read too much into Stereophile's survey data, but I do think that if, as a general proposition, it were possible to get long-term satisfaction out of a stereo system costing a lot less than $12,500–$15,000, that reported average number would be much lower. (Obviously, statistics more nuanced than a simple arithmetic average would tell us more.) Based on a search lasting more than a year, I conclude that, in the $3750-and-below price range for an audio system, you face a tradeoff of quality vs quantity, and most acutely in bass extension.

To take an example that is borderline in more than one sense, the combination of Carat's I57 CD receiver and Harbeth's HL-3P-ES2 speaker, descended from the BBC's LS3/5a, is very, very nice—but it adds up to $3990, not including speaker cables and stands. So there goes the budget. Furthermore, at the end of the day, the smallest Harbeths are an iffy proposition when it comes to bass extension. I could almost live with them forever—almost, but not quite. It may turn out to be the case that the price target of my last system quest ($7500) is near the lower limit of buying it once and buying it right.

All of which reminds me of the truism one sometimes hears in the sound-contracting business: The average church is three sound systems away from having the system it should. The usual course is, once the need becomes so apparent that there is at last agreement that something should be done, the first impulse is to "save money." All decisions are then hobbled by the short-term consideration of lowest price, rather than looking at lifetime costs and shopping for lasting value.

Then, of course, there is usually a parishioner or parishioner's relative who supposedly knows something about sound systems, even it is only knowledge gleaned from recording acid thrash that rocks like a beast, using free software in a basement home studio. (In Rhode Island, we call this the My Cousin Vinny Syndrome.) So the first sound system is a nightmare—in some cases, worse than no sound system at all.

Sound System No.2 is what you get when you call in a professional contractor, but tie his hands with the requirement to use as much of the "new" equipment as possible while keeping the budget figure unrealistically low. While this approach can remove some of the vices of an amateur system, it adds no virtues.

Sound System No.3 is what you get when a competent professional contractor is given a realistic budget to work within, as well as permission to junk the existing stuff. Within the sound-contracting community, the received wisdom is that these three stages are as necessary and as unavoidable as the stages of grief—you can't flatten the learning curve.

There seems to be a parallel in the pipe-organ world. Some organ builders tell me that churches often decide to take the plunge on a completely new organ only after having gone some ways down the road of patching up the instrument they've had for decades.

Footnote 1: For the record, I think that—as has been the case with Truman and Eisenhower—history will be kinder to President George W. Bush's stewardship than today's pundits have been.