The feedback on our past two holiday lists (here and here) have been great, and some of the emails have been very heart warming tales of family and friendship.

Dave’s email was a bit more motivational to me: “You’re a big music guy — how about some suggestions for us shoppers who are not as plugged into the latest music gadgets & electronics?

That is a great idea — lets start small, and work our way up:

Microsoft Limited Edition Zune HD 64GB . . .  Snap! Hahaha,  just kidding, whoTF buys a Zune?

• We start off with the iPod, the Sony Walkman of the 21st century. I have 3 around the home  — a Touch, (really a phoneless iPhone); the 5th Gen Apple iPod nano 16 GB (discontinued) and lastly, a classic 7th Gen 160 GB Black Apple iPod in the cars — the 7 gen 160gb remains my favorite at ($229).

Which ever iPod you choose, the next step is playback — through headphones, computer or dock.

On my iMac at home, I have been using the Harman Kardon SoundSticks. They sound great, look cool, and have held up well to my abuse. (Sounds great/looks cool is a theme you will soon recognize). $190 at Amazon; (They were briefly on sale at J&R for $119 NYT print advert).

I am not a fan of the iPod earbuds, and I always use something else.  There are countless headphone options, depending upon your listening preferences. For travel, I use the Bose NoiseReduction phones ($200, but they get discounted refurbished at Bose occasionally).

Watch for when Amazon either discontinues items or runs a special — I really like the Monster Turbine High-Performance In-Ear Speakers — but at $179.95, they are way pricey — I paid a mere $59 for them during some special.


• When it comes to sound docks, there are lots of choices, and lots of price points –

Just understand the law of diminishing returns — just cause something is 3X the price, do not assume that it sounds 3X better. Here are 3 “sounds great/looks cool” options:

-Bose Sound Dock ($229) These look good, sound very good, and were the first mainstream audiophile product for the iPod. (I have one in the Kitchen/dining room)

-Bowers & Wilkens (B&W) Zeppelin ($600)  These look even cooler, and sound better than the Bose, but are nearly 3X the price.

Yeah, I want one . . .

-Bang & Olufsen (B&O) ($1000) Kinda funky looking (In addition to Black or White, you can dress them in all manner of colors). Sure, they sound great — but $1,000? (Seems a bit over the top).

I would do the B&W if I didn’t have the Bose already.


Enough of mobile audio, lets talk serious equipment:

In terms of home theater and audio, there are unending choices.And of course, the same rules of diminishing returns apply. Spending more gets you some incremental improvements, but it is not proportional.

When we moved into this house, it allowed me to have a man cave. The first purchase was the  Pioneer Elite TV (spectacular video). My audio is a Marantz AV receiver and Kef speakers — its good, solid gear, but I am ready for an upgrade.

About those upgrades: Every few years, it seems I have a new object of desire. I rarely act on these, and so only every 5th desire comes under serious consideration. A few years ago, it was the Arcam AV receiver with the big Kef speakers. Now, I am lusting after Rotel separates with B&W speakers. (My audio limitations are not so much as space as what I can get past the wife).

My pal Dennis is the owner of Park Avenue Audio — I’ve known his family, who owned the shop in NYC since the 1960s, for literally decades. He and his brother Jeff have been tremendously insightful and educational to me over the years. I told him about this post, and he helped me put together a few systems in different price ranges. (For more info, you can email Dennis  at

$50k, $20k, and $5k system suggestions are after the jump . . .

Here are three audiophile systems for different budgets (note that I did not include BluRay player, subwoofer, center or rear channel speakers; I assume most people will want some or all of these add ons):

3) Under $50k: McIntosh/B&W pairing:

B&W 800 Series Diamond ($24,000/pr)

Spectacular speakers regardless of price — vivid, life like, powerful…

click picture for more info

McIntosh MX150
12-channel, 2-zone Audio Video Preamplifier ($12,000)

Money no object? McIntosh has become the audiophile’s standard:

McIntosh MC205
FIVE CHANNEL POWER AMPLIFIER x 200 watts per channel ($6,500)

The McIntosh/B&W800 system is perfect for the 2 + 20 Hedge Fund Manager who had a good year . . .


2)  Under $20k: Rotel/B&W

For those with discretionary income, but trying not to show off, this is an excellent combination of quality and price:

B&W 802 Series Diamond ($15,000/pr)

Fantastic speakers, near the sound quality of their more expensive siblings (B&W 800), but at 40% less cost:

Rotel RSP-1570 Home Theater Surround Processor/Preamplifier ($2199)

Outstanding quality sound relative to pricing, very simple to set up and use, with a very nice clean design. I really like this Rotel combo.

