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Magical System Combinations

When we listen to the work of an amazing arranger like, say, Gil Evans, we hear a splendorous blending of instrumental voices that sing together as a harmonious whole, pleasing our ears and often tugging at our heartstrings.

Just how do these amazing artists paint these giant sonorous portraits when the potential instrumental palate is so enormous, confusing and full of possible traps?

The answer to that lies at the root of their artistry-it’s their feel for how instruments work or don’t work together. They know exactly which colors blend well and exactly how to blend them into a successful wash of light and dark, blasts and whispers. Perhaps most important they know what to leave out. Evans knew the entire woodwind family worked well together and that the occasional French horn or harp would mate well in the context of a full section of saxes, perhaps even enriching that with a bassoon. On the other hand, I feel certain that he never considered scoring anything uniting the bass trombone with, say, a ukulele. Unthinkable.

Well, this same sort of unity of parts holds true when building an audio system. There are certain combinations of components that work extremely well together and other combinations in which the components simply fight each other-where the weaknesses of one augment the weaknesses of another and the end result is a sometimes strident, difficult to listen to mess. Like that uke and bass trombone, a match made in hell.

For example, some electronics tend to be on the bright side while others are a bit more laid-back, a little more neutral-sounding, not emphasizing bass or treble. And of course speakers sport this same spectrum of character, ranging from neutral or laid back to almost screeching in the highs. Match one of those bright amplifiers with a pair of those glaringly earsplitting speakers, and you end up with a combination that can not only be irritating but sometimes capable of peeling the paint off your walls.

Ideally, you want to balance the strengths and weaknesses of each component, such as taming the extreme forwardness of that bright amp with a pair of speakers that tend toward the neutral side so you can create that magical synergy that can provide countless hours of pleasurable listening.

As it turns out, not everyone selling audio equipment is trained in system matching. Though there are exceptions to the rule, most of the “associates” at the big box stores have not been trained in this fine art of orchestrating a truly unified system-sales quotas, sales contests featuring certain brands and downright lack of knowledge stack the deck toward other, less noble goals. That’s one reason why, over the years, this column has preached the benefits of seeking out a reputable sales person at a reputable audio boutique or salon. The brands they stock may not be familiar, and sometimes the atmosphere may seem a bit stuffy, but once you cut through the initial fear factors, you just won’t want to stop listening to their systems.

The small manufacturers proffered by these audio specialists are more concerned about designing equipment that milks the most music out of your CDs. On the other hand, the big boys design with requirements set forth by their marketing departments with an eye on sales figures in the multimillions-usually accomplished by emphasizing nonmusical bells and whistles that make their products stand out on the shelf, or they sometimes twist the performance specifications to allude to performance that is, well, not really there.

The other reason music sounds better in smaller salons is that the systems they put on display are assembled according to the ideas that I’ve set out above; they arrange systems that achieve that magical synergy and reproduce music as faithfully as possible. One pitfall that is usually addressed in these small shops is avoiding listening fatigue. Some systems can become tiresome or even irritating to the ear, so much so that, after a short time in front of the speakers, the listener wants to cut short the listening session. Who wants to anticipate an evening being lulled by Diana Krall only to have it end abruptly because the audio equipment is grating and difficult to sit with for more than a few cuts?

So when you shop in one of these audio salons, the salespeople-consider them your personal orchestraters-will quiz you about the size of your listening room, your budget, the kind of music you listen to and so on, and only then will they suggest a variety of equipment combinations that will satisfy your needs. This is how folks who really love music should shop for audio equipment.

To establish a starting point for that shopping trip, we’ve compiled a few suggested systems-consisting of integrated amplifier, CD player and a pair of speakers-in the $3,500 to $7,100 price range that have proven to be highly musical and their component parts simply work well together. (Some of these individual pieces have been discussed in previous columns, but only in stand-alone descriptions, not as part of a well-matched system.)

In surveys like this, we usually commence describing products from either NAD or PSB. Why? Because, dollar for dollar it is hard to beat the value of what these two companies-not coincidentally owned by the same umbrella corporation-have to offer at price points that will fit just about any budget. And no matter where you fall along their price spectrum, you can feel pretty safe knowing that, for the money, you are purchasing a product that is worth far more than the tag would lead you to believe-in this case a system priced at $4,097.

NAD has to be the all-time winner for leaving out needless bells and whistles and devoting that portion of the design budget to better music reproduction-and the C372 amplifier ($899) and the C542 CD ($499) player prove that in spades. The C372 amp pumps out an honest, conservatively rated 150 watts, features NAD’s unique PowerDrive circuitry, which automatically makes adjustments in the amp’s output depending on the speaker’s need for power based on the ever changing music signal coming through, and enough inputs and outputs for just about any need you might come up with. The C542 player is an update of NAD’s award-winning C541i player; by upgrading many of the internal components, the 542 offers better bass, better accuracy and is simply more musical. The natural choice for the speaker in this system is the PSB Stratus Gold i ($2,699). This model is another update, this time of the highly acclaimed Stratus Gold, considered by many to compare to speakers two or three times their cost. With fluid, smooth highs, deep, tight bass and a generally neutral presentation, these are the perfect match for the NAD amp.

Next on the list is a $3,447 system built around the Rotel RA-1070 amp ($1,199) and the Vandersteen 2Ce Signature speaker ($1,549) and completed by Rotel’s new RCD-1072 CD player ($699). This is an ideal grouping for jazz lovers because of the natural, open sound of the Vandersteen speakers, the result of their boxless design. The actual speaker drivers are mounted on the smallest baffles possible, which prevents all manner of sound-wave distortion. (A baffle being the piece of wood or other material that holds the driver in position; normally they comprise the front panel of the speaker box.)

