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Real-World Systems

Most of us reading this magazine play an instrument, whether as hobby or profession, and often dream of owning a handmade, custom-spec’d guitar, trumpet, snare or even a Steinway. But it usually boils down to the bucks: some got it and some don’t.

Sound equipment is the same. You can easily drop $50,000 and much more on a system that can faithfully render recordings of that custom ax with more detail than you can probably imagine-enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. However, just as most great music we hear is performed on instruments available to about anyone-Conn altos, like Bird’s, are still readily available on the used market-there is no denying the countless tingles to be had listening to “real-world” equipment-the stuff most of us can afford without having to get a second mortgage on our homes or our Selmer horns.

As always, find a reputable dealer or two in your area, and let him or her know what you are looking for and what your budget is; have more than one conversation and listen, listen, listen, until it makes you, or at least your significant other, completely crazy. That’s when you know you are making progress! You may have never heard of some of the manufacturers your dealer might mention, but that’s OK: if the phrase “reputable dealer” remains in the equation, you should be able to trust whatever they put in front of you. And always take along your own CDs so you will be familiar with the music you will be hearing.

Now, my own “real world” is not the same as yours (my shrink will back me up on this one!), but to get to something that our communal level of commitment to the music deserves, the cash outlay for a new system these days will probably have to start around two grand. (Getting into the used market is another story and is certainly a way to go. There is an abundance of great used gear up for grabs on the Internet.) So let’s examine some ultracool components that will run between $2,000 and $3,000 for a complete two-channel system, including a nice pair of speakers.

Just one more note before we go shopping. The key word here is performance-how well the equipment replicates the experience of live music. Most of these designers forgo many of the so-called bells and whistles to put all of their design budgets into achieving the most lifelike sound. Don’t be put off by their seeming simplicity, and don’t expect a system that will make coffee and shine your shoes; just expect sound that will enhance your listening pleasure for many years to come.

One of the first names to come to mind when looking at great-bang-for-the-audio-buck is NAD. The company has long been recognized as one of the best values in the business and it has always delivered well-conceived products that offer sound well beyond their modest prices. I have often recommended NAD to friends and family and have bought it for myself. Stylishly minimal, NAD continues to offer unbelievable performance, and like many of the companies included in this column, NAD engineers in Great Britain and North America design their equipment, which is then manufactured in Asia.

For the last few weeks I’ve been listening to a couple of these real-world systems including a very appealing ensemble consisting of an NAD C350 integrated amplifier ($429), an NAD C541 CD player ($499) and the amazing PSB Image 5T speakers ($799/pr). And though it lists at only about one-seventh the price of my own living-room rig, this system had nothing to be embarrassed about: its ability to draw me into the music, to engage me and hold my interest, to paint believable images of musicians in a real space was staggering, especially considering the very low cost.

The C541 CD player is the latest in a long line of affordable players that have consistently won critical accolades, and it did nothing in my house to disqualify any of the glowing analyses of its antecedents I have read over the years. The C350 amp offers plenty of input options as well as a preamp output if you wish to use the preamplifier of this unit to feed another outboard power amplifier, though the 60 watts per channel generated by this compact-but-potent box never failed to create volume levels well above the comfort zone-if that floats your boat-and there was never a sense of strain or distortion at normal, or even elevated, listening levels.

PSB is a loudspeaker manufacturer that I have raved about before and will continue to do so here. The Image 5Ts were never anything short of fun to listen to and always conveyed a real sense of authority projecting musical images into the room. I ran them through their paces with a number of recordings, but the one that gave me the most pleasure was John Scofield’s overlooked masterpiece Groove Elation. The interplay between Larry Goldings’ organ, Idris Muhammad’s drumming and Dennis Irwin’s bass is inspired. The Image 5Ts always nailed this combination dead-on, presenting a particularly fascinating aural picture of Muhammad’s wonderful New Orleans-inspired second-line style, and the unique tuning of his drums-loose, airy and very funky.

For under $1,800 you can’t beat this configuration.

A similarly priced system can be had with Cambridge Audio’s dynamite-filled little boxes. Another British company that puts sound before the neon lights, Cambridge offers a nifty 65-watt integrated amp, the A500, for only $450, and its D500 CD player is only $479. You can use any speakers you want of course, but the U.S. importer of Cambridge likes to mate these components with JM Lab speakers, imported from France and labeled in our May 2001 Sound Advice column by New York City’s most venerable stereo dealer, Andrew Singer, as the “best speaker bargain” available anywhere. JM Lab’s Chorus line is predominately under $1,000; the model 710 floor-standing speaker retails for only $600/pr and will shock you with its tightness and definition. If you want to up the ante slightly, you can go with the JM Lab Chorus 715 ($850/pr), which will provide a bit more bottom and punch in the midrange. Going this route with the electronics outlined above will set you back only $1,779 and will keep you jamming for a long time to come. And if you like the idea of separates, for a bit more money you can get the Cambridge C500 preamp, which retails for $300, and the P500 amplifier, which goes for $350-hell, you can add its T500 tuner for only $300 more.