Rotel RMB1575 Power Amplifier ($2799)

Rotel’s 5 x 250 watt power amplifier


~$12k: Rotel/B&W

Note that the system above can be had for under $12k by swapping the amp to the 1565 (its a 100 watts x 5) at $1299 and then using the B&W 804 speakers for about $8k.


1) Under $5,000

Marantz SR7005  A/V Receiver   $1599

Marantz makes solid products at a reasonable price point. Clean design for this all in one AV receiver.

Definitive Technology Mythos STS     L/R      $3000/pr

The Mythos are consistently a very highly rated speaker:

Category: Consumer Spending, Music

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

57 Responses to “Holiday Shopping for Audiophiles”

  1. YY says:


    Six years ago I went through the same process and converged exactly to B&W and Rotel. I ended up
    with the predecessor to the Diamond 803 and a Rotel 1065. The system has been truly wonderful and I never looked back.

    One thing I never anticipated, is the need to have a high quality digital music streamer, so I could load my 1500 CDs or so and have an easy way to browse. Recently they have been coming out with some slick and apparently quality products and I suggest you consider this as well, a few I looked at but currently above what I am willing to pay are:

    1., check review at

    2. with iPhone


    and more!

  2. That amazing

    I keep coming back to this combo — the 800s are truly astounding — they blow you away — but my wife would kill me. The 803/804/805s are nice, but the 802s seem to have the greatest bang for the buck (that I could rationalize).

    And the Rotel — their design is just so clean and elegant — I really like their look, sound, even the way the knobs feel . . .

  3. louis says:

    For you under a grand guy’s.

    This one is great if you have space problems.

  4. brianinla says:

    I commend you on your speaker choice. For those that are balking at the price, unlike a car or TV, you have to realize if you buy quality speakers you’ll have them the rest of your life. You’ll always have a room in the house that could use them.

  5. gloppie says:

    I can’t believe you even mentioned Bose and those other guys, B&O.
    As far as the bigger stuff, the new McIntosh gear is overrated, doesn’t even come close to the legacy gear, and Bower and Wilkins, well, they’re ok too I guess, in the Walmart / Best buy category that is.
    Listen, I thought you were a rich guy with rich guy taste :c)
    Don’t compromise. Go electrostatic. Forget coils and magnets, there is just no comparison.
    Once you’ve listened to air, you can’t go back. Tell Dennis that you want to listen to Electrostatics. Not Magnepans, not ribbons or such wanna-be stuff.
    Oh, and also, you only have two ears, right, so what’s this nonsense talk about center surround and subs…. you only need subs if your stereo is weak, and center surround if your image is all over the place, which it will be with coils and magnets.
    I am saving to replace my Quad Mod II and Type 33 preamp and Quad ESL57 speakers
    with a set of fine devices from Sanders Sound System:
    so yeah, I guess I’m partial to ESLs.

  6. Dean says:

    I am perplexed that you used “Bose” and “audiophile” in the same sentence, especially considering the rest of this post.


    BR: Heh heh Guilty . . . but then again, we are talking MP3s . . . I and I wanted to keep at least some low priced items in the list.

  7. patient renter says:

    “My audio limitations are not so much as space as what I can get past the wife”

    Oh how I understand this. My limitations are surely greater than yours, though I’m happy with my Monitor Audio speakers.

  8. jad714 says:

    Microsoft would do well to somehow come up with something better than the iPod. The Zune sucks.

  9. psm2000 says:

    I can bring down the Rotel combo down by using a cheaper receiver (a decent Yamaha or Onkyo) and keeping the amp. I think the amp and speakers are the heart of the setup. I can only drool at the $50K setup…

    I won’t by Monster anything just on principle.

    Nice post. Thanks.

  10. jaymaster says:

    IMO, the BEST earphones:

    Yeah, they get a little goopy with earwax sometimes. But they actually have a decent bass response.

  11. mochoajr says:

    Regarding brianinla’s comment, I have a pair 22 year old Klipsch Fortes that I will never get rid of. Would a $15,000 pair of B&W’s really sound THAT much better?

  12. jwagner says:

    Interesting thread. The current marketplace of high-buck audio toys just boggle my mind – I don’t see a lot of correlation between price and quality and there’s way too much pseudoscience out there. To stir the pot a bit.. Once you get to a certain level of system, and you don’t have to spend a ton to get there if you choose carefully, the quality of the source becomes far more important than the price of the components. High bitrate/high resolution (24 bit) is the only way that digitized audio approaches the quality of vinyl. I’m an engineer and know well the theory that “nothing can sound better than CD” but in practice CD’s just don’t sound very good, even through a high quality upsampled outboard DAC.

