As I’ve mentioned a million times around here, I frequent quite a lot of music forums and sites, trying to stay up-to-date as much as I can. These sites don’t only deal with content – the music bought, collected and played – but also with the presentation of it – the gear used to actually transfer those bits and bytes (or grooves) into listenable music. On these forums I’m always surprised about those people who love music and often comment on sound quality and then at some point state that their main listening device is some 90s boombox they have standing on some vibrating glass surface in the office or dining room. Don’t get me wrong: I think the music should be in the foreground, and it doesn’t really matter how it is reproduced, but if you are into it as much as I am, it is a shame to play great stuff on less than mediocre equipment.
In the past, I didn’t really have a bad stereo. It just wasn’t really good either. Besides the shelf speakers, which I had invested a comparatively large sum of money in, I had a cheap 1st generation plastic Philips CD-player and an Onkyo receiver. On top of that, I had this old German Grundig turntable which didn’t really deserve to be called turntable. The platter turned, but that was about it.
Then, one day, I made the mistake of walking into a local HiFi-shop. It wasn’t really a mistake, since I had fried the the right channel on my Onkyo receiver and was on the lookout for some new gear, but I could have gone to one of those faceless brick-and-mortar stores abundant in today’s throwaway society.
Well, I didn’t.
I had walked by this fancy store (German site) many times when in town and one day I thought: “Hey, maybe they have some cheap and half-decent second-hand gear. Just go in and have a look. It’s worth a try.”
I’m not trying to say I shouldn’t have, but the moment I did, life changed massively for me, at least for a while.
Inside I was met by some really nice people who asked what I was looking for and I blurted out, in defense, that I was just looking around and had thought about maybe investing a bit more into some new gear, maybe second-hand stuff. To my amazement, they didn’t jump at the opportunity but only said: “Sure. Have a look around. Have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and if you have any questions, just ask.”
That was it.
After having looked around for about 30 minutes, I went up to the boss and asked for a glass of wine and for some advice. You see, I had actually been carrying a bunch of CDs around, hoping I could check out some of the music I liked on some more expensive equipment. What followed then made me a regualr visitor if not a lifelong customer at the shop. The guy just looked at the CDs and said: “Sure, let’s get going.”
For the next few hours, the boss and the two assistants set up four different component combinations, rewired speakers, crawled around on the floor for hours, changed cables, carried stuff to other rooms, left me alone to listen to things in peace, rewired again, switched amps, produced a whole range of CD-players from the basement, unpacked brand-new gear, and so on.
I felt embarrassed. I had told them that I wasn’t even sure if I was going to buy anything and that I certainly did not have enough money to buy a whole new setup, but they just didn’t care. They were just hoping that if I decided to buy anything, it would be from them. That was all.
To cut a long story short, I returned to that shop about five times before I bought anything, and every single time I was met with the same patience and a tremendous amount of honest opinion (sometimes talking me out (!) of getting more expensive stuff) and serious discussion. Most of all, I was given more than enough time to sit in solitary confinement with gear I had zeroed-in on, sometimes comparing two setups for literally hours, in a separate listening room, just for and by myself.
Of course, they knew I would be hooked. They knew that I was set on investing my hard-earned cash. They knew that what they had to offer was simply good gear.
And yes, I was blown away. Blown away by the possibilities that I didn’t even know existed, blown away by the fact that if chosen wisely, one could improve one’s former average to measly gear by a vast stretch, bowled over by the sheer sound quality one could get from today’s equipment.
And I was depressed.
Because I didn’t have the cash.
In my head, I had stored away the problems I would be facing. Firstly, I had played and recorded music myself, so I had a good idea what I would like to hear coming from my speakers. Secondly, I lived and still live in a wonderful apartment, which nevertheless has some major acoustic problems. Thirdly, I wanted an all-round system, one that could cater to my rather eclectic music taste ranging from end-70s punk to Bach and from extremely raunchy heavy metal music to chamber-like jazz. Fourthly, I knew that some remastered stuff I had bought already was sonically deficient (but unavailable in any other format), so I did not (!) want a system that presented these deficiencies in too much of an obvious manner. Basically, I was looking for something that didn’t exist, a system that could be both warm and analytical at the same time, one that could present excellent recordings in excellent sound and, at the same time, could somewhat veil sonic deficiencies of bad recordings. All of that was supposed to stay within a budget that some people have for a set of speaker cables.
Believe me, it’s not easy to find something that can handle all of this, especially if you’re acting on the above-mentioned shoestring budget, but with enough time allowed by a shop owner and with ample help from the staff, you can work yourself towards a solution that is affordable.
To really get what I needed, I had to pester the staff with one more request – I needed to give the system(s) of choice a test run at my place, to hear them in my acoustic surrroundings and not in the tailor-made and optimized listening rooms of the shop. “Would next Saturday be alright with you?” was their reply, and after having hired a friend and his van to get the gear to my place, I left a hefty deposit and disappeared into a weekend of listening.