Going up the price scale a bit, yet one more British electronics company, Creek Audio, can set you up with some of noted designer Michael Creek’s much-lauded innovative products, renowned for-you guessed it-great sound and stability for a very affordable price. They offer the 40-watt Creek 4330 Mk2 integrated amplifier, with loads of reserve current for difficult speaker loads ($595), the Creek CD 43 Mk2 CD player ($995) and they recommend the Epos M12 speakers for $895 per pair. Creek, not unlike the already discussed brands above, is real high-end gear that most of us can afford.

Some of us remember the days when the best sound in home audio came from two companies: McIntosh and Marantz, both considered the Cadillacs of stereo equipment for years and years. While McIntosh continues to offer primarily upper-end equipment, Marantz, still no slouch in the high end, has expanded its line to offer some stellar choices appealing to a wider range of budgets including some excellent home-theater receivers and screens. The system that caught my eye is called the Duetto and its style breaks the clichéd black-box-stereo mold. The silver-finished separate CD player and receiver ($759.99 for the pair) are only about eight inches wide each and have drop-down front panel covers that conceal all the controls, leaving function and status displays revealed in a single round window on the receiver. Combined with the recommended Mordaunt-Short 902 bookshelf speakers, this would make an outstanding music source for a bedroom, kitchen, office or small apartment for only $1,099.99 and would be a nifty conversation starter to boot. I hope other designers will pay attention to the styling Marantz has initiated with this stunning system. If you want to fill a larger living room with music, Marantz has a number of other amps, receivers and CD players that can peel paint and still come in at under $2,000 out-of-pocket.

Parasound is a company based here in the good old U.S. of A. that delivers more than you expect from your hard-earned dollars. Its wonderful little preamplifier, the Zpre, goes for only $350, and the Zamp amplifier pours out 30 solid watts for only $270. If you want a bit more juice, Parasound’s HCA-1000A amp, engineered by the respected designer John Curl, pumps out 125 watts for only $650. Combined with the Zpre and any of the speakers we’ve already mentioned, you can assemble a rocking system for less than two grand.

Inching another notch up the scale takes us to Linn Hi-Fi’s new Classik, an all-in-one unit that combines an integrated 75-watt amp, a tuner and a CD player in one box. It is very sleek and engineered by some of the world’s best. (I love my Linn Mimik CD player.) It is priced at $1,995, so it puts us at the upper end of the scale, but as long as you keep the speakers around $800 to $1,000 you can stay under our self-imposed ceiling of $3,000-try those JM Lab Choruses, or Linn offers the Katan at around $995.

In this same total-system price range is a Rotel/B&W system I’ve also been living with for the last few weeks, alternating it with the NAD/PSB rig described previously. Rotel, actually a major presence in Britain since the early ’60s, made a big splash in the high-end world about 10 years ago when one of its affordable CD players began garnering smashing reviews in some of the holy bibles of audio’s sanctum sanctorum. Rotel had managed to design a player that effectively solved, with a reasonable degree of success for its modest under-$400 price tag, many of the objections these pundits found in the still-maturing world of digital music reproduction.

Now Rotel offers a full line of amplifiers, CD players, DVD players and other components for two-channel music reproduction and multichannel home-theater systems. The new RCD-1070 CD player is a sturdy heir to the lineage established in the early ’90s. It offers premium parts and even includes HDCD circuitry (as does the NAD C541) and is now sporting a newly redesigned faceplate that is very handsome and mimics that of the accompanying RA-1060 60-watt integrated amp. At $699 each, these are marvelous feats of engineering and the build quality hints at reliable operation until long after I, your intrepid reporter, have signed off. The amp has plenty of power for just about any speaker load and I found it to be very smooth, enjoyable and capable of reproducing that all-important nuance of musical detail, including the spatial cues so important for building the multidimensional stereo image-allowing each instrument to occupy a well-defined space in the so-called “soundstage” produced by the speakers.

Rotel has teamed their electronics with B&W speakers, in this case an attractive white maple floor-standing model, the CM 4 ($1,500/pr). At first listen they seemed a little lean, but upon closer auditioning, the CM 4 proved to be a very accurate transducer with no flab in the bottom end and an absolutely stunning midrange, an able and deserving companion that allowed all that detail provided by the Rotel components to come streaming into the living room. Tom Waits proclaiming “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” from his Bone Machine CD, was impressively convincing with his vocals front and center and gritty as can be-the grit is in his throat, not in the speaker. And the tone of Brazilian clarinetist Paulo Sérgio Santos from his new CD, Gargalhada, came through as pleasantly rich and full as if he were standing in the room playing his exciting interpretations of the great Brazilian composer Pixinguinha, a figure more or less comparable to Duke Ellington. At about $2,900, this set-up hits the top of our $3,000 limit, but will provide limitless hours of enjoyment.

But all these systems are going to provide hours of joy, and all will out-perform just about any of the discount chains’ offerings, often at a savings over more familiar names. And speaking of names, here are a few more you might want to look at: Arcam (another straightforward British firm), Integra (Onkyo’s new high-end line) and Adcom (another American stalwart).

Get out there, find that reputable dealer and enjoy your music like never before. When you realize that your devotion to music causes you to read magazines like JazzTimes on a regular basis, then you should also realize it’s not only OK, but practically mandatory to pamper yourself with the best audio equipment you can afford.

Originally Published