    Go old school – get a high quality vinyl playback system and revisit the ritual of getting up every twenty minutes to flip the record. You’ll find yourself just sitting and listening to music more often and enjoying it more.
    Merry Christmas,

  13. miamiocean says:

    Wow. I hesitated on spending $149 on the wi-fi Barnes and Noble nook which had finally come down to a reasonable middle-class price point. I found the “under $5000″ category particularly amusing, no offense intended. My low end categories usually begin at “under $50″. I am not complaining here as I am way better off than our office cleaning lady who recently accepted my offer to drop her off at the rail station to save her an extra bus ride. She takes three buses each way, plus the rail system to get back and forth to work each day and the commute takes her two hours each way to travel less than 15 miles. I was in awe that anyone would do that on a daily basis for a minimum wage job.

    I can not think of a single person in my neighborhood or any colleague at work or any friends in my circle of not-so-poor dual-income working professionals, who would ever casually refer to an under $5000 piece of audio equipment as affordable. This post’s casual reference to multiple purchases that no one I know would contemplate as affordable, just kind of blew me away.

  14. From a pure value proposition a pair of M-audio BX5, connected to an Airport Express and stream Apple lossless rips from iTunes all for under $400 a kit.

  15. socaljoe says:

    Obviously money management, an industry which in total has returned no benefits to our society, still consumes way too much of our wealth.

  16. I actually saw a guy walking down the road with a boombox the other day. I had to do a double take. I haven’t seen that in 20 years. Are those coming back?

  17. JerryG says:

    The McIntosh is the shit, but the costs are simply mind blowing.

  18. HdTrader says:

    I can’t speak for others, but I put myself through college and grad school, went to wall street, eventually moved to the buy side. I work on a trading desk for a large hedge fund, earn a very comfortable living. I support my elderly mother, my disabled brother, and paid for my nieces colleges (my sister is a low paid high school librarian). And, I make substantial donations to charities each year.

    I am not saying everyone who is in my income category lives ethically, but I have always tried to do the right thing and live a moral life. If I want to piss away $250k on a car (been there) or $150k on an audio system (done that), I can — and still sleep fine at night.

    Thanks for the post . . .

  19. miamiocean says:

    Hey HdTrader, if you can afford it, I didn’t mean to imply there was anything dirty or wrong in that. Heck if I could afford it, a lot of those items in the post sound great. It just smacked me in the face how far apart the realities are for those who make substantially more than the average middle-class wage. (my inner voice says, crap, $150K for an audio system –and I thought $150K annual salary was a comfortable living.)


    BR: Dennis tells me all the time about systems he installs in NY Penthouses — the hardware alone is insane, some are all McIntosh separates that cost $200k, PLUS speakers (another $200k) plus wiring and install.

    Thats before you get to the video . . .

  20. Interesting feedback.

    Yes, about $5k is the price of admission to audiophile quality hardware. And that is merely the entrance fee. BluRay, video, surround sound all add up.

    You certainly can cobble together a very respectable system for $2-3000 — but it won’t be full blown audiophile caliber.

  21. carrottop says:

    plz substitute headline for “holidays gifts for the pretentious twat who has more money than sense.”

    bose, harman kardon, bang & olufsen, bowers & wilkens are NOT for audiophiles.


    BR: I won’t argue with you about Bose or B&O, but B&W is fucking fantastic

  22. dead hobo says:

    B&W and Def Tech. That’s all you need to know. Now I know why I like you so much. Good ears.

  23. RothcoUDipthtick says:

    I recently visited a HI-FI shop to find out the latest gizmos, as it appeared to me that the biggest gap in the market was/is having a unit that will take your i-pod and drive it through high quality separates (amp and speakers)… (the docking units don’t cut it for me, aside from kitchen use)

    To cut a long story short I saw the future – it is a SONOS unit ( basically a small white box that connect to your i-phone or other devices wirelessly – this is then plugged in to your amp.

    BUT there is phase 2 – that is boosting the quality of MP3 so that you don’t have to crank your amp – the answer is the DAC Magic ( approx £200
    This bascially makes your MP3 CD quality….

    So now you have access to your i-tunes library, but also if you use Spotify or Napster as a streaming service – then basically you have an unlimited amount of CD quality music that you can control from anywhere in the house via your device (i-phone etc.)

    The SONOS unit also comes with a secondary cable free speaker unit, that you can use for the bathroom etc… (the full package here is £700)

    Add on whatever amp and floor standing speaker combo you like and you will have an awesome system….