Without getting into the speakers, amps and CD players I did not buy that time, my limited budget got me a system that to my ears was the best I could get for the money. It took some tweaking to eliminate this or that deficiency or to actually muffle a certain quality to achieve that sound I wanted.
Because I still had my old system I could compare, and to say that there were several worlds between the two setups is putting it mildly.
I settled for a Marantz amplifier and CD-Player combination, plus a set of Dynaudio (Denmark) floor speakers. Later I added a rather crappy Marantz tuner, just to have the radio running once a month, but it’s not worth discussing here (I hate radio).
The Marantz PM 78 is a class-A amplifier that has been called “the poor man’s PM 17”, which was Marantz’s audiophile entry model at the time (and a vast sum more expensive). There has been much discussion in the past whether a class-A amplifier actually sounds better and if it is worth it despite the enormous amount of juice it sucks from your sockets when actually playing music or not (you can fry an egg on mine when it is simply switched on), but all I can tell you is that it did sound much better in my apartment, in my living room and in my system-to-be. It beat the others by a mile, even the tube amps I checked out.
The Marantz CD67-MKIISE CD-Player was the most hyped entry-level player in the various HiFi magazines I read in those days, and still today it sounds very good. I have since added an NAD player (which is used elsewhere most of the time) and the Marantz still has that warmth that is sometimes a bit difficult to control, especially since the amp adds quite a bit of that as well.
The speakers are a pair of Dynaudio Contour 1.8 MKII speakers that were certainly not the best in the shop – but they seriously smoked the others in my listening environment. I did two full days of testing and although I would have had the cash for the others as well, I settled for the cheaper ones because they simply sounded best.
No matter what people say about audiophile mumbo-jumbo, the whole setup did not jell until I added the right cables to it. Because I have a 40 square-meter livingroom, I needed two times 8 meters of cable (equal lengths for both speakers, no matter if needed or not) and that alone limited my choices to the cheapest bearable and somewhat audiophile cables. I went for the Kimber 4PR which – and that’s the kicker – the shop owner gave me for a nominal fee. More about that later.
The real problem proved to be the incredible warmth this Marantz setup was producing. A warm-sounding amp plus an equally warm-sounding CD-player was just too much – the music was not reproduced accurately enough. The solution came in form of a highly-praised connector cable from a relatively unknown sound studio in Berlin (Germany). I had read the review in one of Germany’s most prestigious HiFi magazines and I had the feeling that many people were ignoring the review because the cable was … gasp … dirt cheap. I took the risk and bought two for about $80 each and … BINGO! The cable reduced the warmth and injected a wide and distinctive soundstage as well as adding enough (but not too much) of an analytical approach so that the system was sonically tremendously upgraded.
And that’s it.
I was and I am happy!
Summary and outlook
I do not have the best system available. Far from it. In the end, I was lucky enough and the shop got a pair of the Dynaudio speakers in with an invisble – to me – scratch on one of them and I got the pair at a 30% discount. Because Marantz was switching its model line I got the amp and CD-player combo at a greatly reduced price ($400 off), the above-mentioned cables were thrown in for basically free because someone had returned countless meters of the stuff (confectioned), the stars had aligned just right and the people at the shop were just nice. For about $3000 I got the full system with all the cables, I was allowed to pay a larger sum of that several months later and if I should ever need another system, even if I live somewhere else, that shop has gotten a customer – me – for the rest of their existence. Yes, they were that good.
I have since listened to setups that cost multiple amounts (the last one I heard will set you back by about two-hundred thousand bucks, and I ain’t kidding), but you know what – I’m not jealous. Yes, it sounds much better, but in my eyes, the difference wouldn’t be that big in my measly acoustic surroundings to merit peddling several inner organs to pay for it.
People with “normal” stereos are always surprised when I show them what a comparatively cheal setup (new flat-panel TV screens cost more than my stereo) can produce and, yes, I have converted several people to taking the more audiophile route.
So, what’s the point of all this rambling? If you have been suspicious of audiophile mumbo-jumbo and stories of sound orgies some people like to relate, do like I did: Find a good shop and give it a try yourself, with your ears and with your listening experience. I’m quite sure, unless you already own a decent stereo, that you will be surprised about what you can get if you invest some time and some money. Let’s be honest here: If you are a music lover like me, spending a larger sum of money once (!) on good or better equipment that lasts instead of going on that annual spring-break or whatever trip, might very well be the best-invested money yet.
It was for me.
And, please, give your local HiFi-shop a chance. Stay away from those cheapo stores and rely a bit on their expertise … and leave your money there to support their efforts. It’s the best thing I ever did, other great stuff not withstanding.
Before even publishing this, my proofreaders (thanks Don and Jeff) have asked about my turntable. A good friend (thanks Manni) bought himself a better turntable and gave me his older late-70s ELAC (German company) which I had since had refurbished and overhauled.