These speakers have bass down to 30Hz, which is amazing at this price point, and fantastic midrange, the part of the musical spectrum where most of the action takes place. Combine the Vandersteens with the potent 100 watts of the Rotel amp and the spot-on playback of the Rotel player-a level of quality hard to find in a CD player under a grand that’s accomplished by utilizing the latest in digital technology and a newly designed disc-loading mechanism-and this system has the potential to reproduce music in a way most JazzTimes readers have never experienced.

The least conventional system here is built around the flat-panel Magnepan 1.6 speaker ($1,725). These nearly six-foot tall panels (a mere inch and a half thick) are bipolar speakers, meaning the sound radiates from the rear as well as the front. The resulting performance is nothing less than stunningly airy and open with a midrange that is hard to beat, even in speakers many times their price. Because the ultralight membrane Magnepan employs in the panel (instead of the traditional paper or plastic cone) can move faster than these standard materials, you get musical dynamics that approach reality. So a snare drum has the punch and power of an actual drumhead being struck and the human voice is reproduced with all the tonal subtleties and breathiness that many speakers miss.

To power these speakers, try the British-designed and built Arcam A85 amplifier ($1,699). Arcam is a company that prides itself on its affordable high-end products built in its own factory in England (as opposed to being subbed out to an Asian factory), built with the highest quality parts and with particular attention paid toward designing the most musical products they can for the money. This 85-watt amp has been lauded by the press around the world, selected by several British magazines as product of the year and has beat out many other, better-known brands in “product shootouts.” Truly this is a great amplifier and has been built in a modular fashion, which allows for future upgrades should they become available.

The logical CD player for this system is the Arcam CD82T ($1,199), a solidly built player that has benefited from trickle-down technology drawn from Arcam’s best players in its Full Metal Jacket line. Total system price is $4,623. If, on the other hand, you have a smallish room that won’t accommodate the sizable Magnepans, then consider the Audio Physic Yaras ($1,995, pushing the system to $4,893). These small, floor-standing boxes will blow you away with their transparency, musicality and ability to disappear as the source of the music. They wed perfectly with the extreme quality of the Arcam electronics.

From France we get a system that begins its synergy from the time of conception. Triangle loudspeakers and Cairn electronics are manufactured in the same small French town, in facilities that are practically next door to each other. You can be sure that each company utilizes the other’s products in fine-tuning their designs, ensuring an amazing match between the finished products of both lines.

A system ($7,185) consisting of the Triangle Celius speakers ($1,995), the Cairn 4810 amp ($2,995) and the Cairn Fog v.3 upsampling CD player ($2,195) is one that will draw you into the music as few systems can. No listener fatigue here. This is one of the most perfectly matched (not to mention physically handsome) systems I have ever heard, and at a recent audio show it was the system I continued to return to for another hit of its magic. The newly revamped Cairn amp offers 100 watts and a series of optional plug-in modules that allow you to add additional features to your unit, including a phono preamp for your turntable, an AM/FM tuner and even video inputs and outputs plus a 7.1 channel decoder in case you want to transform your stereo into a multichannel audio-video processor.

Finally, a system ($5,685) sourced mainly from U.S. manufacturers, built around the Meadowlark Kestrel2 speakers ($1,995) and the Rogue Audio Tempest integrated amplifier ($2,195, $2,695 in the souped-up Magnum version). The British-built, and universally applauded, Rega Planet 2000 CD player ($895) completes the ensemble and is the only “foreign” member of the group. The Kestrel2 is an improved version of Meadowlark’s wildly successful Kestrel speaker. Designer Pat McGinty has retooled the transmission-line bass-handling of the speaker to improve low-end response, taking it deeper and making it more distortion-free and tighter. The cabinets have likewise been rethought incorporating an impressive amount of solid, real wood, replacing some of the MDF (medium density fiberboard) usually used in speaker construction. Undoubtedly, these are some of the most attractive speakers on the market and can be purchased in a wide array of woods from the standard ash to a regal-looking walnut.

Oh yeah, the sound of these boxes is not to be believed.

The standard question for those first exposed to the Kestrel2 is, “Where’s the subwoofer?” Yet accuracy to the music is these speakers’ strong point. And the perfect match for Meadowlark speakers has long been the tube-based electronics from Rogue Audio from Pennsylvania, in this case the 60-watt Tempest amp that provides plenty of juice for the Kestrel2. Built with premium parts, the Tempest offers long-term reliability and a magical sound that only tube equipment can provide. Plus the Tempest’s fast, tight bass is the perfect complement to the fast, tight bass of the Meadowlarks.

One of the greatest bargains in all of audio, the Rega Planet 2000 is simply an incredible CD player. England’s Rega, for decades renowned for its exemplary turntable designs, finally in the late ’90s introduced its first CD player, the Planet. It was instantly recognized as a marvel, particularly for a player priced at under $1,000. This unusual top-loading machine was totally revamped in 2000 and, amazingly, the price has even dropped in the past year or so. The sonics of this player are stunning, pulling, as accurate as possible. The sound closely rivals LP’s analog sound, as you might expect from a company dedicated primarily to building high-quality turntables, some priced into the multi-thousands of dollars. Rega didn’t rush into digital and thought long and hard about the design of this machine. I’d say the wait was worth it. Now here’s a system that will bathe you in shear pleasure for hours on end, owing to the particular synergy of the speakers with the liquid magic of the tube-driven Tempest.

Just remember one thing when shopping for a system: listening is the key. Listen to CDs with which you are intimately familiar. And make sure you have conveyed all your likes, dislikes and listening habits to the dealer. The more they know about how and where you listen, the closer they can present you with a system orchestrated to work for you.

Originally Published