  24. goodlife says:

    There are some great ideas here. I can’t afford them but I want them, so I’ll take out a loan. That was easy!

  25. curbyourrisk says:

    I wish I could afford any of those things. What a difference a few miles on a small Island makes.

  26. dead hobo says:

    Barry Ritholtz Says:
    December 17th, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Yes, about $5k is the price of admission to audiophile quality hardware. And that is merely the entrance fee. BluRay, video, surround sound all add up.

    Yeah, it can get expensive.

    Here’s some ideas for a decent ‘budget’ system.

    I’m a big fan of Pioneer av receivers. The newest vsx-1120-k, down to vsx-820-k are great. I own an earlier version (vsx-1014-k) that still has THX sound and have not felt the need to upgrade yet. Maybe in a couple of years. They cost only a few hundred dollars, less than you might think, and can be found at discount if you shop hard. The VSX line is almost as good as the low end of the Elite line and costs much less. the MCACC sound calibration can take a mediocre set of speakers and make them sound much better.

    Def Tech = Subwoofers. At the lowest end, a prosub is inexpensive and quite musical. Find the best one for your room size and budget. A little more money will get you a supercube 3.

    For the mains and surrounds, I own B&W and am quite happy. MCACC takes some original 601/602/cc6 speakers and makes them sound amazing. The B&W 600 line is the great. As are all B&W speakers.

    I’d also look at Def Tech speakers. Having a powered center speaker really ups the sound quality of the system, especially it it was tuned using MCACC. I tuned a powered Infinity Composition Overture 1 speaker as a center using MCACC when my sub was broken and it was great. If you decide to go with a Def Tech powered center, considered staying with Def Tech for all to remain voice matched. Having the powered center and a powered sub would be great. My Overture 1 went back to another room with the other one I own after the sub was repaired.

  27. AudioPete says:

    My brother in law gives me grief on what I spend on audio. Meanwhile, he is a (working) ski bum — owns his own firm, travels around the world skiing. He spends more on ski equipment/travel/hotels than I do on hardware/software/Discs.

    His kid brother is a drifter/racer — mods and chips cars, spends ridiculous amounts of money.

    Call them what you will — Hobbies vices, big boys toys — at least it keeps me out of trouble.

  28. dead hobo says:

    Dean Says:
    December 16th, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    I am perplexed that you used “Bose” and “audiophile” in the same sentence, especially considering the rest of this post.

    Agreed they sound thin on the high end systems. On the AV systems I have listened to, the center channel midrange where voices register is weak. Speech is hard to hear while the booms are quite loud. Also, some of their sub sounds are boomy, which the average listener thinks is ‘good bass’. It’s not. Good bass is musical and low in frequency. If all you hear are thuds at one or two pitches, it’s crap.

    That being said, I once heard an AM3 play the Brandenburg Concertos and wanted to buy one afterwards. I didn’t but it sounded amazingly good. I have nothing bad to say about the Bose 301. Good value for a couple of hundred bucks. The low end AV systems are better than the speaker that came on your TV and the speakers are small.

  29. dead hobo says:

    Barry Ritholtz Says:
    December 16th, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    That amazing

    I keep coming back to this combo — the 800s are truly astounding — they blow you away — but my wife would kill me. The 803/804/805s are nice, but the 802s seem to have the greatest bang for the buck (that I could rationalize).

    The worst part of shopping for B&W speakers is when you say you like something but the salesman says “listen to these next”. Each step up the line sounds so much better than the one you just heard. Best speakers on Earth, although auto sound calibration such as MCACC can make a big improvement to even lower end B&W speakers.

  30. TW says:

    While I am familiar with all of the brands you mentioned, including Kef and B and W, I would recommend a) a demo of whatever you are going to buy and b) as a long time Naim Audio owner, I would suggest you add Naim to your list. I have the older equipment but the newer line is a bit more open and has a wider appeal amongst serious buyers. They are known for PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing) and amongst the most revered equipment for the serious listener looking for a natural reproduction.

    I found my old kef’s a bit fat in the bass and traded them in when I had my old Arcam setup. I traded all that for Naim and upgraded to the CDS2, 52, 250 and NBLs…stand and hiline. Still amazing after all these years.


  31. steveeboy says:

    “$5k is the price of admission to audiophile quality hardware. ”

    If you are talking brand new stuff…

    But the stuff that sounds good tends to sound good forever so the used market is a good way to go if you can’t afford it.

    Plus, people into this stuff tend to turn over their gear, a lot…

    You can find great deals on craigslist, pawn shops near military bases, etc.

