August/September 2009

Power Trios: Sweet Speakers, A Solid Amp and a Smooth CD Player Are All You Need For Great Stereo Sound

Flip through a few magazines from the 1970s, and you might conclude that men were judged by the size of their stereos. Indeed, a towering rack (or two) of stereo gear once seemed as mission-critical as bushy sideburns and a Qiana shirt. While abundant facial hair and menswear woven from plastic could return someday, there’s no longer any need for complex stereo systems. The music lover of 2009 really requires only three things: an audiophile-grade CD player, a good integrated amplifier (or separate amp and preamp) and a high-quality pair of speakers.

Now, some will contend that no real high-end stereo system is complete without a turntable. And you’ll almost certainly want a computer for downloading tunes and burning CDs. But for the majority of the home listening that most jazz fans do, a simple CD-based system does the trick. There’s a powerful upside to that simplicity, too: the fewer components you have, the better you can afford.

To that end, we’ve assembled a trio of trios: three simple stereo systems at prices ranging from practical to profligate. You’ll find few familiar brand names here, but that’s by design. Just as hardcore scotch lovers often prefer a boutique brand like Bunnahabhain to a ubiquitous marque like Glenlivet, most audiophiles take great pride in owning gear that is unknown to the average Joe.

THE BILL EVANS TRIO ($5K)

While $5,000 might seem a generous sum for an audio system, such a budget demands compromise. A powerful amp in this range might not sound all that great. Ditto for a full-range tower speaker. But take heart, tight-budgeted jazz fans. Even if putting together a powerhouse system at this price might be tough, it’s not hard to spec a $5,000 stereo that has the elegance, delicacy and depth of Bill Evans’ classic trio with Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro.

Many great budget systems center on a tube amplifier. Even inexpensive tube amps tend to have a sonorous, natural sound that lends itself well to classic jazz. However, most affordable tube amps put out a mere 20 or 30 watts. It seems to me that you ought to get more oomph for your $5K.

It seems to have seemed that way to the engineers at Vincent Audio, too, because they’ve created an integrated amplifier that sounds great, oozes charisma, and costs just $1,299. The SV-226MKII integrated amp combines a tube preamp with a 100-watt-per-channel transistor power amp. You get the best of both worlds: the warm, involving sound of tubes and the power to drive practically any speakers you choose. It’s also the product of two worlds, or at least two countries, because it’s designed in Germany and manufactured in China.

Cambridge Audio’s $1,095 Azur 740C CD player makes a perfect match for the SV-226MKII, both aesthetically and sonically. The 740C upsamples the 16-bit/44.1-kilohertz digital audio from CDs to 24-bit/384-kHz sound. It then converts the signal to analog using dual Wolfson digital-to-analog chips. The result is sound that’s smoother and more natural than what you’re probably used to hearing from CDs. You can also plug other digital audio sources into it, and it’ll upsample those, too.

Keeping the price of the electronics low makes room for one of the biggest-sounding little speakers to hit the high-end audio market in years: the Usher Audio Be-718 Tiny Dancer. The 15-inch-tall, $2,795 Be-718 employs a tweeter dome made from beryllium, an exceptionally stiff yet light metal, and a 7-inch woofer that puts out surprisingly full bass. The “Dancer” in the name could refer to the way the Be-718’s tweeter makes percussion instruments dance between the speakers; you can actually hear Paul Motian’s brushes move as they slide across the cymbals. Sure, $2,795 might seem a lot to pay for such a small speaker. But given the Be-710’s expensive drivers, the high-end parts in its internal crossover circuit, its custom-designed internal wiring, and the rigidly built, wood-sided enclosure, many audiophiles consider the Tiny Dancer one of the greatest bargains in audio.

We’re a hair over budget at $5,189, so if you want to expand beyond CDs, better do it on the cheap: Simply add an iPod dock such as Pro-Ject’s $199 Dock Box. Or do as many audio enthusiasts have done, and use Apple’s $229 Apple TV box to stream audio files wirelessly from the computer in your home office.

THE WES MONTGOMERY TRIO ($10K)

The smooth, hard-grooving guitar/organ/drums vibe that marks The Wes Montgomery Trio, the guitarist’s legendary album, is exactly the kind of sound I imagine when I think of MartinLogan speakers. Since its birth in 1982, this brand has become almost a generic term for electrostatic speakers, which replace the usual tweeter and midrange driver with a large, thin polyester diaphragm. The electrically charged diaphragm hangs between two metal grids, which connect to your amplifier through a transformer. Because the diaphragm’s suspended in the air rather than mounted in a box, the sound seems to float in space instead of emanating from speakers. MartinLogans have always ranked among my favorite speakers for live jazz recordings, because they erase the walls of my living room and transport me into a seat at one of the middle tables at the Village Vanguard.