    One of the best things I ever heard was when I got a decent turntable cartridge-not even a good turntable, just the best moving coil cartridge–and ran it through my Dad’s heathkit tube amplifier that he built in like 1963. Amazing tone…

    Somewhere, somebody WILL be selling a set of those Klipsch Fortes, some old tube amp…

    If there is a manufacturer near you, find out if they have a warehouse sale, swap meet, etc.

    If you know somebody in the service, see if you can check out an exchange catalog, really cheap prices.

    As far as specifics go, in lieu of the Bose noise canceling phones check out the audio technica ones, they are much cheaper and work great on planes…

  32. There are some great ideas here. I can’t afford them but I want them, so I’ll take out a loan. That was easy!


    It is actually easier than that. Just go work for GS for ten minutes and you can then afford the most expensive stuff here

  33. axiom says:

    For sounddock value, you have to have a look at Logitech’s Pure-Fi Elite. While not close to the likes of B&W and way cheaper than the Bose, this thing sounds really great. It uses separate class AB amps for the tweeters and class D amps for the woofers. I really think this unit is the best value dock with regards to sound quality and performance, though probably not the best looking. You can pick it up for $150 or so online.

    As for the big stuff, I don’t know… I was never too impressed with the 6 and 7 series B&W’s compared to competitors such as Paradigm, PSB, or Monitor Audio in the same price range. And by the time you hit the 800 series you are up against the like of Wilson Audio Sophias, Sonus Faber Cremona series, Dali Euphonias, or Von Schweikert VR-4 (or used VR-5s!). All of which, IMHO, are better values. Of course this whole speaker thing is very subjective and most if not all of these units will pass your rudimentary frequency sweep test, transient response tests, and distortion tests with ease.

  34. carlwied says:

    A few suggestions at various price points.

    $500 (cheap/functional) – Bose WaveRadio ($350 for non-CD version), $99 Apple Airport Express router for streaming music, $29 for high-quality Y-adapter cable to connect to AUX inputs, $0 for Apple remote app for iPhone/iPad. This setup gets an A+ for convenience and price, and you can set these up in several rooms (office, kitchen, bedrooms, etc.) Sound quality is very good for what it is, size is very small. Bonus: you get clock radios which are handy to have in the bedroom anyway.

    $2,000-$5,000 (solid/cool)- Bang & Olufsen Beolab 3 (self powered) bookshelf speakers, $99 Apple Airport Express for source material. Absolutely TINY footprint (very wife friendly), cool design, and surprisingly excellent sound quality. Add a B&O subwoofer for more bass.

    $5,000-$10,000+ (audiophile/money to burn)- Bowers & Wilkins (take your pick based on price point), Krell amp. As somebody said above, go for a 24-bit CD player or “retro” turntable / reel-to-reel setup.

    Personally, I have lost interest in the really high end stuff over the years. There are a few reasons for this. 1) Most of the source material these days is crap anyway. Playing them on a super high-end system only reveals the flaws. 2) Convenience. I have all my music ripped as excellent quality (LAME encoded highest-bitrate VBR MP3) and the sound quality rivals a CD. I can stream any song, in any room, anytime via the remote app on my iPhone. Gotta love that. 3) The natural acoustics of any room play a huge role in shaping sound. Unless you have the time/money/inclination to invest in an anechoic room in your your house (think: recording studio with foam walls, ceiling, carpets, etc.) then no sense in spending $100,000k+ on equipment. It won’t sound any better than a $5,000 setup. This is especially true in the real world when you are likely to encounter ambient noise (kids, wife chatting on phone, traffic noise, dishwasher, furnace turning on, etc.) while trying to listen to music.

    As always, spend your money on speakers first (they make a huge difference and generally you also have to look at them)… Also in case I didn’t make this clear above, if you haven’t done so already… Start streaming music with iTunes… Donate all your CD’s (except the ones that are truly recorded well) to your local library… Complete game-changer in my opinion. Thank me later.

    My two cents…

  35. Bob is still unemployed   says:

    As I have been digitizing my vinyl albums (96/24 lossless), the following two pieces of digital equipment have been most useful to me:

    Analog to Digital converter – Benchmark Media ADC1 USB

    Digital to Analog converter – Benchmark Media DAC1 HDR (or any of the DAC1 flavors)

    They are probably the best bargain around in high-quality digital conversion.

  36. xnycpdx says:

    for a more constructive comment… for those of us who do NOT work on wall street, i find the audio engine speakers and their wireless transmitters to be more than adequate for casual listening:

    not up to snuff for home theaters i suppose, but just fine for getting music around the house.

  37. bonerici says:

    audiophiles are all believers in the great spaghetti monster of non-existent audio differences.

    All you need is a powerful enough linear amp, speakers, and an eq. The cheapest linear $300, 200 watt amp is as good as a $20,000 amp, as long as you don’t try to operate it out of spec. Speakers can of course make a sound seem warmer that’s because most speakers aren’t linear, but as for myself, I just get some linear speakers, a linear amp and if I want to EQ something I do it myself, I don’t put it on the speakers to do it for me. Microphones for some reason you do want the built in eq right there at the mike and not in your recording equipment, I’m not really sure why, must have something to do with transients, clipping and rolloff.

    google up the ABX controversy to see what I’m talking about.

    As for the CD’s vs Vinyl that is true, but it’s not because Vinyl is a better media. It’s because the doglickers that run our music business crank the CD’s up to 10, and it becomes so compressed that you simply can not hear anything it’s a bunch of damn noise.

    go back to CDs made in the early 1980′s they will sound warm and wonderful hardly digital at all, and then compare them to CDs made in the last 5 years it’s a howling screetching mess because everyone is cranking the compression knob too hard.

    The reason for this is that “Everything sounds better louder”, which is true, so if you put your mp3s on shuffle you get more people buying that compressed crap.

    So I have no quarrel with people buying vinyl. But that’s the only audiophile claim that is even halfway true.

  38. xnycpdx says:

    actually, most of the FIRST commercial cds sounded AWFUL… the labels simply ran the LP master straight to the cd, and forgot a little thing called the RIAA curve. so what was basically an EQ to help compensate for the sonic deficiencies of vinyl was not removed, and things on disk sounded like crap. the audiophile cd folks were on top of it, but companies like atlantic just didn’t bother in their rush to get a new profit stream from an old catalog.
    and yes, moder cds sound like crap. but that’s ok, so does the music! you damn kids get off my lawn!

    as for the audiophile stuff, i worked at st. marks sound jazz and classical shop in the 80s; we had a customer who had taken one room of his apartment and built a BIG completely decoupled listening chamber within it… then filled it with stuff that cost serious money back then. he liked to take people over and play a cd, and then play the same work on vinyl. night and day.

    of course, working at a record store, one wasn’t paid enough to afford all the equipment he would recommend.

  39. Bakervalley says:

    As an occasional lurker on your blog, I was interested to see this topic pop up. Since I’m no audio engineer, the search for a quality sound system that met my needs involved a lot of work-fun work, no doubt-but effort all the same. There are a lot of good speakers for not a lot of money, and a lot of mediocre speakers for a king’s ransom. It feels true that, like art, it helps if one looks at (or listens to) a lot of speakers in order to appreciate their differences.

    After perusing blogs, chat rooms and audiophile threads for some time, a few things became clear (the AudiogoN site-a Craig’s List for audio-offers an excellent platform for both learning about and buying all sorts of gear: used, new and b-stock) . One, I found that the single most significant factor in designing a system is room acoustics. Listen to a set of Def Tech’s in a Best Buy or even a Myer-Emco and you’ll get a very poor representation of their quality. Not that a well-engineered room can make a purse out of a sow’s ear, but… If one is serious about investing any significant sum of money in a system, going to a qualified dealer in a boutique setting who can audition a particular speaker correctly is a must. While the boundary compensation and equalization software built-in to many receivers and pre-pros help a great deal, but plan on enough of a budget to address at least some room acoustic issues.

    Second, as someone astutely mentioned before, speakers are an investment-they are the second-most influential factor in a system’s sound. Electronics–especially receivers, which largely are not “Audiophile”-class equipment–can come and go. After reading audio forums, Vandersteen 2CE’s keep popping up as an excellent entry-level choice, as well as Aerial Acoustic 7B’s (which I own) and B&W, which have a way of just sounding right. Def Techs are ok-but sound a little hard or metallic to my ears. Electrostatics and planars are great one-person listening options (it’s like wearing a set of headphones when you’re in the sweet spot, but stand up and the headphones come off), but may not suit a home theater as well as moving regular speakers do. Still, listen to enough speakers and you will find the right one for you depending on the type of music you listen to and the size of the room. Spend your money here, whatever the case. Also, match the L-C-R speaker drivers if possible or at least find speakers that were engineered to go together. It is disconcerting to listening to a center channel that has slightly different sound characteristics than the flanking left and rights.