The $4,295/pair MartinLogan Vista specified for this trio combines an electrostatic panel with a potent 8-inch woofer to keep the bass groove pumping. At 57 inches high, this speaker commands attention visually and sonically. The company’s Custom Shop can even finish the Vista in practically any woodgrain or painted finish you choose.

One downside to electrostatic speakers is that they can present a challenging load for an amplifier. A potent solid-state power source like Bryston’s $3,895 B100 SST integrated amp makes a safe match for any MartinLogan. Its high-current, 100-watt amplifiers won’t balk when connected to a 4-ohm speaker like the Vista. In fact, Bryston feels confident enough about the B100’s vigor to back it with a 20-year warranty. The amp’s modular design also makes it one of the world’s most versatile integrated amps: You can add an internal digital-to-analog converter and/or an internal phono preamp.

Although Bryston makes a lovely CD player to go with the B100 SST, its $2,695 price busts our budget. Fortunately, there are lots of great CD players on the market with more modest tags. Some of them, like NAD’s Master Series M5, can also play the high-resolution SACD discs put out by many audiophile record labels. The $1,799 M5 has separate signal paths for CD and SACD, with each circuit optimized to get the best from each format. With balanced outputs, a full complement of digital outputs, and even surround-sound outputs, the M5 can hook into any audio configuration you could possibly assemble. And just in case you were wondering, The Wes Montgomery Trio is available on SACD, along with Bags Meets Wes and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery.

THE TONY WILLIAMS LIFETIME ($25K)

When your audio system costs as much as a decent car, you expect it to be able to do anything. You want it to convey whispering soundscapes one minute and blistering improvisation the next, just as the power trio of Tony Williams, John McLaughlin and Larry Young does on the Tony Williams Lifetime classic Emergency!.

When you’re talking stereo systems, the key member of a powerhouse trio is the speaker. It needs robust woofers to pump out powerful bass, yet it also needs a tweeter and midrange driver that can keep up. The best example I know of such a speaker is Monitor Audio’s Platinum PL300. Each of the $10,000/pair PL300s features dual 8-inch woofers that play deep and loud enough to handle even the most energetic outbursts of Williams’ bass drums. The PL300 counterbalances that muscle with a ribbon tweeter, which uses a wraithlike diaphragm possessing a mass less than one tenth that of typical printer paper. Ribbons are revered for both detailed treble and high output, and they help the PL300 deliver its exceptionally clear sound and spectacular stereo imaging.

Audiophiles might be tempted to mellow the PL300’s somewhat forward presentation by mating it with a tube amp. Not just any tube amp can push the PL300’s big woofers, though. They demand something with serious oomph, like Rogue Audio’s $4,495/pair M-150 monoblock tube amplifiers. The four KT88 output tubes in each M-150 team up to deliver 150 watts of power. The M-150s need a preamp, and Rogue’s Perseus seems like the perfect choice for our simple system. The all-tube circuit in the $1,795 Perseus is packed with exotic parts, and the preamp’s simple yet striking industrial design may earn it almost as much love as its sound does.

Audiophiles are notoriously conservative when faced with new technologies, but there is one recently introduced product category they’ve embraced with gusto: the music server. Music servers hold your entire music collection on a hard drive, then let you browse through it on a TV screen or on a dedicated touchscreen controller. Of course, you can do this with a computer, too, but no computer presents as graceful and friendly an interface as the Qsonix 110 offers. The 110’s colorful touchscreen lets you flip through your music collection as easily and comfortably as you did back in the days of vinyl records. It rips up to 18,000 CDs through its built-in CD drive, and also lets you buy high-resolution music files through the MusicGiants download service (which is like an audiophile version of iTunes). Qsonix packages start at $6,700.

While the Qsonix server sounds quite good on its own, serious audio enthusiasts will want to bring the sound quality up to world-class by adding an external digital-to-analog converter like Bel Canto’s $2,495 e.One Dac3. That pushes us up to $25,485, but at this level, an extra five bills seems a reasonable sum to spend in the pursuit of perfection.

Of course, you can take the trio concept even higher; I’ve heard CD/amp/speaker combos costing more than $200,000. But for the average jazz fan, any of the three trios we’ve put together can deliver stunning performances, night after night after night.

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