    Third, IMHO, unless you are going for conspicuous consumption, a good amp can be found for a tenth the cost of a Mackintosh. Emotiva and Outlaw both make amps more than adequate for power hungry boutique speakers when used in a home theater installation. The price/performance of an Emotiva is hard to beat, but I have no doubt others may disagree.

    Just my two hundred thousand cents.

  40. axiom says:

    Actually, most competent speakers are linear, as in a mostly flat response. What you do pay for is transient response, distortion, off-axis behavior, phase/time errors. You can get some great speakers that can do that well for under $1000 easy and $500 for a smaller bookshelf. Audio gear performance operates at a semi-log scale, you pay a lot of cash for very little more performance. Really, I think the sweet spot for a speaker is at the $1000-$2000 range for price/performance. And these days theres tons of awesome gear for under $500 and even under $200.

    For those of us with more limited funds, you can piece together really great stuff from online sales and classifieds, ebay easily for under $1000. For instance:

    Polk Monitor 50/60 floorstanders: $200 / pair on sale
    Matching Polk center: $100ish
    Rears: anything, but for the sake of argument $100 for a pair of Monitor 30s
    Sub: any decent $200 sub on sale, Polk, BIC (the best choice IMO) etc
    Receiver: take your pick of any $300ish HDMI processing receiver from Yamaha, Onkyo, HK, Denon etc

    Under $300 even, the Onkyo sets that go on sale for $200-300 are excellent surround system performers that I recommend all the time. You get a real receiver, 5 all-rightish speakers, and a decent sub really cheap.

    Want great 2 channel sound? Go for nearfield studio monitors. My favorite are the Adam A7 with the AMT tweeter for $1000 a piece. Mackie, Genelec, KRK are also great choices. More limited budget? Go for a $100 pair of M-Audio Studiophiles.

    There are lots of great budget choices for great audio. Its a good time to be an audio geek.

  41. carlwied says:

    Speakers make a huge difference. As does the ability of the amplifier to deliver power–it needs to be able to drive the speakers you choose comfortably at your chosen listening volume. Also (obviously) important is the quality of your source material. A bad recording played on a $250,000 setup in a decoupled listening room will still sound terrible. By far these are the three most important factors. As for all the other spec’s and gimmickry designed to appeal to gear-heads… Most of it makes almost no difference in sound.

    Go to your local stereo store. Every single one will let you audition different speakers back to back. Why? Because there’s a clear difference in sound. I’ve never come across a store where you can audition different cables, or CD players, or even amplifiers easily. Again, why? Because nobody can tell the difference between a $5 generic cable and a $300 premium cable.

  42. dead hobo says:

    axiom Says:
    December 17th, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    And these days theres tons of awesome gear for under $500 and even under $200.

    Agreed. Good deals are available on-line for refurbished av equipment. Also, as people age, their hearing diminishes, although a trained or experienced ear will last longer with respect to the little details that really good equipment offers. I really appreciate auto equalized sound. Using it, inexpensive receivers can make adequate speakers sound like exceptional ones. Anyway, I mostly like to hear full spectrum explosions now on satellite TV. You need a good sub for that. Next comes classical and baroque music on period instruments. Good equalization and a good low end sound source also makes that sound nice.

  43. LateApex says:

    Headphones: Grado with a quality headphone amp.
    MP3 player: IPod for casual listening or in the car (VW has IPod cable/interface)
    Sony Digital Walkman for more serious portable listening; just sounds better
    Been there, done with that with the unending quest for quality audio. Have to second the recommendation for checking out used equipment when keeping to a budget. I’m still listening to my Marantz SR-92 Mk II AV receiver, Sony DVP-S7000 DVD player (a real classic), Paradigm Compact Monitors/12″ Sub. The only changes I’ve added over the recent years is headphones – a lot cheaper than speakers!

  44. Bob is still unemployed   says:

    @xnycpdx – actually, most of the FIRST commercial cds sounded AWFUL… the labels simply ran the LP master straight to the cd, and forgot a little thing called the RIAA curve. so what was basically an EQ to help compensate for the sonic deficiencies of vinyl was not removed, and things on disk sounded like crap.

    While I do agree that most of the first commercial CDs sounded awful, the reason is not the RIAA curve. I still have and listen to a few dozen CDs that I bought in the 1984 through 1986 timeframe. I consider those to be among the first commercial CDs.

    I know what the RIAA equalization curve sounds like, and none of the CDs sounds like the RIAA equalization curve. What they do sound like is second or third (or worse) generation copies of the stereo master tape. What they also sound like is an poor quality analog to digital converter (ringing on the transients due to the extensive low-pass filtering). What they do sound like is excessive volume compression.

  45. bonerici says:

    axiom take a look at some of the response curves, they are not linear, for instance here is the B&W 800 graph


    But I think we are on the same page. Audiophiles are throwing away money for imperceptible differences.

  46. Bob is still unemployed   says:

    Case in point for the old CDs… The following is a public comment on an old CompuServe discussion board. “Glenn” is the person who mastered for CD the Steely Dan Citizen Dan box set.

    #: 107978 S13/The VR Bar & Grill
    29-Jan-94 00:57:35
    Sb: #107950-Steely Dan CDs
    Fm: Glenn
    To: Bruce


    They are the same mixes as were on the original LP disk. What I did was re-work, with EQ, compression, and noise removal/audio restoration equipment, essentially re-mastering the mixes for the entire Steely Dan catalog. Whe MCA first put out the CD’s, the second or third run were made from 3rd or 4th generation old copies, so for many years, about from 1985 forward, the CD’s were from inferior tapes.

    2 years ago, I started re-working the masters because no one discovered the error until then. Most people assume, and usually correctly, if its right the first run, then all subsequent runs will be the same. It appears that MCA changed manufacturers, and had to have new glass masters made at the new plant. The people at MCA studios didn’t realize that special made for CD masters had been made, as the only copies were sent to the original CD plant, so they made new ones, but from the wrong source tapes. Donald/Walter didn’t discover this untill they were preparing the 12 cut extended Gold CD, and MCA sent over the wrong tapes for the re-compile of the CD going from 8 to 12 cuts.

    The the propverbial ***t hit the fan.

    That’s where I got involved.. I have been working with Roger Nichols for the last 4-5 years, so he just pulled the tapes from the MCA vault and sent them to me, and said do what ever you think they need to make them sound like contempprary recordings. Very weird for me, since I originally listened to the origianl vinyl disks and thought they sounded wonderful. It was fun “re-tweaking” history. You now have the results, and IMHO, it is the best these tapes have ever, or will ever sound.


  47. jj2me says:

    “Snap! Hahaha, just kidding, whoTF buys a Zune?”

    Uh oh, I have 5 Zunes among my 50+ MP3 players. Just call me whoTF.

    I would never contradict BR. But it’s generally recognized that the iPods’ sound quality is inferior to most other players. Maybe this latest gen of iPods is getting good, but historically the Zunes, Sonys, Cowons, even the inexpensive Sandisks have all been said to be superior for music.

    And most everyone says that the Zune HD + Zune Pass is a better portable (lossy) music experience than any iPod. iPods are much better in available accessories, if that’s what you want. Or iPod Touch for more of everything else. But music? No, I don’t think 5% of expert testers think so.

    But… but … BR is my fav read, I’m so grateful for his posts, and trust every word. Now, I’m conflicted.


    BR: That raises an entirely different question: Who TF has 50 MP3 players?

  48. dcsos says:

    My opinion is that the receiver is an outmoded concept. I have four computers that stay booted and I want to hear them all the time so my solution was to replace the receiver in my system with an audiophile mixer.
    So, instead of dumping my Harmon Kardon preamplifier, it remains just one of the inputs to my mixer.
    I use a QUAD ACOUSTICAL 303 amplifier driving Voice of the Theater speakers by Altec.
    I have a THORENS turntable, and through the Harmon Kardon, it also it also can be mixed with the computer outputs.

    I have another room, in which I amplify JANZEN electrostatic speakers with CROWN amplification equipment.

  49. James says:

    Great thread, lots of wonderful ideas.

    Maybe you should just focus on audio, BR! :)

  50. gethoht says:

    “No high’s, no low’s, must be Bose!”

    As has been previously noted in the comments, Bose and Bang and Olufsen have no business being in the same post that has the word “audiophile” in the title. Neither company publishes any specs on any of their products. I guess pairing either up to an iPod makes sense as their all overpriced and shiny.

    You’re spot on about McIntosh becoming the audiophile’s standard. Short of custom tube amp setups costing well into the 6 figures I’ve never heard anything that sounded better than a McIntosh.

    Must be nice to be a 1%’er…

  51. rip says:

    @jj: Always remember BR is a NASDAQ kind of guy. Apple is the apple of his eye. And he ain’t gonna kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs.

  52. ben22 says:

    50+ MP3 players!??…..I’ve heard it all.

  53. jj2me says:

    >> Uh oh, I have 5 Zunes among my 50+ MP3 players. *Just call me whoTF.*

    > BR: That raises an entirely different question: Who TF has 50 MP3 players?

    Yes. (I’ll play Costello.)

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  56. JohnS says:

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